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Through Thick and Thin

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UPDATE 12/26/18 : Merry Late Christmas! I got similar questions from many readers, so I shortened a tag below to clarify everything :D


This fic is rated T.

This fic is self-aware and contains (silly) parody.

This fic hints at suggestive themes, but will not contain smut.

Thank you always for your support :)


~Prologue~

I first met Lucas in Twinkle Elementary.

Back then Lucas was the kid who sat in the corner. He always came to class late. He wore the same faded shirt and jeans. He never carried any lunch money on him to school. The rest of the class shied away from him. Even the teacher seemed to hate him.

Troublemaker, she called him.

He was a strange kid. Then again, so was I. Except circumstances had been favorable for me. I stood out, but in a good way - a chatty, boisterous way that somehow helped me blend into the crowd of my peers.

Lucas, not so much. He didn't socialize. He didn't make friends. He didn't fit in. What was more puzzling, he simply didn't try. Almost as if he gave no shits about school or anyone in it. That singled him out to bullies who might have overlooked him.

They made fun of his freckled face. They made fun of his second-hand clothes.

Lucas never seemed to mind the rude name-calling, but I remember wondering if he felt lonely.

My query was answered when some bullies had gone out of their way to rough him up. I entered the school bathroom one day to see him crying over the sink with a split lip and bruised eye. His crying didn't sound like a normal kid crying. It sounded like an awful, quiet hiccuping that wouldn't stop, the kind that sounded like he was coughing his heart up and tearing his lungs to shreds.

I couldn't unsee that image.

Each time I saw him afterwards threw me into a guilt trip, one of those terrible, stomach-twisting guilt trips, and I'd like to have thought that deep down, my younger self felt bad for him. But because I was an idiot and a coward who was afraid of losing my popular class reputation, I did nothing. I was happy with the way things were, and I wanted it to stay that way.

One rainy day, my mom was picking me up from school, and I happened to catch sight of him by the flower garden. He was breathing into a sunflower, and for the first time I had seen him, he was smiling.

It was then I made a resolve.

I wanted to make this boy happy.

I began to sit next to him in class. I begged my mom to pick him up on our way to Twinkle Elementary, because he'd make the trip by foot. I'd share with him the tuna sandwiches that my mom packed me for lunch, because I never saw him eat. At first, Lucas ignored me and tried to avoid me whenever he could, but after countless persistence, little by little, he began to lower his guard.

He was curious, I could tell. Curious that someone else had spoken to him, and even more curious about what my words entailed. He never interrupted me, never spoke up, never said a peep, but I quickly realized that he never talked because he liked to listen. He was a good listener, and he liked to listen to me speak.

But I wanted to hear him talk. I wanted to listen to what he had to say.

And after about a month, the quiet boy spoke back to me.


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~Chapter One~

The Boy with the Quiet Voice

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Let's be real.

Chances are, you stumbled into this story because you like brawl. Or because you like shipping. Or hell, because you are an extremely unlucky soul who ended up on the wrong page at the wrong time. Whatever the reason, I won't hold it against you. Emergency exit's on the left. So turn back. Backclick now before things get gay!

Haha, I kid. Just a little.

My name is Ness. Or so you've heard, the kid who summons lightning by screaming Pecan butter. I forever sound like a prepubescent teen suffering from a bad case of sinus infection, but I swear it's just my mike acting up on stage. For those of you who don't know me, I'll keep it simple: I'm the face near the left hand corner of the Sm4sh roster. The one who looks like he's perpetually stuck in pre-K - yeah, that's me. Master Hand seriously needs to update our photos.

Anyways, warm greetings and platitude aside, welcome to Smash City. I live here. Currently. Brawling is my life. It's what I do best as a video game celebrity.

Am I famous?

That's one way to put it.

Earthbound isn't quite as cracked up as some of the other video game bigshots, but it does a solid job of summing up the traumatic adventure of my eleven-year-old self. It's been over five years since I last fought an alien creepypasta, but memories tend to stick pretty well when you have to fend off zombies or run the bajeezus away from exploding trees.

But I'd rather take on a thousand exploding trees if it meant possible escape from the horrible predicament I'm stuck in. A horrible predicament called Feelings and Other Squeamish Stuff.

Trust me, it's a long story.

I guess I'll start from the beginning.

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~oO0Oo~

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My nerves stop jittering.

This is the sudden moment of clarity that calms the terror-induced twitching in my fingers and the weakness in my knees halfway through a brawl. It's a moment not born from a surge of adrenaline or relief, but rather, a moment born from calm acceptance. That I can fool myself into thinking that everything is going to be okay. That this I can do. That this I know I could do. That even if I majorly fuck shit up, it'll still be all right, because by the end of the day, I can still fix it, or fix whatever is left of it. In my mind, the battle is never over until it's over. Perhaps it's something most people would call stupidity, but I prefer to think of it as willpower.

Emitting a battle cry, I swing my bat in an overhanded strike.

Nothing can beat the thrill of a good brawl. The sweat glancing off my skin. The weightlessness of my body twisting in midair. Fox blurs to my right, but I close my eyes with an easy grin. Doesn't matter if he's good. We're better.

A plume of hot fire blasts an inch away from my nose.

Uttering a curse, Fox weaves underneath the flames in an air dodge, but a few seconds is all I need to buy myself a nice recovery. My back arches forward into a crouch, and dust puffs around my fingers when my tennis shoes sink into the stage.

Safe!

The crowd roars our names in canned applause, but that isn't important. Nothing is, except for the lanky, too-tall blond at my side.

Spitting out dust, I push myself back onto my feet. "Well hey, if it isn't You-barbecued-my-face."

Lucas wipes the sweat off his forehead. "Almost. Not quite."

I want to point out, close enough, but now isn't the time to bitch and complain. Almost is indeed not quite, and Lucas is the perfect shield mate. I can't imagine anyone else who can look out for me better than he does.

I drop the 'tude. "You have no idea how much I missed your stupid face," I say, fondly socking him in the arm. "Falco...?"

"History."

"I knew it! Saw you spike him down like-" I throw a swift punch. "-wham and wallawallabing-"

"Watch out," Lucas suddenly says, swiping his hand in front of me. A humming ball the size of a surfboard absorbs the hit, and I catch a glimpse of Lucas's eyes blazing blue with psychic power. PSI Magnet. He's saved my hide yet again.

I acknowledge the save by going on the offense. "Looks like we've got a rogue Fox. You wanna return the favor, or should I?"

As Lucas's PK Magnet shatters into a flurry of blue sparks, a telepathic voice prods my mind. Go for it, he says.

Green light. Drawing back my bat, I kick off the ground to deliver a few blows in rapid succession. Fox blocks each one, then retaliates with a combo. He misses the third strike just as I spiral away.

"You're too floaty," Fox snaps.

"Not my fault you're a fast-faller," I cheerfully toss back before nailing him right on his sweet spot.

Crack!

Too late Fox realizes the set up. Below him, Lucas raises his arms, releasing all of his pent-up energy. The powerful Upsmash blows Fox out of the water.

Knock out. The crowd goes ballistic.

I stagger back onto my feet. A last glowing wave of hexagons lights up Lucas's face, and catching my eye, he breaks into a satisfied grin.

The warm jittery feeling returns. Giddy and lightheaded, I stammer out a few words, then feeling a hot flush in my cheeks, cover my face with the brim of my cap.

Game.

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~oO0Oo~

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"Master Hand's doing a random room inspection!"

"Shit, outta my way-"

"Hide the crack!"

"Cloud, ya fucka, where are my boxing gloves?"

This is Smash Mansion. It's nice and noisy.

Just the way I like it.

Hiding a grin, I duck inside my apartment for a shower.

It's been two days after our epic team battle against Fox, and practice season's coming to an end. It's the same old shit every time. Practice like hell for five months. Ace the Championships on the sixth.

SMASH hosts two major tournaments a year. They bring up as much international hype as the Olympics: The Summer Championships solidify the solo ranks for the upcoming year, while the Winter Championships challenge team match-ups. Doing well in either promises special benefits and monetary awards.

As of now, it's PREVIEW week. The month before the Winter Championships.

It's utter chaos. Smashers are scrambling to squeeze in a brawl or two before the start of the season. Anybody I speak to is in a mad dash. Tension is high, temper is short, and everyone wants to win.

So it's pretty much like any other day aside from the fact that

(a) I may or may not have a crush on someone.

(b) this someone may or may not be my best friend.

and

(c) I have been crushing on him since forever.

Okay, you got me. A year isn't exactly forever, but I'm not used to taking my time with, well, anything. This newfound patience-is-key Ness isn't the real me. I'm restless. I do things on the go.

So it's a little sad that my life has degraded into a chick-flick.

I towel-dry my hair in the bathroom. Aaand Lucas is still sleeping. Usually, I'd leave him be, but now is not the time to indulge him. I decide to play alarm clock and rouse him awake. "Hey, buddy. Wake up."

The blond lump stirs. "Nod now, Bess."

"Dude, you have a practice match soon-"

"Agghdfibe."

"Huh?"

"At five. I set an alarm on my phone," Lucas mumbles, flumping over onto his side. "Leabee adone, Bess."

"But you sleep like the fucking dead," I whine. When this doesn't deign a response, I flop onto his back. He still smells like the cologne from his makeover yesterday. Sunflowers. A goofy smile spreads across my face before I shake it off, because I am perfectly content to lie down next to him and take a nap, but no, I can't do that because I'm supposed to be waking this idiot up in time for his brawl.

"Get up, Lucas," I groan, rolling off his back. "You're gonna miss your match. Seriously, it's like two in the afternoon. Your stylists need to practice dying your hair-"

"I can biss it-"

"Nuh-uh! Oh no, you told me you didn't want to miss this match and to wake you up with whatever means necessa- Lucas! Wakey wakey-" I lightly slap the side of his face. "Oi. Git up. Git- Look, I know practice matches aren't aired on TV, but it's Mewtwo, damn it! Mewtwo. You know, giant psychic floating cat that'll disembowel anyone who skimps out of his matches?"

"Mmrrg... five more minutes."

He isn't going to get out of bed. And no, I don't just think so.

know so.

"Lucas," I whine.

With an incoherent groan, Lucas pulls the covers over his head. I catch the irritable tone in his voice and laugh. Lucas isn't a morning person. I race across the room, only stopping to swipe whatever's left of my leftover bagel on the dinner table, "Practice-match-in-five-no-time-to-change-I'm-taking-your-shirt-bye!"

Groggy with his tousled bed-head, Lucas stretches his arms with a yawn. "Good luck, bye."

Now I really have no time to waste. Grinning like a moron, I shut the apartment door and fly down the stairs.

When I slow to a halt, I pat down Lucas's shirt and fondly trace the familiar red-and-yellow stripes on the fabric. The old shirt's long, slightly snug around my shoulders, but that's only because Lucas is taller and skinnier than me.

Rooming together means that I'm free to mooch off of Lucas's closet. Well, to an extent. While Lucas won't mind sharing, I know not to push it... though I probably abuse the privilege.

Nah. I definitely do.

We've borrowed each other's clothes since third grade. Partly because Lucas wore around the same size as me back then, and partly because I'd forced him to take some of my older clothes. He'd cooked up some cock-and-bull story about not taking charity, but I wasn't going to hear any of it. Winter was chilly. Lucas would've frozen into a living Popsicle if he only wore his t-shirt and shorts to school. At first, Lucas refused to wear the extra clothes, but when he caught mild hypothermia during PE, his face blue and teeth chattering outside in the soccer field, I started stuffing extra shirts into my bag in case the idiot decided to ignore me again.

Wisely, he quelled all protests.

The first time I saw him quietly bundled up in a woolen scarf and one of my second-hand coats, I'd thrown a happy fit. I'd slung an arm around Lucas's shoulders and proudly proclaimed him as my long-lost twin brother.

Lucas had broken down and hiccuped quiet tears into his scarf.

...I need to think of happier memories.

A crackle of static. Sounds like Master Hand's on the speakers. "Rehearsal Match... for Ganondorf, Ike, Ness, Wolf. Players, head over to the prep stations. Your match will begin in three hours. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is NOT a drill."

Rehearsal? Practice match? Ha, same thing. Unaired. Totally no pressure.

Oh fuck, this is a lot of pressure.

Bending over to catch my breath in the first floor lobby, I grip the edge of my borrowed shirt. It calms me down, almost as if Lucas was there beside me, and while it's only a brief comfort at best, it's still much-needed.

Suddenly, I wish that Lucas didn't have his stupid brawl scheduled right around mine.

"Hey, buddy," I plead under my breath as if he can hear me. Making my way to the waiting lobby of glass elevators, I grip his shirt tighter like a lucky charm. "Please lend me some of your chill. I could really use it."

All three of my challengers are already here. Not that I would've missed them. They tower over me in a stacked impersonation of the Great Wall of China, and shit, the nerves are back. They're threatening to reappear on the floor with the rest of my half-digested bagel.

Picking his teeth with his claws, Wolf tosses a leer in my direction. "Hey, kid. You're looking a bit green today."

"Never been better," I manage to say before my stomach lurches again in protest.

Wolf's leer intensifies. "Maybe you should sit this one out. You don't look too okay." Howling with laughter at his own joke, Wolf slaps a high-five with a cackling Ganondorf and saunters past me into the glass elevator. Assholes. The whole bunch of them are.

To my surprise, Ike passes me a glass of water. The action's more so out of fear than pity, I think, because of the time I accidentally puked on his precious Ragnell last May.

"Better out than in," he states.

"Thanks," I croak.

With a curt nod, he hoists Ragnell over his bulging bicep and squeezes himself into an empty glass elevator. The platform drops in a sweee of air, and Ike vanishes as quickly as he'd arrived. Taking two generous gulps of water, I wipe my lips on my sleeve, set the glass aside, and take the remaining elevator.

All practice matches are unaired - thank Palutena - but as a member of the Original Twelve, a huge deal hinges on my performance. Master Hand personally keeps track of my winning streak. Unfortunately, this is a problem, because I'm exactly what people call a gut-wrecker. The excitement I hold before any match combined with the rising anxiety doesn't do wonders for my stomach, and for the love of everything sacred, it can attest. Hell, Lucas can attest. I like brawling, I really do, but the anticipation and the wait and the worry manifest into one giant, twisted knot of nerves that stresses me out and forces me to feel all restless and jittery inside. A good and bad kind of jittery. The same kind of jittery I feel whenever Lucas is nearby-

Nope. Not starting that now.

Trying to shake off the jittery feeling, I march into the prep room for my makeover.

Luckily, my brawl - I mean, demolition - doesn't last long. On one hand, it's a solid victory.

On the other hand, it doesn't feel like one. I can still feel my whole body tingle all over from phantom bruises.

I don't complain. The brawls could easily be a lot worse. As head honcho, Master Hand makes sure that none of us get seriously injured. His quick-and-easy solution? No pain. No pain, no gain, period, during a brawl. Think of a sport... like fencing and wrestling on the moon. Yeah. That means that Ganondorf can warlock punch me to oblivion as many times as he likes, and I wouldn't feel a damn thing except for a wounded ego and a terrible sense of loss.

But two other things do stay on stage: (1) Pressure Control and (2) Recoil. This means that the heavier you punch, the greater the damage points you rack. And while I'm on neither end of the lightweight-heavyweight scale, I still suffer from my fair share of recoil. A huge knocker from someone as massive as Ganondorf can send me flying to Jupiter.

So you can imagine that my brawl was brutal.

Stumbling out of my free-for-all feeling like an eighteen wheeler consistently rammed itself into my body (courtesy of Ganondork), I give into the demands of my noisy stomach, because holy shit I'm so hungry that I could inhale five burritos and still have space for a triple-decker cake.

When it comes to food, I have one simple rule. Eat it. Eat all of it.

It's a force of habit. My mom taught me to clear everything on my plate. There's nothing more she hates than throwing away perfectly good food.

"You aren't going anywhere until you finish your plate," she'd say.

So naturally, I eat everything on my plate.

I miserably glance down at the too-tight shirt stretching over my waist. It's not that I'm fat - Master Hand would have my hide if I went out of shape during the tourney - but working out has only made me grow taller... sideways. I knew it. I shouldn't have finished that tub of ice cream last night.

Then the double doors to the meal hall open, and out fly all of my fucking regrets. Food is food. Food is good. This is all I need to know.

I catch a delicious whiff of sweet corn and beef. Today's leftovers from Taco Tuesday, but the term leftovers doesn't do this feast justice. A perfect tureen of tomato bisque simmers in the center of the soup aisle. Basil leaves - one of my mom's favorite herbs - float on its rippling surface. In the salad bar, fresh corn glistens under a warm light, and by the meat-lovers table, roasted beef sizzles over a hot stone plate. My first instinct is to scarf down everything in sight, but somehow, I manage to withhold enough self-control to pile everything onto a plate. When I stuff my plate up like the Eiffel Tower, my eyes wander around for a familiar face because a meal buddy would be nice, and - FALCON YES! - I spot a telltale cowlick by one of the lone tables in the corner.

Believe me, Lucas and easy-to-find are never in the same sentence. Seriously, you'd think with all that ridiculous hair, Lucas would stand out like a sore thumb, but he has a scary talent of disappearing underneath my nose.

So I do what I normally do when I see a friend.

I wave.

Lucas relaxes. I know he's just as happy to see me, because his eyes lift up ever-so-slightly.

I slam down into a free seat with more force than is called for. "Did you get to your match on time?!"

"Yeah. Thanks to you."

"Dun mangcho eet," I say, already cramming my mouth with food.

Lucas takes one look at my sweat-dripping face, then groans. "I can't believe you stole my favorite shirt," he says, and I grin because hey, all's fair in love and war. If I have to guess, he's in a meh mood because today is emo day, meaning that his usual blond swirl has been dyed into a stylish gray.

Lucas isn't too fond of the color gray. It's a simple truth, but it holds a shit ton of weight. Aside from books (nerd), puppies (I approve), and videogames (fuck yeah), Lucas doesn't seem fond of much else. It's simply the kind of person he is. He neither loves nor hates things. He's your classic neutral guy. Like and dislike are strong verbs in Lucas's vocabulary.

But good god, can we take one fucking moment to admire his gray highlights and dope shirt? Seriously. Instant like. Fave. Ten out of ten. Whatever people say on Facebook or Instagram these days.

He looks good. Really good.

"You're pretty badass," I blurt out instead.

And - sweet Jesus - my heart skips right over London Bridge because the corner of Lucas's lips have twitched into a ghost of a smile. "Says you. You were pretty badass yourself."

I almost topple over in stunned shock. "You saw my match?"

"The replay in the lobby."

"Oh g-geez, fuck," I stammer, even though hell yeah, we'd sit in to watch practice matches and give each other constructive feedback, but to hear him actually confirm it makes me feel all the more self-conscious about my own performance. Knowing my rep for bad pre-game nerves, Lucas sits in for some of my games. I'm too relieved to be embarrassed, but at the same time, I can't imagine Lucas ever needing something as lame as moral support. I swallow down the lump in my throat. "The punish was real. Ganondorf wrecked my first two stocks when I screwed up my grab-"

"It was a good match."

Forget skip. My heart does one of those goddamn loop-the-loops in my chest, and I forget to how to breathe. Lucas doesn't sugarcoat shit, so him saying good match basically translates to you were fucking awesome.

"Your match was good too," I say faintly.

"Thanks." Lucas hunches himself back over the cafeteria table, and I bite my lip. Lucas always deflects my compliments in one way or another. No shit he doesn't believe me.

Hot damn reallyyou are so badass, I want to say, I want him to fucking believe, but my jaw stays shut, because my heart's thudding a million miles an hour that I'm afraid it'll jump out of my mouth and get a speeding ticket.

Lucas is impartial to fashion trends, and I'm no fashionista, but it's hard to miss how easily his new clothes now compliment his tall, lanky figure. Like how his super goth black-and-gray striped shirt fits him just right. Or how his skinny jeans don't ride up his hips and instead hug his lean, slender legs.

I've never given much thought about my own looks, but I like to think that I'm average at best. Maybe a five or six on the attractive scale. Black hair's as common as weeds, and my violet eyes are as freaky as hell. No explanation needed. Dammit, I'm ugly and proud of it.

But Lucas looks so good that it hurts. And I'm glad. Lucas needed a wardrobe change after his growth spurt, and his new Sm4sh outfits this year are cool.

And his shoes?

Fucking hell, they're sweet.

"You should wear gray more," I say, shamelessly ogling his new pair of Air Jordans.

Noticing the object of my mental pining, Lucas eats a messy spoonful of corn. "You have better shoes," he says, covering his mouth while chewing. "My Masked Man outfit's a little tight."

Like I haven't noticed.

Still, he's got a point. "Skinny jeans are the worst. I can barely fit in them, but they fit you okay-"

"They're all right."

My grin widens. "All right? Don't trash talk. I don't think I could EVER pull them off-"

Lucas waves my words away. "Take them whenever. The pants won't be missed."

I perk up. "Really?"

"Yeah."

"God, Lucas, you're a lifesaver. I'm almost out of fresh clothes," I say fervently, though I doubt I can shake his pants on, especially when he wears size SLIMMEST on Theory. Trying on Lucas's pants would be like squeezing my junk into a Chinese finger trap.

Lucas slides his tray to the side to give me space. "You should do your laundry."

"God, I fucking hate laundry-"

"You are not taking another one of my shirts."

"Just one more day?" I whine. "Please? I promise I'll do my laundry, I've just been really busy this week-"

"Hard no. The next time you pull that stunt, Master Hand's going to chew us out again," he points out, and remembering what happened last time, I roll my eyes.

"We only confused the crowd cuz we were in the same match-"

"Still, better safe than sorry," Lucas says, and I take that as my cue to mess up his hair. He swats my hand aside, and as terrible as it sounds, I cackle, getting a kick out of his flustered expression. Few things test Lucas's patience, and sloppiness is one of them. Neatfreak.

But that's one thing I like about him.

One of many.

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~oO0Oo~

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I won't lie. Liking Lucas keeps me busy.

But liking Lucas also keeps me awake.

When we started BRAWL, sharing a single sounded like an ingenious plan. It saved us money, and we knew each other well enough to be comfortable with the arrangement. So I was like, the heck, why not?

Well, past me, you're officially a dumbass. And I hate you.

Yet as hard as I try to tell myself otherwise, I'm convinced that Lucas rooming with me isn't necessarily a bad thing. No, it's good. Very good.

Shut up, self.

Miserably, I roll over on my side. I'm having trouble falling asleep again. Half the time, my brain forces me to undergo mental shut down and collapse into bed snoring like a foghorn. The other half of the time, I lie awake, tracing the ceiling with my eyes and desperately trying to ignore the soft breathing that would escape from the other bed.

Lucas isn't a bad roommate. He's the best, actually, and I know for certain. Living with Popo during Melee sucked, but that's a story for another time.

Lucas is diligent to the last T. He's the levelheaded voice-of-reason whenever I'm about to do something stupid like piss Samus off, yet he knows when to loosen up and have fun. You'd think that fifty fighters beating the living shit out of each other for entertainment would get old pretty quick, but really, in the midst of all, I've gotten fond of this crazy life.

But nothing can ever be that easy in SMASH Mansion.

I start to sweat. It's getting stuffy in here, so I kick my baseball-emblazoned covers off the bed. The rush of vindictive satisfaction I feel at the poofy fwump that follows is all too real.

In the corner of my eyes, Lucas stirs.

"Sorry," I whisper.

With barely a sigh of breath, he turns over on his side.

I blink and squint into the darkness. As far as I can tell, I haven't woken him up. Lucas is still sleeping. Probably. I can never tell. Fucking hell, everything about Lucas is quiet. There's something mesmerizing about the sincere way he talks, the way his eyes light up whenever he's happy, the way the corners of his lips curve upwards in a rare smile-

I stuff my face into my pillow. For the past year, I realized that I wanted to do more things with Lucas. I wanted to talk to him longer. I... wanted to hold his hand. Little things. Things that best friends didn't do. I wanted to make him smile, I wanted to make him laugh, I wanted to pull him down and kiss him until he's flushed and breathless all over-

God. Fucking. Dammit.

Frustrated, I punch my pillow. The mortification starts sinking in soon after, and I feel so dirty and disgusted at myself for thinking about Lucas in that way. Like, what the hell. It's bad enough that I have this hugeass crush on him, and now my mind wanted to violate his privacy with my nasty perv thoughts. My face burning like a flame, I try to blank out any thought of Lucas from my head.

Of course, trying not to think about Lucas is pretty much the same thing as thinking about him.

When I wake up the next morning, groggy and disoriented from a nightmare, Lucas isn't there. His bed's already made - the only trace of his absence. Strange and stranger. Lucas rises later than me. He's a guy who likes his beauty sleep. And by likes, I meant needs. Sacrificing sleep is like committing one of the Seven Sins in Lucas's book.

With a groan of complaint, I turn over to check my watch.

It's noon. On a Sunday.

Breakfast's about to end in an hour.

Goddammit, why did I sleep in today? Swiping the last T-shirt off my rack (mental note: do laundry this week), I scramble for the washroom, and after a whirlwind of clothes and doors, I'm diving to the cafeteria. Just as I waltz in, a quick glance of the meal hall tells me that my friends are all present and accounted for. They've all gotten up before me. On a weekend too, no less. Overachievers.

A familiar voice wafts from one of the tables. "-told Link that I could take him on in my sleep, but he laughed in my face."

"Well, I would too."

"I'll get him next time," Toon says stubbornly, stabbing his pancakes. "My sneak attack will prevail."

Behold Toon: hugeass fanboy of his older counterpart, avid photographer, and full-time perfectionist wrapped up in one tiny fourteen-year-old kid. I crack a smile at his uptight behavior. Despite my late morning start, I can rely on Toon's predictability to set my ass straight in the darkest of days.

Catching my eye from the table, Popo breaks into a wide grin. BRO CODE activate. The two of us raise our hands up into the air like a pair of morons.

"Ayy, wassup, BRO?" Popo crows.

"BRO," I say, sitting down and giving him my best bro-worthy fist-bump.

Popo pretends to wipe away a tear from his eye. "Manly love."

"You two literally saw each other yesterday," Toon points out.

"Don't be such a killjoy, Toon-"

"I'm not a killjoy!"

Right. This kid's so uptight that a vacuum seal would be jealous. For crying out loud, Toon desperately needs some fun in his life.

So like the fuckass I am, I tug his hat off.

"Hey!" Toon scrambles over the table for his hat, but I dart out of his way with a laugh. Messing with Toon is too easy. I mean, give this guy a medal - he fluffs himself up if I ever did anything as much as poke him.

But I guess I dragged out the game for too long, because Toon's pointed ears have flattened themselves against the sides of his head like an agitated cat. I take pity on his upset state and return the hat. "Here."

Toon snatches his hat away. "For once, can you act your age?" he hisses.

"Only if you loosen up," I say cheerfully.

Chewing on my response like a sour lemon, Toon draws himself up, trying to look dignified before patting down the wrinkles in his ruffled hat. From across the table, Red gives me a deadpan stare.

It's hard to believe that this kid is the same age as the green dork beside him.

"Morning," I try.

Red ignores me.

With a frown, I wave my hand in greeting. "Hey."

Red looks up. "Hi," he finally speaks up.

Red and I had a... falling out of sorts. Things had been all right between us until last year. I think. Maybe? It's difficult to say. Lucas and Red are both quiet people, but they're quiet in different ways. If Lucas turns invisible in a crowd, then Red's the opposite. He carries this heavy silence around with him wherever he goes. Everyone can feel it. It sticks to Red like the Grim Reaper.

I don't know what to make of Red. He gets along with Lucas pretty well - correction: really, really well - but for a guy who barely speaks ten words a sentence, Red's difficult for me to approach. Something about his sharp perception makes me feel uncomfortable about talking to him. It's almost as if he can see right through me. Almost as if he's judging me for what I don't say.

Almost as if he knows how I feel about my best friend.

As if reading my mind, Red gives me an innocent blink. We only bump into each other often because we share a mutual best friend. That aside, something about those unforgiving dark eyes tells me that Red isn't a nice foe to cross.

I shudder and turn back around. "Where's-"

"Hey."

I can recognize that striped shirt anywhere.

Balancing a full stack of omelets on his plate, Lucas slides into a seat across from me - vaguely, I remember that it's his favorite food. Mustering up my courage, I look into his face. A strand of golden hair has escaped from the edge of his fringe, almost begging me to tuck it behind his ear, but I resist the urge. Lucas likes his space. And something about Red's curious eyes boring into my skull tells me that I shouldn't give any more away than I have.

Lucas drowns his omelet in ketchup. "I didn't wake you, sorry. You looked pretty tired so I let you sleep in."

"Good call," I mumble, averting my eyes.

When Lucas gives me a strange look, I know that I've dun fucked up. Please, please, please don't ask-

"Did something happen."

There he goes again with his classic deadpan. It's interesting how Lucas makes every question sound like a statement without trying. Interesting... but not at all helpful for my situation right now.

I give a nervous laugh and duck my head under his scrutiny. "Aha... About that-"

The cafeteria doors burst open with a deafening roar. "NESS!"

Everyone in my table jolts away in alarm. Because precisely a second later, I feel a blast of hot air down my neck.

"Good morning to you too," I say, irritated.

All decked out in his spiky, five-hundred pound glory, a furious King of the Koopas is no laughing matter. Bowser looks ready to tear me limb from limb, and I wonder why - oh, right. I pushed his son out of the way because he was blocking the cafeteria. Stupid git shouldn't have tried to trip me.

Bowser hoists me up by the collar of my shirt. "Apologize!" he snarls.

Ness. Lucas sounds just as tense. Ah right. Telepathy. You should apologize.

But-

Now.

As much as I want to argue, I know that Lucas is right. Bowser's no joke. He holds a nasty grudge and isn't afraid of pulverizing anyone in his way. Apologizing's the easy way out. The smart way out.

It doesn't mean that I have to feel good about it though.

...but I'll take one for the team.

I take a deep breath. "I'm sorry I pushed Bowser Junior over."

Smoke stings my eyes. Bowser's eyebrows scrunch together in a thick, bushy scowl. "Not to me. Apologize to my son."

Again?! Like hell I'm apologizing again!

Sparks fly out of my fingers. "You want a fight? Bring it, loser!"

Lucas face-palms himself.

Another deafening roar blasts the hair out of my face. Fire shoots out of Bowser's nostrils, and purple-faced in anger, he raises a gnarly fist. "Why, you squeaky little punk-!"

"That's enough. Put him down," Zelda says sharply, standing in between us with her delicate gloved hands extended. Her fingers burn with Dins fire, and Link has stepped by her side, both hands on his sword in case things go dirty.

Bowser glowers down at her. "Stay out of this, princess. This is none of your business-"

"You're disrupting the peace, Bowser." With a scrape of metal, Link unsheathes his sword a slight fraction in warning. "There'll be no fighting outside of matches."

Bowser eyes the sword in contemplation. I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Bowser's a tank, but Link's experienced. Taking Link down is possible, but in a matter of seconds? Not ideal. As if sensing this, Link's hand tenses on his sword.

Then Bowser snorts out smoke and reluctantly lowers me down. "This isn't over," he promises, slamming me back into my seat.

"Great. I can't wait," I spit back, straightening my baseball cap.

A bloodcurdling growl crawls out of Bowser's throat before he turns around and heads out of the cafeteria. His huge, bulky stomping shakes the entire floor and rattles the silverware before the doors slam shut. Drama king.

"Ness, what was that?" Link says sharply.

I feign ignorance. "What was what?"

"This is your second offense this month," Zelda says, her cool blue eyes flickering to mine. The hard logic behind her gaze reminds me strikingly of Lucas's, and involuntarily chastised, I shrink back into my seat. "Provoking other smashers is a serious misdemeanor. After a third offense, we'll report you to Master Hand. Please refrain from causing future trouble."

Training her snobby nose up into the air, Zelda glides past the table. Her long perfect hair trails behind her in a dignified curtain.

Quieting down, Link places a hand on my shoulder. "You know we mean well. Take a break. Call your mom."

Shame prickles my face. The worst part is, I can't get mad at him. I've known Link since N64. He's like, everyone's cooler older brother. Of course he'd think that my temper's arisen from homesickness.

As Link sheathes his sword to follow his fiance, I stare down at the cafeteria table. As much of a jerk Bowser is, it wasn't his fault. His anger is justified.

I only have myself to blame.

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~oO0Oo~

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I take Link's advice. I go straight to the phone booth to call my mom.

Okay, that's a lie. I end up calling my summer fun buddy instead.

Paula's surprised by the sudden call, but luckily, she's willing to sit down and chat it out. I can't talk to my mom - for reasons I'll disclose later - so I chicken out and talk to Paula about something else on my mind.

"I'm sure it's not as bad as you make it-"

"I don't have time! I still don't know what to say, and Lucas is going to figure out... Eventually." I swallow. "Seriously, Paula, all it takes is one touch, one accidental slip-up, and he's gonna know that I-"

"Like him? Yeah, I hate to say it, but you're not exactly subtle-"

"I can too be subtle."

"Liar. I'm only hearing you over the phone, but I can tell you're pouting. You are, aren't you? You totally are."

"I am not!" I protest, even though I am too pouting and kicking myself in the shin for the dead giveaway.

"So what if he does? SO what if you're an Empath, and have trouble keeping things in? You wear your heart on your sleeve. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Ness. I'm one too," Paula says, and I squeeze my eyes shut. "What are you so afraid of?"

My mouth turns dry. "I-I dunno. Agh, I just don't want to ruin our friendship over something stupid-" The hypocrisy hits me before I notice it, and instantly, my cheeks heat up. "Oh fuck, I forgot-"

"Did WE stop being friends?"

"Nooo."

"Did you reject my friendship?"

Scandalized now. "No!"

"There you go, Ness." A hint of Paula's smirk finds its way into her voice. "Like I said, you're one of the most genuine people I know. Whatever happens, Lucas seems like the kind of person who'd at least understand. Just be honest."

She's right. Honesty's the best policy, even though I'm afraid and want to lie a little longer - lie to myself that I don't have these warm fuzzy feelings for my best friend, lie to myself that I don't want to kiss him and touch him and hope to make him mine-

But lying won't get me anywhere. It certainly got my dad somewhere, but I'm not my dad.

I refuse to be like my dad.

I wince when a tangled knot of hair gets caught between my fingers. "Oww-"

"Ness?"

"My bad, got distracted," I say, playing it cool and pretending that my hair's not strangling my fingers, but my throat's a traitor because it sounds so fucking raw. "Paula... I really don't know what to do. I'm stuck. SOS...?"

"At this point, I'd say you have two options," Paula says fiercely, and hell do I love this assertive side of her. She's a godsend. "One, break everything to him easy. Or two, accept your unrequited feelings for him and move on."

So I either chase Lucas away or continue pining after him like a miserable sap.

...Or I can confess to him.

I think about it. It doesn't seem like the type of thing to bring up in a nice fucking conversation. Like, Hey, Lucas, why don't you sit on my lap so we can talk about the first thing that comes up?

I decide that I'd rather jump off a cliff than admit that I have a fucking boner for my best friend to said best friend.

Obviously, Paula disagrees. "I can't believe that he's that oblivious. You're so obvious," she groans.

"I am?" Anxious now, I poke myself in the hands. "But... but that's not fair! You're not even holding my hand or touching me or anything. Can you really sense my emotions from that far awa-"

"Yes. I know your empathy link's been going crazy for a while, and I can feel it whenever you get upset. And you know it's not flaring up just because of your unrequited feelings," she says wearily. A sadness that isn't mine tingles through our empathy link. "Hey... I'm not pushing you to do anything, but maybe you should call home. It's been a while. Your mom misses you-"

I choke up. "I can't call my mom. You know why."

"You're avoiding her."

"No, I'm trying to-"

"You didn't even come home for Thanksgiving-"

"I'll only make things worse!"

Paula pauses. The sadness dissipates. "All I'm saying is that your mom misses you too. She's been calling me everyday asking if I've heard back from you," she says gently. "You can't keep calling me just to avoid her, Ness. There's only so much I can do."

"I know," I mumble, tugging down the brim of my hat in distress. "I'll call her later. Just not now."

"Have you tried talking to Lucas about your parents-"

"No." My heart sinks after recalling Lucas's disappointed expression at breakfast. Great, now I feel like an even bigger idiot for losing my temper over something so stupid.

But I can sort out my feelings on my own.

I exhale explosively into the receiver. "You're right. I think I'll call my mom-"

"That sounds like a plan-"

"-after I ask Master Hand for a room switch."

Paula's disbelief is evident. "Room switch?"

"It's gonna be so awkward if he finds out. I mean, Lucas is my roommate," I say, agonized. "Paula, you have to understand - I have feelings for him, and I don't want him to know, s-so-" I tug on my sweaty collar. "Maybe I should get some time apart to think things over-"

"So you're going to avoid him? Forever? I thought he was your best friend," Paula sounds scandalized, and I bury my face into the phone booth in shame. "Ness, I don't mind you moving out or taking time to think over things, but since when did you start running away from your problems? Even if you decide not to tell Lucas about your crush, at least give him a heads up before you move out-"

"I'm sorry, shit happened," I wail. "It all sounds really, really bad, but I can get over him this time, swear! Gimme more time and space. Time and space. Promise."

As if. It's not the first time she's heard that particular excuse. Paula sighs again. "You do that then. Lemme know how it goes, aight?"

"Thanks, Paula."

"Stay safe, sweetie."

The phone clicks off.

I can do this. I'm gonna demand Master Hand for a new room. A New year, a New Ness. Squashing down my nerves, I make a beeline for the office, but an unexpected voice stops me in my tracks.

"Ness, wait up!"

hOLY FUCK speak of the Devil, I think I almost lost a life back there.

My first instinct would've been to propel my ass away as fast as I can, but Lucas has already pulled up beside me with his stupidly long legs. He mustve run all the way from the cafeteria to find me, because he's short of breath, his face flushed crimson. Watching his shirt stick to his sweaty skin, I can't help but feel my own cheeks burn, and if you don't mind, I'm keeping those thoughts to myself, thanks.

Lucas's cool blue eyes flicker to mine. For someone so straightforward, I can never tell what's on his mind. "Morning announcement about PREVIEW week. Mario wants everyone to meet at the gym in ten minutes."

"Sure thing," I say quickly, trying not to openly gawk at his face and fervently wishing my stupid feelings would just die die die, because Palutena knows I've sinned and am still sinning for my sins.

A frown mars Lucas's features, as if finally taking me in after catching his breath. "You look... stressed out."

Understatement of the century. "Yeah, but nothing more than the usual."

Lucas studies my face. He's growing concerned, and my stomach twists into knots, because ironically, more attention from Lucas is the last thing I want right now. My feelings are starting to leak into all my empathy links. It's only a matter of time before I let the truth slip completely.

"I was..." Sweat dots my forehead. Why did I start talking if I didn't know what I was gonna say? "I was... homesick. Yeah, homesick. I'm good though! I called Paula, and we talked it out."

His voice sounds carefully blank. "...Not your mom."

I wince at the question. "The line was busy."

Lucas doesn't seem convinced, but as I expected, doesn't push me. Lucas errs on the side of caution, a part of his character most people mistake for cowardice, but I like to think that it adds more insight to his character.

I rub the back of my neck. Now is the time for a well-deserved apology. "Look, Lucas, about breakfast today... I'm sorry."

This time Lucas's eyes warm up. "Shit happens. Just be careful."

His stupid strand of hair is still dangling over his forehead. I long to reach for it and tuck it in, because it's seriously starting to distract me, but I curl my fingers into a fist so that I wouldn't give into the temptation.

I can't bring myself to tell Lucas that I want to switch rooms. Or explain why. Because I really, really don't want to move out. And because I suck at lying. And because any reason I'll make up on the spot's gonna end up half-assed.

While Lucas won't ever confront me, if I move out without saying anything, then he's gonna think that he drove me away. Lucas is already so hard on himself. I don't want him to get the wrong assumption. I don't want him to get hurt.

As a best friend, I owe him that much.

I smile, even though it's killing me in the inside, and tug him along. "Hey, let's get going before Mario chews me out. He's gonna be one angry pepperoni."

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

I was eight when I lost my twin brother.

After mom's death, Claus wanted to run away from home. He refused to let me follow him.

"You have to stay here," he said, firmly pushing me back. "I'm the oldest. That's why I have to go find mom."

"But mom's dead..."

"Mom's not dead. She's not! I-I'll prove it! I'll bring her back! So don't cry, Lucas. Don't cry, okay? Stay here and look after dad."

I can still remember the feel of his hands gripping mine. The desperation in his eyes. Capable, courageous Claus was scared.

I'm sorry, he said.

I can still remember the way he hugged me. The way he crushed me tightly to his chest. Like he knew that he wasn't ever coming back.

Promise you'll return? I asked.

He cracked an easy smile then, and ruffled my hair. I promise.

Claus never returned.

I had been eight years old. Eight years old, with no mother and no brother. Eight years old, with a family that had been torn in half. Eight years old, with nothing but empty hopes and a broken promise on my ears.

I was alone.


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~Chapter Two~

The Boy with the Loud Voice

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Wild, chaotic, and unpredictable, Ness is the perfect definition of Social Butterfly. He appears, then disappears. One second, he's off blasting practice dummies in the training rooms, then not five minutes later, I'll spot him dorking around in the cafeteria. It's, therefore, very normal for Ness to pop in and out of my personal bubble whenever he pleased.

Summing it up in one word, Ness is talkative.

And recently, he's been anything but.

It all started with the nervous ticks, I think. Maybe about a month ago, maybe even longer. The way Ness would cram his lunch into his mouth in one bite and dash out when I arrived. The way he'd shy over and mumble a random filler under his breath whenever we were alone together in a room. Even when we trained together, Ness constantly got distracted over the tiniest things. During the battle fray, his eyes kept wandering over in my general direction before I had to yell at him to move out of the way of an impending KO.

Dorm life had also become an eye-opener.

Ness never barged into the bathroom these days without knocking, even when it was clearly empty, and whenever he had to wake me up, he'd stopped dive-bombing me from the ceiling fan by yelling Geronimo!up the top of his lungs. Instead, he quietly sprawls over my back with his legs dangling over the side of the bed and stays there like an extra blanket until I decide to get up. Other times, he'll do all of the above in one day, then stammer out a rapid questionnaire - a hey how are you doingis everything okay, I wonder what's for lunch - before sprinting out of the room like a wild tornado on the loose.

Ness has developed a routine.

Weirder still, it's an... odd routine. Or rather, it was odd, because his new-found quirks were so un-Ness-like that it forced me to pause and rethink his behavior.

...Was I scaring him off? Possibly so. I never thought much about it, but I guess it is freakishly weird when your roommate randomly grows a foot over the past year. Doesn't help that we're virtually polar opposites when it came to anything. Sleeping habits. Battle tactics. Socializing. Definitely socializing. Ness attracts attention. He's loud, but loud in an overly-friendly way, slinging his arm over my shoulders and happily shouting into my ears whenever he felt like it. Even that though, has been happening less and less. His cheery charm has all but evaporated into nonexistence. 

Or maybe my horrible antisocialness is starting to rub off on him.

As I mentally try to list more cons of puberty, we arrive at the gym just as the announcements start. I've always wondered why we had a gym, when we already had practice arenas and warm-up rooms, but from what Samus tells me, the auditorium's mostly here for massive decor and appearances.

On the podium, Mario tests out the new mike. "Testing, a-one, a-two-"

Catching sight of us during this nice distraction, Popo waves us over. "Yo, peeps. Join the party."

"Where's Master Hand?" Toon Link asks, tip-toeing to peek through the crowd like a lost kid looking for his mom. "I swear I saw him yesterday during room inspections-"

"Chillax, Toon. He'll come whenever he comes."

"Well, I really hope he comes quick-"

"That's what she said." Unable to hold a straight face, Popo breaks into a loud cackle, and beside me, Ness snorts at the crude joke. Poor Toon. Popo set it up from the very beginning.

"What?" Toon demands after looking at our faces. "What's so funny?"

With a dramatic sigh, Popo slings an arm around his shoulder, trapping Toon to give him a rough noogie. "Oh you poor, innocent child. Don't you worry. One day, in the far future, you'll understand-"

"And regret it," breaks in another voice.

Letting a sputtering Toon go, Popo gives a cheeky grin at his new arrival. "As congenial as always, Red."

Red rolls his eyes and glances at the podium. Restless from waiting, Ness scuffs his shoe, not in the mood to continue the conversation. Concerned, I shift my gaze to the back of Ness's head. Ness is the kind of person who can't keep things in. If I'd upset him in any way, I would've found out in no time.

As if sensing this, Ness finally meets my eyes. He forces on a grin. "Mike problems, huh? That's pretty jank, if you ask me."

There it is again. The lack of eye contact.

The mike squeals, cutting off my thoughts.

"Attention, Fighters," Mario frowns, giving the mike a last tap. Satisfied with the test, he proceeds. "Master Hand had to-a leave the Mansion for an urgent city council meeting. He entrusted me to-a run you through the next match-ups-"

Seems like Ness isn't the only one tired of standing around. Looking more than ready to hogtie someone and slow-grill them in the fire pit, Bowser snorts, shooting out twin pillars of flames from his nostrils. "Hurry up, old man. We're not getting any younger standing around here."

"Yeah!" Bowser Junior cries out.

Ignoring the father-son duo in favor of upholding his duty, Mario turns off the lights, cloaking the auditorium in darkness. A spotlight flashes onto the stage. "Please-a listen closely. The PREVIEW matches are-a up on the projector-"

"...And these matches are aired LIVE," Megaman guesses, but he's been through PREVIEW season before. He's only waiting for a solid confirmation.

"Yes, PREVIEW matches are aired LIVE." The auditorium shakes from the collective show of groans. "All of-a you are veterans. You-a know the drill. It's PREVIEW week of the Winter Championships. This is the-a chance for you to show off your semester's worth of talent to the public eye."

Ness and I share a knowing glance. We've trained together for months. Even if we don't place first, then at the very least, I have high hopes that we won't make a complete fool of ourselves.

Mario taps the mike again. "So... ehem, instructions for PREVIEW week. The-a prep teams should tell you when to arrive before each-a match for make-up and warm-up. Moreover, we will-a be hosting the PREVIEW interviews. Do not-a forget. I will-a be coordinating with the camera crew tonight. All of you should-a check out your times."

I grimace.

I forgot. 

The interviews.

Right in the heart of the city itself, Smash Square broadcasts LIVE interviews during the hype of PREVIEW week. Despite decent Privacy Protection Acts, I'm not ready to answer the slew of invasive questions the reporters have up their sleeves. My fanbase is so obscure that many questions are reused every year. There's only so many ways I can answer the same question without sounding like a tape recorder on repeat, and while I like to keep my answers short and simple, I risk Master Hand's ire for refusing to engage in conversation. Short and simple answers don't fly well. I have to fluff up my answers. Be relatable. Be approachable to the audience. Pour forth eloquent Shakespearean poetry on the spot like I'm giving thee mine fucking soliloquy. Somehow.

Talking on stage isn't easy.

And it doesn't get any easier.

I involuntarily glance over in time to catch an oblivious Ness in mid-yawn, and stifle a grin.

At least I won't be alone.

"-and finally, your PREVIEW week match-ups. Please take-a note of your scheduled opponents. Also, a last reminder to show up-a on time! After all, the-a Stylists need time to work their-a magic on you before your-a debut on stage. Thank you, all clear!" Mario claps his hands once, and light re-floods the auditorium.

I glance up at the blue holographic projector. Ness and I... are pitted against Villager and Red.

A sigh of relief escapes from my lips. They're fair fighters. I don't need to worry about causing potential grudges. It seems like such a small concern, but the competitive air here changes some people for the worse. Things can get ugly fast.

Evidently, Ness must have noticed, because he looks up and tosses me an excited grin. "Ha, ready to wreck over some freshmeat?"

I flash him an identical smirk. "Ready when you are."

"Watch me spam PK Fire like a filthy casual-"

"PK Spammer."

"Hold the fuck up. That title rightfully belongs to you," Ness laughs, slapping me on the back, and I smile before gracing him with an elbow in the side. A burst of happy feelings explode from our brief contact, and involuntarily, I relax. Whatever funk he was stuck in, it seems like Ness is finally getting over it.

Or so I thought.

Time stops. I catch the frozen expression on Ness's face.

Ness quickly pulls his arm away. "I f-forgot," he stammers, backing away. "Laundry detergent. Ran out of shirts."

"What-"

"See you!"

I open my mouth, but he dashes off before I can edge a word in. Feeling like I've been cheated of my voice, I close my mouth. Is doing laundry another running fad? Maybe it is. How the times change. I swore only last week, it was the viral Tide pod challenge. This week, I guess it's the let's-actually-use-the-laundry-detergent-right challenge.

Oh, the moronic things people do to gain Internet fame.

Humanity has disappointed me yet again.

"That's the fifth time he's ditched us for laundry..." Toon Link says, watching Ness retreat with the grace of a flailing seal with awed eyes. "He must really like his chores!"

"(No. I'm sure Ness just had to take care of other business)," Villager signs.

Popo raises his eyebrows suggestively. "Other business."

Everybody gives into a collective groan. Popo is the kind of person who swore that he fell in love every time he saw a new girl. He has no shame in being too open about everything... even in admitting things that shouldn't be said out loud.

I suppose that there's a strange kind of bravery in that.

"Aw, don't give me that face, you guys-" Beaming wide, Popo tugs off the hood of his parka. "A guy has to jerk off every once in a while-"

Enter the damage control.

"Popo, are you traumatizing everyone again?"

"I plead the fifth," Popo starts with a grin before his older twin sister drags him away by the ear. A classic hothead, Nana's temper at the worst of times could give Bowser's a run for his money.

"Come on, lazybones. If you have time to crack lewd jokes, then you have time to train with me-" Nana casts us an apologetic look, which was somewhat diminished by the headlock she had sprung on her brother. "How long did he keep you guys hangi-"

"Not long! Not long at all! A-Are you two off to train too?" Toon blurts out, blushing a furious red from Popo's lewd suggestion. I'm not surprised if I am too, even though I'm no stranger to witnessing sex escapades around the mansion.

Brightening up at Toon's suggestion, Nana swings her mallet over her shoulder. "Good call. We're about to book an eight-player practice match at Final Destination, if you guys wanna join."

Toon gratefully leaps on the opportunity. "Sure! Lucas, are you coming-?"

"I think I'll pass," I say quickly. As much as I can appreciate the pleasant prospect of a sweaty, eight-man free-for-all in a cramped arena, why should I if I can instead dwell in my own quiet corner of the training room without the background noise of hammers thudding against each other and loud Hyaahs! reverberating against the stage and deafening roars of Charizard's flamethrower ringing in my ears?

There's a difference in being alone and being lonely. Conversation and crowds can get stressful, so I tend to let other people do the talking for me - "Other people" usually meaning Ness. Not speaking up for myself is a bad habit that I have yet to break out of, but so far, I'm comfortable with Ness taking the initiative.

So when Toon looks a little too eager to wheedle me to stay for his team, Red rests a firm hand on his shoulder, startling Toon enough to close his mouth.

Saved by the bell.

Relieved, I spare Red a look of gratitude, and Red gives me a rare smile. It went without saying. We ran on the same wavelength. As much as brawling could be cathartic, with all the fighting and chaos, peace and quiet are sometimes hard to stumble upon in the Mansion.

Instead, Toon nervously pans to the swinging gymnasium doors. "Um... What about Ness?"

As if triggered, Nana's nostrils flare up in anger. "We've got to talk to him. He's acting like... like..."

"Like a girl dumped on her first date?" Popo sports helpfully.

Nana stomps her foot in an impatient fit. "Exactly! If he's not stuck in this depressed slump where he doesn't give a shit about anything, then he starts pissing people off left and right, and I just, ugh! He's been like this since the start of November. That's weeks ago. Weeks!"

Toon nervously chews on his nails. "Ness stayed behind for Thanksgiving... maybe he's not feeling too good."

"Yeah, his Leave of Absence was supposed to last two weeks. He cut the vaca early," Popo agrees.

"See? Since when does Ness stay for Thanksgiving? He always goes home! And his empathy link-" Nana cuts herself off with a deep breath. "I tried to see if I could pry anything out of him, but so far, he's flat-out refused to spill. Popo, are you sure he hasn't said told you anything?"

Caught examining his nails in morbid fascination, Popo jerks his head up. "Hm? Nope. Told me to fuck right off."

Nana's expression contorts with frustration. "Not. Helping. Seriously, why is Ness acting so moody? Is this an empath thing?"

"Maybe he's on his period."

"Laundry, my ass. Let's follow him next time he ditches us. I want to see what the heck he's so busy with-"

"Follow Ness? You're not going to go anywhere, sis," Popo drawls, slamming his hammer against the floor with a pointed thunk. "And I don't think you've noticed, but Ness has always been moody."

"Not to the point he's lashing out at everyone," Nana snaps, lowering her voice into a frantic whisper.

Nana has a good point. I wince, remembering Ness's encounter with Wario in the elevator. Needless to say, it did not end nicely. The elevator reeked of garlic for days.

"-shouldn't be a problem. We've got Lucas," Toon Link says hopefully, sounding as if all of his worries had evaporated into air.

Everyone turns around to stare at me.

Unnerved by the sudden attention, I blink. "Huh?"

Nana brightens up. "That's perfect!" Grabbing hold of my arms in a death grip, Nana shoots me her best totalitarian dictator glare. "Lucas, we hereby command you to talk to Ness."

"About what?" I echo. I hope that none of them have noticed that I'd zoned out. "I don't follow-"

"You know," Nana flaps her hands. "About how he's feeling, what's got him down in the dumps... you're the psychic, question him!" Nana looks excited. "Why didn't we try this earlier? I mean, Ness practically tells you everything-"

I massage my sore arms. "That's not true-"

"You'd have better luck than any of us combined."

"He's been spazzing out around me-"

"At the very least, he won't lash out at you."

"He's been avoiding me-"

"He's been lashing out at everyone except you," Nana says carelessly, and shoves me in the back. "So stop chickening out and give it a go."

"Nana, you- I can't-" I cut off in a strangled voice. Since when was I get elected for handling emotionally-charged situations? Nana must be insane. Or plain desperate. Sending me in to clear up social disagreements is just as bad as dropping a nuke right on top of the White House. I think about the way Ness has been avoiding me. The way he'd twitch and jump and spazz out whenever I'm nearby.

Ness doesn't behave that way around other people. He's only antsy around me.

A horrible feeling resurfaces up my throat. My hands are starting to turn numb, so I stuff them into my pockets. "I'll try," I mutter.

Villager tilts his head. "(There might be a misunderstanding. Talk it out.)"

"Yeah! And while you're at it, tell him that he's a major jerk," Toon Link huffs, furiously blowing hot air through his nose. "It's not cool of him to ignore you-"

Off to the side, Popo tosses his head back in a sudden bark of laughter, and everyone turns to him in surprise. "Oh no, guys no." he chokes out, and gives me a sly grin that puts me on edge. "I don't think the problem's going to end there."

"What do you mean?" I say sharply. I flashback to Ness's terrified face. Popo knows something about... whatever is happening to Ness ... that I certainly don't.

Popo shakes his head in sympathy. "Poor kid. I'm glad I'm not in his shoes. Like bro, he's definitely stuck between a rock and a hard pla- ow!" Popo cries out when Nana pinches him in the ear again in warning. "Got it, no lenny jokes, I'll behave-"

"We'll see you later, Lucas," Nana says, glancing at the gymnasium doors a last time before returning to scowl at her brother. She's worried about Ness too. In fact, if everyone's noticed Ness's weird behavior, then my previous hunch is correct.

Ness is upset, and somehow, I'm involved.

I briefly flashback to anything that I could've said, anything that could've been a possible cause, but I come up with a blank. At this point, I have to double check that I'm not being filmed for an ad, because this clusterfuck sure seems like the perfect way to advertise my lack of social awareness. "Awkward teenager found new way to max repel his roommate. Scientists hate him for this one weird trick! Watch this shocking video to find out how he did it!"

It's not magic.

It's a straight-up fact: I'm not good with people.

I jerk out of my reverie when someone gives me a pat on the shoulder. "Not your fault," Red speaks, breaking his daily word quota. He's released Squirtle from its pokeball, because the blue turtle is now nipping at the bill of his cap.

"I hope so. Thanks, Red," I say gloomily.

Giving me a nod, Red whistles once, low and short. Perking up, Squirtle jumps into his arms. With another reassuring pat on my shoulder, he lifts his hand, and we part ways.

Smash Mansion lives up to its name. Adorned with magical windows that glow and reflect off the city lights, it's easily the tallest skyscraper downtown. Even with the arena and training rooms deep underground, the Mansion itself reminds me of one of the dazzling New York hotels plastered on a glossy cover of the Cosmopolitan. It's got everything the mind can imagine: Glass elevators in the lobby, recreation center and meal hall on the ground floor, library on the second, laundry rooms around every corner, and a pristine swimming pool at the penthouse that shoots up into the clouds.

Something about its surreal luxury bothers me.

The glowing buttons buzz when I press them, and the elevator trickles to a stop with a cheerful blur of ear-popping color. The dorms are suite-style and separated by gender. Girls stay on the 9th floor, guys on the 10th. The only exception is Nana and Popo - twin siblings who prefer to room together - and the Assist Trophies who claim the 11th floor.

Warm, buttery lamp light illuminates the walls. As I pass the first room (Room 1001), the delicious aroma of ovenbaked rotisserie chicken hits my face. I hear laughter and boisterous yelling: Cloud is hanging out with Ike and his buddies again.

Arriving on the doorstep of Room 1010, I twist the knob, but it refuses to budge. I check my pockets. Sure enough, no key. I'm locked out again. I groan. Just my luck. First I can't people, and now I'm forgetting my belongings all over the place.

Thankfully, as I wait by the door a flustered mess, Ness quickly answers the door. He never leaves a friend hanging for long.

Though judging from his forehead sweating bullets, his expression looks oddly uncomfortable, as if he's stepping on a pile of red-hot coals.

Cracking the door open wider (barely enough space for an ant to fit through), Ness nervously peeks at me. "Hi."

"Hey," I automatically respond.

Cue awkward silence.

Again, socializing is not my jam.

...I think you get the hint.

Clearing my throat to gloss over the moment, I scramble forward with a mumble of 'scuse me,' but stop in my tracks when Ness misreads my hesitation, already closing the door. Now fumbling over his mistake like a slippery football that's escaped his hands, Ness swings the door open but accidentally trips over the doorframe and hits himself with the door.

"Ow, fuck-" 

"You okay-" I start, reaching for his hand before something explodes in my ears.

I retreat, my eyes stinging from smoke just as Ness flounders around in an even greater panic. "AH SHIT," He hurries out to check on me. "Sorry-"

"Don't worry, I'm all right," I cough, waving away the smoke.

"Oh geez, why does this keep happening to me - IT'S OKAY, NO ONE DIED," Ness adds hastily when curious heads poke out of the corridor. Scrunching up their noses in distaste at the smoke, the Brawlers shut their doors with a disgruntled complaint.

Safely out of the blast zone, I warily watch Ness's fingers spark yet again of their own accord. "Did you catch a cold? Dr. Mario could prescribe you something-"

But Ness shakes it off, running over to pull me upright. "No need, no need, I can control my- whoops-" he hurriedly jumps back when he electrocutes me with his hand. "Static electricity-"

"Ness," I interrupt. "Your powers are getting out of hand. You should see Dr. Mario-"

"-But I'm not sick," Ness protests.

"You're not well."

"Why wouldn't I be?"

I pointedly pause to take in his appearance. His hair sizzles upright from his electric discharge. The bottom of his heat-resistant t-shirt is slightly scorched at the edges from his PK Fire. "Because normal people don't blow up like an electric socket every day."

"... okay. You got me." Ness now glumly stares at the floor in defeat. "It's just a little spark here and there-"

"You've been exploding into flames and electrocuting anyone who touches your hands," I say matter-of-factly, and Ness flinches. Admittedly while not a sympathetic approach, I can't sugarcoat the truth. Not when his condition seems to be growing worse. "You can't help anyone if you can't help yourself."

"But I'm okay!"

I heave a frustrated sigh. "Ness..."

Caught in the act, Ness's shoulders slump over. "Lucas, I really am okay. So believe me when I tell you not to worry about it," he says quietly.

He sounds so miserable that my expression softens of its own accord. I don't have the heart to push him. This is why Nana's reasoning is flawed. Ness involuntarily tells me things on his own, and whenever I sense his discomfort, I don't push the matter.

"We should still talk. It's not that I don't believe you," I add gently when Ness stiffens up as if to shoot back a defensive retort. "Everyone wanted me to check on you right now. Believe it or not, you HAVE been acting a little out of it for a while-"

"You know I get stressed at this time of year-"

"But that's not the only thing on your mind."

"I'm doing fine. Swell. Really." Ness twitches like a dying spider. Clearly he's not fine at all. "Lucas, knock it off. Let's talk later, I'm kind of busy-"

"With what," I ask, genuinely curious.

"With stuff, okay? Now leave me alone," he snaps back, stunning me. While Ness has a short fuse, he's never taken it out on me before. This only reinforces my suspicions. Something is bothering him.

Something big.

As if instantly regretting his outburst, Ness looks at me in horror. "Shit. I didn't mean-"

On an ordinary day, I would've dropped the subject. I'm not a confrontational person, and everyone has an off-day. That said, people and emotions are a can of worms that I'm less than willing to open in the morbid fear that they'll eat me up alive.

But Ness is the opposite. He's a people person. As an empath, he's constantly bombarded by the feelings of others. He doesn't have space for his own emotions, so what he can't keep in, he keeps out.

Which then leads to him finding me and spilling the beans.

Why Ness seeks me out for emotional advice is a mystery, considering that I'm the furthest person from wise and experienced in the area, but the arrangement works out surprisingly well for both of us. Whenever someone or something ruffles up his feathers the wrong way, Ness will tag along my heels, excitedly chattering away in an indignant sort of manner - seething, venting, fuming - before trotting back to my side with a sheepish, good-natured grin ten seconds later as if nothing happened. Ness doesn't let himself wallow in self-pity. He can make anything sound funny. He takes a crack at his own misfortune, and twists even the most horrible of situations into something to laugh about. He gets over things as quickly as he gets riled up over them.

And it's nice, if not slightly comical in itself. The best part is that I don't have to do anything. All I have time to do is watch, blink, and listen before Ness would dash away, leaving me in the dust with a yell of a Thanks, Lucas!

Which is why his sudden outburst gives me reason to pause.

Ness's behavior isn't improving. Whatever's been bothering him is still bothering him now, and the past month of his sudden aggression is only the icing on the cake. Whatever it is, it's making him frazzled, nervous, and stressed to the point that he's losing control of his powers.

It's time to step in.

From down the hall, another round of muffled laughter bursts out of Cloud's dorm.

I lean against the front door. "Hey. What's going on?" I say softly.

Looking deeply ashamed, Ness stares at his shoes. He won't meet my eyes. "I can't find my laundry card," he says meekly. A pathetic excuse, but Ness can't lie for his life. His feelings show up on his face like a Christmas light.

Still, I have to applaud him for trying.

"We can talk another time...," I trail off, offering him a way out, but when Ness quietly shakes his head, I take it as the cue to proceed. As gently as I can, I ease the door out of the way.

Half-empty boxes are stacked and strewn all over the living room. I shuffle to a halt. Is Ness unpacking more goodies his mom has sent him from home? Makes sense. Ness hates other people calling him a mama's boy. Though in all honesty, I think that his strong attachment to his mother is commendable. Few people call their parents on a daily basis at this time and age.

Ness stumbles into my line of vision. "I know, it's a huge mess. I'll clean it up-"

As if that's turned on a switch, Ness jumps backwards, his hand flying away. "Don't!" Ness suddenly shouts, frightened, and the words die in my throat.

Realizing his mistake too soon, Ness raises his hands up in a hasty attempt to cover himself. "Don't... come close. Because erm... I... I might be sick. Lots of germs, you know. Dun want you to catch whatever I'm getting..." He gives a forced cough, but I don't join in on the fun.

Ness isn't someone who scares easily. He's pulverized long-standing arch-nemeses, defeated an alien warlock, and taken down opponents three times his size without batting an eye.

But it's hard to miss how badly his hands are trembling. He's jittery, and it's not because of battle nerves.

This frightens me. I'm not good with people. I'm not good with feelings, or with understanding feelings for that matter, but Ness is different. Ness is my best friend. I gave him space in the hopes that it's all he needed, but now, I've come to realize that "just space" wasn't enough. There has to be something else that I can do, something else that I can do to fix whatever is upsetting him, because Ness is unhappy, and that thought is starting to make me unhappy too.

Even after taking a deep breath, Ness's voice still sounds shaky. "Ah fuck. Lucas, I know this might sound really weird, but I need to tell you something."

Concerned, I wait for him to speak, but Ness cuts himself off. He looks constipated, as if he's straining to dislodge something unpleasant out of his throat. His eyes wildly flicker up to my face in search of an unknown answer, but when he finally parts his mouth, all that emerges is a small squeak.

He's scared of me.

Hurt chokes the words back into my throat, but I force it down. Now is not the time for me to get upset. I lower my voice into an even tone. "I'm sorry I pressured you. Let's talk later."

"It's not - Lucas, wait!" Ness reaches for my arm, but I've already veered into the corridor. If Ness doesn't want to see me, then it's best to make my leave as soon as I can. Staying only imposes trouble, and I don't want to impose that burden on my best friend.

Because I'm not the solution.

I'm the problem.

I squeeze my eyes shut. Emotions are messy. People are messy. I don't know how to how to handle other people's emotional troubles, much less my own, because I simply don't deal with them. I'm no Ness. I can't go around hugging people. I can't magically make people feel better. I can't bring myself to whisper false lies and sappy it's okays, because the truth is, it's not okay, and whatever I say won't change that. I can't treat people right, I know can't treat people right, and suddenly I feel so stupid for believing that I could cheer Ness up.

Because eventually, I hurt everyone around me. My missing twin brother is a true testament to that.

Ness grabs hold of my arm. "Lucas, let me explain-"

"You aren't obligated to explain," I reassure him, because it's true. Ness owes me no obligation, and it's none of my fucking business to pry.

But Ness's grip remains firm. "I don't feel obligated to explain," Ness says, lowering his voice.

"It's okay, I was being inconsiderate-"

"Inconsiderate?" he blurts out, confused. "No, Lucas, I - gah! Okay, so I was sorting out my junk because it was getting old, and I know, it sounds like a bad excuse, but I was in a trashy mood and got all snappy at you because you started distracting me-"

"Sorry," I mumble, stuffing my hands into my pockets.

"-fuck! That's not what I meant! You weren't distracting me! I was - damn it, I'm rambling again-" Frustrated, Ness shoves a hand into the messy hair under his cap. His cheeks are turning a bright pink. "Fuck, I don't know! I've been stressed out because of my dad. We've been fighting a lot lately, a-and I wasn't ready to tell you that I-" Ness takes a shaky breath, and his grip on my wrist tightens. "Lucas, I'm sorry for treating you like shit. You don't deserve that. Honestly... everyone's been sticking their nose in and asking if I'm feeling all right because it's not all right, but you've been giving me space and it's been a big help. Really. I just have to sit down and deal with some things on my own, but it's not because of you. It's not you, okay? Don't ever think that."

But I feel worse. Ness was going through some rough patches at home, and as a friend, I didn't see that. I'd doubted Ness and jumped to the worst possible conclusion. Some friend I am.

Shame prickles the back of my neck, so I avert my eyes.

As if knowing how to dissipate the awkward tension, Ness bites down on his bottom lip. "I could use a hand in unpacking," he says hesitantly, his eyes trailing up to my face to ask an unspoken question.

Unpacking. I can do that.

My shoulders relax. "I'll help."

And Ness smiles, his cheeks dimpling deep crimson.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"Ness."

The first time he says my name, I do a double take, spitting out my milk. Because the quiet boy in the classroom had spoken to me.

TO ME.

"You can talk?!" I exclaim, half-joking, half-serious, and when Lucas returns to his book with an air of detached interest, I puff up my cheeks. "Don't ignore me!"

Lucas regards me with a blink. "Your breath stinks," he murmurs.

I rear back in surprise.

What a jerk!

"That's not very nice," I say ruefully.

Lucas ducks his head into his book. "That's not... what I meant to say."

I snap my head up in attention. "Really?"

"Y-Yeah," he stammers, eyes round. "Sorry. The words... came out wrong."

His apology piques my curiosity. "A lot of people don't like to admit that they're wrong. You're weird."

"I am weird."

"Pokey says that you live in a dump. He says that you have fleas. I've never seen fleas before, but I heard that they like to bite people and suck out their blood. That sounds really itchy. You smell weird. Do you have fleas?"

Lucas's face colors up in a bright flush. "No."

"My mom wants me to stay away from you. She says that you're dangerous," I say seriously. When Lucas continues to look petrified, I clumsily pat him on the shoulder. "But she's wrong. I think you're okay," I decide.

Lucas flushes a darker crimson. "I... think you're okay too," he says awkwardly, the back of his neck slowly turning as red as his freckles.

I snap my mouth shut, trying to keep down my excitement. I've started noticing lotsa things about Lucas the longer I hang out with him. The way he flickers his eyes to his shoes whenever he gets uncomfortable. The way he carefully watches people like they're about to blow up in his face. The way he flusters over a nice compliment. Lucas doesn't know how to respond to compliments. Poor guy probably doesn't get many in his life.

Everyone said that Lucas was a bad kid. Everyone said that he was smelly and weird and gross. Everyone liked to play "tag the Poocus" and screamed whenever they touched him.

But I don't think that Lucas is a bad kid. Lucas is just odd.

Though he did have the oddest personality. And the oddest smell. And the oddest hair.

Not knowing how to continue our (very one-sided) convo, I fumble for the next best thing that catches my eye. "I like your hair. It's poofy," I say, watching it bounce in the wind. "Like..." Frowning in concentration for the right words, I make an exploding gesture with my hands. "Pewf."

As if to prove my point, Lucas turns redder, his hair poofing up as he shifts in his desk, but still, he refuses to look me in the eye. He seems determined not to look my way. Like he's PURPOSELY trying to ignore me.

Again, odd and odder.

I grab his attention again by playfully elbowing him in the ribs. "Hey... hey, Poof." The defensive glance returns. "Yeah, buddy, I'm talking to you. Come closer."

Biting down on his lip, Lucas shakes his head into his book. He looks like he's expecting me to prank him. Not an "all in the name of harmless fun" prank, but more like a "haha let's humiliate you in front of class" prank. Suddenly I think back to him crying in the bathroom, and feel a hot surge of anger. Lucas was odd, but picking on Lucas wasn't funny. My mom said so.

Stupid bullies couldn't pick on someone else their own size.

"Come on, please?" I whine, tugging on his shirt sleeve. "We can't share funny secrets if you won't scoot over-"

Sinking into his chair like a shrinking violet, Lucas squeezes his fists into his lap, kneading them into his shirt. He's debating whether or not to trust me.

I don't expect anything. I know that Lucas doesn't find socializing as easy as I do. I'm just glad to see him trying.

To my surprise, Lucas slowly leans in. His hair shyly tickles my cheek. I can feel his breath hit my shoulder.

With a big fat grin, I blow an obnoxious puff of air into his ear.

Jumping back with a loud squeak, Lucas flares up into an uncontrollable blush. He turns around, stubbornly hiding his crimson face into his book. I crack up, laughing until my stomach aches. Unsettling Lucas is just too funny to pass up.

Lucas ignored me for the rest of that day.

But every time I recall his flustered expression, I can't hold back a good laugh.

Totally worth it.


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~Chapter Three~

Drunk Thoughts

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Okay, I'll bite the bullet.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment I started crushing on Lucas. We're as different as apples and oranges. We get along as many times as we, well, don't. Over the years I've gotten to know him, my thoughts have shifted just as many times from damn, this kid is super shy to hey, this kid is pretty cool to oh my god, this kid is the Devil Incarnate.

Like all friendships, our trust took time to build.

I'd like to think that one of the turning points was the Subspace Emissary. During my third year in Brawl - and Lucas his first - Tabuu struck Smash City.

Back then, I'd say we were more like close classmates than best buddies. It's weird now, remembering a short Lucas, but I couldn't help but notice everything about him. How his blond hair clashed with the dark freckles splashed over his nose. How he used to flee at anyone's approach. Lucas was a timid wallflower, nervous and skittish about messing anything and everything up, and after thwarting his encounter with Wario, he became my shadow, trailing behind me wherever I went because he was too shy to say thanks.

Then puberty happened, and Lucas shot up like a beanstalk. His frame was suddenly too tall and lanky, and all of his freckles had paled away into his skin. Even more surprisingly, Lucas has grown more at ease around people. He's still shy, but now, it's a strong, calm kind of shy, like he's finally become one with whatever shit has happened in his past.

I sneak a glance in his direction. Oblivious to my thoughts, Lucas unpacks some of my old photographs from a box.

Lucas isn't really much of a talker, but it's never occurred to me how much I don't know about him. I don't know his favorite book. I don't know his favorite color. He never talks much about his family, but knows everything about mine. More or less because I blab my mouth off, and because my mom absolutely adores him, but that's beside the point.

I don't know jack about my best friend.

It isn't to say that I haven't tried to pry. The one time I asked Lucas about his family didn't go too well. I was pestering him after school, begging him please, Lucas, we never get to hang out at your place and your mom sounds super cool can I meet her just this once please?

Lucas had gotten that horrible, blank look in his eyes and said, "She's dead."

Instantly, I'd dropped the subject like a hot potato. I never asked him any more questions about his family, and Lucas pretended that the conversation never happened.

Still, Lucas couldn't have lived alone, because he would've had to stay at the foster home in Fourside. From the little I know, Lucas lived alone with his dad. I've never seen Lucas's dad before. I think about our old pen pal letters, and I decide that frankly, I'm lucky to have even heard of his dad. Lucas never liked bringing him up for whatever reason.

The thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I want to know more about his family... but I'm too afraid to ask.

"...Is this your sister."

I jerk out of my train of thought when Lucas holds up a photograph. Even from afar, I can tell which photo he's holding thanks to the old cheeto stain on the bottom left corner. "Yeah, that's Tracy. She dyed her hair blue three years ago."

Lucas makes a soft hum of agreement, then sets it aside.

He does that sometimes. The humming. It's not like a do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do kind of humming, but a low, vibrating noise Lucas makes deep in his throat whenever he's happy or pleased. He shuffles over to slide the picture my way, and while his close proximity sets my nerves ablaze, his vibrato's nice and soothing to the ear.

I study his face. The soft sunlight catches his blue eyes, making him look so much younger... and fuck, now he has two strands of hair out of place instead of one. I bite the inside of my cheek. No, Ness, don't touch your best friend's face because that's gay.

And I'm not gay.

I'm just gay for my straight best friend.

I've been staring at him for far too long, because Lucas turns around with a light frown. "Is there something on my fa-"

"Your hair," I blurt out without thinking.

Lucas hesitantly pats his own head. "What... what about it."

I finally snap.

"Hold still, ya goof." I crawl over his squirming legs and pin him down, before ruffling his hair in abandon. Ha, there! Now all of his stupid hair was out of place!

Lucas makes a face and shoves me off. "What was that for."

"Everything."

Emitting an exasperated noise, Lucas rises to his feet. "If you're going to joke around, I'm leaving. Bye."

I latch onto his ankles. "Nooo, I'm not done unpacking yet-"

"I have to train, leggo," he says, struggling under my weight. I loudly whine and groan and complain as he ends up dragging me across the carpet.

Fucking hell, Lucas is already shaking under the weight of one of his quiet laughs.

I break into a triumphant grin. For as long as I can remember, Lucas's laughs have been light and breathy like he's afraid of being overheard by other people. Either that, or Lucas is secretly hyperventilating to death when I tickle him and can't get enough air into his lungs.

My nerves jitter. I love his laugh. I wanna hear it again.

I throw him a crooked grin. "Practice can wait. Where are you going?"

The corners of Lucas's lips quirk up. "Secret."

"Aw, Lucas-" I hug his knees together, preventing him from walking away. "You won't even tell me? Me, your bestest best buddy in the whole wide world?"

"No."

"Fucker," I say affectionately.

I can SEE the invisible eye-roll in his voice. "Finish unpacking, Ness," he says, and with a last burst of energy, Lucas pries his leg free out of my grip, fetches his keys from the bedside stand, and walks out of the room. I stare after him, somehow feeling both happy and disappointed at the same time.

 

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~oO0Oo~

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I don't end up unpacking.

It's not because I'm moping around. It's not because I'm busy stuffing my face into my pillow. And it's not because I'm pining away for my roommate to return!

A part of me sorely misses the old Lucas. The Lucas who was too shy for his shoes, the Lucas who spazzed out twenty-four seven, the Lucas who never felt comfortable with hanging around other people. It was so easy to encourage him back then, so much easier to treat him like a best pal. If there's one thing I've figured out, it's that Lucas has a shitty past. That being said, if it even makes him feel the tiniest bit happy, then I'll gladly die a thousand times just to be his friend. It's horribly cliche, yet horribly true.

Now, I have no idea how the fuck to act around this confident Lucas. He seems so much stronger than me in many more ways. Something about his quiet, kind nature draws people to him like a magnet, even though he doesn't like talking to people himself.

Capable. Independent.

He's out of my league.

I stuff my face deeper into my pillow. I love him. I love him so much. I love him so much that I can't breathe. Oh right, the pillow. Yanking the pillow away from my face, I draw in a big gulp of air, but cough because my spit goes down the wrong way.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this!

I get a good grip of my hair. This reminds me too painstakingly of a similar phase I'd gone through with Paula. Of all the days I'd spent hanging out with her. Every time I'd walk Paula home after a good game of laser tag. Every time Paula would find a way to make me laugh. Every time I'd seen the looks of adoration other boys had thrown her - you know, the sappy sighs and goo-goo ga-ga eyes - and protectively reach for my bat because I didn't want her dealing this shit, even though she had the guts to tell them off herself. But even I knew that Paula had grown into a catch, attractive with a pretty hourglass figure and a prettier personality to boot, and after fighting Giygas together, I thought I'd known her inside out.

I'd thought that this was love.

One day, we were folding paper cranes by the Twoson lake, and she made the first move. She'd asked me out, and as I stared into the stars reflected in her eyes, my mouth wouldn't let out a single word. I'd wanted to say it too, wanted so badly to say you're amazing and I love you too Paula I love you so so much, but the words wouldn't come out.

Maybe I'd always known. Deep down, Paula had been too late.

Someone else had already stolen my heart.

I swallow hard. Lucas can't figure out that I have feelings for him. It'd scare him away, and I value our friendship too much to make any drastic moves.

I press the pillow against my face. Okay, Ness. Shit happens. You have feelings for your roommate. Your cute and hella gorgeous roommate. So what? It'll pass. Just survive through the year, then quit Brawl or something. No, that wouldn't work. I don't want to quit Brawl and start school. Switch rooms with someone else next year? I'll still see Lucas from time to time. Avoid him again? No, he'll only get worried about me. Fuck, is there really no way out for me?

"Yo whatup?"

I jerk my face away from the pillow. Standing by the door, Popo greets me with his punkass smirk. No doubt he's witnessed my pathetic attempts to smother myself.

Popo invites himself in. "Did I interrupt something?"

"No, absolutely not at all. Now geddout. I'm thinking."

"Thinking? Bruh, I'm just saying, you might want to think a little harder and close the door next time you practice making out on your pillow-"

Oh that's it, he's asking for it. Cross now, I throw my pillow at his stupid face. "Fuck off, you."

Sadly, Popo swats the projectile away with his hammer before bursting into a series of mad giggles. "Sorry, bro, but I don't swing that way."

My cheeks start to burn. Out of an unfortunate slip of the tongue, Popo's the only person who knows that I'm batting for the other team. He's never let me forget it since. You'd think that with age came great maturity, but Popo - I swear - breaks that streak.

That's the real kicker. Popo only seems dense. He's your basic definition of typical bro and classic frat-boy in one harmless Eskimo pina colada... except when he isn't. Then it's a very different story indeed.

You think that Nana's scary? Think again. Nana's all talk. Sure, she's got a hot temper, and when she gets mad, threats fly around, but she doesn't actually mean them. Now Popo... Popo's one sly mofo. He's a perv, but he's a perv with an uncanny knack for worming his way into your mind and heart.

So I don't bother lying. Popo can smell a secret five miles away. Whatever he wants to find out, he will find out.

"Geez, why don't you shout it out to the entire world while you're at it," I mutter.

"Hey bro, loosen up. I haven't told anyone." A pause as if double-checking. "...Yet."

"Wow, that sounded totally not-so ominous and threatening."

Popo breaks into a grin that doesn't meet his eyes. "Course, I might change my mind if you decide to hit on my sister-"

I roll my eyes. "I told you, I have zero interest in dating your sister."

"Good." Still, Popo hasn't dropped the serious expression from his face, the kind that sets all the alarm bells off in my head. Believe it or not, Popo can get pretty protective over his older sister. They bicker a lot, but Master Hand handpicked (haha handpicked) them for a reason.

Popo eyes my living room. "Ness, you don't happen to... uh-"

"Happen to what?"

"Pfft, forget about it." Thank god he's not gonna crack more dirty jokes. Popo heaves his hammer over his shoulder. "There's supposed to be a top secret party at midnight. It's gonna be totally ballin'. Wanna come?"

The thought brightens me up considerably. Smash Mansion rarely hosts any parties. Fancy dinner parties, sure, but oh man, not the loud, raucous ones with an epic DJ and spiked punch. A nice distraction from the jittery nerves fluttering in my heart.

"It's not in Smash Mansion, is it?" I blurt out.

A sneaky look makes its way onto Popo's face, and shit do I know what that look spells. It spells Trouble. Trouble with a capital T.

"Nope," Popo says. "Try the Snowflake."

"The Snowflake?!" I repeat incredulously. "Popo, that's a bar-"

"-run by my first cousin thrice removed. Trust me, I go there all the time. Mina won't check for IDs if you're with me."

"Popo, we might be seen."

Okay, I'm no wuss, but frankly I'm a lil scared of barhopping in the dead of night. For crying out loud, I've seen strong smashers like Marth and Lucina surrounded by fifty bodyguards apiece whenever they left Smash Mansion. And that was just to hold back all the fangirls. And fanboys. But mostly the fangirls.

Man, Fire Emblem characters have it rough.

I shudder. Judging from how fast my Amiibos sold out, I'm not willing to bet my safety on one drunk Eskimo and his hammer. Sorry, Popo, but it's no's before bros.

Popo shrugs in response. "Hey, not my problem. I'll be taking off my parka. No one's gonna recognize me." When I still hesitate, Popo rolls his eyes. "Look, if you're gonna chicken out, then just say so-"

"I'm not chickening out!" I say defensively.

"Sure you are. Wuss."

This asshole. I puff my cheeks up. "Fine," I challenge. "What time?"

"What, are you for real?"

"Sign me the fuck up."

Popo's grin widens, and before I can wonder what shit I've gotten myself into, he twirls his hammer and prods it against my chest. "Cool. Then swing by my room in a mo. Let's figure out how to disguise you, because bro," Popo gives me a look. "I don't want to be mauled by all the crazies wanting your autograph."

He's got a point. I laugh.

Satisfied by my response, Popo saunters off, singing an eskimo drinking song at the top of his lungs.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

Several hours later, I'm sweltering in Popo's parka and seriously regretting my life choices.

We decided to sneak out at eleven-fifty. Popo would stop by my room before curfew, and I'd teleport us both outside the Mansion gates. Since I could only teleport to places that I'd seen before, Popo had shoved a black-and-white photo of the bar into my hands.

Dude, you'd better land right on the doorstep, 'cause I'm not ready to freeze my ass off walking, he'd said.

I study the photograph in my hands. This would be - dare I say it? - my first misdemeanor in Smash Mansion. Well, okay. My first misdemeanor was that time I broke midnight curfew to grab some Lucky Charms from the Cafeteria. Then there's that other time I MIGHT have swiped a banana from their fruit stand. Oh yeah, then there's that other OTHER time when I-

You get the point. It's all stupid stuff, and more importantly, stupid stuff I've never gotten caught for. Long story short, the midnight curfew's unreasonable beyond reason. Like, what if I wanted to take a shit at one A.M. but the internal plumbing in our room broke down? It hasn't ever happened before, but Master Hand's so hella strict on minors. I can't wait to turn eighteen.

Even so, I have to admit that there was a big difference between getting caught stuffing my face and getting caught drinking underage.

I furiously shake my head. Now's not the time to get cold feet! Not when my pride's on the line. Suddenly, my mind flashes to Lucas. He never would've agreed to do something so stupid in the first place.

Goddammit, this isn't the time to grow a conscience! My record's pretty clear. There's nothing wrong about wanting to gate-crash a party. Plenty of people drink underage!

The apartment door swings open.

I perk my head up. "Popo, you re-" My voice dies in my throat.

Lucas dumbly stares at me from the doorway. For a second, his confused eyes roam over the fat parka swallowing up my face before they snap towards the photo in my clenched hand. Hastily, I stuff my hands into my pockets.

For one still moment, neither of us says anything.

Then Lucas fucking laughs.

I flush deep to the roots of my dark hair. "I'm cold!" I snap.

"I can see that," Lucas manages to say, his stupid eyes clearly laughing at me. "Mister Cold."

Git. I want to fling the parka into his face, but unable to blow my cover, settle for glowering back at him. "Haha, very funny."

Lucas shifts towards the thermostat, and offers, "Hey, I can turn the heater on-"

"What's going on?" Oh boy. Talk about timing. Popo pops his head in, and upon seeing the abomination he has forced upon me, he chokes over his shoulder.

"It's your parka," I hiss, redirecting my death glare to him. Popo's parka is big enough to disguise me, all right. It's big enough to disguise Putin's whole army.

Popo still struggles to breathe. "No, no, no, it's not the parka. The parka looks great on you. It's g- your face! Haha!"

I furiously sit up. "Oh, just you wait. We'll see who's laughing when I shove a PK Fire up your-"

Lucas coughs and picks up a clean towel from his wardrobe. "Curfew's in five. Are you two going somewhere."

We answer at the same time.

"No," Popo says.

"Yes," I say.

Lucas gives us both a weird look.

Popo steps in. "We're having a date night out!" he announces, heartily slapping me in the back. "Very romantic. Just the two of us in my room... alone." He wiggles his eyebrows. "Isn't that right, dearest?"

"Of course, honey," I say sarcastically.

Lucas relaxes. Thankfully, Popo's joke alleviates whatever worries he's had. "You might want to teleport. Curfew's almost up-"

"Chill out, Lucas," Popo chortles. "I'll bring Ness back in one piece tomorrow. He won't be too traumatized... probably."

Shaking his head, Lucas walks into the washroom. A little later, I hear the tap running. Lucas is washing his face. I swallow, trying not to imagine how the glistening water would drip off the ends of his golden hair and pool up in the basin of the sink-

Popo snaps his fingers in front of my face. "Yo, Earth to Nessie. Curfew's in two minutes."

I tear my eyes away from the bathroom door. "Dhuh- oh. Where are we teleporting from?"

"Well, about that... I was going to say my room, but you know, I share a double with Nana. I didn't tell her what's up-"

The color drains out of my face. "You didn't tell Nana?!"

"It's fine, she's sleeping over at Jigglypuff's, dude. And there's no way we're making it to my room before curfew..." Popo lowers his voice. "It's a guy's night out, Ness. Chillax. Lucas is in the bathroom. This is the perfect chance. Let's teleport here."

"Here?"

"Well, yeah."

I take a deep breath, then pinch the bridge of my nose. "You owe me big time."

"Chillax, man. It's going to be cool." Popo's wearing a blue T-shirt splashed with the logo, Keep Calm and Chill On. It's bizzarre to see him without his classic parka and hammer on. Speaking of his fashion change, I mourn over the temporary loss of my shorts and cap. Those were my jam, but I suppose we had to sacrifice comfort to keep our cover.

Still, you never know when everything can go to hell, so I tuck my yo-yo into Popo's parka... Even though I don't foresee a use for it. I hope I won't have to use it.

Popo looks around. "So, uh. Dude, how do we teleport?"

"...Grab my hand."

"Ha. Gay-"

"Oh, shut up." When Popo's mitten closes around mine, I shut my eyes in concentration. Think. Think of the destination. I picture the bar in my head and will myself to be there. When sparks start flying from my feet, I sprint in a circle like a merry-go-round, running faster and faster and faster-

When the sky stops spinning in dizzying circles, Popo lurches forward and blindly gropes for my shoulder. "Yo, that's sick."

"Isn't it?"

"No, I mean, I feel sick," he groans, clutching his stomach.

"It takes a while getting used to," I say, helping him up and surveying our surroundings. The bar looks more like an traditional Inn, warm and welcoming in the freezing cold.

The Snowflake.

It's a let down. I expected the bar to look a little more... modern. Definitely no crazy rave parties here.

Oh well. Beggars can't be choosers.

I poke Popo in the shoulder. "It's on you, big man. Lead the way."

Groaning and griping, Popo stumbles over to the creaking porch. He raps the door three times and says... something. An Eskimo language, maybe. I'm not too sure. Whatever it is, it does the trick, because a burly bouncer the size of a mountain yanks the door open. I eye the man, but not looking the least bit frazzled, Popo steps forward and starts hitting it off in his native language. The man returns his banter with a gruff, harsh syllable, and Popo turns back to me.

"No weapon policy. They want to pat us down for anything dangerous."

"But we're just kids," I protest.

Popo shrugs. "Rules are rules."

The bouncer pats us down. He fishes out the yo-yo in my pocket, but seeing that it's a child's toy, returns it back with another grunt. His search complete, the man steps off to the side.

Completely at ease, Popo waves me over. "Yo, you coming?"

Sparing the bouncer a last look, I follow.

It's hectic inside. People of all ages bustle around with drinks in hand. Boisterous laughter erupts from one corner of the Inn, and from unseen speakers, trashy pop music bounces off the walls. Judging from the high-pitched wail, some drunken idiot's either trying to kill my ears off or singing a poor rendition of Let it Go on stage. Exchanging a meaningful glance, Popo makes his way to the far side of the karaoke machine. We settle at the counter.

The wait doesn't take long. Wiping the sweat from her forehead, the bartender hurries over, her eyes brightening up in recognition. "Popo!"

Popo winks. "Mina."

She slaps him lightly upside the head. "Very bad, Popo! You a bad boy, coming to the bar after curfew. I tell your momma."

"She's not gonna care," Popo says easily.

Mina tuts, then glances over at me. "Who's...?"

Before I can say anything, Popo leans over and whispers something into her ear. A few seconds later, Mina gasps in shock. "You... Ness?"

I nod.

She lets out a louder gasp, then shakily pulls out a slip of blank receipt paper from her pocket. "C-Can you sign...?"

Catching her drift, I feel my cheeks flush. "Oh, okay."

I sign the piece of paper with my crappy scrawl, and Mina tucks my autograph almost reverently into her pocket. "Free drinks for you two," she says, looking happily dazed, then dives behind the bar.

My cheeks still feel warm. I can almost hear Popo laughing at me.

No wait, he is laughing at me. What an ass.

"My cousin's a big Smash fan. She wants to collect every Smasher's autograph one day," Popo says with a Cheshire grin. From the looks of it, the devious cheat has brought me along to save his wallet. Not that I'm complaining. I silently resolve not to underestimate his brains.

Mina arrives with two glasses and a hugeass pitcher creamed with frothy, golden beverage. She says, a little breathless, "On the house." When I thank her and take the pitcher, she visibly flusters before moving onto another table.

Popo suddenly sits up. "Tripel Karmeliet? Hell yeah."

"Triple Caramelwhat?"

"Ness, my man," Popo says, shaking his head. "If you've never tried Tripel Karmeliet, then you've never lived. Now, watch and learn."

I stare at the beer in idle fascination. My heart thumps in a strange kind of excitement, the same kind I get whenever I'm about to stick my hand into Peach's cookie jar, because I'm about to drink underage for the first time - damn the consequences! - and the forbidden edge lends a tempting allure to the entire situation.

Popo slides me an empty glass. "Dude, this is the good stuff."

I squint at the pitcher. "My dad likes Budlight-"

"Budlight?" Popo laughs.

Embarrassed, I squirm in my seat. "It's the only beer brand that I know."

"You're kidding me. That brand's shit. Cheap as fuck too."

"I wouldn't know-"

"Right, momma's boy and all."

I bristle. "Don't call me that."

"Chillax," Popo says, slapping me in the back. "That's why I'm here, bro. To corrupt you. You want first timer advice? Drink yourself stupid." When I shoot him a skeptical glance, Popo raises his arms in defense. "No, really. You gotta know your tolerance, man. Best way to do that is to go steady. Drink slowly. Keep taking shots until the drink hits you-" Popo slams his fist into his hand for emphasis. "-hard." Kicking back in his seat, Popo tosses me a light once-over. "Hoo baby. I'm gonna fuck you up hard tonight."

"Like hell you are," I counter. "What's your tolerance?"

"High, man. Real high." Popo flicks his fingers against his own glass. "I bet I can down more of these babies than you can."

"I bet you can't."

Popo laughs. "You can't touch this. It's as strong as fuck."

"We'll see about that, pretty-boy," I challenge, sliding my empty glass over. "Hit me."

Unfazed by the pretty-boy remark, Popo grins back ear-to-ear. "Cheers, man," he says, pouring us each a generous amount of beer. He clinks our glasses together before chugging his serving down in one shot.

I tip back the glass and swallow.

The beer smells deceptively sweet. So, so sweet that I think that Popo's lying. The aroma reminds me of a banana milkshake. This stuff can't possibly be that strong.

Then the alcohol hits my tongue, burning a hot stripe down my throat. The pleasant, mouth-watering aroma of banana and vanilla has masked the bitter-creamy tang and spicy aftertaste of the beer. I gasp, and my eyes water at the unpleasant sensation searing my mouth. Is this normal?

A round of loud giggles drags me back into awareness. Lazily fingering his empty glass, Popo watches me with the most self-amused I-told-you-so look on his face. He seems to be getting an immense kick out of my stupefied reaction.

"That... wasn't what I expected," I manage.

Popo laughs at me again. "Tipsy yet?"

I stubbornly wipe my mouth on my sleeve. "It's not half-bad. I can handle more of this stuff."

Popo pats my shoulder in approval. "Half-shot? Dude, you've got balls. I'll give you that." No shit, he's practically beaming like a proud soccer mom watching her son score a goal. When he sees me reaching for my glass, he shakes his head and says, "Bro, you are going to get so hammered."

When Popo downs his glass and goes for thirds, I finish what's left in my glass. This time, I expect the burn. It goes down easier. The taste is warmer and smoother on my tongue. The burn's almost pleasant, tickling my throat on its way down, and the carbonated drink bubbles happily in my stomach.

"I'm too sober," Popo adds as an afterthought, and I jump.

"Right," I echo.

Right, my ass.

I should've stopped after the first sip. Whatever's in that beer is strong enough to knock out a full-grown rhino.

Two hours later, Popo starts pointing out all the hot chicks in the bar.

"That girl... wow. Check out the size of her tits."

"Huh," I mumble into my empty glass. Popo's started to slur his words a little, but aside from that, he looks all right.

Me, on the other hand... KO. I'm nodding off. My eyes are feeling heavy and sluggish, my body just as tired and sore as if Little Mac one-punched me in the head.

Popo nods as if reaching a slow decision. "I'm gonna ask her for a dance."

I almost spit out my drink. "You're insane."

"Hey, if my sister can slow dance with Shulk, then I can pick up a chick in a bar. Ladies dig the confidence, man. That, and the RESPECC. I'm really feeling it." Popo downs the rest of his drink. "If you wanna head home, don't wait for me, all right? Chill out."

With that said, Popo slides off his seat and saunters off. Despite his stupidity, a part of me's impressed by his daring. Popo has balls to ask a random chick for a dance. They've shared zero words total since we've arrived. Then again, Popo's only asking for a dance. He's not looking around for a serious commitment. Off to the side, I see Popo smooth-talking, and the hot chick at his side giggles, already won over by his words.

I'm not self-conscious about myself to deny Popo's attraction to the fairer sex. Boasting a ridiculous S tier, Popo's charming in a flirty play-boy kind of way. With his high-set cheekbones and mane of wavy bronze hair that he hides underneath his parka, Popo's got these dark, smoldering eyes that shine with perpetual amusement and crinkle at the edges in an insinuating like what you see? Then, on top of ALL of that, he's a master of a silver tongue. Popo can BS his way out of any situation and talk people into doing things that they wouldn't have dared to touch with a ten-foot pole. Seriously, he's even got a line of girls desperately wanting to bend over for him before he plays all of their hearts in a row like he's got none to spare. Popo's one sly motherfucker, and he knows it.

Suddenly, I wonder what Lucas is up to.

A bitter taste rises up my throat. Popo can hook up with a random chick he's known for five seconds, and already, she's head-over-heels for him. I've known Lucas for years... yet here I am, unable to tell my best friend three simple words.

Three simple words.

My stomach gives an uncomfortable twinge, and I down my glass to ignore the feeling.

Time blurs. I can't tell how many glasses I've taken, but after a while, all the colors start swirling together into one dizzy circle. Kind of like PK Teleport. Comforted by the thought, I giggle. Lucas would never fuck himself up like this. He's too reasonable to get drunk, too reasonable to... what am I thinking again?

I miss Lucas.

I slowly lift my fingers to my face, and smile at the hot sparks surrounding my feet. Something must have shattered against the floor, but I don't know, I don't care, and tuning out the sounds around me, I flee into the night.

Weird sounds swallow up my ears.

It's hot and then cold, then ow, faceplant. I stagger back onto my feet, but the floor sways and I stumble straight into another wall. Dazed, I stupidly sit on the floor. A wide grin spreads across my face. Home! I'm home! I think. You'll catch a cold, Mom said, and Lucas told me not to go outside, but singing and swinging my arms around, I'm so damn happy that nothing could spoil my mood. I'm invincible!

But it seems pretty selfish to be happy all by myself. What would my mom say... Sharing is caring. Or something of the sort. Okay! Then Imma share my happiness with someone else. I perk up my head. Lucas! Yeah, Lucas deserves to be happy too! Just... let me remember the stuff that makes him happy. Lucas likes Pokemon. Lucas likes reading. And Lucas... likes hanging out with Red.

Thinking about Lucas quietly laughing alongside Red suddenly makes me feel ill. I double over, tasting something sour on my tongue-

"Mama mia! Is that Ness?!"

"Who got him drunk?"

"Here, someone take him upstairs-"

People and voices start to surround me. I panic, feeling someone's arms around me. "N-No..."

Pink blocks my sight. A gloved hand, soft and delicate, rests on my shoulder. "Ness, sweetie, lie down. Help is on the way."

I try to brush the hand off. "Mina, where's... where's Lucas...?"

"Oh no, poor thing's confused. Sweetie, we'll send someone to get him, okay? Don't move-"

"It's okay, Miss Peach. I'll take care of it from here."

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

I wake up with a bad hangover.

Sunlight pokes into my eyes, and I grimace, shielding my face with an arm. The mattress feels wrong, too hard and firm and waaay too uncomfortable than I last remember.

"What... happened...?" I croak.

"That's what I'd like to know."

I jolt upright. This isn't my room.

I'm in the hospital ward.

Lucas watches me from the bedside. Judging from the dark bags under his tired eyes, he hasn't gotten a wink of sleep. Did he pull an all-nighter just to check on me?

I sluggishly wave my hand. "Lucas-"

"You were drunk," Lucas says flatly.

Right. And that happened.

"Oh, fuck." I bury myself into my bedsheets, because I can feel Lucas's disapproval scorch a hole into my back.

"You're lucky that the press didn't find out-"

"I know, you're not my mom," I snap.

Lucas's eyes shift away.

Smart, Ness. Real smart. My crush found me tipsy and wasted on my ass in the dead of night. Not one of my proudest moments.

"Sorry," I mutter, gripping the sheets in my fists. The amount of guilt I'm feeling now is unreal. "I didn't mean to snap at you."

Lucas's bright blue eyes shift over to mine. A strange emotion flickers across his features. When he speaks, his voice cracks. "What's going on, Ness."

I'm floored. Forget quiet. Lucas is barely audible. His unsteady tone is unnerving, leaking straight out of his voice. If I wasn't paying attention, then I might've missed it all together.

I swallow and avert my eyes. I almost wish that Lucas was yelling, or screaming, or chewing me out instead, but I know that Lucas won't do any of the above. Lucas is soft-spoken. He doesn't raise his voice. That, and he won't give me a fight. He's refusing to give me a fight.

I can't fight him.

The effects of the hangover still weigh fresh on my mind. I feel sluggish and slow. "I didn't plan... on getting wasted," I manage.

Lucas doesn't respond. Shit he's definitely upset.

I look up. "I'm sorry," I say meekly, shrinking back. "It won't happen again. Please, Lucas, don't tell my mom...?"

Lucas unfreezes. Resting his head against the back of his hand, he lets out a slow exhale. "I won't," he murmurs. "Just... don't do it again."

"I won't," I say honestly.

"Good."

"God, I feel like shit."

A smile plays on the corner of Lucas's lips. "Serves you right."

"I know." I say pitifully. "I regret everything."

From the corner of my eyes, I catch Lucas trying not to laugh under his breath.

I groan, "Fuck off." This finally triggers the quiet laugh from him. I throw him a dirty scowl, but I can't stay angry at Lucas for long, not when he's laughing, and to my chagrin, let loose a rueful chuckle myself. "I really fucked up this time."

"You did," Lucas agrees.

I swat at his head, and Lucas ducks underneath the swipe. Spoilsport. He overshoots the trajectory though, so when his arm flies right into my reach, I grab his wrist with both hands and yank him over. Emitting a surprised yelp, Lucas stumbles forward, tripping over the edge of the mattress and catapulting himself face-first into my bed.

Worried that I've gone too far, I watch him for any sign of injury. To my relief, Lucas clumsily pushes himself upright, looking dazed, and pops his head up.

Our eyes meet.

Lucas starts shaking with laughter. He hides his face into the bed covers to smother the noise, but the damage has already been done. I grin back and relax into my pillows. He's such a moron.

But I can't help it. I love making him laugh. I love making him happy.

I love everything about him.

In a split second of daring, I reach for his hand and grasp it. Lucas tenses, but unable to stop myself, I lift up his fingers and press the back of his hand against my lips. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that his skin's amazingly soft and cool; holding his hand feels so right, so natural, that without meaning to, I let out a happy sigh.

The laughter abruptly ceases. Lucas has frozen in place.

Then my brain catches up to me, and I want to slap myself stupid. What the hell am I doing?! Just as quickly, I let go, regretting the sudden loss of warmth in my fingers and give a feeble excuse for a laugh. "I guess I'm still drunk."

"...right," Lucas croaks. All of a sudden, he won't meet my eyes.

Fuck.

Anxiously, I reach for his shoulder. "Lucas? Lucas, I'm just joshing around-"

But Lucas recoils back with a sharp intake of breath. His eyes widen, and I know that he's putting the pieces together.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Trembling, I lower my hand. "I love you," I say quietly.

To my rising panic, Lucas doesn't say anything. Watching me, he opens his mouth, then closes it. When he finally speaks, his voice sounds alarmingly shaky. "N-Ness..."

"I love you," I insist louder, bolder. "I love you a lot."

The expression on his face shakes me to the core.

Scared. Lucas is scared.

"I..." Lucas suddenly closes his mouth. His eyes turn horribly blank. "I hope you get better soon."

Without another word, Lucas leaves the hospital ward.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"Lucas... you have blond hair."

"Never could've guessed it myself."

"You know who else has blond hair? Meee!"

Ness staggers around like a drunken fool, so I firmly pull him back before he can faceplant into another wall.

"Hehe. Thanks, Lucas."

I sigh. "How much did you drink?"

Beaming, Ness jabs four fingers into the air. "Twentyfleventeen!"

He's wasted.

"Come on, you," I mutter, poking him in the back.

During the time Ness had left to do who-knows-what, I made myself cozy and immersed myself in another volume of Sherlock Holmes. It was a page-turner too, a murder mystery, and I was just getting to the good part when someone started rapping on my chamber door.

At first, I ignored it, in no mood to answer anyone at this hour, but when the sound persisted, I regretfully closed the book and slipped out of bed. Hopping over Ness's messy assortment of boxes, I'd barely twisted the lock aside when an unexpected face stumbled in.

"Luigi," I said, surprised.

Luigi tipped his hat. "L-Lucas," he stammered.

A tall, timid man in contrast to his short, authoritative brother, Luigi was no native speaker of English. Suffering from a perpetual stammer, he had a tendency of tripping and stumbling over each word as if each one was foreign to him. He was a good-natured man with a big heart, and was such a doormat that he let other people walk over him - to the extent that he's dismissed as a public ridicule. With his speech impediment, the poor man was often the butt-monkey of the media, but I liked Luigi. He was considerate and kind.

But out of all people, I never expected to see him on my doorstep in the dead of night.

"You-a sh-sh-should-" Luigi stammered again before slumping forward in defeat. "It's-a Ness."

Those words alone chased away the last of my surprise.

"What happened?" I asked, but Luigi nervously glanced in the direction of the open hallway. Immediately, I followed him out, terrified that Ness had gotten himself seriously hurt and injured.

When I saw him throwing up on Luigi's bathroom floor, everything clicked.

As reckless as he was, Ness should've known better than to drink himself stupid. For one, we're underage. It might not have bothered some of the other smashers like Popo and Nana, whose culture revolved around alcohol, but Ness had high moral standards. His mother was a good woman who had raised her child well, and the lessons she had invoked into her son has saved him the trouble of potentially winding up in countless public scandals as a smasher.

For all we knew, anything could show up on the front page.

His sudden lack of judgement is worrying. Did something happen at home? Sure, Ness thought with his heart first, but it didn't necessarily mean that he had no brain.

Maybe I should've checked on him sooner.

I eye his unsteady gait. "Maybe you should take it easy for a while."

Ness hiccups, then shakes his head. "Nope! I feel great. Grreaat." He enthusiastically grabs my hand and cuts off all circulation. "I'm never letting you go!"

I grimace. "Ness, too tight."

He tightens his grip and promptly crushes my fingers. How drunk is he?

"Fuck you," Ness slurs, poking my side. "I thought you were my best friend."

Here it is. An opening.

I lower my voice. "What happened?"

"You happened, that's what."

"Ness, what did I do," I prod, watching him with such intensity that I'm surprised he hasn't burst into flames. A part of me can't help but feel betrayed by his blunt accusation. I've upset him one way or another, and he's refusing to tell me. I think about all the times Ness has gotten into trouble for talking first and thinking later.

This is very much unlike him.

And it frustrates me, because while I don't want to push him, I can't help him if he insists on acting immature and denying that there's a problem.

Ness leans closer on his tiptoes. "You really wanna know?" A hiccup. "I'm surprised tha you haven't... haven't figured it out, Lucas. You being all smart and... smart."

When Ness stumbles over his own shoes, I make a grab for his shoulders, but I'm a second too slow, and Ness ends up colliding face-first into my stomach. The impact knocks all the breath out of my lungs. I double over on my feet as Ness throws himself on me and scrabbles around for a hold. He manages to hook his fingers into the back of my shirt, and we awkwardly sway in place with Ness hugging me and me trying to balance our combined weight with my shoes. He's heavy, and while I'm tall, I'm a walking toothpick. So when his legs go dead, I grunt under his sudden weight and struggle to hold him up.

Ness takes this the wrong way and squeezes my waist even tighter. I'm learning the hard way that a very drunk Ness is a very affectionate Ness. He lets his head fall forward like a limp sack of potatoes, poking his nose into my stomach. "You smell good," he mumbles into my shirt.

Raising an eyebrow, I glance down at him. "You're drunk."

"I like you."

He's much more intoxicated than I thought.

I groan. "I'm bringing you to the hospital ward."

"I like you."

"I like you too," I say absentmindedly, struggling to pry his arms off. "Now let's try to stand on your own-"

"I like you more than a friend."

My hands stop over his shoulders. I feel myself gape, my mouth frozen open halfway.

With a happy grin like he's won the fucking Nobel prize, Ness peers up at me. There's a hint of strange mischief in his eyes. "I love you."

I love you.

It's been a long time since I've heard those words. My family had never been wordy people in general. Even before Mom's death, Dad rarely spoke more than a curt syllable. He was a man of few words, and I quickly learned to read people by their facial expressions, by what they didn't say. Actions spoke louder than words. There was no need for words when we understood what was implied. I knew that my parents loved me the same way that I knew that the sky was blue. Even with his last breath, my twin brother only said sorry. Not I love you. Just sorry.

But when Ness expectantly stares up me, looking so hopeful after so easily dropping those three words... it unhinges me more than I want to admit.

Everything shatters before my eyes. This is a joke. This all has to be some cruel joke, because how long has Ness kept up his best friend facade? A month? Longer? A sinking feeling in my gut says otherwise. Is this why Ness was trying to avoid me?

Despite my unsteady hands, I'm able to get a good grip of Ness's shoulders and pry him off.

"Y-You don't know what you're talking about," I stammer, but I'm shaking like the AC's on full-blast. "You're drunk."

Ness squirms around in my grip, then drops his head with a sigh. "You're right," he says sadly. "I'm drunk."

I don't remember how I dragged him to the hospital ward on the 3rd floor. All I know is that I'm sitting in a chair by his bedside, propping my head in my hands, and staring blankly at my best friend as if he's grown two heads.

I love you, Ness had said.

I close my eyes.

I love you.

Stop it, I want to say, but what's said has been said, and no amount of wishing will ever take it back. A part of me's telling me off for being dramatic, but my mind's falling apart, too bothered and confused by the words Ness has said.

Ness is my best friend. He's like a surrogate brother to me, and with his reckless confidence, if I squint just the right way, it's not hard to imagine Claus in his shoes. Saying that I have feelings for Ness is almost like announcing that I have feelings for my older brother. Disturbed by the thought, I shudder, then watch Ness with uncomfortable eyes.

Just like Claus, Ness is a light sleeper, even moreso because all that alcohol has shut down his brain. He's dead to the world, save for the slow rise and fall of his chest.

I relax. Ness is drunk, I reason. There's no way that Ness would have feelings for me. For one, I'm a guy, and for another, I know that Paula's crushing on Ness. I'm an oblivious person when it came to feelings, but I haven't been oblivious to the number of times Ness has called Paula back over the past year. To think that Ness likes me in the same way is almost laughable.

So when Ness admitted that he liked me more than a friend... he'd meant that he liked me like a brother too. At least, it's the most likely conclusion I could draw.

The thought warms my heart.

I exhale. My mind wanders freely, my breathing more at ease now that my logic is back. I don't know how much Ness has had to drink, but he'll be all right. He'll be okay.

With an overwhelming sense of relief, I wait for the crack of dawn.


 .

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~Chapter Four~

Sober Thoughts

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Ness meant it.

As soon as his lips brush against my hand, I feel my breath hitch in my too-tight throat.

"I love you," he says timidly. Meekly.

His words sound sober, but there's no way Ness is sober. He has to be drunk. He has to be.

I open my mouth, but only a strangled sound comes out. "N-Ness..."

"I love you," he insists. "I love you a lot."

The intensity of his eyes scares me.

My ears ring with his words. My mind goes blank. "I..."

I love you.

I need space.

I love you.

I need air.

I love, love, love-

"I hope you get better soon."

.

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~oO0Oo~

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"Honestly," Nana mutters, giving her newest victim a scathing look. "I can't believe that you broke curfew to go out drinking."

"I thought she loved me," Popo moans pitifully from the corner of his dorm. Suddenly looking green, he pokes his head back into his pail. I wince, hearing chunky liquid slosh against the sides.

While pacing back and forth, my feet have somehow led me to the end of the suite hall. Upon hearing my foosteps, Nana popped her head out of her room, spotted me, and all but dragged me over to help her groaning brother.

Popo has finally staggered back from the bar, and Nana's not pleased.

"Can you believe it, Lucas? Dragging a minor out to drink in the middle of the night of all things-!"

I watch her dunk a towel into warm water. "How is he?"

"My brother? Yeah... He'll be okay." Nana wipes her brow, then folds her arms at her brother with an exasperated noise. "Serves you right, taking Ness out to drink. What on earth were you thinking? We're turning eighteen next month, Popo. You should've been more responsible!" She angrily attacks the sweat on her brother's feverish forehead. "Do you know how worried I was when Nina called me? Popo, I was worried sick!"

Popo mutters something under his breath.

"Ugh, you're impossible." But Nana's voice loses some of her ice; her angry frown has melted into an expression akin to exasperation. "This is why I'm glad that I'm the older sister."

"We're... twins..."

"Hmph. No, I'm definitely older, all right." Nana tosses me a worried glance. "Speaking of which, how's Ness holding up? Popo told me that they didn't go easy on the drinks..."

"Ness is a real lightweight," Popo says, and when Nana gives him a well-deserved glare, he hastily adds, "Wait, Nana! I switched his glasses out for water towards the end, I swear!" Nana clips him on the ear anyway. Recoiling from her hand, Popo sounds rather scandalized that we won't believe him. "Dude, I only wanted him to get lit. I wasn't going to watch him drink until he got liver failure-"

"He could've gotten himself arrested. You could've gotten yourself arrested," Nana snarls, slapping the wet towel into the basin with such vicious force that water sploshes over the edges. "Back to Ness. Lucas, how's he doing?"

I love you.

"He's doing all right," I manage to say.

Popo coughs. "Did he say anything strange?"

I love you a lot.

My heart clenches.

"I think that he's still drunk," I say, lowering my voice. "He wasn't thinking straight..."

"Of course he isn't thinking straight!" Popo says enthusiastically before going down with another round of violent coughing. Nana thumps him in the back, unclogging his windpipe, and Popo heaves a loud, watery gasp of breath. "Dude, isn't it obvious? Ness is so gay for you-"

"Don't be rude!" Nana snaps.

"I mean, he is-"

"Don't make fun of him," I say firmly, meeting his eyes until Popo fidgets and looks away. "You guilt-tripped him into drinking last night."

"Yeah, dude. But only because he looked bummed out." Popo shakes his head. "Man, Lucas, you are really dense. Just how long are you planning to play hard to get?"

Popo's making less sense by the second.

"What are you talking about," I say, exasperated. "I didn't know that-"

"-he's got the hots for you?"

A hot spike of warmth shoots up the back of my neck.

Catching my expression, Popo suddenly flails back with a howl of laughter, cracking his ribs up. "Holy shit. You really didn't know!"

Nana blanches and turns to her brother. "What? Ness is gay? Since when?" Popo throws her a smug I-told-you-so, but she ignores him, instead rushing over to crush my arms in her iron grip. "Wait so, hold on. Does this mean... Did Ness come out to you?"

I nod.

Nana's voice rises by a wavering pitch. "And you just left him?"

I blink, confused by her rising panic. "Am I not supposed to?"

Nana groans and buries her head into her hands. "Nooo. Lucas, leaving him alone was the worst thing you could've done."

"The worst?" I say blankly. I flash back to Ness's face. I'm ready to pretend that his drunken spiel has never happened, and it's a mercy that I gladly would've taken had the tables been turned.

"Why?" Popo echoes. If it's any consolation, he sounds just as confused as I do. "Isn't it a good thing to like, give Ness some space? For him to chillax and embrace his hot flaming gayness or whatever?"

"No!" Nana incredulously looks back and forth between us. "Are you both serious?"

"Well, yeah," Popo says.

Between the two of us, I'm not sure who's the more immature. Popo knows how people tick, but has too much fun poking his nose into where it doesn't belong. He intervenes with people's lives for "the greater good," decides fuck it, and chooses not to learn from his mistakes.

In contrast I'm helplessly clueless when feelings are involved. I'm not emotionally intelligent. I might catch onto something, but I'm oblivious to how other people feel about me until they tell me outright. Even then, it's a struggle; I have a hard time understanding why emotional people are inclined to overreact. Being sentimental sounds so stressful and overwhelming. I just want a quiet life. A nice, quiet, boring life.

When neither of us react favorably in response, Nana slaps herself in the forehead. "Fine, I'll explain. Say that Ness's been hiding in the closet for days. Maybe months, I don't know. Normally, as close friends, he probably would've told you everything, Lucas, except that this time, he had a problem. A huge problem. And it was that he liked you. He liked you, Lucas; he liked you more than a friend, but that posed an even bigger problem - how would you react? He loved you, but didn't want risk losing your friendship. So he kept his mouth shut. He was careful enough not to let anything slip, and now thanks to this moron-" Nana shoots Popo a withering look. "He got himself drunk. All of a sudden, everything's gone south and he's tumbling out of the closet with his feelings for you. Then in that exact moment, you ditched him. How do you think he'd feel?"

A chill crawls up my spine. "Oh."

Popo whistles, throwing Nana a look of appreciation. "How were you able to guess all that in one go?"

"Intuition," Nana says, looking quite pleased of herself.

"Dude... respect."

"I didn't ditch him. I just..." I try to search for something, anything to object to Nana's words. How suddenly I left the room, unsettled and unable to understand the words coming out of Ness's mouth. How I must have left Ness hanging, confused and horrified after he'd bared his heart in a rare moment of vulnerability. Just because I can read other people easily doesn't mean that Ness is able to do the same. Ness thrives on words, and I left him without a single explanation to boot.

Horrified by the implication, I close my mouth.

Nana lets go of my arm. "I know that you didn't mean to ditch him on purpose," she says kindly. "But at the very least, you should head back. Whether or not you accept his feelings, he could really use your support right now."

"But hey, think on the bright side," Popo says with a knowing nod. "You just played someone without realizing it-"

"Not now, Popo," Nana hisses, tugging back his hoodie.

"What? It's a compliment! Who knew Lucas could be such a heartbreaker- ow!"

Nana withdraws her hand. "Idiot," she snarls, clipping her brother a second time on the ear. "Don't pay any attention to him, Lucas. He's being a moron again-"

"I'll go check on Ness," I mutter, shoving my hands into my pockets. "Thanks, Nana."

Now anxious, Nana watches me leave. "Good luck..."

Popo eagerly sticks his head out of his room. "Oi, Lucas. Next time you get chance, show me your moves- ow! Nana, ow, okay I'll stop!"

"God, Popo, you're so insensitive! And don't think that you're off the hook yet! Mister, what were you thinking, getting Ness drunk in the middle of nowhere, and ooh, I am so disappointed in you-"

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~oO0Oo~

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"He's not here."

"He left?" I say in disbelief.

Peach purses her lips. "Ness left the hospital ward not ten minutes ago, sweetie. You just missed him."

I blankly stare at the empty bed. Ness's imprint is still there. He can't have gone too far. "Did he say anything?"

Peach gets a troubled look on her face. "Not that I remember. Oh, heavens, I didn't think that I was too harsh on him. Nothing beyond the lines of oh, you boys are too young to get your lives ruined by binge drinking, and yet, Ness didn't say a single word in his defense. So very strange. That boy, I swear!" Shaking her dress, Peach gives a feathery huff, then pats my head. "Well, sweetie... we're all very lucky that he's got you to watch his back."

My heart sinks like the Titanic. Ness always has a retort or two in his arsenal. He is never quiet.

Shying away from her hand, I force a smile. "I beg to differ. Ness can take care of himself."

Much to my chagrin, Peach erupts into a big fuss and starts smoothing down my shirt. I squirm, because as nice as she is, she's getting a little too touchy-feely. "Oh dear, you're too kind," she says tearfully, misinterpreting my honest answer as some sort of philanthropic endeavor, and it's all I can do not to cringe because she couldn't have been farther from the truth. "Take good care of him, will you, Lucas? Poor boy was awfully quiet when he left. I'm glad that he has a good friend like you in the Mansion. You should've seen him back in N64 and Melee. He used to ramble about his pen pal all the time. It was always Lucas this and Lucas that-"

"Peach," I desperately interrupt, because I do not need to hear another rendition of how "Saint-like" I am, especially after I've maybe-perhaps-possibly alienated my best friend. "Did he say where he was headed?"

"No, dear. Oh, I hope you can find him."

Then the guilt finally crashes in, and the back of my neck begins to burn. Why Ness thinks so highly of me is a real mystery. "Thanks, Peach. I hope so too."

Despite Peach's well-wishes, my search doesn't go too well. Out of options, I stop by the baseball field. The trophy room. Even the library. It's early evening when I trudge back into the lobby, clutching for straws.

A stray thought suddenly seizes my mind. The cafeteria. Of course. Ness likes food. Where there is food, there is Ness. I race over to the cafeteria doors and fling them open, but when curious heads turn my way, I hastily shut them in mortified terror.

There are people - TOO MANY PEOPLE - inside.

I grimace. I don't want to attract attention by aimlessly wandering around the cafeteria, but I don't want to leave without searching for Ness. This is a situation that requires strategy. This is a situation that requires telepathy.

This also means that I end up standing in front of the cafeteria doors like a glazed-eyed idiot.

Ness isn't inside.

Disappointed, I stop looking for stray thoughts and retract my mental probe. By this point, I've pretty much resigned myself to picking a corner inside the cafeteria, sitting in an empty table, and repeatedly kicking myself until Ness decides to show up when a familiar scaly snout welcomes my arrival.

"(Lucas.)"

"Hullo, Charizard," I mutter, scratching the spot between his horns. Voicing his satisfaction in a low rumble, Charizard puffs out a continuous stream of smoke from his nostrils, and I smile. I like to pet him and watch him secretly enjoy it in turn, though Charizard would deny it. Red tells me that Charizards rarely warm up to people, only allowing a select few to touch their scales. After the Subspace Emissary, Charizard apparently decided that my presence was "worthy," and from then on, demanded free pets upon every sight. He's a magnificent creature, and an even more formidable opponent on the battlefield.

"You haven't seen Ness anywhere, have you?"

Charizard snorts and draws back his draconian head in a dignified manner. "(Maybe.)" He nudges my hand. "(More petting, and I might talk.)"

Cracking a grin, I vigorously rub the soft scales in the groove of his shoulders. Rolling his eyes in pleasure, Charizard gives a deeper rumble that can pass for a purr. His scales vibrate under my touch. "(Mmmm...)"

A sudden tap on the shoulder stops me in my tracks. Looking down at me, Red cracks a small smile, then shakes his head slightly to the left. The message is clear - Don't spoil him.

I reluctantly withdraw my fingers from Charizard's warm scales. Agitated from the lack of attention, Charizard lets out another puff of smoke. He gives a forlorn look at my fingers, but sighs in relief when Red takes over.

"Have you seen Ness?" I ask.

Red furrows his eyebrows.

"It's a long story," I admit.

He nods and gives me a gentle push away from the cafeteria. Go, he seems to say.

I don't need to be told twice.

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~oO0Oo~

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Ness is still nowhere in sight.

My dread grows with his absence. Did he leave the mansion for good? My mind races a million miles an hour as I double back to our suite. I can't teleport. If Ness isn't here, then there's no way I can track him without running out myself. 

Ness doesn't have any practice matches today. I should regroup back in the apartment before jumping to any conclusions. He can't have left already, not after what happened last night. I rest my cardkey against the keyhole, and when the lock beeps, snicking open, I push myself inside-

Only to halt at the pile of blankets on Ness's bed.

The lump in my throat refuses to go down. "Ness?"

He doesn't respond, but I can tell that he's awake. The sheets have shifted ever so slightly.

My brow knits together in hesitation. Now that I've found Ness, I'm not sure of what to say.

Talking's not a skill in my department. It's always been Ness's forte.

I exercise caution. "Do you... want something to eat?"

The blanket fortress shuffles away. A hoarse voice escapes from its confines. "Not hungry."

At least he's responded this time. Awkwardly, I glance at the clock. It's barely six. "Are you going to bed?" I try again.

The blankets shiver.

My hand fumbles for the lamp. "If you want, I can... turn the lights off."

"Okay."

"..."

"..."

"Are you awake?" I whisper.

"...yeah."

"Ah. Are you-"

"Lucas, what are you trying to say?!" Ness explodes, tugging the covers off his disheveled hair. His eyes are swollen and red.

"I want to talk to you," I say, steadily holding eye contact. I can't waver now. Not when one wrong movement can potentially destroy our friendship.

The windows dim.

I blink into the dark. Ness's eyes glow faintly like a cat's - another trademark of our psychic powers. When Ness speaks, his voice sounds all croaky, like the time he'd gotten a bad strep throat, and I start feeling like shit because I know that he's struggling not to cry.

We can't avoid the pink elephant in the room forever.

Drawing a deep breath, I open my mouth, but both of us end up speaking at the same time.

"Are you-" I begin.

"I'm gay," Ness blurts out.

An awkward silence follows. Unsure of how to respond, I close my mouth. "Cool" and "Good for you" don't sound like good answers. "Congratulations" fits the bill even worse, and "Happy birthday" is out of context. I'm still mulling over what to say, but Ness beats me to the punch.

"Isn't it funny...?" Ness manages to gasp, drawing his knees up to his chest. A strange laugh escapes from his lips, but it's not a laugh, doesn't remotely sound like one at all. It sounds more like a broken sob. "I can't believe it... I have feelings for you. I have feelings for my best friend." Ness is crying openly now, tears flowing out of his eyes and dripping onto his sheets, and the sight of him breaking down makes my chest feel all constricted and tight. "I'm disgusting."

"You're not disgusting-"

"Yes, I am!" Rising up in a sudden hysteria, the hurt flaring up in Ness's voice can't be mistaken for anything else. "Don't lie to me, Lucas. You know it's disgusting-"

"When did I ever say that," I say sharply, and Ness falters. Ness is upset, and knowing this makes me feel a lot calmer than usual. "You're gay. That's fine. I don't mind, Ness."

"I thought I was straight."

"I'm sure everyone thinks that the first time round."

"I don't want to be gay..."

"I don't mind what you are. You're my friend," I say firmly.

There's another rustle of sheets. "So you don't mind that I-" Ness cuts himself off and averts his eyes. "-that I like you?"

I shake my head.

A muffled sniffle leaks into the room. Wiping his eyes with his sleeve, Ness slowly raises his head. His stare intensifies. "Why did you run?" he whispers.

The back of my neck burns with shame. Suddenly, I feel exposed standing before him. "I was scared," I admit.

"Scared of what?"

"No one's ever said that to me before."

"Said what?" Ness presses, his voice this time much softer.

I swallow. "You know. I love you.The hot feeling now prickles across my neck and down the back of my arms. "I'm flattered."

I can't make out Ness's face in the darkness, but I can tell that he's flushing too. "I mean, it's true. I do. Like you, I mean," he mumbles. "Don't be stupid."

"Ness."

"Yeah?"

"I'm glad that you're my friend."

Ness's lips twitch up. "Do I sense another gaydar going off?"

I let out a quiet laugh. "Can't get any gayer than this."

"No shit. We're talking about feelings and gay stuff, literally." Ness's eyes flicker to my face. "Lucas, I... I know, I screwed up, I shouldn't have gone out drinking with Popo, and I'm-" His shoulders begin to shake. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I freaked you out, and I regret everything-"

Hesitantly, I step forward and pat him on the back. "It's okay," I say quietly. "I'm sorry too."

Fisting my shirt, he pulls me closer. This time, I don't resist, letting him hug me. Ness shakes so badly that he can't stand. I train my eyes onto the threaded carpet between my feet and try to pretend that he's not crying into my shoulder.

"I'm so stupid," he chokes out.

"You're not stupid."

"I scared you-"

"You were scared too."

"Shit." Ness wipes his eyes on my shirt. "Shit, this is so gay-"

"You are gay."

Ducking his head, Ness laughs, a softer, gentler sound. His eyes peer into my face. "Lucas, this is why you mean a lot to me. I like you... I like you a lot. Hell, maybe even more than a friend. That's why... I need to know. I want to know."

His gaze burns into my skin.

I avert my eyes. My throat suddenly feels too dry.

"I'm not ready for a relationship," I say honestly. It's a true statement. I'm not interested in a romantic relationship with anyone, and as a smasher, I want to be careful with any aspect of my personal life.

Anything can be publicized.

My skin crawls with goosebumps. Last year on one of our photoshoots, a rabid shipper managed to take a picture of Ike and Marth play-wrestling. Nothing unusual. Both of them had been roommates and good friends. The problem had been the timing of the picture. From the camera's point of view, it looked like Ike had been kissing Marth.

The "scandalous" picture quickly went viral.

Once the fans had proof of shipping, the media never let it go.

Ike and Marth had been hounded by reporters for months on end. It hadn't been a pretty sight. They began arguing wherever they went - in the cafeteria, in the dorms, in the bath house. Whenever I'd heard either of them bellowing down the hallway, I instantly doubled around in the opposite direction. They used to drag other smashers into team battles, then insisted on taking opposing sides, but anything they tried only added fuel to the fire of "Forbidden love."

Their friendship met a nasty end. Eventually, Ike moved out, leaving Marth to room with Roy. Neither of them has spoken to each other since.

The media would've eaten up Ness's confession like flies. They would've been happy to make his life miserable.

I have to protect our friendship.

"But if you could... would you give me a chance?" Ness presses. His cheeks have turned bright red again, but he looks straight into my eyes. He's nervous, but he's refusing to show it. He's confident. He's trying to be confident.

I carefully word my response. I can't give him any semblance of false hope.

"No," I admit. "I see you more like a brother."

He fails to hide the crestfallen expression on his face, but to his credit, takes it well into stride. "I expected it, but it was worth a shot."

"I'm sorry," I say, feeling sympathy. With his huge pride, it couldn't have been easy for him to handle rejection right off the bat. When Ness hunches over, exhaling a deep breath, and I watch him in concern. "Will you... be okay?"

Ness clutches his chest. I feel the heavy ache. "Heartbreak hurts like a bitch," he admits.

My chest twinges with guilt. "You deserve someone better-"

"Don't worry. I'll man up and get over it." Despite himself, Ness cracks a lopsided smile. It's sincere. "You know, it's not so bad having you as my first crush."

The hot feeling surges back up into my cheeks. I can never get used to Ness's blatant honesty. "Thanks...?"

"Wow. That was gay."

"Nothing wrong with that."

Ness takes a deep intake of breath. "Thanks, Lucas," he says gently. "You know, I'm really glad that you're my friend too."

Something warm stirs my heart.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

Left with the crushed, bleeding mess that was my heart, I hoped that my brain would've shown me some sympathy tonight.

Alas, that was not the case.

Welcome to PSI One-oh-One, where sleep comes in a two-for-one package with future visions. It's hard to say which dreams are just dreams, and which dreams are prophetic posers ready to pop up in my face. Got a nightmare? Cross your fingers and hope to high hell that it's not going to fuck you over in real life.

Take the aftermath of Subspace for example.

Yeah. Not a fun time.

Shaking and shivering after a nightmare, Lucas used to scramble into my bed and hide under the sheets. I never realized what was going on at first, because he was careful about it, slinking back to his bed before the crack of dawn, but one fated day, he'd dropped his guard and I woke up with his sleeping face an inch away from mine.

As I'd watched Lucas breathe, the first thing that had sprung up to mind was Home. Lucas was practically my adopted brother, and it's contradictory because everyone in my whole family was outgoing. In my home, there were no boundaries when it came to privacy. It sucked, but it was how we showed off our I love you's. My mom still liked to check on me every night before retiring to bed, and I had an invasive little shi- ahem, sister - who liked to barge into my room just to mess with my stuff. But as annoying as Tracy could get, she's not a jerk. Even now, there were still times when she felt vulnerable - times when she crawled my bed and cuddled next to me after a bad nightmare.

I'm used to having someone invade my space, because I'm an older brother.

It's in my job description.

So in that split second, I'd decided that I'd liked this vulnerable side of Lucas. Lucas wasn't family by blood, but he was as good as one. Failing that, being there for him made me feel strong. It made me feel special. So I'd wrapped my arms around his skinny shoulders and pressed myself closer. Nightmares were one of the rare exceptions Lucas would let me in close, so I did just that. I'd hugged him. I'd whispered encouraging words and stroked his hair until the shaking died and he fell back asleep.

Other times, it'd be my turn to get the nightmares. I'd tumble out of dreams of the Ruined Zoo, terrified that I'd been too late, that Lucas had been hit by the Dark Cannon, that I'd failed to push him out of Wario's way, and I would scramble to his side of the room just to make sure that he was safe and sound and sleeping. Often, as deep of a sleeper he was, Lucas would wake up from our shared nightmares. Whenever that happened, he'd quietly traipse over to my bed and let me hug him because I'd be too ashamed to travel to his.

But my nightmare tonight is beyond strange. From the moment I step into my dream, I know that it's no ordinary trip to dreamland. It's definitely a vision... of sorts. Except that visions predict the future, and this exchange is DEFINITELY taking place in the now. It reminds me of Lucas's telepathy, of the rare times he shares his memories and thoughts with me.

Anyway, I enter this nightmare with a weird feeling of wrongness, the same kind of wrongness you get when your near-sighted math teacher accidentally hands you the El Espanol worksheet instead of the Chapter One pre-algebra quiz. But I've barely registered it before a serious case of deja vu kicks into gear and raises the hairs on my arms.

This dream seems familiar. Eerily familiar.

"Oi, shortfry."

Right on. There's the floating disembodied voice.

I turn around. "Lucas...?"

It's not Lucas. That's for sure.

Pretty recently, like about a year ago, I've had recurring dreams about this copycat with his voice. The first time I spotted the fuzzy outline of my stalker skulking around the corners of my vision like Slenderman, I woke up in cold sweat. Once, I tried calling out to him, but the figure never responded. His constant presence in my dreams made me uneasy, but he didn't DO anything, so I figured that it was just a trick of light.

Then not long ago, "Slenderman" decided to make my life a living hell. I got dreams of dying. Nightmares. Once, the fiend stabbed me in the chest. Another time, he drowned me in the ocean.

I never got a good view of his face.

And the worst part? I'd forget everything about him when I woke up. So it's almost like I have selective amnesia, except that I only get total memory recall during my NEXT nightmare. How fucking convenient is that?

From the steam, the dark silhouette steps closer. "Lucas" gives a sharp bark of laughter. "So you're the idiot lusting after my twin brother. Not much of a looker, I'll add."

Great. Now my DREAMS want to talk about my gay crush.

I groan, "Kill me now-"

"Let me tell you a bedtime story, shortstack," "Lucas" says, ignoring me. He tosses a baseball up into the air and catches it easily with his palm. "Once upon a time, there was a kid with a smart mouth. Like you."

"Oh stop, you flatter me."

"Don't laugh. He was a prideful fool and thought that he could do anything. One day, his mother died. He set out to avenge her death. Just before he could, his brother stopped him. His brother begged him not to go. The idiot didn't listen and left anyway. Guess what happened to him?"

Well, I'm guessing that he didn't live happily ever after, I wanna say, but decide not to smartmouth him back.

Good thing too. A glowing crimson eye hovers an inch away from my face. "His body was never found."

His story rings in my ears. This is important. Something about this story is key to uncovering his identity.

Too bad I don't know why.

I bristle. "Are you threatening me?"

"Lucas" ignores me again. God, this stalker pisses me off. When he leans over, he's so close that I can see the gray outline of his face. His whisper sounds deadly. Dangerous. "You don't deserve to be Lucas's friend. You're a worse copy of the same fool."

"And you're just a blue-balled bully," I mimic, shoving his face away. "Geez, I knew that my subconscious was a prick, but this is really pushing it."

The dark silhouette raises the baseball, then examines my face like a carving block. "Well, isn't this a fitting way to go. Which do you prefer, curve ball or straight ball? Oh, right." The corner of his lips curl up in a mocking smile. "Curve ball, it is."

"What do you want from me?" I demand angrily.

"Who said that I wanted anything from you?" he sniffs, turning up his nose in thinly-veiled disgust. Arrogant git. "I'm searching for Lucas."

A chill trickles down my spine. This madman is after Lucas?

I ball my fists. "You lay one finger on him, and I'll make sure you'll regret it-"

"That's a pretty speech, shortfry." His mismatched eyes burn with hate. "Now get lost. You're in the way."

The baseball smashes into my skull.


 

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~Chapter Five~

Pride Before a Fall

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Left with the crushed, bleeding mess that was my heart, I hoped that my brain would've shown me some sympathy tonight.

My eyelids shoot open. Shaking off whatever nightmare I had with a grunt, I uncurl my cramped arms and ready myself to roll out of bed-

Only I can't.

Someone else is blocking the way.

Completely clocked out, Lucas lies on his side with his arms outstretched and his fingers splayed. As I dumbly stare at him, his breathing tickles my face, and it takes me a solid minute to realize why.

Right. After all that drama last night, we fell asleep on my bed.

I study him, fascinated by how he sleeps with his head under his arms. Like a bird tucking its head under its wings. Even if he doesn't say it, Lucas must be really tired, considering that he stayed up the day before to deal with my stupidity.

Then Lucas shivers, and I realize that I'm hogging the sheets. Quietly, I tuck the covers up to his chin. As I do, I frown, noticing how prominent the curve of his cheekbones are. Did I stress him out? Lucas never eats much whenever he's under pressure. As sad as it is, I'm not surprised. Lucas would've suffered a harder loss on his end if our friendship fell apart. Lucas takes time - months, years - to garner trust. I'm his only childhood friend. I'm the only person he can trust with anything. To lose that security, especially over such a stupid misunderstanding, would've irreparably damaged his trust.

Lucas always seems so strong that I keep forgetting how fragile he can be.

Huddling into the covers, Lucas shivers again. Hesitantly, I draw one arm around his shoulders and tug him closer. With a slow sigh, Lucas huddles in and presses the top of his head against my chest.

A hot feeling prickles across my cheeks. Oh shit, goddammit noooo. Like I need another reason for my hormones to go crazy!

I scrunch my eyes shut. No, I'm not in bed. I fell asleep on the sofa watching another Lord of the Rings rerun in the living room. The sofa is cold. And soft. And smells like chocolate shampoo. Anything. I'll take anything.

Anything to forget that antisocial dead-as-a-pan Lucas likes to cuddle people in his sleep.

Underneath my arm, Lucas shivers like a leaf. The scent of chocolate tickles my nose ten-fold, and when his empathy link tingles with a faint hint of helpless terror, I give up. Screw it, everyone deserves a good hug. I protectively wrap my arms around his shoulders and watch as - to my relief - Lucas relaxes.

I don't know if Lucas knows about his embarrassing habit of sleep-cuddling, but I've never found any reason to point it out to his face. I probably do plenty of embarrassing things in my sleep too. Like sleep-talk. Or drool. Eurgh.

But what I DO know is that Lucas has done it as a kid, and that cuddling him back chases away whatever nightmare he's under. It's happened so many times that at this point, comforting him is practically instinct. I swear to god that there's a code ingrained into my brain designed to ward off anything that can potentially harm him, because wanting to keep Lucas safe is second nature.

...Which makes sense, considering our long history together. Whenever Lucas used to stop by my house after school, we played for long hours, running around in my backyard, flying kites, playing hide-and-seek. By the end of the day, my mom often found us napping together, too tired and worn out to move. When we grew up and I had to leave Lucas behind for N64, the habit slowly died out. Two kids cuddling was cute. Two teens cuddling? Gay.

Speaking of gay... right. I've come out of the closet. Sort of. It worked out a lot better than I expected. Lucas is still my best friend. Nothing else has changed. I know that I should've been grateful, but a part of me can't help it. Not when I want us to be more than friends.

I laugh bitterly. I'm back in square one except that this time, Lucas knows about my feelings for him. It's kind of weird, thinking about it, but that only reinforces how few people Lucas has in his life. He's willing to accept me because he's got no other alternative.

Get over it, I tell myself. Lucas sees me as a brother. It's the closest anyone else has gotten by far.

But it's not good enough.

I force down the lump in my throat. When Lucas first said that he wasn't ready for a relationship, it didn't bother me. That part had been easy. I was willing to wait, even if it took Lucas five years, ten years to accept me. He was worth it, worth so much as a friend and worth so much more beyond that. I've practically lived with him all my life - competing for the last slice of pizza, wiping the floor with MarioKart - and I couldn't imagine anybody else who simply got me like he did.

I love him too much.

A ray of early sunlight catches Lucas's hair. I want to stroke it, but I know better than to try. This isn't third grade. We aren't children anymore. Those days are over.

There's no point in pining after someone who will never return my feelings.

Quietly, I rummage around and pull out my clothes from the closet. I don't bother packing anything else; this is a temporary move out, not a permanent one. Snapping the latches shut, I pick up my suitcase.

This is it.

I turn around, viewing the room for what was probably going to be the last time in a long while. I don't want to leave. I'm actually fond of the cramped room with its memories, the trick wooden plank that tripped Lucas over all the time, the bathroom lights that I accidentally cracked with my yoyo last year.

Deep down though, I know that I have to accept the truth. I want time to get over Lucas's rejection, and more importantly, I want time to mend my broken pride. After last night, I don't think I had the courage to look him in the eye. When I've become comfortable with myself, when I was ready to be called a best friend again, that was the moment I'll return, asking if he'll accept me back into his life.

"I'll be back," I whisper, empty and numb.

Lucas is still sleeping. I envy his oblivious state.

Dropping my dorm keys onto my pillow, I take my leave.

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~oO0Oo~

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I go to the first place I think of. On the second knock, its disgruntled occupant answers the door.

"Hey, open up," I hiss.

"What the hell, Ness," Popo groans, rubbing his eyes. "It's like, five in the morning-" He spots my luggage, then stupidly says, "What's with the suitcase?"

"I want to stay with you for a bit. Just to avoid morning curfew."

"I dunno, man..."

"You owe me big time."

"Point taken, bro." With a yawn, Popo stretches out his arms across the door frame. "Why the rush? Did your date night go sour?"

"I'll see Master Hand later," I say desperately. "I just need a place to stay for tonight. Popo, please-"

"Sure, I gotchu. But you're lucky that the girls are having another sleepover at Jigglypuff's place. If Nana were here, then I couldn't have let you in." He takes a step back, watching me shoulder my way past the threshold before he closes the door behind me. "So man... how was it?"

"How was what?" I say irritably. I'm not in the mood for his stupid innuendos.

Sadly, Popo doesn't catch my drift. He sniggers, "Duh, your first time. Who topped?"

I throw him a flat look.

Popo's expression turns incredulous. "Wait dude, did Lucas actually reject you?"

"It's complicated," I mutter, shouldering past him.

"Wow. That's rough, buddy," Popo says, sinking into an ice-cube-shaped bean chair. For once, he looks genuinely sympathetic. "Well, he didn't have to kick you out-"

My throat turns dry. "He didn't kick me out. I left on my own."

"Ohhhh... wha?"

I rest my head into my hands. "I couldn't stand rooming with him. For now," I admit. "Knowing that I could never have him... it wasn't going to work out."

Worming his way to the fridge, Popo cracks open a bottle of Arctic Ice Water. It lets out a soft hiss. "Well, his loss," Popo says, wiggling another glass bottle in my direction. "Water?"

I eye it suspiciously. "It isn't..."

"Not alcohol, dude," Popo promises, crossing his fingers. "Water, one-hundred percent."

Somewhat wary, I take the cold glass bottle. I risk a sip. True to his word, it's water. "Thanks."

Popo leans forward on his seat and laces his fingers together. "Yeah, soooo. There's something else I need to tell you. Nana knows you're gay."

I choke on my water. "What?!"

"It's just her. I didn't tell anyone else-"

"Popo, you said that you weren't going to tell anyone," I say, furiously slamming down the bottle of water. It drops off with a thunk and rolls off the table.

Popo raises his hands in surrender. "Chillax, I didn't say anything-" When I continue glaring at him, Popo amends, "Okay, it might've accidentally slipped. But Nana mostly figured out when Lucas stopped by. Nice to hear that you're finally out of the closet-"

My blood turns to ice. "Popo," I say slowly. "I never came out."

"What do you mean, 'you never came out'? You told Lucas-"

"Yeah, only because he figured it out. I wasn't ready to come out in public!"

Finally, it hits him. Popo blanches. "Ohhh... Fuck."

Ohhh fuck pretty much sums up the situation, all right.

"Well... Don't freak out yet, man. Maybe Nana didn't tell anyone else at the sleepover," Popo says, sounding less and less convinced with each passing word. "I mean, it's not like Jigglypuff posts everything on twitter-"

Breathing in panic, I grip my temples. "My life is over," I say hoarsely. "Popo, what have you done?"

"Dude, chilla-"

"What have you done?" Freaked out beyond my wits, I grab him by the shoulders. "By tomorrow morning, everyone's going to know. The media's going to know!"

"I didn't-"

"Fuck you!" To my horror, I begin to cry. I haven't told my mom that I'm gay. I haven't even told my little sister that I'm gay, and now, it's about to be broadcast to the entire nation.

I'm about to become the laughingstock of Smash Mansion.

My pride's finally sunken to a new all-time low. I shove Popo's hand off and haul my suitcase to the door.

"Hey! Dude, snap out of it!" Popo holds me back by the shoulder. Up close, I can see that his forehead is dotted with sweat. "Have you fucking lost it? You'll get caught after curfew-"

The warning strike whizzes over his head. Popo lets go, falling onto his rear with a yelp as I snap the yo-yo back into my palm. "Back off," I grit. I can't think. I've reached the point past all caring, because I'm angry, I'm so, so angry that I'm shaking. Popo's lucky. He's lucky that we're not on stage, because I may want to smash his last stock to bits with my baseball bat and watch him scream like a fucking girl as he flies off the stage. And laugh.

But we're not on stage.

So instead, I say in a low voice, "Give me one reason why I shouldn't clobber you with my bat." I know that my eyes are flaring up like a 4th of July freakshow - like they do whenever I'm an emotional wreck - because Popo looks ready to shit himself. His dilating pupils reflect off the same unearthly purple sheen of my own eyes, just as if the FBI's shining a colored flashlight into his face during a hardcore interrogation. I hate the unnatural color of my eyes, but I can't say that I'm not pleased with how they intimidate him right now.

Popo gulps. "Dude, don't get me wrong. I'm a lot of things, but Master Hand's out patrolling the halls tonight-"

I turn around and snap my fingers. The bolt jerks out of its lock-

A sharp pain explodes in the back of my head.

I black out.

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~oO0Oo~

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Two arguing voices echo into my ears.

"Why did you knock him out."

"Dude, bro. I didn't have a choice! H e was going to get in trouble for breaking curfew-"

"That doesn't give you an excuse to swing a hammer into his head!"

"I panicked, okay man? Oh fuck, I'm sorry, I screwed up-"

I stir, letting out a groan.

"He's awake!"

"Ness." A cool finger brushes against my forehead. "Ness, can you hear me."

I struggle to open my eyes, but my arms are so heavy, and the throbbing pain in my head won't fucking leave-

Someone wraps their arms around my chest. I'm lifted up into the air.

"I'll take him down to the hospital ward. Go get Dr. Mario."

"R-Right!"

My limbs weaken. All the energy drains out of my head.

Darkness swallows me whole.

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~oO0Oo~

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I wake up lying face-up in the hospital ward.

An angry pain throbs through my head like a gong. Someone else shifts beside me, and with a grimace, I roll my head over-

My breath catches in my throat. Lucas is watching me from the side, his eyes heavy and tired. His shoulders are slumped; his breathing, slow and sluggish. He can't catch a break, can he?

Trying to lift the heavy mood, I crack a weak grin. "Here we go again."

Lucas doesn't smile back. He sets a full glass of water on my bedside table. "How do you feel."

I try to sit up, but stop halfway when my head starts screaming death metal. "I feel like the Ultimate Chimaera chewed me to pieces," I groan.

"You can thank this moron for that," Nana snaps, popping up beside me. Her sudden presence startles me, and glancing around, I see that Red, Toon Link, and a very guilty-looking Popo are there, gathered around my bed. What's going on? "I can't believe you, Popo. The moment I leave a second time for my sleepover, you wreck Ness over-"

"Dude, I'm so glad you're alive," Popo wails, almost throwing himself onto me. "If you still want to clobber me, I know, I totes deserve it-"

"Oof! Popo, g-get off-"

"You were going to break curfew, and I had to stop you from getting into trouble-"

"-so you bashed his head in with your hammer," Nana snarls.

With another wail, Popo drops himself onto my bed and begins to flail around. "Ness, bro, it was an accident! I was like totally panicking when you wouldn't wake up and dude, dude-"

"It's okay, Popo," I say tiredly. The memories of last night slowly trickle back, and okay, I admit that I'm still mad at Popo, even if he didn't mean to clobber me. But I can't dwell on it forever. Not out of the kindness of my heart, but because something else has caught my attention.

Something else more important.

"Guys," I whisper, my voice dry and cracked. "What happened?"

It's like my words are a fucking spell. Nana stops hollering up a storm. Popo goes as still as an ice statue. A sudden hush has crawled into the air, a horrible, morbid silence as if someone has just died.

Then Toon Link nervously steps forward. "N-Ness, it's... I wanted to say that whatever happens, I don't mind... well, we don't mind that, um, ah..."

A cold realization seeps into my skin. Lucas has yet to say anything either, so I turn over to look at him. "Lucas. Hey." I gently curl my fingers around his forearm. Lucas bites his lip, then averts his eyes. Worried, I squeeze his arm. "Hey, buddy, answer me. What's wrong?"

Lucas shakes his head, then to my surprise, grips my hand in both of his. A comforting gesture. "I'm sorry," he chokes out.

On any other day this moment would've sent me flying to Cloud Nine.

But right now, Lucas's behavior scares me out of my wits.

To my surprise, it's Red who finally breaks the silence. He leans over to grip my shoulder. It's a tight grip, nothing like Lucas's gentle touch, but it's firm enough for reassurance. Startled, I look up into his dark expression.

"They know."

Chapter Text

 

~Prologue~

The first thing Ness does is to drag me to the phone booth. He grabs my arm and is almost pulling me along, and I stumble, trying to keep up with his shorter height.

"You don't have to come if you don't want to," Ness babbles as if I have a choice, but the terror in his eyes is unmistakable. He's afraid of coming out. He wants someone to be there while he's calling his mom.

And I understand.

Curling my fingers around his hand, I give it a careful squeeze, hoping that he can understand the words I don't say. That this is okay, this is all right.

Ness gets the message. He squeezes my hand back. "Thanks," he says quietly.

We get to the phone booth in no time. Ness's fingers are so shaky that he keeps missing the coin slot, so I pick up the quarters and insert them in for him. With his left hand on the phone receiver and his right hand squeezing mine as hard as the day he got drunk, both of us wait in excruciating silence.

It doesn't take long for Ness's mom to pick up.

"Hi, mom, are you- oh... did I wake you up? Right. Different timezones." Ness hunches over the phone. "Yeah, Lucas is here too. He's doing fine. No, I didn't get sick. My voice sounds croaky because I woke up late. Yeah, I swear, I'm okay. But I need to tell you something, it's the news - oh, you heard? Oh. Uhuh."

An excruciating silence.

Ness's shoulders shake, and he begins to sob - but this time, it's a sob of relief. "Mom, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't call home. A lot of things happened, and I didn't want to worry you after dad left-"

His dad left? I recall a kind flustering man in a trenchcoat. Did his parents get divorced? If so, is this the reason behind his sudden aggression? Come to think of it, Ness has been calling Paula more often instead of his mom.

"Yeah. Yeah, okay." With a sniff, Ness wipes his eyes with his sleeve. I pretend to look the other way. Ness has a huge pride. It must have killed him to have been rejected yesterday, and to top that, with everything else that had been going on, he has a right to have a moment to himself. Carefully, I try to pry my hand out of his, but Ness squeezes my wrist tighter. A clear indication - Don't leave. "Yeah, love you too. Stay safe. Call you later. Bye."

It isn't until he hangs up when he realizes how pale my skin has turned in his tight grip.

"Sorry," he says, letting go, and I rub the circulation back into my relieved hand. "My family's gone into hiding," he admits. "Apparently they were getting bombarded by the media and all sorts of crazy weirdos, so they're staying at the local hotel until the chaos dies down."

I recall Ness's mom and sister with a jolt of alarm. "Are they okay?"

"Yeah, they're fine. They should be able to return home soon. Master Hand's sending in help." He hesitates with one hand still on the phone handle. "Thanks for tagging along."

"It's nothing." I study his face in concern. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, everything's okay. Well, it isn't now. But it will be." Lowering the handle of the phone onto the receiver with a click, Ness stuffs both hands into his pockets. "Lucas, we're still friends... right?"

I nod again, this time more slowly. I'm unsure of where this is headed. I'm not sure if I want to know.

Ness takes a deep breath. "I think it's best... if I move out."

I blink. "Move out?" I say slowly.

Ness scratches the back of his neck. "You know, move out of our room. If the media knows that I'm gay and that you're rooming with me, well, I don't want you to get dragged into it..."

"You don't have to leave," I say suddenly, surprised at how upset I am at his words. When I woke up to Popo's frantic knocking and spotted Ness's spare keys by his pillow, it scared me more than I wanted to admit. I don't want to lose Ness as a friend. "I don't mind rooming with you."

"I know you don't." Ness suddenly finds his shoes interesting. "It's just... I mind. I need time to get over you."

My cheeks prickle. "...Oh."

While I'm touched that Ness has feelings for me, a part of me can't understand the reasoning behind his attraction. I'm awkward and antisocial. I'm just me.

I shuffle in place. Despite Ness's earnest words, I know that I've inadvertently caused him stress. I didn't expect my rejection to affect him so seriously. I knew Ness well - or at least, I thought I had. Growing up together, he's always been quick to point out a pretty girl or other, and I haven't been blind to his chemistry with Paula. Paula is a fierce marshmallow - tough enough to keep Ness in line, yet soft enough to shower him with the attention and affection he craved. And in the case Paula turned him down, Ness has decent looks and a confident charisma. I'm sure that many other teens would jump at a chance to date him.

But I'm not Paula. I'm not many other teens. I'm his best friend, and I'm not willing to risk our friendship for an obvious train-wreck. Simply put, I'm not interested in a relationship, and Ness deserves someone who is emotionally invested.

I avert my eyes to the ground. Is Ness keeping our friendship out of obligation? I hope not.

As if afraid that I've gotten the wrong impression, Ness suddenly grabs my hands in both of his. "N-Not that we can't be friends! Once I get over it, we can hang out like normal! Think of this as a hiatus. A break."

"A break," I echo.

"Yeah." Ness looks straight into my face. He's always worn his heart on his sleeve. I can tell that Ness is anxious, and that he doesn't want to lose me as a friend any more than I do.

I nod. "Sure."

Relief washes over Ness's face. Had he feared another rejection? Ness's eyes flicker up to my face before he hesitantly opens his arms. "Is this... okay?"

Obliging, I shuffle forward.

Ness's arms protectively curl around me, and I breathe out, trying to resist the involuntary urge to shrug him off. My personal discomfort can wait; Ness has always been there for me when I needed him, and I want to return the favor no matter how small.

But even after years of our friendship, I don't like to be touched. I don't like hugs - I don't like the way I feel trapped and constricted, I don't like how uncomfortably close his chest is to mine - but Ness squeezes me once, warm and reassuring, and slowly, I relax, lowering my guard. For several seconds, we sway in place, one of my hands awkwardly patting his back and both of Ness's arms wrapped around my neck. Then deciding that the hug lasted long enough, I gently take hold of his arms and push him away.

Or try to.

His head buried into my chest, Ness squeezes me tighter like he's never going to see me again. Like I'm about to walk out of his life. The fact that he's never brought up his parent's divorce sends a ripple of concern through my mind. I know that Ness is close to both of his parents, especially his dad. It must have killed him from the inside, wanting to but unable tell anyone about it.

"This isn't goodbye," I say quietly.

That seems to do the trick. Ness shifts against me and digs his fingers deeper into the back of my shirt. His voice sounds oddly thick. "I can't let go... Why can't I let go?"

Slowly, I rest my head atop his.

Jerking back, Ness pushes me away, then tugs the brim of his hat down to cover his face. I catch the hidden meaning behind the gesture. Ness doesn't want me to read his expression. He doesn't want me to see him upset.

My heart sinks like a stone.

"Well..." He turns on his heel. "See you."

"Bye," I echo.

Such a simple word had never sounded so cold before.


 

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~Chapter Six~

Stand Up Strong

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I hadn't always seen Ness as a brother.

There was once a time when I saw him as something more. I admired his strength, I admired his courage, I admired his ability to say whatever was on his mind - even though it usually led to disastrous consequences. Ness was so real, so genuine that he intrigued me - in a world where everybody hid their real intentions, I had never met anyone who looked more comfortable or at ease with himself. At first, the blind adoration I fostered for him confused me, and I began to suspect that my feelings for him were stronger than those for a friend.

But over time, I quickly came to my senses. It didn't take me long to realize that what I had for him was a one-sided puppy love, an old childhood crush. As my first friend and role model, he was everything I wasn't, and a part of me just wanted to be more like him. I wanted to be brave, I wanted to be strong, and Ness happened to be the embodiment of both.

The feelings quickly died after that.

But I've never seen Ness the same way since.

Uncertainly, I glance to the side. True to his word, Ness is moodily stabbing his potatoes at the very far end of my table. There are other vacant tables in the cafeteria, but he's chosen to sit in the same one. I don't blame him for the involuntary force of habit.

I absentmindedly flick over my broccoli. It's a little lonely not to hear him goofing off at my side. We're battlefield buddies, partners inseparable to the point that other smashers have grown accustomed to talking about us like we were one. Where's Ness and Lucas, they'd ask. Not Ness, not Lucas. Where one of us is, they assume the other is too.

But from the looks of it, everyone is giving us both a wide berth. They might not know exactly what's going on, but even the dimmest lightbulb sparked. Ness has feelings for someone, and we're avoiding each other. They can put two and two together.

For once, the cafeteria is deathly silent. All the smashers are goggling at us as if we're the newest zoo exhibit. We all know how much Master Hand frowns upon Interdimensional relationships, and no one knows how to deal with the sudden possibility that one of our number may potentially hold feelings - genuine feelings - for another. To even speak of the thought is taboo.

Ness is staring determinedly at his food, but his nerves are starting to leak out. His mental control is slipping, and I can tell from the way his silverware is becoming agitated. His fork shakes like a wind chime in his hand, breaking the silence with a shrill ringing tinkle - the only source of noise in the cafeteria. Occasionally there's the low whisper, a hiss of gossip aimed in our direction before it's hurriedly shushed.

I'm contemplating about making a hasty escape out of the cafeteria just to avoid the unwanted staring when Ness's telepathic waves suddenly go haywire with anxiety.

Peach has stood up, her eyes blazing with pride. Her dress flutters in rising emotion. "Why aren't we talking?! Oh bollucks, I'm going ahead first." She takes a deep breath, but despite her motherly facade, I know that she is feeling just as unsettled as everyone else. "Ness... you did it. Oh, honey, I'm so proud of you-"

Evidently, Ness looks as stumped as I do. "I did what?"

"It was so very brave of you, dear, but I always knew that you had it in you."

Catching her drift, Ness gives a long suffering groan and tilts his head back. "Yes, I'm gay. Why is this such a big deal?!"

"Of course it's a big deal," Peach says kindly. "I know I speak for everyone when I say that we approve." She tenderly inches over a hand on his shoulder as if Ness is a very fragile piece of glass about to explode into thousand gay butterflies. "It's normal, dear. You're growing up. During puberty, you might start crushing on your best frien-"

"Crushing?" Ness squeaks. His face turns red. "Wha-Who said anything about a crush?"

Peach lowers her voice, but the cafeteria has dropped to a hushed silence. All of us can still hear her. "It was Lucas, wasn't it? You moved out because you liked him-"

"Peach, we're just friends."

Dabbing at her watery eyes with her handkerchief, Peach pats him on the head. Her voice sounds tremulous. "It must have been so hard..." Behind her, Wolf coughs into his French Onion soup, clearly trying not to laugh, but Peach only tears up more. "I told Mario. I told him that we needed a sex-ed class. We needed to teach you kids that it was all right to be different, but we didn't, and look at you now, confused over your poor feelings-"

Burying his head into his hands, Ness is wearing the expression of someone dying painfully on the spot.

"-we should all take a leaf from your book, dear. Encourage talking about our feelings. Let's break out of social norms, people! It's the twenty-first century!" Peach cranes her head into my direction. "What did Lucas say? Has he come out of the closet too, sweetie?"

My face burns, and I drop my head, pretending that I haven't heard her. I can feel everyone's eyes on me.

Ness sounds like he's constipated. "He... He's not..."

"Feel the burn," Wii Fit Trainer adds, doing another yoga Pilate.

When Ness stammers off into awkward silence, Peach motherly fusses over the wrinkles in his clothes.

I turn away.

After calling his mom, Ness has taken the news surprisingly well into stride. The extra support has boosted his confidence; whenever anyone brings up the dreaded question, he owns up to the truth with barely the blink of an eye. Ness can easily stand up for himself. I don't have to worry.

"Wahaha!"

My neck turns stiff. I poke my scrambled eggs.

"Hey-a, if you don't minda me asking-" Wario presses in, his black bushy mustache quivering with glee. "When's the big day?"

This man disturbs me. Something about his bulk and corporate greed make all the hairs on my neck stand on end.

Not catching my drift, Wario flits back into my line of sight like an annoying fly. He slumps down into a chair across the table and stares at me. "So... how did you two DO it?he says suddenly.

There's a collective gasp from the smashers.

Looking furious, Peach hoists up her frying pan. "Wario, I will not have you acting so vulgar and crude around the kids-"

"Kids? They're-a old enough to handle this," Wario snorts, picking his nose with a stubby pinky. "Anyway, the lil brat hasn't answered my question-"

Peach slams her pan onto the table. She's about two seconds away from going on an angry Cooking Mama rampage. "You know very well that they didn't do it, so move it and get back to your table!"

"You-a don't know for sure, princess-"

Feeling a stupid flush crawl up my face at the insinuation, I do my best to ignore him. Wario isn't worth my time. He's only shooting out baseless insults in the hopes of intimidating me, and I'm not going to show him that he gets under my skin.

His voice quickly turns irritated. "Wa! Don't give me that look when I'm a-talking to you!" he snaps, then smacks the back of my head so hard that it leaves my ears ringing from the blow.

Bemused by his antics, I spare him a slow blink. Catching sight of my detached expression, Wario's face falls. He likes getting a rise out of people, all for the expense of fun, and my lack of interest instantly turns him off.

Sulking, he gives me a lousy shove in the shoulder. "Loser-"

"Pick on somebody else your own size!" Ness yells, rising from the far end of our table.

Everyone stares at him.

I want to slap myself silly. Of course, I should've known that Ness would've risen to the bait. Even while trying to avoid me, Ness doesn't plan to let any insult towards me slide.

"Waha...?" Turning to face him, Wario grins, baring his uneven teeth like a serrated shark. "Well, if isn't our resident gayboy-"

"Yeah, I am," Ness says angrily. "You got a problem with that?"

"Oh, no. No problem at all. Wa. Wahaha!" Wario dances over, then slaps him hard on the back. Infuriated, Ness flings his empty milk carton after him, but the fat man runs off, still cackling, "Just-a wait til the shipping starts! It's gonna be golden!"

Cursing under his breath, Ness bangs his head against the table. "I hate Italians," he mutters loudly.

Luigi, who conveniently happened to be passing by, throws him a hurt look, then inches away.

"Crap, Luigi! I didn't-" Luigi hurries out of the cafeteria, and frustrated, Ness slams both of his palms against the table. "Damn it!"

Don't take Wario seriously, I say.

Yeah, well at least one of us has to take him seriously, Ness snaps back.

Lowering my eyes to my plate, I return to picking at my food. There's no point in trying to convince Ness if he refuses to see the truth. Ness means well, but with each passing day, it's growing harder to endure his mood swings.

Then as if remembering that he wasn't supposed to be talking to me, Ness lets out another frustrated noise, slams his tray onto the table, then stalks off.

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~oO0Oo~

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Later that night, the repercussions of our agreement begin to hit me. Unable to sleep, I crack open the window to let cold air into the room.

Ness is staying over at Popo's for the time being until Master Hand has an open room.

The temporary separation had been mutual. Ness wanted to get over his feelings. I'd agreed to give him space.

But now, seeing the second twin bed devoid of a familiar figure shoots no small pang of pain into my chest. It brings back familiar memories. Sad memories. Unhappy memories.

No matter how much I want to believe, Ness isn't my twin brother. Ness has a mom and a dad of his own. Ness has a sibling of his own to look after, a younger sister to play the role of Big Brother for. In the end, Ness is a different person from Claus, an entirely different person with different desires and different needs.

I've done the unforgivable. I've replaced Ness for someone he is not.

Ashamed, I clench the edge of the windowsill with rigid fingers. It's unintentional, I know. Somewhere, deep down, a part of me has accepted that my runaway twin brother isn't missing, but gone. That he's already passed on. I wake up from dreams that I can no longer remember, dreams that I can't understand. A dying body in my arms. A last breath. A final promise.

All smashers are invited to the tournaments on account of their famous deeds. They are accomplished fighters, skilled mages, brave warriors, sly manipulators. In my case, Master Hand approved of me himself. An exception.

"Your adventure was a difficult one," he said. "Strange. Funny. Heartrending. But difficult."

And that's the worst part. I can't remember anything about my adventure. As far as I can remember, I've gone on no adventure. I've lived in Onett all my life. Even when my mother passed away. Even when my brother ran away. I was born in Onett, raised in Onett, and grew up in Onett. I haven't done anything remotely hero-worthy, or villain-worthy, or even noteworthy for that matter. While Ness went on a quest to save the world, I was just another kid with psychic powers.

My skin crawls. What am I forgetting?

I wish I can remember.

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~oO0Oo~

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Wednesday morning passes without incident. Boisterous laughter tells me that Ness is leaving the gym with Popo, so I quickly duck out of their way into another corridor. The fewer the bump-ins, the less awkward. And the less awkward, the better.

However, fate doesn't seem to be on my side. Because by the end of the day, I've encountered too many "almost run-ins" for them all to be coincidence. No matter how hard I try, Ness would miraculously happen to stumble across me. As a psychic, either I'm horrible at avoiding him, or he's trying to find me.

Neither of which makes sense.

So when Red miraculously gives me a lucky save by distracting Ness in the cafeteria, I make a break for the the loneliest floor in Smash Mansion: the second floor library. Reading takes my mind off of things, and I gladly take this opportunity to my advantage. Perching atop of one of the taller bookshelves, I nestle into my secret hideout against the frowning face of Oliver Twist, and begin to read.

Needless to say, it fails.

A gentle cough catches my attention, and surprised, I spot someone lingering in the doorway. Ness shuffles forward, rubbing the back of his neck.

I sigh, closing my book. "Ness, if you're here to apologize again-"

"I miss you."

Stunned, my voice trails off.

Ness is staring determinedly at his shoes, but a red flush is beginning to color his cheeks. Mortified, he quickly pulls the brim of his cap over his face. "Lucas... I-I miss you. I miss hanging out with you, e-even if you might not feel the same way-"

I can't stop the sad tone from escaping into my voice. "Ness."

"Fuck. Fuck, I can't-" Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, Ness whirls on his heel. "Nevermind, forget I said anything-"

"I missed you too."

Ness halts in his tracks.

Unable to catch his expression, I lower the book into my lap. "I missed you too," I admit again, suddenly feeling shy. When is the last time we've struck a decent conversation? Come to think of it, I don't remember hanging out with him since Sunday.

As if not daring to believe, Ness slowly faces me with wide eyes. He coughs. "Um, you want to go blast some aliens? O-Or we can read," he adds quickly, looking around the library. "Wow... books. I TOTALLY love books!"

I can't help but crack a small grin at that. "I thought you hated reading."

"Not true!" Ness insists, picking a random book off the shelf. "Thirty Ways to Bake Mashed Potatoes. Man, I've always wanted to read this-"

I let out a quiet laugh under my breath. "Ness."

His shoulders slump over. "Yeah, okay."

"Aliens?"

"Aliens."

Ten minutes later, we're lying on the floor of our room with Ness's legs sprawled over my back. Flashes of color wash over Ness's face as he jams the joystick, peppering the silence with a series of rapid-fire pewpewpews.

Emitting a wordless exclamation, Ness slams down his PS2 controller and throws me a look of disbelief. "What tHE HELL. You shot me!"

"Sorry," I say, not sounding sorry at all. I don't bother stifling the grin, knowing that it'll blow my cover anyway.

Ness quickly catches on. He rolls his eyes and resumes the game, blasting another alien out of the way. The alien gives a nasty screech as its purple guts explode onto the screen.

Turning my head over, I watch him play. Resting on his elbows, Ness doesn't notice me, his eyes glued faithfully to the television screen, but despite the look of fierce determination burning in his deep frown, his shoulders have relaxed. In the heat of the video game, Ness is de-stressing, returning back to his old confident self.

I'm glad for the reprieve. Gaming is a nice break. It's a welcome reprieve to forget about all of our worries for the time being. Satisfied, I return my attention back to the screen.

Half a second later, the game spews out a sad doo-doo-doo.

I blink. "Huh. We died."

Ness lightly punches me on the shoulder. "You were distracted."

I stretch out my arms, feeling the bones in my shoulder pop. "Mm."

His legs still draped over my back, Ness rests his head into the carpet. "I smell cheese."

"Don't rub your face into the carpet. You have no idea who last stepped on it."

The carpet vibrates from his muffled voice. "Lighten up, Lucas. This is our room." He pauses. "No, wait... it's yours."

And just like that, the heavy tension is back.

As if realizing our close contact, Ness quickly withdraws his legs from my back. A part of me can't help but feel disappointed. The sudden lack of warmth is a little disarming. I lean forward to flick the game console off. "So, what now?"

"I dunno," Ness mutters, uncomfortably tugging the bill of his cap down. "Whatever you wanna do, I guess."

Floundering for something to do, I awkwardly rest a hand on his shoulder. It's a strange, but strangely exhilarating feeling, having to initiate something on my own. "We can... nap."

Ness snorts. "Great idea."

"Naps are great," I decide, curling up against the cheese-smelling carpet.

From the corner of my vision, Ness throws me an incredulous look. "Wait, here?"

"Yeah."

"Weirdo."

"Good night."

Something soft lands on my face. I open my eyes to a fuzzy ball of white fluff. "If you're going to sleep, then at least take a pillow, you lil shit," Ness says fondly from above, but through the pillow it sounds muffled like he's underwater.

I swat it aside. "Now you're getting germs on your precious pillow."

"Not today. I vacuumed the carpet," Ness announces. He sounds very pleased of himself, like he's done us a service by doing the chore he's supposed to do for the week.

So I decide to knock his ego down a notch, and roll over to ruffle his hair. "Good boy."

"URg, you... Augh!" Wriggling away, Ness bats my hand off. "Oh, screw off," he says crossly.

"It's okay, Ness. I understand that my jokes fly over your head-"

Ness puffs up his cheeks. "I'm warning you-"

"-and you have a very short temper-"

"Don't you dare-"

"-but I'll always be one step ahead of you."

"Fucking shiT," Ness cries, jolting up to grab his pillow and fling it into my face. I dodge the projectile by rolling over onto my back, but my sides are already splitting from mirth. I haven't laughed myself stupid like this in a long time.

Ness buries his furiously blushing face into his hands. "Jesus. Palutena save me."

While I tend to avoid jokes that genuinely make Ness upset, he knows that everything else is up for grabs. I watch him in growing amusement. "Do you have Napoleon complex?"

"God, I love and hate you so muchh."

"Sorry, height jokes are too fun to pass up-"

"Fine, let's see how much you like it," he snaps. "How's the weather up there?"

"Pretty good, thanks. I can see the clouds."

"Yippee for you."

I pause, gauging his tone. I've made a mistake. Ness doesn't look like he's having fun, and I should've known better than to have cracked height puns when he's not in the best of moods. "...I'm sorry," I say, this time trying to sound remorseful.

As predicted, Ness loses the angry look in his eyes. His shoulders sag, and he lets out a light sigh. "Fuck." Staring at me, he rubs his eyes with a free hand. "Fuck," he repeats. "You can't just... fucking damn it. Stop looking at me like that."

"Okay."

"And quit being a smartass."

"Okay."

"And stop stealing my taunt. That's not cool."

"Okay."

"..."

"Accident. Won't happen again." I crack a small grin. "Okay?"

Grumpy now, Ness shoves a hand into my laughing face. "That's it, we're not friends anymore."

"Wait-" I try.

"Nope. We're done. I officially declare war on you."

I muse over making a peace treaty. Too much effort? Too much effort. I lay back down. "Okay, goodbye forever."

I should've known better. Ness never backs down from a challenge, and I speak from firsthand experience because five seconds later, Ness flies out of nowhere and dive-tackles me onto the floor.

Ness sits up on my back and grins triumphantly like he's found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. "Ha. Who's laughing now?"

"This is cruel and unusual punishment," I gasp, because he's crushed the air out of my poor lungs. Ness smiles wider, in no mood to cease and desist, so I clumsily bat at the brim of his cap. "Hey, get off. I wanna sleep."

His happy cheer doesn't sound the least bit affected. "Sure. You just sleep right there."

Wary now, I crack my eyes open. "What are you-"

Then Ness tickles my sides.

I almost jump out of my own skin. "Stoo-ooppp," I gasp through helpless laughter. "Nooo-"

He doesn't. Obviously.

Knowing all my weak points, the traitor lunges for my ticklish neck, but expecting the low blow, I roll him off and press my hands into his face. Cracking a smirk, Ness grabs my shirt as he falls, forcing me to topple over, and while we're roughhousing on the carpet, he quickly changes tactics and seizes me by the ankles.

I scrabble at the carpet. "No, no, no, mercy, have mercy-"

Ness drags me into the bathroom then drops me onto the cold tiles. "There, you've been exiled. The carpet is no longer yours," he says sternly.

"This is a travesty, I'm telling you. A travesty."

"Travesty, my ass."

"I will end you," I cry valiantly, before promptly slipping on the carpet and falling flat on my face.

The floor has made a mockery out of me. 

It's the last straw. Both of us start cracking up like idiots, and I'm laughing so hard that when I try to stand, I end up stumbling and face-planting again into the carpet. At the stupid sight, Ness practically cries with mirth, clutching his sides with tears escaping from his eyes.

"I'm dying," Ness rasps, bent double on his knees. "Go save yourself, I can't go on-"

"No, you're too young to die!" I cry, gripping his shoulders in growing hysteria. "Fight it, fight the power, Ness-"

"It's too late, I can see the light-"

Thankfully our sanity returns... somewhat... which leaves me free to fall facefirst into bed, exhausted out of my mind. A nagging thought tells me that I've forgotten to change out of my sweaty clothes, but I ignore it. I have to wash the sheets later anyways. I close my eyes, more than ready for sleep.

Except that I can't sleep. A certain somebody keeps shuffling back and forth by the bedside. Disgruntled by the bothersome noise, I crack my eyes open.

Ness gazes mournfully at my sheets.

I groan, "Please tell me you're joking."

"I don't know, okay?" Ness whines, all the while resembling a kicked puppy. "I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable."

"I'm not asking you to nap with me."

"I know! But I want to! If you're okay with it!"

I frown. That hasn't stopped Ness before. Nightmares are fought best with a close friend at hand; I can't remember the number of times I've crawled into his bed after a nightmare and vice versa. Many times. Too many times to count, too many nights sharing happy dreams and whispered laughter until the other fell asleep. It may have sounded odd, but old habits die hard, and being psychic creates an intimacy beyond the usual friendship. We're like brothers, close siblings who go everywhere and do everything together. Small wonder that I'm surprised by Ness's sudden hesitation. I haven't even thought twice about it until he brought it up.

Now that he has, I'm starting to wonder if it's normal for two friends to share the same bed. It's hard to say. Ness and I aren't exactly normal, not by human standards, and while some came close, no one else on the roster is a teenage psychic. I've seen all sorts of platonic exchanges in the mansion - Ike giving Cloud a bro-hug, Samus braiding Zelda's hair, Wolf fist-bumping Snake.

But sleeping together?

The back of my neck begins to prickle. For heaven's sake, is Ness trying to blow everything out of proportion?

"You're right. Maybe this was a bad idea," I begin, pushing myself up. "I can nap later-"

"No, it's okay, you should sleep," Ness says quickly. "I don't mind, it's just... awkward. Sleeping with you. I mean, fuck-" Ness looks ready to die. "Y-You know what I mean!"

"It's only awkward if you make it awkward," I say, feeling my own face burn. I don't know what to think of Ness's newfound awkwardness. Ness is never awkward. Ness was never awkward. Last year, Ness wouldn't have known the definition of awkward if someone tried slapping a dictionary into his face. Now, he's as awkward, if not more so, than I am.

Ness, awkward? Perhaps the world has finally gone mad. I rub my eyes with a grunt. Seriously, Ness can do whatever the hell he wants, because I'm going to squeeze in a few winks before tonight starts for good.

Ness watches me with a worried frown. "You look like a zombie. You're not getting sick, are you?"

"Course not." Doubtful, Ness peers into my face, and I offer a sheepish grin. Guilt pricks my sleepy subconscious. I didn't mean to worry him. "Ness, it's nothing that I can't handle."

"You know what, you really don't look all right," Ness declares, making up his mind. "I'll stay right here until you fall asleep."

"Mm."

Ness's socks paff into the carpet, and the mattress creaks under his weight when he crawls under the covers.

I make a soft noise of disgust. "Take your shoes off."

With a sheepish grin, Ness kicks his tennis shoes off, then takes several steps back. A second later, he dive-bombs into my bed, sending shockwaves across the walls as the bedposts screech across the carpet. Alarmed by the sudden momentum, I bump the back of my head against the headboard.

"Ow," I wince, rubbing the painful knot on my head. "Overkill much?"

Apologetically, Ness curls up beside me. "Oops. Couldn't resist."

Unable to stop myself, I stifle a yawn.

The bed creaks again. Crashing loud against my ears, Ness's heavy breaths break the silence. The tips of his warm fingers barely ghost over the back of my hand before they halt, tickling my frozen skin.

"Is this okay?" Ness whispers.

He's pushing his luck. We both know it.

I don't respond.

Ness lets go of my hand.

 

Chapter Text

 

~Prologue~

I don't think that either of us were able to sleep.

The absence of Lucas's breathy sighs tell me that he's still awake. It doesn't take a genius to see that Lucas is uncomfortable. Heck, I don't blame him. I may as well have asked for another rejection. Lucas isn't sending me mixed signals. He's made his point clear. He isn't interested in me more than a friend, and I'm not going anywhere with trying.

About a minute of lying down, I can't handle the tension. I get up. Lucas doesn't stop me. His silence, in some ways, hurts the most. Twisting the bathroom door shut behind me, I grip the sink and try not to think about our crumbling friendship.

Ever since my dad's divorce, I've constantly felt like a ticking time bomb. I exploded at the tiniest things. I've noticed the cautious looks thrown my way, the hushed whispers cast in my direction.

My dad left me in the blink of an eye. No words, no letters. What guarantee do I have that Lucas won't do the same?

I'm losing everything in my life. I lost my dad. I lost my temper.

I can't lose Lucas too.

In the end, my hunger forces me to leave. Lucas obviously isn't in the mood to talk, so I walk down alone. I know that I have to make everything up for him somehow, so I swipe a deli sandwich that looks reasonably warm from the oven, and deciding against a sit-in meal, retrace my steps to the suite. Even after my short detour to the cafeteria, Lucas is still lying in the same position that I left him. Unwrapping the warm sandwich in my hands, I stop and shoot a hesitant glance in his direction. "Hey, you awake? It's dinnertime."

Lucas stirs. "Did you eat."

He's trying to divert the topic. I don't take the bait. "I did. You should too," I say stubbornly.

"I'll grab something soon."

A fat lie, if I ever saw one. I poke the limp sandwich in his direction. "I brought back food."

"Keep it. You'll grow hungry later-"

"It's for you."

Did I say that falling in love sucks? Because it does. It changes you into someone you aren't. Last year, I would've slapped Lucas in the face with the sandwich, all in the name of playful fun. Now, standing before him with my feelings bared, I feel myself shrinking under the force of his bright blue eyes. Lucas has a way of making me feel small without trying; his maturity, which has always been a welcome aspect of his character, now serves to intimidate me.

Lucas slowly slides himself over to the edge of the bed. Every tense muscle in his body bespeaks caution. "Thanks, but you don't have to worry about me."

I wince at the way he says those words. "It's not... like that." My feet shift in place. "Although I wouldn't mind us, you know. Becoming more."

Wrong response. Lucas doesn't look happy. Visibly upset, his eyes meet mine. "You know that I can't reciprocate your feelings. Why do you keep on trying?"

"Then give me a chance. Maybe things will change."

"Ness."

I ignore his warning. "We can try going out on a date. You can call the shots-"

"It won't work out-"

"You never know!" I beg, dropping onto my knees. "I can't help how I feel about you, but does it have to stay like this? I don't want anything between us to change. We can still be like friends. Me liking you isn't going to change any of that." Lucas doesn't respond. Anguished, I press the warm sandwich against his stiff hands. The salami sadly flops out of the buns. "Why won't you give me a chance? It's me, isn't it? What did I do wrong?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"Give me one chance, Lucas. It's all I'm asking for-"

"It's all a part of growing up," Lucas says softly, watching the floor. "It's not easy, but I know that you can overcome it."

In that split second, his words crash down on my ears. Lucas has never - not once - taken my feelings seriously. "No. You don't understand. I like you." Uncomfortable, Lucas turns away, and my panic rises. I probably sound desperate, but I have to convince him. With every word, I'm losing him. I'm losing my best friend. No longer thinking, I grab his skinny shoulders and force him to meet my eyes. "Look at me!"

His blue eyes swallow me up.

Then a ripple of fear flickers across his features. I barely catch it before Lucas closes up entirely, his expression turning hard. He roughly shoves me aside and marches into the bathroom. The lock clicks shut.

Lucas stayed locked in the bathroom for the rest of the night. No matter how much I pleaded, no matter how much I apologized, he wouldn't open the door. Through our brief eye contact, Lucas had read my mind. He saw how deeply I'd fallen for him.

I've pushed him away for good.

Staring at the back of my hands, I try hard not to cry.


 

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~Chapter Seven~

Losing Myself

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"Hey." Someone pokes my head. "Yo, dude. Wakey, wakey."

I groan and crack my eyes open. Popo's face swims in my vision.

"Never would've pegged you for someone who'd camp out in the library," Popo says sympathetically. "Poor rejected sap."

Blindly brushing off Organic Chemistry 7th ed. from my face, I jolt into sitting position. Yesterday night, I ended up crashing in the library. Staying in the apartment wasn't a sound option, and returning to Popo's place was even worse. It would've led to some unwelcome questions, and I was sick of receiving pity. Thankfully, the library had bathrooms. I didn't have to worry about looking like I'd cried myself to sleep.

God, I'm so pathetic.

"How-" I start.

Popo rolls his eyes. "The library? It's the unofficial breakup-slash-makeup room. No one ever comes in here to read unless you're Lucas, Marth, Robin, or Zelda, and seeing as you're none of the above, I figured you'd be in here for other reasons." Popo prods his hammer into my shoulder. "So I ask thee, Romeo. What the fuck happened to you?"

"Like I'm telling you."

"Bro, really?" Popo complains.

"You left me wasted at a bar," I say bitterly. "I'm not telling you anything."

Popo considers this. "Fair enough, man," he says evenly. "I wouldn't have brought you along if I knew you couldn't handle it. Didn't mean to get you outed from the closet, but at least you finally got that off your chest. How do you feel?"

"Like crap."

He winces. "I really am sorry about that."

"S'okay," I mutter.

Settling down beside me, Popo warmly claps a hand on my shoulder. "Come on, now. Spill."

I can't even phrase the calamity of yesterday into words. Last night was a disaster. If THAT isn't a clusterfuck, I'm not sure what is. I think of the terrified look on Lucas's face when I grabbed his shoulders.

I don't ever want Lucas to wear that expression again.

Something about Popo's encouragement draws the words right out of my mouth. "I made another pass on Lucas," I blurt out. Horrified, I bury my face into my hands.

Suddenly Popo starts to crack up.

My face burns up like a toaster. "What's so funny?" I snap from between my fingers.

"I'm just trying to imagine h-his face!" Popo chokes out, gasping. "I bet he was terrified."

I miserably sink into a pile of books. "He locked himself in the bathroom."

"Of course he would. He's the densest guy I've met, and that's saying a lot. I bet Lucas wouldn't have recognized his own feelings even if it danced the tango naked in front of him." Popo shakes his head. "Ah, Nessie. Bro. You screwed up big time, but hey, that's a part of the learning curve. You divebomb your first guy so you can charm the second." Popo hoists up his hammer and offers me a hand. "C'mon, Romeo. Stop moping and hit the pancakes."

I feel a bit better. Slightly.

"Popo." He turns around, raising his eyebrows. I hesitate. "Uh, thanks. I needed that."

He cheerfully claps me on the back. "Don't mention it. That's what bros are for."

.

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~oO0Oo~

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It doesn't end there.

We meet Nana in the lobby. She clips her brother in the ear, berating him for showing up late, and Popo bemoans that he was out helping "Romeo get over his unrequited crush." This leads to Nana pestering me with questions, and I end up telling her the entire story.

We've almost arrived at the cafeteria when Nana conveniently drops out that she saw Lucas this morning. Apparently, he was looking for me.

This leads to a ten-minute freakout session where I try to scramble away from the cafeteria, because I'm scared as shit, but the Ice Climber twins drag me to my doom because they are evil incarnations of Satan and want to see me suffer.

"Ness," Nana grunts, hauling me forward by the arms. "You can't hide from him forever-"

"Fuck no!" I say, but my voice cracks into a high squeak. "Lucas is going to kill me!"

Popo rubs his hands in ill-suppressed glee. "Oh man, this is going to be good-"

"And you," Nana pinches him over by the ear. "Shut up and help me-"

"Ow okay, I'm on it." Uncertain over how to "help" his sister, since Nana's doing a pretty good job of dragging me over on her own, Popo pats me on the head. "Uh... it was nice knowing you, bro."

"Thanks," I say gloomily.

Now I'm listening to them trying to talk me out of chickening out.

"Really, Ness." Popo frowns. "Get over it, man. Lucas rejecting you isn't the end of the world. There's like a ton of hot blondes out there-"

Morose, I hang my head. "I don't care about other guys."

"You're setting yourself up for trouble. If Lucas is as straight as you say, then there's nothing you can do to change his mind-" When Fox and Falco pass by, Nana moves in closer, lowering her voice in worry. "Ness, if you keep harassing him, then you're only going to drive him away. At this rate, you'd be lucky to have Lucas as a friend."

"If I haven't scared him off already," I mutter under my breath. No shit. I practically forced myself onto him last night. I remember the cornered look in Lucas's eyes, and my stomach plummets like a stone. What was I thinking? That Lucas would agree to go on a pity date with me? I didn't think that I could sink so low.

Popo gives me a push. "Maybe it's for the best. Lucas has a good point-"

"When doesn't he?"

"He's trying to protect you," Nana says quietly. "Think about it, Ness. If things didn't work out, what do you think would've happened to your friendship? Lucas isn't rejecting you because he's trying to make you suffer. He wants you to be happy. That's why he's not leading you on, and you've got to accept that."

"It's too late for that now. I'd be lucky if he even talks to me anymore," I mumble miserably.

"Well, it was your fault. If I were him, I would've slapped you in the face," she says bluntly, and I wince. "Apologize. You don't have anything to lose, do you? If he doesn't hold it against you, then all you need to do is realize that he doesn't like you in that way and move o-" Nana cuts herself off in startled surprise. "L-Lucas!"

Startled, I lift my head.

As silent as a ghost, Lucas stands in front of the cafeteria with his shoulders slumped. He's staring fixedly at the floor.

Popo steps forward, opening his mouth to speak when Nana makes a quick save, nabbing him away by the ear. As she drags themselves past us in a hasty exit, my stomach twists. I almost wish that they stayed. The entire lobby is empty save for the two of us.

Lucas stays silent, so I take that as the cue to make the first move. I clear my throat. "Did you sleep last night?"

Lucas gives me a jerky nod.

"That's..." I swallow down the lump in my throat. "That's good."

"Our match is moved to tomorrow," he says.

"Cool," I say hoarsely.

More silence.

Lucas stuffs his hands into his pockets. If possible, his shoulders sag even more. "Do you... want to grab breakfast," he asks, his eyes trailing up the ceiling. His voice sounds infuriatingly neutral.

Not for the first time, I wish that he isn't so difficult to read.

But a part of me registers his words. Lucas hasn't mentioned the incident at all. By some miraculous stroke of luck, has he forgiven me?

I start, "Lucas, about yesterday-"

He coughs. "Don't mention it."

Grateful, I feel my own face perk up into a smile. "Okay."

Lucas hesitates. Embarrassed, he drops his eyes to the floor. "Sorry... for locking you out of the bathroom."

"Dude, no. I'm sorry," I insist. I want to reach for his hands and squeeze them to reassure him that it's all fine, that I'm at fault here, that he's done nothing wrong, that I scared him, but touching him now doesn't seem like a good idea. I swallow down my nerves and keep my hands fixed at my side.

His eyes uncertainly meet mine. "Do you..."

"We're not mentioning it," I say quickly, repeating his words from earlier, and Lucas breaks into a hint of a smile. It's barely noticeable, but I notice because of how the corners of his eyes soften slightly.

My heart soars.

Despite the awkward start, by noon, we're talking like nothing has happened. Determined not screw up, I take extra precautions. I keep my hands in my pockets so that our hands won't brush against each other. I don't sling my arm over his shoulder. We keep telepathy to a minimum. It feels too intimate, almost as if I'm breaching his privacy. What Lucas was thinking is none of my business, and I respond in kind only when he did. More than once, I find him carefully watching me throughout our conversation, and I would avert my gaze away from the mercy of his eyes.

Two strikes. Three, and I'll be out. I can't strike out, not when our friendship's the cost.

With a sudden bang of wood on wall, Master Hand bursts out of his office. He screeches to a halt behind us, then roughly taps Lucas on the shoulder with a giant index finger.

Lucas starts violently at the touch.

Master Hand declines an explanation. "You have an urgent call."

Perplexed, Lucas has barely opened his own mouth in the hint of a question when our gloved manager grabs him by the arm and drags him back into his office. As Lucas clumsily waves me goodbye, almost stumbling into the wall, I stifle a small grin. He really can't catch a break, can he? Shaking my head, I hurry off to the training arena instead, and try to block out how adorable Lucas's sheepish smile is.

Pickier people may not have found Lucas attractive. A few stubborn freckles linger on his nose like dark acne scars, marring his otherwise unblemished face. In terms of build, Lucas is tall and gangly; he isn't buff and ripped like Ike, and despite sharing the same delicate frame, isn't as developed as Marth. In short, Lucas is still stuck in the teenage hell called growth spurts, and on top of that, he radiates this terrifying awkwardness in his eyes that screams, "I hate people STAY AWAY FROM ME."

But over the years, he's lost a lot of baby fat from his angular face. I like that he's lean and skinny for his height, even though he's slightly self-conscious over it. I like the way he speaks in halting, hesitant pauses whenever he struggles to keep train of thought, or the way he makes every question sound like a flat statement. I like how he speaks in a dull monotone like he doesn't care, because it's just the way his voice sounds, level and even, and I like hearing it, because it keeps me grounded. I like his cool composure, and I like every time he would break it to goof off. I like that he didn't lose all of his freckles - it reminds me that he hasn't completely changed from the scruffy neighborhood kid down the block - and I think that they look cute, especially when he smiles.

Yet, despite his slim build, Lucas couldn't be mistaken for a girl. His hips are too narrow, his shoulders too broad, his chest too flat. If that miraculously doesn't convince anyone, his voice is a blatant giveaway. Lucas is no Batman, but his voice has grown deep enough to sound masculine. Attractively masculine.

Stuffing my keys into my locker, I enter a training room and adjust its settings to no items. For the longest time, I thought I was as straight as a ruler. I'd plastered posters of the All Star Singer Venus all over my room. I'd had my own share of embarrassing crushes in grade school. Not proud, but I had a stash of sexy magazines hidden in the closet. That ought to have spoken for itself.

But my feelings didn't lie. I could appreciate Lucas in the same way that I could appreciate a good-looking girl... except that Lucas wasn't a girl. My face starts to burn. It didn't make sense. Lucas is a guy. I am a guy. I don't know how it happened, but somewhere down the line, my brain went oopsie-daisy and screwed up my feelings for my best friend.

So I distract myself.

Brawling. Think brawling.

When Sandbag blinks up at me in the training rooms, I crack my knuckles. Finally, something that makes sense.

But before I can wind up my fist, Toon Link pokes his head into my training room. He's dressed in his usual Windwaker uniform, but the thick mascara and eyeliner on his eyes speak enough about where he's been. "Ness, you're airing tonight at seven."

"I thought my brawl was moved to tomorrow."

"Yeah, but they wanted to finish all interviews today."

"Thanks. I'll head over then," I say, not keeping my eyes off of Sandbag.

Taking a pause, Toon sheathes his sword and sinks into a crouch. "That bad, huh?" he says quietly.

I lower my hands. I can't deny the tight feeling in my chest. Of course, Toon would know. For heaven's sake, what Popo knew, all of us eventually found out. "More than you think," I croak.

"You have to let it go."

I give a hollow laugh. "It's easier said than done. I'm trying. It's not working."

"You'll get over him."

Struck by his conviction, I study Toon up close, because outside the battlefield, I underestimate him for his age. He's not that much younger than me, not by long shot, but he's always seemed so childish trailing behind his surrogate brother.

Great. Now I'm stewing in the misery called heartbreak and speaking my heart out to a fourteen-year-old kid. The feels are threatening to engulf me, so I deal with them the best way I know how.

I grab my bat. "You, me. One vee one. Let's spar."

Toon Link blinks. "Your interview-"

"Fuck that, we've got time."

Forget a good idea. This is the best idea I've had in ages. I had a feeling that Toon had been planning on going easy on me after hearing about my crushing failure of a love life, but after attacking him with a flurry of strikes, he presses back in a furious counter of his own. Good ol' Toon. I can count on his competitive nature to keep me up to date.

I don't know how long I've spent in the training arena, but by the time I'm trudging out in noticeably higher spirits, the sun is already down.

My entire body feels like shit. I am aching and sore all over.

In three words: it's fucking awesome.

I unlock the deadbolt and trudge inside the apartment. Lucas lifts his head up from the couch when he hears me. He looks relieved. "I was just about to look for you. Our interview's at seven."

I dig into my closet for a fresh change of shirt and pants. Just a simple change will do. The prep team's going to redress me anyway. "Heard you loud and clear. About to take a shower. You mind if I use the bathroom?"

Lucas shook his head, and I hurry past. Stopping in front of the mirror, I roll my shoulders with a laugh. "Holy shit, I feel sore."

"Where."

"Everywhere."

Lucas eyes my shoulders in concern. "Turn around," he says suddenly.

"What?" I spin on my heel. "Um... like this? Why? What are you-oooooh..." I can't help it. His hands are like magic, kneading my shoulders exactly the right way. I roll back my head back and sigh, shivering as his cool fingers press into my back. "Mmmm..."

I hear him laugh quietly under his breath. "My dad does physical labor for a living," he admits, pushing against another sweet spot. "His shoulders get hard, so I do this to make sure that he can work the next day."

His hands go lower, dipping underneath my shoulder blades. I close my eyes, basking in the soothing sensation, because fuck, it feels amazing. That's Lucas for you. He has all sorts of hidden talents I never would've expected, because they sound so impossibly random and out-of-the-blue. Like climbing trees. Or skipping stones. But each one somehow clicks perfectly with his character.

I don't think I'll ever understand him completely. Lucas is an enigma in his own way.

The incredible feeling trails down my sore muscles to the small of my back. Before I know it, his hands have landed on the hem of my shorts.

I tense. Sensing my sudden discomfort, Lucas stops.

Embarrassed, I push his hands away. "Thanks, but you know, unless if you're trying to make a move on me, going any lower might be a little..."

Catching my drift, Lucas's face burns a brilliant red. "Oh."

"Don't get me wrong. I liked it! The massage, I mean!" I say quickly before he can apologize. "It's just, I'm trying to get over my feelings for you, so-"

"I get it," Lucas says softly.

I hate moments like this. Before, stuff like slapping each other on the back and borrowing clothes was normal. We liked doing stupid shit together. We were the unstoppable partners-in-crime, no questions asked.

But ever since I confessed my feelings to Lucas, it was as if I had tapped some unseen door. I felt hypersensitive to his every reaction, freaked out over every twitch of his eye. Everything we do now is awkward. Talking? Oh man, talking is worse. I feel like I have to clarify my intentions so they aren't taken the wrong way. And if intimate actions like hugging and holding hands were hard to begin with, they are practically impossible to do with Lucas now.

I clear my throat. "So, what do you want to do after the interview? We can fool around."

Lucas's face turns a brighter red.

"Not like that!" I say hastily, feeling another hot surge of blood rush into my cheeks. Stupid double-meanings. "I was thinking that we could play MarioKart tonight! Or League. I mean, we haven't played either in a while-"

"Maybe another time," Lucas says carefully.

His cheeks are still a faint pink. I bite down on my lip. A part of my ego should have been crushed, because Lucas is right, but he's so cute when he's right. Fuck it, it takes all of my self control not to drag him over by his stupid shirt and kiss him on the spot.

"Right," I croak, and the words glue themselves to my mouth. "W-Well... maybe tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow sounds good." His eyes flicker to mine. "As friends."

Pain shoots into my chest. "As friends," I say heavily, feeling like each word is killing me on the inside.

Lucas's eyes soften with sympathy.

There's another uncomfortable moment as I think of something else to say, and Lucas studies his shoes. It sucks to be friend-zoned, and I begin to feel for Paula.

Without meeting my eyes, Lucas steps out of the bathroom. "I have to go. Catch you later."

The door clicks shut behind him.

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~oO0Oo~

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As wicked awesome as it sounds, Smash City represents our feats in video games.

As a video game celebrity, I've only seen my game cartridge once. Earthbound is a rarity. It went out of production before it became a late hit, but instead of mass-producing my game when it hiked up in popularity, Earthbound turned into a collector's item. To get a copy of my game on Ebay is almost impossible without good dough.

That's nothing compared to Lucas's game. If Earthbound is a collector's item, Mother 3 is vintage. I've never seen a copy of it lying around, and neither has Lucas himself. Besides, Mother 3 is all in Japanese. It's not like we'd understand what the NPCs are saying anyway.

From behind the stage, I check my watch. One more minute.

Tonight's the group interviews. The interviews work in a talk show format. A reporter engage us, and we give our best to respond in kind. Kinda like a casual conversation. Occasionally we have individual one-on-ones, but as representatives of our respective franchises, it's much more convenient to interview us all at the same time.

So yeah, you can guess whom I'm stuck with.

The canned applause signals the end of Mr. Game and Watch's solo interview. As the 2-D man strolls past us, I lock eyes with Lucas behind the stage curtains. His makeup is flawless. The pale foundation hides all the freckles on his nose. His locks have been gelled up to swirl into a neat point. With so many hot blondes on set, I guess the stylists don't want to lose the adorable "cutesy" angle Lucas had as a kid. Dressed in a simple t-shirt and shorts, Lucas is the perfect picture of pure innocence.

Of course, I know better. "Nice hair, stupid," I say.

The corners of Lucas's lips twitch up as if suppressing a smirk. "Your fly's down."

I panic, looking down, and Lucas brushes past me.

"Just kidding."

Cocky bastard.

The LIVE Interview starts off smoothly. Or really, as smooth as it can get, because I do most of the talking.

Lucas doesn't like interviews. If we're lucky, he gives a one-liner, otherwise, he'll blink in my direction as if I'm being addressed for every fucking question. It should've been annoying, but I love talking with people, and I'm just worried that I'm hogging all the attention.

The questions start to blur together. How is smash mansion, what do you think of the current tier rankings, do you think Mother 3 will be localized. Fuming at the last one, I open my mouth, probably to say some unflattering remark about Reggie, but Lucas steps on my foot.

"Nope. Don't see it happening anytime soon," Lucas says, blinking innocently like he hasn't crushed my toes.

Of course. Lucas doesn't give two shits about publicizing himself.

Cocky, SELFLESS bastard.

Lucas, I know you don't like talking about yourself, but we're smashers, I say, patiently rubbing my sore foot against the floor. You have to flaunt yourself unless you want our series to go into obscurity.

Lucas doesn't respond to my telepathy, but I know he's heard me, because afterwards, he makes more of an effort to answer the questions. But I still catch the nervous flutter of his feet, the pale color of his face, the stage fright in his eyes every time the reporter addresses him. Lucas stumbles over his words. Each one feels stiff and forced. Improv isn't his forte, but while Lucas is no Caesar, the audience eats up his modest charm.

Finally, it's the ultimatum.

Which is a relief, because I'm having a hard time clicking with this particular reporter. She must either be confident in her own fan base, or that of her publishing streak, because the interview feels more like an unpleasant grilling session without the medium rare steak.

"Ness, now where to begin," the reporter says, lightly lacing her fingers together. Believe it or not, she's starting to give me the evil anime villainess vibes - what? How would I know? I- Don't ask me, she just does, okay? "You've had our viewers in for a ride this week. Do I spy an epic romance in the works?"

"I wouldn't say epic..."

"Oh, it's definitely an exciting affair! As a matter of fact, Jigglypuff's kindly posted some interesting spoilers about your lovelife. Let me pull up one of her tweets on my phone - aha! Ness isn't as straight as he seems. Crushing on another smasher? Lol. Someone's in lurve, hashtag winky face."

I cringe, growing dumber with each passing word. I'm no Grammar Nazi, but I have standards. Jigglypuff butchers the Hamilton out of proper English. Lol? For texting, I could get, but on twitter? On a public feed? Who even spoke like that?

Apparently, the audience doesn't seem to think that way. From the virtual HD screens on either side of the stage, I can see the crowd in Smash Square, awaiting my response with bated breath. The reporter leans over with undisguised excitement brimming in her eyes. "What do you say to this?"

I've come to terms with the apocalypse this week. There's no point in hiding in the closet.

I confirm the statement.

And the crowd in Smash Square erupts into noise.

Blood roars through my ears. Everything has gone all slow mo like we're taking the interview underwater in molasses, because the surrealism of the past week has yet to catch up with my brain.

But one thing is clear: I don't want to put a label on myself. The important thing's that I like someone. It's still love regardless of whom I like, and I'm not any different because of it.

In response to the crowd, the reporter watches me with false sympathy dripping off her tongue. "Oh my, this week must have been a confusing rollercoaster of feelings for you."

"Just a little."

"Tell me about it," the reporter simpers, curling her black nails around her felt-tip pen as if eager to write down the next juicy morsel of gossip. "As the first nonstraight athlete in the competition, how does this make you feel? Do you think that Master Hand is doing a stellar job of promoting equality? Or are you upset? Nervous? Perhaps... a little distracted in the locker room?"

Excuse me, but what the fuck?

"Uh-"

"Since you seem a little tongue-tied, let's start off with a tamer question! Do you have something meaningful you might want to share with all the teens across the city?" The reporter taps on her mike. "We were all under the false impression that you were straight... so what caused this change of heart?"

W...What caused this change of heart?! What kind of bullshit question is that? It's not like I CHOSE to be gay. Or bi. To heck if I know.

So I BS it on the spot. "Sometimes... things happen. You realize stuff about yourself that you've never realized before. And over time, you learn to accept it as a part of who you are." The cheese is killing me, but there. Sincere enough. Now I'm changing the damn subject to something relevant. "The Winter championships are coming up-"

"Oh yes, they are. But touching upon the nature of your crush-"

I flash a careless smile towards the camera. "Does it really matter who it is as long as I stomp out the competition?"

"Of course it doesn't," the reporter reassures me. "But everyone is asking around, and no one has a solid answer. Indulge us, my dear. Who's the boy of your dreams?"

I become very aware of Lucas breathing beside me. I think of the crowd, think of how many people are watching us live on stage this very instant, and I waver. My hands begin to sweat. Lucas has spent so long trying to stay undercover from the media, and because of me, because of my feelings, he's been dragged out as the number one suspect. I can't expose him. I formulate a quick response, but before I have the chance to recover, the reporter takes over. "Any hints, Lucas?"

To his credit, if Lucas is startled, he doesn't show it. "No."

"You're his best friend," the reporter presses, amusement lacing her tone. "Surely you've got an idea of his love interest."

Surely? As if. From the knowing look on her face, she's already got it pegged down.

As if sensing this, Lucas's voice turns shaky. "I... I can't say. Ness never told me."

Oh, come on, Luke. You can talk better than that.

"I see. What a shame." Catching onto his subtle stutter, the reporter pressures him harder. Her grin looks positively wicked under the stage lights. Suddenly she reminds me of a Black Widow that's finally trapped her juicy morsel in her web of questions. I can imagine her squeezing her victim dry with her spindly arms. "Why so shy, darling? Are you hiding something from us?"

Lucas's pupils dilate. "I-I'm... I'm not much of a talker..."

What. Lucas, no. Don't stop there. You didn't even answer the question-

Without looking, I know that the reporter's gone in for the kill. She lowers her voice into a whisper. "Does Ness have feelings for you?"

Dead silence. No one utters a single sound.

The prolonged disquiet is impossible to miss. Against my own will, I sneak a look to the side.

My breath hitches in my throat. Under the spotlight, Lucas's pale blue eyes look beautifully bright amidst his flushing cheeks, which are now blossoming into gentler shades of red. At our close proximity, I can count every single freckle on his face.

"No," he whispers.

Thankfully, the reporter doesn't seem to have noticed his blatant give-away. The thick foundation on his cheeks has hidden Lucas's blush from the cameras.

Furiously praying to every goddamn deity at our lucky save, I quickly jump in before Lucas can wreck his own reputation. "Lucas is my straight buddy. Couldn't have asked him out even if I wanted to," I grin, socking Lucas in the shoulder. "Sorry ladies, but it's not going to happen. Besides..." I quirk an eyebrow. "I have someone else in mind."

The crowd goes wild. Trying to raise her voice over the sudden clamor, the reporter redirects her attention to me. Lucas's shoulders relax. I can tell that he's relieved, but don't dare check on him now. If I chance another look, I'm not entirely sure that I can stop myself from blushing like crazy too. Suddenly, I'm very glad that we've been sitting, because my knees have grown incredibly weak.

Sure enough, the LIVE interview ends on a thrilling cliffhanger on the mysterious identity of my undying love. As we leave, a reckless urge seizes me, and I turn around to blow the reporter a kiss.

The crowd screams louder.

Lucas leaves the stage. Grinning, I follow suit.

It's only when we're out of earshot that I dare to glance back at his face. Lucas's blush is gone. He looks shell-shocked, almost as if he's frozen into a rigid statue. His face has gone impossibly pale from stage fright.

I gently nudge him in the side. "Hey. It's over."

Lucas makes a strangled noise. "Did you have to do that."

"Do what?"

"Kiss the reporter."

"Oh, sorry. I can't help that I'm so good looking."

That quip breaks him out of his shell. "I can't believe that you flirted with the reporter," Lucas groans as Villager passes us, suited up for his interview. We walk into the bathroom, and Lucas leans over one of the sinks to wash the caked makeup from his face. "You could teach Captain Falcon a thing or two-"

"Don't give me the attitude. You screwed up too," I snort, turning the taps on. "People almost thought you were gay-"

"I don't like interviews," Lucas suddenly says. He sounds afraid, and instantly, whatever annoyance I have towards him vanishes.

Curse him and his stupid way of crawling into my heart.

"It wasn't that bad," I mutter, turning the taps off. "Lucas, forget about it. It's an interview. I bet loads of people don't pay attention to ours. Do you know how many people have even heard of Earthbound? Nada. It could've been worse. At least we didn't brawl it out like Mario and Bowser last year."

Lucas shifts in place.

I recognize the signs and beat him to it. "Lucas," I groan. "If you start apologizing for speaking your mind, I'm going to lose it. Please, stop and save your dignity while you can."

Lucas's cheeks prickle with warmth. Ha, got him. "Thanks for covering me," he mumbles.

"'Course I covered for you. You're my straight buddy. Now give me those make-up wipes. I don't want to look like Madonna for the rest of the week."

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~oO0Oo~

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That night, I wake up in cold sweat.

In an unspoken consensus, I'm back to rooming with Lucas. I think Lucas still feels guilty about me spending last night in the library like a hobo, because when I offered to sleep elsewhere, he shot me down instantly. At this point, I'm too tired to be surprised by his persistence, and too proud to ask anyone else for help. For a good reason too. We can get over this. I can get over him.

I rub my eyes. They're happening more frequently. The weird nightmares. I want to pace around the room to walk off my anxiety, but that will only trigger another problem.

Lucas is awake. Parts of my dream must have bled into his.

I sit up.

Whoever came up with the phrase dumb blond is a dumbass, because Lucas can read me like a book. He turns over. "What's wrong."

"Nothing."

Lucas cracks open his glowing blue eyes. I can sense him staring at me from the other side of the room. "What did you dream about."

I shiver. "I don't remember."

"Ah."

Silence.

Unsurprisingly, I break it. "Lucas, can you-" Suddenly, I cut myself off, embarrassed for even thinking about it. "Nevermind."

"I can sleep over," Lucas whispers, and I wince. He knows me too well to be fooled.

"It's only a stupid nightmare," I say, but it's a weak excuse and we know it. Frustrated, but not knowing why, I rub a sweaty fringe from my brow. "Ugh. Look, just forget about it."

A rustle. Lucas shifts in place, but says nothing. He isn't convinced.

I scrunch my eyes shut. All of a sudden, I feel so alone, and it hurts, having Lucas so close, yet so far. I curl myself into a tighter ball, trying to ignore the waves of depression I'm radiating into the room.

"Ness." Lucas sounds worried.

I breathe in, curling my knees up to my chest. I'm supposed to be the strong one. I can't keep letting him see me like this.

There's another rustle of sheets, and a pair of socks shuffles across the carpet before Lucas's glowing eyes blink, hovering over my pillow. For a second, my breath hitches in my throat, expecting his left eye to change into a bloody crimson (what in the everloving fuck), but Lucas blinks again, washing my worries away with a wave of cool blue light. Something about his concern makes me feel safe. Secure.

"I..." Lucas hesitates. "I can't sleep."

"Nightmares too?"

"Mm."

I can tell that he's lying, but I appreciate that he's trying to salvage whatever is left of my shredded pride.

"We can sleep over." I swallow down the lump in my throat. "Only if you're okay with it."

"I don't mind."

"My bed or yours?"

"Doesn't matter."

Rolling over to give space, I awkwardly pat the side of my bed. "Well, then... come over."

The mattress dips under his weight. I catch flashes of his blue eyes before he closes them and sinks beside me. His breath is warm, hitting my cheeks. "Is it Giygas."

My stomach sinks at that nightmare. A good guess, but not the one haunting me tonight. "No." Breathing ragged, I shiver, feeling cold sweat dot my shirt. "I'm okay."

Am I? Am I really okay?

Lucas opens his eyes. He's staring at me. "Do you... want to talk."

"No."

"Okay," Lucas murmurs, but it's almost resigned, like whatever happens will happen. He knows that I can't hold myself back.

And he's right.

The dam finally bursts. "I knew that he was going to leave," I admit, feeling like I'm painfully forcing glass shards out of my throat. "Mom kept telling me that it was okay, and I thought... it'd work out. I thought that my dad really cared." I squeeze my eyes shut. "He liked his job too much... more than he ever liked me."

"That's not true," Lucas whispers.

"He hated me," I say bitterly.

"He loved you."

"Not enough to stay."

Lucas gives my wrist a small squeeze. "He loved you," he repeats firmly, then curls up by my side like a cat. I catch the barest hint of his silhouette in the moonlight. "He loved you more than anything."

I grip his hand like a lifeline. For once, I'm just glad to have him at my side.

His hair tickles my nose. I inhale deeply. Lucas smells like chocolate and sunshine and flowers. An odd combination, but strangely fitting for his character. I close my eyes, trying to ingrain the soothing scent into memory. It reminds me of the baseball park near home, the one filled with roses and dandelions.

I wondered how my mom is coping with the divorce. I wondered how my sister is doing in school.

I miss home.

Then Lucas's soft breathing trickles into my ears. It reminds me that I'm not alone. Not when there's someone else from home with me.

"Lucas," I whisper.

His breathtaking blue eyes open.

But this time, the words won't come out. It hurts too much to say them.

I shut my eyes. "...thanks."

Something shifts in my mind. Lucas presses a happy memory against me, and I involuntarily relax, sinking into dreams of clouds and flying kites.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"Take a seat."

I do as I'm told.

Behind his mahogany desk, Master Hand clasps his fingers. "How have things been for you this week?"

"Everything's been fine."

"You have your PREVIEW interview tonight. Nervous?"

"A little."

"The press hasn't been hounding after you?"

"No."

"Then brace yourself. They're growing thirsty."  Master Hand raises a finger. "I've put you in an uncomfortable position. Ness has been giving you a hard time - yes, I've noticed," Master Hand says, and I look up, startled. "I'll have a serious talk with him soon. But the truth stands. His unrequited feelings for you are starting to affect his performance. If they continue to persist-"

"You'll fire me."

"Not necessarily, but one of you may have to forfeit the Winter Tournament." Master Hand closes his palm. His voice turns surprisingly gentle. "Listen, I like you. You're not a troublemaker. You follow the rules. But this is an interdimensional tournament. People want to see action. Drama. Romance. All that jazz. Ness is one of the Original Twelve. His status holds greater weight than you can imagine. We can't risk his performance from falling. If you two can't sort out your differences, I may have to take action." I don't know how a hand can look sympathetic, but Master Hand somehow pulls it off. "Between the two of you, you're more expendable to the crowd if one of you causes a misdemeanor. It'll be unfair to cut you from the roster, but I'll have no choice. Don't give me that opportunity."

A bubble of fear clogs up my throat. I can't risk getting cut. I need the money to support my dad. "I understand."

"Good. But that's not why I brought you in." He pushes forward an expensive-looking crystalline bowl with the tip of his thumb. "Make yourself comfortable. Take a mint."

Something about his soft tone puts me on guard. "Is something wrong?"

"Take a mint, Lucas. It'll feel better."

I shake my head.

"I insist."

Reluctantly, I unwrap one and pop the mint in my mouth. A fresh taste explodes onto my tongue when I breathe in, trying to stay calm. The sharp edges of the candy wrapper dig into my palm.

As if resigning himself to bad news, Master Hand pushes the phone towards me with the tips of two fingers. "Line 1. It's on hold."

Bottling up my rising trepidation, I pick up the phone.


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~Chapter Eight~

Finding Yourself

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Ness's nightmares are growing worse.

Whatever sleep he gets is fitful. Whenever I'm awake, I've noticed how Ness never is at peace. He'll frown and struggle in his sheets before flashes of his nightmares explode into my own, short bursts of running from a relentless pursuer, memories of fear and terror that prey on his mind like hunting dogs on the loose. Even now, I can feel that his hand is unusually cold and clammy against mine.

I wonder if he's haunted by his dad's departure.

Closing my eyes, I try to block out his breathing. Things will return to way they've been before his parents' divorce. I can be patient for him. Wait for him. Ness's feelings for me are fleeting, as is everything else. His sudden clingyness. His mood swings.

I love you.

Even if his words were genuine, would accepting his feelings really make him happier? Something tells me that it wouldn't. No matter how hard I try, I know that I can never replace the gaping hole his father left behind. I can never make Ness happy. Not in the way that he wanted.

Ness only thought that he loved me. He didn't actually mean it.

Look at mehe'd said.

My eyes travel up his face. His eyes stay shut.

Cold sweat drips off his hair and trickles down his cheeks.

I can't love him back. I can't falter, not when I've already rejected him once before, but I hate shooting Ness's confidence down. I don't want to see the way his face would fall again, or the way his eyes would lose a bit more of their fervent spark. I miss his weird optimism. I miss his sarcastic wit. I miss the boy who said, It'll be okay, Lucas, then gave me a goofy grin with a gap between his front teeth.

Ness has always looked out for me. Constantly. Consistently. Even when I didn't need his help, he'd cheerfully go out of his way to insist that I eat more, that I wear more layers for winter, that I get a safe ride home from school. His concern is almost overbearing to the point of exasperation, but I let him into my life. I let him grow fond of me. It was my fault as much as it was his.

I think about it. The flash of desperation across his face before Ness pushed me out of the way. The determined spark in his eyes that dissolved into relief. The selfless ease at which he sacrificed himself for me in the Ruined Zoo.

He reminds me too much of Claus.

I squeeze my eyes shut and grip Ness's hand tighter. I've lost him once. I don't want to lose him a second time. I fall asleep, confused and bothered by my own feelings.

The dream starts off innocently enough. We're flying kites, chasing each other down the swaying grassy fields of Onett. Ness runs behind me, shouting and yelling something I can't hear.

I shove him aside. "You're it!"

"Cheater," Ness cries back, puffing up his cheeks. He looks so indignant and childish with his oversized baseball cap that I grin. With a frustrated noise, Ness twists his fists into my shirt. "I tagged you first!"

"I tagged you back!"

"No tag backs!"

Pleased by my victory, I raise my head. "You're it-"

Ness yanks my head over, kissing me. Stunned, I feel my eyes widen before Ness pulls away, gripping my shoulders. A triumphant blush dances on his cheeks. "Got you."

I wake up in a jolt of panic, one hand flying to my mouth. Twisting around, I fall off the bed with the sheets tangling my legs and hit the floor back-first with a strangled shout.

The lights flicker on. Ness's confused voice breaks into my reverie, but I push him aside. Now's not the time for talk. Out of habit, as I do whenever I'm rattled or upset, I stumble into the nearest refuge and slam the doors shut behind me.

"Lucas?" Ness sounds alarmed. I hear the muffled sound of his footsteps before the wardrobe rattles. "Hey buddy, what's wrong?"

"Just…" I wheeze, clutching my ribs. "Just a nightmare. Go back to bed-"

"You don't sound okay-"

"I'm fine-"

"I'm not going back to bed until I figure out what's bugging you!" Ness flares up in worry before rattling the doors of the wardrobe. Thankfully, the doors refuse to budge. "Lucas? Lucas, talk to me!"

"I'm... I'm going to Narnia."

"Ha. No seriously, what's - oh. Oh."

The wardrobe falls still, and when a terrible pause sinks into the room, my hopes shatter like fiber glass. There's no way that Ness COULDN'T have known. Not when we've shared the same dream.

My breathing sounds too loud against my ears, so I curl my knees up to my chest. As psychics, our dreams are highly receptive to the minds of those around us. Ness's feelings must have escaped from his mind and changed my dream into… that.

Ness's voice echoes outside the wardrobe. "Lucas?" A hesitant knock of his knuckles. "Hey, it's okay. It's only a dream."

I understand him all too well. Over the years, Ness has had his own share of wet dreams that I've unfortunately taken a front seat to. It's happened so many times by now that he'll admit it, scratch his head sheepishly, then share a good laugh or two at his own expense before letting it slide. Wet dreams are a part of growing up. They're normal.

That doesn't make them any less embarrassing.

I bury my head into my hands in shame. In the split second we were dreaming, I'd felt Ness's intense infatuation. What I thought had been a matter of a simple crush was something else entirely. Something raw and primal. I've underestimated Ness's feelings to relieve himself, and now I'm paying the price.

I want to crawl into a hole and die.

The walls shake around me with a hard thonk. From the sounds of it, Ness has hit his head against the wardrobe. "Lucas, for crying out loud, it's three in the morning, and you're making a bigger deal out of this than you should."

Debatable. It wasn't your wet dream.

"Come back out. It's fucking freezing outside," Ness whines, hopping on foot to foot. "I won't make fun of you, I swear."

I experimentally crack the wardrobe open by a sliver.

Catching my eye, Ness hurriedly averts his own eyes to the floor and bites the corner of his lip. He's trying not to laugh. "Congrats for coming out of the closet."

Nope. I slam the doors shut behind me.

"Lucas? Shit, I didn't mean to say-"

"I'm sleeping here."

"You're kidding!"

"No, I'll be-" Catching a stray thought from Ness's mind, my cheeks flare up. "Are you growing hard?!"

"Uh…," he squeaks. His feet shuffle uncertainly. "…no?"

A strangled noise escapes from the back of my throat.

Outside, I hear the muffled sound of someone swearing loudly. "It's not what it sounds like!" Ness wails, pawing at the door. The wardrobe shakes like an earthquake when he tries to pry it open, but I yank the doors back. Like hell I'm letting him in! "Lucas? Fuck! Lucas, it's an accident! Please, come back out-"

Speechless, I bury my face into my hands again, feeling myself grow hotter by the second. I'd gotten a wet dream, and now my best friend wanted to bone me. How can this possibly get any worse?

"I'm sorry," Ness says meekly.

"…"

"I-I'll sleep on the couch-"

"Don't." I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to breathe in. "Don't talk about it. It's... it's okay, Ness."

There's the sound of more shuffling, and Ness's footsteps awkwardly retreat away from the wardrobe. "Okay. Then I'll go and do… stuff."

The back of my neck burns.

Ness catches himself. "No! No, I mean I'm going to sweep! Sleep. In the bathroom. The b-bathtub," he stammers. "I promise I won't do anything funny, so don't hole yourself up in there for the whole night. I know you're not... so I'll, um... go over here..." Ness shuffles away, and the bathroom door clicks shut.

My mind blanks out.

My best friend likes me. My best friend likes me. Physically. Sexually. In whatever other way people like each other. 

Stuffing my face into my hands, I try to breathe in. This is... fine. This is more than fine. None of it should've come as a surprise. Ness has said that he likes me. He's said that he likes me more than a friend.

But I've forgotten that liking people more than a friend involved having certain... urges.

My face feels like it can fry an egg. Two eggs. An entire carton.

For the next few minutes, I keep cracking the closet open to check if the coast is clear. Ness keeps his word. He's nowhere in sight, and the bathroom door stays closed. Taking a bold risk, I crawl out of the wardrobe for a fresh change of clothes, and pulling on another pair of pajamas, I fold my soiled clothes into the hamper. When I steal a furtive glance at the bed, I'm relieved to find Ness's sheets and mattress intact.

Shivering on my bare feet, I grip my temples and try to calm down. This isn't Ness's fault. Feelings are unfortunately unpredictable, and I know that he's trying his best to keep it together.

This isn't a big deal.

This shouldn't be a big deal.

Scrambling back into the closet, I brace myself for another long night.

Morning arrives with the sharp pitch of birdsong. Blinking in disorientation, I hold my ringing head and grimace, aching all over from my cramped entourage of the closet. When I stretch my legs and sit up, smacking my head into the low wooden ceiling, I rub the throbbing bruise away and poke the wardrobe open. To my relief, the empty bathroom hangs ajar. Ness is gone.

He's avoiding me again.

My relief vanishes as quickly as it comes.

In hindsight, I overreacted badly. While Ness's behavior might be getting out of hand, it's no excuse for me to dump my frustration onto him. Our friendship is already treading on a thin line as it is.

I groan. Despite his tendency to jump into trouble headfirst, Ness didn't mean any harm. He was going through hard times with his family, and I understood that he needed time to get a grip on his emotions.

Small wonder his feelings kept escaping into my dreams.

Tossing in my flip phone and keys, I tuck my schedule into my pockets, ready to start the day. I have to stay strong. I have to stay strong for the two of us. Moreso, after last night, Ness might think that I have feelings for him, and false hope isn't something I want to encourage. Then replaying the dream in my head reminds me of Ness's mischievous grin, over how stressfree and happy he looked in my dream, and the back of my neck burns. I guess on the grand scale of everything bad ranging from spoiled milk to the world crashing and burning to the ground, kissing Ness doesn't rank that badly-

That's it. I'm going crazy. Groggily, I turn into the cafeteria with fervent hopes that Ness isn't there.

He's there.

Nope, nope, nope. I whirl around to leave, but he's already spotted me and shouted out my name. Hoping that he's caught onto the hint, I stay silent, but Ness refuses to give me a single second of peace. Tagging by my heels like a lost puppy, he ends up apologizing left and right over his unfortunate mishap.

"Lucas-"

"It's okay."

"I swear I didn't jack o-"

I cough loudly.

Not getting my gist, Ness desperately speaks up. "I swear-"

I cough again.

By this point, Ness is almost shouting. "I swear-!"

"Ness," I say quickly, cutting him off. "It was my dream. Don't apologize."

"But I got-"

"I had a dream last night. Nothing else happened."

"But-"

"Okay, I forgive you!" I burst out, feeling my mortified face flame up like a bonfire. "Now can you stop bringing it up?"

Ness snaps his mouth shut. For some stupid reason, the movement draws my attention to his lips. At the way they move. I wonder if they're just as soft as they were in my dream-

I choke on my toast, and Ness thumps me in the back.

"Thanks," I mutter, embarrassed. Once I'm no longer in danger of choking to death on my breakfast, I reach for my half-empty glass of orange juice.

"Can I kiss you?"

I spew out my orange juice.

"See, I would've asked." Ness cracks a sad smile. "Lucas, whatever happened last night doesn't mean anything. It was only a dream. So don't worry about it, okay?" He ruffles my hair and walks away, leaving me alone in the cafeteria.

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~oO0Oo~

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Done with the call, I push the phone away. "Is he...?"

"Your father doesn't want you to leave the tournament, but seeing as he's your only living relative,  I'd like to offer you a paid leave of absence. It'll be temporary, under one condition: You won't tell anyone where you've gone. Word spreads quickly around smash mansion, and I think you'd appreciate some privacy from the media.  As the only other Earthbound representative, it's natural that they'll start asking you questions-"

"Questions I don't have answers to," I say, unable to hold back the bitterness in my voice.

Master Hand stills. "You want to know."

"I still do."

"Even after all these years..."  Master Hand sags. "My response stays the same. It's not in my place to tell you what happened to your brother."

"After Subspace Emissary, you promised me the truth-"

"You were too young to know back then. You still are."

"Don't tell me that I'm too young." My shoulders shake. "You filter my mail. You censor the Internet. You restrict the questions reporters can ask me. Why was Porky after me? What happened to my brother? I want access to my game cartridge-"

"You request that which I can't grant!"  Master Hand raises his voice to a boom,  slamming his fist against his desk. "You heroes are all the same. You insist on searching for the truth. You insist on embarking on quests that prove more harm than good. There's a reason my contract of employment shelters minors, and you know that you fall under that category." He rolls out a long scroll and highlights a quote with a glowing finger. "Read! Clause 3, subsection 7: it is prohibited for the employer - ME - to publicly divulge any information concerning canon timelines unknown to the Smasher in question that may sacrifice the physical and mental wellbeing of the employee - YOU - unless the employee turns of age (Eighteen Earthling Years) or divulges this information to the public themselves. See subsection 8 and 9 for restrictions on Advertising and Curfew." Master Hand snaps the scroll back into his hand. "I want to protect you. Why do insist on being unhappy?"

"I want to know where you're hiding my brother."

"I've told you! I can't - and refuse! - to breach our contract-"

"He's dead... isn't he?"

Master Hand falls silent. A tacit agreement.

Taking this as a tacit agreement, I unsteadily rise from my chair. "Then I'll find out what happened to my brother. Don't stop me."

He doesn't.

I reach for the door. Before I leave his office, Master Hand speaks again.  He sounds sorrowful.  "Lucas."

I halt.

"...Good luck."

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~oO0Oo~

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I squint to make out the letters on the subway map. Hyrule, Dreamland, Mt. Silver-

Onett.

Hitching on my bag, I set off to the nearest escalator.

The Interdimensional Subway Station is packed with people. I keep my head down and adjust my sunglasses. I doubt that anyone will recognize me, but my presence outside the mansion is supposed to be a secret - a secret I'm all too happy to uphold.

To say that I'm relieved about my leave of absence is an understatement. I wanted to leave earlier, but the SkyTrain to Onett had been delayed. As soon as Master Hand notified me of another SkyTrain, I'd hoisted on a backpack, grabbed my keys, and set out for the station right after breakfast. There was no time to reserve seats, and the flight was over-booked, but I'm fine with paying a cheaper ticket and standing so long as I caught any flight.

A sign above my head flashes for the incoming subway.

"Welcome to the SkyTrain. Please stand behind the yellow line."

As if on cue, people begin to bustle around me.

It's difficult to explain how my telepathic powers work, and for a fair reason. Telepathy's not tangible. It's not something I can physically hold or touch. The best analogy to telepathy, I guess, would be a radio. Within a working radius, I can (accidentally) tune into someone's mind and "tap" into their thoughts.

If I want to dig a little deeper, all I have to do is look them straight in the eye.

...Except I have trouble looking people in the eye. Frankly it seems rude, if not daunting. I'd be a little short of nervous if someone kept staring at me like I was a criminal.

I rub the goosebumps away from my arm. I've taken the Mansion for granted. Except for the stray thought or two, surrounded by strong people with even stronger minds, it's the one place I can feel a little normal.

Unfortunately, not so much with this particular crowd. Their thoughts completely swamp over me in a stampede.

my legs hurt im tired when is the train coming-

-fired me this is the absolute worst day of my life what will my parents think where can i find another job with my degree-

-can't wait to surprise my girlfriend.

The last is followed by a fleeting afterimage of an engagement ring and a beautiful bouquet of roses, and I'm filled with an infectious warmth. The owner of that thought is unmistakably happy.

Then I think of Ness and his sad smile.

I love you.

The happy thoughts fade.

With a high-pitched whistle, the bullet train blurs to a stop by the tracks. I do my best to ignore the mental clamor and climb aboard.

Despite the grim circumstances, there couldn't have been a better time for a leave of absence. Ness could use the space. I'm sure that he'd be relieved to have the room to himself for the time being.

I grab hold of a handle swinging on the ceiling and brace myself for the initial jerk. Like a million times before, the doors zing shut, and the bullet train screams into the underground tunnel. I pass the time with music, plugging my headphones on and scrolling through the playlist on the mp3 player. My feet start feeling sore from standing when another bright light finally scatters across the windows.

A woman's cool voice echoes through the speakers. "Please close your eyes. Now approaching... Onett."

I close my eyes. A bright flash pulsates outside my eyelids. Once the intercom turns on, reiterating announcements for landing, I take it as a safe cue to look out the window.

A cloud lazily drifts past the window. Tiny houses dot the dark landscape. Somehow, after taking off underground, we ended up whistling through the sky. I don't understand the physics behind the SkyTrain, but after multiple attempts to rationalize it in past travels, I let it go. We live in a world of magical spells and futuristic technology. Some things can be accepted without explanation.

"Prepare for landing. Please hold onto the nearest handrail."

There's a rough jostle as the SkyTrain touches down, and when it pulls up at the Onett Station with a hiss of brakes, I shuffle off at the stop. A minute later, the SkyTrain shoots back into the air with another loud whistle, and I watch the trail of steam disappear behind behind the moon.

Crickets chirp. Owls hoot.

Night has long since fallen in Onett.

Stuffing my headphones and phone into my pack, I follow the lamplights home.

While I lived a block down from Ness, our neighborhoods couldn't have been farther away. Ness's house rested in the northern side of town, the safer district. As I plod downtown, the roads turn chipped and beaten. Ancient streetlights flicker with spent bulbs. Shadows dart over the road like tongues of darkness.

I live in the poorer part of town. Mugging and other crimes are commonplace in the slums.

The local police force used to believe in a false sense of security, so the Southern side of town was once overrun by Sharks, a ruthless street gang that once terrorized all of Onett. Fearful for their own safety, the police cowered under their thumb, acting as informers to these gangs. The Sharks despised snitchers as much as double-crossers and frauds. Walking home from school, I learned pretty quickly to keep my head down and pretend that nothing was going on.

But years ago, right before setting out on his adventure, Ness forced them all to disband.

Things have gotten better since.

Still, there's the odd person or two more than willing to rob the unsuspecting pedestrian. As a general consensus, no one wanders around on the streets in the dead of night. It's a bad omen. To draw attention in the slums is to blare out a huge distress signal. You might as well ask someone to mug you.

A loud noise shatters the silence.

Alarmed, I fumble for my bag to silence my phone. I catch the caller ID flashing on the screen before my fingers freeze over the cancel button.

It's Ness.

The memory of Master Hand's warning echoes into my ears.

"You won't tell anyone where you've gone."

Still, I hesitate. There's no harm in telling him where I went, and with the PREVIEW match at hand... I wonder how Ness is holding up with his nerves. A simple explanation couldn't hurt.

The flip phone buzzes more insistently in my hand.

I cut the call.

A sudden flash of movement catches my eye. Battle reflexes kicking in, I duck underneath the first swing just as the fist sails past my face and stumble backwards, bag over shoulder, phone in hand.

Something cold touches my temple. Without looking, I know exactly what it is.

"Empty your pockets," comes the harsh voice.

I was ten the first time I was mugged at gunpoint. Unable to stand on my shaking knees, I'd cried and broken down in the middle of the street. It was overI was going to die, I'd thought. I'd sworn that I could feel that bullet tearing through my head until the Shark pick-pocketed everything I had and left me alone. But I was small and timid back then. An easy target. I knew better than to carry hard cash since.

But I'm surprised that the Shark targeted me now, especially since I dwarfed him considerably. He must've been desperate. Even better, he hadn't recognized me as a Smasher in the darkness. I relax. With or without my psychic powers, I have the upper hand here.

Unfortunately, I'm trying to stay undercover. So as far as the Shark knew, I was supposed to be some stupid teenage kid who wandered into Shark territory.

My masked assailant digs the gun deeper into my head. He, for the voice is unmistakably a he, turns impatient. "Empty your pockets!" he barks.

Without hesitation I play along. A couple of quarters. My keys. The SmashCT metro pass.

The Shark inspects the items. He snorts in disgust and pockets my flip phone. "Chicken fodder." He pokes my bag with his gun, and something inside rattles. Evidently curious, he tears the flap of the bag off and picks out the source of the rattling. With a satisfied smile, he dangles the medicine vial to his eyes. "What have we got here?"

"Pneumonia pills," I say. Frost slowly creeps up the barrel of his gun.

He cracks a toothy grin. The air whistles between his yellow tobacco-stained teeth. "Bet this could bang a buck or two at the drugstore-"

The gun crumples in with a crunch of brittle metal. Before the Shark can realize what I've done, I pull him over and punch him in the stomach. He's flung onto the ground with a gasp. "Get 'im, boys!"

More Sharks materialize out of the street.

Snatching the pills from his hand, I curse myself for not sweeping the area and turn tail. They're yelling, shouting out threats, and I can hear them echo against the streets like a pack of wolves.

They're closing in.

Another hand grazes against the back of my shirt before I do a judo flip, wrenching him off and slamming him against the concrete. There's a glint of something silver before a blade flashes across my cheek. Whirling around, I seize the wrist of Shark Two and twist it, cracking the bone and forcing him to drop the knife. His face turns pale with pain before I chuck the knife over a rooftop and send him sprawling straight into Three and Four. Brandishing his own fists, Five screams out a curse and dives forward, but I duck and sweep his ankles with a low kick that connects solidly with his shin. Howling in pain, he crumples onto his knees. A quick elbow dispatches Six and when Seven tries to make a grab for the pills in my hand, I bring my other elbow down on his head. Babbling, he sprawls unconscious onto the road.

Shaking, Eight falls to his knees. "P-Please," he cries, clasping his hands. "Don't hurt me!"

Don't hurt me.

Those words hit home. Catching the terrified look in his eyes, I hesitate.

And Nine chooses that moment to strike me from behind.

Staggering away from the dirty blow, I manage to put up a convincing fight until someone roughly shoves me in the back. I lose my balance and topple backfirst into the concrete. Others soon surround me in a circle, jeering and shoving me around like a rag doll.

The first Shark steps forward, spitting on the ground. "We'll teach you not to mess with us the old-fashioned way."

I've been in enough fights to know where this is headed.

He pulls his leg back, and I brace myself for the hit. Despite my foresight, the impact still leaves me winded and gasping for breath. It hurts. It stings. A second blow. A third. Curling up, I bite into my knuckles. I won't give them the satisfaction of making me cry.

Laughter and mockery ring in my ears.

When the Sharks finish their fun, they take everything except for my keys and leave me lying on the road.

I don't regret holding back. I wasn't in immediate danger. The Sharks were more interested in my property, and I wasn't carrying anything of value. I destroyed their arms. They couldn't have killed me, and they hadn't recognized me. Better to let them think that they'd won than suspect that I'm a Smasher.

My only regret is the lost vial of pneumonia pills.

Furious with myself for being distracted by my phone, I wipe my split lip with the back of my bleeding knuckles. My stupidity cost me my medicine. My bruises flare up with pain when I haul myself onto my feet, but regaining my balance, I stagger off in the direction of my apartment. The drugstore isn't going to be open until tomorrow morning. We'll have to make do without the pills until then.

My anger dissipates into a weary bitterness. Stumbling into the door, I slot my keys into the lock and push my way in.

"Dad, I'm home."

Chapter Text

 

~Prologue~

Despite all the shit we gave each other, the smashers are like one weird extended family.

As the "grown ups" of the family, a lot of the older smashers act surprisingly protective over us. Peach is the mom who'd bake five cakes for a birthday. Ganondorf is the grumpy uncle who gives you a blind eye for rule-breaking in one of his better moods. Snake is the old neighbor next door who offers us cigs and a wise word. Even Wario, who gives over half of the smashers an aneurysm, is a greedy, egotistical jerk who-Okay, stretching the family metaphor a bit too far.

Long story short, if the Smashers have a little, defenseless brother everyone wanted to protect, it's Lucas. Not that Lucas is defenseless, or even little now that he's over six feet tall, but something about Lucas screams, PLEASE PROTECT ME. I guess it has something to do with his gentle nature. That was Lucas for you. Shy little Lucas who somehow wormed his way into the hearts of Bayonetta and Cloud; shy little Lucas who didn't piss villains off or got in anybody's way. He didn't bother people, and in turn, they didn't bother him.

I don't know how it happened, but over the years, anybody who gave Lucas grief mysteriously ended up with fresh bruises in the morning, or a set of shriveled shoulders the next. It isn't to say that Lucas is excused from his own share of teasing, but anyone who genuinely gave him a rough time knew what to expect.

The ribbing Wario gave us back in the cafeteria hasn't gone unnoticed. When I came down for breakfast earlier, I saw him sulking into his bacon. Someone grilled him good for sure.

So when I leave Lucas behind in the cafeteria, I get a surprise in the name of Samus Aran. Normally, she's intimidating, but we're not on the battlefield, and at best our relationship is okay - the never-piss-off-the-badass-older-sister okay.

I relax with an easy grin. "Hey, Samu-"

The blaster to the head cuts me off. "Save it, shorts."

A little more about Samus: Standing at a staggering six foot three, she's a figure that strikes fear into the hearts of every testosterone-filled male within a ten mile radius. Gorgeously attractive and deadly in combat, she wastes no time beating around the bush to say what she needs to say. Rumors say that at the age of ten, she knew twenty-five ways to incapacitate a man with only a thumb and a toothpick.

Despite her fearsome appearance, Samus isn't hostile. She just couldn't stand bullshit because she saw right through it. The only guys in the mansion who weren't intimidated by her fearsome skill and stunning beauty are Kirby, who was obliviously happy 99% of the time; Pikachu, who'd won over her special "best BFFs forever" business card; Red, who didn't give a flying fuck about anything; and Lucas, whom everyone knew she had a soft spot for-

Oh.

"Seriously?" I complain.

"Yes, seriously," she says, her angry blue eyes boring into my head. "Listen, Ness. I don't know what's going on, but I've heard all sorts of rumors flying around. Rumors about you trying to pull some funny moves. Are you trying to mess with us?"

I blankly stare at her. "...What?"

"I thought you were better than that. Taking advantage of Lucas because he's your best friend, are you now?"

Oh, you've got to be kidding me.

"I didn't take advantage of him-" I begin hotly.

The barrel of the blaster presses itself harder against my head. "If Lucas says no, then he means no," she hisses. "Don't you dare bother him."

"Samus-"

"Touch him again, and you're dead."

Retracting her blaster from my forehead, Samus pushes her way into the cafeteria. Weak in the knees, I hobble away from the traumatic encounter, somehow feeling like it was a tad bit unfair. No one's ever threatened me over hurting Lucas before. It's always been the other way around. I've been at Lucas's side longer than anyone else dammit! I was his overprotective brother way before it turned cool!

Samus's encounter stings my pride. I'm not going to lie and say that I don't have strong feelings for my best friend, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to jump him on the spot! Does Samus really think I can't hold it in my pants for over two seconds? Geez, does anyone in this mansion trust me anymore?

Upset, I storm off, only to bump right into a giant gloating glove. Apparently Master Hand has been waiting to ambush - no, interrogate - me in his office. It was a serious matter, he said. One he had to address.

I knew I had it coming. With the recent scandal and my attitude, the dreaded office talk was only expected.

So I trail behind him with the air of a school kid about to get his ass suspended. It doesn't help that Master Hand's office is the stereotypical four-walled room with papers stacked up to the ceiling and metal Walmart cabinets flanking the side.

Once I settle myself into the red fold-up chair in front of his desk, Master Hand taps his fingers to talk. "How are you doing?"

I crack a wry grin. "We both know why I'm here, Master Hand. I know I caused a lot of trouble-"

"Which can be justified. I heard about your parents' divorce. My condolences to you."

I suddenly swallow down the lump in my throat. "Yeah, thanks... I guess."

"That's not- ah, nevermind. Your performance has been falling. I'm sure that you noticed. Your mains aren't happy."

"I've seen better days."

"At the very least, I can offer you a sick Leave of Absence, though I will highly advise you against it. An extended L.O.A. will be a risky move before the Championships-"

"I'm not taking the L.O.A.," I say, clenching my fists. The last thing I want is to show everyone I'm rattled, and I'm not. "I'm just worried about Lucas-"

"I spoke to Lucas yesterday. More specifically, about your feelings for him. "

It's not even a question.

"Oh." I feel my face heat up. "I guess you could say that," I mutter, fixing my eyes onto the floor.

Master Hand heaves a low sigh. "Don't take this to heart, Ness. Crushing on someone is a natural part of growing up. These things happen, and you aren't the only victim of young love here, especially at your age. But bear in mind that this mansion has certain restrictions that you have to follow. More specifically-" Master Hand snaps his fingers, and his rulebook flutters open to the right page. "Rule Seven thousand-"

"-Four hundred Forty-Seven," I finish with a groan. 

"Precisely. As a member of the Original Council of Twelve, you should be familiar with Rule No. 7447 - RULE SHIP! - which dictates all the DOs and DONTs of shipping and regulates the types of relationships allowed under this roof."

If possible, my face boils up more. "Like what? People ship me and Lucas all the time-"

"Shipping is common amongst fans. It's good for business. I can allow teasing the prospect, but having serious feelings for someone is entirely different. You two are from different games. Do not take Interdimensional relationships lightly, lest you incur the wrath of atrocities such as the Grandfather Paradox and the like...! Imagine the paperwork. What a headache!"

"We're from the same dimension-"

"Same universe. Different timelines."

"We're from different timelines?" I say weakly. "But I've known him all my life."

"I won't go into detail, but take my word as fact. Lucas is not from your time. Neither of you should have met in the first place. In short, you two are not meant to be." Vaporizing the rulebook with a CRACK of magic, Master Hand peers over his desk like a kind principal trying his best to remain stern. "While it's unfortunate that your love interest happens to be your fellow representative, bear in mind the consequences of your future actions."

I catch the hidden warning from his tone. To fall in love with another smasher isn't unheard of.

But to defy canon is forbidden.

"I'll send you a copy of the rulebook as a reminder of your responsibility. Ask me - or by extension, Mario - if you seek clarification on any of these rules. It is your duty as one of the Twelve, after all, to set a good example to the others on the roster..." The heavy rule book materializes back onto my hands, and surprised by the sudden weight, I faceplant into the ground like a seesaw. Satisfied, Master Hand draws his fingers up into a point. "Lucas is aware of your feelings for him. He will not encourage them, and you will do the same. If necessary, I will separate you into different rooms. And if worst comes to worst, I will take disciplinary measures... Measures you won't be happy for me to take. Do you understand?"

Ears ringing with his rebuke, I nod.

"You are dismissed."


 

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~Chapter Nine~

Breaking the Mold

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Naturally, the first thing I do is look for Lucas. 

He's not in the cafeteria. Nor is he back in the dorms.

He's simply vanished off the face of the Earth.

I don't blame him. After our embarrassing debut yesterday, I figure that he needed some space to himself. Just thinking about how I reacted... downstairs... is enough to make me blush furiously to the roots of my hair. Great, forget best friend. Now Lucas probably thinks that I just want a piece of him.

"Way to go, you idiot," I swear, slapping myself in the face.

Lucas is not from your time.  Neither of you should have met in the first place.

In short, you two are not meant to be.

Master Hand has to be wrong. It's not possible. No way, no shit. Lucas is just like me. He was invited to Smash Mansion after going on his quest...

A quest that he's never brought up.

This bothers me.

I've known Lucas all my life. We've known each other since... third grade? Which means that unless my counting is a complete fail, Lucas should've gone on his quest before then. And if we were both from the same universe, his quest couldn't have been an easy feat, no less for an eight-year-old. I recall Lucas's jumpy childhood self.

Who exactly is Lucas?

Did I really know him as well as I'd thought?

This is giving me a massive headache. Maybe sleeping it over might help my nerves. Shuffling past the living room, I'm so out of it that I'm about to flop into bed until I catch myself and flounder the fuck back. My cheeks burn.

Oh no, as if I need another goddamn replay of last night!

Thoroughly miserable, I decide to nap on the couch instead. I'm not looking forward to the PREVIEW match I have with Lucas today. 

Not.

At.

All.

But when my alarm wakes me up, and the clock ticks closer to two, I grow uneasy.

Lucas still isn't here.

This weirds me the fuck out. We've always left together for team brawls. Warmed up together. Made sure the other arrived on time.

Maybe Lucas was waiting ahead for me.

I quickly shrug off the empty pit in my stomach, and swinging my legs off the couch, head over to the prison on the 15th floor.

Prison is what I aptly dub the prep room, because I think it's a huge fucking crime to sit still and do nothing. My hands grow restless, but again, I can't do anything, so I settle for jiggling my right knee. The prep room is like time-out for grownups, but worse, because it resembles a hair salon with all its fancy tiled floors, lavish mirrors, and rows of bottles of Bath-and-Body-Works. Makeup of all colors obnoxiously crowds each other out in the carts. The sickening-sweet hairspray assaults my nose. I sound melodramatic, but it's the truth: I don't like salons. With their fluorescent colors and bright lights, salons look far from natural. I'm easily reminded of an exotic zoo where all the animals are polka-dotted pink, because everything smells funny and looks funny.Lingering in the waiting room, I fiddle with the brim of my hat. Before SMASH, my mom used to cut my hair. She never dealt with any of these chemicals. Some of them are okay, and others exciting, but really, clustered all together in this AC-blasted room, they do not please the nose.

When I'm finally called to one of the private booths - each complete with a changing room, mirror, and wardrobe - I nervously resign myself for an hour or three of boredom. Oh well, at least the walls are made of glass. Sightseeing for the win.

My mood is improved slightly when see the head stylist for today.

Mr. Emo jabs his finger down. "You. Ditch the hat."

"Nice to see you too," I say, and Shadow grumbles off to grab the hair gel.

I don't think anyone in a blue moon saw it coming. Shadow-the-Hedgehog and hair-stylist are two things that people would cry OoC, especially since the job sounds like something he'd easily consider "below him," but when he's not out wrecking people as an assist trophy and "remembering his past," Shadow's got a surprising talent for flair and color.

So yeah. Whenever Phosphora isn't around, Shadow's in charge of the hair team, mostly because he doesn't think that anyone in the Mansion can style his quills right, and mostly because Ashley is Ashley. Don't get me wrong, Ashley's good, but she's either lazing off or throwing another tantrum 95% of the time.

Shadow lets my bangs fall between his fingers. "Ness, you wear a cap on stage. Why the fuck do we style your hair?"

"I ask myself the same question every time."

"Well, you're lucky I'm in charge." Shadow impatiently snaps his fingers. His nervous salon attendant hurries over. "Use the Tea Tree Shaping Cream to flatten out his hair," Shadows says from behind me, and I shiver when the cold, wet gel hits the back of my neck. The bristle of a comb tickles my head.

"I haven't seen you around in a while," I start.

"Been out and about," Shadow says vaguely.

"Where did you go?"

"Somewhere."

"What did you do?"

"Stuff."

I crane my head around. "Hey, where's Phosphora? Isn't she your co-stylist?"

"She caught the flu." Shadow taps me in the temple with his knuckles. "Hey, shut up. You talk too much."

I make a face and sit back down. "Just asking. How was your LOA?"

Shadow rolls his eyes. I don't think he's going to respond, but he does anyway. "My Leave of Absence? It was nice," he admits reluctantly. "How's life?"

"Good. How's Sonic?"

"Still annoying."

We don't speak after that, but it's a comfortable kind of silence, the same kind of silence where I don't feel obligated to fill up with words. Shadow's still a moody prick, and clashes with Sonic for a helluva time, but he's not a bad person. I think he just needed time to grow up.

About a few more minutes of watching his attendant finish up, Shadow abruptly steps back.

"Going so soon?" I whine.

"I'm off to fuck up Lucas's hair," he groans, and I laugh because it's true. I don't think I've met anyone who's successfully made heads or tails of Lucas's gravity-defying hair."Good luck with that."

"Tch." Shadow leaves. The nervous student cosmetologist - fancy, over-the-top word for a hair stylist intern - follows him out, and the make-up team arrives in their place.

I miss Shadow's company. Styling my hair never takes long. It's simple and takes like ten minutes tops - lather some gel, comb my bangs. Dry for an hour. Booyah, done.

Makeup is different. Waiting while artists paint my face like a palette of Vincent Van Gogh? No fun at all. I hate the mascara brush poking into my eyes. I sneeze when the pale skin powder tickles my nose. The caked foundation feels dry and cracked against my tan skin. We keep up with the year's fashion trends. Apparently pale skin is all the rage in Smash City these days, so every time I go out on stage to fight, I'm white-washed.

Lucas is lucky. His skin is naturally pale.

On the bright side, I get to see the Assist Trophies scramble onto their platforms. Through the glass walls, they scatter across the white floor beneath us like colorful skittles. In the midst of flying feet and hands, Jeff looks up and catches my eye. Even from afar, I can tell that he's looking straight at me.

I wince. I have another talk to look forward to.

One makeup session later, I linger around glass elevators in the waiting room. There's an occupied make-up station to the far right, and I've craned my head over to see whose it is when an angry Shadow bursts out of the stall, throwing his hands up in a hissy-fit over something. He doesn't look very happy.

A girly voice floats into my ears. "Watcha doin?"

I whirl around. "I'm waiting for Lucas."

"Lucas?" Tilting her head, Ashley innocently blinks back. She chews on her bubble gum then makes a loud, obnoxious pop. "He's not here."

"Has he gone down?"

The child witch shrugs. "Probably. I don't remember. You'd better go before you miss your match." Giving me her signature wah-tever wave, she skips away, her dress fluttering behind her like a cape.

From afar, Shadow hurries back into the private stall with more hair gel in his hands. I sense that he's upgraded to pissed-off mode, so I hastily scramble into the glass elevator. The walls slide shut around me with a pneumonic hiss.

"Level One: Arena."

The elevator pad shoots down like a bullet.

When I step off, ears popping from the sudden altitude change, Red lunges over to grab my arm. His pokeballs hang from his belt, polished and gleaming like quicksilver under the stagelight.

Red's voice sounds harsher than usual. "Where's Lucas?"

I step back in shock. "He's not here?"

"He never showed up for his stylist."

Both of us glance up at the clock. Five PM, exactly. Lucas is running late.

Lucas is never late for his matches.

Red looks ready to barge back into the elevator, and I'm about to join him when a second elevator lands on its grate with a pleasant ding.

"Level One: Arena."

Our designated arena mentor for the match, Link, steps out with Villager at his side. "Is that everyone? Great." He claps his hands together. "Okay, guys. Get yourselves into gear. Last chance to use the bathroom if you have to. Warm up for the next fifteen minutes, because we're about to air in-" He frowns at our frozen postures. "Where are you two going?"

"We can't brawl now!" I panic.

"Why not?"

"Lucas isn't here," Red says.

Link's face pales. "Are you sure?"

 

"Yes, we are," I beg, struggling to push past him. "I think Lucas forgot about the match-"

Link swears in Hylian, then rapidly flips out his smartphone. "Master Hand," he calls, pacing back over to the elevators. "We have a problem-"

Villager tugs on my arm, and points to my pockets. "(Call him)."

I snap it open in a fumbling frenzy. Red stands over my shoulder, and ignoring him, I dial Lucas's number, then press the receiver against my ear.

One ring. Two rings. Three rings.

Then the call dies. "Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message-"

I stare at the flashing screen as if I can't believe my eyes. "..He cut me off."

Then the anger hits me like a twenty-ton truck. Yeah, I get that Lucas was upset with me last night, but is he actually gonna miss his PREVIEW match over this? How can he be so irresponsible? For fucks sake, it's HIS rep on the line!

Red picks up his own cell and starts texting. He furrows his eyebrows together.

"Is he answering?" I ask.

Red shakes his head.

I swear loudly, then race to the elevator before someone else yanks me back by the scruff of the neck. "You're not going anywhere," Link says sharply.

"But I need to-"

The glass elevator dings open for the third time that day. Hanging onto his sock hat, Toon Link hurries out. "Sorry, I'm a little late," he gasps, doubled over for breath. "Prepping took a while-"

I frown at him. "What are you doing here?"

Regaining his breath, Toon Link importantly stands upright. "I'm here to replace Lucas for the match."

"Replace?"

"Master Hand said that he called in sick."

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~oO0Oo~

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.

The PREVIEW match passes in a blur. Everything is muscle memory. PK Flash, PK Fire, PK Thunder. I'm moving like my life depends on it, but my mind has gone still.

I can't concentrate on the match. All I can think of is Lucas ailing away in the hospital ward, because I know how much Lucas loathes talking about his own health, but if it's gotten to the point where it's gone this bad, if he's ended up needing medical attention...

After all those sleepless nights, after all the trouble I've given him, Lucas didn't tell me once about his own failing health. How selfish could I possibly get?

My chest constricts painfully.

The victory screen lights up, decorating our names in electronic confetti, but in no mood for celebrating, I sprint up to the hospital ward and push open the double doors.

"Lucas-!"

My voice dies. No one is here. Was Lucas transferred to another hospital? Is he really that sick? Worried, I try reaching out to him, but my telepathy - as shitty as it is - draws a blank. He's out of my radius. I tug on my empathy link instead and - oh good. I feel something. So he's still alive. Maybe I can track him down.

I spend the rest of the afternoon running around the mansion trying to get a good grip on his location, but fail miserably. My mental GPS doesn't do squat. Lucas isn't in Smash Mansion. I stare out the windows like they could spit out the answer for me. Fuck, I hope that he hasn't caught anything serious.

But then the days pass and Lucas's absence slowly stretches to a week, and even that hope starts to wane. Each morning, I wake up to the same empty bed beside me. Each night, the pillows became harder to sleep on.

Then the realization sinks in. Lucas is horribly, horribly ill.

There's nothing that I can do to help him.

Finally, I decide that the day isn't worth getting up for. I stay in bed.

Of course, of all people, the underclassmen are the first to witness my descent to misery. When I leave the apartment unlocked to draw in some fresh air (and not because I was hopefully waiting for Lucas to waltz in at any second), I groggily stir to Toon's wide cat eyes staring me in the face. There are more members in the Freshman gang, as I aptly dub them, but it seems like Megaman and Villager have decided to wait outside. A wise choice.

With a grunt of irritation, I rub my eyes. "Dude, what the fuck."

Stepping back, Toon whips into a nervous bow. "S-Sorry to bother you! The door was open, so we thought you were awake."

Behind him, Red apprehensively lingers in the doorway.

I wouldn't have seen their friendship coming from a million miles away. Raised by his grandma in a cottage by the sea, Toon is a courteous goodie-two-shoes. He reminds me of one of those naive overachievers from school - the kids who will do anything to avoid detention, fear nothing more than a teacher's scorn, and consider anything below an A a death sentence.

Sure didn't match up with Red's Teenage Rebel.

Toon speaks up, "Master Hand wants you to brawl."

"Is Lucas back yet?"

"No..."

"Then I don't want to brawl."

"Ness, you can't lie in bed forever."

"Watch me."

From the corner of my eye, I see Toon exchange a helpless glance behind him, and Red shakes his head. Toon returns to heckling me. "Ness, um, I don't want to be rude, but you can't stop showing up for meals-"

"Don't tell me what to do, Toon."

"You can't neglect your training-"

"Seriously, if you want another sparring partner, go bother Link. Nothing personal, but I'm not in the mood," I interrupt, dejectedly rolling away from them. "So do me a solid and fuck off."

"Don't tell him to fuck off," Red suddenly says.

I sit up with a scowl. "Oh, and since when did you start giving a flying fuck about me?"

Red's eyes flicker to my face in distaste. "I don't."

"Good. Then leave," I snap.

"You can't keep missing meals. You'll get sick!" Toon bursts out. "Ness, my grandmother sent me some of her herbal tea-"

"I don't want her tea. All I want is for both of you to leave," I snarl, but when Toon deflates, I instantly regret snapping at him. I don't need an empathy link to realize he's upset. Agitated, I shove a hand into my hair. "Fuck, no. Toon. Agh, don't cry. I'm sorry, it really is nice of you to stop by and all, but please, leave me alone."

"I'm not crying, I only want to know if you've heard back from Lucas," Toon shoots back, but I still catch the rustle of a sleeve wiping a face and a quiet sniffle. My stomach twists into a horrible pretzel of guilt. Shit I shouldn't have lashed out at him. So much for not being the worst douche in human history.

"I haven't heard back from Lucas," I say quietly. "But I'll let you know when I do."

If I do.

I wrap the covers around my suddenly shivering shoulders.

Surprisingly, despite the crappy way I've been treating everyone, people keep popping in to visit. They knock on my door: Peach. Jeff. Toon and Red. Popo and Nana. Their worried voices cut into my ears.

I don't answer. I don't open the door.

Covering my ears, I wrap the sheets over my head and shrink away from their voices. I want to mope alone.

I don't know when it happened, but I finally come to my senses. It seemed way too suspicious that Lucas disappeared the day Master Hand dragged him in to talk. And it seemed doubly suspicious that Master Hand dragged me into his office not long after. Sure, Lucas could've gotten seriously sick, but that drives the nature of the phone call into mind. Lucas wouldn't leave me hanging. Even if he really was sick, he either would've picked up my call, or wouldn't have been able to answer it altogether.

The only reason Lucas would cancel my call... was because he didn't want to be found.

Two minutes later, I'm pounding away on the office, and when Master Hand flicks it open, he's got the nerve to sound surprised to see me. "Ness-"

"Where is he?"

"I know that the news is upsetting-"

"Where is he?" I repeat, standing in the way.

"Lucas is ill. He's been transported to one of our sister hospitals-"

"Lucas isn't actually ill, is he? Where is he? Is he on patrol duty?! What did you do to him-"

"SILENCE!" Master Hand roars, looming into my face. His fingers cast an intimidating shadow over me. "Lucas isn't feeling well. He's highly contagious, so we've quarantined him from visitors. Once he recovers from his illness, he'll return. Don't bother me again."

Master Hand slams the door in my face.

I ball my hands into fists. "Fine! Ignore me! Like I care!"

Of course, Master Hand doesn't respond.

Fuming, I march away.

It's pretty obvious at this point. Lucas doesn't want me to find him.

But when I return to the dorms, I almost bump right into the crowd standing outside my room.

"Um, Ness? Ah, can you, uh... open the door-?"

Nana pats him in the back, all reassurance. "There's no point in being polite, Toon. He's not going to answer." She squints into the peephole. "D'you think he's sleeping?"

Popo grimly raises his hammer. "This mopefest's gone for long enough. I say we smash ourselves in-"

"Are you serious?!" Nana snaps, pulling her twin brother back. "Give him a break! He's worried about Lucas-"

"Worried, my ass. Oi, Nessie! Come on out!" Like the monkey he is, Popo starts going all extra and flails his fists against my door like a freaking lunatic. The deafening bangs draw attention from our neighbors, who - after craning their necks out of their respective apartments - hastily close their doors. Great, I guess I'd better expect some fucking noise complaints tonight. "Ness, you lil shit, quit moping around and open the damn door!"

I clear my throat.

Nana shrieks and drops her hammer on Popo's foot. Yowling in pain, Popo bumps into Red, who bumps into Toon, who ends up sprawling straight into the carpet.

"N-Ness!" Toon stammers, scrambling to his feet.

The rest of them follow, pelting me with questions and exclamations of disbelief, but I stop them by blurting out, "What are you guys doing here?"

Nana scrambles to her feet, accidentally treading on Popo's toes a second time. "Lucas can't be sick," she said rapidly. "I checked the hospital ward-"

"I know," I say. "He's not there."

Toon Link hesitantly looks into my face. "Did Lucas send off a distress signal?"

I shake my head.

Smashers are more than celebrities. As a seal of contract, we're required to give a service to the people who funded us. Namely, we have to return the favor to Smash City.

And what better way to repay it than fighting crime?

You heard right. Alongside our brawls, we were sometimes placed on patrol duty. Any villain who threatened the people of Smash City risked suffering the wrath of our awesomeness. Grumbling and complaining aside, it took some of the more villainous smashers a bit of convincing, but they bought into the pact.

That's because Master Hand had given us the ultimate saving grace.

As long as we lived in Smash City, we were immortal... Kind of. It's not to say that we can't get hurt - broken bones, cuts, and bruises are still fair game - but a fatal blow transforms the Smasher into a statue. Anyone who's been petrified sends off a distress signal to the motherboard, where Master Hand will dispatch the rest of us in for backup. Touch the base of the petrified victim with a hand, and - voila! - instant revival.

So if Lucas hasn't sent off a distress signal from somewhere in the City, it means his illness isn't fatal.

...If Lucas is even ill to begin with.

"He could be gone on patrol duty," Nana suggests.

"For a whole week? During Preview season?" I say skeptically.

Nana worries on her lip. "That's true... it does sound weird for Master Hand to send him on patrol duty now. Do you think something's happened to him?"

"Only one way to find out." I push into my apartment, and everyone else follows suit into the bedroom.

Everything on Lucas's side is neat and organized. Clothes are either hung on the rack or folded into tiny squares into his wardrobe. His sheets lie untouched without a single crease on the bed.

"He took his keys with him. So if he left somewhere, he could come back," I say.

Never a help, Popo giggles, swinging around in Lucas's swivel seat. "Dude, these free chairs are awesome!"

Nana smacks him in the shoulder. "Get off, you moron. This is no time to be playing around-"

"Ow, Nana-"

"I found something," Toon Link speaks up, holding a fluttering letter in his hand. "This was lying opened on his desk."

"Opened?" Instantly, we crowd around him like he's won the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. I vaguely remember Lucas mailing letters to his dad - something about his dad never picking up the phone and trusting Happy Boxes and stuff. Maybe he's told his dad about his whereabouts.

"What does it say?" Nana demands.

Shriveling up in guilt, Toon Link hesitates, throwing an unspoken plea my way.

I understand. I really don't want to dig through Lucas's stuff, and I'm all for respecting his space, but Lucas could be in grave danger for all we knew. Besides, the letter was already lying open on his desk. His safety, above everything else, is our primary concern. "Read it. We have to know."

Toon unfolds the inky envelope. For an entire page of paper, the letter from his dad is only one line long.

I stand by what I said. Don't argue with me.

A chill crawls down my spine.

Involuntarily, I reach for the letter, and when Toon hands it over, I stare at the words floating in front of my eyes. It brings back a memory. An unpleasant memory. Lucas's reluctance to talk about his family. The bitter tone he takes on whenever he speaks of his dad.

My blood turns to ice. Of course. The signs are so obvious.

"He's being abused," I say suddenly.

Popo looks up. "Who's being abused?"

"Lucas. He's being abused by his dad."

"Eh, I'm not saying that you're wrong, but I don't know, Ness..." Toon Link glances nervously at the letter in my hand. "Don't you think that's a little too extreme? Lucas would've shown signs-"

"What signs? It's been there from the beginning. Let's count them." I number them on my hand. "Lucas doesn't talk about his family. Lucas doesn't like physical contact. He's withdrawn. He has a distant relationship with his dad. And as for any bruises... we have other psychic powers outside of Smash City. Healing is one of them. If his dad really is abusing him, then he can easily hide the scars."

Red sharply turns to me. "Is this true?"

"I don't know," I admit. "I've never seen his dad before, and judging from what Lucas says, they're not too close either..."

Nana claps both of her hands to her mouth in horror. "Do you think Master Hand knows?"

"How could he know? He's too busy running the tournament!" Furious, I whirl around and slam my fists into my bedframe, and walls shake. "Dammit Lucas, why didn't you tell me?"

"If Lucas went home, then we need to bring him back," Toon insists, looking terrified. "But none of us know where he lives-"

"I do. I've never been there before, but I know the neighborhood." I dig under my bed for my bat, then flicking the brim of my cap around, pat down my shorts to check for my yo-yo. "Once we leave the mansion, we take the SkyTrain to Onett-"

"I still don't know, Ness..."

"This is Lucas we're talking about. D'you think he'd tell us if he's being abused? We need to leave now, Lucas could be hurt, and I don't..." I stop short, flashing to an unpleasant memory of Lucas bruised and battered in my mind. My stomach twists with guilt.

"wOAH. Okay, just... back the fuck up." As if to prove his point, Popo raises his hands up. "Bro, like, I'm not saying you're wrong, but aren't you like, jumping to this way too fast-"

"Fast or not, I'd rather be safe than sorry." Making sure that I've packed everything, I shoulder on my bag. "I'm teleporting to the SkyTrain Station. You guys stay here. Make sure no one realizes that I'm gone-"

Someone tugs on the straps of bag. "I'm going too," Toon said stubbornly.

I wrench my fingers out of his grip. "No, it's too dangerous-"

"We need to stick together-"

"I don't have time to babysit you, Toon. Go spar-"

"Why won't you take me seriously?" Toon balls his fists at his sides. "I'm shorter than you, but I'm just as strong as you are. I'm younger than you, but I'm just as qualified. We've all gone on dangerous quests before, and that hasn't stopped any of us from getting hurt."

"I never said-"

"I'll tell you about my quest. The reason I'm here is because of Aryll. I lost her. I lost my little sister to Ganondorf, and I thought that she died!" Toon begins to choke up. "It was the worst moment of my life. Ness, I know. I know what it's like to fight for your life. I know what it's like to struggle against enemies that re-spawn and outnumber you in seconds. I know how it feels like to lose someone close to you!" His voice turns hoarse. "You respected Link. You respected Young. So why won't you respect me?"

I open my mouth to respond.

...and nothing comes out.

After all those times teasing him for his immaturity, Toon wasn't as hard of hearing as I'd thought.

Toon's shoulders sag over in a quiet slump. "Lucas is our friend too. Don't think that we're letting you go alone."

Shame creeps into my voice. My excuse sounds feeble in my ears. "I... I didn't..."

Red places a firm hand on Toon's shoulder. A clear indication of his assent.

I can't recognize my own voice. It sounds strange to my ears. "Guys, if more of us go, then someone's bound to recognize us-"

"That's why we need to go, dude. Us bros stick together," Popo asserts, swinging his arm over my shoulder. After a moment of looking stupidly thoughtful, he gives Nana a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Yeah, so... Nana, you're staying. You're, uh, a girl-"

"Excuse me?" Nana fumes, storming over to us. We all shrivel under her temper. "And why exactly do I have to stay? Since when did I turn into a damsel in distress?!"

"Well," Popo says, bewildered. "This is a guy thing, right?"

Not a smart answer. Nana looks two seconds away from blowing her top.

To our surprise, Red intervenes. "Nana, you should stay here." I don't know how he manages to stand down her furious scowl, but it's an impressive feat that deserves a golf clap.

Despite myself, I find myself speaking. "Red's right," I say, and Nana scorches my insides with her laser eyes. "We need someone to cover for us. Toon's..." Faltering, my eyes flicker to him, but Toon crosses his arms and stares pointedly at the wall. My stomach sinks. "Toon's too honest, Red can't blow his cover without talking, I'm on sick leave, and Popo can't keep secrets for his life. You're the only one responsible enough to pull the act off. Besides, if you tagged along with Popo, you two would stand out."

Anxious, Nana chews on the bottom of her lip. "Guys, you won't be in Smash City. If you get hurt-"

"We'll be careful," Popo reassures her.

"Please, Nana?" I begs. "It's Onett. I'll know the way around..."

With a reluctant sigh, Nana drops her hands to her sides. "Fine." The stern look returns. "But if you find Lucas, you'd better give me a call. I want to make sure he's all right too."

Popo salutes her. "Yo, roger that."

She hugs her brother tightly. "Don't get into trouble without me, okay?" she says, her voice suddenly soft. "It's not like I'm tagging along, so I can't bail you out of danger this time."

For once, Popo cracks a sincere smile. "I'll be fine, Nan," he promises, hugging her back. "You be good too. Don't get any sleezy boyfriends while I'm gone-"

Nana rolls her eyes and shoves him away. "Go, you silly goose."

Everyone links hands. Grabbing hold of Popo at the end of the line, I sprint around in a circle. A blur. A whiz. Psychic sparks flow from my feet. A familiar warmth shoots up my body like exploding firecrackers. On impulse, I lift my head.

The last thing I see is Nana framed against the doorway, pale-faced in the perfect picture of worry.

 

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

After my brother's disappearance, everything blurred together. People walked in and out of my life. The dead were left behind, but the living had to move on.

Soon, my dad and I packed our bags and moved into a cheaper apartment. A smaller one. Smaller rooms made everything seem less empty.

After my brother ran away, something inside my dad finally snapped. I reminded him too much of my mother. I was the split copy of his favorite son. Dad began to work overtime. He took extra shifts on his construction job. I barely saw him around; he left before I woke up and returned after I fell asleep. In the rare bouts I saw him at home, he was knocked out, exhausted and tuckered out from the demanding work of the day.

I got the message. He didn't want me around.

We began to avoid each other.

The longer I stayed in the apartment, the more I began to daydream. It was usually about home. Home, a small cabin by the sunflower fields. There was a strange name attached to this place. A strong memory. Tazmily Village... a name that no longer seemed to exist on any of the maps in Onett. It must have faded into obscurity.

Unlike our old beachshore village, the apartment complex was stuck in the heart of downtown Onett. I didn't like the new neighborhood. I didn't like the gray, faded paint drying on the cracked bricks. I didn't like the noisy honking of the streets that kept me up at night. I didn't like the bitter stench of weed that hung over the windows like a cloud.

Worse still was the gang of older kids who skulked around the curbs. They smoked pot and sold shrooms. The Sharks, they called themselves. I noticed the way they towered over me by a head. I noticed the way they eyed me. I was easy prey, and they knew it. They pushed me into dumpsters. They ripped up my homework. They stole my lunch money. Once, after hearing their loud whooping from my room, I'd gotten too afraid to walk alone to school. I stayed home.

That day, the school called my dad over my absence. My dad wasn't happy.

"Go to school," he'd said. Something about his tone left no room for argument.

I walked to school again.

During the long lunch periods, I got into reading. Books quickly became my best friend. Books were quiet companions, opening new doors to worlds to where I could escape. I probably should've put more effort into getting to know my classmates better, but the thought never crossed my mind. Books were enough to keep me company.

Adults underestimated the influence they had over children. With my disheveled appearance and tattered homework, I was the kid in the corner who smelled like weed. I was strange. I was odd. The teacher disliked me. Every time she addressed me, she scrunched up her nose, as if she'd found a nasty, sticky gum stuck to the bottom of her heels.

It didn't take long for some of the other students to take on her example. They started off with small things. Stealing my pencils. Shoving me in the back. When the teacher purposely gave them a blind eye, they realized that it was okay to pick on me. That this was encouraged behavior. A group of them ended up cornering me in the back of the school. They tore apart my favorite book and scribbled insults over its pages.

Bruised and bleeding with a split lip, I'd stumbled into the bathroom. As I patched myself up, one of my classmates had stopped to stare at me. A boy with messy black hair and a gap between his teeth. I looked up, waiting him for him to say something, but he'd turned tail and ran straight into a wall.

Weirdo.

But I began to notice certain things about him. About the boy who face-planted into the bathroom wall.

Wherever Ness went, he talked loudly. He wasn't afraid of being heard. He gave out easy smiles and kind words like they were free. His confident cheer was infectious. People flocked over to him like a magnet.

This didn't bother Ness one bit. He liked people. He thrived on conversation like a lightbulb, brightening up whenever someone talked to him. He laughed with people, but not at people. He could make anyone feel at ease.

Obnoxious and simple minded, Ness was strong like Claus. Brave like Claus.

But he wasn't Claus. He could never outshine the twin brother I'd lost.

Turning to my book, I did my best to ignore him.


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~Chapter Ten~

Like, Like, Love?

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"That will be thirty ninety-two," the cashier says.

Digging into the pocket of my jeans, I press the correct change onto the counter. After counting the money and handing over my receipt, the man at the register waves me off with a recited Have a good day. Responding in kind with a nod, I tug the groceries into my drawstring bag and head out.

Most of my cuts have scabbed over. As soon as I returned home after the beating, I pressed a frozen pack of peas against my bruised eye. It helped with the swelling, but to my dismay, did little to prevent me from looking like a panda.

But a bruised eye I can handle. My split lip, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck. If I crack my lips the wrong way, I risk re-opening the cut. It's a shallow, but painful injury, and I've quickly gotten used to the taste of copper seeping into my mouth.

A white Honda honks by the traffic light. The crosswalk turns green.

I tighten my grip on my bag and try to ignore the straps digging into my bruised shoulder blades.

The white Honda honks again. This time, the window in the front seat rolls down. "Lucas?"

I blink. The hoodie should've concealed my head. Raising my hands, I try to cover up my face. "I'm not-"

"It is you, isn't it?" Ness's mom asks, and recognizing her voice, I lower my hands in relief. She gestures over the sound of the rumbling engine. "Where are you headed? Get in the car. I'll give you a lift."

"Th-there's no need to-"

"What? I can't hear you! Stay right there, I'm backing up the car." The vehicle purrs closer before shaking to a stop. "Is my son with you?"

I cave into her request. "Just me, I'm afraid," I admit, ducking into the passenger seat. The low ceiling bumps against my head.

As accommodating as always, Ness's mom turns to face me. Her eyes shine with a welcome warmth. "You got taller!" she exclaims. Her voice turns rueful. "And thinner."

I give a sheepish grin. My own physique is not something I'm proud of. "Only a little."

"A little? You're a walking toothpick! You ruined all of my hard work over the summer." She frowns in disapproval and turns the car around. "That's it. Young man, we're going to get some meat on those bones. Goodness gracious, just what are they feeding you in the Mansion-"

Ness's mom drowns my feeble protests out. Soon, the bright white fence arches into view. A purple roof glows against the streetlights, shortly followed by a familiar pair of twinkling second story windows.

Ness's house.

Ushering me in like a mother hen, Ness's mom forces me to sit down at the table, and as if expecting me to sneak out of the house (won't lie, it had happened before), throws me her best stern mom look. "Stay," she says, then whirls around and vanishes into the kitchen.

I know better than to disobey. Both mother and son shared the same tenacious, stubborn streak. And after the number of times I've been over at his place, Ness claimed that I was practically her second son.

"You don't argue with my mom. I think that's why she likes you," he'd said cheerfully.

His mom had clipped him on the ear for that remark, saying that she didn't play no favorites, and that he'd best believe it.

I pause. It's been a while since I've thought about Ness. Without a cell phone, any communication we could've had was cut. Not counting that last call a week ago, I haven't heard back from him since. My shoulders sag in relief. Ness must be busy brawling. He must be getting over his feelings for me. Just as I'd expected.

My fingers curl in absentmindedly of their own accord, seeking a familiar warmth not there.

That's one thing I like about Ness. Ness is a toaster. His hands are surprisingly warm and gentle. I fondly remember the chilly nights we spent huddling together under the sheets of his blanket fortress.

A cold draught brushes against the hairs of my arms, and I shiver. I hate feeling cold all the time. Iron deficiency and low blood pressure cut off my circulation, forcing my fingers and toes to fend for themselves. I was born a sickly child. Thinking back to memories of Claus hugging me to stay in bed during a fever, I crack a wistful grin.

I had never been the healthy twin.

My smile fades. My health is rarely an issue, but it does pose problems as a smasher. I have to train harder to maintain the same footing as everybody else. I can run fast, but I can't run for long. Occasionally, I get dizzy spells, and I see stars, glowing spots that refused to fade from the corners of my vision.

It doesn't help that Smashers are big, fat targets of hard-hitting criminals. Right after the Subspace Emissary, crime rates peaked across all universes. Other villains took advantage of the chaos to raid Smash City. At one point, Sonic had gone AWOL trying to track down Eggman, and Red left to take care of Team Rocket.

During this time, Ness and I had been taken hostage by a group of amateur thugs in Smash City.

We were fourteen when the kidnapping happened. They'd targeted the two of us because we were younger fighters. Less experienced. Easier to subdue. We were forcefully drugged and locked in a cellar overnight, and all I remember about the cellar was that it was dark, cramped, and cold.

I was scared. I didn't like being drugged. I didn't like the dense cloud suppressing my mind. I didn't like the uncertainty of knowing what was and wasn't there. The bitter taste of shrooms on my tongue was eerily familiar to the point of discomfort; I hallucinated several times before snapping out of it. Ness had taken longer to come round; whatever they'd given him must've been a sedative instead, because he was out like a light.

Sometime during the night, Ness had woken up. "Yoo ohgay?" he said, sounding sluggish.

I tried to nod, only to realize that Ness couldn't see me. "I'm fine. Are you?"

"Yeah."

I shifted in my ropes. Tied back to back, Ness's shoulderblades rubbed against my own. "W-What's going to happen to us?"

"I think they're taking us for ransom." Ness's voice dropped to an uncertain waver. "Or maybe they're gonna torture us."

"T-Torture?" I stammered.

"I dunno. They might take away our candy privileges. It's what they do in movies, right?" Sensing my rising panic, Ness clumsily fumbled for my hand. "Cheer up, Lucas! I won't let them hurt you."

My voice cracked from dehydration. "Really?"

I could hear the confident grin in his voice. "'Course I won't. They're gonna have to get through me first."

At the thought of Ness getting hurt, I began to cry.

Ness panicked. The ropes tightened as he struggled to crane his neck over in my direction. "Lucas? Crap, Lucas, did I say something stupid again? Gah, I'm sorry, don't cry-"

"I don't want you getting hurt either..."

"Nobody's gonna get hurt," he reassured me, giving my fingers a firm squeeze. "We'll bust out of here somehow. I mean... someone's gotta notice that we're gone. I-I bet Samus is on her way right now. And Fox! All the smashers are really smart. Trust me, no one's gonna get hurt."

I gripped his hand back. His hand felt warm in mine.

Sure enough, minutes after his declaration, an angry troupe of smashers had barged in hollering bloody murder.

I watch the city lights glow and pop from the dimming skyline. It had happened so long ago. I've forgotten how easily I used to cry at the drop of a dime. Something about the animated way Ness talked was inspiring - the way his face would brighten up or his eyes would laugh as if sharing a private joke. He'd always had a way with words since we were younger.

It made his sudden depression a little unnerving to handle.

My eyes drop to the windowpane.

Barely a minute later, Ness's mom returns, setting down a cup of hot milk. "I'm heating up the soup. Here, take some cookies. Careful, they're hot."

While I don't want to impose trouble, I know her well enough not to turn the offer down. Her stubbornness won't let me leave without seeming rude. A familiar warmth spreads through my toes.

Ness has inherited her hot heart.

I bite into a sugar cookie. The sweet flavor explodes across my tongue.

Sitting down, Ness's mother watches me eat from across the kitchen table. Something about her slumped shoulders gives off a strange air of weariness. When I finish eating my cookie, she pushes the plate towards me and insists that I take seconds and thirds.

I wonder if she knows of her son's feelings for me.

"I heard that the paparazzi was here," I start cautiously.

"For a short while," Ness's mom agrees. "Most of them left Onett. You should've seen the lot plastering their faces against the windows. Some of them wanted to know where you lived. As if I was going to tell them!" She purses her lips in a grim line. "I don't think anyone's recognized your father, but keep a close eye out for him."

Right. I wince. "Sorry about that-"

"It's not your fault!" she says aghast, her eyes blazing. "The sheer nerve of the paparazzi! Barging into my house to ask if my son is straight! Why I never. I wanted to give them all a good smack of my frying pan!"

We fall into an uncomfortable hush. Ness's mom drops her hand back against the table. "My son... is he really...?"

Catching the question, I nod.

Her shoulders sag. "I see," she says quietly. She stares out the window. "I wonder, if I hadn't divorced his father..." Her eyes look distant. "He would still be normal."

A lump rises in my throat.

She lowers her voice. It sounds quieter. Softer. "How is my son doing? He hasn't gotten himself into any trouble, I hope."

"No, he's doing..." Thinking about the night Ness got himself wasted, I internally wince. "All right."

Luckily, Ness's mom seems to buy my word. "That's good. I'm glad to hear that he's doing better. I'd ask him myself, but he hasn't called lately. Not that I mind. As long as he's happy, I'm okay with not hearing back every so often." She cracks a watery smile. "I suppose that living the life of a celebrity is a lot more fun than calling home. Who'd care about boring old mom when you have all the fancy parties in the world to attend?" She tries to laugh it off, but the concern glazing over her eyes betrays her lighthearted tone. "Lucas, when you see my son... Can you make sure that he stays out of trouble?"

"I'll be there for him," I promise.

Her eyes well up with tears. Ness's mom leans over and grips my hands. "I haven't forgotten about the day you saved my son. Please, take care of yourself."

The back of my neck burns. She had it wrong. Ness had saved me in the Ruined Zoo, and after all that, I hadn't even been the one to find him in the end.

Ness always looked out for me, way too often for his own good. There was nothing noble about me trying to repay the favor.

I fumble for a coherent response, but looking satisfied enough, Ness's mom gently pats me in the cheek and walks back to the kitchen. She ladles soup into a styrofoam tupperware, then insists that I bring it home to share with my dad. Once again, she ignores my protests that I can make my way back on foot and drives me home.

Outside the car windows, the city blurs into a stream of light.

During the ride back, I think about Ness. About my feelings concerning him. I like Ness as a friend. As a brother. But when I think about Ness again, my heart begins to beat faster. I definitely don't see Ness as a brother. Definitely not.

I love you.

Ness is my best friend. He would stay my best friend.

I love you a lot.

My chest twinges in pain. I hunch my shoulders together. Ness is confused. Ness doesn't know what he's talking about.

Ness's mom gives me a concerned look through the rear-view mirror, but doesn't question me. Very much like her son, she's an expert in taking in social cues. I hope that she can't see my flushed face in the darkness.

We pull over by my apartment. Taking one look at my flustered face, Ness's mom gets the wrong idea, and thinks that I'm getting a fever. It takes her a lot of convincing not to accompany me up the stairs.

"You look a little faint," she says, worried. "Are you sure you don't want to stay over at our place? We can bring the air mattress into Ness's room-"

I give her a sheepish grin. "My dad's waiting for me."

She purses her lips. "You have a lot of groceries. Be careful going up the stairs."

"I will," I reassure her. Before she can try to change my mind again, I head up the stairs with a quick word of thanks, my ears ringing with her rebukes to eat and sleep more.

Fourth floor. Room 420. When I trudge inside and click the lights on, I notice that my dad's bedroom hangs ajar. I peer in.

Dad isn't home. He's out working again.

Frustrated, I dump the groceries onto the floor. My dad caught pneumonia from prolonged dust exposure. Construction work hadn't been kind to his lungs. The doctor told him to take a break off his job. Not that my dad listens.

He needs to rest and recover, the doctor had said.

I take a deep breath and clench the hem of my shirt. Dad's bound to be back soon. Whether or not he's in the mood, he has to eat. Pouring the warm soup into an empty pot, I set the broth to a low boil.

Ten minutes later, the doorknob twists open with a clack. My dad trudges in, shaking snow off his coat. When he finally notices me standing in the kitchen, he stops in place. His eyes cut to the soup simmering on the stove.

I recognize the stale stench of tobacco lingering on his breath. "The doctor told you not to smoke," I say ruefully.

My dad only hangs his coat and brushes past me. He doesn't want to be looked after. His pride can't handle asking for my help.

Too tired to be fed up by his stubbornness, I set a bowl aside and go to bed.

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~oO0Oo~

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When I wake up, my dad's gone. The untouched bowl of soup has gone cold overnight. Dismayed, I pick it up, only for a note to flutter to the floor.

Off to work. Don't follow me.

Something about the note makes my stomach drop to the floor. Upset, I crumple up the note and toss it into the trash can. It cuffs the rim and bounces off. Storming after it, I snatch the wad of paper and throw it back in. The paper hits the metal bottom with a noisy clatter.

It's already been a full week. My dad hasn't shown any sign of getting better. He isn't growing worse either, but his condition is worrisome to the point that I don't feel safe leaving him alone. I need to do something, but I don't know what. I don't know how to help him.

It's kind of hard to help when your own dad refuses to acknowledge your existence.

A hysterical laugh threatens to bubble up my throat, but I force it down with an unsteady gulp. The empty room is too stifling, so I decide to take a long walk to Twoson. My dad isn't returning home until later. There's nothing else I can do, but wait for him to return. I tug on a jacket and head out.

Over the years, Onett has grown. Skyscrapers and urban construction explode into life at every corner. The proud city has become a tourist attraction, boasting of two representatives on the roster.

Arguably, Twoson looks boring and plain in comparison. Worn out over time, it's old and rusty. A rural Podunk.

But I like Twoson. Even in winter, grassy fields and trees plaster every acre of land. The water and air tastes fresher. Twisted, cobbled sidewalks dance around in circles, lending life to the town. Finding a nice spot on the top of a hill, I pat down the melted frost with my shoes and lazily raise my arm. The sun is still high up in the sky. It'll get cold soon, but evening is still a far cry away. Ample time for a quick nap. Satisfied, I close my eyes.

My only regret is not bringing a book along...

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The hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stand on end. I wake up from my nap, dazed and disoriented. Something tingles in the corner of my mind, and when a shadow covers the sun, I make out the shape with a squint.

The silhouette blurs into focus.

"I like to come here too. It's a nice place for a nap," the girl says, patting her pink petticoat into the grass. Her choppy strawberry-blonde bangs curl around her shoulders in a graceful bob. "But you should really be careful about where you sleep. I had to chase off the paparazzi before they could find you."

Uncertain, I glance at her. "Have we met before?"

"No." She hugs her knees to her chest. "At least, not in person."

Blond hair. Blue eyes. Her face suddenly clicks into place.

"Paula," I say, surprised.

She smiles gently. "Nice to see you too, Lucas. You look..." Her smile falters. My cheeks heat up; in the midst of my surprise, I've forgotten about my busted eye. Concerned, Paula raises her glowing hands. They lean towards my face like hot brands. "PK LifeUp. Here, let's patch you up-"

"I'm good," I say honestly. "I don't feel any pain."

To my dismay, Paula reaches for my bruised arm. I flinch, flattening myself against the grass, and she frowns, this time trying to reach for my face. "That bruise looks really bad-"

"Thanks, Paula, but I...I-I'm-" I scoot back, panicked by her sudden intimacy. While Paula seems like a kind person, I'm not comfortable with someone trying to touch my face. I'm not a touchy-feely person, and the bruises feel fresh and ginger. Forcing down my unease, I try to return her smile. From the doubtful look on Paula's face, I'm failing to reassure her. My palms begin to sweat.

Sensing my discomfort, the hands retreat, and with a whisper, they lose their magic glow. "All righteo. I'll take your word for it," Paula sighs, then sits a little ways off to my side. "Get better soon... all right?"

My shoulders relax. Grateful, I nod.

We watch a puffy cloud float past. Her eyes lighting up, Paula points out all the shapes in the sky.

During this time, I learned more about Paula. The girl whose parents ran a daycare. The girl who liked cracking riddles, scratching and scribbling letters out on the newspaper crosswords. The girl who, as clever as she was at scrabble, failed just as miserably at chess.

The girl who, when asked what she wanted to become, said, Teacher.

I blink. It is not an answer that I expect. "Any particular reason?"

"I like watching people learn," she confesses. "And I like children. Do you?"

I shudder.

Paula laugh. "I'll take that as a no."

"I'm not a people person," I admit.

"So Ness tells me," she says, her eyes twinkling.

The sun is starting to set, so I offer to walk her home. On the way back, Paula insists on taking a detour. She offers to buy me a drink; despite the fact that none of it had been her fault, I have a sneaking suspicion that she still feels guilty about my bruises. She isn't going to let the matter slide without returning the favor somehow, so I don't argue.

A snowflake melts against my cheek. I shiver. By now, the temperature has plummeted. It's cold outside.

The Twoson cafe is packed with people. The warm aroma of coffee beans warms up my face. The sound of hearty laughter fills the air.

While Paula waits in line to pay, I study her from afar. Unlike Nana, who is broad-shouldered and tough and tomboyish, Paula carries a certain feminine charm. She is what I suppose most boys would consider sexy - an enviable figure with a tiny waist, coquettish with all the curves in the right places, and a Californian tan that shimmers faintly over her creamy skin. With her flowy pink cocktail dress, she looks like a natural Marilyn Monroe.

I can barely recognize the pretty girl in front of me as the sassy person in Ness's Skype videos. I've only heard bits and pieces about Paula through Ness. The tender care with which she nursed baby animals back to health. Her legendary prayer that saved the world from the cosmic destroyer, Giygas.

Carrying the same air of confidence, she's a split double of Ness. A more levelheaded Ness.

"You're a lot taller than I thought," she says, hurrying over with two cinnamon lattes in hand.

Surprised, I looked up. "I am?"

"Uh-huh. Ness tells me everything about you. You're a little over 6 feet, right? And still growing. Giant." Her eyes light up slyly. "I bet I'm still taller than Ness. He's what, 5'5"? Rounding up?"

"He's pretty short," I agree.

"He's a teddy bear," Paula adds. Mortified, she claps her hands over her mouth, but the snort of embarrassed laughter still escapes past her fingers.

Cracking fun at the expense of Ness's shorter height, we move onto other small talk. Brawl. Ness's quest against Giygas. The longer I get to know Paula, the more I can see how Ness fell for her. She carried the same confident compassion he did.

When I bring this fact up, Paula pauses. "Ness rejected me last year."

The news takes me by surprise. Then in hindsight, every time I mentioned Paula's name in passing, Ness had suddenly gotten the Oh shit look on his face.

Paula picks at the rim of her paper cup. "He was nice about it, but I mean, a rejection's still a rejection. It's gonna sting, no two ways around it." She stirs more milk into her latte. White swirls blossom onto its surface. "I think Ness feels awkward about talking to me again. He only started returning my calls after he realized that he'd fallen for someone else."

My own latte feels cold in my hands.

Paula hangs her head. She's not looking in my direction anymore. "I heard that Ness was crushing on someone. No one knows who it is, and the smashers aren't saying anything. Even the assist trophies are staying out of it, and Jeff is reluctant to tell me himself." Despite her tremulous smile, Paula's voice sounds remarkably even. "I'm just curious... you're his best friend, Lucas. You're a smasher too. You've got to have met Ness's crush at least once."

I shift in my seat. "His crush is... no one special."

Paula raises her eyebrow. "Oh? What kind of person is he?"

"The person Ness liked wasn't ready for a relationship." I stare down at my cup. "Ness could do better."

The din of idle chatter rises again in the background.

Paula reaches over to grip my hand. "I don't think so," she whispers. "I never stood a chance against you."

She knew that it'd been me. My back of my neck burns. I avert my eyes from hers. "That's not true."

"'Course it's true." The worst part is that Paula doesn't even sound accusatory. Her warm smile wavers up into a curve, and she lets go of my hand. "I should've known that Ness had feelings for you. You know, back then, during our quest against Giygas... he kept bringing you up. Constantly. Nonstop. I don't know what you said to him, but when Ness promised you that he'd return home safely, he took your words seriously to heart. If he wasn't calling his parents, he was calling you. He liked you before he even realized it. I can see why. You've been there for him before I showed up. I was trying to deny it the entire time..."

With an unsteady intake of breath, Paula clutches the edge of her dress. "Ness saved my life. He means a lot to me. I want him to be happy. I want to be happy for him... but I can't help it. I want to be selfish. I want Ness to be happy, but I want to be happy too." Her shoulders shiver. Wet droplets dot the back of her hands. "That's why I don't know how to feel about you, Lucas. I really d-don't..."

Uncertain, I hunch my shoulders together. I don't know how to console her, so I settle for handing her another napkin.

It seems to help. Paula gratefully takes it with unsteady hands. "I'm sorry. I'm horrible, aren't I?" She blows her nose. "I promised that I wasn't going to cry over a stupid crush, but god, look at me now. I'm such a wreck-"

"Ness is my best friend," I says quietly. "He's just mistaking our friendship for something more. He'll come around one day." My heart constricts. "I'll give him a good word or two about you. It should knock him back to his senses. Don't give up, Paula."

Startled, Paula studies my face. "Is that... is that really true?"

I nod.

Uncertain, Paula shakes her head. "But I thought you liked him," she says slowly. "You like him, don't you?"

I give her a helpless grimace. "I don't know how I feel about him."

"Ugh, Ness. I'm telling you; he's a hopeless romantic." Paula rubs her eyes, then stands up from the table. Her eyes flit to my face. "I don't know what'll happen, but I'm not giving up until the end. You'll understand, right? So long as Ness stays single, he's fair game." She gives me a fierce smile. "But I won't be a sore loser. Even if you change your mind... even if I lose to you, I hope that someday, we can be friends for real." Her voice turns gentle. "You know where I live. Come visit me anytime. We should catch up again."

I nod again, even though I know that I'll never take up her offer. It isn't because of Paula personally, but I've never been too comfortable about hanging out with people I don't know well. Large groups intimidate me. All my attempts to socialize within them end up in a pitifully awkward excuse of a mess, or in Ness pulling another saving grace under my nose and dragging me away before I can make a fool of myself. And while Paula is trying to be courteous, I can sense the pain I'm putting her through. I feel it. The tight feeling in her chest. The unsteady intake of her breaths. The same hollow ache I feel from Ness whenever he's close by.

Heartache. Her heart is crying.

She must have sensed my own guilt, because her smile wavers again. Emitting a choked I'm sorry, Paula dashes out of the cafe. Tiny silver bells tinkle cheerfully as the door swings shut after her, and her form quickly disappears into the snow.

Sitting in the booth, I watch the snow fall outside.

It's almost sundown when I walk back to Onett. The snow is falling faster from the cloudy sky. I eye it in worry. My dad should've gotten off work early. He should already be home.

Paula's face swims into mind. The genuine surprise in her question keeps bothering me. As if the answer had been obvious.

You like him, don't you?

I choke on the words. Me, like Ness? Ness is rash and quick to temper and careless to a fault. He's a hopeless dork. A hopeless dork who can't hold back his feelings half the time!

Yet, underneath his pride is someone honest. His head is hot... but his heart is pure.

You like him.

A hot spike of warmth prickles the back of my neck. Liked, not like. A very big difference. Any feelings I'd had for Ness are ancient history. I can't return what is no longer there.

We're just friends. Nothing more.

I wonder what Claus would've thought of him.

With a puff of smoke, the city bus rattles past me on the sidewalk. I watch it fade into the horizon. Then lifting my numb feet, which feel like a pair of dead weights, I drag myself towards the apartment.

The roads have iced over. My shoes crunch into the snow, sinking under my weight. Shivering, I rub my bruised eye. It's beginning to throb again in the cold, and when I poke at a particularly unpleasant spot, I flinch, accidentally bumping my hand hard against my mouth. Biting back a sharp hiss, I retract my fingers and experimentally touch my split lip. A sour copper taste explodes onto my tongue.

Instinctively, my hand glows, flickering feebly with PSI, but I force the sensation down. I've been straining my psychic powers over the past couple of days. Healing takes energy.

I know that I have to prioritize. My own injuries can wait.

Turning the block, I breathe in, then exhale. A wisp of white spirals past my numb lips and into the air. My body aches with every step, and occasionally an icy gust bites into my ankles. Instantly, I regret not having dressed smarter.

Like candlelight, a crowd of faces pops into view by the apartment gates. Distant arguing hits my ears.

"Dude, give up. I think we've got the wrong place-"

"No, I'm telling you, he lives here-"

I tune them out. The neighbors on the first floor are a noisy gaggle of college freshman. Two of the party goers must be arguing over who was supposed to bring the booze where. Tucking my chin into my jacket, I pass them and reach into my pockets. As my frozen fingers fumble for the keys, an angry voice shatters the night.

"For the last time, I'm not leaving Lucas behind!"

I jerk my head up in shock.

Hearing my ragged breath, one by one, they turn around. Popo. Red. Toon. Their faces look pale amidst the falling snow.

And looking as though he'd been waiting on my doorstep for years, the subject of my own thoughts swivels his head up to stare at me. His trademark baseball bat is slung over his bag. A strange emotion blazes in his puffy, red-rimmed eyes.

Ness is standing outside my apartment.

 

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

Now the thing about being famous is that everybody knows you. Your local politician, your local politician's grandma, your local politician's great grandma, your local politician's great great grandma-

You get my drift.

In other words, unless you can go super ninja mode and turn invisible, someone's definitely bound to recognize you. Such is Master Hand's rule of thumb: Never go on stealth missions without serious backup.

Too bad I never cared for the rules.

I exhale. With the track record I'm setting this week, I sound like a teenage rebel, but in all honesty, I do try not to get on Master Hand's shitlist. He's got a fair point when it comes to making decisions about our safety, but when you suspect that your best friend's dad is beating the living shit out of his son, then all conventional rules have to take a backseat.

Toon steps away from the ticketing machine. "-and we reserved four tickets for the next SkyTrain. We're lucky they didn't run out."

"Awesome, man. Which gate?" 

"Gate Five in fifteen minutes. It's the train heading to Hoenn."

Fifteen minutes to the terminal. My feet refuse to stay planted on the ground, because I'm antsy that this train can't arrive quickly enough. "We'd better scram," I say.

Popo pats me in the back. "Speaking of scram, there's like, people looking at us."

Sure enough, there's already a few people giving us funny looks in the subway station. From the way things are going, it's not gonna take long until someone exposes us.

I rack my head fast. "Let's all switch weapons. Hand over your hammer to me, I'll give my bat to Toon, and Red can take Toon's sword."

"Dude, no one's gonna be fooled-"

"Hey look, Smashers!" A huge gaggle of teenage girls flock over, all of them dressed in the typical white and green of junior high students. "Toe-tah-lee kawaii."

Fangirls.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing better than meeting and greeting a fan on the job. Some are so freaking awesome that simply talking to them genuinely makes my day. You got two kinds of fans: you have the cool fans, and you have the shy fans.

Then you have the rabid shipper.

I'm not trying to be rude. For god's sake, my little sister is a shipper, and she turned out fine. But when I say, rabid shipper, I really mean RABID shipper. No logic nor reason can deter these menaces of society from tearing down steel walls and razing towns in a frenzied rampage for the sake of a ship. They're like freaking members of a religious cult.

Registering incoming danger, Toon shrinks back. "Oh no. We need to get out of here-"

Popo gives an appreciative whistle. "Damn, those chicks got style."

I shake my head. Style or not, if they're rabid shippers, I'm outta there faster than Donkey Kong.

The girl who called us out - snapping shut her journal coated over with heart stickers - points at me and squeals, "Omigosh, who are you supposed to be?"

"I'm, uh... not Ness. Because I'm totally cosplaying. Yeah."

She giggles. "No duh, silly. Of course you're cosplaying! Ness has blond hair. You're the other one... the straight one. Linus!" She bends over, vape pen in hand, and artificial cherry sears my nose. Her shirt drops down, revealing her cleavage. "I ship you two together."

Sweating profusely, I step back. I haven't decided if I should feel offended by her mixing us up or by her butchering my best friend's name. "Um, that's cool."

"I know, right?! You two are my OTP!" she squeals.

OTP? The hell is that? An STD? I hope it isn't contagious. I edge off to the side, not wanting to catch her weird fangirl vibes.

Popo smooths out his hair. "Dude, free vaping time? Jackpot."

"No, you idiot," I hiss, yanking him back. "Let's make a break for it-"

"Chillax, I got this."

"You don't 'got this.'" HELP ME, I mouth to Red, but he's busy warding off his own rabid fangirls, who are now trying to nick his pokeballs. Heh. Shitty wording there.

Popo struts forward. "Hello, ladies. Care to share a smoke?" he says in a voice oozing with charm, and I turn around to gag behind my hand. Where is the nearest restroom? And where the fuck is Nana when you need her?Suddenly, leaving Nana behind seems like a huge mistake.

Another girl squeals at Popo. "Oh, I've seen that parka before! You're like... you know-"

Popo's eyes light up. "Yeah...?"

She snaps her fingers. "-yeah! That nobody on the roster!"

All the light disappears out of Popo's eyes. I can see the dismay crash out of him in droves. Popo's game franchise is as dead as mine. He's got a rep in the competitive world and flirts like crazy around any girl, but as for being well-known by any rabid shippers? Nah.

"Aw babe, that's not true-" he complains, trying to win her attention back, but the girl has already set her eyes on her newest prey.

"GwaAH, Toon Link is so friggin cute," she exclaims, pinching both of his cheeks.

Toon yelps and pushes her away. "Ow please stop, personal space-"

Quick on his toes, Red drags him away from the Ring of Fire. When the rabid fan tries to sneak around and make another stealthy grab, Red shoots her a withering look that would've frozen an Olympic wrestler in his tracks.

The fangirls squeal harder.

Super effective. I grimace and clap my hands over my half-dead ears.

"I love this one though," another swoons, staring up at Red with adoring eyes. "He's like, the strong, silent type."

The corners of Red's eyes crease. "I'm not silent," he says in a low voice. Hanging around Lucas must've rubbed off on me, because I catch the subtle shift in his tone. Yeah, I think they've hit a nerve there.

"He's all right," another fan agrees, trying to feel his biceps, but Red raises his arms out of reach. "I ship him with Toon Link-"

"TOON LINK? Baka, haven't you heard of Subspace?" Her friend scoffs, crossing her arms. "I ship the Pokemon trainer with Linus-"

"Lucas," I correct, irritated. "At least get his name right."

"I ship Ness with everyone!" one exclaims.

They all turn to look at me. Their eyes gleam.

Oh, fuck. Not this shit again.

Grabbing Toon by the wrist, I turn tail. "Run!" I scream.

No explanation needed. Red scoops up a catatonic Popo - still mourning over his single status - before jogging after me.

The tension cracks. "They're escaping," someone shrieks. "After them, bakas!"

We all sprint away in terror with the screaming rabid fans hot on our tail. One of them almost nabs Toon by the wrist in a sneaky ambush, but I yank him away in time for her hand to go sailing over his head.

"Thanks," Toon gasps, stumbling to his feet. "I owe you one-"

"It's okay, I got your back." I glance down at my hand. "Or I guess your arm? Elbow? Dunno, whatever works."

Red speeds up by my side. If it isn't for the fangirls chasing after us, Red looks like he's casually doing an early morning jog around the trackfield. Even in times of great danger, Red holds his fucking composure. He is truly a brave soul.

"Gift shop. Around the corner," Red says.

I get the hint. "Hit the deck!" I yell, skidding into the gift store.

We scatter into different aisles. Diving behind a glass stand, I tear through the magazines, grabbing one and flipping to a random page. The customer next to me, a middle aged guy the size of Ganondorf, spares me weird look.

I crack a grin and wiggle my fingers. "'Sup?"

The man's gaze drops to my hands. His face pales. He slowly inches away.

Geez, what's his deal? Last I checked, waving to a someone was a fucking courtesy.

I roll my eyes, then peer over the rim of my magazine. Not a moment too soon. The thunderous roar hits my ears before the stampede of fangirls scream past the gift shop. Their footsteps quickly echo out of existence.

Safe.

Lowering the magazine from my face, I breathe out a sigh of relief.

Sulking under his breath, Popo turns the corner of the aisle. "Well, that sucked. I almost scored a lucky vape-" When Popo abruptly freezes, catching sight of me, he snorts and turns back around.

"What are you laughing at?" I demand, stomping over to him.

"Didn't know you were into those kind of books," Popo chokes out.

Confused, I flip the cover of the magazine over. Or what I thought was a magazine. As I stare blankly at the suggestive pose of a half-naked Link wrapping his arms around a wimpy-looking Roy, very slowly - as if the magazine is about to burst into flames in my hands - I face the aisle that I'm standing in.

A terrible realization crashes home.

Those aren't normal magazines.

Horrified, I drop the graphic novel. "Oh, fuck."

Popo loses it. He cracks up and collapses onto the floor.

"I didn't touch anything," I shriek, but when I scoot away, I accidentally bump into a store worker.

The store worker turns around. "Hello, how can I help - ah. Yes. Welcome to the doujinshi aisle," he says in a bored monotone, sounding like he's been asked to guide people through this shit too many times. "Here, you can read your favorite yaoi and yuri erotica about Smashers in their daily lives-"

"I don't look like that," I yell, pointing to another simpering cover of me.

Popo's stupid eyes light up. He pushes me aside. "Ooh, let me see. Stealing Second Base. For the Power of Love. I PK Love You. You Light a PK Fire In My Heart?!" To my bemusement, Popo breaks out into a loud cackle. "Ness, come back, the reviews are even better-"

"Can we go now."

"Noo, listen - Smash Otaku dubs You Light a PK Fire In My Heart as the Nesscas bestseller of the year. An astounding and incredible masterpiece, You Light a PK Fire In My Heart is no doubt a must-read generic High School AU jam-packed with cliche drama, passion, and betrayal by the likes of which the World has never known before-" 

"Okay that's enough spicy sauce for you. Scoot, friendo," I say, making a swipe for the magazine, but Popo holds it out of reach with a laugh.

"Dude, look. Check out the review from Yaoi Times: ZOMG plz update. Best manga 4eva. Raunchy. Sexy. Scandalous. Beautiful, slutty smut that leaves fans begging for more-"

Determined not to listen, I plug my fingers into my ears. "Lalala, I'm not listening-"

"These are comedy gold, man. Hey, here's another one-" He swipes a manga off the NEW RELEASES shelf and reads the cover out loud. "Through Thick and Thin."

"Even the title sounds stupid."

"As Robin says, don't judge a tome by its cover-"

"Those aren't tomes," I say plainly. "They're PORN MAGS. Now if you're done having fun, can we leave?"

"Hahaha Ness, it's got seme Lucas in it."

Disgusted, I clap my hands over my flaming face. Seme? The fuck is that? Glancing at the dirty novel in Popo's hands, I cringe. It doesn't feel right, seeing my own body objectified for someone else's enjoyment. "Don't. Just... don't."

Ignoring me, Popo cackles, cracking the novel open to a random page. "What the hell, bro, there's like, twenty thousand moans on this page-"

I rip the book out of his hands and slam it back onto the shelf. "I said, DON'T! We're not reading that shit!"

Still laughing, Popo raises his hands. "Chillax, this was rated T-"

"Say that when it's your body plastered on there."

"Me? Nah, bro. You get way more fanservice." Watching me fume, Popo lightly elbows me in the shoulder. "Oh, stop it with the sour face. It's not really you. No one's breaking the Privacy Act."

"Yeah? Well gee, I feel plenty violated."

"These were drawn by your fandom artists-"

"Crazy artists, more like," I say with a shudder.

"Dude, it's how some fans show their love and respect for their favorite franchise. Let it go." When I continue eyeing the aisle in horrified disgust, Popo frowns. "Seriously, lay off the fans. It's not worth getting pissed over. They're not gonna damage your rep." Popo turns around to admire and check himself out in one of the manga covers. "Hot damn, they make me look tall and smexy. Hooo boy, I'll be digging all the hot chicks in no time." Popo's face darkens. "But I think I saw a few here with Nana on them..."

Staring holes into another edition with a lewd-looking Lucas scrawled on its cover, I silently conjure a PK Fire. Slow flames dance on my fingertips. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

Popo cracks his knuckles. "Bro... Let's burn them all."

It's a good thing that Red shows up and stops us, because if he didn't, we would've torched the whole place down. As Toon profusely bows apologies to the terrified store worker, Red quickly drags us away by the scruff of our shirts. The store clerk looks rather relieved to see us leave.

"That was close. Way too close," Toon pants, the tips of his ears a bright pink. He looks aghast. "What were you two doing in the gay porn aisle?"

For once, Red's face matches its namesake color. He glances at me then at Popo, before significantly clearing his throat. "I don't want to know..."

"I'm not gay!" Popo screeches.

"I am, but not for him!" I screech back.

Toon shakes his head. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter..." he trails off, looking at the boarding schedule. "The next train's coming in five minutes. Let's try not to miss it."

Popo twists around in Red's iron-lock grip. "The next magazine I see with my sister in a bikini, I'm going to lose it," he snarls, hoisting his hammer. "Ness, keep a good eye out for any perverts."

"Don't count on it. My eyes have been scarred for life," I groan, slumping over on Red's other arm.

A woman's cool voice pleasantly filters into my ears. "Welcome to the SkyTrain. Please stand behind the yellow line."

The bullet train screams into the station, its wheels grating against the iron tracks. The subway doors zing open, and Red hoists us back onto our feet. We quickly file in. When no one else bothers us inside the train, I think our sigh of relief is very audible.

The doors zing shut.

"We are now approaching... Hoenn."

"I think that went well," I say.

Everybody groans.


.

.

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~Chapter Eleven~

I Get Allergic to Magazines, Sort Of

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.

.


 

As soon as the subway shoots into the dark tunnel, Popo clocks out, loudly snoring against the window. Next to him in the aisle seat, Red slouches against the comfort of his own headrest. The brim of his cap tilts over his face.

I glance to the side. Resting his chin atop his tucked hands, Toon stares out the window. I squint past the reflective sheen of the glass, but it's too dark to make anything out. Then again, I have a feeling that Toon isn't really looking at anything in particular.

Slowly, I poke his shoulder. "Hey, you okay?"

"I'm okay."

The bullet train rattles. The hanging straps jolt, swinging on impact.

I glue my eyes to the back of Red's seat. "I have a little sister too."

This does the trick. Toon stirs. "How old?"

"A few years younger. Tracy's a handful." I crack a smile. "We give each other so much shit, but if anyone tried to kidnap her, I'd do anything to get her back."

"Same," Toon says softly. His ears relax from their tense posture. "Aryll's like my best friend."

"Sisters are frenemies for life," I agree.

Toon finally turns away from the window. "Once we land in Onett... how are we gonna help Lucas?"

Lucas.

I clench my fingers so tightly that my nails dig into my jeans. Thinking about Lucas is too painful. I recall the havoc I'd wrecked over the past week, think of all the times I pushed his patience and hurt his feelings, and my heart sinks from shame. How I wish I could take everything back.

"I'm just hoping to find him. Make sure he's all right and stuff." I give Toon a fleeting glance, but when he doesn't lift his head, I look back down at my own hands. "You know..." I say slowly, keeping my eyes on my hands. "I didn't mean any of that talk. About you being childish or whatever. It's just... last month, I found out that my dad was cheating on my mom." I squeeze my eyes shut. "I suck at keeping things in, a-and I know it doesn't condone me for being a dick, but I'm sorry I took it out on all of you."

"It WAS wrong," Toon repeats quietly, and I drop my eyes. It's to be expected. I was an asshole, and Toon has every right not to forgive me. However, he continues, "-but none of us made things easy for you either." Toon gives a hesitant glance my way. "Did... Did your parents get divorced?"

Divorced.

That word nails me right in the chest. It's a word that's commonly tossed around the latest celebrity gossip.

But I never thought that it'd ever happen to my parents.

I let the response slip through my numb lips. "Yeah."

"Oh." Toon's ears droop down slightly. "I'm not sure what I would've done in your shoes. My mom died at childbirth, and I never saw my dad's face, so..."

Aw, shit. I bury my face into my hands. "God, I forgot. Sorry for bringing that up-"

"N-No," Toon sputters, his ears flattening themselves back against his floppy sockhat. "That wasn't my intention! My grandmother is my parental figure, so if she ever broke a moral code, I'd feel pretty horrible. Because. She sounds a lot your mom." Horrified by his own words, Toon sweeps himself into a rigid bow. "Ack! Forgive me, I didn't mean to mention your mom. She sounds like a nice lady-"

"You've never even met my mom-"

"-and I'm sorry that I called you out back in the mansion!"

"Dude, it's okay. I told you, I had it coming." When Toon stays frozen in mid-bow, I frown at him. "And stop bowing at me. You're making me feel like a prick."

Toon straightens himself back up. "You're not a prick." He wrinkles his nose. "You've turned... pointy."

"Pointy? Is this another gay joke or-"

"No!" His face turning red, Toon crosses his arms in a stubborn scowl. "Ness, the way everyone deals with pressure is different. I've noticed that you deal with stuff head-on. The fight over flight response."

I laugh. "Well, I did get rejected by Lucas only last week-"

"That's not what I'm talking about." Toon nervously eyes the seat in front of us. "I dunno if he's okay with me telling you this... but Lucas caught onto it first. He realized that something was up when your emotions started leaking into our empathy links. We didn't know how to help, so Lucas suggested we leave you alone." Toon grimaces. "We should've listened to him, but Nana - you totally didn't hear this from me - got fed up with waiting. You know she means well, she's just..."

"Headstrong?" I suggest.

"...yes. She thought we'd waited long enough, so we should prod you. We ended up pestering Lucas to take action, and when Nana cornered him, he finally caved."

I hit myself in the forehead. "Christ. So that's why Lucas kept asking me if I was okay. And I thought-" I close my mouth. And here I was, panicking about how Lucas was onto me about my stupid crush.

Lucas had been worried about me. Not that it made any difference, but it's still nice to know.

"Pressuring you only made everything blow up. I should've figured it out when you stayed behind at the Mansion for Thanksgiving..."

"I shouldn't have blown up on everyone," I admit, and while it's true, the shameful confession stings my pride a lot more than I'd like to admit.

Toon furiously flails around. "Ah! Don't beat yourself up, Ness. We were all in the wrong. As a Wise Man once said, learn from past mistakes to avoid future ones."

"...Did you get that quote from your grandmother?"

Toon's ears turn pink. "She knows a lot of Ancient Chinese sayings."

I stifle a smirk. "Thanks, Toon. It's a good metaphor, but I think I'm really an asshole at heart."

"N-Not really-"

"Hell yeah, I am. I just try not to go overboard-"

"You show a lot of your soft side around Lucas."

My cheeks burn. I slam the bill of my cap over my face. "He's my childhood friend," I mutter, even though the excuse sounds lame in my ears. "There's nothing to hide when we've already seen each other at our worst."

"That, and you're considerate of how others feel. That part of you hasn't changed," Toon says, looking thoughtful. "Lucas is really insightful. I wish I've talked to him more, but he-" Sparing me a frightened glance, Toon lowers his voice. "He kind of scares me..."

I can't help it. I laugh.

Toon's face burns up. "It's true," he insists rather ruefully.

"Only because he keeps to himself. Really, Toon, Lucas doesn't judge," I chortle, wiping the rest of my giggles away. "If you haven't noticed, Lucas hangs around ME. I spout out stupid shit all the time. Do you ever see him pointing it out?"

"...Yes."

"That's only because we've known each other for years. Toon, you can speak your mind. Lucas won't judge."

"Red said so too, but it's hard to approach Lucas when we've got nothing in common," Toon confesses. "Besides, Red knows Lucas a lot better than I do-"

I give a noncommittal grunt.

"I feel like Lucas is always around you whenever we see you."

"It's the other way around."

"Lucas does seem fond of you though."

I groan, "Please, Toon. Can we not."

"Everyone likes to tease you and make fun of your crush, but that's only because we know how much you care. I'm sure Lucas is very happy that you like him," Toon says earnestly.

My chest gives a pang of pain. "Nah," I manage. "I should've checked on him earlier-"

"We'll find him," Toon says firmly.

Embarrassed, I rub away the stupid moisture from my eyes. Toon returns to sightseeing the abyss outside, but to my relief, it feels like the wall between us has finally crumbled. I drag out my yo-yo, trying to steady my shaky fingers with the rhythm I knew well.

Shhhwip. Shhhwip.

After what feels like an Ice Age, the SkyTrain finally pulls up at the terminal. We clamber off, and the SkyTrain takes off into the air with a loud whistle of smoke. A black portal spirals into existence, swallowing up the SkyTrain and its passengers up with a pop, and wasting no time, we head straight for downtown Onett.

Everything goes downhill from there.

"I think this is where he lives," I trail off, staring up at a worn-down apartment. The bricks are gray, sad, and gloomy. Misery is practically written all over its windows.

Red taps the side of his temple.

Frustrated, I shake my head. "I can't sense him around."

"Maybe your telepathy is a dud," Popo suggests.

"Let's wait," I say stubbornly, sitting down on the icy steps. "It's getting dark. He's got to come home soon."

The sun sets quicker than I expect. The temperature drops faster than my beat, and when it grows a little too chilly for my taste, I drag out some extra clothes from my knapsack. Bundled up in my woolen scarf, Toon breathes into his hands and rubs them for warmth. I tug on a spare shirt, wishing that I'd brought more layers from the Mansion. Red shakes his head when I try to offer him earmuffs, and Popo laughs, waving my clothes aside. "I'm wearing a parka, man. It's cool."

I half-close my eyes, silently watching my breath escape into the air. Half an hour has already passed. At the rate this is going, we may have to spend the night at my place and check on Lucas in the morning. Though I didn't expect anything after a week of silence, I send Lucas a text and wait.

The sun dips below the horizon. The stars shimmer into the sky.

Lucas is nowhere in sight.

Where is he? My breathing sounds heavy and ragged in my ears. I check my watch compulsively for every second. Every sound has me jumping to my feet, hoping to see a familiar lanky figure, only to realize that no one is there. I sink back into the cold stone steps.

Sometime later, Popo stretches his arms, and throws me a deliberate glance. "Man, I hate to be a party pooper, but I think Toon's freezing to death."

"No, I'm n-n-not," Toon mutters, burying his head into his scarf. The tip of his nose pokes out into the cold air.

I curse under my breath and jump to my feet. "Toon, you think you can duke it out for another hour?"

Toon nods vigorously. "Yeah, I'm just going to j-j-jog in place."

Willing heat into my palms, I rub sparks of magic into my fingers. "Let me PK Fire-"

"Nah, that won't help. Like bro, I can hear his teeth chattering."

"I'm not used to the c-c-cold, that's all-"

"Yeah, right." His frown deepening, Popo shrugs off his parka. "Hey, wear this."

Toon shakes his head. "I can hold out-"

"Dude, wear it," Popo says firmly, prodding him with his parka. "I'm telling you, this weather is like springtime for me."

"Or we can head over to my place," I say, exhaling another smoky breath into the air. "I'll call my mom. I'll walk you three over, then double back for Lucas-"

"But we're all out of Smash City. We should stick together," Toon whispers.

"I can wait it out alone. I've lived here all my life."

Popo slaps a hand on my back. "Dude, give it up. I think we've got the wrong place-"

I shrug his hand off. "No, I'm telling you, he lives here-"

"Well, then your memory's shit because you're tired."

"I'm not tired!"

"Ness, we can search again tomorrow morning. Lucas should be here for sure-"

"How would you know?" I shoot back, balling my fists. "If it's snowing this badly, Lucas might have a hard time getting home-"

"Lucas can look after himself. But you?" Popo grimaces. "Bro, you're not going to do any of us a favor by getting sick."

"I'm staying," I say stubbornly.

"Uh-huh. You do that." Popo shoves me in the back with the sole of his foot, and I topple down the stairs. Pushing myself back up, I shoot Popo a nasty glare, but it stands no chance against his chill. "I'm serious. I can tell when a winter storm's coming, and this one's only going to get worse."

"PK Fire." Flames tickle my fingers, and the welcome warmth washes over my face. "See, I can stay out for a bit."

"So can Lucas."

"That's not the point," I say, exasperated.

Popo makes a choked noise as if trying to stifle a grin.

But of course, he fails.

Miserably.

Popo clutches at his ribs, tickled silly by another fit of giggles. "Oh, I see what this is all about. Dude, Ness, talk about desperate."

Puzzled, I glance at him. "Desperate?"

"It's obvious, in'nit? Give up, man. You're not going to win him over like this."

Not this again! Thoroughly pissed off, I stand up. "I'm not trying to win him over-"

"You are a sorry, sorry fool," Popo says, cheerfully slapping me in the back. "I feel you, man. You're just hoping that Lucas is abused so you can step in and save the day."

Bewildered by Popo's sudden attitude change from moron to dickface, I turn around to everyone else in disbelief. Thankfully, Toon looks just about as confused as I do, and Red has even quirked an eyebrow up in surprise.

Popo has to nerve to laugh at that, the jackass.

I clench my teeth. "What's gotten into you?"

"Nothing, man. Geez, learn to take a joke, Nessie. I was just kidding-"

"That wasn't funny," Toon says quietly.

Popo doesn't look the least bit contrite. He claps me in the shoulder with a wide smile. "Ness, my man! There's no point in waiting for someone who's never going to show up. Lucas isn't coming. I say we ditch him and go home-"

"For the last time, I'm not leaving Lucas behind!"

Nobody speaks up.

Then shaking again with suppressed laughter, Popo claps both his hands over his mouth. Okay, that's the last straw. I'm this close to blowing my top when I'm suddenly aware of something else breaking the silence. Soft, ragged breathing.

Very slowly, I turn around.

Lucas is staring at me.

Well, fuck.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

I don't know who's more surprised to see each other. Lucas's face has gone pale with shock. He simply stares at me like I've gone all Resetti on him.

Popo's infuriating smirk widens. From the looks of it, he's known that Lucas has been there the entire time. If I weren't so shocked myself, I probably would've strangled him for being such a troll.

When I finally snap to my senses, I realize that Lucas is shivering. My eyes flicker to his attire. The jacket he's wearing is paper-thin and soaked through the bone. Underneath, the ensemble isn't any better: a flimsy t-shirt and dark, frost-ridden jeans. At least he's got the decency to wear long pants, though they look just as damp as his jacket.

He's freezing in the snow.

I stumble over to him and grab his arms. Lucas's skin has always felt cool, but it's a refreshing kind of cool, like a glass of lemonade in a hot summer.

But this is different. His hands are like blocks of ice, and Lucas is shaking so badly that his fingers keep bumping against mine. Has he seriously been walking around in this weather?! Biting back a curse, I tear off my jacket. The cold air hits my skin like blisters, but I barely notice, too focused on wrapping the edges of my jacket around his shoulders. It hangs awkwardly off the edge of his left collarbone.

Fully pissed off, I grab his (cold, cold) hands. "Why the hell are you wearing a T-shirt in this weather?"

Lucas dips his chin into the collar of my jacket. He mutters something underneath his breath, but I can't catch it, and when I try to rub the warmth back into his hands, Lucas flinches, emitting a sharp hiss. Through our empathy link, a flare of pain throbs against my mind.

He's badly bruised.

No shit. His left eye is busted. How is he able to see through that thing? Forget bruised all over. Lucas looks trashed.

I silently count to ten and force myself to calm the fuck down. "It's okay, I figured it out," I say, grimly grabbing his arm. "You're not going back home."

Lucas stares at me blankly. "What are you doing here."

"Saving your sorry ass," I say.

"Don't worry about your dad. He can't follow you back to the Mansion," Toon adds anxiously, tugging on Lucas's other hand to herd him away.

Stumbling along, Lucas blinks at me, bewildered beyond comprehension. "...What's going on."

"You're coming with us."

Shaking his head, Lucas yanks his hand out of mine. "I can't. My dad's sick."

Fuck, he's in denial. I throw Red a pleading look. Thankfully, he gets the gist. When Lucas turns back around to the gate, Red lunges over, tackling him and nabbing him by the waist. Lucas lets out a shout of surprise, and they go down, toppling backwards in a kick of snow.

Manhandling Lucas is a bad idea. In third grade, I got a little cheeky and tried to jump-scare him. He freaked out all right - right before he punched me smack in the face. Unfortunately, a teacher thought we were brawling on school premises and assigned us detention. We each had to write I will not punch people in the nose fifty times under Ms. Squint's scrutiny, but I remember leaving school early because Lucas had in fact broken my nose. He ended up guiltily apologizing for the incident for an entire week much to my chagrin.

But if manhandling Lucas is the only way to stop him from going home to his abusive dad, then I'll take the consequences.

Praying to all the deities above for my sins, I dash into the fray for reinforcement. When we reach him, Lucas begins to writhe around, yanking his elbows back, but it's four against one, and none of us are willing to relinquish our grip. We forcefully drag him to his feet, but still, for someone half-dead on his feet, he's ridiculously strong.

"What are you- Put me down!"

"Where's your dad?" I demand, regaining a death-grip on my yoyo.

Lucas wrenches his foot free. "My dad's inside. I think he's sleeping. You shouldn't disturb hi- Ness, where are you going."

I ignore him. As I advance towards his apartment, a cold shock suddenly hits my left leg. Twisting my head around, I see that my ankles have been doomed to the same fate, and I panic - because what the hell no one told me that Lucas's dad is a flippin' psychic - but I catch sight of Lucas's incredibly strained expression. He's panting heavily, hands outstretched, and I realize that he's cast a PK Freeze on me. That little sneak!

I grit my teeth together, and try to move my leg, but it refuses to budge. "Lucas, what are you doing?!"

Unrelenting, Lucas clenches his fists. "I could ask you the same. You are not going to disturb my dad-"

"Why the hell are you standing up for him?" I shoot back, incensed. "That slimeball's been abusing you-"

"He's not abusing me-" Lucas pries my wrists off his shirt with a pained grimace. "I know, it sounds bad, but I was only mugged on the way home-"

My ears perk up. "You got mugged? Who mugged you?"

Without answering me, Lucas unlocks the gates and climbs up the stairs. More a hindrance than harm, the PK Freeze shatters away, freeing my damp shoe, but jumping to my feet, I'm starting to get a pretty damn good idea about who mugged him. Matching his pace, I tag along his heels and rant loudly, "Well it's fine, cause whoever it is, I'm gonna go beat them up-"

"Two wrongs don't make a right."

"Yeah, and karma's a bi-"

"It's not worth it," Lucas says tiredly, keeping his eyes on his apartment door.

"I think it's worth it," I say stubbornly, reaching for his arm. His exposed skin peeks beneath the hem of his wet jacket, and I can see that the blotchy blemish of bruises litters down his arm. "Have you seen yourself? You look like shit!"

"Thanks, Ness," Lucas says wryly, but I don't laugh because for the first time that night, I get a good look at his face. Like, a good look. Lucas's eyes suddenly waver, momentarily losing a bit of their hard intensity. "Really, I'm fine. Go home before the storm hits."

I narrow my eyes. "You just had a dizzy spell, didn't you?"

"No-"

"Yeah, and I'm straight," I snarl, grabbing his face. No shit, he isn't fine. Why can't he see that? I furiously poke him in the cheek, and Lucas grimaces, recoiling from my finger. "Whoever it is, they sure did a real number on your face-"

"It looks a lot worse than it is."

"That's a load of shit, and you know it." I reach for his face with glowing hands. "Here, lemme heal you-"

"I can heal myself!"

Surprised by his outburst, my hands hover to a stop.

Lucas wrenches me off. Up close, his cheeks look a faint pink, and holy shit, does he have a fever too? That is not okay.

"Now if you're done trying to abduct me off the street-" The lock clicks open. Lucas brushes past me into his apartment and flicks the light switches on. "Go home. I need to check on my dad."

I skid to his side. "Why are you being so stubborn?" I snap. Lucas isn't slowing down so with a frustrated yell, I tackle him around the waist. Stumbling under our weight, Lucas tries to shake me off, but afraid of touching the bruises on his back, I drop down and fasten my fingers around his bony ankles. "Oh no, you are not going anywhere until I heal you!"

"Ness, for the last time-!"

"What in the Devil's name is going on here?"

We all freeze in place.

Thick boots plant themselves two inches away from my nose. Chuck Norris emerges, clutching a glinting rifle in hand. His expression upon seeing me turns livid, and instantly, he aims the rifle right into my face. "What do you want with my son?" he grunts, furry eyebrows knitting themselves into a thunderous scowl.

"Um..." I stare cross-eyed down the barrel of the rifle. This bear of a man is Lucas's dad? I don't know whether to be awed or scared by this sudden revelation. Probably the latter. Judging from the dark glower the man is throwing me, I can almost feel that loaded bullet tearing through my head any second.

"Dad, he's a friend," Lucas mutters, trying to push the rifle to the side. "From brawl."

His dad doesn't budge an inch. "I heard yelling."

"It wasn't... anything. Dad, go back to sleep. You'll catch a cold," Lucas pleads, and this time, muttering under his breath, the man lowers the rifle to the ground much to my relief.

"Now can you guys go back," Lucas says, disgruntled, as if his dad hadn't almost tried to kill me.

"You can't kick us out," Popo complains. "We've been travelling all day because Ness wanted to-"

"We wanted to check on you," Toon says quickly, throwing Popo a look. Popo snaps his mouth shut. Silently, I resolve to buy Toon Link the sugar demon as many donuts as he pleased.

"The blizzard looks like it's getting worse," I add, sheepishly rubbing the back of my neck. "We were busy trying to find you that we came running in without checking the forecast..."

Lucas pinches his nose. "I can't believe you guys," he says, but this time, his tone eases a little, sounding less irate and instead more exasperated.

Chuck Norris cracks the door wide open. "Come in," he says in a gruff Southern drawl. He limps inside.

Shooting us another testy look, Lucas holds open the door for us. When our eyes meet, I grin, and Lucas makes a face. Sourpuss. Lucas closes the door behind us, cutting off the howl of the wind.

Suddenly, I'm hyperaware of the chill inside the apartment. I can hear Toon's teeth chatter. "I-It's a little c-cold..."

Popo fondly socks him in the back. "This? You sissy, this is nothing compared to the mountains back home-"

"Stay here. I'll grab the electric heater from my room," Lucas says. He disappears down the hallway.

While he's gone, I rub the goosebumps from my arms and examine the picture frames on the mantlepiece. It's easy to see where Lucas gets his looks from. In the photo framed to the left is a tall Asian woman with a delicate, willowy frame whom I assume is his mom. The second shows his thick-shouldered dad frozen in the act of chopping wood. The last one has another boy giggling next to a young Lucas. He's trapped a laughing Lucas in a headlock and is staring straight at the camera with a sly smirk tugging on his lips. Except for his startling ginger hair, this kid looks identical to Lucas from head to toe.

Frowning, I pick it up. This boy looks oddly familiar-

"That's my twin brother."

Caught red-handed, I almost drop the frame from the mantelpiece. "Whothewhat."

"Dude, you have a twin brother?" Popo says, surprised.

Lucas tenses. "Yes."

"You never told me that you have a twin brother," I say, curiously flitting my eyes around the house. "Is he here?"

"He's not home." Lucas seems reluctant to talk, so I drop the subject, but I'm still reeling from the fact that Lucas is not an only child. Pushing a pile of blankets onto the couch, Lucas steps back as we make a scramble for them.

A blanket wrapped around his shoulders, Popo plops down and makes imaginary snow angels on the floor. "Oh yeah, this feels a lot better."

"Reminds me of my grandma's place," Toon adds wistfully. "Just without the ocean view."

Red gives Lucas a nod... of appreciation? Respect? Whatever that nod means.

Lucas rubs the back of his neck. "These are all the blankets I have, so if you still feel cold, you'll have to sit closer to the heater. You're all staying the night."

"My house is up north," I say quickly, feeling bad for inconveniencing him. "Lucas, we can all stay there-"

"There's a blizzard outside. I'm not kicking you out to freeze to death," comes his response, and I involuntary wince at his neutral tone - it's somehow colder than the raging snowstorm outside.

Lucas slips inside the kitchen.

Oblivious to Lucas's departure, Popo sits back up. There's a wicked glint in his eye. "Woah. A sleepover. I don't remember the last time we've had one of these for real-"

Toon's eyes flicker to the direction of the kitchen. "Lucas looks tired," he says quietly.

I spring up. "I'll go chec-"

"I got it," Red says. As if I haven't risen to my feet, he brushes past me.

All eyes are on me.

Then Popo sniggers into his hands. "Ohhh, shut down-"

I scowl at him. "Wow. Real mature."

"Let's be real, Ness," Popo says, stretching his legs out with an easy grin. "I'm not the brightest bulb in the factory, but Red gave you a lucky save. You obviously haven't been in Lucas's good books for, what, a week? Two weeks? If he wanted to talk to you, then he would've already done it."

My heart twists itself into a knot. "He was busy-"

"He never picked up your call. He never returned your call. Isn't it obvious?" Popo leans forward, pressing his hands into the carpet. "Lucas doesn't want to talk to you."

My shoulders deflate. "Yeah, I know," I mutter, scrunching my face up against the carpet, and in what was meant to be a sympathetic gesture, Popo claps me on the back. Lucas could hate me for all I cared; I just wanted to heal his goddamn bruises!

Toon hesitantly chimes in. "Hate to agree... but Popo's got a point. We did try to ambush Lucas only minutes ago. You should wait until he makes the first move-"

"Lucas wants to see you."

We jolt up in shock. Red's voice cuts through the quiet room like a butter knife.

"The-huh?" I sputter out, peeling my face off the carpet.

Red looks down at me from the doorway. His expression is disgustingly impassive. "Lucas wants to see you," he repeats in the air of a teacher explaining to a stupid numbskull why one plus one equals two.

But uh, well... shit. I scramble to my feet, only to stub my toes straight into the wall. "Oh. R-Right! I'll be back in a... uh, cool." Awkwardly trailing off, I hop away on my uninjured foot.

Lucas is waiting for me inside the kitchen. Upon hearing me, he meets my eyes head-on.

My nerves tingle.

Trying not to throw up the butterflies in my stomach, I breathe in. Keep it casual. Simple talk, Ness.

"Uh... howzitgoin?" I ask. Instantly, I want to slap myself. Of course Lucas isn't fine. For god's sake, his left eye is busted. I grip my hair and furiously shake my head. Aaaah, stupid, stupid, stupid!

Lucas doesn't seem to have realized my little fuck up. His eyes flicker to my feet. "Sorry about earlier," he mutters, instead reaching for my swollen ankles. "I hit you pretty hard-"

"I'm okay," I say quickly.

"You took the brunt of the attack-"

"But you pulled back," I wiggle my foot. "See? Not frozen."

Lucas studies my face. "You look... tired."

"Says Dark Pit calling the kettle black." Making an angry noise, I pull his arm over. "You need to take better care of yourself," I say, poking a bruise. Lucas winces, but doesn't pull back, so I take that as the cue to assess his injuries. "I can't believe it. You leave the mansion for one week, and you get yourself trashed-"

"I was mugged."

Ignoring his complaint, I prod his wrist. Unsprained, much to my relief. "Did they steal anything?"

"My phone."

"Oh." I swallow hard, suddenly unable to look in him the eye. "I thought you were avoiding me."

Lucas's expression softens. "You were worried."

"Me, worried? Well no shit, I was. I was THIS CLOSE to filing a missing person report to the police," I throw him a dirty scowl. "You, sir, are a dumbass. What were you thinking, taking a walk in this weather?"

Lucas doesn't say anything, but I feel him shift slightly beside me. He's refusing to meet my eyes. Is he feeling self-conscious again?

I lightly sock him in the shoulder. "You're an idiot," I say matter-of-factly.

"That must be it."

"Oh, you little weirdo you." Fondly, I ruffle his hair. "C'mon, let's get you patched up."

Lucas breaks into a wide smile.

Fuck. I drop his hand, floundering around before catching sight of his bruises. His PK Freeze was unusually weak. I bet that Lucas used up most of his psychic energy trying to heal his dad. He's always been selfless to a fault.

My hands glow like warm brands. "Can I?"

Lucas shrugs off my jacket, handing it over, then tugs up his sleeves.

I press my hands against the many bruises peppered against his skin. His ankles. His sides. His arms. They fade in a green glow of magic, and relieved, I watch his skin return to its pale color. I can sense Lucas watching me the entire time, but I pretend not to notice, concentrating on healing his injuries.

Finally, I lift my hands to his bruised face. Lucas is still watching me.

I falter. "Uh, I-"

Without breaking eye contact, Lucas leans forward. Before I know it, he's pressed both of my glowing hands to his own face. Unable to look away, I freeze up, my breath stuck in my throat. Lucas's eyes remind me of a clear, cloudless sky - the same sky we flew our kites overhead, the same sky we played tag underneath. My PSI shimmers and melts into his skin. His cheeks are soft under my palms.

Closing his eyes, Lucas cracks a satisfied smile. A low hum escapes from his lips. "Your hands feel warm," he murmurs, keeping my hands pressed against his face.

A hot surge of blood roars in my ears. Feeling my own face burn like a flame, I squeeze my eyes shut. Fuck, not again! I refuse to weird him out again!

The glow dies. I quickly let go of his face. "You've got dried blood on your face," I mutter, turning around to grab a neglected rag from the kitchen table.

"Where."

"Here. On the corner of..." I swallow. "Your mouth."

Twisting his arm around, Lucas wipes his face with the back of his hand. "Is it gone."

"No, it's-" I clap a hand over my mouth to resist a snort. "Stop looking at me!"

Lucas furrows his eyebrows. "Where do you want me to look."

"I don't know, somewhere else? It's pretty damn hard to focus without you staring at me like that!" I say, aghast, and run my fingers through my hair. "I feel like you're waiting for me to screw up."

Lucas cracks a wide grin. The second I've seen all day. "How did you know."

"Shut up, stupid." I poke his face. "Close your eyes."

Training his eyes on the rag in my hand, Lucas looks at me in growing uncertainty. "I can do it myself, Ness-"

"Close your eyes," I repeat, covering his eyes with my free hand. I nervously wet my own lips. "I can't... I don't think I can do it with you staring at me."

Lucas falls silent. To my surprise, he doesn't push my hand away.

When I tentatively part my fingers over his face, I see that he's shut his eyes. I've never noticed how delicate his lashes are, so light against his pale face. My eyes fall to the dried blood on his lips. My chest constricts. I should've been there for him. I should've set out earlier. I swore not to get him hurt after Subspace Emissary, and now, here he was, half-beaten to death by group of thugs. A group of thugs I had been responsible for disbanding.

Afraid of hurting him, I press the wet rag against his mouth as lightly as I can. "Does this hurt?"

"No."

"Good." This time, I grab his face over. He tries to pull away, but I scowl. "Stay still!"

"This isn't the best-"

"Stay," I say sternly. When he complies, slumping over so that his shoulders slouch in, I take advantage of his open sides and tickle him, forcing Lucas to recoil away from my fingers with a breathy laugh. Looking appalled by his own outburst, he scoots out of reach.

I break into crooked smile. "Gotcha."

"You tricked me," he says mournfully.

"Yeah, yeah, all right. I won't mess around this time, you big goof," I say, poking him in the shoulder. When Lucas doesn't close his eyes, tossing me a perfectly betrayed look, I whine, "Seriously, close your eyes. I won't tickle you again, I swear."

Lucas reluctantly shifts closer, his eyes lingering on my fingers. This time, he's wary of my tricks, but I keep my word, and he closes his eyes again much to my relief. I dab the cut clean, then slowly lift the rag away. The edge of Lucas's shirt has slipped over his right collarbone, revealing the bare nape of his neck. His glistening lips part slightly, wet and inviting.

I swallow down the lump in my throat. Fuck, I want to kiss him so badly that it hurts. And if I lean over the right way, just a little closer... My eyes flicker back to Lucas's face. Even now, his eyes stay closed. Lucas trusted me to do the right thing. He trusted me even though I couldn't trust myself.

Samus was right. I'm taking advantage of him.

Rearing back, I plop the wet rag onto the table. I don't think it's possible to feel so much shame in one go. "You're all good."

Lucas's eyes flutter open. He presses his hand against his cheek and tests his jaw. "Thanks."

Pointedly staring away from his lips, I tug the brim of my cap over my flaming face. "Well, I'll let you do... whatever you have to do," I mumble, rising onto my feet.

Lucas catches my hand.

Unable to comprehend his move, my eyes widen down at his fingers, then follow his arm to his face.

Lucas's expression is inscrutable. "Cook with me."

Dumbfounded, I stare at him. Me, cook? The last time I tried to "cook" was two years ago, and I was popping popcorn. I ended up exploding the microwave oven and burning all of the popcorn kernels. Lucas was there when it had happened. He knows that I can't cook for my life.

My eyes dart over to his microwave in fear. Last week, I almost demolished our friendship with a wreckingball, twice. The last thing I want to do is blow up Lucas's kitchen. I clear my throat, preparing an intelligent reason on why I shouldn't be allowed anywhere remotely near a pan, but the words fall out of my mouth like, "Buhbuhbuh."

Pushing himself onto his feet, Lucas drags me along by the wrist with surprising force. "I can teach you."

Walking into the kitchen, Lucas lets go of my hand, then flicks his fingers. A blue fire jumps out of the stove with a loud whoosh. I watch it, agape, wondering how often Lucas used his powers to cook, but Lucas quickly returns with a pair of carrots and a skinner. He shows me how to peel them, then bustles over to the other side of the kitchen to slide out the cutting board. He doesn't say anything, but I know that if I screw up, he'll throw me out of the kitchen. Probably.

I'm not nervous at all.

Fuck, I'm terrified.

But skinning carrots isn't as bad as it sounds, and within minutes, I'm furiously peeling them like a pro. Skinning vegetables is cathartic in a strange way, with the mindless forwards-backwards motion of my arm on repeat and the smooth scrape tickling my ears. When Lucas comes around, I proudly show the carrots off, and taking them away to chop into the stew, he leaves me with a freshly-washed potato.

Halfway through peeling my potato, I steal a glance in his direction. Lucas is scraping the chopped vegetables off his cutting board. His brow is furrowed in concentration. When he finishes up slicing the onions into tiny bits, he catches my eye.

Hiding a grin, I return to peeling my potato.

Not two minutes later, we're staring at the minced efforts of my work. Potato shavings of all sizes miserably flop over the counter in soggy strips.

"Oops," I say.

Lucas plucks out the sad remains of my potato - a cube no larger than a dice. "Ness, you demolished the potato," Lucas says patiently, setting the cube down.

"It's okay. Nobody likes potatoes."

"You eat fries all the time-"

"I hate potatoes," I declare, poking the shavings like they're cursed. "They're posers. Silly brown veggies loaded with carbs."

Shaking his head, Lucas picks up my pitiful excuse of a potato and plops it into a separate pot full of water.

I watch the sad piece of potato bob up and down. "I wonder who'll end up eating it. It'll be like winning the lottery."

"An unlucky lottery."

"My potato's high quality," I decide.

Lucas makes a noise between a snort and a laugh.

Pretending to be offended, I make a grab at his face, which Lucas easily avoids with his stupid height. "Did you just roll your eyes at me?"

"I would never," he says innocently.

Good god, I missed that deadpan snark.

Lucas slides a lid over our soup to let it simmer overnight, then opens a second pot. Steam hisses as moisture drips off the lid into the flames. With a smooth scrape, Lucas empties out the sliced onions into the simmering soup. "I appreciate you coming to check on me, but I'm fine, Ness. I can take care of myself."

"I know," I say quietly. "That's why I want to help."

Lucas falls silent. Grabbing a ladle, he returns to the kitchen stove. "Have some soup. I don't want you catching a cold."

I trail after him like a lovesick puppy. "Why didn't you tell us that you left?"

"My dad got sick. I wanted to leave for home as soon as I could."

I bite off the urge to say, Well if Chuck Norris could aim a rifle at my head, then I think he's feeling pretty good and dandy. Okay, it's a mean retort, and I get that his dad probably wants to stay armed in a dangerous neighborhood, but goddamn, when a burly man the size of a barge aims a pistol at your head like the first-player shooter in Call of Duty, it seriously messes with your mental psyche. So forgive me if I'm terrified by the hardcore chelovek that is Lucas's dad.

But taking a glance at Lucas, his face looking so haggard and worn out from sleepless nights, I can't bring myself to snark back at him. Even if Lucas doesn't voice his thoughts out loud, I know that he wouldn't have returned to Onett if he wasn't so worried about his dad.

I uneasily pick at my nails. My dad's a prick, but that's my dad. Not Lucas's dad. I don't know shit about Lucas's dad, and while he could be a major dick for all I knew, Lucas seems to care about him. That has to count for something, right?

I swallow down the lump in my throat. "Is your dad okay?"

"Yeah, he's getting better."

"That's good."

Lucas's eyes flickers over to my face. He starts speaking in that halting, hesitant tone of his again, the odd statement-like question, and it's so familiar that I want to cry of happiness. "Did... Did my dad traumatize you."

Holy fuck he sure did. "Psh, no."

The corners of Lucas's lip twitch into a smile. "He likes to stay in his room, so you don't have to worry about bumping into him."

 

I finally exhale the breath that I had no idea I'd been holding this entire time. "Thank god."

Shuffling away, Lucas sprinkles pepper into the broth, and I watch him, feeling my worry finally evaporate from my shoulders and swearing thanks to all the high heavens that Lucas hadn't gotten himself kidnapped or abused or worse. If he'd gone missing from patrol duty... oh man. No joke, patrol duty was - surprise, surprise - dangerous as fuck. Who knew what villain we'd be pitted against next?

Half-closing my eyes, I can't help the rueful tone. "Well, at least I know you're not lying dead in some ditch."

I see Lucas's shoulders slump. "I thought I'd be back after a day or two," he admits. "I didn't expect to be staying here for so long."

It's my turn to make the little exasperated noise like he does, and rest my head against the small of his back. Lucas has difficulty relying on others, because he's so used to doing everything by himself. And the fucking self-aware dolt he is, Lucas "absolves" this by distancing himself during hard times. My stomach gives an unpleasant jolt. Whenever Lucas pulls these... stunts without telling anyone, vanishing off into the middle of nowhere, I don't know whether to be frustrated or worried. I decide to aim for the latter, as this time, it was partially my fault.

"Well, don't disappear on us like that. When you didn't show up for a few days..." Exhaling, I grip the back of his T-shirt. "I thought something bad happened to you."

Great, now I'm acting like a clingy ex. I may as well start warbling Romeo and Juliet on the spot.

But Lucas doesn't seem to think that way. He stops stirring the soup. "I'm sorry I worried you," he says gently.

I sling my arm over his shoulders. "Damn right you should be."

Flustering, Lucas pushes me away. "Ness, some space..."

I realize that I'm blocking the stove. "Oh. Right." Disappointed, I fall back and watch him longingly. Damn it, I want to hug him so badly. It's been days since we've last talked, but I've forgotten how much Lucas hated me getting too touchy-feely, even though he generally tolerated my hugs. Seeing him again makes me feel terribly giddy and weak in the knees like a lovestruck school girl.

As if sensing my thoughts, Lucas bites down on the corner of his lip. "Hugs are okay," he admits, his face turning red. "But my dad's here, and I don't want him getting the wrong idea-"

I perk up. Fuck yeah if that isn't a big fat HUG ME.

Drunk on my own daring, I lean over, balancing myself onto the tips of my toes. Before Lucas can turn around, I blow a comically loud raspberry against his neck.

Emitting a sharp gasp, Lucas jolts so violently that he nearly upturns the pot of soup. I crack up cackling, and when he whirls around, dropping the soup ladle with a clatter, I laugh harder at the indignant look on his face. As suicidal as it is, I like pushing him to the limits of his patience. I like breaking his composure. Man, I'm a horrible person.

I pick up the dirty ladle. "Truce?" I offer.

Lucas makes an awkward fumble for the handle. "I'm... washing this."

I smile. "Sure."

Watching him scrub the dirty ladle clean with a furious vigor, I feel my smile fall into a frown. On an ordinary day, Lucas easily shrugs off whatever silly prank I play on him. It isn't like him to be so disturbingly unsettled. My hands drop back to my sides. Hell this isn't the first time I've seen Lucas on edge, but he seems unusually tense. It's like coming home has rendered him incapable of expressing himself. No, not incapable. Uncomfortable. Lucas is uncomfortable of openly expressing himself at home. Is his father that intimidating?

Yeah, I think so.

My house is never quiet. It's always noisy with me squabbling my little sister, and my hot-headed mom yelling inside voices! But then I think of Lucas's family - or what's left of it - and I can't imagine Lucas's dad showering his son with affection. No wonder Lucas keeps his emotions under wraps.

Curious, I poke Lucas in the back to grab his attention. When Lucas continues to ignore me, I retaliate with a grin, pressing my hands up against his shoulder blades.

Lucas stiffens up under my touch.

"Sorry," I say quickly, catching the look of discomfort in his eyes - I'm not that much of a jerk - and am about to lift my hands off when something else catches my attention. My frown deepens when I hesitantly trail my hands up to his exposed shoulders. His skin is like a hard block of ice under my palms.

Suddenly the symptoms add up. Shortness of breath. Dizzy spells. Cold skin. Fatigue.

"You didn't eat your iron pills," I accuse him.

"I forgot."

"You forgot?" I say incredulously. "See, this why you keep feeling tired!"

Lucas reaches for a can of tinned peaches. I tentatively poke him the arm, only to recoil with a grimace. It's cold. Too cold. No shit, this is bad for him. Normally, I'd hug him until he got warm, but Lucas said no hugs around his dad, so...

"Mmph." Making an unhappy noise, I press the side of my cheek against his back, trying to radiate the heat back into his body with my PSI. This will do for now.

To my delight, Lucas's face is burning - a dark flush is beginning to creep down the back of neck and spread across the back of his arms. So it's true that his blush colors his entire skin. I prod his back through his t-shirt, warming him up, and fall back, satisfied, when the rosy flush returns to its usual pale color.

The second I lift my hands off, Lucas jerks away, shoving a sloshing bowl of soup into my chest. "Take your serving. Tell Red to come over. H-He can help me set up the table."

To my dismay, he still sounds a little breathless. His anemia must be acting up again.

"Why?" I whine. "I can set up the table-"

"Go rest. I feel a lot better now."

Is he really? I can never read his stupid pokerface. Feeling an awkward mixture of incredibly turned on and terribly apologetic, I watch him pour more soup into each bowl. The not-so-saint-like side of me almost tempts me to repeat the "raspberry" stunt again - just to see how far Lucas's blush can spread in his embarrassment - but once is already pushing it. Twice, and I may as well ask to get socked in the face. Besides, Lucas is pouring hot soup, and I don't want him to accidentally spill it over himself. I wanna be affectionate, not be a troublemaker, and above all, I wanna respect his personal space.

Torn between leaving and staying, I find myself watching him attentively. God, I love this skinny idiot.

Lucas glances back, furrowing his eyebrows. "What are you looking at."

"You."

Lucas stops in place.

Realizing my horrible mistake too late, I feel my own cheeks flush. "N-No, I mean..." Wow, way to sound gay. I tug the brim of the cap over my mortified face. "You don't... you don't have bags under your eyes," I say shyly, even though my lips are too awkward and my heart is pounding madly in my chest. "I'm glad that you're feeling better."

Dropping his eyes, Lucas ducks his head and turns around to face the stove. His flustered flush creeps up the back of his exposed ears.

Mission complete.

Sliding off the counter, I quickly leave, grinning like an idiot.

Chapter Text

[no prologue]


 

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~Chapter Twelve~

A Little Stupid

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After a lonely week to myself, I thought that I would've been overwhelmed by Ness's boundless energy, but he easily slipped back into my life as if he'd never left. He popped his head up everywhere I went, talking my ears off and making dorky gestures with his hands. Hanging around him is like downing a double chocolate chip frappicino - all caffeine and sugar until I crash from sensory overload.

He looks a far cry from the miserable lump of blankets that Red described.

Wanting to keep a closer eye on him, I asked Ness to cook with me, but to my surprise, Ness seemed genuinely happy, and it showed. Apart from fussing over me more than usual and making me fluster on occasion, he was all happy smiles.

I miss my space... but maybe I missed him too.

Ness once again has returned to being an obliviously cheerful chatterbox, throwing any signs of his previous shyness out the window. He must have noticed my discomfort in the kitchen, on edge and stiff-faced about everything, but I'm grateful when he doesn't bring it up. All of a sudden, I'm beginning to feel self-conscious whenever Ness is around. It's as though I'm seeing him through a pair of glasses - a new pair with tinted lenses. I see things that I wouldn't have caught earlier. The way Ness beams like each smile is worth something. How his hair refuses to be tamed.

Because I can no longer see Ness as just a friend. Somewhere along the way, the line between friend and something else has smudged, and I have a lingering suspicion I know exactly what that something else is. It's scary, terrifying, and completely off the deep end.

It's not that I don't like Ness, but I don't love him. Not in that way. We're close friends, and it's best to stay close friends. I recall the distress in Paula's eyes. I recall the heavy weariness that Ness's mom now seems to bear.

Ness is just my friend. Ness is just my best friend.

While we were washing our hands in the bathroom, I caught the chance to talk and ended up apologizing to Ness for my rude behavior. He broke into one of the biggest shit-eating grins I'd ever seen and socked me in the shoulder.

I flicked my wet hands at him in revenge.

Dinner is reheated leftovers and canned fruit. I didn't expect so many visitors in one go, any if at all, and the almost empty pantry is evidence of that. I make a mental note to go grocery shopping tomorrow.

Halfway through another one of Ness's dorky "hand waving" stories at the table, I slip out to check on my dad. When I find him fast asleep, I set aside a bowl on his desk and walk out of the room. It's only after I shut the door that I finally begin to relax, knowing that my dad is out for the count, but I just feel tired and worn out.

With five people, the dishes are quickly cleared and washed. As each person takes turns to shower, I manage to salvage a couple of old, oversized shirts and pants from my wardrobe. Everyone dresses into my spare change of clothes with varying degrees of success; the pajamas fit Red perfectly, perhaps falling a bit short and riding up his hips, but for everyone else, it's a different story.

"Are you sure you're wearing a shirt?" Popo crows out, pointing at Ness's fashion statement in glee. "Looks like the shirt's wearing you."

Swimming in my shirt, Ness tugs it down, his face a bright red. "Speak for yourself."

"Touché, but I wear it better," Popo says cheerfully.

Poor Toon looks like the shirt is swallowing him up whole. I throw him a guilty look, but he laughs it off. "I always sleep in an oversized shirt," Toon admits, yawning and stretching his arms.

They all look like they've had a rough day. Red wearily tips his hat in my direction before staggering over to his share of the floor to sleep.

"Sorry for intruding on your property," Toon announces, serious-faced, breaking into a bow, and I blink.

"Don't be. I'm not exactly the proper host," I say, glancing sheepishly at the meager pile of blankets on the couch. It's just me and my dad living in the apartment, and the arrival of four guests cramps up the space considerably. Seeing that Toon is still shivering, I crank up the electric heater.

"Ayyy, Lucas," Popo waves, lying sprawled against the floor. "Come play truth and dare with us."

Tired, I rub my eyes. "Maybe not tonight."

"Aw, but Lucas-"

Then Ness comes to the rescue, quickly punching Popo in the shoulder to shut up, and I watch the two squabble it out again, arguing over the best way spend the time. Eventually, they settle for watching a movie, and I pull out a random black-and-white from my dad's old collection.

"Mystery movie? Sweet," Popo laughs, stretching his fingers. "This is going to be great."

It's probably not the best move on my part, because an hour later, everyone - save for one person - is fast asleep. I hear a rustle of blankets before Ness shifts against my side. He's wearing one of my older t-shirts, the one that says, Merry Shitscram, and in a way, the logo suits him well.

"The championships are coming up," he says suddenly, jerking my head out of a sleepy stupor.

I watch the woman lament over something on the screen. "I won't lose to you in the one v one."

"I'm not going easy on you either."

"Good."

The air feels unusually heavy. Ness is uncomfortable, and I can tell by the way his sock-clad feet won't sit still. "Solo battles aside, it's the double team brawl."

I catch the hidden invitation. "You can always count on me."

Ness's shoulders finally relax. He turns to the TV with a grin. "Let's get that gold down this year."

Settling down into the carpet, I make a noise of affirmation. I'm not too keen on fighting, but whenever Ness was involved, it somehow mattered. He's like Claus in that regard, knowing which of my buttons to press, and I find that I can't lose to him. Or rather, that I don't want to lose to him. He fuels the nonexistent competitive streak that I apparently have.

On the screen, the swooning couple has furiously engaged themselves in an extremely sensual lip lock, and I look away, feeling the back of my neck burn. I don't understand the appeal of kissing. It sounds kind of gross, shoving your tongue down someone else's throat.

"What's it like to kiss a girl?" I blurt out before I can stop myself.

Whirling around, Ness's face turns a bright pink. "Huuuh?" he says, his voice rising comically to a high pitch. "How would I know?"

I blink in surprise. "I thought you had experience."

"I... I don't!" Ness sputters, sounding appalled. Ness's face colors up in sheer mortification before he gloomily faces the floor. "I've never kissed anyone before."

The kissy noises intensify from the TV, and I make a mental note never to bring out another one of my dad's old DVDs. He has horrible taste.

"Your mom kisses you," I say reasonably, trying to keep my attention away from the enthusiastically passionate display on the screen, and Ness starts so violently that he topples over.

"But that's, what no," Ness suddenly chokes. "Lucas, you've never liked anyone, have you?"

"Liked? As in..."

"Had feelings for someone."

"Not that I know of," I say softly. "I think I had a crush once, but it's not exactly the same thing."

"You've crushed on someone before?!" is all Ness asks, wide-eyed in disbelief.

I give a quiet laugh under my breath. "I think it was more like puppy love, to be honest. Nothing serious." Something about Ness's surprised tone throws me off-guard, and I turn to him with a frown. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Just trying to wrap my head around it." Ness sheepishly shuffles in place. "I never would've pegged you for someone who'd, you know. Like someone. Like, you never seemed interested in that kind of stuff. No offense," Ness adds hastily, and mulling over it, I give a hum of agreement. It's true. It's not that I haven't noticed girls before - smart girls, pretty girls, short girls, tall girls - but talking to people is terrifying, and frankly, I've never had a particularly strong inclination to go around and make friends, much less date anyone. I don't think that I can bear the weight of that pressure. I can barely manage my own life; handling someone else's on top of that sounds daunting.

As I try explaining this to him, Ness's frown eases. He falls back, leaning on his hands, but from the corner of my eyes, Ness is still staring at me with a look that I can't quite get.

Suddenly, he sits up straighter. "When did it happen?"

"A few years ago." I feel my cheeks burn a bit brighter. This is a little weird, talking to my past crush about my feelings. "It's not a big deal, Ness."

"Who was it?" Ness asks stubbornly.

I clamp my mouth shut. I'm determined to stay silent.

Ness slumps forward into the blankets. "Lucas, you can't spill all this out then say nothing."

I silently disagree with him and proceed to lazily rake my eyes over the TV screen. For the tenth time that night, I regret the horrible pick in a movie. The Amazing Madame Garcie. It sounds like something my dad would sit and watch with my mom.

I wonder if my dad ever grows lonely at home by himself. I can imagine him watching these cheesy 70s chick-flicks during his own time, alone and curled up on the couch. Immediately, I shoot the thought down. My dad doesn't like to leave Onett. If he missed me, then he would've found a chance to stop by. Ness's mom has already managed to do so, visiting Ness whenever Tracy doesn't have school. It's the only reason Ness's family hasn't moved to Smash City.

Ness's voice breaks into my thoughts. "I won't let it go until you tell me."

Turning to the side, I acknowledge him with one of my slow blinks. He should've learned that he can't pry anything out of me that easily.

But Ness is persistent. "Who was it? How did I not know? Why didn't you tell me? How-"

"That's more than one question."

"Ha! You talked!"

"Only because you won't stop." My ears begin to burn. I took this as the cue to rise to my feet and turn the TV off. Neither of us are watching Madame Garcie anyway.

Wide-eyed in curiosity, Ness leans over, lowering his voice. "Was she pretty?"

"Stop," I groan.

"Did you ever tell her?"

I drop the DVD disk back into its plastic seal.

"I bet she was tall."

"Really," I say, aghast, and shove a hand into my hair. "Ness, I - you know what, okay fine, I'll let you believe whatever'll help you sleep at night."

Predictably, Ness starts sulking. "It's not fair. You never tell me everything."

The corners of my lips twitch up. It's not my fault that he can't keep his mouth shut.

"I want to know," he whines childishly.

I raise my eyebrows.

Ness swallows. His voice settles into nervous butterflies. "I told you that you were the first person I've ever liked. It can't get any more embarrassing than that."

I pause. He's got me there. I can't turn him down without a good excuse, and I don't have one.

Maybe I'm really making a bigger deal of this than it's worth. There isn't exactly any harm in telling him, is there? It's not like I still like Ness back anymore, and with everything that's been going on, he could use a good ego booster.

Still, the traitorous flush on my cheeks refuses to leave. "It's someone you know."

"Nana. Lucina. Samus," Ness instantly shoots off off as if reading off a list. I scrunch my face up at the latter, and Ness defensively points out, "Come on, every guy's had a crush on her at some point - fine. Zelda? Peach?"

"You're going higher up the age ladder."

"They're engaged too," Ness agrees thoughtfully. "I can't think of anyone else. You said crush, so... Lady Kamui? Bayonetta?"

I swallow hard. "It... it wasn't a girl."

"You liked... "

"He was a nice person, but I thought we were better off as friends," I say, carefully looking into his face.

Ness looks astonished. Jaw dropping to the floor, he vigorously shakes his head, turning his hair into even more of a disheveled mess. "It can't be..." His eyes widen a fraction before he gives a furious wail and tears at his hair. "Damn you, Popo-!"

"I'm talking about you."

Ness's sudden silence is unnerving. Lowering his hands to his lap, he stares blankly at me like I suggested skinny dipping in molten lava. "You liked me?"

Suddenly, I'm hyperaware of his eyes on me, and turn away. "I used to," I mumble.

Ness's forehead creases into a frown, but he looks more confused than anything. "Why?"

"I don't know. Why do you like me?"

"...good point."

We say nothing for a while, the comfortable silence for once unbroken by Ness's constant chatter.

"You... liked me." Slowly, Ness squats down into the blankets with the goofiest smile growing on his face. It's the kind of smile that dimples his cheeks and brightens his eyes, and he looks so happy that I find myself smiling along with him. "Huh."

My job as egobooster complete, I rise to my feet. "It's getting late. We should go to bed-"

"Can I kiss you?"

I almost trip over at the surprise question, but this time, I'm not as completely opposed to the thought as I used to be. The sudden shift in thought is terrifying.

"Ness," I say, sounding a bit strangled. "We aren't going through this again."

"No, I mean... Let me kiss you. As friends," Ness adds hastily, but he's blushing so furiously down into his lap that it gives the entire point away.

"You know why I won't," I say softly, and as if on cue, his face falls. It always hurts, it always does, but it's undoubtedly crueler to let him kiss me when I no longer feel the same way.

But this time, Ness doesn't look depressed; his expression turns frustrated, and he shakes his head. "No, it's like... it's not what you think. What I meant was- ugh!" Ness grips his temples and starts rambling. "It might sound crazy but I really think I'm starting to get over you and I know I am but I don't know so I want to be sure-"

Somehow, I make sense of his muddled words and raise my eyebrows. "You want to prove that you're over your feelings... by kissing me."

"Yeah!" Ness says, earnestly perking his head up.

Instantly, I feel a hot flush spike up my face. "There are other ways to show that you're over your feelings, Ness, and kissing me is not one of them!"

"It'd be like a stupid dare," Ness says cheerfully, and I have a feeling that the idiot is secretly laughing at me in the inside for successfully making me flustered.

"You're talking to me, and you can't even look me in the eye," I point out.

This wipes the grin off his face. Ness furrows his eyebrows. "Yeah, I can."

"No, you can't."

"I'm looking at you now, aren't I?" Ness insists, tugging on my shirt.

"Now you're looking away."

"Wh-What does that have to do with anything?"

I give him a skeptical look. "You can't kiss me, Ness. Dare or otherwise-"

"Fine, you wanna bet?!" Ness challenges, puffing up his cheeks in indignation. "I'll do it right now if you say so."

It's a stupid idea, really. It's easily the dumbest idea I've ever heard, and I open my mouth to shoot him down only to stop midway because my mind is spiraling from the sheer idiocy of his words.

Thinking back to this moment, I still have no idea what came over my head. Maybe it was the cold numbing my brain. Maybe it was the fatigue clouding my thoughts. But all I can remember is staring straight into Ness's eyes, and wanting to prove him wrong.

He doesn't have the guts to kiss me. He can't do it.

Challenge accepted.

Ness is stuck in a stupefied stupor, unable to understand the word of agreement that has passed out of my mouth, and only jerks back into reality when I sit down, facing him with the blankest expression I can muster. "Whenever you're ready."

Eyes widening in pure shock, Ness snaps his head up. He swallows, and his Adam's apple bobs. "Right."

He crawls forward one inch. Two.

Then as if skewered by my gaze, Ness has all but frozen in place. "Fuck."

"Scared?" I smirk.

"Shut up, I've never kissed anyone before!" Ness squeaks, jumping to his feet, and I follow. In fact, he looks even more terrified than I do. Eyes bugging out of his head, he reaches up for my shoulders with shaking hands. "How... How the hell does this work?"

"Don't ask me," I say, and promptly start choking when Ness accidentally yanks me down harder than he meant by the collar of my shirt. "N-Ness, you're strangling me-"

"You're too tall," Ness hisses back, fisting my sleeves and giving them a small tug. "Bend over."

I squat down. My eyes sheepishly trail over his offended face. "This is awkward."

"Well, I'm sorry that we can't all be like you, Mr. High-and-Mighty."

"We should sit down, you're killing my back," I say tiredly.

Begrudgingly admitting my words, Ness plops back down, crossing his legs, but somehow forgets about the death grip on my shirt and almost strangles me alive a second time. Alarmed, he lets go as I turn away to cough, weakly retching into my hands.

"Lucas? Lucas?! Ah fuck, I screwed up, didn't I?" Ness is wailing like a dying cat, and I'm surprised that none of the others have woken up from the noise. "You know, on second thought, we don't really have to do this-"

"Good, because I'm never kissing you again," I say fervently.

The scowl returns to his face. "Shut up and move, you dipshit. I can't kiss you if your face is all the way over there," he says, furiously scooting forward, but I'm so much taller than him that it forces me to uncross my legs and spread them across either side of his lap.

It starts to hit me that he may actually be serious about this, and I glance uncertainly at the other sleeping forms in the darkness. "You know, you can back out anytime-"

Ness rests his warm hands on top of my shoulders, and I automatically inhale sharply at the sudden touch. This is such a stupid idea. This is all such a stupid, stupid idea, and it's all I can do not to bolt and run out of the house.

"Ah..." Ness swallows. "Are you sure you're okay?"

My knees are shaking, and I'm so, so scared of his fingers, but I jerk my head into a nod (because I have nothing to worry about, Ness doesn't have the guts to do it, he wouldn't), and Ness leans over, sliding his hand up my neck. I catch the fragrance of my mint toothpaste from his breath before his half-lidded eyes flutter in front of my face. From this angle, I can make out glowing purple rings in his eyes. His eyes have that serious determination burning in them, the same kind he gets when he's in the middle of a brawl.

Up close, Ness's cheeks are dusted a faint pink, and I know that mine are too even though this is just a stupid, embarrassing dare that friends do. Like the time when Popo went around betting all the smashers five bucks to beat him at gay chicken. Or the time Red soundly destroyed everyone's dignity on Rainbow Road with nothing but a sprained thumb and a broken Wii controller.

Ness is just my friend. Ness is just my best friend.

My neck is starting to cramp up, and Ness's hand is beginning to feel moist against my face. Suddenly, a weak, high-pitched noise of terror escapes from Ness's mouth, and in that split instant, I see the growing crack in his brave mask. Ness is losing his nerve.

I'm right. He can't do it.

Something inside me exhales in relief. I make to stand up. "Well, I guess that's that-"

"One second. Give me one second," Ness insists stubbornly. He grips my shoulders, then exhales, closing his eyes. After a lot of seconds, Ness reopens them. He takes a deep breath. "I think I'm over you... now."

"Okay," I say, humoring him.

"Try sitting next to me."

I scoot over. Our knees barely touch.

Ness flushes a bright red. Gulping audibly, he jerks his head down. "Damn it."

About a year ago, Ness got into the habit of cursing. I'm not opposed to vulgarity, seeing as many people in the roster mouthed off, but what Ness used to shrug off with a grin, he bristled and snapped at like the big bad wolf.

One year ago. That's when his parents' relationship started going down the drain.

Slowly, I reach out and squeeze his hand. It feels warm and soft, unlike my own calloused fingers.

Embarrassed, Ness yanks the brim of his cap over his unruly hair. "F-Fuck. This is a lot harder than I thought."

He's losing his drive. I knew it. The corner of my lips are in danger of twitching into a victorious smirk, and it takes every ounce of my will to make a straight face. "It wouldn't be hard if it were easy."

Ness takes another deep breath. "Okay, do over. Let's try this agai-" He freezes in place, finding my face barely an inch away. In fact, Ness looks so horrified that I'm having a hard time trying not to laugh.

"Too close?" I ask.

"No! I was just surprised-"

"Ness."

His shoulders slump over into a sulk. His huge pride won't let him admit defeat. "Yeah," he mutters.

I shift to the side, and Ness loosens his grip on my arms, lowering his head in misery. His hat hangs crookedly over his face, so I playfully knock it off his hair, but this only triggers another sulking noise from him. Shaking my head at his stubbornness, I laugh quietly into his shoulder, and even if he couldn't hear it, he could definitely feel it vibrate across my chest.

Ness's voice sounds muffled against my shirt. "It's not funny..."

"Sorry," I say, trying to sound apologetic, but it's not working, not when I'm distracted by his hair tickling my nose. I've got a serious case of sweet tooth, and it shows in my shampoo collection.

Ness stiffens up. "Are you sniffing my hair?"

"No." I blow it away. "It's in my face."

He wrinkles his nose. "My hair smells like chocolate, no thanks to you."

"Chocolate is good," I agree. Everyone should convert to chocolate. Chocolate is god.

At this point, I've all but decided to claim my victory when Ness's grip tightens around my shoulders.

"Not yet," he says.

My eyes fly to his lowered face, but I can't catch his shadowed expression. Just the slight tremor in his voice. I decide to humor him however long it takes for him to give up.

Five minutes pass. He hasn't budged for a while, so I finally take pity on him and gently shake his shoulders. "Let's call it a day-"

"No homo," he suddenly says, and I catch the flash of determination burning in his eyes before he pulls my surprised face over.

There are no fireworks. There are no explosions or flying rainbows of happiness. All I feel is something warm, soft, and wet against my lips, and it takes me a full second to realize that what the hell, this idiot is actually kissing me, and I'm not entirely sure if he's doing it right because it feels all wet and weird. Deciding that I've had enough, I've just about made up my mind to pull back until Ness grabs the back of my head and smacks our foreheads together. I break apart with a jolt of pain, tasting copper on my tongue.

"Shit!" Jumping back, Ness lifts the bottom of his borrowed shirt and tries to wipe the blood off my mouth, but I bat his arms away with a grimace.

"You bit me."

"D-Do over?" Ness suggests meekly.

I throw him a nasty look, and wipe my sore lips on the back of my palm. "Does this look like the face of mercy to you?" I say, and Ness starts stammering himself into shock. My split lip doesn't hurt much, but I try to focus as much as I can on the blood oozing out of the stinging cut, and not on the strange sensation of my stomach doing backflips.

"Did I hurt you? Fuck, I'm so sorry-"

Then it hits me again. This stupid dolt actually kissed me. I shove him aside, and Ness falls flat on his back with a cry.

"What was that for?" he says, aghast, pushing himself back up.

"You know why!"

"You said it was okay!"

"I didn't think you'd actually do it!" My cheeks aflame, I rub my aching head, finally fed up by his stupidity. Friends don't kiss friends! What the hell was Ness thinking?

Ness makes a face. "Well, it was kind of gross. And bloody."

"You bit my lip. What did you expect?" My mouth throbs painfully, and my head is still ringing from impact with his thick skull.

"...but that didn't mean I wouldn't try it again," he finishes thoughtfully. Ness's eyes look a bit dazed, but a happy sort of dazed, before he shakes his head to clear it off. Looking stupidly serious, he puffs out his chest. "You know what, you're a terrible kisser. I guess I don't really like you after all."

I sputter into an incoherent mess. Ness almost bit my bottom lip clean off, and now he's announcing how I am the terrible kisser. As if reading my mind, Ness shoots me a cocky smirk, and I promptly give up, deciding that it isn't worth my time to humor him any longer.

"Goodnight," I say, exasperated, and turn around.

"Wait!" Ness grabs my face with both hands. "PK Lifeup." A rush of hot magic infuses my cut lip before he pushes me away. "Okay, bye."

Somehow, I can still sense Ness grinning like a little shit behind me, and for some reason, I can't bring up the will to stay mad at him.

Maybe I'm a little stupid too.

 

Chapter Text

[no prologue]


 

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~Chapter Thirteen~

I Share a Heart-to-Heart with An Apple

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Later in the afternoon, Lucas took a quick run to the grocery store. I offered to make the trip for him, but Lucas declined, saying that I should go home. I wasn't too thrilled with him going alone, not after he'd gotten himself mugged, so I insisted on tagging along.

The first thing that greets us is the heater. As soon as the doors zing open, a tornado of hot air blasts us in the face.

It's a welcome change from the single digit hell outside.

We gratefully clamber inside.

The mart's packed. There's a good number of people here, but thankfully, the cold weather gives us an excuse to cover up.

My incompetence with fruit-picking is pretty damn evident from the minute we step into the produce aisle. Tugging the red woolen scarf from my sweaty neck, I pluck out an apple from its stand. "This good?"

"Let me see," Lucas says, reaching out, and I nearly drop the apple when his fingers lightly brush against the back of my palm. Oblivious to my reaction, Lucas rolls the Fuji apple in his hands, then props it back. "Nah. This one's too soft."

"How can you tell?"

"You feel for it."

"Oh, I see." I crouch down level to the apple and give a slow, sympathetic nod. "I feel for you, bro."

Lucas stifles a laugh. "Not like that."

I made him laugh. My heart does a flip-flop, and unable to keep the stupid grin from spreading across my face, I look at him. "Then show me."

To my surprise, Lucas goes beyond a verbal demonstration, holding the apple in one hand and tilting my wrist with the other. "You check for the luster first."

I bite down on my lower lip. I'm pretty sure my face is as red as this dumb apple. "Luster. Right."

"Then you check for a firm grip," he murmurs, carefully squeezing the apple over my fingers. "Like so."

"Uhuh." My eyes hopefully flicker to Lucas's face for a reaction, but it's disappointingly inexpressive. "And then...?"

Lucas withdraws his hand. "That's all there is to it," he says matter-of-factly, then walks away to check on the eggs.

God, he's so dense.

I try dropping more hints, nagging him about every vegetable I see. To my growing dismay, Lucas answers my questions the best he can, but doesn't reach for my hand again. Trying not to overthink it, I pinch myself in the arm. I know that I'm over-reacting. Lucas has made his feelings clear, and he isn't interested.

Currently.

A part of me can't help but hope. Lucas hadn't been entirely against liking me. He's had feelings for me before. I can wait for him to like me again.

Yeah, as if. I wince, thinking about how shaken up he was yesterday night. Touching Lucas is like treading on eggshells. One false move, and he'd crack. He's already so uncomfortable with me hugging him. If I tried anything funny, he'd never forgive me for sure.

Deep down, I know that expecting anything more is all wishful thinking. Lucas has already rejected me. He isn't the kind of person to go back on his word.

I can't risk pushing him away.

As I wait for Lucas to pay for his groceries in the sluggish checkout line, I find my eyes drifting to his shirt. He's wearing another one of his dorky old t-shirts again, a forest green one that says Crying is my Cardio. I stifle a laugh. No wonder Lucas stays silent. His apparel speaks volumes about his character before he even opens his mouth.

But Lucas doesn't look out of place here. Nothing about him screams, I'M FROM THE FUTURE. If he's even from the future. Hell, after watching Lucas struggle with a computer in third grade like it was some sort of alien contraption, I can safely confirm that he's probably from the past.

My eyes flicker to his face, and I notice how his forehead has creased into a light frown. Well, hello there; it's the stupid, zoned-out expression Lucas gets whenever he's lost in thought.

What a dork.

Waving furiously like an obnoxious five-year-old, I successfully manage to catch his attention. Lucas arches an eyebrow. When I scrunch up my nose and stick out my tongue in playful cheek, Lucas drops the expression and makes a silly face back.

He's out of my league. Out of my time, out of my league.

On the bus ride home, we end up sharing a seat. Pressed against the window, Lucas soundly destroys game after game on my phone, and halfway through his murderous plight to secure my top score in Temple Run, I peer over his shoulder in time to see a crowd of mutant monkeys devour his avatar. "Haha, you suck."

"The lag is real."

"Uh-huh. You keep telling yourself that."

Lucas's eyes flicker back to the screen. "Is that a challenge."

I swipe my phone back. "Hell yeah. I'm winning for sure."

Exactly one minute and forty seconds later, the dreaded Game Over flashes across my screen. Even without looking, Lucas has somehow tasted my humiliating defeat.

"You were saying," he says, and a hint of a smirk tugs on the corners of his lips.

I slam my hands into the bus seat. "Best two out of three!"

Lucas's smirk widens. "You're on."

It's not that I suck at Temple Run. I like to think that I'm fairly decent, but even I have to admit that it's pretty damn hard to concentrate when all I can think about is Lucas's stupid knee bumping against my thigh every couple of seconds from the jostling bus, and as much as I want to wipe that stupid smirk off his face, a part of me keeps wanting to smirk along at the same time.

After what is a pretty lousy, one-sided competition, Lucas shifts into his seat so that he's no longer pressed against the window. Something is bothering him, and I can tell by the way his forehead creases slightly in thought. "Ness, did you play your game before."

"My game?"

"Earthbound."

Strange question. I muse over it. "Once. It's back at home right now, but I remember that it was pretty accurate," I say honestly. "No, seriously though. It's kinda creepy how accurate they got my adventure down. Every single detail was on there. Even things I forgot. It came close to the real deal."

Lucas's frown deepens. "Where did you get it."

"I was lucky. I got the first copy straight from the gaming company when it was in production." I glance at Lucas, but as always, I can't read the expression on his face. "What's with all the questions?" I joke instead, elbowing him in the side. "Are you interrogating me?"

Slumped against the window, Lucas stares at the glowing highway lights. "I don't remember anything about my adventure."

My smile falls, and I close my mouth. His words echo an eerily familiar line from Master Hand: Lucas is not from your time. Neither of you should have met in the first place.

"Maybe it was so traumatic that you forgot everything," I suggest helpfully. "Like, maybe you accidentally stepped into a girls' locker room while they were changing or something-" Lucas visibly flusters, and of course, I laugh at him like the dick I am. "Kidding. Well, if you wanna know, all you have to do to find your cartridge and play it. Problem solved."

"Easier said than done."

"Ask Master Hand," I encourage. "He's got all our games for personal record. I mean, it's not like he'll say no."

What seems like a troubled look flashes across Lucas's face. "Perhaps," he mumbles, but he doesn't sound convinced. Ha, he's zoning out again. Might as well put a LOST IN THOUGHT sign there. When I realize that I'm still staring at him like a total creep, I quickly turn around and press my lips together, trying not to give into the warm prickling feeling that is threatening to boil into my cheeks.

Lucas still hasn't brought it up, and neither have I. It's as if last night had never happened.

Seventeen hours ago, I kissed my best friend.

Whatever my guilty fantasies were, I didn't intend on going that far. What started off as nothing but a bunch of hot air, a Ha, in your face! to prove that I was getting over my feelings had somehow gone horribly, horribly wrong, because in the heat of the moment, my declaration turned into a real challenge, and it suddenly became so important for me to win dammit and wipe that stupid smirk off of Lucas's face.

And I did. I mentally congratulated myself, pleased by the stunned look on Lucas's face, by the indignant loss dawning in his eyes, and my brain shot a mental fist into the air in celebration like hell yeah, that showed him!

For the longest time, my nerves kept me awake. I stayed up through the night, happily dazed and drunk over Lucas's surprised expression, over the way his cheeks had flushed beautifully, undone by my hands, over the slight hitch in his breath, over how soft his lips had felt pressed against mine, and I'd wanted so much more.

But when I woke up this morning, all I could remember was the uncomfortable look in Lucas's eyes and how stiff his shoulders had felt under my hands.

Uncertain, I fiddle with the brim of my cap. I didn't jump him. I didn't force myself on him. I asked him once - no, twice - and while Lucas can be a real pushover to many other people, he never had trouble holding his ground against me. If he didn't want to do the bet, then he would've said no. Or he would've shoved me away. Or he would've run away as fast as his lanky legs could carry him in the opposite direction of my lips.

He would've said no. He could've said no.

Shame colors my cheeks. Oh, who was I kidding? I should've backed off. I knew that Lucas had never wanted it, never had and never would've, and still I pushed him until he caved in and said yes. Horrified, I freeze in mid-thought. Is that what happened? Did I guilt-trip him into doing something he didn't want to do? Aargh I fucked up!

"-ook too well."

Wait, is he talking to me? I risk a peek between my fingers and - yeah, he is. Lucas watches me, his own parted fingers frozen towards my face. He withdraws his hand, rubbing it with the other. "Do you have a headache."

"I'm stupid," I say bleakly.

Lucas stifles a smirk behind his hand. "That's news."

Scowling, I punch him hard in the shoulder, and feel no small satisfaction when Lucas betrays a soft ow and rubs his sore arm. Serves him right.

Lucas props himself back up. "I'm surprised that Master Hand let you leave the mansion without backup."

"Me too."

The lazy mood vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Lucas straightens his back into a tense line. His voice takes on a sharp edge. "You can't be serious."

"About what?"

"You know what I'm talking about."

"Okay, so I did leave without telling anyone. Master Hand said you had to be quarantined and I-" When Lucas's hard expression doesn't waver, I ball up my fists. "What was I supposed to do? You were gone for days, and it happened after the night you... in the closet..." My face flushes, but I refuse to back down. "And your dad-"

"You read my mail," Lucas says suddenly.

Busted. I shift my eyes to the side with a nervous laugh. "...maybeee? We didn't open anything. Toon found it open on your desk."

With a low groan, Lucas buries his face in his hands. "Of course, I should've known that you'd go off and do something stupid-"

"Oh, so now I'm the stupid one."

"I'm serious. You need to return to the mansion before Master Hand finds out-"

"He's not gonna find out!"

"Ness." We're nose-to-nose now. I catch a muscle twitching in Lucas's jaw, and he's speaking each word very slowly as if trying not to lose his cool. "You can't do whatever you want whenever you feel like it."

"Hmm, lemme think." I sit up in my seat. "Oh yeah, wait a fucking minute, I can come visit you because I'm on sick leave!"

"I won't let you risk your job for a stupid excuse-"

"Well, I think you're more important to me than my stupid job!" I yell.

The entire bus falls into an abrupt hush. Mortified, I clam up.

A frustrated expression flickers across Lucas's eyes. He opens his mouth, but I quickly turn away, resisting the urge to punch myself in the face. A few curious onlookers glance in my direction, but hastily avert their eyes when I shoot them down with a glare. Worse still, I can't shake off the horrible feeling of disappointment in Lucas's voice. He makes me feel like a kid. A selfish little kid who couldn't spare the time to think for two seconds and threw a tantrum whenever he couldn't get what he wanted.

Because Lucas is right. He's right, and I'm wrong. Apparently. Always. Every time. Well, not today. I cross my arms. He's wrong. I like brawling. I do take my job seriously.

My shoulders sag. Just because Lucas never brought his dad up didn't mean that he was being abused. I completely misread the situation from the very start, and now it looked like I'd recklessly tossed my responsibilities aside to chase after his heart.

Small wonder Lucas was mad at me.

No, not mad.

Upset.

I clench my fists tighter into my lap. Stupid feelings. Stupid, stupid feelings. I hated myself for falling for him. I hated myself for not being able to push him away. Now nothing was the same and everything was awkward because I couldn't stop myself from kissing him last night.

I want to cry.

But I've been crying all week and honestly, crying in front of Lucas again is pretty pathetic, so I suck it up. My name is Mister TOUGH Ness. I'm invincible to heartbreak.

Taking a deep breath, I try to smile. "My bad. Didn't mean to draw attention to us."

Lucas isn't smiling. Pale-faced, he stares fixedly at his hands.

My throat turns dry. "Hey." When he doesn't respond, the smile drops from my face. I reach for his shoulder. "Lucas-"

As if scalded, Lucas jerks himself out of reach. "Don't."

Hurt, I withdraw my hand. "I wasn't going to-"

"Leave me alone, Ness."

He sounds so tired and so done with my shit that I drop it. Scowling, I turn around so that my back is facing him. For the past week, I spent every waking hour tormenting myself over Lucas's absence. I imagined that Lucas was deathly sick. I imagined that Lucas had gotten himself into serious danger. Now, he's acting all... cold and unfriendly whenever I tried to show any sign that I cared about him. Am I not allowed to care about him? Is that it? I'm his best friend. I'm supposed to care!

I puff up my cheeks. Well, fine. If Lucas wanted to pull the immature card and ignore me, then two could play that game. Stewing in growing resentment, I glower at the rocking floor of the bus.

In the end, my childish resolve fails. Lucas has the eternal patience of a clam.

Me? Not so much. My simmering anger has fizzled off somewhere by the five minute mark. I can't help it. No matter how hard I try, I can't stay mad at him. I just can't. Not when it's my fault for confessing my feelings and making our friendship weird.

Miserably, I lower my eyes. If I'm the kind of person who gets riled up easily, then Lucas is the opposite. I know it takes a lot for him to get upset, and whenever he is, his bad mood hangs over his head like a silent thundercloud.

I try again. This time, I know better than to touch him. "Hey," I say quietly.

"..."

"Okay, I give up. You win."

"..."

"Lucas," I beg. "You were right. I'm sorry. I should've cared about my fucking job and left you alone-"

"That's not..." Resting his head in his hands, Lucas heaves a weary sigh, a slightly breathless one, then slouches over in his seat. "You really are something else."

I stare at him. It starts off small, but then I can't hold back the giggles escaping from my shoulders. Why are we fighting? This whole thing's pretty stupid. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Exactly what I mean."

"I'm a handful," I agree.

"I won't argue with that," Lucas murmurs, dropping his eyes onto the floor. "It scares me how uncannily you resemble my brother."

I perk my head up. "In what way?"

"Well for one, you're obnoxious-"

"Wow, don't I feel special."

"-you're rash and reckless and act before you think-"

I roll my eyes. "Well, don't stop rolling in the praise."

"-but in the end, you mean well." Lucas's eyes flicker to the window. "My brother never lost sight of what was right. Neither do you." A short pause. "I'm not mad, Ness," Lucas says quietly. "I'm worried."

His reassurance, as quiet as it is, quickly dissipates my anxiety. I reach for his hand. This time, Lucas doesn't pull away. "You don't have to worry," I say gently.

"I'm worried about you."

I stifle a snort of laughter into my hand. "Me?"

"Yes, you."

"Says the guy who got beaten up last week."

"You can't dive headfirst into something and always expect it to go all right," Lucas says solemnly, and holy shit, while he's lightened up a little, there's a heavy weight in those words. It rings with a tragedy that makes my heart sink faster than the fucking Titanic.

I don't know what to say. So I sock him in the shoulder. The words come out easier this way. "Yolo," I say just as seriously, acting like this lameass 2012 phrase is actually a pearl stacked with infinite wisdom. But Lucas should get the point.

And get it, he does.

Lucas contemplates this. Then he ducks his head in a quiet laugh. "That's sounds like something my brother would've said."

His twin brother, huh? I kick my legs underneath the crappy bus seat. Considering that Lucas has technically bro-zoned me, comparing me to his brother is either the highest honor... or the worst insult Lucas could've thrown at me. I decide to take it as the former. "You should ask him over to visit one day."

Resting his head against the window, Lucas closes his eyes with a smile. "One day. When he returns home."

Well, isn't that vague. Lucas said that his brother wasn't home... perhaps he's at some far off boarding school. It surprised me that I've never heard of his brother until now. Is he dead too? The assumption isn't funny - it's plain sad - but I laugh quietly to myself from the sheer absurdity of that thought. Dead mom, deadbeat dad... what are the odds? Yeah, that would be seriously fucked up.

Either way... huh. Lucas is far more attached to his brother than he shows. I scoot over, peering up into his face.

Lucas cracks an eye open. "What are you staring at," he deadpans, and thinking of last night, I break into a stupid grin.

"You."

Instantly, Lucas leans away with a fake-disgusted "euurgh." Playing along, I sock him repeatedly in the shoulder until Lucas gives in with a wheeze of laughter, raising his arms in a pathetic attempt to ward me off.

He's too adorable.

Lucas stuffs his hands into his pockets. "Fine, I'll do my best to take care of myself, only if you'll do the same." His voice turns uncertain. "Though on second thought, maybe you should've helped the others find their way back to the Mansion-"

"Oh, they'll be fine," I say peevishly, still annoyed by Popo's snide parting remarks, and Lucas gives another quiet laugh under his breath.

Earlier today, our four party troupe started prepping for the long subway ride back. With Popo brushing his teeth in the bathroom and Toon adding the final touches to polishing his sword, I glanced at the closed bedroom down the corridor, half-hoping, half-fearing that Lucas would come storming out, rigid and stiff-faced in all his six foot twiggy glory to beat the everliving crap out of me because I deserved it. Or that Lucas, deeply mortified and flushing down to the back of his skinny arms, would brush past me into the kitchen like I didn't exist and boil his tea kettle into an overboiled mess of steam.

As it turned out, neither of those things happened.

Fifteen minutes later, we crowded around Lucas's bed, stunned by the unexpected turn of events. Lucas hadn't gone out of bed at all.

Or rather, he hadn't because he couldn't.

"Dude, did you actually get sick?" Popo exclaimed.

Lucas's fingers curled over his sheets. His voice was barely a hoarse whisper. "I can take care of myself. Go before you miss the train."

I winced, hearing the unpleasant rasp grate against my ears. After Lucas moved the electric heater into the living room for us, it never occurred to me that he'd slept in the cold.

Noble idiot.

With a deep frown, Red rested a hand on Lucas's forehead. He quickly withdrew it with a sharp breath. "Fever."

"Mostly chills," Lucas muttered. He sounded exhausted. "It'll pass. I've got soup in the kitchen, and benadryl in the top cabinet-"

"I think that one of us should stay behind to make sure you get better," Toon worried.

"It might be contagious-"

Popo snorted. "Then it's settled. Ness, you take responsibility."

I snapped my head up. "Why me?"

"Uh, because you're psychic?" In a no, duh manner of speaking, Popo wiggled his eyebrows. "What are you waiting for, dude, do your little hocus pocus and sha-baam, Lucas will be fine-"

"I can't," I said irritably. "My healing magic only works for common colds and injuries. It doesn't work for fevers."

Popo nodded sagely. "Ah, no wonder you're still sick. Lovesick-"

Furious, I whirled around and smacked Popo in the arm. We started to squabble loudly, which wasn't doing Lucas any favors, but Red quickly stepped in between us and pulled us apart.

"Behave," Red said like we were a pack of wild Pokemon.

When he deemed the situation to be sufficiently neutralized, Red dropped us onto the ground and turned around, disappearing down the hallway. Shamefaced, I pushed myself back up to my feet, but not before Popo muttered something inappropriate under his breath that made my face light up like a firecracker.

Tugging the brim of my cap over my furiously blushing face, I tried not to look Lucas in the eye. "My home's here in Onett. I'll stay behind."

Lucas blearily rubbed his eyes. "You don't have to-"

"It's my fault we kept you up last night," I said stubbornly.

"You didn't keep me up-"

I flicked him in the forehead. "Uh-huh. Shut up and sleep."

Red materialized on the threshold with a glass of water and a plastic container. He must have picked up the cold medicine from the kitchen.

"Thanks," Lucas said wearily. "Don't miss the subway."

Red nodded.

"Remember, kids, always wear protection!" Popo announced, placing his hands on his hips, and it was all I could do not to strangle him for the second time in the past twenty four hours.

As if sensing my murderous mood, Toon yelped, pushing Popo out the door. "W-We're heading out! Lucas, get better!"

Lucas's quiet response floated after us.

I teleported the rest of my friends out to the station. The entire time, Popo kept oohing and aahing, wiggling his eyebrows and cracking stupid jokes about practicing safe sex. At first, he seemed like he'd known more than he let on, but I quickly realized that Popo was just being Popo.

Tired of his lewd comments, both Red and Toon finally whirled around and slapped Popo in the back, forcing him to stagger forward into the parking lot. Then with the air of taking trash out, the two of them clamped a hand around each of his shoulders and marched Popo off like the British Royal Brigade. Listening to Popo's traumatized wails fade into the distance, I'd cheerfully waved them Sayonara and teleported back to the apartment.

Lucas hadn't died in the short time I'd left him behind, thank god. My worries assuaged, I was left shuffling awkwardly in place, and after some serious internal debate, slowly sat back down.

It was just the two of us. Alone.

This was officially the worst day of my life.

The bus dips into a pothole, roughly jostling my elbow right into Lucas's stomach. After an episode of me wildly panicking over his doubled-over form, and Lucas repeatedly reassuring me that the blow hadn't killed him, any residual awkwardness is thankfully averted when Lucas jerks his head down into a quiet sneeze.

Ah, bless him.

I tell him such.

"Thanks," Lucas croaks. His eyes are glazed and out-of-focus. Damn, forget chills, Lucas looks downright miserable.

"Why didn't you take the heater back this morning?" I say furiously, even though I already know the answer. I'm only venting at this point. "See, this is the kind of shit that happens when you wander around late at night. You don't wrap up warm, it gets cold, and you get sick-"

"I don't wander around at night," Lucas protests, stifling another sniffle. "I missed the bus from Twoson and had to walk back-"

I jerked my head back in surprise. "Twoson? What were you doing in Twoson?"

"I wanted to spend some time away from home."

Understandable. I know that feeling all too well.

Watching the trees blur past, I rest my head against the cracked, spongy seat.

Lucas slowly dips his head. His breathing sounds low and ragged. "Your mom's worried sick about you."

"I'll call her later-"

"You're in town. You should go see her as soon as you can."

"I will. I mean, I'm not going to stay at your place overnight!" I say, pretending to sound offended. "What do you take me for, a freeloader?"

"Glad to see that we're on the same page," he agrees.

I flick him in the forehead. "You're the worst."

"Right back at you."

Hmm. Not a bad comeback. I silently tuck the phrase into mind for future reference.

Lucas's frown deepens. No shit, he's picked up on my sudden disquiet. "Why are you avoiding her."

"I'm not avoiding her," I say feebly, but when Lucas shoots me a flat look, I wince, involuntarily betraying myself. Damn it, he keeps seeing through me.

My shoulders sag over. "Okay, I miss my mom, but I'm afraid of going back," I admit, fiddling with the brim of my cap. All of a sudden, my skin feels cold and clammy. "The last time I went home... was the last time I saw my dad."

Lucas's expression turns serious. "Your mom needs you as much as you need her," he says, I'm taken aback by the firm conviction in his voice.

"All right, I'll go home as soon as we land," I mutter. When Lucas gives a low hum of agreement, my eyes flicker to his, and it's all I can do not to think hey I kissed this stupid face last night. Then it dawns on me that I really did kiss him, and my mouth falls open on its own accord like a gaping fish.

Lucas uncomfortably shifts in his seat. Crap, no doubt he's starting to feel the awkward wall between us. I have to get rid of it fast. This is a feat that calls for subtlety. I bite the inside of my cheek. Yeah, sure. I can pull off subtle.

"I'm sorry I kissed you," I blurt out.

Whelp, there went subtle. Right out the window.

Lucas's face turns a fierce shade of scarlet. He's suddenly not looking my way, and his Adam's apple dips as he swallows. "It was a dare, Ness. You don't have to apologize."

I manage to find my voice. "Right," I say, nodding furiously. "It was a dare. Between friends."

"Lucas is aware of your feelings for him. He will not encourage them, and you will do the same. If necessary, I will separate you into different rooms. And if worst comes to worst, I will take disciplinary measures... Measures you won't be happy for me to take. Do you understand?"

It's for the best.

Unable to look him in the face, my eyes glue themselves to my shoes. "So... it took me a while, but I sorted everything out last night." I take a deep breath and quickly spew it out. "Idon'tactuallylikeyou! Well, I mean... I think I really liked you a lot as a friend and got confused-" I feel my own cheeks turn hot like a furnace. Okay, this is getting way too cheesy and OoC for my taste. I force a grin and sock him in the shoulder. "Ha. Haha, got you! April fools!"

"It's early November."

"Same difference," I say cheerfully, clapping a hand on his shoulder and forcing myself to ignore the painful pang in my chest. "Like I said, I was kidding, Lucas, so stop taking everything I say so seriously."

A hint of a frown creases Lucas's forehead.

He isn't fooled.

I drop the smile. "No, seriously," I mumble, playing with my fingers. "I do like you, but I realized it wasn't... it wasn't in that way. I got homesick, and you're from Onett too, so I - Lucas, you know how I get when I get homesick." Still feeling his eyes X-ray me, I bury my furiously blushing face into my hands. "Please, Lucas," I beg, squirming in the spot. "If you have even the smallest shred of mercy inside that cold heart of yours, swear to Mount Everest that you'll never bring this back up again."

Lucas breaks into that stupid smirk of his. "Oh, I don't know, Ness. I like you a lot too-"

Dying of mortification, I lightly punch him in the stomach. "Shut upppp," I wail.

Lucas relaxes back into his seat with a warm smile. His feverish eyes flicker over the ceiling of the bus. "Then we can forget about last night. It never happened."

But it did happen. I tasted him on my lips. I skimmed my fingers across the back of his head, untangled the knots in the golden strands of his hair. Suddenly, the ache in my chest doubles, and I have to resist the urge to press my hands against my ribs because it really feels as if my heart is painfully pounding its way out of my chest. I open my mouth, but don't know what to say. What can I say? That I liked kissing him? That I still wasn't over him yet? That I wanted to forget about the way his eyes would magically draw mine in for a smile, but didn't know how?

Lucas's like and my like are two very different likes. Lucas never had real friends before. Hell, what he thought was a crush had probably been some sort of lingering attachment. He'd even said it himself. Puppy love. Nothing serious.

"I think I had a crush once, but it's not exactly the same thing."

It makes sense. I'm the first friend he's ever had. Of course he's attached to me. It's like the chicken-and-egg thing - you know, where the baby chick follows the first moving thing it sees and calls it friend... Imprinting. Yeah, that!

I scrunch up my eyes. I didn't love him. I didn't love him. I didn't love him. Maybe if I keep repeating it enough times in my head, it'll become the truth. I'll get over my stupid crush, everything will turn back to normal, and Lucas will stop looking at me with that carefully guarded look in his eyes. I've known him long enough to know that the blank look on his face was a defensive mask, a shield Lucas hid behind whenever he felt unsettled.

I want him to be happy. Even if it means swallowing down my feelings for him.

Lucas is my friend. That has always come first, and that would never change.

The bus lurches again. I tug the brim of my hat over my face. It's a good thing that Lucas is sick, because on any other day, he would've noticed that I'd lied to his face.

Sliding on our bags, we step out at the local bakery. The bus rattles away in a puff of smoke, and I lift my head, inhaling the buttery smell of fresh croissants. I excitedly point out the fat fruit tarts glistening proudly in the front display of Paris Baguette, and we stand, admiring the bakery. I declare how their new choux cream bites are the bomb, but Lucas is quick to disagree, pointing out that their traditional nut bread is better. We end up bickering all the way to the end of the block.

I successfully mess up his hair once more for good measure before fondly shoving him forward. "You're sick. Go sleep it off."

"I will." Lucas's eyes have yet to leave my face, and intimidated by his X-ray scrutiny, I swallow hard and resist the urge to duck my head. Bracing myself with a deep breath, I square my shoulders and look him straight in the eye. Challenging him, challenging myself. I have to prove it. I didn't love him, I didn't love him, I didn't, didn't, didn't-

Shifting his eyes to the sky, Lucas breaks into a small smile. "It's snowing."

The sudden break in silence throws me off. "Uhduhuh," I sputter. Horrified, I cover my mortified face with the brim of my cap. Ahhhh, shit! Fuck! What is wrong with me?

Something cold touches my nose. Momentarily distracted from my embarrassment, I perk my head up in excitement. Snow! In a sudden bout of childishness, I whirl around, extend my arms in a circle, and open my mouth. A snowflake melts on my tongue.

I probably look like an idiot, hopping around and sticking my tongue out into open air, but Lucas giving into choked laughter makes everything so much more worth it. I grin wider. It's been a while since I've seen Lucas smile so much in one day, and his happiness is infectious.

"Joo shoo faste uhn doo," I say.

"You look stupid," he says back.

I punch him in the shoulder.

"In a good way," he corrects himself.

I punch him in the shoulder again.

Lucas groans and rubs his right arm. "I swear, this is child abuse."

"Fine." I stagger over and punch his other shoulder. "Better?"

"I think you killed both of my arms."

Grinning like a fool, I hitch up my backpack. "Well, I'm heading home. See ya, Casanova."

The sound of snow crunching from behind forces me to do a complete one-eighty. Coming to a full stop himself, Lucas uncomfortably hunches his shoulders over the snow, and I raise an eyebrow in question. Strange. It isn't like him not to get the hint.

"Uh, hey. Isn't your apartment the other way?" I press. When Lucas shrugs, averting his eyes (a dead giveaway meaning, uh, I don't know... YES?), I can't help but crack a small smile. Even while sick, Lucas is worried about me getting mugged in the streets at night. Though nothing here can stand a match against me. Worry wart.

Or maybe he's scared of walking home alone.

I break into a wider grin. "Want me to walk you home?" I ask, half-joking, half-serious.

That snaps him out of his stupor.

Slowly, Lucas turns to face me. His silhouette shifts against the starry horizon, and I catch the contours of his skinny shoulders against the dying city lights. Half-melted snow glitters on his hair like a crown. The tip of his nose glows red from the cold.

"I'm fine, thanks." Lucas's voice is soft. Impossibly soft and sincere with an underlying hint of something else. His eyes shift to my face. "I knew you could get over it. I'm..." Lucas pauses, visibly struggling for the right thing to say, and in a way, his awkwardness is endearing. "I'm glad."

My chest tightens. "Me too."

Relaxing, Lucas dips his head. A puff of white escapes from his mouth into the cold air. Cracking a small smile himself, Lucas shuffles in place, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "You... take care." With a strange sort of shyness, Lucas raises his fingers towards my face. Too high for a fist bump, too low for a high five. I raise my eyebrows, confused at what the heck he's trying to do when his hand lightly brushes against the top of my head and ruffles my hair.

This. Little. Fucker! I can't believe he's rubbing his height into my face now of all times! Puffing my cheeks up in indignation, I try to shove his hand off my head. "Hey, hey, watch it. Only I get to do that."

He arches an eyebrow. "Really now."

"Cause I'm older than you. I turn eighteen in August. You turn seventeen in May." I proudly stick my chest out. "Respect your elders."

Lucas does that quiet chuckle under his breath, then lifts his hand off my head. "Point taken. Catch you later, Old Man."

I feebly sputter for a suitable comeback, but the words clog up my throat. With a last smirk, Lucas waves me off and saunters out of sight, his shoulders hunched over in an idiosyncratic slouch.

I didn't love him. I didn't love him!

I stand in the snow until my face turns numb from denial.

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~oO0Oo~

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After that, I like to have said that I spent a good thirty minutes walking through the landscape of my childhood and thoughtfully reminiscing on nostalgic memories, et cetera, et cetera, but really, I was a lazy ass and teleported home.

The short trip was well worth it. When I burst onto the front porch, dripping ash all over the Welcome mat, my mom hurries over in a heartbeat. She's gotten so used to my shenanigans that nothing fazes her now. Like, oh, hey look, there's Ness! He's teleporting out of thin air. Typical Tuesday Night.

Mom nearly crushes me in her iron hold.

"Oh, my baby," she whispers, squeezing me tight, and just like that, my worries melt away. Like I'm five again and tripped over the playground slide, with my mom placing a band-aid on my knees and saying shh sweetie everything's gonna be okay and I believed her.

My mother is a beautiful woman, inside and out. I wish I inherited her blond hair and kind blue eyes, but somewhere during the baby-making process, my DNA went Fuck it and gave me all of my dad's genes. Messy black hair, check. Broad shoulders, double check. I inherited everything from my dad, from his mischievous, crooked smile right down to the weird violet eyes that gleam scarlet if I angle my head the right way against the sun. No matter where I go, I'm a walking reminder of my deadbeat dad.

After my mom fusses over me and ushers me to the table to eat, a familiar whine echoes down the stairs. "Mom, can I go watch Moana tonight?"

Mom doesn't even bat an eye at the interruption. "Tracy, what did I say about going out on school nights?"

"Pleaaaase? All my friends are going to watch the midnight premiere-"

Mom slaps the towel onto the dishwasher holder. "It's too late out for a thirteen-year-old to wander off alone."

"I won't be alone. I'll be with my friends. Mary Jane said that her mom was going to drop us off-"

"It's too late out."

"That's the point of a midnight premiere!"

Mom purses her lips. I recognize the look. It's the Young lady, I do not approve look. "Tracy."

Tracy's arrival is signaled by the rising fanfare of her voice and the staccato of her feet. I can tell that she's annoyed from the way her feet slaps down the stairs. "Mom, please? The theater's literally ten minutes away by car-" Catching sight of me, Tracy skids to a halt. Her jaw drops. "Ness?"

"Hey, little sis," I say, cracking a grin.

There really is no place like home.

As if she's forgotten completely about the fact that "everyone in the whole wide world is going to see Moana," my little sister flounces over. I wonder how Tracy is able to avoid bumping into walls with the almost anti-gravity way she skips around. Impressive, really, considering that she isn't a psychic.

"Shut. Up. You never said that you were coming home!" Tracy says excitedly. She too, like my mother, is a classic blonde with blue eyes.

I sheepishly scratch the back of my neck. "It's a long story, but I'm here on business."

Tracy rolls her eyes. "Right, I forgot. Apparently you're too famous to talk to me-"

I stick my tongue out. "Don't insult the celebrity."

"Careful, your gay is coming out," Tracy smirks, crossing her arms.

Mom slams the faucet off. "Tracy, apologize," she says suddenly.

"It's true, mom-"

"True or not, you will not disrespect your brother under this roof."

Tracy sulks. "Sorry."

My cheeks burns. "Mom, it's okay. I don't mind talking about it-"

"Of course, you don't," Mom says absentmindedly, turning around to close the dishwasher. Something beeps down the corridor - the old laundry machine. The refreshing scent of fresh clothes wafts into the kitchen like a summer breeze. Without a minute to waste, Mom bustles past us, only pausing to ruffle my hair and kiss me on the forehead. "Stay home for as long as you want," she says warmly, then hurries out of the kitchen with her hands full of detergent.

Tracy plops down beside me at the table, her long blonde pigtails swaying after her like two tug-of-war ropes. Her eyes trail after the swinging kitchen door. "Mom was pretty shocked when you came out," she says quietly.

My stomach drops. I lower my spoon. "In a good way, or a bad way?" I say, taking this as the cue to quiet down as well.

"I don't know. She's never had anything against LGBT rights... but she never expected you to be part of it either." Catching the look on my face, Tracy quickly adds, "I wouldn't worry! She's coming around. Give her time." Her eyes suddenly turn fierce. "But I don't care that you're gay."

"I think I'm actually bi, but thanks, Trace," I say softly.

Tracy's eyes light up. "Does this mean that we can check out guys together?"

I accidentally laugh, snorting milk up my nose, and with a disgusted exclamation, Tracy leaps away from the table. "Ew, that's gross!"

I scrunch up my nose. "You're gross," I say, but muffled through a wad of napkins it sounds more like Nyour gwoss.

"You're grosser."

"Little Miss Grossenstein."

Tracy goes in for the kill. "Mom, Ness called me a Little Miss Grossenstein," she wails.

"Did not-"

"Did too!"

Of course, Mom returns to the kitchen and starts chewing Tracy out for disturbing the neighbors so late at night, and I take no small satisfaction in Tracy's childish pout, because younger siblings always win. It looks like Mom has taken my side today because I just arrived home. My smile widens, and when Mom isn't looking, Tracy turns her nose up, pokes me in the ribs, and skips away.

Little sisters, amiright?

Then Mom takes a seat across from me, and all of a sudden, the tension hits me like a ten ton truck. My heart constricts, as if a clamp has closed around my chest.

She starts off with small talk. Mostly, it's about Smash. Do I have a lot of work, is the fighting too intense, is the food okay. Somewhere, she tosses college into the mix.

"Brawling is a tough life," she says softly. "I hear that Smash City has a good university."

"I've heard about it from the guys. I think Link's a third year now," I respond vaguely, but my mind is too distracted by my mom's five-star cooking, because her grilled steak and potatoes are the bomb. "But I know that Paula's applying for the merit scholarship this year-"

"The full-tuition merit scholarship?"

"Yeah, it's offered to the top ten entrance exam scorers. Paula's definitely getting it. She's smart-"

"You scored good marks on your GED."

I internally groan. I know exactly where this conversation is headed. See, my mom thinks that I'm a smart cookie. Admittedly I'm not rock-dumb, but I'm no Dexter or Mandark. I don't have the book-smarts. I can't sit still in a classroom all day without feeling like my soul is being sucked out of my brain.

"Mom, I don't want to go to college," I whine piteously.

Still my mom is stubborn. "If you ever decide to change your mind about your future career, you should take their entrance exam in April."

I shift in place. "I'll think about it," I promise, but I have no intention of applying, much less of taking another standardized test.

Because I'm seventeen and underage, any pay I earn from Smash Mansion goes straight to my legal guardian - aka my mom. But she's had the good sense to invest the money into my personal bank account. The little she does keep aside is geared towards college funds.

Just in case, she says.

But I couldn't help but wonder what my mom actually thought of me. I was her oldest son, but there wasn't much going for me. I'm no all-star valedictorian like Tracy. I'm a Smasher, but not a super famous one at that. A mediocre brawler, at best. Middle school dropout. One hella sexually-confused kid who saved humanity from the alien overlord Giygas.

My mom sounded so supportive over the phone...

But was she all right with me not being straight?

Was she really?

Something about her hypocrisy makes me feel lightheaded. I push my dinner aside. As if recognizing my discomfort, mom falls back. Her eyes take on a sad glimmer that is all too familiar.

I know that look.

It's the look mom wore when dad left her for somebody else.

Gently, my mom rests her hand over mine. "Honey-"

I suddenly stand up, pulling my hand back. The lump in my throat refuses to go down. "I'm going to bed," I manage to say, my voice trembling.

My mom only watches me with that sad look on her face.

Blinking back the stinging sensation from my eyes, I push my chair in and sprint up the stairs to my room.

 

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

It all happened in a split second. In front of me, my mom stands, her feet planted into the ground, her eyes blazing, her arms outstretched against something I can't see. I run to her side, but in a frantic rush of incoherent words, Claus fumbles for my arm and drags me away.

A flash of green blinds my eyes. A resounding roar rings in my ears. A woman's bloodcurdling scream tears through the night.

She's gone.


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~Chapter Fourteen~

When Victory Tastes Sweet

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The early morning sun peeks over the horizon. The sound of birdsong tentatively peeps into the air, and a low, shivering gong fills the Buddhist temple with life.

Bright yellow petals adorn her smiling portrait.

Hinawa.

Laying the sunflowers on the golden metallic shrine, I push myself back onto my numb knees. I can't remember why, but after the fatal car accident on New Years Eve, no one retrieved my mother's body for a proper cremation.

That didn't stop my father from changing the flowers at her makeshift grave. Daily.

As soon as I returned home last night with groceries, Dad clapped a heavy hand on my shoulder and stopped me in place.

"It's been a while. Go visit your mother," he said gruffly.

The smoky essence of scented candles gently tickles my nose. A stray whisper of wind swirls through the marble clearing, dancing around the jars of the cremated with a soft sigh. My thoughts linger towards the fate of my runaway brother. Dead, Master Hand implied. Dead, like my mother - dead without a body to bury.

No, Claus promised me he'll return. He's alive. He has to be alive.

I close my eyes and try not to think.

As they always do, things returned to their normal pace. My fever passed. Dad slowly recovered from his pneumonia. The bank mailed over a new credit card, and the phone company promised to reimburse my lost phone.

Then there was Ness.

His daily visits were expected, but unexpected. Skipping over at random times to slamdunk servings of his mom's soup onto my kitchen counter, Ness was a welcome reprieve to my monotonous routine, but aside from a cheery word or two, he left as quickly as he arrived. I didn't question it. It had been a long while since Ness had gone home - a long while according to his standards. He most likely wanted time to catch up with his own family.

As I'd correctly predicted, Ness's "crush" was only a fleeting phase. He'd finally sorted out his feelings. The revelation should've left me glad and relieved, but all I felt instead was empty.

I'm not quite sure why.

So I start running again - partly because the Winter Championships is rearing its ugly head around the corner, and partly because I want to keep my mind off of things. Something. Someone. My lungs burn. One foot after another. Panting as the cold early morning air sears my throat raw, I double over on my burning thighs.

Ness can afford to make mistakes. He's a member of the Original Twelve. He's only known a life around people who love him, around people who care and support and back his every move on the playing field. Naive and trusting, Ness has had everything planned out for him from the minute he became the Chosen Boy on his quest.

I don't have that luxury. My family is in debt. When we first moved to Onett with nothing but the dirt on our hands and the clothes on our back, my dad initially had trouble finding work. Even after he found a steady income, our staggering debt remained. Interest rates skyrocketed. Bills stacked up over time. Money is money, and the price has to be paid.

I'm doing the right thing. Ness doesn't understand. His reputation is at stake. I'm trying to save both of our careers from the chopping block.

But somehow, with a single sentence, Ness had soundly put me to shame.

"Well, I think you're more important to me than my stupid job!"

I dig my nails into my skin. I needed the money. I needed this job. And because of Ness's declaration of love, my job as a Smasher is on the line - a job that Master Hand can snatch away in an instant and replace with a pink slip. Yet I find that I can't bring myself to get mad at Ness, because he didn't mean to screw us over. Beneath his huge pride, Ness means well. He doesn't admit it, and most likely won't ever admit it, but often times, it's no surprise when he ends up placing my well-being before his own. His carelessness is troublesome, but my own indecision even more so.

I don't know what I want.

I take in a shaky breath. It's all my fault. I never should've let Ness kiss me, because now I feel confused and strange and awkward and not myself. My pale reflection glances back at me from the bakery windows. This scared person isn't me. This scared person can't be me.

And it isn't because I find myself thinking about how Ness would snort on his popcorn during a rom-com. Or how he would sock me in the shoulder with a lopsided grin on his face. Or how he would scrunch up his face and cry like a baby when he was sad. Or how he'd get embarrassed for going soft and vehemently deny it to the ends of the earth until his face turned red.

Ness is my best friend. Ness is just my best friend.

I kick into a vicious sprint.

It isn't until three days after the supermarket trip when I finally spot Ness again. He's crouching off the edge of the icy boardwalk, his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead, and in one fluid motion, he snaps out his legs like a spring. I watch him go soaring and spinning like a corkscrew before his fingers nab his skateboard in midair. With the impossible ease of a parkour artist, he twists around and lands lightly back on his feet.

Something about the way Ness takes off is breathtaking. It reminds me why he was elected one of the Chosen Twelve.

Even though he sure doesn't act like it.

Spotting me, Ness's eyes brighten up in recognition. "Lucas!" he yells, waving his arms like a toddler on a kiddy slide.

I throw a snowball at his face.

Headshot!

Giving a screech worthy of a flustered chicken, Ness topples backwards and falls flat on his rear. When he wildly whirls around, face pale in shock and hair matted with snow, I helplessly clutch my ribs and break into a laugh.

Not a minute later, a scowling Ness wrestles me down into a headlock and dumps a whole sheet of snow down my shirt.

I recoil violently. "C-Cold!" I say, my teeth chattering.

"That's for ambushing me," Ness says, panting and bent double. He extends an arm and helps me back onto my feet. "Huh, you're out early. Are you running laps around the neighborhood?"

"I'm timing myself."

"And...?"

"I got slower," I groan, patting the snow off my damp clothes. "I'm so out of shape-"

Ness looks at me incredulously. "Are you freakin' serious? Have you seen me?! I'm the one out of shape. Like, look at me-" He gestures to his stomach. "I'm a fatass."

I snort. "Ness, stop."

"No, you stop. You don't understand the short people struggle," Ness moans and buries his face back into the snow, muffling his voice. "I'm so faaaat."

I enviously glance at his well-toned calves. No matter how hard I trained, I could never gain muscle mass as easily as Ness could. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the past three days off.

"I ate an entire pizza last friday," Ness continues miserably. "And a tub of icecream. And a whole bag of cheetos. All in two hours."

"Good grief."

"I know. I wanted to throw up."

Shaking my head, I check my one-dollar watch. Its hands point at six O' clock. Perfect timing. Most of Onett starts stirring around seven. We can easily avoid unwanted eyes and return home with enough time to spare.

"I'm thinking about getting something to eat," I begin. "The bakery should be open for breakfast-"

At the word breakfast, Ness's eyes light up like a kid's on Christmas Day. "FOOD!" he screams before shoving me aside and sprinting away like a five-year-old hyped up on sugar.

The race is hardly fair. When I skid in front of Crepe King a horrible sweaty mess, gasping and clutching the stitches at my side, Ness lifts his head and shoots me such a smug look that I have to resist the urge to knock it off his face. Stupid, smol ball of energy.

"I win," he crows, proudly puffing up his chest like a rooster.

Still wheezing over my knees, I'm too busy trying to catch my breath to give a proper retort. "You... had a fucking... skateboard..."

Ness watches me expectantly as if waiting for me to award him the Medal of Valor. When I refuse to give him what he deigns a satisfying reaction of one who has lost, he struts over like an overly-proud peacock. "Praise me!" he chirps.

"For what?"

"For winning!"

I push his sweaty head away. "No."

Ness isn't to be deterred. He fists my shirt. "I won fair and square," he insists. "I'm awesome! Praise me!"

"I can't believe you're older than me," I deadpan, extricating my shirt out of his grip.

Shoulders slumping into a sulk, Ness trudges into the bakery. "One day, I'll make you admit how amazing I am."

"Good luck with that."

"Good luck with that," Ness mimics in a poor imitation of my voice, and when I shoot him a pointed look, he gives an undignified squeak and backpedals away. Within seconds, he peeps back around the condiment counter. "I'm paying," he declares firmly, drawing himself back up. His eyes flicker to mine as if daring me to argue, but when I don't, he socks me goodnaturedly in the shoulder and leaps over the counter with a wild whoop.

Watching the bill of his cap bob amidst the empty store, I absentmindedly rub my sore arm. I don't know how Ness does it. He makes touching look so easy, so natural. Hugging me. Ruffling my hair. Socking me in the shoulder. Friendly gestures. Encouraging gestures.

My stomach does a weird back-flip.

Embarrassed, I duck my head. It's not fair that I still feel so flustered and awkward and weird when Ness is acting so scarily normal and on-point to his character. Ness skips back over, and I vaguely take in whatever excited chatter he's spewing out now. Something about hotdogs. I think.

I steel my nerves. It's hypocritical of me to expect Ness to play his part alone when we're stuck in this together. This means that I have to stop avoiding him like the plague and reassure him that we're still friends... somehow.

It's what friends do.

It's what best friends do.

Swallowing down my trepidation, I slowly reach for the top of his head.

Then Ness turns around, and I quickly withdraw my hand, pretending to reach for the napkin dispenser at his side. Happily oblivious to my awkward attempts to socialize, Ness beams widely, one generously chocolate-drizzled, fruit-topped crepe in each hand.

"This one's for you," he announces, shoving it into my agape hands. "Cause you lost."

"I'm touched."

Ness's eyes light up with the competitive spark I know all too well. "I know! Let's see who can eat the fastest!"

I give a long-suffering groan. "But I want to enjoy my crepe-"

"Three, two-"

"If anyone asks, I don't know you-"

"-one!" With a loud omnomnom, Ness crams his entire crepe into his mouth - a feat that makes me cringe in disgust - and with his cheeks bulging with food like a hamster, swallows it all down in one go. Messily wiping the chocolate syrup off his mouth, Ness checks his watch. "Ten aaand a half seconds. Okay, your turn!"

"I forfeit."

Ness pokes me in the shoulder with the tip of his skateboard. "Lucas-" he whines.

"This is dumb," I say plainly.

Ness puffs his cheeks up like a hamster. "You're dumb."

"That's a weak comeback, even for you, Ness."

"Just once, please?" he begs, tagging along my heels. "For me?"

I roll my eyes. "Then that's a definite no."

The fire dies from his eyes. Ness's shoulders slump over into a sulk. "You never do anything fun."

Is he trying to guilt-trip me? I raise an eyebrow. Clever tactic, but it's not going to work. Dessert wins over friendship, hands down. When Ness stays miserably quiet, I spare him a tentative side-glance.

Ness is still sulking.

It's in that moment of clarity that I come to my senses and recognize the precious, everlasting value of friendship. And deep, deep down in my heart of hearts, I know exactly what I have to do.

I unwrap the foil around my crepe. "Start the timer."

In total disbelief, Ness snaps his head up. "For real?!"

"For real."

As if he had never been depressed, Ness shoots up and excitedly scrambles for his own watch. "Okay, okay," he says, setting the timer, then expectantly glances up at me. "Ready... set..." He slams the button. "Go!"

Breaking into a slow smirk, I take a bite of my crepe... as leisurely as I can.

Within the blink of an eye, Ness's expression changes from puppydog excitement to the unadulterated fury of one who has been soundly duped. "You're not even trying," he hisses.

"I'm trying." Dramatically raising a finger, I pause. And swallow. "Trying to take my sweet time."

"Lazy ass," he mutters under his breath.

"I like chocolate," I say innocently. I chew a mouthful of crepe, savoring the sweet, sweet taste of victory and enjoying the indignant scowl on Ness's face too much for my own good before taking another infuriatingly slow bite. "Mmm. This crepe is DELICIOUS. Too bad you ate all of yours."

Ness storms out of the bakery. "You're a horrible human being. I hope you choke."

"Why, thank you," I say cheerfully, and Ness whirls around to sock me in the shoulder...

But not before I grab hold of his head and roughly ruffle his hair.

Triggered. Clapping a hand over the laugh that threatens to escape from my mouth, I push myself out of the bakery and sprint away for dear life as Ness quickly takes chase, hollering angry expletives in my direction.

Yes, life is good again.

 

Chapter Text

[prologue]


 

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~Chapter Fifteen~

The Birds and the Bees, Mostly the Bees

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In hindsight, playing tag in broad daylight wasn't a good idea.

It's a no brainer, really, that the paparazzi were roaming around Onett. Fucking hell, an entire horde of them had been marching around, clamoring and yelling our names, and if it hadn't been for Lucas's telepathic senses screaming PEOPLE ALERT, we would've been caught up in the sea of cameras and mikes. We hastily had to take refuge, ducking into an abandoned alleyway by the pizza store for a handful of minutes before we decided to book it.

And by book it, I meant teleport back home.

My home.

I sneak a glance at the still statue beside me. Whatever playfulness Lucas expressed earlier is gone. His eyes are a fraction too wide, his face drained of all color, his cold fingers slightly shaky in mine. I quickly let go of Lucas's hand. Shit, fuck. I've forgotten how much Lucas hates the paparazzi. It reminds me of how much hot water we're still in. If the paparazzi had snapped even one photo of us fooling around and taken it out of context...

My stomach drops.

Seriously, goddamn nosy assholes. I just want five fucking minutes to hang out with my best mate. FIVE. Is that too much to ask for?

I grab one of Lucas's cold, limp hands. "Follow me," I say, dragging him towards the front porch.

Lucas doesn't resist. He stumbles behind me like a zombie sleep walker, frozen and unaware of what the hell is going on. He must still be shell-shocked. When I haul him up the wooden porch and fumble for my keys, the door swings open to reveal my little sister.

"Good morning, asshat. I thought I heard you at the door," Tracy yawns in her pink bunny jammies and messy long pigtails. Oh, right, I've forgotten that she's home. Something about a school holiday, or some-really-old-historical-dude's birthday today.

Scowling, I brush past her. "Where's mom?"

"Still sleeping. Why?"

I kick my Nikes off and stuff them into the shoe cabinet. "Don't tell her I'm awake."

Skipping after me, Tracy breaks into a stupid smirk. "Why?" she chirps in her annoying sing-song voice.

"Because."

"Because why?"

"Because I said so, you twat." I hurriedly push her back. "Stay inside. The paparazzi are after me."

"Again?" she whines. "Ugh, what did you do now? Make another public demonstration on gay rights?" When I don't answer, Tracy stomps her foot like a child depraved of ice cream. "Ness? Ness, stop ignoring me-" Tracy finally catches sight of the person behind me, and her eyes turn round. "L-Lucas?"

"Hi, Tracy," Lucas says quietly. Even while slouching, he towers over her by a good foot.

Staring up at him like he's popped out of thin air, Tracy raises a trembling hand. "H-Hi?" she squeaks. "Ngh... How's... how are you doing?"

AhH, I don't have time for this! I impatiently shove my sister up the stairs. "Lucas doesn't need to hear about your lowkey crush on him too, so shut up and go back to sleep."

Tracy's face flushes beet red. "What? I'm not crushing on him, stupid! He's like, a totally better brother than you are- Wait..." She goes wide-eyed, turning to Lucas with an incredulous look on her face. "Are you two-"

"Leave us alone, dirtbag," I snap.

Displeased, Tracy turns her nose up with a disdainful sniff. "I'm telling mom," she says, even though I know she won't, and flounces up the stairs. As soon as she disappears into her room, pigtails and all, Lucas's shoulders visibly relax. The click of her bedroom door echoes throughout the house.

Breathing deeply, I pinch the bridge of my nose. I'm definitely going to hear an earful from her later. "Little sisters are such a pain." Then I throw a glare at the oblivious idiot beside me. "See, this is why you need to stop looking so attractive."

Lucas shoots me a skeptical Who, me? Oh, this poor soul. I grab his hand. "C'mon. Let's go upstairs."

We take the stairs two at a time. I can hear Lucas breathing behind me, hear the soft thump of his feet against the carpeted stairs before we dive into the safety of my room.

"Gimme your hand," I demand like I haven't dragged him up the past few flights of stairs, and before waiting for him to respond, lightly squeeze his palm. His fingers are a lot warmer than before, less rigid and stiff in my grip. Lucas is getting over his shock. I sigh in relief and let go of his hand. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Lucas's eyes quickly dart away, roaming over my bedroom walls before resting on the nude-shot All-Star Venus poster. A pink flush creeps up the back of his neck before he flusters and ducks his head.

I bite down on my lip. Goddammit, why does he have to be so fucking adorable?

Instantly Lucas's face turns a lobster red.

It doesn't take me long to realize that (1) I've said that last part out loud and (2) I've said that last part out loud. Motherfucking shit!

My cheeks boil up. "That's what my mom said! She thinks that you're adorable."

Aaand I think I just delivered the death blow. I can almost see the steam shooting out of Lucas's mortified ears, and mouth agape, he's flushing so furiously that his blush is starting to spread across his neck and down the back of his skinny arms. After what looks like much internal struggle, Lucas shuffles in place and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

"She... bakes good cookies," he says awkwardly.

If I wasn't too busy feeling mortified myself, I might have laughed at his choice of words. She makes good cookies? Oh, Lucas. Silly Lucas. Better make the best of his mortified state until he starts trolling me again.

"You mind if I turn on some tunes?" I ask, and when Lucas shakes his head, I buzz my computer on. Looking very much conflicted, Lucas lingers uncertainly by the threshold of my bedroom.

I raised my eyebrows. "You know, you can come in."

"I should go home," he says softly.

Like fucking hell I'm letting the paparazzi mob him. I kick one of my old jeans out of the way to clear out a nice spot on the floor. "Hey, wanna watch something dope?"

And that's how we spend the rest of the day, with me and Lucas watching South Park and chilling on the cluttered mess of clothes strewn over the floor. With no one to bother us. With no one to peek and poke and prod.

It's a nice break from the society that wanted to eat us alive.

Halfway through another episodic rendition of Oh my God, they killed Kenny!, I take a quick glance in Lucas's direction, and snort when he's nodding off again, his head dipping into his chest. His blond hair's still a mess from the early morning work-out, and every couple of seconds or so, Lucas's head would bob lower and lower until he jerks himself out of his doze, because whoever the hell is outside is making a pretty loud racket-

"It's the paparazzi," Lucas mutters, and I jump. Straining my ears, I can hear them more clearly now through the closed blue curtains - the annoying clicks and snaps of a thousand tell-tale cameras. I smack the side of my head. Duh. There have been sightings of me around town; some of the more eager reporters would've headed to my house for a hopeful glimpse or two. Good thing my room is on the second floor.

I consider opening the window to flip them off.

"Don't," Lucas says.

I jolt in shock. Geez, it's like Lucas is psychic. I take that back - Lucas is psychic. "Did you read my-"

"No." Lucas stretches his arms. "You had that crazy look in your eyes again."

I make a face at him and turn around. Of course. Lucas couldn't read someone's mind whenever he felt like it. Eye contact was involved, or some shit of the sort. From what he's told me, larger crowds make it harder for him to concentrate, and even if Lucas can read my mind, I know that he won't. At least, not on purpose. There's an unspoken etiquette that all psychics follow. Namely, don't fuck with my mind and I won't fuck with yours.

Still, the accuracy of Lucas's sharp perception scares the piss out of me.

I experimentally flex my hands. There's so much overlap between our psychic powers - clairvoyance, elemental psychokinesis, et cetera - that it's really hard to set Lucas and me apart. But I'll do my best to spare you the time and water down the main differences.

Lucas is the lucky one. He's a telepath. A mindreader. Like the kind you see in the rad X-men Marvel comics. He can read and project thoughts within a certain radius. He can read everyone's motherfucking mind. Like, how freaking badass is that?

Then you have me. The empath. I can sense feelings through touch. Toss in a whole bunch of empathy links somewhere into the mix, and we're good. Oh yeah, and my telepathy-slash-mindreading powers are shit. The end. That's pretty much about it.

Seriously, fuck empathy links. I'm already an emotional clusterfuck twenty-four seven, so adding empath on top of that... god, no wonder my life's a nuclear disaster of feelings. My whole goddamn name is a suffix for emotion, for crying out loud. Sadness, happiness... gayness. Heh.

All right, I admit that my empathy links can be pretty cool. Most of the time, I don't even realize that they're there. They chill on the side doing their own touchy-feely thing, and grow stronger the more I got to know someone. Like, new friend? BAM! Have a free empathy link!

Maybe that's why I like to socialize a lot. I like the warm, tingly sensation of the empathy links flaring up like Christmas lights. Hell whenever they flare up, I can tell that somehow, someone I know is happy, and it genuinely makes me happy, because I know they're happy. But like all mental links, my empathy links are a two way street. I can read everyone's feelings, but occasionally, I get so worked up that everyone else can feel what I'm feeling. So I guess keeping my crush a secret from Lucas for an entire year is pretty fucking impressive on its own right.

And there he goes, ruffling my hair again. I bat his hand aside with a scowl, but Lucas's lips only twitch into an approximation of a smirk.

On one end, you have me. The emotional train wreck.

Then on the other end, you have Lucas, whose empathy link flatlined like a dead fish attached to a failing heart monitor. Lucas is hard to read... because he is hard to read. Sometimes, I'm lucky to strike gold and feel subtle twinges, little jerks of feeling in our empathy link, but whenever I do, I can't tell what Lucas is feeling, much less why. Not that I expect as much. Lucas is calm and composed. He keeps his shit together, and it shows.

Weirdly enough, I kind of understand. Lucas is super awkward when it comes to talking about himself. No shit, he doesn't do feelings. He's not the type of person to sit down and open up, so really, it's the little things that show that he cares.

Like right now. He's ruffling my hair again. A part of me is tempted to scowl at his smirking face and tell him to piss off, but Lucas knows exactly how to play the game. He backs off whenever he senses that I'm not in the mood, then strikes back later when I least expect it. If I didn't know him better, I would've thought that he was acting playful.

Though in all honesty, I'm pretty sure that Lucas just likes to troll me.

Skinny bastard.

The change is subtle, really, but that's how I know it's important. Because Lucas is telling me hang in there in his own Lucas way. And while his triumphant smirk pisses the shit out of me at times, it secretly makes me feel glad that he's smirking at me. Skinny, socially-awkward Lucas is socially awkward around so many people, but I'm not one of them.

It makes my heart go fizzy inside. Like a soda pop. All fizzy, bubbly, and warm. Oh no, not again. I bite down on the corner of my lip so hard that I draw out blood.

I didn't love him.

didn't.

Ugh, fuck my life, I still did. And it sucks because I want to get over him, but can't. I'm struggling, stuck in this horrible limbo where I'm lost and can't find the door to escape from my feelings.

"The paparazzi's gone," Lucas says, and I peek through the curtains. Sure enough, the en masse has cleared out. Probably went back to sweep Onett for more tip-offs, but I know that they'll be back to circle my house like vultures. They always do.

"Let me teleport you home-" I begin.

"It's good. I have to walk back and pick up my new phone. My model's no longer in production, so the company decided to give me a smartphone instead." For a split second, Lucas's eyes flicker back to mine. I wonder if he's going to ruffle my hair again - oh, nope, nevermind, he's just getting up. Not denying my disappointment there.

Trying not to like Lucas is easier said than done.

Uneasy, I dig my nails into my palms before I can do something stupid like hold his hand. "Use the back door," I mutter.

We traipse down the stairs. By now, it's clear that it's late afternoon. The skyline is beginning to teeter between grape and orange. I fervently hope that my mom's not back from work, or that she's taking an afternoon nap, but the hope dies with the sound of Elton John on the stereo.

My mom's awake. She's humming under her breath and washing dishes in the kitchen sink. When Lucas opens his mouth to say hello, I frantically shove him out of the house, because good god, the last thing anyone in my family needs is more ammunition to speculate on the identity of my gay crush. Thankfully, Lucas catches my drift, but still, throws me a rueful look. He seems reluctant for not greeting my mother for the gracious stay, so he puts it, so I smack him in the back and tell him to go home before he could catch another cold.

As I watch him slouch out of sight, I spot Tracy peeking through the railings of the stairs from the corner of my eye. She's wearing an evil smirk that could rival the Joker's, except hers practically sings, I've got blackmail and you don't. When Tracy catches my eye, she immediately starts making stupid kissy gestures in my direction. Scowling, I flip her the bird, and she cheerfully flips me back before retreating into her colorful cave of makeup and nail polish.

Stupid little sisters.

Despite my best efforts, my mom hears the back door click shut. I know she has, because the water stops running, and I can't hear the clink of the dishes anymore. Before I can make a dash for it, my mom materializes by the doorway.

"Ness."

Shit.

I involuntarily flinch. "Mom, I'm busy," I mutter without turning around. "Uh, have to work out. Winter Championships 're coming up-"

"You have time for five minutes. Sit down, honey."

I freeze. I recognize that tone. Sure enough, oh my god, mom's got that sad, glazed look in her eyes again.

Dad's divorce wrecked my mom. It's like the day my dad stepped out of the house for good, I lost a good part of my mom too. Most of the time, she holds it together pretty well, but other days, it feels like she isn't quite there.

The smallest emotional trigger can set it off. Or basically, anything that reminds her of dad (READ: ME). She gets these really bad episodes where she pretends that dad is still here, that dad is still home, that dad never left. One time, she prepared four plates for a meal, placed the black rotary-dial in dad's empty seat, and watched it expectantly like the fucking phone could eat dad's dinner.

In the end, I finished the extra plate.

And after every episode, my mom would get all ashamed and hide in her room to cry. It's fucking tragic, really, and it's the only time I'd ever been grateful for my empathy powers. I can make her feel happy. I can make her feel better.

My mom's super sweet. She's sweet and kind and didn't deserve the shit my dad played on her.

So when she pulls out a wooden chair from the dining table with those creepy glazed eyes, I give in and face her. Oh god, I'm so nervous, you wouldn't believe it. For the past couple of days, I felt like I was in a stranger's house. Seriously, the entire place was dead silent all the time, and if you lived with us, you'd understand why it was so fucking weird. My house is never quiet, with King constantly barking in his kennel and my sister chatting away on her phone and my mom hollering a Ness, language! or Tracy, inside voices!

So whenever my mom turns quiet, it means that some serious shit is about to go down.

"I never thought that this day would come," she says, and I feel my stomach jolt when her voice sounds unsteady, like she's already trying not to sound upset. "Honey, I want us to be honest about this. Can you do that for me?"

I grimace. "I'll try."

It must have been good enough, because clasping my hands, Mom starts off with a deep breath. "First things first. Did you or did you not have unprotected sex-"

Appalled, my cheeks flare up like a bonfire. "Mom!"

"Sorry, honey, but as your mother, I need to know-"

"Just because I'm bi doesn't mean I whore myself out!"

"Language," she says sternly, and I clamp my mouth shut. "You know what the celebrity industry is like. Child trafficking happens all the time. And you know it's a legitimate question," she continues when I open my mouth to protest. "Don't think I don't know what teens do. I was once a teen too, believe it or not."

Most people have romantic stories about how their parents met. Like you know, the time your dad sat you down and spun you a How I Met Your Mother into one glittery, G-rated Once Upon a Time fairytale, and it was just so disgustingly lovey-dovey and cheesy that you want to cringe because no one wants to think about their own parents eating each other's faces off. Since my mom grew up with pretty strict Christian parents, you'd think that she would've bought the whole rubbish talk about "protecting your virginity until marriage for jesus" and blah blah blah.

Not so much with my mom. My mom was only seventeen when she met my dad. They sort of had an unofficial fling back in highschool before Dad asked her out to senior prom. He practically swept her off her feet, driving her through the streets of Onett in his red Cadillac, and I've heard this story recounted so many times that it's pretty much ingrained into my brain. Anyways point is, during the afterparty at a friend's place, one drink led to another, and, erm, they ended up doing the nasty up in one of the empty bedrooms. Seriously, I love my mom with all my heart, but thank Holy Jesus for condoms, because I didn't want to be the result of a freak horny accident. Though I probably am. I was born the year mom and dad had gotten married, only a few years after they'd first boned.

Mom's always regretted starting a relationship early. That's probably why she's so concerned about me.

My cheeks burn even hotter. "Mom, I swear I didn't have sex."

"Hmm." Mom purses her lips. "So... this attraction you have to boys..."

"I like girls."

"Yes. That." She swallows as if forcing something sour down. "But you also like guys."

I uncomfortably shift in my seat. "Just one guy-"

"But he's not a girl."

An image of Lucas stuffed into one of Paula's pink summer dresses wildly slams into my mind, and it's so silly and ridiculous that I have to force down the hysterical giggles threatening to bubble up my throat. "No."

"How do you know you like him that way?"

"I just know, mom."

"You might see him as a close friend, Ness. Don't confuse friendship with love," Mom says gently, almost patronizingly. "I know what you're going through, sweetie. I remember having my fair share of crushes before meeting your father-"

"Right," I mutter. "Fat load of good that did."

Mom looks like I'd hit her with a sledgehammer.

Horrified by my slip of tongue, I shoot up in my seat. "Mom-"

"No, you're right," she murmurs, settling back into her seat. "Feelings don't last. Infatuation fades. That goes for everyone. Even for your father. And over time, you realize that you don't know people as well as you might want to admit."

"Not everyone's like that douchebag-"

Mom squeezes my hands. "Ness, you need to be more careful," she says, her eyes watering. "Especially now. You are underage. You are one of the Original Twelve. The paparazzi are always on the watch, and just one mistake can make your life so, so hard. You must promise me not to make it any harder than it is."

"Mom-"

"You're straight. You have to be straight."

"But I'm not," I say plaintively.

"Then lie. Tell the media that you made a mistake, tell them that you're straight-"

"It doesn't work that way, mom," I whisper, trying not to cry, because now I can feel her fucking regret, and that hurt more than anything, because she doesn't think that I'm normal.

Mom slides her hands down the sides of my face. "You're only seventeen," she says shakily, tearfully, and her fingers dig into my cheeks. "Please, Ness, don't be like me. Don't choose the hard road-"

I crack a weak smile. "It's not that hard, mom. I can handle it."

Whatever I said only made it worse. Her eyes have glazed all over again, and oh fuck, she's breaking down, she's entering another episode, fuck fuck fuck. Fighting through her waves of panic, I try to layer my words with a modicum of calm. "Mom, it's okay. It's not as bad as you think-"

"I shouldn't have let you drop out of school-"

"I wanted to drop out of school, mom."

"It was me, I raised you wrong-"

"That's not-"

"I shouldn't have divorced your father-"

"Don't bring dad into this!" That finally gets her attention, and feeling my eyes sting, I clench my teeth together. "Dad has nothing to do with this. Even if he stayed, it would've happened. I liked a guy. I liked a guy, mom, and if you have a problem with it, then I guess you'll just have to disown me because I'm a failure who can't live up to your perfect expectations!"

My mom says something, reaching for me again, but biting back a choke, I bat her hands aside and sprint out the door. All I can think about is the ache in my lungs, the ache in my heart, the cold air hitting my face, but no matter how fast I try to run, I can't escape the truth of her pointed words.

My mom is my best friend. I tell her everything. I trust her with everything.

had trusted her with everything.

My fingers trembling madly, I fumble for my phone. Before I know it, I'm dialing a familiar number, and I almost cry with relief when the smug, sassy voice enters my ears.

"Well, hey there, Mr. Celebrity. It's been a while. I almost thought you died-" Hearing my raspy sobs, Paula's voice suddenly switches to worry. "Ness? Are you... What happened?!"

"I can't... My mom..."

"What about your mom? Is she hurt?!"

"She's not... couldn't understand..."

Paula's voice turns serious. "Ness. Where are you?"

I lift my head. Something bright blurs into my vision. "B-Bakery. Onett. Paris Baguette."

"I'm coming over. Don't you dare move."

"But you live in-"

The phone clicks off. Wiping away the tears leaking out of my swollen eyes, I trudge towards the bakery and try to catch my breath.

Within minutes, the sound of crunching snow precedes the whip of a fluttery pink dress. Cold white smoke escaping from her gasping mouth in tendrils, Paula stumbles over, three bags of Macy's merchandise on each arm. Diving forward, Paula shakes my shoulders. "Are you hurt?!"

"'M okay," I mutter, shrugging her hand off in embarrassment. "Sorry I called, you can go now-"

"Right, like I'm leaving you now, you dumbass!" Paula's voice rises higher in pitch. "You sounded like a wreck on the phone! I thought your mom died!"

What? Did I sound that bad?

Her eyes blaze with worry. "What happened, Ness?"

There's no point in lying. Paula will see through me. She's an empath, after all.

I drop my eyes. "Uh, I came out to my mom. She had another episode."

A look of understanding dawns in her eyes. Paula purses her lips into a thin line. "Let's get something hot for you to drink." Rubbing soothing circles into my back, she all but drags me into the warmth of the bakery.

There are still a good number of customers inside the cafe. Ducking our heads and walking as quickly as we can, Paula pushes me into one of the booths in the back. Colorful cartoony fruits stickers are plastered everywhere over its walls, and a happy cartoon strawberry dances along the rim of the door, saying cheesy pick-up lines to the outrageously large banana beside it.

A private booth.

date booth.

At any other time, it might have been embarrassing, but considering that Paula found me bawling my eyes out in the street, the privacy from any unwelcome eyes is so, so welcome. The last thing I want is a headline of me crying in the front page of The Smash Daily tomorrow.

A steaming hot chocolate lands in front of my face. I stare at it in incomprehension before Paula slides into the booth across from me, her pretty stocking legs crossed in an agitated X.

"It'll help you feel better," she says, placing my hands around the cup. "Drink."

I do as she says. A sweet warmth blossoms across my taste buds. I don't feel relaxed, but my fingers have at least stopped shaking from the cold. Or if it's even because of the cold. I shiver again. "Thanks."

Paula's cheeks are dotted a faint pink from the cold. "I happened to be here for the Macy's sale. My dad's supposed to pick me up later."

"Tell him not to worry. I'll teleport you back," I mutter, curling my fingers around my cup. "And I'll pay for my cocoa-"

Paula rolls her eyes. "I don't care about the money, Ness. You paid last time."

"But-"

"Lucas helped me out last week, and now I'm helping you. Take that as thanks."

My elbow involuntary jerks into the napkin dispenser. "You saw Lucas?"

Perhaps it's my imagination, but Paula's face looks slightly redder. Embarrassment radiates through our empathy link. "I did," she admits, slowly dipping her head. "But that's not why I'm here, Ness."

I crack a weak smile and take another sip of cocoa. Has she fallen for Lucas too? Oh, the irony would be hilarious. Two of my best friends falling for each other. And Paula was a girl... it could work out. It could stand a chance. My shoulders slump over. "Did he mention me?"

"A bit," Paula says vaguely. She clearly wants to steer us away from the topic, and I let it go. I don't have the heart to ask. Her eyes hesitantly shift to my face. "Did something happen between you two?"

My stomach sinks lower. My lips turn numb. "I confessed to him. Back in the Mansion. It didn't go the way I hoped."

"Why not?"

"For starters, I might have been drunk..."

Paula winces. "Yikes."

"Yeah." I grip the mug tighter. "Lucas took it in well, but he said that he wanted to stay as friends. So I agreed."

"At least he understands-"

"Then I kissed him."

White-faced, Paula snaps her head up in shock. "H-How did he respond?"

I bury my face into my hands. "He doesn't love me back," I choke out.

"Oh, Ness...," Paula whispers, her eyes tearing up.

"I said... I said I made a mistake. I told him I was homesick instead. God, I can't tell Lucas that I like him again. We're friends, Paula. Like, he's my best friend for fuck's sake, and he's been so patient with me that respecting his decisions is the least I could do for him... But I still can't get over him and I hate myself for freaking him out-" An embarrassing broken sob escapes from my aching throat. "And m-my mom... I shouldn't have run out on her-" My arms crumple under the weight of my head and slide onto the coffee table. "Why am I such a failure."

"You are not a failure."

"Yeah, I am."

"You saved a godforsaken planet from an alien tyrant."

"That's different."

"In what way?"

"I can't smack my feelings away with a bat."

Paula lets a small smile slip at that. "Not all problems can be solved with violence."

A watery chuckle escapes from my throat, and I wipe the messy tears from my face. "Doesn't stop me from wishing I could. That's why I have you here."

"Oh, Ness," she says softly. "What will you ever do without me?"

"I'd probably be dead in a ditch," I agree.

Paula stifles a smirk behind her hand. "Then do us both a favor and stop causing scandals left and right."

"Hey!" I protest.

Her eyes twinkling with mischief, Paula nudges the cup to my hands. "Drink up. Your cocoa's getting cold-"

"How did you get over me?"

Paula looks taken aback at the sudden inquiry. "What?"

"It's just-" I slowly shifted my own embarrassed eyes to the table. "It's a lot harder than you make it seem. Like," I gesture to myself. "I'm a fucking wreck. But you... you held up really well."

Her face turns slightly pink. "I don't know. I never gave it much thought. As long as we stayed close friends, I didn't mind, I guess."

"I'm sorry I keep calling you-"

"I like calling you," Paula says quietly. "Like I said, I want to keep in touch, Ness. Even if it's over unhappy stuff. Or sappy stuff. I know it sounds weird, but I meant every word when I asked you out."

I crack a weak smile. "Well, thanks. I mean it. I really owe you one."

"Dear god, Ness..." Paula looks about ready to die, and after hanging around Lucas for so long, I have to admit that it's a nice role reversal to be the teaser instead of being teased for once.

"You're the real trooper."

"N-No!" She furiously flaps her hands in my direction. "You... You've done so many other things! Like saving me from Happy Happy Village! Th-This is the least I can do-"

"The real MVP."

"Stop it, oh god, you're going to make me laugh-"

I grin. "Then you should. No point in holding back."

And she does. It starts off as a giggle, but rises into a pleasant lilt, and my face brightens up into a wider grin when she starts to laugh for real. Her laughter lights up her eyes and gave the blonde curls of her hair life. Her laughter is also unfortunately infectious, and in no time, I find myself joining in, even though I've forgotten about why we're laughing in the first place.

Something buzzes against the table, and we glance at it at the same time - Paula's pink Hello Kitty phone. Regaining her breath, Paula checks the screen. The happy look on her face wavers. "It's getting late. My dad-"

"I'll teleport you home."

Then Paula breaks into a warm smile, and it's pretty because it's genuine. "Well, thank you, Kind Sir."

I give an exaggerated bow. "M'lady."

"Oh stop, you big flirt." Breaking into another burst of giggles, Paula reaches for her shopping bags. When I offer to carry them so I won't feel like a useless prick, she gives me a small smile, sly yet shy, before tugging my hand and sprinting out of the bakery. We run along the sidewalk like a pair of lovebirds, our shoes slipping and sliding over winter ice, and only slow down by the baseball field to watch the snow fall from the sky.

"It's snowing," she says, and reminded of Lucas's own words, my stomach gives a small lurch.

"Yeah, it is," I say softly.

The next few moments pass in a blur. I teleport Paula home. She invites me to stay the night, but I decline, saying that her dad is a racist redneck, and she rolls her eyes, pointing out that my brutally honest remarks haven't changed a bit.

I breathe out and shift in place. "I should go back home."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah."

Her worried blue eyes flit to mine. My empathy link grows warm; her concern is so tangible, so real that I can feel it, and her reassurance is so welcome that I find myself involuntarily wanting to cling onto it.

"If anything happens-" She mimes a phone gesture. "Call me?"

I smile. "I will. Keep in touch."

"And don't get sick. The Winter Championship's in a few weeks." She places two fingers shyly to her lips. "I'll watch this time. On TV. Win a lot of matches...?"

"Fuck yeah."

Paula breaks into another warm smile. She turns around, her hair flying out into an silvery arc under the moonlight, and races to her front porch. When her mother opens the door to usher her in, I take that as the cue to teleport back.

A flurry of hot sparks. A colorful blur.

Paula's empathy link glows warm in my chest.

I breathe in. The cold air nips my nose, but somehow, I've never felt more alive. Energy thrumming through my veins, I sprint through the snowy fields homebound. Along the way, a flash of white catches my eyes, and I pause in front of the worn-down marble mansion.

The grass in the front yard is dead. All of the windows are dark. The house reeks of abuse and neglect.

As it had been since Pokey Minch left.

The happy feeling vanishes, leaving behind an eerie, haunted feeling. My feet turns into cold lead. I shiver and quickly hurry past.

Next door, my house is much more welcome. It's the same as I left it: warm, inviting, its windows aglow with light - the way a real home should be. I debate sneaking in, but my room is on the second floor, and past experiences of crashing painfully into a lamp tell me that teleporting in the dark is a very bad idea.

And my mom...

My mom needed me.

Swallowing down the lump in my throat, I ring the doorbell.

Light streams onto the frozen porch. "Welcome back, doofus," Tracy says, her arms crossed. "Way to go, freaking mom out. I had to calm her down and make her tea while you were gone. Hope you're fucking proud of yourself."

"Shut up, Trace," I mutter, brushing past her in search of my mom.

And freeze.

Mom stands in the middle of the living room. The shadow of the lamp lighting hides her expression.

Shaking, I stare at the carpet. "I'm home."

Before I realize it, her hands have grabbed my face, her fingers frantically raking my hair as if really feeling me to make sure that I am here, present in cold skin and bone. When she is finally convinced it's me, Mom gives a breathy, hoarse whisper of relief and crumples to her knees. "Nessie, oh my sweet baby boy-" My mom hugs me tight, and I can hear her breathing hit my ear. She still smells like home-cooked meals and warm laundry. "Come in, come in, let's warm you up-"

My throat clogs up. "Mom, I don't need-"

"Don't you dare think that I won't support you," she says breathlessly, sounding like she's on the verge of crying. "I know this is... It's hard for me... for both of us... but no matter who you love, you're my son. That's enough for me."

Slowly, I raise my own arms to complete the hug. "Thanks, mom," I say quietly.

My mom squeezes me tighter. "And if you happen to like a guy... that's... well, at least I won't have to worry about you getting anyone pregnant-"

"Mom-"

"We need to give you another Talk about the birds and the bees, but with just... the bees- and no-" She wipes her eyes. "Whatever you do, absolutely no sex until you get married, do you hear me, young man?"

I crack a small grin. "Mom, it's okay. You can stop fussing over me now."

Like all good moms, she doesn't. Mom ushers me up to the stairs. I'm half-tempted to push her away, because what I want is peace and quiet, but at the look on her face, I falter.

We've already lost dad. She's afraid of losing me too.

So I let her smooth over my blankets and tuck me in without a word.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

Nuss 5:14PM
hey Lookas tis ur neighborhood frendly Nuss
heres my number for ur new phone
in case you ever wanna talk about puns and chocolate

Lookas 8:32PM 
You know me so well
I'm always up for puns and chocolate

Nuss 8:34PM
hahaha
oh w8 ive got one
are you chocolate pudding
becuz I want t o spoon you

Lookas 8:37PM
That was horrible
What has chocolate pudding ever done to you

Nuss 8:37PM
a lot
its got its own wanted poseter
trust me u don't want to know

Lookas 8:38PM
I candy your point
All chocolate is good

Nuss 8:39PM
no its not
im SNICKERing at ur lack of taste

Lookas 8:39PM
Sweet

Nuss 8:40PM
anyways i got an email from Master Hand
he wants to skype us tomorrow morning at 8
i thin hes going to chew me out
aHH im freaking out what do i do
should i unfriend him on fb

Lookas 8:45PM
Don't unfriend him
He's a HANDy person

Nuss 8:46PM
...u feel that?
that's me glaring straight into ur soul 4 ur bad pun

but fuk hahaha I am so scrwed
i think he wants us to skype him together
my place or yours

Lookas 8:49PM
My place
I'm too lazy to get out of bed

Nuss 8:49PM
wow
really

Lookas 8:50PM
nah I'm messing wit you
I don't mind whichever
My neighborhood might not be the safest place though

Nuss 8:55PM
ill skateboard over :)


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~Chapter Sixteen~

A Familiar Feeling

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Seven-thirty in the morning, my cell phone shatters the silence with My Name is Alexander Hamilton. With a groan, I fumble for the source of godawful fanfare and press the phone to my ear.

"Hello?" I croak.

"Hey, I teleported past the gate. Can you let me in?"

Disheveled and bleary-eyed, I shuffle out of my room and answer the door. In contrast to my pathetically dead state, Ness is a shining ball of enthusiasm. His face lights up upon seeing me.

"Hi." He's grinning. "Is Lucas home?"

I stare dumbly at him. Then pinch my nose. "No."

"Good thing I came over then," he says cheerfully, shouldering himself in with his Hot-wheels skateboard. "Gotta go and wake him up."

Shutting the door behind him, I stifle a yawn. "No bike this time?"

"Yeah, my bike lock's busted."

"You could've teleported yourself in."

Ness makes a face. "That'd be rude." He gestures at the little furniture we have. "Plus I could accidentally crash into something and damage your stuff."

Classic Ness. Worrying over the destruction of my property over his possible injury.

I give an incoherent mumble and shuffle to the kitchen to brew some coffee. Sunlight is peeking through the blinds, but as far as I'm concerned, it's too fucking early in the morning. Not all of us are hyperactive morning larks like Ness. Trudging over to the island, I prepare the ground beans and water before plugging the coffee machine into the outlet. The lid hisses and steams.

As Ness sets up his laptop and plugs in his charger in the living room, I get dressed and wash my face. When I emerge, tugging down another one of my striped shirts, Ness has comfortably made himself home on the couch.

"You want something to drink?" I ask him.

Ness shakes his head. "I had a big breakfast before I left," he says, patting his stomach. His eyes nervously flicker to the closest room down the hall. "Is your dad-"

"He's out."

Ness shakes his head again, this time in disbelief. "He's a real workaholic."

"He's over his pneumonia too." I pour myself a generous heap of coffee in the kitchen and breathe it in. Though I prefer tea, I like the taste of coffee. It's bitter, but it keeps me awake - Nature's best energy drink for emergencies. I take a sip, feeling it slowly clear out the fog in my brain. "I think I can head back to the mansion tomorrow. I let Master Hand know."

Ness's voice filters from the living room. "Same. We can teleport to the subway together."

I shuffle back and cave into another yawn. "And... thanks for the soup. I'll bring something over for your mom next time I'm over."

"You don't have to," Ness says quickly.

"I want to."

Ness's watch goes off. He glances at it and gulps. "Seven fifty-five," he says hoarsely, and when I sit beside him on the couch, he starts fidgeting and wringing his hands like a dirty sinner. "I'm so screwed. Master Hand is going to kill me," he moans. "I missed so many practice matches-"

"Practice matches aren't mandatory-"

"It's different for me. Master Hand actually looks at my practice match record, because I'm one of the twelve," Ness says, and he's so twitchy and jittery with anxiety that he's shaking on the couch like a buzzed drug addict. "He's going to hand me over to Crazy. I just know it. Crazy's gonna force me to do something totally embarrassing, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. I'm doomed-!"

I place a hand on his shoulder and lightly shake it. "Hey. Do you want coffee."

Frozen wide-eyed, Ness falls still. His left eyelid twitches.

Turning back to my neglected cup of coffee, I heave a small sigh. "You came back to check on me. It wasn't like you ditched training for a lame excuse. So tell him that."

Ever so slowly, Ness shifts into the couch pillows. "Okay," Ness whispers. "Thanks."

The icon flashes across the laptop screen for an incoming Skype call. With rising trepidation, Ness clicks on it and accepts the call.

Needless to say, I'm feverishly glad that my dad has already gone to work. Our apartment walls are thin. Soundproof-free.

They're certainly not Master Hand-friendly.

"You've left the entire mansion in a state of utter chaos-"

"HA. hA! CHaOS!"

"-caused a massive surge of activity in the shipping poll over the past twenty-four hours-"

"ANaRCHy? BRiLLiaNt!"

"-and appeared on the front page of the Smash Daily!" Master Hand booms, jabbing the colorful 6" by 8" cover page of the subway station into the computer screen. If the circumstances hadn't been so dire, I might've laughed; as it was, I ended up ducking my head to stifle a snort into my hand. Ness's flailing headshot blocked out over half of the blown-up photo, his expression stuck in a perpetual herp-derp. In the background of the photo, I catch the just-recognizable faces of Toon, Red, and Popo fleeing in mortal terror from the camera. Glowering with a hellish wildfire, Master Hand slams the paper down. "NESS. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE."

Ness gives a nervous laugh. "I... boosted your sales?"

Hell hath no fury than a Hand's scorn. "Lucas's Leave of Absence was supposed to be an undercover secret from the press. What you did was bring all the paparazzi to Onett."

"Sorry," Ness says meekly.

"bLAtaNt diSReGaRd fOr ruLeS? mE LIKEy!" Crazy Hand cackles, waggling his finger. "OOooOOh, NESSie, yOU'vE bEEn A vERY NAUgHty bOy!"

"We were about to send out search parties before inner intelligence stated that you left of your own accord-"

"ha! HAHa! I sAy wE PUNisH hIm-"

"-and so help me, disciplinary action will be taken."

"nO CaNDY fOr TwO THOuSAND YeARS!"

Their voices bounce against the empty walls. We can feel Master Hand's smoldering anger seep through the screen of Ness's silver Apple laptop, and thoroughly whupped, Ness shrinks deeper into the couch. "I was checking on Lucas-"

"And I told you it was all under control."

"To be fair, you did lie and say that I was sick," I mumble.

Crazy Hand twitches gleefully. "YeAH, BRo. YoU liED. HOw doES iT fEEL tO bE ThE BAd kiD nOw?"

"Crazy, please. This is not the time." Master Hand slumps into his seat. "While I am most certainly relieved to find you both in one piece before the Winter Championships, proper disciplinary action must be enacted. Ness, I will place you under temporary house arrest until further notice-"

"House arrest?!" Ness sputters out. "Who are you, my mom?"

"ENOUGH!" Master hand slams himself against his desk, and Ness flinches. "You've not only gone MIA, but also sparked an uprising of Nesscas followers, became an international shipping sensation, and created a new Internet meme in the span of less than a day. That does it, Ness. I'm putting the hand down. With the sole exception of Lucas, who is on official leave, you are to return to the mansion immediately. Am I clear?"

Ness shrivels up in his seat. "Crystal."

Setting down the newspaper, Crazy Hand nervously twitches in the corner. "eH, bRO-bRO. yOU mIGht waNNa sEe thIs."

"See what?"

"ThIs sUPeR sHADy tHInG iN tHE PaPER."

As the two Hands converse off-screen, Ness glumly wiggles his socked feet against the living room carpet. "Hooray. So is this the part you say, I told you so?"

"No. I don't like seeing you get into trouble," I mutter.

Ness breaks into a small smile. "Then I'll swear off all trouble making," he says seriously, crossing his heart. "I will be the new Poster Boy of good behavior."

I resist the urge to roll my eyes. "Don't make promises that you can't keep."

"I don't," Ness insists.

Someone clears their throat, and we turn our attention back to Ness's laptop. "There's been a change of plans," Master Hand says grimly. "Ness, stay in Onett today."

Ness perks his head up in surprise. "Huh? Why?"

"I wouldn't have dropped patrol duty on you before the Championships, but since you happen to be conveniently staying in Onett, all the better for us." With a rustle of static, Master Hand picks up his crumpled copy of the Smash Daily"There's been a sudden hike in Shark raids-"

"And you want the two of us to investigate."

"Twenty-four hours. Two psychics working together on the case might yield some clues."

I shift uneasily in my seat.

Oblivious to my discomfort, Ness is quick to respond. "Sure. We'll sweep the area. One thing, though." Ness flicks the bill of his cap. "Why do you need us to step in? The Sharks are a street gang of highschool dropouts. They're not a threat. The police could easily handle them on a one-to-one."

Master Hand exchanges a worried glance with his brother. "We have our suspicions. This might be a part of an insidious development. A greater evil."

"Yeah." Ness points at me. "They beat up Lucas."

"They didn't beat me up. They stole my phone," I protest, but Ness shoots me an O RLY?

"Same thing."

"It's not-"

"Whatever it is, they've gone quiet after several coordinated robberies. Crickets. Radio silence. My experience of dealing with criminals tells me that a major heist is underway." Master Hand twiddles his thumb. "I want you both to take a quick glance around for anything remotely suspicious. We can launch preparations for a proper investigation after the Championships, but if I could, I'd bet all of my fingers that the Sharks up to no good."

No shit, Ness thinks sarcastically, and I resist the urge to snort a second time. For a second, I'm afraid that he's about to speak his mind, but Ness must've caught onto the severity of the situation, because there's only one thing worse than having one pissed-off Hand: TWO pissed-off Hands.

"Sounds swell," Ness says instead, then casts a hopeful glance at the monitor. "So... if you want me to stay here..."

Master Hand takes one glance at his pleading, puppy dog expression and sighs. The tension vanishes from his knuckles. "Ness, you do try my patience," he mutters, sweeping a thumb across his paperwork. "But Crazy is right. I could've handled this situation better. The Championships are a stressful season for everybody. Very well, just this once, I'll let your misdemeanor slide. Make up for it by training hard - Harder than you ever have." When Ness perks up like a happy dog who's won a treat, Master raises his figurative eyebrows. "I'm not going on soft on you. If you cause any more trouble, then the deal's off."

"I love you, Master Hand," Ness says fervently.

"Hah. Well. Lucas, keep this troublemaker in line."

"Hey!"

"No guarantees," I say wryly, and Ness throws me a betrayed look. I thought you were supposed to be on my side, he mouths, and I give him a helpless shrug. Keeping him safe is my job, regardless of whose side I'm on.

Master Hand relaxes. "Good. Do your best to avoid the paparazzi. I'll see you both in twenty-four hours."

Crazy Hand pops into the screen with a wild cackle. "yEAH! aND SeND uS pOSTcArDS oF yOUR BeaUTIfUL HoNEYmOOn!"

"Crazy, no-"

The screen fizzles out.

Ness shuts his laptop with a groan. "Some honeymoon this is. They didn't even give us the time off."

"And I thought people go on a honeymoon after getting married," I agree, stretching my cramped joints.

"Tracy says that we already bicker like a married couple."

"I just like to bicker with you apparently."

Giving me a forced laugh, Ness lightly elbows me in the side. "A-Anyways. The Sharks. If they're causing trouble again, we should have a chat with my old pal, Frank Fly."

"Frank Fly? Isn't he-"

"Yup! Head honcho of the Sharks!" Ness slings his bag over his shoulder and grabs hold of his skateboard under the other. "He's a good guy. Tried to kill me but changed his mind after I disbanded his gang."

"An awful lot of people want to kill you," I note.

"Hey, I was an eleven-year-old kid trying to save the world. Take it easy," Ness defends himself, puffing up his cheeks. "But yeah, Frank's not a bad guy. He decided to reform and open a fast food company instead. We sometimes go grab pizza when I'm in town. I think you'll like him."

Leave it to Ness. He has such an odd motley crew of friends that I've lost count. Only he could be bffs with an ex mafia-slash-street-gang boss and actually pull it off.

"Let's meet him for lunch. Lemme teleport and drop off my stuff first."

"Sounds like a plan."

His eyes brighten up. "Cool. Then I'll see you at the gates in five." He hops up to ruffle my hair. As soon as his feet touch the ground, Ness dashes past me with a wild whoop-

And leaps over the railing from the FOURTH FLOOR.

With a shout of alarm, I race outside, but Ness has already skidded onto the pavement on his skateboard. Our powers help us defy physics and slow our descent, but that's still no excuse for him to play dumb!

"You're going to hit your head one day," I exhale, heavily catching my breath in relief over the railing, and grinning like a loon, Ness meets my eyes. My heart stutters and stops in panic.

This red-capped idiot is going to be the end of me.

Even from up here, I can hear the teasing lilt in his voice. Ness cups his hands over his mouth. "Sheesh, Lucas! Never would've struck you as the worried type." His crooked grin widens so that he's grinning ear to ear. "It's okay! If I get hurt, I'll have you to heal me."

"That's not what my PSI is for-"

"Later, Lookas!" Ness yells before dashing behind the dumpster. A blink of power in my mind tells me that he's teleported.

With a small groan, I bury my face into my hands. Suddenly, keeping Ness safe doesn't seem like an easy promise to uphold.

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~oO0Oo~

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We meet Frank Fly at the pizza parlor.

For a guy who once ran a street gang, Frank doesn't look the least bit gun-ho. He doesn't have weird piercings on his nose, and he doesn't wear baggy jeans that threaten to slide off his arse. His chin is cleanly shaved of facial hair, and to my surprise, he's even dressed in business formal attire.

When Ness calls out his name with a furious wave, Frank does a double-take.

"Ey!" Frank says, lowering his shades in surprise. "Haven't seen you in a while, Nessie."

"We should catch up," Ness chirps. He drags me over by the arm and starts making introductions. "This is Lucas. Lucas, Frank."

Frank smiles. "Well, any buddy of Ness is mine."

Ness watches me expectantly. I can almost feel his eyes willing me to make first contact. The look is unnecessary; while I'm shy of speaking, I do try to be courteous, and leaving Frank hanging would be a rude welcome on my part. Still, Ness's encouragement urges me to close in the gap, and I'm just about to extend a hand out in greeting until my limbs suddenly lock into place, trapped by Frank's eyes. A cold chill runs down my spine.

I recognize this man.

"Lucas, huh? You look familia-" Frank stops. A slow realization dawns in his eyes, and the smile on his face falters. "You're..."

I slowly withdraw my hand. Digging my nails into the side of my arm, I force a smile. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Fly."

Ness looks confused by the sudden spike of tension. His head whips back and forth between us. "You two know each other?" he says in disbelief.

"Saw him in passing." Frank's eyes shift away from mine. His voice turns gruff. "Anyways, boys, pizza's on me."

Throughout the entire meal, Ness kept shooting me looks, surreptitiously elbowing me in the side or lightly kicking me under the table to talk. He even tried projecting his thoughts loudly my way to grab my attention, but I apathetically stared out the window and twisted my fists into my lap. I wasn't interested in joining the conversation.

I wanted nothing to do with this man.

I wanted nothing to do with what he represented.

Eventually, Ness gives up. I absentmindedly keep track of their dialogue, but it's hard not to drift off - Ness seems more than happy to socialize and catch up instead with the ex-mafia boss, who - sitting beside Ness - behaves more like a long-lost Uncle than an incriminating crime lord. When the waiter bustles over to refill our water, I spare Ness a hesitant glance to remind him why we're here, but Ness is busy making enthusiastic gestures again with noisy side-accompanying whooshes and kabooms. He's excitedly enraptured in telling some wild story or another, and clutching his sides, Frank Fly roars with laughter.

They work their way through the second 16" pepperoni with mushrooms when Ness suddenly stands up.

"Bathroom," he announces, tossing his napkin onto his chair. "Be right back!"

Within the blink of an eye, he disappears around the STAFF ONLY sign.

Well, this is awkward.

Clearing his throat, Frank Fly sets down his glass of diet coke. "Well, kid. I can't say that I'm not surprised to see you here. How's the new life treating yah?"

"Good."

Frank barely wavers at the one word response. "I'm glad to see you out of the hood," he says, offering me a cig. When I decline it with a jerky shake of my head, Frank Fly nods and lights its end. "Right. You never liked cigs-"

"I'm not here to smoke joints," I say stiffly.

"Right, right," Frank murmurs, the cigarette in his mouth bobbing up and down. "I can't believe I never put two and two together. You working for the side of the law now? Impressive." He gives a low, breathy chuckle. "Ness is an interesting kid. He sees the good in the ugliest of people. He sure changed my life. Changed yours too by the looks of it."

When I uneasily stay silent, Frank takes a drag and blows it in the other direction. "All that fame hasn't gotten to his head like a lot of the popular folk. His heart's in the right place... but I worry for him, kid, I do. Ness can be too trusting of strangers." Frank takes another drag. "It makes me feel a lot better that he's got a skeptic like you around." He flashes his tobacco-stained teeth at me like a feral shark. "A pragmatist. Someone with a steady head on shoulders."

"Ness isn't a kid. He can take care of himself."

Frank laughs. "You've changed a lot, kid."

"I have a long way to go."

"Don't we all." His eyes crinkling at the edges, Frank leans over to clap a hand on my shoulder. "I know it's too late for us to make amends, but keep a close eye out for that rascal, will you? I prefer to see him alive and kickin'."

Then Ness returns to the table with an enthusiastic clamor, and welcoming him back, Frank pinches off the end of his ash-caked cigar. Ness looks more than eager to renew conversation, but this time, Frank shakes his head. "Hey, kid. Don't get me wrong, I love the chit-chat, but I have a feeling you're here for somethan' else."

Horrified, Ness jerks his head up. "Oh fuck, I forgot! The investigation-"

"Over my former gang. Key word: former. No hard feelings, Nessie," Frank Fly says, waving his apologies off. "An'ways, the Sharks have a new boss now, an' it's not me. I did hear a thing or two about some higher up paying them for a major heist-"

"A higher up?" Ness asks with a frown.

Frank shrugs. "Dunno who. Again, some higher up. Must be important if the Sharks aren't blowing his brain out with a gat. I bet a whole diamond that he's a either a politician or a business man."

"It's a he."

"Yep. That's all I know. Sorry, kid. If ya want clues, check out their turf. Don't go there now," Frank adds when Ness rises halfway out of his seat. Embarrassed, Ness sinks back down. "That's right, Nessie. I'd wait til nightfall. 'S dangerous, but them Sharks like to work in the dark. If you wanna catch someone to spill the beans, then the Arcade's your best shot." Frank Fly jerks his head in my direction. "Your friend should know how to get you in."

Ness shoots me a puzzled look. I shrug back, averting my eyes. The waiter passes over the bill, and Frank presses a whole fifty on the table.

Crumpling up the customer receipt, Frank tips his fedora back. "Well, kids. I gotta go. Don't die now."

On that pleasant note, our audience with the reformed crime lord came to a close.

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~oO0Oo~

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We hang out at my place until the sky dims and the stars peek out. When the street lights start popping along the main road, I poke Ness awake and toss him his shoes.

The temperature tonight falls below freezing. A sliver of ice coats the cobbled alleyway. Dotting our view, dingy apartments creak and groan in protest to the temperature change.

The only other sound that breaks the silence is the crunch of our shoes into the snow and Ness's incessant complaining.

"Master Hand better not punish us for this."

"We should keep our voices down," I mutter, keeping my mind alert. So far, so good. Nobody is in the area.

Wrapping himself in his jacket, Ness rubs the goosebumps from his arms. "What did Frank mean? Like, about you getting us in," he says, watching me drop to my knees and pat down the icy ground. "It's past closing time. The Arcade's locked-"

"Not anymore," I say in relief, flipping the spare key into my palm.

Ness turns slack-jawed. "Bloody hell."

Unlocking the backdoor of the Arcade, I kick it open. "After you."

"How did you do that?" he says faintly. Ness scrunches his thick eyebrows into a frown. "No, it was like..." He jumps back and starts mimicking me in an exaggerated impression. "Like, poof. Da-da-daaa, Magic Key!"

"I have my ways," I say vaguely.

A half-truth. I buried the key in this spot many years ago, and I'm lucky that it's stayed here. Any more waiting tonight, and the ground would've been frozen too solid to dig anything out with my bare hands.

Bursting to the brim with unanswered questions, Ness hesitantly searches my face, but this time, he gives me the benefit of doubt. He trudges inside, ducking under the door frame and breathing into the winter chill.

The Arcade is darker inside. Slivers of moonlight scatter across the dusty windows and paint the squalid floor pale blue. The old light fixtures creak and groan, and our sneakers squeak loudly against the filthy tiles.

"D'you sense anyone?" Ness whispers.

My eyes rake over the darkened rows of arcade games. "No."

"Me neither." His eyes shining in the dark, Ness presses his hand to his chest. When he blinks again, his eyes have died down to its natural nocturnal glow. "I don't feel anyone around."

"There's no one here," I say slowly. "This place should've been lit."

"Lit?"

"On a good day, it's packed. There should've been bouncers out front."

Ness grips his bat tighter. "What if it's a trap?"

Wary now, I consider the possibility. It's too soon to lower our guard. "Keep your eyes pealed open."

As Ness takes watch, squinting through the windows, I duck underneath the pool tables. A crisp packet. Several empty beer bottles. No sign of people. Grimacing at the sour stench of alcohol, I straighten myself up and accidentally bump against Ness's arm.

Ness flinches in surprise.

"Sorry," I mutter.

"It's okay." Ness's rapid breathing fills my ears. He scrunches his eyes shut. "Let's check out the second floor."

I give a mutter of assent, and we head over to the exits. Our footsteps noisily echo up the stairwell like claps of thunder. Ness takes the front, both hands on his trusty bat, and only pausing to take a glance back, I ready a PK Magnet on my fingertips.

The door on the second floor is ajar.

With a deep breath, Ness pokes the rusty hinges with his bat. It creaks. When nothing else happens, he charges into the storage room with a yell-

Only to fall face-first into an empty cardboard box.

Popping his head up, Ness breaks out into a stifled snort, then triggered by his own snort, outright starts laughing.

Alarmed, I hurry over and clap a hand over his mouth. "Shh."

Squirming around in my hold, Ness gulps down a choked gasp. "L-Lucas, there's no one here."

"Shh, stop laughing. You're gonna get us killed-"

"No, you Shh," Ness says.

I jerk my head up. My skin crawls with an unpleasant chill. Someone's watching us. My eyes flicker over the landing to - there. A dark, skulking figure. Jolting to my feet, I hurl a PK Freeze its way, hitting it square in the chest. Boxes topple around us in a pile of dust, and when Ness gives a sharp yelp of shock behind me, I flinch and whirl around to face his assailant-

Ness grabs my wrists from behind. "Stop, Lucas! There's no one here."

I follow his eyes back to the toppled pile of boxes.

Ness is right. There is no one there.

Shame prickles my mind. The floor suddenly sways. My knees grow weak, so I sit down hard. "I-I thought-" I start stupidly.

As if reading my mind, Ness tightens his hold on my hands. His hands are comfortably warm, so comfortably warm and reassuring that I grip them back like a lifeline.

"Are you okay?" he whispers.

It's only then I realize that I'm shaking.

There's no point in telling him that I'm fine. Ness would eventually pry the truth out of me. I struggle to get the shameful words out. "This was... this was the joint." I take a breath. "Where I dealt drugs."

"What?"

"In third grade. I was small and stupid," I mumble. "The Sharks cornered me the week I moved in. They needed an errand boy to pick up drugs from a drop-off point. My dad was still trying to find work, we were about to be evicted from the apartment, and it was the only way I could pay off the bills..." I wince at the distraught look on Ness's face. "It's not something I'm proud of, Ness."

I expect him to take a wisecrack at it, but Ness exhales, "Shit, Lucas."

"Yeah."

"That's like... You could've gotten shot by the cops."

"I try not to think about it."

Ness grips my hands tighter. "How long?"

"Two years." I crack a small smile. "Then you went on your quest and forced the Sharks to disband. You inspired me to stand up for myself. They left me alone after that."

Still unconvinced, Ness gingerly examines my palms as if making sure they're real. "...you never let me crash at your place. Was this...?"

"Partly," I admit.

Ness's jaw tightens. His brow knits into a thick furrow. "I can't believe it. I never noticed. And your dad... " Ness rubs his forehead in an agitated fashion. "How the fuck did he not figure out?"

"He was out working all the time."

Pale-faced, Ness stares at me, then runs a hand through his unruly black hair. "This is so messed up," he says finally.

I laugh. "I know, me dealing drugs-"

"I'm not talking about that, you idiot, I'm talking about... How did this not fuck you over in school? I mean, I guess it did..." Ness inhales deeply. "I remember you sat inside for recess once, because you had this horrible limp, so I thought that maybe your dad had been-" Ness's eyes widen in horror. "Shit. They hit you."

We're veering off-topic. I clear my throat. "That's not the point-"

"They did, didn't they?" Ness presses.

"Only if I returned late," I reassure him.

Whatever I said doesn't seem to have made a difference. Ness's eyes turn hard, and he lurches towards the stairwell.

I desperately grab his shoulder. "Ness, hold on-"

"Don't try to stop me," Ness suddenly snarls, whirling back to face me. "They hur-" His voice cracks midway. "They hurt you." His voice rises even higher. "Goddamnit, Lucas! They practically terrorized you until you turned into a twitchy little shit, and all you can tell me is hold on?!"

"They didn't turn me into a twitchy little shit," I say, my mouth turning dry. This is exactly the reaction I expected. Ness was well-known for being strongly overprotective over his friends, but I should've known that he wouldn't have taken my exploits well. He cares. He cares too much about other people that they hurt him.

It's not to say that I can't relate to his sensitivity. I do, to an extent. From an early age, I grew up as the crybaby counterpart to my braver twin, and the title quickly stuck. I used to be so easily reduced to tears that I hated myself for it. Crying was shameful. Crying made me feel weak. Eventually, I hit a point in my life when I finally realized that crying didn't solve anything.

I haven't cried since.

The difference is that all his life, Ness has been taught that it's okay to cry, that it's okay to express himself. So he cries unabashedly over what some might consider the most trivial things: The Lion King, Beyonce, Shia Labeouf. This, I don't mind. Ness is readily open with his feelings where I am closed, and Ness is strong where I am weak.

But this is different. Ness sounds even more upset than I do. It's not like the Sharks had forced him to deal drugs, for crying out loud!

When Ness tries to shoulder past me, I pull him back. "Hey, where are you going. It's okay, stop."

"No, it's not okay!" Ness bursts out, clumsily grappling with my arms, but it's ridiculously comical because he's so short.

"Let it go, Ness. I signed up for it," I plead.

Dropping all signs of a struggle, Ness stares at me... then socks me right in the shoulder.

"Ow," I groan, rubbing my sore shoulder. "Is this really necessary."

"God, Lucas," Ness breathes in deeply, then pinches his nose. "Fuck, I can't believe you... Okay, I'll let it go. Just promise me that you won't do something this stupid again."

"That's a hard promise to make-"

Ness grabs my shoulders and lightly shakes me. "Promise meLucas. I mean it. This shit isn't funny."

Something about the desperate look in his eyes makes me stop. I'm not used to having someone worry over me. I've grown up realizing how much better it is on the long run to keep to myself in fear of bothering others around me. Better a considerate nuisance than a flat-out nuisance.

Then again, Ness isn't the odd someone.

Watching his heavy brow scrunch into a frown, I wonder how I would've reacted if the positions had been reversed. If Ness had been the one to play errand boy. If Ness had been the one to hide behind dumpsters and worry his nails off. If Ness had been the one to curl up and sob and tend to his new injuries whenever he thought that no one was watching. If Ness had been the one to struggle open his front door to strangers who demanded him to play hooky and get the good stuff.

And all of a sudden, it clicks.

Touched by his concern, I clumsily pat him in the shoulder. "Promise."

His arms slump over in relief. "Good." Ness releases his hold on me, then after a brief moment of hesitation, fondly reaches up to ruffle my hair. "Now let's go round up some potheads," he says matter-of-factly, and when I laugh, he shoots me a crooked grin that brightens up the stars in his eyes.

A strange warmth tickles my throat. Suddenly caught by the playful desire to respond in kind, I flick one of his bangs out of his face; with an inward grin, I wait for the hasty recoil, the playful scowl, the trademark complaint of oh fuck off, but am surprised when Ness does none of the sort.

He's frozen in his tracks.

Taken aback by his unexpected reaction, and wondering if I've overstepped my boundaries, I slowly stuff my hands into my pockets. "We should wait downstairs," I mumble, embarrassed.

"Okay," Ness whispers in a hoarse voice.

The wait is uneventful. To our luck (or lack there-of), no one shows up, but the awkward silence sinking into the snow makes the wait last painfully longer.

Leaning against a broken down ping-pong machine, Ness is eerily quiet. He speaks once, twice, but only to comment on the time. Aside from that, he returns to his statuesque vigil.

Crouched by the door, I turn my head aside and trace the ambiguous shadows that flit and flicker across the window.

A police siren wails past. An owl hoots.

Involuntarily, I find my eyes drawn to the figure by the pool table.

Ness is loud. His thoughts are loud. His body language is loud, and his clothes - bright yellow striped shirts - are loud. Even without talking, even while standing, he brims with confidence. His eyes look alive. His chest rises and falls with each breath he takes. His hair shivers with a silent energy, and I watch it in mild fascination. I never noticed how naturally Ness's dark bangs swept over his forehead; it's a different look from the poofy, capped fashion statement he wears on stage, or the spiky hat-hair he proudly shows off during the day. Something about its messy familiarity tickles my mind.

I decide I like Ness without his hat on.

Fifteen minutes in, Ness breaks the silence. "Let's go home."

All too glad to comply, I hobble back onto my numb feet.

Ness teleports me home. He promises to stop by tomorrow for the subway station, then just as quickly, winks out of existence.

Shuffling awkwardly in place to kill another few seconds, I settle back into my usual routine. Routines are predictable, boring, and safe. I like the security they offer, even if it's an illusion, because routines give me a sense of direction. Drag myself back to my apartment, unlock the door, set up the table. Check on dad. Exchange one-liner about my day. Repeat.

Routines are meant to be kept. They help me focus and fill up the gaps in my life.

And in one fell swoop, Ness crashed into my monotonous life.

He broke all of my routines. He's a risk-taker at heart with a knack for improv. He did things on the fly, did things in the spur of the moment, did whatever felt right. Something dangerous always seemed to careen his way - every second, every hour - and I'd learned to expect the unexpected. Playing safe was not a word in Ness's ball court.

Ness was a loud wave of excitement that slammed into my life one morning and never left. He made my life unpredictable, unboring, and unsafe.

And I loved the change.

Mortified, I flatten my face into my book. I've noticed little changes in my own behavior - little changes that I couldn't quite explain. While solitude was gladly welcome and alone time even more so, I couldn't bear to live life the way I'd used to, forever lonely and holed up in my room. I felt bolder. Braver. I wanted to try out new things. Think new things. Take risks that I never would've taken.

Worst of all, I couldn't keep my focus. I couldn't concentrate whenever Ness was around.

This was an all too familiar feeling, but to my frustration, one I couldn't place my finger on.

A hot flush creeps up the back of my neck, and I slowly peel my burning face off from the paper pages. I'm a skinny little fucker, all gangly limbs and unattractive as hell, but Ness somehow makes me feel warm, happy, and flustered at the same time. He makes me feel embarrassingly weak and helpless in a way that no one else has ever done before.

My tea has cooled down. I don't bother re-brewing it and pick up the mug anyway, because cold tea is still tea, and I desperately need something to keep my mind off of all... this. Flicking the tea bag away from the rim, I try to rub away the pleasant tingly sensation of Ness's hair from my fingers, but absentmindedly find myself wanting to touch it longer. Shaking my head to rid myself of the strange urge, I scrunch my eyes up, but find myself drifting off instead to Ness's crooked grin, the mischievous look dancing in his eyes, the gentle dots of warmth every time his fingers press into my skin-

I love you.

The tea mug drops out of my fingers, but I barely hear it shatter over the roar of my suddenly too-clear thoughts.

Oh, fuck. Shit.

I'm in love.

 

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

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Dear Ness,

I hope that this letter reaches the right address.
Good luck with N64!

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Tracy keeps asking me if you have a girlfriend. She says that she's  determined to find you "the right one."  I think that's her way of saying that she misses you.
You have a cool sister.

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Stop worrying about what everyone else says.  You dropped seventh grade for N64. There's nothing shameful about prioritizing your life for SMASH. I think it takes true guts to go ahead and do what you want to do. You're good at brawling. You can easily use the extra time to practice.

I got a part-time job at the local library. All I do is sort out books, but the librarian lets me read for as long I want. There's a nice corner by the window where you can spot sparrow eggs in the tree outside. I'll show you next time you come to town .

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Mr. Minch is back. He  keeps raising the interest rates on his loan, and there's nothing we can do, because my dad signed the contract. Mr. Minch says it's because of the "fine print."  I don't understand what he means. Maybe y our father might know. He's a corporate investment banker at Fourside, right?

I think that Mr. Minch is a stout and portly fellow. I like to imagine that he is. He sounds exactly like the corrupt business men in my books.  But I don't know what Mr. Minch really looks like, because Dad refuses to take me along to his consultant meetings. Dad says it's for adults only. I wish I could go. It can't be as complicated as Dad makes it seem.

Dad thinks that Mr. Minch looks familiar. I wonder why.

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Boney died.  He was hit by a car last night.  I couldn't save him, so Dad had to put him down.

Dad was busy working, so I buried Boney out back in the sunflower field on the outskirts of town. It was a quiet funeral.  Dad said that Boney lived a long life for a dog, but I think he wants me to man up and stop crying.

I wish you were here. Boney loved you. You were always good with animals.

Ness, when are you coming home?

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Today my dad returned early from his consultant meeting. He burst into the apartment and started shouting really loudly for me. I thought I was in big trouble, but when I ran out to see him, dad hugged me then started crying.  I'm scared. Dad never cries. I think Mr. Minch hurt my dad.

Dad wanted me to quit my job at the library. He said that it was too dangerous for me to work late at night.

I refused.

The next morning I apologized, but dad's ignoring me again. He's acting like nothing happened. Maybe nothing really did happen. Maybe I dreamed everything up. I  feel stupid for writing this.

Ness, do  you get weird dreams too?

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

I'm getting second thoughts about applying for Brawl. I left the how many times have you saved the world question blank, and my personal statement doesn't fit with the mission statement.  These people are looking for fighters. The last time I ran half a mile was P.E. in fifth grade, and I can name at least five celebrity psychics who are applying for the same pool . This application season is looking much more competitive than ever. I know that you're trying to encourage me, and I appreciate it, but in all honesty, my chances of even scoring an interview invite are slim.

Onto your roommate problem. Popo sounds like an... interesting person. I'm probably not the best person to ask for advice, since I only live with my dad, but it sounds like Popo gets a kick out of annoying you. Don't rise to the bait.

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Ness,

Sure, we can room together. You might regret it though. I'm a messy person, and I stay up late at night.

My Brawl invitation finally arrived in the mail. I'm packing as we speak. I've never ridden the SkyTrain before, but Master Hand sent me a map circling the major stops.

I can't wait to see you again.

Sincerely,
Lucas

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Dear Lucas,

You remind me a lot of Samus. Remember Samus? She's got blonde hair. She's super tall and scary, but she's really smart like you. I like talking to her. A lot of the guys in the mansion like talking to her too, but I think it's because she's attractive. They try to show off and do stupid things to grab her attention.

Popo's a moron. He  keeps flirting with Samus. I told him to stop, but he only laughed and asked me if I was gay.  Nana got mad and hit him over the head for that remark.

H e's wrong! I'm not gay! I do think Samus is pretty. I just don't want to bother her!

Sometimes I think that I'm the only sane man here.

I miss you.  Samus is pretty, but she's not you. I can't believe that she reminded me of you. She's  nothing like you  e̶v̶e̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶I̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶n̶k̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶l̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶p̶r̶e̶t̶t̶y̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶.

Sincerely,
Ness


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~Chapter 17~

I Nearly Blow Up the SkyTrain Sky-high

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I'm awake.

Of course I'm awake. I'm up reading through a couple of the pen pal letters Lucas sent me forever ago, and pining over each one like a romantic sap.

Lucas writes like a typewriter. His handwriting is light and narrow. His w's are pointed. He crosses his t's in a neat line and dots his i's over the stem. With the way his letters look mass-produced from a Word document, his handwriting is a fucking masterpiece on its own. I lower the letters into my lap. I've forgotten how much more open Lucas had been to me as a kid. He's always been hush-hush about himself, but puberty has turned him into a lovable, socially-awkward beanstalk the same way it's turned me into a moody mess.

But goddamn. Lucas's letters are so sincere and heartfelt that it makes my chest constrict, because I can see his bared emotions on paper. Whenever I read his letters, there's a weird, twisty feeling that grows in my gut, and it's the same, twisty feeling I got in third grade when my mom brought us to McDonalds and Lucas's face lit up from the first bite of his cheeseburger. This was after the fifteen minutes Lucas tried to order water, and we had to talk him out of it because water was free and wasn't an actual food on the menu.

I don't think his dad's ever taken him out to eat. His dad doesn't strike me as an expressive person.

Still, the man wears a look on his face that speaks of hardship.

I shift in my seat. Lucas gets uncomfortable talking about his financial situation, but I know that he's in huge debt. Some asshole named Mr. Minch (By this point, I'm convinced that anyone with the surname Minch is questionably evil) loaned Lucas's dad a large sum of money, and then cranked up the interest sky-high. Basically, it fucked Lucas's whole family over.

As a kid, I think I was pretty oblivious to Lucas's destitute state, but there are signs that only now I realize I've overlooked. Little, but obvious signs. Lucas lives in the dangerous side of town. His dad walks to work. They don't have a car. I remember the way my mom would insist on bringing him more clothes every winter, the extra love she tried to shower on him whenever Lucas was over at our place. I rub the back of my head. Lucas seemed embarrassed to show me his apartment when we accidentally ended up crashing there, but it honestly looks alright. Just a tad cold and cramped in the inside.

His life's getting better. Lucas is a smasher, so he doesn't have to depend on welfare and food stamps anymore. Master Hand pretty much pays for most of our expenses - transportation to and from home, insurance, et cetera - and while Earthbound isn't a hot pick, the payroll for SMASHING is high. The only costs we ever worry about are apartment rent, gas/water/electricity bills, and food.

It's a sweet deal.

From the wages Lucas should be earning and considering how he rarely treats himself out, I'm surprised that he's still in debt. He's either close to paying his debt off, or his debt is really that bad. But I don't pry, because that would be an insanely dickish move on my part, and while I'm many things, I do try not to be dick, least of all to Lucas. I've grown up taking a lot things for granted, like not working to support my family at ten-years-old.

After fifth grade, Lucas dropped out of school to make money at the local library. For minimum wage, but still, it's a good deal considering that the "legal" age to earn money in Onett is around thirteen. Seriously, it's a much better change from his previous job. I still want to knock some sense into his past self for his stupidity. What was he thinking, working for a street gang to sell joints?

It unnerves me how little Lucas cares about his own welfare. It isn't that he's damn suicidal, but he views his own happiness as secondary to everything else. He grew up believing that he doesn't deserve happiness.

Maybe it's because he's so used to growing up without it. This makes me wonder if Lucas is secretly afraid of happiness, because he's afraid of losing it. Like being happy is almost too good to be true. Remembering how I'd used to complain and ramble about random things to him as a kid, I flush. My letters are probably childish and superficial in comparison.

But of all the letters I've written to Lucas as a pen pal, there's one that I didn't send. At the time of the letter, I was in Melee, penning to Lucas after a practice match.

I stare at the crumpled letter in my hands.

...I think you look pretty too.

I remember doing a double take at the thought, but the longer my younger self had sat down and stewed over it, the more strongly I'd agreed. Because I did think that Lucas was pretty. Girls were gross and had cooties, so I thought Lucas looked much prettier than anyone else in our grade. Even Paula. Lucas had pretty eyes. And a pretty face. And a pretty... awkward smile. Whenever he tried to smile, it didn't seem to fit right on his face, like Lucas didn't have much practice smiling, but somehow, his smile made my face grow warm and my nerves do an Irish jig. But reality quickly clonked me on the back of the head, because who even said that to their best guy friend? I'd bolted half-way out of my seat to toss it into the trashcan, but whatever otherworldly force compelled me to write those words also persuaded me otherwise. I ended up keeping the letter. It lay stuffed inside my shoebox of relics and old letters in my closet at home, and as it sat, collecting dust, I happened to stumble upon it again.

I grip the embarrassing letter tighter in my hands. Lucas had supposedly "crushed" on me during Brawl. Supposedly. If I'd sent this letter... if I'd confessed to him earlier...

The what-ifs are killing me.

"Lucas is not from your time. You two are not meant to be."

Right. Either way, Master Hand would've gone save room for Jesus on my ass.

I let the letter flutter onto the floor, and flop face-first into my pillow. It's sometime past midnight, sometime between Bullshit O' clock and boi you gotta sleep time, but fuck me, all I can think about are Lucas's stupid fingers.

I raise my own hands to my face. My fingers look stunted, small and insecure like a child's.

Lucas has pretty pianist hands. His fingers are graceful and delicate. His knuckles carefully protrude out in pronounced curves. I like his fingers. I like his knuckles. I like how cool his calloused palms feel after a morning run, I like the hidden sturdiness in his hands. His hands look fragile, but hold a surprising inner strength for his frame. It's like he's gotten a growth spurt for his hands along with his height, because now, his hands are slightly larger than mine.

Back at the arcade his face had been so, so close to mine. I'd felt his warm breath hitting my cheek. And his hands-

I inhale deeply. I'm sensitive. I like to think that I'm a tough person who doesn't give two shits about people, but toss me a crying person, and I'll cave. Like, fuck, if I upset someone, I'd feel so bad that the guilt would gnaw at me for days on end until I apologized or did something about it. Which - considering my shamefully blunt reputation - happens more than I want to admit.

Lucas is careful. Lucas is matter-of-fact. Lucas likes to say the truth, and only the truth. Failing that, he simply says nothing at all. He only speaks when he's satisfied with reviewing each sentence in his head, so every time Lucas says something, I know that he means it, means every word and every thought. I don't have to tiptoe around him like I do around other people. I can freely speak my mind, and I feel comfortable with it, because while Lucas is smart, it's the kind of smart that doesn't make other people feel stupid. There are times when I overstep it and accidentally hit a sensitive spot, but it doesn't happen often because one, I'm not a jerk, two, I don't do it on purpose, and three, I try not to make the same mistake twice.

I think it's why we get along so well. Both of us are straightforward to each other. The only difference is that I spout out everything on my mind, and Lucas keeps it in.

Lucas's empathy link tickles my chest.

I rub my forehead, and try not to wonder what Lucas is feeling. As grudgingly as my own over-protectiveness admits, Lucas can take care of himself. I'll be there for him if he needs me, and only if he needs me. Lucas doesn't take kindly to pity. Or money. Or charity. Or anything unnecessary, really. Lucas is uncomfortable with receiving things without returning the favor, but he's totally fine with giving things away. He appreciates the little things in life.

This, I respect.

But there's a shameful part of me that likes it whenever Lucas falters and falls back on me for support: the rare moments Lucas allows himself to be vulnerable around me. It gives me an excuse to reach for his hand. Hold him tighter.

Like the touching. Lucas hates being touched, and I know for sure that he only gets the least bit physical whenever I start it. Like whenever I tickle his sides and force him to laugh. Or whenever we're roughhousing against the floor like a pair of dorks. Or whenever I'm feeling upset. He'll get all quiet and shuffle over to let me hug him. It's his way of offering comfort. Like Lucas is trying to say, Sorry, Ness, I suck at words but I really do feel for you.

My heart flutters at the thought.

With a frustrated groan, I stuff my face into my pillow. I'm glad that we snuck out to the Arcade in the dead of night, because I'd noticed the way Lucas was plain, flat-out staring at me. Like he was seeing me for the first time.

Or maybe he was seeing through me.

Shit, am I that obvious? I know that my emotions show up on my face, but I didn't think I was that obvious! Oh damn it fuck he's onto me. I hide under my blanket fortress like the measly layers can save me from Lucas's sharp perception.

I have to act normal. I can't risk Lucas realizing that my feelings for him weren't an accident, not to mention how horribly embarrassing it'd be if Lucas figured out that I'm still not over him. In all honesty, Lucas is patient; he wouldn't mind, and I know that he wouldn't so long as I don't stupidly pull another move on him, but Jesus, I had to save some pride.

I nervously tug on my hair. It's funny, because I like attention. Or rather, attention doesn't bother me. I used to care about other people's opinions too much for my own good, but I like to think that I've mostly grown out of that phase. Mostly. So it stands that I don't mind people staring and people talking and people watching, because they blend into the background.

But attention from Lucas is different.

Lucas has always been different.

So I try not to think about how his spine juts out in a smooth curve. I try not to think about the way his bony shoulderblades peek out of his back like lasting relics of wings. I try not to think back to the arcade - over how my touch returned and infused the calm into his panic-stricken eyes - and I try not to think over the way his shoulders relaxed from a tense line-

I collapse onto my back, and the mattress squeaks in protest. I'm determined. It's an integral part of my character. Like in Brawl, the battle's not over until it's over. No matter how the hard the quest seems, I do it.

But now, I have to learn how to give up.

And I don't know how.

Jamming the lights off, I pull my pillow over my head and brace myself for a long night.

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~oO0Oo~

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Six-thirty in the morning comes all too soon, and before I know it, I'm standing on the front porch with a bag bulging with necessities and well-meaning farewells. Tracy's dressed in her highschool school uniform, her blonde hair tucked in twin pigtails and pink bows, and Mom's ready for work with her car keys in hand.

Mom pats my bag. "Do you have your SkyTrain ticket?"

"Yeah!"

"Laptop?"

"I got it right here."

"Oh, and your extra underwear-"

"Mom!"

Mom wraps me in a hug. "All right, sweetie. No more teasing."

Much to my eternal embarrassment, Tracy bursts out into uncontrollable giggles beside her. "Yeah, mom. He's a big boy now."

"Nerd," I grumble.

"Plebian," Tracy says.

"Enough of that, you two," Mom says, reaching for my face. "Now, Nessie-" Tracy snickers at the term of endearment, so I elbow her. "-don't elbow your sister. This year, we've decided book two SkyTrain tickets to Smash City after the Winter Championships."

"Why?" I say surprised. "I thought I was coming home."

"Since you always travel home for the holidays, I thought it'd be nice for us to spend New Years elsewhere for a change. I hear that the fireworks in Smash City are a sight worth seeing. We booked a hotel close by," Mom says warmly. "You're always so tired after the Championships... You'll be pooped! And-" My mom looks horrified. "Did you comb your hair this morning?"

I sheepishly rub the back of my neck. "I forgot."

"Ai, ai, it's so messy! How can you attract the girls if you look like you've rolled out of bed? I bet even the boys run away from you!"

"Mo-om," I moan.

Easily ignoring me, Mom busily fusses over my hair. "Look at this!" she says appalled, picking up one of my stray bangs. "Boys these days, think this looks hip and cool. Hah! You look like a hobo!" She pats my hair over my forehead, smoothing it out, then gives me an approving look. "There, now you look handsome."

"As close to handsome as he'll ever get," Tracy snarks.

Oh, shut up is what I want to grumble to her, but with mom here, it's a no-go.

So I resist the urge and grudgingly turn to my sister. "Hey," I say, and she looks up. "Good luck with finals."

Tracy gives into a small smile. "Good luck with the Championships."

"Take care of mom while I'm gone."

"You know I will." Tracy eyes me with a strange expression on her face. Suddenly she breaks out, "It kind of sucks that you have to miss Christmas every year."

I give a helpless grimace. "I don't mean to. The Championships start on the 20th, closing ceremony's on Christmas Eve, and then everyone has to attend the Christmas dinner with the head sponsors-"

"Yeah, I know, I know. It's just-" She bites down on her lip. "Weird. Not having you home."

Little sisters are so strange. One minute, they're pretending that they hate your guts, and the next thing you know, they're spouting out something so gooey and sentimental that you can't help but melt into a helpless puddle of awww because they're little siblings. Seriously, how do they do that? It's not fair at all.

Still, the plaintive tone in her words is touching. This is the closest I'll probably get to an "I love you" from my little sister. Maybe. For once, for her, I try the cheesy route.

"I love you too," I say.

Tracy scrunches up her nose. "Don't be gross."

...Why did I expect anything different?

Mom steps forward. "We'll be coming over this time, so we can all spend Christmas morning together as a family. And remember to be nice to Lucas," she adds sternly, but her eyes soften. "Tell him that he's welcome to watch the New Years fireworks with us."

"I will."

My mom kisses my forehead with a smile. "I know you will. Good luck on the Championships. Make us proud."

With a last hug, I step off the porch and teleport away.

.

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~oO0Oo~

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.

I climb the stairs two at a time. I'm not looking where I'm going, and it's about to bite me in the ass because I accidentally bump straight into someone walking down the stairs. The newspaper smacks out of his hands and rolls onto the floor to reveal the headlines, NESS AMIIBOS SOLD OUT IN RECORD TIME. Apologetically, I scramble down to pick it up.

"Sorry-" I manage to get out before my voice dies on me completely.

The person I've bumped into has huge, thick-set shoulders like a lumberjack. His bearded face looks oddly familiar, and just as I reach that friendly conclusion, his silhouette towers over me. A very large silhouette in the shape of a big, burly man. Terrified, my eyes trail up the broad shoulders to the familiar cowboy hat tipped over his face.

It's Chuck Norris. And he's frowning.

Under Daddy Bear's bushy scrutiny, I suddenly become very aware of how short I am.

It doesn't help that Chuck Norris is also giving me the scumbag look, as if he's saying, I know you want a piece of my son, stupid boy. Both humbled and intimidated by his manly vibes, I bravely stand ground and resist the urge to run away screaming like a pansy. At least I know now where Lucas gets his cold, sub-zero degree temper.

"Thanks for letting me stay over last Friday," I say as politely as I can, hoping that I can at least win over a few brownie points.

Chuck Norris remains unfazed. "What's your name?" he says suddenly.

"Ness. Sir," I add respectfully, feeling that an honorific is appropriate for the situation. I don't want to ruin this one shot at gaining a better reputation with Lucas's dad - and I really, really want him to have a good impression of me - but seeing as he's kinda witnessed me trying to kidnap his son, it's probably a lost cause.

Chuck Norris responds with a deep grunt.

This confuses me. Is it an approving grunt? An unhappy grunt? An I-want-to-pulverize-your-guts grunt? I'm undergoing such a major melt-down that I almost miss his next words.

"Thank you for looking out for my son," he finally says.

That response came right out-of-the-blue. It's the definition of unexpected at its finest.

Sheepishly, I scratch the back of my neck. "Oh, uh... no problem. Lucas looks after himself. I just do stuff... on the side..."

The man doesn't even blink. My hands start sweating profusely. God, I'm so afraid that this bear of a man is going to go all macho on me and toss my flailing form to the sharks. It's like meeting the in-laws for the first time... except that Lucas and I aren't even dating. In rising trepidation, I wait for Lucas's dad to resume conversation, but he doesn't.

How is Lucas able to live like this? No wonder Lucas can understand Red so well. Red is like the teenage version of Lucas's dad. Red, the teenage dad. God, that sounds so wrong.

"My son talks about you."

I jolt up. The way Chuck Norris suddenly speaks between silences like it's nothing unnerves me. My house is never quiet. It's always loud, with me bickering with my little sister, my hot-headed mom telling both of us off, and my dog barking constantly. Things especially got hectic during meal time. I think of Lucas and his father sitting together for dinner. If they even do. Either way, I can't imagine much talk going around. Hell, I can't even imagine this man hugging his son. Small wonder Lucas is emotionally-stunted. If given the chance, Lucas can stare people down like it's nothing, but try to hug him and he will nope the heck out of there.

I laugh nervously. "I hope it's all in good spirit," I joke, but Lucas's dad doesn't respond. His brown eyes pierce through me, and their sharp scrutiny is startlingly similar to his son's. An uncomfortable silence spreads between us.

This man is quite the stoic.

Also, Lucas talks about me? Since when?

"You're a good kid." Chuck Norris extends his right hand. "The name's Flint."

Taken aback by his sudden praise, I grab his hand and stammer, "I-I'll try not to be a bad influence on your son, Mr. Flint."

The first thing that occurs to me is that Flint's hand feels nothing like Lucas's. If Lucas's grip is careful and hesitant, Flint's is huge, heavy, and dangerous. In fact, Flint's fist swallows up my own fingers whole, crushing them like a muscular clamp of death, and something about the knowing look in his eyes screams challenge. I've had plenty of practice greeting people though, so when I return the favor with a decently firm handshake, I hope that my grip, while not as devastatingly brutal, does not disappoint him.

Flint surveys me, then releases my hand. "Good luck on the Championships, Ness," is all he says.

Flustering unexpectedly, I awkwardly push past him with a meek goodbye. In that brief instance, I catch Flint returning to his plight down the stairs, his head buried in his newspaper, a hint of a smile twitching on the corner of his lips.

When Lucas answers the door to his apartment, I almost cry with relief. He's tall, so, so tall, but thank the gods he's a skinny toothpick. My relief is so immense that I want to hug him in the spot - but I don't. Instead, I give Lucas a weak word of thanks and hobble inside his apartment, my knees shaking like we've been hit by a magnitude eight earthquake.

Lucas's eyes roam over my disheveled state. His forehead creases with a slight frown. "What happened to you."

I raise a trembling hand to salute the lord. "Give me a fucking minute. I'm officially traumatized by your dad."

Realization laces his tone. "He passed you on the way down."

"Yeah."

"What did he say to you?" Lucas says sharply, and I'm surprised by the sudden concern in his tone.

I lift my head. "Nothing."

"Doesn't look like nothing to me."

"Really, nothing happened," I moan. "He's like the definition of intimidating. I've never been more afraid of Chuck Norris in my entire life."

Of course, Lucas breaks into an amused smirk. "You thought my dad was Chuck Norris?"

"Maybe...? The resemblance is uncanny." Embarrassed, I pull the brim of my cap over my head. "Are you packed? We'd better get going."

Lucas nods in assent, but the stupid smirk doesn't leave his face. Ass. He locks the apartment, double checking the bolt, then slings on his duffel bag. He's looking the other way when I grab his hand, and when Lucas flinches, his fingers suddenly tensing up for a second before relaxing, I can't help but feel relieved that his hand feels nothing like his father's.

We skid into the atrium of the SkyTrain station. The overhead speaker turns on with an electronic chime, and a cool woman's voice echoes on repeat over the marble platforms and the chatter of a thousand different languages.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please. SkyTrain One-two-one-five on Platform Five to... Dream Land... will be departing in ten minutes. Thank you, and have a safe flight."

People bustle past us with briefcases and luggage bags in tow. Ducking out of their way, I flock over to the large-scale map proudly glowing with the company logo - SkyTrain: Our Service is Out of This World! - and squint at the flight board up ahead. "Lucas, what's our platform number?"

Lucas checks the ticket on his phone. "Platform Two. SkyTrain to Smash City."

I glance at his ticket and brighten up. "Hey, you got seat C42. I'm in seat 43!"

"Makes sense. Master Hand bought the tickets this time round."

"He should've paid for your trip to Onett."

"My L.O.A. was last minute, so the trains to Onett were all full. I was lucky to squeeze into a flight with a Last-Minute Pass."

I back-track. "You were standing the entire flight to Onett? The trip would've taken hours," I say in disbelief.

"It's okay. Master Hand promised to reimburse me for the ticket, so I didn't mind."

"Still, Last-Minute Passes suck. I don't know you managed to stand for that long." We stroll over to Platform Two, passing a flashy display of a Victoria's Secret and the glowing lights of a Duty Free. I glance at my watch. "We've got an hour to kill. Wanna explore?"

Lucas's eyes rest on a shelve of books advertised across the forum. No doubt he wants to browse a book. Classic nerd.

But all jesting aside, I don't say that to his face, because Lucas is oddly self-conscious when it comes to hobbies like reading, or studying, or anything academic. I don't see why he should be. His mental endurance is envious really, because I have zero patience for reading at all. Just the mere thought of forcing myself to sit still and read for HOURS makes me shudder on end.

I nudge Lucas in the side. "Let's check out the bookstore."

Lucas swallows. His eyes quickly flicker away. "We'll spend too long there-"

"Man, for some reason, I really wanna check out that bookstore," I declare, and drag him over by the shirt.

"Ness," Lucas tries, trying to extricate his shirt from my fist. "It'll be boring-"

"They have Marvel comics," I point out, and that shuts him up real quick. It's true - I love DC and Marvel - and Lucas knows it; my closet back home is stacked to the roof with regaling tales of Batman and Superman.

Lucas is hesitating, so I speak up, "Seriously, Lucas. Take as much time as you want. We're literally stuck here for sixty minutes."

This finally convinces him. Lucas returns my grin with a sheepish smile. "Okay."

Aw fuck he's too cute.

And too awfully dense.

I cough loudly and quickly pull the brim of my cap to hide my burning face. While I'm in the middle of my crush-not-crush freak-out, Lucas's attention has rested on another store rounding the corner. It's bustling to the brim with people, mostly teenage girls, but his eyes lighten up at the sight. "Hey, I think there's a clearance sale on books over there."

"Where?" I say dumbly, whirling around. Instantly, my eyes are assaulted by the most horrifying mother of all words: Gift Store.

...

OH MY GOD.

IT'S THE SAME FUCKING GIFT STORE.

"Nooo, not there," I say quickly. Desperate to save his innocence, I try to tug Lucas away, but he doesn't budge an inch.

Lucas furrows his brow. "Why-"

I fist his shirt as if his very life was at stake. "Please, Lucas," I beg. "You'll thank me later."

Oh no, he's turning curious. Lucas spares a longing glance at the books, but shit, he can't get close, I'm not letting him get any closer, because I know exactly what those "books" on sale really are, and it's obvious, judging from the familiar, colorful covers that flash revoltingly in the display. We might be at a different train station today, but oh shit oh god why, I definitely recognize that store owner.

"You don't have to come if you don't want to read," Lucas reassures me, and oh fuck, I'm losing, he's prying his shirt out of my hands-

"F-F-Fire!" I stammer. Lucas throws me a questioning look, and I blurt out the first thing on my mind. "The... The owner hates me, because I almost burned his store down! Accidentally! I can't let him see you! He might think I sent you to finish off the job!"

For a nerve-racking second, I'm terrified that he's going to brush off my stupid excuse.

Then Lucas's frown deepens. "Why... did you try to burn down the gift store."

"No reason," I laugh nervously, and scrambling at anything to distract him, I point back at the bookstore. "Hey, doesn't that look WAY MORE APPEALING than a crappy gift store?"

"I guess it does..."

"Exactly! I bet the bookstore has cooler books." I give him a light push in the back - FAR FAR AWAY from the gift store. "And - are those rabid shippers? Yeah, let's get out of their way."

Lucas doesn't look convinced one-hundred percent, but when he shrugs and stumbles into the Best-Seller aisle of the bookstore, I want to cry tears of relief. Bless him, he's still a pushover. When Lucas picks up a book - Perks of Being a Wallflower - and sits down in an armchair to read, I pretend to browse books by the open door. Lucas likes to read, and while I hate reading, I'm not going to ruin this happy moment for him.

The precious Sunflower Child must be protected at all costs.

So I end up keeping a close eye on the rabid shippers by the gift store.

It's ten minutes before our flight when I - reluctantly - duck back inside for Lucas. He looks so comfortable, quietly sitting in the corner with his book that I feel bad for interrupting him, but Lucas closes his book before I can speak up.

"Time to leave," he says.

"Yeah."

I wait until Lucas replaces the book, then we set out together for Platform Two. Unlike my last ride to Onett, this SkyTrain must be packed, because the train attendant is checking tickets at the gate. Holy fuck, they're even doing a security check. They've definitely upgraded the policy, and I want to kick myself for not reading this up.

"Welcome to the SkyTrain. Please stand behind the yellow line."

A train pulls into Platform Two. Oh double fuck, our ride's already here. There's a five-minute intermission between stops, but still, it'll suck massively if we miss the train.

I exchange a worried glance with Lucas.

Despite the time crunch, we pass through successfully (Lucas snorts behind his hand when I forget to take off my belt and set off metal detector) and duck into the SkyTrain. It's my turn to laugh when Lucas bumps his head against the low-hanging ceiling near the entrance of the carriage, and rubbing his head, he cracks me a sheepish smile at his own misfortune.

Thankfully, we find our seats without incident.

It's clear that the SkyTrain's got their act together. There are now blinds installed over the windows, so we don't have to close our eyes whenever the train dives into an interdimensional portal, and the interior of the cabin glows with a warm light.

The luggage carrier, unfortunately, is still too high for me.

"I got it," Lucas says when I start struggling with my stupid height. Grateful that I no longer have to hop around like an idiot, I toss him my bag, and Lucas catches it before sliding it overhead in one fluid motion. He fumbles with the latch though, and I don't blame him because the compartment is stuffed to the brim.

I've just slid my ass into the window seat when the speakers turn on.

"Good morning. This is the SkyTrain Six-One-Two departing to... Smash City. Our next destination... Outset Island."

With a puff of smoke and a loud whistle, the train pulls away from the station.

.

.

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~oO0Oo~

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.

.

We start off the time with card games. It's a good idea until a particularly intense round of Slap Jack leaves both of our hands smarting and red. I stop when Lucas murmurs that the other travelers probably want to sleep, and agreeing, I tilt the brim of my cap over my face for a nap.

I'm shaken out of my short-term doze from the cool voice of the speakers.

"Please close the blinds. Now approaching... Smash City."

The blinds pulsate with a dull flash.

"Lucas," I mutter, poking him in the neck. "Wake up."

He blinks groggily. "Are we here?"

"I think so."

"Prepare for landing. Please hold onto the nearest-"

There's a horrible crackle of static, and the announcements fizzle out into an ominous silence. Everyone around us starts muttering around in confusion. Talk about eerie.

"What's going on," Lucas says warily.

"I don't know." I crack open the blinds. Did we pass the interdimensional portal - yep, we did. Blue sky outside. My eyes would've been nicely blinded otherwise. "I think we've stopped."

Sure enough, the train's hovering in place.

Lucas looks over my shoulder. "Maybe the announcements are-" The overhead speakers come alive. "-oh good."

But the gleeful rasp that kills my ears sounds nothing like the cool woman's chime. "Enjoying the ride to Smash City? But oho, what's this? The power seems to be running low. And that's not all - I've planted a bomb in the cockpit!"

Lucas stiffens up in his seat. "Is that-"

I suddenly sit up. "Porky."

The alarmed babble of the passengers rises in volume.

"That's right, folks. This train's about to explode in ten minutes! Oh, and I'd like to make a special shout out to my friends in C42 and C43. Ness and Lucas? Yeah, you guys are sissies!" The speakers cackle again. "Haha, see if you can save the day now! Bomb Voyage! Spankety, spankety, spankety!"

"There are people on board, you bastard!" I scream, but Pokey's voice has already fizzled out.

The lights flicker out. With a slow groan, the train begins to tilt starboard into a cloud.

Then the power dies completely.

We're falling.

People start to scream. Lurching into my foldable table, I curse and leap into the aisle. "Nobody move!" I yell. Thankfully, as I calm people down, Lucas is already two steps ahead.

"We have to reach the cockpit," He says, stumbling as the floor lurches to the side.

An old lady topples out of her seat, but the train is tilting so that she body-slams me. "Lucas, you go on ahead," I groan, helping the old lady up into another seat. "I'll call for backup."

Lucas nods and whips around. I hear the compartment doors zing open, and I know that he's on his way to the front of the train.

As soon as the old lady reassures me that she's okay, that she's all right and can walk on her own oh thank you young whippersnapper, I'm shooting through the aisle, shouting at people to stay in their seats and cover their damn heads. Occasionally, someone pitches into me, but I'm fast enough to catch them before they flatten me into a blueberry pancake.

Tearing through compartment after compartment, I fumble for my phone and call headquarters. At the second ring, whoever's in the Mansion picks up, and I rattle off, "Hello, hi? This is Ness-"

"wRONG nUMbEr! tHIs IS pApA jOHN'S pIZzA! wHaT wOUlD yOU liKe tO oRDeR?"

Oh my god, we're screwed.

I try to explain anyway. "Crazy, Porky rigged a nuke on the SkyTrain and-"

"wHO tHE WHAta? wHOOpSIE DaiSY, i drOPPeD tHe PhONE!"

Fuck my life. "Mr. Hand!" I scream into the receiver. "Send help, SOS!"

"dEATh aND dESTRucTION?! oOOh, wHer- hEYY!" There's the sound of a yelp as the phone is snatched away, and someone else's voice filters in. "Sorry. This is Samus, reading in."

"Samus! This is Ness, I'm with Lucas, and we're about to die!"

"I'll be there in five." The phone clicks dead.

Fucking finally.

Colors blur past the window: blue, white, orange. When I wedge myself between a couple and squeeze out of the 1st class compartment, something hits me solidly in the shin. Swearing loudly, I hop on my free foot before ruefully glancing at the perpetrator. It's an arm. A robotic arm that's been ripped out of an android.

In fact, the entire aisle's littered with feebly-flickering androids as if someone - a.k.a. Lucas - has demolished his way through a mass-produced army of toy robots. The wind-up toys are identical to each other in every way, from the blaring red siren right down to the chipped blond hair painted on their heads.

Porky Bots.

"Lucas!" I frantically twist the knob on the automatic captain's cockpit, but it's locked shut. The train's done a nosedive. I can hear confused yells of bodies thudding against the compartment doors. "Lucas? Are in you in there?! FUCK!" Out of desperation, I slam myself against the cockpit. The door yields, bursting open. There's a loud crackling sound of ozone snapping and popping, and I snap my head up because I smell smoke.

Something's burning.

Lucas.

Electricity courses through his skin in a horrifying lightshow, and I stumble over screaming his name.

"Stop screaming, I'm okay," Lucas says, albeit a little hoarsely. Sparks of his magic ferociously tear across the windshield, and when I glance in his direction, I notice that Lucas's eyes are flaring up so bright blue that I can't see his pupils. On a closer look, I realize that Lucas is trying to start up the machine with PK Thunder, and that he's not being horribly electrocuted to death.

I exhale in relief.

Lucas gives a violent shudder. There's a sudden jerk in my navel as the train slows its descent, and the power flickers back on with a hum of machinery. Outside, I can see the city spread wide beneath us in a sea of buildings.

"Ness," he rasps. "I've got the train. Dismantle the bomb."

I tear my eyes away from the window to the explosive at Lucas's feet. It's a bomb all right: a big fat bomb in all its big fat glory. How the hell it got past TSA, I have no idea.

I'm making my way across to Lucas when the broken-down door to the cockpit blasts apart. I cough, shielding my eyes from the debris when a hard, metallic fist collides into my stomach.

I collapse onto my knees. "Urk, I'm gonna feel that in the morning."

Whirring and clicking, the Porky Bots emerge from the smoking entrance. I hear the screams of the people on board, and spot more bots drop down from the overhead luggage carriers. Great. More stupid bots.

Opening their arms in an embrace, each one waddles over to me and chirps in a tinny mechanical voice, "Let's be friends, Ness."

I spare a quick glance at the ticking bomb.

Four minutes.

Yeah, that's plenty of time.

I crack my knuckles. Before the Porky Bots have taken a single step forward, the yo-yo whizzes out of my hands. Hot adrenaline tints my vision red. I slash my way through the crowd, weaving through into the battle fray like it's raining nuts and bolts. One robot with a shattered siren put-puts around in a broken merry-go-around circle before tripping over itself. The fallen bot unsteadily pushes itself up and drags itself towards Lucas, ready to sink its sharp fingers into his ankles, but I step on its head and crush it for good measure. When I lower my fist and step back, my shoes are slippery and slimy from black machine oil. I wipe my hands on my sleeves. Great, now my shirt is soaked with the icky stuff.

The train lurches again. Lucas is slipping.

"One minute," he says weakly, sweat dripping from his face.

"Don't worry, I got it." I crouch over by the bomb and hug it. "PK Magne-"

A fist punches through the glass window. The arm retracts itself, and when we look up, Samus Aran lands perfectly inside the cockpit, feet-first. "Looks like you boys got it all taken care of," she says, raising her eyebrows at me.

I jolt up. "How-"

Her hot-air balloon ride floats in. "Kirby!" Kirby chirps.

Pikachu shakes himself out of Samus's hair. "(We tracked your phone, dumbass.)" He observes Lucas shaking by the console. "(Boy, he doesn't look too good.)"

Pikachu has had a bad history with Pokemon trainers. He distrusts humans, and as far as I know, everyone except for Red and Samus are on his blacklist. Normally, I'd be a little more patient with his attitude, but seeing as Lucas looks like he's about to keel over, I don't have time for Pikachu's bogus.

"Are you gonna help us out or what?" I snap.

"(Ugh. Don't get your knickers in a twist.)" Pikachu hops down and scurries over to the dashboard. "(Hey, kid, scoot over.)" He charges up the machine, and as Lucas slumps over in relief, Samus takes control of the cockpit to steer us down.

She flicks on the intercom. "Standby, this is your acting-Captain Samus speaking. All threats have been neutralized. The train will arrive on time. Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing."

Pouting, Kirby waddles over to me and reaches for the bomb. "Kir-by!"

I lift the bomb up. "Yeah, buddy. It's all yours."

Satisfied by my response, Kirby opens his mouth wide. With a zoomph, the bomb is sucked straight into his mouth, and Kirby swallows it whole. I'd say the gesture almost looks cute, except I've been in that mouth before, and trust me, it's not cute.

My legs turn to jelly. I stand up and wobble across the cockpit. Breathing heavily, Lucas slumps against the wall. His eyes are no longer glowing with magic, which makes me a little sad because they make him look super badass, but he's still plenty badass without the glowy eyes.

I crouch next to him. "Hey."

"Never again," is all he says.

I clap a hand on his shoulder with a big fat grin. "We were never in danger of dying," I offer.

"The people on-board were." Lucas breathes out, and his eyes flutter shut. A few strands of sweaty hair stick to his forehead. "Remind me, why does Porky want to kill us?"

"Because he hates my guts, and therefore, hates you by association."

"He hasn't attacked us since Subspace."

"Beats me. Well, now that you bring it up..." I frown and scratch the back of my neck. "Pokey used to be my next door neighbor."

Lucas's eyes flicker to my face. It's his cue for go on.

I scuff my wet shoe against the tiles. They make a nasty squeaking sound. "Back as a kid, Porky kept insisting that we were friends. We were... but after a point, I didn't feel like we were friends. He kinda scared me to be honest," I admit. "Whenever we hung out, he wanted to do shitty things just to make other people feel bad. Like throwing rocks at cars. Porky was a bratty attention hog, especially when he kept popping up to interfere with my quest, but-" I swallow down the lump in my throat. "Turns out, he just wanted attention because his parents were abusive. His dad was a racist, homophobic lump of lard who used to beat him, and his mom was a bonefied class A bitch, and I didn't find out until-"

"It's not your fault," Lucas mutters.

"I chickened out, I could've helped him-"

Lucas's eyes shift away from my face. "Ness, you can try as hard as you want... but in the end, some people are beyond help."

While there's a hard truth that rings in Lucas's words, it hurts to admit it.

"I think you can help anyone if you try," I say stubbornly.

"And we've achieved world peace," he shoots back. "You tried, Ness. It's more than anyone else can say. So stop thinking that Porky is your fault."

Sometimes, I wonder if Lucas is secretly a tired 80-year-old man in a child's body. He knows things that we shouldn't know at our age. He says things that make you think twice. He turns up Imagine Dragons in his headphones whenever he's somber and listens to Bohemian Rhapsody like it's about to go out of style.

But then I think about how he forgets to tie his shoelaces in the morning or how he flusters like a tomato whenever he bumps his head against a doorframe, and I snort. Yeah, I take that back. He's still an awkward dork.

Yet, somehow, Lucas has done the unthinkable. The thought of Pokey doesn't completely quench my guilt, but Lucas's words have lightened the load on my chest. Grinning back in spite of myself, I ruffle his sweaty hair. Lucas's arms bump against my side, and when I look at him, I realize that he's trembling from exertion. I wonder how many Porky Bots he's fought to reach the cockpit. A fair amount, it seems, from the looks of it. Add firing up a train to that list, and Lucas is seriously badass. He's really pulled through this time.

Wordlessly, I reach for his hands.

Lucas gets the gist. A pale blue light washes over his palms before a PK magnet hovers at the tips of his fingers, flickering and and dying like a candle. As I graze the back of his hands, some blue sparks escape from his fingers and happily dance across my own skin.

"PK Fire," I say, and watch, mesmerized, as my PSI shimmers and sinks into the magical fluff of humming energy. As the glow of his PK Magnet dies into a wisp, I see that Lucas's skin has returned to its pale, sour color.

"You too," he says softly, and when he heals my bruises, I want to cry of relief.

After a sufficient amount of time, I let my PK Magnet fade and watch the purple light wink out of sight. Expecting Lucas to do the same, I wait for him to let go, but he's still staring at my hands, and - oh. I forgot that they're all slick and gross and slimy.

My grin widens, and I slap an oil-dripping hand onto his forehead. "It."

This results in a messy scuffle of tag that ends with Lucas's hair looking more black than yellow and webs of slippery film stuck underneath my fingernails.

Samus's Behave yourselves breaks into the silence.

"We're alive," I point out, still grinning stupidly.

"Touche," Samus says.

"Actually-" Lucas starts, standing up.

Samus glare shoots him back down. "Lucas, sit down. I'm driving."

"But-"

"Sit down."

Lucas obeys. He's still a sissy at heart, bless him.

I cheerfully clap him in the back. "You're such a pushover."

Lucas heaves a low groan before drawing his legs up. I snort, trying my best to keep in the giggles, but they still manage to escape between my fingers. An embarrassed flush crawls up the back of Lucas's neck, and he ducks his head to hide his red face in the safety of his knees.

"Stop laughing at me," his muffled voice escapes.

I grin wider. "You are a total pushover-"

"Samus is driving."

Suddenly I picture a grown-up Tracy, and am so very glad that I do not have an older sister.

Lucas is still wilting over in his little corner, so I prod him with a finger. "Lucas, stop sulking." When Lucas draws his knees up tighter, I poke him in the ribs. This time, he recoils and uncurls slightly. Ticklish? Most definitely.

"You need to stand up for yourself," I say solemnly. "Now repeat after me: Samus is a fun-sucking vampire."

"Well, this fun-sucking vampire isn't going to rain on your parade, because Master Hand's here," Samus says, snapping the train into gear. "Now go sit in the corner with Lucas. We're about to land."

I sulk and join the Corner Crew. Lucas pats me in the back. His voice pokes into my head. You asked for it.

I know, I say gloomily.

Samus steers us into the subway tunnel. It's a smooth touch-down. To my delight, Samus even lets me finish off the announcements, and a happy, fuzzy feeling fills up my chest when I can hear the people on board cheer over the intercom. I can't imagine how scared they must've been. What had happened between me and Porky was a private matter, and these passengers had been unfairly dragged into it.

But what frightens me more is the trust these citizens invest in us. They believe that we can save them until the very last minute.

And I'm afraid of letting them down.

Something gently brushes against my hand. Lucas stares fixedly at the floor, and when he awkwardly fumbles for my hand a second time, loosely interlacing our fingers together, his reassurance returns my confidence. The noise level spikes up as the crowd outside surrounds the SkyTrain. I can hear their muffled voices through the walls, and I know that Lucas can too, because he's hunching his shoulders together, shrinking behind me as if trying to make himself smaller.

Then the doors to the cockpit slide open. Pikachu scampers past us. Lucas shuffles even closer to me that our arms are practically pressed together, blocking our barely-linked hands from view. Taking a deep breath, I follow Samus and Kirby out of the cockpit.

The first thing to greet us is the sound of a hundred claps. Whistling and hooting and cheering. Plastering on a winning smile, I try to keep brave, nodding at every praise and compliment thrown my way.

I have to stay strong. No matter how scared I feel.

Amidst the cover of mindless chaos, Lucas quietly slips one of my gross, oily hands into his jacket pocket. He doesn't let go, and I'm glad when he doesn't. Lucas keeps me grounded. Lucas keeps me sane.

I squeeze his hand back.

Wading through the crowd of well-wishers and autographs, a horde of bodyguards protectively escort us towards a sleek black limo in the parking lot. One of the bodyguards hands us our bags - which I've totally forgotten from the train - and another taps the limo with the back of his knuckles.

The window peels down.

"Welcome back to Smash City," Master Hand says.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"You're leaving today."

It's not a question.

I nod mechanically. "Ness is teleporting me to the SkyTrain station."

Dad closes his newspaper. There's something dangerously cautious about his tone, the same kind of tone that signals a calm before a storm. Whatever he's thinking, he doesn't sound too pleased. "This... Ness. He likes hugging you."

"He hugs everyone." Mostly untrue, but my dad wouldn't know that.

"You let him hug you."

"He's my best friend."

Dad's voice turns gruff. "He likes guys."

"And there's nothing wrong with that," I say quietly, and Dad's eyes rake over my face as if trying to figure me out. I wonder if he's suspecting something. I wonder if he knows. Either way, he should know better than to underestimate Ness as a Smasher. He's more than qualified for the position.

To my relief, Dad grunts and drops the subject. "I'm glad that we don't have to worry about all that family drama under this roof. Your brother was straight. Best to stay that way."

I stay silent. Considering that Claus has made some poor-ass life choices like running away from home as a kid and probably getting his throat slit in a dark alley somewhere, I'm not sure if that's a justifiable reasoning for his hypothetical sexual orientation.

But in my father's eyes, Claus could do no wrong. Claus was brave. Claus was smart. Claus had always been the better twin, and it was true. Had he been alive, had Claus grown up to resemble someone like Ness, I had no doubt that he would've gone off to do bigger and better things. He wouldn't have stayed here and watched our family waste away into misery. I couldn't imagine Claus wanting to sit around in our tiny dingy apartment, biding his time for an adventure and playing his cards safe. His own impulsiveness was his downfall.

But as amazing as Claus is, I'm nothing like him.

I catch my dad's eyes and the sinking feeling returns to the pit of my stomach. I'm not Lucas. I've never been Lucas. I'm an impersonation of my brother, a cheap knockoff strung along on a buy-one-Claus-get-one-free. I'm only supposed to be the carbon copy of my dad's favorite son.

And shamefully I don't mind at all. I've never been a leader. I don't lead; I follow. I've never been comfortable in my own skin, so I've grown used to hiding in others. First I've been walking in Claus's shoes, and now, I trail behind Ness's shadow.

The boy named "Lucas" has never existed.

I've always been a copy of someone else.

Pushing his chair back, my dad finishes the last dregs of his coffee. "I'm going to work," he finally says, striding away to slip on his shoes. He takes one, two steps before coming to an impressive halt at the door. "Lucas. I don't mind if your friend fools around with other boys. He's not my son. You are." His eyes shift to meet mine. "And no son of mine is a fucking faggot."

My throat closes up. "Right, dad."

Tilting his cowboy hat over his face, my dad silently shrugs on his jacket and pushes his way outside.


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~Chapter 18~

Everybody Talks

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Aside from his lukewarm welcome, Master Hand looks just as ill-tempered as he did the morning the Koopalings destroyed his coffee maker. I quickly take my seat next to Samus, and sensing that Master Hand's anger is about to boil over the pot, Ness wisely decides to hold his tongue.

When we peel into the Front Grounds, the change of decor is impossible to miss. All of the neatly-trimmed hedges are softly coated with frost, and the Grand Fountain - a marble statue of a giant Gamecube controller - glimmers under a thin layer of ice. It's as if Christmas has come early and dressed Smash Mansion in bright hues of red and green. Master Hand gestures at the limo driver to park, and as soon as the car doors smoothly click open, he floats out. Taking that as a sign to follow, we hurriedly trail after him.

Twitching at the doors, Crazy Hand is the first to greet us inside the Mansion. "wELcOMe hOME, bROTHeR DEArEST!" he cackles, throwing on a spare glove over his brother's fingers. "i daRESay yOU aRe ChiLLeD tO tHE BoNE!"

"Yes, I was, thank you, it was quite cold indeed," Master Hand says wearily, glancing up at the ceiling. "Judging from the intact skyscraper, I assume that there's been no trouble on your end?"

"nO tROUBLe?!" As if in disbelief, Crazy flips out and makes a wild gesture with his fluttering fingers. "YoU sHOuLd hEAr the rUMOrS eVErYonE'S bEEn SPreaDiNG-"

"What rumors?"

"nOT tELLiNg! iT'S A sEcrET," Crazy Hand sings. "eVerYoNE'S bEEn awFUlly ADAmEnt aBoUT nOT tELLiNg yOu, eVEr! aND thAt's nOT aLL. taLk aBOuT tHE bOMb iN tHe sKYtRAiN... tHeN oOOh, AbOUt tHaT BrEAk-IN aT tHE mUSEUm yeSterDaY nIGhT iN OnE-"

"Crazy," Master Hand interrupts sharply. "Not in present company."

As if just noticing us awkwardly lingering in the foyer, Crazy Hand cackles, "A-wHOOpsie! aLmOSt LeT SOMeThiNG slIP aGAiN!" When Master Hand brushes past him, Crazy leans into my ear and lowers his voice with barely-suppressed glee. "sOMeoNE sTOlE sOMeTHinG pREcIOUS frOM tHE mUsEUm, yES, yeS. sOmEThINg oF mY bROthER'S. A vErY nAStY bUSinEsS-"

"Crazy."

"cOMInG brO-bRO!" Crazy hoots, sweeping after him.

Samus shuts the Mansion doors. As soon as they echo behind us with a resounding thud, Kirby floats off into the direction of the Cafeteria for search of food, and Pikachu scampers down Samus's shoulder to lick a spot of dirt out of his fur.

"I know Porky's got a sore spot with you two, but leave the legal business to Master Hand," Samus sighs, recharging her gun. "Master Hand should take care of cracking down on the police force to swab the deck for evidence. In the meantime, he's upping the security inside the Mansion-"

"Master Hand looks, er... pissed off," Ness observes.

Samus clears her throat. "He's been like that since this morning."

"Really?"

"Yep. He caught Lucina and Pittoo tongue-wrestling each other in the broom closet-"

Ness doubles around. "Lucina's dating Pittoo?" he sputters.

Samus grimaces. "It caused a huge uproar in the fandom while you two were gone. Master Hand's not happy. You've heard him rant about interdimensional relationships before-"

"Wh-What did Master Hand do to them?"

"Oh, nothing," Samus says dismissively. "Master Hand threatened to throw them out onto the streets, but Crazy was all for it. Said who cared if a little love fed happiness and chaos into this uptight Mansion. First time I ever saw him talk Master Hand out of anything. Still, Master Hand's in a sour mood. Best avoid him while you can." Looking oddly concerned for our welfare, Samus pokes Ness's bag with her blaster. "You two, uh, better drop off your bags and start training. The Championships aren't going to disappear any time soon."

Ness snaps out of his stupor. "Oh, yeah. Lucas, I guess we'd better check what time our match is airing for Round One."

"Smart move. And Ness?" When Ness turns around looking confused, Samus slides her helmet shut. "I hope you know what you're doing." She strides towards the training rooms with Pikachu hot on her heels.

Ness stares after her. "What is she talking about?" he says blankly. I shrug.

Approaching the lobby, we notice that even the elevators look different. The glass elevators are no longer made of glass; instead they give off a liquid silver sheen, its once see-through glass panels switched for fancy gold-plated sheets and gray steampunk gears. A Christmas wreath adorns each one.

Despite the competitive tension of the Winter Championships looming over our heads, the festive Christmas cheer has snuck its way into the Mansion. It dangles on the baubles of the snow-capped trees Olimar recently hauled in, and glitters in the last-ditch sprigs of mistletoe that Captain Falcon hurriedly plastered over the arches of hallways and corridors. If that isn't a blatant indication, Rosalina is floating around the Mansion knitting ugly Christmas sweaters for everyone. She's rounding the corner with Peach when Ness and I hurry out of the elevators, and as they pass us, Peach's exasperation is clear in her voice.

"Rosie, the tournament's coming up in three days-"

"Christmas is an Earth Tradition, is it not?" Rosalina speaks vaguely, flicking her wand. The finished sweater drops on a waiting string of Lumas, who - struggling underneath the dull blue-gray sweater of a Pokeball - chirp happily and bob away in search of an elusive Red. "Even you were baking pies and crumpets in the kitchen the other day."

"But Rosie-" Peach says weakly.

"In the midst of fierce competition lies great companionship." Rosalina smiles serenely. "Fear not, for I have trained as hard as I could. You know that I cannot let you take all the fun, dear sister. Now let us enjoy the Christmas festivities."

On the other hand, Marth looks stressed out beyond comparison. He's apparently holed himself up in the library whenever he's not sleeping in his room or training with Roy on their tag-team strategies, reciting physics formulas and political history facts under his breath.

"Cheers," Marth says distractedly when Ness and I take another hard-earned practice round, and without a moment to waste, hurries out of the training room.

"His finals are coming up," Roy helpfully mutters on the side, and with a jolt, I remember that Marth is a junior at Smash University.

Marth isn't alone in his distress; a couple of his friends in the early twenties are caught in the same predicament. Throughout the morning, I see Zelda and Link huddled together in hushed whispers over an open Introduction to the Life Sciences textbook, and Cloud is gritting his teeth over The Culture and Civilization of Smash City with a nonplussed Robin pouring over his own meticulously handwritten notes on Greek Mythology. Only Shulk looks relaxed among his peers, lazily staring over his friends' shoulders in polite interest.

When Marth buries himself in a pile of textbooks in the corner of the cafeteria during brunch, wallowing in an undertone of simmering distress, Shulk unwisely approaches him.

"Uh, Marth," Shulk asks, warily prodding Marth in the shoulder with his Monado. "You do know that our exams have been moved to January, right? All the professors granted us an extension for the Championships-"

"I am not failing my classes," Marth snaps.

Shulk laughs. "You, fail? Four-point-oh Hero King Marth? That's impossible-"

"Try me."

"Even Link's given up on studying until after the Championships-"

"Link is a smart man."

"But my future vision-"

Marth slams English Through the Ages shut. "I'm taking seven classes and have three exams back-to-back on the same day," Marth says, his voice cracking, and there's a certain twitch on his eyebrow that has failed to mask his dangerous undertone. "If you distract me one more time, Shulk, by the gods, I will personally run Falchion through your spleen."

"You'd better sod off, Shulk," Roy says sympathetically at Marth's side, and Shulk hastily stumbles away to find a seat between a laughing Link and Cloud. Catching my eye, Roy gives me a wink before Marth shoves a textbook into his face and demands Roy to quiz him.

But the surrealism only peaks from there.

Despite her headstrong nature, Nana seems more flustered than usual, tripping over the training equipment and refusing to meet my eyes. On my way to the water fountain after yet another brutal practice match, Bayonetta throws me a knowing smirk, slow and sultry, before ruffling my hair like I've made her proud. Bowser and Wario stop conversing at once to watch me trudge into the lobby, then guffaw into tears when I stare their way. To my own mortification, Captain Falcon dashes over and slaps me hard on the rump with a crowing, "Yeah, go get some!" and I think I even saw a flustered Samus bring Ness off to the side at one point of the day.

"She said she was sorry for doubting me," Ness says, turning red in the face when I ask him what she wanted.

At wit's end, whenever I tried approaching someone for answers, they'd hurry away, suddenly seeming incredibly busy. What's more, most of the Smashers were giving us space like we were contagious. Or as if Ness and I were back in grade school, and everyone else was in on an inside joke we weren't privy to.

So it's with an air of fresh relief when I find Ness chilling in the cafeteria. He's snacking on baby carrots when he spots me, and when he waves me over, I join all-too-thankfully.

Alone together at a table, Pittoo and Lucina are holding hands and speaking in low, concerned undertones on the side. Their conversation radiates with an unmistakable intimacy, and in the far corner beside his wife, Robyn, I see Lucina's father - Chrom - glowering at the new-found couple with deep resentment. It's clear that he doesn't approve of his daughter's relationship. I can feel Chrom's foul mood simmer across the cafeteria, and from the way Ness is warily edging away from Chrom's full-force stare, he certainly feels it too.

Hastily searching for a distraction, I pour myself a glass of water. "Everyone's acting odd."

Ness sputters, "O-Odd?"

"People kept saying congratulations to me all morning. I'm not sure why. It was a little weird," I confess, twisting the bottle cap back on.

"You too?" Ness says incredulously.

I sit up. "What's going on?" I say stupidly.

"Beats me. I have no fucking idea." Ness shakes his head before tilting his own waterbottle back. He swallows, then wipes his mouth with his sleeve. "Maybe they're just happy to see us back in time for the Championships."

"Maybe," I repeat, scratching the back of my neck.

"Chrom though," Ness says under his breath, glancing at the intimidating man who is currently searing us nicely under his gaze. "I swear, he thinks it's somehow our fault that Lucina hooked up with Pittoo. Can you believe that?" Ness sounds mortally wounded by the accusation, and I can sympathize. I'm having a hard time believing that chill-as-a-cucumber Chrom can give anyone the DIE SCUM look, but when Chrom turns to direct his scowl onto me, I hastily drop my eyes. If looks could kill, Ness and I would've been creamed on the spot.

His mouth full of half-chewed baby carrots, Ness furiously waves his hands around. "I mean, wif the bay eybeebuhdee's aboiding us... " he swallows down his food. "Seriously, what did we do? Like I give two shits about whom Lucina's dating-"

"Yo, if it isn't my favorite two homies," Popo exclaims, slinging an arm around our shoulders. Trailing behind him, Toon and Red awkwardly hang back, holding their trays. Popo glances over in Chrom's way, then whistles. "Damn, you've really pissed Chrom off-"

"What now, Popo," Ness says irritably.

"Just checking up on you, obviously," Popo responds cheerfully, and at his side Toon whispers frantically under his breath, "Nooo, Popo, we shouldn't bother them-"

"Can someone tell me what the fuck is going on?" Ness says loudly, and some heads turn his way. "Everyone's been avoiding us like the plague!"

I glance at Red, but he pointedly refuses to meet our eyes. It's Popo who answers, giving in with a small snigger.

"Duh. We're giving you two space."

Ness frowns. "Space? For what?"

"No wonder Chrom wants to kill you. He's after your guts for setting an example to his daughter-"

"What example?!"

"Nessie, I'm hurt," Popo says, faking a hurt expression while clapping a hand over his chest. "As your former ex, I thought you would've at least told me you were dating Lucas."

The words don't quite sink into my head until Ness twists himself around like a pretzel. Struck speechless, he's doing the perfect goldfish impression, opening and closing his mouth in a comical 'o'.

"I, w-what?!" Ness manages to choke out.

Hopelessly oblivious to his shock, Popo pats hims on the back. "It's nice to know that you two are finally together-"

"We're not dating," I say quickly.

"Course you aren't," Popo says earnestly.

"No, we really aren't," Ness insists, quickly regaining momentum. "Look, Popo, it's just a rumor, so drop it-"

"Not when you two were going at it back in Lucas's apartment."

My blood turns to ice.

Ness's face rapidly pales. "You were awake?" he whispers.

Popo looks like the smuggest bastard in the world. "Oh, hell yeah. We were listening to you two make out the entire night-"

The back of my neck has started to prickle, and I know from Popo's sudden look of triumph that my face is flushing deep crimson. Ness shoots me a panicked glance, and I notice that his face has turned paler still in contrast. One thing's for sure: he's reflecting the same horrified expression on my face.

Toon turns a deep scarlet. "I... I wasn't listening," Toon defends lamely. "I woke up-"

"-and I'm surprised that Lucas's dad didn't. You two were being loud," Popo hoots, elbowing Ness in the side. "Ness, you player, you."

Ness has turned as white as a sheet. He grabs Popo by the arm. "Listen, you don't understand, it was only a dare-"

"Pretty passionate for a dare, don't you think?" Popo grins, yanking his arm away.

"Will you give it a rest?! It was a dare, Popo!"

"Sure thing, Nessie," Popo says airily, waving his hand. "Geez, the next time you two want to cozy up and kiss each other, just say so. Well, anyways, my best wishes to you-"

"FOR THE LAST TIME, WE'RE NOT DATING!" Ness yells, leaping to his feet, and the Cafeteria falls into a sudden hush. "LUCAS. IS. MY. BEST. FRIEND!"

Everyone stares at us like we've grown two heads. For a second, it seems like Ness's words have finally gotten through.

Then a sudden snort of derision erupts from one of the tables, and to my dismay, everyone breaks out laughing.

"Good one, Ness!"

"Best friend? Don't you mean boyfriend?"

"Hey! Hey, Ness! Is Lucas your bestest best friend?"

Swearing loudly, Ness grabs my hand. "Come on, Lucas," he mutters, throwing everyone a dirty look. "Let's get out of here."

"Come on, Lucas," Wolf mimics, and when I fluster, heating up at the remark, the entire house falls into shambles from another round of laughter.

Ness throws Wolf a venomous scowl before dragging me away by the arm. I'm thankful for his quick-thinking, because the cafeteria has dissolved into noisy chaos. Jabbing a finger accusingly in Wolf's direction, Marth has risen from his seat, looking furious and red-faced from yelling, and just as Ike leaps to his feet to unsheathe his own sword, the doors slam shut.

I spare the closed doors a nervous glance. "Yikes."

"Yeah." Shaking, Ness grips my hand tighter. "Don't listen to them, Lucas. Wolf's an idiot."

"Right," is all I say, because stupidly, all I can think about is how warm and toasty Ness's hands are.

To my disappointment, Ness clears his throat and quickly lets go of my hand. The lopsided brim of his hat covers his eyes. "A-Anyways, I checked the match-ups. Round One, we're against Marth and Roy."

His tone is deceptively casual. I quickly catch on, pretending that a loud large-scale brawl isn't breaking out in the cafeteria.

"Let's practice with the CPUs," I suggest, and at the change of thought, Ness perks up. When he lifts his head, I can see that his expression has brightened up.

"Level 7 CPUs. Yeah, because all Level 9s shield like hell," he grumbles along, leading the way to the training rooms. "Marth is going to be tricky to beat since he's got a good range, so here's what I'm thinking..."

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~oO0Oo~

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Contrary to what Ness thinks, I rise late because I sleep late. I don't fall asleep often, and whenever I do - as Claus once quoted - I sleep like a rock. I'm afraid of too many things. I'm afraid of the things that go bump in the night. I'm afraid of sleeping, of dreaming of premonitions and of reliving painful memories. I won't get bad dreams if I don't sleep, so I often stay up. I'm not a sound sleeper. Whenever I grow tired, I take little naps during the day.

But now that my own feelings are forcefully stabbing me in the back, I'm all too aware of Ness breathing in the second twin bed.

I guess the closest I've gotten to a crush was idolatry. I've had my own share of people I looked up to, had a handful of people I've admired as role models - role models who inspired me - but a crush feels nothing like this. Idolatry is placing someone on a pedestal and cherry-picking their best qualities.

Crushing on Ness is different. Ness is my friend. He's not perfect. He's just as vulnerable to his doubts and feelings as anyone else, but somehow, whenever the going gets rough, Ness stays confident. He doesn't shrink back from a challenge. He doesn't hide from his faults. He tries to stay strong, tries to improve himself, and above all, tries to stay himself. He's so unafraid and so painfully honest about himself that it makes my chest constrict.

I want to be more like him. Have the courage to speak up for myself. Be genuine with myself. One day. Someday.

My chest constricts tighter. I can't explain why, but making Ness happy is... important. I find myself wanting to put his needs before mine. I find myself worrying about him more. I find myself thinking about him more. Even things as mundane as what he had for lunch. Or if he's feeling nervous again. I want to hang out with him. I want to listen to what he has to say. I care about how he feels, and I care that he's happy. Making Ness happy makes me happy.

Ness makes me feel alive. He fills up the gaping hole my brother left behind.

I prop my head against my pillow, and wonder how long I've felt this way. How I haven't realized for so long. I don't know if I love Ness, but I do know that I do care about him. That's what love is, isn't it? Caring for someone?

All of a sudden, I feel very stupid. This is no differently from how I've treated Ness in the past. Small wonder Ness thought we were in a relationship. I don't know much about couples, but I know a thing or two about what they do. They hold hands when it's cold outside. They watch Netflix on Saturday nights. They buy each other icecream after working out and flip a coin for the bill. They hang out together, they share a room together, they sleep together.

We do all of the above.

Seriously, the only thing screaming friendship is the fact that we aren't kissing and trying to get into each other's pants.

Well, no. We've even kissed, if you count the fit of debauchery in my apartment, and as for the latter-

I scrunch my eyes. What's next? Sex? I think of Ness's half-lidded expression, and the back of my neck begins to burn. Fuck fuck shit. This scares me. I'm not as asexual as I thought I was, and this revelation has left me reeling on my knees. It's as if the puzzle pieces are clicking together, and I can see the bigger picture. The moment Ness saved me at the Ruined Zoo. The moment Ness hugged me when I cried after another nightmare about Claus. The moment Ness squeezed my hand tightly before my first brawl and whispered it's okay, you can do it.

I should've known.

I squirm uncomfortably in place. It's not up for debate - Ness is a good friend. If I'm going to be overly sappy about this, then yes, he might even be what I'd consider my best friend. But now things are different because I've realized that I'm maybe, sort-of, questionably in love with him, and that flips my entire world upside down. Whatever's going on, one thing's clear: I am feeling something, a something that makes me feel all warm and squirmy inside whenever Ness is nearby - a pleasant feeling that bubbles up my throat and clogs up my words on their way up to my mouth.

Maybe it's his laugh. Whenever Ness laughs, it's infectious, so much so that it makes me stupidly happy for no reason, and I don't feel so lonely with him around. It makes sense, I think, because Ness is my best friend. He's someone I can trust through trying times, through thick and thin.

I want to make Ness happy.

Then I remember how distraught Ness had been coming out, and my heart sinks. If Ness had felt that guilty over a supposed gay crush, then I'm not sure about how he'd react to my own feelings. I don't want to make Ness cry. I don't want to make him upset. I don't want to make things any harder than they are on him.

Ness is a naturally happy person. It's his default. If anything, he deserves someone who can make him feel equally happy, someone who won't drag him down.

Then the truth strikes me hard, because I can't be that someone. I can't make Ness happy. And I can't make Ness happy, because I'm too jaded and cynical and unhappy. I'm swamped by financial problems. I bear the heavy burden of a broken family. I know tragedy because I've witnessed it first-hand, while Ness has grown up relatively sheltered from the outside world.

Even if Ness miraculously decides to return my own feelings, there's so many reasons, thousands and thousands of reasons why it wouldn't, why a relationship between us could never work out. In the end, my emotional baggage is too heavy for another person to hold.

I can't make Ness happy.

The painful, achy feeling in my chest intensifies, and my heart pounds louder in protest. I wonder if it's going to explode. I really hope not.

Suddenly, Ness bolts up, and I watch him clamber off his bed. From the sounds of it, Ness has been awake. He's been awake the entire time since we turned off the lights at ten and - from glancing from his fluorescent green glow-in-the-dark clock - Ness has been awake for a few hours. While Ness generally sleeps well, tonight is different, and I have an inkling on why.

It's the week of the Championships.

The washroom light clicks on for the second time that night, and when I sit up and rub the sleep from my eyes, I hear the toilet flush. After a quick rush of tap water, Ness slips back out. Seeing me already up, Ness's tired eyes light up into a sheepish smile.

Even now when he's worn out and exhausted, he's trying to smile.

"Sorry, I'll try to keep it in-"

"You need to eat," I say calmly, or as calmly as the butterflies in my stomach will let me.

Ness laughs - it's impossible not to smile while he's laughing - and pokes his stomach. "I think I need to eat less," he jokes.

"I've got peppermint tea," I pipe up.

"Really, Lucas, you don't have to-"

"If I brew something, will you drink it?"

"Uh, I guess-"

I take that as a yes and slip out of bed. "Give me a minute."

It doesn't take too long for the water to boil, and when the kettles hisses and steams, Ness steps into the kitchen with a yawn. I slide his mug over - the dorky May the Force be with You mug Tracy got for his 14th birthday - and set my own boring blue one onto the table.

Ness cautiously reaches for the cup. He lowers his face into the tea and takes a slow sniff.

My throat turns dry. "Tea settles your stomach," I explain, suddenly nervous, but there's no need to be - Ness is already downing the cup, hissing as the hot beverage scalds his tongue. He's hasty, even when drinking tea.

"Thanks," Ness says, setting the mug down. His eyes curiously flicker up to my face. "How did you know that I liked peppermint?"

"I didn't," I say truthfully. Then again, Ness isn't picky with his appetite. I've never seen him refuse food before.

"My mom likes mint," Ness says wistfully. "She keeps a pot-plant of the stuff in the kitchen. It's one of her favorite herbs."

"Peppermint helps with indigestion."

"Huh." Ness deeply inhales the tea. There's a faint smile, but it's slowly growing wider on his face. "Smells like home."

I swallow down the sudden lump in my throat. My heart is doing weird, flippy-somersaults in my chest again, so I quietly bring my own cup to my face and hope that my face isn't as flushed as I feel.

"You're right. I feel loads better," Ness says, happily setting his mug down, and this time, I see that he's finished the cup. I stare at the steam spiraling from his empty mug, and then test my own tea by tentatively poking it with the tip of my tongue - it's still scalding hot. How? How does he do that?

"I'm hungry," Ness suddenly announces.

I laugh into my cup, and almost end up choking on my tea instead. "We could have a midnight breakfast party. Make syrup-drizzled pancakes."

Ness sinks his face into the table with a groan. "Fuckkk, that sounds really good, but I can't. I need to stop binge-eating or I'll throw it back up again-"

"It's your nerves."

"That's a part of it." Ness appraises me, before his eyes lift up in a way that makes my stomach twist not-so-unpleasantly. Weirdly enough, I've never noticed how dark his pupils are, blending into his purple eyes. I can't tell where his pupils start and where the purple ends. "Anyways, Championships are up in two days. You ready to kick some butt?"

"You know it," I agree, and when he breaks into a crooked grin, sure and satisfied, I fist-bump him back.

Unfortunately the modicum of calm doesn't last long. By the next morning, rumor has gone around saying that Ness and Lucas had kissed each other's faces off. No matter how hard we tried to avoid them, Smashers kept flocking over to comment on our newfound "relationship."

"It was just a dare!" Ness kept yelling, but I think his indignant reaction was only making things worse. My beet-red face certainly didn't do us any favors, and whenever we protested against another "congratulations" or equally snarky remark, it resulted in a loud hoot of "get a room!"

When Ness looks ready to holler bloody murder on the Koopalings, who are gleefully chanting their third verse of "Ness and Lucas, sitting in a tree," I have to pull him aside before Master Hand drags us in for 1st degree murder.

"Just ignore them," I mutter.

"They're making fun of us," Ness snarls.

"And you keep falling for their taunts. Just ignore them, Ness."

Ness breathes in. He's trying to calm down, but when Ness's shoulders sag over, with a sudden jolt, I realize that underneath all the shouting and yelling, he looks about ready to cry.

But Ness doesn't cry. Meeting my eyes, he tries to crack a smile. "Okay," he says softly, and that simple word makes my chest ache, because I know that he's hurting, but trying not to show it. He doesn't want to worry me. He doesn't want me to know how much everyone's taunts are cutting into his confidence.

Even now despite all the taunts and jokes, Ness doesn't run away. He's standing up for both of us. His courage puts me to shame.

So when Ness reaches for my hand, I let him hold it.

But the taunts don't stop, and Ness finally throws in the towel during lunch. Leaving his steak half-eaten on his plate, Ness roughly pushes himself out of the cafeteria. After a moment of indecision, I scoop up his tray and follow.

When I find him, he's rocking on the stairs between the fourth and fifth floor. I quietly plop down next to him, and when Ness doesn't respond, his head buried in his hands, I hesitantly prod him with his half-finished cafeteria tray.

"You should eat," I say quietly.

At this, Ness turns his head over. He gives a rueful glance at the cafeteria plate in my hands. "What's the point, I'm only going to throw it back up," he says bitterly.

"You should eat," I repeat. Not for the last time, I wish the Winter Championships are over so that Ness's appetite can kick back in. Whenever Ness gets stressed out, he stuffs himself silly, then throws it all back up. I'm so desperate that I'll swear not to make fun of him for all the times he ate like a bottomless pit; I just want him to eat, because his tray's going cold.

As luck would have it, Ness ignores the tray. "I can't believe it," he cries, throwing his hands up into the air. "I. Can't. Fucking. Believe it. They know how shipping works. They know the media blows everything out of proportion. Seriously, I don't recall anyone saying anything when Bayonetta went out on a fucking date with Samus last year!"

I wearily sink down into my seat. "Their date was platonic."

"This dare was platonic too!"

"As hard as it might be to believe, friends don't usually kiss each other, Ness."

My words sail right over his head. "No one made a fuss about Samus and Bayonetta," Ness repeats stubbornly. "Everyone knew that Bayonetta liked to mess around-"

"But you have to admit that it was only a girl's night out."

Ness squeezes his eyes shut. "Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck." He's biting into the back of his knuckles so hard that they're turning white from blood loss.

I grab his wrist before he can draw blood. "Stop that."

Ness twists his hand away and buries his face into his hands. I can sense his rising shame. "Shit," he whispers hoarsely. "I fucked up-"

"We both did."

"I forced you to do the dare-"

"Ness, if I didn't want to go through with it, then I would've said so," I say firmly.

"-no wonder all those books were on sale... and if Jigglypuff's posted everything on twitter-" Ness looks up at me in horror. "Everyone's gonna think that you're gay."

A cold ripple of dread crawls down my spine. I'm not sure how Ness's mom would react to me supposedly "dating" her son, much less how my own dad will take the news. My dad's only living son, gay? Brilliant. I'm the family disappointment, but fuck, this news will definitely take the cake for sure. My father takes everything on the paper seriously, and I don't think he understands the nonsensical logic behind shipping.

But Ness is upset over me being upset, and for some reason, this bothers me more than anything else.

"Nevermind that," I say quickly. "Right now we need to figure out how to get out of this mess."

Ness lifts his face. "I don't get it. What's there not to get?" he asks, desperately flailing his hands around to emphasize his point. "Everyone thinks that I'm in denial and that we're dating each other. What the fuck is wrong with everyone?! What do we do?" He chokes up. "Oh god, what is Master Hand going to do?!"

"An apt question."

We whirl around.

Breathing heavily like an enraged bull, Master Hand uncurls his fist. "You two. My office. NOW."

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~oO0Oo~

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The minute we seat ourselves, Master Hand's scorching glower doubles in intensity. "Twitter has exploded."

"It was just a dare!"

"We can explain-"

"I've heard enough." Master Hand raises a finger to silence us, and sharing a frightened look, both of us close our mouths. Master Hand hunches over his desk. "First Lucina and Pittoo, and now you. I should've seen this coming," he mutters. "But it's inevitable I suppose."

I swallow down the lump in my throat. "I'll go pack my bags."

Ness starts with a jolt and looks at me like I've gone crazy. "What?!"

Master Hand frowns. "Indeed."

"It's the end of the line, isn't it, Master Hand?" I speak slowly, but train my eyes on my shaking hands. I've failed to push Ness away. I've failed to keep my feelings in. My fingers dig into my jeans. All of a sudden, the panic settles in, and I realize that I don't want to leave. Not so soon. Not like this.

Master Hand clears his throat. "Look at me, Lucas," he says gently. "No one is getting fired."

Ness shoots his head up. "You were planning to fire him?" he sputters indignantly. "Over a shipping scandal?!"

"Ness-"

"Master Hand, Lucas didn't do anything!"

"Ness-"

"I swear, whatever it was, it was probably me-"

"Ness, settle down before I hand you over to Crazy."

Ness snaps his mouth shut, and despite himself, stubbornly latches onto my hand. Sensing Master Hand's unseen eyes linger on our interlaced fingers, I uncomfortably shake Ness off. Ness looks hurt - my stomach gives an unpleasant lurch at his expression - but he awkwardly pulls away, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

Master Hand wastes no time to gloss over the sticky moment. "Let me try to make light of the situation." he booms. "You two... are not in a romantic relationship. Am I correct?"

I mutter in assent. Ness answers after me a beat slower.

"And this is the first time either of you have been dragged into a shipping scandal."

Looking uncomfortable, Ness shuffles his feet. "Second time."

"Ah. With Popo in Melee."

Ness wrinkles his nose. "Yeah."

"But I believe that had been a minor shipping scandal - something blown off after a matter of days. Nothing of this proportion." Master Hand leans forward, clasping his own figurative hands. "Listen to me, Ness, Lucas. You have no experience with what you will deal with in the next couple of weeks. Your mail will blow up. Every move you make will end up on the Internet. Do not respond to these people. Do not talk back to these people. "

Ness relaxes. "So basically, nothing new."

"On the contrary, no. The difference between then and now is that you are both in your late teens - the prime age of shipping. This means that fanservice will take a greater interest in both of you."

"As it did for Ike and Marth?"

"At your age? Very much so."

"Joy," Ness says bitterly.

Master Hand quirks an eyebrow. "On the contrary. I'm sure you know very well how their friendship declined."

The solemn answer stews into the queasy silence, and I suddenly realize that a few years ago, a teenage Marth and Ike must've sat in these exact same plastic chairs at some point, listening to Master Hand dole out the exact same advice on their fate.

Ness reluctantly glances back to Master Hand. "Then-"

"I will say that which I've addressed to countless smashers before you, and that which I've addressed to Lucina and Pittoo. While I highly disapprove of interdimensional relationships - do not interrupt me, Ness - as long as your training record keeps up, I see no reason for punishment. Ness, you are almost eighteen, and Lucas, similarly so. On these grounds, I will no longer interfere with your personal life. You two are old enough to make the right decisions, and frankly, in  the case that you are in a relationship, I have little interest in... w hatever you do behind closed doors."

The back of my neck prickles at the insinuation.

Instantly, Ness flushes like a tomato. "What do you mean whatever you do behind closed doors?!" he erupts furiously. "Master Hand, we're just friends-"

"Moreover-" he says, raising a finger to cut Ness's voice off. "I will repeat myself for the third time: bear in mind that you are responsible for your own actions. Consent of both parties was involved. Where denial is proof and refutation serves as fuel, the next few months of shipping will tax your patience. That said, as Smashers, your professionalism is of utmost importance. I will warn you, once and only once: I will not tolerate any ugly behavior between you two in this mansion. We don't need another re-enactment of the IkeXMarth fiasco. That means no fist-fights outside of brawls, nor sexual misdemeanors of any kind. I trust that you can ignore the shippers and be civil with each other?"

Ness and I exchange a reluctant look. Turning away from each other, we mutter our assent.

"Good." Master Hand impatiently snaps his fingers, and the doors swing open. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some matters of importance to attend to. Kindly refrain from giving me a migraine before the Championships."

We file out of his office in a downtrodden silence.

Master Hand has let us go easily. Too easily.

At least his brother Crazy is direct. Master Hand is manipulative. His decisions often hide an ulterior motive - a well-meant motive most likely, but a hidden one all the same. After stirring up all that vehemence about interdimensional relationships and threatening to fire me, I'm surprised with the lack of punishment he's been doling out on us over the past week. It's as if his focus is elsewhere. As if he's prioritizing a larger threat since Pokey's attack on the SkyTrain.

This bothers me.

And judging from his knitted eyebrows, I think it bothers Ness too.

Halfway to the elevator, Ness suddenly speaks up. "Why did you brush me off?"

I vaguely recall our linked hands, the frown radiating out of Master Hand in droves. "Master Hand was looking our way."

"If you didn't want me to hold your hand, then you could've said so." Clenching his fists at his sides, Ness breathes in, and while he's trying to stay calm, I can feel his frustration flare up like a gas stove. "You're not the only one dragged into this shipping scandal."

"I'm sorry," I say helplessly. "You know I'm not used to all this attention from the media. This is the first time I'm dealing with a shipping scandal, and I'm-" I swallow hard. "I'm scared."

Ness pauses. I feel his anger dissolve. He swallows too, and his eyes flicker to the floor. "I know. I'm scared too. But it'll be okay. We'll work this out somehow."

Even now he's trying to be strong. He's trying to be brave for the both of us.

Hesitantly, I offer him my hand. When Ness's eyes flicker to my fingers with a frown, I half-expect him to brush me off the same way I had in Master Hand's office, and sure enough, he looks more than ready to sock me in the shoulder. Sheepishly, I withdraw my hand, but to my surprise, Ness quietly leans into my side, linking our fingers together.

"It wasn't your fault," he mumbles. "It was mine."

"We were both at fault."

"I don't want to-" His voice cracks, and Ness chokes on his words. "I don't want to end up like Ike and Marth."

His hand is still warm and soft. Tentatively, I squeeze it back. "We won't."

"We won't," Ness repeats as if to make the words come true, then grips my hand tighter. "It'll take a lot more than a measly shipping scandal to trip us over."

I breathe in. "So... what now?"

"What do you mean?"

"Anything we'll say from now on won't hold any weight. Ignoring the shippers seems like the best option-"

"It won't help," Ness quickly cuts in. "You remember how badly the media pressured Ike and Marth-"

"As long as we don't acknowledge the scandal-"

"Trust me on this one, Lucas. The shipping won't fade."

I accept this explanation without question. Ness has experience on his side. He's been through this more times than I have. When I spare a glance at him, Ness is deep in thought.

"Lucina and Pittoo look really happy together," he says quietly.

Do they? I flashback to their joined hands, their low undertones in the cafeteria. Barring Lucina's heavy bags and Pittoo's slumped shoulders, they'd seemed like a close couple. Perhaps they were. They certainly didn't look un-happy.

Ness stops so suddenly that I almost bump into him. He turns around. "I don't want them to break them up."

"Same," I say quickly, but I'm not sure about where he's going with this.

Luckily, Ness doesn't leave me in the dark for long. "Lucina thought that we were dating, so she didn't even know that she was breaking the rules. I bet that was the only reason Master Hand let it slide."

"But we're not dating," I say, exasperated.

"I know. But if we convince Lucina that we're not dating, and everyone hears about it, Master Hand might change his mind. Or Chrom might pressure her to break up," Ness pleads, and fuck it if my guilty conscience is getting the better of me.

I give a low groan. "Ness, I think Lucina can take of herself. She's a lot stronger than she looks-"

"I'm not saying she's weak, but Lucina's super close to her dad," Ness retorts, and I'm surprised by the sudden conviction in his voice. "You saw Chrom in the cafeteria. Do you think he went easy on Lucina just because she's his daughter? Hell no. It probably took Lucina everything she had to stand up against her dad. Because believe me, it fucking sucks." Ness draws a shaky breath. "Shit, I'm sorry, Lucas, I don't know... I just feel so bad for Lucina. Either way, if she's the only one in an Interdimensional relationship, she'll be under a fuck ton of pressure."

Oh. I didn't even think about that.

I lower my voice. "Then what do you want to do?"

Ness worries over the brim of his cap. "I don't know. Fuck." He glances at me anxiously. "Okay, I've got an idea. A stupid idea. But only if you're okay with it."

"What idea?" I ask, watching him apprehensively, because I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this.

Taking another deep breath, Ness clenches my hand so tightly that his nails dig into my skin. "We need to fake a relationship."

A hot rush of blood crashes into my ears.

No.

No, no, no.

"We're not faking a relationship!"

"I know, dumbass! Just hear me out for a sec!" Ness wails when I turn to him agape. "We're friends, aren't we?"

"Debatable."

"Come on," Ness groans. "I'm being serious here."

I'm tempted to retort how "fake-dating your best friend" was considered a serious idea, but taking one look at Ness's desperate expression, I cave in. This better be good.

"Anyways we're friends-"

I give an incoherent grunt.

"And neither of us has been in a relationship, right?"

"...right," I finally say, curiosity getting the better of me.

"Then we'll be horrible in a relationship together," Ness finishes triumphantly in the air of one realizing why one plus one equals two. There's a gleam in Ness's eyes that screams CRAZY PLAN TIME, but considering how many times his crazy plans have saved our hides, I decide to give Ness the benefit of doubt.

"You know how people started shipping me and Popo in Melee?" I'm about to answer no, until Ness hurries along. "Well, it never blew up into a big scandal because we pretended to be together." Ness enthusiastically waves his arms around. "Don't you get it? That's the thing - Popo and I were good friends, so the whole relationship was a joke. We didn't even last a week together before we "broke up,"" Ness laughs, air-quoting the words. "I guess it helped that this took place before Jigglypuff had a twitter account, but yeah, by the time the rumor surfaced, everyone thought it was some huge joke. I don't think anyone except Popo remembers our shipping scandal."

"You... dated Popo?" For some reason, this makes me feel weirdly unhappy.

Ness recoils. "No!" he cries. "I wouldn't touch him with a twelve inch pole!"

The unhappy feeling disappears. My stomach feels loads lighter. "Then-"

"Don't you see? Everyone already thinks we're together, so if we pretend to be together and show everyone that the relationship won't work out, then goodbye shipping!"

"You can't erase shipping forever," I point out. "IkeXMarth shippers still exist-"

"But we'd prove everyone wrong about us!"

"Or we could ignore them," I say.

"...We could try," Ness says dubiously.

Neither of us says a word.

I breathe in, pinching off my nose. "Okay, maybe you're right. We're just friends-"

"Right," Ness says quickly. "Just friends."

"And if we're just friends, this... relationship won't go anywhere."

"Exactly. We just have to pull it off long enough for Lucina to settle things with her dad." This time, Ness looks up at me. Now that he's over his excited rambling, his forehead creases with a hint of undisguised uncertainty. "Lucas, are you... are you sure you're okay with this?"

I think of Lucina. I don't know her. We've rarely interacted, maybe exchanged words once or twice in passing, but from the little I do know of her, she's a congenial person. I think of how happy she looked with Pittoo, but also of how tired she looked, and I wonder if upsetting her father has taken a larger toll on her health than she lets on.

I think of my own dad. I think of how gravely serious he'd sounded back home.

No son of mine is a fucking faggot.

Then I think of Ness. How he manages to squeeze in helping other people into his schedule. He might not be always right, he might not be too careful about his own safety, but Ness has his heart in the right place. He puts everyone's needs ahead of his.

"I'm okay with it," I say softly.

Ness looks surprised by how easily I've caved in. If anything, my answer has the opposite of the intended effect - Ness's frown deepens. "You're missing the entire point. If you don't feel comfortable, I'm totally fine with just ignoring the shippers-"

"What's the plan," I say firmly before I can regret it.

Ness's expression turns solemn. "Okay, the plan: We pretend that we're in a relationship. Then I guess about a month in, we break it off. Convincingly. We just have to fake our way through until Chrom and Lucina make amends. That way, when we split up, everyone will realize we were just friends. Simple. We kill two birds with one stone."

Easier said than done. Forget pretending to be in a relationship, I'm as romantic as dry plaster. In any case, hands down, Ness would make a better fake boyfriend than I ever wou-

Boyfriend.

Ness is my fake boyfriend.

The unfamiliar word makes me feel weird and squirmy inside.

Ness's voice dies out. I wonder if he's thinking the same thing, because his eyes have grown round with the Shit, are we actually going though with this look, and as selfish as it sounds, I'm glad because it reminds me that I'm not alone.

Ness is my friend.

Ness is just my best friend.

I swallow hard. "You think we can really pull this off?"

Ness intently searches my face, and I feel my stomach lurch under his scrutiny. "Yeah." he says firmly. "I think we can."

Then the butterflies swarm my stomach, and I give an awkward sort of spasm that was probably supposed to be a shrug. A fake relationship. No feelings attached. I relax. We're friends, close friends maybe, but definitely nothing more. I think of Lucina openly tongue-wrestling Pittoo in the broom closet, of the (probably) sappy expression on Pittoo's face, and I think about kissing Ness with the same sappy expression on my own face.

I give a horrified shudder. Oh, I'm definitely passing on the PDA.

Ness is right. Our relationship definitely wouldn't work out. I'm betting that we wouldn't last a month together. By then, Lucina and Chrom should be on better terms, I can explain to my dad that the relationship was all one big joke, and Ness and I can return to being friends.

One month.

I can get over him.

When the warm, fluttery feeling spreads from my stomach to my fingers, Ness jerks his head up, surprised. When I look down, I realize that I'm holding his hand, and the back of my neck prickles. Oh. That explains the warmth spreading across my hand.

Embarrassed, I duck my head and try to pull my hand away. "Sorry-"

Ness tightens his hold. "It's okay," he says, his voice oddly quiet underneath his favorite baseball cap.

 

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

My dad was a busy man. Of this, there was no doubt.

He worked from dawn until dusk, and with each pay raise, his desk job slowly began to consume his life. There were times he couldn't come home, but for the most part, he was still the fun-loving dad who'd sneakily slip me a fifty when I asked him for a new skateboard (Now Nessie, don't tell your mother) and was a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan at any given day of the week. No matter what the time, he was down to watch a good game of college baseball, and cheered along with me every time the cubs scored a homerun.

Then my dad's absences grew. Work picked up. First it was a new collaboration. Then, it was drinking out with colleagues. Then, crashing over at the office to finish up a project or two. It was always something. Something, somewhere. Excuse after excuse.

No honey, I can't come home today, he'd apologetically call my mom over the phone.

I began to feel uneasy.

Then one lazy day in March, my dad brought us over to Onett's finest Steak Diner. His company wanted to celebrate his latest promotion, and encouraged him to invite his family over to dinner. Surrounded by his colleagues and a doting wife, to any outsider, my dad seemed like the happiest man on the earth. He'd even kissed my mom on the cheek, the first time I'd seen in a long while, and she'd laughed like they were still an embarrassingly-giddy high school couple.

During dinner, one of my dad's colleagues caught my eye. Nothing about him was unusual. He was ordinary enough. Just another face in the crowd.

I don't know what tipped me off first: the furtive glances my dad kept shooting at the man, or the way dad's empathy link kept twisting itself into a tongue-tied knot.

The man never spoke a word to my dad throughout the entire meal.

And her eyes shining with pride, my Mom was too happy to have realized the nervous way Dad would swallow down his food. She was oblivious to something else troubling my dad that night.

When the colleague suddenly excused himself, grabbing his belongings and halfheartedly muttering an excuse to leave, Dad had instinctively risen from his seat as if to bumble after him. As if to stop him from leaving. But the fleeting moment passed, and Dad sank back down into his seat, brushing off the awkward moment with a forced smile and a swift conversation changer. His disappointment tugged on my mind, but when my smiling mom pulled him into another conversation, Dad pulled up his cheerful front and affectionately kissed her on the nose.

My stomach lurched. All of a sudden, the food in front of my plate no longer seemed so appetizing, and nothing could take away the heavy weight sinking into my chest.

That was when I knew.

The life my Dad had led had been a lie.


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~Chapter 19~

It Sucks to be Gay

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"You two are dating? I knew it! I fucking knew it!"

"Why do you sound more excited than I do?" I ask, but hearing my sister's happy squealing has made me smile in spite of myself.

From the other line, I hear a clear scoff, and can almost see Tracy wiping a imaginary tear away from her eye. "My big brother is no longer stuck in single hell," she says giddily. "You have no idea how happy I am for you... and for me," she adds as an afterthought. "Now everyone at school can quit asking me if you're single and bug me for your number." Her voice quickly rises into a hyperactive yell. "BECAUSE. YOU'RE FINALLY TAKEN!"

I give a laugh, and scratch the back of my neck. "Well... I don't think it counts. We're fake-dating-"

"Right," Tracy says smugly. "Fake-dating. Still counts."

"Hush, you. We're only supposed to keep up the act until next month, so don't tell anyone-"

Tracy snickers, and the sound crackles across the receiver. "You can stop right there, brother. You know, I'm starting to feel bad for Lucas. He's going to have to deal with you trying to smooch him all the time-"

"Why does everyone keep thinking that? What kind of weirdo do you take me for?" I wail, and Tracy bursts into uncontrollable giggling. "Lucas agreed to keep up the act, he knows it's not going to go anywhere, and we've made it pretty clear to each other that we're just friends!"

"Save the grand act for the cameras, big brother. You two are going to be super gross and huggy-"

I can't help but burst into laughter at this. "Lucas? Huggy? He hates hugs!"

"Yeah, the only person I've ever seen him willingly hug is Mom," Tracy laughs along. "He doesn't strike me as someone who likes to be touched. Still when he seems perfectly comfortable about hanging around you, I don't know how he does it. Like, you look all badass and tough fighting on-screen, but in real life, you're all cheesy and sappy and uncool-"

"Again, I repeat, what is that supposed to mean?!" I say indignantly.

"It means that my big brother's in love," Tracy says happily. "Oh man, Mom's gonna be over the moon when you tell her that the rumors are true."

Lucas rejected me three weeks ago, I want to say, but Tracy sounds so happy for me that I can't muster the courage to burst her bubble. Thankfully, Tracy changes the topic to her finals, and I listen to her gripe over her graded chemistry exam (One point! I was ONE point away from a perfect score!) before she hands the phone over to my mom.

"Hi sweetie," she says once Tracy has flounced away. "Did you eat yet?"

"Not yet. I just woke up. I'm calling you from the living room because Lucas is-" I glance at the bedroom, but it's as quiet as it appears. "Yeah, he's still in bed."

"Then don't disturb him," she admonishes me.

"I'm not," I whine.

"You can't be too careful, young man. If you rush into things, you'll scare your boyfriend away."

Suddenly I choke on my own spit. "H-How did you-"

"It's not rocket science. You've stuck to Lucas since elementary school," my mom says impatiently, and when I sputter out something in my defense, my mom continues to grill me, "And the media has gone nuts! Ai, ai, ai. Ness, you troublemaker! You need to take good care of your boyfriend, or he'll dump you-"

"Mom, Lucas won't dump me just because I woke him up," I mumble, suddenly hot and red-faced. Talking to mom about my boyfriend, fake or real, was in no way NOT awkward.

My mom tuts in disapproval. "You're not off the hook yet, young man. I can't believe you never told me about your relationship before it turned public! What do you think I'm going to do, kick you out on the streets? Disown you?"

"I was gonna tell you, but I never found the right time," I plead. "Mom, I swear I was going to tell you at some point! Really!"

"Well, if you're finally making it official, bring Lucas over for Christmas. I want to speak to him too."

"But you already know him-"

"You haven't introduced me to him as your boyfriend. If this is official, I want to make this official," Mom says sternly. "Has Lucas introduced you to his parents?"

Exasperated, I throw my hands up into the air. "Mom, aren't we going a little too fast? We've literally just started dating each other-"

"Nessie."

Dreading the lecture, I meekly bury my face into my hands. "No, he hasn't."

Mom's temper doesn't disappoint. "What were you thinking, making this public before telling his parents! Did you think it'd stay a secret forever?!" she bursts out, aghast. "You're dating their son, and you've kept it hidden all this time? Ness! That is bad. Very bad manners. If they're accepting parents who care about their child, they will want to know whom their son is dating. I know it's complicated because you're a boy, but that is no excuse for your poor manners. If Lucas's parents are okay with it, you should pay them your respects this instant, you hear me, young man?"

I wilt into my seat. "Fine, I'll let them know."

"Good." There's a sharp clicking noise - my mom is on her laptop. I can easily imagine her in her study room with a mug of peppermint tea in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. "And Ness, I've added a twenty-pack box of lubed Trojans to my cart on Amazon Prime-"

"Mom, I don't need those!" I wail.

"-and I'm sending them over just in case-"

"Mom!"

"-because safe sex is very important," my mom finishes serenely as if I'm not being embarrassed to death, and I'm starting to get the feeling that she's secretly enjoying herself at my expense. "But remember, no sex until you are married."

"Then why are you sending over condoms?!"

"Good luck on your match tomorrow! We miss you so," Mom says earnestly before hanging up on me.

Click.

"Goddamn it," I cry out, tossing my phone onto the table and gripping my suddenly-aching temples. My mom's no doubt the sweetest person in the whole wide world, but why does she find the constant need to embarrass me? WHY? I hit my head against the table in rhythm with my words. "MY. MOM. SHE. AUGH!"

"What did she do," A voice asks, and I shriek, jumping halfway out of my seat. Lit against the doorway, Lucas stifles a yawn, pulling his shirt down.

I scramble to my feet. "Shit, did I wake you?"

"Nah. I was up playing flappy bird." Noticing my horribly mortified face, Lucas raises his eyebrows in growing curiosity, and I can only hope that he hasn't heard about my mom's ridiculous Amazon order over the phone. Silently, I vow to give away the box to Popo. I have no desire to open that box now, and it's better off in hands that need it more than I do.

"You do look a little ill," he says, concerned.

I swallow hard. "I might be." Once I tell him about my mom's request, Lucas's face instantly pales into the color of sour milk.

"Your mom... wants to see me?" Lucas croaks, and if I can hear the question mark in his voice, it must speak volumes about his nerves.

"She won't grill you."

Numbly groping around for a chair, Lucas sits down and leans over his knees. "I don't know, Ness."

"Trust me, she's okay with it," I assure him. "And we'll have plenty of time to worry about it after the Championships-"

"When does she want to see me?"

I give a nervous laugh. "Christmas morning...?" Catching his stricken expression, I flail my hands around in the hopes that Lucas won't panic. "It's no big deal! She probably wants to catch up and eat breakfast with us. You've always been invited to celebrate the holidays with our family."

"Not like this though. I mean, we're...," Lucas pauses as if struggling with the thought. "She thinks that we're dating."

"Yeah."

"And your mom is really okay with that?"

I grimace. "I told her earlier that we weren't really in a relationship, but you know, parents. We're gonna break up in a month, so if she asks, I guess just go along with it."

Lucas swallows. "That's not reassuring, Ness."

"My mom's cool with it. She only had trouble coming to terms with it at first. I'm surprised that she's coping with it pretty well." I laugh quietly under my breath. "A month ago, my mom caught my dad cheating on her with another guy. Turns out, my dad had been hiding in the closet the entire time. I just wish he came clean with my mom from the beginning."

"I can imagine," Lucas says quietly.

"Nah, we're better off without him in our lives." I give him a furtive side glance. "By the way - DON'T YOU DARE TELL HIM THIS - but I'm glad Popo gave me that final push out. I hated being stuck in the closet, and Popo knew that I was agonizing over it-"

"He did?"

"I'm still bi," I say honestly. "I think that's why my mom took in the news better."

Lucas shifts over uncomfortably. "You should be more careful around Popo."

I roll my eyes. "Popo? He's a big doofus-"

"I don't trust him."

"I know! Seriously!" I scowl. "Remind me to murder him when this entire thing is over."

To my delight, this puts a ghost of a smile on Lucas's face. "Duly noted."

I glance at him, and notice that Lucas has faithfully returned to playing Flappy Bird on his phone. "You're taking all of this in awfully well," I comment, and Lucas gives a funny spasm that resembles a shrug. Grinning like an idiot, I sit down next to him.

"Your hair's getting long," he comments offhandedly.

"We should tell your dad," I say quietly.

Lucas's phone screen sadly trills with a GAME OVER. I can feel his unease ripple through our empathy link. "Why."

"Since everyone thinks that we're together, my mom says that we should come clean to our parents-"

"We're not telling my dad."

"Lucas, it's all over the news. Your dad's got to be stupid if he doesn't think that we've been dating under his nose. If I don't at least tell him, he's going to murder me," I wail, but pleading the fifth doesn't do squat.

"He doesn't have to know," Lucas says tersely.

"We could at least tell him this is a joke-"

"I'll tell him later. I don't think my..." Lucas swallows. "I don't think he'll understand." He sounds uneasy, so reluctantly I drop the subject. Now that he mentions it, I don't think we've discussed if his dad's okay with this fake relationship. My heart sinks. It's taken my mom a little time, a few days at the very least, but I've taken both of my parents for granted. For all I know, Lucas's dad might not be as accommodating to the thought of his son being not-so-straight, and reminded of the AK47 shoved into my face, I shudder. Something about Lucas's tone implies that I'll get more than a rifle to the face the next time I bump into his dad.

But this also makes me feel like shit because I've practically pulled Lucas out of the frying pan and into the fire. Damn it, I knew I shouldn't have pulled out this wild card!

"We can change plans," I offer hesitantly, but Lucas shakes his head.

"No, no, this is okay," he says quickly. "I just have to figure out what to tell him. But we're not meeting him now."

"That's fine," I say firmly, and when Lucas looks noticeably relieved, I give him what I hope is a reassuring squeeze of his hand. "Last day. You ready to train?"

"Let me get dressed first," Lucas responds, gesturing at his pajama pants.

"That's a fashion statement if I ever saw one," I say seriously, and rolling his eyes in good humor, Lucas trudges into the bathroom. As I wait for him to finish up, my phone chirps with an email notification. I swallow, recognizing the name of the contact.

One message. From my dad.

As rueful I was with Popo for kicking me out of the closet, if there was one Greater Good that resulted from this entire mess, it was the relief that came along with it. I no longer had to lie. I no longer had to pretend to be someone I was not. Coming out had lifted a great weight from my chest, because I'd finally come to terms with myself. It was no longer my burden to carry.

Grudgingly, I think a part of me could understand why my dad left. By the time he'd come to terms with himself, he was too late, already several years too deep into a marriage with kids. Unwilling to hurt my mom's feelings, he'd tried pushing the secret down in the hopes that she'd never find out.

Except that he couldn't bear to live a lie forever.

In hindsight, my parents wouldn't have stayed together for long. The divorce was probably for the best, though that didn't make me resent my dad any less. I wished he hadn't dragged it out with my mom. Coming out of the closet was one thing, but having an affair with someone else behind her back was the stupidest move he could've pulled.

And the weirdest part? How surreal this whole thing still sounds. Some days I wake up, and feel as if my parents' divorce had never happened. That my dad hadn't stormed out of our house a month ago, fists clenched and teary-eyed. That he hadn't cut off all connection with us.

Yet, in a way, he hadn't. He'd kept in touch. He'd sent Tracy a pair of pretty earrings last week to congratulate her on her good grades, and even now, I receive random notifications about strange deposits of dollar bills sitting in my bank account.

Then there was this gold nugget in my email inbox.

I'm here if you want to talk.

It's funny how such a simple seven word sentence could keep me thinking all morning. One email. Seven words. Dated at 8:22 AM. Dad sent this email in during work. He's always terribly busy, holed up in his tiny-ass cubicle and slaving away at the usual nine-to-five-plus-overtime, but somehow, he's found the time to type this up. It's just a measly seven words, but again, HE DIDN'T HAVE TO SEND ME ANYTHING. No doubt he's heard about the shitshow that was my PREVIEW interview, but none of that should've mattered to him. He could've ignored me. He could've tried caring less.

I wished that he was easier to hate.

But as hard as I've tried, HATING has never been my forte. Sure, I groan and gripe a lot about people, but none of my complaints are a result of some deep-seated root of ill-will. People make mistakes. We've all derped up at some point, and we've all done something stupid at least once in our lives. Forgive and forget. Move on.

Then Lucas ambles over, fully dressed in his t-shirt and jeans. "You ready," he asks, and I pocket my phone. One thing at a time. Tomorrow's the Championships. I can figure out messy family stuff later.

For now, I'm just glad I have this idiot next to me.

I slug Lucas in the shoulder. "Let's go."

Lucas's mouth quirks up into a hint of a smirk, so I roll my eyes and fumble for his hand. We've agreed on hand-holding to keep up pretenses, but fake relationship aside, today simply feels like another part of the daily grind. That's another plus about Lucas: he's an awkward dork, but he's awkward for all the right reasons.

Even under times of duress, the sense of normalcy he's given me is amazing.

Slowly, Lucas squeezes my hand back, and - even if it doesn't mean shit - I feel myself grinning widely like an idiot. Still, there's a part of my chest that aches - because as much I want it, it's never going to happen - but this is good enough. If we fake this relationship long enough, long enough for Lucina to make up with her dad, maybe for once, everything will work out. My feelings will fade. As loathe as I am to admit it, Popo has pegged one thing right - there's plenty of fish in the sea.

But holding Lucas's hand in mine, it's hard to deny it: I've never wanted anyone else so much in my life.

We head down to the training rooms. Occasionally, Smashers hurry across our path, and catching sight of our held hands, oddly fall silent.

And just like that, the teasing dies down. It's as if everyone's accepted the fact that we're dating, so quickly, so easily. Which is crazy when you think about it. You'd think that at least one person would call us out on our bogus, especially since Lucas is top tier on the list of QUESTIONABLY ASEXUAL and HARDEST PERSON TO ASK OUT ON A DATE EVER, but what the heck, I'll gladly take any excuse if it means no more cat-calling.

"I can't believe you ditched me in the Singles Club," Popo mourns, pretending to sob on my shoulder during breakfast, and runs off cackling when I punch him in the shoulder.

I guess Lucas was right. I react to everything too easily. Okay, maybe A LITTLE too easily. Most of the Smashers probably wanted to rile me up for their own amusement, and for some goddamn reason, everyone likes seeing me get flustered. I don't get it. Apparently my embarrassment is... entertaining? Well, that's good to know. I can almost see myself through their eyes: Up next on five, we have the walking talking Dinner Entertainment: Ness the One-man show. Oh yeah, they'd love it for sure.

That said, the Championships are tomorrow. Everyone's wrapping their strategies up. No time to gawk over who's dating who. Thank. Fucking. Palutena.

So Lucas and I spend the morning beating up CPUs.

If I have to be completely honest here, I'm worried about our performance. Over the past few weeks, we've trained, but we haven't exactly trained together. Since our practice match against Fox, I can't recall the last time Lucas has shared his telepathy with me. I can't even recall the last time he's even used it, which sucks because I can't always predict what move he's about to pull before he calls it out, and in a battle where one second could mean life or death, telepathy is gold.

So I bring it up to him.

And Lucas instantly shoots me down.

What. The Hell. Lucas never had a problem with sharing his thoughts with me on the battlefield before. I mean, it's not a huge deal, we can always call out to each other during a brawl, but Lucas's sudden vehemence strikes me as odd. Come to think of it, he's had a difficult time with all of his powers lately. If that isn't weird, I don't know what is.

So when Lucas sweeps his hands, but flusters, failing to produce his fifth PK Fire, I decide to intervene. "What's up?" I ask him, concerned.

Lucas shakes his head, bent double over his knees. "I don't... I don't know."

"Are you feeling nervous?"

"A little."

I immediately understand. Psychic powers sound all super cool and awesome and whoosh!, but only if they work. Since our powers depend on our mental state, any emotional upheaval can make controlling our powers difficult. I think of the weeks before, of my crush on Lucas and how my empathy link went crazy, and it's all I can do not to groan and bury my face into my hands out of mortification. Stupid hormones.

In short, puberty sucks, and being gay sucks. Or bi. Whatever.

"Maybe you should take a break," I say firmly, and while Lucas looks less than happy to take a breather, I convince him to get some water. I don't fault him. He's nervous, because who else in the whole wide world would ever pretend to date their same sex friend in front of the press for like, FOREVER? Exactly. Truth be told, I'd be pretty surprised if Lucas wasn't nervous. So when he leaves the room, I've realized that I've lost my one-and-only sparring partner for the next couple of minutes.

Well.

Now what.

Somewhere in the corner of my mind, there's a voice nagging me to make up lost time to train, train, train but hardcore cramming would only be detrimental to my performance. Trust me, I've learned the hard way that resting well is also an important part of conquering tournaments.

A flash of green catches my eye, and I jolt back up to my feet, because I've just spotted the one person whom I've wanted see. I burst out of my training room yelling his name just as he walks by.

Link turns around in surprise. "Ness?"

"I need to ask you something real quick," I hurriedly say, antsy on my feet. "Can we go talk somewhere private? If you're not busy."

When Link gives an uncertain glance at Zelda, who returns the look with an encouraging nod and a squeeze on his arm before brushing past both of us, he turns to me with a smile. "Sure thing. Lead the way."

We end up in one of the unused training rooms. I close the door and turn to face Link nervously, and he uncrosses his braced arms to let them hang loosely at his sides. "What's up?"

"I have a question I was hoping you could answer-" I nervously glance around in case of any eavesdroppers. "-about relationships."

At this, Link laughs kindly. "No guarantees, but I'll do my best."

My heart gives a pang. "It's a lot more complicated than you think-"

"It's a little too early to tell, but I'd say that you're doing just fine," he grins, indicating towards the door with his head. "I'm glad that you're trying to take this seriously."

Not if the relationship is a fucking joke, I want to say, but I can't afford to blow our cover, and even if I maybe wanted to, Link's expression does me in. He looks so pleased over our recent development that I can't exactly find the will to kame-hame-ha his hopes to pieces and ask him for advice on my predicament.

Curse my soft heart.

"So what did you need me for?" Link's curious voice pokes into my ears, and I snap out of it with a jolt. Well shit, if I can't tell him the truth, then I'd better BS another question on the spot.

"I-I was wondering," I squeak, then hastily clear my throat of nerves. "How... How the hell do you fucking relationship?"

Link shoots me a sly look, and for some stupid reason, my face starts to heat up because I'm not actually dating Lucas, and even if I were, that was a pretty fucking stupid question to ask. How the hell do you fucking relationship? Really? Out of all the questions in the world, I chose the most useless one to ask. I might as well have asked Link how the fuck to fly.

Thankfully, Link doesn't point out my lapse in stupidity. "Well, you know him-"

"Uh, not really."

"You've known him for a while," Link corrects himself. "You enjoy his company, so start off by hanging out with him more often. Go to the movies. Grab lunch together."

Okay, so stuff we already do. Easy stuff.

Cool.

I relax. This admittedly makes me even more curious about Link's lasting relationship with Zelda, because it's so goddamn perfect. They're not just a power couple - they're THE power couple of SMASH history - and it's easy to see why. Each one of them is a talented all-star, but together, they're so super modest about their exploits that it humbles everyone else to shame. I'd seriously consider converting if someone told me they were some ancient descendant of the holy messiah.

Of course, because I clearly can't keep my mouth shut, this compels me to ask another intrusive question. "What did you do on your first date?"

"I fought Ganondorf." When I give Link a wary look, Link gives me a sheepish laugh. "Right. At any rate, context applies. I suggest you not to beat up my arch-nemesis. I don't think that'd earn you any favors from your boyfriend." With a small hmm of thought, Link claps a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "Then... be yourself."

"Really?" I blurt out before my sarcasm filter can catch up with my mouth. Embarrassed, I shut up, and Link's grin widens.

"Yes, really."

"I don't know how to do that," I lament. "I don't even know how to act around him-"

"Don't overcomplicate it. If you really like him, then it'll show naturally." To my own mortification, my cheeks flare up, and Link grins. "Yep, just like that. Well, I hope you found this talk useful, but in all honesty, I think you've got this one right in the bag."

When Link apologetically straps on his leg braces, I know that the conversation is over. Sure enough, he says, "I think I've left poor Zelda waiting for me long enough. Remember, be yourself, take the relationship seriously, and you'll be fine. Don't slack off on the Championships, all right?" He pats my dumbstruck form in the back before walking out, and realizing that Lucas has probably returned from his detour, I quickly hurry back to our training room.

"Shit, sorry, I lost track of time," I swear when I spot Lucas practicing against a CPU Marth.

"I just got back. You didn't miss much," Lucas says absentmindedly, blocking another sword strike, and my chest aches. Then the depression suddenly sinks in, and I guess Link's words have really hit home because I know I want something that I clearly can't have.

Worse still, when we wrap up our training session and notice Lucina and Pittoo training together on the way out, looking tired but perfectly okay, it makes me feel stupid for panicking and asking Lucas out on a fake relationship. Once again, to no one's surprise, Lucas was right. Lucina CAN take care of herself.

I close my mouth in shame. What was I thinking? I need to start thinking before diving headfirst into something, I really do, because this can seriously have dire consequences. I hate lying, I can't lie to save my life, but now I've found myself stuck in a bear trap with a nice fucking bow on top. Faking a relationship? Without Lucas figuring out my crush on him? I've really put my foot in my mouth this time.

But when we hear raised voices, Lucas and I barely have time to exchange a glance before Chrom storms out of the training rooms, seething with a rapidly pleading Robyn in tow. A second later, Lucina darts into the hallway, eyes red from crying, but when she spots me, and somehow manages to offer a small smile that lightens up the bags underneath her eyes before hurrying away, I find myself not regretting my decision.

I feel for her. I really do.

Still, there's fleeting looks and whispers when Lucas and I sit in for lunch, so I elbow Lucas in the ribs and mutter for a better change of scenery. Thankfully, he agrees and silently follows me to the penthouse.

Stepping off the elevator, the first thing that hits me is the view. We can see every inch of the entire metropolis over the edge. It's a wonder why no one comes up here to eat for lunch. Guess old habits die hard.

"Wow," I breathe.

Lucas looks over my shoulder, and wrinkles his nose. "There's no trees," he says, as if the very thought of no greenery is offensive to his eyes.

"There's one up here," I point out, dragging him towards the shade. We end up sitting in a small, secluded corner across from the swimming pool. It makes a nice change from the noise of the cafeteria, and Lucas has just started eyeing his own unwrapped sandwich with interest when I suddenly remember something very important.

"What about the dare?" Lucas asks vaguely when I bring it up.

"You lost. Doesn't that mean I get to dare you back?"

Realization quickly flashes across Lucas's face before crawling down his neck in a deep flush. "It wasn't an actual dare," he says lamely.

"Don't give me that shitty excuse," I grin, glancing at his now beet-red face. "You said that I couldn't kiss you, and I did!"

"I didn't think you'd do it," he says exasperated.

"But I did." My grin widens. "Now it's my turn."

Lucas sighs, lowering his sandwich. "Fine. What's your dare."

I bite down on my lip. I want to kiss him. Even more, I want him to kiss me, but there's no way Lucas is ever going to continue a Part Two of the kissing competition in a million fucking years, and I know better than to ask.

So I take the time to study him. Lucas quickly averts his eyes under my scrutiny, and I notice that his flush has spread to the back of his arms. He's embarrassed, and for some reason, that makes me want to touch him even more. I wonder if his face feels as hot as it looks, and I dig my fingers into my palms before I can do something I'll regret.

My empathy link tingles.

"I want you," I say quietly.

Lucas's face turns the deepest shade of crimson I'd ever seen. "Th-that's, uh, that's not a dare-"

"-to give me a hug! Giving someone a good hug is a lot harder than it sounds!" I blurt out quickly, feeling my cheeks spike up in warmth. Damn it, can I go one minute without almost blowing my own cover? "So I dare you to hug me. As friends."

Lucas quickly nods. "Right. As friends."

Recognizing his own embarrassment gives me the courage to laugh and open my arms. "Go on," I say, grinning.

Lucas hesitantly lifts his own arms up like a zombie sleep walker. He looks as awkward as hell. "I don't... I don't know how to h-hug-" he stammers.

A fucking wide grin rests on my face, and I drop my arms. "Then I win!" I crow. "That's two dares for me!"

"You haven't won yet," Lucas insists stubbornly, furrowing his brow as if thinking how the hell to hug someone, and I grin because I know Lucas hates losing as much as I do. He practices making a few attempts at a weird, half-baked scooping gesture in midair before his shoulders slump over in defeat. "Um..."

I take pity on him, and gently steer one of his awkwardly hovering hands over one of my shoulders. "Drape your other arm over my other shoulder," I command, and Lucas hesitantly reaches out with his other hand. My skin tingles where his palm tentatively brushes against the top of my shoulder, before Lucas slowly slides his whole arm over.

"Is this good?" he asks.

I glance at his face. There's still a good foot between us. Lucas's arms are as rigid as two rods, and his back is as stiff as a ruler. Catching his lost deer-in-the-headlights expression, I duck my head in a snort of laughter. "You don't like hugs, do you?"

Lucas sheepishly drops his eyes. "My brother's always been the better hugger," he says softly.

"You can't be better at hugging. That's like arguing who's better at walking or who's better at breathing," I declare, and Lucas cracks a small smile at that. When I shift in to close the gap, Lucas flusters and scoots back at the same pace. Taking that as a cue for his discomfort, I stop. "This is one weirdass hug, but I'll take it," I grin, shaking his arms off and looking up at his face. "Now, we're even."

Lucas plaintively pushes his hand into my laughing face. "I told you I don't hug people."

"I think you hug just fine," I say honestly.

Red-faced, Lucas drops his eyes and unwraps his sandwich.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

It's almost early evening when Lucas and I trail back down from the penthouse. Today's the day before D-Day, and everyone's lazily sprawled out in the lobby watching Captain Falcon's giant-set Plasma TV. I realize that Link and Zelda are cuddled up together in one of the giant sofas, and when Link murmurs and kisses Zelda lightly on her hair, my heart gives a sudden pang. Link, Zelda, Lucina, Pittoo... all of these couples look so happy, so genuinely happy, that it makes me feel jealous.

Then I feel like a horrible prick for begrudging them of their happiness, and my heart sinks. I don't know what's more pathetic, the fact that I can't get over my own feelings, or how selfish I've been for stringing Lucas along on this stupid plan. The more I touch him, the more I hold his hand... the more I want him. But I can't because Lucas is my friend, and I've got to make that pretty clear.

A rejection is a rejection, and I know better than to cross that line.

So I grin and nudge Lucas towards a spare inch of floor, and he dutifully sits down. No one calls us out. It's fucking noisy everywhere, but it's the good kind of noisy that thrums through my bones and makes me feel alive.

A fuming Pittoo squeezes past us with Lucina, ranting all the while, "-you hear that? The reporter. Called me. A fucking clone. I'll show him what a clone is!"

"Still in denial?" Ganondorf asks, an amused smile curling up at the corners of his mouth, and Pittoo flips him the bird before Lucina rolls her eyes and ushers her boyfriend away to the elevators.

"A night like this calls for a good beer," Captain Falcon cheerfully declares, raising a treasure six-pack. "Who's up for some Dos Equis?"

Pit nervously eyes the six-pack. "Captain, I don't think we're allowed to drink during the games-"

"It's the day before, Pit. Let him pregame," Samus says nonchalantly, flicking dust off her suit.

Captain Falcon beams at her. "Samus-"

"Buddy boy," she says, smirking. "Bayonetta and I are going to destroy you in the first round."

This leads to a chorus of 'Oooohs' and a 'she just called you out, son!'

Captain Falcon roars with laughter. "Not likely, Sam. I bet Olimar and I can take you two ladies downtown."

"Oh, I'm sure that we'd put up a good fight," Olimar says reasonably. A crowd of Pikmin bob around him, chirping incessantly in terror of the booming TV, and when Olimar kindly leads them away from the speakers, a dark six inch heel grinds itself in front of the plasma screen.

"Hit me up, darling," Bayonetta purrs underneath her sexy hooded eyelashes, and crowing out a Stay thirsty, my friends, Captain Falcon begins handing out bottles to everyone in the crowd.

"Captain, you got any for me?"

"None for the minors, I'm afraid," Captain Falcon says joyously.

"But I'm turning eighteen in a month," Popo moans. "Take pity, Cap."

"Sorry, Popo. I'm a speedster, but rules are rules. Master Hand would have my head faster than Sonic could loop around the Mansion."

"Um, excuse me? I bet I could beat that claim," Sonic retorts.

Then a loud tune blasts our ears, and the Sports Channel blares onto the screen.

"Good evening again, Smash City! This is Mii reporter, Tom, signing in live from Sports News. Here tonight joining me is retired boxing champion and professional athlete trainer, Jerome Louis. Nice to have you on the show today, Doc."

"Nah, the pleasure's mine."

"Hey, Lil' Mac, it's Doc Louis!" Roy yells, delighted, and everyone shushes him.

"Looks like we've got a number of people already crowding the City Square, all ready and fired up for the Winter Championships tomorrow. Say, Doc, w hat do you think of the Round One match ups?"

"Hoo baby, this year's match-ups look as sweet as Hershey's chocolate. Lil' Mac's got some tough competition for sure. Remember, Mac baby, you gotta move fast. Quick feet, Mac! Quick feet!"

"Wow, talk about favoritism, Doc."

"I try, I do try."

"It looks like we've got some promising match-ups. Last year's winners, Nana and Popo, better watch their backs, because it's going to be one fierce competition."

"I'm curious to see how far Bayonetta and Samus can advance through the rankings."

"You bet, Doc! And since Meta Knight's forfeited the competition for the second time round, Dedede's paired with Kirby for the time being."

"Interesting match-up, very interesting! Now, many people don't take the Winter Championships as seriously as the solo battles in the summer, but I think it's fun to see how well these wacky pairings work."

"Speaking of wacky pairings, Doc, let's talk about the sixth match up on Round One: Marth and Roy versus Ness and Lucas."

I involuntarily grip Lucas's hand tighter, but thankfully, Lucas doesn't notice, his eyes glued to the TV screen.

"More like Fire Emblem versus Earthbound if yeh ask me."

"Tell me about it. Doc, despite criticism from online gaming forums, I'd like to think that it's an even match."

"You know, I agree. Both are experienced teams that have consistently placed in the top five. A favorable stage pick can give a huge edge to either side."

"Doc, if you were Marth and Roy, what would you fear most from the psychic duo?"

"Aside from their telepathic powers? Hard to say, Tom. Lucas has a good combo, but Ness has an easier kill. While Lucas's PK Fire pushes opponents away - good for spacing! - Ness's PK Fire is a deadly trap. But I think Marth and Roy have a smashin good chance of victory."

"Really?"

"I think Team Fire Emblem's biggest arsenal is Marth's range. His grabs make it difficult for his opponents to space and easy for Marth to gimp. A small stage pick like Yoshi's Island can spell disaster for Ness and Lucas."

"You bet, doc! Everybody, stay tuned for the match tomorrow at eleven. We'll discuss the next Round - Villager and Red versus Mewtwo and Lucario - after these commercials."

The TV starts off with a savage Wendy's commercial, and everyone dissolves back into frustrated complaints.

"Aw man-"

"That segment was even shorter than the last one-"

I laugh and turn around. "Hey, Lucas, what did you think about-" I blink, confused at the empty space next to me. "Lucas?" I turn around again, but Lucas is nowhere in sight. Where has he slipped off to? And how the bloody hell did I not notice?!

A less-than-happy sight greets me instead. "Lost your boyfriend?" Popo drawls, his eyes alit with a teasing tone.

"He was just here a second ago," I grumble, pushing Popo out of the way. "Now move, you're blocking my way-"

"Wow, rude," Popo says lightly, rolling his eyes. "He was headed off to the bathrooms. Thank you, and you're welcome."

Muttering a grudging thanks underneath my breath (Popo shoots me a smirk that I'm tempted to wipe off with my fist), I trudge off. In hindsight, I probably could've waited for Lucas to come back to the lobby, but I'm bursting to tell him what he's missed from the program. So when I skid to a halt by the restrooms and have just rested my palms against the door, the sound of my name stops me dead in my tracks.

"-facing pressure from your dad."

"Ness already has enough on his plate without worrying about me."

"If it's any consolation, Lucas, I'm sure that Ness is feeling just as scared over this relationship as you are," the voice says kindly, and I quickly recognize it as Link's. "I know that neither of you are experienced, and while it's okay to be afraid, communication is key to maintaining a good relationship."

"I turned him down before-"

"Because you weren't ready for a relationship, and you let him know. Talk to him," Link adds sternly, and I can imagine Lucas closing his mouth. "I can't stress how important communication is. You need to be sure that you're both on the same page, and it's not fair to the other person if you leave them hanging."

"It... it's not right. Starting this relationship was a mistake," Lucas mumbles, and my heart sinks, but he doesn't seem finished yet. "All I do is hurt him. Ness... Ness deserves someone better."

What. I've got half the mind to barge in and punch the sense into this idiot before Link beats me to it - albeit in a more pacifist-like way.

"Then be that person for him."

There's a painstaking pause. Then with the sound of shoes shuffling against the bathroom tiles, Lucas mutters something incoherent under his breath.

"It sounds to me like you already have your answer," Link says, and I can almost hear the smile in his voice. "If you want something out of this relationship, you need to tell him, Lucas. Ness can't read your mind."

By this point, the conversation seems to be wrapping up. There's a little more talking, a reassuring tone, a couple more words that fall empty on my ears.

My heart is pounding. My head feels light-headed.

Slowly, I back away from the door.

Then I turn and run.

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~oO0Oo~

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.

.

I return to the noisy lobby to wait for Lucas, my breath stuck in my throat, my eyes wide as fucking saucers. Link returns first, sliding back into place next to a soft-spoken Zelda, who murmurs gentle words and rests her hand on top of his.

When Lucas appears back to my side a little later, apologizing that he had to use the bathroom, I smile and fill him in what he missed. But in the inside, I'm shaking because I'm so fucking nervous, I love him so so much, but this all seems too good to be true, and for once, I don't want to be hasty. I don't want to ruin this. Whatever... this is. Not exactly friends. More than roommates. I'm not quite sure what we are at this point.

We decide that the show's over, so we leave the lobby and ride the elevator back to the tenth floor suites. During the entire ride up, not a word is exchanged, but I've lost all the feeling in my legs, and my knees are shaking like no tomorrow. As silent as a ghost, Lucas stands next to me, staring aimlessly at the elevator doors.

Do you like me? I want to ask him, but the words get clogged up in my mouth. I feel like such a pansy for chickening out, but I don't trust myself to talk. Not this time.

Because I know what I want.

But knowing what Lucas wants is a different story. The wheels are reversed, and this time, Lucas needs to take the initiative, because I don't know what he wants. I'm willing to support him, I'm willing to make this relationship real, but I can't do either if he won't make up his mind. I've always made the first move, but now, this time, I don't want to pressure him into doing something we'll both regret.

It's all so confusing. Just when I think I'm getting over him, I realize that maybe I don't have to be, and while I'm figuring out how hard of a time Lucas is having, realizing that he might like me with maybe not as supportive of a dad, I'm not sure what I can do for him. I'm not sure, and it's so frustrating because Lucas thinks that he has to slug through tough times on his own. It's frustrating, how considerate he's trying to be, and it's frustrating because he spends too much time overthinking things, overanalyzing things, overcomplicating things. His indecision is killing me, and I find myself almost wishing for another solid rejection. Almost. Anything's better than being strung along.

I can wait. I'm willing to wait.

But I can't wait forever.

I dig my nails into my palms. I don't want to keep my hopes up. I don't want to be disappointed a second time, so I close my mouth and try to keep down the feelings bubbling up my throat. Still, I know I'm failing miserably because my hands are turning sweaty, a part of my heart's beating like the giant Chinese drum on New Years, and underneath all the confusion, I'm flying over the fucking moon like a unicorn farting rainbows because maybe - just maybe - my unrequited love isn't so unrequited after all.

"You're awfully quiet," Lucas notes when I unlock the front door to our suite, and I freeze up, instantly feeling like I'm trapped in one of my sister's stupid virtual BL Novels.

Your crush has spoken to you! How do you respond?

A. Flirt

B. Kiss him

C. Compliment him

D. aSDFGHKLKJKL-

None of the above. I swallow down the lump in my throat. "Uh, I. I don't mean to burst your bubble on day one, but I don't think this fake relationship's going to work out."

Lucas blinks. He turns his head away. "I don't think so either," he murmurs, pushing the door open.

"I-I," I stammer.

Lucas's eyes shift back to mine. His expression is as unreadable as always.

"I call first shower," I say quickly, hurrying into the apartment.

Lucas's shoulders slump over. "Sure," he mumbles, shuffling after me and shutting the door.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

A roaring crowd. Flashes of light. Rolling cameras. Action.

Loud yells and cheers bombard my ears.

An intense game of sheets, stones, and clippers. Marth, sheets. Ness, stones. Final stage pick: Yoshi's Island.

The announcements are quick. Team captains, bow. Shake hands. May the best Smasher win.

Serious-faced, Ness makes his way to the teleporters. His eyes burn with a fire that sets my own nerves ablaze.

Let the 6th match of the Single-Elimination Tournament begin.

Ready? Countdown.

Three...

Two..

One.

GO!

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~Chapter Twenty~

To Make You Happy

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We lost.

The given time was 8 minutes. The actual duration of our match: 1 minute, 35.2 seconds. The final score: 5-1. Each person had held 3 stocks. Ness had managed to knock off a stock from Roy in the last five seconds of the fray - the only point our team scored.

It's easily our worst performance of the season.

Sensing that all was not as it seemed, Marth and Roy had tried haggling with the referee for a rematch, but rules were rules, a win was a win, and declining their protests, Ness was a good sport over their victory.

If my powers hadn't... if I could've controlled them better...

Encouraging a grumpy ropesnake back into hibernation (Ugh, I'm ssssso sssssleeeepy), I tuck him under my bed covers and glance at the closed bathroom. The shower's running. It sounds as if Ness is trying to drown himself in there.

Miserable at our loss, I sit down at the dinner table. So many mistakes. So many saves I could've made, so many times my powers should've worked but didn't. The loss is a frustrating hit to my own pride. If we had to have gone down, it should've been after we gave it our all. This loss was downright shameful. Devastating, even.

And Ness.

Don't mind, don't mind. One loss isn't the end of the world, he'd said, clapping me in the back, but I had to be blind not to notice the rapid way he was blinking. As soon as we'd returned to the suites, he'd made a beeline straight for the bathroom. Ness was just as upset over our loss, but I didn't have the heart to call him out on it. He probably wanted to cry alone.

Deciding to give him some space, I trudge out of the apartment.

But everywhere I go is a reminder of the ongoing games, and not in the mood to bump into anyone, I'm at a loss to where to go. The library? Maybe there. With luck, it'll be empty with people celebrating their wins or mourning their losses. Just as I take a step in the direction, a loud cackle stops me in my tracks.

"HI lUCaS! i sAW tHAt MAtCH! cRAZy, hUH? bET tHaT lOSS STinGs!"

"Crazy Hand," I groan.

"cRAzy hOW tHInGs wENt DOwN sOuTh! iT wAS hILArIOUS! aND thE tWO oF yOU kNOcKinG eACh oThER oUt wITh tHAT pk tHUnDeR? oUCH! i bET yOU tWO juSt sET A RECorD fOR tHE fAsTESt mATCH, EveR!"

"What do you want," I say wearily.

"AnD dONT YOU lOOk dIStrAUghT! wELL, nOT aS DiSTraUGHt AS mY bROtHEr dId wHEn hE lOSt yOUr CARtRidGE-"

I snap up. "My... cartridge?"

Crazy Hand twitches erratically. "DiD i sAy THaT? OoPSIE! fORGEt i SAiD aNyTHInG!"

"What about my cartridge? I thought Master Hand had already kept one for record," I say sharply.

"aHH, i nEVeR sAID nUThin'!" He tries to make a break for it, but I quickly grab him back by the pinky.

"Crazy, how did Master Hand lose my cartridge?"

"oOOh nO, mY BRoTheR wILL bE sO UpSET iF i sPiLL tHe bEAns!"

"I'm not letting go until you tell me!"

Crazy Hand wriggles around in my hold. "yOU cANt tELL mE wHAt tO dO! iM A FReE HaND!" he screeches.

I grimly tighten my hold. "If you tell me about the cartridge, then I won't tell Master Hand that you let it slip."

"AhhH, BLAckMaiL, eH? CLEvER. i sEE hOw iT iS. i scRatCH yOuR bAcK, YoU sCrAtCH mY HaNd." Crazy gives a loud cackle. "oKeE dOkiE! tHE mOre wHO KNOw, tHe meRRieR! yOu aSK Me aBOUt tHE MoTHeR 3 cARtRidGe? thErE'S onLy oNe iN tHE WHoLE wIDE WOrLD! tWAs cIRcLInG aROUnd cOLLecTinG dUst iN sOMe oBscUrE bLAcK maRKet uNTil mY dEAr BrO-brO fINaLLy trACkEd iT dOWn. dOnt thInk tHe dEALER rEAllY kNEW whAT iT wAs tOO, oR eLse hE wOUld'VE hAGGLed fOr A HiGHeR PRiCE. StiLL, mY BRo pAId A hEFtY sUm fOR iT!"

"The night Ness and I stood guard at the arcade," I say slowly. "I heard police sirens."

"YOu bETcHA! tHErE WAs a BrEAK-iN aT tHe OneTT bAnK! THe SHArks cREateD A nICe DIVErsIon fOr tHE MEDia, bUt thE rEAl CRIme tOOk pLacE iN tHe lOcaL MUsEUm - a cRIme ThAT OnLY tHE sELecT fEW iNVOlVEd woULd kNOw oF."

"The museum? Why-"

"iT WaS oUR dROP-oFF pOInT!" Crazy Hand cries, wildly waving his fingers. "tHe dEALeR sHOWEd uP, bUT tHEre WAs aN InteRcEPtIOn. oUR AGenT wAS aMBUshED, aND sOMEoNE rOBBed tHE dEALer. bY tHE TImE oUr aGEnT aLERteD uS tO THiS BLASpHEmY, wE wErE ToO lATe. sOMeONe hAD AlReaDY RUn oFF wIth tHe pRofIt aNd tHe MoM 3 CArTRiDge. wE wERe OUTsmaRtED! sMaLL wONDeR mY bROThER iS PeeVED!" Catching my horrified expression, Crazy Hand gives a hysterical laugh. "a SHAmE, rEALLY! THaT CARtrRiDGE'S gOT yOUr eNTiRE LifE HisTORy iN iT! WhOEVeR sToLE iT iS pRObABLy hAvING A bLAsT, kNoWinG THaT thEY hAVe yOUr DEEPesT DARkesT SECreTS iN tHEiR hANds! LIKe wHAT hAPpeNED tO yOUr pREciOuS BROthER-"

"Claus? You know where-"

"aH, aH! yOU sAId YoU WanTed INforMaTioN aBOUt The CARtrIdGE, aND iVe toLd yOU eVERytHinG i KnoW! tOODLee-doo!" With a spasmic wave, Crazy Hand wriggles himself free and zooms away, leaving me to stew in my own frustration.

Still, Crazy's words have gotten my mind racing, and for the first time, I'm in the running. In curing my supposed amnesia, I'm stuck back in square one, but now, I have a few more hints to work with, and there's a part of me that holds on to the slimmest chance that maybe... Claus is out there somewhere. Alive. I just have to find him.

But first, I have to get my hands on the Mother 3 cartridge. I'm extremely uneasy with the thought of someone else in possession of my past, especially when there's odd gaps and blanks in my own memory, and with the sudden possibility of finding Claus alive, there's no way I'm letting this chance blow past me. Reinvigorated by the sudden resolve, I dive into the library.

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~oO0Oo~

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.

It's no use. I've struggled through a daunting pile of books, and the closest mention I'd gotten about the Mother 3 cartridge is a passing mention of Mother 3 itself: "Of the represented franchises localized in the United States, Mother 3 is the only notable exception." I've incessantly refreshed Google pages all night for the hopes that someone might have slipped, might have tried selling it on Ebay, but there's no trace of the cartridge at all.

This only rattles me further. If there hasn't been a mention of the cartridge on social media by now, then the person who has most likely stolen my cartridge is hoping to keep it for themselves. Hopefully not for the sake of malicious intent. It's all I can hope for.

One step forward, two steps back.

I'm making no progress.

At some point, I must've fallen asleep again because I'm jarringly awoken by the cold table periodically tickling my cheek. The main perpetrator of the crime continues to vibrate, and with an incoherent groan, I fumble for it, slapping my hand against the table until I grope for the phone buzzing under my palm. Geh, telemarketers.

The incessant buzzing fades, and my screen lights up with a flood of missed texts.

Nuss 11:45PM
Hi fam its almost curfew where u at

Nuss 11:53PM
Lucas 
hey 
buddy pal compadre
are you alive?
all in favor of the notion say 'aye'

Nuss 12:00AM
oh shite its midnight
do u want me to teleport u back

Nuss 12:15AM
LUUUUUCAS I HAVE VIDEO GAMES
BOOKS
TREES
THE OPPOSITE OF GLOBAL WARMING
INSERT WHATEVER OTHER STUFF YOU LIKE

Nuss 12:18AM
Ok im gonna preted to play the role of 'extremely concerned bf' and get u
youd better thank me for ruining my booty sleep
*booty
*booty
dAMN U AUTOCORRECKT

Nuss 12:20AM
aw look at u sleeping in the library so pure n unsnarkylike
its like ur not being a little shit for once
heh here you go ya nerd
Nuss has sent you an attachment.

I tap it open. Unsurprisingly, it's my own sleep deprived self face-planting into a book. I snort, then shoot Ness a text back.

Lookas 7:04AM
How was your booty sleep?

His response is prompt.

Nuss 7:04AM
O fuck u

 

I quickly press a hand against my mouth, trying to stifle my escaping laughter. I do feel a little bad for leaving Ness hanging overnight though, and when I shift over, registering a slight weight on my shoulders, a blue blanket slides off my back. Patting it clean, I pick it up from the floor. A blazing baseball is sewn onto the hem. This blanket practically has Ness's name scrawled all over it.

The blanket's soft. Really soft.

Suddenly feeling an odd mix of embarrassed and childishly pleased, I bury my face into it like a security blanket. It's nice, really really nice. Smells nice too, like clean fabric softener. I wonder what the blanket is made out of, and when I flip the tag over, I'm unsurprised to find that it's made of 100% cotton.

Then I wonder how long Ness had cried himself out over our match last night, and a heavy weight settles back into my stomach. In my search for the Mother 3 cartridge, I'd completely forgotten about him. I wonder if he ate any of his meals properly yesterday. Probably not. He did say that he was running out of food, and suddenly, the first thing that pops into my mind are the choux cream puffs Ness desperately likes from Paris Baguette. Maybe the cafeteria here miraculously has some lying around, so I rise up, staggering out of the library.

Thankfully, only a few people are loitering around the cafeteria. Samus is already up at this ungodly hour, enjoying her beautiful cappuccino alone by the window. Having returned from his early morning jog on the track field, a sweaty Little Mac refuels himself with scrambled eggs and bacon. Link and Zelda are together at a table for two, and Zelda sits patiently as Link french-braids her hair. Red feeds his Pokemon by the Meatlover's aisle, tending to his Pokemon with soft pats and a gentle touch, and nods once when he catches my eye.

Considering that choux cream puffs have never made it onto the menu, I don't have high hopes to begin with, but what little remains of my hopes are still dashed when I see the lack of a fluffy pastry in the bakery aisle. No choux cream puffs. What do.

Time for a grocery run.

Taking the elevator up to the shopping district on the third floor, I scrounge up some change to buy something Ness might like. Maybe something practical to last him a while. I'm debating over whether or not to buy him a carton of eggs, when the nearest object on sale catches my eye.

Something happy. Something fun.

Barely fifteen seconds later and running my item through a hasty self-checkout, I hurry my way up to the tenth floor suites, but slow down to a sudden halt when my nerves kick in at the sight of the glowing 1010 emblazoned on the door. Suddenly, I feel so childish standing there with a measly 50% OFF Costco grocery bag at hand, and it's all I can do not to shuffle back onto the red velvet carpet in the hallway and flee for my life. It's stupid really. Ness will eat anything. He's the human garbage disposal.

He'll be happy with whatever I get him.

Satisfied somewhat by this train of thought, I push my way in. Last morning's defeat was a disastrous blow to our morale. I wonder if Ness is out training again. I wonder if he'll eat. I wonder if this would put him in a better mood-

But someone else has already beaten me to it.

There's a bright laugh, and I stop at the sound of voices coming out of the bedroom.

"You did what?!" Ness is cracking up like crazy, gasping for air. "Paula, you can't just sucker-punch someone like that!"

"Well, too bad. The cops weren't around, but I wasn't going to let the Sharks harass her! And don't get started on me, you would've done the same." At this, Ness tries to interrupt her in protest, but Paula continues. "She's in my piano III class too. Her name's Ana."

"Ana?! From Earthbound Beginnings?!"

"Yep, THE one and only Ana. The same one your cousin's dating. Small world I know. Trust me, we've got a lot of minor video game celebrities at our school. Most of us are in my home room."

"Geez, you're almost making me want to return to school just to get an autograp-Wait, don't change the subject! You sucker-punched a Shark. For god's sake, why didn't you use PSI? YOU'RE A WIZARD, HARRY."

"-but it worked out, didn't it?"

Quietly, I walk over to the kitchen, dropping the box of Coco Puffs on Ness's shelf and pretending that Ness's light-hearted laughter isn't twisting my heart into tiny knots. I'm about to leave it at there, but when I spot Ness's empty bowl sitting on the counter, I can't help but worry. Has he skipped breakfast? I think so. I want to ask, but when I approach the bedroom, judging from his rising voice, it seems like Ness's Skype convo isn't ending any time soon.

"Anyhoo, Tony's going to ride the SkyTrain with me to visit Jeff. How's Jeff doing, by the way? Still tinkering away on his new projects?"

"I dunno, I haven't gotten the chance to catch up with him."

"You're such a star."

"Says the Prom Queen!"

There's another round of laughter, and the knots in my chest constrict tighter. Paula makes a conversation sound so effortless. I can't even remember the last time I've made Ness laugh. It's been a while. A long while.

"Oh, how's your relationship going?"

Ness gives a low groan. "I already told you, it's all fake for the press. Trying to date Lucas is so stressful-"

"Eh?! Look who's talking-"

The words are like a blow to the head. I stagger away from the door, suddenly numb. I can't make Ness happy. I know that I can't. I already knew that I can't.

Then why did it hurt so much?

Something rustles in my hand. The plastic grocery bag. I shake off the bag, reaching inside for Ness's blanket. Scrunching up his blanket into a tiny ball, I curl myself around it and squeeze my eyes shut.

I think...

I think I need to take a nap.

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.

.

Snow coats the Onett baseball field. The trees have shed their leaves. I breathe in. There's a fresh, bitter scent in the air now, cold and snappy like a winter chill to the nose. Pine needles.

Hearing a crunch of leaves, I turn around. There's a lone figure standing on home base.

Ah. Ness.

Slowly, I reach for his hand.

Then Ness whirls around and grins. "Hi, Lucas!" he chirps, apologetically holding up his other hand into view. "Sorry, I can't hold your hand anymore. I'm dating someone else now."

On the other end of their linked hands, Paula beams. "We're a couple!"

"Right! No more fake-dating shit," Ness adds, grinning so widely that my chest aches. "Lucas, I'm so happy. I'm so much happier with Paula."

The words get caught up in my throat. "I thought you liked me."

"Oh, I only thought I did," Ness says carelessly. "You kept running away, so it was easier to move on. I found someone else to love. You were right, me pining after you was all just one silly phase." Still holding onto Paula's hand, Ness glances at me curiously, then gives me a sad smile. "Lucas... after what you made me go through, please don't tell me you've changed your mind."

"I'm sorry I pushed you away," I whisper.

Ness leans in with half-lidded eyes. The purple glow reminds me of stars in a dusklit sky. "So... Lucas, do you like me?"

I break out in cold sweat. "I-"

"Why can't you tell me?"

"I-It... it wouldn't have worked out-"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"We can't, I-"

"Why didn't you tell me that you bought me CoCo Puffs?!"

My eyes fly open.

There's a series of tiny clinks pelting against porcelain, and when I groggily sit up on the couch, Ness gives another huge crow of glee from out of sight. "Fank oo'! I lub dis shtuff," Ness says around his bulging hamster cheeks, before walking around the kitchen wall and returning to the living room. He eagerly nudges me in the arm, offering me his spoon. "Dew wan sum?"

Ness isn't dating Paula.

It had all been a dream.

Then the relief comes crashing down, and I let out a breathless laugh. Vaguely I catch Ness watching me in confusion, but I can't help it, it's so absurd, but I'm so relieved, so glad that he's not taken. When I blink at him, I notice that there's something off about his appearance, but then it takes me a second to realize that Ness is wearing my old oversized shirt - the same dorky one I lent him back at home. Absentmindedly I wonder if it'll smell like him, and I can't say that I'm not pleased with the thought.

Merry Shitscram indeed.

Still disoriented from my nap, it takes me a solid minute to realize that Ness has yet to speak. The lack of words is surprisingly uncharacteristic of him, so when I follow his eyes to the object in my hands, the realization hits me as quickly as the back of my neck burns.

I'm not sure how to handle the mortification crawling into my face, so instead, I grab the entire cereal bowl from Ness's hands and ungracefully drown myself in CoCo Puffs.

Teasing him. Making him indignant. It's easier to swallow down my feelings for him this way.

"Hey, that's mine!" Ness wails, grabbing at my wrists, but still downing his CoCo Puffs, I bat him away, steadily keeping the bowl out of reach. Mm, chocolate and milk and salty unshed tears. Delicious. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I lower the almost-empty bowl, and pulling it towards him, Ness gives a distraught exclamation.

"You... You stole my breakfast! How could you?"

"You offered."

"I didn't mean the whole thing. Get your own, jackass!"

"Foo late," I say around another crammed mouthful of Coco Puffs.

Ness playfully scowls at me. "Great. Now I have to walk back to the kitchen, open the fridge for milk, then grab another cereal bowl." But his scowl is so entertaining that I remain unfazed by his complaint, and end up smirking stupidly as Ness starts whining up a storm. He should know better; he'll get no sympathy from me. Finally realizing that his words are having no effect on me, Ness stomps off, his cry trailing after his footsteps. "I hope you're happy, ya jerk!"

"Fank you for the food," I cheerfully call after him.

"Oh, fuck off."

But after he pours himself another bowl of cereal and milk, Ness returns to lean against me on the couch (though he does punch me in the shoulder and tell me to shut up when I laugh at his disgruntled expression), and all of a sudden, I wonder when I started thinking that Ness sulking was a little cute. Just a little.

Scarfing down his own bowl like a half-starved island survivor, Ness obliviously leans closer towards me, shifting against my side. Involuntarily I find myself pressing back against him.

He's warm. So incredibly warm.

Lucas, do you like me?

My throat closes up. I keep my eyes on the cereal bowl in my hands. I can't tell him. Not when things wouldn't work out in the end. Not when I'd rejected him already. Not when he'd said that his feelings had been a fluke. There's no point in starting something that wouldn't end well.

But when I think of Ness dating someone else, the thought is like taking a punch to the stomach, because it's so real, so likely, so true. I don't want to see Ness with someone else. I don't want to lose him. It's a selfish thought, but I know better than to act on it. Not when I can't make him happy. I think of his distraught expression when I brushed off his feelings as a phase, and my chest tightens in shame. I couldn't imagine how Ness still went ahead and said it. I love you. It had probably taken him so much courage to have confessed his feelings, a courage I didn't have.

No matter how sound Link's advice, Ness would be better off with someone else.

He could be so much better off with Paula.

I glance in his direction, only to notice Ness staring back at me expectantly. There's this hopeful expression growing on his face, as if he's waiting for me to say-

Oh.

I warily hug my cereal bowl away. "I'm not sharing."

Ness looks like I socked him in the face. "I never even asked," he huffs, turning around to sulk over his loss. Is he pouting again? Curious now, I tilt my head to get a better view of his expression, but Ness stubbornly turns his face away.

"Are you really pouting," I say surprised.

"NO."

Of course he is. "I was kidding, if you don't want cereal, I've got some bread in the cupboard-"

"Nah, I don't want food, I just want-" Catching my eye, Ness swallows then looks away. "Don't worry about it. I'm being dumb," he says, reaching over for the cereal box and pouring himself more Coco Puffs. "By the way, Paula's coming over to Smash City tomorrow."

But tomorrow is a Saturday.

My heart twists into a giant knot. "She's a nice friend," I reluctantly admit.

Ness's face lights up. "The very best," he says happily. "She's finally jumped onto the unlimited texting bandwagon, so we've been in touch a lot more lately."

Please tell me you like me.

"You should catch up with her. I'm sure she misses you," I say quietly.

Please.

"Yeah, she wants to hang out with me this weekend. It'll be awesome! I think Paula wants to update me on some private stuff back home, so yeah... uh, maybe we can hang another time." Scratching the back of his neck, Ness glances apologetically at me. "We'll try to be back in time for Netflix night, but-"

My throat unclogs. "It's okay, take your time catching up."

And when Ness beams, looking relieved, my heart turns to lead.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"Oh, how's your relationship going?"

"I already told you, it's all fake for the press. Trying to date Lucas is so stressful-"

"Eh?! Look who's talking-"

"You know that I'm still not over him." I nervously glance at the bedroom door, but Lucas doesn't seem to be home. Still, out of sheer habit, I lower my voice. "It's not liking him that's hard, it's the whole "faking it for the cameras" part that really stresses me out."

"Then you should tell him."

"I'm not telling him! In case you've forgotten, he rejected me!"

"No, I have not forgotten," Paula says, sounding increasingly impatient. "Ness, I'm not going to lie, this just sounds like a bad communication problem. If he likes you, and you like him back, there's no reason to play hide-and-seek around your feelings."

I wring my hair in agitation. "See that's the thing, he already knows that I like him-"

"Was this before or after you said it was all a misunderstanding?" Paula says dryly.

"I'm a horrible actor! Everyone can tell that I still like him!" I wail.

"Apparently everyone except for him."

"Okay, so maybe he's a little dense," I say feebly.

"Then tell him outright, for crying out loud."

I drop my head. "I don't get it, Paula. If Lucas really did like me back, then he wouldn't be afraid to tell me himself."

Paula doesn't look pleased. "Honestly, if he doesn't have the balls to confess to your face, then he's not worth pursuing."

"If Lucas hasn't said anything, then he probably has a good reason," I argue stubbornly. This results in me spilling out my heart and soul over what happened over the course of the past week for a second time, and like the understanding friend she is, Paula still listens in to my dramatic lament of a sob story.

Finally when I take a breather after a particularly long sentence, she interrupts me. "Then why don't you make the first move?" Paula asks quietly.

"I told you, I don't want to pressure him to come out because of ME. Plus I'm not sure what the deal is with his dad. Have you seen his dad? His dad's totally ripped like an Olympic bodybuilder-"

"If Lucas truly loves you, then I'm sure that he'll feel more supported than pressured." Paula taps on the keyboard. "I think you should talk to Jeff."

I snap my head up in confusion. "Jeff? Jeff who?"

"Jeff Andonuts. Our Jeff."

I smack myself on the forehead. "Oh, Jeff! Duh."

"I've been in touch with him more recently. If I remember, he had to iron out a rough patch with Tony before they got back together. So yeah, Jeff would have better advice to give you than I do." The buzz rings, but after a while, Paula clicks it off with a sigh. "I guess he's offline. I'll hit him up later, and we'll see what he says tomorrow." Looking up, Paula gives me an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I got to go. Packing awaits."

"Sure thing. I hope things work out with your parents."

"Ugh, don't I wish," she groans comically, and we share a good laugh at her expense. The Skype video gives a small blip, then the window disappears in a pop.

Stretching my arms, I slowly rise out of my seat. Skyping Paula was a well-needed pick-me-up, but when my stomach growls, I realize that something else requires my immediate attention.

"Hey, stop you," I say, lightly poking my stomach.

It growls again. Traitorous git.

That reminds me, I'm out of food.

Deciding to scrounge around my pantry for crumbs because I'm too lazy to haul my ass over to the cafeteria, I jog over to the kitchen only to stop in place, wide-eyed at the couch.

It's Lucas.

Sleeping.

With my blanket in his hands.

Carefully, I step over, but Lucas doesn't stir an inch. Huh. I could've sworn that he wasn't home. He's as quiet as a mouse. Either way, he's clocked out already. I watch him breathe out peaceful puffs of air. Shit, just watching Lucas nap makes me want to nap.

Propping his head up against the armrest into a more comfortable position, I lightly ruffle his hair. "What are you doing here? I thought you were at the library," I say softly.

Of course, Lucas doesn't respond.

My eyes trail over to the grocery bag on the ground. It crinkles when I quietly pick it up, and when a receipt flutters out of the bag, I can't help but notice that there's only one item on the list.

"Coco puffs?" I repeat, confused. I could've sworn that Lucas didn't eat cereal. At the very least, he avoids eating it often, because cereal goes hand-in-hand with milk, and well, Lucas is mildly lactose intolerant. He can still eat dairy products like ice cream, yogurt, and cheese (god, Lucas fucking LOVES cheese), just not a fuck ton, and he avoids directly drinking more than a full glass of milk a day: Courtesy of his half-Japanese genes.

Curiosity drives me to open up the pantry.

Lo and behold, there's a cereal box standing on my once-empty shelf.

Seeing that I'm a proud all-out 100% American white boi whose middle name is cheeseburger, I can't resist a crow of delight and begin my breakfast feast with a generous serving of cereal and milk. When I make my way around the kitchen counter, Lucas groggily sits up, and oops, I've accidentally woken him up with my obnoxious loud mouth.

"Fank oo'! I lub dis shtuff," I manage around a full mouth, and offer him my spoon with a silly grin. "Dew wan sum?"

For a second, Lucas stares at me like he's seen a ghost.

Then slowly, he breaks out into a quiet laugh.


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~Chapter Twenty-One~

TFW I Eat Too Much Cheese Popcorn

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Jokingly, there are three simple rules I follow to satisfy Lucas's friendship.

1. Don't get in the way of his sleep.

2. Don't get in the way of his food.

3. Don't get in the way of his (lack of) social life.

Still his response, while expected, crushes my hopes and dreams.

"No."

"I'll buy you lunch!"

"I thought you wanted private time with Paula today."

I internally cringe, shrinking under the vast ceiling of the library. The worst part? I can't argue against that, not when he's using my own words against me. "Well, that was before she decided to spill the beans to Jeff, and before Jeff spilled the beans to his boyfriend! Besides, if Paula really wants to talk to me, we could always do it on the side. Please, Lucas, you gotta save me, I'm begging you!"

"Asking me again won't change my answer."

"...Please?"

"You know I dun socialize, Imma hermit," Lucas mumbles, pulling his arms over his head. "Now cuddit ow, I'm tryin to concentrate."

"But Tony's going to bombard me with relationship advice! And we're not even in a relationship," I wail, aghast. "Lucas, you gotta tag along-"

"Your friends, your problem."

I throw my hands up into the air in a fit of frustration. "No, wrong. We're in this together. If I have to listen to Tony give me advice on how to charm dicks, then you're going to suffer through it with me-" I stop at the unimpressed look on Lucas's face. Shit, he's really not in the mood. I resort back to whining like a kid. "Please...?"

"I'm not going to gate-crash your party by being grumpy and sleep-deprived. Seriously, go have fun." Lucas finally spares me a side-glance, only to raise a brow. "And what are you doing up so early, it's six in the morning."

"I should be asking you that," I retort, comfortably leaning against the back of his chair. I peer over his shoulder and catch a glimpse of Obscure Video Games of the Past Decade before Lucas's arm involuntarily slides over it. "This is the second night you've slept over in the library. What are you doing, taking notes?" I comment, curiously looking at the haphazard pile of papers strewn over the desk.

"I'm trying to figure something out," Lucas mutters, clumsily covering a yawn and pushing my head away. "Shoo, I'm busy. Go socialize with your girlfriend-"

"Paula's NOT my girlfriend," I protest. "She's a girl, she's a friend, but she's not my girlfriend."

"Don't you have to be somewhere," he says, exasperated.

"Maybeee," I say, drawing out the "ee." Lucas still looks less than convinced. Oh well, I tried. "We should try to hang out more. Or at the very least, deter people from wondering if our honey-moon phase is over before Chrom stops acting up- Hey, I know! Let's watch a movie tonight. Except-" I jab a finger into his arm. "I'm choosing the movie. We all know what happened last time you did-"

"Don't remind me," Lucas suddenly says, the back of his neck boiling a lobster red, and this makes me smirk. Got him again. "Didn't you say that your reunion was going to last long?"

I proudly puff up my chest. "Well, I need to make sure you don't break curfew, because someone hasn't come home for the past two days. I swear to god, if you start breaking the rules too, Master Hand's going to call me out for being a shitty influence."

"I'll come home tonight, you don't have to cut your socializing short," he says quickly. "And I... I think I'll be busy-"

"On a Saturday? We don't have anything to do until Christmas." I peer at him with a lazy halfassed grin. "My reunion's not going to last all day. Come home tonight. I heard the new Thor movie's out. Even better, Moulin Rouge is back on Netflix."

Lucas swallows. "I thought you were looking forward to seeing your friends."

"I am. But I can do two things in one go, can't I?"

Slumping over, Lucas stuffs his hands into his pockets. "What are we watching," he mumbles. Heh, look at this dork, acting all shy as hell. My grin widens. I knew it, no one can resist my charm!

"I knew you liked me," I say happily.

"You're going to be late," is all he says, though it's fucking 6 in the morning and everyone is either sleeping or off to watch the games in the lobby.

"We'll figure out what to watch later." I watch him hopefully. "So... is Operation Movie Night a go? How does ten sound?"

"I'd like that," Lucas says softly.

You know what, this is okay. This is totally more than okay.

I bite down on my lip, because god, Lucas needs to stop being so adorable. Seriously, if he keeps telling me what the fuck he's actually feeling about something more often, like right now, then hell, I'd do anything to make him happy.

I carefully study his face from the side. "You sure you'll show up tonight? No more sleeping in the library?"

"I'll try."

"I'll kiss you if you show up on time," I suggest in the manner of a tempting bribe, and cackle madly when Lucas accidentally shoves a textbook too hard with his elbow, knocking it away and sending it flying off the table.

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind," he groans, his cheeks tinted pink, and closes the book shut when I pick it up and place it back into his hands.

While not a solid guarantee, I know that Lucas is more likely to open up if I can make him more at ease... which means making him comfortable around me again. Lucas opens up at his own pace. He doesn't share what's on his mind until he's ready.

But somehow, if I can encourage him to make that leap of courage, if I can figure out how to best help him...

At the very least, I don't expect anything. Honestly? I'm just hoping for a good time. Quality time dorking around. Which Lucas has agreed to. Tonight. YES. I resist the urge to pump my fist into the air in triumph.

Keep it casual.

DAMN IT NESS just keep it casual.

But I'm so giddy over my little victory that I leap over and give Lucas a quick hug on my way out. Lucas stiffens up in my hold, but I dash out before he can voice his displeasure. I'm surprised that Lucas is even up at this hour. He's been sleeping in less and less lately. I remember his open-mouthed fast-asleep face in the library and snrrk with laughter. The more dorky faces I can snapchat to him, the better.

It's a win-win situation for me either way.

So I skip out of the library in high spirits and jump down to the first floor.

This is also where I get a convenient reminder about Master Hand's house arrest.

"Oh, no! Not you!" Tingle squeaks, struggling to peer over the tall receptionist desk to waggle his tiny finger at me. "You, Sir Ness, are listed in the top of the Most Wanted Amiibo list. I'm afraid we can't let you wander outside! And - oh, what is this? Oh my my!" Tingle vigorously shakes out a scroll of paper, which quickly rolls down to the floor. "Sir, you are most grievously stuck in the top three current shipping trends! No absolutely not-"

"I'm only going to be out for a few hours!" I whine.

"Kooloo-limpah, enough whining! Master Hand's words are the fairy-est, fairest of laws, and alas, you are on his shitlist!" Tingle furiously shoos me away with a frown on his elfish face. "Begone, troublesome child!"

Of course, this leads me to Plan B.

"Wha- aUGH, NESS!" Screeching to a halt at my doubled over form in his now-destroyed bathroom, Jeff wrings his hands into his hair in despair. "I just got the toilet repaired last night!"

"My bad," I cough, waving off the remnants of ash from my teleportation.

"This is what, the third time you've teleported into my bathroom?"

"It's an emergency, take mercy on me," I plead, trailing behind Jeff as he stomps away to fetch his tool box.

"Well, I'm here," Jeff says grumpily, sitting back onto the bathroom tiles to cut off the godawful caterwauling of the smoke detector. "And I'm not going anywhere. Do tell me why you've suddenly re-discovered the urge to break and enter at seven in the morning."

"Master Hand won't let me out of the Mansion-"

"For good reason."

"I'm serious, Jeff!" I start pacing around. "That means today... Paula and Tony... we-"

"-can still meet them today. We'll just have to let them inside the Mansion."

"Tingle won't let them in-"

"I signed up for two VIP Smash Mansion Passes in advance."

"And here I was, looking forward to a nice, lovely day outside of the Mansion," I say gloomily.

Jeff points his screwdriver in my direction. "Bad idea. You'd best follow directions until Master Hand gives the word."

I slump over in a sulk. The VIP Smash Mansion Pass isn't the end of the world: it's literally a golden ticket to a front seat of any match. A limited supply is sold off each month at a ridiculously high price, while the others are given away in lotteries. The VIP pass grants the buyer full access to the back elevators of Smash Mansion, which lead directly to the award-winning shopping district on the 3rd floor and a nice view of the underground arena. Basically, it's a chance for the lucky people to see Smashers in person.

Good news: Smashers can invite whomever they want for free.

Bad news: I REALLY don't want to stay inside.

"Jeff, you know that more passes are sold during the Championships," I plead desperately. "The 3rd floor's going to be so crowded. Plus we've been to the 3rd floor before. You're in Master Hand's good graces, aren't you? Can't you ask him to lift the curfew for me? Please? You defeated Giygas-"

"Ah... I wouldn't say I defeated Giygas. It was your quest, and we helped each other," Jeff says, suddenly looking embarrassed. "Look, Ness, I'm an assist trophy. I lack any authoritative power. Even if I didn't, I have to agree with Master Hand this time. You started a shipping scandal last week. All the fans are going to be on your heels... which is another reason to stay here. No paparazzi."

"I guess you're right," I mutter.

"Glad that you see reason. The media is painting you as quite the teenage heart-throb."

Thinking back to unpleasant memories of watching the paparazzi digging through my trash outside Tracy's bedroom, I grimace. "I never asked for all the fame."

"I'd bet all the girls would love to hear that."

"Seriously, why do people keep saying that?" Suddenly finding the room hot, I tug on my shirt collar. "I'm not good with girls-"

"You've gotten love letters from fans since you first started Melee-"

"You're talking about love letters? Then go see Samus-"

"-and they're calling you the Child Idol of the century."

"I could care less about what the press calls me," I say exasperated. In Smash City, my name might be the most well-used of my ragtag Earthbound gang, but Poo's royalty, Paula's a fashion model, and Jeff's the son of a well-off inventor.

For heaven's sake, Jeff's got the money AND the brains. His dad sold some fancy Doofenshmirtzian "Time Machine-inator" shortly after our quest. It played a huge part in the development of Smash City's SkyTrain, and ended up bringing Jeff BIG BUCKS, topping his status from "Glasses" to "Richer glasses."

As true as it is, I don't bring up Jeff's newfound "rich kid" status, because last I heard, Dr. Andonuts has been stuck in an asylum for the past several years, mumbling away about chimaeras and (oddly enough) pigs. He's completely lost in his own universe. This also makes me feel pretty crummy for Jeff, considering that we live in the SAME building, and when you count in the fact that I haven't even dropped by to check on him since last year... Yeah. Let's just say that I'm stuck on Santa's naughty list this Christmas.

Jeff sets down his tools. "I was actually wondering when you were going to see me," he says casually, but I know him too well to be fooled. "How are things with Lucas?"

"How did you-"

"Paula told me."

I give a nervous laugh. "Uh, I... It's complicated. We haven't been... talking. Kinda. I don't know?" Embarrassed, I bury my face into my hands. "Ugh, I like him, and I think he likes me, but I'm not sure-"

Suddenly looking just as equally flustered, Jeff sets down his tools. "T-Tony!" he stammers. "Tony's better at figuring out mushy stuff than I am. I've already let Tony know, so you can consult him on your relationship problems-"

"Noooo," I say quickly, pushing Jeff out of the bathroom and sorely regretting that I spilled out all my life's woes to Paula for the thousandth time in a row. Oh, curse me and my big mouth! "Jeff, it's okay. EVERYTHING'S OKEY. I got this. Romance? Relationships? Ha, yeah, this is right up my alley." Under Jeff's dubious expression, I awkwardly swing my arms. "Yes. It is. Because. People skills! Icantotallyrelationships. FALCON YES."

"Paula told me that you've barely talked to Lucas since your last visit to Onett."

I wince. "You're right. I have no idea what I'm doing."

By this point, Jeff's building another bottle rocket again. I don't know why, but as long as he doesn't go all Clemont on me and make it explode, I'll take it.

...it also doesn't help that Jeff resembles a stereotypical blonde genius with glasses.

Lucas, Paula, and now Jeff. Seriously, I need to stop surrounding myself with blondes who are smarter than me.

"I promise no interventions, but worst case scenario, Tony's advice might give you something rational to think over," Jeff says with a firm finality, and I feel the weight of the World crash upon my mortal shoulders.

Oh dear god.

What have I done.

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~oO0Oo~

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And that, my friends, is how I met my untimely demise: Death by Third-wheeling.

Nevermind, we actually DO have a bigger problem. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about: How to avoid gay friends who want to bring up my gay crush. It's bad enough that my sister and mom are already on the "Let's tease Ness for having a crush because aww isn't that so cute?" bandwagon, and now that I've blabbed my mouth off to everyone else in the vicinity, I don't need to add any more friends - gay, straight, or otherwise - into the embarrassing mix.

Thus begins the biggest goose chase of the year.

The reunion doesn't start off that badly. Or at least, not in the beginning. When we find Paula and Tony chilling outside The Sashimi Gem at noon-thirty, dolled up in thick mittens and woolen coats to protect themselves from the chill, Jeff ambles over to greet them, his eyes bright and cheeks red with cold. Upon seeing him, Tony literally jumps up, squeaking with delight, and the two enjoy a very enthusiastic hug. I admit, it's kind of cute, but all the same, I do feel a bit intrusive for standing awkwardly in the middle of their heartfelt reunion. Next to me, Paula glances at me with the same sheepish expression. This makes me feel slightly better.

Nice to know that I'm not the only one being third-wheeled.

Everything is so ridiculously high end at the Grande Central Park of the shopping district that the Costco on the outskirts sticks out like a sore thumb. Three-star Michelin restaurants are the norm in this area. Some of the classiest restaurants have gathered round to eagerly cater for their customers - VIP guests dressed in suits and professional wear. I even spot Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom at a large RESERVED table by Osteria Francescana, toasting over a meal of spaghetti, and Ashley is admiring a ring over at the Piaget jewelry store.

For those who can afford it, this place is a rich kid's playground.

For those who can't, it's a wannabe daydream.

As a middle class fuckboy where taxes wring your neck and squeeze the ever-living shit out of your income, guess which category I fall under.

Of course, with all the fanciest of restaurants and places at our disposal, we end up eating outside of Grande Central Park at an In-N-Out. For a fast food place, it sells affordable burgers that actually taste so good that the cheese melts in my mouth and the steak patty does a happy tap-dance on my tongue. Overall, you could say that I was a very happy teen.

As horrible as it sounds, yes, I also did anything I could to avoid a possible one-on-one with Tony. I made sure not to provide outlets for scenes where we could end up alone. I made sure to sit next to Paula on the booth. I made sure to walk at the side, sandwiching Paula and Jeff in the middle. To my relief, my efforts were for naught. Tony seemed perfectly happy with being all lovey-dovey with Jeff, who, now coaxed out of his awkward nerdy self, was giving an explanation about black holes for god knows why.

Paula, as always, looks as stunning as ever. She won the title of Miss Eagleland last year, and top brand stores desperately throw clothes at her in the hopes that she will wear them. She has an endless string of  admirers.

Naturally, as it is usually around any attractive girl out of my league, I feel a little awkward and out-of-place standing next to her, but the awkwardness quickly subsides because hey, we're friends. And being total bffs with the hot model chick who helped you save the world is pretty damn awesome.

"It's nice to be back," Paula suddenly says, breaking into a smile, and without asking, I know what she means.

Four people. Hanging out. It's just like old times.

Well, except for all the death-defying stunts, evil aliens, and stupid level grinding quests, but shh, let's keep it light today. Happy memories. Magic butterflies. Rainbows. A warm fuzzy feeling comfortably settles in the pit of my stomach. There's really nothing quite like bonding in the face of trauma.

"Yeah," I say. "If Poo stopped by, then we would've completed the original quartet."

"I heard that he's busy with his princely duties."

"No surprise there. Dude's running a whole friggin country by himself. He's like, the great Dragon Warrior-"

Paula stifles a grin. "The great Dragon Warrior?"

"Yeah, like King Poo Panda-"

At my horrible pun (in my defense, Poo, I swear to Dalaam that there are worse things in life than being compared to a Dreamworks movie that was actually fucking good), Paula cackles into her mittens. She almost topples over from laughing so hard that I have to sling my arm over her shoulder to keep her balance up, and when she holds onto my hand with another burst of giggles, I smile and glance at the row of shops around the shopping district, trying not to think about the sudden lurch in my stomach. I've held Paula's hand so many times before: after we were trapped together under Threed during a zombie attack, after she was kidnapped in the Fourside department store, after we were out exploring Winters in Dr. Andonuts' lab.

We've held hands so many times before. This shouldn't be any different.

But then I think of Lucas, and how long it took him to let me hold his hand. A year? Two? And how many times has he ducked away from me every time I tried to hug him? Many times. So many times that I've lost count.

I drop my eyes. In retrospect, my first love confession didn't the turn out the way I'd expected. I guess I'd been a tad too optimistic. I'd expected rainbows. I'd expected bishie sparkles. Hell, call me cliche, call me stupid, but I'd envisioned the scene many times, over how I would casually confess to Lucas, over how his face would light up, over how we'd kiss and make out and play Mario Kart until three in the morning like the plot of some stupidly generic Nesscas fanfic.

Of course, none of that happened. One careless choice had turned me into a drunken mess, and ended up with Lucas having to drag my sorry ass up to the hospital ward. Shit I don't even want to talk about that night. Just thinking about it, or whatever little of it I do remember, makes me cringe so badly that I feel a small part of me shrivel up and die every time Lucas glances my way.

But he does like me.

I think.

Jesus fucking christ, I can't tell. I can only hope that he doesn't hate me at this point.

Suddenly for some stupid reason, a lump swells up in my throat. I wish that he loved me. I wish that he at least told me that he loved me, just once.

Beside me, Paula's eyes faintly shimmer with magic. I can feel the warmth of her empathy link wash over me, and through our linked fingers, I know that she can feel mine. She's so happy and so open about her own feelings.

I'm grateful for our friendship. I'm so grateful for her comfort, for her being there for me when no one else was.

I grip her hand tighter.

Paula falters, catching my expression. I'm not exactly sure what she saw - I swear that I'm not THAT bad looking, I even combed my hair today - but she quickly lets go of my hand before I can read her feelings. "I'll be right back. Gotta go to the bathroom," she suddenly announces, and whirling around, dashes away in the opposite direction.

"Paula, where are you going? There's a bathroom over there-" I call out, confused, but as I reach out to her, the edge of her pink dress has already fluttered out of sight around the corner of a Gucci store.

Bewildered, I touch my face with my other hand. Am I really that bad looking? Shit, maybe my eyes went all glowy and freaked her out again I don't know. When I try to follow, Jeff holds me back with a hand on my shoulder.

"I told her not to come visit you today," Jeff says in a calculated tone.

"Why?"

"That's for her to say."

Even Tony looks troubled at Jeff's side. "Should we go fetch her?"

Jeff shakes his head. "Leave her be. She can take care of herself."

I dumbly stare at the place Paula vanished. A crowd of people murmur excitedly around us - Paula's a decently known celebrity herself. If they figure out who she is, then no doubt they'll piece two and two together.

From somewhere in my chest, I feel her empathy link throb.

The look on her face.

I've only seen her wear that look once before.

"She's upset," I mumble.

"-and you might make it worse," Jeff warns. "Don't try anything. Paula can take care of herself, she'll come back." Jeff shrugs on his coat. "I'll follow her. You keep Tony company."

As I feared, Tony takes advantage of this time to drag me away, squeezing into a secluded alley by the food court. I hear the voices and footsteps of curious fans murmur past, and am sorely glad when they walk away, oblivious to our presence.

Breathing in, I pinch my nose and try to think of a way to dig myself out of my own mess. Except that up close, Tony's hair looks as chestnut brown as ever except for the newly-added strawberry blonde highlights, and I notice that his hair also (unfortunately) has the same wavy curls as Paula's does.

This does not help me concentrate.

His ensemble as flamboyant as a gay flower (he's wearing fluorescent orange and purple mismatched socks, for crying out loud), Tony steers me through the cobbled alley towards a glowing display at Hermes.

"You're looking as green as ever," I comment dryly.

Tony glances down at his entire attire swathed in emerald. "Oh this? It's my favorite color. But you know that's not why we're here." He clacks his tongue impatiently, and from here, I can spot a silver piercing on the tip of his tongue.

The cards are up. I give in with a sigh. "Great, does everyone know about my hopeless lovelife?"

"You spilled the beans, not me," Tony answers with a shrug. "But hey, since we're both into hot blondes-" When my face boils up in mortification, Tony smiles sincerely. "It's okay, I see Jeff the same way. Stereotypical gay theatre kid here."

"I'm surprised it took you so long to get hitched with Jeff," I mutter.

"We broke up early on because we wanted different things in life," Tony confesses. "Jeff wanted to pursue his studies, and I, well, I literally dicked around. I tried sleeping around with other guys on Grindr, but the relationships never lasted long. Don't get me wrong, dicks are nice-"

Great, now I know more about Tony's sex life than I ever need to.

"-but there really was no one like Jeff. We ended up missing each other, so after he graduated early from college, we touched base and got back together again."

While I'm no prude, and am honestly glad to see Jeff and Tony back together, I really do think that this is too much information. Considering that I fall into the same pitfall while talking, I silently resolve to pick up a few hints from Lucas. Maybe become a hermit. Give up my social life. Permanently.

I stare at Tony blankly. "You lost me at dicks."

Tony laughs, and his ridiculously flamboyant bowler hat bobs on his head. "My point is, is Lucas out of the closet?"

The unexpected question catches me off-guard. "No...? At least, I don't think so."

"That's your first problem."

"What's wrong with being closeted?" I say indignantly.

"The relationship usually won't work out. Hold on, hear me out for a sec," Tony says quickly when I try to interrupt him. "See Ness, you get this power imbalance, because the closeted person gets all the say-so in the relationship. Like, when it's okay to touch, when it's okay to do A, when it's okay to do B," Tony explains, tilting his head into a wise nod. "Don't get me wrong. It can still work out- just hasn't for me. In my opinion, dating a closeted person is too much trouble than it's worth."

"Maybe if you can help them out of the closet-"

"Coming out isn't just a one-time thing. It's something you'll have to do forever. It's personal. And at the risk of alienating your family? For some people, it's not worth the risk. At least, not right now. Especially when it concerns their safety." When Tony turns his head, and I can see the faint scar on his forehead before his bangs hide it. "I took the risk. So did you. But not all people have understanding parents."

"I'm gonna give Lucas some time first. It's only been the second day," I say desperately, and okay, maybe I am a tad bit biased because so far, Tony's advice has basically been it won't work out, ever, ZIP ZILCH NADA.

"Mm. I haven't heard of a case where someone falling in love with their straight best friend ever worked out, but, well... if you know that Lucas likes you back, then he's not exactly straight, is he?"

As little of a saving grace it is, Tony's question lifts up my hopes. Slightly. "I guess not."

"Then be ready when Lucas decides to come out of the closet, because if he does, he'll need you," Tony says, clapping me on the shoulder. "But just so you know-"

"Expect nothing."

"That too, but be careful that he doesn't drag you back in."

"I won't," I promise.

"Atta boy," Tony says cheerfully, bobbing his head like a bobblehead yet a second time. "I knew I had the easier end of the deal. I think Jeff's going to take a while with Paula, so let's explore 'round."

I agree, and catching the aroma of confectioneries, turn towards the nearest bakery. While choux cream puffs are honestly to die for, I'm really more of a "main course meal" fan than a "sugary desserts" fan. But this suddenly reminds me of how much Lucas likes sweets, of how he bought me cereal, and of how rarely he treats himself out.

So I end up at Bottega Louis's Restaurant, Gourmet, and Patisserie, plastering my face against the glass display of mouthwatering cakes and macaroons, because heck, why not? It makes me a little more than sad that the third floor shopping district doesn't sell a single choux cream puff, but it's a small grievance when I picture Lucas's eyes brightening up at the sight of baked goods.

True to Tony's word, as soon as we step outside with our goodies, Jeff returns with a puffy-eyed Paula in tow.

"Sorry about that, it's been a rough week," Paula says with a weak laugh.

I eye her in concern. "You sure it's cool? We could've met up another time-"

"No, this is good! I wanted to see you. I was still going to be in the area for my college tour." Paula rubs her sleeves against her face, then breaks into genuine smile. "Phew, forget that happened, and I'll call it even for the time that Starman Super KO'ed you."

Instantly, this triggers my indignant outrage. "But that dungeon was crazy! There were so many Starmen Supers-"

"Everyone else had to carry the team because you went down," Paula smirks.

"Don't give me that, you kept running out of health when I first met you," I counter.

You can imagine the snarky come-backs that resulted.

This back-and-forth exchange goes on for quite a time before Jeff intervenes. Time flies, and before I know it, I'm waving everyone off at the front lobby, with Jeff clutching onto a enthusiastically beaming Tony's hand and Paula giggling at the exchange, her own hands full of shopping bags of the latest clothes. I offer to teleport them back to Paula's apartment, but bogged down by everyone tossing Master Hand's words at me, find myself forced to stay indoors.

It was probably for the best though, because when I glance at my phone, HOLY SHIT it's nine-fifty PM. I cut it close, barely managing to make it back to the suite right before ten, card-keying my way into the apartment and slamming the door shut. I blink a few times into the darkness before flicking the lights on.

No one's here.

My heart sinks. Of course the dolt isn't here. Probably lost track of time in the library.

But as I set up my Netflix and popcorn on the couch, the door beeps, and Lucas dashes in, breathless and panting over his legs. He seems oddly more bothered than usual, and I can tell because of the telltale flush rising from the back of his neck.

Watching his sorry state, I crack a grin and stuff more popcorn into my mouth. "Hey, you didn't have to rush. I'm still setting up."

Something flickers in his eyes, and Lucas ducks his head in embarrassment. "I can help," he mumbles, hurrying over to sit next to me and untangle my laptop charger from the other Playstation cords.

"How was the library?"

"Might have found a lead, so I'm heading back there tomorrow morning."

I pull up Moulin Rouge and maximize the screen. "Again? What are you even reading about, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?"

"No, I- what does that mean."

"No idea, but it's the longest word in the English language," I say proudly.

Lucas groans. "Figures. Only you would memorize a nonsense word."

"You mean nonsensical. Admit it, you're just jealous that I have a better vocabulary than you do," I sniff, and Lucas shakes his head, successfully freeing my laptop cord from the wild tangle. "No seriously, you didn't answer my question. Why exactly are you studying your life and soul out?"

Lucas rubs the back of his neck. "I'm not studying," he admits. "I'm searching for the Mother 3 cartridge. Someone stole it from Master Hand in Onett-"

I suddenly sit up in realization. "Is this why he spared my ass? Because he thought that whoever was behind the Shark raids was responsible for orchestrating the theft?"

"Pretty much. I haven't gotten any news online, but I think that I have a new lead on a book that has some ties to the plot of my game."

"I hope you find it. I'll let you know if I hear anything about your cartridge," I offer.

Lucas breaks into a tired smile. "Thanks. How was your day."

"It was fun! Well..." My expression falters. "Except for the part when Paula cried-"

Lucas cautiously looks up. "Paula cried?"

"She's under a lot of stress. Her parents have been giving her some beef over wanting to attend college out-of-dimension, but she'll text me more stuff about that later." When Lucas falls silent, I lightly elbow him in the side. "Don't you worry your head, she'll be fine. I'll see her again after she finishes her tour at Smash Uni tomorrow."

At this, both of us very hesitantly exchange a knowing glance. For a good reason. It's almost that time of year again.

"Are you-" I start.

"I would if I could, but the tuition's too expensive."

"That tuition's no joke," I agree. "50k plus a year? And just to study? No thanks. Honestly, you're the lucky one."

"How am I the lucky one."

"I'm turning eighteen soon," I groan. "I bet Marth's going to bust his ass recruiting me this year. Remember when he went all helicopter mom on Popo? And Popo was all like-" I give my best impression of a pompous frat boy. "Smoke weed everyday."

"To be fair, he does smoke weed everyday."

"Trust me, I know," I say fervently. "I'm so fucking glad that you don't. I swear to god, when I roomed with Popo, there was always this gross cloud of weed inside the apartment. I think I got high every time I stepped foot into the bathroom." I sneak Lucas a look. "You know, even if we ditch the nerd life, Master Hand did say that we could fill up our community service requirement in other ways."

"But you're still sticking to patrol duty."

"Right. Fighting crime and all." An ad plays on my screen, and I pause, watching another Geico commercial flash its 15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance, because I've forgotten to pay my Netflix dues and am too lazy to pay tonight for membership. Oh well. Free online pirating it is. "Lucas... I've been thinking. With Porky out there, maybe we should lay low for a bit. I heard that the new Starbucks across the street is hiring baristas, and... and Captain Falcon's out playing All Might from Boku no Hero Academia! I think he's looking for extras to air at the live-action anime firm-"

"While you're still set on patrol duty."

Frustrated, I run my fingers through my hair. "It's... I don't know, you know I spared his life in the end. And I fell for it. Like a dumbass. Porky's my responsibility, okay."

"We're from the same world," Lucas deadpans.

"Well, considering that Porky tried to play bomberman on the SkyTrain, I don't feel too safe with you running around too!"

"I'm just as in much danger if I work as a barista or as an extra on set. I'm not quitting patrol duty unless you do."

"Lucas," I groan. "Why do you always choose the worst times to be a stubborn ass?"

"I'd rather be a stubborn ass than return home one night to find you dead," Lucas says flatly.

"What? You know that we can't die here, I'd only get petrified-" I start, but Lucas lowers his head, refusing to meet my eyes. Defeated, I glance back at my laptop, where a now ad-free Moulin Rouge is ready on stand-by.

Well, so much for a chill movie night.

"We should watch the Championships live tomorrow," I say instead. "Samus and Bayonetta are in the lead. They pulled off some pretty sweet stunts. I think I might even try out some moves."

"Mmh."

Monosyllables? Oh boy, I've definitely made him upset.

"Oh, right!" In a last-ditch attempt to lighten up the mood, I grab the Bottega Louie box and push it into his face. "Happy three-day anniversary! I thought we should celebrate the best of our crackship."

"How romantic. Should I go grab the rose petals."

"Stop making fun of me, you dolt, how the hell am I supposed to know what couples do for an anniversary," I whine, stabbing the candles into the Chocolate Hazelnut Flocage, but am so relieved that the tension is broken.

Lucas shuffles over. "You should've told me so I would've prepared something too."

"You bought me cereal," I say matter-of-factly, and snap my fingers. "PK Fire." A small flame erupts from the tip of my thumb. Lighting the two colorful candles, I step back to admire my work. The more I look at it, the more this scene resembles a ratchet recreation of a romantic Disney movie, but as embarrassed I am, Lucas thankfully doesn't seem to mind. I don't think either of us are really into sappy shit anyway.

Reading the logo on the cake box, Lucas just looks a little overwhelmed. "You didn't have to go all out," Lucas says, realizing where I've bought the cake and now looking mortified. "We can split the cost-"

"Geez, Lucas, calm down. It's not like I bought you a friggin Lamborghini. I didn't go all out, I swear. Like look at this; the cake is barely bigger than your hand," I say, pointing at the sad, but delicious lump of chocolate. "Also I cashed in all my checks today, so I felt like treating everyone out. I bought everyone something while we hung out, so I might as well do the same for you."

My explanation eases his troubled expression somewhat. "I'll treat you out next time," he promises.

"Yeah, whatever. Stop stalling, I'm starving." I scoot over, eagerly sliding the cake over. "Now make a wish and blow out the candles."

"And then you get a turn."

"Yep."

Lucas takes a minute to muse over it. Then he blows out the candles, leaving us in sudden darkness. The only source of light is the speck of stars outside the open balcony.

Curious, I peer into his face. "What was your wish?"

The corner of his lips uplift slightly in a hint of a smile. "Not telling."

"What? Oh, come on," I whine and gripe, but sadly, today doesn't seem like one of those days Lucas is willing to spill. Instead, he relights the cake with an incantation of his own. The candles spark bright blue.

"Your turn," he says, and I shift my eyes over from the flickering candles to his face. The magical fire reflects soft dots of light off his eyes.

I swallow hard. Shit, the nerves are back. Again. To no one's surprise. "That reminds me," I say in a upbeat tone, hoping that my voice isn't as nervous as it sounds. "You arrived on time today."

"I did," Lucas says quietly. His eyes look brighter blue than usual in the dark.

It's my turn to fluster. I feel my own face turn hot and gulp, but the sound's too audible in the silence. "Let's eat," I say hastily, blowing out the candles and plucking them out of the cake. Except we end up reaching for the cake knife at the same time, our hands awkwardly bumping into each other and our faces much too close-

So I do something incredibly stupid. Pinning his hand onto the ground, I angle my face over.

And kiss him.

Kinda. The timing's off, so I miss, clumsily bumping into his jaw and brushing my lips against the shell of his left ear.

Either way, it barely lasts a second. We jump apart, faces flushed, cheeks red.

I want to slap myself for pulling such a bold stunt, but the devilish half of me is too pleased to see how flustered I've made him. "U-um, sorry, I'm still into... tilted into you," I stammer, scooting away, but Lucas grips my arm.

"It's okay, this... this is okay," Lucas says firmly, though he sounds more like he's reassuring himself than reassuring me. The back of his ears are still flushed pink. "Let's watch the movie."

I stare at him in surprise. Lucas didn't push me away this time. Shit, now I want to grab his face and kiss him stupid, but I know that I've already slipped up here. I need to take things easy. Go steady. Go slow. One step at a time. One base at a time.

I'm not exactly sure what we are. Or what exactly this is.

But it's okay.

Lucas said it was okay.

Washing the cream off the candles, we split the cake, and I scarf down barely a third of my slice before I end up giving the rest of my half to Lucas. Though he furrows his brows in an unspoken question, I can't miss the longing look in his eyes, and when I slug him in the shoulder to take it, he seems all too pleased to do so, taking his time to chew through my discarded cake. Granted, it's a pretty good cake, and the chocolate tastes richer than liquid gold, but after eating sweets all day, I don't think my poor stomach can handle any more sugar.

Though it does have room for popcorn. My stomach always has room for cheddar popcorn. And grilled medium-rare steak. And potatoes. Warm, glorious oven-baked potatoes drizzled in golden butter that melts in your mouth-

Okay, I like food. Don't judge me.

I don't who started it, but somewhere during Satine's seductive twist on Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, the blanket fortress rolls out, and we camp out on the couch together, huddled in a mess of my bed sheets in an attempt to avoid the chill of the apartment.

And let me tell you, the food coma is definitely real. While I made myself busy fantasizing about food porn, drunk on the thought of eating all the rich meals I missed out on during training season, I think I ate too much cheddar popcorn, but I can't bring myself to care because there's this happy buzz in my mind. Unbelievably comfortable and full, involuntarily, without thinking, I slowly sink my head into Lucas's shoulder.

And in response, Lucas gently rests his head on top of mine with a sleepy hum, his throat reverberating in a low vibrato.

Chapter Text

~Prologue~

"Why are you limping?"

"I tripped over the stairs."

"Did the eighth graders pick on you again?"

"It wasn't them this time. I told you, I'm fine."

"But your leg... looks like it hurts... a lot."

"Ness, don't cry."

"I'm... I'm gonna beat them up!"

"Are you nuts. There were ten of them, and they almost broke your arm last week."

"I still would've won," Ness says stubbornly, wobbling under my weight. But from the way he's sulking, I'm sure that his mother's scolding is fresh on his mind. Ness has a particularly bad habit of sticking his nose where it didn't belong. Even now, his knuckles are red and inflamed, and the bruises around his neck look molten purple.

So I carry his school bag for him.

We reach a fork in the sidewalk. When I return his bag, Ness stretches his arms in complaint. "Man, we have so much math homework due tomorrow. It's so many problems. Like, a mountain full of problems."

"I probably won't finish them."

"Why not?"

"I lost my math textbook," I mumble.

"That's okay, you can take mine," Ness says, opening his bag and pulling his own textbook out.

"What if I lose it too-"

Ness pushes the book into my reluctant hands. "I know you. You won't lose it."

.

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.

The posters of his smiling face were everywhere.

Savior of Onett. The Chosen One. Teenage Idol of the Century.

Within a few months of ending his quest, Ness's life changed. Joining the ranks of Master Hand's Original Twelve, he quickly became the youngest celebrity of the decade. For a while, it was impossible to pay Ness a visit because of the paparazzi and reporters camping outside his house.

It didn't stop him from sneaking out at night. Insisting me to HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, he teleported to the baseball field halfway across town, where his hug (more like a tackle) sent me flying off my feet.

"Haha! Look at you, you've grown taller!" Ness exclaims, pressing his palm into my head. "But I'm still taller than you."

"I'm still growing," I insist, looking up into his face in dismay.

"It's okay, you'll always be younger than me." When Ness finally sees it fit to release me, he releases a pent-up groan. "You wouldn't believe how hard it was to teleport under my mom's nose. Everyone keeps bothering me."

"You saved the world," I remind him.

"Only because it had to be saved." Ness falls back into the grass. "Dang it, why did you quit school? Now class is gonna be all sad and boring without you."

"I didn't really have a choice. Oh, right, here-"

"Dude... Is that my textbook?!"

"You never showed up to school the next day, because you went on your quest, but I tried to keep it safe-"

"I totally forgot about that! Thanks. You didn't have to return it today."

"Might as well."

"That makes two of us, I guess. About school. I think I'll stay another year to make my mom happy, then quit 7th grade."

I sit down next to him. "I heard Master Hand offered you a place on the roster."

"Yeah." Ness stares into the sky. "Wow... I haven't been here in three months. How long has it been since we last talked anyway?"

"You called me last week in Saturn Valley."

"It's not the same."

"I'm glad you're home," I say quietly.

"Same. You have no idea how much I wished BuzzBuzz let me bring you along. He was all like two boys and one girl will help you save the world, but when I brought you up, he was all like Lucas isn't a part of your quest, dumbass." Ness shook his head with a laugh. "You never told me you were psychic. Maybe that would've changed BuzzBuzz's mind. When did you find out about your powers?"

"Sometime after you left," I mumble.

Ness suddenly sits up. "I want to see you do magic!"

I grimace. "It's embarrassing. I can't control my telepathy-"

"TELEPATHY?" Ness yells with glee. "What? How? No wait, eye contact, isn't it? Can you still read my mind if I look away?"

"Only if your thoughts are loud."

"How about now?"

"I don't think it makes a difference. You've always been easy to read."

Clearly put out, Ness puffs his cheeks out and says in a high funny voice, "Oh, look at me, my name is Lucas and I'm too cool for my best friend."

I lightly slug him in the shoulder. "You're the famous one."

"Hey, you have powers! That means you should apply."

"Apply to where."

"The new smash roster!"

"I'm not a hero."

"Pbbff, aren't we all."

"I'm not," I insist. "Saving people? I can barely save myself from tripping over the sidewalk."

"We can be famous together. As new smashers. Ness and Lucas, fighting crime!"

"Don't get ahead of yourself."

Ness's grin widens. "You'll never know until you try."

My broken family. My father's debt.

Society was already out to get me. I supposed that I had nothing else to lose.

How very wrong I was.


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~Chapter Twenty-Two~

Nothing Else to Lose

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.

.


"We're dating."

One roundtable. Three people.

The silence after Ness's declaration is painful.

Ness's mom staggers to her feet.

Sensing that something has gone terribly wrong, Ness reaches for her arm. "Mom-"

"Lucas, I thought you were a good boy," she finally says. "But now, I see I was wrong."

I'm sorry.

"I told you to take care of my son, but you-" she struggles with the words. "I sent my son to deliver soup to you when you got sick. I let you two play together in the same room. I let you two sleep into the same bunk bed when you were little, but after all this time, I never suspected that you'd- you pretended to be friends with my son, and you-" A broken sob. "My son... why did it have to be my son?"

I'm so sorry.

"I never should've let you into my home!"

 

"Mom, it's not like that," Ness pleads. "Just listen for one second-"

"-...It was you." Ness's mother raises her head to look straight at me. "You. You dragged my son into this. Filthy, disgusting freak. Burn in hell!"

"Lucas, you should leave. She's taking it in worse than I thought-"

Then wrenching her hand back in unbridled fury, his mother slaps me awake.

.

.

.

"In light of his recent homosexual scandal, Ness's popularity has only hiked-"

"Fans were left in shock when teenage idol Ness openly claimed to be bisexual last month-"

"-has entered a sinful affair with his fellow roommate-"

"-ternoon, the child idol was spotted with Paula Polestar outside Grande Central Park. What was the real reason behind her visit? Will this love affair become a love triangle? Stay tuned for more shipping conspiracies at -"

"Hey, turn that thing down, will you?" Ness says lightly, walking into the living room. "It's giving me a headache."

"They're talking about you."

"Let them talk. That's all they do."

I turn the TV off. Every single channel. Every single hit in the latest celebrity stream.

This is the world we live in.

"Lucas! Lucas, holy shit, it's Christmas," Ness yells, running around in excited circles like a kid hyped up on sugar. "Presents. Cake. It's Christmas woohoo!"

But this is too.

I stand corrected. I guess reality can't be too cruel.

"I'll give you your present later since we have to- woah. Someone looks dead. What happened, did you hear Santa Claus get stuck in the chimney?" Ness teases when I fumble for my tea mug.

"Guess so. What time's the reservation?"

"Eleven today. Why?" Ness looks at me incredulously. "Oh no, are you still worrying over my mom? I already told you not to worry. My mom knows about us, and she's cool with it."

"You never said that she was coming here a day early," I say, aghast.

"Yeah, but only to tour the city with my sister. But Christmas, Christmas Eve, what's the difference?"

The difference?

Sometimes the kindest of people are the scariest of all.

For some reason, my hands won't stop shaking, and I'm having difficulty pouring my coffee, splashing it over the rim of the cup. When Ness told his mother of our so-called relationship, she must have been furious. She has every right to despise me. I owe her so much, and have done so little in return.

I'm not ready to face her.

"Tracy's here too," Ness adds with a comical groan.

Great. Even better.

I lower my voice. "But your mom's Christian-"

"Correction - mildly." As if catching onto my expression, Ness gives me a sheepish shrug. "My mom grew up in a super catholic family, but she's never been too strict about making me go to church. She likes us to form our own conclusions ourselves."

His phone rings. As if shocked, he jumps to his feet. "Shit, I'm late! I should've teleported Paula to the SkyTrain station five minutes ago-"

"Don't keep her waiting."

"Too late!" Ness chirps, struggling his shoes on before waving me goodbye. "I'll be right back in half an hour, so go ahead and dress, okay?" Giving a response in kind, I watch him leave before downing the rest of my coffee.

At the very least, I should look presentable for the dreaded meeting with the in-laws, so I end up taking a quick shower before combing my hair.

Since movie night on Saturday, Ness hasn't made another move. While he's started slinging his arm over my shoulders again, he doesn't hug me. He doesn't touch me. All in all, Ness is treating me the way he normally does, except that this time, he's giving me space to sort out my thoughts.

Between my head and heart, I know which is the more reasonable.

But looking into the mirror, I can only see my twin brother's face swimming there.

I'm turning reckless.

I press the comb onto the bathroom counter so tightly that the bristles dig into my palm. It doesn't matter what I want, not when what I want is not what I need. I need to keep Ness's mom happy, I need to keep my dad happy, I need to keep Ness happy. The longer I drag my indecision along, the unhappier we'll all be.

I've already caused irreversible damage to Ness's reputation.

I have to end it before I do any more.

But when I hear the door beep open and Ness clambers into the bedroom cheerfully chattering away, I can't bring myself to say those words to his face. Not now. Not on Christmas. Another time.

I'm still the same coward I was nine years ago.

"You don't have to worry," Ness says as if to reassure me, anxiously watching me button on my shirt. "My mom already knows who you are. Besides, it's not like we're actually dating yet." As if realizing what he's said, Ness starts to stammer, his face turning bright red. "Not that I'd mind dating you, you're... I-I just..."

I grin. He's so obvious.

I wonder how it took so long to notice. The way he smiles. The way he stammers. The latter, especially. Ness is a naturally smooth talker. It isn't like him to be flustered out of words so easily.

I've taken him for granted.

"...I hate ties," Ness grunts instead, hurrying into the bathroom.

His words are not unsupported. I almost strangle Ness when I accidentally make his knot too tight, but surprisingly, Ness doesn't have much trouble with ties, giving me a passable Windsor.

"I've been in the celeb business longer than you have, remember?" With a noisy crow of delight, he flexes his arms to strike a ridiculous pose against the mirror. "Shit, look at us, we're on PK fire."

I can tell that he's trying to lift my mood, but it's honestly the worst pun I've heard by far.

"Narcissist," I chortle, pushing past him.

"Hey, I heard that!"

Like a hyperactive ball of energy, Ness does a happy jig all the way down the stairs to the limo, and seeing him goof off makes my mind lighter. Ness always had a way of lifting heavy thoughts from my head.

"Maybe we should ditch the dinner reception with the sponsors tonight," Ness suggests once we've strapped ourselves into the passenger seats. "I'd rather spend Christmas watching Home Alone on TV than listening to some boring speech Master Hand came up with in the shower."

"The sponsors did fund the games. We have to thank them in person."

"Must be nice to be rich. Then again, I can't complain about my salary raise." Ness spares a glance my way, and his eyes soften. "Hey, you still nervous?"

I swallow down the lump in my throat. "I can't say that I'm not."

"You take everything seriously. It'll be all right. My mom made a reservation at a high-end breakfast place because she knew people were going to be around-"

"There'll be people?" I croak.

"We'll have our own private room, so it'll be okay," Ness says, frantically waving his hands around. "It's just, when we walk out of the limo-"

I shake my head. "Another crowd of your fans. Exactly what we needed."

"Shut up, you dork," Ness retorts. "I would've teleported us, but I figured that we shouldn't get ash on our clothes if we're wearing them tonight. Anyways, my mom would've thrown a right fit."

"I can't believe she convinced Master Hand to overturn your House Arrest."

"My mom can be very persuasive when she gets angry," Ness says solemnly.

I don't deny that.

Reclining his head, Ness looks out of the tinted window. "Lucas... I won't pretend to know what's been on your mind lately, but I know that you're under a lot of pressure. If you ever need to talk about something, I'm always here."

Talk about something...

You like him, don't you?

No son of mine is a fucking faggot.

I never should've let you into my home.

Lucas, I'm so happy. I'm so much happier with Paula.

"Thanks," I say sincerely, and when Ness breaks into a smile and squeezes my hand, I find that I don't mind as much. Though I probably should. His hand is kind of hot and sweaty, but I find myself gripping his hand tighter. I can't let go.

Because I've finally found someone I like, Claus.

And he likes me back.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

When the limo peels into the "Beverly Hills Breakfast and Burger," fans have already gathered around in growing excitement as our bodyguards clear a path to the restaurant. The moment Ness jumps out, the screams intensify. When he smiles, his teeth are bright against the morning sun.

All eyes are on him.

The entire world might as well be looking at him.

Suddenly I can't breathe. The crowd distorts before my eyes. All I see are a sea of hands and feet, hands grabbing, eyes snapping wide open, mouths opening and closing-

Ness pops his head back in. "Hey, need a hand?" he jokes, eyes bright.

My mind clears. The restaurant. We're here to meet Ness's mom.

Breathing in, I grip onto his hand like a drowning survivor. "Don't let go."

"I don't plan to," Ness says seriously, grabbing hold of my wrists and pulling me out into the open.

The walk to the restaurant lasts an eternity. All the time, Ness stays smiling at my side, gracing the crowd with a quick autograph or two. When a waitress ushers us in and leads us to the reserved rooms, I finally regain all the feeling in my hands.

"I can't believe we're already this famous," Ness says, letting go of my hand to pour water. "By the way, your poker face is lit. I wish I could give no fucks about life."

"What are you talking about, I'm just not good with crowds," I groan.

"It didn't show. Lucky bastard. You don't have to do anything but stand there to look cool," Ness complains. "I mean, do you know how much effort it takes for me to reach that cool status? Talking. Lots of sweet-talking."

Privately, I think that Ness is downplaying both his own popularity and my social anxiety, but I'm suddenly preoccupied by a voice from the not-so empty seats in front of us.

"You two are so gross," Tracy says, but she's smiling wider than I've ever seen her smile.

Which means, that the person sitting next to her is...

Ness's mom isn't smiling. For the first time I've known her, her expression is terrifying, completely devoid of any emotion. "Lucas. I heard that you're dating my son."

"Mom-" Ness begins, but she silences him with a hard look.

Here it is. The moment of truth. I can't bring myself to meet her eyes. I'm afraid to read her thoughts. My cheek tingles from the phantom blow; I can still feel her furious fingernails rake across my skin.

Ness gives my hand an encouraging squeeze under the table. I can feel his chest rise and fall next to me.

Warm. Reassuring.

"I'm sorry," I manage. "We didn't mean to hide it from you-"

To my bewilderment, she and Tracy burst out laughing. "I knew I could break that pokerface," Ness's mom smirks, and a hot wave of mortification prickles up my neck.

"Geez, Mom, I told you not to scare him," Ness groans.

"All in the name of good fun, dear," his mom says, finally catching her breath, then opens her arms with a gentler voice. "Come on, Lucas, give this no-good lady a hug." Relieved, I lean over, and when she reaches across the table and wraps her arms around me, all of my insecurities melt away.

With a deep exhale, she presses me closer. "Oh, I'm so relieved it's you," Ness's mom breathes. "I'm sorry for all the horrid things I said last time you came over. Ness told me that you were already facing hardship at home, and on top of that... oh, Lucas, you must've been so scared-"

Shit my shoulders won't stop shaking and I feel my own voice slipping through the cracks. "I'm sorry-"

"Don't apologize, you've done nothing wrong." Gently gripping the sides of my shoulders, Ness's mom gives me a satisfied smile, then tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear. "When Ness first brought you over to our place back in third grade, I always thought how lucky I was to have gained another son. So don't apologize, not when you are the greatest gift God could've given us. You will always be welcome at our home."

Her acceptance was more than I could've wished for.

My eyes start to sting.

Something nudges me in the side, and when I glance down, blinking a little rapidly because there's a feels trip stuck in my eye, Ness triumphantly beams up at me. I told you it'd work out his expression reads.

"Great, so Lucas is an angel. Nothing new," Tracy drawls, dipping her pancakes into syrup. "Ness on the other hand-"

"You shut up!" Ness starts furiously.

"If you're older, then act the part," his mom says sternly.

Successfully escaping from admonishment, Tracy breaks into a wide smirk. "Lucas, whenever Ness starts bothering you, don't be afraid to let me or my mom know-"

"I don't bother Lucas!"

"We should hear it from the source himself," Ness's mom says, her eyes shining with her son's mischief. "Well?"

"Er..." Hard-pressed by looks on all sides, I raise my hands in surrender. "Hard pass."

Ness scowls. "You dolt, I held your hand when you totally froze up in the limo."

"I have no recollection of this incident whatsoever," I say innocently.

"I, you- aUGH, you jerk! I'm the bestest boyfriend anyone can ever have-"

"And this is why he's been single for so long," Tracy comments, shaking her head. "Utterly hopeless."

"Come back when you actually get yourself a boyfriend."

"Lucas, how much did my brother pay you to-"

"I didn't PAY him to be my boyfriend, you twat!"

"Like I said, Lucas, I'm so glad you two are dating. Seriously, my brother acts like a total fuckboy sometimes, but he really is smitten with you-"

"Ness, Tracy! Language!"

"I'm not smitten!"

He's lying, Tracy mouths at me from across the table, and Ness throws another fit.

His family is noisy and loud. Meeting his mother's eyes from across the table, I secretly grin and take a bite of chocolate pancake.

I think I can get used to this.

When the meal is finished and the hefty tip is paid, Tracy leads her mother away to the restroom. Taking advantage of their absence, Ness finds the time to enact his rightful vengeance on me.

"I can't believe you sold me out," Ness grumbles. "Honestly, I don't see what my mom sees in you. Angel? Talk about giving me an aneurysm."

"It's not my fault you keep making things up-"

"I wasn't making anything up, and you know it!"

"Memory loss? Maybe your old age is catching up to you," I suggest.

"Now everyone thinks that I'm a liar, you two-faced jerk!" Easily ticked off, Ness throws himself onto me, and grinning so widely that my heart feels like it's about to burst, I struggle to avoid his headlock. He pulls me over by the neck, and when I playfully puff up my cheeks, he traps my face with his hands. He presses a little too hard though, and air ends up exploding out of my cheeks with a wet pbbllt. Ness scrunches up his forehead in complaint. "Ewww, you just spit on my face."

"Common sense, don't press on puffed cheeks," I try to pull my head free out of his arms, but when his headlock tightens around my neck, I notice his eyes light up in a mischievous gleam. "Oh no, help, I'm stuck-"

"You need to pay for the toll."

"Ness, I can't walk around like this," I laugh, awkwardly hobbling along like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

"I don't think you heard me." Ness slyly presses his forehead to mine and lowers his voice. I catch a sliver of his purple irises through his half-lidded eyes. "I said you need to pay for the toll."

His hands feel warm on my face, and I fluster. "My wallet's in my pocket-"

I should've seen that kiss coming.

Easy as that, Ness lets go. "My mom's here," he blurts out like a dazed idiot, then takes off like a sputtering rocket with a skip in its step.

What a weirdo.

But feeling the pleased flush prickle down my arms, I realize that I can't ever win against him. No matter what I do, he somehow ends up at my side as if he's always belonged there.

He really is something else, that Ness.

Once we wave his family off to their own set of bodyguards (to my chagrin, Ness starts squabbling with his sister as we leave, and his mother pinches them both in the ear for misbehaving), in no time, we're out of the car and racing each other up the stairs of the Mansion.

"This... was a bad idea," Ness groans, grabbing a stitch at his chest once we've finally hit the tenth floor suites.

I've already given up on standing, twitching over on my knees like a dying spider. "I ate too much," I wheeze.

"Well, we both know that I won."

"A likely story. I took the stairs three at a time while you were snailing your way up-"

"Not everyone has long legs, doofus," Ness retorts, staggering to grab the wall before almost colliding into three figures walking down the hallway.

Catching sight of our pitiful forms, Ike raises his eyebrows. Equally tickled silly, Roy clutches his ribs and breaks out into laughter. "Holy shit, did you two race each other up the stairs?"

"Boys," Marth scoffs.

"Come back here and say it to my face," Ness yells, but he's so out of breath that it sounds like a dying wheeze.

Marth shakes his head, turning to his companions. "I tell you, adolescence is truly a frightening beast."

"Indeed," Ike says.

"I have to side with Marth on this one. You two are terrifying," Roy says, glancing down the grand royal-red staircase in stupefied awe. "Completely crazy. Now I owe Shulk 10G for betting against his premonition..."

Talking amongst themselves, they leave us to suffer alone in the corridor.

When I recover the breath to stand, I haul my dead feet towards the mail slot. Ness follows, venting out his displeasure.

"Who even bets against Shulk's future vision?" Ness says furiously once the three Fire Emblem characters are out of earshot. "And since when did those three hang out together?"

"Beats me," I respond automatically, sorting out my mail. Each Smasher can request mail from selective addresses. Letters from home, for example, would be directly dropped off into the apartments. For Ness, our mail system helps filter out letters he wants from home and friends from the rest of the pile.

Given my obscurity, I get very little fan mail, but with my cartridge on the loose, I find myself picking at the straws. When I fumble for my card key, Ness nervously eyes my hand. "Careful, we probably got a shit ton of hatemail this week."

"It'll be okay, I don't get as much fan mail as you do," I reassure him, swiping my cardkey. With a beep, the handle swings open, and I start sorting out the mail. Fan mail offering condolences over my mom's death. Some hate mail. Christmas sales. Requests from advertising companies once I turn of age. As mundane as they might be, their warm sentiment is appreciated, and I press the former into my pocket. I'll bring them over to the Buddhist temple the next time I visit my mom.

"Gay chink?" Predictably worked up, Ness takes out his anger on my hatemail by violently tearing one of the offensive letters into half. "Why are you reading this stuff? It's all toxic shit-"

"You're one to talk. Someone sent you dick pics last week."

"This is why no one except Sonic reads fan mail."

I toss another Dillards 50% off! into the trash. "Just throw it away, Ness. It's not worth getting worked up over."

Sulking, Ness slams it into the trashcan.

It looks like my dad hasn't sent me any mail, but I know that his silence is a solid statement. My heart sinks. I'll have to clarify things with him later, say that the shipping scandal was unfounded, and hopefully convince him that I'm not really dating my best friend. Yet.

But there's one letter that strikes out the most.

A letter wrapped in a golden envelope.

An unknown sender.

Addressed to me.

I open up the envelope. All the letters are cut and glued from various magazines:

EVERYONE'S WAITING FOR YOU, LUCAS. WAITING TO THROW ROCKS AT YOU, AND SPIT ON YOU, AND MAKE YOUR LIFE HELL.
WHO'S EVERYONE?
EVERYONE YOU LOVE.

...Where have I heard this before?

Ness grimly grabs me by the wrist. "Lucas, I think that's enough for today. We checked the mail. We didn't find anything related to the cartridge-"

Suddenly the funky taste of shrooms won't leave my mouth. "The cartridge. This has to be a quote from the cartridge."

"That came from your cartridge?" Ness says in disbelief.

"I know I've heard this before. It has to be from my past." I grab the letter and re-read its contents as if almost willing myself to remember, but to my frustration, the glimmer of recognition has already faded out of reach.

Tanetane.

Tanetane Something.

"Tanetane?" Ness repeats when I bring it up. "You think a guy named Tanetane said this?"

"I don't remember his last name."

"That's odd. It sounds more like a place than a person." Ness peers over my shoulder to frown at the letter. "Do you think this Tanetane person sent this letter to you?"

"Who knows."

"And why would Mr. Tanetane send you letters now?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe he'll send you more letters. If he does, I hope this is the worst of it."

"This might be Tanetane's quote, but I'm sure that he's not the person behind the letter. It's the person who stole my cartridge. They're two different people." I impatiently rub my forehead. "I don't care what he sends me, I just want to remember."

"Your game is messed up," Ness says darkly.

I lower my voice. "Do you think Porky's behind all this?"

"It's a good guess. Porky's vengeful, but he's not stupid. He knows how to cover his tracks well." Ness turns away with a grimace. "But we shouldn't jump to conclusions. The police haven't found proof that Porky was behind the SkyTrain, so he's definitely undercover. Doesn't help that the Amnesty Act protects him-"

"The Amnesty Act?" I echo.

"Right, you started Brawl when the bill was passed." Ness sheepishly rubs the back of his neck. "Smash City is the City of Second Chances. That means anyone holding criminal records before Subspace is given a fresh pass. Their previous criminal history is erased. That's why you see Eggman loitering in the front gates every morning. Haven't you noticed him? He's even outside right now."

We drop all conversation, and ah, yes, I vaguely hear it. The sound of a triumphant middle-aged man crowing at the top of his lungs like a fire siren. Carried by the wind, a faint cry of, Aha! Finally, after all my years of trying, I've found Sonic the Hedgehog! travels across the Mansion, and from the window, we watch in amusement as a distraught Eggman demands re-entry when security turns him away.

"Has he ever figured out that the shouting might've given him away," I note.

"Course he does. Sonic thinks that Eggman's a nuisance, but they fight more like frenemies than rivals. Unfortunately for us, Pokey holds a nasty grudge." Ness's eyes turn bitter. "I don't understand how he's aged so much. But I'm not surprised. Porky might have been a victim of fate, but he's always ended up making the wrong choices until the very end."

Sensing his disquiet, I nudge him in the side for encouragement.

It seems to do the trick. Ness catches my eye, and breaks into a smile. "But I'd like to think that if he was anything like you, then he would've turned out all right."

"I don't think it's fair to compare him to anyone. I didn't have much, but I grew up with good parents."

"Now you're being modest."

"I made choices that could've ruined my life, but I was lucky to have met you," I say softly, stopping to beep us into our apartment. "Porky didn't know better. Children of abusive parents tend to become abusers themselves."

"Never thought I'd see the day you'd be sympathetic towards my archnemesis."

"You just brought up a fair point."

"Bringing up fair points is your job," he says, and the minute I latch the door shut, Ness suddenly wraps his arms around me and buries his face into my back.

I glance down at him in surprise. "Hey, what gives-"

"Can I say something selfish? Even if things don't work out... I just wanted you to know..." His entire body starts shaking. "I love you. I love you so much. I'm sorry I lied, and I promise I won't do it again. We'll figure things out. Together. You don't have to tell your dad anything until you're ready, but just... don't leave me."

I quietly loosen his fingers. "Don't cry, Ness."

"I love you."

"I know."

And when he grabs me over by the face to kiss me, I don't resist.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

After another shower and change into formal wear, Ness doesn't bring the matter back up. Acting as if nothing had happened, he cheerfully waves me goodbye before heading off to his prep team for a makeover. I smile. Knowing how long it takes to do my hair, I'll see him later tonight.

As bubbly as bubble bath, Phosphora whips out a hand mirror. "All done! Here you go, gorgeous," she sings, and murmuring a thanks, I gingerly set the mirror aside. If vampires are allergic to garlic, then mirrors are mine.

This act doesn't go unnoticed by the deity. "Self-conscious? I don't blame you. No one can beat Pit's attractive face," she sighs dreamily. "I'm sure you've noticed it by now."

"Can't say I have."

"That's because you earthly morons lack taste. I mean, Ness? Over Pitt? Really? If that's who you were going to be gay for, you were better off single." Phosphora taps her chin in thought. "Though I can see why you chose him. Ness is one of the Original Twelve, isn't he? I bet he's totally loaded."

I roll my eyes. "Oh you've caught me. Fame and riches. What I truly desire from life."

"I know! I swear, it's all girls my age ever think about. Stupid cunts." Phosphora darts around. She's stuck in a punk rock phase; her entire left half is tattooed with blue-yellow lightning bolts. "I mean, all guys ever think about are boobs and butts-"

"I'm sure we manage to think of other things on the side," I say wryly.

"You're no fun," she sniffs, and with a jolt, I've realized that I've spoken out loud. "I can never get under your skin. You and... what's-his-face? Red. He just sits there and says nothing. Most boys would've been seething in rage by now! Well, except for Pitt. He's such a sweetheart."

"Pitt works for Palutena," I smirk.

As expected, this gets on her nerves. "Palutena's a cow," Phosphora shrieks, slamming down her hand mirror. "She's so old and fat and ugly!"

"Phosphora!" Palutena says indignantly, her heels clicking over from her prep station. Her green hair is glistening with freshly-applied gel.

"Yeah, I called you a cow. What are you gonna do about it," Phosphora snickers.

"Wiser deities than you have been banned from the skies for foul language-"

"You are not welcome here! Now Moo-ve along, Palutena," she sings, flapping her hands away.

This doesn't bode too well for Phosphora. After given a stern lecture by Palutena who tells the teenage deity off for her behavior, Phosphora sulks at my side. "You're the worst. You knew she was in the stall next to us, didn't you?"

"I had no idea," I say innocently.

"You're lucky I kind of like you." Hearing another voice echo across the atrium, she looks up into the mirror then shrieks, almost dropping her comb in panic. "It's Pitt! Here," she says quickly, thrusting the hand mirror into my hands and releasing her hair from a spiky ponytail. "How do I look?"

"How am I supposed to know. You're the makeover artist."

"And you're supposed to be gay," she retorts, impatiently snatching the mirror back and pushing me out of my chair. "Oh, nevermind. Now if anyone asks you who did your make up, give them my business card. Pitt dearest," she calls out, waving her hands. "Yoohoo, over here!"

The afternoon passes in a blur. Captain of the Mansion's SWAT team, Chrom barks out orders to station guards at all entrances, his winter cape billowing behind his every demand. Thinly grasping a metal detector, Tingle clears the receptionist desk for itineraries.

I end up helping the other Smashers set up dining tables in the Main Atrium. Wherever I look, red ribbons lavishly spell Merry Christmas in wide cursive loops. Under the endless ceiling of chandeliers, porcelain dishes and silver cutlery glitter around each tabletop. In the center of the room, a fresh pine tree twinkles, showing off its dress of colorful baubles and glowing fairy lights. When I see Master Hand float past with the Original Twelve across stage, lecturing them on their individual speeches, Ness catches my eye with a grin. Flustering, I turn away, almost knocking over a wine glass.

On every annual Christmas Dinner, Master Hand lowers security to allow sponsors to enter Smash Mansion. This means wards that had been in place are stripped for a few hours. While no one outside the mansion is notified of these changes, Master Hand is always testy of lowering the barrier to strangers.

His caution is well-received. Nothing has ever happened over the past few years, and no one is stupid enough to try.

Even with Porky on the loose, I can't help but feel at ease.

When the final preparations have been made, Master Hand returns with the Original Twelve in tow. He's donned in a silk glove topped with a tiny Santa hat on his pinky for the fancy occasion, and beside him in identical wear, his brother twitches erratically.

"Smashers, the evening is late, and the night is early. We have toiled through another year of hard work, yet I find myself dragging you away from family and friends on this Christmas night. Leave a warm impression on our guests. Treat our sponsors kindly. We are villains, heroes, anyone and anything in-between. Smash City is the City of Second Chances, a city of love, and we must embrace those values to heart..." His unseen eyes linger on Ness. "Above all, enjoy the festivities. You are the stars of tonight's show. Merry Christmas to you all!"

His words are met with warm-hearted approval.

Suddenly his brother interrupts the applause with a shriek, "bLOOdY HEll, bROTher! WHeN wiLL YoU sTOP sUGARcOatiNg THe TRuTH WiTH yOUr HAlf-WIttED NoNSEnsE?" Pointing at the elegant pitchers of lemon water on each table, he breaks into a hysterical cackle. "wHEre tHe hECk iS tHe WiNe? LEt'S aLL GeT wAStED-!"

In an amusing fit of mortification, Master Hand drags his brother off the stage, no doubt to admonish him on proper manners, and a ripple of laughter travels across the crowd.

Then Tingle rings the bell for guests to enter, and when the jazzy symphony of trumpets and piano softly plays in the background, we disperse to find our assigned seats in the sea of white tablecloths. Two Smashers per table. Nervously, I replace the card labeled Lucas on my seat and glance at the twelve empty chairs on stage.

Already chattering away with a smile, Ness shakes an old man's hand in welcome, leading him through the doors. Any trace of messy hair is gone with his tattered baseball cap. His hair shining under the lights, Ness looks unusually well-groomed for the occasion.

Awkwardly tugging on my collar, I make myself busy with the itinerary. Master Hand's introductory speech. Dinner and Q&A with the Twelve. The Christmas Dance. I can't rely on Ness's social skills to save the day. He'll be stuck with the rest of the Twelve all throughout dinner.

I'll just have to survive until the dance.

"Man, Lucas, I keep bumping into you," Popo says cheerfully, taking his seat next to me, and I almost jump out of my skin.

"I thought Red-"

"I stole his seat. He wasn't too thrilled about the change, but I like the refreshments on this table better," Popo winks, already pouring himself a glass of Italian white wine. "Hey, if anyone asks, I'm drinking water."

I'm doomed.

As if catching something from the corner of his eyes, Popo grins and sends a flirty wave towards the stage.

I glance over. All of the Twelve are still occupied with greeting their guests. "Do you recognize someone?"

"Nah, just repaying a favor for an old friend." Popo slaps me in the back. "You look so serious. Cheer up! I won't get you drunk."

At this point, a breathtaking blonde in a sparkling red Jessica Rabbit dress makes her way to our table. The sleeveless garment swishes around her heels like a mermaid's tail. "Hello, boys. What a beautiful Christmas evening," she says throatily, a thick french accent on her voice.

Instantly, Popo leaps out of his seat. "Certainly, Madame Jeanne. Allow me to show you your seat."

Madame Jeanne breaks into a wide smile. "Charming as always, Popo."

"Only for you, Madame."

I resist the urge to roll my eyes. Kiss up.

"You are Lucas?" Madame Jeanne asks when I shake her elegant gloved hands and answer in positive. "Bayonetta has spoken very highly of you."

"Er... she has?"

"Oh yes. She says that you are very intelligent."

Taken aback, I feel the back of my neck burn. My face probably looks ridiculously mortified, because Popo is busy stifling a laugh into his arm. "I-I'm flattered," I stammer.

"Ah, speak of the devil! I see Bayonetta herself. Stay strong in hard times, my dear," Madame Jeanne says affectionately. She kisses me twice on each cheek, then waves me adieu, leaving me stunned in place.

"I'm telling Ness."

I groan. "Don't."

"Yeah well, if you don't mind me, I'm going to go and greet all the ladies before they're all taken," Popo teases, cheekily blowing me a joking kiss. "Adieu, Lucas!"

Shaking my head, I return to greeting and seating sponsors. Thankfully, no one tries to kiss me, platonically or otherwise, and by the time it's all over, I wade through the sea of tables to my seat. It's easy to spot my place, because I quickly catch the tell-tale chestnut color of Popo's hair, and when I seat myself between him and an old gray-haired man with tinted blue skin, the man suddenly latches onto my wrist.

"Lucas," he wheezes.

It's impossible not to recognize the aged face in front of me.

My own face closes up. "Porky Minch."

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

A voice interrupts our intense stare-down. "Man, I'm hungry," Popo complains loudly, grabbing Porky's glass. "Mr. Minch, would you like some wine?"

Porky easily lets go. "Don't mind if I do," he wheezes.

I grip my hand and will myself to stop shaking. "What are you doing here?"

"That's Master Porky to you. Remember, I'm a sponsor now." His gloating smile widens. "Lucas, I have both money and power. For someone who has neither, I expect you to know your place."

The appetizers roll out.

"So Porky, what have you been up to after Subspace?" Popo asks, casually picking up his cranberry crostini. "I've heard that you've been relatively successful in the business world."

"After Subspace? I rebuilt my funds. My father was incompetent, so I took over the family business." Porky gives into an unpleasant laugh that sounds more like a wheeze. "But really, I'm still a child at heart. I love to play with my toys."

"I can see that. You do own a toy factory," Popo agrees.

"I'm an avid collector. A huge Earthbound fan."

Underneath the table cloth, his hand rests on my thigh. Ignoring him, I try to shake it off, but when his hand crawls up too close for comfort, I'm forced to stop. "Can I help you," I ask pointedly.

"I don't think Lucas likes me very much."

Still smiling, Popo leans over. "That's probably because your hand is heading a bit south," he says, and Porky removes his hand.

"My bad," Porky wheezes. "I thought I dropped my napkin."

"No ill will intended, I'm sure," Popo says cheerfully, but this time, there's a hidden warning under his tone. "Ah, and Mr. Nook, I hear you own a real estate business! Man, I feel like you could tell us some stories about the Villager-"

The appetizers are replaced with main courses. Lamb Salad with Fregola. Broiled Lobster Tail with Butter.

Porky is smart not to pull the same trick twice, but suddenly sick to my stomach, I leave my plate uneaten.

It's easy to forget about the dark shade that exists under the umbrella of fame.

Instead, I pay attention to the Q&A session overhead. It's a struggle to keep my voice calm, but somehow, I manage to engage in passable conversation with the other sponsors at our table. Though when a sponsor asks Ness what is your greatest weakness? and he sheepishly responds food, it makes me feel a bit better.

Concluding dessert with a mouthwatering assortment of fruit tarts, Master Hand brings the dinner to a close with a few choice words. When he snaps his fingers, all the tables and chairs scoot themselves out of the atrium. Magical snow softly falls from the ceiling with the cooing of Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You, and a waiting line of servers bustle into the Ballroom dance floor with refreshments in hand.

"Finally, the fun stuff." Craning his neck over the crowd, Popo straightens his tie. He must have had more than a bit to drink, because his balance has turned sloppy. "Ooh, I think I see a real eye-catcher. Hope she doesn't have a boyfriend-"

I find myself cracking a smile. "Go for it."

"Thanks, man. You know I will." As Popo disappears through the crowd, I see that Ness has already jumped off the stage, no doubt fed up with formalities.

"Don't bother, I have eyes in the back of my head," I deadpan when I sense Porky reaching for my shoulder.

"I heard your father got sick," Porky wheezes unpleasantly, dropping his grubby hand to pick at the suit around his portly belly. "Pneumonia, was it? My condolences. He must work hard to rid your family of debt. Unfortunately for your daddy, he's one thousand dollars short this month."

My blood runs cold. "How did you know."

Porky wheezes with laughter. "Like father, like son. You two are stupid to the core. Your father signed a contract with me under the Minch name. He owes me over 100k." Catching my stricken expression, Pokey wheezes harder. "Your father didn't tell you? I can see why he never let you come along to our consultant meetings. What an allmighty idiot."

One thousand dollars.

My mouth turns dry. I'm not sure that I have the money.

"You hiked up our interest. You're a loan shark," I say bitterly.

"One grand. Cough it up."

"I don't have one grand."

"You don't have one grand," Porky repeats with a wheeze. "Then you don't have much of a choice, do you? Sell yourself."

My jaw tightens. "Give us another month."

"Everyone does sexual favors at some point in their celebrity career. You're no exception. Sell yourself for a night, and I'll let your family go."

"Give us another month."

"Awfully persistent, are you? Everyone's waiting for you, Lucas. Waiting to throw rocks at you, and spit on you, and make your life hell."

"You stole my cartridge."

"You have no idea how much you owe me. You toppled my reign. You stole Ness away from me. But with my eternal life, I will see the world through to its end. Until everyone who won't like me is gone," Porky wheezes. His small piggy eyes burn with hatred. "Lucas, you might have messed my life up the first time round, but you're at my mercy now. I own your past and your future. Give me one grand, or I'll send my debtors after your father."

I do my best to stare him down. "If you send anyone after my dad, I'll make sure that you'll live the rest of your life behind bars."

"Of course you will," Porky wheezes, unfazed. "It's pathetic how you forgot about your own past-"

"Give us another month-"

"Lucas, you killed your twin brother."

Chapter Text

Lucas should wear suits more often.

This is literally the only thought passing through my head while Master Hand drones on and on about the proper way to answer questions, greet guests, something something good manners something. It sucks that Lucas and I can't sit together for dinner, but I'm not worried. We've got the entire night after to celebrate Christmas.

Oh yeah, and I kissed him.

Twice.

In one day.

Not that I'm keeping track, of course.

I try to smother the weird giddy gay noises into my hands, because the last thing I need is for Master Hand to think I'm convulsing and call for life support. I can't believe I just went for it and kissed him. And Lucas let me. I glance over with a grin and catch Lucas watching me. Flustering, he turns away, almost tripping over his own shoes.

His hair looks really soft.

I want to touch it.

"Ness, eyes over here," Master Hand deadpans, and I flush when the rest of the Twelve break out into a chorus of giggles and snorts.

Still, I can't help but sneak another glance when Master Hand isn't watching, because fuck me, Lucas actually looks hot in a suit, and my mind's stuck in this perpetual loop of "Help I've fallen and can't get back up."

On second thought, buying that Life Alert doesn't seem too ridonkulous.

Then something like a cold draft tightens up my chest like an iron fist, and I clutch my stomach because the feeling's travelling through my entire body like a wire. My empathy link. It's never been wrong before.

With rising dread, I glance up in time to see Tingle open up the double doors to the first guest in line.


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~Chapter Twenty-Three~

Lucas Breaks the Fourth Wall

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My relationship with Porky is - to be put simply - complicated.

We used to be on talking terms. Closer too, I guess. As neighbors, it was kinda inevitable, playing pretend and make-believe tales of dragons and kings. I'm not sure when the divide happened, but at some point, it all stopped when he woke me up one night banging on my front door and howling up a storm. His parents came to take him back shortly after. His mother blubbered some stupid fib about Porky running away and oh, kids these days are so rebellious, aren't they? before hauling him back to their place.

I remember that the change had been gradual. Porky began picking on his little brother. He bullied kids weaker than he was just because he could. And while I watched his victims cry over scraped knees and bruised injuries, I never spoke up for any of them. I never said anything.

Porky didn't have many friends.

Maybe that was why I never had the heart to speak up against him.

Perhaps I should've said something. My mom had such a saying, He who gets off with stealing a pencil eventually steals time in a jail cell. Basically, with a fucked-up family who had the cash to rig any lawsuit, Porky never had anyone to correct him on the right path. He became the Eric Cartman of the neighborhood, and everyone learned to fear him. Victimized and manipulative, Porky only ended up driving people away. Eventually, even me.

I'm sure he felt it too. Because the harder I tried to run away, the tighter Porky clung on.

And as Porky pushed me away, Lucas stepped into his place.

As a kid, I first saw Lucas as a second chance to stand up for somebody else. But now, I'm not quite sure why my kiddie self thought that way. Lucas and Porky really couldn't have been more different, even if they tried.

Porky was always too busy feeling sorry for himself.

Lucas actually went out and did something about it.

Porky pushed other people down to stay on top.

Lucas strove to climb up the social ladder with his bare hands.

Porky joined forces with an evil alien mastermind to take over the planet. All just to spite me. Take a good second to let that sink in.

And Lucas...

Need I say more?

Of what fascist tendencies Porky's been up to since Subspace, I have not a fucking clue, nor do I want to know. But after hearing about the existence of Lucas's different timeline, I'm getting the feeling that there's a special story behind Porky's beef against Lucas, and that whatever it is, it's personal. And I don't think I'll PK-like whatever's Porky's got planned, nope, not at all.

Because while I can describe Porky with many words, stupid isn't one of them. If Porky's finally decided to show his pudgy face again, then he's on the move. Seriously, after trying to bomb us skyhigh to Tokyo, Porky magically appears tonight as a sponsor, then decides to sit NEXT to Lucas for dinner out of the good of his heart. Coincidence? I think not.

Something smells fishy. And no, it's not the lobster.

As my mom tells me, always trust your gut.

Loud applause breaks my train of thought. I've lost track of the time... oh cool, Samus is at the podium. We must finally be at the awards ceremony. Perfect timing. When s̶e̶x̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶l̶e̶g̶s̶ Bayonetta glides onto the stage to join Samus in her matching dress suit, smirking like she's won the whole fucking team tournament (hint hint, they did), I take the chance to check on Lucas. To my relief, he looks all right, just taking his time to speak with a curious Tom Nook. Though another cursory glance has turned on my wtf switch, because Popo looks strangely sluggish, like he's already drunk on his ass. Except I know better. Popo has a highass tolerance outta this world-

Holy fuck, he's slumped over on his seat.

Is he sleeping?

HEY, I think loudly, but as usual, my telepathy must be shit, because Popo doesn't even raise a hand to flip me off.

However, Mewtwo does respond to my crappy attempts at subtle communication with an annoyed flick of his tail, and I immediately stop because I value my life, thank you very much. Instead, I tug on Popo's empathy link, worried that this idiot's had a drink too much.

As slow as the DMV (god I hate that place, took me forever to get my driver's license), Popo lifts his head. Even from this distance, I can make out the fucking Cheshire Cat grin growing lazily across his face before he slides me a scummy thumbs up. Huh, I guess he was really dozing off. I don't blame him. Master Hand is droning on, and on, and on...

There's no escape from this hell.

Someone save me.

"-and the dance floor is yours. Merry Christmas!"

Hallelujah, my prayers have been answered.

Even before Master Hand snaps his fingers like a magician, I'm on my feet, jumping off the stage like it's hot. As I soar through the air, the atrium transforms into a sparkling ballroom dance floor before my eyes. When I land, gay Christmas jingles are turned up to max from unseen speakers. Soft snow even falls from the ceiling, magically disappearing in cool wisps whenever at the slightest touch, and the ceiling turns transparent so we can see the glittering stars.

Damn, Master Hand's gone all out today.

Like I said, magic.

Trying not to look too desperate, I rush forward to wherever I saw Lucas last, because it'll be hella hard to find him when the entire crowd rises onto their feet. But then I remember that Lucas is an ungodly 6'3", and that while he certainly can't see me, I won't have too much trouble picking him out. For once, I'm sorely grateful for his freakishly tall height.

A flash of a blond cowlick.

There he is.

Except he's not alone.

Lucas stands fixedly in place, looking every bit as rigid as a board. Smiling congenially, Porky leans over to say something to him. He shoves a small object into Lucas's limp hands, and when Lucas turns it over, I recognize it. A battered Game Boy Advance that's seen better days? No, wait, there's something slotted inside. A cartridge.

Any remaining color drains out of Lucas's face.

I decide to play nice and intervene.

Catching sight of me, Porky's smile widens. "Ness! Long time, no see," Porky wheezes, and though it's not the first time I've seen his sorry state, holy shit, call the nursery homes because Porky has aged. Like, a lot. We should be the same age, but the Porky I remember barely resembles the portly, blue-tinted, wrinkly old man I see in front of me. What happened to him before Subspace?

"That's my line. What's going on here?" I demand, and Porky's face sours at the less-than-thrilled reception.

"No need for hostility, Nessie," Porky sneers, there's something oddly sinister about his tone that sets off warning bells in my head. He sounds way too happy for a simple convo about a Rent-N-Return, and Lucas's stiff shoulders tell me that Porky's doing his best to make him feel as inhumanly uncomfortable as possible. Gee I wonder why. Underneath his conversational tone, Porky's definitely fuming over my interruption. His feelings are loud enough that even I can sort of make out his vulgar desires in my head. Something about wanting to fuck Paula, wanting to fuck Lucas, and then wanting to fuck me over. All in that specific order. Eurgh. Too bad I know that Paula would fry his balls to a crisp if he ever laid his hands on her, and that Lucas could send Porky on a free trip to the asylum from permanent brain damage if push came to shove.

As for me?

Yeah, good luck with that, buddy.

"What are you really doing here?" I say in disgust, and I don't blame Lucas for involuntarily shifting closer to me, because my skin's crawling, and I'm starting to get the bad juju vibes.

"I'm here to take back what rightfully belongs to me," Porky wheezes.

"And I said to give me another month," Lucas responds, his voice as stony as his face.

Ignoring him, Porky reaches around me for Lucas's arm, but stops when Lucas's eyes flare up in warning. An icy chill crawls down my shoulders like an omen of death, dangerous and unwelcome, and I involuntarily step back because holy shit, if Lucas ever shot me that particular look, I'd be off screaming for my life.

Throughout this entire five-second exchange, Lucas's face has remained eerily impassive.

"Don't touch me," Lucas says evenly, but I'm more alarmed by the uneasy ripple of emotion coursing through our empathy link. Lucas is crumbling.

Still, his deceptively calm tone has forced Porky to pause. "Y-You can't do anything. You wouldn't dare," Porky says uncertainly, his eyes flickering to his face as if trying to call Lucas's bluff, but this time his previous bravado is gone, like he's afraid that Lucas might actually fuck up his mind. Because while Porky might be immortal, he's not completely impervious to pain, and Lucas's eyes are flashing murderously like some cursed medieval sorcery.

Sensing Porky's impending doom (no shit), I quickly intervene before either of them can go ape. "Lucas, let's go grab some drinks," I say firmly, grabbing his hand, but Porky blocks our path.

"Where are you fuckers going? This bastard owes me money," Porky sputters indignantly.

"And he said that he'll pay you back in a month. Give it a rest," I shoot back, because I think I've finally made heads or tails of the situation, and right now, dragging Lucas AWAY from Porky sounds like a really good idea.

Porky flushes. In an attempt to cover up his blustering, he wheezes with laughter, but it's ugly and unpleasant, heaving and cracking like the pumps of a used car. In an unnerving show of confidence, his eyes don't leave Lucas's face. "One month, two, it doesn't matter. You can't repay me. You're only postponing your own demise." When Lucas doesn't respond, Porky wheezes again, turning to me. "I don't buy into this shipping scandal. What did he promise you, Ness? An eternity of debt? A one night stand?"

"Oh my god, shut up, shut up, shut uP," I grit between my teeth, because Porky is making it EXTREMELY difficult for me to play it classy and ignore him.

Still Porky doesn't get the damn hint, and backs out after us like a trash truck spewing out garbage. "He killed his own twin. All because his poor brother got in the way of his quest. Ness, he's capable of murder. He's an uncivilized savage-" His eyes fixed straight ahead on a faraway object, Lucas tightens his shaking grip on my hand, and catching onto the almost imperceptible motion, Porky turns to him with a wheeze. "It's a shame that your dad married a squinty-eyed chink. You could've been a purebred. At least your mom's dead. That's one less Tazmilian monkey to worry about-"

Furious, I grab Porky over by the collar. "Say that again."

"Shit, Ness. Did you catch yellow fever too?" Porky guffaws. "Never knew you had a fetish for tiny dicks. Maybe you should ask Lucas to do your math homework for you while you're at it. Or a blow job-"

Losing it completely, I punch him in the face, and Porky goes down like a sack of potatoes. Behind me, I hear alarmed cries and gasps of horror from the crowd, but I give zero fucks, pummeling every inch of his face I can find because I just want to wring Porky by his fat neck for all the twisted, disgusting things he's said-

Someone holds me back by the shoulder. "That's enough, Ness," Lucas says sharply.

I wrench my arm out of his grip. "I'm not done yet-"

"You're causing a scene."

Staring first at the bruise swelling up on Porky's eye to the smeared blood on my hands, I swallow down the lump of unfairness rising up my throat. Suddenly, I'm all-too-aware of the horrified whispers and the terrified spectators around us.

"You punched me," Porky blubbers incredulously, as if the thought of me punching him into pulp has never crossed his mind before, and as he takes this new development into hard consideration, the SWAT team hastily hurries over. "Them sons of bitches dared to punch me, the great Porky!"

"Who attacked first?" Chrom barks, coming to a full stop in his impressive garb of security gear.

"He did," Porky bawls, pointing at Lucas. "He started it, an' he dragged Ness into it, I saw it with my own two eyes!"

"What? Hold on-" I start, but I'm quickly jostled aside when security guards shove a bewildered Lucas onto the ground.

Chrom's boots echo across the atrium chamber. "Lucas, you have the right to remain silent," he reads, stony-faced. "Anything can be used against you in court-"

Panicking, I grab Chrom by the arm. "Chrom, it wasn't Lucas, I punched Porky-"

Chrom roughly shakes me off. "All bystanders will stay on the side for testimony-"

"Yeah, but I'm not a bystander. I'm telling you, I punched him," I say angrily.

"He's lying," Porky wails. "Trying to save his friend's hide morelike. I demand compensation! Just you wait, I'll sue this entire place for admitting this riffraff into the tournament-"

Already convinced, Chrom inclines his head, and more guards bustle over to rip me off his arm. I protest louder, but like the massive fuckhead he is, Chrom pretends not to hear me. Amidst the bruise nicely swelling up on his jaw, Porky throws me victorious smile underneath Chrom's elbow-

"Father!" Breathless from running, Lucina emerges onto scene with Pittoo landing at her side. She glances first at me, then at the security guards roughly handcuffing Lucas before raising her eyebrows. "Father, what is the meaning of this?"

"Don't interfere, Lucina."

"Please, father, you can't do this-"

"Begone. I have no daughter," Chrom says stiffly.

Flapping his dark wings once in irritation, Pittoo crosses his arms and gives into a mocking laugh. "Wow. Never thought that you'd sink so low."

Chrom grits his teeth. "All bystanders will remain silent until testimony-"

A sexy 6 inch heel interrupts him with a sharp click, and the Number One tag team shows up to the rescue. "I beg to differ, Chrom," comes a familiar purr.

"Samus! Lady B-Bayonetta!" Lucina stammers, her eyes going round.

"Honestly, Chrom, you are stretching it too far. Let Lucas go," Samus says flatly, storming over and flicking her stun gun to the highest overprotective older sister mode.

"Samus, let me do my job-"

"Oh, your job? I'll do your precious job for you!" Angrier than I've ever seen her, Samus jabs a finger into Chrom's face like she's about five seconds away from poking his eye out. "You think that Lucas of all people got riled up, punched Porky in the face, and committed assault under your nose? Huh?"

At this, Chrom reluctantly glances back at me. "Well... perhaps not," he says gruffly. "But all evidence points against him-"

"I said that I punched Porky!" I almost scream. "I have dried blood on my hands! What more evidence do you need?"

"It wasn't his fault. Ness was provoked," Lucas says quickly.

"Is that so, little one?" Bayonetta asks softly, her voice dripping with seductive venom. Everyone turns around to face Porky, whose gloating smirk has been wiped out by the sudden turn of events.

Eyeing the loaded gun in Bayonetta's hand as if struggling to weigh his options, Porky finally comes to grips that a possible death in the hands of an angry mama Witch and an older Bounty Hunter sister was not worth getting his hands dirty. "Fine," he says nastily. "Ness punched me. It was an accident, so I'll let it go, all right?"

"Well then, there we go. The case is settled. Fair, simple, and easy," Bayonetta purrs, sheathing her gun into her heel. "Chrom, I hope to see you handling future cases with a dignity befitting the size of your manhood. And you," she adds when Porky tries and fails to slip away. In fact, Porky looks all too ready to wet his pants in terror when Bayonetta licks her lips, leaning over his downed form with a wicked smirk. "mMM. I'm growing tired of all the naughty little liars roaming our halls and giving us a bad name. What should we do with him, Samus?"

With a identically murderous scowl on her face, Samus cocks her gun. "That depends. What exactly did he say to provoke you, Ness?"

"I'm sorry!" Porky bawls, wheezing and crawling over to grab me by the ankles in terror. "Ness, I didn't mean it, don't let them hurt me-"

"Don't apologize to me," I say, disgusted, and push him away with the tip of my shoe towards Lucas, whom Chrom is currently unshackling. "Apologize to him."

Porky latches his piggy eyes onto Lucas, and as if unsure of where to train his eyes, Lucas looks extremely uncomfortable, like he doesn't want to be there.

A disarming smile grows on Porky's face. "Lucas," he says cheerfully, walking over to slap him in the back. "You know I didn't mean any of that. It was a joke! All in the name of good fun. You understand, right?" Reaching over to pat his business card into Lucas's coat pocket, Porky's smile doesn't falter. "Ness has a good point. I'll swing by for my debt in a month. You just call me anytime if you need my help repaying it."

Lucas's face turns sickly pale.

As if catching onto the insinuation, Samus grabs her gun. "That sonova bitch-" she starts furiously, but before any of us can do anything, Porky pats me on the shoulder and slips away with a smirk.

Damn it.

I knew I should've kicked him where the sun doesn't shine.

"Calamity! Profanity! Violence is abound," Tingle squeaks, running our way and waving his metal detector in fury. "Oh my, oh dear! The press is going to hear about this. Oh fairies above, rescue poor Tingle from sh-shame!"

"It was well-deserved, Tingle," Samus says grimly, keeping him at bay. During their busy dialogue, Bayonetta kneels down from her towering height to exchange quiet conversation with an unsettled Lucas.

"The press? Well, I'm out," Pittoo deadpans, wrapping a wing around a still-subdued Lucina. "Come on, Lucy. I owe you a dance before Palutena wrecks the dance floor."

Something twinges in my empathy link.

Worried, I glance in Lucas's direction. Curling his fists tightly by his side, Lucas clenches his jaw, now shaking so badly that his knees are knocking together.

I reach out for him. "Lucas-"

When my hand touches his shoulder, Lucas snaps his head up, wild-eyed like a feral animal. Shoving me aside, he storms out of the atrium.

Without second thought, I call after him, but ignoring me, Lucas breaks into a sprint. Past the elevators. Up the stairs. Shit, I knew that Lucas could run, but he's a fast little fucker. "Lucas, stop!" I scream after him, but up ahead, Lucas only speeds up, pressing his hands against his ears.

I'm going to lose him.

So when he skids into the second floor, I use every ounce of my burning thighs to lunge forward and tackle him as he turns into the library. Stumbling into a book case, Lucas struggles to wrestle me aside, but no matter how hard he fights back, I cling on tighter. His telekinesis is sucking everything in, and I can feel it, I can feel his rising anxiety, I can feel the sudden tug of his PSI towards his center of gravity. All of the bookcases begin to rattle like teeth. Loose papers slip off the tables, dropping onto the ground like dead flies. A few pencils sluggishly crawl towards us as if dragged over by an invisible hand. I hold my breath, transfixed by his involuntary show of telekinesis because our powers are highly dependent on the state of our mind.

And Lucas is far from okay.

In an angry fit of desperation, Lucas tries to push my head away. "Go away," he chokes out.

I wrap my arms around his back. "I love you."

Sinking into the floor from my weight, Lucas bares his teeth and makes a frustrated noise, his shoulders shaking from the force of holding back a sob. "Damn you, Ness, let go-"

"You're worth more than all the money in the world," I whisper.

Scrunching his eyes shut, Lucas buries his face into his hands and cries. I can feel his hurt radiate through our empathy link, and it's so raw and painful and helpless that my aching chest feels like it's about to rip into two.

Lucas isn't okay.

But maybe... maybe I can make him feel better.

Instinctively tapping into my magic, I reach for his shoulder, but when my fingers brush against his shirt, I hesitate. I don't take messing around with feelings lightly, and something tells me that Lucas won't appreciate me meddling with his emotions. For one, he's psychic. He'll know if I try to manipulate his emotions the same way I can tell he's reading my mind. And while there are times people can use some empathy, this isn't one of them. Sometimes you really need to cry it all out to think clearly.

Everyone is entitled to some privacy.

Lucas spasms. Another hiccup tears through his throat.

I lower my hand back to my side. The rush of power disappears from my fingers, tickling back into my chest, and the magical glow from my eyes fades away. "I'll give you some space. Come back up whenever you're ready," I say quietly.

His face still hidden in his hands, Lucas doesn't respond. Messy tears leak past the corners of his eyes and drip down his arms.

My heart as heavy as lead, I shut the library door behind me.

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~oO0Oo~

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There are two ways most boys my age deal with their emotional problems. You either (1) "man up" and ignore them until they explode in your face like a ticking time bomb, or (2) cut to the chase and explode first before your problems trigger themselves. I guess there was also (3) jack off, but these were all temporary solutions at best, and as much as I liked option 3, context applied. Sexually frustrated day? Whack it. Amnesiac best friend undergoing emotional trauma and borderline racist-homophobic hate? Seriously, don't be a dick.

Instead, I fiddle with Lucas's Christmas present on my bed, and aching for something to do, end up tracing over the smiley snowmen tap-dancing on the wrapping paper. Eventually, I leave both of our gifts on the couch. It doesn't seem right to open his gift, not without him there to open mine.

So I go to the bathroom to wash my hands.

Worst. Decision. Ever. My knuckles sting like a motherfucker when I shove them under running tap water, and I realize that the blood smeared on my hands is my own. I raise my right hand in dismay. There's an incision the size of a staple between my 1st and 2nd knuckles, which doesn't help because all the knuckles on my hand are sore and tender. I'll have to ask Lucas for a healing session when he gets back.

Then I think about Porky's swollen eye, and while violence doesn't justify violence, grim satisfaction lifts the weight off my stomach. Though by now, I'm sure that the press has gotten hold of my berserk fiasco, and Master Hand's out busting his ass to save my name. I can imagine the headlines on The Smash Daily tomorrow: Gay Teen Assaults Business Man. Even better, Homophobic Tub of Lard Gets His Come-uppance in Ass-kickery.

No shit, Master Hand's gonna be pissed. I'd better come up with a damn good reason to explain myself when he calls me into his office.

Then someone knocks on the unlocked door.

For a second, my heart leaps into my throat because I think that Lucas is back, but when a blue parka slides into the suite instead, I can't help but feel downtrodden.

"Christmas gifts for you and Lucas," Popo says, shaking his hoodie off and pushing a whole pile of packages into my hands. "I had a hunch that you two wouldn't show for the afterparty. Rosalina wanted to deliver the Christmas sweaters herself, but I said I'd take them along."

The ugly Christmas sweaters have that cozy "just knitted right" texture when I rub it between my fingers, and when I spread them out, I realize that they're embroidered with stripes of red-and-blue hearts and a matching golden Earthbound insignia shimmering over each chest.

Glancing around as if searching for someone, Popo steals a chair next to me. "Lucas hasn't returned yet?"

I glance at the clock. Eleven PM. "Nope."

"Thought so."

"Thanks for covering him. You called Samus and Bayonetta over, didn't you? You saved his hide twice."

Popo flicks his pipe. "Three times. I don't think Lucas noticed, but I stole his glass for a sip during dinner. Definitely tasted roofies, but whatever Porky spiked his water with hammered my head hard. Any more, and it might have knocked me out."

"Drugs dampen our powers because they fuck with our mind."

"Then shit, Porky definitely wasn't playing around. I think that the food was safe, but Lucas didn't eat or drink anything." Catching my numb expression, Popo slugs me in the back. "Dude, I told you I got it taken care of. You can trust me." Shaking out a Ziploc bag of weed, Popo offers me his marijuana mouthpiece, and when I scrunch up my nose, he shrugs, stuffing the mouthpiece with mountain of weed and smoking it. "Just saying, Porky's a dangerous guy."

"Really? He seems like a wuss."

"Frankly, yeah. But he's a manipulative little wuss. I'm honestly scared for you."

This makes me pause. "That's rich, coming from you. Aren't you supposed to tell me to chillax and smoke weed?"

"I wish I could this time," Popo says darkly, taking another whiff of the drug. If you've never smelled weed before, then be grateful you haven't. With its weird bitter-sour stench, summarized politely, marijuana smells like Sweet Essence of Rotting Skunk. "You'd better be careful, Ness. Rumors say that Porky runs an underground business in child trafficking-"

"He what?"

"Money leaves behind a dirty trail, and Porky's been a real busy body. CEO of a toy factory, loan shark, leader of a crazy cult. Where do you think he gets his drugs? He's clearly buddy-buddy with the boss of the Sharks."

"How do you hear about this stuff?!"

"Oh, from here and there." Popo says vaguely. "Why else do you think Master Hand keeps us under his thumb until we turn 18? It's his way of limiting our interaction with people like Porky in the celeb industry until we're old enough to make our own decisions. Or at the very least, prevent grooming. Because if you think about it, we're literally living amiibos. One stab in the right place, and next thing you know, someone could be selling you in a thrift shop."

"Sure, sell us in a thrift shop. WHILE WE'RE LIVING TRACKING DEVICES. What do you take criminals for, Team Rocket stupid?"

"God, Ness, you're so naive. Master Hand gives all this shit about "tracking devices" while you're petrified and whatnot, but if we go down in battle, then there's nothing we can do until someone arrives on scene. Anyone could petrify you, kidnap you, then UNpetrify you so we can't track you, genius."

"That sounds like an oddly convenient loophole for a story plot."

"Master Hand tries his best to protect us. Sadly, he can't save everyone." His phone buzzes with a notification, and Popo's lips quirk up. "Hey, check this out. Another booty call. Sweet."

"You should sleep around less. It's not healthy for you," I say quietly.

Popo laughs. "Dude, again? Fuck off. My sister's already on my case. So don't preach that shit to me, Ness, not when you can get by on a stable fanbase. You've just never experienced it before, but it's not half-bad. Sex is great. Especially when it pays well." Taking a last drag, Popo stretches his arms. "Ah fuck it, I'm off to get some snow. I'll do my best to keep an eye out for you, but for now? You'd better watch out for Lucas. He's already gone too deep into dangerous waters. Real deeeep." Popo giggles, shaking his head, then swings his legs off the chair. "Shit, I can't feel my head. This stuff's deep, man."

I snort and push him to the door. "Go outside, you're going to get me high on second-hand smoke."

"Nah, it's safe."

"Great, now my entire apartment smells like weed, you ass," I complain.

Popo winks. "Thanks, I do have a nice ass."

I slug him in the shoulder, and with a cackle, Popo stumbles off, waving a little off-center before staggering down to the atrium. I wonder how often he's high. All the time, probably. If Popo doesn't smoke weed, he eats it. I've seen him sneak an assortment of meth, acid, and ecstasy from Snake into his parka like a pro. A sad thought, but I wouldn't be surprised if Popo sobered up just for the Christmas dinner tonight. All to simply keep an eye out for us. He can be a surprisingly trustworthy person on the rare times he's actually sober.

So I swear to make a mental note to check on him next time, next time for sure, because I seriously can't afford to have another friend fuck up his life from a cocktail of drugs.

This then reminds me of my OTHER idiot friend who almost fucked up his own life from drugs, and I anxiously glance at the microwave clock. While Master Hand is less anal about the midnight curfew every Christmas because basically everyone is out partying in the Mansion, after tonight's little brawl, I'm most likely stuck PERMANENTLY on Master Hand's bad side. My heart sinks. Ideally, I want to give Lucas space, but I can't get him into trouble too. Best not to dig the hole any deeper. I'll be more than happy to give Lucas space back upstairs.

So I pass Captain Falcon's loud hahaha! and drunk chorus of Christmas cheer from Cloud's room, and pick my way to the library.

Moonlight streams across the dark carpet, casting a pool of light on a toppled set of bookcases. The velvet curtains flutter over their half-open windows, lonely and forgotten. When I step foot through the high-hanging arches and Roman pillars, it's like a sudden hush whispers into my ears. The library is deathly still and quiet, save for the tinny orchestral sound of a GBA. I can't describe why, but the limited sound quality is nostalgic, bringing a sharp pang to my chest.

Quietly, I trace my footsteps to its source.

Slumped underneath a low-hanging bookcase, Lucas doesn't say a word at my approach. The fluorescent glow of the Game Boy washes over his face and hands. As if tied to heavy weights, my feet slow of their own accord until I've reached a stand-still.

No words are needed.

Without breaking the silence, I watch him replay Porky's last save point over his shoulder. I watch as the background whites out from a disorienting blue, watch as the Masked Man confronts Lucas, watch as the Masked Man unmasks himself as Lucas's twin brother. I watch as the words drift in and out of focus, words that don't mean anything to me, but hold undeniable weight to the person slouching in front of me.

Claus fired an intense bolt of lightning!

A loud crackle bursts across the GBA speakers.

Lucas's Franklin Badge... reflected the lightning!

There was nothing Lucas could do but watch.

Claus took mortal damage.

A quiet click. The screen fizzles out. When Lucas speaks, his voice sounds incredibly bitter. "Porky was telling the truth. I killed my brother."

"It wasn't your fault-"

"I dealt the final blow, Ness. I-" Lucas suddenly cuts himself off, drawing up his knees and burying his face into his arms. "...I killed him."

"Your brother made a choice to end his own life. You never made that choice for him," I say softly, because while I'm no stranger to the pain of loss, my family is still intact. My family is alive. Though my dad's done some crummy things, I do love both my parents, I love my younger sibling, and hell, I even miss lazy ol' King from time to time. Shit, just thinking about losing my pet DOG makes me want to bawl.

But losing your brother? Right after losing your mom?

I can't imagine half of what Lucas is going through now.

"Porky gave you a game file from a save point. You don't remember anything that might've happened before the final boss."

"It doesn't matter. Replaying this game won't bring my brother back."

I quietly crouch down next to his hunched form. "I still think you should start the game from the beginning. You can't judge someone based on one scene, and you have no idea how your entire adventure unfolded-"

Lucas doesn't meet my eyes. "Ness. Would you ever willingly commit suicide."

"No," I say indignantly. "Why would I-"

"Would you sacrifice yourself if it meant saving the world?"

Fuck.

Doesn't help that Lucas would probably do the same in my shoes, but I don't have the heart to point that out. Best be honest I suppose.

"That depends. But only after I've tried everything else," I add anxiously, watching Lucas like he's about to explode. "Because honestly, dying would really suck-"

The only warning I get is a flash of his blue eyes before Lucas pulls me closer. I choke myself off, too stunned to react, but there's no mistaking the familiar arms snaking around my shoulders, and my eyes have widened to the size of saucers because Lucas is, well, hugging me. With another ragged intake of breath, Lucas shifts against me, and I can't help but recognize the stark contrast. Whenever I hug Lucas, I'm left with the bittersweet impression of how thin and scrawny he is. Or how his elbows and bony joints jut out and poke into my ribs. Or how Lucas's hand would awkwardly pat my back as if unsure of what it was supposed to do there.

But Lucas actually hugging me is different; I feel safe and protected in his fold, nestled against the crook of his shoulder with both of his arms and legs boxing me in and his breath warming the side of my neck.

When was the last time Lucas hugged me? He curls around me a little tighter, and I involuntarily find myself relaxing, sinking comfortably into his umbrella hold. Definitely not anytime after his growth spurt. The only time I can recall was when we'd reunited after defeating Tabuu, when the Hello, welcome to Brawl orientation had somehow turned into a clusterfuck of Subspace adventures. Shouting out my name, Lucas had dived over and wrapped his arms around my shoulders like a vice. He was so relieved to see me all right that he started shaking uncontrollably and crying on my shoulder, and it wasn't weird at all because I might have been bawling too.

Lucas's breathing remains unsteady, all uneven and erratic, so I uncertainly rest my fingers against his skinny shoulders. His face is pressed too close into my shoulder for me to make out his expression, but when Lucas starts to tremble like a leaf, the sudden dots of dampness seeping into my shirt speak more than enough about his feelings.

I swallow. Lucas always seems to know what to do when I'm upset... but I never know what to do when he is, because he tends to clam up and keep to himself. Lucas's worries are complicated and heavy. They aren't as easily as assuaged.

But I can be there for him.

And if Lucas wanted a hug... well, that was something I could give. Leaning into the arms curled around my shoulders, I scrunch up my eyes, trying to trigger a spark of happiness in my mind. Happy thoughts. Think happy thoughts. I gently prod Lucas's mind, and when Lucas involuntarily responds to my tendril of thought with a soft brush of his own, I let the strong pulse of warmth seep into our empathy link.

"Hey, buddy," I say softly, and Lucas shivers. The words somehow feel right on my tongue, so I reach up and ruffle his hair. "It's okay. I'm here."

The frown doesn't leave his face, but Lucas's shoulders relax a little. He mumbles something under his breath, then snuggles closer to my warmth.

My shoulders slump over with exhaustion. My heavy eyes start falling shut of their own accord.

Happy thoughts.

Think happy thoughts...

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"Merry Christmas, you little piece of shit!" Someone crows in my ear, and I jolt awake flailing with a screech. Except that someone's wrapped me snugly in a blanket like a burrito, so I accidentally roll off the couch and faceplant onto the floor of the apartment instead. Goddammit, there goes my dignity.

Wait, the apartment?

"Oh fuck, who let you in," I complain, shaking myself upright to nurse my sore head, and Popo cackles like a lunatic. He's crazy, I tell you. Or high. The smell of weed is back, so he's definitely been out smoking with the guys again.

"I told you not to wake him up," Lucas deadpans in his matching ugly Christmas sweater, watching the exchange from the dinner table over a cup of tea, and I jolt again because I totally didn't know he was there. Lucas must've hauled my ass back upstairs. Again.

"Thought you wouldn't want to miss the day before it ended. So stop PMSing and wake up to smell the flowers, Nessie! Time to unwrap all your presents before midnight," Popo says cheerfully, giving me a noogie and messing up my hair much to my complaint. He expectantly turns his head over to Lucas. "Yeah so, that's an order, dude. I'd better see, like, both of you there."

"To where, you weirdo?" I spit out, because okay, maybe I'm not the nicest when someone YELLS in my ear like a foghorn just as I was getting comfy, but Popo's already gone, fluttering his fingers in what was supposed to be a seductive wave before skipping out of the apartment.

"His birthday party," Lucas helpfully supplies. Of course, Popo's birthday is coming up in early January. I bet we're eating out, because Popo's been itching for a drink and KBBQ ever since they've lowered the drinking age here to 18. Not that Popo HASN'T been drinking mind you, but between you and me, for legal purposes, Popo hasn't touched a single drop of booze. Okay? Awesome.

I rub my eyes. "How long was I out?"

"About fifteen minutes." Lucas surveys me in concern. "You shouldn't strain yourself."

Oh right, the magical therapy session.

"I'm okay," I say honestly, holding up my hands in defense. "Empathic healing doesn't hurt, just makes me feel drowsy afterwards. I do it for my mom all the time whenever she gets bad anxiety, because the effects are only temporary-"

"Don't burden yourself with the negative feelings of others. It's hard enough for you as it is," Lucas mutters, not meeting my eyes, and this puts a stupid smile on my face... Though he does catch sight of my grin and rolls his eyes.

"You didn't have to punch Porky," he says flatly, shaking his head at my busted knuckles. "Now look at what you've done. You fucked up your hands."

But when Lucas heals my fists, holding them gingerly in his, I can't help but notice how much lighter his eyes look. Like someone's taken a heavy load off his shoulders.

I hesitantly squeeze his hands, and when Lucas tenses up, I know that he can sense my reassurance through our empathy link. "You're never a bother," I whisper, and it's a testament to our trust that he doesn't pull away from my touch. He knows that I won't read his emotions. Not like this. Not unless he wants me to.

Lucas swallows, and his Adam's apple dips in his throat. "Stop caring so much. You'll only get yourself hurt."

My smile widens. "If you really do feel sorry for me, then kiss kiss!" I say, cheerfully opening my arms, and Lucas awkwardly squirms in my hold when I settle for hugging him instead.

Lucas wrinkles his nose. "You're choking me to death, you sap," he snarks back, but I snrrk at his expression. I don't take offense, not in the slightest, because I know that Lucas hides his feelings behind a veil of sarcasm. I guess that's his way of saying I love you too, dumbass, because if he really wasn't okay with it, then he wouldn't have let me hug him. He's just as capable of letting me know, and I know better than to overstep his comfort zone.

He's still not a fan of hugs though, so I let go, distracting him with an excited exclamation of hell yeah, Christmas presents! because Lucas will need time to get over his loss, and he'll better cope with me sticking to routine. It's literally an equation. If I stay constant, then Lucas will have fewer variables to worry about. The fewer the variables, the easier Lucas can prioritize his problems. His father's denial. Porky's debt. Other complicated stuff that Lucas thinks about.

Match his pace. Match his stride.

Like I said, we'll figure everything out along the way as we make shit up, because I still don't know how to fucking relationship, and I don't think Lucas knows how to either. I'm just a hot-headed, hasty, happy-go-lucky derp while he's a cold, careful, callous derp.

But we'll make it work somehow.

I know we can.

...

...

...what?

We're at the end of this chapter, what more do you want from me?

Ugh, all right.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal. And a Happy New Year.

 

Chapter Text

"Stay over at my place for New Years."

The noise of a thousand voices fills up the Smash City SkyTrain Station, but I blink, caught off-guard by Ness's sudden request. His hands tighten on my own, as if afraid that I'll ignore his request and leave. Unable to meet his eyes, I avert my attention to the broken-down tram tunnel on my right. Permanently stuck in construction, the broken-down tunnel looks the same as always, crooked wooden beams nailed clumsily over its entrance, rubble and pebbles cluttered around the Keep Out sign resting at its base.

Over the years of living in Smash City, I have never once seen anyone use this rail. No SkyTrain has ever passed through this tunnel. The broken-down tunnel has never been fixed.

No one knows where it leads.

"My mom wants you over at the condo," Ness adds breathlessly, glancing up at my face. "Use the time to make a new game plan. Porky's probably going to leave us alone for a while since you paid off the one grand-"

"-only because Venus gave us free tickets for the New Years concert."

"My mom already made plans to watch the fireworks here, so we couldn't have made Venus's concert. Besides, Venus was a real bae for letting us sell her front-seat tickets. I mean, who knew they'd sell for $500 a piece?"

Glancing around at the crowd, I quietly lower my voice. "Ness, I'll have to see my dad at some point this break."

"I know, but have you figured out what to tell him?" Ness stubbornly presses, and slowly, reluctantly, I close my mouth. "I thought so. There's no point for you go now. You never told him when exactly you were returning home, did you? And Porky... He's got a lot of dirt on his name. If we act smart, there's a really good chance we can get him arrested for shady shit. See, even Master Hand's on our side, though he's pissed that I punched Porky in the face. That's got to count for something, right?" Ness squeezes my hand so tightly that it cuts off my circulation. "My mom's expecting you. Don't you dare do something stupid."

I swallow down his words, because it seems wrong to leave my dad slaving away at home alone at the expense of me having fun a dimension away. Moreover, I know that he's going to be busy preparing traditional funeral rites for my mom.

A lump forms in my throat. My mom's death on New Years Eve... that's the day after tomorrow. I want to pay my respects at the Buddhist temple, light the scented candles and bring fresh flowers to her smiling portrait, but this is something else I don't want to bring up, because I can't get Ness involved with more of my tragedy in his life. Not after he's spent Christmas consoling me over the loss of my brother.

"Ness, you can't expect to get rid of all my problems-" I try instead.

"I don't," Ness says bluntly. "I know that you can take of yourself, but it's easier for you to think if there's a lot less on your plate. Refund your tickets. Take a break."

I waver. After everything we've been through, I guess I do owe him this happiness, as tiny as it is.

So when Tracy loudly complains about how big brother is such a slow snail, hurry up, doofus, mom's outside with the car, I let Ness drag me out of the SkyTrain Station.

Behind us, the forgotten tunnel whispers with a cold draft of wind.


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~Chapter Twenty-Four~

Dishonor on Your Whole Family

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The rented condo is a classic 2-Bedroom, 2-Bathroom. Polished wooden floor space separates the two sides with a nice view of the city in the living room, which opens up to a mosaic marble kitchen.

"Make yourself at home," Ness's mom cries, struggling with her many grocery bags, and I hurry over to help her. "We tried to choose an okay place with a discount - oh, thank you, Lucas, can you set the orange juice on the counter? - and I'm glad that we managed to nab this condo. It's got a beautiful view."

"Mom, why the hell did you buy so much fried rice-"

"Language, Nessie," His mom snaps, and Ness groans, staggering under the weight of Chinese take-out. "The Asian cuisine in this area is second to none... and you want to eat more burgers? Ai, no wonder you are fat."

"Mom," Ness whines.

"Don't you mom me. Now help Lucas set the table. Ai, ai, ai, making your boyfriend do all the work! Dishonor on your family name. Now hurry if you want to eat dinner, everyone's hungry-" Turning around, Ness's mom hollers for Tracy to get off the couch and stop lazing around on her phone, and a grumpy Ness trudges over to my side.

"I didn't know your mom liked Chinese food," I note.

"My mom's been into Southeast Asian culture ever since she took a trip with my Aunt to Taiwan," Ness mutters darkly, opening up the styrofoam to-go boxes. A mouthwatering scent of hot-sour-sweet spices warms up the air. "Singapore, Vietnam, China... you name it, she's been there. I swear, she's turned tiger-mom ever since she left South Korea."

"Does she know that I'm half-Japanese?"

"Thank god, NO," Ness says, horrified. "Heaven forbid she finds out."

I try to keep my best stern straight-faced expression. "Dishonor on you."

"Dishonor on your whole family."

"Dishonor on your cow," I finish the quote, and Ness bursts out laughing. Unfortunately, this also attracts attention from Ness's mom, who after berating Ness for being boisterous, starts pelting me with questions about Japanese lifestyle and history.

"I'm sorry, I don't know," I fluster after yet another question about the Samurai honor code. "My parents are Buddhist though, and I think a good fraction of the Japanese still are."

"That's wonderful," Ness's mom gushes eagerly. "The mountains there were amazing to hike. Many of the cities were surrounded by a backdrop of natural flora. Do you know the name of your mother's hometown?"

"I-I'm not sure." A name suddenly clicks into place. "Tazmily Village. I think."

"It sounds beautiful. Makes me miss Japan already. I wonder where your village-"

"Mom," Ness hisses under his breath, and snapping out of it, his mom flushes in realization.

"Oh no, how insensitive of me-"

"It's all right, I wish I remembered more about my mom's heritage so I could tell you," I say softly, because it's true, I really wish I did, and I knew that Ness's mom had only meant good-will. Still flustering from embarrassment, Ness's mom clumsily pats me in the back and turns around.

"Shall we get to dinner?" Ness's mom says hastily, her cheeks dotted pink, and gratefully taking her suggestion, we jump into the four empty seats around the dining table.

Speaking to Ness's mom has only brought up more questions about my upbringing. When did my dad leave Tazmily Village for Onett? I must have been too young to have remembered the trip. It had only just happened after Claus running away from home, after all.

Then I think of the Mother 3 cartridge stuffed underneath my pillow miles away in my dorm, and the thought of that cartridge weighs heavier on my mind. It's the only relic I have of my home, it's the only relic that can explain the strange gaps in my memory, but do I really want to remember? What if the memories are bad? Worse, what if the memories are precious? What if I can't let go of the past, and end up neglecting the present?

There's no point in restarting my adventure from chapter one. I've already been spoiled by the end of the game. Maybe it's best not to re-open old wounds, lest they fester into fresh scars. There's nothing wrong about wanting to forget about my past... was there?

I lost my mother.

And I couldn't save my brother in the end.

But sitting in a table for four, with Ness's mom bickering and fussing over her two children, my chest tightens because it's almost like I'm a part of a normal family again. I'm still an impostor by blood, but I've never felt more at home. So I let myself pretend. Dad would take the chair close to the door because of his workaholic tendencies. My mom would settle down next to him, easing him to relax and leave shearing the sheep for another day, because Flint, you've been out all day, slow down and spend some time with your sons, and Claus would sit on my left by my dad's other side because Claus would want a head-start to the Dragos in case I'd try to out-race him, though he'd never admit it.

...I miss my family.

"Mom, you dumped over half the entire carton," Ness says indignantly, and I watch, amused, as his mom continues piling more food onto his plate. "I can't believe it, you just said I was fat like two seconds ago-"

"Eat up, eat up. You need the energy," Ness's mom says impatiently, now drowning Ness's plate in Kung Pao chicken and Ma Po tofu. Amidst Ness's wails of complaint (Mom, I mean it, I can't eat all of this!) she glances at my still-empty plate and scowls. "Lucas, you are as skinny as a rake," she says, reaching over to grab my plate. "Ness told me that you like sweet food. You're not vegan, are you? Would you like some Peking Roasted Duck?"

"Oh, sure," I say startled, and she dumps another glistening ladle of sweet-and-sour pork on a bed of fried rice.

I think I can finally relate to Ness's complaints. His mother is an adversary on a whole another tier.

Still, I'm grateful that she's done so much to make this trip enjoyable, so I do my best to chow through the mountain of delicious food on my plate. I try to chew slowly, listening to the conversation overhead and taking in one mouthful at a time, but the minutes pass by and I've barely made a dent. It's an impossible feat. There's just too much food on this plate for the average human to consume.

Ness, on the other hand, is an eating machine. Despite all his previous complaints, he's cleared his plate and is already reaching for seconds. He bites into the end of a crunchy spring roll, and I snort when I notice a grain of rice stuck on the tip of his nose.

Hearing my snort, Ness scrunches his face into a defensive frown. "What are you laughing at?"

"You have rice on your face," I smirk, reaching over to pick it off. When Ness looks up in surprise, I smear it across his forehead with my thumb. "Haha, ew gross."

Ness smacks my hand away, then furiously rubs the rice off with a napkin. "Oh, like you're the Duke of Table Manners," he retorts, and I follow his pointed look to the messy trail of rice grains scattered around my own plate.

I open my mouth to respond, but stop when I catch a wide-eyed Ness's mom and sister watching us like we're performing a rom-com.

"You two are so sweet that I'm losing my teeth. Seriously, go kiss and make out already," Tracy snarks, poking at her Peking duck, and Ness chokes on his food.

"I-It's not what it looks like," Ness manages to stammer, waving his hands so violently that he almost spears my cheek with his chopsticks. "Lucas is just making fun of me-"

"I'm glad that our son met someone so caring," Ness's mom says earnestly and when she turns to me, her eyes shining with adoration, I give her a sheepish smile in return.

Releasing a long-suffering groan, Ness bangs his head against the dining table. Straightening my back and trying to look the caring part, I smirk wider in delight at Ness's expense.

"UGH. Lucas, caring? Mom, why can't you see he's such a smartass-"

"Language, Nessie. Don't swear in front of your boyfriend-"

"Lucas swears too!"

"Lucas is a polite boy. He never swears."

"Damn it, Lucas! Wipe that stupid smirk off your face, or I'll wipe it off for you-"

"Ness, language!"

"Oh my god, now they're FLIRTING. I think I'm going to barf-"

"MOM, LUCAS IS STILL SMIRKING AT ME. TELL HIM TO STOP."

"Smirking? Who, me? Why I'd never."

"Ai, young love."

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~oO0Oo~

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A loud crow of glee tears through my brand new wireless headphones. Even without glancing up from my laptop, I can tell that Ness is hopping around like an energetic jellybean. It's the second time this evening that he's stood in front of the bathroom mirror to admire his running shoes.

Streaked light gray across a black net, the pair of Gel Nimbus-18 Asics aren't really anything spectacular, but from how Ness is acting like a dog thrown its favorite chewtoy, I'm glad that he likes them. Especially since I ruined his Christmas. I'd even tried my hand at stitching, weaving in a flaming baseball design behind each Asics heel in an agonizing pace and pricking my fingers with the needle too many times to count, but if Ness's excited exclamation is anything to go by, I think I'm satisfied with the outcome.

The smol bean bounces over. "Whatchu reading?" smol bean says, nudging his face under my arms to peer at my laptop screen. "Fifty Shades of Gray?"

"I think I have better things to do with my life than trying to understand rape-fantasy kinks of middle-aged women," I say wryly, untangling his hair from my headphones, because somehow, Ness has managed to snag some strands against it - proven by his pointed wail of pain.

To lighten our baggage, we left the rest of our presents unwrapped at the Mansion, but I couldn't have been happier with Ness's gift. The blue Beats Headphones easily beat the old wreck I lost to the Sharks a while back. The mufflers even act like a decent noise-canceler, keeping my ears nice and warm.

So when Ness rests his head into my lap, I make my appreciation known, absentmindedly running my fingers through his hair, and Ness closes his eyes with a satisfied sigh. There's something cathartic about his constant attention-seeking. He's like a dog. A loud, friendly, fluffy dog.

Like a Pomeranian.

I snort, and catching my thought, Ness puffs up his cheeks. "You're barking up the wrong tree. I'm not a Pomeranian," he says indignantly.

"Course not, you'd be doggone insane," I reassure him without blinking an eye, and Ness drifts back into pleased content when I continue playing with his hair.

That's the other thing. Ness has been able to hear more of my stray thoughts lately, the same way I could sense more of his mood shifts. It's a small step forward at best, just a tip of the iceberg, but the change is reassuring, because I feel comfortable around Ness the same way he can count on me being there for him, and I realize how much I already do trust him. I'm still afraid, afraid of messing up, afraid of neglecting him for other priorities, afraid of screwing up our relationship for good, but I refuse to let my fears dictate me. I refuse to let my fears of trusting people get in the way, I refuse to be afraid of something that has yet to happen, I refuse to let Ness walk out of my life the same way I let my brother go all those years ago.

I refuse to make the same mistake twice.

So when Ness reaches up to ruffle my hair, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, I deliberately blow a puff of air into his face.

"Stop that, you jerk," Ness whines, scrunching up his nose in distaste, and I smirk. Though Ness wipes the smirk off my face when he loops his arms around my neck, because even with our uncomfortably cramped position, I can sense the undercurrent of his emotions, and that brings up another problem neither of us have touched upon.

The doorbell rings.

Ness kisses me on the forehead. "That's for being a little shit at the dinner table," he says lightly, kicking himself onto his feet to answer the door.

Though Ness hasn't tried anything new, it's in his eyes. It's written all over his face. It's practically in his words, every time he hugs me, every time he says I love you and a thousand other sappy things that I can't possibly dream of saying, because mere repetition of those words would decrease their value. He's trying to be considerate in the face of my current worries, but I know that we'll eventually have to address it soon.

Ness isn't completely satisfied.

Listening to Ness bicker with his sister yet again, I reopen my laptop and stare blankly at its screen. I wonder what it'd feel like, to not think about anything for once. To lose all of my worries for a night. To get a little frisky and lose myself in the moment.

But I'm not a one night stand. I'm just not that kind of person.

I've never had a particularly high libido, and the thought of someone else touching my junk scares the shit out of me. If I need to take care of myself, then I'll take care of it myself. I would probably be the male equivalent of a crazy cat lady - only except with dogs - because sex can go screw itself.

Yet, as Ness slowly sneaks his way into my comfort zone, I've begun to notice his not-so subtle changes from best friend to craving something closer. He presses his head against my shoulder. He crawls under my arms and curls up into my lap. He hugs me hello and kisses me goodbye, he plays footsie and rests the tip of his toes against mine underneath the table while we're eating, he sneaks into my bed covers and nuzzles the back of my neck whenever he worries about me getting cold.

Ness is EXTREMELY touchy-feely.

And unfortunately, I'm not.

So I try to return the favor by letting him hug me, letting him kiss me, and while Ness doesn't go beyond that, I'm starting to wonder if Ness wants something more. It's not like him to hold back his feelings, and - laughing quietly under my breath at the memory of our disastrous start - Ness no doubt wants something out of this relationship.

But what exactly? I'm not sure. The uncertainty is making me all nervous, because by now, Ness has got to have realized that he's gotten the shorter end of the stick. I can't make the first move. I have no right to ask him to stay. All I see in the future of our relationship is hardship after hardship, and Ness has got nothing to lose if he wants to break things off. I'm still waiting for the day Ness will say that he's had enough, that he can't put up with any more of my depressing bs in his life, that he's ready to break up and move on, and I wouldn't fault him for wanting to leave me.

And yet, he hasn't.

It's a real fucking mystery.

Maybe it'd make more sense if I were some drop-dead gorgeous blonde like Venus, but glancing at my weird bony wrists, I snort. Well at least I know that he's not staying for my looks.

Weirder still, our relationship has changed very little. We still act like shitheads to each other 99% of the time, the same way all best friends act to each other.

But the little changes are easily noticeable.

When I shook off Ness's hand in the SkyTrain Station earlier, wary of any reporters who might fan more fuel to my dad's fire, Ness had starting sulking, puffing up his cheeks in a childish pout. One year or two ago, Ness wouldn't have cared if I was holding his hand, if I WASN'T holding his hand, if I was holding someone else's hand, or simply not holding anyone's hand at all.

But for some reason, Ness's pout reminds me of a kicked puppy. It makes me feel incredibly bad. Like I've done something wrong. Or like I've popped all the air out of his FUN balloon. Which makes no sense, because this is the way I've always acted around him, and Ness should know that I'm the last person to reform and turn into a fucking Care Bear overnight. In retrospect, I should really give up and call it quits, because Ness should know that I can't make him happy.

Yet, I'm lying down on the cold hard floor, surfing the web in the hopes of answering all of my increasingly mindless questions.

how to be yourself without being awkward

how to talk to someone without being awkward

how to hug someone without being awkward

how to show affection to someone without being awkward

how to tell my macho dad I'm gay

whats dating

HELPP AM I GAY

Yeesh, my Google search history is terrifying. I bury my head into my hands and resist the urge to ask myself when I turned into such a pitiful sap. Things used to be so much easier when I wasn't such an emotional wreck. I could actually trust my head. I could actually think straight for more than two seconds. Now it feels like there's a hidden minefield of butterflies under my foot no matter where I step.

Love waits for no man. Love is scary, love is unforgiving, and beyond all, love doesn't give a damn about what I think.

But love has to wait, because I can't multitask. Whatever will happen will happen, I have a hundred other deadlines to prioritize, and this particular problem can stew as long as it has to on the back-burner, because if there's one thing love doesn't do, it's erase all of my life problems.

It's simple and straight-forward. If Ness makes the first move, then he makes the first move. Once he makes his move, I'll follow up. And if Ness doesn't feel like making a move, then I'll stay put until he tells me otherwise. Case closed. There's no point in worrying over something that may or may not potentially happen, and I'll have plenty of time to worry over Ness's first world sexytime problems after I take care of my own shit. Now get a grip, I grimly tell myself, and upon hearing the sound of approaching footsteps, shut my laptop.

Ness staggers into the bedroom with his loudly complaining sister on his back.

"Do it again! I bet you can't do it this time~!"

"I've already done it, like, a hundred times. Now knock it off," Ness grouches, trying to pry his sister off.

Pouting, Tracy tugs on his arm. "Please, big brother? Just once?" she says sweetly, tilting her head and flashing him her best puppy-dog face.

Giving me an apologetic glance, Ness gives in with a sigh and closes his eyes. Like a soda can about to burst from pressure, I feel Ness's magic slowly building up in his body before it finally pops. Hot sparks hop across across his chest before dancing across his fingers in a fluorescent lightshow. Then the sparks sink into his skin, leaving a faint firefly glow in Ness's hands.

Ness reopens his eyes. "Ready?" he says softly, and Tracy nods furiously in response.

His eyes glowing deep violet, Ness gently presses two fingers against his sister's temple.

A pause.

"You're frustrated."

"Damn it," Tracy wails, her twin pigtails flipping around at the speed of her exit. "Just you wait, big brother! I'll be way cooler than you one day!"

At her departure, Ness's eyes lose their glow. "She wanted me to read her emotions," he mutters, glancing at the agape bedroom door in disapproval. "She's getting better at hiding them from me, but I swear to god, if she asks me to do it for the tenth time tonight, I'm disowning her." When Ness reaches for my hand, he breaks into a grin at my wary expression. "Don't worry, I won't read your emotions. See? No glowy eyes."

"Who was at the door?"

"Twas only a lost stranger," Ness sings, flinging open his suitcase in random abandon. "Time to brush teef! Time to brush teef, teef, teef. I'm going in to shower afterwards. Mom and Tracy are going to use the other bathroom, so you don't have to worry about them barging in. Do you need toothpaste, Lucas?"

The sun goes down fast. Showering, flossing, bidding Ness's mom and sister goodnight. Before I know it, Ness closes the bedroom door shut behind us, only to stew over the immediate problem his mother has neglected to mention.

There's only one bed.

"We can probably fit," I say awkwardly, but Ness beats me to it, flicking off the lights and flopping down onto the floor in what is supposed to be a noble act of chivalry.

I furrow my brows at his stupidity. "Ness, what are you doing."

"Take the bed. This floor is comfy."

"You'll die. It's negative ten degrees Celsius with the wind chill."

"That's just your imagination."

"If you catch a cold, I'm not nursing you back to health," I deadpan.

A pause, and a rustle of jammies as Ness climbs into bed. "Scoot over, I'm freezing," Ness whispers, tugging the covers over his shoulders and snuggling closer before flinching. "Shit, why are your hands so cold? Do you ever take your meds?"

You've lived with me for over three years, Ness. Don't ask me questions you already know the answers to.

Still when he warms my hands up in his, I can't help but hum in satisfaction.

"You should really eat your iron pills," Ness whispers, burying his head into my chest.

"They taste like shit," I say flatly.

I don't need Ness's empathy link to sense his grimace. He's gotten a whiff of my pills the one time I let him satisfy his curiosity. Remembering him gagging and coughing on all fours, I think it's safe to say that Ness sorely regrets it. "Fair enough, but it's not healthy for you to skip them whenever you want."

I'm not frail, Ness. I'm plenty healthy without my meds. I close my eyes, trying to remember the pattern of his breathing.

"Lucas?" Ness whispers.

"Hmm."

"Why do you think your dad would have a problem with... you know. Me liking you."

I laugh quietly under my breath. "Because I'm the family disappointment."

"You?"

"My dad lectures me enough. I'm nothing like my brother." A bitter pause. "I'm nothing like Claus."

"So? What's wrong with being different?"

So? Even after fighting for my place on the roster, I remember the tireless conversations I've held with my father over the apparent question of my masculinity. At 60kg on a scale soaking wet, skinny jeans are my friend. Shirts tent in around my midsection. I can't fill up sleeves properly. Worse, I have to be careful not to choose clothes that fit me just right and wear a size up because I might look too effeminate. I'm lean and lanky, but mostly skin and bones. I've already resigned myself to the fact that I'll never get Zac Efron's Baywatch body, but it still stings to know I look too damn weak and skinny to fit in with society's beauty standards.

I already know that I look like shit. I don't need my dad's constant reminder to know that I just don't look muscular enough, that I act too much like Courage the Cowardly Dog to be of any use, that true men are fearless in the face of danger.

"A man must be stoic," I say in the grave imitation of my father. "You're too sensitive for a man. No woman likes a crier."

"That's total B.S."

"You take after your mother. She liked singing. Reading. Drawing. But those are no hobbies for a man."

"NO."

"Look at your brother. Watch how he tackles his problems headfirst. Follow in his footsteps. Don't let me catch you indoors again."

"If he has trouble thinking that you're any less of a man because you don't have the personality of an egotistical six-pack, then he's wrong," Ness declares stubbornly. "And there's nothing shameful about crying. It doesn't make you any more of a coward."

Then I think about Ness, and how easily he cries. And Ness is certainly no coward.

"You're different though. You're not so easily scared," I say plaintively, and Ness tightens his grip on my hands.

"Lucas, can I tell you a secret?" Ness shifts uncomfortably against me. "I get scared a lot too."

"Not as much I as I do-"

"Only because I throw myself into action before I can second-guess myself. If I didn't push myself to take that first step, I don't think I'd trust myself to ever take it. I'd freeze up from fear. But you're smart. You actually think things through before you act. Sometimes, you worry too much... but it's okay, because I worry too little." Ness scrunches his eyes shut. "Lucas, you're right. I don't know shit about your dad. But if you ask me, it sounds like he cares about you, and doesn't know how to express it."

"You think so?"

"Yeah."

"...I think so too."

"..."

"..."

Ness squeezes my hands again. "I love you just the way you are," he whispers.

A warm feeling wells up in my throat. Closing my eyes, I rest my chin on top of his head with a pleased hum.

 

Chapter Text

Nuss 11:00PM
ok i need ur help

FuckThePopo❤ 11:07PM
Ayyy bby
u wan sum fuk ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

Nuss 11:07PM
WOAH
NO

FuckThePopo❤ 11:08PM
SHIT wrong number
oky bae i gotchu
whatchu need

Nuss 11:09PM
i wanna ask lucas out on a date

FuckThePopo❤ 11:09PM
awesum
did u tell him

Nuss 11:10PM
i did
but i didnt tell him it was a date
were goin 2 the movies 2morrow

FuckThePopo❤ 11:12PM
lemme guess
they ran out of movie tickets
np i got connections

Nuss 11:13PM
thank god no
we have tickets
but i wan him to tri n make the 1st move
wat r some ways i can ease him into it w/o looking desperate
like
leaning into his sholder?
iM freakin out help me

FuckThePopo❤ 11:15PM
srsly ness
fuck dat subtle shit
assert yo dominance
grab him by the face and french him

Nuss 11:15PM
NO
THATS WAY TOO FFAST

FuckThePopo❤ 11:16PM
then tell him to slow down ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

Nuss 11:17PM
...why did i text u
im gonna go text paula bye

FuckThePopo❤ 11:18PM
dude
open yo suitcase

Nuss 11:20PM
wHAT
now im scared
what  did u put in my suitcase

Nuss 11:43PM
Popo?


.

.

.

~Chapter Twenty-Five~

I Fall Off Rainbow Road

.

.

.


Every year on Christmas and on my goddamn birthday, Popo makes it his mission to give me prank gifts. Their every premise is just as stupid and ridiculous as the last.

And every single time, they've proven to be infuriatingly USEFUL.

On my 15th birthday, he bought me tissues and coconut oil. And last Christmas, he bought me a pack of toilet paper, because somehow, he'd known that we'd run out later that night.

So this year, on the year of my gay, I expected something explicit and embarrassing. Like a vibrator. But Popo couldn't have bought me one, because Red had already beaten him to the punch.

The day before we left for the condo, Red surprised me by showing up at our door with his perpetually deadpan stare. I thought he was looking for Lucas, except that Lucas had been out on a meeting with Master Hand, and Red should've seen him pass by. The matches were over until next summer. There was no reason for Red to visit me, much less talk to me, so I figured hey maybe he wanted to chill.

That is, until Red handed me a hot pink dildo wrapped in a flamboyant red ribbon. All for a subtle go fuck yourself.

Then I guess I passed under Popo's radar this Christmas.

Wrong.

Strewn in the wreckage of wrapping paper, I continue to stare agape at the contents of Popo's Christmas gift. I don't know which was more surprising, the fact that Popo had bought me a box of books, or the fact that he expected me to read. But now, glancing at the revolting mix of covers, I'm not sure if I want to touch them.

When the hell did Popo sneak these into my bag?

I eye the pile of shounen-ai mangas as if they're about to bite my hand off. Showing off their flashy colorful covers, one or two of them are about animes that I've never seen before, but the rest I quickly recognized as Nesscas doujins.

There's a reason this stuff has a big rep for shits and giggles in the Mansion. One, we're Smashers. And two, it's pretty much accepted that all smashers are privy to a plethora of fanart and fanfic. Which can be both kinda flattering... and kinda awkward. Because RULE 34: If it exists, then there is porn of it. And with the number of One Direction self-insert fanfics on Wattpad these days, I wouldn't be surprised if people already started shipping other celebrities together.

Yeah, I'm talking about you, Fanfiction Readers. We all know that shipping exists. We usually don't mention it. Even Nesscas. Or Lucess. LucNess. Less. Whatever people call our pairing these days.

It's not worth arguing over.

So basically, I turn a blind eye to it.

Again, no hate. If you're a shipper, then great. If you like writing/drawing/what-have-you about our fandom, then great. You do you. I'm just gonna stop by to grab my cheap pornos and carry on with my business in the other corner. I only have one request. Please, whatever you do, take all the rabid fans and paparazzi with you. My little sister gets enough harassment from my stalkers without me trying to hunt more down. Why people get so worked up over fictional pairings, I don't know, but hey when did I ever understand the hate that was mainstream tumblr.

As Lucas nicely puts it: People are dicks, and social media is stupid.

This is why we can't have nice things.

Cutting to a quick disclaimer: I don't know much about yaoi. Or manga. Or doujinshi. With a fangirl sister, all I know is that yaoi is some fetishized gay porn people jerked off to, and that shounen-ai is just its watered-down version. This trashy shit is the same stuff MY LITTLE SISTER likes to read.

So it stands that my natural reaction to yaoi is plz no. Like hell I'm ever reading about my sister's wet dream fantasies!

Having said this solid conviction, I gingerly push aside the cancerous pile with my toe.

Not five minutes later, I'm pouring through the fluffy shounen-ai mangas like it's my life, because fuck, they're addictingI'm a sucker for stellar graphics. I've had high expectations ever since I splurged on that latest issue of Marvel the day I turned 13, and let's face it, I like to keep it that way.

But fuck does Popo not disappoint. He's actually got good taste, because all the art styles in this collection are fly. What's more, all of Popo's stories make sense. Even the weird R-rated ones. So long as I skip over some of the uh, extremely detailed sex, those were okay too, I guess. They're certainly a damn good source of guilty pleasure for teenage girls. Half-naked boys sprawled over each page? No wonder my sister goes crazy over this.

Japan is really milking out the fanservice these days.

It was only then I had the courage to pick up and open a Nesscas doujinshi that looked relatively harmless.

Shit, it's good. Mouthwatering good. The art was good, the plot was good, and the character buildup was so sweet that halfway through I swore I caught diabetes. By the end, I was left staring at the back of the manga, wondering why this wasn't my life.

It's really good.

I squeeze my eyes shut. Okay, I'll admit that the doujinshis have so far exceeded my expectations, but I'm still not sure why Popo bought them for me. Is this his way of saying, grow a pair and go for it bro? Or geez Nessie you need to work on your moves?

I don't know.

So I read on.

But the more doujinshis I skimmed, the emptier I began to feel. If there's one thing that many of the doujins failed to capture, it's keeping us in character.

Not to say that Popo hadn't done his work. He's definitely weeded out the trashier ones, but even with his SAFE SEARCH filter, I was left with a mixed assortment. Most of the Nesscas doujinshis were decent. Kinda cliche and corny, but tolerable. At least, until the plot took a sudden nosedive and turned me into an uber bad boy or pervy rapist that put Popo to shame.

A few times though, the artists came close to the real deal. A lot of the fluffier ones involving nightmares and calming Lucas down reminded me of my younger self, and made me smile once or twice in spite of myself.

But that was the thing. The characters were goodbut they weren't us.

The artists seemed to have a harder time drawing out Lucas's character onto the page, because of the ones I'd perused, Lucas was no better. Over half of them depicted him as this helpless wimp who cried over everything, and the other half drew him as this unfeeling, angsty, die-hard fuck-you-Ness-you-don't-understand-me-and-my-tragic-past prick.

Lucas is neither.

His dad was stubbornly set on raising him on tough love, and it shows. Lucas is independent. Lucas guarded his heart, only because he was afraid of getting hurt. Lucas didn't smile often, but whenever he did, it was endearingly awkward, and brightened up his face in a manner his smirks failed to do. Lucas might have been a crybaby once upon a time ago, might have learned to overcome it with the stoicism I wished I could've learned, but I loved him for whom he was because only he could make me go all fuzzy and jittery inside.

It was how Lucas had changed over the years. Emotional trauma, he said, was a good catalyst for growing up, and I know I've done my own fair share in the past month.

Lucas isn't flawless. Lucas isn't two-dimensional. Lucas is just Lucas.

That's enough for me.

I have no idea how long Popo stood in that yaoi aisle, weeding out shitty Nesscas doujins, but after skimming through pretty much all of them, I could tell that each manga had been selected for a clear purpose.

In short,

NESS STOP BULLSHITTING AROUND AND GO FOR IT.

When the shower turns off, I hastily sweep the mangas into my luggage because forgive me if I don't feel like having this conversation with Lucas at this time. Not ever. Not yet. Not soon. I'm not desperate. I don't want Lucas to get the wrong idea. I've seen how sex at the wrong times for the wrong reasons has destroyed relationships, and while neither of us are quite at that stage yet, we're both mature enough to talk things through.

I like Lucas no matter what he does.

And I don't think he's used to me telling him that.

Dead mom and brother aside, I don't think he's used to ANYONE telling him that.

That's not okey.

So when Lucas walks out of the bathroom fully-dressed, I clamor after him, sneaking in a hug and a quick I-love-you before he pushes me away with a 'not now, my hair's wet.'

"You're going to get your shirt all damp, and then it's gonna smell," Lucas says, rummaging for his hairdryer.

"But I want a hug now."

"A few seconds waiting won't kill you."

I give him what I hope is a pleading look.

"I'll be right back," Lucas reassures me, unfazed by my sad puppy dog eyes, and returns to the bathroom. Roommate, friend, or otherwise, he's become desensitized to my persuasion tactics.

What a cold-hearted soul.

Puffing up my cheeks, I wait for Lucas in the living room.

With my mom and sister off shopping, we had the rest of the day to spend together alone. Even better, I got a kick out of watching Tracy wail in horror the entire time mom dragged her to the car, because Tracy hates shopping with an ungodly passion. She hates it almost as much as I do. Understandable, considering that she's the sister of a gamer with fine taste. I would've felt bad for bailing on Tracy, but if my mom hadn't taken her away, she would've dumped my little sister on me. And as much as I love you Tracy, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to take one for the team.

Because I'm taking Lucas out on a date. The classic couples choice of the century: The movie theatre. Followed by a lazy stroll through AsiaTown, because they're holding some sort of pre-celebratory food festival for Chinese New Years.

And as you know, I'm always down for good food.

I unplug my phone from the charger, and the screen lights up with all my missed texts.

PSI Paula 7:01AM
I wish you PK Luck on your first date!
(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

King Poo Panda 7 :45AM
Paula sent me text massage
I pray for good wishes
Though for what I do not understand
But dates taste good
And who is this "Lucas"
is he your sworn enemy

&Donuts 8:24AM
GASP
first date?! ! :O
omG
DX WHY U NEVER TELL US ANYTHING U MEANIE >:(  
plz post cute pics on snapchat :D :D :D

&Donuts 8:29AM
Sorry, that was Tony.
We're both rooting for you!

FuckThePopo❤ 10:11AM
yo heres a free coupon for XL popcorn
and heres a link for corny pickup lines
FuckThePopo has sent you an attachment (2)
now go tap that ass ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

I hastily send a wave of generic responses back before turning the ringer off, because while their well-wishes are appreciated, shit do I know that other texts are to follow. We should take off before word takes my other friends by storm.

Lucas walks into the living room on his cell, but glances down when I wrap my arms around him in a sneak-attack. Surprise hug, ha. He shouldn't have lowered his guard so soon. "Hello? Yes." A pause. "Oh, okay. I'll let him know." Another pause. "I'll think about it. Yup, my pleasure." Click.

I peer at his phone screen. "Who dat?"

"Peach quit patrol duty. She wants to know if you can take some of her shifts next month."

But my January's all packed. "Aaah, I don't know..."

"She says that she'll put her cookies on the table."

...I think I can squeeze in a few shifts.

"Okay, but it's gonna suck because hers are usually on the weekends." I nudge my head under Lucas's arms to sneak in another hug. "What's Peach doing for community service?"

"She's an instructor for ballroom dancing."

"Let me guess. She wants to recruit us."

"They need more guys."

Why am I not surprised. "Are you gonna join?"

"I told her I'd think about it."

Clever response. At least it saved Peach the trouble of hounding after Lucas for the entire day.

I grimace. Between Marth and Peach, I have yet to decide who has scarier college recruiting skills. They're each persistent in their own way, but given her sneaky cupcake and baked good bribes, Peach is definitely the larger threat. I mean, she hands out FREE FOOD. How can I say no to that?

But college classes cost money, and heck if I'm spending moolah to twirl and make a fool of myself in front of a gaggle of girls. I value my street cred.

I spare Lucas a glance. Despite slouching so much, Lucas actually has a nice form. In the rare instances I've seen him act his age, goofing around the bathroom mirror before noticing me and turning bright crimson, I've wondered if Lucas would genuinely enjoy living the normal life. Study to his heart's content. Try out new hobbies. Learn all sorts of subjects. Science. History. Music. Art. Heck, even dance. I mean, okay, Lucas looks stiff and awkward as hell, but that's because you've never seen him fight. It's crazy. Once he gets into the flow of the battle, he's surprisingly fluid, what with his long, lanky limbs and impeccable sense of rhythm.

Then again, I have no doubt that Lucas would do well in anything he put his mind to. He puts his all into everything, and thrives in a challenge. I'd be pretty fucking hopeless in college, but Lucas?

It's really a shame that he had to drop out of school.

We jump when my phone goes off in a loud flurry of high-pitched dings. Aw shit, don't tell me. I forgot to turn my ringer off.

Lucas's eyes laugh at me. "Somebody's popular." Another ding. "Very popular."

I feel my face heat up. "Let's talk on the way," I sputter, pushing Lucas out and stuffing my now-silenced phone back into my pocket.

We ride the inter-city Metro to the movie theaters.

I know what you're thinking.

And you can cross that thought out of your head.

The ride is far from romantic. The Smash City Metro was a crappy, beaten-down ripoff of a bullet train. It's so full to the brim with people that we're stacked against each other like canned sardines, and at every station, it stops so abruptly that I bowl straight into the window. It gets better when we manage to snag two empty seats out of sheer luck, but the initial jerk almost always catapults me out of my chair. I sneak a glance at the faces around me, because while we're bundled up in layers of layers, Lucas outright refused to wear his sunglasses.

"Better safe than sorry," Lucas says, now fixing his eyes on another rustle of movement - an old woman struggling on board with a cart of groceries. He offers her his seat before I can. Puffing up my cheeks at the loss, I stand up anyway and sock him goodnaturedly in the shoulder.

Still, when Lucas rakes his eyes over the Metro in bemused disinterest, I know that his composure is a facade. Lucas has been on-guard since Porky's appearance. If he's risking his cover in favor of his telepathy, it's says a lot about his current mindset.

Reflective lenses block his mind reading powers.

And Lucas wants to be prepared in case things go south.

So I nudge myself against his side, then grin wider when he glances down at me. "I'm keeping watch too," I say seriously.

In response, Lucas's shoulders relax.

.

.

.

~oO0Oo~

.

.

.

I wanted a perfect first date.

But the weather had other ideas.

When we step out of the metro station around noon, the dark sky gives an ominous rumble. And then, five blocks down from the movie theatre, the sky gives me the giant fuck u and starts raining.

Let me rephrase that.

It's pouring cats and dogs. Each droplet is like the size of my fist. Except that the temperature is cold as fuck, so instead of rain, we have this gross slushy sleet that pelts us in the face and soaks our socks.

We dash to the movie theatre before the worst of the storm hits. As we shake off our sopping jackets, I notice some stares directed our way. I'm that good lookin'. It can't be helped. But to our luck, no one comes to bother us, because hey, this is Smash City. On a good day, the odds of bumping into a celebrity here is like one in ten. We might get more looks the longer we stay, but most people here are used to seeing smashers do everyday life stuff.

Besides, Urfbound. The chances of us bumping into somebody from our smallass fandom are hit or miss.

On the other hand, some better-known smashers can never catch a break.

"-and there we go," a familiar blonde says, bending over to smile into the phone. Taking a selfie, the last delighted fan shakes the bounty hunter's hand before eagerly scampering away to her smiling parents.

"Samus!" I call out.

She turns around with a painfully forced smile. "Sorry kid, duty calls, that's the last selfie- Oh." Relief floods Samus's face when she recognizes us. "It's you."

"Yes. It is indeed me, in the flesh." I joke, taking out my i-phone, "Can I have a selfie too-"

"Bugger off, I'm on patrol," Samus grunts.

Huh. She must be in a bad mood.

I give Lucas a pleading glance. "I'll send you a coupon for the popcorn via messenger. Can you...?"

"I'll go grab the snacks," he offers, walking away to leave us in peace.

Once he's gone, I sympathetically shift closer to Samus's side. "Bad day?"

"You wouldn't know half of it," Samus mutters, sheathing her electric whip. "I'm covering for Peach this week. Guess she asked you for help too."

"I heard that Bayo bailed. Is she really...?"

"A school sub."

"That's crazy."

"I know. Kids are the worst," Samus groans. "But hey, who am I to stop her. Bayo does what she wants. She told me that she wanted to help out, because Jeanne teaches at the local high school here, but between you and me? She's got a soft spot for children. I think Bayo's been dropping me hints to sub in too, but ugh, nooo thanks. She's already adopted Cereza. She might as well open a up a new daycare for strays and get it over with."

"She'd be good with kids," I agree, glancing around the movie theater. I lower my voice. "What do you think about the new Hands-Off Act?"

"What about it?"

"It'll ban us from patrol duty. Do you think Master Hand will cave?"

"Who knows. He's under a lot of hot water from the makeover you gave Porky - don't you dare apologize, he was trying to blackmail Lucas," she adds with a scowl. "But the act has a good chance of getting passed into law."

"I shouldn't have punched him."

"You shouldn't have, but you did. Don't repeat the same mistake twice," Samus says bluntly.

"That's what Lucas told me-"

"Then he's right. Or even better, tell me next time so I can beat the bad guys up for you," Samus smirks, and I laugh. "Kidding. Not really. Anyways, you should start looking around for other jobs in case the act gets passed. I might stick with bounty hunting if things don't work out."

It's not just Bayo and Peach who've found a change of heart. I've noticed more of the smashers leaving patrol duty in favor of the service sector. Wii Fit Trainer now earns money as a professional workout trainer. Wario's opened up his own business consultant firm. I'm not sure about how getting a job or going to college counts as "community service," but I guess it's Master Hand's way of saying, live a normal life for once, damn it.

In other words, Master Hand wants us to see Smash City as a second home.

And it is.

Because Onett will always be first place in my heart.

"But we're not hurting anybody in patrol duty," I protest. "We've caught more criminals that way-"

"Not always. Sometimes we interfere with the police force, and the collateral damage-" Samus grimaces. "Master Hand's been getting daily reports about property damage ever since Sonic accidentally demolished that Bank of America on 7th Street. We might have experience saving people, but in the end, we're just athletes and normal do-gooders with fancy powers... we're not an official police force." Samus slides on her helmet. "That's another thing, by the way. You."

"Me?"

"Your age," Samus clarifies. "Everyone thinks that you and Lucas are too young to be dealing with crime."

"Tell that to Red."

"Him too. We've gotten complaints from a lot of parents. Letting you compete in the tourney was already a stretch. But patrol duty? It's dangerous. All the parents think that we're exposing innocent kids to second-hand violence and trauma. So yes, 'kids' also includes you."

"I'm not THAT young," I scowl. "I fought Giygas when I was like eleven. Gimme a break, I'm turning 18 soon."

Samus smirks, flicking the brim of my cap. "Tough luck. You're always gonna be the youngest of the Elite twelve, kiddo. But maybe the public's right this time. Go live a little. Explore the world - OH NOT ON MY WATCH, YOU LITTLE FUCKER! STOP RIGHT THERE!" Samus grabs her electric whip in a livid fury. "Enjoy the date, I gotta dash."

She storms off after the terrified hooligan, who screeches and drops a stolen purse in his haste to escape. Noticing her, a horde of reporters with mikes and flashing cameras scurry after her. Now I see why the paparazzi haven't bothered us yet. They've got bigger fish to fry. Poor Samus.

"What did I miss," Lucas asks, two drinks and a bag of cheese popcorn tucked under his arms.

"Nothing much. Just Samus being a badass." I frown at the drinks in his hands. "Hey, you bought everything."

Leaving no room for argument, Lucas smirks and presses the empty soda cup in my hand. "You pay for the tickets, I pay for the food. What are you in the mood for."

"I dunno. Coke, or Sprite?"

"Your pick."

Hovering over the soda machine, I contemplate over my choices for an extra second. Can't decide? Simple. I slide the plastic cup underneath each canister and mix the two sodas together.

"Hey, drink this," I say, sti