“I hope this is good enough,” Jacque said, head dropping down onto the table.
“It’s an improvement, but I’m not the judge. We’ll see how the room responds,” Tess declared, dangling her golden key over the canvas.
The art disappeared with a bright flash of light. A sketchbook now rested on the easel. Jacque picked it up, flipping through the pages.
“I was rejected?” Jacque asked.
“No. Why do you assume this is a sign of rejection?” Tess shook her head.
“Nothing feels different. It’s blank too,” Jacque explained his reasoning.
“Try drawing something,” Tess ordered.
Jacque drew a simple apple, no serious shading or any depth. An apple sprung out from the sketchbook. However, it was rotten, bruises all over the fruit.
“The f***?” Jacque exclaimed.
Tess snatched the apple, holding it up in the air, before tossing it over to me.
“Anything he draws manifests itself in reality?” I placed the apple down on a nearby stool.
“His powers are in fluctuation. As you just saw, the item he drew was not in optimal condition. Jacque will have to experiment,” Tess answered.
“Better than being a freakin’ rock,” Jacque said.
“Jacque, draw a sword,” Tess instructed.
A candy cane popped out instead. Tess handed it to me. Weird, this sensation and balance, it was exactly the same as my blade.
“It’s a sword but not in a recognizable form. A gag weapon with potential,” Tess said.
“That could come in handy, especially against an overconfident opponent,” Zhuyu commented, sipping his tea.
“Bro, better than being thrown around. I’ll take it. Tess, I just gotta practice?” Jacque tapped his pencil against the sketchbook.
“Yes. This is just a small fraction of your potential powers. The sketchbook will reveal more as you use it,” Tess replied.
“Cool,” Jacque responded.
“Tomo, are you ready for tomorrow?” Tess asked as we exited the room.
“I have to do it, right? It’ll be reassuring to have you around,” I replied.
“I will do my utmost in protecting you, Tomo,” Tess promised.
She led us to an unmarked door, placing her key in it. Champ flew out, landing on the ground with a hard thud.
“I apologize for the sudden eviction. We must leave before the effects of this dimension overcome everyone,” Tess informed.
“Wait, there are negative effects?” I never considered that as a possibility.
“Yes, I rather not test it,” Tess confirmed.
“How was the practice?” I asked Champ.
“Pretty tough. I can’t exactly move around with my leg and all,” Champ replied, hobbling around on his crutch.
“Any side effects?” I questioned as Tess opened a door for us.
“Not really, might take awhile before I learn everything. This feels comfortable unlike my old powers,” Champ answered.
We all returned back to the house. Champ left right away, leaving me with everyone else.
“Yo, I’m getting a ride home, right? You’re not going to just leave me here?” Jacque laughed.
“Yeah, whenever you’re ready to leave. Tomo, still have anything to ask Tess?” Zhuyu gave a small grin in response.
“I’ll be seeing a lot of Tess tomorrow so no. Does Tess have anything she wants to tell me?” I glanced over at the Gatekeeper.
“No, I will contact you if anything comes up,” Tess replied.
Back in my house, I stared up at the ceiling. I didn’t even know the meeting location. I thought they would have contacted me by now. Maybe it was too early. By nighttime, they would for sure, unless Mirei suspected something. No, that wasn’t it. With everyone sustaining injuries, there was no way we could take her down. Might as well take a quick nap. I felt tired despite getting enough sleep.
“Of course you would do this,” I said.
The same room as last time. Ace smiled at my reaction.
“Tomo, have you arrived at a decision regarding the possible alliance benefiting both sides?” Ace questioned.
“You can buy us time, right? I’ll accept. As much as I hate to admit it, you’re really the only one who can do anything,” I answered.
“It seems even they realize what they’re facing at this point. I’ll fulfill my end of the bargain. I know everyone won’t just let me. When that time comes, be ready! Prepare for that, Tomo. Do you still wish to cooperate?” Ace questioned.
“Like I said before, Mirei’s the priority right now. Ace, I know you’re powerful and that’s all I care about right now. I’ll face you eventually. I’ll be stronger by then so the expectations you have of me will be realized,” I replied, my mind already made up.
“Great! I’ll hang around you like Tess has planned. Until then, Tomo,” Ace left me with those final words.
The doorbell ringing woke me up. I headed downstairs and saw Mom talking to Mirei.
“Auntie, I came over to see Yuki. I want to learn more about my big brother,” Mirei said.
“I’m sure Yuki will enjoy the company,” Mom said.
“You’re finally here,” I greeted.
“Oh Yuki, were you expecting her? You should have told me,” Mom chided, heading inside the kitchen.
“Perfect, let’s talk in your room. I’m sure that you have a lot of questions,” Mirei decided.
“Yuki, I’ll be up with snacks. Take your time,” Mom informed me.
In my room, Mirei sat down, a cheerful expression on her face. Alright, time to show your true colors. I know the exact reason you’re here so let’s just get this over with.
“Yuki, how has your week been?” Mirei started off with small talk.
“Cut the b*******,” I stated.
“So fiesty, Yuki. Just wanted to get a little goodwill going between us. You don’t have to be that hostile,” Mirei remarked, a disappointed look on her face.
“Maybe it’s because you beat me up?” I retorted.
“That was necessary to make sure you knew I was serious. Besides, it gave everyone a good chance to evaluate if they really want to continue moving down this path,” Mirei explained.
“Just tell me the place you want to meet up. That’s what you came here, right?” I was fed up with this roundabout conversation.
“Is it really that unbelievable I came here to just learn more about you and Ichizen?” Mirei asked.
“Mirei, do you really expect me to believe that?” I sighed, looking over at the woman.
“If I really wanted to, I could demand an answer right now. However, I won’t break my own deadline, especially if someone from the Gatekeeper’s team convinced you otherwise,” Mirei pointed out.
“Having a serious talk, now, are we? Just make sure to not get carried away and do something you’ll regret,” Mom interrupted, placing a plate down on the table.
Mirei ate a snack, her composure calm. This really was getting to me. She was just too cordial. Would Ace uphold her end of the deal? Tess and the others trusted her. She already even know we wouldn’t uphold our end of the deal. And she was still willing? With Mirei being so friendly, it made me question who the real enemy was.
“Alright, Mirei, I’ll play along. What do you want to know?” I decided.
“Just a few things about you and Ichizen. It’s only natural for me to want to know, right? After all, you were pretty close,” Mirei answered.
“Yeah, we were childhood friends, it’s to expected,” I replied.
“I don’t know about that, Yuki. You went along with Ichizen on that fateful night,” Mirei said, looking straight at me.
“How do you know about that?” I questioned, caught off guard.
“My powers were awakened because of his death,” Mirei answered.
“How did it happen?” I asked for details.
“A voice told me my tranquil days were over. If I wanted to avenge my brother, I would go to where he lived. Most of the information I have on you is in here,” Mirei revealed, holding up a book.
A grimoire, of course. More importantly, was the voice she mentioned the same one that spoke to me?
“If you take over, it won’t be easy. You’re not dealing with people like Tess’ team. They’re much stronger,” I warned.
“I am aware. I’ll do whatever it takes. With my group, I will surpass the current heroes,” Mirei stated.
She was confident, but her experience was limited. The same could be said for me as well. I worried for her safety even if she was forcing my hand.
“Anyways, let’s not talk about that. We’ve discussed business for far too long. Let’s talk about something fun like Yuka’s boyfriend. Champ Shinji, was it? He’s struggling with a few personal demons,” Mirei shifted the topic.
“That’s pretty random. Why did you even bring him up? If this is your idea of having fun talk, it’s not working,” I remarked, confused about her topic choice.
“I just thought you might want to talk about one of your friends. You don’t get much of a chance to talk about that kind of stuff with the heroes, right? You don’t know them really well enough to even try. I’m doing you a favor,” Mirei explained her reasoning.
Hold on, Mirei never even met Yuka before. How did she….? I glanced her grimoire. That was a dangerous tool. She could go after anyone I knew.
“He’s pretty out of it since you beat him up. I imagine you hurt his pride pretty badly,” I said.
“He’s quite delusional, that one. You’re willing to have him as your friend’s boyfriend? Maybe you should consider putting a stop to that,” Mirei suggested.
So that was your game, sowing seeds of doubt. I had to commend her for such a strategy.
“It’s up to her. Who knows, people can change, right? Isn’t that why you’re offering to lift the burden off of Tess and the others?” I replied.
“Nicely done, Yuki. I guess you have a point. Back to my brother. How much did he get on your nerves? I heard from Mom he was prone to jump into things without much thought,” Mirei asked.
“All the time. He had an idea of limits, just didn’t care. I had to drag his ass out of trouble so many times. Didn’t hate him for it though. I got used to it,” I revealed.
“He really was a fun guy to hang out with then. Too bad he was never around. Such a weird family tradition we have,” Mirei said, giving me a genuine smile.
“Mirei, do you know anything more about the voice who told you about these powers?” I pressed her for information.
She picked up a strawberry wafer, placing it into her mouth. I didn’t trust her yet. I’m sure she thought the same as well. Still, if she knew anything…. though, it probably was just a fleeting hope of mine.
“Yuki, I don’t really know anything more. Like you, it gave me a goal. Simple as that. You don’t know who it is either, right?” Mirei answered.
“I don’t. What happens tomorrow will really change everything, huh?” I said, staring out the window again.
“It will. Whether it ends up being beneficial or painful depends on your answer. Yuki, I only met you a few days ago, but I can tell you’ve already decided. If my guess is right, it’ll be a tough road for both of us,” Mirei replied, a serious look on her face for the first time.
“I’m sure it will be. Mirei, how long have you known the people that are part of your little group?” I questioned.
“I haven’t known them for that long. But we work really well thanks to a mutual acquaintance of ours. You started working with Tess’ group after Ichizen died. You don’t trust them, but yet here you are. Kind of like me. We might run out of things at this rate, Yuki. Meet me at this address. Bring your friends along. I’m not scared of them. Your decision will impact everything going forward,” Mirei replied, flicking over a business card.
I snatched it from the air and escorted her downstairs. Under different circumstances, we could have become friends. Pretty clichéd of me to say. Technically, that possibility still existed. She held the advantage for now, but with Ace’s involvement, that would change.
“Where is this exactly?” I muttered, checking an online map.
I moved the cursor around, checking out the area. This wasn’t far from Felicity’s house. Was that just a coincidence?
“Probably just me connecting dots that aren’t there,” I muttered.
I texted Tess the address. One minute later, she sent back a response with her time of arrival tomorrow. Nine, early as always, knowing her it would be closer to eight.
“Guess I should sleep early tonight,” I thought and headed downstairs for dinner.
There was a lot of pressure. You suck, voice! I really did want my peaceful days back. No other choice but to keep on forging ahead.