“Good to see you again, Lau!” Zhuyu greeted his long time friend.
“It’s been awhile, Long! What you been up to?” Shui responded, sitting down inside the math instructor’s apartment.
“Nothing much. I’ve been teaching ever since I came back. How was your trip?” Zhuyu poured a cup of tea for him.
“Amazing! The food was the best part. We gotta go somewhere when you’re free,” Shui replied, checking his phone for any new messages.
The university lecturer updated his friend on the situation. Shui sipped his tea during the explanation, concern on his face after hearing about Yuki’s appearance.
“Hmm, what are you going to do, Long?” Shui asked, accepting a plate of fried noodles.
“It’s tough. I know Zhang isn’t in unless he has to be. With your current job, I know you rather stay out of it too,” Zhuyu admitted.
“You’re right, but if there’s a chance of saving Yuki and Mirei, I’m willing to do it. Oh, this is good! It tastes different than last time,” Shui commented.
“Yeah, you know the recipe you sent me? It inspired me to change it up,” the lecturer revealed.
Shui graduated with a communications degree, but ended up pursuing a cooking career. He survived the initial grind and rose up the ranks. Eventually, he was hired by a three-star restaurant from outside of the region. The man worked there for several years before finally making full use of his marketing skills. The former hero started a successful marketing campaign and soon it became a viral hit. He soon started a successful cooking stream online, traveling around the world, with the assistance of friends. His current occupation was now producer of that stream and other spin-off projects while making occasional appearances.
“I don’t know, man. You’re pretty famous now. Seriously, you don’t have the time,” Zhuyu remarked.
“Long, I already knew you’d say that. If there’s anyway I can help, I’ll try my best. You know how it is,” Shui said, staring at the zero-vector user with a serious expression.
“I’m not gonna stop you. I’ll let you know when it’s all figured out. Come on, let’s lighten up the mood!” Zhuyu decided, handing his friend a game controller.
“What game is it?” Shui inquired.
“The one where you always beat me and Zhang. Zhang’s coming over later so I thought I’d try getting some practice so I’m not last place like always,” Zhuyu answered.
“No way! I tied with Zhang last time. You just have to make sure the bombs don’t explode your way,” Shui responded with a laugh.
The two friends, joined by En thirty minutes later, played BakudanMan. Zhuyu ended up in last place, taking too many risks while also being too slow to respond when his friends set up bombs. Shui barely beat En, securing his victory when a bomb bounced back and struck En’s character. Despite the passage of time, the three men still managed to get together when possible and catch up.
“Jen!” Lilith called out to the woman.
Jen, finished with her shift as a scan technician at the hospital, glanced back in surprise. Over the years, she lost contact with the heroes. She saw their posts on social media and interacted with them through there, but hadn’t spoken with any of the face-to-face in five years.
“Lilith?” Jen walked toward her.
“Has Long reached out to you yet?” Lilith pulled out her phone.
“No, he hasn’t. Has something happened with Yuki?” Jen shook her head.
“Sort of. Are you free now? I can catch you up,” Lilith asked.
“Yes, I am. Where did you want to go?” Jen inquired.
“I’ll send you the address. See you there!” Lilith waved her phone in the air before dashing off.
Jen arrived at Kao’s, a Chinese barbecue restaurant, ten minutes later. The technician was familiar with it, often buying a lunch box from the business. She looked for Lilith and found her in the back with three other people.
“Oh, it’s been a long time,” Jen greeted everyone with a slight bow.
Lionel grimaced at her action, feeling she was too courteous. Xiu and Steph bowed their heads in response. Jen sat next to Lilith, accepting a menu from the former leader.
“It’s my treat. Order whatever you like. Except for you Lionel,” Lilith said.
“Why?” Lionel sipped his glass of water with disappointment.
“You already ate before you came here. I saw that picture with your girlfriend. The caption said you were on a diet anyways,” Lilith countered.
“Damn, didn’t think you would see that,” Lionel said, leaning back on his chair.
“What’s going on, Lilith?” Jen asked.
Lilith updated her on the current situation. Jen felt hurt Zhuyu didn’t reach out to her right away like he did with everyone else. But she knew he did things in a different way than most people. The man probably assumed someone else would give her the news. That person turned out to be Lilith.
“Does Long think we’ll have to do something because the Traveler might be back?” Jen questioned.
“He’s not sure. You don’t have to make a decision right away. I’m sure everyone else is thinking the same thing,” Lilith replied.
“I’m out. I’m moving in two weeks so I won’t be in the area anymore. You’ve done a lot for us, Lilith, but I’m not the right person for this kind of stuff,” Steph decided.
“Fair enough. What about you, Xiu?” Lilith asked.
“Not sure. Yui was one of my good friends and I do want to see if we can do anything,” Xiu answered, a conflicted expression on her face.
“Like I said, take your time. I just wanted to tell you what was going on,” Lilith said.
Jen stared at her glass of water, deep in thought. She had a good job and wasn’t struggling financially. In her free time, she hung out with friends and volunteered. Was she willing to give that up and become a hero again? No one would blame her if refused. But, Jen would feel guilty, always knowing there was something she could have done. She sipped her water, sighing.
“You have a visitor, Director Maka!” the front desk informed him.
The SIU director told them to let the person in. Papers were strewn across his desk along with opened folders containing classified data. He was reading through Tess’ last reports before her death in hopes of finding a lead. Her writing was meticulous, but didn’t reveal any methods on how to travel to her world without the use of established Crossroad connections. The man stood up, taking a break, and peered out the window. Another rainy day. There was a knock on his door as he began sitting down.
“Come in!” he directed.
A woman in her early twenties walked into his office. Director Maka could tell she wasn’t an ordinary visitor. He didn’t know much about fashion, but her style was impeccable, standing out from any normal Crossroad citizen. She didn’t speak a word, yet he sensed an imposing aura from her. It reminded him of the Gatekeeper.
“What can I help you with?” Maka pointed at the chair in front of his desk.
“I’ve heard you’re searching for a way to reach the Gatekeeper’s associates. I can help you with that,” the woman answered, placing a business card on top of his papers.
He picked it up, seeing the name “Jessica Staccato”. Director Maka stared at it, finding the family name familiar.
“You’ve heard of the Mirror, correct? I conduct business there and in the dimension Zha Tess was from. Sica products have been selling very well here, at least, when they’re able to be delivered,” Jessica said.
“The Mirror. I thought Tess sealed all the connections,” Director Maka responded.
“Yes, but the connection from the Mirror to the Crossroads is one-way. Tess was never aware of it. However, that connection has degraded over the past years. I think I know why now,” Jessica revealed.
She handed him a folder. Maka perused the contents, finding photos and notes. Someone in Tess’ world utilized Mirror technology for their own gain, creating an undetected abnormality. Resonating with the Gatekeeper’s powers, a small rift was formed. Jessica hypothesized that rift could allow travel between the Crossroads and her world again.
“But you need someone from the Mirror to activate it,” she stated.
“And you also require where that location actually connects to. I see. Okay, I can help you then,” Director Maka said, tapping her folder.
“Excellent. I was hoping you’d say that,” Jessica responded with a smile.
He led the woman to the Crossroads Terminals, unlocking the gate that led to the sealed off area. Jessica inspected the equipment, finding it archaic, compared to what was in the Mirror. She searched for the correct output that corresponded with what she discovered about the rift. There were close matches, but none exact.
“Did the Gatekeeper ever use any other places besides here?” Jessica questioned.
“Yeah, she had a room. I’ll take you there,” Director Maka replied.
They arrived at the room where the heroes performed most of their inter-dimensional travels. Jessica nodded, confirming this was the correct place. She checked the machine, taken aback by her findings. The technology was inferior but contained complicated security mechanisms.
“Didn’t think it would be like this. It’ll take a few weeks before I can establish a connection. I’ll trust that you’ll guard this place until I return,” Jessica determined.
“Tess has always been cautious about anyone messing with her stuff. Is that the reason why it’ll take so long?” Director Maka asked.
“Sort of. I still have business to attend to. I’ll contact you once I’m ready,” Jessica answered.
Director Maka saw her off and then returned to the room. He stared at the contraption in the room. Having seen no use in more than a decade, all of the furniture was covered in a thick layer of dust, yet the machine was in pristine condition.
“Tess, what else are you still hiding from us?” he muttered.
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