chapter one: homecoming

"That concludes today's session, Iwatani-san. I'll see you next week?"

"Yeah. Sure."

"Excellent. Take care of yourself 'til then."

I've spent the past two and a half years doing just that, he bit back. "Mhm" was all he actually said.

"Do you need a prescription refill?"

"No." Because I haven't been taking them. Not like you've noticed.

He left the psychiatrist's office with his hands in his pockets.

Four months ago, Naofumi Iwatani had woken up flat on his back in a dumpster. Disoriented, confused, and still in his armour, he'd staggered out onto the main road and collapsed.

The Barbarian Armor had been mistaken for cosplay until the paramedics who rushed to his aid tried to remove it and found that it was much, much heavier than it looked - when they finally got the breastplate off, it crashed to the floor and put a dent the size of a defibrillator paddle in it.

The armour was confiscated, and he hadn't seen nor heard of it since.

When Naofumi finally came to, he was once again flat on his back, this time in a hospital bed with his concerned family around him; he wasn't sure how much time had passed, but his brother definitely looked older, and if he wasn't mistaken, both of his parents had a few extra lines on their faces, though it was difficult to tell through all the tears.

His first words: "Where's Raphtalia?"

Naturally, Raphtalia hadn't come with him - of course she hadn't. He was the Shield Hero, and now that he'd fulfilled his duty, he'd returned home alone. He'd simply gotten too attached, that was all.

Once he'd physically recovered to the point of holding a sustained, lucid conversation, several psychiatrists were brought in to evaluate his mental state. Each was accompanied by grim-looking men in dark coats who took silent notes in the corner as he spoke. Naofumi was informed that he'd been missing for a little over a year (evidently, time flowed faster in Melromarc), and that his case had gone totally cold - the security footage from the library, despite multiple experts certifying that it had not been edited, simply showed him disappearing, Records of the Four Holy Weapons clattering to the floor.

There one frame, gone the next.

The book had been taken into custody, but after it was determined that it had no unusual properties, it was returned to the library. He made a mental note to check it out sometime.

For the first few visits, he'd simply told the psychiatrists that he had no recollection of the events of the past year, but he was aware that his story was full of holes; he'd gained muscle, he'd had regular haircuts, he had scars that hadn't been there before. When this was finally pointed out to him, he admitted he'd been somewhere, but the moment the phrase "another world" left his lips, the psychiatrist had started scribbling out a prescription for anti-psychosis drugs.

Naofumi knew there was nothing wrong with him, if you didn't count the crippling trust issues he'd developed.

Though he knew his family meant well, their insistence on having him "checked" was infuriating. He was well aware that his personality had changed, and he knew why it had changed - he didn't need some middle-aged asshole rattling off a hundred questions at him, trying to figure out if he was schizophrenic. Ironically, his insistence that he was fine only drove them harder, culminating in Naofumi spending three months in a psych ward before finally realizing that his own stubbornness had gotten him landed there in the first place.

He knew where he'd been. He knew what had happened. That was all that mattered, and so he put aside his last scraps of dignity, stopped telling the truth, and started going along with whatever the assholes there wanted to hear.

His companions came to mind, often. Raphtalia, Filo, Rishia, Eclair, Raphtalia, Raph-chan, Sadeena, Atla, Fohl, Raphtalia - their names played on a loop in his head, and each night, he dreamt of them and the life they'd shared together.

He missed them, dearly.

He'd been out of the ward for a month, but as things were, Naofumi still had a weekly appointment with his psychiatrist, although he had a feeling the old bastard didn't really care if Naofumi took his meds so long as he got paid. Either way, he hadn't taken a single one of the pills, and the bottles had been more or less stacking up on his nightstand.

Maybe if things don't pick up, I'll kill myself with them. It wasn't like he had much to look forward to, anyway. Everything he'd worked for before the summoning had gone down the tubes when he'd been summoned, and everything he'd worked for over the past two and a half years had evaporated the moment the "Task Completed" timer on his status interface hit zero. On top of that, his reapplication to university was going far too slowly for his tastes...not to mention that he kept misidentifying his own age on the forms. He'd celebrated two birthdays in Melromarc, but he'd only missed one in Japan, and it still threw him off, even four months later.

On the bus home, Naofumi gazed up at the clouds massed on the horizon; they were grey, so dark they were almost black, and his first thought was something's coming. He supposed he couldn't blame himself for that one - such heavy storm clouds rolled in with each wave, and he'd formed an association between the two.

His unease didn't vanish when he looked away, however. Being on edge almost constantly in Melromarc had made him a borderline paranoiac, and he noticed the way the man across the aisle from him stared down at his newspaper the moment he realized Naofumi had glanced over. Unconvinced, he watched the man's eyes through the gap between his face and sunglasses, and sure enough, they weren't moving at all.

He's definitely not reading...but I'm definitely not the Shield Hero anymore, so even if he's up to something, it's not like I can stop him. At least, not legally.

Naofumi had grown far too used to his authority as a holy hero, and at times like these, his newfound lack of influence and power irritated him to no end.

By the time he reached his stop, the ragged iron clouds already hanging overhead had decided to let loose a drizzle that, while light, had him soaked to the skin by the time he finished his jog home. Naturally, his mother fussed.

"Naofumi! Go prepare yourself a hot bath before you catch a cold! And change out of those clothes - you'll freeze!"

"Oka-san, I'm twenty-t - twenty-one years old," he sighed, longing for his shield's Disease Resistance abilities. "I know when to take a bath."

He'd already planned on bathing, but he couldn't help feeling as if doing so validated her nagging as he trudged upstairs.

While he waited for the bath, he pulled off his soaked hoodie and jeans, collapsing onto his bed in his boxers and t-shirt. Without looking, he thrust one hand to the side, grabbing the plush toy laying next to his pillow and pulling it in close.

The toy was a raccoon, about the size of a cat. He'd bought it together with an owl plush that reminded him of Filo, but it was difficult to tell that the two stuffed toys were the same age from the wear on them. One side of the raccoon's fur had been worn away a little, and there were messy patches where Naofumi had cried into it.

I miss you.

The words sent a pang through his chest, the burning pain of loss, and he hugged the plush tightly, squashing his cheek against the top of its head with his eyes squeezed shut.

I want to see you again.

After a few minutes, he replaced the raccoon next to his pillow and returned to the bathroom, a change of clothes in hand. The bracelet on his wrist caught for a moment on the sleeve of his t-shirt, but he didn't bother trying to take it off. No matter what he did, it would always come right back in one pristine piece, and for whatever reason, the psych ward hadn't accepted its behaviour as proof that something was going on.

It was annoying, but it was a familiar sort of annoying. It behaved exactly like the shield, and its presence reassured him. What you went through was real, it said. You're not crazy.

Somewhere in the recesses of his heart, he even hoped that it meant his time as the Shield Hero wasn't over, but he hadn't been able to coax the bracelet into changing form. The most it did was glow at odd intervals, the polished green jewel casting an eerie emerald hue over his surroundings like some ethereal flashlight.

Stepping into the bath, Naofumi sighed, letting the silky water cover him and warm his body. He hadn't really done much since returning to Japan, and it was driving him nuts. In Melromarc, he'd had something to do each and every day, and it had given him a purpose; now, he spent his days more or less wandering the streets or in a psychiatrist's office. Before the summoning, he'd have probably binged an anime or whiled away the time between his classes playing games, but he didn't think he could handle such prolonged periods of inactivity anymore. Looking back on the hours he'd spent engaged in his otaku pastimes, he only wished he could have spent them in Melromarc instead.

The people were still shitty, yes, but now that he was back in his own world with a fresh pair of eyes, he could see that nobody around him was that much better. Everyone did what it took to get ahead, and if it happened to hurt someone else, so be it - it didn't hurt them, and that was what counted. At least in the other world, he could enact justice, and not the old Itsuki's skewed view of it - the real thing, where the wicked were held accountable for their actions.

Why had he wanted to come home again…?

By the time he was out of the bath, it was nine at night, and Naofumi didn't really feel like doing much else. With a sigh, he flopped down on his bed and flicked on the television; the screen, like everything else in his room, was a little dusty, but otherwise clean. He supposed his family had been taking care of it since he'd disappeared.

"Just one more thing to be grateful for," he murmured aloud. His family had been supportive of him through his "struggles", though the way Naofumi saw it, his struggles were with the government and not his mental health. He had no reason to resent them - the things bothering him weren't their fault in the slightest - but he grudgingly admitted that they were more or less the final nail on the coffin that was his return to Japan.

It really does feel like a coffin, too...trapped here, with no way out for the foreseeable future, and I've got all these damn obligations now that I'm back home...

Granted, he'd had plenty of those in Melromarc as well, but aside from his designation as the Shield Hero, he had entered into those willingly. He hadn't asked to come back to Japan and try to repair his shattered life in a home that no longer felt like home.

There was nothing good on television, so he switched over to the streaming service he'd used before the summoning. The interface was roughly the same as he remembered it, with the addition of a few extra bells and whistles here and there, but it felt very strange to be controlling a physical screen with a physical remote again. Whenever he'd needed to access an interface back in Melromarc, he'd just had to focus on it for a moment with his status window open.

In retrospect, he was glad the status magic hadn't extended to such basic things as changes of clothes and eating food. He'd read novels before about virtual reality games where, for whatever reason, those things had been relegated to menus just like any other game, and he had a feeling that in a world where even basic tasks were reduced to such unrealistic functionality, he would have had a harder time believing that the world he'd been summoned to was a real one and not a simulation.

Come to think of it...he'd never really considered it before, but why exactly had the other three been so dead-set on it being a game? Naofumi had played plenty himself, and while none of the ones he'd played had been similar to the world he'd encountered, the mechanics were certainly game-like enough. Even if the world had supposedly been identical to the one they remembered from the games they'd played, how on earth had they been able to just ignore the reality of everything besides the menu…?

There was really no point in thinking about it, but he'd had ample time to do just that - think - since his return, and more often than not, he replayed the last two and a half years in his head.

Eventually, Naofumi settled on an old favourite of his, a film about two teenagers crossing the boundaries of time and space through some supernatural influence that switched their minds and bodies. Their relationship started as more business than anything, simply working as a team to get through whatever had thrown them together, but as they inevitably grew closer, it seemed that nothing could quite go their way…

Unconsciously, he found himself gripping the stuffed raccoon, clutching it to the front of his t-shirt. He didn't really recall his reaction to the film a few years back, but now his breathing felt oddly constrained, hitching in his chest as he struggled to blink away whatever it was stinging his eyes…

He'd gone so long without doing it that, even after being back in his own home for a month, crying remained alien to him. Why? Why is this happening? Cut it out, Naofumi, he scolded himself. There's no reason to stop it!

A choking sob escaped his chest, and he buried his nose in the plush, grimacing as wave after wave of grief wracked his body.

No, his own voice murmured, like an alter ego in his head. There's plenty of reason to cry. You lost everything. Twice. And seeing this're thinking of her, aren't you?

He opened his eyes.

Yeah. I'm thinking of her.

Naofumi's relationship with Raphtalia had, on the surface, remained platonic. It had only been months into his stay in Melromarc that he'd even considered that she might see him as something other than a guardian, and it had taken Sadeena's unusually serious confrontation late one night to make him realize that perhaps his own feelings went beyond guardianship. He definitely wanted to protect her, but not for the reasons he'd been telling himself.

Still, his own scars had stopped him from ever approaching Raphtalia about the issue, and everything was far too dangerous and chaotic to even consider that sort of relationship...and by the time things settled down, Naofumi had accomplished his task and was sent back to Japan with only a few days' advance notice.

Just when things had been looking up, the universe had found a way to split them up again, and that, he understood, was what had him so shaken up.

He fell asleep during the credits.

The next morning, Naofumi noted that someone had turned the television off and covered him with his favourite blanket - probably his mother. A pang shot through his chest, a mixture of guilt for being so distant and shame for being found curled around a stuffed toy like a child, and he took a few minutes to wash his face before he went downstairs, hoping it would alleviate the puffiness around his eyes.

When he'd finished that, he dragged himself down the steps and into the kitchen, hair still mussed up from falling asleep on it after his bath (not that it mattered, considering how ill-mannered his hair was). It was Saturday, so his family was likely sleeping in, and in the space of a yawn, he decided that he'd make them a really nice breakfast. They'd clearly been trying to be kind to him, and so far, he really hadn't responded in turn.

One of the few things that had carried over from the other world, aside from his newfound physical fitness and scars, was his cooking ability. The fundamental principles of cooking didn't change between worlds, as he'd found with Kizuna (was she home yet?) in the labyrinth, so when he'd been home alone, Naofumi had taken the time to cook up modern variants of some of the dishes he'd made for the slaves back at Lurolona; they'd all turned out quite well, to his pleased surprise, and he'd taken to tinkering in the kitchen as a form of relaxation. He wasn't entirely sure why he only did it when he was by himself. Perhaps he was afraid that his family would start checking up on his mental health again if he revealed that he'd somehow developed impeccable cooking skills in his absence from Japan.

Still, perhaps he could spin this to his advantage - if there was one thing Iwatani Naofumi was truly skilled at, it was spinning situations to his advantage, no matter their gravitas. He could start small, cooking them a simple-yet-delicious breakfast, and pretend that he'd been improving his cooking skills in the time he'd been home as he gradually moved up to more and more complex dishes. That way, he'd be able to cook freely and convince his family that he was making an effort to live in what they called "the real world" again.

He did feel a bit guilty about deceiving them, but he told himself it was for their own good; they'd be happy to see him recovering, and he could show his appreciation for their care by taking the stress of having to prepare dinner off of his parents' shoulders. Melromarc might have turned him callous, but he wasn't soulless, after all.

If I'm honest with myself, he thought, filling a saucepan with broth and switching on the stovetop burner, I don't know how long I'm going to be hung up on what happened in the other world. It'd be easier to let go if it weren't for this goddamn thing making me think that it's not over. He shot the bracelet on his wrist a glare, and almost as if in response, the gemstone flared up brighter than he'd ever seen it before.

With a clatter, the knife he'd been using to cube tofu dropped onto the cutting board as he clutched at the bracelet, but nothing else happened, and within a minute, the light had faded out entirely.

"What the hell was that?" he grumbled, glaring down at the leather strip as if it had somehow wronged him - and he supposed it had, getting his hopes up like that. Seized by a flash of rage, he grabbed the knife, sliding it between his skin and the bracelet before slicing clean through the leather and hurling the thing across the room, where it thudded ignominiously to the floor.

From the wall clock, an offensively bright "7:00" glared at him.

Breathing hard, he went back to cutting the tofu with newfound fury.

By the time Naofumi had gotten most of the meal together - miso soup garnished with spring onion, with soybeans over steamed rice and a few portions of vegetables on the side - the sun had fully risen, and it wasn't long before he heard the familiar creak, creak of someone stepping on the top step on their way down the stairs. A moment later, his father spoke from behind him.

"Naofumi? Well, this is a surprise...I wasn't expecting you up so early."

"Couldn't sleep." Naofumi didn't take his eyes off of the mackerel he was cutting to round out their breakfast.

Footsteps approached from his right, and he could see his father studying his handiwork out of the corner of his eye. After a few long seconds, during which Naofumi expertly shaved the scales from one side of the fish with a knife, Iwatani Katai gave a curt nod, then turned to his son. "Where did you learn to cook like this?"

Blunt as ever, Naofumi sighed to himself. "I picked it up recently," he replied curtly. A lie, but his expression gave nothing away.

Speaking frankly, the Iwatani family had a bit of a tense dynamic. Naofumi, the elder son, had been a carefree child, and by the time he turned eighteen, his parents had decided to invest their resources instead in his more academically-inclined younger brother Jun. Jun had cracked under the pressure, rebelled, and fallen in with some questionable people, but Naofumi had been able to deduce the best way to get through to his then-fifteen-year-old brother and introduced him to more than a few otaku pastimes. Having realized a way to both have fun and live up to his potential, Jun had thrived thereafter, rising rapidly to the top of his class, and Naofumi was happy to see his brother back to his old self.

His relationship with their parents, on the other hand, was a little more complex. Naofumi didn't doubt they cared about him, but it was obvious that they'd long since given up on him ever showing any sort of promise. They weren't poor, not by a long shot, but he had a feeling they'd have forced him to pay rent while he attended classes simply to "earn his keep" had he not saved their favourite child from delinquency.

He didn't see anything inherently wrong with charging adult children rent for living at home, but the intent he could see them acting with was hurtful: it communicated the feeling that they'd given up on him completely and were now simply tolerating his presence. He wasn't a so-called "NEET", but because he hadn't displayed any sort of prodigal excellence, he felt almost as if he'd been disowned, living as a stranger in his own home.

Before he'd been summoned to Melromarc, that had weighed on him every single day.

An awkward silence fell between himself and his father. Naofumi had been away long enough for the weight to fall from his shoulders by sheer lack of association, so the stress he remembered feeling wasn't there, and the self-control he'd trained to reign in the Shield of Wrath allowed him to easily disregard the man's presence as he laid out the strips of mackerel in a shallow pan of searing oil, using the scaled side to prevent the dark fish-flesh from scorching on the iron beneath. With a practiced hand, he seasoned each strip lightly with sea salt.

As he watched the fish, he reflected on why exactly he was cooking it. No matter how he looked at it, his parents had been kinder to him since his return; his father had even kept his usual acid tongue to himself and refrained from scolding Naofumi about his appearance or his studies. He couldn't deny that he'd often put recreational activities before school, but he hadn't failed yet, and being nagged wasn't going to change anything. His mother hadn't been so up-front about it, but he could more often than not read the disappointment written in the lines on her face, and some days that hurt more than his father's straightforward approach.

Why am I so worthless to them? he remembered thinking. Why is nothing I do good enough? It's true I don't have a lot of ambition, but...I'm happy to live as a family and work to support myself. Why isn't that enough for them?

His response to the same situation now would have probably been something along the lines of I really don't give a shit what they think. I'll do what I damn well please.

How times changed.

His father didn't really seem to know how to respond; Naofumi could sense a mixture of emotions, guilt prominent among them, but he tried his best not to let them affect him. He supposed it was a little heartless of him to brush the man off like this, but he was already cooking them all breakfast and didn't really feel obligated to make small talk.

After a few minutes, Iwatani Katai nodded again. "It smells nice. I'm...I'm glad you've found something to do with yourself outside school, Naofumi."

Naofumi grunted, prodding the mackerel strips with a fork to ensure the flesh flaked properly before yanking it out of the pan and onto a plate, letting any residual oil drain off before transferring a strip each to four wooden trays and garnishing three of them with a thin slice of lemon. (Naofumi had a personal objection to mixing lemon and fish, but he knew his family liked it, to varying degrees; Jun in particular was fond of the way the flavours meshed together.)

He supposed that his father had gone to wake the others up, since his mother and brother came downstairs one after the other. Iwatani Kokina, his mother, stopped dead in the doorway, and Jun, still half asleep, bumped into her.

Naofumi figured he'd tolerate their surprise. He certainly hadn't cooked much before he'd gotten summoned.

Despite making breakfast for them, he wasn't in any particular mood to eat with his parents. As far as he was concerned, he'd done his part for the time being, and so Naofumi trudged upstairs with his own tray, unable to bring himself to sit with them just yet.

Five minutes after he reached his room, however, there was a knock at the door; opening it, he came face-to-face with Jun, holding his own tray and wearing a frown.

It was strangely reminiscent of when Naofumi had first approached his brother after hearing about the way he'd veered off-track - one evening at dinner, when Jun had stormed upstairs into his room and left his food at the table, Naofumi had trailed after him, bringing both of their trays up. Jun had been reluctant to talk at first, but Naofumi brought over a console from his own room, and while they played, his brother had opened up a little.

Now, two (or four and a half?) years later, here they were, doing the same thing in reverse. It was Naofumi this time who looked away as Jun entered the room, a half-smile on his face. It was Naofumi this time who glared down at his fish, fists clenched on the sides of his tray as his brother spoke.

"Nii-san, you've been really, uh…" It was clear that Jun was attempting to choose his words carefully, and Naofumi cut across him, a flicker of irritation creeping into his tone.

"Get to the point already. You're not gonna offend me or whatever the hell it is you're being so slow about."

"Right." The outburst did nothing to dissuade his brother, who only gave a single, sharp nod. "You're really distant now."

"Tell me something I don't know," Naofumi grunted.

"Alright - you made breakfast to say 'thank you', didn't you?"

Naofumi blinked.

"Don't pretend you were 'just feeling nice', nii-san," Jun sighed. "I've known you my entire life. You've always been the kind of person who appreciates being shown kindness, even if you don't admit it. Then you try to repay it and claim it's not because of them. You're a tsundere."


"I'm not a - " Naofumi started, but Jun wasn't having it.

"So I found it odd," he went on, raising his voice over Naofumi's objections, "that you'd do something nice and then run from it. I used to catch you with that little smile you get when something you did made someone happy. Now you just look even more miserable."

A pause. To save himself from having to talk, Naofumi sat down on the edge of his bed and took a chunk of fish and a bit of rice together, chewing as slowly as he reasonably could; after a few seconds, Jun sighed, making his way to Naofumi's desk and flopping down in the chair. "Nii-san, if you don't wanna talk about it, that's fine. But don't think I've forgotten about what you did for me. It really sucks seeing you go down the same kind of path."

A bird began its cackling song just outside Naofumi's window, and he leaned back, yanking the curtains open to glare at the offender. Sitting on a branch in their yard was a thrush a bit longer than his hand, chattering away; for a solid four seconds, Naofumi and the bird made eye contact, and it fell silent before deciding its song was best appreciated elsewhere and flapping away.

"I don't know what happened to you, but I'll believe what you choose to tell me."

Naofumi stopped.

Didn't Raphtalia once say something like that…?

They hung out in Naofumi's room for a while, chatting and playing games; slowly, Naofumi began to let his guard down a little, reminding himself it's okay, it's your brother, he's not out to stab you in the back.

Malty Melromarc had done her work well, but Raphtalia had done hers better. If it hadn't been for her, Naofumi doubted he'd have ever recovered…

"What's up with the stuffed animals?" Jun cut into his thoughts, and Naofumi started; he'd unconsciously picked up the raccoon plush again.

He didn't really know how to explain to Jun what they were for, that they reminded him of Raphtalia and Filo - how would he even begin to explain who they were?

"Oh, yeah, they're just mementos to remind me of the 'raccoon equivalent of a catgirl' and the 'giant bird that was also a loli angel' who traveled with me during the two and a half years I spent in another world."

Even in his head it sounded stupid.

Naofumi just shook his head, and Jun nodded, accepting his silence.

Their parents went out for dinner at around five that evening, and Jun suggested they prepare their own; as it turned out, they were short a few vegetables, and so Naofumi took the excuse to get some fresh air and walk to the market while Jun handled the basics.

When he left the house, the first thing he noticed was that the bracelet had finally returned. Biting his lip, Naofumi inspected it, but nothing about it had changed. It was still just a leather strip attached to a green gem.

The trip to the market itself was uneventful, and he snuck a few snacks into the basket behind the cabbages, figuring Jun would appreciate them - his brother had a bit of a sweet tooth, and Naofumi himself hadn't had chocolate since the last time he was in Japan. Melromarc had nothing similar, though there was a bean that produced an extract not at all unlike vanilla. He supposed it was possible that a counterpart to cacao existed, but if it did, nobody had figured out how to process it in a way that would produce anything like cocoa.

Lost in thought, Naofumi didn't pay much attention to his surroundings as he walked home. Halfway through an internal debate on whether or not Filo could have chocolate (she's still technically a bird, isn't she?), he was startled by a man hailing him from an alleyway and wearing an amicable grin. Even so, he was no fool, and he kept his distance, standing out of arm's reach as he responded. "Did you want something?" Naofumi asked, keeping his voice cool and level; on the inside, however, he knew that he was no longer able to break the weapons of petty criminals using one finger, and his heart began to race.

"Yeah, you got a couple yen for bus fare?" The question ran deeper than that; Naofumi could tell from the way the man's smile didn't reach his eyes, an expression that said what can I get out of you?

Other people might have trusted the man, handed him two hundred yen for bus fare. "It's nothing," they'd think, and fish in their wallets, blissfully ignorant.

"Thanks," he'd say, and in his twisted perception of morality, he'd decide to show mercy for the generous.

Iwatani Naofumi was not other people.

He wasn't sure why this man in particular pissed him off - after all, he'd done similar things himself in Melromarc. Granted, he'd restricted his coercion to cutthroat bandits and swindling merchants, but he'd still done it. It was the way of the world, after all, so why was he so angry?

At his wrist, the gem sparked, and a familiar heat rose in his chest.

The man's eyes flickered down to the bracelet and back. Perhaps he'd decided that what he'd seen was simply a trick of the light, for he took another step towards Naofumi, hands still in the pockets of his hoodie. "Well?"

"Put your hands where I can see them first," Naofumi instructed, fixing the man with his trademark glare.

"What? I got nothin' to hide," the other insisted. "We're both honest fellas, I'm just tryin' to get home from work is all."

"It's Saturday evening. What kind of job gets off at this hour?" Naofumi countered, fighting back the anger bubbling in the pit of his stomach. "And if you're so honest, you shouldn't have a problem showing me your hands."

Another step closer. That grin grew a little wider.

"It's just two hundred yen, come on."

"Don't change the subject!" Naofumi barked, and he could see the first flickers of uncertainty in the other's eyes. His hands shifted in his hoodie pocket, and Naofumi had a feeling he knew what was in there, but he didn't feel fear. No, he felt something else.


"Besides," he went on, and now Naofumi was the one taking a step forward, looming over the rat before him. "I don't have two hundred yen on me right now, and something tells me that if I don't give you what you want, you'll just take something else instead, won't you? Filthy fucking trash."

You're not the Shield Hero anymore. Stop it, before you get yourself hurt! shouted a voice in his head, a Naofumi from another time, but this one paid it no heed. His pent-up rage, his accumulated frustrations, his righteous fury, his concentrated hatred - all of it had been boiling under the surface for four months, and he wasn't about to let some small-time piece of shit get the better of him. "So either you back off now and nobody gets hurt, or you try your luck," he snarled.

A heartbeat later, and the flash of a knife blade was Naofumi's only warning before the beggar was on him, clearly terrified and still lashing out. Instinctively, he lunged forward with his left forearm, the motion he typically used to parry attacks with his shield, but too late, he remembered he didn't have a shield, and he resigned himself to taking the blade in the arm over taking it in the chest -


The knife flew from the man's hand, spinning through the air to clatter ineffectually against the pavement some ten feet off. Naofumi himself was a little stunned, but when he checked to see if he'd been hurt, he understood exactly what had happened.

In place of the bracelet, he wore a shield.

Time seemed to stop, and the world fell silent save for a deep, harsh thrumming, like the sound of some vast machinery. He'd heard of these sounds before - low, apocalyptic ringing that set cities on edge, popularized through viral internet videos - but he'd never experienced them himself; he would have been a little more in awe if he hadn't recognized both the shield on his arm and the energy that now flowed through his body, filling him with a power he couldn't mistake for anything else.

This...this is what I felt when the wave struck in Kizuna's world.

His own power, flowing from another world…

"It can't be," he murmured, staring down at the silver slab as it pulsed with that familiar emerald light. "There's no way."

A scrabbling sound brought him back into the moment, and he realized that the man had dived to pick up his dropped weapon, grubby fingers frantically attempting to wrap around the sweat-slicked handle; with a shout, Naofumi lunged for him, raising the shield -

"No, you don't! Air Strike Shield!"

With a rush of air, a translucent, greenish shield formed between the man and the knife, smashing into his chest and tossing him backwards just as Naofumi swung his arm up to bash him in the back of the head with the shield. Groaning, the man crumpled, and just as soon as it had arrived, the power was gone, as it if had simply pulsed between worlds to save him in his time of need. In the blink of an eye, the shield turned back into the bracelet, and Naofumi was left standing next to a half-conscious thug, still carrying his bag of vegetables and snacks in one hand.

Thinking on his feet, he spotted a trash can nearby, and so he grabbed the lid, smashing it against the wall to put a dent in it before tossing it onto the ground; he'd dial the police soon enough, but he at least had to erase any suspicion that he'd overpowered a knife-wielding mugger with nothing on hand but some bok choy and a carrot. Satisfied with his cover-up, he was about to pull his phone out of his pocket when something flashed across his field of vision:

Trash Can Shield 0/10 C
abilities locked equip bonus: garbage disposal
equip effect: defense 1

"You've gotta be shitting me."

The notification had drawn his attention to something else, however - when it vanished, it collapsed into an icon at the bottom-right of his vision, one he thought he'd never see again.

...Status magic?

He focused on it, and after a couple of seconds, the ever-so-familiar interface popped up. Similar to how it had behaved in Kizuna's world, everything was garbled, and huge chunks of the menu were missing...but there was one painfully obvious element that stood out, uncorrupted and staring him in the face.

It was a dragon hourglass.

Even as Naofumi felt his breath hitch in his chest, however, something else popped up next to it. It was a timer, and the number on it made his head spin.