How had it comes to this?
Mio backs away, slowly, into a wall of lockers. It’s like she can feel each individual cell in her body, every one of them experiencing its own personal earthquake. All the while her chest tightens, her heart fulfilling the role of an entire percussion section at once.
Across from her, Jun’s terrifying, werewolf-esque familiar takes form behind the sweet boy, eyeing her with that ravenous, blood-red glare. A stark contrast to the baffled, horrified stare he gives the beast, himself. “This monster is my…?”
Familiars: Manifestations of an Esper’s psychic energy and something… else, tamed by the power of science. But one look at those snarling fangs, those jagged quills, and knife-like claws makes Jun’s heart sink into his stomach. Whatever creatures lurk around outside the city walls… they’re worse than this? A lump forms in his throat.
Another sharp tone interrupts the scene and Jun holds up his Link as the automated voice chimes out from it. “Royale Combatants are within proximity. The match may now begin.”
Jun inhales, his breathing shaky. Out comes a trembling “Morioka-san…” He flips his scarf over his shoulder and sluggishly turns himself around despite how heavy and stiff his body feels, looking upon Mio with those soft, kind eyes and that warm smile she’d begun to grow accustomed to.
Yet when Mio looks upon that face, she sees only sadness. “Serizawa-san?”
“Try to win… okay?” The statement takes Mio aback entirely. But then Jun bows his head to hide his face. “Thing is… I’m a total coward. I’m scared out of my mind. Look how long it took me to even talk to you. I probably wouldn’t last five minutes, out there. But I don’t want you to get sent out either.” His hands tremble and his body stiffens as his Familiar looms over him from behind. “I’m just not strong enough to forfeit. I’m too scared.” Reaching up, he wipes his face with his hoodie sleeve, raising his head with a deep breath, adopting a hollow expression. A turbulent gust blows through the entrance hall as a mass of psychic energy surges out from within him, rattling every locker. His scarf flows in this personal storm and he continues with a somber “So please… try to win, Morioka-san.”
Mio stands in a daze. No. This isn’t fair. She wants nothing to do with this. Why should they have to fight? She raises an arm to shield her eyes from the intense burst of wind, pages being torn from the sketchpad in her hand. One of them flies across the hall and unexpectedly into Jun’s face. He pulls it away, only for Mio to be long gone by the time he does. His familiar snarls down the corridor to his left and he turns his head to see one of the doors at the end, swinging shut, along with a strange trail of luminescent mist left in the girl’s midst. Without a word from him, his ferocious familiar tears off after her, running on all-fours, leaving Jun to adjust his scarf, pulling it up over his mouth and slowly walking after the beast.
Mio races through the school halls, panting and gasping for breath. But everything around her is tinted red. An alarm sounds over the intercom and that automated voice blares in every room. “Students and Faculty. There is currently a Royale Match occurring on the premises. Please remain in your classrooms, away from the windows or doors so as to not be in harm’s way until it has ended. As is standard procedure, defensive measures are now activating.” Defensive measures? Didn’t that mean-? Mio reaches the teacher’s room but, just as she reaches for the door, her hand is repelled. A faint blue glow lingers around the frame and she’s unable to even get to the touch panel to let herself inside.
Try as she might, Mio can’t get any but the hall doors to open. No matter how frantically she tries. Every door is slammed shut with a protective barrier of repelling energy around it, rejecting her every attempt to get inside. The windows looking into the rooms are no better, blocked with blast shields of some kind and coated with the same blue fields. She finally reaches her own homeroom and wails on the door with both fists and every ounce of energy she can muster up. But the field denies her, blunting the impacts and even bouncing back their sounds. Her mouth is dry, her eyes sting, and her stomach feels like it may lose its lunch at any moment. Then, amidst all of that, a loud crash from around the corner gives her a start.
Her heart nearly stops. Slowly, she turns around to find that spiny, hulking wolf creature hunkered down at the far end of the corridor, shaking off running headlong into one of the walls from sliding on the polished floors. It looks to her and bears its mouth of knives. In a panic, she brings up her Link. “Pairing…” Yet she continues refreshing the display. Rapidly mashing the button on the side of the device. No change. Jun’s Familiar begins to inch toward her, its pace eventually picking up to a brisk trot, then a full sprint as Mio turns and runs around the corner. Finally, it breaks out into a wild charge as the werebeast rounds the corner and switches to all-fours. But by then, Mio is gone again.
The girl sits inside a maintenance closet. The only other door she could get open, covering her mouth with both hands as the beast slowly surveys the area outside. Even from in this dark, tiny room, she hears it sniffing the air, lumbering around, growling. But the sounds of the hunt die out with time. The beast must have passed her by. Now in a frenzy, Mio desperately mashes away at the button on her Link, refreshing its display as quickly as she can until… “Pairing Complete.” The sigh of relief built up in her lungs dies almost immediately when the next screen comes up. “Processing…” What? What does that even mean? This is the first she’s heard of that at all.
However, in the middle of this quandary, a light footfall drags Mio’s attention back to her surroundings. She covers her mouth again and her widened eyes travel over to the door, body shaking as if she’d locked herself in a freezer. Sweat drips down her brow like rain as a tapping meets the door. The door’s access panel lights up green and Mio springs to her feet, throwing herself forward to hold the emergency handle and keep it from sliding open. It works for all of three seconds. Then a monstrous claw tears into the glossy, smooth, white polymer like tin foil. Before Mio even has a chance to process what’s happening, the door gets ripped out with her still clung to it. Losing her grip, she flies across the hall, her back hitting the energy-shielded window opposite the closet, knocking all of the air out of her body, as well as making her spine scream when the repulsion field pushes her away to the floor.
Jun stands back as his Familiar discards the door on its claws. “I think one of my abilities lets me see scents. So hiding doesn’t work,” he says.
Her head spinning almost as much as the halls, Mio looks up at the boy who, just a few hours ago, had been asking her on a date. He looks… utterly defeated, even despite his clear advantage. With the monstrous familiar stalking over to her, she tries to shuffle back, only to meet the wall beneath the window behind her. The growl of the beast sends tremors through her very bones. She knows she’s in no immediate danger. Killing isn’t allowed in the Royales. But the look in that monster’s eyes… it’s almost like someone neglected to tell it that.
Then a meek “Gomen’nasai…” trembles out on Jun’s voice as he steps forward, pulling his scarf down from over his mouth.
The werecreature snatches Mio up and tosses her back across the hall, where she bounces from the wall and drops to the ground in a heap. Not until she tries picking herself up does she notice the small gash on her head, dripping blood down the bridge of her nose from her hairline. A low, building hum sees her lift her head to find Jun looming over her, taking a deep breath. “S-Serizawa-san?” The more air he takes in, the deeper that hum gets.
Then he unleashes a ghastly, weaponized shout. Like the cry of a wolf, laced with some kind of eerie violet light. A sonic howl so forceful its mere waves throw Mio back-first into the wall, beating against her like a tide to hold her there. It lasts only a matter of seconds. But that small space of time may as well be an hour as it leaves the girl’s entire body feeling like jello. When it finally ends, she flops back to the floor. The LED on her Link turns from solid to slowly flashing, an automated voice speaking from inside. Something about vitals. Not that Mio can hear it. Her ears are much too busy playing out a full choir of nothing but high notes in her head.
Even so, her body levels out, given a few moments. The ringing doesn’t stop. In fact, now her ears are even bleeding. But soon she’s able to sit up. Still, there Jun stands over her, about to pull the very same move again. And here she is, unable to do anything about it. Perhaps… this is for the best? Who’d even miss her if she were removed from the city, after all? She stares the boy in the eye as he takes his next breath. Then she hears it. Not his howl. A tiny voice telling her to move. To resist. To… “Jump.”
Somewhere between now and Jun’s attack, something… happened. Something that resulted in Mio leaping through the air, clear of her opponent’s sonic howl, much to his, and even Mio’s absolute shock. W-what? Mio touches down behind the werecreature, as flummoxed as both it and its master. Her body feels… tingly, but fine. More importantly, that voice. How had she heard it? Her ears are still… “Again! Jump!”
Again. Before Mio even knows what’s happening, she flings herself into the air, just avoiding the pounce of Jun’s Familiar. As such, the hulking monster slams, face-first, into the polished floor and slides a good ways. What’s happening? A question that becomes all the more potent when she realizes exactly where she is upon seeing Jun gawking up at her. She’s… clung to the ceiling somehow. The smooth, white polymer ceilings with no holds possible. Before Mio has a chance to process… any of this, a little black mass materializes on her shoulder, eventually giving form to a small, lizard-like critter with an ash-black body, beady orange eyes, and sharp little teeth. “There! Keep going like that!”
But the girl just freezes. Its mouth hadn’t moved, but did this little gecko thing just… talk? “Heh?”
“Dodge! Dodge already!”
Mio looks up or… down? Being upsidedown is disorienting. Even so, she leaps to the side like a frog just as another sonic howl batters the ceiling where she’d clung. Now stuck to a wall, her eyes dart between Jun and the monster, her mind racing like a formula car. Is this thing my…? Again. And again. Mio jumps and jumps, doing everything the little lizard says. In time, the hall is barely recognizable from the wolf’s lunging and Jun’s shouting in every which direction to stop her.
Jun watches, his jaw hung open in astonishment. “C-catch her!”
“Get close without letting it grab you!”
Mio balks at the mere suggestion of getting close to that monster. “Eh?! B-but-!”
But the little one snaps at her. “Uruse! Boke! You wanna die?! Then quit being useless and do it!”
Mio gulps, rushing headlong towards the feral mass of spiny fur and jagged teeth. From there she’s like a pinball. It swipes at her with its claws and she’s on the ceiling again in a blink. Jun tries to shout her down and she’s hugging the wall again, faster than he can adjust to catch her. But just when it seems she slips away from another swipe of the monster’s claws, another unexpected twist. Like darts the spines on its shoulder fire out, one of them just glancing by her cheek and leaving an open cut. Another clips her in the side, leaving a rip in her school uniform and instantly canceling all of her momentum.
Distracted by the attack, Mio winds up clotheslined by another of Jun’s sonic shouts that cracks every window around them, even through the shielding, sending her flying down the hall, only to slide to a pitiful stop. Upon realizing she isn’t moving, a sense of absolute dread comes over him and a faint “Morioka-san…” trickles out as he stumbles forward, nearly breaking into a sprint to reach her. But he catches himself upon one key acknowledgment. Her Link’s LED is still on. Flashing rapidly. But still on.
Sure enough, the girl’s motionless body twitches and she struggles to raise just her head. The cut on her face closes up, entirely on its own, leaving Jun completely stunned. Healing? Then, though strained, she gets out a weak “Familiars… don’t have… a scent.”
That statement shakes Jun to his core. He jolts around to Lycan and, indeed, there sits Mio’s familiar, cozy atop the hulking werebeast’s head. Before the boy can say anything, the little lizard bites down on the monster’s ear and out comes a pained howl. A red glow fills Lycan’s body from its very center, running up through its limbs like its insides are on fire. And perhaps they are. In seconds, the enormous, wolflike Familiar is running mad through the hall, slamming into everything, smoke pouring through either side of its snout. Jun backs away as his familiar rampages. “Lycan? Lycan, stop!”
Meanwhile, Mio’s familiar trots down the hall and back to Mio, climbing onto her shoulder as she pulls herself to her feet. Her wounds repair themselves. Slowly. The pain doesn’t quite subside and she undeniably still feels weak. But at least the ringing in her ears has stopped. “What’s happening?”
Try as he might, nothing Jun does gives Lycan any pause in its frenzy. And Mio’s own familiar snickers at the sight. “Something funny.”
Overcome with an uncontrollable feral rage, Lycan thrashes about. Jun backs away further and further, eventually taking in a deep breath. But just before he can let it out, the monster’s forearm cracks across his face and knocks him to the floor, sliding a few feet on his back. Before he has the chance to get up, the beast pounces him, pinning him down. Mio lurches forward, reaching out to Jun. “Serizawa-san!” However, her legs give out, still weak and wobbly from the thrashing she’d taken, and she falls forward without getting far.
“Idiot! Be careful; I’m up here!” the lizard protests.
Lycan holds Jun there, snarling and bearing its mouthful of razors. It draws back but just when it bucks its head forward to snap at the boy, it stops cold. Something comes over it, freezing it in its place with Jun held under its weight. It appears… surprised. A sensation soon mimicked by not only Jun, but also Mio as the beast bursts into flames. The school teaches that familiars are manifestations of psychic power. Could they feel pain? A question often asked by experts who’ve studied them. And the wail of this wolflike beast would make for a rather compelling argument. But that howl echoes through the school halls even after its body evaporates into nothing more than particles of pinkish light, no different than those it’d originally spawned from.
Thus Jun is left there on the floor, his heart still pounding away. Given a moment’s time, the light of his and Mio’s Links return to their blue color. A tone rings out from inside of them, soon followed by that same automated voice. “Royale Battle Concluded. The Final Result is Victory by Familiar Incapacitation in favor of Morioka Mio. Thank you for your cooperation.” The instant her Link’s voice stops, the same voice echoes from the intercom throughout the halls, announcing the end of the fight and the deactivation of security protocols in the next few minutes, after custodian drones have cleared the damage.
A victory. Strange. Had this been anything else, would it feel so… hollow? Further down the hall, Jun sits upright with his back to Mio. It’s only natural that she carry herself over to him. But, completely robbed of the ability to say anything, she simply stands there. She steps forward and tries… but nothing comes out.
“Yokatta… Congratulations, Morioka-san,” Jun says, taking Mio by surprise. Only furthering this is his face when he turns around. A… smile? A tearful one, certainly. But a smile. Mio has nothing. No response to that at all. What is there to smile about? And congratulations? For what? She hadn’t wanted to win. She hadn’t wanted to fight at all. So why congratulate her? Her body locks up the faster her mind moves. But Jun continues, trying in vain to wipe the streaming tears from his eyes. “Arigatou.”
Caught off guard by this, Mio staggers back. “Huh?”
Jun stands himself up. “I told you, right? I didn’t want to be responsible for kicking you out. I wanted you to try to win. So… thanks, Morioka-san.”
Thanking her? For beating him? No. That’s wrong. That doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t this boy understand what that means? And yet… there’s no helping it. Of course there isn’t. This is just how things are. Unable to put together a proper response, Mio looks to the floor, shaking her head with a somber little grunt of acknowledgment.
Jun’s Link flashes white and an automated voice speaks from inside of it. “Serizawa, Jun. Due to your elimination, you will be given 24 hours to gather any personal effects and vacate the city. Your participation helps make Beacon the bastion of safety that it is today. Thank you for your cooperation in the United World System’s Royale Initiative.”
Neither Jun, nor Mio says anything for what may as well be an eternity. Even now, Jun wipes his face with his sleeves repeatedly, barely holding himself together. But Mio remains… blank. Finally, the young man lifts his head, still smiling. That warm smile from before, corrupted with tears of too many emotions to quantify. “Well, I guess I better get going, then.”
A quiet “Gomen’nasai…” slips through Mio’s lips and Jun pauses.
Rather than turn to leave, he steps over to her and places his hand on her shoulder, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about it.” Yet Mio keeps her head down, unable to even look Jun in the eye. “But if you want to make it up to me that badly, I think I can let you off easy if you call me Jun.”
“That’s my condition. Take it or leave it.”
Mio stands there in a stupor, unsure of what to make of that strange request, at first. But what does that matter? Her body still tense, Mio bows, surprising Jun to say the least. “Jun-kun, gomen’nasai.”
A long period passes with nothing. No response. That is until Mio sees droplets of water hitting the floor. Lifting her head again and straightening her posture, she finds Jun beaming at her, having long since lost the war with his tear ducts and ceased trying to stop it. Concerned that she’d only made it worse, she reaches out. But Jun shakes his head, covering his face with his arm. “What are you talking about? You had nothing to do with it.” His face now as clear as it’s likely to get, Jun turns around and takes his first step off. “I… should get going, now. Don’t have a whole lot of time, y’know?”
And like that, off he goes. But he stops upon reaching the doors, looking back and waving. “Sayonara… Mio.”
That goodbye. Expressionless though she remains, something about it strikes the girl. And then he’s gone. Mio is left the only one standing in that hall, processing all that’d just happened with her little lizard familiar still sitting pretty upon her shoulder. But she’s not quite as alone as she seems. Further down the hallway, sitting hunched forward in one of the stairwells, is a certain bleached blonde gyaru, blowing a gum bubble.