One year elapsed since the APS resistance ended Scott Slade's tyrannical rule over Colonia. The catastrophic battle, which nearly ended with the enslavement of all Colonian citizens, was henceforth referred to as the Anomaly War. Those who had assisted in toppling the mad emperor were treated as heroes by the country's new leader, Serph Slade, and a grand monument was constructed to honor their fallen allies. All former Anomaly criminals that fought alongside the resistance were pardoned by Serph, allowing them a chance to start over without their powers. The successor to the throne worked tirelessly to bury his father's legacy by changing the world's perception of the artificially-constructed country. He deployed diplomats and made personal trips to meet the leaders of other nations with the hopes of strengthening relations. The young leader also did away with the strict entrance exams implemented by his father, opening the country's doors to all who wished to live there.

Gregory Booker's sacrifice finally balanced the out-of-control elements that ravaged the globe, eliminating the disasters and paving the way for a lasting period of peace. Now that they no longer needed to defend the world from maniacal tyrants, renegade gods, or shadowy syndicates, Leena and her companions set about finding their roles in the world they fought so hard to save. Most of them found their callings in occupations or passions that suited them, with the exception of Leena herself. She still had absolutely no idea what she wanted for herself, even though she underwent the most dynamic life-changing experiences throughout their adventures.

Perhaps as a result of her indecisiveness, her way of life changed very little over the past year.

"Hey, girl! Girl!" a loud, belligerent voice bellowed from within the depths of a certain eating establishment. Leena's balding, foul-mouthed uncle poked his head out of the kitchen and nearly popped a blood vessel when he spotted his star waitress loitering around one of the booths.

"Quit making goo-goo eyes at the customers and get back to slinging pizzas! We have a delivery that needs to go out!"

"In a minute!" she aggressively shouted back, giving her uncle attitude as per usual. "Or, here's a wildly progressive idea, why don't you give your new employee some work to do?"

"The moment I give one of my prized creations to that scrawny little slacker is the moment she'll drop it! I don't know how you talked me into hiring another one of your absent-minded friends… none of you kids understand the value of hard work! You need to put in real sweat, tears, and elbow grease to make the perfect pizza!"

"Please tell me those aren't actual ingredients…" the new hire, Nadine, commented as she observed the uncle-niece exchange. The plucky young woman was exhausted from juggling school and two part time jobs ever since APS disbanded. She, like Leena, possessed the courage to talk back to her overbearing boss, although she was still trying to prove herself in his eyes. "You can totally trust me to serve those pizzas, Chief. I only dropped a tray that one time because, you know… you threw it at me."

"Just get in here, you freaky-eyed bimbo!"

"D-Do you really have to keep bringing attention to that…?!" she exclaimed, becoming flustered every time he brought up her heterochromatic eyes. "Has anyone ever told you that, even though you make delicious pizzas, you're tough to stomach as a person?"

"Bah, you're starting to remind me of what's-his-face! Leena had this other dopey friend that worked here until he found a job where he claimed his boss treated him with respect, or something equally ridiculous! After all the expired pepperoni I let him eat... can you believe he had the gall to say that to my face?!"

"There are a lot of things I'm having trouble believing right now…"

"Geez, sorry about that," Leena apologized to her guest once the noise subsided. "He's somehow even louder than usual today. Justine asked me to get her friend from APS a job and he hasn't quite warmed up to her yet."

"It's okay," replied Valor, appearing more amused than anything else. "It's kind of comforting to know that things haven't changed much around here."

Ryan Valor had undergone a complete transformation since his days as the Lord of Solid. He had done away with his ponytail, opting for a shorter clean-cut hairstyle. He was also sharply dressed in a light blue suit that matched the expectations of his new occupation. Leena's look had also changed quite a bit; her teal hair was now shoulder-length and she sported a completely different color scheme. She still wore a plaid skirt, but traded her in her black choker for a light red scarf that draped over the rest of her white and pink attire. Her light brown leather boots were probably the most eye-catching part of her outfit. She had plucked the expensive-looking footwear straight from the debut collection released by her fashionista friend, Alexis.

"Yeah, at least in comparison to how much you've changed over the past year," Leena pointed out as she considered the contrast between the old Valor and the one sitting before her. "I'm surprised Colonia's most popular ambassador actually found the time to return home and grace me with his presence."

"There's no way I could've turned down such a heartfelt request from my favorite Colonian sweetheart. Besides, this is an important day for all of us, myself included. It's hard to believe it's already been a year since we lost our powers… don't you miss the feeling of being practically invulnerable compared to everyone else?"

"Yeah, totally," Leena agreed, acting a bit shiftier than usual before quickly changing the topic. "Anyway, you know where the monument is, right? It took a lot of planning, especially with Mr. I'm-So-Important-Now CEO, but we're aiming to meet there around six. Don't lose track of time doing weird, pervy activities by yourself."

"What is it that you think I do in my spare time…? And, since we're on that topic, exactly what did I ever do to have my good name and reputation constantly dragged through the mud like this?"

"You peeked inside my head while I was showering, for starters!"

"That's it...? That's all you've got?! I told you way back then that I couldn't see anything!"

"So you claim, but I know better than to trust a carnal creep like-"

"Umm, guys, I hate to interrupt your lover's quarrel, but… my hand is really starting to burn."

Leena and Valor were startled by Nadine suddenly interjecting herself into their awkward exchange, although she had been patiently standing by for some time already. The visiting ambassador was immediately captivated by the smell of his made-to-order pizza that the neophyte waitress was balancing on her right hand. Leena went red from embarrassment and stepped aside, giving her subordinate an opportunity to do her job. Nadine was a little too eager to set the warm tray down, however, and tripped over Leena's foot before she could completely move out of the way. The clumsy waitress shrieked loudly as she collapsed onto the table, coating Valor's freshly dry-cleaned suit with the very meal he had been anticipating.

"Ohmygosh, I'm so sorry…!" Nadine apologized as she attempted to wipe the stains away, oblivious to the fact that she was making things worse. Valor groaned as he slumped back in his seat, resigning to the fact that these sorts of things always happened to him. It was then that he noticed an evil smirk creeping across Leena's face.

"You think this is funny, don't you?"

"Well, you know what they say about karma…"

Leena turned away when she heard the restaurant's front door chime, spotting a familiar member of law enforcement that bore a distinct scar over his left eye. She raised a curious eyebrow and left her entourage to go greet him. Nadine immediately assumed the worst when she spotted the officer, tugging on Valor's sleeve as she panicked.

"Oh no, do you think the cops will arrest me for dropping pizza on you?"

"I sincerely doubt it… but they should," Valor absentmindedly replied as he attempted to overhear what Leena and the officer were discussing. The two of them seemed to reach an agreement before Leena glanced back at the ex-Elemental God, extending an unexpected invitation his way.

"Hey, Pervy God, I've decided that you're coming with me on my next errand. For better or for worse, I think you should see this."

Their destination was an offshore prison known as The Deep. Emperor Serph had initially planned to close the facility down since superpowered humans no longer existed, but a certain wealthy individual purchased it and turned it into a privately-owned prison. The new owner was Hieshi Willington, who discovered he was the sole heir to his late father's riches upon his return to a normal life outside of the God Realm. This island-based penitentiary housed many high-profile inmates who once wielded great power during their time as Anomalies. Hieshi's unshakable sense of duty and honor made him committed to ensuring that the captured criminals from the Anomaly War paid for their crimes.

"I'm still not entirely sure this is the best idea," Amara, the beautiful caretaker of the facility, voiced her concerns to her guests as they approached the cell block, "However, I can't deny that he's been the most well-behaved of the group. He's been scoring very well on his psychological evaluations, to my constant surprise… I wish I still commanded the Mental Affinity so I could see what's going on in that head of his."

"You're not the only one surprised by that," replied Valor, who couldn't help but scoff at the news. "I refuse to believe it until I've seen it with my own eyes. If it were up to me I'd keep that bastard locked away and eat the key."

"Wow, I never took you as the type to hold a grudge," Leena commented with some astonishment in her voice. "It is possible for people to change, you know. And it's not up to you anyway, so zip it."

"Keep in mind he was the individual who murdered Hieshi's father and other members of the High Council during the initial incident," Amara cautioned Leena to the potential backlash their actions could cause. "I wasn't able to secure his authorization to release the prisoner because of that particular crime. He is not going to be happy when he finds out about this."

"We're working on getting approval from the Emperor himself, so that will overturn any complaints he has," Leena said, attempting to reassure the nervous warden.

"I don't think you fully grasp how much Hieshi wants these guys to pay for what they did. Did you know he tried to murder Lee with a samurai sword just a few short hours after we were de-powered? He kept claiming that his family would not rest peacefully until their heirloom tasted his blood... or something along those lines."

"Wait, that really happened?!" Valor exclaimed in disbelief. "I thought Lord Domino was joking when he told me about that…"

"Lord-err, Mister Domino was the one who convinced him to imprison the criminals instead," Amara said as they finally arrived at the cell block. "Alright, here we are. Don't let any of them get under your skin, okay?"

The heavy steel doors slid open, giving Leena and Valor a glimpse of the prisoners' living quarters. The individual cells were spacious and well-furnished compared to those of a standard penitentiary. The inhabitants had each been assigned a cellmate of the same gender to share their space. Two of Slade former enforcers, Xion and Phalanx, ignored the visitors for a quiet game of chess as they passed by. Amara led Leena further down the corridor while Valor chose to hang back when he spotted an inmate that he associated with a lot of bad memories. There were a few good ones too, however, so he approached the cell and conjured up an awkward greeting.

"Sylvia… have you been well?"

The ex-Lady of Magma sat on the carpeted floor of her tiny living space, exuding an absolutely miserable aura; her brown hair was disheveled and she appeared much skinnier than Valor remembered. He knew Amara took good care of the prisoners, so her state of being was likely a result of her own depression. Harmony was also present on the cell's top bunk, but she pulled the sheets over her head when she noticed him. He ignored her and focused on his childhood friend, feeling compelled to lift her spirits despite their rocky past.

"Did you get the letters I've been sending you? I sent postcards from all around the globe, too. I don't know if you saw, but my most recent trip was to-"

He paused mid-sentence upon spotting a collection of items taped to the wall that displayed every picture and post card he had mailed her over the past year. He had been under the impression that she wasn't receiving the correspondence, but it was now clear that she just wasn't writing back. An awkward silence persisted while Sylvia ignored his presence, keeping her head bowed toward the floor in order to mask her expression. Valor waited a bit longer before letting out a loud sigh and turned away to rejoin the others.

"Well… take care of yourself."

Once Valor's back was turned, Sylvia decided not to waste this opportunity to voice something that had been eating away at her for the better part of the past year.

"Valor…! I... I'm- I just want you to know that I'm really sorry for everything. I know it doesn't mean much at this point after everything I did. I've had so much time to think about it, but I couldn't find the words to write it in a letter… because I know you'll never forgive me…!"

"You don't need my forgiveness to move past what you've done, Sylvia," he replied. His kind words finally gave her the courage she needed to raise her head and behold a pleasant smile on her old friend's face.

"Just focus on getting better and we'll go from there, okay?"

Meanwhile, Amara led Leena to the cell at the furthest end of the corridor. They found the former Lord of Light gripping the bars of the cell in question, appearing rather distraught from awaiting their arrival. The blond man locked eyes with his estranged wife, pleading with her in a tone that Leena never expected to hear from the once-powerful being.

"What took you so long, Amara…?! I can't handle being locked in a cell with this emotional nutjob for even a second longer. Get him out of here! Or, better yet, you could release me too and we could elope all over again! Just think about it!"

"I've thought about it and it's a really dumb idea, Lee. If you hate being in prison so much, why didn't you flee the country like Earnest and Leila? You could stand to put a bit more foresight into your actions, husband dearest."

"Gee, I dunno, why don't you travel back in time and ask me that question a year ago?! Maybe I was thinking I wanted to be reunited with the love of my life, not get chased around with a sword and locked away by my so-called best friend!"

"Oh please. You thought everyone was going to forgive you and keep letting you do whatever you wanted, but you conveniently seem to forget that you murdered James. There's no way you weren't going to pay for that."

"Well, yeah, because I thought Anomaly criminals were going to be pardoned…"

"That only applied to those who fought alongside APS in the war! Grrr… how many times do we need to go over this?"

"How the heck are you still married to this idiot, Amara?" Leena asked out of sheer bewilderment. "I'd have divorced him just for that stupid face of his alone, not to mention all the horrible crimes he committed."

"He may have betrayed the God System and his morals and everything else, but he's always been loyal to me. I guess I still have some hope that he can atone for his sins, much like the prisoner I'm releasing for you today. I guess I'm stuck babysitting him until that day comes… if it ever does. I wish we could be more like Justine and Roy, it was so selfless of him to stay at home with the baby so she could focus on her career."

"You know he was only so 'selfless' because she forced him to be, right? Anyway, can we get this transfer started already? I have a lot left on my agenda for today."

Amara nodded and unlocked the cell, giving Lee the bright idea that he could use this opportunity to make his getaway. He slipped past the pair of females and dashed down the hallway only to end up getting clotheslined by Valor.

"Oww… Valor, you dick…!"

"That was pretty embarrassing for someone who once called himself the most powerful being in both realms," Valor told his toppled former companion. "Oh how the mighty have fallen."

Leena ignored the commotion and stepped into the cell, confronting a prisoner who was calmly sitting on the floor against the rear wall. She noticed that he was fiddling with a certain object in his right hand: a commemorative coin that held some sentimental value to the both of them. The infamous inmate was speechless from the instant he beheld her, so Leena took it upon herself to break the ice.

"I hope you've been looking forward to today as much as I have. You're finally getting your second chance, bro… let's make it count."

A rather jittery young man in a suit that was slightly too big found himself within one of Tempest City's most imposing structures. Scofield Tower, named after its founder Jack Scofield, was regarded as one of three iconic pillars that overlooked the vast metropolis since its inception. The anxious guest currently sat on a luxurious couch in a private lobby, awaiting a meeting with the president of the massive conglomerate. He wasn't entirely sure how to conduct himself since he'd only just inherited his father's dealings, but he was eager to start networking. His only company in the 38th-floor lobby was a receptionist who seemed more concerned with playing on her phone than attending to her guest.

"E-excuse me, miss-"

"Shh! I need to concentrate… do you have any idea how hard this game is? If I bump into a single- oh no… no… aaaghh! Damn it… I died because of you, you jerk."

"Uhh... I'm sorry?" the visitor replied, bewildered by the reception he was receiving. The timid guest glanced at the nameplate on her desk and realized he was speaking to Page Scofield, the second-born of Jack Scofield's three progeny. She likely held a lot of influence despite her mannerisms, so he continued acting polite. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but… err... it's nearly quarter to four…"

"Oh, holy crap, you're right!" Page exclaimed after glancing at the notepad she'd been resting her feet on. "My bad… the prez has probs been waiting for the last forty-five minutes, too. Good thing my big-butt big sister is over at the High Council or she'd have ordered my public execution. Totally dodged a bullet there, didn't I?"

Page endured a few seconds of her guest's astonished gaze before buzzing him into the CEO's office. Two rough-looking individuals in suits emerged from the door as he was about to open it, however, and menacingly advanced on him. He figured they were security guards based on their badges and earpieces, but their mannerisms were more in line with those of hired enforcers.

"Security check," spoke the smaller and skinnier one of the intimidating pair. He had a shaved head and facial piercings that made him stand out from the rest of Scofield Corp's employees. "No one goes near the boss without our say-so. You picking up what I'm putting down?"

"I-I was invited here! Do you people treat all your visitors like they're common criminals?"

"Who the hell answers a question with another question? Pat this pansy-ass chump down, Leon."

"I had every intention of doing so, Keggy," replied the broader, tougher-looking one. He loomed menacingly over the befuddled visitor and imposed instructions upon him. "Hands behind your head. Don't make any sudden movements or you will be mercilessly tasered."

"We used to be criminals ourselves, pal, so we know firsthand that you can never be too careful," Keggy said while his partner conducted the full-body search. "Hell, we infiltrated this place ourselves back in the day when we ran with Eclipse."

"You and your big mouth," Leon scolded him in a low whisper that was still within earshot of their unfortunate guest. "The boss strictly ordered us not to mention that to anyone. Now we have to kill him."

"Wh-what are you two talking about…?"

"We're just kidding around, carrot-top. You can go on through."

Leon and Keggy opened the doors for their terrified visitor, who stumbled into the CEO's office in a daze. There was an impressive desk at the center of the expansive yet sparsely-decorated office. A man in his mid-twenties seemed to be diligently working behind the desk until he spotted his visitor, rising up immediately to greet him. He was dressed for success in a sharp, dark grey suit with a navy blue tie, although he also sported a conspicuous orange pendant that clashed with the rest of his attire.

"Ah, it's nice to finally meet you in person… erm… Austin, correct? I'm having trouble keeping track of which appointments are which thanks to that secretary of mine…"

"I-It's… uhh... nice to meet you as well," Austin replied, going in for a handshake with the new CEO. The new leader of the Scofield Corporation seemed rather young for his position, but Austin carried no prejudgments into the meeting since his circumstances were nearly identical. "I'm looking forward to having a productive conversation, Mr. Scofield."

"Please just call me Evan, I'm not very big on formalities. I hope my security team didn't give you too much trouble… they feel that they owe their lives to me and have become a bit overzealous as a result."

"No harm done, I suppose. I imagine it must feel good to finally put all of that fighting and chaos behind you, eh? Our mutual friend told me that all the Anomalies were ecstatic to get their lives and careers back on track."

"Well… yes and no," the CEO replied after a taking a moment to digest his guest's comment. "It's certainly nice not fearing for the lives of my loved ones anymore, but it would be irresponsible to bury it in the past completely. We all lost something or someone important as a result of the former Emperor's insane ambitions... in your case it would have been your father. Now you're burdened with the legacy he left you, which is the very reason we're sitting here today."

"That is… very true," agreed Austin. He felt a bit awkward after running his mouth before a veteran of the Anomaly War, but still asked the next question that popped into his mind. "You make it sound like you lost something important as well. May I ask what that was?"

"In my case it's not about what I lost… it's what I saved. I've since resolved to make as big of an impact as I can in this world with the time I have left. Now, I know your father had quite a deep investment in our competition, but I'm confident that you'll see the benefits of partnering with us now that they lack proper leadership."

Austin was rightfully confused after those cryptic comments, but Evan decided to steer the conversation in a more business-oriented direction. The former CEO was never on good terms with Austin's late father, but the burden of responsibility now fell on the shoulders of the younger generation. The two young prodigies agreed on a number of topics and policies with only minor debates throughout their discussion, which lasted more than an hour. Evan had Page bring him a number of contracts for projects that their older sister drafted up while she was still in charge. He gave Austin a few moments to peruse them, aiming to get his signature by the time their meeting concluded.

"Wow, I'm really signing my first contract as an executive," Austin said in a jubilant manner, although he was so nervous that his hands were sweating. "This is a big step up from convincing ignorant consumers to purchase warranties on shoddy electronics. That silver-tongued swindler, Ash, was always two steps ahead of me back then..."

"Silver-tongued swindler…? Erm, anyway, if you just sign now we can get started on-"

A sudden commotion from the other side of the office doors interrupted Evan's attempt at closing the deal. The sounds of a struggle captured the attention of the office's occupants, creating an unwelcome feeling of tension in the atmosphere. The doors were flung open and Evan's security team was sent crashing through, revealing that they had been struggling with a young woman attempting to gain entry. The intruder expertly subdued them despite her comparatively smaller frame; Leon was presently locked in a choke-hold while Keggy was pinned beneath her foot. Austin leapt out of his chair, fearing that she was some sort of assassin, while Evan just groaned and buried his face in his palms.

"Good afternoon, Vy. Is there any particular reason you've decided to incapacitate my security team today?"

"Why, yes, there certainly is," she responded with a tinge of righteousness in her voice. "Your minions tried to deny me entry because you were in an 'important meeting' or whatever. Me, of all people, can you believe it?"

"Actually... oh, never mind," Evan conceded, knowing full-well it was useless to argue with her. "Just let them keep a shred of their dignity and let them go."

"D-Don't think we're defenseless-aacck-!" Leon attempted to boast, prompting Vy to tighten her hold around his neck. She laughed as she dropped him on the floor next to his companion, leaving them there to collect themselves.

"Oh, puh-lease, you guys couldn't touch me back when we are Anomalies and clearly nothing has changed since then. Either you two have gotten lazy… or I've become more powerful than ever before."

Vy dusted her hands off before hopping into an empty seat next to Austin, reclining and resting her feet upon Evan's desk. The young CEO glowered in her direction, praying that she would clue in before she scared his important visitor away. She whipped out her phone and disrupted the silence by typing messages with her keystroke volume set to maximum. Although she seemed oblivious to the two baffled businessmen, she was actually drawing Evan's ire on purpose and very aware of his gaze upon her.

"You can keep looking at me like you're passing a kidney stone, but you're the one who's out of line here, Evvy," she lectured him without taking her eyes off of her phone. "I arrived exactly at five, as per your rigidly specific instructions. It's not very gentlemanly to keep a lady waiting, you know."

A feeling of anxiety washed over Evan as Vy's chiding comments rang true within his mind. His meeting had run fifteen minutes overtime and he instructed her to meet him at 5 o'clock sharp. He was now faced with his most difficult crisis yet in his brief tenure as CEO: he needed to close this deal but a very unpredictable opponent had appeared. Tact was going to be extremely important when it came to dealing with this volatile situation.

"Mr. Mallory," he began, addressing Austin in an overly polite manner, "I feel that I must apologize for the sudden intrusion. I'm certain that you were startled by my chauffeur here, but she has arrived as per my prior instructions to escort me to my next commitment. This young woman may look completely irresponsible and unreliable, not to mention inappropriately dressed, but she was once an Anomaly who commanded enough power to single-handedly topple a god. She had orders to secure my safety no matter what if ever she was unable to get in contact with me. That was why she broke in here so suddenly… to ensure that you and I were not being held against our will."

"R-Really…" stammered Austin, who thankfully was rather gullible. "Oh, so that's what this was all about… thank you for checking up on us, ma'am. I feel at ease knowing that my new associate has such a capable bodyguard."

"You're welcome…? Wait, back up a second, I'm no one's chaffeur, you arrogant-"

Vy happened to glance at a text message from Page just before she chastised Evan's hastily-concocted cover story. The last-second message helped Vy understand exactly what she had barged into, causing her to experience a great deal of humility.

"Oh… y-yes, right…! I… umm… became concerned when my… ugh… my master… didn't arrive at our designated meeting spot. As a former hero of justice, I felt that it was my... duty to... rush to his... rescue… or something…? You get the idea. Can we go now?"

"Your master, hmm?" Evan repeated the key phrase from her tacked-on explanation. "I must say I quite like the sound of that…"

Vy became vexed again and shoved Evan's heavy desk using her foot, knocking the wind out of the unsuspecting businessman. He loudly coughed in pain, doubling over and gripping his stomach whilst attempting to recover from the sneak attack. Austin's attention was taken away from the contract once again thanks to the commotion, but Vy took control of the situation and guided the unwitting guest out of the office.

"I'm sorry, Mr Mallory, but it appears that my 'master' has suffered an unfortunate stomach affliction and will be unable to continue. His involuntary spasms prevent him from attending engagements for long periods of time. I trust that your business with him has concluded and that you'll be okay finalizing the documents with Page at the front desk."

"Yes, that will be fine. This has been a very interesting afternoon, for lack of a better word. I look forward to working with you more in the future, Evan, and… well... hang in there. These things happen to the best of us."

Evan was still in too much agony to form a comprehensible sentence and could do nothing but watch as Austin was escorted from the premises. He had somehow achieved his desired result from the meeting, but not exactly in the way he wanted thanks to Vy's unsolicited intervention.

"You do realize that misunderstanding is going to spread like wildfire in my new social circles, correct? Now I'm going to be known as the guy with the… bowel problems," Evan grumbled once he recovered from her assault. She couldn't stop herself from laughing hysterically, showing absolutely no remorse for her actions.

"I sure do and it's pretty damn funny. Pwwhhh… you should've seen the look on your face…! Ahaha!"

"I must be some kind of masochist to continue associating with you…"

A playful smirk remained on Vy's face as she tossed her motorcycle helmet toward her grimacing friend, who barely reacted in time to catch it. He realized what her intentions were and fervently shook his head in defiance, determined to thwart her antics for once by standing his ground.

"No…!" he protested, tossing the helmet back almost immediately. "I swore I would never get on one of those death-cycles ever again. Vehicles are meant to have four wheels, all of which should remain firmly planted on the ground. It's much safer to have one of my employees drive us there."

"Oh, come on, we'll never make it on time during rush hour. It's not like I can drive on walls or buildings anymore… it's perfectly safe, I promise."

"Nope, no way, no deal. Not happening. The inflection in your voice gives me very little faith in your sincerity. I've seen those extreme stunt competitions that you compete in… I have far too many obligations to risk ending up in a full-body cast."

"Oh crap, I didn't know you knew about those…!" she exclaimed, feeling extremely guilty considering what Evan had sacrificed for her in the past. "Umm, give me a moment and I can explain-"

"You don't need to make any excuses for my sake. I promised you I wouldn't hold the incident in the catacombs over your head, so you're free to do whatever you want. I know you're still coping with what Seth did to your friend, in this very office of all places, but your life has more value than you tend to treat it with. If you want help finding some direction, all you need to do is ask."

"I know... thank you," she replied in a much softer tone. It wasn't long before her evil smirk returned, however, as she figured she could still get her way with a little coercion. "I have some advice for you too. You need to start taking more risks if you want to get a girlfriend before you're ready to retire. Girls like guys with a sense of adventure, not ones who spend entire days making a butt imprint in their ergo chair. We both know I've always been too cool for you… this is your chance to prove me wrong, Mr. CEO."

Vy tossed the helmet at him once again. She curiously observed while he tightened his grip on the rounded object, pondering her proposal. It didn't take long before he made up his mind, rising to his feet and confidently announcing his final decision on the matter.

"We'll take my private helicopter instead."

"Damn, that's actually pretty cool."

Meanwhile, the wheels of progress continued to turn in another of Central Tempest City's most crucial hubs. The City Hall building reached higher into the sky than any of its neighboring skyscrapers, originally constructed so that it could be seen from all districts of the capital city. Scott Slade intended for it to be a constant reminder of the authority that watched over the inhabitants, but things had changed now that a new ruler conducted his day-to-day business within the goliath construct. Emperor Serph Slade was tirelessly working with his newly-appointed high council to help undo the damage his father did to Colonia's inhabitants as well as its image.

"I'll be receiving a report on international perception from my subordinate early tomorrow morning," Herschel Domino informed his fellow councilmembers. The former Lord of Flora was by far the oldest member of the board, but he brought a wealth of knowledge to the table from his experience on the original council from eight years prior. "It seems that it wasn't all bad news… this past year has done much toward reforming our image."

"It feels like a pointless endeavor to me," stated Meredith Scofield. Evan's stern, business-savvy older sister had given up her position as CEO of Scofield Corp to sit on the council and direct various projects. "We should stop pouring so many resources into attracting new residents to Colonia. The previous Emperor's shenanigans are still fresh in people's minds, many have emigrated to their countries of origin and they certainly aren't spreading good PR for us."

"Each of us chose to remain here because we have personal connections to this artificial haven, be it through our own efforts or those of our relatives," pointed out Hieshi Willington, the adopted Japanese son of another former councilmember. He became the sole heir to his adoptive father's riches after returning to Colonia and was quick to accept a position on Serph's council. "My father and brother would want nothing more than to see this country thriving again. Abolishing the application and testing process that the former emperor enforced was an amazing step toward changing Colonia's image."

"I'm sorry, but I'd rather hear from someone who isn't a lunatic that chases war criminals around with samurai swords."

"Oh, come on, one time that happened…!"

"Well, our image is certainly benefitting from the fact that our current emperor is easy on the eyes," Serph's new assistant, Amelie, spoke up from near the boardroom's entrance. The bookish ex-Anomaly glanced at her tablet as she shared a few choice facts with her boss's audience. "Recent buzz on the internet shows that his popularity is growing with each international address he gives. He's constantly referred to as 'Emperor Hottie' by his legion of fans on social media. There's even fanfiction about him paired with other world leaders."

"I could've done without that information," Meredith replied with a noticeable grimace upon her usually stern countenance. "I would still prefer to focus more resources on internal expansion. There are still parts of the city that remain damaged from the Anomaly War."

"We can do both, Meredith," Serph clarified for her. He was red in the face following his assistant's contribution to the discussion, but remained focused on appeasing the dissenting opinions in the room. "You are still allowed to use your company's resources as you see fit. I'm looking at the big picture though: if we want Colonia's economy to thrive then we need to improve living conditions and build our tourism industry."

"Emperor Hottie is right," agreed Alex, the fourth and final member of Serph's council. The former APS Chief had transitioned to the dual role of police commissioner and councilmember since there was no longer a need for a specialized Anomaly task force. "We must strive to be the antithesis of Scott Slade's totalitarian regime. We fought hard to save this country, now we must restore it to greatness for the sake of great justice!"

Meredith sighed while Domino nodded in firm approval of the youngest councilman's outburst. Their meeting had gone on for quite some time, so the young Emperor decided to adjourn their gathering for today. He ascended to his top floor office via the elevator, accompanied by Alex and his assistant. Many thoughts about how to proceed were weighing on their minds, but they were comforted knowing that their efforts to restore Colonia were making progress. They exited the elevator and were met by a rather restless-looking individual with haphazard red hair, prompting Serph to immediately question Alex.

"You didn't inform me he was coming along with you today."

"That's because he didn't," replied Alex. He knew the Emperor preferred not to deal with the abrasive individual directly, so he was the first to approach his former subordinate. "What brings you here, Quinton? I thought I told you I can't make it to poker night… I have to babysit."

"Your excuses are seriously lame these days, man," Quinton replied with a mix of disappointment and disbelief in his voice. "I'm not here about that, though. We decided to postpone game night until we figure out how your four-eyed friend is cleaning house week after week."

"There's no figuring it out, that's just how Brick operates. I've concluded that he's some sort of daytime vampire that feeds off the confusion of others."

"Anyway, I'm here to see Prince Albino Junior," said Quinton, much to Serph's apparent vexation. "I need you to sign off on this shit detailing the director's arrangement to conscript one of those reformed rejects from the Deep. He already made arrangements to have the douchebag released from the looney bin, but I figured we should get your O.K. so you don't start whining about lame crap like full disclosure."

"You do realize you should address me as Emperor now, do you not…?" Serph asked as he cautiously perused the paperwork handed to him by Quinton. "Mrrgh, your director is even more exasperating to deal with than you. Hieshi won't like this, but it should be harmless enough now that Anomaly powers have been removed from the equation. Very well, get my assistant to run it through the system."

Quinton nodded gratefully before approaching Amelie's desk and slamming stacks of paper down before her. She didn't flinch or react to his presence whatsoever, which greatly irked the hot-tempered errand boy.

"Hey, anyone home in there? I need you throw some stamps on this bitch so I can get back to work."

"Can't you see I'm reading?" Amelie replied, reclining in her chair and blocking Quinton from view with her book. "Keep it down or see yourself out."

"What?! This isn't a freakin' library, you overpaid wench. Wait, what the hell... you're reading your own damned novel! I didn't think they published garbage stories written by used-up Eclipse trash."

"Ugh, that's it, you are so annoying! I should kill you!" she yelled, allowing her repressed temper to rise to the surface. She seized him by the collar, dragging him off his feet and halfway onto the desk as he helplessly flailed in defiance. "You would not be standing here to annoy me if our paths had crossed while I was in Eclipse, you insignificant, vociferous little man. Consider yourself blessed that I no longer wield a giant hammer with which to crack your empty skull open."

"O-Oh yeah…?!" Quinton exclaimed, trying to disguise the fear her intense threats had instilled within him. "W-Well... you're equally lucky that I don't have my giant staff anymore!"

"Heh, that's exceedingly obvious just by looking at you."

Confident that she had gotten the final word in, Amelie released her hapless victim and hurriedly got to work so she could return to her prior activity. He stood in stupefied silence while waiting for her to finish with his request, baffled at just how badly that exchange went for him.

"Shit, did I just kick my own ass? Damn it, Sarge used to stop me before I got in over my head…"

"Must you always antagonize my assistants?" questioned Serph, embarrassed by proxy just from witnessing the debacle. Quinton gave the Emperor's inquiry some thought, but eventually brushed it off with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Yeah, I still get a kick out of it. Life is pretty boring without antagonists, isn't it?"

"Also, antagonists are what allow heroes of justice to shine even brighter!" Alex bellowed, striking a dramatic pose ripped straight out of his late mentor's repertoire. The young Emperor let out a defeated groan, realizing that his entourage would never mature no matter how much responsibility he piled onto them.

The door leading to Serph's office suddenly swung open and clattered against the wall, startling the three male figures in the lobby. A woman with distinctive blue hair and dark-framed glasses entered the room, commanding a powerful aura despite the loss of her fantastic powers. She was dressed more formally than usual, wearing a sleek green dress and expensive-looking jewelry, making it nearly impossible to miss the sizable bump showing on her stomach.

"Wow, Mia, you look… super pregnant," Quinton commended as he studied her eye-catching outfit from head to toe. He then learned next to Serph and started suggestively nudging him with his elbow. "I never thought you'd be man enough to put a baby in there, Emperor Hottie. How much you wanna bet it pops out with a full head of white hair just like dear old dad?"

"Stop talking this instant or I'll have you deported."

"I've been cooking up this little guy for almost six months now," Mia proudly responded to Quinton's observation regarding her appearance. She smiled as she placed her hands on her stomach, sending chills down Serph's spine for a reason still unclear to him. "Today is meant for celebrating something other than our baby, though… do any of you keen male specimens have an idea as to what it is?"

"Does it have to do with justice?" asked Alex, to which Mia shook her head no. Serph thought hard about why his bride-to-be would suddenly appear at his office, all dressed up for an unplanned night out. He exchanged glances with both Quinton and Alex, who were equally clueless, before looking toward his assistant for the answer. Amelie didn't look away from her book for a second as she pointed out a desktop calendar she had on display. A feeling of overwhelming anxiety overcame Serph when he noticed that today's date was circled and his blunder became clear; this was one crisis that even his status as emperor couldn't protect him from.

"Oh, for the love of all that's holy… our anniversary!"

Serph dropped everything he was holding and dashed into his office like a bat out of hell, eliciting a disappointed sigh from the future empress. Various crashing sounds were heard from within as the exasperated emperor prepared to leave for the day. His panicked voice suddenly blared from the intercom at his secretary's desk, allowing everyone to hear his desperate demands.

"Amelie, drop whatever you're doing and make a dinner reservation for us immediately!"

"I already did, I just didn't tell you about it."

"Why would you do that?!"

"Because it's funny."

"Freakin' incredible... I'm sorry I ever mouthed off to you," Quinton apologized to Amelie. "Anyone with the balls to burn Emperor Whitehair the Second that badly earns a special place in my heart. We should totally go out and scheme up more ways to troll his life."

"That's the most absurd proposal I've ever heard. You know I find you absolutely repulsive, inside and out, right?"

"Yeah, are you going somewhere with this?"

"Not particularly. Pick me up at eight."

"Sweet. So, uh… what does vociferous mean, anyway?"

"Amelie, please change that reservation to the most expensive restaurant in town," Mia chimed in, which the snickering secretary gleefully complied with. "I'm talking, like, seventy dollar appetizers and three rounds of the finest imported dessert. Oh, and charge it all straight to his personal savings account… he doesn't need that new T.V. he's been stashing money away for."

"Don't you think you're being a little harsh on him?" asked Alex, eliciting a haughty scoff from his childhood friend. "Well, just make sure he actually gets to eat… he's been putting in lot of extra time and I don't think he's been taking proper care of himself."

"I'll consider your request."

"I suppose that's all I can ask. By the way, have the two of you decided on a name for the baby yet?"

"We're still discussing it, but I'm thinking of naming him after our favorite father figure. He died trying to save my broken soul, so I want to honor his sacrifice by giving his name to my firstborn child. Little baby Nash has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you say?"

"He would be overjoyed to hear that, Mia," Alex replied. He attempted to hide the tears forming in his eyes by kneeling down to feel the kicking baby in her stomach. "It feels like a miracle seeing you happy and back to normal after everything that happened. If only Hayley, Gabby, and Master Nash were here to see it…"

"I still stay up at night sometimes wondering if I could've saved at least one of them had I been in control of my emotions. But I know in my heart that they wouldn't want me to blame myself."

"I'm glad you've realized that without me having to say it. I'm ecstatic that you're naming the baby after Master Nash, even if it does seem somewhat familiar. Hmm, actually, it seems really familiar… where have I- hey, wait... Justine already did that!"

An armored police vehicle parked itself outside a rather conspicuous building elsewhere in Central Tempest City. Leena and her companions would recognize it as the rebuilt headquarters for APS, the former Anomaly Police Squad, though the building served a distinctly different purpose now. Leena and Valor exited the vehicle and were met by the Deputy Chief of Police herself: Justine Burrel. She greeted them briefly before heading to have a word with her subordinate in the driver's seat.

"Thanks for escorting them, Detective Cameron," she told the former police corporal, who had been promoted as a direct result of his brave actions during the war. "I had to finish some paperwork or I'd have done it myself. Make sure you remind the Chief that I won't be back at the station tonight."

"Yeah, no problem," said Ray, who was as diligent and compliant as ever. He then reached beneath his seat, retrieving a colorful bouquet of flowers that he had prepared beforehand. "I do have a favor to ask, though. Could you… place these at Hayley's grave for me? I… haven't had time to make it there lately because of work. I don't want her to think I forgot about her."

"Aww… of course I can," she replied, moved by the way he earnestly spoke his feelings aloud. She couldn't help feeling a little bad for him as she received the bouquet, however, and resolved herself to cheer him up. "I think it's sweet that you keep her in your thoughts, but you really should try to meet someone new. Quinton told me there are these new dating apps that let you meet girls right on your phone. I'll even write your tagline for you: Lonely police detective with badass facial scar seeking single female. Has experience shooting immortal psychopaths in the head."

"I appreciate the thought, but I honestly don't think that would attract any women..."

"Come on, are you delusional or something? I would totally go for that."

"Yeah, but you're… special."

Once Justine realized that her subordinate had endured enough of her for one day, she circled around to the rear of the vehicle to meet her friends. She foisted Hayley's bouquet onto an unsuspecting Leena and tossed Valor the keys for the rear cabin. He barely managed to catch them before being struck in the face and found himself hesitating when she motioned for him to release the prisoner.

"Wait, why do I have to do this?" he questioned the sudden transfer of responsibility. "I can hardly bring myself to look at the bastard after all the trouble he caused me. You're the officer of the law here… can't you let your own damn prisoner loose?"

"I... have a medical condition, okay?!" Justine exclaimed in an uncharacteristically defensive tone. She kept her eyes trained on the set of doors containing their prisoner, which served as the source of her anxiety. "Just do what I say or I'll arrest you!"

"Okaaaay… you're acting really strange, even for you. Next you're going say you're allergic to doors, or something equally ridiculous."

"Y-You got a problem with that…?"

Valor turned to Leena, hoping she could shed some light on this strange behavior, but the furious look on her face told him everything he needed to know. Leena finally stepped in and throttled him, briefly describing Justine's paralyzing fear of doorknobs before he could say anything else insensitive. He imagined tumbleweeds blowing past as he suspiciously surveyed the area, looking for anything that would give this away as some sort of prank.

"... am I being punk'd?"

The reluctant ambassador finally complied with his orders and released the prisoner, Matt Booker, who remained bound by shackles on both his wrists and ankles. The bonds were just a formality at this point, but Valor enjoyed anything that caused discomfort to his old nemesis. Justine recovered from her episode and led the way into the newly-constructed facility, which had a very different interior than the old APS headquarters.

This was the first time Valor and Matt had visited the premises, which had a futuristic atmosphere thanks to the sleek, all-white interior. It distinctly reminded them both of the Creator's Spire from the God Realm. The quartet passed through a few security checks and ended up in an expansive, open-floor laboratory crowded with researchers sporting white lab coats. The staff member awaiting their arrival was a certain former Vapor Anomaly with a thin build and shoulder-length, unkempt brown hair.

"Welcome to the world of tomorrow!" Ash exclaimed, raising his arms in a gesture that communicated his enthusiasm. None of his visitors reciprocated, however, leaving him hanging with his arms outstretched and an awkward feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"... no? Nothing? I've always wanted to say that."

"Hi Ash," Leena said, greeting him with a smile that seemed almost sympathetic. "Thanks for agreeing to help get my brother settled in."

"It's no problem at all," he replied, approaching Matt and extending his hand after Justine removed his shackles. "I'm Ash Harvelle, one of the supervisors in this facility. I don't think we've formally met before. Well, if you want to get technical, we crossed paths multiple times while Seth had control of your body and was trying to murder us but I'm not sure if that counts."

"Indeed..." Matt hesitantly replied whilst accepting the handshake. "Putting those important details aside, this is a very impressive domain you people have put together. It was inspired by my father's facility, wasn't it?"

"You got it. He founded this field of research, after all."

"What kind of work are you doing here, exactly?" wondered Valor, who was very much out of the loop. "Lord-err, Mister Domino had mentioned overseeing the construction of a new facility in the heart of Tempest City, but he never told me exactly what it was for. Please don't tell me you're researching ways to make new Anomalies…"

"You're kidding, right? That would be a terrible, terrible idea. We're monitoring the elemental balance to ensure that there will be no repeat scenarios like one that caused the Anomaly Project. And I'm happy to report that, for the most part, the eight overlapping zones that compose our world have been stable since Gregory Booker made the ultimate sacrifice. Every now and then there seem to be odd spikes of... activity, but they're being quelled nearly as quickly as they crop up."

The brother and sister duo felt a sinking feeling at the mention of their father's passing, which occurred exactly one year ago today. Matt felt especially guilty for perpetrating the events leading to his demise, but they both knew the event would be referenced many times going forward. Valor nodded along with Ash's explanation up to a certain point before extending his index finger toward Matt and asking a follow-up question.

"So what do you need Stabby McStabberson here for?"

"Well, our director salvaged some equipment from Gregory Booker's old laboratory that requires his DNA to utilize. We originally sought out Leena, of course, but she declined every time we asked her to work with us," Ash explained further. Matt and Valor both looked toward Leena for an explanation, but she simply gazed around the facility and acted like she wasn't listening while Ash continued his speech. "Furthermore, Matt learned much about the behaviors of the eight zones during the time he was incarcerated within the Creator's Spire. His knowledge could prove invaluable… and it's also best that we grant him a role that keeps him out of the public's eye during his probationary period."

"Wow, did you script that out ahead of time?" Valor questioned the lengthy exposition. Ash found himself at a loss for words, mostly because he felt the same way to some extent. Leena took a deep breath as she prepared to defend her brother, but Matt decided he had heard enough. He turned toward Valor and stood in his path, unflinchingly staring him in the eye whilst asserting himself.

"Look, Ryan, I've already earned back the approval of my sister, the warden, and the director of this facility… and yet you keep barking concerns as if your opinion somehow matters. If you have something to say then stop being passive-aggressive and tell it to me straight."

"You know damn well what I want to say. I don't trust you… I don't care how many tests you've passed or people you've charmed. It's going to take months, if not years, to earn the respect you think you deserve. A large majority of the death and destruction caused during the Anomaly War was your fault. Your ridiculously childish quest for revenge caused the collapse of the God System and ruined so many lives. You caused your sister no shortage of pain and suffering that I'll never forgive, even if she's somehow able to overlook it. I want you to know that I'll be watching you... waiting for you to slip up. Are we clear on that?"

Matt slowly nodded, losing his willingness to argue upon recognizing that Valor's motivations stemmed from concern for his sister. The two of them begrudgingly began to realize that, deep down, they wanted exactly the same thing.

"And where exactly are you going to be watching him from?" Justine wondered, finding herself with the desire to criticize Valor's dramatic monologue.

"My, my, this is quite an intriguing stand-off," interrupted a voice so eccentric that it cut straight through all of the accumulated tension. The facility's director, Brick, had approached the group without anyone taking notice, giving each of them a good scare. He adjusted his glasses and stroked his short beard, casting a judgmental gaze solely upon his newest subordinate. Matt certainly wouldn't have been intimidated if he were still the all-powerful Gamma Anomaly, but he now realized how intense some of his fellow ex-Anomalies were. Brick's unblinking gaze eventually caused Leena's brother to start losing his nerves, but he stood his ground until the oddball director eventually burst into laughter and began patting him on the back.

"Hah hah! Don't act so uptight! The way you reacted to my gaze proves that you truly have changed from the days when you looked down on everyone. Who cares if you tried to destroy all of reality? What's important now is how committed you are to keeping it safe. And I'm committed to keeping you committed to your committment, understand?"

Matt tried to conjure up a response, but he was unable to process the nonsensical question and instead looked to the others for help. Leena and Justine both snickered while Valor dropped his hostile attitude, enjoying the sight of Brick jostling his former nemesis. The bespectacled director slung his left arm around Matt, pulling him in close as he cast his free hand toward the ceiling.

"Now, my new minion, are you ready to slip your running shoes on and dash toward a brighter future for every inhabitant of our precious blue sphere?"

"Uhh... yes? You are talking about helping people by monitoring the elemental balance, I assume."

"Perhaps. Just remember that objects in mirrors may be closer than they appear."

Brick dragged Leena's bewildered older brother away by the collar of his shirt as if that were somehow the conclusion to his orientation, laughing all the while as he did. Leena went along with them to ensure Matt got properly settled in, leaving Ash, Valor, and Justine to wait for her. Ash led his two old friends over to his work area, rummaging through his drawer for an object he wanted to show them.

"Look, Adrian sent me this from his honeymoon in Hawaii," he said, displaying a custom postcard with a picture of his older brother and his new bride, Tara, on the front. Valor smiled as he took it from Ash, feeling mixed emotions as he read the short message included on the back. It was addressed to Ash and contained, among other details, a lengthy apology as well as words of gratitude for staying by Tara's side while Adrian was indisposed in the God Realm.

"I don't think I've ever seen Adrian smile like that before… it's kind of creepy. He was pretty much my only friend while we were isolated in the other world, but not a single day passed by without him acting like a total grump. Now I can see why he wanted to come back so badly, his new wife is freakin' hot. It blows my mind how both of you dorks managed to snare women that are out of your league."

"Thanks," Ash replied, feeling sheepish enough to overlook the obvious insult. "I wouldn't exactly say I 'snared' Alexis, though. We're taking it slow… tonight will actually be the first time I've seen her in weeks. She's been so busy ever since business took off for her."

"Shame on you," Justine said to Valor, giving him a good smack across the back of the head. "You should be thinking about how to approach your situation with Leena instead of ogling your best friend's wife. Have you even told her how you feel yet?"

"Tell her how I feel about what…?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Mister Solid. She's been waiting for you to return from your gallivanting around the globe, you know."

"Has she really?" he wondered, both surprised and relieved by the information. "Also, don't call me Mister Solid… that's the name of a chocolate bunny I ate as a kid."

"She'd never admit it since she always keeps her guard up, but it's true," Ash said, reinforcing what Justine had already stated. "You're leaving again soon, right? You'd better make your move before she gets bored and starts paying attention to someone else. You're the only guy she's shown an interest in that hasn't ended up trying to kill her, after all."

"Okay, okay, point taken. I'll see what I can do…"

Meanwhile, Matt had been set up in a small control room and given the simple task of scanning the other realm for abnormalities. The director left after giving his new subordinate a brief explanation on how the console worked, mentioning that he would check in later. Matt adjusted and tested out the swivel chair at his console, only noticing his sister's presence after spinning around. She was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, casting a judgmental look in his direction.

"Quit giving me that look. This is the comfiest place I've sat in over a year."

"Whatever you say, bro. So do you think you're going to be okay here?"

"I've survived worse… this place seems to be a perfect fit for rejects from society like me."

"I'm going to tell Ash you called him a-whoa…!"

Leena was caught off guard when Matt suddenly tossed a small object in her direction. Her keen reflexes allowed her to snag it out of mid-air and she curiously unfolded her hand to see what it was.

"Hey, isn't this…?"

"Mom's lucky coin," her older brother confirmed her suspicions. It was a commemorative coin from the year she was born. She gasped in awe as she held the sentimental object up to the light, inspecting it to ensure its authenticity. Matt folded his hands together and sighed as he delved into an explanation about its importance that even Leena didn't know.

"I'm sure you remember how much mom loved collecting things, though I don't know how that coin originally came into her possession. She almost didn't make it through your birth, but she held onto it tightly throughout the entire ordeal. Since then, as you know, she dubbed it her lucky coin and carried it with her everywhere… using it whenever she needed to make a decision on something. After dad disappeared it was used more for gambling than anything else, but I believe she was always thinking of you when she looked at it."

"Wow, that's really why she started carrying it around? How did you end up with it?"

"I picked it up in the hospital after she passed away. It took on a different meaning after that. Every time I looked at it I'd think about losing her and how much I hated our father for not being there. I think she'd want you to have it, though, so that it can take on a new meaning going forward."

"A new meaning…? Like what?"

"You tell me. Today is special for you, right?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," she admitted. "I need to go soon, so I'm glad to hear you're going to be alright on your own. It took a lot for me to convince Alex and Brick to give you this chance and, like Valor said, it will take time to earn their trust. You need to understand that you will be monitored closely, especially while you're still on probation."

"I was one of the biggest villains in the Anomaly War even before Seth took over my body, so I understand completely. I promise I'll earn my way back into your life, no matter how long it takes."

"You're finally acting a bit more like the big brother that I used to admire. I think… I think dad would be happy that his wish came true. You're finding your place in the world that he sacrificed everything for."

"He was always too naive and hopeful for my tastes, although I suppose now I understand why someone like him was necessary. I concur that he'd be happy about me... but have you figured out your place in the new world, little sister?"

"Who, me? I honestly haven't given it much thought. I spent so much time searching for you and dad, not to mention getting pulled into Anomaly shenanigans that I hardly focused on my studies…"

"You could probably still be a ballerina if you wanted to."

"Oh god, why do you even remember that?! Ugh, I didn't consider the downsides of having someone from my pre-Colonian past hanging around…"

"In all seriousness, though, you can do anything you want to, Leena. There's still hope for you since you didn't completely waste your youth like I did. And don't think you can fool me... I've picked up on the fact that you're still special compared to the rest of us. Perhaps your new purpose could be related to that in some way."

Leena smiled politely. She was happy to hear her brother making such positive remarks, but chose not to address his rather astute observation.

"You should just focus on fitting into your new surroundings, for now. I'll visit you soon, okay?"

Leena, Valor, Justine, and Ash were surprised to discover that they weren't the first ones to arrive at their designated meeting spot. They made sure to show up before the appointed time of six o'clock, but their old comrade Alexis was already waiting for them. Her lengthy red hair was pinned up and she wore a trendy grey and black pantsuit that probably cost as much as ten of Valor's suits. Ash opened his arms wide as he moved to hug his girlfriend, but quickly became timid in the face of her stern glare.

"Why are you still wearing your work clothes?" she immediately berated him; he had forgotten to change out of his lab coat despite being instructed to do so. "How can I be seen in public with someone wearing sweatpants and a ratty white cloak? Grrr… did you even study the outfit schedule I made for you?"

"I… got confused around day twelve and figured I'd just wait for you to come back. But, in my defense, I did unlock all the achievements on two of my games while you were gone!"

Alexis's glare intensified, forcing her unfortunate boyfriend to scramble for a suitable excuse.

"Look, I don't know how to match which pants to which shirts and belts and whatever on my own. I tried to video call but, big surprise, you were busy with some fashion show or something. And why do I need to wear a scarf, anyway? It's summer. Summer."

"Men look good in scarves." Alexis stated firmly. Leena nodded in agreement with the fashionista, dashing Ash's hopes of survival even further. "See? You need to remember that if you're dating me, you're also dating my brand. My appearance needs to meet certain expectations that the public has of me and I require my accessories to put in an equal or greater effort at all times."

"Umm… I missed you too, sweetie-pie-face," he sarcastically replied since he was out of words to defend himself with. He went in for another hug which she reluctantly accepted this time. "Wait… I'm an accessory?"

"A really aggravating and yet somehow cute one."

"She's basically saying you're like her pet," commented Valor, pretending to write on an invisible notepad in his palm. "Note to self: the hottest ones really are the craziest."

Alexis angrily shoved Ash away and proceeded to criticize Valor's appearance as well, focusing on the stain created earlier by Nadine. While they kept themselves occupied with their antics, Leena noticed that Justine had disappeared further into the cemetery and decided to follow her. By the time she caught up, she found the off-duty officer kneeling and setting flowers at a very familiar gravestone.

"Hayley's grave…" Leena spoke with a gasp, alerting Justine to her presence. "So that's what those flowers were for…"

"Ray wanted me to give these to her so she wouldn't feel forgotten. He's not the only one still haunted by her death, though... I still feel like her death was partly my fault. We were all so young and inexperienced with our powers. I shouldn't have given her such a hard time just for doing her job."

"I… I know how you feel. I was with Hayley when she passed and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was the first time I ever lost a friend, not to mention having to deal with the whole mess that ensued afterward. I can't believe we continued to put so much misplaced trust in Collin for months until we discovered he was the real murderer. You're right... we really were so young and naive, but I know for a fact that Hayley, Felicia, Yoshino, and everyone else would rest easier knowing their sacrifices helped push us forward instead of holding us back."

"Did they tell you that when you encountered their artificial bodies?"

"In a sense, yes."

"They made sure to leave that impression so you could keep forging ahead, no matter how tough things got," stated the voice of a third person that approached while they were talking. Justine smiled at the sight of her fiancee, Roy, who sought her out immediately upon his arrival. "That's exactly what we did and why we can enjoy this era of peace now. I can't exactly forgive him, but I don't believe what happened was entirely Collin's fault, either… he was a victim too."

"Yeah, his sleazy big brother was the real villain," agreed Justine, empathetic to Roy's belief that there was still goodness within his deceased best friend. "By the way, Leena, what exactly happened to Seth? I don't think we ever got the full story there."

"Well…" she began, thoughtfully putting her finger to her chin as she delved back into another unpleasant memory. "I fully intended on taking him down with me to save the world, but my father had other ideas. He risked everything, despite my protests, and healed our bodies using his godlike abilities. Seth's soul was then absorbed when my father reclaimed everyone's powers. No more Anomaly abilities equaled no more Seth since it was his unique dual affinity that allowed his consciousness to inhabit my brother's body. My brother's consciousness was then able to reoccupy the body it was forced out of, although I suspect our father had a hand in manipulating that outcome as well."

"I suppose that's as conclusive an end to his vile existence as we could hope for," said Roy. "To think that crazy phenomena like body-jumping and resurrected companions had become normal occurrences to us for a period of time. I'm glad things have finally settled down."

"I'm not," replied a dissatisfied Justine, "I miss leaping across rooftops and subduing evildoers with my ninja skills. I could take down thugs with projectiles thrown from an entire city block away, it was awesome!"

"Your skills haven't dulled as much as you seem to think," Roy stated with an accompanying whimper. He subconsciously began massaging his left hand as he recalled a recent painful occurence. "You threw a needle into my hand when I tried eating one of your ice cream sandwiches the other day..."

"Oh, sweetie, some things just aren't for sharing, no matter what vows we end up exchanging. Now, come, on... let's go rejoin the others so Hayley can have some peace and quiet."

"Hey dipshits, I'm back," Quinton loudly announced upon his return to the former Elemental Research Institute. Many of the researchers flocked to him as if he were a celebrity, lining up for fist-bumps and high-fives. He had easily won the loyalty of his subordinates through telling tales of his heroic deeds during the Anomaly War, although he did embellish the details somewhat.

"Assistant director, please tell us again about how you toppled the Slade regime and saved humanity from being turned into robot zombies!"

"How many damn times do you guys need to hear that story?" he attempted to protest, but multiple pleading stares from the gaggle of researchers quickly changed his mind. "Okay, fine… you guys just can't get enough of me, can you? So, after Leena and the rest of the APS were defeated, my best bro Sarge and I were the last ones standing against Emperor douche-nozzle and his whiny loser of a subordinate: Matt Booker. Leena's bro had become too powerful and she was practically begging us to stop him. Now, I'm not one to refuse a request from a lady, so I marched right up to that ape-faced freak and said, hey asshat, no one cares about your lite-brite chest or your daddy issues, so you can go f… fffff-"

Quinton paused at the climax of his story upon noticing that the subject of his ridicule was watching him from across the room. The arrogant assistant director immediately abandoned his bravado and chuckled sheepishly, waving at his new colleague as if he were an old friend.

"Oh, Matty, h-hey pal... what are you doing here? I… only just secured permission from Serph to have you instated here. Sooo… uhhh… this is awkward."

"You should know the director isn't the type to wait for anyone's authorization," Matt calmly responded, demonstrating that he truly had a handle on his former temper. "I don't care about your propaganda, Quinton, just go fetch the director for me. I found something that he needs to see."

Quinton wasn't keen on following orders, but he fetched Brick anyway so they could observe the discovery made by the newbie within his first hour on the job. Matt had managed to detect and lock onto a unique energy signature emanating from the Creator's Spire located in the God Realm. It had been completely abandoned since Gregory Booker reclaimed their powers and ability to move between worlds, or so they had previously thought.

"Holy shit, is that real?" asked Quinton. He grabbed the monitor right off of the desk and lifted it to get a better look, despite Matt's attempts to keep his findings on a flat surface. "We didn't find shit on the other side for the better part of a year! Then this guy shows up and suddenly, boom, things are happening."

"Amazing," Brick gasped in awe. "I knew having you around would bear fruit, but I didn't suspect it would be so quickly. I'll contact Alex and Serph immediately and inquire if they will allow-"

"No," Matt cut him off, showing his resolve by taking an assertive tone with the authority figure. "I'd like to request that you keep this information from those government types for now. I believe we should allow Leena to decide what happens next."

"Oh you do, do you?" Brick asked to challenge him, but it appeared that his new subordinate was not backing down. "Well, I suppose there's no harm in keeping a little secret or two. I used to be a spy, after all."

"Wait, are you frickin' kidding me?" Quinton questioned his boss's shady comments. "I don't work for those guys anymore but I'd feel kinda scummy keeping things from them. And why the hell are you nerds dropping this shit on Leena? You expect her to make a sound decision considering how much she campaigned to have this psychotic freak released from the Deep? Oh, uh, no offense, Matt."

"You can't just add 'no offense' to the end of a statement and assume that makes it okay…"

"I'd say that poor girl deserves a chance to decide something for herself considering everything she's been through," Brick stated, clarifying his stance for his concerned subordinate. "But, since you both seem so passionate about this…"

Brick reached for a spherical object that was clipped to the belt loop of his slacks. He adjusted his glasses and spun his magic 8-ball on his index finger, grinning wide while his subordinates watched his decision-making process in disbelief.

"We'll let the goddess of fate decide."

"So this is the memorial site, huh?" Valor asked upon beholding the landmark at the centremost part of the cemetery. After Evan and Vy arrived to complete the group, the eight of them had travelled inward to their designated meeting spot. Valor's exasperated remarks were reminiscent of everyone else's initial reactions to the behemoth monument erected in their honor.

"This is my first time seeing it in person. Lord Domino described it to me, but he didn't really capture how… impressive it is, for lack of a better word."

"Embarrassing is the word I'd use," Leena stated, using her left hand to mask her beet-red face. "Why does our annual meet-up have to be here, of all places…?"

"Just so we can see that cute look on your face," Ash taunted her, though he was quickly rewarded with a light punch to the gut from Leena's right hook.

"Ooof…! You're freakishly strong for a girl, you know that?"

"Or you're just hopelessly weak," commented Alexis, beating Ash's self-esteem down even further before moving to inspect the monument more closely. "This is my first time seeing it too. I'm bloody relieved I didn't make enough of a splash during the war to end up immortalized on this abomination."

"Can you tell my brother had a hand in its design?" Justine asked. The enormous silver statue featured a number of memorial plaques on the base, but the figures adorning the top were the real eye-catching part. It featured the supposed greatest heroes of the Anomaly War, Leena, Valor, Alex, and Serph, rendered in over-the-top heroic poses.

"Emperor Hottie sure has a flair for the grandiose," Vy said, noticing that Serph was depicted as the centre-most figure and towered over the rest. "I guess that's one thing he has in common with his dad… did he even do anything to help?"

"He disabled the God Core for us, which could only be accomplished by someone that shared Slade's DNA," Evan explained, hoping that was enough to jog her memory. "So, yes, I'd say he was quite instrumental in our victory."

"Pfft, we didn't need him to do that, though. We were totally giving Seth the business even with all those powers he stole."

"No, no we weren't," Evan corrected her, growing increasingly frustrated as the exchange went on. "He defeated us all and was mere moments away from converting every Colonian citizen into artificial beings. Do you… do you even remember what happened at all?"

"I remember being awesome," she replied, causing Evan's eye to start twitching. Roy then intervened by approaching the young CEO, calming him down with a firm hand on his shoulder.

"You're falling right into her trap, my friend. Take it from someone with experience... there's no winning this battle. I fear you're on the verge of losing yourself to the darkness forever."

"Ugh, you guys are so dramatic," commented Leena, rolling her eyes at her male companions before joining Alexis and Valor at the base of the monument. "Everyone who fought against Colonia's enslavement was equally important, even those that didn't possess special abilities. Things may have turned out differently without a single one of our allies, that's why this giant eyesore is here… so that we never forget."

"There are quite a few familiar names on the plaques here," Alexis observed, beginning to read some of them aloud. "Oliver Trent and Kim Ford… Yoshino Omoshi and Koji Fujeida… Sergeant… whose real name is still a mystery for some reason. Oh, here's Tristan Gallagher… and… and… Gaff…"

"My father's name is on here too," added Valor, stopping to read the plaque that held the most significance to him. He was better at hiding it than Alexis, but he felt himself becoming emotional as well. "I wish he and I could've understood each other, even a little, before he met his end."

"Are you being serious right now?" Justine asked in a skeptical tone. "I think he understood you better than anyone else. He knew exactly how reckless you'd be in trying to save your friends and tried to stop you because he valued you above all else. He may have started out as a worthy villainous adversary… but he died a true hero."

"Everyone whose names are inscribed here did," added Alexis, who quickly pulled herself together and decided to change the topic. "So, Leena, what's it like having your brother back in your life? I still remember how much you spoke of finding him back when we were just starting out as Anomalies."

"It's… weird, but a good kind of weird," Leena answered after giving it some thought. "I know things will never be like when we were young, but I can see that he genuinely wants to make things right. I'm not naive enough to trust him unconditionally, but I'm hopeful about it since we instated him somewhere that would give him purpose. It feels like I finally reclaimed a fragment of the past that Seth and Eclipse had stolen from me during their twisted experiments.

"I'm glad my brother is doing well but, like I said before, I consider you guys my family now. We went through so much together, both good and bad, and I believe that it solidified our bonds into something unbreakable. The fact that we were all able to meet like this a year later, despite the changes in our locations and responsibilities, makes me feel more confident than ever about how I feel."

"Unbreakable… you mean like how our Affinity Arms were supposed to be?" Evan mused, thoughtfully stroking his chin as he volunteered his opinion. "Because, as you know, they had quite a few more weaknesses than adverti-"

"Must you lay waste to everything with that sharp tongue of yours?" Justine cut him off before he could completely ruin the moment. "Aiya… I suppose no family is complete without a black sheep or two."

"Ignore his snark, it's the only way he knows how to express himself," Vy said to Leena as she approached the taller girl and took her hands. "I feel the same way, Leena. I don't know how I would've dealt with my problems or anything that happened over these last few years without you guys. I even might've ended up as part of Eclipse because of my connection with Gabby… and I didn't completely shut down after her death because I had you all as my support network. I… I just really want to say thank you."

"You saved me too, Leena," Alexis admitted, "without you, Ash, and... as much as I hate to admit it, Sophie and Felicia, I'd have remained Seth's slave forever. You taught me how to stand my ground and face my demons head-on. I would have been completely lost without you all."

"I'd never have saved my sisters or my company without your support, either," added Evan, speaking more sincerely this time around. "I hope it's no secret that, despite how you may perceive me, you can come to me if you ever require my assistance or my resources. I'll do my best to support each and every one of you."

"You all put up with me while I mourned Felicia's passing and gave me the courage to stand up to my brother," Ash decided to speak up next. "And I owe my life to you more than anyone else, Leena. I've lost track of the number of times you saved me from the brink of death… even when you had to make incredibly difficult choices to do so."

"It was an honor working alongside you all," said Roy. "Some of my most treasured memories are of the time we spent together in APS, learning how to work as a unit to keep the city safe. I know it all crumbled apart, but for a while I genuinely felt like I was a hero making a difference in the world. I can only hope that my siblings, and my son, will enjoy full lives in this world we fought so hard to save."

"Don't forget your daughter," added Justine. Roy cast a confused glance in her direction, but all became clear as she lightly prodded her index finger against her stomach. The blond man immediately lost his composure, choking on his phlegm whilst attempting to process the new information.

"Wait… what!? Since when has this been a thing?"

"Oh good, you finally decided to tell him," Vy said, shocking the unknowing father even further. "It was really difficult not tipping you off every time I came over. Didn't you ever question why we were spending so much time in the washroom together?"

"I figured you were doing… girl things…?" he replied, just now realizing just how stupid that sounded. "J-Justine...! Why did she know about this before I did?! And why did you pick now, of all times, to share this information with me?"

"Oh, I don't know… the timing just felt right, I guess?"

"No… no it doesn't!"

"You seriously didn't know?" asked Alexis, judging Roy with a perplexed stare that only she was capable of. "I figured it out and I was halfway across the world. You seriously need to get a clue."

"So did I, although only because Vy repeatedly messaged 'OMG' to me for a week straight before I finally pressed her for answers," admitted Evan, which seemed to be the last straw for Roy. He tried to voice his betrayed feelings, but merely ended up gurgling on his saliva whilst muttering incomprehensibly. He slumped forward in defeat after losing an internal struggle within himself, uttering the only phrase that entered his distraught mind.

"... I'm Roy."

"Well, tormenting our friends with life-changing revelations is fun and all, but I'm starving," Ash announced, saving Roy from further humiliation by gathering everyone's attention. "We should grab some food if we're going to keep reminiscing… and I'm already vetoing the pizza, before anyone suggests it. I've evaded enough rolling pins in this lifetime to completely max out my dodge stat."

"Let's go to the most expensive restaurant in town!" Vy shouted excitedly. Evan loudly cleared his throat immediately afterward, ensuring that his upcoming statement would be heard by everyone present.

"I just want you all to keep in mind that I'm not picking up the bill this time. Now that I'm in charge I'm starting to see why my sister was so upset by my constant usage of the company credit card..."

"Let's go to the cheapest fast food place!" Vy immediately amended her previous statement, which came as no surprise whatsoever to their resident CEO. "I could go for a nice, juicy burger. Or maybe tacos… ooh, or sushi! Or maybe Indian food…"

"You guys go on ahead," Valor said before Leena had an opportunity to leave. "Umm… Leena, I was hoping I could have a moment to speak to you in private."

"I think that's a really good idea, you should totally stay and listen to what he has to say," Justine agreed with a suspicious level of enthusiasm. She gave Leena a hard pat on the back, sending her stumbling in Valor's direction while the rest of the group exited the memorial site.

"Come on, Roy," Ash said as he and Evan hoisted Roy's arms over their shoulders to help him along. "Let's clear out of here so Valor can willingly walk into the exact same trap we did. Can you walk?"

"I-I'm Roy. I'm… Roy…? I'm..."

"See what I mean? Dramatic," commented Leena, scoffing and giving Valor a look that made him extremely skittish considering the circumstances. "So what did you want to talk about? I'm hungry."

Valor mulled over his thoughts, carefully considering how to word what he wanted to say. He noticed that Leena was growing more impatient as the seconds passed, however, and, much like Roy before him, ended up blurting out the first phrase that entered his mind.

"I think I love you."

"E-Excuse me?!" Leena exclaimed, turning bright red as she recoiled away from her longtime friend. The news wasn't exactly a surprise, but the suddenness of the delivery certainly shocked her. "That's way too direct, you freak! At least buy me dinner first or something."

"I mean, what I meant to say was… um… wow, I was hardly any more prepared for this than you were. I seriously regret allowing Justine to pressure me into this."

"I knew she was being extra weird for some reason…"

"L-Let me start over," Valor pleaded now that he had taken a moment to collect his thoughts. "I've admired you since the moment we first met. I sensed your innocence and kind soul from the moment I selected you as my vessel. It was then that I truly became interested in the human world again."

"That's sweet and all, but I don't exactly count your disembodied voice scaring me half to death in a dark alley as our first meeting. It would've been right after you scared the crap out of me while I was in the shower… which isn't much better, now that I think about it."

"And that was when I witnessed your beauty for the first time and truly fell for you."

"Oh my… okay," Leena replied, stammering a bit herself as she tried to collect her own thoughts. "I… love you too, in my own weird way, you sentimental dork. You've always been there for me; you guided me while I was still learning my powers, helped me reunite with my father, and came to my rescue when I was in danger. We were conditioned from the beginning to address you otherworldly beings as gods, but I always thought of you as my personal guardian angel."


Valor took a step toward her, but she gently pressed her hand against his chest to delay his advance.

"That being said, I don't know if I have the, um, emotional capacity to give myself to another boy. Both of my previous boyfriends ended up trying to kill me. I know the circumstances are different but I still have lingering nightmares. I need time to consider my options and, I'm sorry, but I don't know how long that will take."

"I'm sorry too, Leena… I knew about what you went through in the past but I had no idea how much it still affected you. This was something I think I really needed to get off my chest, though, so you can just forget about it if you want."

"No, I'm glad you told me. It's always been kind of the elephant in the room, hasn't it? Now we finally know where we both stand."

"Heh, I suppose so."

"Thank you, Valor," she said before leaning in and giving him a kiss on the cheek. "I won't forget what you've told me today. I may even let you take me out on a date someday, if you're lucky."

"How gracious of you," he responded, feigning sarcasm to mask how happy he was. "I suppose the ball is in your court now. You just let me know… and I'll come running back from wherever the hell I'm at in the world to see you."

"That sounds good to me," she told him, making no attempts to hide the beaming smile on her face. She had felt her phone vibrate several times in her purse throughout their chat and finally decided to check her messages. "It looks like the others are at CFC, we should go catch up with them."


"Colonia Fried Chicken, duh."

"Why did I even ask…"

"Hey... this is kind of weird but I just got a text from Quinton, of all people. He says he has something to deliver to me so he wants me to wait for him. Alone. Uhh, what do you think of this?"

"It's mildly suspicious, but so is everything else that guy does. I can stay here to make sure you're safe, if you'd prefer."

"My safety is the last thing you need to worry about," she responded with a wry smile on her face. "I'm curious about what those Elemental Research goons are scheming this time. You go on ahead... I'll be there as soon as I can."

Valor tried to protest again but departed when Leena insisted, leaving her alone at the gaudy monument. It was getting a bit chilly as the day shifted into evening, so she slipped a jacket on whilst keeping an eye on her phone for any updates. She grew bored after a few moments passed by so she wandered the cemetery grounds, figuring her contact would text her once he arrived. She ended up at a certain memorial that she knew none of her friends would have willingly visited alongside her. Her hands were cold so she slipped them into her coat pockets, sighing wistfully as she read the inscribed name over and over again.

'Sophie Briante.'

She found herself thinking back on the time she spent together with Sophie, who was perhaps an even more tragic victim of the Anomaly project than herself. Sophie cheated on the Colonia entrance exams with Ash's help, entering the country with the goal of finding a cure for her brother's chronic illness. The two of them met not long after that when they were assigned to work on a project together. She smiled as she recalled how they didn't exactly get along at first. That changed when they were both reborn as Anomalies during a chance encounter with Eclipse, marking the start of a connection unlike any other. They were pulled into many conflicts with the Eclipse syndicate afterward, making it difficult for Sophie to focus on her goals. No matter how many new friends and allies they gained, she continued to grow increasingly resentful toward her powers and the way they derailed her life.

Then it happened. Sophie brought Leena and Alexis along on a family trip when they were hunted down by an Anomaly that held a grudge against her. Her younger brother Christian was killed in the ensuing battle and Sophie decided not to return to Colonia with them, creating a rift between herself and the rest of the group as she isolated herself. She seemed better when she returned years later, but it turned out to be an act. She accepted an offer to kill Leena's father, the creator of the Anomaly Project, seeking revenge on him for rerailing her life. Mia discovered this and stopped her, but they should have realized how dangerous she had become. She lost control of herself after Leena was injured in battle with Leah, winding up captured and experimented on by Matt and his renegades.

There was nothing but tragedy from that point on. Sophie resurfaced as one of Scott Slade's enforcers with the goal of eliminating Anomalies altogether by ushering in the age of artificial beings. She attacked her former friends, murdered Yoshino and Koji, and stood in Leena's way when she tried to stop Matt from unleashing the Annihilation Wave. They were left with no choice but to fight, even though they still recognized each other as friends. Sophie acted as if she were about to kill Ash after their battle concluded, goading Leena into ending her life. She seemed happy, despite everything that went wrong, to have served a purpose by motivating Leena to fight against her brother without holding anything back.

Leena wasn't happy about it, however. She was still mortified at the thought of taking her best friend's life, no matter how far gone she may have been. She knew that a lingering sorrow remained within Ash as well, since he was right there and unable to stop it. Every time she stopped by the memorial, she cursed herself for not finding a different way to help Sophie. They were total opposites, but that was why Leena felt they completed each other while they were together. It wasn't fair, she thought, that the Anomaly Project robbed so many of their potential and their futures.

"I had a feeling I'd find you here," Quinton's loud voice cut into her moment of contemplation. He didn't seem very happy as he approached her and handed her a beaten-up piece of technology about the size of her palm. She glanced down at it, vaguely recognizing it from her prior adventures.

"A zone scrambler. Where did you get this?"

"I think it was recovered from the core's wreckage. Seth used it to escape into the other realm after Prince Asshat shut down the God Core, right?"

"Right. So it's the real deal… are you sure you should be giving me this? If someone like Serph, Alex, or Domino ever found out I don't think even our connections could save us from the backlash."

"Hey, this is your damn brother's fault for sticking his nose where it didn't belong! Then the freakin' director decided to get all sappy and go 'screw the rules, let's allow Leena to do whatever the hell she wants because she's the tragic heroine, blah, blah, blah!' You're not the only one who lost their best friend, you know that, right?! You're not that special."

"I know," she replied in a melancholy tone. She opened her palm and displayed the salvaged device to the redheaded researcher. "You can take it back if you feel this is the wrong thing to do."

"Bah… keep it. I got better things to do than bust your chops. I lined up a hot date with this wicked chick who abuses me both verbally and physically. I never realized how much I'd be into that shit. You just think about what you're getting yourself into, alright? That broken piece of crap might only be good for a one way trip."

"That's true, but I'm the only one left with the power to do this."

Leena clenched the grenade-shaped device tightly in her right hand, tapping into its power to create a dimensional rift. It had been quite some time since either of them witnessed this phenomenon; the air before them rippled like water, providing a faded glimpse at the otherworldly destination within. Quinton put his sunglasses on to avoid being blinded, though he was more stunned by the revelation that she still possessed her Anomaly powers. Matt had somehow figured it out and Brick picked up on his cues, which was a secondary reason why Leena was the one they entrusted with this task. She glanced at the speechless APS alumni and placed her index finger over her lips, indicating that he should keep what he witnessed to himself.

"Tell my friends I'll find a way to be here for next year's gathering, no matter what it takes."

Leena disappeared after delivering her parting message, with Quinton watching as in awe as the portal closed itself up afterward. Once the stomach-turning experience of warping through time and space subsided, she regained her senses and found herself staring at the skyscraper-sized Creator's Spire. A quick glance at her hand revealed that Quinton's warning had merit after all; the Zone Scrambler was fried and rendered completely unusable. She tossed it aside and contemplated entering the structure before her, where her father had made his great sacrifice, but realized it wasn't necessary. A simple 360-degree spin revealed multiple paths before her, one leading to each of the eight elemental-themed domains of the God Realm, but her heart knew which the correct option was.

She set a course toward the Land of Vapor, which was lavishly rich with rivers, lakes, and vegetation. She didn't feel like walking the entire distance to her destination, so she summoned an old companion since she was now in a safe environment to do so.

"Oh, powerful and gentle beast, charge gallantly into battle at my side… STAMPEDE!"

With that incantation, her Affinity Soul materialized at her side. She fondly laid her hand upon the armored rhinoceros creature, recalling appreciation for her father designing her pet after her favorite animal. She mounted it and charged forth at full speed, covering hours' worth of a trek in a fraction of the time. She saw nothing noteworthy along the way, save for a few errant Affinity Souls that fled when they sensed her overwhelming aura. Anxiety built up in her chest as she approached her final destination: a broken stone bridge that stretched partway over a large ravine just ahead of the realm's castle. It was at this very spot that she nearly lost her life in a bloody grudge-match with an old enemy, but it was also where a certain friend stepped up to avenge her.

As difficult as it was for her to believe, that very same friend was standing right there before her.

"Sophie…! It's… it's really you, isn't it?"

"Astute as always, Leena."

"How is this possible?"

"Do I really need to explain? My continued existence is the handiwork of a foolish old man who put his daughter's happiness before everything else."

Sophie's words helped Leena understand how this supposed miracle was possible. Her father's powers were nearly absolute in this realm; she experienced it firsthand when he healed both her brother and herself from the catastrophic injuries they incurred during their final battle. It wasn't impossible to believe that her father retrieved Sophie not long after she was left for dead and administered a similar treatment. Sophie's wounds were far more severe than those of the Booker siblings, so she imagined it would have taken her far longer to recover. That would explain why she didn't make an appearance during Leena's last visit one year ago today.

"He cared about you so much that he saved my life without any regard to how I actually felt. He didn't want you to carry the guilt of killing your best friend around with you for the rest of your days, I suppose."

"How can you not be grateful for what he did? He gave you a second chance when no one else would've done the same."

"I wanted to die, Leena!" Sophie shouted, raising her voice appropriately as the topic of discussion struck a chord within her. "All I wanted was to eradicate the plague known as Anomalies that stole my poor, innocent younger brother from me. I didn't care what means I used to do so. Scott Slade had the easiest solution: recreate humanity in unliving bodies that were indistinguishable from one-another. Everyone would be the same and no one would have these powers that came attached with so much conflict and pain. I didn't plan on sticking around to see the result, anyway. I… I wanted to go to my brother's side…"

"I'm sorry, but you need to explain yourself better than that. What was the point of all the atrocities you committed if you were just going to give up and die?"

"I wanted to stop you from going to Colonia and being caught in the Annihilation Wave at all costs. You were the only one I wanted to save, the one last living person that I cared about. I also didn't want you to experience the traps Slade had me set up for you, like the recreated proxies of Felicia and the others, so I fought to my last breath trying to stop you."

"Well I did have to face them down and it was awful. In the end you got what you wanted anyway, since my father stripped everyone of their powers, so most of that insanity could've been avoided if you never betrayed us to begin with. You always miss the easiest resolutions because you let your temper get the better of you. If you really only cared about me then you would have fought at my side… not conspired against me. Did you think I'd appreciate you hurting my friends and murdering Koji and Yoshino? What the hell is wrong with you?!"

"I… I must've lost sight of what was right and somehow forgot to take your feelings into account. I was being selfish, I didn't want to keep on living as the abomination that your father transformed me into. My punishment for my sins has been quite apt, whether it was intentional on his part or not. I've been forced to continue on with a life I tried to throw away, isolated in a foreign world with no human contact, and, worst of all, I still possess the Anomaly powers I dedicated my existence to exterminating. Every moment that's passed by over this past year has been nothing short of pure torture for me."

"I see. It seems I wasted my time coming here. I don't know what I was expecting but you're still not the person I was hoping to find. Now I need to live with my own reckless decision and pray I can find a way back to the people worth caring for. Goodbye, Sophie."

Leena turned away, preparing to return to the Creator's Spire and check her options in regards to returning home. She hardly managed to take a step when Sophie spoke up again, however, giving her a reason to pause and listen further.

"All of that was how I used to feel, Leena. I've found a new reason for existing in my exile."

"What do you mean…?"

"I've had a lot of time to figure out how things in this world affect the other. What your father did certainly helped to normalize the elemental balance and mitigate the disasters, but the danger isn't completely gone. When two of the eight zones overlap or clash or whatever you'd call it, the resulting energy spawns a powerful, completely berserk Affinity Soul. If those beasts rampage unchecked, they spread their respective element's domain and cause the balance to destabilize further."

"Are you serious…? Has that always been the case?"

"I think so. Most of the Affinity Souls in this world perished when your father did his thing to even out the elements. Then I noticed weird power spikes as new ones showed up, so I put two-and-two together. Not bad, huh? I'm pretty sure this makes me smarter than the Elemental Gods, especially that ridiculous buffoon that gave you your powers."

Leena noticed, upon closer investigation, that Sophie's clothes were torn in places and she had fresh scars on visible parts of her skin. The realization that came along with that sight, along with Sophie's reveal of her newfound purpose, was enough for Leena to finally let her guard down. Tears of joy welled up in her eyes as she approached her friend, who apprehensively backed away since Leena towered over her.

"So you're saying that you've been fighting this entire time and keeping our world safe? Oh, Sophie... I just knew you had to have some inner virtue left!"

"H-Hey, get off me, you amazon!" Sophie exclaimed as Leena tightly wrapped her arms around her and began sobbing. "I… I was just bored, okay?! I don't care about what happens over there! And d-don't suddenly bring up my inner virtue like that… do you have any idea how weird that sounds?!"

Sophie managed to push Leena away just enough to give them an arm's length worth of breathing room. It was similar to the position Leena found herself in earlier with Valor. Except, this time, she didn't feel any sort of hesitation and decided to just go with her instincts. A muffled exclamation of surprise came from Sophie as Leena leaned down and interlocked lips with her, but she hardly needed any convincing to close her eyes and return the favor. The two of them spent quite a long time in their embrace, savoring every second as they gave into their suppressed urges.

Leena eventually pulled away to catch her breath, although Sophie's exhausted panting indicated she was even more drained. It was over those past few moments that Leena felt she finally understood many things she had spent the last year fretting about. Her aching heart finally felt like it was being soothed and, perhaps even more importantly, she understood the purpose her brother had alluded to. There was a purpose behind her father allowing her to keep her powers, and it was likely the same for Sophie as well.

"You'll never have to fight on your own again," Leena told her. "I'll be by your side to protect the world just as my father did before me."

"Are you sure you want to stay with me after everything that happened? I don't deserve this after what I did…"

"We have a long time ahead to figure out what's right and what isn't. I've never felt fulfilled like this before and I'm not letting go of this feeling, no matter what."

"Okay then," Sophie replied, smirking as she took Leena's hand and led her away from the bridge. "I'll show you where we'll be staying. There's lots of leftover stuff in the castles we can use as we see fit. I'm sure it won't be as luxurious as living in your uncle's attic, but-"

"Oh, please. I almost forget what it's like to sleep somewhere without the smell of pizza permeating through every surface. This will be fun... like camping!"

"Sure, whatever you say. You didn't happen to bring any food with you, did you?"

"I thought we didn't need to eat in this world."

"We don't, but I really miss candy, especially at the five-finger discount."

"You're really out there, you know that?"

"I feel like someone's told me that before…"

"Yeah, it was me."