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October Children

Chapter Text

"It's today, isn't it?"

He glances up at her with his lone red eye, brown hair shining in the dim, wavering light from the chandelier. A smile twitches across his lips. "Yep. Some humans might come today."

The blonde next to the girl with brown hair- her right eye covered with an eyepatch that you might expect a pirate to wear and not a nice young lady wearing some admittedly not-exactly-nice-looking clothing- glances at her.

Well, it can only be assumed that he's glancing at her; the blindfold across his eyes makes it rather difficult to tell.

"I'm honestly wondering what kind of humans will come," the blonde admits, scratching his cheek slightly.

"If any. I haven't even seen one for... like... twenty years?"

A bystander might look around in bemusement at the voice that emitted from seemingly nowhere before looking up at the ceiling.

The way the light is wavering dramatically across the brown-haired man's face is suddenly made clear as the bearded man hanging from the chandelier and swinging it back and forth crazily with his right eye covered with a patch that matches the girl's comes into view.

The brown-haired man smiles faintly and almost pleasantly.

Something about it seems too sinister to be really pleasant.

"Well, we'll see soon."


Jesse ekes the door open carefully, glancing into the living room, backpack already hiked up onto their small, thin back in case he needs to make a run for it.

Their head of (admittedly rather fluffy) dark hair is streaked with a bright color, and their eyes are a very markedly pretty shade of green, and their overalls over their too-big long-sleeved shirt doesn't really help the fact that they look like they're ten when they're, in fact, seven years older than that, but otherwise you really wouldn't glance at them twice.

When the snoring man with a beer bottle loosely hanging from his fingers on the couch doesn't stir beyond breathing, they shift the door open a little further, almost barely enough for them to squeeze past but still a little too narrow if they want to avoid making sound.

"You damn kid!"

He swears at Jesse, throwing another bottle at them; they barely manage to duck before it shatters on the wall behind them, glass skittering across the floor from the impact. Jesse bites their lip to keep from crying out, tears building up behind their eyes, but they say nothing, do nothing, they don't dare do anything for fear of his rage hitting them.

"I'm- I'm sorry, Dad-"

The man's eyes gleam viciously. "Don't call me that, you pathetic brat," he spits out, alcohol slurring his words and dragging them out, "you know nobody wanted you, huh? You know how much trouble you've caused me? I only did this as a favor for that damn orphanage caretaker bailing me out that one time."

Jesse swallows tears, swallows any response they can make in response to that, shove down any anger or fear or rebellion in their eyes, shut down.

"Yes, sir."

Still no movement. He really is passed out on the sofa at the moment.

Another eking of the door, halting just before the hinges hit the squeaky part, trying to avoid making any loud sounds. He doesn't so much as twitch.

A hand smacks across their face, Jesse flinching as heat floods into their cheek. They can smell that nasty, disgusting scent that they know means that the orphanage caretaker is currently completely stoned. They try to avoid moving or shifting- so much as a shuffle of their feet can result in them getting screamed at.

"You talkin' back to me kid?"

"No- no." Jesse doesn't even dare shake their head, heart beating so quickly it feels like a rabbit's.

A long silence stretches through the room, wending cold fingers into their shoulder, making it grow thicker and heavier and deeper until-

The caretaker sneers, unfocused eyes staring right through them. "Get out of my sight."

Soft, quick footsteps across carpeted floor, another door swinging open with a tiny click, before Jesse's latching the door behind them and pretty much booking it down the street.

It isn't until they're halfway down the street that they breathe a sigh of relief.

Considering how late for school their dad- no, not their dad. Their legal guardian- can make them in the morning with his hangovers making an already dark mood even darker, they're glad they manage to escape the usual routine.

This thought is immediately interrupted by someone in sunglasses brushing past them in a run, almost knocking the much-shorter teenager over. When they glance back, they can see it's a man, holding what looks to be a woman's purse.

"Somebody stop him! He took my bag!"

Despite the fact that they're basically running back in the direction of their house, Jesse wheels on their heel without even halting and breaks into a run, hands releasing the straps of their backpack as they go from a casual walk to a near-sprint.

The man isn't exactly being cautious- ramming into people as he runs away from the girl shouting about her bag- but he seems to be making good ground.

Time to derail that plan.

Jesse's feet dig into the sidewalk for a moment before they suddenly shoot forward like a very baggy-shirt-wearing bullet, dodging and diving around people as their reflexes keep them from slamming full-force into people and then possibly knocking them over. In moments they have already covered enough ground to be five feet behind the man, before they tense their knees and launch themselves at him, allowing their heavy backpack to add quite a bit of force to the impact they're going to make with the man.

That impact is made not seconds later, the would-be thief yelping in alarm as Jesse collides heavily with his back and bowls him to the ground. The man faceplants, but Jesse senses the impact coming. The moment the man's close enough to the ground, Jesse launches themselves forward and rolls, allowing their forward momentum to bowl them forwards like a little bowling ball.

Their feet touch the ground, they pop back up, and they reach down and snag the purse from him just as the woman, completely out of breath, manages to catch up with them. "Here you go!" they chirp, and extend the purse to her.

The woman beams down at them and takes it. "Thank you so much, sweetheart."

The thief groans from where he's flat on his face.

Jesse beams back, even though the fact that they're only a door or two down from their house doesn't escape them and they feel the urgent, itching need to run twitching at their fingers. "No problem! I'd better get to school now. Try to be careful with your purse from now on."

"Alright. Thank you again!"

And off Jesse bolts for high school, dodging past people and weaving around them so that they don't just spectacularly crash into anybody.


Whew... I made it.

Jesse plops down in their chair, backpack falling to their feet as a relieved sigh puffs out of their mouth. With time to spare, too.

"Hey, there!"

Jesse looks up to see one of the popular kids beaming at them.

Which is weird. Usually the popular kids are all too happy to shove them around and tease them and mock them for being easily the shortest, smallest, most androgynous, thinnest person in the entire 11th grade.

But they give a little smile and a tiny wave, because the popular kid said hello, and it would be rude to not at least respond. "Hi."

"Soooo, you know that forest? Y'know- that one with, like, all the different types of trees and that weird clearing that nobody goes to?" The popular kid asks, tilting her head so that dark brown curls shift in waterfalls down her shoulders.

A little nod. "Uh-huh... what about it?"

"Wellll, we've all been chatting-" The popular kid doesn't bother to explain, and Jesse doesn't need her to, that 'we' means the popular kids. "And we've found out that one of us have gone into that clearing, and that if you go inside, and say a wish out loud three times, it'll actually come true!"

Jesse frowns slightly. "... was your friend hallucinating or something? That doesn't sound very likely."

"No, silly, it's real!" She gives them a grin. "She was, like, totally sober, and she went in and tried it, and it worked!"

Jesse gives a noncommittal hum at that.

"So, like, we were all thinking that we were going to head there after school and try it! You should come with- it'll be a ton of fun!" The popular kid gives Jesse a beaming, bright smile.

... a wish? I know I look like a kid, but seriously? That sounds so childish.

Jesse pauses a moment later, feeling a strange longing creep into the pit of their stomach.

... but... if I had a wish...

"Get out of my sight."

"Nobody wants you."

"I'm afraid we can't take this child; they're really too small and sickly-looking."

... I'd wish for a family...

The idea makes Jesse's heart ache a little bit. The idea of a wish being granted, and they wish for something for themselves (even though it's something they desperately, desperately want, desire more than anything, want so, so, so badly)? Can they get any more selfish?

And yet...

Jesse sits there for a moment, before they glance up at the popular kid.

"What time are you guys plannin'?"

She beams at the fact that they seem to have accepted her offer. "Around four. You're free after school?"

"I... I think so..."

The popular girl's smile widens. "Great- we'll meet you there at the clearing since it takes a while to round everyone else up." She rolls her eyes. "The new class system is, like, such b-s."

Jesse gives her a little nod and a tiny smile to return. "Okay."

She grins at them and pops back to her feet, giving them a clap on the back that makes them wince; there are some bruises there that haven't quite healed yet. "Awesome. I'll spot you after school, 'kay?" And before Jesse can respond, she's back with her group and sitting down, all of them reacting cheerfully as she reports back to them.

The moment Jesse glances away, though, her cheerful grin becomes a little more nasty. "I can't believe they fell for that. What kinda dumb thing do you think they wish for? Normalcy?"

The guy next to her rolls his eyes. "I bet they're gonna wish for a new toy from Santa."

The entire group sniggers at that, before the curly-haired girl smirks. "Well, they'll be waiting for half an hour anyway, since they're just going to be there early. So y'know, they might even just think we stood 'em up after they end up waiting for three hours and we can embarrass the crap out of them."

"Not like we don't already do that," another popular guy mutters, more sniggers spreading through the group.


The backpack combined with their weight is really the only reason that the sounds of grass crunching beneath Jesse's feet can be heard as they tread into the clearing.

They're glad they were able to scrounge up enough money to buy themselves a cherry soda (which should help tide them over if their legal guardian doesn't make dinner, which is almost a hundred percent certainty); but actually managing to purchase the cherry soda, head back in the direction of the forest, and find the path to the clearing is stupidly contrived enough that it's nearly 3:55 by the time Jesse gets there.

They set their backpack down, feeling glad that the relatively heavy thing is no longer digging into their shoulders, and glancing around. The sun is already beginning to set, being winter, and the golden light causes the trees to cast shadows that are long and almost a little eerie.

Jesse stands there for a moment, quietly, before huffing a weak laugh.

What are they doing here? They did come all the way here, mostly because they'd already said yes to the popular girl, but really? They're going to be doing something like this? Believing in magic and wishes was so silly. It was better to just head back to their house.

... although... it would be nice if my wish would come true.

Jesse shakes their head at the silliness of that idea (and how very, very selfish it is) and turns to pick up their backpack and leave.

Fingers snare their wrist.

Jesse's eyes flicker backwards to the gloved hand grabbing them by the wrist, to the leather-jacket-like sleeve on the arm that was holding them, to... nothing.

The arm was connected to absolutely nothing.

Jesse opens their mouth to cry out, eyes wide-

A flash of pain as he hits them. Tears, a hit, a gasp or a cry or a whimper, a kick, even standing in a defensive position results in pain.

They bite their tongue instead.

They disappear in a flash of light, without so much as a sound.

Not even a minute passes before the murmur of voices sounds in the clearing, and the popular kids appear in the shadows of the trees, giggling and snickering and finding the idea of the possibility of a wish (or even just Jesse getting stood up) apparently rather hilarious.

At least, until the popular girl stops. "... are they not here?"

"No, look-" And one of them points at Jesse's discarded backpack, the little pig keychain dangling from it very obvious. "It's their stupid backpack."

A long, long pause as the popular kids all glance around at each other, an unsettling silence creeping over them.

Jesse's stuff is there. And it's not like Jesse would leave without their backpack. (They are literally almost the only one in the grade who turns in their homework on time, neat, from a candy-colored folder that they keep in their backpack.)

So where are they?


The feeling of traveling through a curtain of heat isn't lost on Jesse before their feet step onto what feels like carpet, a firm set of hands on Jesse's shoulders and giving them a light squeeze. Jesse's eyes are squeezed shut, but they can feel the big hands gently (if firmly) holding them and they're pretty sure a guy is the one who's gripping them by the shoulders.

Jesse slowly, slowly blinks one eye open, to find themselves staring at a very pretty wooden door. They flicker around, showing what looks like the entrance to some kind of old-fashioned manor.

... what just happened? Where am I?

"Ooh... look, Aiden!"

A voice that is distinctly male sounds right in their ear, making Jesse flinch automatically from how close it is. "It's..." A short pause, before the hands spin them around to get a better look at them.

A male with dark brown (nearly black, actually) hair and a beard is blinking perplexedly at them with his left eye, the right one being covered with what looks like a pirate's eyepatch. His shirt is a dark red, black leather jacket with brown straps and metal shoulderpads gleaming in the dim light from the chandelier on the ceiling. One quick look downwards confirm that his pants and boots are also black.

But that's not what's making Jesse a tad nervous about the whole thing; no, plenty of people at school wear lots of black and red.

No, what makes Jesse really, really nervous is the fact that the boy's left iris is an unnatural, inhuman red.

"Well, honestly, I can't actually tell what gender they are, but it's a kid!" And he grins at them before giving their hair an enthusiastic ruffle, making chills of fear shoot up Jesse's spine. "And they've got fluffy hair, too."

"Cut that out, Gill."

Jesse's eyes flicker to behind the bearded guy to see a white sofa with a guy seated on it. His hair looks windswept and almost spiky, left eye wrapped up completely in a bandage with his right eye shut. He's sipping something from a teacup.

Presumably tea.

His eyes flicker open as he lowers the cup a bit, revealing that his own iris is also bloodred.

"You're scaring them."

Chapter Text

'Aiden', apparently, shifts off of the couch. His own clothing is rather similar to 'Gill's'- a leather jacket with straps (although noticeably his shoulderpads actually have little spikes on them), black pants, silver metal kneepads... in fact, if it weren't for the fact that his shirt is white, and he also seems to have tiny red studs in his ears, and, hm, yeah, the bandage over his left eye is a pretty big difference, Aiden would look like he is wearing the exact same thing as Gill.

He gives the very-short Jesse a once-over, before his lips quirk up into a humorless smile. "Sorry. This is probably late, but please don't be alarmed. We're not planning to hurt you or anything like that."

He inclines his head politely at them, still smiling without any humor. "I'm Aiden, and the guy who dragged you in is Gill."

"Hey, Aiden," and Jesse looks up as a young, blonde man comes in. His clothing is also characterized by the metal shoulderplates, but unlike Gill and Aiden, he doesn't have a lot of straps- he just has one brown belt that holds a few pouches over his leather jacket and orange shirt. His metal-tipped boots go up to his knees, hiding most of his dark gray pants. "Did someone..."

He trails off upon spotting Jesse. Well, actually, spotting is a relative term, because his eyes are hidden entirely by a red silky-looking blindfold. He cocks his head at them a moment later. "... taking that as a yes."

Aiden huffs, jerking his head at the blonde. His smile does soften a bit though, and Jesse swears they can feel it warm up a bit. "And that guy's name is Lukas. Yours?"

And immediately, all three boys are looking at Jesse.

Well, they're guessing for Lukas, but still.

Jesse ducks their head, feeling their cheeks redden at the fact that all three of them are looking at Jesse, especially with inhumanly red eyes. What doesn't help is the fact that they feel like they're a ten-year-old being invited to hang out with a bunch of 17-or-18 year olds, since that's the way all three of them look. "I'm- I'm Jesse."

Gill cocks his head at them at that, red eye squinting up. "Sorry, what was that?"

"My name's Jesse," Jesse repeats their name a little louder, feeling their insides twist a little bit anxiously. Great, two seconds into this meeting (as weird as it is) and they're already too quiet for people to hear them. This is going to go as well as it usually does when they talk to other people.

Which is to say, not well at all.

Jesse's anxiety is cut off when a door swings open, revealing a young woman (a girl? She does look around Jesse's age as well).

Her clothing is (unsurprisingly) much the same as the other three, with a black leather jacket over a bright red shirt. She also has a pirate eye patch like Gill does (which makes Jesse wonder if they like pirates), and her straps are much fewer than Aiden's but a few more than Lukas has, dark brown boots coming to her knees and topping it off with a protective kneecap. She also has a red-gold pin keeping most of her light brown hair out of her face.

She yawns.

"Did someone just come, Aiden...?" Her voice trails off as she spots the fluffy-haired Jesse standing in between the three males, eyes widening.

And then her eyes shine with excitement, skipping forward until she's nearly face-to-face with Jesse, a huge, excited grin coming across her face. "Ohhhhh! They're so cute!"

Gill halfheartedly scowls at her, crossing his arms. "Oi, when'd you get here?"

Aiden completely ignores the question and gives Maya a perplexed smile. "Well, you're excited, Maya."

"Of course! This is literally the first human to show up here in twenty years!"

Jesse blinks.

Twenty years? But... they all appear to be the same age as them.

Ah, wait, that's not the only odd thing.

Human.

Meaning...

These four weren't human?

Lukas hums, thumbing the corner of his mouth thoughtfully as he regards Jesse, completely ignoring the confused swirl of everything currently inside of them. (Seriously, is he looking at them? He's wearing a blindfold.) "Hmm... that's true. Though I can't tell if they're a girl or a boy."

Jesse feels their cheeks redden, but before they can say anything, Gill chimes in. "That's not that bad, considering I can't tell if Maya's a girl or a boy either."

Maya's grin falls into a somewhat-playful glare, red eye almost sparking as she narrows her eyes at Gill. "Picking a fight, are we?"

"Heh, bring it on."

Annnnd now the two are chucking things at each other.

Jesse watches a vase full of flowers, a teacup, a chair, a table, a bench, a painting, a candle, a candlestick holder, and a lamp fly past them from different angles before they timidly glance over at Lukas, who seems to be watching the interaction with mild amusement. "Um... should you guys stop 'em?"

Aiden shrugs and huffs a fond-sounding laugh, making Jesse swivel to look at him. "Ah... don't worry about them. They're usually like that."

He turns and gives Jesse another humorless smile. "Now, how about we have a cup of tea and a quick-"

Jesse reacts before they even really realize they're seeing a lamp fly at Aiden.

They grab his sleeve and yank him forward while also diving to the side, the momentum of both movements knocking them into a spin so that Jesse is where Aiden is and Aiden is where Jesse was moments before-

The lamp smacks into their back and knocks them flat on their face, back letting out a shriek of complaint as the lamp manages to hit about five of their bruises as they bite their tongue to keep themselves from crying out.

Maya and Gill freeze as Lukas lets out a vehement exclamation and stoops down to check on them, Aiden blinking in shock at thin air before looking down at Jesse. "Holy crap, are you okay?"

Jesse doesn't think they can say anything without sounding like they might cry or at least sound like they're in pain.

So instead they just raise their hand, without even lifting their face, and give them a thumbs' up.

Aiden grimaces and leans down to help Jesse up, literally picking them up (face momentarily changing as he realizes how light they are) and setting them on their feet. "Er... thanks."

"Mmhm..."

After confirming that Jesse is, in fact, mostly alright, Lukas gives a pleasant hum and turns on his heel to face Maya and Gill, who look absolutely stricken. "Which one of you two threw that?"

"He... help..." The two have given up completely on their fight and are now clinging to each other as Lukas slowly walks towards them.


A while after Lukas tugs Maya and Gill through a side door while Aiden takes Jesse to the sofa and gets them some tea (and a cookie as thanks), and after Lukas comes back in with a very scolded-puppy-looking Maya and Gill, and after they all sit on the sofa and the chairs and get situated, the blonde still shooting the occasional glance at the two- when, in short, some time has passed and Jesse's back has stopped aching, Jesse timidly speaks up.

"I, um... I should be heading back to my house now..." They don't know how much time has passed, but it's certainly late enough that they're not going to be able to avoid their legal guardian, and maybe, maybe if they go now, they'll escape the worst of it.

Aiden tilts his head, brow momentarily creasing at the way Jesse phrases that, before it clears back into a light look. "Oh? Well, I suppose I'll hurry and get to the point then."

His light look becomes outright business-like, brisk and no-nonsense. "What did you come here for? Is there something you desire?"

Jesse pauses, knowing that what they're about to say sounds childish and embarrassing and stupid besides.

But they say it anyway.

"Um... some... someone told me that if I came here, my wish would be granted..."

A long, long pause as the four of them look at them and Jesse blinks back.

"Pff-"

The tiny puff of air through Aiden's lips is enough to set all four of them off, Gill toppling off his chair with a raucous cackle while Maya turns and starts slapping the back of hers, giggling all the while. Lukas covers his mouth with his hand, almost seeming to try to be nice about hiding it, while Aiden just outright laughs. He doesn't even bother to hide it.

Jesse feels the blood flush their cheeks as Maya gasps, "A- a wish? And you actually believed that?"

"Oh- oh- oh-" Gill's laughter is so bad that he's almost literally rolling on the floor. "That's a new one! These humans are simply too much!"

Jesse looks down at their lap, feeling their face become incredibly hot.

They're used to people laughing at them, of course, but... really, they were hoping this would be different.

"I... I know it's- I know it's dumb." Their voice is a tiny, tiny whisper. "You guys don't have to laugh so much."

Lukas lowers his hand, breathing catching in a soft chuckle. "Sorry, sorry, it's just-" Another huff of air comes out, and he dissolves back into soft laughter.

Their face feels like a little miniature oven now. Jesse covers their face to try to hide the fact that they're currently redder than Maya's shirt.

Maybe they shouldn't have said anything.

Aiden's chuckles subside a moment later, before he goes quiet, even as the other three continue chuckling. "Jesse? You alright?"

Jesse hastily lowers their hands, still feeling their face being about twenty degrees higher than the average human body. Judging by the way Maya's laughter dies and Lukas's fade and the way Gill slowly sits up, and the way Aiden's brow is furrowed, all of them notice as well.

"Y-yeah, it's- it's just embarrassing." And they give a weak little laugh.

There is a long, long moment where the four of them look at Jesse and Jesse looks at their knees, trying to ignore the fact that they're definitely the shade of the cherry soda they drank earlier today.

"Well, uh... we're done laughing now. What's your wish?" Lukas asks at last, his voice a little kinder now. Perhaps he realizes Jesse's now absolutely embarrassed out of their mind. Perhaps he can sense why exactly Jesse is a very nice shade of bright red.

Jesse opens their mouth to say it-

- and then they pause.

How absolutely, absolutely selfish that the possibility of a wish coming true exists, and you want to use that wish to get something for yourself.

How very, very, very selfish of you.

(And how very much Jesse wants it.)

"... it's... it's kind of stupid, honestly," Jesse gives a weak laugh, averting their eyes again. "It's definitely not something you guys would care about. I should just head home."

Another moment where the four of them are exchanging glances. Jesse can tell even though they're not looking at them that every red eye (and blindfold, in Lukas's case) has flickered to meet someone else's.

"Well, um... alright, then. If you're sure." Gill's voice has softened too.

Jesse gives a stiff, tiny nod in reply, not trusting their voice.

I should've expected this would be the same.

I should've expected that these people wouldn't be any different.

Why did I even expect that in the first place?

Stupid, stupid child.

The atmosphere of the room has become very tense now. Aiden awkwardly clears his throat and looks at Maya. "Uh, well... Maya, what time is it?"

Maya twists around to look at the clock, Jesse also lifting their head to see the time.

The clock bell tolls once.

Twice.

Both hands are right on the twelve.

"WHAT?!" Jesse flinches as their head snaps around, hopping to their feet automatically as Maya jumps off the couch, eyes wide with shock as the clock bells continue tolling, three, four, five. "IT'S MIDNIGHT ALREADY?!"

Six.

Gill mutters a swear as Aiden thumbs the corner of his mouth again, brow furrowing. "This is bad... Lukas, get the door!"

Seven tolls, eight tolls, nine tolls.

"Already on it!"

Jesse's head snaps around to see Lukas already halfway down the hallway. They might've moved fast earlier this morning, but Lukas is moving at a speed that Jesse would've never found possible. I didn't even see him move!

Ten.

Lukas's hand lands on the doorknob, twisting it sharply and flinging the door open.

Eleven.

Jesse barely manages to catch a glimpse of the clearing, the moon high above it and illuminating the trees in a soft blue light, before it's disappearing as a black vortex practically sucks it away. Moments later, blinding white light flares out, a blast of wind tearing through the manor.

Twelve.

"Geh-" Lukas flinches and throws his arms' up, almost as if shielding himself from the light, blonde hair ruffling in the wind. Aiden tsks his tongue, also with one arm up in protection, his jacket fluttering in the wind.

For a moment, the world around Jesse fades away as their heartbeat fills their ears, drowning out the sound of the howling wind.

One beat.

Two beats.

Three beats.

The light fades a moment later, Lukas cautiously lowering his arms with an unhappy hum. "Didn't make it in time..."

Aiden strides forward briskly and grabs the front of Jesse's shirt, making them instantly flinch at the action, expecting him to hit them. His gaze changes, before it hardens again and he stares at Jesse intently, almost peering into their wide green eyes.

A few seconds pass before he releases them, gaze still hard.

"Their heart is gone."

Chapter Text

Jesse's (now technically nonexistent heart) skips a beat or two at that sentence.

"Wh... what? Doesn't..." Jesse swallows, twisting their (still-very-baggy) sleeve. "Doesn't that mean I should be dead?"

Aiden gives a curt nod. Which really doesn't do much to help the fact that their stomach is twisting uncomfortably, along with their sleeve. "Yeah. You would be dead."

His red eye flickers to Jesse, staring them down. "If we were in your world."

My world...?

"But we're not in your world. That's why you're still alive."

He comes a little closer and gives their chest a poke, making Jesse shrink away from him a little bit. "As long as your heart exists somewhere in this world, even if it isn't in your body, you won't die."

Jesse would give a sigh of relief at this, but Aiden is already continuing to muse about this turn of events. "But... your heart will disappear eventually, which will lead to your death if we just leave things the way they are."

"... oh..." Jesse thumbs the corner of their mouth, considering the statement.

No one will miss you.

"I see..."

Lukas glances at them, lips turning down at the ends at Jesse's almost careless answer (and why should they really care anyway), but before he can say anything or before Jesse can actually interpret the look they are speaking up, softly. "This... this all sounds sorta... fantastical."

Aiden shrugs at this. "You can say whatever you'd like, but what I just told you isn't a lie," he replies calmly.

"... I see... then... what am I going to do?" Jesse tilts their head back to make eye contact with the four teenagers (or, well, the four people who look like teenagers). "I highly doubt you guys really want a corpse in here..."

Gill gives a slightly amused chuckle at Jesse's comment, crossing his arms. "It wouldn't be THAT weird, considering everything that happens here, but..."

Maya gives a displeased hum and elbows him, shooting him a glare. "Shut up; they're probably freaked out enough already as it is."

"Hey, they said it first."

Aiden punctuates the argument with a sigh before it can get more out of control, rubbing his hand down the side of his face in what seems like utter frustration. "... guess there's no other choice."

"... no other choice for what?"

Aiden doesn't respond as he begins to stride down the hallway, hands in his jacket pockets. "C'mon. Don't just stand there. Let's go."

Jesse has to jog a few paces before they manage to catch up somewhat, Lukas falling in pace beside them while Gill and Maya fall into step behind them. They feel a little like they're getting arrested or something. "Go— go where?"

"... you'll see," comes Aiden's somewhat reluctant reply.

This doesn't help the way Jesse's stomach is twisting into a little knot.


The clouds above are dark, looking almost as though they are heavy with moisture, a contrast to the almost pleasant-looking buildings lining the streets. Some of the roofs are even a nice shade of green.

Jesse tilts their head up to look at the sky, before back at Aiden. "Are the clouds always like that, or is it about to rain?"

"They're always like that," Aiden replies almost dismissively. "When it rains, the clouds turn pitch black."

Jesse hums and tilts their head back down- and blinks at the sight of more people beginning to turn around from what they're doing, stop walking, even cut off mid-sentence to swivel their heads around to stare at the four.

This doesn't help Jesse's nerves. They don't handle crowds well. Especially when the crowd is looking at them. They feel like they've done something wrong.

Perhaps they have. They're not really supposed to be here.

One of the men on the side turn to face Jesse, a strange sort of sneer coming across his face as he surveys them. Upon seeing their wide green eyes, his grin widens and his lips part, revealing needlepoint teeth.

Maya seems to have noticed as well, her brow creasing unhappily as she gives a displeased hum. She edges a little closer to Jesse. "Ah, fuck... Aiden?" Her voice is coming out in a soft hiss, red eye flickering as the crowd begins to turn to look at the four of them.

Well, more accurately, at Jesse.

"I see them," Aiden mutters, already beginning to pick up his pace. They seem to be heading for the massive black-and-red spire in the center of the cobblestone-lined streets, glowing red.

Lukas raises his hand calmly, several of the people growing closer and closer beginning to whisper and fill the streets with soft noise, like a nest of snakes waking up. "Don't worry. It's just an errand for him."

This response seems to satisfy several of them, as they then shrug and turn back to their conversations, to Jesse's faint relief.

Him.

"Who's 'him'?" Jesse whispers up to Lukas.

"Grammar," he mumbles back, not exactly answering the question they were trying to ask.

Jesse, being their height and starting to fall behind Aiden but being pushed along by Gill and Maya not a foot behind them because, honestly, their legs can only cover so much distance, begins to also start picking up the pace, going from a fast walk to a jog-

And then promptly running into Aiden's back as he skids to a stop, just in the nick of time to avoid walking straight into a woman that has sidled into their path. It's a very pretty woman, with long black hair that she is twirling coyly with one finger, smiling up at Aiden almost delicately. "Hello there, Aiden," she purrs, in a voice that is huskier and deeper than Jesse really expects.

"Hello," Aiden replies tonelessly, surreptitiously sidestepping to try to step around her-

She strolls past him and bends down, taking Jesse's arm with slender fingers.

Gill stiffens. Lukas stops full in his tracks to look at her (well, look), while Maya screeches to a halt and Aiden spins on his heel as the woman gives Jesse an absolutely breathtaking smile, leaning in so close that they can smell her perfume. It's overpowering and sweet and it's honestly making Jesse dizzy.

"Hello."

Her two red irises gleam iridescent colors as she tilts her head at them, running a hand down their arm. Honestly, it's very pretty, but all Jesse can think about is how very, very close they are to a complete stranger, and how very, very dangerous this feels despite the completely friendly smile she's giving them.

But it's rude to just stare, so they give her a small "hi" in reply.

She reaches up to touch their hair, running her finger through their fluffy hair and sending chills down Jesse's spine.

They can't tell if those chills are good chills... or get the hell away from me chills.

"You are a cutie, aren't you... pity that you're so small. How old are you, sweetie?" She tilts her head innocently, smile going from the flirtatious one she was giving Aiden to a warm, welcoming one.

"Seven... seventeen..."

Gill's eyebrow shoots up, but he doesn't have time to say anything before the woman touches her lip in surprise, eyes widening and being perfectly round and red. "Really! My, you certainly don't look it..." She hums again, even closer now. Jesse really only has to lean forward before their lips touch. "Well, perhaps... you and I could have some... fun, later?"

Fun.

A hot wire of fear threads itself through Jesse's spine, at odds with the chills that the way her finger is tracing a path down their arm is, cold hands firm on their shoulders. They give themselves a weak tug, but... well, her grip is stronger than they'd like. "I... no thank you."

She pouts, perfectly done lips showing a tiny hint of slick pink. "Oh, come on, I'm sure you'd like it..."

"No." Jesse gives a weak tug, trying not to ultimately yank themselves away and piss her off. "No, I think I'm fine."

Their eyes flicker up to Lukas, who is not four feet away from them and watching this whole encounter, eyes a little wide.

Lukas rolls his eyes (or, well, the head motion indicates something like that) and proceeds to literally scoop Jesse up, effectively pulling them away from the very... touchy woman that has been running her fingers along their sleeve as he hefts them into a grip where they're curled up against his chest.

If he can feel the way they're trembling faintly, he doesn't let on.

"Leave 'em alone, Sirena, they're new," he hums in an almost bored fashion.

She purrs at that, straightening to her full height and stepping closer (Jesse can't help but lean away) and runs her finger down his arm coyly, smiling up at him through long eyelashes. "Ooh, how very chivalrous of you, isn't it... regular protector of the weak, aren't you." Her voice has gone from that enticing, almost warm one to outright flirty.

Lukas shrugs nonchalantly at her comment, making Jesse bounce a bit in his arms. "No, just not in the mood to go back to him empty-handed again this month."

Him again.

The woman pouts at his response again, but backs away, to Jesse's immense relief. "Well, if you insist, Lukas. I'll be looking forward to you coming back." She leans in and gives Jesse a sultry wink. "And you too, of course, cutie."

Lukas inclines his head at her, ignoring the way Jesse shrinks back a tiny bit because damn that perfume is overpowering. "Thank you." And off they're going again, except Lukas is carrying Jesse now, grip tight.

"You can put me down now..."

"We're not trying to repeat that incident. 'Sides, you're light." He shrugs again, Jesse giving a little sound as they bounce. "It's good."

Aiden coughs something that sounds suspiciously like "perfect Lukas", but when he sees Jesse looking at him he turns back forward, ignoring the perplexed expression on their face.


Now that Lukas is holding Jesse, and the word spreads about him, they move a lot quicker, and they arrive at the spire in moments. Aiden slides the door open and slips in, followed by the other three (well, four, but Lukas is holding Jesse).

The moment the door thudded shut, sending echoing sounds down the halls, Lukas carefully bends down and deposits Jesse back on the floor. "Alright, c'mon. It's just a bit further." And they fall back into their order, Lukas staying in front of Jesse, next to Aiden, while Gill and Maya stand behind Jesse.

They feel a bit like they're being arrested again.

"Where're you guys taking me?" they ask, quickly hastening their speed.

"We're almost there," Aiden replies, which doesn't actually answer their question.

Jesse glances up at the overly ornate walls. The manor that they'd been in before was stately without looking garish; but Jesse swears that several of the columns lining the walls are made of honest-to-god gold, and a lot of the walls are made of something that looks like clear quartz.

"Are we meeting him?" they ask Aiden, turning back to the front.

Aiden's steps falter for a second, before his feet resume tapping along the carpet. "Where'd you hear about him?"

"Lukas... Lukas said somethin' about him while we were trying to get away from the crowd..." Jesse fidgets with their fingers, picking at the skin around their nails. "It's- is that bad?"

"... it's not... bad, necessarily," Gill speaks up, scratching at his beard as he seems to gaze at the ceiling in thought.

A moment later, his eyes flicker down to Jesse.

"But, uh, don't piss him off, alright?" His lips quirk into a humorless grin. "He's the one who's going to decide whether or not he cares to help you, and... yeah. Yeah, we don't want him to really be pissed off when he's deciding."

Jesse gulps.

A moment later, Aiden stops in front of a pair of tall wooden doors, the doors carved with designs. If Jesse looks at them long enough, they swirl in the doorway, clouds behind two very tall dragon doorhandles that intertwine together in a cast-iron motion.

Which makes Jesse wonder how anyone opens the door.

Aiden raps briskly on the door. "Oi. We've got an issue."

"Aiden, perhaps be a little more polite? We're not trying to get Jesse killed here," and Maya jerks her head at the short person just in front of her.

He glares at her. "You know he won't respond if we just knock and are like 'long time no see! How are you? So we have problems.'" He drops the high-pitched falsetto he's been using, crossing his arms and shaking his head slightly. "He isn't Isa."

"And he would probably not be in a good mood if you bang down his fucking door," Maya hisses back.

Jesse is, however, fascinated with the idea of the dragon handles and has edged around Aiden to get a better look. The detail on them is incredible, with tiny ridges that denote spines and scales and the tails intertwining and looking almost like a caduceus.

With Aiden focused on hissing at Maya while the silence behind the door stretches, and Gill and Lukas watch, Jesse slowly reaches out to touch the iron tails.

Lukas spots the motion at the last second, reaching up to grab Jesse's wrist before they can touch the dragon. "Jesse, wait-"

Their fingers brush it.

Instantly, the two dragon heads move, bending slowly as the iron creaks and swiveling.

Aiden spins back forward and swears as the two dragon head curve elegantly around so that they are meeting Jesse's eyes, two tiny rubies set in each dragon's head to indicate the eyes.

Said rubies are glowing as the dragons lean in and give Jesse a careful sniff.

Jesse is currently about as stiff as a statue, but a slow smile comes over their face as they reach up with one (trembling) careful, delicate hand. "Hi there, you two..." The hand moves in a little closer, moving to allow the dragons to sniff it without sticking their faces near Jesse's.

The dragon on the left (right? Honestly, with the way they twist, it's hard to tell) moves a little closer, giving Jesse's hand a cautious sniff, while the one on the right (left?) inches closer, inspecting it.

Slowly, the two dragons look back up at Jesse's eyes, stopping their attempts at sniffing Jesse.

Jesse takes that as an invitation to carefully move their hand and rub their thumb across the nearest dragon's skull, feeling cool iron steal the warmth from their skin as the iron dragon gives a creaking sound that is remarkably like a purr. "Hi there, little guy..."

The dragon is purring away happily now, causing the other iron dragon to lean forward and try to get some, Jesse's other hand swinging up cautiously to also rub the dragon's tiny skull.

Not even ten seconds later it has devolved into Jesse happily petting two iron dragons.

Lukas stares (well, Jesse can only assume) at Jesse, before glancing at Aiden, who's also gaping at this, as well as Maya and Gill.

"How the f... Kaster and Bedivire always fucking bite me if I so much as brush their tails!" Maya scowls a moment later with a whisper into Gill's ear, although there's a definite quirk to her lips that shows she's forcing a smile down.

A moment later, the two dragons give happy, metallic-sounding chirps and straighten back up to where they were before, their tails and necks unwrapping and untwining from one another until they have become two ramrod straight dragon doorhandles, the doors swinging inwards now that there's nothing keeping the two intertwined.

So that's how the doors open.

A head of bright red hair looks up from where it's seated at a desk at the far end of the room, and even from this distance, Jesse can see an eyebrow shoot up. "What...? I didn't say you could... How did you...?"

Lukas clears his throat. "Um... hey. We have a bit of a problem right now."

The head of red hair sighs in a rather vexed way and stands up, revealing dark brown (or black) robes lined with red and looking much like the spire, before...

It hovers.

The human form hovers into the air and floats closer, before descending and allowing Jesse to make out a head of bright, bright red hair. His eyes are strange- unlike the way everyone's eyes so far have been, which is to say blood red, his irises are not quite bloodred. Which is to say, there is a ring of gold framing his pupil before turning to the normal blood red, but it's noticeable enough for Jesse to notice.

He runs a hand through his hair and lets a sigh huff out of his mouth, before he cocks his head to the side to regard the five of them. "Well. Who's this..." He pauses, glancing them up and down. "... well, I can't tell what gender they are. Who's this?"

"This is Jesse." Gill claps Jesse gently on the back. "They're seventeen."

His eyebrow arches up. "Oh?"

At the confirming nod, he inclines his head at Jesse, who has to crane their neck back a good amount to make eye contact with him. "Well, Jesse, my name is Romeo. I'm the lord of the south of Cosmos."

Chapter Text

"... you're a lord?"

Perhaps that just makes Jesse sound stupid, or maybe disrespectful, but honestly, he doesn't really look like a lord, minus his clothing and perhaps the way he's standing.

Romeo gives them a sheepish sort of smile, rubbing his head. "You don't have to sound so surprised about that."

Jesse doesn't really have time to be surprised at how almost-normal he looks at that, almost shy, before he clears his throat and levels his gaze at them, voice becoming brisk and businesslike. "So? What's your wish?"

"They, uh... they didn't really make one," Gill pipes up, making Romeo's red with-a-tiny-ring-of-gold eyes flicker up to him, "we were going to send them back to their world."

Romeo's brow creases as he lifts his head. "Really? Then what are they still doing here?"

"If you haven't noticed the time," Aiden shoots back sardonically, making the tiniest of scowls flit across Romeo's face as he looks up at the other male, "it's past midnight. The portal closed."

Lukas nods, folding his hands behind his back as he hums. "Yes, and someone took their heart."

A moment where Romeo looks completely perplexed, before his furrowed brow clears and he snaps his fingers in realization. "Ah! So then this heart... belongs to them?"

He holds out his palm, a glowing pink rose appearing above it. The rose's petals are slowly opening a little bit.

Jesse has always liked the color pink.

There is an instant tug of their figurative heartstrings, their chest twinging insistently at the presence of the flower. So that confirms without a doubt that this is Jesse's heart.

But...

"That's... my heart?" Jesse steps closer to look at it, peering at the delicate-looking flower curiously. Romeo's eyes follow them as they examine it, surprised at how very pretty and almost untouched the flower is. "But it's a flower."

Romeo gives a nonchalant shrug. "Hearts that are in the shape of some kind of flower indicate the purest of souls... and taste the best."

He tilts his head at the flower hovering above his palm, a wistful look entering his eyes. "I wanted to eat it..."

A tiny, tiny chill snakes down their spine at that, Jesse's head slowly tilting back so their wide eyes meet Romeo's. "Wh... eat it?" they echo him slowly.

Several pieces suddenly slot into place.

Red eyes.

The first human to show up for twenty years.

The first human.

"... are you a demon?"

Romeo's lips part in a wide grin at that, their heart still hovering in his palm. "Yep. Those four over there-" He jerks his head at Lukas, Aiden, Maya, and Gill. "- are also demons. Well, half, but close enough."

"... nobody's playing, like, a mean prank on me, are they?" Jesse turns to look at the other four, who are quick to shake their heads at that. Well, at least Lukas, Maya, and Gill are. Aiden just averts his eyes and shrugs dismissively.

Romeo inclines his head at Jesse again, moving his free hand in an expansive motion. "Take a look around at everything that has happened so far, Jesse. What's not to believe?"

"... if this is a dream, it's a really trippy one."

Gill snorts at that (resulting in Maya elbowing him) while Romeo shifts his weight with another nonchalant shrug. "You can believe it's a dream if you'd like, but it's not. You're in the world of Cosmos, where demons live."

His attention shifts back to the glowing pink heart hovering in his palm, and he cocks his head to one side as he purses his lips. "Hmm... should I give you back your heart or not? It's rather a pity, such a lovely heart..."

Jesse shifts in place, looking down at their shoes at that.

You know nobody wanted you?

Don't say anything.

Nobody cares about you.

It's not up to you to decide.

Nobody would care if you died, you freak.

After another moment, Jesse can feel several pairs of eyes on them. When they peek up, Romeo's giving them a sort of perplexed frown, heart still hovering above his palm.

"I'm, er... I'm pretty sure most people would be begging for their heart back right about now. Or at least asking for it back." Romeo shifts the heart to his other hand, looking at it while absentmindedly licking his lips.

Which, you know, isn't really nerve-wracking at all.

"... well, it's... it's not really up to me to ask for it back," they whisper back, shifting and rubbing their arm awkwardly.

Now Romeo's definitely frowning, as well as most everyone else in the hallway. Even the dragons seem to be looking at Jesse oddly.

"... it's your heart." Romeo glances at the glowing pink heart in his hand, then back at Jesse. "It's literally your life. If I decided that, no, I don't want to give this back to you, then you'd die- either because I eat it, or because it disappears."

Jesse gives another weak sort of shifting motion and shrugs, looking back down at the floor. "It's... if you've got it, then it's really up to you to decide. It's not really my place to decide what happens to it."

"Romeo," Aiden snaps rather briskly, "hurry up and make a decision already. I don't really care whether or not you decide to eat their heart or not."

Nobody would care if you died.

Lukas shoots a look in Aiden's direction, a scowl crossing his lips as he elbows Aiden in the ribs. "Hey. Don't be so heartless."

"You know that's rather difficult for me to do, right?" Aiden shoots back, a strange, tiny smirk crossing his face.

Romeo considers the heart in his palm, before snapping his fingers. In a little wisp of smoke, the heart vaporizes (after a moment of panic, Jesse realizes he just hid it or something), and he turns to look at the five of them. "I'll need more time to make a decision."

Aiden's smirk falls into a scowl at that, and he gives a rough sigh. "Fine. Then we'll head back until you call for us."

"No, stay here." Romeo glances at the door, crossing his arms almost in a scolding way. "It's not safe for Jesse outside, since they're human. Besides, with the recent unrest..."

Lukas hums and thumbs the corner of his mouth, glancing at Aiden. "We did have that trouble getting here... and besides, it's pretty late already anyway. Jesse's probably tired." He pauses, mouth curving downwards. "And we definitely don't need more trouble with Sirena."

Aiden is silent for a long moment before giving another tired sigh. "That's... true. I don't really want to, but I guess we don't have another choice."

Romeo gives a nonchalant hum and glances at Jesse. "You tired, Jesse?"

"... a bit..." The moment Jesse says it, they can feel the entire day's events come crashing down on them like an anvil. They are tired. Adrenaline has been rushing through them ever since Aiden quietly declared that their heart went missing, but now that it's draining out Jesse feels as though they might pass out.

Romeo gives a pleased sort of hum. "Well then, you can rest here for the night. Same goes for you four," and he inclines his head at the other four. "You know the rooms that aren't booby trapped."

... booby-trapped?

Aiden gives him a curt nod. "Yeah. Jesse, you're going to have to sleep with someone, Romeo's a paranoid bastard and has hooked up half the damn rooms in this place to be booby-trapped and he's only cleared out four rooms."

Jesse hopes nobody notices the way their shoulders momentarily stiffen before they take the easy route out. "Why can't Maya and Gill sleep together? They like each other, don't they?"

If either of them had been drinking anything, they would've done spit-takes. Either way, Maya turns the shade of her shirt and Gill chokes.

"Wha- no! I don't like this idiot!" Maya flusters, glaring at Gill with no acidity in her gaze.

"Who are you calling an idiot, you stupid-"

"Who are you calling stupid, you're the one who didn't realize a fucking Enderman was two feet from you!"

"You didn't notice either! You were standing a foot from me!"

"I can be excused since I wasn't facing the thing, you were looking right at it!"

Lukas and Romeo watch Maya and Gill argue ferociously while Aiden leans on the wall, seeming to hide a smile. Jesse's head is rotating from Gill to Maya so quickly that they look like they're doing vigorous neck exercises.

"Looks like even Jesse thinks it too."

"I mean, the way they are, it'd be pretty hard not to notice," Lukas mumbles back out of the corner of his mouth.

Romeo gives a tired snort. "You're not wrong."

A short pause.

"You think they're going to agree to sleep in the same room despite all this fighting they're doing?"

"Of course, they're Maya and Gill."


Of course, Maya and Gill eventually fall into a reluctant agreement, grumbling something vague about 'oh fine' and 'whatever' and 'who cares anyway' (to Aiden's amusement and confirming Romeo and Lukas's) before they all head down the hall to find the rooms and change into whatever clothes are left in the dressers.

And of course, Romeo doesn't sleep.

Romeo should sleep, it's been a while since he's actually rested properly, but he's really too deep in thought about the matter of the flower heart hovering in his palms to really feel tired at all, and he's currently walking along the entire building because dammit his brain needs a walk.

(And, if he's being honest, he doesn't want to wake up with a throat raw from screams and tears that nobody, nobody cares about.)

It's strange. Jesse's heart was literally in his hands. He could see them take that in, the fact that their very life depended on him not going "eh fuck it" and digging his teeth into their heart (which looked so tasty).

But they didn't say anything.

It was their life. What did they mean it wasn't their place to decide what happened to it? It is theirs, whether they like it or not.

Romeo doesn't really know what to expect as he continues roaming the halls. Perhaps one of his booby traps will go off. Perhaps his mail alarm will go off (four hours early). Perhaps he'd run into Aiden wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and a way-too-big tank top (okay, that had been a weird night).

He doesn't really expect to turn the corner and find Jesse sitting with their back pressed against his door, the two iron dragons curling around them with their heads resting on their shoulders, in their hands, arching around in the most uncomfortable ways possible to get a little scratch. They're curled up in what looks like a pair of footie pajamas, absentmindedly letting the iron dragons cuddle them while their knees are pressed to their chest.

"... you alright?"

Jesse jumps and nearly brains themselves on the dragon's tails, which makes Romeo wince. "Oh! I'm sorry, I'm probably- probably blocking your way. I'll just- I'll get up and-" Jesse quickly scrambles to their feet, almost tripping as they gently disentangle themselves from the dragons.

"No, it's alright," Romeo holds up his hand, making Jesse freeze in place.

(Part of him wishes his subjects would exhibit the same behavior.)

"I wasn't planning to go in. Just taking a walk." He glances at their heart, still hovering above his palm, then back at Jesse, who's still frozen in a really awkward position.

To put them more at ease, he moves over and sits next to them, leaning against the wall.

(He doesn't remember the last time he did that with anybody.

Well, that's not quite accurate, he does remember, it has just been so long that he doesn't really want to think about it, not to mention the person he did it with isn't exactly here anymore.)

Jesse stays in their awkward position, before their leg gives way and plops them back onto their bottom, back clunking into the wooden door. "Oh."

The two of them sit there for a moment, Romeo still awkwardly holding Jesse's heart in the air, before he glances at Jesse. "Er... what are you doing up?"

Jesse says nothing, simply huddling down a little more. Then- "Nightmare."

An awkward nod from Romeo. He knows what that's like. "Ah."

More awkward silence. Romeo's feeling a little awkward about simply sitting and watching Jesse hug their knees in footie pajamas that are blue (blue, blue, he remembers who loved that color), not to mention the whole awkwardness of not knowing Jesse enough to snap and joke with them as he does with the four others but at the same time not wanting to come off as a creep.

It's a human. Humans don't like creeps.

(Why does he even care that much?)

"What about?"

Jesse, having lapsed into the silence, jumps and turns to look at him with their big green eyes. "Wha?"

"Your nightmare. What was it about?"

Jesse turns a bit pink and looks back at their knees. "Oh. Nothin'. It's stupid."

Romeo gives a noncommittal hum and looks away, tapping his knees, before glancing back at Jesse. They're small. Definitely pretty fragile-looking, but something about them also looks wiry. It's like they're a porcelain doll with a wire sculpture inside.

He decides to give the porcelain another go.

"What's your wish?"

Jesse's head swivels to look at him again. At this point he's tempted to just situate them so they're facing each other. "Huh?"

"Your wish," he prompts. "When I asked you what your wish was, and Gill said you didn't make one..."

"Oh." Jesse blinks, a strange expression coming across their delicate-looking face. They look both uncomfortable and... guarded. As if they have walls up. "I didn't have one."

He gives them a very, very unimpressed look. "Jesse, in order to come to Cosmos, a human literally has to have a desire of some kind. Call it a wish. A human cannot accidentally wander in- not unless they have a wish."

"... oh." Jesse glances away again, giving their head a little shake. "It's nothing. Something stupid."

"Jesse-" Romeo tries again, but Jesse's already climbing to their feet, giving the iron dragons one last little rub. He can feel those walls that they're putting up grow taller and thicker.

"I should get s'more sleep. Sorry for bothering you Romeo." They don't meet his eyes, green eyes fixed on Kaster and Bedivire before they turn away and pad down the hall. "I'll see you tomorrow."

A long, long stare after them.

His eyes slowly flicker down to the glowing pink flower in his hand, and he experimentally reaches up and moves to brush his fingers against it.

A centimeter away, his finger bumps into what feels like glass. No matter how he approaches it or comes at it, the heart is surrounded by what feels like a little glass orb.

A slow raise of his eyebrow follows the way his eyes flicker up to where Jesse is still padding back towards their room.

"... hm."

Chapter Text

"You what?"

Aiden's tone is so icy that Jesse can feel the temperature in the room actually drop several degrees. His red eye is glaring right at Romeo, whose arms are also crossed.

Despite the fact that Aiden pretty much looks like he can murder Romeo at the moment, he's returning the glare with a good amount of heat. "I need more time to make a decision. I told you last night."

"I thought you meant you needed another night, not a fucking week!" Aiden looks incensed, raking a hand through his hair as he nearly snarls. "Goddamn, Romeo, you usually make your mind up in half a second, why do you now need to take who-knows-how-long deciding if you want to eat their heart?! You even said you wanted to eat it!"

"And I even said that I need more time." Romeo's voice is warning, a dangerous glint in his red-and-gold eye. "I don't care how pissed you are about this. The fact is, I. Need. More. Time. To. Think about it."

Jesse shrinks back a little, glancing between the two and making themselves look even smaller than they usually do. Which, believe me, is impressive. "Aiden's scary when he's mad..."

Maya gives a nonchalant shrug, still leaning against the wall. "Yeah, but if you think he's scary just like that, you haven't seen anything yet. Aiden has to hold back when it comes to Romeo."

"'Cause he's a demon lord?"

Gill gives a hum, watching Romeo and Aiden have a glare-off. "Not quite."

Jesse waits for him to elaborate on that.

He doesn't, so Lukas picks up on the slack for him.

"If Romeo dies, the four of us will die as well."

Jesse blinks back at Lukas. "... why?"

Lukas thumbs the corner of his mouth, before tilting his head. "You remember how we were asking you what your wish was? Humans with wishes are drawn to this world. The demon lords will form contracts with the humans that come here, if they can grant their wish."

"... kinda like making a deal with the devil?"

Maya huffs a laugh, twirling her hair around her finger. "Sort of, but... not quite. The human's wish will be granted if they can serve the demon lord for a thousand years in Cosmos."

Jesse's green eyes widen, looking like very pretty green marbles. "A thousand years..."

Perhaps they'd be willing to serve a demon lord for a thousand years if there is even a small chance that their wish can be granted.

"I guess you'd have to really, really want that wish... or be really, really desperate," Jesse muses after a moment, thumbing the corner of their mouth.

Lukas hums, adjusting his blindfold slightly. "Yeah. But there are people that are that desperate. Like Aiden, Maya, Gill and me."

Jesse looks at them all again, realization dawning on them. "You guys... all formed a contract with Romeo?"

"Yep. That's why we're all like this right now."

Jesse looks down at their knees, before back up at Lukas, tilting their head cautiously to the side. "If... if you don't my asking, what was your wish?"

They don't know why they ask this, to a bunch of people they barely know and people who could very easily (probably) kill them. It just occurs to them to ask.

To their credit, none of the three that Jesse is sitting near get offended at a rather personal question. Gill shrugs and tears his eyes from where the tension between Aiden and Romeo is growing heavier and heavier to look at Jesse. "We don't know."

He amends the statement upon spotting the look of utter confusion that crosses Jesse's face at that. "Or, uh, we don't remember. Our hearts were taken away, and our memories were sealed, so we wouldn't run away in the middle of the contract and break it."

Lukas pipes up. "That's why Aiden said that it was a bit hard for him to do yesterday when I told him to not be so heartless. It's a bit of a joke."

"Oh." Jesse pauses, before tapping their eyes. "Is that why your eyes are red? Like a demons'?"

"Yeah." Maya jerks her head at Romeo. "The lords' eyes are all weird- they have a ring of the normal color surrounding their pupils, but then they're red the rest of the way through. Think heterochromia iridis, except that it's much more uniform. But most demons only have red eyes, and right now, like Romeo said last night, we're all half demons. So like most demons, we can take on a more 'human' form." She gives a humorless grin. "It can be pretty inconvenient to have people stepping on a tail or whatnot."

Jesse gives a nod of understanding, so Maya continues. "We're half demons right now because we've been given the powers of demons. Humans are in demand for demon lords because we aren't beings of light or dark specifically- so, that means we can use both types of magic."

She pauses, before adding, "Also, what's most dangerous to demons wouldn't be as effective for us."

"I see..." Jesse bites their lip, before tilting their head at them. "Does- uh- does that mean you guys get your wish? After you're done serving Romeo?"

"Yeah, the wish isn't granted until after we finish our contract. So while there are some lovely wishes, like... 'I want my mom to get well', for example, those can't be granted. Time does move faster here than it does in the human world, but the wish is granted after the thousand years are up, so... if you made that wish, your mother would still be dead," Lukas contributes helpfully. "We know from that that that isn't a wish any of us made, as Romeo wouldn't have contracted us if he can't do it, but that's about all we know about our wishes."

Jesse nods. "I see," they repeat, because they sort of do see.

Romeo gives a frustrated sound a moment later, making Jesse glance back at the demon lord. "You know what, Aiden, why don't you... go do whatever the hell you do and calm down. Maybe go eat something." He glances at Jesse sidelong, which makes them blink at him. "I need you to bring Jesse back here by seven tonight, but otherwise you can do whatever you want to with them."

"Why here by seven?" Gill's brow quirks at that very specific requirement.

Romeo rolls his eyes; Jesse watches with interest as red-and-gold irises slide around the whites of his eyes in a very weird way. "Because it's less likely that anyone'll harass them like what happened yesterday if it seems that they are under my protection and I'm figuring something out- which is true- and also you know how dangerous it gets for humans after seven thirty."

"Ah, that's true... okay, then," Lukas mumbles.

Aiden's eyes narrow at Romeo, before a harsh huff of breath comes out of his mouth. "Fine. But I need to head back to the house first." His eyes flicker angrily to Lukas, Maya, and Gill. "You three, go head to that cafe place and just snag a seat. Jesse, you come with me."

Jesse blinks. "Ah, okay."


The trek back through town is a hassle.

Not really because anyone bothers them (even Sirena skirts out of the way upon seeing the look on Aiden's face), but primarily for the reason that Aiden moves too fast for Jesse to actually keep up without jogging or (when Aiden's speedwalking) running.

So it's not too much of a surprise that after ten minutes of Jesse basically having to sprint after Aiden, they end up falling behind, further and further until he disappears around a corner and Jesse scrambles to round it to find that he's somehow vanished. Fantastic.

"Ohhh, that little treat that Romeo's got holed up in his tower's here."

Jesse jumps about three feet into the air at the sound of the voice to their left, a man with his hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail leering at them. His two buddies, looking as though they might have more than one fake tooth, also sneer at Jesse.

"I, I'm going somewhere. I'm sorry." Jesse starts to walk away from them-

A hand crushes their arm. Jesse barely has time to even cry out before the man shoves them into an alley that they didn't notice, throwing them sharply to the ground.

They barely manage to catch themselves on their hands and knees, feeling their palms skid across the rough ground. From the stinging pain in them, they know they've skinned their hands.

"Aw, leaving so soon? We just want to play."

"Let's just have some fun, alright?"

"This is happening too fast. I don't wanna do this anymore."

Jesse swallows, slowly pushing themselves to their feet, turning around and backing away from the three. They somehow look bigger than they did before. "I... don't really want to."

"I don't care."

The demon's friend's lips part into a sickening grin. "What if we don't care?"

Leave.

You have to leave now.

You could scream.

But why would anyone care?

Jesse backs up slowly until their back nearly hits the wall, knowing that makes them look even smaller and more defenseless. The three men close in, Jesse's mind scrambling for something, anything, even with the fact that their heart is going faster than a rabbit and their hands are trembling uncontrollably.

And then it hits them.

If they want to leave, they will leave.

And then they dart forward.

If you've ever seen a squirrel run up a tree, you know how fast something with legs that short can move. Jesse shoots forward, to the three demons' surprise, and finds themselves diving into a roll, smacking through their legs and then flying onto their feet racing out of the alley, turning recklessly to the left and continuing to sprint, ignoring the shouts and irritation that fades from their ears-

They slam full-on into a leather-jacket-clad torso, literally bouncing off and catching themselves on the ground, wincing at the way their knee complains vocally. Aiden blinks at them a couple times, apparently not having expected them to shoot out of nowhere and then slam into him.

He scowls at them a moment later, making a prickle of guilt tighten the knot in their stomach. "Keep up, would you."

And he turns around and keeps striding through town, forcing Jesse to break back into a little run.


Jesse doesn't know what they're expecting when Aiden shoves open the door to the manor, striding through the halls and eventually throwing one door open, but it's certainly not a tiny garden.

Aiden seems to be poking through some of the flowers, his stern expression (for once) seeming softer and a little less irritated.

The flowers are certainly not that bad-looking, some of the leaves being pure white and some being black, blossoms ranging from black to red to white to gray to even a few pink-hued ones.

Jesse leans to look at one that looks a bit like a pot of roses, except the leaves are jet-black. "These are the flowers in Cosmos...? They don't look that different from the ones at home. 'Cept the color of the leaves."

Aiden gives a mild hum, making Jesse look over at him. He seems too invested in the flowers to really seem irritated or annoyed by their statements, or even just seem irritated in general. "Some of the flowers certainly look like the ones in your world, but..."

He glances up at them. "43.7 percent of them in Cosmos are carnivorous, while 67.9 percent of the plants in Cosmos are poisonous."

"... is this one over here carnivorous, poisonous, or both?" Jesse asks politely while trying not to show the fact that they're now tentatively edging away from the pot of roses.

Aiden gives what sounds almost like a huff of laughter, making Jesse look up to see a small smile on his face. "Nah, don't worry. The flowers in my garden are all harmless."

... he's smiling.

"Flowers always improve my mood, for some reason. It's... nostalgic." Aiden twirls a stem between his fingers, a thoughtful look gleaming in his right eye. "I wonder why, sometimes... maybe it has something to do with when I was a human."

Jesse gives a tentative hum and a smile. "Well, flowers are great. Did you know that the Victorians in my world actually had a language? If they gave you bouquets with certain flowers in 'em, it basically meant something. So you could give someone a bouquet that basically says 'I hate you'."

Aiden barks a laugh at that. "Hah, really? That's pretty cool. Maybe there's something like that in Cosmos, too."

He's quiet for a moment, still sorting through the plants. "That's why I'm not so happy about Romeo taking so long to decide about anything. Whenever he takes too long to decide, or sends us on a long mission, or even sends us traveling, we have to be on call, and there's not really anyone to take care of the plants."

The half-demon tilts his head to one side, regarding the flowers in his fingers. "The last time I left on a lengthy mission, Romeo said he'd take care of the flowers for me. I wasn't exactly sure he'd know what to do, but it wasn't like I had any other choice..."

An irritated sort of smile crosses his face at the memory, his fingers still ticking through the flowers carefully. "And ahhh, despite my hopes, when I came back, more than half of my flowers had died. If Lukas, Maya and Gill hadn't stopped me, I might have killed him that day."

Jesse gives a weak chuckle, scratching their cheek. "Ahh, I guess that's understandable... but why did you bring me here?"

Aiden's smile fades slowly. "Because..."

And then his gaze hardens, eyes going from almost soft to dangerous steel in not even a minute.

Jesse barely has time to brace themselves before they find him looming over them, gaze icy cold. "I don't want to spend much time having to watch over you. A human like you is going to be a hindrance. So if you cause us too much trouble, I'll kill you before your heart disappears."

Shivers shoot down Jesse's spine.

Don't cry. Don't make a sound. Don't waste my time.

Their back is pressing into the pot of flowers, but they simply swallow their tears and the fear as best as they can.

"Let me make one thing very clear to you," Aiden says, in a dangerously soft snarl. "I do not want to waste time on you. I do not want you to waste my time. I will kill you the second you become too much trouble."

I'm already too much trouble.

"So if you want a chance at staying alive, stay back and do exactly as we tell you, or we'll have to waste precious time saving your sorry ass, and I don't give a shit about doing that too much. Even without your heart, the demons in Cosmos will still consider you an exotic meal."

Aiden gives a dark, almost frightening chuckle, red eye glinting as he glares at Jesse. "So don't think about getting close to me," a step forward.

Jesse's back is pressing into the pot even more now.

"Don't waste my time with stupid questions," another step.

Jesse can't move anymore.

"And do exactly as I say, because if things go at all like they're supposed to, you'll be out of our hair by the end of the month. Got it?"

"I-" Jesse's voice chokes, catching in their throat before any of it can really come out, guilt clawing at their insides, a blink forcing tears out.

And then they realize what they've just done, hastily reaching up and scrubbing their eyes, shoulders trembling. "I- I've got it. I- I-" Their voice cracks, feeling more and more fear creep into them.

His hand moves.

Jesse instantly flinches away, almost knocking the pot of flowers over before they grab it, clumsily stabilizing it.

"I- I'll be at the door- you-" Now tears are beading in the corners of their eyes, but they're trying their best to scrub them away as hard and fast as they can before they can make it far down their face, just staring at the ground. "You finish up with the- the fl-" Another strangled sob that they crush in their throat.

Don't waste his time.

Nobody wants you, anyway.

Before Jesse can say anything else, they give a clumsy nod and run for the door, scrambling to run away from him and find their way to wait just inside the front door and scrub away the tears and put on a pleasant, mild expression and not cry, don't cry, don't cry.

They don't spot the way Aiden's head moves up to follow their path, confusion flickering in his eyes again.

Chapter Text

Okay, Aiden's a little put off by now.

It's not that he didn't expect Jesse to be frightened after he threatened them. He did. He expected them to be frightened enough that they shut up and don't say anything. Which they're doing.

But what he still can't understand is why Jesse flinched away when he moved his hand to take them by the shoulder and pull them away from the flowers (because those flowers can be surprisingly fragile).

And he doesn't quite understand why, when he's finished with the flowers and goes to the front door, Jesse looks perfectly mild and normal and doesn't even react badly when he moves closer to them to open the door. If he looks closely he can tell that their eyes are a bit red, but otherwise they're still acting like they did earlier.

Well, they're now keeping a safe three feet of distance between him and them, but beyond that they're acting as though nothing happened.

He's still pondering what the heck happened to make them react the way they did when they reach the cafe, where Gill stands up from a booth and flails his arms like he's trying to turn into a helicopter until Maya yanks him back down.

Lukas stands up to let Jesse go the deepest inside (just to avoid anyone trying to harass them), which Jesse does with complete normalcy (if rather gladly).

"Sorry to bother you guys," they hum now, holding a menu that's almost bigger than their torso.

Gill hums, glancing down at the menu and not looking up at them while Aiden glances up from where he's sitting on Lukas's other side. "It's okay, we need to eat breakfast too."

His attention switches back to the idea of food, a thoughtful hum making him press his lips together. "Let's see, what should we order..."

"Ooh!" Maya suddenly grins with interest, "there's something new on the menu!"

Lukas blinks and looks a bit closer at the menu, a small frown tugging at his lips. "Eh? Where? I don't see it."

Maya leans across the table and taps the menu where the new item is. "Look, it's on the top..."

Aiden glances at Jesse again, who's watching the three of them with interest, almost as if they're all a big family arguing at a restaurant, peering over their menu to watch. After a moment, their eyes switch to Aiden, who's still looking at them, and they quickly glance back at the menu, averting their eyes.

"Jesse, what do you want?" Lukas asks, making their head snap back up to look at him in wide-eyed surprise.

"O-oh, um..." Jesse quickly looks back at the menu... and then their face changes to one of surprise, then confusion, and then discomfort. Their eyes flicker up, skipping over Aiden briefly, before they fold their menu and set it on the table quietly. "I'm, um... I'm fine."

Lukas's lips turn down in a frown. "C'mon, you gotta eat something... something wrong?"

"Can't decide?" Gill chimes in.

"Uh... no... it's not that." Jesse shifts slightly, scratching their cheek awkwardly and looking at a knife gouge in the table.

A moment passes, before Lukas hums and snaps his fingers. "Ah, the food in Cosmos isn't the same as it is in your world, is it? There's probably not that much you can eat, then, so I'll order for you."

Jesse shrinks slightly. "Oh, you... you don't have to..."

"Look, we're not all just going to eat and leave you hanging, that'd be weird," Lukas murmurs, scanning the menu and giving a small frown. "Hmm, not that much you can eat... I hope you're not a picky eater."

Jesse gives an awkward laugh, scratching their cheek again. "Uhh, well, I'm not... but why is there not much I can eat?"

"Most demon food contains small amounts of poison. Which demons like, and half-demons can handle, but humans can't," Maya chimes in, pursing her lips and looking up at the sky for a moment. "And don't worry, you're not going to eat any humans. Not enough come here for it to be on the menu."

Jesse turns all shades of pale at that statement.

Gill elbows Maya, scowling. "And you tell me not to freak them out more. I don't think that even occurred to them."

"No cannibalism. That's not a thing." Lukas pats Jesse gently and reassuringly on the back. "Even if that was a thing and humans were on the menu, I wouldn't order something for you that would mean you become a cannibal."

Even with that reassurance, Jesse still remains the color of chalk.

Aiden clears his throat and waves at a waitress that happens to be passing by. "Excuse me! We're ready to order..."

What's funny with how popular the cafe actually is is that the cafe does turn out food fast, and before long everyone's got food in front of them, with Jesse having a little bowl of... oh. Oooooh that plant's not Aiden's favorite. He really hopes that Jesse saying that they weren't a picky eater is a true statement.

Jesse tilts their head, blinking at the table of food, before shrugging and pulling their bowl of food towards themselves, taking a slightly overly large bite- considering how much steam is still rising from the food.

"D'you like it, Jesse?" Lukas asks, already eating from his plate. Aiden's both paying attention to this conversation and the fact that Jesse is eating what is basically steaming hot food at a pace that is...

Actually, he's starting to wonder how they're not burning their mouth.

"Umhm." Jesse gives a quick nod before continuing to eat. Before Gill's even gotten halfway through his food (and believe me, if you haven't seen Gill eat you haven't seen anyone eat quickly), Jesse's already done.

Maya blinks at Jesse as she quits scolding Gill in favor of seeing that Jesse's literally scraped the bowl clean, giving a startled laugh. "Ah... you were hungry, weren't you?"

Jesse doesn't act coy or shy or anything. They just shrug and sit back into the booth seat. "Yeah, I didn't have anythin' except a cherry soda yesterday."

"Hey, did you hear about the party in Yurin?"

Aiden hushes Maya before she can ask about that (even though he's honestly curious as well), jerking his head behind him at the booth behind him. "Guys. Listen."

Another voice speaks up, sounding slightly confused. "A party? For what?"

"I think it's to celebrate the creation of the first machine. You know, the Oasis and Redstonia and all that nonsense is up in the north."

"Ah. I don't keep track of that. Why even bring it up? Demons like us wouldn't get invited to something like that anyway."

"Yeah, but you know how Xara doesn't like Romeo?"

Aiden can spot Jesse's expression becoming rather bemused at the unfamiliar name, even as Lukas stiffens slightly and Gill develops a big interest in his remaining food.

"Dude, everyone knows that. Neither of them have exactly made it official, but they both just stay the hell away from each other. You kinda gotta wonder why. Can't blame her anyway, there's nothing special about Romeo. Only thing he has is luck."

"Yeah, that's true. But normally for a party, all the other lords are invited. Even the barons and baronesses."

"Right..."

"Xara didn't invite Romeo. As a matter of fact, she didn't invite anybody from Narvid. Not even any of the minor barons or baronesses that are bordering on Narvid, which is saying a lot."

"Isn't that basically like... declaring war on us?"

"I wouldn't go that far... either way, I'm glad we're on opposite sides. Yurin can't get to Narvid easily."

Jesse looks perplexedly at the others. "What was anything they were just talkin' about?" they ask in a whisper- perhaps so that the people they were eavesdropping on don't... realize they were being eavesdropped on.

Maya glances at Lukas. "Lukas, you're the best with visual magic, can you do your...?"

Lukas hums and carefully nudges his plate to the side to avoid upsetting it and getting food everywhere. "Yeah, alright."

A snap of his fingers, and the area around them darkens. "We'd usually have Romeo explain, since he's the best at it, but... well, it involves Xara, and best way to piss him off is to refer to her, so let's not."

Aiden snaps his fingers as well, knowing that the orb of darkness is contained to the table. A moment of listening passes before he nods. "Okay, we should be okay with sound, too."

"What do you mean? Why'd you guys make it dark?"

A moment later, a glowing red map of Cosmos appears above the table, although obviously simplified by a lot. The map shape is consisted of five large dots, one at the top, one in the center, one at the bottom, one on the left, and one on the right. The smaller dots are placed at each halfway point between the dots, all connected with lines. It looks like a rhombus with lines crisscrossing it.

"... oh." Jesse's eyes are gleaming red in the dark, staring as if spellbound at the map.

"This is a simple image of Cosmos, or as simple as it can get, anyway," Lukas begins. "Cosmos is divided into five districts- North, West, East, South, and the Center. Each district is ruled by a lord in a capital, of sorts."

Lukas points at the lines connecting the dots. "There are determined 'safe' paths that are regulated by the lords between every capital, and there are smaller towns that mark the halfway points into another district on each path- for example, Champion City, to the west, marks the point where the south district turns into the west district."

He points a bit with one hand."And Fred's Keep, which is north of the capital, where we are now, marks the part where the south turns into the center district."

Jesse gives a little nod in understanding. "Okay."

"Right now, we're in Narvid, which is ruled by Romeo. The capital's name is- well, uh, we call it the Underneath, although Romeo jokingly proposed a name that nobody liked."

Gill snorts, almost choking on his food. "Oh man, don't remind me."

"Why? What's the name?"

Lukas tactfully avoids the subject, flicking the map and allowing the map to zoom in on the west district's capital. "The west district is called Hizelk, and is the only district ruled by three leaders- Isa, Mevia, and Harper."

An image of three women is superimposed over the map. (Aiden's pretty sure Jesse's eyes grow to the size of plates.) Isa is, of course, in the center, her long black hair falling to her waist with that ring of green around her pupils before changing to red.

Mevia's on the left, her pupil appearing larger from the rim of black that's around her pupil before it goes to red with her shoulder-length pale blue hair, and Harper's pupils are interesting because of the gray rimming her pupil, which just makes it look like there's some sort of barrier around her pupil.

Aiden momentarily finds it amusing that Isa has black hair, Harper has pure white, and then Mevia just has pale blue.

Lukas waits for Jesse to finish looking at the three before he continues. "The capital's called Sky City and the ruling system is a bit weird, but that's a long story that we should wait until we're somewhere more private to even think about discussing."

The map travels north, allowing Xara to appear on the image. Her face is peaky and almost yellow as usual, dark violet rimming her pupil and making the transfer to red seem a little more normal, and her dark, wild purple hair is pulled back into a somewhat neat ponytail.

"Yurin, the north district, is ruled by Xara. She doesn't like Romeo for some reason, and this is supposedly a recent development, but..." Lukas makes a little face at the memory of their attempt to ask about it. "Romeo gets pretty pissy if we try to ask about it, so we just avoid that topic."

Jesse gives a little bob of their head. "Yeah, that's fair," they say mildly.

Lukas gives a shrug and nudges the map to the east. "The east district is called Enchantra and is under Ivor's rule."

Aiden gives a sheepish sort of smile as Ivor's image appears. Dark blue transferring to red isn't such a shock as it is with Isa's eyes, but it's not exactly smooth, either. Ivor's hair is tied up in a sort of loose ponytail, and his primarily black armor mixes with the small bits of blue that he seems to wear.

He's not a big fan of the black and red theme, honestly.

"He's been around the longest out of us. He's..." Lukas pauses, before giving a sheepish grin. "He's really, really powerful. It's a little scary, honestly."

The map goes back to the center. "And the center district, Jupin, used to be ruled by Fred. The thing is, he got killed after going on a journey with Romeo and Xara, which seems to have something to do with the whole... Xara-not-liking-Romeo thing, but we haven't gotten details, and since his death, Cosmos hasn't been peaceful."

"Ivor's been looking for a ruler to replace Fred, but... it's going pretty slowly, since this happened a few years back and we still don't have a new lord. This means a lot of trouble collects in Beacontown- the capital- because there isn't a lord to keep it in check."

Jesse hums, frowning thoughtfully. "I see..."

"But I don't even think Romeo knows about the party... we should tell Romeo about that rumor once we get back," Maya mumbles, her brow furrowing. "This could be related to that issue that popped up a few weeks back."

"With Isa?" Now Aiden's interested. Not only because it's Isa, but...

If it involves that issue, it probably means he'll have to go on some lengthy mission again, which... means he'll have to leave his flowers alone.

Great.

Maya bites her lip as Lukas dissipates the illusions around the table. "Yeah... hopefully Romeo can get a conversation going with the lords and see if something's up."

"Beyond Xara not liking Romeo, you mean," Gill corrects her around a mouthful of food.

"Well, yeah." Maya pauses before squinting at Gill. "And don't talk with your mouth full, you know how gross that is?"

Aiden notices Jesse watching them again as Lukas pulls his plate back to him and resumes eating his food calmly, as Maya and Gill resume bickering over food. Their gaze is something he can't read.

And that's something he doesn't feel comfortable about.

They notice his eyes on them a second later, barely meeting his red iris before looking back at their empty bowl, quietly avoiding looking at him without being overtly... well, avoiding him.

He still can't figure out their reaction.

And that's kind of pissing him off.

Chapter Text

Romeo sits in his chair, drumming his fingers on the desk thoughtfully as he watches the spinning orb hovering at eye-level, glowing with letters.

He hasn't contacted the other lords for a month now.

It's not that he doesn't want to keep in contact with them. Keeping Cosmos in a state of... relative order depends on the five (four, four, there's only four of them now, isn't there, and who's fault is that?) four of them keeping in contact and staying in relative agreement about matters.

But the thing is, it is very, very easy to slip out of contact once you stop seeing one another in person.

It used to be that the meetings were held in Beacontown. The lords would meet in Jupin once a month to discuss changes, quirks, strange events happening around Cosmos, in order to keep Cosmos stable.

And then Fred died.

And things got a bit more difficult.

For one, he and Xara developed an unspoken agreement to not be in the same room as one another.

(Or even really talk to each other for too long.)

So this obviously made meeting in person near-impossible.

The communication orbs were initially intended to only be used in the case of emergency, but, well, when two of the people who have them are no longer able to stay in the same room, they end up becoming a necessity.

Eventually, everyone stopped meeting in Jupin.

(He suspects that Isa, Mevia, and Harper all agree with Ivor that it's not a good idea to take a break from their cities unless all of the lords are able to do so, as it's a bit of a waste of time to trek there otherwise.)

The monthly meetings are now held using the communication orbs. What used to be calm hours of almost casual talk about issues or problems turned into five-minute terse comments about problems, possible solutions, promising to try them, and then hanging up on the other people on the line.

(At least in his and Xara's case.)

He hasn't contacted any of the other lords beyond the monthly meetings for at least a year or two now.

But now here he is, waiting for someone to pick up at a stupid time of night because Lukas, Maya, Aiden, and Gill come back with Jesse to report about Xara holding a party in Yurin, and how it might be connected to that, and that's something he has to discuss, but he's been so busy all day with paperwork while the four of them debate whether or not they're going to stay here again (eventually they decide to do so because it's past seven and too dangerous to leave when they hear a fight going on outside).

Romeo's snapped back into his thoughts as the orb chimes, an illusion snaking out from the top and forming a screen above the orb.

His stomach gives a small, small, tight twist at who it is that picks up.

"What the hell is it, Romeo?" Xara sounds highly irritated as she crosses her arms, glaring at him through the illusion. He can still feel the iciness of her gaze through a magical connection that literally spans hundreds of miles.

He tries not to let her see that he feels it.

"Rumors fly, Xara. The October Children overheard something about a party in Yurin," he replies, somehow managing to keep his voice steady and not shaking or wavering in the least.

She shoots him a glare so acidic it could probably burn through steel in half a second. "I'm not inviting you. Is that it?"

"No. Why are you holding a party? With the recent issue of-"

"I know full well about the issue, Romeo-"

He grits his teeth and returns the glare, perhaps not quite as scathing but definitely with just as much heat. "Well, you could've fooled me-"

"Oh, and of course you can talk, can't you," she spits back, almost as if her words are poison on her tongue, "I can tell you're pissed off. Don't go throwing a fucking temper tantrum. You're not half bad at those, are you, considering-"

"Shut up-!" He chokes on the words, anger and pain and a tiny, tiny knot of hatred forming in his throat, jamming his words and keeping them trapped in his throat.

"Behave, you two."

Xara and Romeo immediately fall quiet as a screen forms to the right of the orb, Ivor appearing on the screen. His red-and-dark-blue eyes are tired as he leans to one side, crossing his black-armor-clad arms. "If we're having a meeting outside of the typical monthly meetings, we are going to behave politely and in a civil manner towards one another."

"... fine."

"Okay."

Xara and Romeo mumble a half-apologetic statement to Ivor simultaneously, averting their eyes momentarily. The demon does have a habit of making them feel as if they're misbehaving children.

Ivor watches them for a moment longer, before letting out a low, soft sigh and crossing his arms. "Well. If we're here... are we discussing the latest issue?"

"Planning to, yes," Romeo mumbles. Xara doesn't say anything in agreement; she just kind of grunts a bit.

There is a long, rather awkward pause, before another flickering wisp comes out and flickers into existence on the left, Isa, Mevia, and Harper appearing on the screen. Harper gives a tiny smile. "Hello. Uh... long- long time no see."

Ivor automatically lifts his hand in a tiny wave, his lips quirking into what's almost a smile. "Hello, Harper."

(Romeo and Fred and Xara used to jokingly conspire to get Ivor and Harper together; they were pretty sure the two lords had a soft spot for one another. Mevia and Isa didn't encourage their matchmaking... but they didn't discourage it either.)

His smile(?) is still there as his eyes flicker to Mevia and Isa. "It's good to see that you're all doing alright. No large issues in Hizelk?"

Isa rolls her eyes. "Well, Soren hasn't actually come to any of the district meetings for a while, and Cassie's stopped showing up in person to those meetings-"

"She's been doing that with you, too?" Xara interrupts, frowning. "I thought she was closer with you three."

Isa quickly speaks up. "We are."

"She is," Mevia agrees, although slightly hesitantly.

"She's still not coming in person to the meetings," the two of them chorus in unison, before they glance at each other awkwardly.

Harper gives a tiny chuckle. "You'd think we would've broken ourselves of the habit by now. Anyway, yes, Duomoon and the End no longer come in person to district meetings, but otherwise we don't have many issues, no."

Romeo grunts. "Stella shows up?"

"She's always early." Harper gives her head a fond, if somewhat exasperated, shake. "A bit overbearing sometimes, but... at least she's coming, unlike the other two."

Ivor gives a nod. "That's good, then."

Isa gives a hum herself, leaning her elbow on her desk and absentmindedly twisting one lock of hair around her finger. "What about you? Any luck finding a new lord?"

A quiet shake of his head. "The world just keeps saying 'not yet'."

"The hell does that mean?"

"Why do you think I know...?"

Even though Ivor sounds somewhat exasperated with Xara's question, he's really only half-grumbling, and all of the lords know it. (Trust me, they know. They've seen him pissed off. This is nowhere near that. Besides, they've known each other for so long that they've become roughly friends)

A moment later, Mevia clears her throat, making all sets of eyes travel to her. "As nice as it is to catch up... Romeo, you called?" Her eyes switch to Romeo, crossing her arms slightly.

"Oh. Right." Romeo clears his throat, making the mild mood disappear. "Well, the October Children overheard about Yurin having a party... with the issue that's been going around lately, why would any of us...?" He trails off slightly.

Xara probably would snap at him again if they're the only ones there. As it is, she gives a very annoyed sigh and begins, sounding exasperated. "Because, Romeo, if some of the lords come to a party, we have our keys. And it makes it all the attractive for whoever's stealing the keys to come and take it, as there is the possibility of getting two keys rather than one."

"... oh." Romeo pauses, before frowning. "But what if it backfires? What if whoever's coming to steal the keys manages to steal both-?"

"That's why I invited Ivor and not you," Xara snaps, her thinning patience snapping (but that's not quite the full reason is it), "because he's a lot less likely to be able to slip up and lose his own fucking key."

Romeo flinches at that, cheeks flushing red, because of course he's not good enough to keep that going, of course he would slip up, of course if someone were to attack him he wouldn't be able to keep the key, he's not good enough, is he, he wasn't good enough to keep his temper, he isn't good enough to do anything-

"Xara." Isa's voice is quiet, but firm, snapping Romeo out of his thoughts to see the black-haired woman leveling an even stare at the purple-haired demon.

Xara scowls but falls silent anyway.

There is a very long, very awkward pause as the lords all look at each other (with Romeo keeping his eyes fixed firmly on a small skull on his desk), before Harper gives her throat an awkward clearing, apparently deciding to change the subject. "Well, um... did anyone form any new contracts this time?"

Xara shakes her head almost instantly. "Of course not. It's been thirty years since a human has even showed up here. I'm starting to wonder if something's wrong with the portals."

"Well, you also live in a more northbound area, it makes sense that humans wouldn't go wandering around in snow and sleet and who-knows-what-else to find a 'wish-making-area'," Ivor murmurs.

"True... does that mean you've made any new contracts?" the purple-haired demon lord asks, tilting her head. Romeo recovers from his doubts enough to glance over at Ivor to see his answer.

Ivor's shaking his head before Xara even finishes. "I haven't seen a human in Enchantra for longer than any of you. Harper?"

Harper frowns and glances at Mevia, who glances at Isa, who shrugs and gives a shake of her head. "If either of you two have spotted any humans, I'm not aware of it."

"Definitely not." Mevia sighs, rumpling up her pale blue hair.

Harper gives an unhappy hum. "I don't think it helps that it's nearly impossible to get anybody who has a valid wish."

Another sigh from Mevia, who crosses her arms and then looks up at the screen again. "Well, how about you, Romeo? Any new contracts?"

A long pause as Romeo drums his fingers on the desk thoughtfully, trying to figure out how to phrase it.

Finally, he begins. "Well... yes and no."

This makes Ivor straighten up, a tiny frown crossing his face. "What do you mean, 'yes and no'? Forming a contract is straightforward- you either make it or you don't."

"Well, a human did come. I just didn't make a new contract," Romeo hastily amends the statement.

Harper gives him a faintly sympathetic smile, almost as if he's still a new lord. (Except he isn't, is he, it's been too long for him to really still even be considered a new lord.) "Their wish was no good?"

"Not... exactly..." He bites his lip, still drumming his fingers on his desk, "it-"

"Um... Romeo?"

He jumps and nearly falls out of his chair at the soft voice that isn't issuing from the orb and somewhere in his actual office; as it is he barely manages to catch himself and his shoulder feels as though he just twisted it as he slides halfway out of the chair.

"Romeo? Who was that?" Xara looks a bit confused now, quirking her eyebrow at the fact that he nearly just fell out of the chair entirely.

Red-and-gold irises roam the room as he grimaces and clambers back into the chair, until he realizes there's someone behind the orb in the doorway.

A gentle nudge to the side reveals Jesse standing next to Kaster and Bedivire, who are (once again) nuzzling Jesse happily.

He notices they're dressed in the footie pajamas again.

"O-oh, Jesse." He glances at the screen and makes a one second gesture before looking at the tiny teenager in front of him. "Did you need something?"

They shuffle their feet awkwardly. "Um, I can wait if you're busy... sorry, Kaster and Bedivire let me in again."

Of course they did. Traitors.

Romeo gives a small shake of the head, a weak smile coming over his face. "Ah, no, it's alright, I was just talking to a few people. What did you need?"

Jesse opens their mouth, then shuts it again. Another tiny shuffle, their face heating up as their green eyes go to the floor.

"Um... where's the not-booby-trapped bathroom?"

He looks at them for a minute.

And then he rubs his forehead, feeling his cheeks flush. "Oh. Yeah. I forgot I- er, it should be the one that's next to my office. There IS one immediately going in with the guillotine-"

"The what?" Annnnnd Jesse is about twenty shades of pale right now.

He hastens to reassure them. "It's not going to hurt you, just open the door and run in or just... open the door and stick your hand out underneath and then duck back. It should just go and hit the floor."

Jesse is still twenty shades of pale.

"Er... if you need to you can go ask one of the others for help going in. Maybe Gill or Aiden," he offers. "They're both certainly reckless enough to trip the booby trap without getting injured."

Jesse seems to go a little paler at that, for some reason.

"Romeo."

Both Romeo and Jesse jump at the voice this time, Jesse almost jumping right into Kaster, which probably would result in a nasty bruise on their back since... well, Kaster's made of metal.

Romeo's eyes snap back to the screen, Ivor frowning at him curiously. "Who is that?"

Romeo holds his hand up in the one minute gesture again and glances back at Jesse, who's barely remaining from flopping on the floor since Kaster is using his tail to keep them partially upright. "Er... is it an emergency, or can you hold it for a minute?"

Jesse manages to struggle upright on their own, cheeks flushing faintly pink. "Um... I can- I can hold it for a minute."

They pause, shifting slightly and twisting their fingers. "I mean- I think I can."

"Okay. Give me a second to wrap this up and I can take you to the restroom."

The little human nods and pads outside to wait for him. Romeo's eyes go back to the screens, immediately noting that all five of the other lords are now staring at him.

"... who was that?" Mevia asks slowly. Her voice is calm, even, and yet deceptively tense.

"Long story short, we did have a human come. But," Romeo pauses, pursing his lips together momentarily, "but they didn't actually make a wish."

Harper frowns, fingers pressing to her lips. "Humans can't come to Cosmos without making a wish, though. Or at least having a desire."

"Which is true. But apparently, when they were being asked by the October Children, they just said that it wasn't anything important and dismissed it. They decided to send them back, but... the portal shut before they could go through." Romeo presses his lips together again. "So they're here."

"So why haven't you eaten their heart?" That's Xara, her scowl back on her face. "Goodness knows you'd do something like that. And it's not like you don't have it."

Romeo lifts his fingers, Jesse's heart fading into existence above his palm. The rosy flower petals gleam in the darkness of his office.

Mevia straightens up a little at the sight of it, eyes widening slightly. "That's their heart?"

"Yep." Romeo glances at it, resisting the urge to put it to his mouth and crunch down on it like an apple.

Well... now he wants to do that. Fantastic.

"So why haven't you sent them back? Or eaten it?" Mevia's staring almost hungrily at the heart, which would make Romeo nervous if Sky City wasn't as far away from the Underneath as it is.

He shifts. "Their reaction was wrong."

Upon seeing the confused expression that flits across Harper and Ivor's face, he hastily continues. "I- they knew I had their heart, and I was basically threatening to eat it."

"Of course."

He shoots Xara a glare. "But... they didn't... respond the way most humans would. They- they just... dismissed it. Or- or not dismissed it, but they didn't try to ask for it back or even fight me for it. They- they even said that it wasn't their place to decide what happened to it."

His brow furrows. "I think I could've bitten it right in front of them and they wouldn't have said anything."

Ivor is silent for a moment, before his voice comes back on. "So... you're keeping them here because..."

"Because it's weird. I don't know whether or not I want to eat their heart or not."

Romeo pauses, before correcting himself. "Well, I know I want to eat it, but I don't know whether or not they might serve to be helpful or if there's just no point in it. I'd rather know what's going on first."

The lords are silent for a moment, before Ivor steeples his fingers and lets his brow furrow. "What if..."

Harper's eyes flicker to Ivor. He's silent for a moment longer, before he slowly resumes speaking. "What if we let them try to solve our issue?"

Xara gives a scoff. "A human? Solving this whole issue? We're more likely to melt all the snow in Yurin than to have one human fixing an entire realm's problem."

"But what if we put the October Children on it? They're the best at what they do," Ivor continues, speaking slowly, carefully, crafting words and placing them carefully as he turns the idea around in his head. "But everyone knows about the October Children. The issue isn't going to get solved if everyone's guard is up- including the one stealing the keys."

Ivor pauses and lets everyone reluctantly agree with that- the October Children are famous (or infamous, depending on your definition).

"But, let's say we put a human in the mix. A weak, powerless, defenseless human."

Romeo decides not to argue that he's not sure they're exactly defenseless.

"Now let's send out the October Children. What happens?"

"They get attacked a lot more," Mevia shoots out.

"Why?"

There is a longer pause here, before Romeo slowly speaks up. "Because... because it's a human. Humans are essentially delicacies here."

There's no skirting around the issue. That is basically what humans are in this world.

"Yes. Now, let's say the October Children repeatedly protect the human. Why? Orders, perhaps. Or maybe we can spread the rumor that it's a soft spot for the human."

Ivor raises one eyebrow. "What does that say about the October Children?"

"... they're busy." Understanding is dawning on Isa's face. "Even if the October Children are traveling with a human, they're working primarily on protecting the human. Meaning they're not paying full attention to what's happening around them."

Xara's brow furrows. "But they are. They will. They know what they're doing. A human wouldn't do much to hinder that-"

"Yes, we know that." Ivor tilts his head. "The question is, does the rest of Cosmos know that?"

A long, long pause as realization permeates the air.

And then Ivor breaks it.

"It is up to you, of course. You are the one that formed contracts with them." He inclines his head at Romeo. "But it is an idea that might help solve the issue."

Another long pause.

"I'll think about it." Romeo drums his fingers on the desk, vanishing Jesse's heart with a lazy flick of his fingers. "But, er, not right now."

Harper blinks at him, tilting her head at the slightly-younger lord and blinking red-and-gray eyes in surprise. "Why's that?"

"Well," and Romeo pushes his chair back and stands up, reaching up to turn the orb off and hang up, "I've got to take Jesse to the bathroom first."

Chapter Text

Jesse comes out of the bathroom with a faintly relieved sigh, the blade of the guillotine still embedded in the floor from their escapade of actually getting into the bathroom.

(Suffice to say, it is certainly an event Jesse doesn't really want to repeat.)

Romeo, to their surprise, is still waiting outside the door. He looks up when they exit the restroom and uncrosses his arms, giving them a faint smile.

"I'll, uh," and he glances at the blade, which has actually cracked the tiled floor a bit from the force of it falling, before his eyes flicker to Jesse and he gives them an apologetic half-smile. "I'll get rid of it later."

Jesse gives him a tiny, tiny smile back. "I mean, it would be nice to use the restroom without worrying that I'm going to get beheaded in the process."

A bark of laughter from the demon lord as he flicks his fingers at the guillotine blade, making it slowly vanish from the bathroom entrance, although the cracks in the tile remain. "Yes, that's probably not something you want to do."

A soft giggle bubbles out of Jesse, who reaches up and covers their mouth for a moment to smother it. "No, being beheaded is not on my bucket list for life."

Romeo smirks. "I'd be concerned if it was on your bucket list."

"I wouldn't blame you if you were." Jesse beams at him, still trying to smother their giggling fit. "But, um, thank you for showing me to the right bathroom. I probably would've died otherwise."

"I'm sure you wouldn't have died, you probably would've..." Romeo pauses, eyes momentarily flickering to the ceiling as he reevaluates his statement. "Actually, never mind, you probably would've died."

Jesse can't help but dissolve back into giggles at the sheepish expression that follows the latter part of the statement. It's just not the expression you'd expect to find on a demon lord.

Or even just a regular lord.

When their giggles subside again, they tilt their head at him. "Sorry to interrupt your conversation earlier... I asked Lukas, Maya, and Gill, but they didn't remember where the not-booby-trapped bathroom was, so I figured..."

He shakes his head at them with a soft chuckle. If he finds it odd that they don't mention Aiden, he doesn't show it. "No, it's... uh... honestly, it's probably my fault for booby-trapping the toilets in the first place."

"Yeah, the first bathroom I went into was scary."

He gives another soft chuckle, giving them an almost absentminded pat on the head before beginning to walk down the hall. Jesse skips a few steps so they're walking next to him and not ten feet behind him. "My apologies, then."

Jesse hums mildly, folding their hands behind them. "No, 's fine. You, um..." They pause, before giving him "you put up your booby traps if you want to put up your booby traps."

The lord nearly giggles at that, giving them a mischievous grin at the statement. "Oh? Put up as many as I want, then?" He taps his chin 'thoughtfully', raising his eyes to the ceiling, his grin only growing even bigger. "Say... a few in the bathroom?"

Jesse can't help but giggle more now, shaking their head. "Noooo, I meant-"

"Y'know, I always wanted to do something like that bucket of water on the door prank. Ooh," and his expression literally lights up as his eyes start glowing in slight (mischievous) excitement, "maybe- maybe the bucket of water could be lava."

Jesse's giggles have escalated to the point where they're nearly silent. "I- I don't think that'd be- I didn't mean-"

Romeo's tone is half-excited and half teasing when he speaks again, grinning down at them almost mock-evilly. "Ooh, or perhaps, perhaps I could put something really spooky where you least expect it," he muses quietly, lips falling into a thoughtful, almost quiet expression.

"... maybe in the wall... or the ceiling... or the mirror-"

And he starts at them, hands put up as if to grab them, grab ahold of them hard enough to bruise hurt them-

Jesse instinctively flinches, backing away a step and promptly running into a wall as their giggles cut off into a strangled whimper, trying to restrain the sound but only managing to muffle it, scrambling back as much as possible, pressing their back into the wall, swallowing the tears and shoving them down down down-

- don't look upset- don't look afraid-

- don't look anything-

They clench their hands into little round fists, dig their nails into their palms to keep their hands from trembling (almost cry as they belatedly remember they skinned their hands earlier today while trying to keep up with Aiden but don't cry), swallow hard as they tilt their head back to look at Romeo.

He doesn't look angry.

He doesn't even look irritated.

Just confused.

Slowly, the demon lord edges closer to Jesse, leaning down a little bit so that he's not simply towering over them. His brow is furrowed slightly with confusion.

"Jesse?"

A few traitorous tears slip down Jesse's cheeks, their hand coming up so fast that they nearly hit themselves in the face and scrubbing their face clean of any salty liquid, although the tears that leak onto their palms sting the cuts and make them sting faintly with a vengeance. "I'm sorry."

Their throat is tight and choked with the effort of keeping tears from coming down their face, which isn't working because they can feel more coming, and no matter how much they scrub and scrub and scrub they're not going away-

A warm hand catches Jesse's as they reach up to rub away more tears and makes them jump a bit, almost automatically trying to wrench their hands out of Romeo's slender, scarred ones, but his grip is firm and keeps them from just jerking back out of his grip.

He's got tiny scars on his fingers that makes it look like he's gotten into a bar fight or something. Which is weird since he's a lord. Do demon lords get into bar fights? Do demon lords even go to bars?

Jesse only has a moment to think this before the demon lord speaks again, his voice surprisingly soft. "Don't do that."

He releases one of their hands and pokes their cheek gently, which feel raw and a little tender from Jesse rubbing their face so aggressively and makes a little tingly twinge go through their face.

They blink a few times, sending more tears down their face and making their cheeks feel a little weird in the process. "I'm- I'm sorry."

Well, wonderful, their voice is somehow even weaker than it was the first time they tried to speak.

"Why? You didn't do anything." Romeo releases their hand now, but he's still looking at them in a perplexed way.

His brow creases, and he looks almost apologetic a moment later. "Did I frighten you when I jumped at you? I didn't mean to." He gives his cheek an awkward scratch, still looking at Jesse with an apologetic expression. "My parents used to do that with me as a child."

And Jesse doesn't know why (well, actually, perhaps they do) but their chest gives a tight, horrible squeeze at that, and they're suddenly reaching up with their hands to press over their eyes and try to contain something that cannot be contained, tears trickling down their cheeks and still making it feel bizarre, their breath catching in their chest as the next breath that makes it out of their mouth is a quiet sob.

Romeo is quiet. Jesse almost wants to remove their hands from their eyes to see why, but at the same time, they feel a wary terror throttling their chest and they're locked into the position anyway so they can't really look.

And then he's gently tugging them into a strange and rather awkward hug, pressing their face into his midriff while keeping one hand loosely pressed to their back and one hand tangling in their hair, hands being forced into a little bundle at their chest as their shoulders shake.


Okay.

Romeo's going to be the first person to admit that he has no idea why he's hugging Jesse now.

Especially since they're crying.

He's also the first person to admit that he doesn't like it when people cry (especially Xara or Fred, he's known them for so long that when they cry all he can feel is guilt) and he tends to avoid them as though they have some sort of contagious disease that will kill him on the spot if someone is crying.

And yet here he is, gently pressing Jesse into a little awkward hug that's less of a hug and more like a weird resting position in the middle of the hallway, the small (small, small, very small teenager that he still can't believe is seventeen) person in front of him trembling uncontrollably with quiet cries that he can barely hear from where their head is leaning into his midriff.

In fact, he's pretty sure he's hugging them because they're crying.

He doesn't really know why Jesse reacted the way they did. He doesn't like not being certain about things that he feels like he should be certain about. It makes him feel itchy.

He doesn't like that.

(He doesn't like the way they scrubbed at red eyes so harshly it looked like they were trying to break their own skin, rip it open, until he found himself with his hand shooting out to catch their wrist and keep them from continuing until they did break their own skin.)

"It's alright," he tells them, trying to keep the awkward tone out of his voice. "You're alright."

Jesse stays pressed up against him, before slowly moving their arms so that they're no longer trapped in a little knot at their chest.

Their face is buried in his midriff, they're pressed up against him tightly enough that he can feel every tiny tremor that goes through their body, and now their arms are wrapped around him in a tight hug.

"'M sorry." Their voice is muffled and rather fragile, but he can still hear it.

(Perhaps that's due to the fact that he's just always had spectacular hearing. Whenever Xara used to shout it was like she blew out his eardrums.)

"It's okay."

(Especially because he doesn't know what they're actually apologizing for.)

He gives Jesse another sort of weak squeeze, the teenager tightening their grip on him by such a miniscule amount that he can barely feel it.

Something's tickling the back of his mind- the way Jesse is quietly apologizing for something he's not entirely certain he knows about, automatically reaching out to hug them even though his first instinct when somebody begins to cry is to awkwardly fidget with his fingers and shuffle away, Jesse rubbing their face so hard that they look as if they're trying to prevent themselves from crying-

They're like Fred.

Tears spring to his own eyes, his chest giving a weak squeeze from the stray thought that flits through his head.

Perhaps not exactly- they're much shorter, and he doesn't know what's going on in their head (unlike Fred, because he knew Fred like the back of his hand and he doesn't even know why Jesse's about half the size of a regular seventeen-year-old), and he never really felt the urge to treat Fred like a small child, and he's pretty sure Fred was never this fragile-looking (or fragile at all, but then again Fred did have the ability to smile calmly about any and everything even when he could tell that his friend was trying not to cry), but there are bits and pieces and fragments of Jesse that piece together weirdly to make some (very short) part that's just a lot like his dead friend.

"It's okay," he repeats, a lot lower this time, and he's not entirely sure that Jesse hears it until he feels them give him a very gentle little squeeze in return, still allowing their breath to catch in their throat and make little hiccuping cries bubble out of them.

He runs his hand through their fluffy hair (it really is fluffy) in what he hopes is a comforting gesture, watching Fred (that's not Fred, not quite, but it's so very weirdly close that the thought barges in without his permission)- watching Jesse cry quietly into his robes and making the front of it quite damp, just quietly, quietly watching them while his mind clicks away like a frantic machine.

It's not Fred.

It's not.

And yet they feel so achingly similar that he can feel his chest start to hurt.

He doesn't know why Jesse reacted the way they did.

He doesn't like that.

But he can't eat their heart, not in the least because it'd be like eating the heart of his (dead) friend and the idea and the thought of it just makes bile rise up in his throat that he crushes down because... well, throwing up right now would just be a terrible idea.

Is that the only reason he doesn't want to eat it? No.

Is one reason that he wants to make up for what he did to Fred?

Perhaps.

Will this actually make up for what he did to Fred (to one of his best friends, someone who's dead now because he did something stupid and idiotic and absolutely moronic)?

Absolutely not. It will never make up for it. Nothing will ever even come close to fixing what he did.

(And if Xara doesn't let him forget it, he certainly won't.)

But even if he can't pick out the reason, he just can't eat their heart.

And just like that, because of a stray thought that comes when Jesse reacts the wrong way again, Romeo makes his mind up about Jesse.

Chapter Text

Jesse wakes up the next morning back in their bedroom, ensnared in the blankets with their eyes feeling slightly puffy.

They have a vague memory of Romeo scooping them up into a hug after some time without a word and carrying them for a bit, but they can't quite remember it because they were half-asleep and teary anyway and so they just let it go.

Well, they let it go until Gill sticks his head into the room and tells them that Romeo's called for all five of them to meet in his office quickly.

So now they're in his office again.

Aiden's drumming his fingers impatiently on his arm from where it's crossed, red eye staring intently at Romeo. Maya is just rubbing her eyes sleepily, while Lukas looks as impassive as usual (mainly because of the blindfold. It's pretty hard to read his expression sometimes) and Gill just tapping his foot.

Romeo nods when they're all in the room, Kaster and Bedivire swinging the doors shut at the nod. There's the slithering of metal curling together as they lock the door.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me this early in the morning." Romeo inclines his head at Jesse with a faint smile ticking onto his face, before giving his fingers a little quirk.

Jesse's heart fades back into view, and the demon lord shifts, resting his elbows on the table as all eyes flicker to the pink flower hovering in the air.

"Have you made a decision about their heart?" Lukas sounds faintly interested about this.

"Yes. I've decided to return Jesse's heart." Romeo lifts his finger before anyone can really react to the statement. "On one condition."

Honestly, since Jesse's done nothing except run around in the Underneath for a day or two and essentially be a trouble to everyone, Jesse thinks that's pretty fair, so they nod and shift a bit, looking at him earnestly. "Name it."

Romeo regards them for a moment, before giving a slow nod. "Alright. There's been some trouble around Cosmos lately, and I want you to help solve it."

"What sort of trouble?"

Aiden glances at Jesse out of the corner of his eye with a look they really can't read, which makes them a little nervous, but Gill speaks up before either the demon lord or Jesse can say anything else. "If it's about that issue, you don't need to explain the lord-baron-thing about Cosmos; we talked about it with Jesse yesterday after we overheard about the party."

Romeo hums, tilting his head at him. A faint smirk seems to quirk over his mouth. "Oh? You four are overachievers as always."

His gaze flickers to Jesse. "So they explained the districts and the lords and barons?"

Jesse nods, parroting back some of the main points. "Cosmos is divided into five districts; Narvid, Hizelk, Yurin, Enchantra, and Jupin. Each district is ruled by a lord, and there are safe paths with cities at the halfway point to mark the entry into a different district. Jupin is the center district, but it currently doesn't have a lord and so there's a lot of trouble there."

"Very good," Romeo compliments with a smile, allowing a tiny pleased feeling to flicker into their chest before he continues. "Normally, we lords don't bother with the intricate details of other districts and allow the lords to sort that out with the barons in district meetings, but since Jupin is in the center, it affects everyone."

A flicker of his fingers, and the map Lukas pulled up the day before appears. Romeo 'taps' the image, making it ripple as if a pebble was tossed into a pond. "But, the unrest in Jupin is only the problem on the surface."

The ripples clear to reveal a black door. The door has five keyholes in a shape that looks remarkably like the simplified map of Cosmos, the lock mechanism (Jesse assumes that's what it is, considering the keyholes are right where the capital cities would be) gray and dull. "Underneath Jupin, there's a door connected between Cosmos and your world, Jesse. However, unlike the portal that you came from, which opens every month in order to bring in humans to form contracts, beings with physical forms cannot pass through the door."

"What..." Jesse balks a little as they realize the sound bubbled out and interrupted Romeo, but when he nods at them encouragingly, they meekly continue. "... what does that mean?"

Maya hums, making them twist around to look up at her. "A physical form would be considered... a body." She taps her arm. "I would not be able to walk through the door. However, a ghost, a soul separated from the body, or a heart separated from its owner could potentially enter the door."

A brief, humorless chuckle from Lukas. "Don't think anyone would want to."

"Why not?"

Romeo nods at Jesse, making them swivel back to look at him. "Within the door is another dimension, where negative energy from both worlds gather. About seven thousand years ago, according to history books, a large amount of negative energy accumulated." He glances at the door, lips twisting into a frown. "Because there was so much of it, it actually began to gain its own consciousness and piece together some semblance of a soul."

His eyes flicker back to Jesse, who's listening to this with rapt attention. "But, because it didn't really have a physical form of its own, the negative energy attempted to move to Cosmos to find a body.

"In order to protect Cosmos and the human world, the ancient demons removed the door from the human world, and locked the door in Cosmos to seal the negative energy inside the dimension within the door," and Romeo points at the lock.

"Interesting fact, remember yesterday we told you Ivor's the oldest current lord?" At Jesse's nod, Gill continues. "Ivor's actually one of the lords that helped seal the door."

Jesse's eyes grow rather large at that. "He's that old?"

Romeo gives a mild hum. "Yeah, he doesn't talk about that very much. Er, anyhow, that door is currently locked with five keys, and each lord has one key."

A pause. His expression grows more solemn, lips pressing together, and for a second Jesse wonders if he's about to cry.

And then it seals off.

"When Fred died, his key was stolen. Initially we thought it had been lost, but Isa, Mevia, and Harper reported that their key was stolen recently. This means that someone is trying to steal all of the keys and open the door."

The image dissipates as he levels an even stare at Jesse. "So, what I want you to do, Jesse, is to find who is up to this, and why they are trying to open the door."

Jesse blinks.

And then they blink again, an apologetic expression crossing their face.

"Ah, um... I'm sorry, I don't know if I could do something like that alone..."

"I never said you were going alone," Romeo replies smoothly, "those four are going along with you."

"I refuse," Aiden snaps back, making Jesse wince since he's two feet from them. "This doesn't have anything to do with us." He jerks his head at Jesse. "They're doing this to get their heart back."

Romeo levels a humorless smile at Aiden. "Well, guess what? I refuse to accept your refusal. Even if Jesse wasn't here, I would've eventually ordered you to do this."

"But... are you only returning their heart to them upon completion of the task?" Lukas is frowning. "If that's the case, we'll only have about thirteen days before their heart disappears. I honestly don't think we'll be able to solve this whole thing in thirteen days."

"And giving their heart back to them now would basically be sticking a signpost on their head saying 'Eat Me'," Maya adds. "Even without their heart, they'd make a pretty good meal."

Jesse decides not to comment on that.

The demon lord actually perks up, giving them an almost bright smile. "Oh, yes. I actually figured out a way around that that'll give Jesse as much time as you need without basically turning them into a walking meal. Although, ah," and he gives a slightly more sheepish smile a second later, "preferably before all five keys are stolen."

His expression goes back to a blank one as he turns to look at Jesse. "Of course, that's primarily up to them to decide if they actually want to."

"'S only fair." Jesse shrugs, ignoring the way all expressions narrow a bit in confusion. "I'll do my best."

"Good. Work hard." Romeo claps his hands, giving his finger a beckoning curl in their direction. "Come closer for a moment; you're a bit too far for me to do this."

Jesse obediently shuffles closer. The demon lord surveys them, before snapping his fingers briskly.

A faint, pink glow effuses their heart, a sort of wispy glowing string forming between them and the heart. Jesse watches, vaguely fascinated, as the string slowly detaches from their chest and begins to wrap around the flower, writhing and curling into place slowly at first, before it moves faster, then faster, then still faster.

Their heart is now rather painful to look at from the glow as the last bit of the string disappears into the whirling ball around Jesse's heart, before the glow... well, it's hard to describe, but it looks like it pops open.

For a moment, the glow slowly wriggles, changing gradually in something that actually looks like it has something like an actual shape.

And then the glow abruptly dissipates, a little pink pig with a funny, somewhat heart-shaped mark on its side plops onto the floor with a little oink.

Jesse's heart melts.

(Not literally, of course.)

Lukas's eyebrows are so high they're actually above the blindfold for once. "A vessel creature?"

Jesse scoops up the pig, which is just the right size for them to scoop up and hold him (it looks like a him) like a stuffed animal, giving him a ridiculously pleased grin. "Hi there."

He snuffles happily in their arms.

Aiden arches his eyebrow, his usual scowl fading to a look of interest. "Did you get the idea from Stella?"

Romeo shrugs. "Why mess with something that works?" He glances at Jesse, who looks very happy about the little pig they're holding. "That is your vessel creature."

"What's that?" Jesse would usually be listening incredibly closely, but they're a little more focused on scratching the little pig gently on the head.

"A vessel creature," Romeo begins, "actually acts as a separate, sentient vessel that contains a being's heart- think of it like a familiar, but holding your heart."

He pauses, almost considering what he's saying, before resuming slowly. "What the vessel creature does is actually mute the scent or... hm... feeling your heart emits, thus making it seem like a normal pet or familiar, while also keeping your heart safe- most of the time vessel creatures are actually quite skilled in combat."

Aiden snorts.

"I said most of the time. Anyhow," he inclines his head at Jesse, "do be careful with it- if your vessel creature dies, you will also die."

Jesse gives a vigorous nod, going back to cuddling the tiny pink pig. The pig seems extraordinarily happy with this turn of events.

"Typically, the vessel creature will be one that most suits the personality of the person it is acting as a vessel for. Though, er," and Romeo gives a bemused smile as he glances over at where Jesse is now hugging the pig rather happily, "I've never seen one be a pig before."

Gill hums, crossing his arms with a frown. "Well, that does fix the issue. But I have no idea where to start trying to figure out anything about the person stealing the keys with the information we have."

Romeo gives an almost apologetic shrug. "I'd tell you more, but that's all we lords know ourselves."

"Fantastic," Aiden grumbles.

"Well," and several sets of heads turn to Jesse, who balks at the attention for a moment, before looking down at the pig, although still speaking as they rub his head with their thumb. "Isn't there that party in Yurin? And some lords are going, right?"

Maya nods, confirming the statement almost before Jesse even finishes. "Yeah, pretty much everyone except for the Narvid lord and barons, from the rumor."

"Well, if there's a party, then a lot of people are going to attend, or at least a fair amount. And if the lord of the north is hosting the party, wouldn't it be where the lord lives?"

"Logic does demand that, yes," Aiden almost drawls.

(Lukas frowns at him.)

Jesse ignores it for now, although their stomach does give a tiny twist.

"Well, if someone is trying to steal the keys, then the party would be a good chance to steal the key." Jesse notices some of the others pausing and nodding thoughtfully at this, but they continue anyway. "Not to mention, if other lords are attending, there's actually the possibility of being able to steal more than one key."

Romeo's looking at Jesse with a careful look, which makes Jesse feel a little wary.

A moment later, he hums and nods. "Yes, that's strategically a good idea. It might be a good idea to head to the party, since it's apparently in another month or so."

At the looks he receives, he shrugs. "If the rumor's just now reaching here, Xara's not going to hold a party for another month. She's pretty busy. Not to mention she likes to plan fairly meticulously about certain things."

Jesse wonders how the heck he knows this.

"The problem is, we're going to need one of the other lords' help to get in the party, since we're not invited and I'm not really sure I'm comfortable with asking her if we can attend," Maya muses thoughtfully, tapping her cheek, before her brow furrows. "She's... yeah. She's pretty scary."

Lukas crosses his arms, tilting his head to one side and considering this. "Well... since Ivor's still looking for another lord, he might not necessarily be in Enchantra. I think we should head to Hizelk."

"That means a two-day journey, since traveling on the safe path means that you'll have to stop at Champion City before nighttime..." Romeo's brow furrows thoughtfully.

"It'll actually take longer, since we've got a human with us," and Aiden jerks his head at Jesse.

The pig oinks at him angrily.

Jesse would apologize, but Lukas is already waving it off. "Well, we'll figure something out for travel. We should pack some extra clothes and potions for the trip."

Maya nods again. "Sounds good. Let's get to it."


Romeo roams the hallways, still holding his spellbook.

He meant to give it to Lukas, but Lukas waved it off, saying that this investigation wasn't really the best time to be studying intricate magic, and Gill didn't really use magic anyway, and Maya said she'd probably lose the book (which was honestly true), and Aiden was about as likely to need a magic book as Jesse's vessel creature.

And, as if he's spoken of the devil, he rounds the corner and finds Jesse sitting on the floor, rubbing the vessel creature's back. They're back in the clothes they've been wearing the whole time, which... makes sense, since he doubts they brought clothes with them.

(They can probably wear something of Maya's if the need comes. They're small.)

"Ah, Jesse."

Their head pops up. "Oh. Hi, Romeo." And they give him a shy little smile. "Whatcha holding?"

He glances at the spellbook. Then at Jesse, who probably can't do magic since they're a human.

Fred always liked magic.

"Do you want a spellbook?"

They blink at him. "Eh?"

He holds up the book. "I tried to give it to Lukas and Maya, but they didn't really want it. I figure at least one member of the team should have some kind of basic spellbook just in case something goes wrong."

"Oh, but I can't do magic..."

He waves it off. "You can just keep it on hand until someone else needs it. Besides, it makes for a fun read sometimes."

Jesse blinks at him again, before giving him a faintly bemused kind of smile and accepting the book of spells that he sets in their hands. (It's a surprisingly large volume, and he would've kept it if he didn't have another copy that Ivor'd sent him once as a gift.) "Um... okay. Thank you very much."

"Of course." And he slides down the wall to sit next to them, watching as Jesse struggles to fit the thing into their pocket before succeeding and returning to giving their vessel creature quite a bit of love.

He gives them a careful sort of smile as they pet the pig at their feet. "Have you named it yet?"

He remembers when Fred (his chest squeezes) got a familiar that looked like a rather bizarre chicken and, to his and Xara's total bemusement (well, his total bemusement and Xara's amusement), named it Waffles.

"Hm?" Their head pops up to make eye contact with him.

"Your vessel creature." The demon lord carefully gestures at the pig. "You name it yet?"

"Oh, yeah!" Jesse beams, scooping the pig up and giving him a gentle squeeze. The pig squeals happily, pressing his snout against Jesse's cheek.

"His name is Reuben."

Chapter Text

Trigger Warnings:

Blood/Gore, Violence, Death


 

Jesse can't shake the feeling that someone's watching them.

The moment they step outside Romeo's spire, they can feel eyes burning into their back, but whenever they turn around, there is nobody there. Walking through cobblestone streets with Reuben keeping pace very easily at their feet, and Lukas being right next to them, they know they should feel fine.

And yet someone is still watching them.

A couple times Jesse can find the culprits- demons with black hair and red irises that glance up at the human but lose interest upon realizing that the four half-demons are surrounding them.

But even their gazes don't feel like the one boring into them.

So perhaps they can be excused for feeling tense as they trek out of the gates to the Underneath, breaking onto the west path. The road is jet-black and made of bricks; Aiden's shoes actually sort of blend into them.

Jesse can't help but look at the trees in wonder around them; the trees are so much like the ones at home, except with dark orange or red leaves, grass and foliage littering the sides of the road they're walking on. The trunks are normal, too, excluding the occasional jet-black or white one that Jesse sees hiding behind the normal trees.

It's like walking through the forest at home, except on a paved road and perpetually feeling like the sun is setting even though it's not.

"Stay close, Jesse," Maya pipes up, making Jesse glance up and shrink a little closer to Lukas automatically. "It's kind of dangerous outside of town."

"Okay..." Jesse glances down at Reuben.

The pig gives them an encouraging oink and a grin, making their shoulders relax a little as they give a soft huff of laughter.

A moment later, they look back up at Lukas, whose head gravitates to them as they begin speaking again. "Hey, I've been wondering... why does everyone in this world wear black or red?"

"That's because-"

Lukas stops. In fact, the entire group stops, Aiden freezing dead in his tracks with Maya and Gill coming to a halt behind Jesse, inching a little closer to the teenager.

"Jesse, stay back."

Jesse turns to look at Lukas, whose voice has dropped an octave in warning. "Wh-?" they begin, but Aiden, who is standing in front of them, gives a tiny, tiny, nearly imperceptible shake of his head, so Jesse falls silent.

A moment of utter silence, nothing except the sound of the breeze ruffling the leaves in the air.

And then a demon materializes ahead of them, dark hair almost hiding his cruel red eyes as he tilts his head at them almost mockingly, fingering the red-stained blade in his fingers.

"Well, well, hello there... where are you going?"

Nobody responds.

Maya and Gill have slowly shifted position so that Jesse is standing off to the side and just behind them, looking up at the other four's stony expressions.

The demon apparently didn't expect them to answer, anyway, because he continues a moment later. "If you want to go past this place, then you have to pay."

Jesse blinks.

A toll?

No, no it's not a toll. The man's clothing is too clumsy and hodgepodge to be anyone official.

A robber, then?

"Oh?" Gill shifts, resting his hand on his hip almost cockily, tilting his head at the demon ahead of them and blocking the path. "That's the first time I've heard of that."

Aiden speaks up now, almost mildly, except Jesse can see (even through his jacket) the way his shoulders are slightly tensed. "What if we don't want to pay?"

"Well, then..."

Another demon steps in, wild hair peeled back from his face to reveal a smug expression and bright red irises. In his hand is a short spear, thankfully not stained red like the first demon's blade. "We'll just force you to. We're pretty strong, ya know?"

Aiden's mild tone shifts into a chuckle. Even from where Jesse is, they can see a strange smile curling his lips up. "Oh...? Pretty strong, you say?"

Lukas gives a light hum, casually pushing his hands into his pocket and tilting his head at them. He's got the same strange smile on his face. "Allow us to be the judge of that."

"Don't hold back," Maya says, in a sweet, sweet, somehow sickeningly sweet tone that Jesse hasn't heard her speak in before and that makes Reuben oink softly.

Gill gives his own chuckle, crossing his arms. "Don't back down now, hehe."

Their tones of voices, and the way the four of them are now smiling, sends chills down Jesse's spine.

Slowly, very slowly to avoid attracting attention, Jesse follows Lukas's instruction from before and gradually backs away into the tree line, Reuben snuffling and slowly following.

"Hm. So you want to do it that way?" the first demon asks, cocking his head at the four half-demons as his expression hardens into a cold glare and apparently having not noticed Jesse sliding back into the treeline.

And then he raises his sword and points at the four of them.

"Get them!"

About twenty shadowed figures shoot out of the trees, rushing at the four half-demons like a wave of darkness.

Aiden steps forward, flipping out what looks like a dagger with a tiny, blunted blade as one demon with a knife pelts at him.

He flicks his wrist.

Instantly, the blade shoots out, and then another, and then another, tapering in size until it ends in a tiny bladed tip, all of them catching as a whip connects the small blades together at long intervals, blocking the knife of the other demon before he brings it back around, slicing into the demon's torso and ripping it open, blood instantly spilling onto the ground.

Jesse muffles a scream.

Aiden spins on his heel, still in the first attack as his attacker collapses facefirst, blood pooling around him, and swings up, the blades knocking the knife of another attacker back, and then slashing back down to rake open the man's throat, blood spurting and splattering his jacket before he spins right back around at another attacker that is a good distance away, whip flicking up into the air-

It glows.

He brings it down, sending a wave of explosions in its path that crushes the demon approaching him, splattering blood and Jesse's pretty sure that those are brains across the ground in a smear, Jesse covering their mouth and pressing their back into a nearby tree as the scent of blood begins permeating the air as the overwhelming urge to vomit surges into their throat.

Another spin and a flick of the whip knocks another attacker onto his face, unharmed-

And then Aiden lifts his foot and crushes the attacker's throat with a harsh stomp, blood spurting out like a broken water fountain as he smiles coldly down at them.

One attacker balks at the sight of her comrades dying in less than four seconds, before Maya clubs her into the air with a long black-and-white staff that Jesse doesn't see her withdraw.

Without even turning around, Maya jabs the staff backwards, slamming into an attacker's gut, before she spins on her heel and smashes the staff down with immense force, shattering the demon's skull and smearing the black and white with blood.

A twirl of the staff, and the attacker who Maya clubbed into the air first is forced to the ground, the attacker's dagger remaining spinning the air for a second, before the end of the staff hooks it and flies down-

The blade stabs right through the demon's heart.

Yet another attacker pelts at Lukas, who just stands, hands still in his pockets-

Jesse spots the glint as his hands whip out of his pockets before his attackers do.

The first attacker is raked across the eyes with the bladed claws that are now on Lukas's hands, before the claws puncture the demon's throat and Lukas throws them into the trees on the other side of the road, already ducking under the sweeping blade from behind.

A backwards slash, and the demon's intestines are jerked out of his body and spill onto the floor, the demon letting out a choked gurgle of surprise before toppling backwards, blood staining the road beneath him.

Lukas skips lightly as another demon bolts at him, dodging out of the way, before one clawed hand curls around the attacker's shoulder, claws digging into skin, and-

Lukas comes back around and shoves his hand with enough force that the claws puncture straight through his back and out the front of his chest, blood staining the metal claws.

A deafening blast goes off, and Jesse's head snaps to Gill in time to see him holding a smoking gun, firing off two more shots that go through the heads of two demons, crumpling to the floor as blood pours from the holes in their heads.

Gill points the gun over his shoulder and shoots again, the shot sending a spray of scarlet blood into the air from the demon's chest, before he grabs a charging attacker and spins around so that he's holding them but behind them.

A sharp motion, and the attacker goes flying into the air. There's barely time for a yelp before Gill twirls his gun so that the muzzle of the gun faces up at the attacker-

Blood splatters the ground as the body hits the ground several feet away, the blast still ringing in Jesse's ears before Gill leaps up and shoots several more times, each blast making Jesse's ears ring.

Reuben gives a worried squeal at where Jesse's face has gone so pale it's nearly white, watching the four half-demons skip and dodge and spin around their opponents in a deadly, weapon-enhanced, violent dance, ignoring the pools of dark blood that reflect the clouds and trees above.

So, so much blood.

The demon with the spear shrinks back, trembling like a leaf with wide eyes. "O-oi, boss... these guys couldn't be them, could they?"

"Don't- don't be ridiculous," the boss splutters, although his expression is also wide-eyed, "there's no way we'd run into them!"

"B-b-but there's four of them! Three guys and one girl... the-the ones who arrived in October and wiped out the rebels..."

None of this conversation is making sense to Jesse. None of this is making any sense to Jesse past the fearful fog in their mind.

"I'm- I'm getting out of here!" And the demon with the spear starts sprinting away, his boss spinning to him with gritted teeth and fear in his own eyes.

"Hey! Don't run!"

Jesse sees the motion Aiden makes before anyone else does.

The whip, blades stained with blood and dripping with so much gore and red that Jesse almost swears that they were red in the first place, flickers up in a deadly, singing path.

Jesse closes their eyes before they can see it make contact.

But they can't stop themselves from hearing the sickening sound of blades slicing into flesh, nor the two separate thuds as the corpse falls to the ground, followed by the head.

Oh my god.

"Don't run..." Jesse almost shivers as they open their eyes, eyes briefly alighting on the beheaded corpse before forcing themselves to stare at Aiden, who's smiling in an almost sadistic way. "Didn't you say that you guys were 'strong'? If so, then stay, and let's play a little longer."

A strange, dark chuckle that makes chills grip Jesse's heart even tighter.

"It's been so long since the last time we came out."

Rough hands suddenly seize Jesse's arms and pin them behind their back, yanking them up against a warm body. They automatically give a choked scream.

Instantly, the four of them all spin to face Jesse, three sets of eyes widening with blood and gore and who knows what else on their faces, on their fronts, on their hands, on their weapons.

The hands tug Jesse even closer, a pleased voice purring above their head. "Oh? I was wondering why this one wasn't fighting. It looks like they're a human. For you four to be protecting a human..."

A low, almost hypnotizing chuckle. "I guess they must be pretty important. If you don't want me to kill them... then do as we say."

Jesse's head is spinning. The cologne the demon is wearing is overpowering and so strong that Jesse's getting dizzy. Reuben's squealing up a storm, running in circles near their feet.

Kill them?

Blood.

Blood everywhere.

Blood and cologne and everything is spinning and this is just all way too much.

The boss grins as Jesse looks up, the four of them evaluating the situation in front of the robber as he chuckles. "Ohh, good job!" His eyes flicker to the four half-demons, who are staring at Jesse, his voice growing more commanding. "Drop your weapons, October Children. Better hurry unless you want to lose the human."


"... oi, guys." Maya's voice is soft, quiet enough that she's sure that neither the demon holding Jesse or the robber behind them can hear. "This is pretty bad, isn't it?"

"Yeah... should we save them, or just let them die?" Gill whispers back, although even he looks reluctant about the idea of just letting Jesse die.

Partially because of Romeo's orders, but partially because they are small and tiny and somehow it just seems wrong to.

Lukas is giving his head a nearly imperceptible shake. "No. Romeo's not just doing this to solve a problem. And it's not just for entertainment, either. Something made him change his mind, and I don't know what it is, but something tells me he won't be pleased if we just let Jesse die."

He pauses, considering the situation, before he whispers again. "Besides... this is a pretty big issue. We haven't been following his orders properly lately."

Aiden speaks up, his own voice soft. "He let it slide since it wasn't anything big, but if we keep this up, he's free to kill us whenever he wants."

"What are you doing? Hurry up. Or do you not care about the human?"

The boss's voice breaks in, making Lukas's head jerk around to glance at him.

There's a short pause, before Aiden tsks his tongue again. "Lukas, you're the fastest among us. You save Jesse. The rest of us will cover you."

Lukas gives a nearly imperceptible nod. "Got it."

And then the incubus (because that is an incubus, with a lean form and a husky voice and that charming, charming smile that would be so effective if they weren't in battle) holding Jesse speaks up in, making the four of them look up.


"Oh... now that I look closer..." The demon behind Jesse leans in, hot breath tickling their ear as his voice purrs gently. "You're not so bad."

Not so bad? What does that mean?

"Perhaps we could have some fun and then sell you..."

Have some fun...?

"Aren't you having fun?"

The demon's hand reaches up, tracing a warm path up Jesse's side that makes chills shoot down their spine.

"I want to stop."

Slithering around their front, hands still keeping their arms trapped against their back.

"It's a bit too late for that."

His hand undoes the overall strap.

Jesse's eyes widen as something manages to pierce the dull, dead, choking fog that is throttling their thoughts.

Their foot automatically stamps down on the instep of the demon's foot, and at the same time, Reuben launches into the air with an angry squeal and slams into the demon's face, his grip automatically loosening with a startled grunt and allowing Jesse to jerk themselves free and whip around, panic clouding their mind, get him to go away-

They kick upwards with as much force as they can.

The demon lets out a squeak that goes four octaves higher than his voice was before, eyes going wide as he hunches over and protectively covers his crotch to avoid Jesse kicking it again, effectively bending down.

Go away go away go away-

Jesse wildly hauls their arm back and slams it into the demon's face, knocking him back into a tree, where he slides down from where he's been knocked out before falling flat on his face.

There is a moment of stunned silence as Jesse shakily stares at him.

He's gone?

He's not moving.

Well, he's breathing.

They think.

And then a muffled laugh.

Jesse spins to see the four half-demons dissolving into laughter. "Did- did you see that?" Aiden gasps, giggling so hard he looks like he might cry.

"They- they actually just kicked in an incubus's dick..." Gill is cackling and pointing at the fallen demon behind Jesse.

"And then- and then took him out in one- one punch," Lukas titters past near-hysterical giggles.

Maya nods through her laughter, wiping her eyes. "How pathetic..."

Jesse steps back from the four of them, shaking their head and feeling tears build up in their eyes. "Stop- stop laughing," they whisper weakly, over the uproarious laughter from the four of them. "I- I was being attacked and- and you guys were killing people and- and now- now you guys are just laughing about it-!"

"Sorr- sorry," Lukas chuckles, "it seems you're more interesting than we thought, but..."

He dissolves back into laughter.

Gill keeps giggling as well, shaking his head. "Oh, this is killing me..."

"Jesse's amazing, aren't they?" Maya titters.

"IT'S NOT FUNNY!"

Their laughter dies.

Jesse is shaking so badly that everything is blurry, which isn't helped by the fact that tears are building up in their eyes and making everything even blurrier.

Reuben whines and presses his face up against their leg as they shiver, icy fingers clinging to them.

The sickening sound of shoes splashing through blood, before Lukas's face swims into clearer view, blindfold covering most of his face as he reaches up to take Jesse by the shoulder. "Jesse...?"

They flinch away from him, breathing speeding up. "Don't- don't touch me-" Jerky words tear themselves out of their throat, clogged with fear and bile and oh my god there's so much blood-

He shifts back, almost in surprise, before reaching up slowly again.

Jesse shakes their head, breathing growing even faster as they squeeze their eyes shut.

And then they pop open immediately, scared that something is going to pop out the second their eyes are shut. "Don't- n- no- aaa- aaaaaah-"

Aiden regards the quaking Jesse from several feet away, before humming, simply tilting his head. Or, well, it's hard to see through the blur, but it looks like he does so. "Well. We do still have unfinished business, after all."

The boss steps back, eyes widening at his words.

Jesse looks at him just in time to see a sword burst through his chest, a scream freezing in their throat as Lukas spins to look over his shoulder and check what Jesse's looking at.

The boss is frozen there for a moment, before the golden blade that is through his chest jerks back and he falls onto his face, blood pooling around him.

A demon woman with short, choppy red hair seems to replace him, regarding the group through red irises.

Her black and red striped bandana matches the black shirt with two bold red stripes and the black shorts that are edged in red that she's wearing, under a red-tinted vest. Her left shoulder has a red metal shoulderplate, and black fingerless gloves stretch up past her elbow. Black boots with red laces match the general theme for shoes that Jesse's seen with some of the others.

Jesse's not sure what they expect through the haze of fear in their head. Perhaps for another bloody (oh god, more blood, more blood) fight. Perhaps threatening words.

What they don't expect is for Lukas's face to break into a grin and for the blonde half-demon to turn around, walk over to her, and wrap the woman in a tight hug.

"Showed up just in time to help claim the prize, huh, Petra?"

Chapter Text

'Petra', apparently, breaks into a grin and gives Lukas a tight hug. "Hey, Lukas. How you doin'?"

The blonde squeezes her and releases her a moment later, shifting and resting a hand on his hip with a huge grin at Petra. "Pretty good. Could've used you a minute earlier."

She rolls her eyes teasingly at him, sheathing the gold sword without even wiping off the blood. "Oh, you know me. Just passing by."

Aiden shakes his head, a huge smile creeping over his lips. "You bitch. Quit showing up at the last minute."

He gives her a friendly slug on the shoulder and pulls her into a quick, rough hug. "Good to see you."

"You dick, stop getting taller. Gill's the only one that's allowed to beat me," is her cheerful response as she punches him on the shoulder, before she gives the other male demon a mischievous smile. "Hey, Gill. You still denying your crush on Maya?"

Both Maya and Gill turn pink. If Jesse was in any mood to appreciate it, they would laugh. As it is, all they can do is shiver.

"I don't have a-"

"Petra, I think you're going crazy-"

"He's a complete asshole-"

"She's a crazy bitch-"

Petra smirks at the two spluttering demons and turns to Lukas casually, ignoring the fact that the other two are basically pomegranates at this point. "You guys certainly haven't gotten rusty."

He gives her a smirk, tongue poking through his teeth. "You certainly haven't gotten any less late," he replies in the same tone she just used, tilting his head. "Can't imagine Ivor's that pleased about it."

She shrugs. "Eh. He's pretty much letting me roam around wherever I want, anyway. I just gotta go whenever he calls me."

She lifts her hand and tugs her glove down enough to reveal the hint of a tattoo. "It's not often, anyway."

"Still." Aiden is still smirking as he socks her back on the shoulder. "Could've used some extra manpower."

"Heh, you guys had it handled anyway." She grins at them, before glancing at Jesse, who's watching with wide, green eyes from several feet back.

Her smile fades, replaced with surprise.

"Is that...?"

Her boots clop through blood (Jesse forces down a whimper), and she's suddenly kneeling in front of Jesse, leaning forward and regarding them with fascinated red eyes.

Jesse twists their head away a little bit, swallowing hard, but not removing their eyes from her as little shivers go down their spine.

Just in case.

"Holy shit." Petra doesn't hide the fact that she's staring unabashedly at the tiny human teenager in front of her. "You guys are traveling with a human?"

"Yeah, uh..." Lukas scratches his cheek, giving the redhead an awkward smile. "Romeo's orders."

"Huh."

Petra regards them for a moment longer, her red eyes flickering over their pale face, fluffy hair, the pig reassuringly rubbing his face against their leg, before her hand moves-

"Don't- don't come closer-!" Jesse chokes out, backing up and staggering as their foot snags the incubus's body, back thudding into a tree without slowing down. "Aaa- aaaaaah-"

Petra's expression changes- into one that is remarkably like sympathy or even worry, but Jesse doesn't have enough time to really look at it as they keen frailly before she glances at the corpses littering the road not twenty feet away.

She's quiet for a moment, before looking up at the four half-demons. "Let's just get them out of here for now."

"What?" Aiden asks, looking vaguely confused, but Petra's already speaking again.

"You guys... well, you took care of those guys, but you also made it a bloodbath." She jerks her head at the twenty-or-so corpses that are littering the ground, soaking the road coppery red and saturating the air. "Pretty sure humans aren't used to seeing that much blood. Let's get them out of here."

Lukas nods and goes over to scoop Jesse up-

Jesse shivers violently, shrinking away from him. "Don't- don't- don't don't- no- nonono-" They shake their head, tears trailing down their face.

His lips part to reveal his teeth, lips tilting down at the ends. Part of Jesse feels like he's crestfallen, and they can feel guilt twisting their stomach at that.

And the other part can only see the blood splattered on his orange shirt, the blood smeared on his lower jaw, the fact that his hands are stained red, don't hurt me, don't kill anyone else please

Petra regards the human, before reaching out and scooping Jesse up easily, since they're so small.

Jesse squirms, trying to get out without shoving her or landing on the ground, which has stains of red smeared on the grass from the demons walking back and forth through the pools of blood, breathing growing more ragged. "N-no- no- nnnn- no- aaah-"

"It's okay, it's okay." Lukas's voice is soft now, one hand gently resting on their back- Jesse tries to twist away- he keeps his grip securely on them so they don't just flop out. "It's alright, we're just going to move off elsewhere for a bit, okay?"

Jesse shakes their head, tears coming down their face, knowing that blood is smearing on their clothes, all down their back. "No- no- s-stop-"

"Stop crying. We're leaving. You don't have to see all the bad blood in a second." Aiden's voice cuts through the haze of fear in their head, sounding rather irritated.

Jesse abruptly clamps their mouth shut, a cry dying in their throat.

Don't cry.

Don't cry.

Don't cry.

They stop writhing and go still, enough for Petra to stand up, pressing the side of their head into her shoulder in such a way that all they can see are the trees off to the side.

"You don't see anything?" Lukas leans around to check Jesse, still sounding slightly crestfallen (their gut twists deeper).

"N-no," they manage through the lump in their throat. "Just- just trees."

He nods and glances up at Petra. "Nearest safe area?"

"You're actually not that far; there's a resting spot around a bend about twenty minutes away."

Petra starts walking, Jesse's head pressed into her shoulder as they bob up and down from the walk. Her boots clomp through the blood, making little wet sounds that send a chill up their spine, but they don't dare whimper or cry out again, not after Aiden's comment, not after that.

The sound of weapons whispering signals that they've put their weapons away, even as the wet footsteps slowly turn to dry ones as everyone continues walking.

There is nothing but silence. The whispering wind seems sinister rather than calming now. The eerie black trunks of the trees around them jump out from the normal brown ones, even as the only sound in the air is the soft sound of the wind and footsteps as they move farther and farther away.

And the itching, burning feeling of eyes still boring into Jesse's back.


Petra sets a sleeping human down on the floor gently, making sure not to jolt them awake. The human's been quiet for the entire twenty-minute walk, even though she could feel them trembling from where she was hugging them close enough that she could've rested her chin on their head if she wanted to.

And then they lift their head to look at her, making her blink in surprise. Apparently they haven't been asleep.

"Will that happen again?"

Maya and Gill look up; this is the first time anyone's spoken for the past twenty minutes. Lukas's head lifts to look at them, and even Aiden looks up from where he's cleaning his whip. "Hm?"

Petra notes with amusement that the four of them chime that in complete unison.

"Will... will that..." Jesse gestures weakly at the direction they came from. "Will that happen again?"

"Oh. Yeah." Gill gives a nonchalant shrug. "It'll probably happen again. Many times again."

Maya gives Jesse a slightly apologetic smile. "Yeah... fights like that aren't at all rare in Cosmos. Though, um, I guess we did go a little overboard." She stretches, lacing her fingers behind her head. "It has been a while since we've actually done any combat."

Petra glances at the human, who's taking this in quietly.

Their pig snuffles and noses his way into their arms, which they gladly scoop him up into and press their cheek to the top of his head. "I- I see..."

Aiden grunts. "Oh yeah. You asked why everyone in our world wears black or red or a shade of that sort, yeah?"

The human bobs their head up and down. "Yeah..."

"The reason for that is because blood stains aren't as visible on black or red clothes," Aiden replies, and okay, Petra knows she's blunt, but damn.

She scratches her cheek and gives the human a slightly sheepish smile, the human lifting their head to look up at her. "It... would sort of be a pain to constantly change or wash out the stains."

The human is quiet, although Petra does notice their face going the tiniest shade paler. "... so that's the reason...?"

Aiden grunts assent.

Petra turns back to the human, giving them an encouraging smile and sticking out her gloved hand. No sense in being rude. "Hi. My name's Petra. I'm one of Ivor's contracted humans."

The human blinks at her, before shakily holding out one hand and giving her hand a squeeze and a little shake. "So- so you're in Enchantra most of th' time?"

She shrugs. "Yeah, but Ivor gave me the option of going to him when he summons me, since he doesn't really have me do much except help out. So I tend to be wherever in Cosmos."

"Oh, I see..." They give her a tiny, if rather shy smile. "Um... thank- thank you for getting me out of there." They pause, before their cheeks pink and they huddle deeper into the hug with the pig. "I... nn... I didn't expect..."

Petra huffs, sitting back and crossing her legs absentmindedly. "You didn't expect fights in Cosmos to be that bloody?"

Jesse gives their head a little shake. "I didn't expect any fight to ever be that bloody."

Lukas huffs a laugh himself, making Jesse look over at him. He seems to be cleaning those claws he likes to use in combat. "Don't worry, we weren't expecting it ourselves when we first started training. You should've seen Petra when Ivor gutted a demon who was trying to kill her."

Gill giggles at the memory. "Oh man. She just turned this weird shade of green."

"Did not."

"You really did, Petra, I honestly thought you were changing into a swamp monster."

"Yeah, don't get me started on Aiden seeing it," Maya chuckles. "Romeo was talking to Ivor and some demon tried to rob them and he just-" She mimes a little exploding hand motion. "Blood all over the floor."

"Ooooh, yeah, he threw up right on Isa's shoes."

Aiden makes a face. "Yeah, at least she was pretty okay with it, surprisingly."

"Honestly, I think she was more worried that you were sick or something than about her shoes." Lukas shrugs, giving Aiden a smile. "They were boots, anyway."

Jesse pipes up now, looking faintly interested despite the very gorey details. "You guys get trained together...? Do all contracted humans get trained together, then?"

"Nope. Not enough humans come to all get trained together."

"Well, technically, this is actually the most active year for contracted humans or humans coming in twenty years at least for all of the lords," Maya pipes up. "For the past twenty years, humans traveling into Cosmos has become very rare, and... honestly, nobody knows why."

Petra nods, before looking at Jesse. "But we all came this year- I came in August, and they came in October."

"Oh..." Jesse purses their lips slightly, looking up at the sky, before back at Petra. "Is that why those raider people called the four of them the October Children?"

"I hate that name," Aiden grumbles in response.

Petra chuckles. "Yep. I think I got a nickname as the August Girl, but I'm not really sure, since it's not like they say the name in front of me."

"Plenty of people like to say our name in front of us," Gill shrugs.

"Well, it's a lot easier to call us by a common nickname than go 'you four half-demons that Romeo contracted'," Maya points out.

Petra gives a lopsided grin. "Since Ivor and Romeo figured it'd be best to give us as much training as possible, they both trained us all at the same time, so we're pretty tight with each other. Ivor's all the survival and magic, and Romeo's like... some magic and lots of combat."

Jesse hums, thumbing the corner of their mouth. Petra can tell they're still trembling, if the way the pig looks like he's on vibrate is any indication, but it seems to be calmer. "Oh, I see..."

She nods back at them, somewhat restraining the urge to ruffle their (very fluffy-looking) hair. "You okay?"

"Mm?"

"You were all shaky earlier." Petra decides not to point out the fact that they're still all shaky, albeit looking a lot calmer.

Jesse looks down at the pig, who presses his nose into their cheek. They gladly heft him up before lifting their head and giving them all a rather frail sort of smile. "Well... i-if you guys all got used to it after only being here for a few months, then... I-I guess I'll be able to handle it better after a while, too."

Gill looks like he wants to give them an encouraging slap on the back, but being ten feet away, he gives a thumbs' up and a grin. "That's the spirit."

Petra gives another nod at the response, a little bit in approval and a little bit in simply acknowledging the response, before plopping down into a seat next to Jesse and looking up at the October Children. "So, whatcha doing escorting a human, anyway? Are they a new contract?"

Lukas stands up, stowing his claws away. "Jesse, you wanna see some illusion magic?"

"Eh? Oh," and Jesse blinks at him, scrambling to their feet with their pig still in their arms. "Sure."

A tiny smile quirks across Lukas's face, Petra feeling a moment of relief from him before he clops over to a corner of the safe area. "C'mon, it's a bit darker over here, so I don't have to do as much magic to darken it..."

"Okay."

Petra watches them go, before looking expectantly at the remaining October Children.

Aiden doesn't say anything, so Maya sighs and begins, leaning forward and using her hands to gesture. "So, Romeo had us ready to see if any humans with a desire came..."


Maya is a good explainer, and not ten minutes later, Petra's cleaning Miss Butter with a frown on her face. "So you're saying... Romeo's having Jesse help fix the issue?"

"Who knows why, but yeah," Aiden nods, finishing cleaning his whip and flicking all of the blades back into the handle easily. "So we're basically babysitting a human."

"I dunno, they had the incubus handled," Petra murmurs back teasingly, which makes Gill snigger and even Aiden crack a smile.

Maya hums a laugh, glancing over at where Lukas is holding out a hand and making little drops of water travel around his hand, which Jesse is watching with wide eyes and a surprised smile on their face. "Well, Lukas seems to like 'em."

"Lukas likes everyone," Aiden mumbles dismissively, which makes Petra flicker red eyes to him for a moment- he's usually not as cynical about people.

"Well, yeah, but he seems pretty cheerful lately," Gill amends the statement, leaning his cheek on his hand.

Petra glances back at where Lukas is now holding what looks like a fish made of water, Jesse poking their finger into it curiously.

He does have a rather large smile on his face.

She surveys Maya's blood-smeared staff, Gill reloading the handgun, Aiden absentmindedly spinning his whip in the air.

"... how about I go with you guys?"

Immediately, all of them look up at her, Aiden's slightly dark expression clearing, while Maya and Gill's eyes widen.

"Oh, you don't have-"

"We couldn't-"

"You'd-?"

Petra shrugs, giving a particularly stubborn stain on Miss Butter a scrub. "Eh, why not. If you're trying to work on the issue, Ivor's probably going to ask me to help later."

"It's always a second thought for you to do anything. I think he just contracts humans because he likes them," Gill hums thoughtfully, scratching his beard.

Petra rolls her eyes and flips her short hair. "Well, I am very awesome."

This raises a round of titters, but she shrugs and leans back. "But anyway- if Ivor's going to ask me to work on the issue too, I might as well join in now. Plus, the human's pretty damn tiny for seventeen and we don't need them up and dying on the spot if we're trying to fix the issue. More brains are better than less."

Aiden reaches into his pocket, rummaging around as if looking for something. "If you're going to help, we should pay you-"

"No, taking your money feels like a dick move for something Ivor's eventually going to have me do anyway," Petra waves it off. "Plus, if we're solving the issue, money does help some demon's tongues loosen."

"As does the threat of a knife to the tongue," Gill murmurs.

Petra smirks slightly. "I'm all for violence usually, but I don't really think traumatizing the human would be a good move."

"Traumatizing the human would be a very bad move, as I would promptly kill you afterwards," Lukas calls back, making Jesse give a slightly nervous laugh as they continue poking through the water fish, looking rather fascinated by it and also a bit nervous that Lukas is being serious.

"There we go."

Chapter Text

"Um..." Jesse jogs several feet to keep up with the other five half-demons, having departed the rest area about two hours previously and already looking a little out of breath to keep up with the five much-taller people around them. "I don't mean to sound impatient or anythin', but how much longer do we have to walk before we get to Champion City?"

Petra glances down at Jesse, lips twisting in discomfort.

She's not a big fan of Stella.

"At this pace... maybe about a day?" she muses, the (somehow) seventeen-year-old managing to keep pace, along with the tiny pig at their feet. "

Lukas hums thoughtfully, glancing over his shoulder at Jesse. "But, it's dangerous to walk during the night... so perhaps two days."

Jesse frowns; Petra can't help but find the way their expression scrunches up a little in confusion stupidly adorable. Are humans just made this way now?

"Didn't Romeo say getting to Sky City would be a two-day journey?"

"Well, normally, it would only take us around half a day without delays, which rarely ever happens," Maya replies, "so that takes about a day. But we've got to go a lot slower so that we don't leave you behind."

Jesse wilts slightly, apology already creeping into their expression.

Petra's noticed that's a habit with them. At one point earlier Gill slowed down to check a map and Jesse, without noticing, accidentally ran into him.

They promptly spent the next ten minutes apologizing about it, while Gill repeatedly assured them it wasn't their fault.

Thankfully, they don't start apologizing nonstop- they just twist their lips sideways slightly and then frown up at the others. "Is there a faster way...? I don't really want to waste everyone's time with so much walking..."

Everyone comes to a stop, Maya crossing her arms and tapping her cheek. "Mm... well, I don't want to spend this much time with just walking... but I'm definitely not sure how well I could carry someone while running..."

After a pause, she looks up and glances at Gill. "Maybe you could carry Jesse, Gill. You used to do it all the time for Romeo."

Gill immediately puts his hands up and shakes his head vigorously. "No way. Do you have any idea how much I hated that training? I had to be his personal taxi for an entire year. No way in hell am I carrying another person after that."

"Mm..." Maya considers this with a frown, before looking at Aiden somewhat hopefully. "You can fly in your shadow form, Aiden. Maybe you could carry Jesse?"

Aiden's shaking his head already. "Can't. My wings aren't strong enough to carry two people."

Maya frowns again, tapping her cheek again thoughtfully. "Mm... Lukas, Petra, you guys carried them a while back... do you think...?"

Lukas frowns, crossing his arms. "At the speed I go in my shadow form, I'd honestly be worried about dropping Jesse or Reuben sometime during it... I don't usually carry people while running."

There's a moment of confusion before Petra realizes he's probably talking about the pig.

"It might not be the best time to try for the first time, then..." Petra mumbles, pinching her bottom lip. "I could probably carry them on my back, but that depends on how strong they are..."

Jesse gives an apologetic shake of their head. "I dunno how fast you guys run; I don't think my usual amount of strength is a good measure to go off of for whatever you guys are thinkin' of..."

Maya purses her lips, looking at the ground. "Hm... then what can we do..."

A moment of silence passes over the group, all of them standing in silent thought.

Petra's about to suggest that maybe they should keep walking and just try speeding up the pace, when Lukas snaps his fingers. "Ah, I've got it. Stand back, guys."

Judging by the way he shifts into position, Petra gently takes Jesse by the shoulder and tugs them back several paces.

Lukas puts his hand up, staring (well, Petra can only assume) forward.

Slowly, several glowing, golden concentric circles form around him, swirling with random syllables and words that are moving too quick for any of them to read.

Petra glances down at Jesse, whose eyes are rather large at the sight. It's understandable. Magic in Cosmos is always an impressive sight.

"Lacus," he murmurs, and the uppermost concentric circle clicks into place, the word blazing gold, but he barely pauses before he's continuing to the next circle, "advoca, non, tutumn, celer."

The concentric circles whirl and raise themselves into the air, before he flares his hand out.

In a burst of light, a large, dark horse slams into the ground, hooves clumping sharply with the glowing blue symbols on its side seething with energy. Its mane glows with fire, soot and embers flitting off of it into the air.

Jesse blinks at it, getting a little closer, Reuben trailing just behind. "It's a horse...?"

Lukas hums, giving it a small smile. "Huh. That worked surprisingly well."

Jesse reaches up, the horse giving their hand a sniff before moving to their head, Jesse remaining very still and careful.

Petra is very tempted to jerk Jesse away, as horses in Cosmos are really just... not safe to touch or hug. Safe to ride, sure, but the only reason they're safe to ride is because of the magic keeping them from attacking any and everything in their path.

Generally, hugging a Cosmos horse or trying to feed it a sugar cube results in you getting your fingers bitten.

And then the horse snuffles and bumps its nose into Jesse's head, making them giggle.

"That was cool, Lukas!" They barely turn to look at him, careful to not upset the horse that's currently nuzzling the top of their head. "Was that magic, too?"

Lukas nods, shifting and resting a hand on his hip. Petra can feel the pride in his voice. "Yeah, it's not a very complicated spell, though... it does get annoying to set up sometimes. Magic requires quite a bit of setup to perform."

Jesse blinks, a tiny amount of confusion creeping into their expression at that. "But you don't do much setup with illusion magic..."

"That's because those are small illusions. Once you're skilled enough, simple or small illusion spells can be done nonverbally and with some kind of catalyst; especially because your magic skill has moved up enough that such small spells can be done without even having to do much of the movement."

Lukas gives a shrug after a moment of thought. "Ivor's magic skill is at the point where he could probably do that without much setup as well; he can do a lot of magic without setup."

"He could definitely do that without much setup. Some of the smaller spells he doesn't even need to make motions," Petra adds helpfully.

Jesse seems to be in thought, but before they can ask anything else about the very intricate details of magic Aiden speaks up. "Let's get going. We can talk more about magic after we get to Champion City; I don't want to be caught outside at night."

"Ah, okay." And Jesse gently disentangles themselves from the horse, popping over to climb onto the horse.

They pause for a second. "Won't I get burned by the flames on its back?"

"Nah, Cosmos horses won't burn the rider," Maya shrugs, "you can get on."

Petra glances at Jesse to see how wary they are about climbing onto a horse with a mane of fire, but they're already clambering onto the horse, which kneels down slightly to let Jesse clamber onto it without giving them the hell they usually give other riders- i.e., bucking around and being a general nuisance.

Huh.

Reuben gives a squeal and, in one leaping motion, springs off of the ground much higher than a normal pig can and landing in Jesse's open arms.

Seeing that Jesse is situated enough, Aiden turns around, tensing his knees-

He shoots off, dissolving into a blur of shadow as two appendages rip themselves from his back.

Before Jesse, with wide eyes, can say anything, he's already a shadow blurring through the sky.

Hardly a second passes before Gill bolts forward as well, dissolving into what looks like a shadowy blur and lunging into the trees. Lukas and Maya are gone seconds later as well, two shadowy blurs practically flying along the road.

Petra glances at Jesse, who's gaping after the October Children while perched on the horse.

"You wanna race?"

The human blinks down at her. "Hm?"

She jerks her head at the path, giving them a reassuring smile. "You wanna see who's faster? Me or the horse?"

She rocks up onto her tiptoes, giving Jesse a grin. "Lukas and Maya aren't really fun about races, Aiden can fly so it's totally unfair, Gill prefers jumping around in the trees... haven't really raced anyone in a while."

Jesse blinks again, squeezing Reuben a little tighter, before a tiny smile comes over their face.

"Okay."


"Alright," and Maya skids to a halt, finally not just looking like a shadowy blur, Lukas following with Aiden already having landed a few minutes before. Gill leaps out of a tree and lands neatly, going from his more shadowy form to a downright normal one. "We're here!"

Petra skids in a second later, Jesse's horse flying to a halt next to her after half a second. "Ha! I win!"

She falters when she sees Jesse clinging to Reuben and practically facedown on the horse, who is nickering and doing its best to look at Jesse, who is slowly heaving as if they're having trouble breathing. "... you alright?"

Jesse lifts their head a little to give her a tiny, weak grin, even though they're currently reminding Petra of when she first saw Ivor gut a person and their eyes are slightly glazed. "Mmhm... I think..."

The horse nickers as Petra slowly lifts the tiny human off of the horse, apparently not pleased but letting it happen since Jesse does look like they're about to throw up on the spot.

With a gentle nuzzle to their wrist (that Jesse's eyes flicker open at) the horse vanishes in a whipcrack and a flash of light.

Petra checks their wrist and raises her eyebrow upon spotting the tiny flame tattoo that is now inscribed inside their wrist. "Holy shit. That horse loved you."

Jesse blinks a few times, looking at the tattoo. "Really?"

"Yeah." Petra taps their wrist, being careful not to actually touch the tattoo, since it's brand new and probably still going to be a bit tender. "When Cosmos horses find a rider they really like, they brand the rider so that it can be summoned quickly and you don't have to do the whole spell thing and summon a different, probably random steed. But uh, that happens really rarely."

"Last time I saw it happen was with Isa," Lukas contributes helpfully, "and I didn't actually see what happened- I just saw her summon her steed."

Jesse blinks again, looking back at the tattoo almost owlishly. "Oh."

Petra can't help but grin at the response.

They look up at her a moment later with big green eyes. "That was... uh... nausea-inducing, but that was also a fun race."

A little bright smile comes over their face as they beam up at her. "Let's do it again sometime."

... shit, that's cute.

"Sure thing." She gives them a friendly punch on the shoulder, and she would probably say more except the guard at the entrance to Champion City speaks up, practically bellowing at the six of them.

"Halt! You may not enter without showing us your ID cards!"

Aiden's brow furrows. "ID cards...?"

"If you don't have one," the other guard speaks up, thankfully at a lower volume, "then you may not enter."

Maya frowns. "What? Are you saying that we're suspicious individuals or something? We're the October Children!"

The loud one bellows again, which makes Aiden's eye twitch.

He's not a fan of shouting.

"It doesn't matter who you are! Even if you claim to be a lord, I still cannot let you in if you don't have an ID!"

"Hizelk isn't the only one. The rest of the towns are the same," the quieter one speaks up, perhaps upon spotting the blank expressions of the October Children.

Petra glances at the others, her brow creasing in slight confusion. "Yeah, this went into effect a month or so ago. You guys don't have your ID cards?" She pulls out her own, which gleams red and has a place to press your fingers to see the details. She certainly finds them less dense then, say, human's drivers licenses.

(She's actually seen a couple. Ivor has several back in Enchantra from contracted humans that die during the job.)

Lukas hums, biting his lip thoughtfully. "Now that I think about it... Romeo did mention something about this around a month ago..."

Aiden mutters a swear under his breath as realization, and shortly afterward anger, flares in his eyes. "That useless lord- he forgot to give us our fucking ID cards!"

"Then what are we going to do?" Gill glances at where the sun, even though it has been hidden behind the clouds, is now definitely casting bloodred light over everything as it sets. "There's definitely not enough time to head back to the Underneath."

"It's going to be dark soon..." Petra thumbs the corner of her mouth, glancing at where the sun is setting. "We definitely can't just keep running around; especially since we're not really good with light magic yet and we've got Jesse with us."

Lukas crosses his arms, brow furrowing, before nodding and turning to walk back into the forest. "C'mon. We've got to head back into the forest. We'll head back to the Underneath first thing in the morning."

Jesse blinks at them, already beginning to jog after them. "Um... why are we going back into the forest?"

"You'll see. Let's go, there's no time," Lukas calls over his shoulder.

Chapter Text

"This one is no good," Lukas mumbles, hand pressed to a tree.

Maya shakes her head from where her palm is pressed to one several feet away, her brow furrowed. "This one too..."

Aiden has to stare for a bit longer, but he shakes his head at the tree he's touching as well. "This one's useless... damn, at this rate, night will fall first..."

Jesse hesitantly looks around at the trees. "Mm... what exactly are you looking for?"

"A tree," Aiden replies tersely, which doesn't help answer Jesse's question.

"... but there are trees everywhere..." Jesse goes over to a nearby one and presses their palm to a tree experimentally like the others are doing, before blinking. "... are you looking for one that doesn't feel hollow?"

Lukas pauses in checking the trees, before glancing at Jesse. "What?"

"This tree feels hollow. Are you looking for trees that don't feel hollow?" Jesse looks back at the tree, a little frown crossing their face as they pat the tree again. "I didn't know trees grew hollow in Cosmos..."

Now Lukas is definitely looking at Jesse. So are the other half demons. In fact, Maya and Lukas are regarding Jesse with a good amount of interest.

"... they don't."

This is from Aiden, who has stopped using his sharper tone in exchange for a slightly bemused one.

Jesse blinks at him.

Petra pipes up. "Trees don't feel 'hollow' or 'dense' to us unless you have a high magic sensitivity," she says, tapping the tree and feeling like she's clunking her fingers on the trunk- it's got the consistency of a sheet of metal to her. "So what you're doing is actually sensing the magic in the tree."

She pauses a second later. "I think. I'm not the magic expert here."

"No, no, you've got it," Lukas murmurs, shifting to a different tree and waiting for a minute before frowning and giving his head another little shake.

Jesse now blinks at her, before looking at the tree that they're pressing their palm against.

"... oh." They pause, before looking at Lukas. "Are some people just more sensitive to magic?"

Lukas hums, shifting his weight thoughtfully at the question. "Most demons do seem to have a genetic thing for magic sensitivity... and I guess some of us are less sensitive towards magic."

"Stop glaring at me, Lukas."

"No idea what you're talking about, Gill."

Jesse gives a tiny giggle as Lukas glances at the shorter human with an almost appraising tilt of his head. "Hm, I guess it could just be that you were born sensitive to magic... not like you would've sensed it much in your world."

Jesse purses their lips at that. They can feel him not saying some sort of detail, but they decide to let it slide, as he seems to be pretty urgent about finding a tree. "Oh, I see... that makes sense."

They shuffle over and try a different tree. "... this one's hollow too... does that mean we're lookin' for a tree that's got more magic?"

"Yes, but... it looks like we'll have to use one of these," Maya mumbles, frowning at the trees. "There aren't any really that have as much as I would like in the area."

Aiden's tone has gone straight back to irritated as he lets out a long sigh. It's more of a groan. "Fine."

Abruptly, Petra straightens up, making Jesse look up at the tall half-demon.

(Now that they think about it, she doesn't have an eyepatch or something covering her eyes like the others... why is that?)

"I didn't expect to meet you five here."

Jesse spins on their heel and almost falls over. Behind them, on the path, a demon has materialized, black hair pinned back in a low ponytail, although it's not a very long one, and his black beard is a little scraggly and unevenly cut. His armor is primarily black, with hints of blue peeking out beneath the black leather plates. He, seeming to follow some unspoken rule of demon fashion, is also wearing black boots.

His red irises are interrupted before reaching the pupils by a ring of dark blue.

Lukas relaxes, a smile coming over his lips. "That's what we should say to you, Ivor."

Ivor...?

Isn't he one of the demon lords?

Gill inclines his head politely at Ivor, who is perhaps a little shorter than Petra, though not by much. "You still searching for the new lord?"

Ivor gives a slightly frustrated hum, crossing his arms and listing to one side. "Yes... all I keep hearing is 'Not yet', although recently I've been getting 'soon', so that's something."

He surveys the faces of the five, Aiden looking stormy while Lukas looks worried. "... you seem troubled."

"We are troubled," is Aiden's rather blunt reply, "our stupid fool of a lord minus Petra forgot to give us our ID cards, so we can't enter Champion City."

"Ah, that. They started using those a month ago... so now you're searching for a tree?" Ivor glances around at the ones nearby distastefully. "You probably won't find a suitable one here, the ones closest to the roads have been drained of magic."

"We know, but... it's dangerous to stay out in the open during the night, especially with Jesse here..." Gill shifts and glances at Jesse, who is still touching a tree experimentally.

Ivor's brow furrows slightly. "... Jesse?"

Jesse blinks at him.

The demon lord slowly walks closer to them, covering a good amount of ground until he's right in front of Jesse. If they wanted, they could reach out and poke him. They can feel him scrutinizing them carefully.

"... you're the human that Romeo was talking about... the one without a wish?"

Jesse blinks at him again, having to tilt their head back to actually make eye contact with him.

They do have a wish. They have a wish that they want more than anything else; if they can have nothing else they would want this.

But they feel so guilty that it's just something for themselves.

"Mmhm..."

Ivor looks at them for a moment longer, before glancing at Reuben at their feet. He squeals in response to the look he's receiving, butting his head against Jesse's leg.

"And a vessel creature, too..." He glances up at Jesse. "To keep your heart safe?"

"Yes, sir."

Ivor makes a faint face at that, and Jesse's pretty sure they can see Petra hiding a grin. "Please... don't call me that. Ivor's fine."

Jesse bobs their head at him.

He regards them for a minute longer, before giving a thoughtful hum and glancing at the others. "It's going to rain tonight. You said that you were looking for a tree. Did you find a suitable one yet?"

Jesse shakes their head, making him look back down at him. "All of the trees so far feel hollow."

The demon lord looks at them for a moment longer, brow furrowing. "... you can feel the magic in the tree?"

They bob their head again.

Ivor stares at them for a long, long moment, before looking back at Petra. "I believe I should avoid running around at night, considering I can't use light magic. Would you all mind if I stayed with you tonight?"

"We wouldn't mind at all," Lukas says quickly, inclining his head in a little bow.

Petra gives a displeased hum, glancing around at all the trees. "Yeah... though the tree is still a big issue."

The demon lord touches his lip, brow furrowing momentarily. "I see... in that case..."

He turns his palm up and turns to an area where nobody is standing, eyes gleaming momentarily... and then-

"Arboretum."

Instantly, a glowing white sprig pokes out of the ground, rapidly curling and elongating and growing, leafy branches expanding from it until the glow fades, revealing a huge, black-trunked tree that towers quite far above the other ones, red leaves waving in the breeze.

Jesse's eyes grow incredibly big at that.

"Ooh, awesome! As expected of Ivor," Maya says cheerfully, apparently not seeming quite as awed as Jesse is.

Aiden gives Ivor a small bow. "Thank you, Ivor."

He pauses, a scowl coming over his face a second later. "If only Romeo would learn from you."

Ivor hums, a soft laugh rumbling in his throat. "Romeo's still fairly inexperienced, but he has potential. He was picked for a reason." He pauses, regarding the half demons for a moment. "He is very much like you five."

"Please don't compare us to him," Aiden mutters, still scowling.

Another hum of laughter. "Very well."

Petra apparently notices Jesse's rather awe-struck expression and misinterprets it as slight confusion, because she begins explaining. Not that Jesse minds. "Ivor is the oldest demon alive in Cosmos..."

"Yeah, I think we mentioned he was one of the demons who helped close the door," Gill adds, helpfully.

Jesse blinks, glancing at Ivor, who looks back at them evenly. "Yeah, I... think you mentioned that."

Something occurs to them, and they tilt their head at the demon lord curiously a moment later. "You're the lord of the east, right?" At his confirming nod, they continue. "Why are you... here, then?"

"Ivor is... special. He can speak with 'the world', which..." Lukas frowns slightly, lips tilting downwards at the ends. Jesse gets the feeling he's trying to dumb it down so they understand more.

However, Ivor chimes in. "The world is the literal world of Cosmos." He spreads his hands, gesturing at everything. "The ground, the trees- I believe humans have a myth about the Earth Mother?"

Jesse nods immediately. "Yeah, although it depends on the mythology you're in. But Greek mythology talks about Gaia; she's the literal earth."

At least, Jesse's about ninety-nine percent that that is how the legend works.

"Yes. Imagine as if Cosmos itself is a huge, living demon. It can speak and communicate, but only with those that are willing to listen and understand it, or can understand it."

Jesse tries to imagine this, before slowly nodding. "Okay... that... that makes sense, I think."

Ivor gives them a look. Jesse gets the feeling that he's rather pleased, but he continues before they can dwell on it too much. "I search for and select rulers according to the world's judgement. Typically after a ruler dies due to an accident, or after a ruler abdicates, or some other reason, they are replaced quickly... but because Jupin is such an important district that it affects everyone, the world is much, much pickier, and it's easier to travel all over Cosmos and see if the answer changes rather than stay in Enchantra and try to ask over and over."

"Ah, I see..."

"This is a great conversation," Aiden interrupts, making Jesse jump and look around at him, "but let's get going before we get eaten alive out here. You can talk about demon magic in the tree."

And with that very kind note, he tenses his knees, backing up a few steps, before launching himself into the air, hundreds of times higher than the average human, and disappearing through the leaves with a rustle. Maya and Gill follow quickly, with Maya seeming to wait deliberately for Gill to go before springing into the tree.

Jesse's eyes grow rather, rather wide.

Petra gives Jesse a teasing smile, sticking her tongue out a little bit. "What's wrong? Can't jump that high?"

"... why are we jumping into a tree?"

Lukas opens his mouth to answer, Ivor glancing over at the blonde half-demon with a look that makes Jesse feel like he somewhat wishes the blonde was in a contract with him. Maybe because of the magic. Both do seem to like magic.

And then both stiffen.

"... Jesse, don't turn around." Lukas's voice, to Jesse's slight dismay, has dropped an octave in warning.

The last time that happened, it got very bloody.

Petra glances over her shoulder. Or, well, more accurately, she turns her head halfway before it snaps back forward, staring intently at the tree. Her own expression has gone dead serious. "... Ivor, you're standing right next to Jesse. Can you get them into the tree?"

Jesse looks over at Ivor, who is also resolutely staring forward now. "Probably. You two aren't very skilled at light magic yet, right?"

"Lukas is better."

"Better is relative; the last time I got caught outside at night I still ended up with my arm nearly getting ripped off," Lukas mutters through gritted teeth. "I think we should just get up into the tree and put up the barrier."

Ivor hums, still staring ahead of him. "Since there's a hollow area, it should take a little less energy to put up the barrier. Just get into the tree."

Despite the almost casual tones that Jesse's about ninety percent sure the demons are using to not cause Jesse to panic, they're getting rather nervous.

Petra huffs. "That should be the easy part. Ready?"

Lukas raises his shoulders in a shrug. "Eh. Ready as we'll ever be. Go."

Petra blurs into the tree with a speed that rivals even Lukas's, while Lukas backs up and takes a running jump into another tree, rebounding and sending some leaves sprinkling from the much taller tree.

"My apologies if this makes you uncomfortable." Before Jesse can ask why they'd be uncomfortable, Ivor stoops down and grabs Jesse, spinning them around and almost tossing them over his shoulder so that he can carry them more effectively.

The moment he does, Jesse realizes why Lukas told them not to turn around.

A... creature that easily towers about ten feet tall is standing about two feet from the demon lord, glowing purple eyes staring right at them.

Grotesquely skinny limbs with black skin (as if charred or burnt or dyed) that stretches over bone and a torso that is ridiculously small and out of proportion with the limbs seems to what give it most of its height, the eyes burning with a strange lack of light that... somehow still emits light.

It's like a black light.

Jesse's eyes lock with the black light.

Instantly the thing's jaw drops—

- and continues dropping, barely connected to the skull by a string of sinew, purple pupils dilating as blackened, burnt-looking teeth are revealed, purple saliva dripping down its jaw and onto the ground, where it hisses and sizzles against the road.

It screams, an unearthly, screeching shriek that echoes in the air, ringing instantly appearing in Jesse's ears as they balk from it.

Don't scream.

Don't cry.

Ivor swears under his breath, tightening his grip on them. "Hang on. And don't look at it," he adds, after a moment of thought, "it doesn't like eye contact."

They wish he'd mentioned this before.

Jesse buries their head in his shoulder, replacing anything they can see with darkness, squeezing their eyes shut, doing anything they can to not look at that thing.

There is a pause, before Jesse feels the wind whip around them momentarily, rushing as the screech grows softer and farther away quite abruptly.

"Ivor, do you mind helping with the barrier? Aiden, Petra, and Gill are completely useless at it."

Jesse blinks their eyes open at Maya's voice, twisting around and seeing Maya and Lukas with their hands up and out. The walls around them are gnarled branches, arching around to make a little room, and a glowing orb is hovering above them.

"That's not our fault," Gill scowls at her. "You know we're not good at magic."

"That's exactly why it's your fault," Lukas hums back teasingly.

Ivor rolls his eyes. "You children and your bickering."

He carefully moves and sets Jesse down on the floor next to Petra, detangling their trembling fingers from his armor and setting their hands in their lap with a slowness Jesse doesn't expect. "Stay here for a moment, I need to help with the barrier."

Jesse nods quickly, hands still trembling. "Okay..."

He nods, giving them a quirk of his lips that they suspect is a sort of reassuring smile, before standing and moving to join Maya and Lukas, while the screams of the creature below still echo in Jesse's ear.

Chapter Text

The barrier outside the opening to the hollow glows a strange gold color.

Jesse watches it, interested both by the fact that the sound of the moving beings below is muffled to the point of nearly being inaudible, and the fact that the glow looks like a soap bubble, iridescent and and swimming in light.

Ivor sits next to them a moment later, making them look over at him curiously.

(It's interesting... the demon lords Jesse has met so far don't exactly feel like lords. Perhaps Ivor feels more powerful and a bit scarier than Romeo does, but he doesn't feel like a lord to Jesse.)

"The barrier's up, so we should all be safe for the night," he murmurs to them a second later.

Jesse glances back out the hollow, frowning at the moving figures below.

The moving, inhuman figures below.

"What... was that thing? Just now?" Jesse points out the hollow. "The one with purple eyes?"

Gill sucks in a brief breath, eye widening. He's not the only one with that reaction; Maya's head snaps up from where she's sitting against the wall next to him and Aiden briefly stops sharpening the blades on his whip to look up at them. "Shit, you saw an Enderman?"

"A- huh?"

Lukas crosses his arms. "When night in Cosmos falls," he begins to explain, "the world begins to emit negative energy, kinda like the stuff stuck within the dimension within the door. However, unlike the dimension within the door, Cosmos has plenty of things that the negative energy can merge with once it's concentrated enough, and once the negative energy merges with something, it creates a mindless but still dangerous creature of darkness."

Petra nods, leaning her hand on her cheek. "Thankfully, most cities have barriers of light magic from heavy enchantments and a lot of weird laws about magic that I don't understand even though Ivor's tried to explain them to me-"

Ivor gives a tired sigh at that, which makes Jesse giggle.

"- so they can't get in. But anything outside of any of the cities is fair game for the negative energy; a loose brick, a plant, an animal of some kind, even corpses that aren't buried properly."

Jesse's giggle has turned into politely repressing the urge to turn seventy shades of pale.

"Once they've merged, they create different types of monsters. Some are spiders the size of tables, some are these weird things called creepers that blow up when you get too close, some are zombies, and... some are Endermen, which are just a complete pain in the ass."

At Jesse's questioning tilt of the head, Gill elaborates. "They teleport and they start spazzing out if you make eye contact with them."

"Oh."

"You can try to kill them, and it'll dissipate, but it'll just reform shortly afterwards," Maya chimes in. "The only way to get rid of them is to purify them with light magic, but full demons can't use light magic, not without jumping through about sixty magical loopholes, and that takes way too long."

Ivor nods, jerking his head at the half-demons in the room. "Since those five are half-demons, they can use light magic. But they're not very good at it yet, since it's not like the demons can teach them, so the night is still fairly dangerous for them."

Aiden shrugs, making Jesse blink at him. "'Course there's a ton of other dangerous things out at night, like criminals that just don't give a damn about the monsters or even just the fact that's dark as hell and difficult to see, but that's the main threat."

Jesse thumbs the corner of their lip. "I see..."

He grunts in return, which causes the conversation to fall flat and a somewhat awkward silence to come across the room.

Jesse thinks about it, before looking at Lukas. "Did you say somethin' about magic needing setup earlier when you summoned the horse?"

Lukas, apparently not seeming comfortable with the silence either, jumps on the subject enthusiastically. "Yeah. Magic in Cosmos, depending on how much knowledge you have on it and how well you can handle it actually requires a lot of setup to harness. Some of the really huge spells even require extra components."

Jesse presses their lips together, pondering this. "I see... so you can do a lot of small illusion spells without chanting and bringing up that thing with all the words 'cause you know how to do those well?"

"Yeah; but in part that's because my aptitude for those spells are just higher as well."

Upon spotting Jesse's somewhat perplexed expression, and also being the magic expert in general, Ivor chimes in a bit gruffly. "Think of types of magic in Cosmos as living creatures. Some of those creatures will absolutely love you, and will bend easier to your will, determining your intuitive aptitude for it- the aptitude you have immediately without ever practicing. Others will be more difficult, and the larger ones will be harder to control."

Jesse's expression clears. "Ohhhhh."

The blonde half-demon gives a sheepish laugh. "Ahh, that's much easier to explain than what I was trying to say."

"Well, that's how I've come to think of it."

Ivor gives Jesse a wry smile a moment later. "I've worked with all different types of magic; enough to at least gain a rather high aptitude in all of them without necessarily having to have intuitive aptitude for that type. They get easier to control over time as well, hence why as your aptitude gets higher you don't have to do as much magical setup."

Reuben snuffles, butting his head into Jesse's stomach. The teenager giggles and rubs him on the head with their thumb. "That makes sense. Thanks for explainin' it to me, I don't think I would've gotten it otherwise."

"Of course." The demon lord gives Jesse another tiny quirk of a smile. "You don't have magic in your world, so it never hurts to explain what's going on."

Jesse bobs their head at him like a bobble-head doll. "Thank you."

He nods at them, and the room falls into silence again, except it doesn't feel as stiff as before.

Regardless, silence has always bothered Jesse (except it hasn't always bothered Jesse, has it, there used to be a time where they didn't mind it at all) and so they pull out the book of spells that Romeo gave them before they were about to leave.

Petra blinks when she sees it. "You have a Cosmos spellbook?"

Jesse bobs their head again. They really are beginning to feel like one of those creepy bobble-head dolls you stick on your car dashboard. "Yeah, Romeo gave it t'me just in case before we left the Underneath."

"Why'd he give you a spellbook? It's not like you can do magic."

Jesse tries not to shy away at Aiden's rather sharp tone. "Uh... he mostly said someone should have a basic spellbook on hand, in case somethin' went wrong."

"Oh yeah, he tried to offer it to me, too," Maya confirms after glancing at the cover of the book. "Honestly, I think he's been looking for someone to pawn the book off on; Ivor got him this limited-edition version that had some removed spells that I think he prefers."

Jesse shifts Reuben into their lap, leaning against the branches that make up the wall and still clutching the book tightly. "Oh... why were the spells removed?"

"They're technically forbidden spells."

Jesse blinks at Gill. In fact, most everyone's looking at Gill. He's not the magic expert. "Spells can be forbidden?"

Gill shrugs when he sees the gobsmacked looks most everyone's giving him. "Romeo was reading one time while he was training me and I asked. Ended up knowing more about the spells in that book than I ever needed to know."

"You mean you knew that they existed?" Maya asks him, in a mock-innocent voice.

Gill smacks her.

She promptly smacks him back, and the two of them get into a little slap-fight, with Aiden watching them in slight amusement.

Sensing that their question isn't going to be answered, Jesse opens the book, flipping to the table of contents and finding a huge slew of spells, categorized by difficulty, then type, then alphabetical order. It's actually a very organized volume, considering it's big enough that Jesse struggles to get it in and out of their inventory.

"Yes, some spells can be forbidden."

Jesse peeks up from the book's table of contents at Ivor, who is watching them read with faint interest. For a moment, they're unsure that he's spoken, but in the end they decide what the heck and decide to ask him to elaborate on it. "Why?"

"The spells that are forbidden... they could be used for good purposes, but they're not being used for good or constructive purposes," Ivor says, slowly. Jesse gets the feeling he's dumbing down a lot of things so that they understand what he's talking about. "So some of them are forbidden because of that."

"Some of them? What about the rest?"

Ivor frowns, considering the question, before looking back at Jesse. His red eyes make the dark blue pop even more, and Jesse feels a small chill go down their back at the look he is giving them.

"Well... some spells that are forbidden in Cosmos now are soul spells."

He predicts their question coming, and raises his fingers. "Many of the ancient demons in Cosmos wanted to keep their soul around so they could better keep Cosmos in relative order and assist the new lords. So, they used some very complicated, very difficult soul spells in order to keep their souls persisting after death."

Jesse blinks at him. "Oh... that sounds nice."

A pause as they consider his words.

Soul spells are forbidden now.

So the outcome was...

"... what happened?"

Ivor's shoulders drop slightly as the demon lord grimaces. "The thing is, the spell worked. It allowed their souls to persist after death... but not without a price."

A deal with the devil.

"Their souls, while retaining some semblance of the beings they once were... twisted, and changed to create a sort of spirit that's worse than the ones formed from negative energy."

Jesse's eyes grow rather large. "They're worse?!"

"Yes. At least the ones formed by negative energy are mindless. Those spirits that remain after the soul spells have been cast and the demons have passed still have their minds." The demon lord looks rather grim. "They're smart, they're ruthless, and they will do anything to get more souls into their realm in order to feed."

"... oh."

He relaxes a moment later, spotting the wide-eyed expression on Jesse's face and giving them a quirk of a smile. "Don't worry; most of them have been neutralized or at least can't harm other demons. And the soul spells have been wiped from many books, and being difficult to perform it doesn't particularly matter if anyone tries to cast it- it's just so exasperating to cast that most people would probably give up."

They fidget, running a hand over Reuben's back. "... that's- that's good."

"Yes." The demon lord shifts again, giving Jesse a strange look that makes Jesse feel like the demon lord's almost appreciating the attention, even as Lukas finally tugs Maya off of Gill in the background. "Well... do you have any more questions about Cosmos magic that you'd like to ask?"

Jesse looks at the table of contents, which spans four pages and has enough text crammed onto it that they have to hold the book an inch from their nose. Then back at Ivor.

If he's offering, then...

Jesse looks back at the big book again, before scooting closer and opening the pages a little more so that he can get a better look. "Mm... what's some of the more helpful spells in here?"

Ivor gives them a vague smile at the question, but leans over the book and takes a closer look. Only a few seconds passes before he reaches up and presses his finger to the page. "So, you're not going to be able to perform this magic, but healing spells are certainly going to be a caster's most important spell list in their repertoire..."


Petra can't help but stare.

Jesse is asleep, head resting on Ivor's lap from where they've been slowly listing over to look at the book while also getting progressively more and more sleepy (with even Reuben dozing off before Jesse does) before finally conking out and dropping their head onto his lap.

You'd expect the demon lord to shove Jesse off or even to shift them off to the side carefully so he can do other things. In fact, Petra probably would've gently shifted Jesse to the floor and found them a blanket or something.

Instead, he's got one hand resting on their shoulder while he absentmindedly swirls the other one in the air. Petra can vaguely make out Ivor tapping away and doing some work in midair using magic as visuals, but it's hard to see what he's actually doing.

Primarily because she's looking at the tiny human currently fast asleep while using his lap as a pillow.

Lukas glances at Jesse, completely zonked out, before looking back at Ivor. His eyebrow quirks above his blindfold. "You don't wanna move 'em or anything?"

Ivor shrugs, still focusing more on his work. "I'll do it later. I don't know how deeply they sleep."

"I don't actually think they sleep that deep. They get up a lot at night."

Everyone looks at Gill again.

Gill shrugs. "Their room is right next to ours at Romeo's place."

By which he means his and Maya's, if the way Maya's cheeks are slowly starting to flush a bright pink are any indication.

(Petra files that information away as leverage against Gill later.)

"They tend to get up at whatever time of night and then move around."

Ivor considers this for a moment, glancing down at the human sleeping rather soundly in his lap, before giving a nonchalant hum and returning to making markings in the air. "Well then, all the more reason to let them sleep."

"... you just really like the fact that they're interested in magic, huh?"

The demon lord gives another little shrug, being careful not to move around too much in fear of waking Jesse up. "Well, I don't dislike the fact that they're interested in magic despite being unable to cast it."

"Can't blame them. Magic is cool." Lukas straightens up a bit, regarding the tiny sleeping human in Ivor's lap. Their rather fluffy hair is dangling in their face.

Ivor brushes it out of the way automatically and almost gently. Besides a little twitch of their nose, they don't stir much.

Satisfied that they're not waking up, he looks up again, Petra keenly aware that everyone will have to go to sleep if they're going to make it back to the Underneath and hurry back to Champion City the next day without getting caught outside. His lips twitch up in a smile. "You're not wrong."

Lukas gives Ivor a thoughtful, almost confused frown, Petra noticing this out of the corner of her eye and diverting her attention from Maya currently arguing with Gill about not being noisy and waking Jesse up.

Ivor catches the look too, if the way he pauses and shifts slightly in thought is any indication.

After a moment of thought, he barely, barely gives Lukas the tiniest shake of his head.

She can't help but wonder what the heck that's about.

Chapter Text

Jesse blinks sleepily.

It's not morning yet, or at least not a decent time of day if the way the hollow is almost completely dark except for swimming gold light casting dramatic shadows on everything is any indication. They stare into the darkness for a minute, eyes slowly adjusting.

Lukas has his head resting on Aiden's shoulder, who has his arms crossed and his legs resting simply in front of him. Petra is lying facing the wall, choppy red hair splayed out behind her on the floor and gleaming in the golden light from the barrier. Maya is next to Gill, their shoulders gently pressing into each other's, although Maya's head is resting more against the wall while Gill's lolls forward slightly.

Ivor's nowhere to be seen, though- they scan the room a few times to be extra sure.

Jesse twists a little bit, now becoming aware of their head resting on someone or something with Reuben slumbering in their lap, snuffling happily. After some amount of shifting, they manage to turn their head and look up.

Red eyes with a ring of dark blue around the pupil stare back at them.

After a moment where Jesse's heart decides to go at the speed of a jackhammer and their eyes forcibly adjust, they realize that the demon lord is blinking at Jesse slightly, still silently looking at them.

A long, long silence passes as the two of them stare at each other, Jesse with their head still resting in his lap and Ivor looking at them patiently.

"What time's it?" Jesse whispers to him after a minute, trying to surreptitiously shift off his lap without him noticing and thinking that they didn't want to be there.

They did, it was surprisingly comfortable and it made them feel rather like being wrapped in a blanket, it was also just a literal demon lord that they were currently resting on and that was a bit awkward to say "Oh yeah, I was just using the lap of the oldest demon alive in Cosmos as well as him being a lord of an entire district as a pillow."

Ivor's irises flick away for a moment, before glancing back at Jesse. "Three in the morning," he whispers back.

"Oh."

Jesse shifts again, giving an inadvertent little shiver as some cold air comes gusting over them as they move and slowly sit up. Ivor keeps watching them the whole time, which does make them feel rather awkward. Well, more awkward than they already felt.

Then:

"Aren't you tired?"

Jesse blinks, looking back up at him. "Hm?"

He glances at the dark sky, before back at Jesse. His expression is vaguely perplexed. "It was nearly eleven by the time you fell asleep. Now it's three in the morning. You slept for four hours."

Jesse blinks at him again.

"... oh." A little pause. "'M not really sleepy."

The demon lord hums softly, shifting probably-sore legs from Jesse literally sleeping on them for about four hours. "Alright, that's fair. I don't sleep much at night, either."

Jesse nods with a little hum, shifting back into a sitting position next to Ivor. It's too dark to read (well... to read without killing Jesse's eyes), nobody else is awake so they don't want to turn on the lights, and Reuben is happily snuffling in their lap from where he's dreaming about who-knows-what. They give him a little rub.

The branches creak slightly as a breeze ghosts through the hollow's opening, making little chills and goosebumps pop up on Jesse's skin. They shiver slightly, reaching up and rubbing their goosebumps to try to make them go away.

When they don't, and, in fact, more wind gusts into the room, Jesse scoops Reuben up carefully and scoots closer to Ivor, trying to get a little more warmth. It's not like they have a jacket or a blanket with them.

He is quiet.

Jesse can't help but worry slightly, glancing over at him. Perhaps he finds that rather forward and thinks they're strange and odd and just plain weird.

(Perhaps they are.)

A long moment of awkward silence passes before Ivor quietly wraps an arm around Jesse and tugs him into his side gently. Perhaps to make them feel less awkward.

(He does seem to be nice that way.)

They end up staying that way, Jesse pressing up against Ivor's side slightly with his arm wrapped around their shoulders in a comforting way as the breeze continues ghosting through the room, until a small ray of sunshine peeks through the still-glowing barrier, lighting the inside of the hollow with a softer, more consistent glow and casting their long shadows across the floor.


It takes a while for everyone else to get up, even with Jesse carefully poking Maya, and Lukas waking up on his own with a stretch and a little yawn, and Aiden waking up after Jesse tentatively gets within five feet of him and hastily scampering away, and Gill just rolling over until Maya sits on him and he shoves her off with a good amount of swearing, and Petra waking up from the noise and chucking Miss Butter at the two, where it embeds itself in the wall about three inches from Maya's head-

When, in short, everyone's awake and stopped grumbling, Lukas picks Jesse and Reuben up easily, and the demons all leap down from the tree. Jesse has to close their eyes and not stare at the ground to avoid getting vertigo.

(Ivor, of course, is somehow already at the bottom without any of them noticing, and Jesse spends about five minutes wondering how that is the case.)

"Alright," Maya says briskly and rather cheerfully considering, "Let's head back to the Underneath."

Aiden gives an impatient sigh. "And then we'll waste another day, just like that."

Lukas, who is still holding Jesse, gives a shrug, making Jesse bounce slightly. (They're pretty sure Ivor's lips twitch at that, but his expression is very clear when they look at him.) "It can't be helped. We're just going to have to hurry."

Petra shrugs, glancing at Ivor. "Is there anything you need me to do? Since we're both in the same place and all."

"Considering my main task at the moment is searching for another lord, I don't think so." The demon lord thoughtfully raises his eyes to the sky, considering this a bit more. "I'll call you if there's anything I need."

The redheaded demon nods, crossing her arms. "Sure thing."

"Mmmnn. By the way, there's a messenger bird coming."

Maya tilts her head back, Lukas automatically setting Jesse down on the ground while Aiden squints, trying to avoid staring into a good amount of sunlight. Now that the clouds aren't smothering the sky, Jesse can see that the sun is a white blazing orb that seems to be tinted very faintly red at the edges.

Though that might just be the sky behind it.

"A messenger bird...?" Gill frowns, crossing his arms and tilting his head at it. "I wonder who sent it."

The bird descends, flapping huge red wings that gleam at the edges with golden plumage. Without thinking, Jesse sticks their arm out, the messenger bird hauling back to not basically slam full-force into Jesse's arm and alighting on it. It's surprisingly heavy, but they manage to keep their balance.

"Hey! How's it going for you four?"

Jesse almost drops their arm at the sound of Romeo's voice issuing from the bird, especially with Reuben letting out a loud squeal of surprise, but through a good amount of self-discipline, Jesse manages to not actually drop the messenger bird, whose mouth is moving quite freely.

"Ah, Romeo is a fan of Mimic birds," Lukas muses, seeming totally not-put-out by the fact that this bird is literally talking with Romeo's voice.

Aiden scowls at it, looking like he might want to punch the bird. "Yeah, well, I'm not a fan of hearing his voice even when we're nowhere near him."

"Ah, oops, it's five now with Jesse, isn't it?" Romeo- or, well, the bird- gives an awkward chuckle. "I assume you guys have already reached a different town by the time you get this message, but you guys are probably stuck outside 'cause I forgot to give you your ID cards. I would've been able to deliver them sooner, but I decided to make one for Jesse as well."

Jesse blinks in surprise at that.

"Oh! I'm also sending you guys a magic mirror. Contact me with the mirror once you guys receive it. I'll, um..." A slightly awkward laugh. "I'll be waiting."

The message apparently finished, the bird gives Jesse a rather friendly peck on the head, before giving a hefty flap of the wings and launching into the air.

Instantly, several things glow into existence before dropping, a mirror dropping out of midair with very little warning. It's only because Jesse's hands are out and their reflexes are the way they are that they are able to whip their hands forward and grab ahold of the mirror's frame before it crashes to the ground and shatters.

The ID cards, just being ID cards and not something that important or fragile, all clatter onto the floor, although one of them does bounce off of Jesse's head.

Aiden smirks slightly as he goes over to pick things up, scooping up the ID cards carefully while making sure not to bump into Jesse by accident. "I'll hold our ID cards. Jesse, you've got the mirror, can you hold onto it?"

"Hm? Oh. Sure." Jesse pauses, clutching the mirror tightly, before tilting their head at him. "Why me and not someone else, by the way?"

"Because if one of us holds onto it, Romeo will contact us every minute," Aiden replies, which makes Jesse hide a rather large smile at that. "Let's get into Champion City."

He gives Ivor another small bow. "Thank you very much for helping us with the tree last night."

The demon lord shrugs. "It's not a problem. If that's all you need for now, I'll take my leave. I need to continue my search."

Petra gives him a deep nod. "Call me if you need anything, Ivor."

"Of course." He looks down and gives Jesse a light little pat on the head, which makes them blink at him in a bemused way. "It was nice to meet you."

Before Jesse can even say "thank you" or "you too" the demon lord gives the October Children a nod. "You know where to find me if you need me."

Gill gives him a playful little salute, grinning. "You bet, Ivor."

A smile quirks across Ivor's face, before he's turning away and walking into-

Air.

Without any warning, the air swallows him up, the demon lord disappearing without a trace.

"C'mon, we need to get situated in Champion City and get some supplies. I have the feeling this is going to be a long trip," Aiden mutters, already walking back towards the gates while Jesse is looking around vigorously to see where he went. It looks a bit like they're doing neck exercises, actually.

"Wait, didn't Romeo say to call him with the mirror once we get the items?" Jesse calls after him, still holding the mirror tightly.

Maya shrugs, already following after him with a cheerful spring in her step. "Ah, he won't mind. C'mon, Jesse, let's go!"

"... you guys..." Jesse has a mix of a rather startled expression and a somewhat exasperated one on their face, which makes them look rather funny.

"We can't really get into Champion City without paying attention the whole way; the guards might try to ask questions and we have to be paying attention when we're talking to them," Lukas muses, before giving Jesse a small smile and a pat on the back. "Don't worry, we can call him when we get inside."

"... okay." And Jesse manages to slide the mirror into their inventory without much trouble.

Petra stretches, squinting ahead at the gates. "Huh, there's not that much distance from here to there..."

A short pause.

She gives Jesse a little grin, red eyes sparkling in the sunlight.

"Wanna race there?"


Champion City is intimidating.

Well, actually, no, it's very pretty.

But with a red sky as a backdrop, and the fact that it looks clean enough for Jesse to put a sandwich on the ground and then later pick it up and eat it (not that they would), they're a little cowed by how... sleek it looks.

Many of the buildings tower up at least sixty times their height, white with blueish glass windows and quirky building shapes that look almost futuristic and little embellishments that are made of gold. What isn't a sleek, white color is green or some kind of flower.

The roads are paved neatly, unlike the safe road outside, with lighter-colored, newer bricks, and the lawns are arranged in perfect squares or rectangles. Even the flowers look neat.

Thus, Jesse is somewhat terrified to even sneeze, cough, or make any motion that might disturb this very pretty city, even though they just ran like heck to the gates of the city, very narrowly losing to Petra. It makes sense, they really were just in it to have fun and not really do anything urgent.

They do very much like the llama statue that is up the second they walk in, though, it's very cute and they give it a grin as they pass by.

(They're pretty sure the statue beams back at them.)

"It's really pretty here," Jesse says meekly, making Petra and Lukas glance down at them. Maya's also slowed down as Aiden and Gill jokingly bicker about something like soda prices in front.

(Well, Lukas inclines his head downwards, but it's the same thing.)

"It is, isn't it? I really love this place. The entire district of Hizelk and the border cities are a lot more peaceful compared to other places around Cosmos," Maya hums happily, giving a little hop and a skip.

(She's really happy.)

"Fights don't really occur in Hizelk because the people are more interested in stuff like art and building. Actually, Yurin is redstone and machinery, Enchantra's magic, Narvid's fighting... all of the districts have their own things. Even Beacontown has a thing for defense and healing. Champion City's got this neat mix of fighting and art going on."

Jesse nods, noticing an official dueling stage where two demons are facing off. Interestingly, they don't have weapons. "Do they not use weapons to fight?"

"Oh no, they craft them. Holding a Hizelkian blade is just... man, they know their stuff when it comes to balance and design. Narvid's more efficient in killing," Maya says casually and rather brightly, making Jesse nod politely and resist turning a bit paler, "and Yurin's definitely more focused on using machinery to add a little extra-"

She makes a violent sort of motion that Jesse automatically ducks at, before continuing her monologue happily. "And man, Enchantra's weapons use magic to get some really neat effects, but Beacontown's weapons are more suited for defensive maneuvers and healing stuff. When fights take place in Hizelk or Enchantra, though, most of the people will use magic and spells rather than weapons. It's a lot less messy."

She notices Lukas giving her a slightly amused smile and tints pink, grinning at them. "Sorry, I just... I really love Hizelk. And Champion City's really, really awesome."

Petra grunts, making Jesse look over at the redhead. She's glowering at everything.

(One gardener, noticing her look, casually picks up his tools and moves away.)

"I hate it here."

Maya rolls her eyes and gently elbows Petra in the ribs. "Oh, don't be grumpy. You're just biased against the city."

"Yeah... the buildings are tall, but every single one of those apartments up there? They're all exactly the same. The top level ones are 'Diamond Class Apartments', but they're just a block wider."

Petra rubs the back of her neck, lip going between her teeth as she cuts off her rant to glance down at Jesse, who's blinking at her in confusion. "Stella's... strict about how things look here."

"Stella?"

"The baroness of Champion City." Lukas gives Petra a weird sort of grin. "Petra's... not that fond of her."

"Nope. Nope I am not." Petra crosses her arms, still walking, although Jesse can see a rather large scowl forming on her face now. "I don't like her at all."

"Aw, c'mon, give her a chance."

"Gave her one already. I didn't like what she was like."

"Give her another one."

"I don't like giving second chances, Lukas."

Jesse's so busy watching the two of them bicker teasingly back and forth that they almost miss the person with bright blue hair and purple eyes strolling past.

Wait, purple eyes?

Jesse's eyes follow them, noticing that a rather willowy figure with long blue locks and luminous violet eyes has ghosted past them. "... do all demons have primarily red eyes, or is that like... a genetic dominant trait?"

Lukas nods down at Jesse, having apparently spotted the person too. "For those with a human form, yes. What you just saw is a doll."

Jesse blinks at this.

Maya takes their bewildered silence to fill in. "Dolls in Cosmos can move because of magic. It can only carry out their master's commands, and has no will, soul, or emotions of its own."

She shifts and crosses her arms a moment later. "There's some myths that if an expert doll-maker creates a doll with strong feelings, or if someone can coax feelings and emotions out of a doll, they can gain souls of their own."

"I think it's bull; it's never happened before," Petra contributes rather lazily.

Lukas gives her a scolding sort of look; at least his lips turn down at the edges and he crosses his arms at her. "Well, doll-makers are really rare, anyway."

Jesse hums as they pass a shop window, a young woman sitting in it. Her eyes are glassy red, hair done up in a very pretty bun with a rose pinned in it and matching rose earrings. Her dress is elegant and deceptively simple, red vines curling up her arms prettily as her feet perch on the ground, seated on a chair. "'S that a doll too, then? Do you activate it or something before it can move?"

Maya takes a look at what Jesse's looking at for a moment. "Oh, no, that's a corpse."

"Oh, I s-"

Jesse abruptly stops walking, Lukas and Petra also being nice enough to come to a stop immediately while Maya trails ahead a step, stopping in front of them a moment later and turning around to see that Jesse's face has turned a very lovely shade of white, frozen in place as they blink a few times in what seems like bewilderment before cocking their head at her.

"I'm sorry, what?"

Chapter Text

Maya nods, giving a mild hum at the lady in the window. "Yep. The people of Hizelk turn corpses into works of art, since... the other option is letting them rot, and demon bodies take a long time to start deteriorating, unlike human bodies. It's not strange to see people trading corpses here."

Lukas decides to plow in before Jesse can go from pure white to pure green. "Don't worry; Sky City and the cities bordering Hizelk have made it illegal to just kill someone for their body."

"There are always lawbreakers, though," Maya points out, sort of derailing what Lukas is trying to do.

Jesse's even paler than before, which is honestly more impressive than anything else.

"You, Petra, Lukas and I should be careful here. We might get targeted," Maya says cheerfully, patting Jesse on the back.

They go even paler. They are somehow even whiter than they were before, which is really saying a lot.

Petra gives Maya a perplexed grin. "Me, no way. Have you seen all the tattoos and scars and shit all over me? Any corpse artist would shudder if they got their hands on me."

"Oh, well, in that case, Maya can relax. Nobody would be interested in her."

Jesse starts a bit as Gill and Aiden appear behind Maya, apparently having realized the others have dropped behind and coming back as Gill shoots Maya an evil grin.

"What was that?" Maya's eyes narrow at him in a glare. She doesn't let him repeat what he just said. "I don't want to hear that from you!"

And Maya proceeds to elbow him in the gut, making him grunt slightly as she digs her elbow into what's gotta be a rather sensitive spot.

Gill mock-glares at her, crossing his arms and staring her down with his uncovered eye. "Oh? And what are you trying to imply?"

Aiden rolls his eyes, ignoring the other two as they start bickering. "I'm thinking we should split up to maximize our time. One or two of us should start looking around the market for supplies or see if we can find an inn to stay at for the night, and the rest of us should go greet Stella, since it'd be rude not to."

"As much as I would love to volunteer to go look in the market," Petra mutters, which makes a grin flicker over Aiden's face, "I think she'd find it pretty rude that not all of us are there to greet her. We can just try to hurry afterwards."

The half-demon hums, pondering this for a moment... before apparently deciding she's right, because he sighs and grabs ahold of Maya and Gill, ignoring their bickering, and literally proceeds to start dragging them down the street. "C'mon. Stella holds her office hours in the courtyard."

Jesse pops after him, Petra reluctantly following. Lukas keeps pace with Jesse pretty easily, giving them a bemused sort of smile a moment later.

"You're like one of those really tiny dogs that humans have and then go for a walk with."

Jesse blinks up at him, Petra glancing over at the blonde half-demon as she stays rather stiff, arms crossed in an annoyed fashion. (Her face does soften at Jesse having to crane their neck back to make eye contact with him.) "Really?"

"Yeah, your walk is adorable."

Jesse gives him a rather startled look at that, which makes him chuckle and scoop them up, their legs flailing in a little kick momentarily until he gets them situated. "Also, you have fluffy hair."

"Oh man, yeah." Petra reaches over and ruffles Jesse's hair vigorously, almost flipping it into their face from how much she does it.

Jesse shrinks back in surprise, the two of them breaking down in giggles a moment later as Lukas shakes his head in amusement and uses his hand to rake Jesse's hair back into a somewhat vaguely neat version of their hair.

Aiden opens the door to the courtyard, Gill and Maya hastily cutting their bickering short and straightening their clothing so it doesn't look like Aiden dragged them for thirty feet (even though he really did). Lukas sets Jesse back down, giving their clothing a little swat. "Okay, just, um... be polite to Stella."

"Why wouldn't I be?" Jesse replies, blinking up at him.

He pats them on the head, making them blink again.

The courtyard has more (smaller) white structures in the center, a ring of white material around a small circle of grass with a raised podium area surrounded by the white structures. The moat ripples slightly in the breeze, water remaining blue despite the fact that the sky is... well, red, and the trees that are inside the courtyard are set up in perfectly spaced intervals.

Aiden scans the area, before humming and pointing. "There's Stella."

Jesse peeks through the crowd of people curiously, trying to make out who he's pointing at.

A second later, it becomes clear.

A young-looking woman has her hands folded in front of her as she listens to a citizen, a somehow-pleasant smirk on her face. Most of her blonde hair is on the left side of her face, sleek and shiny, while the other part is tucked behind her tanned ear. Her clothing is as crisp and neat as the rest of Champion City is; a pink shirt under a purple pinstripe suit jacket and suit skirt that hangs to her knees and contrasts very much against the typical black and red clothing. Her high heels aren't tall but still make her appear more slim and elegant than she already looks, red eyes fixated on the citizen she's speaking to as she tilts her head at him almost innocently a second later.

Right next to her is a llama that comes up to Stella's shoulder. She's got creamy white fur and blue eyes as she shuffles her hooves, the blue-and-purple scarf wrapped around her neck sort of matching Stella's scheme a little bit.

It's a very cute llama.

"Well, I'm afraid I can't help you too much at the moment." Stella pulls out a paper and hands it to him, tapping it in a few places.

"C'mon," Aiden mutters, making Jesse look up at him- and then he's walking into the crowd, shoving past people with an occasional gruff excuse me. Petra sighs and also moves into the crowd, all of them fitting into a single-file line and weaving through the crowd, though not very quickly.

This is mainly due to some of the other demons scowling at them and shoving them away or elbowing them back. Gill has to shove Maya down at one point to avoid some guy punching her in the face, glaring the demon down.

"I do see what your problem is, but I don't have much of a hand in that department," Stella's voice is clear as she continues speaking to the demon, although Jesse can no longer see her from the crowd surrounding them, "fill out this form and give it to the department on the top and they'll see what they can do."

Jesse makes it about two feet at about an inch every ten seconds before deciding that there's no way they're actually going to make it to the front before someone else gets her attention, not by shoving through the crowd in a single-file line that the crowd is also apparently trying to shove back.

They can't blame the other demons for doing it; they were there first anyway.

They glance around, almost falling backwards a moment later as Lukas trips backwards and almost body-slams them, before sliding sideways through a narrow gap in the crowd. Being the size they are, it's not very difficult.

There's enough small gaps in the crowd that they are able to gently edge their way through, sidling past a demon that's aggressively giving Aiden a shove, Aiden shoving the demon back and very nearly bowling the demon into Jesse.

In fact, if they didn't dive through another small opening in the nick of time, the demon would've squashed them.

They lose track of what Stella's saying as they duck through the crowd, occasionally having to tap someone on the shoulder and meekly ask them if they can squeeze past. Most shrug and sidle past, although one gets very aggressive for a second until they see Jesse blinking up at them from practically half his height and simply shifting aside.

If Jesse's heart was still in their chest, it'd be beating its way right back out from how many demons keep giving them second glances. Reuben gives a reassuring oink at their feet, making them give him a little smile.

"... I think that should be it. Alright?"

Jesse abruptly squeezes through another narrow gap and finds themself popping out in the very front of the crowd, blinking in surprise as the wave of black and red clothing abruptly fades to reveal Stella still pointing things out on the paper to the other demon, who's nodding frantically at everything.

The citizen nods vigorously, bowing deeply and very hastily before grabbing the paper and running away.

Stella inclines her head, still smirking in a way that looks somewhat polite, and turns back to face the crowd. "Next, please."

Nobody moves to step forward, surprisingly.

Jesse glances around to see several eyes are fixed on them, flickering to Stella and then back to them. Which makes sense, 'cause they're technically at the front of the crowd, but they did push their way there, and also, why are these demons acting more polite than the humans at home do?

The demon behind them nudges them forward a second later, when they just blink back at the other demons in slight confusion.

Which is a nice gesture, in theory, except Reuben happens to actually be by their feet and the nudge causes their foot to hook on Reuben and essentially slingshots them facefirst onto the floor.

... they make a sort of plopping noise upon doing so.

Reuben squeals when they don't even yelp (don't cry don't make a sound don't do it don't) and nudges the side of their head.

There's another snuffle, and Reuben snuffles the back of their head, oinking slightly as Jesse takes inventory of their body. Face? Probably bruised. Rest of their body? Unharmed.

Then there's a little bleat from right above their head.

Jesse starts to push themselves up, the snuffling backing away as they blink a bit. Reuben's in front of them now, oinking and gently poking them with his nose. A hair of high-heeled shoes dashes over, and before Jesse can get all the way up a set of hands is tugging them up to their feet. High heels transfer to suit skirt to the pink shirt under the pinstriped purple jacket.

The white llama, upon seeing that Jesse hasn't broken their nose or various other parts of their face, starts chewing on Jesse's sleeve.

"Lluna, sweetie, I think we've discussed this..." Stella sighs, giving Jesse a somewhat concerned expression. "Ah, are you alright, sweetie? You literally just-" She makes a rather sharp motion like flopping onto the ground with her arm. "And, ooh, you've got a bit of a bruise on your forehead forming."

Jesse proceeds to reach up and poke their forehead to test this.

Yep, that's a bruise.

"Don't... honey, don't poke that." And Stella tugs their hand away, giving them a look that says she's rather concerned about their sanity. Or their health in general. Or both.

"Jesse?! Holy crap, that's a massive bruise-" And Lukas is abruptly next to them both, lifting Jesse's chin up gently and wincing at said bruise. Thankfully, Jesse can't see it. "Damn. Uh, you should probably get a healing potion or a healing spell for that soon, then..."

The baroness blinks at him. "Lukas?"

He pauses, before glancing up at her and giving her a sheepish smile. "Uh... hey, Stella. We weren't expecting Jesse to, uh... faceplant." He turns his head at them, and Jesse gets the overwhelming feeling that he's playfully glaring at them. "Or to get to the front without us."

Stella blinks again, before a wry smile comes over her face. "Ahh, where's the rest of you? Didn't realize you got a new member. Been a pretty busy year for recruitment in Narvid?"

The blonde rubs the back of his head as the other four squeeze through the crowd. He almost looks sheepish. "Er, not... not exactly."

Aiden inclines his head politely upon drawing even with her. "Stella."

"Good day, October Children." Petra visibly winces as Stella says this just loud enough that the crowd behind catches this, a rumble of whispering rising into the air. "And hello to you too, Petra. I didn't expect you five to stop in for a visit."

She gives Jesse a small smile that seems a little at odds with the smirk she usually has on her face, voice lowering to a more conspiring tone. "Especially not with a little human like this." She glances back up at the group, arching one perfectly sculpted eyebrow at them, voice rising back to its original volume. "What business do you have here?"

Gill fiddles with his fingers, giving her a faintly awkward smile. (Maya seems to scowl a little at that.) "It's, uh... it's a bit complicated. You wouldn't mind if we explained later? Aiden's a bit impatient to get some supplies for what's ahead."

Stella arches her eyebrow again. "Are you on a mission, then?"

"Again... it's a bit complicated. We, um, we need someplace to stay for the night, since it's not a good idea to go traveling at night." Maya clears the scowl and smiles quite pleasantly at Stella. "Is there an inn or something that we could-"

"Oh, no, with such a cutie?" Stella gives Jesse a pat on the head, making them blink at her as she avoids bumping their forehead. "I sense a story. You have to stay in the manor for the night."

"Oh, that'd be too much trouble-"

Stella cuts Lukas off again, taking his hands and giving them a squeeze, smiling at him with a dazzling grin that actually makes Jesse relax a little bit. "Oh, no, sweetie. I insist."

Aiden gives her a slightly warmer smile. "Well... thank you, Stella. That really saves us a lot of money and time."

"'Course, hon." She releases Lukas's hands and folds them behind her, tilting her head and giving him a pleasant smile. "Would you like to hammer out the details now instead of later?"

"I think that's for the best," Lukas speaks up, making both of them look at him, "we do need to go shopping for more supplies, so getting everything out of the way will probably save more time in the long run."

Stella hums, thumbing the corner of her mouth. "Alright, sweetie, that makes sense..."

Jesse watches the three of them start talking for a minute until they spot the frown on Petra's face as she stares at Stella. They watch her stare at Stella for a minute, before giving their head a tiny tilt. "You don't seem to like Stella much."

"I don't," is Petra's rather short reply.

They hum, glancing back at Stella. The woman is now beaming at Lukas as she speaks, looking for all intents and purposes like a very pleasant person. "Why not?"

"She just- she thrives on physical touch and just... attention. Literally." Petra sends a discreet scowl in Stella's direction, she doesn't really notice since she's still working out the lodging details with Aiden and Lukas.

Jesse blinks. "How do you mean literally?"

The redheaded demon crosses her arms, her red eyes clouding over as her lip peels back in a distasteful expression in Stella's direction. Granted Jesse hasn't known Petra for that long, but they haven't seen the demon this disdainful towards anyone else so far.

"She's a succubus."

Chapter Text

Jesse glances back at the list Aiden scrawled out earlier for them.

His handwriting isn't very neat, but it's at least legible, unlike the two items Gill grabbed the pen from Aiden and slapped onto the paper. It's so crooked and messy and tilted that Jesse can hardly make any of it out, although they're pretty sure they said he wants more bullets.

Maybe.

Maybe it says something about fish.

They actually really can't tell.

"Um, Aiden says we gotta get some potion ingredients, in case we gotta brew our own healing potions and we're not near a town," Jesse says, having to squint at the list a moment later to actually read it.

"Gl- glistering melon, nether wart, fermented spider eyes, rabbit's feet, golden carrots, a pufferfish ghast tears, um, phantom membrane-" Jesse has no idea what most of these things are but dutifully lists them anyway.

Petra lets out a long groan before Jesse can finish reading off everything on the list. "Ugh, typical. He gave us all the stuff to haggle for."

Jesse blinks twice at her. They currently have a rather large bandage stuck on their forehead to cover up the deep bruise forming from basically slamming their face into the ground, the list clutched in their hands and a basket hanging on their arm with Reuben sitting in it and snuffling happily. "Haggling?"

"Yeah. The prices of all these potion ingredients are freaking sky high. Phantom membranes can go for up to ten gold." Petra rolls her eyes at the sky. "Looks like Aiden wants me to negotiate the price lower."

Jesse blinks again.

"One diamond is made up of two emeralds, one emerald is made up of twenty gold, one gold is made of 10 irons, and one iron is made up of five coppers," Lukas offers after realizing they probably don't know what the currency system in Cosmos is made of. "Beacontown is a little more willing to just go for trades and favors- like, 'we'll get you this in exchange for this' and so forth."

"Oh."

Petra sighs again, glancing at Jesse. "Well, great. Looks like we're going to be trying to negotiate most of the time while shopping."

"Well, you're not bad at it," Lukas offers, giving her a faintly amused smile at the annoyed expression on her face.

Petra rolls her eyes at him. "Yeah, but that doesn't mean I want to do it nonstop. Anyway, what else do we need to get?"

Jesse looks down at the list again. "Um, he said we also need to get ten healing potions, five lingering potions of anything, ten splash potions of harm and five of whatever else you guys see fit, some potatoes, some carrots, some apples, dragon's breath... and ten potions of speed and leaping each."

"That complete son of a bitch-"


"I'm sorry, but this potion is extremely difficult to make," the stallkeeper apologizes to Lukas, fingering the phantom membrane and making Lukas wince as it ripples- phantom membrane is, to put it simply, rather nasty-looking. "And these ingredients are the highest quality they can go for; any lower and I'd be losing money."

Petra gives the stallkeeper a frown, trying not to let her brow crease too much. "Really? You can only lower the price to seven irons?"

The stallkeeper gives another apologetic shrug.

Jesse pokes their head above the edge of the stall to look at the phantom membrane, which takes Petra by surprise since her elbow is about two inches from their head and she hastily shifts it out of the way to avoid clonking them on the bruise. "What's that?"

"Phantom membrane," Lukas replies instantly, turning to look down at them as they watch the stallkeeper pause in running his fingers repeatedly over the membrane, which flutters a little.

"What's that do in a potion?"

Petra pokes her tongue into her cheek, thinking this over. "Mm... if you fall off, like, a cliff or something, and you brew it with the right base, you'll fall a lot slower and thus take less damage."

"Ohh." Jesse tilts their head at it. "It looks gross."

"Yeah, uh, simply put the grosser it looks, the better-quality it is."

Lukas gives them a little shrug and a crooked smile when they shoot him the most confused look he's ever seen. "Yeah, it's a bit of a paradox. We don't know how to explain it. It's a mystery."

Jesse shoots him a somewhat wry smile at that. "The world may never know."

He pokes their cheek in response, making them giggle slightly.

The stallkeeper blinks at Jesse, before back up at Petra and Lukas. "... you have a human with you?"

Petra casually pushes Jesse back a step, regarding him coolly. This is probably partially because he's now staring at them and absentmindedly licking his lips. "Yeah. What's it to you?"

"It's just..." The demon leans closer, black hair falling into his eyes as he carefully regards Jesse, red eyes gleaming with interest. "I haven't seen an actual human in a long time."

The stallkeeper regards Jesse for a minute, before glancing up at Petra and Lukas again, almost with interest.

"... you're that October Child guy, right? And the August Girl?"

Lukas nods, looking down at the ghast tears that are resting on the counter next to the phantom membrane. Well, his head tilts down, but he scratches at a knife gouge on the stall as if he's uninterested. "Yeah."

The stallkeeper presses his lips together for a moment, regarding Jesse, who's blinking up at him, and then looking back at the two half demons. "If you guys are with a human, that must make 'em pretty important..."

Another moment of thought, before he tilts his head at them, a strange smirk sneaking across his lips. "How about we make a little deal? We're not Beacontowners, but... this does seem to be a special occasion, wouldn't you think?"

"What, you want to trade the human for the potion ingredients?" Petra drawls at him, sarcastically.

The stallkeeper perks up, eyes gleaming with a sudden interest. "That's an option?"

"No!"

The demon smirks at the fact that both Lukas and Petra chorused this rather loudly and somewhat angrily, enough to have Lukas's head snap back up abruptly, Jesse startledly shrinking back at the raised volume. "Don't worry, I wouldn't risk upsetting either of your lords. No, ah, the actual deal is... I'll give you the potion ingredients you asked for at one iron for each group."

"That is a good bargain." Petra raises her finger, narrowing her eyes at him. "What's the catch?"

The demon crosses his arms, leaning on the counter with a smirk. "The catch is that you've got to have the human brew one potion successfully; else it jumps back up to the regular price."

Jesse blinks at this catch as Lukas frowns. "They've never brewed a potion before."

"Then help them out; I never did say they had to brew it by themselves. But no potion," and the demon mimes a little sarcastic pout, "No deal."

Petra stares him down for a minute, before crossing her arms and glancing down at Jesse. "Well, that's up to you..."

Jesse blinks at her for a moment, momentarily not realizing that she's addressing them, before giving a little "oh!" and then turning to blink at the potion ingredients on the counter.

Then up at the stallkeeper.

"Do you need a specific type of potion? I can try brewin' whatever you'd like."


"I can't believe we managed to avoid paying an arm and a leg for all that," Petra mutters darkly as they leave a moment later, Jesse swatting redstone dust off of their hands.

"Well, we did have to use one of the golden carrots that we bought," Lukas mumbles.

Jesse blinks up at Petra and Lukas, trying not to drop the rather large backpack that they ended up having to stop at another stall to purchase because the potion ingredients were just too much for the basket and Jesse didn't want to drop them.

The backpack is green and they now look like a little turtle.

They're adorable.

"I didn't know brewing was so easy."

"Well, brewing established potions are easy. Making new potions or potions with specific effects can be a massive bitch to pull off, but Ivor's really good at it." Petra gives her head a shake. "He tried to teach me but stopped after he realized I didn't really have the head for it."

Lukas brightens a bit, giving Jesse's hair a little ruffle. "Hey, but that was really good for your first time. You're a natural."

They look at him, before ducking their head shyly. Petra can see the tiny smile forming on their face. "You were helpin'..."

"Yeah, but you really didn't need it that much." He gives their shoulder a squeeze, a smile forming on his lips. "That was really awesome. I'm excited to see if we can teach you more."

Petra can now see that their cheeks are a rather pretty rosy color, but as nice as it is, they do need to get on with the shopping, so she gives Jesse a quick pat on the head before putting a hand on her hip. "Well, we can teach 'em more after we shop for everything. What do we still need to get?"

Jesse checks the list again, still flushed a nice shade of pink as they squint at Aiden's handwriting. "The food and the potions." And they stand on their tiptoes to let Petra better see the list.

"Well, the food's easy," Petra hums after a second, "it's all cheap. That's good, I would've murdered Aiden if he made me haggle for every damn thing on the list."

Lukas gives the redhead a faintly scolding smile. "Don't exaggerate, Petra, you're going to scare Jesse."

"Who said I was exaggerating?"

The blonde half-demon clears his throat, his smile now a bit forced, and starts steering Jesse down the street. "Well! I think it's time we move to the next thing on the list. Jesse, do you want the food first or the potions?"

"I don't really mind..."

Petra rolls her eyes as the half-demon proceeds to ask Jesse about fifty questions about the shopping to take their mind off of her nonchalant comment and trails behind, watching Reuben snigger happily near Jesse's feet as the human bewilderedly answers his questions.


Petra checks the time after a while. "Huh, we've still got about twenty minutes before we have to meet back up with Aiden, Maya, and Gill."

She lifts her head and gives Jesse a little grin. "Which means we can get you at least one extra set of clothes."

Jesse immediately pops their hands up and flails them a little, shaking their head. "Oh, no, you don't have to-"

"Nah, if we ever do laundry we can't have you just wearing your footie pajamas. I mean, imagine if we're out in public." Lukas gives them a little grin as they turn rather pink at the prospect. "Plus, your clothes do look kind of big on you. Most demons aren't as small as you- no offense," he adds quickly.

"None taken, I'm tiny."

Petra stoops down to rub Reuben's head and hide the grin that spreads across her face at that comment.

"Uh... well, yeah, but we can probably find you something that fits decently in the shop. Plus, if we get you a jacket or something, you can blend in with most demons a bit more. Your clothes are a bit..."

"Colorful?" Petra chimes in, grinning at Lukas.

"... I was going to say bright, but yeah, that works. Compared to what most demons or half-demons wear, uh," Lukas glances at their overalls and the brightly-colored shirt underneath, "yeah, you're practically a literal ray of sunshine."

Jesse nods, taking this in. "Okay... so get me a jacket, a shirt, and some pants, basically?"

"Yeah. Man, I kinda wish Maya came along, I'm no good with clothes." Petra shifts back into a standing position, hand on her hip as she regards Jesse. "Least it's just going to be a simple three articles of clothing."

"Don't ever say that in front of Maya; it's going to take twelve hours to get said three articles of clothing," Lukas teases back, grinning at her before looking at Jesse. "... hm, should just get a black jacket, a red shirt, and some dark pants. It'll do wonders for blending in, and you can put the jacket on over your old clothing, too."

Jesse bobs their head as Petra nods as well, before glancing at the clothing store nearby.

There's a long pause before she looks over at Jesse. "Jesse, you go and pick what you want."

Lukas gives her a long look, the blindfold hiding most of his expression except for the fact that his lips are in a straight line. "... the clothing store is not going to eat you alive."

She swats him.

Jesse giggles at the exchange before ducking inside the store, Reuben galloping behind them and slowing to a trot as they start poking through several racks of clothing.

Since they're only buying three articles of clothing and they don't really care about the design or the fit (since they can tell from a glance that most everything is going to be gigantic on them if they get anything larger than an extra-small and even that's a bit baggy), they just grab the first thing they like and is available in an extra-small (which is nearly everything, somewhat unsurprisingly).

They do find a nice fuzzy black jacket, though.

They like fuzzy things.

After finding a red shirt that looks plain and not like someone has run it through a blender and some pants that are just as nice and plain, they scoop everything up and head to where a demon with a nose ring and about thirty piercings is at the counter, some other demon already standing in line and chatting to the cashier. Being shy, they don't really want to bother the cashier, so they stand in line and wait, still holding their clothing.

About what feels like three minutes of waiting later, they become aware that something is tugging their hair slightly, although not enough for it to be really painful. In trying to turn around to look at it, the tug abruptly becomes painful, so they give up and peek into a nearby mirror.

Right behind them is a small white llama happily chewing on their hair, scarf hanging around her neck.

"Oh! I'm sorry, sweetie." Stella tugs the llama (Lluna? Jesse's not really sure) a few steps away from Jesse to avoid having a llama chew on their hair, giving them an apologetic smile. "Are you buying clothing along with your supplies, then? I was just stopping in to check something."

Jesse nods, holding the black fuzzy jacket they found to their chest, along with the red t-shirt and slightly overlarge dark blue jeans.

(And an extra belt. There's no way they're going to be able to wear these pants without a belt.)

"Yeah, I'm just waitin' for the cashier." Jesse points at the demon in front of her, who is still chatting away with the one in the first place in line.

Stella hums, thumbing the corner of her mouth as she glances at the cashier, before rolling her eyes. "Sweetie, they're just socializing."

Jesse glances back at the counter. Now that they're listening more closely, they can hear the cashier talking about some machine in Yurin that sounds remarkably like a computer to Jesse. Their cheeks pink.

"Oh."

Stella regards the demon ahead of them, before giving Jesse a pleasant smile. "You know what, sweetheart? I'll handle it."

"Oh, no, you don't have t-" Too late. Stella's already breezing up to the counter, humming something sweetly to the demon behind the counter, who looks vaguely annoyed at being interrupted for a minute before her scowl softens.

Stella wraps an arm around her loosely, tugging her into a loose hug and giving the demon a coy smile before leaning forward and murmuring softly into her ear, softly enough that Jesse can't catch any of it.

The cashier gives a huff of laughter, cheeks pinking as a huge smile spreads over her face, before beckoning Jesse forward and taking the items, ringing them up as Stella keeps chatting with the cashier idly, something about "how's your day going, sweetheart?" and complimenting the one that the cashier was talking to, that demon shuffling his feet sheepishly and blushing at the comment.

"That'll, um," the cashier gives a giggle, offsetting the appearance of the piercings and tattoos quite effectively as she glances down at Jesse. "That'll be four iron."

Jesse fishes four iron that Lukas handed them for change and quickly press it into her hands, where she then puts it away, folds the clothing up quickly with Stella still wrapped around her in a hug, and hands them to Jesse. "Thank you for shopping here."

Stella gives a sweet laugh and presses a little kiss to the demon's cheek, which makes them flush an even brighter pink. "Alright, I'll be back later. Alright, sweetie?"

Jesse would probably watch this exchange more, except Lluna decides now is a good idea to butt her head into Jesse's stomach and steer them around to the front of the store.

They're nearly at the door when Stella catches up, giving Jesse a breathtaking grin. "Well! That was easy. I thought I was going to have to bribe her with more."

Jesse can spot Lukas and Petra talking ahead as they exit the store, but they give her a grateful little smile. "Thank... thank you. I didn't realize your girlfriend was the cashier," Jesse timidly hums, holding their new clothes to their chest in a little hug.

"Oh, that wasn't my girlfriend. I've never met her before," Stella says cheerfully, before nodding in Lukas and Petra's direction. "I have to go check on something else before tonight; would you mind letting Lukas and Petra know I said hello?"

They look back to see Lukas waving and beckoning Jesse with a smile, while Petra develops an interest in the ground. "I think they saw you."

Stella glances back. "Ah. So they have." She waves back cheerily before giving Jesse another smile and a little pat on the head. This makes Jesse blink owlishly up at her. "Well, I'll see you later tonight, sweetie."

Jesse bobs their head. "Okay. Have a good time with whatever you're checking on."

Stella gives a sigh, still smiling cheerily. "Rather unlikely, but thank you." And off she goes, in high heels that Jesse would immediately faceplant in with Lluna clopping along next to her.

"Was she in the store with you?" Petra asks, scowling as Jesse draws even with the two half-demons.

Lukas gives her a rather unimpressed look. "Yes, as Petra said, hello, Jesse."

Petra gives him a playful smack as Jesse gives a sheepish little smile. "Yeah, she helped me get my stuff purchased." They lift the bundle of clothes carefully.

"Ugh. I hate her guts."

Well, at least Petra's honest about it.

"Well, fun fact about Stella," Lukas mumbles to Jesse amusedly as Petra glares at a nearby wall, "she's the only baron in Cosmos who's a succubus. She's the first baron in Cosmos ever to be a succubus ever, actually."

Jesse's eyes widen. "Really? That's... that's really impressive."

"I have no idea how the world decided she was a good choice." Petra scowls at the floor. "She fucking flirts with everyone and is all touchy-feely with every demon she meets and she never takes anything seriously. She's an arrogant airhead who I absolutely abhor with every atom in my being."

"Hey, that was kind of alliteration."

Petra smacks Lukas again.

Chapter Text

Meeting up with the others takes much longer than Jesse expected.

In fact, it doesn't even happen.

Actually finding the meeting spot isn't the difficult thing, although Jesse catches a glimpse of several rather pretty flowers on the way to the meeting spot. They would buy some seeds for Aiden, but they don't know if there're any flowers he particularly likes, so they just leave it.

By the time they get there, the sun is already casting slightly longer shadows across the ground, but none of them mind, especially since Aiden, Maya, and Gill aren't quite there yet, so it's not as if they kept the others waiting.

They just sit down on a bench, Petra quickly tugging the jacket onto Jesse and almost smothering them with it at one point since she is keeping an eye on every demon that happens to pass by and doesn't notice where she was moving her hands.

She apologizes furiously upon realizing her mistake.

After a while, Lukas ceases putting away a magic-summoned visual illusion clock that he keeps checking every five minutes, allowing Jesse to watch the minute hand steadily tick past five minutes, then ten, then twenty, then two hours.

The blindfold, of course, hides his expression for the most part.

But Jesse can tell he's getting worried.

By the time the sun is touching the horizon, Petra and Lukas have started quietly talking while Jesse fondles Reuben's ears and the pig oinks happily in their lap, butting his nose against their arms while also glancing at Petra and Lukas periodically. They can catch different phrases and comments, but without context they sound scarier than they probably are.

... causing trouble...

... tight situation, maybe?...

... do you think maybe...?

After the sun has descended halfway past the horizon and the streetlights start coming on, Petra taps Jesse on the shoulder, giving them a light smile that Jesse can still feel the tense anxiety in.

"Hey, Jesse, uh... we're thinking about leaving you at Stella's place and let you get set up while we go check and make sure Gill and Aiden didn't get drunk or something. Wouldn't be the first time."

They don't tell her they can read the lie in her voice.

They don't tell her they can tell that she isn't being entirely truthful, they can tell that she just wants to make sure they're in safer hands than just bringing them along in the search, that they're going to be a nuisance and a bother and a distraction if they come along while they are searching for the other half-demons.

They don't tell her that they are worried too.

They just give her a bright smile and a nod.

"Okay."


Jesse's sort of glad they found that pair of footie pajamas in the dresser back at the castle in the Underneath. They're really nice for keeping drafts out and making them not feel cold, even if it does make them look tiny.

(Which it does.)

The manor that Stella lives in is (unsurprisingly) somewhat minimalistic, being constructed of white material (quartz?) on the outside and birch and acacia wood on the inside, pretty white flowers with black leaves that Jesse doesn't recognize sitting in pots periodically along the hallway.

Honestly, they'd be happy to look around, except they're worried about the other October Children (they're not kids, that's such an awkward name) and they're not sure how comfortable they are walking around someone else's house with only the owner of the house there, so they just give Stella a cheerful 'night' and head to bed.

So now here they are. Wrapped in a blanket with the lights off and staring at the city lights leaking through the curtains in their room.

Worrying.

A knock on the door, so quiet that if Jesse was asleep they'd never catch it and just keep slumbering. As it is, they almost think they're imagining things for a moment.

Until it comes again.

"Hello?" they call back to the door, Reuben oinking in surprise at the sudden sound from Jesse.

There is a long, long, poignant pause where Jesse's looking at the door and still trying to figure out if they're imagining things, and they've decided it's just their imagination when a voice leaks through.

"May I come in?"

Jesse blinks at the sound of Stella's voice, muffled by the fact that there's a door barring the way between the two of them. "Stella?"

The succubus is quiet for a moment.

Jesse realizes they never answered her question and flail around in the blankets in an attempt to disentangle themselves. "U-uh, yeah. Yeah, you can- you can come in- hang on-"

The door ekes open from the other side, Jesse pausing while tilting halfway out of the bed before plopping to the floor altogether.

Stella gives a soft, vaguely exasperated hum, and Jesse is abruptly being picked up and pushed back into the blankets, the blonde succubus looking faintly amused in the darkness of the room. "You just love falling everywhere, don't you, sweetie."

Jesse's not quite sure how to answer that, so they just give a noncommittal hum. "Are Lukas and Petra back yet? Did they find the others?"

The succubus gives her head a shake, which makes Jesse's heart sink a little bit. "I'm sorry, sweetie, I didn't come in here because of that. They're still out looking for the other October Children."

"Oh." Jesse slumps a bit in the bed, blinking at her. "Well... uh... what are you doing in here, then? It's..."

Jesse automatically looks around for a clock. Stella watches them in slight amusement as they search the room, scanning the darkness as if a clock will randomly start glowing, before helpfully adding, "It's 2 in the morning."

"Oh." Jesse pauses. "What're you doing in here at two in the morning, then?"

Stella is silent for a moment, regarding them with red eyes. Jesse blinks back at her rather blankly, feeling their cheeks pink slightly from the attention. They're about to ask again when-

"Can we cuddle?"

Jesse nearly bangs their back into the headboard at the sudden and rather bluntly asked question, blinking at Stella confusedly. "What?"

"Can we cuddle? Snuggle. Hug." Stella shifts, frowning slightly. "Don't think there's more synonyms for it."

The human blinks at her, twisting their fingers absentmindedly as they consider the offer. "Oh."

Well, she was nice enough to let them all stay in her house, and she was kind enough to come in and check on Jesse, and it was just cuddling, it was only a little favor...

It was fine.

"Sure."

Stella's lips part in a strange smile, her head cocking to the side as her red eyes gleam with interest. "Really?"

"Uh-huh..." Jesse hugs the blanket closer to their chest, giving her a little smile. "We can cuddle."

"Alright. Scoot over."

Jesse obediently nudges themselves to their right as they sink back onto the pillows, allowing Stella to clamber onto the bed while Reuben crawls to their feet. It creaks under her weight slightly, her weight being just enough to make Jesse roll slightly back to their left until their shoulders are touching.

Instantly, Stella's hand snakes up their side and pulls them closer, leaving a tingling sensation along Jesse's side until they abruptly find their head buried in her shoulder, their stomachs practically pressing together as she pulls them flush against her body, tangling a hand in their hair as if they're hers.

Jesse's breath catches in surprise at the aggressiveness of the cuddle, but Stella's already resting their chin on their shoulder and pressing her cheek to theirs, fingers tracing up their side and making tingles spread from the spot, over and over and over.

Too close.

Stella hums, voice lowered to a seductive purr as she traces patterns and lines and curves up their side from where they're practically pressing up against her.

They can feel a lock of her hair curled on her shoulder and hear her heartbeat and feel warm skin right up against theirs, mouths and noses close enough that any inhale is her inhale and her exhale is their exhale, breathing mixing together until Jesse can't tell whose is whose and the room feels like it's spinning.

Too intimate.

Jesse tries not to pull away, but they can't help but tense up as she gives a little husky hum, hand still tracing patterns over their pajamas and making little shivers come up their back.

Succubus.

Stella's a succubus.

They don't know why that just now comes into their head.

Trace down their back, tugging at their collar briefly, almost pulling it down slightly, catching briefly on their back, a little light hum sounding from deep in her throat.

Too much.

"Stop! Stop, stop, I-" Jesse chokes out, squeezing their eyes shut tightly so that they see nothing but darkness and feeling tears beginning to leak out of the corners of their eyes. "I don't want to do this anymore!"

They expect Stella to snap that she doesn't care, or purr into their ear that it doesn't matter, aren't they having fun (no), aren't they enjoying this (no no no), don't they want to keep going (no no no please no)

What they don't expect is for the tight grip on them to loosen abruptly before vanishing entirely, leaving their cheek feeling cold all of a sudden, a soft click sounding a moment later and warm light making the inside of their eyelids appear dimly red.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you that uncomfortable."

Jesse shifts around to peek around at Stella, cautiously opening their eyes.

Stella's seated a little further away from them, one arm resting on the bedside table with the redstone lamp on it. Her brow is furrowed with worry and apology as she regards them, loose t-shirt still hanging off of one shoulder. Her hair, somehow, still looks nearly perfect.

"Are you alright?"

Jesse gives a tiny shiver, slowly shifting so that they're also shifting, trembling back resting against the headboard, Stella's red eyes following them worriedly. "I-I'm okay."

The baroness barely relaxes, still frowning worriedly at Jesse. "Sweetheart, you're trembling like a leaf." She taps the corner of her lip, brow furrowing even more. "Are you not comfortable with that sort of thing?"

"... n... not that much..." Jesse's still a little stiff, hands twitching as Reuben noses his way over, oinking in concern. They pull him into their lap, pressing their hands to his head gently as the pig oinks and nuzzles their hands.

Stella winces. "Ah, I'm sorry. I've been doing my best to keep feeding myself regularly, but it gets a bit difficult to do when I only go on inspections and such every once a week."

"... feeding yourself...?" Jesse frowns. "Wait, so... you have sex with people once a week?"

The baroness chokes for a moment, red eyes going from confusion to shock to understanding, before she gives a rather sweet laugh. "Oh, no, no, honey, uh, there'd be a problem with that."

She pauses.

"There would be several problems with that."

Jesse blinks at her. "But you're a succubus-"

"Sweetie, yes, I am a succubus... but not the kind you're thinking of." At Jesse's confused expression, Stella elaborates. "Most succubi are what humans typically think of when they think of succubi- a demon that feeds off of sexual attraction and energy. However, I've got a recessive gene or... something, that makes me able to feed on all types of love, rather than just sexual love."

Jesse blinks again.

"Familial love, romantic love, just... any love in general." Stella presses a hand to her collarbone. "I can feed off of all types of love, rather than limiting myself to just sexual love."

She pauses, before a tiny smile crosses her face. "Which is helpful, as I am demisexual." She doesn't wait for Jesse to look confused and explains it anyway. "I basically don't feel sexual attraction unless I have a strong emotional attachment with that person. I don't like having sex with people I don't know well."

Jesse can feel their shoulders untense slightly, despite the fact that their hands are still trembling. "You don't?"

"No. I tend to go for smaller things that aren't as filling, like kissing... flirting... sometimes considering someone family, but I only really have that rapport with Lluna," Stella muses.

They blink again.

(They tend to blink a lot in response to things.)

"Why don't you try to fill yourself up? If you can take any type of love, then why don't you just eat until you're full?" Jesse pauses, before giving her a tiny, shaky smile. "Uh, with permission."

Stella seems rather received about the smile, even if it is trembly.

"Well... you see, there are a few succubi and incubi like me- they can take in any type of love and not just sexual energy. But, ah, being able to take in all that energy can lead to... taking too much. It's- hm." Stella huffs, looking down at the blanket on the bed and tracing an absentminded pattern on it.

A moment later, she looks back at Jesse. "Alright. Think of it this way. Humans have apple trees, right?"

At Jesse's nod, she continues. "Imagine what you usually do when you want food from the tree- you just pick the apples. This way the apples can grow back later, although it takes a while, and you can walk around and pick as many from as many trees. Right?"

"Right..."

"What succubi that can feed on any type of love do, is that to get the apples, they cut down the entire tree. They take too much, so now while they have, in the short term, a huge food supply, they've lost a future one."

Stella spreads her hands. "They simply take the ability to love from the person and break them beyond repair."

Jesse's eyes widen. "... oh."

"Yes... hence why I tend to avoid feeding so much on people. It's very easy to get carried away, even once one's full." Stella shifts in the bed, tracing the pattern on the bed. "For the most part, I just do some small flirting here and there, or the occasional kissing session, or so on so forth, until I'm satisfied enough to at least not be starving."

"Oh." Jesse considers this, tilting their head. Their hands are still trembling, but it's significantly less so than before. "Is that why Petra doesn't like you? 'Cause you flirt with lots of people?"

"Well, no," Stella cuts herself off, brow furrowing as she ponders the answer to Jesse's question, her expression changing with every thought that arrives.

A minute ticks by. Then two.

Finally, the blonde succubus looks back at Jesse, her expression looking a little apologetically wary.

"Petra may not like me because I had nonconsensual sex with her."

Jesse blinks once at the rather blunt statement.

Then twice.

"What?"

Stella flails her hands at the way Jesse's face drains of color, her own expression becoming even warier. "I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to, I swear! What happened was... it was... completely my fault. And I'd apologize for it a thousand times over if Petra so much as was willing to enter the same room alone with me, and it was the first time I've slipped in a long time-"

"Slipped?"

Jesse's trembling again. Reuben noses his way into Jesse's arms more snugly.

Stella takes a deep breath, putting her hands up carefully in surrender. Her expression is now incredibly wary.

She looks as if she's afraid of shattering them.

"Alright. So, I explained how I feed on any type of love, yes?"

Jesse gives a little nod. "Yes..."

"Okay. Now, while normal food does have some effect, it's a very short-term effect, and it's a band-aid on the situation. It doesn't do much to really fix it, but it does keep me from starving to death in a short amount of time, although I eventually have to feed again if I want to stay alive. Occasionally, the need for food will take over, and I will end up doing something incredibly out-of-character."

Jesse's listening. Pale and slightly frightened, but they are listening.

"I have only done so twice in my life. This was the second time. Both times were equally mortifying. Now, if you've been around many incubi or succubi- which you probably haven't- you'll have learned to recognize this effect that succubi naturally emit. They tend to have a sort of mild hypnotic effect, which will make whoever they're speaking to or near much more pliable to any actions that the succubus might take. This effect gets progressively stronger as the succubus gets hungrier."

Jesse thinks they know where this is going, but they listen anyway.

"Now that you have the background information, let me explain what happened. Because of a particularly nasty duel we had in Champion City, I ended up having to do quite a lot of paperwork for two weeks. This meant I was unable to feed at all for the next two weeks, especially because Lluna went wandering off somewhere."

She foresees their question. "Lluna tends to wander around Champion City every once in a while. She smells treasure and... that means she gets sidetracked. Anyhow, I was unable to feed, and was getting progressively hungrier."

Stella gives a long, slow sigh. "And then Petra came in. And it was different, because I was literally starving. I needed to feed at that point. The actual food I was eating was doing little to nothing to keep me from taking everything from someone. And... well, at that point, the charm I emitted was strong to the point where I could've told her to off herself, and she would've done it."

Jesse goes a little paler.

"But I didn't. I didn't do that, because that isn't what I needed. I needed love. And the quickest way to get love is..." Stella pauses, before giving Jesse a little humorless smile. "Well, there's a reason that even the rare succubi are known as demons who lust after sexual energy."

"She agreed. I asked her if she could, and she bent easily and incredibly quickly to it. And I was... fine, afterwards. I didn't fill up all the way, because..." Stella pauses, a look of intense shame coming over her features. "After the immediate need was satisfied, I realized what I'd just done."

The baroness gives a long breath. "And after the charm wore off, she realized too."

Stella glances at Jesse, who's still rather pale. "It was a bad decision on my part. Actually, never mind that, it was a terrible decision on my part. And if I could... I would've found some way to find something to feed on before it would've happened that way."

A rueful smile creeps across her features. "Hindsight is 20-20, as I believe a human saying goes."

"... I see..."

"I'd apologize- I did apologize. But at this point..." Stella gives a regretful shrug. "I don't think she'd believe me. And she'd have every right not to."

She looks back at Jesse, red meeting big green ones. "I won't say that what I did was wrong, because it was. And I won't say that you shouldn't be worried. Because you should be worried about everyone you meet here, considering we're all demons. But I will say that that is not something I would do under any circumstance, and that shouldn't have ever reached that point."

"... okay." Jesse leans the side of their head into her shoulder, ignoring the way she tenses in surprise. "... you won't do it again?"

Stella pauses.

Then looks back at Jesse.

"I am not certain I can say that. But I am certain that I can try my hardest to not allow something as stupid as that to take place again."

The tiny seventeen-year-old lets out a brief breath, edging closer and clutching her t-shirt sleeve tightly with trembling fingers. Reuben remains in their lap, snuffling quietly and giving Stella a wary look. "Okay. If you say that you'll try your best not to, I believe you."

Stella's eyes flicker to them.

"I don't know you very well. But I don't think you're a bad person." Jesse gives her a small smile as they look up at her. "Even if Petra won't let you, though, I think it's worth apologizing again. Or at least show her that you're really sorry."

Slowly, the baroness lets her head slowly tilt until she is resting her cheek on their head.

"... I would be happy to apologize to her."

They want to believe the best of people.

They want to think the best of people, and trust them, and care about them. It's in their nature, just like it's in Stella's nature to have a hypnotic effect around her.

But perhaps that's part of the problem.


Petra's arms are crossed as she rests her head on the wall, listening to the silence through the open-by-a-crack door.

"Petra?"

Her head twists around to see Aiden, rubbing the ice pack that he's holding to his neck along the large bruise. Red eye blinks a few times as he glances at the room, before back at the redheaded half-demon.

"They're asleep?"

Petra shrugs. "I don't really know if they're asleep, but I don't think we should bother them. They'll see you guys are okay in the morning."

And she doesn't want to go into the room with Stella there.

Aiden hums, rubbing the bruise and repressing a small wince. "Hm. True."

Lukas rounds the corner, lips tilting down in a frown at Aiden. "Aiden, be more careful, you're going to spill the ice everywhere... you're lucky you guys just got bruised up."

"You should see the other guy," Aiden replies tartly and quietly, which makes Lukas snort slightly before glancing at Petra.

"Is Jesse asleep?"

The redhead shrugs again. "I think they're either asleep or talking to Stella, but they haven't talked for much, so I'm not really sure."

Aiden rubs his bruise again, wincing. "Oh. You being a creeper and listening in on the entire conversation again?"

Petra huffs and marches over, smacking him right on the bruise. This, of course, makes Aiden hiss angrily and clap a hand to his bruise, red eye flashing at her as he half-mock-glares at her. "Fuck you, you dick. Of course not. I just heard a little bit of it."

And perhaps it's because Lukas is preoccupied with scolding Aiden and Maya and Gill (who has a rather large cut on his shoulder from a bottle and Maya is currently stabbing it with a cotton ball and some very strong alcohol that Petra personally thinks tastes great and Lukas thinks it could strip paint) like a mother hen, but he doesn't catch her out on her fib.

No.

No, she didn't just hear a little bit.

She heard Stella's whole confession.

And it's not acceptable. It's not something Petra can just forgive and forget. What Stella did isn't something that Petra can just go "oh no worries" and let go.

And from the way that Petra can hear Jesse shaking and trembling through the door, Jesse doesn't feel that way either.

But Jesse seems to be willing to at least forgive, if not forget.

Perhaps that's worth considering.

Chapter Text

Jesse doesn't really remember falling asleep.

They sort of vaguely remember leaning their head tentatively on Stella's shoulder for a long while, and then they abruptly wake up with their face pressed to the pillow and Reuben snuffling in his sleep in their arms.

So that's a thing that Jesse wakes up with, blinking blearily and being incredibly disoriented about everything.

After a while of trying to decide what to wear, they put their overalls on over their new red shirt and tug on the fuzzy black jacket, padding through the hallways in their socks (Stella made them take off their shoes the second they walked into the house the night before, and they can't blame her because look at this floor) until they manage to find the kitchen.

Their face practically lights up at the fact that they see Aiden at the counter, despite the fact that he's holding an ice pack to his neck and... well... it's Aiden.

"You guys are back!"

Aiden jumps, banging his knees into the counter with a swear and almost fumbling the ice pack as he spins around on the chair to see them, long enough for Jesse to spot the deep purple bruise at the base of his neck before he claps the ice pack back to it.

"Oh. Hi." He rubs a hand down his face, looking vaguely irritated and tired- Jesse can see some bags under his eyes. "Uh... morning. You're up early."

"Mmhm." Jesse treads closer, regarding the area that he's holding the ice pack to with slight concern. "What happened yesterday? We got really worried."

"Bar fight." Aiden winces as he presses the ice pack a little too deep into the bruise. "We got all the stuff on our list, so we decided we wanted to see if there was more info floating around about the issue or even the party, but then some demon got a little too handsy with Maya and... well, things went downhill from there."

"Oh." Jesse frowns at the bruise. "Did you guys get too beat up?"

Aiden gives a grunt. "Not really. Gill's got a split lip and a black eye, and Maya's got a massive bruise on her calf, and I've got this gem from some demon who managed to punch me, but otherwise we ended up a lot better than the other guys."

Jesse hums, twisting the sleeve of their new jacket and giving him the tiniest little smile. "Well, I'm glad you guys are okay."

Aiden grunts again in response, and the room falls into a very stilted silence.

"How long've you been icing the bruise?" Jesse asks, when the silence gets to be quite awkward and they've decided they don't really feel like just standing and watching Aiden hold the ice pack to the rather purple bruise.

Aiden glances at them, still holding the ice pack in place. "Past seven hours."

"Oh! No no no, don't do that," and Jesse quickly pads across the kitchen floor and tugs his hand free hastily, "you should really only ice the bruise for ten minutes at a time and then wait twenty minutes to put it on again. If Stella's got a heating pad or something that'd be better; that makes bruises heal faster, since... you've already got a really big one."

Aiden blinks as Jesse removes the ice pack and goes to put it on a towel so it doesn't get the counter wet. "You sure?"

"Yeah; once the bruise is already that bad it's usually better to put some heat on it so the bruise goes away faster. The ice is mostly to prevent swelling and initial bruising."

Jesse frowns, before taking a towel and going over to the sink. "If we soak it in hot water and then wring it out, this should be an okay temporary heating pad 'til Stella can actually find one..."

The half-demon watches Jesse soak said towel with hot (not boiling) water and then wring it out multiple times, before the tiny seventeen-year-old is climbing up onto the chair next to him with some difficulty and plopping the slightly-damp towel on his shoulder.

"You know a lot about bruises."

Jesse looks up at him, slightly startled at the comment, before losing their balance and almost toppling off the chair altogether before they manage to catch the edge of the counter and haul themselves into it so that their side bangs into it.

"... and I can sort of see why," Aiden finishes drily.

Jesse gives an awkward half-chuckle before giving him a smile. "Um... yeah. I'm glad you guys are okay."

Aiden doesn't respond. He just looks at them for a while, long enough for a little red flush to creep into their cheeks and for them to want to break eye contact with him, but that could be taken as rude, so they just keep blinking at him.

They're therefore a bit relieved when Lukas comes into the room, a smile coming over his lips at the sight of Jesse and Aiden sitting at the counter. "Oh, hey, Jesse. Morning Aiden- what are you doing with a towel on your neck?"

"They said a heating pad is better for a bruise once the bruise has actually formed."

"Or just putting heat on it," Jesse contributes helpfully.

Lukas ruffles their hair, making them giggle and swat at him. "Well, you're a regular problem-solver, aren't you. Aiden, hang on, I might have a spell that won't have to make you sit around with a... damp towel on your shoulder all day..."


Stella's the next to breeze into the kitchen, looking just as prim and perfect and put-together as usual. Maya follows several minutes later, looking quite normal except for a slight limp that she waves off when Jesse asks her about the bruise (but she does look rather relieved when Lukas over fusses her and forces her to sit in a chair), and Gill comes in a minute later icing his eye with his split lip being pretty obvious.

Followed by Lukas tugging it off and casting a heating spell on it, to Gill's confusion until Jesse quickly explains.

Petra tromps in a minute later, red hair looking as wild as a lion's (which Stella's fingers twitch at, looking almost as if she wants to run a brush through her hair and tame it, but beyond that she simply looks at Petra for a moment, and Jesse can see the apologies dancing on her tongue, slipping into the air in a syllable, before she clamps her lips shut and goes back to making something that Lukas quietly assures Jesse that they're not eating for breakfast, since they're a bit frightened at how it looks like the mixture is moving).

Breakfast, for Jesse, is thankfully not a weird mixture of something that looks like Jell-O and cake that some of the other demons are eating, but Lukas grabbing several things that look vaguely like bread and fruit and putting them in front of Jesse.

Jesse is, understandably, a bit nervous about eating something that looks like black bread and gray fruit, but upon actually eating it they're pleasantly surprised to find that it tastes something like eating chalky lemon squares, and manage to eat the whole thing.

It's easier for them. They're not dealing with having to wince every time they open their mouth or bump their shoulder or leg, and they're not glancing awkwardly at someone else before looking back at the table whenever accidental eye contact is made.

Eventually, Lukas decides they'd better get going if they want to reach Sky City by evening, and after a lot of muddling around and grabbing clothes and Aiden tripping over the two vessel creatures in rapid succession (and then Stella having to reprimand him for saying a rather rude word in Lluna's presence, although Lluna doesn't seem to mind as she's bleating at Reuben cheerfully and Reuben's snorting back and Jesse's just torn between watching the two), the six of them are relatively presentable (Jesse suspects that the reason Petra wears a bandana is just so she has to do less with her hair) and ready to leave.

"I'll see you six at the party?" Stella asks lightly in the foyer as Maya struggles with getting her boots on, eyes resting briefly on Jesse and- to Jesse and Petra's surprise- Petra.

The redheaded half-demon is stiff for a moment, red eyes meeting Stella's. Her jaw has tightened slightly as she regards Stella.

A part of Jesse half-expects her to just haul off and punch Stella in the face. Another part of Jesse just expects Petra to scowl at Stella and snark something in her direction.

What not even one part of Jesse expects is for her to take a deep breath, crossing her arms and giving Stella a tight little nod, something that doesn't look like she's glowering at Stella like she wants to rip out the woman's guts coming over her face.

"I guess you will."

Stella looks vaguely surprised about the reaction as well, but her composure is recovered only a moment later. "Alright, sweethearts. Be careful, there's been some gang wandering around Hizelk lately trying to rob people."

Aiden arches his eyebrow at her from where he's holding. "Stella, no offense intended, but we can handle groups of fifty demons trying to kill us. I think we can handle a small gang of robbers."

"No, this is... actually a little concerning, I do really think you should be careful."

Stella's usually flamboyant manner has gone to a rather serious one, her hand shifting to rest on her collarbone as she regards the half-demons with concerned red eyes. "Their tactic actually works. No one's willing to say what it is, or at least no one who's survived them cares to talk about it, but it apparently hasn't failed yet."

Petra's brow furrows. "Oh yeah. I think Ivor mentioned them sometime a week or two ago."

A moment later, it clears slightly as she returns to looking at Stella. "We'll keep it in mind."


Jesse can feel someone watching them again.

It had stopped in Champion City, but now that they're back on the road, they can feel that strange, almost hungry gaze boring into their back, green backpack with some of the supplies in there. They'd split a little bit of everything with the others in case one of them got separated from the group for whatever reason, or if one of them lost their supplies, or et cetera.

They weren't going to argue. Considering a lot of books had people packing one thing into one bag, losing said bag, and then dying of hunger or thirst or whatnot, splitting up the supplies just seemed smarter.

The horse (which they summoned just outside of Champion City by pressing their fingers to the tattoo on Lukas's careful instruction, and who was very happy to see them) is trotting along fairly quickly, the other demons moving quite quickly but not as quickly as in their 'shadow forms'.

(Jesse is somewhat relieved about that. They're not sure their stomach can handle another full-out run like the previous one, and they don't want to throw up on the poor horse.)

When Jesse asks why that is the next time the demons slow down to take a short break from moving quickly and then pick the pace back up, Lukas gives a sheepish laugh and says that they don't usually rush that way, since it tires out their shadow form and then they can't actually use it for a few days afterwards.

Petra chimes in that it was their fault for not realizing they could still use their shadow forms without going at the speed of light, which causes Aiden to whack her over the back of the head and teasingly berate her about it being her own fault and not helping them resolve the fight faster, which would've given them much more time to get to Champion City without rushing.

The horse that Jesse's riding on (who Jesse has, for reasons unbeknownst to even themselves, privately decided to call Bob) nickers softly as Jesse holds onto its neck, gently squashing Reuben into the horse's neck as well to keep the pig from falling off. "D'you think we'll get to Sky City on time today?"

"Well, we're making good time, considering we're not in shadow form and a few of us are injured," Gill muses from where he's currently walking at a brisk trot, "I think we'll get there in time before night falls."

"And thanks to our stupid lord finally actually giving us our ID cards," Aiden mutters under his breath, although still loudly enough to be heard, "we can actually get into the city."

Petra rolls her eyes at Aiden's complaining."Oh, alright, you cynical piece of crap, quit complaining about Romeo."

Aiden arches his eyebrow at her with the most unimpressed look on his face that has ever crossed it.

"Seriously. He's a bit scatterbrained, and I know he's not that awesome compared to some of the other lords, but he's really not that-"

"Hello?"

Jesse falls off of Bob, who whinnies in alarm along with Reuben's startled squeal until Lukas dives forward and keeps them from having a very one-sidedly enthusiastic greeting with the floor. "You alright?"

"Uh-huh, I- I just thought I heard Romeo's voice," Jesse replies, noting apologetically that he sounds a bit out-of-breath from hitting the floor the way he did. "From somewhere in my pocket."

Maya blinks at Jesse startledly. "Oh, I heard him too..."

"Me too." Gill taps his ear as if he's trying to knock water out of it, frowning deeply.

He's not the only one- Aiden has a rather stricken expression on his face as he glances around warily, and Petra is rubbing her own ear. "Is it possible to have a group hallucination?"

"Unless it was by some weird circumstance of magic, no," Lukas muses quietly.

... magic...

A moment later, Jesse wiggles out of Lukas's grip and starts rifling through their inventory, shoving aside clothing until they grab something hard and smooth and then haul it out of their inventory, almost knocking the spellbook onto the floor.

"Romeo! Hi I'm really sorry we didn't contact you yesterday we totally forgot!" Jesse blurts out in a single breath, which makes Aiden pause and glance at them in surprise.

Perhaps he's surprised at how much air they are able to retain in their lungs.

Romeo's face blinks back at them from the magic mirror that they shoved into their inventory the day before, before a mock-annoyed look comes over his face.

It's easy to tell that he's just putting up an act, as his lips keep curling up in a smirk.

"I do believe I said to contact me as soon as you received the mirror yesterday, did I not?" The lord leans back and teasingly tsks his tongue, the mirror apparently not having to rely on him holding it as his arms cross over his chest. "You October Children, such disappointments."

Petra rolls her eyes in a good-natured way. "Hello to you too, Romeo."

He blinks, before giving her a half-smile. "Ah, hello, Petra. Didn't realize you wandered over to Hizelk-Narvid territory. I thought you liked hanging around in Yurin and Jupin more?"

"Jupin is chaos and Yurin is too fucking cold," she replies bluntly, which makes Maya snort.

Perhaps another reason Jesse can't see Romeo as a lord is that he lets his contracted humans (half-demons? They are technically not human, after all) speak to him as if he was their equal. Lords are usually much more pompous and puffed up.

Like frogs.

"Besides, kinda glad I was in the area. These guys were all getting jumped by a gang of robbers when I dropped in," Petra is saying when Jesse has recovered from the mental image of Romeo being a frog.

Romeo gives a thoughtful hum, fingering his collar as his red-and-gold eyes glaze out of focus. "Ah, so that's what the corpses half a mile outside of the Underneath are, I was wondering about those..."

Lukas graciously deigns to change the subject, seeing as Jesse turns rather pale and a wee bit green at those words. "Uh, our stay in Champion City was... relatively uneventful."

"Yes, I gather from the split lip and the fact that Gill looks like half a panda," Romeo replies, drily.

"It's a bar fight in the demon world and a demon was getting handsy with Maya," Aiden grumbles in explanation, which isn't a very good one.

"Ah, I take that back. That sounds about regular with you five."

Lukas cuts in before Aiden can deliver an undoubtedly scathing response. "But we're making quite good time. We should make it to Sky City before evening without trouble."

Romeo hums before Jesse can remind them of the robbers that Stella warned them about. "Ah, that's good. Isa'll be delighted to see you five." He pauses. "And Harper and Mevia, I suppose."

"Harper's weird," Gill murmurs.

Aiden shoots him a look, but he doesn't argue.

"Mevia's more violent than her, so I'll take Harper any day," Maya hums, leaning against the horse, before Bob snarls at her and she hastily pulls away.

"She barely ever talks to anyone unless she's judging them or helping someone build something," Gill shoots back, "and then when she does she either speaks in the most convoluted technobabble ever or doesn't even speak in full sentences. I've only ever seen her act normal with other lords, and then she acts like she's someone's mom."

"And Mevia nearly lopped off my head with an axe last time when I tapped her on the shoulder," Maya replies, "I'll take the technobabble and momness any day."

Gill rolls his eyes at her. "Oh, of course you would, Miss Pretty Hair."

"Fuck you, you bearded git."

Romeo gives the now-bickering half-demons a tired look, before sighing and massaging his temples. "Yes, you... would expect them all to be a bit more similar, I suppose."

Jesse blinks as Lukas, Aiden, and Petra concede the point, before looking around up at them. "Why?"

Romeo ponders how exactly to explain whatever the explanation is, before apparently deciding something along the lines of fuck it and just bluntly saying what he's thinking.

Which happens to be, "Isa, Mevia, and Harper are actually technically all the same person."

Jesse blinks once.

Blinks twice.

And then repeats a phrase that they're pretty sure they're going to be repeating many, many times in Cosmos.

"I'm sorry, what?"

Chapter Text

Romeo hums, lacing his fingers together thoughtfully as he tries to summon the right words to explain the weird statement he just made.

After a moment, he nods and looks at Jesse. "Alright, I'll try to explain this simply. So you know about your heart, and how as long as it exists in Cosmos, you won't die. Yes?"

Jesse nods. "Yes."

It was one of the first things explained to them, so... yes, they get it.

"And how soul magic was made illegal?"

"Yes."

"Okay." Romeo crooks one finger, making an image swim over his face in the mirror.

For a moment, Jesse looks over their shoulder to make sure there isn't a shadowy figure standing behind them, but thankfully it just seems to be in the mirror.

"A century or two ago, the first woman lord of Cosmos began to rule Hizelk. Her name was Himira."

The image changes to show the shadowy woman talking to people, although a little glowing heart that's in her center seems to be cracking. "Ivor warned her that being chosen as the first woman lord would be a huge burden, as people would try to give her more trouble and heckle her back out of her role. She didn't listen."

"And she began to pay the price."

Jesse is holding the mirror tightly as the image changes to show the heart splitting into three pieces. "Himira knew that if she kept up trying to help the people of Hizelk the way she was, she was going to run herself ragged. And she thought 'what if'," and now three more figures are forming, one around the pieces of the heart, "'what if I were three people running the district instead?'"

"It took a lot of pleading and teaching. Ivor gave in eventually; he did think Himira was the best fit for the job, despite how much doubt was going around about the world's judgement, but they managed to use a spell to split Himira's soul and heart into three separate beings."

Jesse watches as the image splits into a triangle of sorts, each person being illuminated faintly by a role, almost like the sun glowing through a sunlit stained glass window."One would be in charge of leading the army and the guards, one was in charge of diplomacy, and primarily for dealing with the people and holding court, and the final piece would be to help the people so that everyone would be happy."

"But what neither of them expected, is for the fragments of Himira's soul and heart to begin developing their own souls."

Mevia, Harper, and Isa appear. "They still share the same heart, and killing one will result in the other two dying, but for all intents and purposes Himira has disappeared, and she is now three different women. Soul magic was outlawed after that; if your soul could be completely consumed by a new soul like that after splitting it, can you imagine the consequences?"

So soul magic being outlawed is a... somewhat recent occurrence.

Romeo is absentmindedly speaking now, although his voice is still audible. "While they technically share bits and pieces of the same soul, undoing the spell at this point is near nigh impossible and would, in fact, be using soul magic to reverse it, which isn't possible because of how... different the souls are. They may share similarities, but they are no longer the same soul."

The images dissipate, revealing Romeo's face.

Jesse holds still, still clinging to the mirror as they consider this entire thing rather thoughtfully. "... So Harper, Isa, and Mevia are all technically... Himira?"

They blink a moment later. "... did Himira just take the first three letters of her name and assign random names based on that?" they ask, releasing the mirror and making a few gestures.

Lukas hums, making them twist around to look back at him. "Actually, I think the story goes that Ivor kept referring to her as Himira and they'd all respond 'yes' simultaneously, so after a while he got sort of exasperated and just pointed and went "H, I, M. Pick names based on that."

"The story going that way is true, I asked Ivor and he halfheartedly grumbled something about it being the most annoying thing he'd ever had to deal with in his many years of life," Petra replies drily.

Jesse gets a little fit of the giggles at that.

Romeo rolls his eyes. "He's the wisest out of all of us, and yet somehow I repeatedly forget how practical the man can be. Anyhow, is there any reason you called me?"

He pauses. "Or was it an accident? Since Jesse's new to magic and I figured Gill and Aiden were going along and they're no great shakes at magic-"

Aiden gives him a withering glare that, unsurprisingly, leaves Romeo not too withered.

"- I just made it so that you had to call my name and wait before the call went through." He pauses, before frowning. "I feel like that sounds more like a human invention."

Jesse would tell him that it's basically the telephone, or alternatively Siri, but someone else beats them to speaking.

"Oh, then it was an accident. I mentioned you in conversation," Petra says somewhat apologetically.

He nods, apparently not seeming all that put-out by it. "I figured. In the future, if you wish to call me, just say my name and then wait for a minute. Even a pause of a second and a half will do. I can end the call, so don't worry, I won't bother you incessantly."

"Got it," Lukas says respectfully (although Jesse swears they can hear Aiden mutter 'good' under his breath). "Thanks."

"Of course." The lord pauses again, brow furrowing, before red and gold eyes flicker to them. "Did Stella mention something about a group of burglars in Hizelk?"

Aiden gives a loud groan, his apparent goodwill leaving. "Ugh, this again. Look, if Stella didn't get it, you should. You're our lord. We can handle a bunch of run-of-the-mill bandits. The corpses in Narvid are good evidence," he retorts.

Romeo ignores his tone. "You can handle run-of-the-mill bandits. Yes. But can you handle ones that deal with magic?"

"Magic?" Maya's leaning forward now, brow furrowing. "Hizelkian people don't have a good handle on magic. Not like in Enchantra. Not enough for their scheme to work every time, like what Stella said."

The demon lord gives a shrug. "Say what you will, but that's what the reports are indicating. The robberies tend to occur quite close to Sky City, so you should still make it on time and not have to spend the night in a tree-"

"Again," Gill chimes in.

Romeo raises his eyes to the sky. "Dear lord, you children. Fine, again, but do be wary when dealing with them. Only two of you are skilled in magic, and the other four... well..." He pauses, perhaps trying to find a better way than simply saying 'you're all terrible', especially considering Jesse's blinking at the mirror.

"I think we can handle it, if we've got Lukas and Maya," Aiden replies bluntly, ignoring Romeo's hesitation.

The lord regards the six of them for a moment- Maya, standing crookedly even though he can't see the bruise on her leg, Gill, who (in all fairness) does resemble half a panda, Aiden, whose bruise creeps onto his neck despite the heating spell Lukas keeps renewing, Jesse, clutching the magic mirror with Reuben leaning over to look at them, Petra with one hand on her hip, Lukas with his blindfold over his eyes and his arms crossed in a way that betrays a vague, cloudy sort of concern.

His final words to them stay with Jesse long after the mirror reverts to Jesse's big green eyes staring down at a reflective surface.

"If you say so."


Hizelk is different from Narvid.

Jesse hasn't been paying too much attention to the scenery while travelling, but now that they've slowed down again Jesse can spot noticeable differences.

Instead of tall trees with black trunks, the trunks faded from black to gray to pure white, the leaves red or black or (occasionally) also white, leaving the red grass looking too stark against ghostly beautiful wending shapes against the red sky or red and black foliage, and Jesse can also spot white flowering vines swaying in the breeze.

Aiden seems to like the perfume that permeates the air, faint enough that if Jesse really inhales, I mean really breathes in deep and closes their eyes, they can smell a whiff of jasmine and chocolate and rose perfume dancing on the air before the wind steals it away for themselves.

"Is that from the flowers?"

He looks around at them, looking curiously at where his usually stony face has softened. It hardens again, but only slightly. "The ones on the vines? Yeah, they're called Rayiha. Pretty sure it's an old language that literally means scent."

Reuben is sniffing the air happily too, which makes Jesse hum and run a hand over the little pig. "Are there any bad effects from Rayiha flowers, then?"

"From just smelling them? No. Eating them, yes. Don't eat the flowers. Some flowers are edible, but not these. You'd much rather have your insides dipped in lava than eat these," he warns them. "Some demons get ideas because they smell like they're edible."

Jesse sniffs. "Yeah, 's a bit like tea."

Aiden pauses. "Well, you're not wrong. Don't eat anything with Rayiha flowers in it. To put it simply, you'll be pretty badly poisoned to the point of near-death, and then you choke to death because Rayiha decides 'oh, we've fucked up your systems, now let's put you out of your misery.' It can be stopped or slowed down, but magic and potions tend to speed it up."

"Look at you, being all magicky over here," Lukas teases him.

Aiden rolls his eyes at the blonde half-demon in reply. "I've only seen herbal treatments do any good, and even then it's a very limited amount of 'good' that it's doing."

A moment later, he abruptly realizes who he's explaining this to, and his stony expression returns. "Either way, just don't eat or get Rayiha flowers in your bloodstream. It's not pleasant," he mutters gruffly.

Jesse hums, admiring the eerily white blossoms with a black center regardless. "I'll be sure to remember that," they reply seriously.

Abruptly, Bob comes to a screeching halt, snorting loudly. Reuben gives a little oink as Jesse accidentally squashes him a little.

He's not the only one to stop. Petra stops as well, scanning the flowered vines and the ghostly trees, brow furrowing until she looks downright suspicious.

"Pet-?" Jesse begins, but Lukas puts his finger to his lips, so the human contents themselves with carefully sliding off of Bob.

The horse butts his nose against their face, the heat of the flames from his mane momentarily brushing their face, before disappearing in a soft crack and wisp of light that Jesse suspects might be in order to avoid being noticed. Reuben hovers in midair for a moment before Jesse hops up and catches him to avoid having the little pig plop onto the floor.

Petra is still suspiciously scanning the path ahead. Maya's shoulder is pressing against Gill's, but unlike how he'd usually push her away and complain that she's invading his personal space, and then she'd snap back it was his own fault (Jesse was vaguely certain they were flirting somewhat, but then again what would they know about relationships?), neither of them say a thing about it.

Then:

"Hey. Stop lurking and come out here."

Petra's blunt words echo in the air for only a moment.

And then, without any warning, Jesse blinks and a ring of people in dark clothing have surrounded them. Many of them, to Jesse's relief, are holding gnarled wooden staffs or short sticks that very much resemble wands.

So hopefully there won't be as much blood and gore and death as last time.

Aiden crosses his arms, regarding the ring of people evenly. "Oh, well, it looks like we're popular today. Let me guess, we've got a toll to pay?"

A woman that Jesse can only assume is the leader (she's got shiny embroiderings on her dark clothing; each moving forward sends colored light dancing across the ground) steps forward, spreading her arms in an almost expansive gesture. "Actually, we have a deal to make with you."

"Does this deal involve giving up all our stuff?" Petra asks, as flat as a pancake.

"Funny enough, it does, but we're reasonable people. Not as... kind as Jupin's people, perhaps, but, well," the leader of the robbers gives a dry grin, red eyes gleaming in the light, "we have magic, it's only fair that we do something with it."

"Plus we're bored," another demon pipes up.

Jesse is seized with the odd desire to laugh at that.

"So how about this? If even one member of your party is able to resist a quick blast of our magic, we'll leave you be. Else... we'll have to have you hand over everything that's of interest to us. Money, supplies, anything valuable..."

The demon shrugs. "You know, we've got to make a living somehow."

"Owning a shop in town could probably make more regular revenue," Maya mumbles sardonically.

Aiden rolls his eyes. "You're not handling the right people," he calls to the leader. "We'll just handle your blast of magic in a jiffy and then be on our way to Sky City."

"Don't brag, Aiden," Lukas murmurs back, his head turning slightly to look at his friend. "You're not the one with a higher magic resistance."

"Be that as it may," the leader calls to them airily, either ignoring the whispering or just not caring, "we still do need you to have the test. Pick whoever you'd like and put them in the center of the circle, and then come over to us- we'd so hate for you to get caught in the crossfire."

Somehow, they're fairly certain that none of the robbers would really care.

Jesse more senses Lukas's movement forward than sees it, and their eyes flicker over to confirm it. "Lukas..."

Maya waves Jesse off. "Lukas has a really high magic resistance, considering he's a half-demon. He can usually handle a general wave of magic in his direction without having to worry about any repercussions afterwards."

"... oh."

For some reason, Jesse still has a bad feeling, but they obediently let Lukas shuffle into the center as the others retreat to the sidelines, Petra retaining firm hold on them in case any of the other demons care to bother them.

From what it looks like, the red-and-black clothing is working wonders, as most of the other demons barely even look twice at them.

The blonde half-demon looks much lonelier surrounded by all the dark figures. A heavy weight settles on their shoulders as the bad feeling grows worse.

And then a moment later, they realize that the heavy weight isn't actually just emotion or worry, it's an actual weight, and they open their mouth to ask what is going on.

Not a full second later, Lukas is blasted backwards.

Jesse gives an involuntary cry as the blonde half-demon tumbles backwards, does a sort of flip, and lands on one knee, coughing weakly for breath as though he's been completely winded.

His hands splay against the ground, fingerless gloves steadily getting stained a darker color as dark red leaks out of the corner of his mouth.

"Oh, what a shame." The leader of this group gives him a mocking pout, lowering the staff slightly as he regards the blonde half-demon. "It looks like you're not as tough with magic as you thought you were, huh."

Maya's face has gone white at where Lukas is now coughing, looking winded as blood dribbles out from between his lips.

She's not the only one; Aiden looks actually worried for once and Gill's hand has tightened on his gun.

Jesse looks over at Petra; the redhead's hand has tightened on her shoulder. The weight is slightly heavier now, but Jesse is relieved to find it's not any more crushing than before.

"What the... Lukas has the highest magic resistance in the whole group," Petra mumbles to herself, looking as though she's not even noticing Jesse and Reuben's worried expressions from how she's gazing at the half-demon struggle back to his feet, breathing ragged.

The next thing Petra says makes a cold hand wrap around Jesse's heart and squeeze it.

"If Lukas was taken down in a single shot by this magic, the rest of us don't stand a chance."

Chapter Text

"Ah-ah-ah, don't tell me you're not going to let the little one try, as well."

Jesse freezes at the leader's words, glancing at the others with wide eyes.

Lukas is now not the only one who has developed some sort of injury (although Jesse can't actually see it, he periodically has to smear blood off of his mouth with his sleeve). Aiden has a new cut on the bruise (which looks horribly sore), Maya's definitely got a pronounced limp now, Gill doesn't look very different but the way he's gingerly holding his arm speaks volumes, and Petra looks very definitely dizzy.

(Lukas quietly reassures Jesse, through soft coughs, that Petra will be fine once she sits for a bit.)

After Lukas went, the others went down even quicker and even worse than he did, which startles Jesse.

They haven't known the others for very long, but they've gotten used to their fast movements, bold fighting, rough way of dealing with things, bickering, being perhaps a little prideful- sometimes for good reason.

They're not very used to the others losing.

But then the October Children try to get the deal with over quickly.

They did technically agree to it, after all, and they're certain that they'll be able to recover their supplies at Sky City, and 'currency is just currency,' Lukas reassures Jesse, they earn more than that and they can ask Romeo for more if they really have to.

And now the leader wants Jesse to go and do the same things the others did.

"After all, we said any member of your little group just has to handle the magic, and you all can go free. Unless I'm mistaken, they haven't gone yet," the leader hums breezily.

Lukas's lips turn down in a frown. "That's not fair. They're younger."

Jesse would really argue about the 'younger' point, but in all honesty, it's better to just pretend they're just younger than have to elaborate on how they're quite short, so they don't really say anything and just blink up at Lukas.

"And they're a lot smaller. Not to mention, they haven't handled magic before. They're the member that's most likely to get badly injured if you try a general magic blast on them."

The leader just gives him an enigmatic smile. "Mmnn, well, that's your own fault for agreeing to the deal, then, isn't it?"

Lukas glares at her; she matches it with a pleasant smile. "Come on, have them give it a go and we'll go easy on them."

"You're lying about that, aren't you," Aiden mutters, hissing as he shifts and the bruise-cut-combo gives a rather vocal complaint.

"Of course I am. Now, chop-chop, or you all die and we take your valuables anyway." The leader shrugs. "We find that most people pick the first option."

"I wonder why," Gill mutters sarcastically.

Petra opens her mouth to protest (still looking quite loopy), but a moment later Reuben squeals loudly, and Maya finds herself having a green backpack shoved at her as Jesse looks up at her, giving her the most natural smile they can.

Which is to say, at the moment not very. They're terrified. But it's a good imitation.

"Can you hold that? If they do end up knocking me out or something I'm not sure I wanna get what's inside damaged."

"Jesse, you can't be seriously-"

Jesse gives Lukas another crooked, scared smile. It's less of a smile and more of a quirk of the lips. "It's either I go and get whopped in the face with magic, or we all die. I prefer the first option."

"But... but..." Lukas's head shifts back and forth, before he leans forward and lowers his voice to a hushed whisper. "Most humans don't have any magic resistance. Even something as small as a flick of their finger could pretty much blast your guts out."

"You do paint a pretty picture, Lukas," Petra murmurs, still somewhat dazed.

Jesse shrugs at Lukas with a helpless little smile. "Well, then, better that my guts get blasted out than all of us dying. I'm pretty sure Romeo wouldn't be very pleased about that."

And then they tread across the path before the others can say anything else, shoes padding softly across brick until they're in the center of the circle of raiders, trying not to show the fact that their hands are shaking and failing miserably.


Jesse looks so tiny in the center of the circle.

Of course, the human's tiny at the best of times, and it's not like Lukas doesn't know that, but it just feels as though he took a small child, blindfolded them, and then plopped them right in front of a firing squad.

Well, not quite blindfolded, if the way they're paler than death at the sight of dozens of dark figures standing in a ring around them is any indication.

"Romeo's going to kill us," Gill mumbles, although he does look a little worried at the sight of the tiny human in the center of the circle. "He's going to find out that Jesse's had their brains blown out by magic, and then we're all going to die."

"Let's worry about these magic people killing us before we worry about our boss, how about that?" Aiden hisses back.

Maya bites her lip before glancing at Lukas. "Is it possible that Jesse could have a higher magic resistance than the average human? They were able to sense the magic in the tree."

"It's possible, but magic sensitivity doesn't necessarily correlate to magic resistance." Lukas presumably has his eyes fixed on Jesse, the blindfold hiding where he's actually looking.

For all they know Lukas is just staring at the floor but not moving his head.

"I certainly hope it does, but..."

"In that case, we're really just relying on a hope and a prayer that Jesse isn't reduced to a smear on the floor," Gill summarizes.

"Basically, yeah."

Aiden crosses his arms and glances down at Reuben, who's squealing periodically and running around in panicked little circles. "Well, the pig sure doesn't seem confident that it'll work."

"The pig is literally Jesse's heart; if they're scared then Reuben is going to react," Lukas points out. "It's not like Reuben actually knows what's going on with Jesse physically."

Reuben gives Lukas an unimpressed oink.

"You know what I mean."


Jesse can feel the weight of magic on them, pressing down into their shoulders slightly as they watch the ring of dark figures regard them.

(They're not sure, but they feel a vague feeling of guilt emanating from some of them, and some of them are shifting almost awkwardly.)

The leader has a smug grin on her face as she regards Jesse. She's probably figuring out just how much is going to be needed to blast their brains out.

Yes... just what Jesse wants.

Several staffs swing up abruptly, glowing with magic heat and making the weight in the air grow even heavier, tugging downwards so much that Jesse momentarily wonders if gravity has increased.

They squeeze their eyes shut instinctively.

Something brushes their shoulders gently, almost teasingly tracing something there, before it's gone in a whisper of wind too brisk and pleasant and sweet for Jesse to properly catch, replacing the whisper of wind with the pleasant scent of the Rayiha flowers.

A beat of silence.

Another.

They don't feel dead.

Or any pain.

So that's good, they suppose.

Jesse very, very slowly cracks their eyes open...

... to find all the staffs still pointed at them, the expressions of those wielding the staffs almost being thunderstruck. The leader of the robbers, in particular, is gaping stupidly at them in shock.

They blink a few times, taking inventory of their own body very slowly.

Well, their guts are still in their body.

So are their brains.

They slowly flex their fingers, pleased to find that besides the fact that the air is literally so heavy with magic that it's weighing them down, they can still move as normally and freely as they want. So the magic hasn't done anything weird to them on that front.

They lift their eyes back to the ring of raiders around them, scanning the circle until they find the October Children and Petra, just to make sure they're not having a death hallucination.

Nope. There they are. Staring at Jesse with just as much shock as the robbers.

"Did you guys make a mistake?" they call out to the circle of stunned-stupid robbers.


"Well, I'll be," says Lukas to nobody at all.


Jesse watches as the robbers flee into the tree line, feeling vaguely amused and (at the same time) incredibly bewildered. "They sure lit out of here fast once I beat their system..."

Petra gives her head a little shake. Perhaps it's because the magic is clearing up, or because enough time has passed that whatever the robbers did to her is clearing up, but she sounds more lucid when she speaks next. "That's basically what robbers do. Do stuff until it fails, and then hightail it out of there."

Reuben leaps into Jesse's arms, which makes them grin and squeeze back as he snuffles happily. "Hey, Reuben. I'm okay."

The pig oinks and presses his nose to their cheek happily. They beam even brighter and rub his head gently.

Lukas gives his head a shake, a smile playing on his lips. "You are just a bundle of surprises, aren't you."

The human's cheeks proceed to tint a very pretty shade of pink. "I didn't really do anythin'... it was probably a fluke or something, since I've got Reuben." They lift him. "If he's a familiar or a vessel creature, then wouldn't he boost magic resistance or something?"

The blonde half-demon's smile curves into a thoughtful frown. "Hm... you know, I'm not really an expert on that. We can probably ask Romeo or someone who's good at magic the next time we see them."

"Not today. Talking to Romeo once in one day is good enough for me, thank you very much," Aiden grumbles.

Gill rolls his eyes, giving Aiden an unimpressed look. "Okay, we'll tell Isa to pass that on when we see her-"

"No, no I'm good on that too, thank you."

Jesse giggles a bit while Lukas chuckles, looping an arm around Jesse and giving the tiny human a squeeze. "Eh. Well, it was nice of the robbers to ambush us about twenty minutes from Sky City. We'll make it with plenty of daylight to spare."

"Sky City ought to at least be slightly calmer," Maya hums, her goodwill apparently also drained by the robbers.

"I'd be impressed if it wasn't. You know Mevia and Reginald really crack down on criminals."

"You know it's less Mevia and more Isa. Mevia's in charge of the army; Isa handles the people and she's a huge stickler for the laws." Maya sends Gill a wicked grin. "You'd better not break any."

Gill sticks his tongue out at her. "Bitch."

"Bastard." She gives him a friendly sort of punch on the shoulder and starts walking. "C'mon, we'd better get going before Aiden complains about us all being too slow."

"I don't complain that we're too slow..."

Petra gives Aiden a wicked grin. "Oh? Then what do you call telling us to 'pick up the pace before we all turn to bones'?"

"Encouragement."

"Weird form of encouragement."

Lukas shakes his head as Petra bolts ahead, Aiden chasing after her and looking like he's going to whack her over the head. "I'm starting to see why people call us the October Children."


"Halt! You may not-" A man with skin the color of tea blinks at the six of them from where he is in front of the gates, before his mustache curls up as he grins at them, red irises gleaming. He's dressed head-to-toe in a very impressive uniform that is interestingly different from the Cosmos one- Jesse thinks it's more of a brown color and has more embellishments. "Well, if it isn't the October Children!"

Maya gives him a bright grin and a wave. "Downgraded to gate duty, I see."

The other guard straightens. "It's not a downgrade, miss! It's been an honor working with him, miss!"

Reginald gives him a wry smile. "Dear lord, lighten up, Dawson, it's a pleasure to have worked with you as well, but I told you, you don't have to stand on ceremony with me."

He turns back to them, giving them a warmer smile. "It's good to see you, October Children."

"What am I, chopped liver?" Petra asks drily with a grin.

He rolls his eyes and beckons his hand. "C'mon, hand me your ID cards and we'll get the process over with, you five." He pauses at the sight of Jesse hugging Reuben, about half a foot behind Petra. "Oh, who's this?"

Aiden sighs, his own smile dimming. "Uh... Romeo's having us watch them while we help out with... that."

The other guard at the gate blinks, but Reginald gives a solemn nod. "Ah, I see." He glances back at them, giving them a friendly sort of smile. "Well, my name's Reginald. I'm Captain of the Guard in Sky City."

Jesse nods and takes his hand, momentarily feeling their hand squeeze as he grips their hand firmly and gives it a solid shake. "'M Jesse."

Reuben oinks cheerfully as they lift him up a little. "This is Reuben. He's my pig."

Reginald gives them another smile, mustache curling a little bit. "Well, it's good to meet you two. Now, are you all alright? You look a little worse for the wear." His expression sobers. "Was it those robbers again? I imagine you need more supplies after that, then."

"Actually, no." Gill gives Jesse a clap on the back with his good arm and very nearly knocks them flat on their face. As it is the slap still stings through Jesse's shirt and makes some bruises there complain. "This little dude managed to get us all out with our supplies... if not without injury."

"I'm sorry, I should've gone first..."

"Jess, you nearly gave me a heart attack going last. I would've gone into cardiac arrest if you just went up first," Lukas murmurs back good-heartedly.

Reginald's eyebrow shoots up. "Really?"

Maya gives a grin. "Yeah. Actually, they've got to have a sky-high resistance; even Lukas couldn't stand up against it and you know Lukas has the best magic resistance."

The Captain appraises Jesse as another demon comes to replace him, the man slipping out of place to allow the other guard to fit into where he'd been standing previously.

Jesse tries not to fidget, trip, or do anything stupid otherwise.

"... interesting."

Jesse likes watching Reginald smile. His mustache just bristles a little at the ends.

"Well, you probably want to see the lords. They're actually free right about now, so we can probably get you in there in about ten minutes."

Aiden lets out a whistle, eyebrow going up almost appreciatively. "Damn, that fast? We arrived at a good time."

"Yep." Reginald smiles and allows the six to go through the gates, Jesse still clinging to Reuben tightly. "Well, lemme guess, kid, you haven't been to Sky City before?"

Jesse (correctly) assumes that he's talking to them, so they bob their head. "Yes, sir."

"You can just call me Reginald." Reginald gives them another grin, white teeth flashing at them. "Well, you'll find Sky City to be a real treat, then. Just, uh... don't drink any water yet." He gives them a look, expression fading to a more serious one. "You five haven't been here for a while either... you might not want to drink it yet either."

Jesse blinks. "Why? Is it poisoned or something?"

"Most drinks are poisoned. Demons and half-demons can handle poison, remember?" Lukas reminds them gently.

"Oh, right..."

So why can't even the half-demons drink the water?

Chapter Text

Sky City is very homey, very pretty, and absolutely terrifying, all at the same time.

The homey and pretty part comes from how most of the ground is just wood or paved stone or neat gray or light brown, which makes everything look a bit barren except for the potted plants dotting the place periodically, but the houses are made of wood or white material that Jesse can't quite place, a rather large and somewhat-egg shaped palace towering at the very top of the city, dominating the houses in size easily. There are wooden bridges and platforms connecting all of the houses, and all the wood somehow manages to make the more elegant materials look more homey.

Which brings it to why Sky City is terrifying; the entire city is on floating wooden platforms and islands above what looks like a bottomless chasm. Swirls of colorful smoke swim through the air through the areas connected by bridges or platforms, sending a rather large rainbow smoke ring wafting right into Jesse's face periodically.

It smells like blueberries, although occasionally it does also just smell like their dad (not their dad, not quite, legal guardian?) legal guardian just coughed in their face.

"Sky City is the only city that hovers quite this way," Reginald boasts proudly to them as Jesse peers over one bridge railing into the darkness below the city. They're fairly certainly they can see something seething just out of sight, but they don't really want to know what it is. "Most of the other cities do have something unique about it, but this is the only capital city that floats this smoothly or this well."

Jesse peeps into the chasm; the darkness stares back at them. "I see..."

Aiden is drumming his fingers almost impatiently on his arm, although he still does seem more mild than he usually is. "Hey, Reg," he calls to the guard, "can we see Isa and Mevia and Harper now? It's a bit urgent."

Reginald's mustache bristles in a smile. "You're in luck. You caught them on the one day they don't have a meeting this week. They should all be in the palace."

"So we'll be searching for three hours, then," Maya replies rather drily.

Reginald chuckles and continues towards the palace, Jesse clinging to Petra's sleeve with one hand and hugging Reuben with the other to avoid the possibility of falling into the bottomless chasm. The bridge they are on is solid, but Jesse can't express the level of horror they felt a few minutes before when they began walking across a bridge and it started swaying and swinging beneath their feet.

They'd ended up with Lukas picking them up and carrying them across, since they'd just frozen in place out of fear that they were going to trip, fall, and then die. In that exact order.

"It shouldn't take too long to find them. They're just in their usual places."


The palace is less homey than the city, but it's still gorgeous. If anything, it's even prettier than the city.

Most of the walls are made with quartz, like Romeo's spire, but unlike the palace, it's lined with wood and not gold. The floor is a warm acacia, and most of the doors are just plain doors that swing open. There's still many plants and flowers inside, and one room that Jesse tries has a tree that they nearly walk into because of lack of attention.

Jesse spots Aiden looking at the flowers at one point. He notices them watching and turns away, cheeks pinking slightly.

They resolve to find him some flowers that don't try to eat people or poison them sometime.

Reginald swings the door open and checks inside of them periodically, but it isn't until about the thirteenth door that they find anyone inside.

(Jesse wonders why the palace is so big if only a few people live inside. It seems like a waste. And doesn't that just mean more rooms to clean?)

A woman with dark skin and white hair looks up from where she's leaning over some kind of metal contraption. She blinks red-and-gray irises from where her black gloves and her hair and her plain brown clothing are covered with glittering red (and after a moment of panic, Jesse realizes it is only red dust) as she shifts back orange-lensed goggles to look at them. There is a moment of a lack of comprehension as she stares at them.

And then she smiles.

"October Children."

She stands and goes over, dusting her hands uselessly; the dust just floats and sticks to another part of her clothing. She clasps Lukas's hand and gives it a squeeze, covering it with red dust, before releasing it and turning to Petra. "Petra."

Petra gives a polite bow. "Hello, Harper. It's good to see you."

Harper nods, still smiling, before she comes to the very-tiny Jesse. She just continues smiling, but cocks her head rather quizzically to one side as she looks at them.

"This is Jesse." Aiden sounds even shorter than usual, although still courteous. He must not like Harper too much.

Then again, Gill did say that she was weird.

And then

"Romeo assigned them to the... you know, that matter." Jesse briefly wonders why he's talking about this so vaguely until they spot one of the guards walking by briskly and almost officially, marching down the hall and shooting only a momentary quizzical look in their direction.

Harper nods vaguely, still regarding Jesse. A moment later, her brow raises.

"Human?"

Jesse nods back, giving her a little smile. "Yep, I'm human." They lift Reuben, who's snuffling. "This is Reuben. Romeo made him my vessel creature."

Reuben gives Harper a cheery oink, so Jesse figures she's alright.

Harper regards Jesse a moment longer, before her smile returns fully and she reaches out to shake Jesse's hand.

Jesse can't help but smile a little at Harper pausing and glancing at the dust covering her hand before pulling the glove off and extending fingers with tiny scars on the tips, although rather than looking like Romeo's, which look like he's gained them in a bar fight, these just seem to be from rubbing them incessantly on the red dust to the point where they get scratched.

Jesse reaches up and takes it, giving it a squeeze and a little shake.

There is a moment where static electricity shoots through their hands, and Harper freezes.

That is to say, she's still smiling, but her expression is quite blank in her eyes, and she's still regarding Jesse but now her eyes are practically frozen solid as she gazes at Jesse.

Not in a cold way, not as if she's looking at Jesse as if she hates them or she thinks they're disgusting.

It's almost as if the static electricity zipped through her brain for a moment.

"... um... Miss Harper?"

This snaps her out of it, and the woman takes her hand back, tugging the red-dust-covered glove back on and giving Jesse a stern shake of the head. "No miss."

"No... oh. Um... Harper?"

Harper nods, a smile coming back over her face at that. She gives Jesse a pat on the shoulder, which gets a rather large amount of dust on Jesse and gets it stuck to their jacket.

There's a moment of pause as the two look at the handprint-shaped dust mark on their shoulder, before she gives Jesse a mischievous little smile and then ruffles their hair with her gloves.

"Aaaaah, nooooo..." Jesse dissolves into giggles as they try to avoid getting the glittery dust in their hair and fail miserably.

Lukas laughs at that, Gill going over and doing his best to try and swat some of it off with Jesse giggling. He really just gets it on himself, but he doesn't seem to mind so much. "Well, you two get along fine, so that's good. D'you know where Isa and Mevia are, Harper?"

Harper's smiling faintly, still absentmindedly getting some glittery dust in Jesse's hair, which now looks like a fairy's hair. She thinks about it for a minute, before lifting her arm and pointing off in the other direction. "Throne room." She then shifts her arm and points in the other. "Garden."

"Isa's in the throne room, Mevia's in the garden?" Lukas translates, and receives an affirming nod. "Cool. Aiden, you go with Jess and Petra to get Mevia, Gill, Maya and I'll go catch Isa."

He looks to Harper and gives her a pleasant smile, adjusting the corner of his blindfold slightly. "Do you want to come with us, Harper? We need to talk to all three of you."

Harper considers this for a moment, before shaking her head. "I have to resize an observer and connect it to a redstone comparator to boost the signal and make this effectively connect to the daylight sensor better because it doesn't work inside. I also need to find a repeater and hope that it'll react to light rather than simply only daylight."

Jesse blinks at this while Lukas just nods, apparently not perturbed by the amount of words and techno-jargon that just came out of Harper's mouth. "Alright. We'll meet you at the throne room, okay?"

Harper nods and lifts her hand in a wave. "See you."

"Bye!" Jesse calls, before they pop after Petra and Aiden, who are already halfway down the hall if rapidly fading footsteps are any indication.

Harper waits until everyone's left the room before her mild smile falls into an almost heartbroken stare in the direction Jesse ran off in, the door slowly beginning to swing back shut.

"Who did that to you?"

And then there's a click as the wooden door swings back shut.


Isa looks up when the door to the throne room swings open. She seems to be sitting cross-legged on the floor and rubbing a chicken with a crown lopsided on their head.

Reginald gives Isa a grin. "Look who showed up on the doorstep."

Her eyes light up, and she springs up with surprising ease and makes it to the door in only a few steps, wrapping the three of them in a hug. "Oh, it's lovely to see you! Is Aiden with you? I'm surprised, you four are usually inseparable."

She pauses, shooting them a scolding look. "You know, I do recall telling you all to write more often."

Lukas has the grace to look sheepish. "You know Romeo, he keeps us busy..."

She rolls her eyes. "Of course he does." Her face breaks into a huge smile as Maya chuckles, running a hand through walnut-brown hair. "Did Aiden decide not to come?"

"No, he's here, he just... needed to go get Mevia as well," Gill murmurs, scratching his cheek.

Isa probably notices his apprehensive look, because she gives him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Aiden knows better than to try to sneak up on her. He'll be fine."

When he relaxes, she clasps her hands together and gives them a radiant smile. "Well, it's lovely to see you, anyhow. What brings you back to Sky City?" She pauses a moment later. "You haven't had any water since you've come, right?"

"No, no, Reginald warned us about it," Maya reassures her, making the woman relax slightly , "we wouldn't be so stupid to just drink the water again after such a long time."

"But, uh," Lukas adjusts his blindfold, "we actually do need to ask you three a favor."

"All three of us?" When the three of them nod, Isa's face becomes a little more sober. Benedict, apparently picking up on Isa's mood, clucks with slight concern. "It has to do with the keys, doesn't it?"

When the three of them nod again, Isa folds her hands slightly and gives a firm nod. "Yes... alright. Hopefully Harper and Mevia'll get here soon and we can discuss that, then."


Jesse likes the garden.

Aiden seems to like it too, looking at several of the blossoms and vines with incredible interest, although he does point out to Jesse to not touch any of the flowers; they are probably carnivorous or poisonous.

Petra helps by mentioning that once she went to look at some black roses and the roses tried to eat her.

So beyond the fact that Jesse has entrusted Reuben to Petra and is now practically on Aiden's heels to avoid getting eaten, they like the garden.

Aiden makes a frustrated sound moments later. "Damn, Mevia wanders off and then she's just goddamn impossible to find."

A moment later, he proceeds to literally run into someone.

There's a moment of a stunned gasp, Aiden stepping back a step while clutching at his forehead with a pained sound, the other person catching their own balance before-

Something heavy and sharp whips over Aiden's shoulder and misses it by half an inch, Petra yelling a swear as she drops Reuben and dives out of the way. Jesse turns in time to see an axe thud into a tree, the blade sinking in practically up to the hilt.

Aiden yells his own swear a second later, and Jesse turns back to see a woman with pale blue hair gritting her teeth and glaring at them with red eyes, the pupil looking rather large as she pulls another axe out of her inventory, raising it and preparing to throw another one-

Jesse realizes that it's not her pupil. There's a ring of black around her pupil.

Red eye with a ring of black iris around her pupil and pale blue hair, which means-

"Wait!"

The axe is about to leave the woman's hand when she tightens her grip again to avoid hurling it at them, which means that the gleaming blade is following through along with her arm, which further means it slams into the stone path and bounces slightly, sending a spray of sparks everywhere as Mevia jolts, gritting her teeth.

Jesse hops out in front of Aiden, hands up in surrender. "We're not bad! We promise!"

She blinks a few times at them, looking comically tiny compared to Aiden and Petra, before looking up at the other two.

Her glare fades into simply raised eyebrows at the two familiar faces. "Aiden? Petra?" She straightens back up, lifting the axe and putting it away as she regards the two with faint surprise. "What are you two doing here?" She pauses, before glancing at Jesse. "Are they new?"

"Well, yes and no, this is Jesse-"

"Oh, that human that went into Narvid, yes," Mevia cuts Aiden off before he can finish, thumbing her lip as she regards them. "Hmm, looks like Romeo didn't eat their heart. Surprising; he's got less resolve than that usually."

Jesse decides not to comment on that, although Reuben does and he gives her a rather offended oink.

She keeps looking at Jesse. Her gaze is rather even, but Jesse doesn't seem to mind and just smiles brightly, sticking out their hand to shake. "Hi. I'm Jesse," they say cheerfully. "You're Mevia, right?"

She nods almost grudgingly, taking their hand and giving it a squeeze. "Yes... sorry about attacking you." The second part seems to be as a second thought.

Jesse gives her a sheepish little smile. "It's fine... I'm starting to get used to it, unfortunately."

Petra gives a laugh at that, and even Aiden cracks a tiny smile. Mevia's lips momentarily quirk up, but the smile is gone before Jesse can really place it being there.

"Fine. Come on, then," and Mevia begins to lead the way out of the almost labyrinthian maze of flowers and plants. "Let's meet up with the other two."

Chapter Text

Harper turns to look at them as Mevia draws even with them at the door. She smiles again, flicking a long lock of white hair to the side and making it glitter red in the light. "Hello, Mevia. I see you've met Jesse."

Apparently Gill's comment about Harper speaking 'normally' to other lords but not to other people was fairly accurate.

"Yes." She glances down at the tiny human, who just blinks back at her. "They're small."

"Very." Harper gives Jesse a lopsided smile before opening the door and walking in. "The others are already inside. We should begin."

Mevia raises her eyebrow and glances at Aiden, who's been doing his best to avoid talking to her the entire time. "What's so big that you need to talk to all three of us about it?"

"The keys," he replies simply.

Instantly, Mevia's somewhat dour demeanor softens into one of faint surprise. "Oh." Her sharp manner goes to something smoother, her hands folding carefully in front of her as she ponders this for a moment. "Oh, I see... yes, we should probably get on that."

She sweeps into the room, black-and-red dress sweeping the floor slightly as she enters. Aiden waits for her to fully enter before following, Petra quickly trotting after and leaving Jesse and Reuben to bring up the end.

A woman with fine black hair and red eyes with a ring of green around the pupil turns to look at them. Her expression lights up, and a moment later she's dashed forward and is wrapping Aiden in a hug. "Oh, look at you! You've shot up an inch."

"He'd better not beat me," Petra grumbles halfheartedly, but she's grinning.

Aiden's face has softened into a smile as he gives the older demon a squeeze. "Hey, Isa. How have you been? Sky City gotten any more hectic?"

"No, thankfully. You four were right, hiring Milo has done a world of help for our stress levels," the woman chuckles, eyes sparkling as she pulls back from the hug.

"By 'our' stress levels, you mean 'your' stress levels," Harper points out in a vaguely exasperated yet amused tone from where she's hiding slightly behind Mevia.

Maybe she doesn't like other demons. Jesse can't really blame her.

Isa rolls her eyes at the other lord. "Fine, my stress levels, if you're going to be that picky, Harper." She turns back to Aiden, releasing him and giving his hands a squeeze. "You're all here to discuss something about the keys, aren't you?"

A moment later, her eyes flicker to Jesse. There's a moment of confusion, before her eyes widen and she's suddenly stooping down and cupping their face, turning it from side to side. "Oh... you're a human, aren't you? I'm impressed you've made it this far without someone trying to eat you."

"The clothes do help... although the overalls are definitely still very human," Mevia muses, glancing over the fuzzy black jacket and red shirt Jesse is wearing. "Very clean, though."

"Well, we're not about to have a human go fight through a horde of demons, now are we?" Maya points out, but she's smiling anyway.

Reuben squeals, and a moment later something soft bumps into Jesse's legs. They look down to see a small chicken with a tiny crown and medallion clucking up at them.

"Oh!" Jesse stoops down, setting Reuben down on the floor and giving the chicken a little smile. "Hi there. You're very pretty, aren't you?"

The chicken clucks happily, giving Jesse's hand a friendly nip before butting up against their legs.

Isa smiles down at the chicken as well, reaching down and running a hand over the feathers. "Well, Jesse, it looks like Benedict quite likes you. And don't worry, she's harmless. Unless she's angry at you, but she very rarely is and trust me... you will be able to tell if she is angry."

"Ahh, okay..." Jesse rubs the chicken's head gently, which makes Benedict cluck happily. Reuben snuffles at the chicken, who also seems to like the vessel creature quite a bit.

Gill gives a nervous laugh, making Jesse look up at him. He seems to have been caught in the middle of an argument with Maya, because Maya looks taken aback by the lack and Lukas looks as though he's been physically interjecting in the argument. "Oh man. Uh, so, Isa's got, like... a really good knack with animals in Cosmos. I think some people have called her the Beast Tamer Lord."

Isa rolls her eyes at him, tsking slightly. "Gill, don't exaggerate," she chides, but there's a smile tugging at her lips.

Mevia speaks again, watching Benedict cluck happily. "The reason she's called that is twofold; one, she was able to tame a Cosmos horse in the shortest time known in Cosmos history, which was about three days."

"I think Jesse beat her out, they rode a horse for about half a day and then the horse branded them," Petra says, sounding vaguely amused.

Harper gives Isa a grin. "Competition," she hums, in a faintly sing-songy voice.

The look Isa gives Jesse now is one that is rather more impressed than before. If she'd been impressed at them not being dead, she was now very impressed with them taming a Cosmos horse. Jesse gets the feeling taming Bob is a bigger deal than staying alive. "Did they really..."

"The second reason," Mevia cuts back in, a vaguely amused expression on her face that has the hints of being somewhat exasperated at being interrupted, "is because she's the only demon who's managed to tame a hybrid creature as a familiar."

Jesse looks at Benedict.

Benedict clucks.

"Benedict's a hybrid?"

"Oh, yes." Isa nods and tickles the chicken under the chicken, making Benedict cluck quite happily. "Most other demons have a creature that can take on a more friendly form- like most demons themselves. However," she smiles down at Benedict, "Benedict's special in that their friendly form is one of their magical forms. You see, Benedict is a cockatrice-Eversource hybrid."

Jesse frowns slightly, pondering this. "... aren't cockatrices those... chicken-y animals where a rooster lays an egg and then a toad or snake incubates it and then it can kill someone by looking at them?"

A delighted smile spreads over her face, and she gives Aiden a mischievous grin that takes even more years off of her already youthful face. "I do believe you owe me a pastry now, Aiden."

Aiden groans loudly. "Look, most people don't know what a cockatrice is before you tell them..." he complains, but he doesn't seem too annoyed about having to buy Isa a pastry.

"Yes. Benedict's more real form is... well, imagine a small dragon, but with Benedict's head and red eyes, and you've got Benedict's real form. I'm not certain what Benedict looks like, in all certainty, she melted the camera when we tried to take a picture and we're not really wanting to look at her head-on in that form unless it's from behind her."

Harper crosses her arms. "I had to rebuild it. You're lucky I still had the blueprints and notes," she tells Isa, but there's a smile tugging at her face anyway.

"Thank you very much Harper, I deeply apologize for ruining the camera," Isa tells her in a tone that is slightly less than sincere but still amused, before glancing at Jesse. "The other half of Benedict is that she's an Eversource. Put simply... she lays eggs of other Cosmian creatures that we can then kill or shear to harvest items from and have an endless supply of whatever comes from creatures. Most of them are things we would want to kill anyway, so don't feel too badly," she adds quickly, upon seeing Jesse's dismayed face at the idea of killing animals.

Jesse looks down at Benedict, who clucks happily up at them. "... oh."

Lukas chuckles and goes over to pat them on the head, making the human blink up at him bemusedly. "Yeah, uh, maybe we could get the meeting started and discuss what we came here for? We're not trying to make Jesse's head explode."

"Oh!" Isa straightens up, a faint flush coming over her face as she realizes she's probably been rambling on about the pet.

Not that Jesse minds. Jesse likes animals.

"Oh, yes, I'm sorry." The woman clears her throat, quickly gliding across the floor and seating herself in a high-backed chair. Mevia and Harper follow suit, Mevia seating herself to Isa's right and Harper sitting quietly on the left without much fuss. Isa clears her throat again and straightens, face losing a bit of the faint embarrassment from rambling on about Benedict. "What matters have you come to approach us about?"

Gill gives Reginald a look. Reginald rolls his eyes and mouths something about politics back.

"Yes... you've heard about the party to be held in Yurin, right?" Lukas asks, tilting his head at the three of them.

"Oh, the party..." Isa nods, thumbing the corner of her mouth rather thoughtfully. "Yes... I believe the popular rumor is that nobody from Narvid was invited."

"Stella was invited." Harper is frowning now at the other two lords. "And Binta."

"Binta's the baroness in Fred's Keep, to the north of the Underneath," Gill tells Jesse in a stage whisper at their vaguely blank expression.

"Oh."

Mevia gives Harper a vaguely amused look at her comment. "Well, we know that, but then the Warden and Romeo weren't, and they're more... infamous among the denizens of Cosmos, than Stella and Binta. It's easy to overlook Binta sometimes."

"Sexism," Isa mutters under her breath.

A moment later, Mevia frowns thoughtfully and glances at the October Children, Petra, and Jesse. "Ah... could it be that you want help entering the party?"

"It would be appreciated," Aiden says politely, inclining his head slightly at the seated lords.

Petra shrugs. "I did receive an invitation, so I'm fine... but yeah, I think those five need one if we're going to get in and poke around for the key. And we do have about a month."

"Yes... well, of course we can help you enter the party-" Isa is cut off by Harper, who's leaned across the table to tap her on the shoulder. "Harper?"

Harper jerks her head at the October Children. She doesn't say anything at all, and yet Jesse can tell that a look passes between the three that conveys a world of words and knowledge, the kind of knowledge that only exists in the same mind.

That is confirmed when Mevia pulls away and looks at the October Children. "Actually," she begins, in a faintly hesitant voice.

But only faintly.

"We can help you with entering the party. But it would be appreciated if you could do a favor for the three of us...?" The request trails off, and yet Jesse gets the strange feeling that coming from the three lords, the request is tantamount almost to a demand.

At least it's a rather politely phrased demand.

Lukas turns to look at the other October Children. "I have no trouble doing a favor. What about you guys?"

Maya shrugs, playing with the thread on her sleeve. "As long as the favor doesn't involve any murder of fellow half-demons or just demons, I'm good with it."

"I guess it's good practice," Gill agrees, stretching enough that Jesse can hear his spine pop a little bit as he does so.

Aiden sighs and gives Isa a slightly tired smile. "Well, you've done more than enough for us. One small favor won't be the end of the world. What is it?"

"There is a creature that holds immense power to the east of here. It's partway between the End and Sky City," Isa begins, almost mulling her words over after giving them a grateful smile.

"We desire that power," Mevia says simply.

"Bring it to us alive," Harper chimes in without skipping a beat.

"And we'll help you get into the party and beyond that," the three lords chorus in complete unison.

Jesse supposes it's easy to speak in total unison if the three of them are literally all the same person.

Aiden frowns slightly. "Sorry if this is a private matter," he begins, giving Isa a faintly apologetic smile that she waves off quickly, "but I've never known you three to desire power. Maybe Mevia sometimes-"

Mevia gives the other two lords a grin when they look at her.

"But not all three of you. What gives?"

The three lords glance at each other, before Isa looks back at Aiden. Her smile has faded to a look that is almost regally icy. "We believe that the creature has enough power to neutralize the radiation in Sky City."

Gill's eyes widen, jaw eking open. "Wha... that powerful? Are you serious?"

"Deadly," Mevia replies quietly, her own smirk having faded to a serious expression that is almost at odds with the glare or smirk that is perpetually on her face.

Even though everyone is exchanging looks that show they clearly understand, Jesse feels as though they've missed something vital.

So they clear their throat and raise their hand slightly. "Um... radiation?"

Every eye in the room snaps to them. There is a moment of pause.

And then the moment passes.

Harper gestures vaguely around them. "Smoke?"

Jesse blinks, scratching their cheek. "Well, I don't smoke, but I've seen all that smoke and steam and stuff rising from under the platforms, and I assume that's what you're talking about."

"Yes, if you smoked I'd have to slap you," Lukas said, giving them a look that Jesse can only assume is scolding.

Harper covers her mouth. She looks like she might be coughing.

But Jesse can still see her smile when she lowers her hand.

Isa decides to pick up on the topic. "Right. That smoke? It's an effect of... radiation, I guess you could say, that keeps Cosmo's magic and matter together. It's the reason Cosmos is easily habitable for demons. The problem is, the demons who first built Sky City didn't realize that heavy exposure to the radiation could result in... well..."

She ponders this for a moment longer, before shifting out of the throne again.

Lukas, without warning, picks Jesse up. Jesse yelps as he does so, bouncing as he backs up several feet, away from the throne. He doesn't seem to be the only one with that reaction; Aiden has also backed away a few paces while Maya sidles behind Gill. Harper and Mevia also have pressed their backs into their own thrones. Reginald, who has been near the door, is now pressing his back into the wall.

Jesse only has a moment to wonder why before Isa's form shifts into an indistinct glow. Her form begins to change, quickly but steadily. Indistinct blobs of form sharpen and shape themselves, snapping into focus quite quickly, shaping and shaping and carving itself, the glow growing larger and larger-

Two hands slam into the ground, inches from Jesse and Lukas.

Not to mention, they're about the size of Jesse and Lukas combined as well.

Four eyes the size of a television blink open, unevenly and opening and closing until they're all staring right at Jesse. The pupils are all a uniform red, except for the patches around the pupils which are very awkward sizes. One is the size of a donut, and the other almost fills the red.

The shape of Isa's head has changed. The jaw has unhinged to reveal dozens and dozens of rows of sharp, gleaming white teeth, practically needlepoints guarding a sharp, snakelike tongue. The back has cracked into a spiny, monstrous thing, scaly and leathery and gleaming gold in the light, and the hands are only vaguely human (with claws set in them, except for nails), with gnarled, overly large knuckles and joints.

The legs bend wrong, looking more like a cat's than a human's in terms of the way they bend, and yet they are distinctly reptilian and human all at once, with long feet that almost feel like a rabbit's. Six tails twist and turn in the air behind her, barely able to move without brushing against Mevia and Harper, who are simply watching with mild, if not emotionless, expressions.

Jesse can't really think of anything to say to this except:

"Oh."

Chapter Text

Isa shrinks back down to normal in the span of less than half a second. She seems almost relieved at not being in that form.

(Then again, she's almost bigger than the room in that other form. So maybe it's just a matter of it being uncomfortable or something. Jesse can imagine it would be rather uncomfortable to be crammed into a space that you can barely fit in without contorting into thirty different yoga poses at once.

Now they're wondering if she does yoga. Wonderful.)

"On the contrary, most demons don't look like a giant monster made out of clay. Most of them, while having frightening appearances, do still have more human elements."

Isa rolls her eyes, for some reason. "I've heard so many demons complain about how much 'lesser' that seems, but then they're the ones going around looking like humans."

Ah, that's why.

Mevia snorts. "They're a bunch of bloody hypocrites."

"What the extended, heavy radiation does," Isa resumes after giving a single rather emphatic nod to that statement, "is that it changes our true form. Extra eyes, extra appendages, sometimes mutating the size of limbs or the appearance of 'skin' or 'hair'. Perhaps to the contrary of what many think, I didn't always have six tails and four eyes. And I'm not supposed to be that big."

Jesse thumbs the corner of their mouth, taking that into consideration. "I see..."

"For us lords, the radiation isn't that bad, because it amplifies the power we already have and that helps to nullify the unbalancing or sometimes detrimental effects of developing scales or skin, extra limbs that could potentially be horribly unbalancing, or an extra eye that could add too much perspective."

Mevia picks up now. "But many of the inhabitants in Sky City find that those extra effects give them a distinct disadvantage in battles in that form, and unfortunately those disadvantages sometimes carries into their more human form. We had one demon who grew a third arm in the center of their chest, and even in their human form it caused lung and heart problems until they died."

"It wasn't very soon afterwards. They were in a fight. That extra arm was a hindrance even when it wasn't physically present," Isa adds quite bluntly.

"... I see..." Jesse feels as though they've been saying 'I see' too much.

"Water." Harper taps her lip and shakes her head. "Worse."

"Oh, yes, the water carries the radiation more heavily. As bad as it is to inhale the radiation and be sitting in basically a stewpot of magical radiation all day," Mevia picks up again, "it's even worse to actually ingest it as though it were water, at least to newcomers, and can actually be dangerous in that amount of concentration. The citizens of Sky City are used to it, and to a point the smoke or simply having the radiation on one's skin helps to nullify the effects and make them a little less violent."

Jesse has to wonder how Mevia managed to get all of that out of two words.

"But neutralizing the radiation could potentially reduce some of the side effects," Isa chimes in.

"Stop picking up perfectly, it's creepy," Gill murmurs to himself a bit louder than he perhaps intended.

Maya stamps on his foot.

"Or even reverse them," Isa continues, perhaps ignoring the way Gill is now cussing and hopping up and down in pain. "To a point, it could make it safer to live here without worrying about the effects of the radiation, or at least have a more solid method of stopping it from getting to the point where it could be dangerous even in our human forms."

"Which is why something immensely powerful could be helpful to us," Mevia agrees. "With that power, it could just stop the radiation from getting worse."

Lukas gives the three lords a pleasant smile and a slight incline of the head. "If that is the reason you three are looking to capture the creature, then I suppose we wouldn't mind helping out. It's only fair."

"Thank you," Harper utters, but she's smiling in faint relief.

(Perhaps she was thinking they would say no. They can't really blame her.)

"In that case, we leaving Jesse here?" Gill asks, cocking his head to the side. "I mean, I'm sure they'd be safe in the palace, but I don't know most of the guards, and I'm not sure how comfortable I am leaving them in a crowd of demons that very much would like to eat them."

Maya frowns, crossing her arms. "Oh, that's true... and we can hardly have Isa or Mevia tote them around, they're all pretty busy and I dunno how long it's going to take..."

Petra glances down at them as Jesse timidly pipes up, twisting their fingers slightly while Reuben snuffles happily in their grip. "I... um... I wanna come, too."

Harper's smile turns down at the corners into a slight frown. "Safe?"

"I don't know... it could be dangerous for a human to just sort of be shoved in there," Mevia frowns, rubbing a finger along her jaw as she stares hard at the human. "For both you and everyone involved."

Jesse purses their lips slightly, tilting their head to one side. "I can just run away from the creature, if it comes to it... or hide."

"You would be very good at hiding," Aiden replies drily, but Isa's got her arms crossed and is frowning at Jesse now.

"It'd be pretty dangerous, unless you're very quick and can move quickly..."

She ponders this for a moment, before cocking her head at them and giving them a lopsided smile. "Why don't we try something? If you can get through a challenge of ours without getting hit, you can go along with them. Otherwise we'll have to figure something else out, since... if you're still, I imagine Romeo would be quite angry about you ending up dead."

Jesse blinks a couple of times at this.

"What's the challenge?"

Harper crosses her arms, giving Mevia a pondering sort of look. "Agility?"

"Agility could work..." Mevia glances at Isa, a question in her eyes. Upon receiving Isa's nod, she turns back to Jesse.

"We would put you through a challenge that would test how well you can dodge. The creature is powerful enough that shielding would probably result in simply shattering the shield, so it would be more of a test of your reflexes and speed to make sure you'd be able to dodge the creature's attacks. I assume you're not going to actually be fighting," she adds.

Jesse shakes their head quite rapidly at that. "No, I would die instantly."

"You're not wrong," Aiden mumbles under his breath.

Lukas steps on his foot.

"Then it would be best to make sure you have the ability to move out of the way quickly if necessary," Isa picks up, shooting Aiden a faintly amused look as he hops up and down and swears quietly, glaring halfheartedly at Lukas the whole time. "We won't use any real weapons or attacks. It would just be a test of reflexes and speed."

Jesse blinks at her.

... well, they can run pretty quick... and their reflexes aren't that bad, really.

"... okay."


"Ready?"

"No."

Isa can't help but smile at the response from the tiny human standing at the other end of the hallway. They're quite hard to see, except for a little fuzzy black jacket and their fluffy hair. "We're not going to hurt you. If anything the weapons will give you a small bruise, but they're practice weapons and not that bad."

"... I'm still not ready."

Aiden snorts from where he is behind the wooden fenced-off area that they're standing in, and Mevia laughs at that. Actually laughs. "Fair enough, but we gotta do it anyway."

"Okay."

Harper is giving Jesse a rather amused/fond/sad sort of look, before her red-and-gray eyes flicker to the other two.

They're adorable.

Isa's lips quirk into a smile, eyes gravitating over to Jesse.

They are, she responds mentally as well. They'll probably go for me or Harper, since we are less threatening than you are, Mevia.

You appear less threatening.

Isa resists the urge to roll her eyes. Fine. We appear less threatening. But the fact remains that they'll most likely head for us, so we should keep our attacks in that area.

Harper nods and looks back at Jesse. "Jesse, are you ready now?"

"No, but we can start..."

At least they're honest.

The thought goes through all three women's heads at the same time, before Isa lifts her hand. "Let us begin, then," she says simply.

The human lifts their hand and gives a thumbs' up.

Mevia's wrist quirks, and a wooden axe is suddenly spinning over and over, sailing in a would-be-deadly-if-it-was-real arc at Jesse-

Jesse skips sideways, the axe clacking and spinning as it bounces on the floor harmlessly before it zips off of the floor and back into Mevia's grip.

Jesse looks at where the axe was, about three feet from where they are standing now, then back up at the three.

They start to jog towards the three lords.

Several small, mechanical bundles of redstone fly from Harper's hand. Jesse breaks into a near-sprint, abruptly going from ten to a hundred and dashing across the hallway as they manage to hop, skip, and tumble around one of the redstone bundles and avoid tripping and falling flat on their face.

A minute later, all of the bundles detonate, spraying a fine spray of gunpowder everywhere.

Not another minute later, the entire mess gives off several tiny, popping explosions.

Jesse's going in a full-out sprint now, ignoring the tiny explosions, already having reached the halfway point.

Isa shifts and then leaps forward from where she's standing in the center of the three, a flicker of light on wood changing in her hands as she shoots forward-

Jesse has barely touched down into their next step before they're sidestepping a wooden blade sweeping through the air, right through where they were moments before and narrowly missing thwacking painfully into their head.

Isa's red eyes flicker down, and she launches herself backwards, making Jesse do a backwards tumble as the resulting wind from the jump is strong enough to bowl them over.

The tumble doesn't break their momentum, though, as the moment their feet touch down solidly they are digging into the ground before spitting them forward rapidly.

Lukas hums thoughtfully, leaning forward and resting his chin on his hand. "Huh. They're doing a good job. Most people would've gotten knocked out already..."

A wooden axe comes boomeranging at Jesse, and they've barely ducked under it, the wood spinning wildly as it sails up into the air, before they twist their foot to one side and roll in midair, the redstone bundle soaring an inch over their shoulder.

They plop to the floor and roll sideways as the axe spins back around, wheeling through the air above them and back into Mevia's grip, but they don't wait to watch that happen and are already up on their feet again as the 'bomb' pops behind them.

... they're doing a good job.

Yes. Good reflexes. Mevia hefts her axe before winding up to throw it at them and flicking her wrist-

Jesse dives to the left, rather than flinching as was Mevia's intention, since Harper's next bomb (toy? Mevia's not sure) goes flying straight over them, skittering across the floor and exploding in a small series of pops and sparks that fizzle out against the floor.

Jesse's crossed three-quarters of the room, and they're sprinting directly for Harper.

Isa gives her wrist a little shake, the blade of the wooden sword in her right hand sliding out of the hilt-

- and continuing to, until it's about the size of a small tree.

Maya whistles, giving a sage nod. "Damn. They're pulling out the big guns now. Longest anyone's survived in this challenge."

Aiden thumbs the corner of his mouth. "They are small, but... I guess it's like watching a squirrel run up a tree. The things are fucking quick."

The wooden sword reacts to the tiniest twitch of Isa's wrist, slamming heavily into the floor inches from Jesse, but the tiny human doesn't flinch or balk at the violent motion, even as the wood of the blade crumples from the impact slightly, and instead just vaults over it and sprints for Harper.

... have they had practice fighting before?

Harper tugs out an object that she honestly would have to call something along the lines of a sci-fi blaster, flicking a few switches to turn it to a safer mode and then raising it to point at Jesse.

They seem to be quite good at dodging.

She shoots.

The laser is a harmless beam that honestly will do nothing more than tickle, but it doesn't matter because it completely misses, Jesse ducking down while continuing their sprint before shooting forward like a bullet, still making their way across the hall.

Almost there.

Harper hums, tilting her head slightly and giving them an appraising sort of look before flicking another switch.

Gill blinks. "Oh, that switch..."

Petra glances at him, almost seeming reluctant to take her eyes off of the high-speed one-sided fight where Jesse is ducking and dodging around like a pinball. "You know what it does?"

Harper fires again, but this time the lasers that come out spit out much faster now, several blurs and flashes of movement coming about a millisecond apart, glowing shots of light peppering the air in a blur.

"Yeah, she showed it to me once. I guess she finished her machine gun function."

The human dives forward into a roll, ending up on their feet and practically throwing themselves sideways not a few seconds later in a sort of bizarre cartwheel, narrowly avoiding more of those flashing lasers that burst harmlessly on the wall behind them.

Isa flicks her wrist, wheeling the huge sword around in a motion that makes the wind rush around them, rustling the human's fluffy hair, before arcing down-

The human bolts forward.

There is a small space between the two that the human shoots through, almost as though fired from a cannon, their movement sending them halfway across the room in a single motion.

Harper's arm lowers as she turns to look at them.

... oh.

Isa glances at her at the thought that flits through Harper's head and is shared by the other two.

That was clever.

In a flying leap, the human manages to cross the rest of the space needled to tackle Mevia back a step, arms locking around her tightly in a sort of rough hug.

The last few lasers burst against the wall, leaving the room in disarray without looking as though it was torn apart.

Lukas whistles slightly, drumming his fingers on the fence while Gill, Maya, Aiden, and Petra stare wordlessly at the human, mouths all hanging open. "Well, they're a bundle of surprises, aren't they."

Mevia blinks down at the tiny human currently hugging her around the midriff, panting like a tiny puppy and trembling from where they're hugging her tightly, before a ghost of a smile quirks over her mouth and she pats them on the back.

"Good job."

Jesse gives her a small thumbs' up, still trembling in her grip from where they're clinging to her.

Harper gently pulls Jesse off of Mevia and lifts them up to eye height.

Their eyes are slightly glazed over with the effort of exertion, but they also have a slightly frightened expression on their face from perhaps the violence of the attacks, regardless of the fact that none of the weapons were really real weapons.

She pokes their cheek.

They blink glazed eyes without really reacting.

She gives a sigh and pulls them to her in a sort of awkward hug. "Oh, gravel."

Chapter Text

Harper stoops down to pick up a fallen comparator, glancing over at Jesse, who is sitting on a cot in the corner and playing with Reuben happily.

If not somewhat shakily.

After the somewhat-successful test (which resulted in Jesse not really being that responsive for an hour out of shock from all the attacks, which meant that they just sort of trailed after Harper or just sat on the floor and stared off into space occasionally), Isa decided the October Children should rest before going to face the creature the next day.

Well, and so that Jesse wouldn't basically rag-doll during what was shaping up to be a fight.

That would be quite inconvenient.

If not deadly.

(They were pretty sure Jesse would go back to normal the next day.)

"Oh, hey, what is the creature?" Maya asked at one point before she was about to head off to her room, the other October Children pausing in the doorway along with her.

Petra wasn't with them due to the fact that she'd been trying to coax Jesse off of clinging onto Harper for the past half an hour and was still attempting to, Jesse just hugging Harper with a faintly blank-frightened expression and blinking periodically like a baby koala.

(Harper was sorely tempted to turn Jesse into a baby koala just to see what they looked like as one.

She was repressing the urge quite impressively.)

"We should probably have a better idea of what we're going to be handling," Maya continued, Lukas giving the tiniest inclination of his head in agreement.

Mevia shrugged nonchalantly in reply. "We don't know."

At the absolutely boggled looks all five half-demons proceeded to send her, she quickly amended, "Or, rather, we don't know exactly. We know it's large."

"It's dangerous enough that some of the demons we've sent have either... not come back... or just came back..." Isa looked over at Harper and Jesse.

Harper glanced at Jesse, who was still clinging onto her.

She hefted them up slightly, poking their cheek experimentally.

They blinked again, still not really reacting.

"Well, a bit like Jesse, really, except more permanent," Isa finished, going over and giving Jesse's a pat, as if they were some sort of pet.

They blinked once more.

Gill rubbed the bridge of his nose, making a soft sound of frustration. "Yes, but you don't know what it is?" he asked, incredulity evident in every word he spoke.

"No, but we know it's not very reliant on magic," Isa adds, fairly brightly.

"Yes, Isa, that's not helpful at all-"

Harper shook her head softly, giving her eyes a roll at the memory of Lukas stamping on Aiden's foot to get him to stop talking.

He tended to do that a fair bit with Aiden, in all honesty.

She glanced over at Jesse, who had rolled over when Reuben had plopped onto their chest a minute before and were now giggling as the pig gently walked on their chest, oinking happily.

They had not released her until she'd set them down on her (slightly dirty) cot; and then Reuben had wiggled his way into their arms and they'd blinked before sitting back and leaning against the wall, focusing carefully on the little pig.

It had eventually improved from staring to smiling to playing slightly, and then Jesse had ended up on their back on the bed giggling happily while the pig walked around.

She dusted some redstone dust off her hands and drifted over to them. A small smile was tugging at her lips at the sight of Jesse squirming gently with the little pig.

It was a cute pig.

"Cute."

(She'd really meant to say 'that's really quite a cute pig', but she was so used to talking mentally or having people around her intuitively understand what she was talking about or even just complete silence that the only thing that came out was the most pertinent word.

Sometimes she really wished she'd been the part of Himira who liked to talk to people, and not the one that had spent so much time thinking.)

Jesse looked up at her as Reuben paused in snuffling against their cheek. "Oh... yeah, Reuben's pretty cute."

Harper couldn't have told you how relieved she was that Jesse had not misinterpreted her words.

They shifted up with the tiny chicken, carefully moving aside and let Harper sit down on the cot next to them, rubbing the pig's head gently.

Harper cocked her head at Jesse, who was still rubbing Reuben down gently. "Better?"

"Hm?" Her head popped up to let their eyes move up to meet hers. "Better than what?"

Harper shook her head gently, tapping Jesse on the shoulder and getting some glittery red dust on the fuzzy black jacket they'd been wearing. "You." Then she cocked her head to one side, blinking at Jesse almost hesitantly. "Better?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm okay." They blinked up at her with large green eyes.

(Any demon just had to look at their eyes and they'd know they weren't a demon.

She had to wonder what Ivor's opinion of them would be. He'd always had a soft spot for cute things.

She also had to wonder why she was suddenly wondering what Ivor's opinion of Jesse would be.)

"Good." She took off her glove and patted them on the fuzzy jacket, making little shivers of something wrong sneak up her hand, not just one but several (mental scarring, physical, someone doing something very very wrong to them), but she didn't reveal the shivers, not this time.

"Fast."

Jesse seemed to be mulling over her words and trying to puzzle out the meaning, which makes Harper somewhat glad that she can't really communicate properly because damn that's adorable. "I recovered... quickly?"

"No. Movement."

"Oh! I moved fast in the agility challenge?"

Harper gives them an encouraging nod and patted their shoulder (they needed it, and she didn't at all care about the shudders that snuck up her hands and her arms when Jesse gave a tiny pink flush of pride). "How?"

"How'd I learn to? Um..." Jesse played with their fingers when they received another confirming nod, Reuben snuffling and pressing his nose to their hands until he nosed his way in and they started rubbing his head, occasionally rubbing his ears between their fingers like it was a piece of felt.

"I used to pass by a dojo on my way to school... a dojo is a place where you practice, like, martial arts and stuff," they said quickly when they noticed Harper's confused look.

She nodded as her confusion cleared up, encouraging them to continue, even as she noticed that they said 'used to'.

Did they walk a different route now? Or perhaps they were already getting used to Cosmos?

(She wasn't entirely sure which one she hoped it was.)

"And, uh... there was an area where you could test reflexes and movement... it was pretty cool, actually; most people couldn't get through it well... and sometimes when I didn't really wanna head home, the sensei would let me try in that area, and I just kinda... ended up learning, I guess," Jesse finishes, contemplating this carefully.

Harper tilted her head. "Why?"

"Why would he let me try? I dunno, maybe he liked me or somethin', though I'm not sure why..." Jesse mused over this, apparently having been wondering this for a while.

Harper shook her head at the incorrect interpretation.

Well, internally she was thinking that if the sensei hadn't liked Jesse, she would've had to go into the human world just for the sake of finding that dojo and then smacking him over the head with a baseball bat, but that wasn't the actual question she'd been trying to ask.

"No. Home?"

"Oh, why would I... not wanna go... um..." Jesse twisted their fingers as they realized what she was trying to get at, cheeks pinking slightly. "I... just didn't really wanna."

Harper could feel the lie on their tongue.

She shifted faintly closer, Reuben snuffling gently and rubbing his nose on Jesse's overalls lightly.

"Hurt you?"

Her tone was questioning, and she was trying to avoid her brow creasing slightly although she knew it would do it anyway because it was just the way her brow moved whenever she was concerned and she'd worked to correct the habit for a hundred years and it hadn't happened, so why would it happen now?

Jesse's eyes moved to their lap, rubbing the pig gently as they refused to meet her eyes now.

Maybe it was her imagination, but they looked almost afraid to answer the question.

Why would they be afraid?

"No... not really."

Harper frowned, reaching up and gently pressing a finger to their warm cheek.

More shivers shot up her spine, just feeling bad and wrong, but she didn't pull away because Jesse wouldn't look at her otherwise.

All wrong.

Lying, lying, more lying, why were they lying, why were they afraid?

"Hurt." She tried to lean down to meet their eyes, blinking gray-and-red irises carefully and slowly, almost as if approaching a skittish little wild animal.

"Who did that to you?"

A really bad shiver went up Harper's arm, making her pull away just as Jesse shifted away from her, hugging the pig tightly, still refusing to meet her eyes, a chasm suddenly forming between the two of them as they looked at each other- well, she looked at them, they still weren't looking up at her.

They both knew Jesse knew what she was talking about, and they both knew that both of them knew, and yet neither of them acknowledged the fact.

It was as if they were waiting for the other to address it.

Neither did.

"Can I sleep in here?"

Harper blinked at Jesse, surprise undoubtedly creeping into her eyes at the sudden, rather awkward request. "Here?"

Jesse bobs their head, shuffling onto the cot again almost shyly. "Yeah... you've got a cot, and- and I mean if you don't want me to, I'm okay with leaving, I just-"

I just don't want to sleep alone.

Harper knew what Jesse was going to say even before they said anything, so she just rested a hand on their shoulder and cut off their nervous babbling.

(A little reluctantly, they were quite cute about it, but the startled-cat look they proceeded to give her was quite worth it.)

"Okay."

Jesse blinked at her, still looking quite startled. "I can... stay in here?"

Harper nodded.

"Oh." Jesse twisted their fingers, a shy, sweet little smile creeping over their mouth. Really, it was quite adorable. "Thank you, Harper."

"Yes." She gave their head a little pat, ignoring the shudders that shot up her spine, and got up. The cot creaked slightly from the lessening of weight. "Work."

"You're gonna work more?" Jesse tried, and looked quite pleased when they got it right and she nodded. "Okay... if you need me to go to my room, just wake me up. I don't mind."

Reuben snorted in agreement, puffing up his little pink chest and making both of them laugh fondly at the pig.

(Quite a cute vessel creature.)

(Rather fitting for a cute human.)

"Thank you."

She gave them another light pat, feeling their hair bounce under her hand, before she stood and walked back to where she'd been working, picking up the comparator and looking at the machine, evaluating where to set it next.

In her peripheral vision, she watched Jesse curl up on the cot, still hugging Reuben tightly, and close their eyes.

Several minutes passed of her awkwardly trying to figure out where to place the comparator before she realized Jesse had somehow fallen asleep already, still tightly hugging the little pink pig who was also starting to snuffle as sleep overtook them both.

She walked over, tugged the blanket at the foot of the cot over them both gently, and went back to work.


It was past midnight before Harper would even admit she was tired. She'd been tinkering with tools and redstone- quietly, to avoid waking up the tiny human, but also because it was not in her nature to be loud and noisy and bothersome, it had never really been in her nature, not even when she and Isa and Mevia had been one person, not even when she wasn't Harper or Isa or Mevia, she'd just been Himira- to the point where this machine functioned remotely normally, and so she allowed herself to relax, rubbing a red-and-gray eye tiredly and letting out a soft sigh.

Mevia and Isa would be dragging her to bed right around now, if they opened the door and found her still up and working. Cassie would drag her to bed, Otto would, Ivor would threaten to tie her down or drug her with a sleeping potion if she didn't go to bed but halfheartedly, teasingly, careful to make sure she knew he was kidding.

(He was nice that way.)

(They were all nice that way.)

She turned around to her cot, fully intending to curl up in the blankets- and then paused upon seeing the small body entangled in the blankets.

Oh, right. Jesse was borrowing her bed. She'd forgotten.

She debated her options at this point in time.

Option 1: Wake Jesse up and send them back to their room.

Which was probably the most logical option, but at the same time, Jesse was probably rather tired, and waking them up now could make them rather groggy tomorrow, which, considering they were going to face up against a monster, was perhaps not the greatest option.

Not to mention, Harper would have to lead Jesse back to their room, and she wasn't entirely sure of where it was herself.

(Sometimes she regretted the house being as large as it was.)

Option 2: Sleep on the floor.

Which made sense, but Harper wasn't going to lie, she wasn't too happy about sitting on her floor, let alone sleeping on it.

It was covered in redstone and tools and dirt (and dust, she had to admit, she hadn't cleaned for days or weeks or months or years, not properly), not to mention the wood was hard on her back.

(She wasn't as young as she'd been once.)

Option 3: Sleep on the bed with them.

Which made no sense, as she didn't know what Jesse's reaction to waking up with Harper lying next to them in the bed was going to be; not to mention she ran the risk of creeping them out, and goodness knows she didn't want that.

But then again, the other options weren't very nice, either.

Finally, after a long while of thinking she sighed and shifted the blanket, shifting aside the tiny lump under the blanket to the side so that she could at least rest halfway stably on the cot before lifting up the blanket and creeping in next to them, adjusting it around them both so that they got a reasonable amount of blanket each.

As it was, she ended up curling around them to keep from knocking them off the cot.

Jesse murmured something and buried their head into her shoulder, instinctively curling towards her in search of warmth or human (well, demon) touch.

She stared down at them, before sighing and shifting a little, resting an arm loosely on their back and encircling them in a one-armed hug, feeling a few shivers of wrong, wrong, wrong sneak up her arms.

Well, if it was this or falling off the bed... she'd pick this.

The little pig snuffled happily in the nest that Jesse and Harper formed, nose twitching as he rolled into Jesse. Jesse's slightly creased brow relaxed slightly as they curled up closer to Harper, breathing a little more easily.

(Okay. This was nice. She liked this.)

"Night."

She murmured that to Jesse, who she did not expect to respond- they were fast asleep, after all, not to mention it was quiet, and after all why would they respond besides maybe a grunt even if they were awake-

"Nigh' mom."

Harper's eyes, which had started fluttering shut, snapped wide open as her eyes flicked down to look at Jesse, who was almost curled up against her chest in their sleep now, breathing quietly with soft, even sounds as they had their fingers tangled in her collar.

They called her mom.

Was that who hurt them?

No, because then they would be trying to move away from her, not curl up into her like a tiny human kitten that needed to be petted and cuddled and held and loved, and besides, they would not replace a mother that easily.

Humans were like demons.

They formed attachments quickly.

If it were Jesse's mother, they would not be able to dismiss that attachment that quickly.

(Then perhaps they don't have a mother, her treacherous mind told her. Perhaps they don't have one at all. Perhaps you can take that role.)

(She told her mind to shut up. Attachments couldn't be formed that quickly.)

(Could they?)

So that left a father.

Or an uncle.

Or an aunt.

Or even a grandparent.

But that was still too many possibilities, and it could be none of them or even all of them at once. The magnitude of the hurt that Jesse felt was too much for only one person to have dealt to them. That was not the hurt of someone who'd been hurt by one person over and over; it was the hurt of someone who had been beaten down at every opportunity, by every person.

It was wrong.

All wrong.

Too much.

Too many people.

Who did that to them?

Harper looked down at Jesse again, the little tiny seventeen-year-old (seventeen, seventeen, they looked seven and eleven and twelve and thirteen and maybe even fifteen but they looked any and every age except for seventeen) enveloped against her chest in sleep, clinging to her collar as though it was going to be a last resort that they would need to grasp at at any and every opportunity.

Why would anyone do that to them?

Harper ended up not getting that much sleep that night.

Chapter Text

The cave loomed high in front of the October Children (plus Petra and Jesse), high enough that when Jesse tilted their head back to look at the top it looked like the opening extended up to swallow the clouds into darkness.

Speaking of darkness, the cave itself was so dark that it was difficult to see more than three feet inside. Seriously; it seemed to be light up until two feet in, and then it looked as though the rest of the insides had been purposefully soaked in squid ink, pitch black that was almost tangible.

Jesse was a little frightened to go near it.

Gill whistled, hands on his hips as he surveyed the maw of the cave with an almost impressed look on his face. "Welp. They weren't kidding when they said we needed to bring light for this."

"No kidding." Lukas squinted into the cave, as if trying to make out more past the almost permeating darkness and having no luck with this attempt, since it was so black that you couldn't have done better than if you'd soaked a piece of paper in ink entirely. "It's a good thing, too; I'm not the best with light spells right now."

"None of us are," Aiden replied, shifting the lantern he was holding.

He hadn't lit it yet- something about wanting to save the oil in case- but he had it at the ready and it was comforting just to see it hooked on his arm, at the ready to be lit just in case they needed it.

"It's nice that they were willing to provide us with stuff," he added after a moment.

"Of course they would; they're not heartless," Petra chimed into the conversation; her sword was resting almost lazily on her shoulder, like she went into caves and fought mystery monsters every day.

Then again, maybe she did. Jesse wouldn't have an idea about what she usually did.

"This'll be interesting. Usually they don't just chuck us straight into the heart of things without warning, you know?"

She mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like 'that's usually Ivor's job', but Jesse wasn't sure if they'd heard her right so they didn't ask. They got the feeling Ivor was the kind of lord who might be forgetful enough to forget to tell Petra what she was up against.

Romeo was probably the kind of lord to just omit the fact for the drama of it, to be fairly honest.

Maya hummed, flicking some nut-brown hair out of the way of her blue eyes. "Well, I think they usually know... what we're up against."

"True that."

Jesse clutched the straps of their green backpack a little tighter. Reuben snuffled from inside the backpack, his head poking out the top like he was a plushie.

Yes, of course Reuben was inside. Jesse was hardly about to go ducking and diving away from whatever this monster was and leave Reuben scurrying to catch up with them. That was mean.

"Everyone got plenty of those redstone things that Harper gave us?" Lukas double-checked, receiving a chorus of 'yes'es, nods, and a few people holding up the item in question. Jesse unzipped their backpack to show that Reuben was practically padded in the stuff from where he was sitting in the backpack.


Harper held out several small packets of redstone to the departing October Children- enough that she almost dropped several until everyone took a good handful to alleviate her load.

They honestly looked a little like sugar packets in restaurants that you tear open and then dump into tea or coffee or something, except they were translucent and you could see every granule of redstone plus some kind of mystery goopy substance inside.

Also, you probably wouldn't care to stick this stuff in your tea. Or your coffee. Or in your body in general.

Or maybe you would, but you probably would've just had a stomachache afterwards. Or food poisoning.

"Light," she uttered once everyone had several of the mystery packets.

"These provide light?" Jesse guessed when nothing else was forthcoming, Harper nodding with a pleased sort of smile at the guess.

"Trail."

Jesse looked back at the packets, turning 'trail' over in their head; then back up at the white-haired demon lord with an excited look on their face as it clicked. "Oh! Kinda like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs? Except, um..."

They looked at the sugar-like packets in their hands, watching redstone dust smudge around the inside and slurp around in the weird goopy substance.

"... inedible."

"Oh, really? Couldn't have guessed," Gill joked back, even as Harper pointed at Jesse with an almost proud nod for guessing it right.

"Well, yeah, you're a fucking idiot," was Maya's sharp reply.

Gill's response was to nearly break her rib by elbowing her, and her response to this was to smack him over the back of the head with her staff and almost crack his skull since, well, it was her staff.

Things went downhill from there.

Harper mimed throwing, one of the redstone packets in her hand, either not noticing the way Mevia had just picked Maya up and was now holding her across the room from Gill to avoid one of them accidentally maiming the other or just deliberately ignoring it.

Honestly, it was a toss-up either way.

"Throw..." She mimed throwing the packet again.

"Um... throw... like this?" Jesse tossed one of the packets of redstone to the ground.

To their surprise, it immediately started emitting a rosy, warm glow. "Oh!"

"Automatic," Harper added.

Lukas glanced at the packets, then up at Harper. "So if we get separated, we should just toss them down and it'll automatically make a trail so that we can find each other again?" he 'translated'.

Jesse had to honestly wonder how he'd managed to get that out of a single word, especially when Harper nodded at him pleasantly.

Then again, he probably had known Harper long enough to interpret what she was trying to say anyway. So it wasn't all that weird.

"Um... thank you!" they said, giving her a small smile when she looked at them. "I mean, hopefully we... won't, get separated, but it's still good to have in case."

"Yes, it doesn't hurt to be prepared," Isa mused, fiddling with her sleeve as she kept Gill from jumping at Maya with her free elbow. "Do be careful not to crush them, though; I believe these will last for a few hours but it's still better to not activate them until it's necessary."

Jesse nodded seriously, carefully tucking them into the inside pockets of their jackets. (Inside pockets were a gift from whatever god or heavenly being existed.) "So don't squish 'em unless necessary. Got it."

Mevia's lips twitched at the use of the word 'squish', and she ended up having to turn away so that they didn't see the tiny smile on her face.

It was too late. They'd seen the quirk of her mouth. But they didn't gloat about it.

It was a nice smile.

Harper nodded and gave Jesse a little squeeze, patting their back. "Safe."

"Stay safe?" they translated. "I'll try... I'm not sure how well I'll do, though."

She patted them again. "Agility."

"Yeah, I'll be sure to dodge as much as I can," they promised, which earned them another pat.

They kind of liked it.


"Well... you guys ready to go in?" Lukas asked, fidgeting with his sleeve slightly and tugging an errant thread that was attached to it. Jesse didn't know if that meant Lukas was nervous.

Actually, it probably did. Lukas wasn't exactly a fidgety person. Petra, sure, maybe even Aiden, but Lukas was more of the type of person to just stare.

Well, stare as well as he could with a blindfold on.

Aiden shrugged nonchalantly. "Nope. Let's do this."

There was a growl, a soft sound that sounded almost like a stomach grumbling for food. Jesse was too nervous to be hungry though, so they knew it wasn't from them. It was probably from Gill; he'd been joking about being hungry the entire walk up until Maya almost shoved him off the walk.

"Gill, eat something. Honestly, don't just let your stomach growl like that, you're going to scare us while in the middle of the cave," Maya scolded him, not taking her eyes from the cave entrance.

"... that was definitely not me. I'm not hungry," he replied. "I thought it was Aiden."

Aiden arched his eyebrow, red eye blinking twice. "Look, if I was hungry, my stomach wouldn't growl that loud. Not to mention we would've called a break to eat," he pointed out. "Lukas?"

Lukas shook his head, crossing his arms. His lips thinned into a line. "Not me. Jesse, I assume it's not you?"

"No... I thought it was from Gill, too." They glanced up at the bigger half-demon, Gill scratching at his beard with one hand nervously.

Jesse realized, with something of a jolt, that Gill's gun was in his hand, already poised to shoot into the cave.

There was another rumble, a growl, but this time it was louder and more present and they could all tell instantly that it was from the cave this time.

Petra's sword was out, and Aiden had his whip at the ready- not in the bladed whip, but rather just something that looked like a stub of a dagger. Lukas's hands went into his pockets as he turned his head from side to side, surveying the area.

A tremor ran through the ground.

Then another.

Jesse looked up from the ground, watching pebbles skitter on the ground from the force of the growl, and realized something very, very pertinent with a little start and this awful, awful sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach.

There were two pinpricks of violet light in the darkness of the cave ahead. Evenly spaced, both at the same height.

Like a pair of eyes.

"Move," Lukas said quietly.

None of them did, all staring at the two glowing violet eyes that bored into their skin, keeping them frozen in place.

Twin wisps of smoke came curling out of the cave, in a huff that smelled of cities burning to the ground and earthy soil crumbling to ash and the kind of metallic smell that one will smell when in a room filled with rusting tools and objects (and blood, it smelled of drying blood staining everything, but none of them said this.)

"MOVE!" Aiden barked this time, but this time it wasn't at Lukas, whose claws were coming out, or Petra, whose sword was at the ready, or Gill or even Maya, but at the tiny human who had come along for a battle that they could not fight.

Jesse threw themselves out of the way in the nick of time, just as a piercing, vicious shriek of a roar sent the October Children staggering backwards from the sheer force of it. Maya even fell over from it.

Reuben was squealing up a storm once their ears stopped ringing enough for them to hear it. They couldn't see the little pig, but he was trembling enough that they could feel it from where he was on their back in the backpack.

They peered from behind the rock they were crouching behind, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature as their friends-

Friends, friends, when had that happened, when had these half-demons who were helping them in a task Jesse had agreed to because it was only fair that they help Romeo after staying in his home for a few days who had murdered an entire group and scared them and stayed in a tree with them become their friends?

The minute they hadn't left.

The minute they'd stayed.

That was when Jesse had stopped being afraid of them.

They tried to catch a glimpse of the creature as their friends scrambled to catch their balance, get back up, stay ready-

A black shadow exploded out of the cave entrance, wheeling around their heads as reptilian, beating wings caused a wave of wind that very nearly bowled them all over in an instant- even Jesse; who was holding the rock and not even standing up in the first place.

The October Children all scattered, dissolving into shadow enough that they could all pelt sideways and avoid the black shadowy force that shot through where they had been standing before solidifying, having been split into a wide circle around the shadowy creature.

It slammed into the ground with enough force to send several rocks and pebbles flying through the air and dancing across the ground, still enough for the moment for Jesse to see a reptilian head with horns spiraling off the side of its skull, violet eyes flaring with some dangerous fury as gleaming black scales shone in the red-tinted sunlight, its reptilian, thin (and yet dangerously, crushingly heavy) body almost undulating as it prepared to fight the half-demons standing before it.

And then the magic of it slammed into Jesse.

If the bandits had felt like a weight was pressing on Jesse, this felt like the entire sky's weight in Jell-O had been dropped onto them. They could still move, but it was with some difficulty to get started, and it was heavy. Jesse wasn't sure they could've jumped or leapt high into the air without immediately being dragged back down.

They knew this was just an illusion, of course- there wasn't any actual weight on them at the moment. It was all just their sensitivity to magic speaking. They could have run around at their usual speed had they wanted to.

But it didn't stop Jesse from being forced onto their knees in that first moment when the weight of the creature's magic crushed them from their feet to the groundwith a gasp.

It stood still enough for a moment that Jesse had an idea of just how massively big it was. The dragon's head was almost three times the length of Jesse's height. Petra's sword looked like a needle in comparison to its huge, rippling bulk.

Jesse had seen this creature before in books, in storybooks, but not in real life, and not quite this reptilian, and angry, and huge, and real.

This wasn't quite as snakelike as Kaster and Bedivire, not quite as undulating and almost not as real (which was funny, if Jesse was in any mood to appreciate the humor, since Kaster and Bedivire were literally just iron doorhandles on Romeo's door and this was the real deal).

But it was a close second.

And it was certainly much, much angrier about being disturbed.

Two large shapes began to shift off of the creature's back, unfurling almost like a rug being unrolled for the first time until the tips touched the clouds, two huge wings that blotted out the sky and the sun stretching until they cast shadows that threw the entire area into a darkness that was sinister and very, very deadly, casting a shadow that had to look something like out of some kind of horror movie.

The creature that the Hizelkian lords desired was a dragon.

Chapter Text

The dragon screamed, another roar that caused Jesse to clap their hands over their ears, almost flinch away, hunker down, squeeze their eyes shut and block it out like it was just their adopted dad shouting at them, just block it out like it was a bad dream.

But they couldn't not watch.

Aiden's wrist flicked; the whip shot out, blades flickering out and gleaming in the snatches of sunlight that caught the blades, before he whirled them in a ring of flashing red light and hit the dragon on its flank in a screeching, metallic scream that left small marks on the scales.

It turned to snap at him, but he was already dashing forward and leaping over its huge snout, an inch from violet eyes- Petra drove her sword at the scales.

A movement like that would've sunk the blade into the dragon's flesh, up to the hilt, but the scales were too thick and well-layered and as it was it just caused Petra's sword to skid over obsidian black scales.

The dragon whipped around, snapping at her like a dog that's just received a bite and trying to retaliate, but Petra had flipped out of the way and Lukas was coming in with his claws, dealing heavy, hard blows to the dragon that sent sparks flying.

But it wasn't a dragon for nothing, and when he dove out of the way to avoid a heavy hit from its tail swinging up to hit him, tipped with spikes that glimmered as it flashed up and almost hit Gill on the way, the scales didn't even look scratched.

It rumbled, smoke leaking from its nostrils- when it opened its mouth this time, Jesse could see a hint of glowing violet as Gill charged, a glowing purple fireball building up in the dragon's throat, but they didn't have time to tell Gill that it was charging its fire, they had no time at all, so what came out was-

"FIRE!"

The entire group immediately reacted like any human who'd heard the scream- Gill lunged out of the way and flattened himself to the ground, Maya promptly leapt back several feet as if the fire was two inches away from her, Lukas suddenly had a sphere of glowing energy around him- it looked like some kind of shield- and Aiden and Petra were scurrying around to a safer area still near the fight.

Just in the nick of time; the entire area seemed to darken as a white jet of flame exploded out of the creature's mouth, turning faintly violet and tinting purple at the edges as it licked stone about two hundred feet away.

The air around it seemed to boil, and Jesse could feel the heat from where they were crouching behind a rock, to the point where every single breath that they could hold evaporated, and they found themselves inhaling pure heat.

The moment the flame began to dissipate, Maya was smacking it across the face with the staff.

Of course, the dragon being bigger than the staff by about seventy times, it didn't seem to do anything other than piss it off.

"Fall back! Fall back!" Lukas was yelling to the others, flailing frantically with his claws, "this thing's scales are too hard to penetrate! We can't just go head-on at the thing!"

Jesse poked their head above the rock slightly. "This rock's been safe so far- never mind."

Despite the fact that they didn't sound at all worried about the whole matter, they were absolutely terrified out of their mind for about two seconds when the dragon's head snapped around to face them, inhaled a deep breath-

Jesse shot out from behind the rock and dove behind a somewhat larger one where Petra was already crouching. She grabbed them by the back of their shirt and pressed them to her chest in a hug, the sword held out defensively in case the dragon came leaping over the rock, flames engulfing the spot where Jesse had been crouching a moment before.

They decided not to tell her that they could feel every tremor that she was having, or the fact that her heart had sped up to the pace of a rabbit's.

(A stupidly fast speed indeed.)

"Uh, yeah, what the hell do we do about the fucking fire-and-death spitter here?!" Gill shouted over the dragon's fire, which left the stone red-hot, sizzling, and was just generally rather noisy.

"Well, instead of charging it like a bunch of idiots, why don't we try a different method? The lords wanted it alive, right?" Maya shouted back, although for once it wasn't just to antagonize Gill. "We could probably tranq it. We have enough supplies for that to work."

She raised a bottle that glowed and bubbled murky blue, the shade of a cloudy night sky, the tip of the bottle twisted in a way that looked like the liquid would spray if it so much as cracked on the floor.

Aiden peered out, then jerked back, just as the dragon's glowing, drilling eyes bored into the stone a few feet away, avoiding detection. "I can tranq it. You guys keep it distracted."

Gill nodded, raising his gun and gave a serious nod. "Distracted I can do."

"Wait, Gill- Gill-" Maya swore and pressed the bottle into Aiden's hands, already beginning to rise from where Gill had shot up off the ground and raised the gun.

The bullet he fired pinged off of the skin between the dragon's eyes and probably didn't actually do anything, but it definitely got it pissed and focused on Gill as he full-out sprinted to the left, and that was really his whole goal.

Petra gave Jesse's hair a short ruffle and rose up from the ground, lunging forward and hammering two blows onto the dragon's head before sprinting the other direction, allowing Aiden to dart along behind her and get behind a rock without the dragon spotting the shadowy movement, instead opting to scream at the red-haired demon flailing her blade at it and yelling like a maniac and spin to face her.

Jesse could only watch as Lukas swiped his claws over the muzzle of the dragon, the creature screaming and trying to bite him- Maya cooked the back of his jacket with her staff and practically threw him sideways, the blonde half-demon flipping in midair, skidding, and darting to the side, getting the dragon to snarl (in frustration?) and beat its tail on the ground in frustration.

"Thanks," he shouted back.

"Uh-huh," was her reply, before she whirled her staff above her head and sent it crashing onto the dragon's head.

They spotted the movement out of the corner of their eye- a tail, spikes tipping the end with a dagger-sharp point at the very end of the tail to boot, whipping around while Aiden was trying to sneak around the back of the dragon and tranquilize it.

They kept an eye on it for a moment, if only to make sure it wouldn't come whipping at them.

And then they saw it.

Aiden rose from the rocks, preparing to lift the potion and threw it at the dragon's head, a clear shot.

He didn't see the tail rising to whip in a vicious sidecut at him as it screamed in frustration at the other four half-demons, preparing to spin and lunge at Lukas, or Maya, or Gill, or Petra, but Jesse couldn't see any of the four and they could only see the tail beginning to fly heavily through the air in a deadly arc right at Aiden.

They only had the time to scream.

Aiden was not given that courtesy, nor the time to find out why.

The tail raked across his chest, instantly ripping his chest, his stomach open, spilling blood out of his chest like a broken water bottle, blood that soaked into his clothing rapidly, staining it a darker red than it had been before.

His eyes widened as he cried out, a choking gasp that caught in his lungs and didn't quite make its way out.

"AIDEN!" Jesse screamed, too far to do anything and too close to charge forward, for fear of being caught by the dragon.

Reuben squealed, his own attempt at crying out in fear and horror because Aiden's entire front was stained a dark muddy red and his fingers were shaking and the blood practically glowed purple in the light.

There was another scream.

Jesse didn't know who it came from.

The half-demon staggered a step backwards from the force of the blow in some dull, horrified attempt to not just topple to the ground, towards the mouth of the cave; his whip clattered to the floor from suddenly-slack fingers.

The potion bottle rolled out of his fingers, hitting the ground without even a crack.

The dragon's violet eyes darted backwards at the tiny sound, smoke rising from its nostrils.

With a screaming roar that made Lukas instinctively cringe away, the dragon spun and slammed the full weight of their tail into Aiden's chest once more, but the force sent him flying back into the darkness of the cave, disappearing from sight.

The reptilian dragon, body almost undulating like a snake's, whirled around in a wheeling motion as the dragon took off and dove after him into the cave.

"No!"

Before Lukas or Maya or Gill or Petra could stop them, Jesse had sprinted forward towards the cave, the cool maw of it swallowing them up in darkness as they followed the purple glow of the dragon's eyes and its beating wings, ignoring the cry of "Jesse!" that the four of them screamed after them.

And then they were running through the dark.

Please.

Please don't let them be too late.

Chapter Text

Jesse sprinted down the narrow, long corridors of the cave, ignoring the uneven ground and the rocks in the way and the fact that there was already a stitch embedded in their chest, their breath catching as they kept running and stumbling and catching their balance after almost tumbling off of loose rocks.

Something bounced off the back of their legs, the area in front of them abruptly barely illuminating in a rosy glow for half a second before it was pitch dark again, except for the glowing purple eyes that darted through pillars of stone and vanished and reappeared far above.

They glanced over their shoulder.

Reuben was ducking in and out of their backpack, throwing the little redstone packets that had completely slipped their mind to the ground, leaving a clumsy, zigzag of a path-

And then the ground suddenly dropped out from under Jesse's foot and they were pitching forward and they cried out and curled into a ball to avoid hitting their head or breaking their neck or-

Their body crashed into some water, which managed to cushion the blow enough that crashing onto the side of their head didn't do anything, besides perhaps raise a bump on their head and make them grunt in pain.

It was quiet, except for Reuben giving a little squeal and then snuffling and tossing another redstone packet onto the ground behind them, just to mark that they'd been down there.

Jesse took inventory of their body, still half-floating in the water and a bit dazed from conking their head slightly on the bottom of this shallow pool of water.

Anything broken? Not that they could feel.

Anything bruised? Most probably everything.

Anything serious? No, they could move around just fine.

They were remarkably glad that the water was there.

Jesse rolled over in the pool of water and lifted their head, feeling their body drip beads of water that were probably absorbed by the darkness, so pitch that for a moment they thought they'd fallen through the world and had to feel rough stone under sore fingers and the clammy wetness soaking into their skin to confirm that they were still there.

Still there.

"Aiden?" Their voice was hushed as they called out, squinting into the darkness in an attempt to see him. "Are you there?"

At first, there was nothing except for the sound of their voice echoing in the cavern, the quiet gush of rushing water and dripping from somewhere above them into a pool of water.

Then there was a grunt- a weak, almost fragile sound. "J...?"

"Aiden!"

Jesse almost just decided to blunder forward and find him, but then realized the stupidity of that. What if they just dropped into another hole?

Jesse reached into the backpack, ignoring the wetness of the outside, and scooped up one of the packets. In a desperate motion, they crushed it in their fist, light seeping through their fist until they opened their hand, now dusted with red, to show their surroundings.

They'd been rather lucky, as apparently the small pool they'd landed in dropped off into a waterfall that gushed off into a dark hole that you couldn't see into after a few feet and they'd managed to land in the area that wasn't caught in a current. The bottom was littered with things- a few little gold trinkets and things in the corner that twinkled in the red light, what looked like straw, and another little pool of water a few feet of way.

Aiden was in the pool.

"Aiden!" Jesse hoisted themselves out of the water, feeling little streams of water come off their clothes, and stumbled to him, holding the little source of light closer.

Perhaps it was the fact that the little amount of light that they were clutching in their fist was red, bloodred, barely lighting anything at all, but the wounds looked bad. Jesse couldn't even see them under his jacket and shirt, nearly-black stains covering his front, changing the color of his shirt so that it went from red to almost black. Swirls of something (blood, blood, they knew it was blood) filled the pool around him, gleaming red.

Maybe it was just the red light.

Maybe.

He scowled slightly at them. "What..." He winced, teeth gritting as he repressed it, eyes still fixed on Jesse. "Wha're you...?"

Jesse splashed through the pool and knelt, trying not to panic at the sight of dark, gleaming blood soaking him and staining his skin and ignoring his question hanging in the air and the water now soaking into their socks. "We gotta get you out of the water- I dunno how clean it is, and we don't want that to get infected, if we wanna keep you alive..."

They babbled, trying to hook their arms around him and haul him out of the pool of water without making too much contact with him.

He didn't like them much, after all.

"Okay, Aiden, this might-" They took ahold of him under his armpits with their arms and heaved.

Aiden made a guttural sound the second he lifted not two inches out of the pool, water streaming off of limp arms, face contorting in agony. Jesse almost immediately set him back down, sending a little tidal wave of water splashing out from where he was. In fact they almost dropped him.

"Fucking hell-" Aiden squeezed his eyes shut, teeth gritted. Tears reflexively streamed down his face from the pain. "What- what the hell, Jesse, do- do you know-"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to- are you-?" Jesse was frantically trying to figure out what to do with his horribly damaged body; they couldn't move him but he was losing blood at a pace that Jesse couldn't help but worry about.

"That- tha' hurt-" His eyes opened, red eye glaring at Jesse even though tears still gushed from his eyes and his teeth were clenched shut.

He broke off, voice trailing off into silence and surprise. His eyes had suddenly widened slightly, staring at Jesse, lips parted slightly as his breath froze in his lungs.

Well, that wasn't quite accurate.

His eyes were staring just behind Jesse.

Jesse knew what was behind them before they turned around.

Maybe it was because they could read the fear in Aiden's eyes, the way his choking breaths had caught in his chest and refused to come out.

Maybe it was because they could feel that sudden weight of magic, feel the heat of the smoke singing the back of their clothing, see the way the cave's darkness had begun to be illuminated in faint violet light, watch the reflection in Aiden's eyes.

Maybe they just had a feeling that something like this would happen.

But they turned around anyway.

The dragon stared them down, purple eyes blinking once, twice, staring into Jesse's eyes.

Chapter Text

They couldn't move.

They couldn't move away, could only stare in a petrified daze of terror as the dragon's purple eyes blazed into them, smoke rising in curling swirls into the air and illuminated purple by the dragon's glowing eyes.

It stared. There was no movement.

None whatsoever.

Aiden was frozen too, staring back into the dragon's purple eyes, his own red one gleaming violet in the light.

It was like they were all statues.

The dragon snorted at last, another rising wisp of smoke curling out of its nostril as heat seeped into Jesse's skin, stole every ounce of moisture from their wet clothes. Reuben whined, burying into the backpack and trying to hide himself from sight.

One clawed foot tap, tap, tapped on hard stone, metal on rock, as it eased forward, scales rustling- rustling, like snakeskin on grass- as it shifted forward, closer.

There was a moment, a split second where Jesse considered which way to run.

Left or right, it didn't matter, it was solid stone and Jesse hadn't spotted any huge holes and there was still red light bleeding through their fist. There was no sure way to get out of this small pit, though, and it was so dark that the only light that Jesse could see were those terrifying purple eyes. But maybe if they got to the pool they'd landed in, they could-

And then Aiden grunted weakly behind them, reminding them of his presence, and their blood froze.

Aiden.

He couldn't move. Not without pain ripping through him and sending him back down into a pool of bloody water, his breath catching his chest.

They couldn't leave him.

Somehow, it didn't occur to them, despite his biting remarks and cold demeanor and the way he glared and sneered at them, despite the way he pushed them away and tried to ignore them and acted as though they were a nuisance (they were, they were, they were a nuisance to everyone)-

Somehow, despite that, it never occurred to them to leave him behind.

They slogged to their feet, staggering from the weight on their back, and planted themselves in front of Aiden, spreading heavy, wet arms to block him from sight, all of their tiny height and overly thin body and their tiny weight shaking and trembling and blocking Aiden's weak body from view the best they could.

"Wh-wha're you..." Aiden's breathing was raspy, and labored, and weak, but they didn't dare turn to look at him, staring instead into the dragon's glowing violet eyes, huge glowing things that were fixed upon the tiny human with a vessel creature on their back.

The eyes struck terror into their heart, making it speed up and making their knees quake in fear.

So they closed their eyes instead, still seeing the purple glow, still seeing the light through the darkness.

They braced themselves, arms spread apart, their fingers trembling and their eyes closed. They could still feel every slow puff of breath from the dragon, the heat and the magic so heavy that Jesse was almost driven to their knees as their skin tingled like it was burning, burning alive and leaving nothing but a pile of ashes.

Maybe the dragon wouldn't go after Aiden if they stayed like this.

Maybe it would tear them apart instead and leave him alone for the other October Children to find him.

Maybe.

Maybe not, but maybe it would.

They couldn't really protect him.

They couldn't do magic like Lukas and Maya, they couldn't run or fight or dodge like Gill or Petra, they couldn't even stare intimidatingly like Aiden could. Hell, they didn't even have anything resembling a weapon.

But they couldn't just leave him there, either.

Then a large, overly huge snout that was reminiscent of Kaster and Bedivire's, only less solid and metal, almost knocked them over straight into Aiden.

They opened their eyes.

The dragon was cautiously pressing its snout up against Jesse's tiny body, giving curious sniffs that were probably tiny for the dragon but almost sucked Jesse's clothes into its nostrils and knocked them over for Jesse, who wasn't over 100 pounds when soaking wet. Its violet eyes looked less furious, less rage-tinged and horrific and more curious. Gentle, almost.

Shakily, trying to breathe, they reached out with their fingers and rubbed the snout with their fingers.

Despite the heat and smell of the smoke, the scales on the dragon's nose were cool to the touch, almost like snakeskin.

The dragon stared at them, still cautiously sniffing Jesse.

Then a serpentine tongue poked out, in such a way that Jesse almost laughed at it, and it licked them, running the snakelike tongue up their body in an affectionate gesture.

Jesse sank to their knees, relief flooding them so much that they abruptly were unable to stand. The dragon huffed, smoke puffing into their face so roughly that tears were instantly drawn to their eyes, and gently nosed itself forward, wrapping its neck around Jesse almost protectively so that its scaly shoulder pressed up against Jesse's thin little body.

It was only when Aiden gasped (from pain or from fear or from both, Jesse couldn't tell), and the dragon began to rumble like a thunderstorm forming in the distance, that Jesse remembered the danger they were in.

"No!"

Jesse hastily backed away from the dragon, situating themselves between it and Aiden again and blocking its vision of him.

"No, no, he's- he's okay. He's alright, please," Jesse said hastily, in the most soothing tone they could muster with a wavering voice, unsure if the dragon would know what they were saying and if they would have to leap in front of Aiden again.

To their surprise, it stopped and huffed at them, more smoke wafting into the air.

This huff sounded confused. Almost adorably quizzical.

"He's okay. He- he wasn't trying to be mean, when he hit you. He just didn't understand," Jesse stammered.

The one time they were able to mediate some kind of tense situation, and it was when one of the people was bleeding out in a shallow pool of water with claw marks gashing his front and the other was a dragon that was so big that it could've swallowed Jesse in one bite. Go figure.

The dragon considered this.

It apparently decided the explanation was acceptable, because it licked Jesse again, blinking its big purple eyes and momentarily plunging the cave back into darkness.

The human shakily breathed out again, rubbing the dragon's snout. It rubbed its head gently against Jesse's chest, making a pleasant sort of grumbling sound. "You just didn't like getting whacked with things, huh?" Jesse asked softly, running a hand over its snout again.

It snuffled, almost like Reuben, and nudged them with its snout again.

Well, this was better than the alternative. (Being roasted alive.)

Jesse didn't mind this.

And then Aiden grunted in pain, a little splash of water sounding behind Jesse, and they were reminded- with something cold dropping into the pit of their stomach- that he was still there, still hurt

(dying)

- and they had to do something.

"Damn, it's so dark..." Jesse knelt beside Aiden, his chest slowly heaving (and there might've been a bit of surprise on his face at the fact that Jesse had just said 'damn', but it was too dark to see) as he tried to breathe. "I wish it was lighter... maybe the trackers could work..."

(And make the blood look worse, look like it was drowning Aiden, but there was no other source of light that they noticed.)

The dragon made a sound that was almost distinctly pleased, as if this was something it could do, before it tilted its head back.

A jet of purple fire spewed out of its mouth, Jesse squeaking in surprise as it shot into the air and Aiden flinching before gasping in pain, despite himself.

The fire's pure heat washed through the cavern, heating Jesse's clothes again to the point where they were actually kinda cozy. With the heat came magic- except this magic wasn't just heavy (though it was, to be sure), it was almost warm and cozy and almost kind of hugged Jesse before dancing into the air.

Bells.

It sounded like there were bells ringing, the sound filling the cavern, a nice tinkling sound that quickly became almost deafening with the acoustics of the cavern repeating the sound over and over until it was like some kind of giant bell tolling in a clock tower, and crystals- little tiny crystals that Jesse had not seen earlier, due to how damn dark the whole place was- sparked to life, glowing with violet and cyan and pink and yellow light.

The hole Jesse had fallen into was deep- and large, much larger than they'd initially thought, with enough room for the dragon to fit inside and probably comfortably rotate within it, wings extended.

Glowing crystals ended at the edge of the hole, leaving the far-above ceiling in almost pitch black darkness, but the glowing crystals lit the area much better than the little trackers Jesse had been leaving, or the one that was in their fist.

The dragon made a sort of croaking sound, looking down at Jesse and scooting onto its stomach, curling around them and Aiden almost protectively and looking at Jesse as if expecting praise.

Jesse blinked twice.

Then patted its snout carefully, still trying not to look slightly boggled by what they were sure had been a display of some kind of magic.

"... okay, that works..."

Chapter Text

Jesse fell to their knees next to Aiden. He was still bloody, but in the light that wasn't red but instead purple and blue and green and white and a million colors all at once, it somehow looked a little better- though Jesse could see that the damage to his stomach was anything but better than what it looked like before.

Still. This amount of light made it more handleable.

They looked up at Aiden anxiously, trying to make eye contact with him. "Hey, Aiden? Stay awake, okay?"

He scowled at them. "What, you think I can-" He winced. "- can take a nap through my stomach being on fire?"

"I dunno what you sleep through," Jesse told him honestly, beginning to rummage through their little green backpack to find the bandages. Please don't let the bandages be wet, please don't let them have gotten wet, please, please...

Thankfully, the bag, while a little wet, didn't actually soak through to the inside, so the bandages were intact and dry.

They hastily pulled the roll of bandages out and started to wrap them around Aiden's midriff, trying to keep their touch light so that they didn't press down on his wounds and make him wince.

From his hissing and winces, they weren't doing a great job. But it was at least keeping him relatively alert.

"I'm sorry," they told him as they looped it around and had to lean closer to him so that they didn't fumble the bandages and drop it in the pool of water and ended up prodding him, which made him clench his eyes shut and hiss in pain.

After a few minutes, they had to wrap the bandages a bit more tightly, which made Aiden gasp and suck in a short breath, the half-demon trying to stay still and avoid jostling his wounds even more. Jesse was almost certain they could see his intestines.

They managed, through some gargantuan effort, not to throw up on Aiden.

"I'm sorry," they repeated.

Aiden was watching them through pained red eyes, teeth gritted so tightly that at one point when Jesse got closer to him, they could hear his ragged breathing and his teeth squeaking from where they were clenched together.

They gave the bandages another weak tug, to keep the blood from leaking out, but they weren't a medical professional and they ruefully noticed that the bandages were already staining red, soaking dark red like a sponge.

Aiden actually cried out weakly this time, instantly clamping his jaw shut to avoid making another sound.

"I'm sorry!"

"Quit apologizing, for Pete's sake!" he snapped back, "just finish wrapping the-"

Jesse tugged the bandage around, and he bit back a rather violent swear, tears involuntarily streaming down his face. "God."

"Do you have a God here?" They looked up at him. Keep him talking.

Keep him talking because otherwise Aiden will fall asleep, he will fall into unconsciousness, and Jesse didn't know if they would be able to ever wake him up again.

"We're demons. Do you think we have God here?" Aiden grimaced, trying not to continue crying.

His breathing was still ragged, but at least the acidity in his voice towards Jesse hadn't faded.

They'd never thought they'd be so glad to hear someone sniping at them.

"Closest thing we've got is the lords, but even then they're more like human kings than anything else." He shifted, keeping a wary eye on the dragon.

The dragon had its head raised above the water, keeping purple, reptilian eyes fixed on Aiden. It was wrapped around Jesse, otherwise.

Jesse got the feeling it wasn't really fond of him.

Reuben snuffled, doing his best to help with not falling into the pool of water that Jesse was sitting in. They were getting a little chilly, actually.

Hopefully that would help keep Aiden present.

"I got that feeling, yeah... what's the favorite flower in your garden? You've got a lot," they asked, finishing up the bandage and quickly fixing it so that it wouldn't slip loose with a pin or two. It was already starting to soak through with blood.

Despite the scowl on Aiden's face, he did actually seem to consider the question for a few moments, through the daze of pain.

After a few minutes, long enough that Jesse actually had to poke him and make him swat them off with a weak grumble, he finally spoke again. "Hm... I guess blood flowers."

"Why blood flowers?"

He scowled at them as they tried to figure out what you did when someone's stomach was practically shredded open. It's not like they could just Google the answer. "Because I like them."

"Okay, but why?"

He huffed, wincing slightly as the exhale apparently caused his stomach to twinge in pain. His red eyes were glazed over with agony, if the way his face was tight despite the faint scowl on it was any indication. "They can actually be a good blood replenisher if you eat them- some magic thing."

"Then I sure wish we had some here," Jesse mumbled, trying to smile past the worried little knot in their chest.

Aiden might've actually smiled at that, but before they could double-check or even ask he was grimacing in pain again, eyes a little dull from pain. "They-"

He winced again. "They also smell like... they smell like... like ink on paper."

"You like that smell?" Jesse asked, putting their palm against his chest and trying to feel for a heartbeat. There wasn't one, and they almost panicked before remembering that he actually didn't have his heart, so it made sense that he wouldn't have a heartbeat. His chest was rising and falling, at least.

Just not enough.

"Ye... yeah." His ragged breathing was faint, shallow; it sounded like any second it could stop and then Jesse wouldn't be sitting with Aiden anymore, they would be sitting with a corpse on the floor sitting in a pool of water with bloodstained bandages and dead eyes. "L... Lukas writes sometimes."

Jesse filed that note away mentally. It made sense. He did seem like the kind of person to enjoy writing, honestly. "Yeah?"

"Ye... yeah..." Aiden trailed off, and Jesse looked up at him to see that his eyes had fluttered mostly shut, a hint of his red iris peering out from under his eyelid.

"Aiden?" They touched his shoulder and gave him a little shake, trying to keep him alert.

They expected him to scowl at them and open his eyes (well, eye, he was wearing an eyepatch) and scowl at them and ask them 'what?' in the sharpest voice he could use- which he seemed to like reserving just for Jesse, but honestly right now they'd rather hear that than watch him fade away.

What they did not expect was for him to loll slightly, head dropping so that his chin was resting against his chest. His eyes were still half-closed, dull with pain and barely conscious.

"Aiden?" Jesse shook him, panic welling up in them like tears in someone's eyes. "Aiden!"

His head lolled again, lips parted slightly. The bandages were soaked through already, dark red in the light, and Jesse desperately pressed their face to his chest to test his breathing. His chest barely rose and fell, hiccuping and trembling with each shallow, fragile inhale.

Dying.

He was dying.

And Jesse was doing nothing.

They could do nothing, it wasn't like this was something they could fix, but god, they wished they could, because they didn't want Aiden to die.

Sure, he snapped at them and glared at them and he didn't want them there, but he was Lukas and Maya and Gill and heck, Petra's friend, he had given his heart away to get some wish that Jesse didn't know-

They couldn't just let him die.

But here he was.

And there they were.

Absolutely useless.

"Jesse?"

Jesse's head snapped up, searching Aiden's unconscious face, but his eyes were still half-shut and dazed with pain, and the voice hadn't been his anyway, and it had been farther away- farther above them, actually, distant and echoing in the expansive, lit cavern.

But it was familiar.

Jesse tilted their head back, searching the cavern for the source of the voice, and not one minute later, they found it, teetering on the brink of the light of the cavern and the darkness of the caves beyond it.

Relief seeped into them, because now things would be okay, now maybe Aiden would be okay and he wouldn't just die on them.

Maybe, just maybe, Aiden would be alright.

"Lukas!"

Chapter Text

Lukas peered carefully over the edge, a relieved smile ticking over his features. Or, at least, Jesse felt like that was the expression he gave them; they were too far below him to really make out anything except his blob of yellow hair. "You're okay!"

"Yeah!" Jesse waved up at him frantically, feeling a relieved smile creep over their lips. "Was the trail helpful?"

Lukas glanced over his shoulder, the little blonde blob shifting to look. "Yeah, actually. Right up until this entire thing lit up like a carnival at night."

"I mean, that was helpful too," Gill said, his voice carrying a little less effectively- Jesse got the feeling he wasn't shouting down much.

"Dragon's okay!" they shouted up to the group, pointing at it. They didn't really want to have them attack the dragon in such a claustrophobic space- the dragon, while fond of Jesse, would probably not have very good control of its limbs in such an enclosed space.

A little blob of red hair appeared as well, and Petra's familiar voice filtered down to them. "You sure?"

As if to prove Jesse's point, the dragon licked their cheek and grumbled like a car engine revving to life, which sounded weirdly like some kind of purr.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure."

"Sounds good to me," Maya replied after a pause.

Lukas got down first, his shadow form blurring and then solidifying into the blonde half-demon, apology creasing his brow. "I'm so sorry it took such a long time, you just took off running, and then Gill wanted to get Reginald but Maya didn't think it was a good idea so they just started arguing, and by the time it occurred to us we should come find you-"

Maybe if the situation hadn't been so dire, Jesse would've been glad to listen to the apology, glad to smile and nod and tell him that it was okay (because it was, he had still come for them, hadn't he, all of them had come for a little tiny human who was slowing them up and causing them trouble and they were here), but things were so dire, and Aiden was still unconscious (dead? No, he wasn't dead, he was still breathing, but he was so close to it), so they just blurted "Aiden" and pointed at him and that cut off the apology.

Lukas sucked in a breath, his brow creasing. Jesse couldn't see his eyes past the red satin blindfold, but they would've been willing to bet that they were fairly glowing with worry. "Oh man..."

Maya blurred into view next to Lukas. Instantly her own face almost crumpled into a wince, her lips pressing together gently. "Oh gosh... I'm not sure..."

She bent down and rested her hand on Aiden's face, trying to support it more. Her lips twisted as his head lolled slightly.

"What... what do you mean you're not sure? You guys know magic, right?" Jesse directed this to Lukas and Maya, both of whom looked uncomfortable. Maya almost looked like she was going to cry, which made something cold and tight twist around Jesse's heart. "You can use a healing spell! Ivor said that-"

"This kind of damage? Jess, this isn't just a normal set of cuts. It's... it's like..." Maya took in a shaky breath, pressing her hand to Aiden's shoulder.

His head lolled in reply.

"It's magic. There's magic tinging the injuries. It's not just- it's not just some cuts, or- or like a deep gash, that- that we can fix, even if we have to just use a couple of spells over and over," Maya said shakily. "I think I see why- why Isa, and Mevia, and Harper wan- wanted the dragon. It's literally magic itself- I don't know how, but that's some serious power we're packing."

Jesse looked at the dragon, as if to confirm that.

It licked Jesse again, rubbing its giant head against their chest gently.

"That kind of damage can't just be fixed with a simple healing spell. But..." Lukas and Maya shared a look, one that made Jesse's heart drop like a stone into the pit of their stomach.

It was the kind of look that was uncertain. The kind of look that was desperate, almost.

The kind of look that meant they weren't sure if they'd be able to save Aiden.

Lukas finally, wordlessly, pressed his hand to Aiden's torso, barely touching the bandage, as if scared to hurt Aiden. He murmured the words in a shaking voice, golden rings spiraling to life and flickering as each word clicked into place.

Finally, his fingers contracted, a blossom of golden light leaking through the tightly wrapped bandages as the rings spiraled down to surround his hand.

Abruptly, dark tendrils of magic writhed, the almost comically tiny amount of golden light getting crushed out by the magic before shrinking back into the bandages, staining them darker than they'd been before- or perhaps Jesse was imagining it.

He tried again, and again, and Maya joined in, keeping her hand firmly pressed to Aiden's shoulder, but each time the light was squashed, stomped out, the dark magic refusing to let any of the light stay long enough to fix Aiden.

The dragon gave an apologetic huff, rubbing its face next to Jesse.

Jesse heaved out the magic book and fumbled through the pages, so frantically that they probably almost got a paper cut.

Heck, they probably did get a paper cut, but it didn't matter- they fumbled through the pages frenetically before finding a spell that was apparently a high-level healing spell and offering it to Lukas.

Lukas winced the second he saw it. "... um... I don't know if we can perform that one."

"Why?"

He tapped the book. "Remember how I said our light affinity isn't really high? Like our affinity for light magic? We're not good at it."

"Yeah..." Jesse looked at the spell, heart sinking. "Don't tell me... does it involve light magic?"

"Yeah. It's basically a purification and a healing spell all in one, adding about a billion levels to basic healing spells, which don't necessarily require a high affinity for light magic," Lukas said, his voice somehow steady despite the fact that he looked like he might cry. "Even if Maya and I were to try... it probably wouldn't work."

Jesse blinked, feeling heat rise up behind their eyes.

It felt like tears.

"But..."

"Heck, if any of us low-light-affinity people try the spell, there's a chance the spell will backfire or do something wrong." Maya shook her head, twisting her fingers together to stop them from shaking. "I'm not risking that on someone who's dying."

Dying.

Aiden was dying.

And it was perhaps the fact that Jesse could practically feel the life leaking out of him, or perhaps the fact that he was just dying (dead), and the fact that Gill looked grimmer than they'd seen him before and Petra's fingers were at her mouth, almost as if she was going to bite her nails down to the stubs, that they said what they said next.

"Then I'll try."

Chapter Text

"What?" Lukas's head jerked up in surprise, but Jesse was already fumbling to put the book down in a way that they could see it.

"I can find the spell- I can try it!" They were babbling, they knew they were, but none of them cut Jesse off, just looked at Jesse hopelessly, because there was no way they'd be able to do anything.

Gill almost moved to stop them, but Maya pushed him away from the tiny human, murmuring words that Jesse could only snatch at and catch a few separate words.

Can't hurt.

Human.

Can't do magic.

Won't hurt.

Jesse pressed their hands to the wound, trying not to press too hard. Not that it mattered, Aiden was still and silent and his lips were parted, and Jesse got the feeling they could've slapped him full across the face and nothing would've happened.

They couldn't let him die.

They would not let him die.

Jesse's eyes fixated on the pages of the book, looking at the healing spell that Lukas had pointed out.

It was long. At least twenty words in it, and you couldn't lose concentration at all or you had to start the spell over and you were drained of energy besides- if it even worked. Jesse could see why Lukas was a little reluctant about performing the spell, just for the sake of the length of the words.

Maya and Gill gave each other this hopeless sort of look, for once not sniping at each other, because the likelihood that this would do anything was so slim and nonexistent that there was no hope at all.

They took a deep breath, refusing to tear their eyes from the words.

"Sana," they said, in a wavery little voice.

Something flickered around them.

Petra sucked in a breath, but Jesse refused to remove their eyes from the book or look up or even blink unless they had to. "Medeor," they said, trying to steady their voice.

Another flicker.

"Percuroconsanintegro, comprimo, confervo, auxilia, saudavel..."

With each word, Jesse's voice grew a little stronger, their eyes fixated on the words of the spell as their eyes travelled along the page, marking each one as done and then moving to the next. They picked up the pace, falling into a rhythm that was almost pleasing in a sense. Comforting, really.

If they had been able to see themselves, or even look up from the spellbook, they would've seen Lukas's slack jaw, the way Maya's eyes were almost bugging out of her head, Petra's stunned look, Gill's silent, open-mouthed stare, and they would've known exactly why.

There were dozens of concentric golden rings surrounding their entire body, illuminating the entire base of the cavern gold instead of purple and green and white and blue and red from the crystals, every word they were speaking clicking into place and every following word already beginning to click into place beneath it- almost like when Lukas had summoned the horse, a few days ago (days, days, it had only been a matter of days).

Except when he had summoned the horse, the concentric circles of magic had not gleamed iridescent in the light, and the golden circles had not washed everything in golden light, glowing with an almost radioactive heat.

"... heilbrigt, enempilo, nirogi," they finished, the last word coming out firm and strong- a bit of a difference from the wavery words they'd started with.

You know, just a little bit.

The words around them quivered, then whirled about in the air, unfurling into a sort of coiled strand of magic, words and light that Jesse couldn't make out before it had zipped- fairly shot out of the air- down into Jesse's body, their veins immediately lighting green and gold like sunlight in a forest canopy, caught in the leaves and glowing colors.

And then it shot into Aiden's torso, leaking out of Jesse's fingers and instead glowing from the bloodstained bandages, light shooting through them and sending wisps of green and gold magic spiraling everywhere.

A few little dark wisps flickered to life, squirming and thrashing and trying to smother the light, but then still more light poured through, vaporizing the dark wisps, and maybe Jesse could've described it if they'd watched it for longer but their vision was growing blurry and dark at the edges despite the almost blinding light, the world swaying slowly around them.

Then they found themselves falling, everything darkening so that they were enveloped in some kind of quiet darkness, sounds of the startled half-demons around them and the dragon snorting and Reuben's squeals dampening until it disappeared into silence.

Jesse hoped that they had helped in some way.


Lukas caught Jesse's suddenly-limp form before they could collapse right on top of an unconscious Aiden, tugging them back so that they were almost curled- like a baby or a little kid- in his lap, eyes shut as the light dancing on Aiden's torso sucked itself into his damaged chest, leaving the area looking suddenly more empty, without the abundance of gold and green light.

His jaw was still dropped open as he stared at Aiden, whose face somehow seemed less pained in his unconscious state, then down at Jesse, who was asleep (unconscious) and curled up in his grip.

The dragon grumbled over his shoulder, blinking huge purple eyes down at Jesse's limp little form, before using its clawed hands to gently tug Jesse away from Lukas (he almost tightened his grip instinctively but let them go after a moment) and nestle them against its scaly side, cradling Jesse like some kind of baby.

After a moment of silence, he tugged down Aiden's blood-soaked bandages, carefully peeled them away- with how drenched they were, they should be changed anyway.

He found nothing except three faint marks where the injuries had been, almost as if they'd never really happened and they'd imagined the way Aiden's chest and torso and stomach had been ripped open like some kind of plastic bag. Besides the blood smeared on his skin, there was no sign that it had even happened.

Slowly, he raised his eyes to stare at Maya, Gill, Petra. Their looks of shock mirrored his own, even if his was lesser so due to the blindfold covering his eyes, but if he hadn't had that covering his eyes he would've had eyes that were just as wide as all of theirs.

After a long, long moment of silence and the dragon nuzzling Jesse's limp form and Reuben squealing as he poked at Jesse and Aiden's now-steady breathing, his lips finally formed the appropriate words that summed up everything he was thinking, the maelstrom of thoughts and words and ideas whirling in his head at that display.

"What the fuck just happened?"

Chapter Text

Aiden woke up.

He hadn't realized he'd even drifted off until he was awake again, staring groggily up at the lit cave, crystals glowing multicolor and washing the cavern in light that looked almost sickeningly pastel, and he probably would've scowled except the pastel meant that he was awake (and thus alive), so screw it, he'd stare at the pastel all day.

Lukas's head appeared in his field of vision, a relieved smile tugging at his lips. "Oh, good. You're awake."

Aiden sat up, rubbing his eyes and groaning quietly. He actually didn't feel that bad about it- no flare of pain in his midriff when he sat. Maybe his injuries were numb, but somehow he didn't think that was it.

"I'm just as surprised as you," he muttered, trying not to feel sore and surprisingly succeeding. "I thought I was dead."

"Yeah, you and Jesse and all the rest of us," Lukas replied, halfheartedly punching him on the shoulder. "Next time you're planning on taking a nap, let us know, okay?"

"Fuck you," Aiden replied with no venom, trying to recall what had happened.

His ribs had been on fire. He'd been trying not to look at his stomach because his guts looked as though they would spill out of him if he stood up.

Jesse had been talking to him when he passed out.

His eyes scanned the cavern, finding Maya resting against a wall and arguing with Gill, Petra leaning up against the dragon, which was lying down, Reuben curled up in a little pink ball.

There was no sign of the little human.

Not that he personally cared that much, but if they'd lost Jesse (or if they'd died), he was pretty sure Romeo was going to give them an earful.

"Uh... where's Jesse?"

Lukas pointed at the dragon.

Aiden took a moment to figure out what he meant by that- surely he didn't mean the dragon had eaten them or something, or that Jesse had turned into the dragon, but then he spotted a little fuzzy black jacket that didn't match the glossy, almost iridescent scales of the dragon.

The dragon was curled around Jesse, periodically licking them as if to groom them or wake them up. Reuben was also curled up on Jesse's chest, rising and falling with every quiet, even breath. Petra was awkwardly resting against the dragon and periodically checking on Jesse, which the dragon seemed to be barely tolerating.

If the large violet eyes periodically flicking backwards to stare at Petra and then back down at Jesse were any indication.

Aiden stared at the dragon basically treating Jesse like it was its (very tiny) baby, Jesse still and quiet and silent and looking for all intents and purposes like they were fast asleep, then looked back to Lukas.

"Uh... they're passed out with a dragon."

He said this in the manner of someone perhaps casually remarking about the weather, except with an undertone of "what the hell, Lukas, this is not normal".

Lukas sat back on his haunches, giving Aiden a weak smile. "Yeah, well, I guess that's what happens when you use the, uh, most literally advanced healing spell in the book to heal someone."

Aiden stared at Lukas.

Stared at him a little more.

"... what."

Lukas ran his hand through his blonde hair, rumpling it up slightly as he gave a slightly nervous chuckle. "Yeah."

Aiden stared at Lukas, expecting- what was he expecting? For Lukas to randomly grin and punch him on the shoulder and tell him "haha, sucker!" or for someone to yell at Lukas for screwing around? Lukas wasn't that kind of person.

"... you're serious."

At Lukas's nod, he looked back at Jesse. The dragon was currently licking their still face with a thin, reptilian tongue, rubbing its nose against their still body.

Well, thin was relative, it was probably the width of Aiden's arm, but compared to the rest of the dragon it was tiny.

"... humans... can't... use magic."

Or, at least, he'd never heard of any instance where a human was able to use magic.

"Tell that to Jesse," Lukas muttered. "Maya's thinking maybe the crystals or the dragon's presence or both boosted it enough that they could do magic, but..."

Aiden was still staring at Jesse, but he knew that hesitant but, trailing off into silence, was the preamble to something that would knock that theory to pieces. "But what?"

Lukas shrugged helplessly. "I dunno- yes, the dragon being literal magic does help boost the user's ability to use magic- as long as the dragon likes them, which is definitely true for Jess, and the crystals too, but... the most powerful healing spell in the book?"

He shook his head. "For that, I'd say it'd have to be some kind of magic affinity. Which Jesse shouldn't have, since they're just a human."

Aiden could feel his lips turn down in a frown as he considered that.

"Hey, why were they using the most powerful healing spell in the book, anyway?" he abruptly asked, the question just now occurring to him. "Magic isn't a toy- you didn't warn them that they'd probably pass out?"

The blonde half-demon stared at him with what was probably the most unimpressed look in the whole world, and then slapped his hand to his forehead. "Oh my god, Aiden."

"What?"

"They did it to heal you," Lukas mumbled past his hand, a little muffled.

"What?"

Lukas glanced up at Aiden (well, with the blindfold it was hard to tell, but he thought that Lukas did) again. "Maya and I couldn't do anything to fix you." He gestured with his head at the little human curled against the dragon's scaly body. "They... they somehow managed it."

Aiden looked down at himself, running his fingers over his blood-smeared stomach. Despite his fingers coming away a little smeared and red, he felt nothing but smooth skin.

"Holy hell."

"I know, right?" Lukas chuckled and gave an almost admiring shake of his head. "That human's just full of surprises, huh."

Aiden stayed quiet, absently feeling his healed midriff and feeling a distinct lack of pain.

He didn't know if he liked the thoughts spiraling in his head-

(They had saved him)

- and so he did not think them.

Chapter Text

Jesse blinked sleepily, still feeling a little drained from the magic.

Other than that, though, they didn't actually mind it too much.

The dragon became a little overly excited upon seeing Jesse's eyes open and proceeded to start licking them like a very happy dog.

"Ack. Ah." Jesse halfheartedly flailed slightly and pushed the dragon away enough that they could sit up, the dragon rubbing its nose on Jesse's chest happily. Reuben squealed, butting his head into their stomach happily and rubbing up against their tummy.

Jesse hummed happily, rubbing both of them. "Hi, guys."

"Jesse." Petra scooted around to face them, relief glinting in her red eyes, even if it barely showed on her face. "How're you feeling?"

"Sleepy."

Gill chuckled and came over, relief in his own eye. "If that's the only thing that's wrong, you're good." He jerked his head over at Maya, who'd picked herself from where she was leaning on the wall and was approaching. "She was stressing out about you."

"Yeah, you asshole, since they passed out," Maya replied, smacking Gill across the back of the head sharply, but there was a little less acidity in her voice than usual.

She crouched next to Jesse and ruffled their hair, making them squeal and giggle a little, trying to swat her off. "You're looking pretty good. Next time you do something like that, let us know, okay?"

"There's not gonna be a next time. That was intense." Petra patted Jesse on the back, scooting closer to them and giving them a squeeze.

They leaned into her slightly, blinking only a little blearily. "Really?"

"Yes, really. You gave us a bit of a scare." Petra poked them in the forehead, making them squirm and faintly bat her away. She grinned and started poking them more, as if trying to gently tickle them.

"Ahhh, nooo..." Jesse giggled and went to hide in the crook of the dragon's neck, the dragon giving a pleased sort of purring sound, like a giant cat. Maya laughed and went to follow them- then paused, smile fading slightly.

Jesse only had to look up to see why. Aiden had apparently come over to where the dragon was resting its head on the stone floor and was now standing over them, staring down at the little human with a look that Jesse couldn't really figure out- partially because they really didn't know him that well, but it was also just one of those hard-to-read looks.

"Aiden." Jesse managed a weak little smile up at him, although they'd started twisting their fingers anxiously. The dragon rumbled, purple iris sliding around to stare at Aiden carefully.

He was okay.

That was more than they could ask for, really.

"Are you feeling okay?"

He stared down at them impassively. Which, you know, wasn't terrifying to them in the least.

His fingers absently rubbed where the wounds should've been, skin still stained red from the blood despite the fact it looked as though he'd tried to scrub it off. Jesse could see the white marks where the gashes had been.

So it had worked.

They were glad.

"... yeah."

Then:

"Thanks."

He turned away before they could tell him 'you're welcome' out of courtesy and went to gather some of the supplies. Jesse felt a little marble of relief in their chest even as he walked away, the dragon curling around Jesse somewhat protectively as he turned their back to them.

"Hey, but I think Isa should give up her title. The dragon really likes you," Gill said at length, grinning at Jesse and deciding to move past the very awkward silence that had just taken place.

"Well, Jesse's not a lord," Maya pointed out.

Petra grinned, ruffling Jesse's hair and messing it up. "I 'unno, I think they'd make a good one."

"Noooo..."

"Oh yeah, they would, wouldn't they. All hail Jesse!" Gill plucked Jesse up off the ground with ease (the dragon watched a bit warily) and held them up like they were Simba in the Lion King or something, grinning.

Maya snorted and curtsied. "Excuse my rudeness, Lord Jesse," she said, joining in on the teasing.

"Definitely." Petra bowed as well, her grin so wide that it was practically ear-to-ear.

Jesse squirmed, giggling and trying to hide their very red face and trying to wiggle out of Gill's grip simultaneously. "Nooooo!"

They were so busy trying to escape the teasing that they didn't see the look Aiden sent in their direction.


Getting back to Sky City took a much shorter time since the dragon flew them back.

Well, more accurately, Jesse asked the dragon and it happily let Jesse climb onto their back, and reluctantly let the others on when Jesse asked, but it did take a much shorter time.

"Holy shit. You actually did it."

Isa smacked Mevia on the back of the head, making the blue-haired lord scowl at her faintly.

"Children," Harper chided, gesturing at Jesse, but she was still smiling faintly.

Mevia nodded, looking at the large dragon currently rubbing its nose on Jesse's back and almost fussing over their clothes. Jesse halfheartedly swatted at the dragon, rubbing its nose when it rumbled and butted its head into their hand. "And amazingly, you did actually bring it back alive."

Lukas chuckled at that, gesturing at Jesse, who was now sighing and fixing their shirt so that it was straighter. "Well, thank them for that."

"I didn't really do much... or anything..."

Aiden raised his eyebrow at that, but Isa was already speaking. "Well, we must thank you, then, Jesse. This creature's power will be of great aid to hopefully fixing the radioactivity in Sky City."

"Aid," Harper murmured.

"Oh, yeah. We'll help with your request as well," Mevia added, glancing at the other October Children. (Isa subtly kicked her for the informality.)

Lukas bowed slightly but courteously, straightening up a minute later. "Thank you, Mevia. Isa. Harper. It's much appreciated."

The dragon grumbled right around then, licking Jesse's face and evidently pleased that their shirt was no longer crooked.

"Can you guys please not hurt it?" Jesse asked earnestly, staring up at the three lords.

Harper, Mevia, and Isa instantly glanced at each other, red-rimmed irises flicking so that they were all staring at each other, thoughts that they weren't certain about whose belonged to who bouncing between them.

Can we promise something like that?

I don't know. Maybe we can.

But that limits the amount of research we can have done.  Or do.

Yes, but considering they're the one who brought us the dragon, I think they have a right to perhaps decide if we can do anything to it or not.

Besides, it may end up being dangerous without Jesse there to keep it in check.

(None of them could really disagree with that sentiment. The dragon seemed to love Jesse and barely tolerate everyone else.)

But can we figure something out without hurting it?

None of them really had an answer to the last part. Jesse looking like a hopeful puppy was not helping them figure anything out, either.

After a moment, Harper turned back to Jesse and nodded, a small smile spreading over her lips. "Okay."

Jesse perked up, relief spreading across their face. "Really?"

"Yes, of course," Isa hastily agreed. Damn their cute face flitted through all three lord's minds, but none of them were sure who was the culprit of the thought. Perhaps it was all three of them. "We'll figure something out. Right, Mev?"

She looked over at the pale blue-haired lord, shooting them a look that had an undertone that said something along the lines of "I will murder you if you upset them."

Mevia, faced with Jesse's puppy-dog eyes, Isa's subtly murderous look, and Harper's oddly hopeful look despite not having any expression on her face whatsoever, just shrugged.

"Yeah, alright."

"Jesse is a force to be reckoned with," Aiden mumbled to Lukas.

Lukas grinned at that.

Chapter Text

Mevia was busy.

They were all busy, one way or another, but Mevia sometimes wished she could trade places with Isa.

Or heck, Harper. She'd been a part of Himira. She knew redstone somewhat.

(Not as extensively as Harper did. The redstone expertise hadn't come about until they'd all been separated.)

The army could get rowdy. Very, very rowdy. Not to mention there were constant requests to increase the paycheck. Even when it was already double the amount of what the other lords paid.

But Isa, while excellent at combat (she tended to surprise people when she would pull out a second sword and dual wield as if it was second nature, as though wielding a sword that was already practically triple her size wasn't enough), had no interest in fighting beyond doing so to protect the people, and Harper wasn't the best fighter.

She wasn't awful, mind you, but Mevia had 'inherited' more of Himira's fighting than Harper had, and Harper had 'inherited' more of Himira's interest and knowledge in redstone, while Isa had 'inherited' nearly all of Himira's ability to be diplomatic and socialize.

A fairly good distribution, if not exactly an equal trade-off. It gave Mevia an excuse not to talk to people.

She had a very good gift at saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, according to Isa once when she'd been scolding her for a particularly rude jibe at someone.

Sometimes she wished she was like Harper.

Almost nonverbal around everyone else.

She was shaken out of the thought by the sound of the communication orb chirping to life, slowly rising into the air until it was hovering at eye-level height.

Mevia stared at it.

Glanced around.

Then she figured it was better to just answer now, rather than risk the person on the other end waiting for her to fetch the others- if one of the lords needed all of them to talk, they'd just ask.

So she tapped the orb, which let out a cheery chime and a puff of illusion-smoke, before it solidified into a screen.

"Hello, Mevia," Ivor said mildly from his side of the screen, lifting his hand in greeting.

"Ivor?" she asked in reply, slightly stupidly.

"No, it's Xara," he said, chuckling at his own sarcastic joke, before he sobered and regarded her. "I need to talk to you about something."

Mevia paused.

Sounded important.

She pushed aside the paperwork for the army (what a shame) and laced her fingers together, resting her chin on her hands. "What's the matter?"

"Well, there's been some trouble in the border cities of Enchantra..."


"So, er, that's why we're apparently going to be taking a detour to Enchantra to figure out what the heck is going on over there," Mevia finished, summarizing the reason she'd come into the room and, without any preamble whatsoever, announced, "Er, so, looks like we're heading to Enchantra for a week at least."

The October Children could hardly just sit there and wait for their ticket to the party to come back, after all.

Petra shrugged nonchalantly. "Yeah, I don't really mind. Still got a few weeks until the party."

"Plus it's your job to help Ivor out," Lukas pointed out.

"Yeah, yeah..."

Jesse kicked quietly, feet swinging above the floor from where they were nowhere near touching the floor with their feet. Gill was watching in an interested way. "Ivor's gonna talk to us?"

"Yeah, he is the one who asked for help," Maya pointed out, grinning.

"Oh, yeah."

Isa smiled pleasantly and patted Harper on the back. "Yes, I don't think Harper particularly minds that we have to go see Ivor, of all lords," she said, in a tone that was somehow both pleasant and almost devilishly mischievous.

Harper's cheeks darkened slightly, as if embarrassed. "Shush," she mumbled, elbowing Isa slightly and trying not to continue blushing.

She failed miserably, but it was a good attempt.

"Oh, you guys are coming too?" Aiden looked faintly interested at this.

Mevia shrugged. "He did make the request to us specifically. When I suggested bringing you he said that if you wished to, he would appreciate the help."

Petra made an agreeing sound, rubbing her chin. "It makes sense. You guys are the second-oldest lords. Xara, Romeo, and Fred were fairly new."

"Well, 'new', but yes, that is true," Isa said agreeably, although an observant onlooker (and Jesse) would've noticed the way she glanced at the other two lords.

Lukas rubbed Jesse's back when he saw their slightly anxious look. "Don't worry- it should only take four days to get there, and then we handle whatever the issue is, and we'll have enough time to get back and head to the party."

"... okay..."

"Yeah, you can just ride your horse, so you don't have to worry about slowing us up- unless bandits show up, but they would hardly show up just because of you," Maya said, comfortingly.

"Technically they would, if they got wind that a human was travelling with us," Gill pointed out.

Maya smacked him over the back of the head, still smiling comfortingly at Jesse and ignoring Gill's vehement protests and cusses.

Maya didn't look it, but when she smacked someone (someone being Gill) over the head, she did it hard. "Nope. They won't show up just because of you," she said, cheerily.

Jesse decided not to counter that. They didn't want Gill to suffer from Maya's ire even more, so they nodded with as convincing of a smile they could muster (it was not the most convincing smile they could muster, but it was reasonable enough). "Alright," they said mildly enough.

Petra rolled her eyes at Gill. "Boy, you'd think you'd have learned by now," she told him teasingly.

"Yeah, yeah..."

Mevia hummed, crossing her arms and regarding the October Children. "I suppose you'll have to prepare..." she said, slightly thoughtfully.

Her eyes travelled to Jesse. "And maybe we should get Jesse a chestplate or something."

They blinked in surprise.

"Bad," Harper said, shaking her head.

"Yes, I know our armors are more made for magic and speed," Mevia said slightly impatiently, rolling her red-and-black eyes, "but it's still better than the fuzzy jacket."

Jesse frowned slightly, trying not to grin. "I like my fuzzy jacket..."

Mevia made a sound of irritation and ruffled their hair, making them giggle. "You child. I meant it's better protection than the fuzzy jacket."

Well, couldn't argue with that.

Gill stretched slightly, leaning on Maya's shoulder. (She glowered at him.) "So, what would we call this? It's not really a mission. But it's not a request, either, since we're traveling with the lords..."

"I guess you could kind of call it a road trip," Jesse offered.

"Road trip?" Lukas repeated, jokingly and with a lopsided grin on his face.

Aiden, who was talking to Isa about something, lazily pumped a fist into the air. "Road trip. Woo," he said, in what was perhaps singlehandedly the least enthusiastic voice Jesse had ever heard, before resuming his conversation with Isa.

(She looked as though she were hiding a grin at the remark afterwards.)

Jesse looked down at Reuben.

He snuffled and rubbed his nose against their wrist.

Jesse smiled and rubbed the little pig back, trying to calm the little hard knot in the pit of their stomach and ignore it. It was fine.

Everything would be fine.

It was just a trip there, some troubleshooting, a trip back, and then the party. Simple. It shouldn't even take more than two or three weeks at maximum, according to the other lords and the October Children and Petra, and Jesse trusted them, despite having only known them for a week, Jesse trusted Lukas and Maya and Gill and Petra and Mevia and Isa and Harper and hell, they trusted Aiden.

Surely, surely nothing could go wrong.

(Right?)

 

Chapter Text

Lords got attacked easily in Cosmos.

Sure, it was rare that anyone could actually beat them, but it was worth a shot to most demons (as well as, you know, the risk of getting murdered by said lord, since lords were like war machines and it was nearly impossible to kill one), since lords were worth a lot in terms of ransom. Not to mention, if you got away with it, you actually could gloat about it to people.

Not that that meant Mevia appreciated getting attacked on the road, but she tried to keep that in mind when it happened.

It only partially worked.

Isa darted out of the way of one bandit, mumbling something under her breath that Mevia would've been willing to bet three diamonds was a rather unladylike swear. "Of course. Of course we get attacked in the first three hours. Why was I surprised." She brought her sword down, the blade elongating midair, and cleaved a bandit across the chest with it.

She let out what sounded like a female version of the Wilhelm scream and crumpled to the floor, blood soaking the dirt around her. Isa spun, dancing lightly on the balls of her feet, and dove back into the fray without a problem, blade shrinking and growing in the span of seconds to accommodate for her opponent's reach and size.

Harper grunted quietly in agreement as she easily dodged one attack, before something caught her eye and her head snapped up. "Lukas!" she barked, usually mild voice spiking sharply-

Lukas ducked, pivoted, and shot his clawed hand straight into a demon's eyes without skipping a beat.

They screamed, scrabbling at Lukas's hand frantically, trying to wrench his claws out of their eyes-

A small redstone device winged out of nowhere as Lukas hauled his hand out and back, blood splattering over the ground, and attached to the demon, beeping frantically, before it exploded and sent a spray of blood everywhere.

Harper made a somewhat satisfied sound and spun to defend against a different attack.

Aiden dodged an attack, grunting. "Damn. Did we have to get attacked?"

"Nah, but you know travel in Cosmos, it's basically required at this point," Petra replied slightly breathlessly, diving under one demon's axe blade and then swinging her sword up with a flick.

The axe blade thudded solidly into the ground, blood soaking the ground around it as a severed hand proceeded to topple next to it, the attacked demon letting out a scream of agony as, ah, yes, the fact that their hand had just gotten cut off caught up to them.

Jesse shrank behind Mevia, who was currently swinging her axe with wild abandon, covered in blood and, yeah, that might've been someone's guts splattered on her dress there.

(She couldn't help noticing that they kept glancing around, as if looking for something, but they didn't really voice the concern of whatever it was. Just let their eyes wander and shift as they tried to avoid the bloodshed with their eyes, Reuben snuffling, wariness sparking as they looked about.)

Mevia had never babysat before, so when Maya ordered (ordered, forgetting her role in her panic to fumble out her staff and thwack some random bandit to the floor, but Mevia didn't care, none of them cared in that moment) Mevia to watch Jesse, that was what immediately popped to mind.

She was babysitting.

(She wasn't exactly sure whether to be pleased that of all people, she wasn't babysitting a brat, or offended that she was babysitting.)

Unfortunately, it did mean that Mevia had to spend a lot of her attention diverting it to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them; speaking of there actually was someone coming up behind them, but she had her hands a bit full with the demon with the sword in front of her and oh, damn, she'd better handle that quickly...

"Hm. Jesse?"

Jesse blinked up at Mevia from where they were waiting with her, her axe out but mostly slashing at anyone who got a wee bit too close to Jesse. "Mm?"

"You did martial arts or something, right?"

At their bewildered look at her random announcing of the fact, she added, "Harper mentioned it in passing."

(More like she actually theorized and mused about it a lot for the past few days since she wasn't in front of other people and just Isa and Mevia, when they were even in the same room, but she wasn't going to say this in front of Harper.)

"Oh. Yeah, sort of... it wasn't official, though, I don't have a belt or anything," Jesse said thoughtfully, clinging to the back of her dress-robe while also trying not to trip her up, and also probably not trying to throw up due to all the blood and gore and death, which resulted in them barely pinching the back of her dress between their fingers while simultaneously looking like they were trying to push her away as much as possible and also stick to her like glue.

Basically, it looked hilarious.

"Well, do you think you could do something about the guy sneaking up on you?" Mevia grunted, swiping her axe through the air and managing to deflect a particularly large blade.

"I could maybe- wait- OH!" Jesse, abruptly getting why she was saying this, spun around and automatically kicked upwards.

They managed to (in an incredible display of luck) nail the demon right in the nuts.

He squeaked, automatically bending and grabbing the area in pain, and Jesse punched him in the face hastily.

This knocked him out for the count, which was good because there were about five other demons trying to come after Jesse.

(Mevia supposed that if she wanted to make them less of a target she shouldn't be guarding them, but with such a big group of bandits, she wasn't about to risk anyone's ire about Jesse ending up in a life-threatening situation because she was the best at combat and she hadn't been watching them.

Or Jesse getting killed. That would also be rather bad.)

"Alright, then. Jesse?"

Jesse looked up at Mevia, although they really just glanced at her- she was behind them now, and they were trying to keep an eye on the other demons, who were circling the two of them a bit more cautiously- they evidently did not also want to get kicked in the balls by the tiny human in a fuzzy black jacket who apparently seemed to be an expert at nailing someone in the balls.

Which was understandable. She wouldn't have wanted to get kicked, either.

"Mm?"

"Can you knock people out without kicking them in the nuts? I mean, it's effective, but-"

She swiped and managed to nail one demon in the side of the head rapidly, blood smearing on her axe blade as she twirled it out of the corpse that fell to the ground and hastily adjusted it, poised for another attack, another defense, another movement.

"People might not exactly find it the most efficient way to knock someone out."

Jesse's lips twisted in thought as their brow furrowed, trying to think of some move that didn't involve knocking someone out by kicking them in the balls. "Mm... maybe?"

One demon shot at Jesse like a bullet, darting across the ground, covering a lot of ground as he was upon them-

Jesse's foot flew up into his chest and knocked every ounce of air out of his lungs- Mevia could hear the wheeze and the 'oof!' as he had the wind knocked out of him- then across his face, their heel cracking into his skull.

He crumpled like he'd been shot.

Jesse looked up at Mevia hopefully, green eyes big and hopeful. "Did I do okay?"

Truthfully, had any human come in, done that to a random demon, then looked up and hopefully asked if they'd done alright with the biggest eyes she'd ever seen, Mevia's reply would've been to recruit them right then and there, but since Romeo had somewhat claimed them and they didn't voice their wish (their claims of it being too stupid to voice aloud did make her a bit concerned but she was hardly going to bully them into telling her), she could hardly do that.

She cleared her throat, still trying to keep her eyes on the battle. "Um. Yes. You did fine."

Jesse looked so ridiculously happy that Mevia was tempted to grin at them.

She scowled instead.

"Don't just stand there, do more! We've got to beat the bandits if we're gonna keep going," she snapped, perhaps a bit more harshly than intended. "Duck."

Jesse did as she asked, and Mevia proceeded to slash open the throat of another bandit who was behind Jesse, Jesse popping up like a daisy in winter once she'd finished this... rather bloody task.

To be honest, despite the fact that they kept quaking, they were handling this remarkably well.

"Oh- yes, ma'am!" Jesse said this, puffing up quickly and giving her some kind of bizarre salute (Reuben grinned at that) and hastily went back to somehow kicking a bunch of demon's asses without a problem.

Mevia watched them, aware of this weird prickling feeling at the back of her head, that said they were all being watched right now. Scrutinized.

She ignored it. Of course she was being watched, she was in the middle of a fight and- ah, there-

Mevia swung her axe and nearly gutted this bandit; as it was she left a small gash in their abdomen and backed away a step, watching. Eyes narrowed as she surveyed their movements, watched the bandit circling her slightly more warily.

Absently noticed Jesse diving under a sword blade and sweeping their leg out, knocking someone to the floor and scrambling away to jab a punch into a different demon's nose.

The demon proceeded to yelp, swear, and clutch at his nose like they'd broken it, blood pouring from his nostril.

Can we adopt Jesse? was the thought that went through all three lords' heads a moment later.

Harper already did, Isa replied.

Hush.

Chapter Text

When the fight had ended, things actually weren't too bad.

Sure, with the lords they'd been planning to move quicker and skip past the End (which was a city, Gill had to reassure Jesse upon seeing their bewildered face, not something bad), but the bandits were actually more vicious and had more numbers than they'd expected, so they'd ended up wasting enough time that by the time they were at the End, the sun was barely grazing the horizon, and after some arguing about light magic (which none of them had, or in the case of the lords, they didn't have a good), they decided that they weren't about to try out Jesse's weird skill with magic again without practice (which Jesse did not have) and to just stay the night at the End.

But on the bright side, the worst injury anyone on their end had obtained was a bloody nose (Gill gave a thumbs up and just said he'd ice it when Jesse fussed over it), and they'd all learned that Jesse could use a little bit of fighting training, since they actually weren't half bad at it.

(Isa, however, did murmur to Harper when Jesse happened to be listening at one point to not teach them anything lethal, and Harper must've agreed with this sentiment because she nodded rather vigorously.)

The gates to the End weren't exactly the most encouraging things to look at- tall obsidian pillars that towered above Jesse's head, with glowing crystals at the top, marked the perimeter of the city, and the gates were black wire that were shaped like dragons and snakes.

They had to let one of the dragons on the gate sniff their ID before they were allowed in (the dragon started licking Jesse's hand instead of sniffing the ID when they got close, which caused Isa to laugh and Harper to have to redirect the dragon to the actual ID), but since they all had ID cards they were all allowed inside.

The sky was a deep purple the second they stepped in, clouds vaguely purple and more like wisps of smoke than anything else. The streets were lined with yellow stone that looked like it should feel squishy but didn't, which threw them off a little bit, and many of the buildings were accented with smooth purple blocks that were called purpur, according to Lukas' impressed whistle and remark on them.

It was somewhat fitting, considering the block was a shade of lavender.

"Welcome to the world's most empty city," Mevia said sardonically, spreading her arms. "Makes you feel like it's The End of the world."

Jesse giggled at the pun, while Harper sighed and Gill closed his eyes, looking like he was physically restraining himself from cringing.

Isa shook her head and patted Mevia on the back. "Moving on... shall we head to the palace? Soren will be there. Or at least he'll have a welcome message with some form of instruction on what to do if we're staying there, since he might be poking around the End."

"Yeah... honestly, don't feel like dealing with Endermen anyway."

Jesse blinked and twisted around to look at Petra, who was rubbing her face tiredly. "Endermen?" they echoed, in a bewildered way.

Aiden nodded, glancing at the walls. "Soren's weird..."

Yes, that explains a lot.

He noticed their bewildered expression and clarified, apparently deciding their confused expression was more annoying than having to speak to them. "He's got this weird obsession with Endermen. They don't necessarily enter the city, because that could potentially get really dangerous, but the enchantments sometimes keep the Endermen stuck up against the walls so that he can examine them."

"The enchantments eventually kill the Endermen, since it's too dangerous to just let 'em wander around, but I can tell you, from experience..."

He made a face, lips twisting slightly as the memory apparently made him rather uncomfortable. "It's not really fun to go walking through the streets and turn a corner to see a screaming Enderman up against the wall."

"Ah... is that why the city's..." Jesse paused, regarding the spookily empty city, before gesturing expansively at the spookily empty city.

Petra nodded, crossing her arms. "Yeah... though, this city has historically been pretty empty, since negative magic is drawn to the area. That's why the sky's all purple once you come in," and she pointed up at the violet sky. "Negative energy's so heavy that it's messing with the sky. Legend tells of some great source of negative energy being kept here before the gates in Jupin were created, and from what Ivor says occasionally, I think it might be pretty true."

"Oh," Jesse said, rather cleverly. "I see..."

"Don't be so negative, it's not the End of the world if we stay here," Mevia replied, her facial expression not changing a whit.

This time, everyone except Jesse groaned at her.


Soren- one of the barons, according to Mevia- wasn't there upon their arrival, although he did, in fact, have a pleasant welcome message at the entrance that told them that if they knew the password, meaning that they were a lord or another baron or someone there on their behalf, they were free to find a room to stay in for the night and he would try to see them when he returned.

They did in fact know the password (Harper uttered a quiet 'Command Block' and the entrance doors pretty much flew open), so that was nice.

Well, Jesse supposed he could've been in the building, but if he was there, he was sure hiding pretty well.

Not that it was hard. It was surprisingly large, considering only one person lived in it, wooden hallways with polished floors that were warmly, if somewhat dimly, lit. There were little plants on little tables, and in every segment of every hallway there was a fountain.

(Gill splashed Maya at one point, which caused her to splash him back, which caused Isa to intervene to avoid them splashing the floor.)

There were even two floors, although the upper floor was more cramped than the bottom and seemed to be more of a thing to access other rooms from if you happened to end up up there and not just have to default back to the ground floor every time.

After everyone had brushed their teeth, coming to Jesse's room because they'd apparently picked the only room with a good sink (that was Mevia's excuse, at least) and changed in their pajamas (Harper seemed very happy to see them in footie pajamas, which made Jesse tint rather pink), everyone bid each other good night (except Maya and Gill told each other that they both hoped they died in their sleep, which seemed like an odd way to express affection to one another) and headed off to bed.

... and Jesse couldn't sleep.

They should've been able to, by all means; the bed was quite comfortable and the room was dark and Reuben snuffled in his sleep against their chest comfortingly like a breathing teddy bear, but they just couldn't drop off into sleep.

They tried to count Enderman bloops from outside the walls, but that just made them more nervous instead of lulling them to sleep.

After seventeen bloops, they wiggled out from under the covers and decided to walk around. It wasn't exactly the best time to go for a walk, but they could probably tire themselves out by just going around in circles, and they needed to get some sleep anyway.

The hallways were empty- big surprise. They were still dimly lit, and every door, though shut, wasn't locked.

So by the time Jesse had spent two hours walking around (with no change in how much they wanted to sleep, unfortunately), they'd found four bathrooms, a laboratory that was pressed right up against the city boundaries, a few living rooms, and they were pretty sure one room was a kitchen.

Then they came across one doorway that was...

Well, it was less normal than the others, to put it kindly.

It was covered in knitted pictures.

When Jesse pulled the door open, they found a rather large room that looked as though it was a little slice of Jesse's world that had been taken out and plopped into Cosmos, somehow perfectly untouched except for the fountains and bridge.

The room also looked remarkably like it was made of wool.

They stepped onto the grass experimentally. Yep, that was wool, alright.

Squishy and solid all at once, they practically bounced in place as they looked about. The wool sky was blue with clouds of white wispy wool hanging from the ceiling. The leaves of the trees and the bark were wool, the grass was wool; in fact, the only thing that wasn't wool was the water in the stream and the fountains, which were made with wood and made the rest of the wool world look a bit more artificial in comparison.

Jesse couldn't help but stare around themselves in interest.

"Hello."

Jesse squeaked, jumped, and turned to see a man with unruly ginger hair and a thinning forehead. His mustache was the same color as his hair, and it was also rather curly. He wore a simple kind of suit, although he had a chestplate under his arm and they felt as though he'd been taking off the brownish, blue-decorated armor when they'd come in, and he was regarding them with a somewhat wary gaze. His eyes were red- no, not quite red. Red with a ring of dark brown right around the pupil.

"What are you doing up?" Soren asked.

 

Chapter Text

"You... must be Soren," Jesse said at last, trying to figure out something proper to say besides 'um, hi'.

Which was fine, but they wanted to be slightly more wary around this guy, so sue them.

Soren shrugged. "I am. But must I be?" He adjusted his grip on his armor and blinked at them thoughtfully. "I'm not particularly sure I want to sometimes. Sometimes, I'd like to be anything but Soren." His face lit up as a thought occurred to him. "Ooh, like a donkey for example."

Jesse blinked.

"Do you like donkeys?"

He shrugged again, bending down so that he was more on their eye level. The baron's unruly ginger hair bounced with him. "I don't know. I'm partial to cats, myself. But I do prefer Endermen."

Jesse gave a little shiver at that. "Oh... aren't they dangerous?"

"Actually, from what I've seen they simply don't like eye contact. Endermen won't attack unless you make direct eye contact with them," Soren remarked, eyes glittering with interest. His mustache curved up as he grinned. "Did you know they're one of the only mobs in this world that can move blocks about? The other ones that are formed from negative energy merely destroy. But Endermen have the potential to create."

He paused for a moment. "Truthfully, they do look a bit distasteful. But they're still fascinating creatures."

Jesse hummed, thumbing the corner of their mouth. "I see... were you looking at them earlier?"

"Oh, when you first came? Yes, actually. One was stuck in just the right position that I could get an excellent look at their teeth without getting my face bitten off, and, well, that sort of opportunity is not one to be missed," Soren almost gushed, his eyes gleaming. You could really see that he enjoyed them.

"I got attacked by one the other day," they replied, not knowing what else to say. "Nobody told me not to look it in the eyes."

Soren sighed and plopped down in the woolly grass. Jesse, not knowing what else to do, followed suit. "Yes, humans and half-demons fare the worst when they first see one. They never know not to just stare at it like it's a circus attraction or something and inevitably tend to make eye contact with it."

"Oh," Jesse replied cleverly.

Soren smiled at the reply and fell quiet, listening to the water burbling through the little fake stream.

Jesse watched the water glitter in the 'sun', before looking up at Soren bemusedly. "What is this place?" they asked, as politely as they could when that was the question they were asking.

"Oh, this?" He gestured around at the woolly little slice of peace. "This is my Wool World."

Jesse looked around politely. Now that they were over the surprise of it all being wool, it was actually rather nice. Better than the laboratory that looked like something had exploded in it. Besides, it was so well crafted that they couldn't help marveling at it a little. "I didn't know demons knew how to knit."

"Crochet, actually," Soren corrected. "But yes; crocheting and knitting and the such is a human skill, so the half-demons that decide to become full demons and stay in Cosmos rather than fulfill their wish are rather wealthy, since they sell those such things. Personally, I find crocheting to be more interesting."

Jesse considered these words, sifting through the information.

And then they remembered something that actually seemed to be a gem amid the other pieces of information, and they looked up at him. "But if demons don't knit or crochet, and you do, then... you came from my world?"

Soren scratched his mustache. "The human world? Yes. I had a wish, spent a long stint as a half-demon, you know those details but by the time I'd finished serving most of my time, Ivor was searching for a new baron due to the previous one's dying. And this place is magnet for Endermen, which I found fascinating, so..."

He shrugged nonchalantly. "I gave up my wish to become the baron of this place."

Jesse's eyes widened. "You did...?"

"Oh, yes. I did decide to stay half-demon, though, as I'd become quite handy with light magic by the end of it and I didn't believe I'd be able to get used to the abrupt switch of how the lords have trouble with it," Soren added, quickly.

"You can do that...?"

"Oh, half the barons are half-demon," Soren said dismissively, waving off Jesse's amazement. "Even Fred- the former lord of Jupin- even he was half-demon, I think. It's much rarer that a half-demon becomes a lord, though, so it did cause quite a stir."

Jesse blinked and looked down at their hands, considering this in quiet boggled amazement. "Oh..."

They considered it for another minute, watching the sun glitter on water and feeling the woolly floor press through their pajamas as they sat next to Soren, who had leaned back to look at the small hills and blue 'sky' absently.

"Do you regret it?"

Soren hummed, scratching his cheek. "Odd enough, no, I don't." He glanced back at them for a moment, before continuing, "They did return my memory once I became a baron, so I remember my wish. But it wasn't as important to me after such a long stint as a half-demon, and I didn't have much to return to. So it wasn't so much of a loss."

Jesse thought this over and, after a moment, asked, "What was your wish?"

Soren gave them a dry smile, still watching the water glow. "A bit of a personal question, isn't it? We've hardly spoken before."

"Oh...! I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"

He laughed, cutting them off. "Relax..."

"Jesse."

"Lovely name. Relax, Jesse, I was only joking."

Jesse smothered a small yawn the best they could. They were starting to feel tired now. Something about Soren just put them at ease. "Oh."

He chuckled at the simple reply and shrugged again. "No, er, my wish was to live longer."

Jesse blinked.

Then turned to look at him. "That was your wish?"

He nodded. "That was my wish. I had been in a car accident a few months prior to being brought to Cosmos, and it was... painful, to say the least?"

He ran his fingers quietly over a small bumpy scar on his hand that they hadn't noticed. "I'd needed a lung transplant due to some... ah, complications, but there weren't many willing donors, and the date was approaching, and it wasn't likely to... succeed, anyhow."

He shrugged, as though he were talking about the weather.

Jesse's face was solemn as they looked up at him. "I'm sorry about that."

Soren shook his head, still not looking directly at them. "Don't be. It wasn't your fault, and it was a long time ago anyhow." He rubbed his eye slightly, lips pressing together as he considered his words. "I was... afraid."

He gave a weak little chuckle. "Despite my close friends perishing in the incident, despite not having anyone left except for myself, I... I simply didn't want to die."

After a moment, he tilted his head back to look at the 'sky' and exhaled quietly. "So I made my wish. It just so happened to be the day the door was open, and where the door was open, and... becoming a half-demon halted the process of me dying. It would've been resolved before I was reverted, but staying a half-demon regardless has kept me from dying. So in a way, I did receive my wish."

He turned to look at Jesse, taking their little waif of a form in, their wiry little body and big (slightly sleepy) eyes and fluffy dark hair and the slightly over-large footie pajamas as they looked up at him earnestly, drinking in the story silently.

And he smiled.

"You ought to go to sleep."

Jesse rubbed their eye sleepily, humming and standing up, still rubbing their eyes. "Okay... I like your house, by the way."

Soren's smile broadened. "Thank you. I built it myself."

Jesse gave him a thumbs up (he looked amused) and offered a sleepy 'goodnight'.

They were about to meander back out of the Wool World and in the direction of their room, but a sneaking question crept into their thoughts and before they knew it they had turned around.

"Why did you tell me... about your wish?"

Soren's smile faded slightly as he pondered this.

"Well, I thought friends told each other secrets." He paused, smile falling entirely into a thoughtful frown, before he lifted his eyes to Jesse's, red eyes searching their green ones. "... tell me something. Are you my friend?"

Jesse was still, turning the word over in their head.

Friend.

They hadn't had many friends before Cosmos.

After a moment, their lips curved up into a happy little smile and they nodded.

Soren's smile returned, relief tinting it this time. "Excellent. That's the best news I've heard in a long while." He paused, before gesturing around himself drily. "Although, clearly that's not a very high bar that I've set."

Jesse giggled and mumbled another sleepy 'goodnight' before turning around and leaving the room. It was a straight shot back to their room, and they'd left the door ajar anyway.

Soren kept the smile up for another minute, before it fell, exhaustion and tiredness creeping into his expression.

He was tired of this skill now.

As a half-demon, he was able to see pain. Upon becoming a baron, the skill was amplified to the point where sometimes he could tell that someone was literally going to die- either from their own pain driving them to it, or as a direct result of the pain. It was part of the reason he didn't mind living alone. Endermen weren't people.

He did not have to worry about seeing pain.

And simply being next to Jesse...

Well.

He was surprised they were still here. He would have given up a long time ago.

Or would he have?

Perhaps not.

You weren't willing to join the one person who cared about you the most when they died in that accident, some part of him whispered to himself. You were too scared.

You wouldn't be willing to remove yourself from the earth even if you did give up.

What word suited him?

Turncoat? No, he hadn't betrayed anyone (even if he felt as though he had).

Wicked? No, perhaps not. That didn't sound right either.

Soren's lips twitched up into a smile that held no humor.

Ah, yes. He knew the right word.

Coward.

 

Chapter Text

Jesse was eating some dish that was a rather pretty shade of pink (nobody would tell them what was in it, and so they decided not to be a nuisance and pester them about it) when Soren walked in.

Well, more accurately, he said, "Good morning" while he was right behind Mevia, which caused her to jump and choke, which then in turn caused her to swear like a sailor at him and simultaneously choke and cough while Isa thumped her on the back.

His mustache was turned up at the ends in what suspiciously looked like a smile as he continued, "Good morning, October Children, good morning Isa, Harper, hello, Petra, nice to see you, and..." His smile turned into a wider one as he lifted his hand in greeting. "Hello, Jesse."

Jesse bobbed their head and waved over their pink dish. "Hi, Soren. What's this?" They pointed at the pink dish.

He went over to look at it a bit more closely, staring at the dish closely.

(Jesse was busy looking up at him with big eyes while he looked at whatever pink mush they were eating, and thus missed the death glares half of the room proceeded to send Soren promising his imminent doom if he told them exactly what was in it.)

After a moment, he shrugged. "Since you're eating it, I don't think I should say. There is a small amount of meat in it, but nothing particularly disgusting or, ahem," he cleared his throat slightly, "exotic, so unless you're a vegetarian..."

"I do tend to eat less meat, but I'm not vegetarian or vegan, so..." Jesse shrugged and looked down at Reuben, who was snuffling quietly in a little bowl of some kind of plant that Aiden had put out for him (he said there was a kind of flower mixed in that would help Reuben digest and that didn't taste bad, but that was all he'd say about the ingredients) in their lap.

He was getting some plant debris on their clothing.

"Oh, is that so? You're fine, then." He ruffled their hair and looked up at the others with a small smile. "Well, may I ask what you're all doing passing through here? You all don't usually muck around in the End."

"We do usually try to skip it," Gill murmured.

Maya kicked him in the shin.

Lukas stopped eating his weird black ramen dish (well, it looked like ramen to Jesse, they had no idea if it actually was anything like ramen) to answer, outright ignoring Gill and Maya swearing at each other quietly. "We're actually headed to Fortrylle."

"Enchantra's capital," Isa told Jesse quietly when she saw their bemused expression.

"Oh."

Soren nodded, as if that made sense. "Ah, I see. But surely you could've skipped the End...?"

He faltered, and then he sighed, a slightly more annoyed expression fixing itself on his face. "Oh, wait. The bandit activity has been more active in Hizelk lately, correct?"

"Yeah, so we spent about... what, half the day yesterday fending off this one giant group of bandits?" Aiden sighed and bit off a large bite of his toast. (Was it toast? Jesse couldn't tell. It smelled like toast and looked like burnt toast, so it probably was something along the lines of toast.)

"Oh, yes, and then you've got to spend all that time muddling through Jupin, since Beacontown's in turmoil as well, and the bandit activity's even higher..."

Maya swore again, and this time not because she was bickering with Gill. "Oh, that's fantastic... what kind of delay would that add?"

Soren pursed his lips, considering it. "Well, any messengers that come from Beacontown usually end up having to take a full day... so two days to get through Jupin and end up in Beacontown, including a stay at Beacontown since you can't really blaze through the night..."

"It would be difficult to blaze through the night with all those Ghastly monsters roaming about at night," Mevia said, with a completely straight face.

"No," Harper told her, trying not to grin while scowling at her.

"Is this really the time for puns?" Aiden muttered, frowning at Mevia.

"It is always the time for puns."

"It really isn't, Mevia," Isa mumbled.

Jesse giggled, which made Soren sigh and ruffle their hair. Either from sympathy or as some kind of 'punishment', Jesse couldn't tell.

"Two days isn't that bad, truthfully," Isa said, after she'd finished shooting halfhearted insults at Mevia, "most slower people would take longer."

"Yes, so for normal people it would take weeks," Aiden said flatly.

Soren nodded. "Essentially."

Jesse took another bite of the pink dish as Soren leaned on the table, quietly thinking through the schedule. "As long as you hurry, you shouldn't have to worry about a huge delay."

Harper looked faintly relieved at that. "Good," she said simply.

Soren nodded, evidently not taken aback by her complete lack of talking. Maybe it was a well-known thing? They were still in Hizelk.

Mevia sighed and looked at Jesse eating the pink dish.

It was like pink powder. Jesse would probably have pinned it as the sakura denbu they'd eaten once at the school culture festival at the Japan booth, except it wasn't sweet and it was a bit clumpier, like there were small chunks of something inside.

"Do you like it?"

Jesse nodded and took another bite. It was... actually, it kinda tasted like toast with butter on it, but... not.

(Yes, what a wonderful description. Jesse really couldn't have described it beyond that; it was buttered toast but not quite the taste of buttered toast.)

"Yeah; I was kinda expecting it to be sweet like sakura denbu."

Aiden shot them a rather weird look. "Sakura what now?"

"Oh, um, sakura denbu... it's like this... it's a Japanese powder thing. Kinda looks like this except minus the chunks," Jesse hastily added, trying not to blush bright pink at having let their thoughts slip.

Lukas nodded, as if that made perfect sense.

Maybe it did, but it probably didn't.

"Oh. That makes sense. What is it made of?" he asked, tilting his head at Jesse. They couldn't see his eyes due to the ever-present blindfold, but they would've been willing to bet that there was a good amount of curiosity in his eyes.

"Sakura denbu is like... sweetened codfish flakes."

They got some extremely weird looks for that. Even Reuben peeked up from his breakfast to give Jesse a skeptical look.

"I know it sounds weird but it's actually really good..."

Chapter Text

Jesse could feel the change in atmosphere the moment they exited the end and entered Jupin. It was a combination of the four districts, like a strange patchwork quilt, with some different patches. At one point they wandered into one patch that had ground that looked like meat and lava pools that cast a weird glow along with the Cosmos sun.

"Well, at least it looks like the Ghasts and pigmen and blazes and whatnot didn't stick around," Gill mumbled.

Upon seeing Jesse's expression, he clarified. "We call these patches Nether patches. These," and he tapped the meaty ground with his foot to specify what he meant by 'these'.

"Sometimes the negative energy'll stay in the patches, and the monsters it creates will just linger in these patches. We're not sure why."

Jesse looked down at the 'meaty' floor. It didn't feel any less unsettling than before.

"Oh."

Bob snorted and nuzzled Jesse, allowing them to huddle down into its fiery mane. Despite being literal fire, it really didn't burn or anything- just felt like Jesse was touching solid sunshine.

Reuben snuffled as well, nudging his little nose against Jesse's stomach. They smiled down at him and rubbed his head.

"It's actually pretty common, so I'm glad that it did NOT stick around," Maya mumbled.

"Is... are the patches 'cause this is the demon realm?" Jesse asked, timidly.

Harper shook her head. "Climate."

"Harper's right; Cosmos is weird in that it's not really... hell, or anything, it's like its own little world with different climates. Occasionally patches of... well, hell peek through," Mevia had to admit a moment later whens he couldn't find a proper word, "like you'll see a lot here since Fred's gone and there's nothing to really support the environment, and you'd see like one or two in Hizelk and the other places but not as commonly, but yes. North is cold. South is hot. East and West also have different climates." as

Isa sighed. "It's not that simplistic, but to be quite honest explaining why every district is so different would be rather difficult," she said to Jesse, "so for now, yes, that's a good-enough explanation."

Jesse hummed, burying into Bob's mane slightly. "... so... without a ruler... things go to hell?"

There was a long pause as everyone processed that.

Then Aiden groaned, grinding his palm into his good eye, Harper shook her head with a tiny smile on her lips, and Mevia gave Jesse the proudest look she could possibly give while Gill laughed. "You know, I never even realized that you could make that pun..."


Beacontown looked like it would've been a nice place, if it was brighter and a tiny bit more put-together.

It was a patchwork already- Jesse could see a giant slot machine towering over a corner of the town, and there was a pool of lava with a giant octopus statue in it, but it was a bit of a mess and Jesse found it hard to walk anywhere without tripping on a loose cobblestone.

It was noisy. A muffled din of weapons clashing and haggling and general destruction and mayhem roared in the background, enough for Jesse to always be on edge even when their ears had finally begun to tune it out. The lords went off with Petra, Aiden, Lukas, who'd claimed that they had a contact that would find them a place to stay for the night.

(Jesse managed to catch when Aiden muttered that he sure hoped that person hadn't been murdered, despite Maya's best attempts to shut him up.)

So they were sitting with Gill and Maya, who were bickering back and forth casually, when a demon strolled up, looking like they'd just waltzed through one of the Nether patches, and started inquiring about directions.

The two of them stood up to look at his map of the city (although Gill looked irked), and Jesse was left to sit on the edge of the pool of lava, heat soaking through their clothes and making the fuzzy jacket feel almost unbearably hot.

"Well, hello, there."

Jesse looked up at the stupidly, cheesily bad-guy line. There was, indeed, someone there, smiling pleasantly at Jesse, except their outfit looked like it had been put through a shredder and they were missing more than a few teeth.

"Hello," they replied, mostly out of courtesy.

"Whatcha up to?"

Jesse glanced to Gill and Maya, but they were busy working on directions ("this is literally a saloon that's on the opposite end of the city, how did you end up here?") and even though Maya had an eye on them, she looked like she could hardly pull away to come help them.

"Would you leave me alone, please? I'm waiting for someone," Jesse said, politely, trying not to blurt out that actually they were waiting for quite many someones, including three lords, and so could they please go away-

"A human? Waiting for someone? Oh, that's too rich."

They could tell.

Jesse didn't know how they could tell, but they could tell.

Their eyes flickered up to sweep the streets, catching sight of what looked like a ragtag group lurking in the shadows of the nearby alleys and leering down at them , like vultures surrounding a carcass.

They were the corpse. Or they would be, if they didn't-

Run.

They had to run.

Jesse turned around and sprinted off into the alleys, even as Maya let out a yell as she realized what was going on.

They could hear the group of bandits in hot pursuit, feet pounding on the cobblestones and creating a drum of uncoordinated rhythm that thrummed in tandem with the din in the background, ducking through roads that weren't the least bit familiar and finding corners to turn that simply didn't make sense-

Their foot shot sideways on a tile that was loose and cracked as they prepared to round a corner.

Jesse cried out as they tumbled to the ground, hands skidding over a rough patch of ground and instantly beginning to burn slightly, palms scraped and tenderized.

The bandits backed Jesse into the dead end alley almost immediately, leering down at them. At the back of the pack, Jesse could see the demon that had stopped to ask Gill and Maya for directions.

A trick.

It had all been a trick. A distraction.

They tugged their fuzzy jacket around themselves in an attempt to comfort themself.

It didn't really work.

"Well... looks like a little lost lamb got separated from the flock," the leader(? They were wearing more belts and equipment than the others, so it seemed like they were the leader) said, pouting so severely that Jesse could feel the mocking from a mile away.

They stepped forward and chucked Jesse's chin, the small human shivering and biting their lip in an attempt to stop themselves from it, tilting Jesse's head from side to side like they were inspecting a piece of meat.

Their smile widened.

"I'm in the mood for some mutton."

Jesse swallowed their whimper, trying not to shake desperately as the bandit flicked out a switchblade, tracing the very edge of the blade on their clothing. Not enough to touch, but enough for Jesse to be all-too-aware of where it was, even as it traced along their back.

"There's certain parts that we can get rid of first, though, since I know it's going to taste bad..."

The blade had circled to the back of their neck, carefully, almost teasingly starting to press into the back of their neck.

"The head's never that tasty."

Three things happened in that moment, and whenever Jesse thought back to it later they remembered it in a sequence, like a list of events.

1) The lightbulb above their head, the dim cracked lamp illuminating the alley enough for them all to see, flickered out momentarily, plunging them into darkness for a heartbeat.

2) The knife grazed the back of Jesse's neck as something shot over Jesse's shoulder, the bandit leader giving a startled oof! as they were thrown backwards away from Jesse, the knife thankfully only creating a tiny scratch that Jesse only knew was there because of the tiny sting on the back of their neck.

3) The lightbulb flickered back on to reveal that the bandit leader now had someone else standing in front of Jesse, a single figure that felt almost like a solid wall guarding them from the bandits, and it wasn't someone Jesse recognized.

A man was towering over Jesse, brown hair with a few gray streaks in it. He was wearing nothing but a slightly torn blue vest on his torso, the edges of his pants fraying and old and not hiding the muddy boots he was wearing. His beard was thick and also streaked with some gray hairs. One eye gleamed red in the dim, flickering light.

The other was dead gray.

"I believe you gentlemen should be on your way now?" he asked, in a dangerously quiet voice.

The bandits, no longer smiling sinisterly, were tripping over themselves trying to get away from him, scrambling over one another as they stumbled and fell and even stepping on their comrades.

And then the alley was empty except for Jesse and the man, the flickering lightbulb above crackling as it struggled to stay lit.

He turned to look down at them, his dead eye glowing faintly in the light as well. His expression was impossible to read.

"What's a human like you doing in Cosmos?"

... Well.

They were dead.

Chapter Text

Jesse swallowed the frightened lump in their throat, still staring up at the demon and, now that they weren't experiencing a bout of basically pure terror, terrifyingly aware of the feeling that someone was watching them.

(It was starting to become normal, and yet it was just enough to set Jesse's teeth on edge.)

"'M... I was waitin' for my friends to come back. They were goin' to look for someone," Jesse managed, trying to speak firmly but managing a whisper. "I don't know who."

The man inched closer, making Jesse hide a flinch but stay still, trying to breathe properly and kind of failing at that task. "Oh? And who are your friends?"

"The... um, the October Children," Jesse offered weakly. What else were they going to say to someone who could very easily kill them, if the way the bandits had tripped over themselves trying to get away was any indication?

They didn't know what they were expecting, but it certainly wasn't for him to straighten up in surprise, one eyebrow rising as his jaw slid slightly open, enough to show his teeth.

(Despite his intimidating demeanor, his teeth were perfectly normal- slightly crooked, but then again not everyone could have braces- and Jesse found themselves relaxing a tiny bit at the sight of almost human teeth.)

"... I see. Do you know where they are?" He asked at last, gathering himself.

Jesse shook their head, still trying to swallow back the frightened lump that was blocking their throat and threatening to turn coherent words into some weird string of babbles and stammers. "Um... they went lookin', and I got separated from Gill and Maya when the people came after me, an' then I ran off randomly..." And here they were, starting to babble.

The demon set a firm hand on Jesse's shoulder, making them start. "Whoa, calm down there. Can't have you losing it in Cosmos." He gave them a somewhat toothy smile. "You'd make an excellent delicacy even if you don't have your heart on you."

"... can you tell...?" Reuben had been with Gill and Maya, so it was true that they technically didn't have their heart on them. They'd completely forgotten that he was their vessel creature.

He shrugged. "It's pretty clear, friend. Humans have a sort of... internal light to them when they have their heart. You still have a little bit, but it's not solid enough to show that you still have your heart."

"Is it clear that I'm not a demon?"

The demon paused. "... truthfully, if no demon took a close look at your eyes, they'd imagine that you were a half-demon that was working for a lord, so it's not that clear."

"Oh." That was a relief, at least.

"Jack!"

Petra grinned and jogged up to the demon, her grin widening into a relieved smile when she saw him kneeling in front of Jesse, cutting off whatever he'd been planning to say. "Oh, awesome, you found Jesse."

'Jack' straightened up with a grin, clapping Petra on the back. "Good to see you, Petra." He glanced down at Jesse. "You're with them, too?"

Petra nodded, face sobering. "Yeah. We're looking into that... thing. I've mentioned it once or twice."

"Ah." Jack's smile faded almost immediately, his eyes flicking down to Jesse. "A favor for Romeo?"

"Yep." Petra looked down at Jesse and ruffled their hair, making them squeak in surprise and slight amusement. "Jess, this is Jack. He's my contact in Beacontown. He used to be one of the half-demons working for Fred."

Jesse started, then looked up at Jack. "You're a half-demon?"

Jack shrugged nonchalantly. "That I am. I got my heart back when Fred, ah..."

He cleared his throat. "But, uh, I figured I'd stay. Turns out I'm pretty useful as a mercenary in Cosmos." He gestured at Petra. "We've crossed paths enough to have become fairly good friends."

"Yeah, you're a pretty useful contact," Petra told him cheerfully.

He rolled his eyes and continued. "Anyways, we tend to trust each other with information that we don't trust outsiders with. Like the dilemma with the gates and such."

Jesse scrunched up their face slightly. "How do I know you're the real Jack?"

Jack barked a laugh at that, although he seemed pretty amused by the statement and not offended, which was a relief. "Oh, you're a careful one. That's good. Petra can tell."

Petra nodded, gesturing at his eye. "You've noticed how a lot of half-demons have one eye covered?" She paused, before amending, "well, minus me. I have my arm covered."

"Mmhm..."

"The short version of that," Petra continued, "is that covered bit is the most demonic part of the half-demon. Generally speaking, it's an emergency way of contacting the lord or the half-demons if all else fails, although we can really only transmit emotions or flashes of whatever sense it is."

She gestured at her face. "Eyes are preferred because even covered, you can transmit what you're seeing. Ivor picked my arm because I can transmit pain easy, so if I'm in an emergency situation that I'm not able to handle, he knows how severe it is."

Jack sent Petra a sideways look at that, but nodded. "Yes. Generally, that's the emergency contact method."

He gestured at his gray eye, and now that Jesse looked closer it looked like the iris was pupil-less, with a sort of swirling smoke in the iris and a symbol on top of it. "Mine was terminated when Fred died."

"Can you see out of it?"

(Good priorities, Jesse.)

The half-demon hummed. "Yes, but not that well. I have enough to have somewhat acceptable depth perception, but not enough to actually see if I covered my good eye."

"Oh."

Jack, taking the 'oh' as meaning this vein of conversation was satisfied, nodded and turned to Petra. "Let me guess- you need a safe place to stay the night."

"It would be appreciated," she replied, grinning at him.

He sighed- without any venom in his tone and more of a good-hearted amusement- and nodded. "I figured. Let's get you all back to the rest of your group and I'll get you into the hideout."

Jesse blinked, then looked at Petra as Jack started to lead them through the winding alleys. "The hideout?"

"Yeah. It's a nice secure place to hide for the night, so we don't have to sleep with one eye open," Petra replied, giving them a relieved smile and ruffling their hair. "And we don't have to worry about being watched or anything."

The feeling of eyes on the back of Jesse's neck prickled.

"Good," they said at last, in a tiny voice.

Chapter Text

Two.

There was a total of two people in the building (well, it seemed more like an underground bunker, but the thing was accessed by Jack punching in a code on a metal door on the side of a building that looked like it had been abandoned a few years ago (and that looked more than a little like a giant pirate ship) when they entered, looking up from what they were doing.

"Oh- h-hey, boss, uh-" A little reedy young man who looked like he couldn't have been much older than Jesse shuffled his feet and his papers upon spotting the group, adjusting glasses that looked too big for his face and made his red eyes seem even bigger than they probably were.

His skin was the shade of caramel and his neat black hair looked like it stood up on one end, minus the blue bandana tying some of it back. He was wearing a green army jacket over a black shirt and orange-red pants that looked a bit like it came from some kind of uniform. Jesse could see a vine-like tattoo creeping up his neck and maybe down his left arm.

They couldn't really see it, so it was anybody's guess as to whether or not it was actually there.

Jack chuckled and clapped the boy on the back so hard he almost knocked him over altogether. "Calm down there, Radar. This is Petra. And those are the October Children, and those are the lords of Hizelk, and this is Jesse."

He introduced them so quickly that Jesse almost didn't realize he'd said their name at the very end of it.

Radar looked slightly overwhelmed. "O- oh, Petra, and- and all of the October Children, and- oh, that's Mevia, Harper, and Isa- ohh, why are they here? Are we in trouble? Why do they have a human with them?"

Their disguise must not have been as good as they thought... or maybe Radar was just particularly observant.

Jesse blinked over at him- he didn't look a day over eighteen. Maybe even sixteen.

Now Jesse didn't look a day over twelve, but that was a different matter altogether.

Either way, he seemed like the type of person to notice a tiny detail from ten feet away like the fact that Jesse's eyes weren't red.

So probably the particularly observant guess was correct.

"No trouble. They just need a safe place to stay for the night." Jack shrugged and gestured with his head at the door they'd just come from. "You know how... uh, messy it gets at night."

The way he said messy was so loaded that Jesse didn't even want to begin dissecting it.

Jack nodded at the other person, who had been watching warily from where they were sitting at a table. The first thing Jesse noticed about the other man was his nose.

(And then they admonished themselves for immediately thinking 'that's a big nose'.)

It was a rather large nose, almost a little hawklike and large enough that it made his normal-sized red eyes seem dangerously small in his face. He wore a white shirt and a black hat with a red feather stuck in it and was watching from where they'd been sitting with a pen in his fingers, probably in the middle of drawing something.

"Guys, this is Nurm. My other half." Jack nodded at the other man, making Nurm smile with a nod of his own. "He's a genius with cartography."

Nurm raised his hand, folding his thumb in front of his palm, and placed it in front of his ear before extending it outward in a smooth motion- sign language for hello.

Jesse copied the sign and then added, in slightly clumsy sign language, "My name is Jesse."

Nurm's smile widened at seeing their signing. He turned to Jesse slightly and signed back. "I am Nurm. You know sign language?"

"I am new to it so I might be clumsy." Jesse wasn't sure if that was the right symbol, but Nurm seemed to understand so perhaps it was.

He shook his head and signed some more, fluid motions that made Jesse a tad bit embarrassed of their own attempts. "You are very good. Perhaps a bit rusty, but it's not bad."

"Fuck you."

Jesse paused as they considered what they'd just signed, then their eyes widened and they hastily flailed their hands and corrected it by, instead of doing the sign language for fuck you (fingers under the chin and somewhat flicking outward together), touched their fingers to their chin and simply extended their hand outward. "Thank you! Thank you thank you!

Nurm laughed at that, a slight wheezing sound that seemed to be more from the exhalation of air than anything else. He at least seemed more amused than offended by Jesse's accidentally cussing him out. Jack seemed more than a little amused as well. Harper looked like she might laugh while most everyone else looked bewildered.

"You know sign language?" Lukas asked Jesse after a moment, trying to take his attention off of Harper, who was shaking with little chuckles and shaking her head in amusement.

Jesse nodded sheepishly. "Yeah, we had someone teach us it once in school." And then they'd developed an interest in it and learned it as much as they could, but that part wasn't so important.

"Oh. So, uh... why are they laughing?" Lukas jerked his head at Harper and Jack.

"I think I remember from the one time Harper learned ASL or BSL or whatever sign language from a half-demon."

Mevia did the 'fuck you' gesture. "Jesse was probably trying to say thank you, which was this-"

She did the thank you gesture.

"- but they accidentally did the sign for 'fuck you'."

And she did the sign language for that again.

Harper burst out laughing, Jesse hiding their now-rather-pink face in embarrassment while the joke clicked for several others and they all chuckled quietly. Reuben sniggered and rubbed against their leg happily.

Gill considered this new knowledge.

Then he turned to Maya and signed "fuck you" at her.

Maya signed it back.

Aiden sighed when he saw them doing it repeatedly at one another. "Well, as long as they're not bickering at each other normally, I guess."

Chapter Text

Petra glanced down at Jesse.

"Hey, Jess. What's up?"

Jesse snuggled into Petra's side, warily eyeing the new people.

Jack had saved Jesse, of course, but their thoughts about his motivations were still as murky as a dirty fish tank.

Not to mention the feeling of eyes on the back of their neck was stronger than ever.

"Do you trust these guys...?"

Petra hummed and patted Jesse on the back. "Don't worry about 'em- Jack's a bit intimidating but he's a good guy. Well... demon," she amended, making Jesse giggle weakly.

"That's... good to know, I guess."

Petra nodded absently, leaning on the arm of her wobbly chair that was apparently more sturdy than it looked, since it wasn't falling or anything. "Yeah. I mean, we never trained together, since Fred died... before I came here, but I've met him on more than one occasion. Sometimes it's quicker to go right through Beacontown than it is to just do a huge detour around it, so."

She shrugged. "It's getting better."

It really didn't look that way to Jesse, but they decided not to voice their concern about it.

The red-haired demon gave a rather luxurious stretch, like a cat, joints popping, and stood up while Jesse was pondering Petra's endorsement of Jack. "I'm gonna go shower."

"... there's a shower in here?"

Petra snorted and patted Jesse on the head. "I know it looks like we're in a bunker but you don't have to be that surprised about the shower."

And off she went to the shower, leaving Jesse to feel like something was drilling into the back of their neck.

Gill and Maya were arguing and Jesse didn't feel like interrupting their flirting. (Well, arguing, but they did it so colloquially that Jesse felt like it had to be flirting, right?) Lukas was reading a book and trying to plan something out with the other lords while Aiden was just sitting and resting.

Well, it was better than nothing.

Jesse hurried over and plopped down right next to Aiden, almost pressing up against his side. He scowled down at them but that was still better than the itchy feeling of someone watching them.

"What? What do you want? I'm kinda busy. Go stick to Petra."

"Petra's showering," they informed him.

He paused, taking this new piece of information in.

"... do not go stick to Petra."

Jesse couldn't help but smile at that, a little giggle sneaking out of their lips. "I'm no' sticking to Petra," they replied, still hunkered down next to him.

He sighed. "I see that. Go stick to Gill and Maya, then."

"But they're flirting with each other."

Aiden snorted, trying to avoid looking at Gill or Maya, who'd just paused in their ferocious arguing and signing 'fuck you' incessantly at one another ("Here, you want a lipstick, you bitch?" "Yeah, so I can shove the thing up your ass, prick."), and who had just sent him a very quizzical look.

If he made eye contact with them he was going to explode laughing, and that wasn't exactly helpful for helping assure everyone that nothing important had just happened.

"Uh... I guess."

He glanced down at them, practically leaning into him, and poked at them- not rudely, but still a bit gruffly. "Go bother someone else for a bit. I'm thinking."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Aiden rolled his eyes. (Well, eye, but Jesse kind of presumed he wasn't just rolling a single eye.) "What, you being my therapist today? No, I don't wanna talk about it. Go stick to someone else for now." And he nudged them away (without being as acidic as usual) to do more thinking.

Effectively thwarted in their hopeful method of sticking to someone familiar and safe to try to take their mind off the eyes on their back (and the itch to turn and look), Jesse looked around for someone else to stick close to.

And... hopefully not bother them to hell and back.

Reuben nudged them at Radar, so they shuffled over and peeked up at him.

He was a good head or two taller than them, which wasn't hard since they were stupidly short. Especially for nearly eighteen. They were barely above the height to be a legal midget.

He glanced down at them and gave them a slightly nervous smile, adjusting his glasses. "O-oh. Hey." He cleared his throat, straying a few inches away. "Is... something up?"

Jesse thought about telling him about the eyes on their back.

About the creepy, itching, crawling feeling that they'd been feeling fixed on their back since they'd walked out of the Underneath.

About seeing nothing when they turned around.

"No. Nothin's wrong."

Radar hummed absently, still shuffling some papers.

At a loss for words, Jesse pointed at the papers. "Do you do paperwork?"

Radar paused, considering the papers in his hands. "Uh... I guess so. It's mostly looking over the... 'contracts' that people form in Beacontown."

"Contracts?"

"Yeah, since we don't have a ruler as of right now and we haven't had one for a while, um, as protection or to hire people, people will set up contracts. The people who are considering signing usually come to me so I can look over them before they sign and make sure it's fair for them and there aren't any, um, loop- loopholes."

Jesse tried to get a look at the papers. Radar gently shuffled them aside.

There was probably legal jargon that they shouldn't be looking at in there, now that they thought about it.

"What kind of loopholes?"

Radar thought about it. "Uh... one contract had the signer giving their soul to the person hiring them if they ever decided to leave. It was in really tiny font, too. I almost missed it."

"... oh."

A pause.

"That'd be kind of inconvenient."

He laughed. "It'd be pretty inconvenient for the signer, yeah."

Radar gently removed his glasses, setting the (cracked) lenses in his lap and taking out a different pair that was almost identical- they just weren't broken.

Jesse looked between the glasses. "Any difference between those two?"

"Huh? Oh. Yeah." Radar tapped his glasses. "These are just normal glasses. Uh, you guys have-"

"Yes, we have glasses in the human world." There had to be a better name for the human world than... well, 'the human world'. The demons called the demon world 'Cosmos' and not just 'the demon world', after all.

"Okay, so these are just correctional lenses. U-um, but these-" He held up the cracked lenses and broken bridge of the glasses. "These actually help me look for things. Like... uh, well, when I'm outside, it helps me spot danger a lot quicker. But when it's with legal stuff I can spot suspicious stuff a lot easier. I dunno how to explain it, uh..." He offered the cracked glasses to Jesse.

Jesse attempted putting them on and almost immediately jerked in surprise- beyond the cloudy, muddied mess that was corrective lenses, they could barely even make out Reuben on the floor, let alone any specific words or people. "Uh... holy shit, you have bad eyes."

"Who the FUCK taught you how to swear-?" Mevia almost yelled from the other side of the room.

Radar grinned shyly and a little sheepishly. "Yep. Nobody's beat me so far in bad eyesight."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Kind of both..."

Chapter Text

"You really don't have to come with us, Jack," Petra hurried to assure him, although a large part of her did seem relieved that he'd offered to come in the first place- perhaps they had something they liked talking about together that no one else did.

Either way, Jesse was kind of glad he'd offered as well.

Jack shrugged, not truly seeming to be deterred by Petra's reassurance. "I'm sure you can handle yourselves, but in the meantime I can come along." He picked up a blade and sheathed it on his back for easy reach- Jesse noticed Petra had a similar habit.

They had to wonder if that was just a normal thing; to sheathe it on your back instead of at your waist. They supposed it would be more difficult to accidentally kick.

"It's not like any of us are really busy," Jack added.

Nurm nodded and lifted his hands. "Besides, there's a forest path that's more of a detour, but bandits are less likely to attack us in there. The trip would probably be expedited some, so we'd be able to get to Boom Town before sundown. But I'm rather familiar with it due to doing the cartography for it, so it would be best if I led the way."

Jesse was pondering whether or not they'd interpreted that huge word dump of signing right (what the heck was Boom Town?) when Radar spoke up, furiously polishing his cracked glasses- out of nervousness or just having... dirt on the lens.

"Uh... t-to be honest, it would- it would be nice to get out for a while. Pl-plus, if you're heading to Enchantra to talk to Ivor, it- it must be a big issue, so... um..."

He trailed off, cheeks flushing as he realized everyone was looking at him.

Jesse had to wonder how Radar knew that they were going to Enchantra to help Ivor, until they realized Mevia, Isa, and Harper had probably just told them all. Maybe they recognized Jack.

Aiden's mouth twisted to the side slightly. "... I... I guess... I guess that's true," he finally admitted, though he did seem a little wary anyway.

"So it's settled. We're coming," Jack said, smiling down at Jesse and patting their head, making them grin and try to swat him off.

Well, they could hardly complain.


The forest path was quiet.

Nurm was very careful while leading them through it- something about the forest being alive (well, of course it was alive, it was in full bloom and the trees certainly weren't dead) and being a bit tricky to navigate sometimes.

But Jesse not being in the lead and instead holding onto Gill's hand like a little kid being led along by an older sibling or a parent gave them plenty of time to look around and look at the forest.

Like many of the other trees in Cosmos, these didn't really look normal- the leaves weren't green (they were a dull shade of pink-red), but the trunks were striped brown, like a cat with stripes.

A few were spotted like someone had thrown cinnamon at it, and Jesse couldn't help but listen to the breeze in the trees waft through and send a scent that was reminiscent of cinnamon and vanilla through the air.

Though to be fair, after Aiden's comment about plants being carnivorous and/or poisonous, Jesse was a bit leery about getting too close to them.

"Let's take a break- you need to give Romeo a report," Isa said abruptly, making Jesse run into Gill's back as they all came to a grinding halt.

Aiden gave a long-suffering groan. "Are you kidding?"

"No. He called me- us," Isa amended after a moment, "last night at one in the morning and asked for a report. You should be giving him one at least every time you end up in a new city, young man."

"Yeah, yeah..."

With that, everyone split up and moved to sit and rest. Radar, who was a little reedy and not terribly muscled, seemed like he was having the worst of the time- although even he just plopped down out of breath, sweat beading on his forehead and his cheeks a little flushed as he moved to take off his jacket.

Maya and Gill, who'd been griping quietly at each other, split off to go argue some more, and Petra leaned on Lukas's back, while Lukas leaned on Aiden, as Aiden began to make the call.

Truthfully, Aiden seemed a little annoyed, but he also just grumbled mildly at them to 'please not do that' while making the call- a testament as to how much he liked them.

So it was after a while, after Aiden had managed to open the connection and after the lords moved off to talk to themselves, Harper happily talking with the lords in a voice too low for Jesse to hear, Jesse realized that Reuben wasn't there.

It took a moment to realize, because of course the others were all chattering away and bickering with one another, and they were so used to the little piggy just sitting pressed up against their leg or in their lap and just snuffling against their chest happily, listening to Jesse breathe and giggle and sigh periodically.

But here they were, sitting and listening to Aiden gripe with Romeo through the mirror over the report while Radar muffled laughter as Maya mocked him behind the mirror, moving her hand in such a way that it looked like someone was talking, without the little piggy anywhere in sight.

Gill, despite his constant griping with Maya, looked quite amused about the argument.

Jesse looked over at Aiden, who was in the midst of the conversation, trying to get to the point while Romeo just (playfully?) told Aiden that he had to call him more ("I'm getting a bit tired of getting all the information from the other lords, you know- there's a reason I gave you the mirror"), and Maya mocking Romeo, and Lukas and Petra seemed to be trying to knock Aiden to the floor, and Mevia and Harper and Isa talking with Jack and Radar about something, while Nurm continued to look his map over.

They were all busy enough.

Reuben couldn't have gone far, right? He'd only been there a moment ago.

They got up and slipped into the trees, carefully looking around.

Carefully ignoring the eyes on the back of their head.

"Reuben?" they called, looking through sunlight sending spatters of funny-colored beams of light onto the forest floor, a pile of green leaves (according to Aiden the local Cosmos botanist, when it was fall, the leaves were green) up to their ankles as they shuffled through the forest. "You there?"

There was a distant kind of oink.

"Reuben!" Jesse followed the sound of the piggy, being sure to dig their heel into the dirt or to stick a green leaf into a bit of bark on the trees so that they can keep track of where they are- the last thing they need is to get lost and worry everyone else. "Where'd you run off to, buddy?"

They were more amused than anything- had he smelled a potato or something?

Did demons even have potatoes in Cosmos?

The amusement faded as they rounded a corner and found a little patch of grass that was rustling. Reuben's pink face peeked through, the little piggy trembling.

Afraid.

Something gripped Jesse even as they barely managed to process the fearful look on his face, the panicked squeal, the way that he was huddling back against a tree-

And then abruptly a hand was clapping over their mouth and their nose and hauling them back a step or two, hard enough that their skull bashed into a chest.

There was a funny scent- perfume? They try to figure out the scent but it's overpowering and sweet and honestly, it's making them dizzy.

This is familiar.

Why is this perfume familiar?

Reuben squealed in panic as Jesse furiously kicked, lifted their feet off the ground, clawed at whoever was now cutting off all access to air as they squirmed, tried to scream through the hand even as something in their foggy head noticed that Reuben was tied to a tree.

They didn't succeed.

Their lungs started screaming, begging for air as they jerked and kicked.

There was a soft, warm chuckle.

They recognized that voice, something dull clicking into place in the back of their head like a lock clicks shut, but past the fog starting to fill their head they couldn't have pinpointed it in a million years.

"Oh, hush, little one. You'll need your rest."

Lips tickling their ears as black spots began to drown their vision.

"We're going to have quite some fun."

And Jesse went under before they could scream.


 

Reuben stayed, huddled down against the tree and feeling Jesse grow farther and farther away. But he was okay. Right? He was a part of Jesse, and so long as he was okay, so were they.

Maybe.

Maybe.

He had to get someone.

With a determined little oink as Reuben clambered onto shaky little legs and snapped the rope keeping him tied to the tree with surprisingly sharp teeth, he galloped back through the trees to the camp.

He had to find someone to save Jesse.

The clearing was empty as the forest shifted its roots and branches to let the sun through again, the whispering in the wind of a breeze slipping through branches sounding like real whispers.

Perhaps of the trees themselves.

Perhaps of spirits like druids and dryads, keeping their voices low and gentle to avoid being overheard.

Perhaps of the trees realizing what a horrible, horrible mistake they had made.

Chapter Text

MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS CHAPTER.

Most of this story has been Teen rated- for both AO3 and FFN. This marks the one and only time two separate versions of chapters will be posted. This chapter is the sole reason that I have decided recently to mark the AO3 version as mature. It is incredibly dark and you cannot and should not read this chapter on AO3 if you are under eighteen years of age. If you are not eighteen years of age or uncomfortable with the following subjects:

Rape/Sexual Assault, graphic violence and death

DO NOT READ THIS CHAPTER ON AO3.

The Fanfiction version is clean and appropriate for teen-and-up audiences with less intense/censored versions of the subjects above. Please exercise caution while reading this chapter and switch sites at your discretion if you are uncomfortable.


Jesse felt cloudy.

That was a weird thing to say (well, think), but their mind felt like a fog had taken over it, and so cloudy sounded accurate. Were they still in the forest? Maybe they were. The ground felt soft. They must have fallen asleep...

Someone had been there. Someone had grabbed them and smothered them before they could cry out for help. They opened their mouth to scream for help.

All that came out was a croak. Their vocal cords punishing them for the deprivation of oxygen earlier.

"Oh... good. You're awake."

The familiar voice was back. Jesse blinked as hard as they could, clearing their vision until their eyes were fixed on the woman above them- for it was a woman's voice, except warm and laced with honey and sugar, and her long black hair surrounded her face and her red eyes gleamed iridescent colors and her perfume-

The memory clicked into place.

"S... Sirena?"

"Mmhm." Sirena smiled, a perfect, toothy bright kind of smile that was almost contagious.

It was almost contagious, because Jesse almost forgot the fog drowning them, and almost could forget the fact that they couldn't breathe, and almost- almost forgot that they were in danger, and so they almost smiled back, until they remembered the fact that they were limp on the ground with a croaking voice and a rubbery feeling overtaking their limbs.

What did she want?

Her eyes bored into their skin.

Eyes on the back of their head.

Something, in the far back of their mind, screamed that they were in danger, that they'd been in danger for a very long time, as the pieces of the puzzle clicked together and slotted into perfect fits-

And Jesse could only breathe in as they realized.

"... you..."

Sirena gave a dramatic sigh and plopped down beside Jesse, playing with their overall strap and making chills run up Jesse's spine as their eyes fell on the motion and found themselves unable to tear their eyes from her hand. "You know, you were really hard to get alone. I thought I'd never get you alone, you know?"

She trailed delicate fingers up their stomach, doing a playful little action until her fingers were caressing their cheek (an unfamiliar touch and a frightening chill), her nose almost touching theirs, red eyes glowing with excitement.

"Humans taste the best... and you know, that applies with succubuses too."

Sirena bit down on Jesse's neck, almost like a vampire would, and yet the way demonic (too human, far too human) teeth sank into her skin made it worse.

Maybe because it felt so strange, to have someone digging humanlike teeth into their skin.

"Let's just have some fun."

Jesse finally cried out as the full impact of what was happening hit them, trying to jerk away as pain flickered at the base of their neck, but Sirena cupped them closer, biting longer, harder. They felt oddly weak in her grip, the scent of something pleasant (and yet sickeningly sweet, so sickeningly sweet that Jesse choked on it and felt it smothering every last breath) entangling long fingers around their throat and their lungs.

"Alright?"

They were growing weaker.

They couldn't have said why, not through this fog pulling them under.

Sirena gave a low, husky chuckle as she pulled away, licking her lips absently and tracing delicate fingers on their collarbone. "Oh, you taste good."

She looked better, less dark circles and the gauntness- despite her face still looking near flawless even with the gaunt, thin quality to it, she looked better now.

Succubus.

She was draining them.

She was draining them, and taking... whatever it was that she wanted for herself.

And they were too weak and dazed to do anything. What was in her perfume? God, they could fight back, they could scream and run and fight-

And then she gripped their wrist in an iron grip and ice gripped their heart and refused to let it go.

"Sto- stop-" they rasped, fear making their tongue swollen and heavy and clumsy.

Sirena chuckled, as if they were a silly little kid that had made a stupid little suggestion. "Oh... you silly, silly human."

She leaned closer, lips brushing their ears in a flirtatious way and sending an ice dagger into their spine. "Why would I ever do that when I'm feeling so much better?"

Sirena kept a dazed Jesse on her lap, gently running her long nails down their chest, scratching, scratching against the overalls and their shirt. With expert care, she peeled off one shoulder of the overalls.

No

Then the other.

No no no

She tugged the front down, snaking elegant fingers and nails down their chest, down their shirt, gently finding the hem and tickling their sides.

Jesse almost writhed in her grip in an attempt to get away, but she just clung harder and pulled their shirt up, slowly flicking it up and off of them, off to the side where they couldn't grab it and cover themselves and protect themselves, legs pinned apart so that they couldn't fight her.

The only thing protecting bare skin was their overalls, and she got rid of those too, her fingers teasing up their side.

God no no no no no

They were barely wearing anything now, and the air was icy cold, like daggers on their skin, and goosebumps immediately broke out on their skin as they tried to jerk out of her grip, even as they felt energy-

Energy? No, it was something else, but it was draining them and they could barely breathe they couldn't breathe

"This is happening too fast."

Jesse thrashed, giving a desperate kind of scream, but their mind was fogged over and too easy to bend and mold and change, like she was playing with putty, and she put an end to that by forcing her lips onto theirs, almost biting down on their bottom lip and releasing a coppery taste in their mouth- blood?

"I don't wanna do this anymore."

Jesse almost convulsed in her grip as she slowly reached down and played with the band of their underpants, teasing them, except this kind of teasing wasn't nice it wasn't friendly like the October Children-

They were scared.

They were terrified and they were scared and they wanted to get out of here.

"I don't care."

They couldn't.

She pulled down, gently slipping her hand under the band and sneaking down further. Jesse gave a weak little twitch, trying to jerk back when they felt her fingers invading them, but she was pinning them down and terror was icing their blood and their head and they couldn't move.

They were stuck.

"Duh... don't-" Jesse choked as she took the opportunity of their lips being parted open to force her tongue into their mouth and almost down their throat, slimy from saliva and oh god this was disgusting, they were being violated, they had never wanted this to happen again, they'd never ever ever wanted this to happen ever again-

She ran her tongue down their cheek, leaving saliva and drool on their skin, and then fixed her lip on theirs, crushing her lips against theirs and making the force on their mouth intensify until it was crushing, agonizing and painful as her fingers invaded their personal space and oh god, something was draining out of them, something that they couldn't pinpoint but they were gasping for breath and trying to blink black spots out of their eyes, shaking hard like a leaf in a windstorm.

"Mmnn, you do make a good meal," came her sickeningly delighted voice through their haze. "I might just eat-"

Her fingers pressed down harder and Jesse's back arched as they gave a strangled, silent scream that made their throat feel as though she'd jabbed them with daggers.

"- you all up. I haven't had enough sexual energy to last me for ages... and you're barely touched."

Jesse was shaking harder now, trying to jerk away from her, but her lips fixed on theirs and they could feel more and more strength seep out of them like water dripping through a sieve.

There was a humming sound- the sound of metal flying through the air, and Jesse had heard that sound before but through the fog and the terror drowning them they couldn't have said where it was from-

A spray of blood.

Sirena's scream tore through silent air as she was thrown sideways, leaving the skin where she'd been pressing into and refusing to leave alone icy cold, along with the rest of them, their skin goosebumpy and their limbs feeling like limp rubber appendages glued to their body. Hot blood felt like splatters of acid on their skin.

The bloody bladed whip, glowing red in the setting sun behind them from both the shade of the sky and the blood dripping off the blades, flicked up into the air.

Jesse's head was starting to unfog, now that the perfume wasn't two inches from them and flooding their head, their chest heaving as they tried to breathe and take it in, trembling and trembling and unable to move.

Again.

Again.

It had happened again.

Jesse gave a weak, choking gag and lifted their eyes.

Just in time to see Aiden flick the whip down and sever Sirena's head from the rest of her body.

Chapter Text

Aiden was breathing heavily, looking down at the corpse at his feet.

A moment later, his eyes trailed from Sirena's dead body (Jesse spotted a glimpse of wide open eyes from her severed head and squeezed their eyes shut) over to the shaking, weak little human a few feet away. Goosebumps stood out on their skin so much that Jesse could've run their fingers over their arm and felt each little individual bump.

His shoes clopped through blood and gore, and Jesse fully expected him to yell at them, yell at them and ignore the fact that they were barely wearing anything anymore while being sprawled helplessly on the ground, yell at them for getting lost, for being a nuisance, for causing trouble for them all again-

A hand (slightly sticky with blood) gently slid behind their shoulders and eased them up into a sitting position, before something heavy draped around their shoulders.

Jesse let their eyes eke open to see that he'd taken off his leather jacket and adjusted it over them. Considering how much tinier they were, it did end up covering a lot, so Jesse drew it around them and shivered.

"Are you alright?" Aiden, rather than snapping and sniping at them, sounded a little concerned.

Jesse drew in a shuddering breath and mopped at their face, tears still leaking out of their eyes periodically. "Y... yeah..."

"Bullshit." He didn't sound annoyed when he said that, just as though he were stating a matter of fact. "Sirena just made you..."

He trailed off, glancing at the dead body, before shifting so they couldn't see it- perhaps remembering the last time he'd beheaded someone. (He hadn't done it since.)

"... well, you know."

Jesse just shivered a little, wiping at their eyes. The jacket was warm, since he'd just been wearing it, and did a lot to hide the way they were shaking like a leaf clinging onto a branch in a windstorm.

Aiden had walked off, leaving Jesse to see Sirena's body from where he'd been blocking her from sight. They closed their eyes and pressed their face to their knees, feeling tremors run through their arms and legs and face.

A moment later, he was pressing their fuzzy jacket and their overalls and shirt into their arms in a little ball. Jesse accepted the ball and held them close to their chest, still shaking.

"I'll keep a lookout. Get changed," he told them- as if they had anything to really change, as if they were wearing something and they were merely swapping out clothing.

Regardless, they swallowed bile and hastily began to tug their clothes on into the proper places like they were a dressup doll, under the leather jacket the whole time. Aiden had respectfully turned around and was carefully scanning the treeline.

Reuben nosed his way into their arms and snuffled once they'd managed to get their clothes on and not put their head and one arm through the hole meant for the head. They gratefully pulled him close and pressed their face to the little pig's back, listening to him snuffle and breathe quietly.

Aiden peeked through his fingers. When it was clear they were done changing, he turned around.

Jesse assumed to grab his jacket, but instead he just picked them up and started to tote them along like they were a baby, jacket still wrapped around them.

(They were unsure of whether or not to be relieved that he could carry them without griping about how damn heavy they were, or to be embarrassed at the fact that he was just carrying them like a baby.)

"Hey, uh, on the bright side though, it seems like you can resist succubi."

Jesse looked up at him.

Taking it as confusion, he cleared his throat and made a little shrugging gesture. "I mean, you know, succubi usually... make you want to fuck with them, so the fact that you didn't is, uh, good– I mean it's not good but in the grand scheme of things we're not gonna have to worry about you just waltzing off with a succubus to– well, you know– yeah."

He was surprisingly awkward, his tongue sounding thick and clumsy in his mouth until he just closed it, cheeks flushing slightly as his red eyes (well, the eyepatch hid the other one, but Jesse assumed it wasn't just moving freely on its own) flickered off to the side and away from them.

He usually was a lot more snippy with them.

Jesse reached out and latched onto him, shaking, and clinging to him much like a baby koala would cling to their mother.

Reuben snuffled quietly from where he'd been nicely squashed between the two, like the filling in some kind of ice cream sandwich or something.

Aiden was quiet. Jesse half expected him to drop them.

Instead he reached up and gave them a brusque little pat on the back, two little pats that left a warm feeling where his hand had been for less than a second.

"Um. Yes. Hello. It's– hey, it's fine, okay..." He sounded really awkward now, but still trying as hard as he could– despite how he usually snapped at them like a snapping turtle (like the one under the bridge at school that Jesse had heard a lot of students jokingly call 'Bitch')– to not snap at them, to not be rude to them.

In fact, almost to comfort them.

They couldn't help it– they started crying into his shoulder.

He stiffened.

Then he wrapped his arms around them tighter in a kind of hug and continued walking with them ensnared in his grip, muttering quiet things to them.

They could barely hear it over their quiet little sobs, but they caught something about 'you'll be okay' and 'kinda wish I left her alive so the others could take turns, but oh well' (which was oddly comforting in itself, and Jesse didn't have the mental capacity at the moment to dissect why) and 'Romeo kinda ordered us to come find you when Reuben came in screaming like a little demon' (which Jesse just found weirdly funny, to think of Reuben 'screaming', but also because Aiden himself was a demon and so describing something as 'a little demon' just felt weird to Jesse).

The trees were deathly silent. Listening to his rambling murmurs. Listening to Jesse sob quietly into his shoulder, scared and small and abused.

That feeling of eyes boring into their neck no longer present.

Chapter Text

Aiden didn't really know how to handle Jesse at the moment.

He could handle them crying.

(By either snapping at them to stop or just patting them on the back and muttering the best comfort he could, which... wasn't all that comforting.)

He could handle them scared.

(By again snapping at them or just comforting them the best he could.

Actually, he was just bad at comforting Jesse in general, so maybe that was his problem. They seemed too young to be seventeen. Actually, maybe his problem was that he wasn't good with kids.

Then again Radar was fine with him... but then again Radar was sixteen and thus a teenager.)

And Jesse had been scared, and they had been crying.

Except by the time they'd gotten back to the others, Jesse had just drawn themselves into a silent, dark little place.

Harper had scooped them out of Aiden's arms (he'd seen her face tick, change as she scooped them into her arms, but she said nothing and just carried them over to a corner) to wrap them in a blanket and murmur things to them. Reuben had whined a little bit.

And Jesse had said nothing.

Just hugged their knees and rocked back and forth silently with the blanket around them, a mess of tear-stains on their face and big sad eyes that were hollow and glazed and almost empty, which seemed to be worrying everyone.

Sure, Jesse didn't SEEM like they were going crazy or anything, which was great. Aiden could handle scared or awkward or crying.

Crazy was... less handleable.

But they'd still trapped themselves into a dark place.

No speaking.

No smiling.

(No pretending they were okay, smiling up at the others with a crooked little smile that just didn't look quite right.)

No Jesse.

And Jesse (the shy, quiet, strange bubbly thing that was Jesse) remained missing all the way up until they reached Boom Town.


Boom Town was... well, it was Boom Town.

Sure, there was the nice addition of the safe zone– generally the area around where the baron would live, but Magnus was apparently crazy and lived in the giant obsidian (was it obsidian? Aiden really couldn't tell) spire with the center blown out, rather than in the safe zone.

Instead, the safe zone was just a small collection of houses with little communal beds and bathrooms that nothing violent could happen in.

Literally. You couldn't use magic in the safe zone.

Or weapons.

Or TNT.

It just flat out wouldn't light or do anything, and weapons either wouldn't work (in the case of Aiden's, the whip wouldn't come out) or just bounced off like it was made of rubber.

Lukas and Maya figured it was an enchantment going on and had once devolved into discussing what kind of enchantment would disable the lighting of TNT, the usage of weapons, AND magic in a certain area. They'd come to a consensus that it was probably a large multitude of enchantments.

That being said, Aiden had barely listened after the first twenty seconds, and he still didn't know if that was actually the reason for it. Isa sure never said, although she was hardly an expert on magic herself.

"Alright, for courtesy's sake," Petra said, shooting the little still ball that was currently Jesse a worried look, "we should try to say hello to Magnus. It's just... more polite."

Lukas shifted his weight. "Do we have to? I mean..."

He glanced at Jesse, concern writing itself over his face. "I'm sure Magnus would understand if we didn't. He's a pretty isolated guy, anyway."

"Yes, but we made the trouble of saying hello to Soren; we might as well say hello to Magnus too," Maya pointed out as Mevia gave Jesse's back a somewhat kind rub.

"Plus you get to hang out with me and that's kinda cool, right?"

Petra actually jumped; then spun around and punched the large male that had just materialized behind her.

She was still grinning widely, though.

"Holy fuck, you can't do that, Axel!"

The boy chuckled. His eyes were the darkest shade of red Aiden usually saw on demons, to the point of almost being brown, and his black hair was as short and messy as ever. He'd changed from a hoodie with a white scarf (Maya had pointed out that it would stain easily. Axel, at the time, had retorted that it would look cool with bloodstains on it, and that was apparently that.) to a black t-shirt with a skull on it and a red-and-black flannel, as well as brown shorts. He was easily taller than Petra and Gill, and definitely taller than Jesse.

And probably heavier than Lukas, Petra, and Gill combined, although most of it was from muscle.

"Sorry, man. You know that's just my thing."

Aiden sighed and rolled his eyes, although he was smiling faintly. "I still don't get how you manage to sneak up on us when you're heavier than an elephant."

Axel punched Aiden on the shoulder, resulting in a quiet "ouch". "I still don't get how you manage to be totally unsubtle despite looking like a stick insect," he replied, although the insult seemed more amused than anything.

He bowed to the lords upon spotting them, doing the usual courtesies in his clumsy way, before he straightened back up and noticed the tiny ball of human crouched on the bed with their vessel creature from where Mevia, who'd taken them from Harper (with much arguing between the two) for a good majority of the trip there.

"Aw, dude, you're super cute." Axel reached out and ruffled Jesse's hair.

He probably meant it as a light, gentle gesture, but Axel patting you gently could really just feel like he was clapping you on the back as hard as someone humanly could, so Jesse got rattled around a little bit.

It did seem to startle them enough that they were taken out of the dark place they'd drawn themselves into for the past few days, and they lifted their head to look at him, blinking big green eyes.

Reuben perked up, rubbing his little pink head against their leg. Harper seemed faintly relieved herself, but it was pretty hard to read her facial expressions sometimes. Isa breathed a quiet sigh of relief, though, so Aiden could assume all of the lords were relieved that Jesse hadn't just gotten stuck in that dark place.

"Oh... mm... thank you," Jesse replied, meekly.

Axel grinned even wider and crouched down so he was more on eye level with them. "Oh man. You're adorable."

He spotted their eyes after a moment, and his smile widened– not in a predatory way, just... almost excited. Aiden could see Axel's eyes sparkling. "No wonder the lords are keeping a human around; you're way too cute to eat."

Maya winced, but Jesse thankfully didn't take offense or get traumatized (they'd been too traumatized already). They just blinked in faint surprise at him.

"Um... thank... thank you... um..." They seemed to be searching for some semblance of a compliment to reciprocate to what must've been like a giant randomly appearing to talk to them.

Finally, they settled on, "You're... um... you look like a teddy bear."

Petra had to hastily rescue Jesse from being plucked right into the air like they were a doll by a rather excited Axel at this compliment.