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A whoosh of air sends dust flying off the book’s cover and into Lukas’ face. The blonde starts coughing and batting at the air as Jesse laughs mischievously. He shakes a finger at him through the dark oak bookcase as his coughing fit fades and a grin creeps across his face—damn Jesse’s infectious charm.

“You know I am volunteering to help you unpack all of this! Keep that shit up and I might make you start paying me!”

Wowww! Way to assume the worst!” Jesse gives a lazy grin.

Lukas rolls his eyes, “Jesse, you can’t look me in the eye, grin, suck in a huge breath to blow dust my way and then try to play it off.” He chuckles and Jesse laughs.

Okay, okay, I suppose you’ve got me there.” He snickers then flips through the book in his hands as Lukas continues placing books onto the bookshelf. He smiles fondly at the old thing before placing it on the shelf himself. He pauses before looking back over at Lukas, “And I really do appreciate your help Lukas… I hope it doesn’t come off as if I don’t.”

Lukas just smiles, “Of course I know that Jesse. Now don’t start getting all sappy over some help with a bookshelf .” He stacks another book on with a grin. Jesse smiles before finishing up his side and picking up his box of books as he stands. Unpacking was never something Jesse liked doing, but at least he had some friends around him to help keep him in a good spirit.

The apartment is an odd one given where it’s built, but a change of scenery is always nice. It’s certainly modern . When Jesse mentioned that he was moving in here, he had to practically fake his death to get Stella to back off on wanting to decorate. He allowed a compromise and while she didn’t get to furnish it, he did place her in charge of refurbishing his share of the place. She needed a little break from Champion City anyways, having to rebuild everything from the ground up had been understandably getting to her. Not being able to fix it before beating the powers out of Romeo in a well deserved ass-kicking is one of his regrets. While he didn’t agree with how Stella ran her city, it was obvious that she cared about it, and Romeo’s matter of fact and mocking tone when he destroyed it is still disturbing.

Jesse blows out a breath as he looks around the large room, deciding where to go next. They basically got the little lines of bookshelves --Ivor’s suggestion-- done, but he still has a few more boxes of books to put away. He glances over at the archway midway through the apartment that leads to the second half. There’s probably going to be more space in there, if not that than upstairs. One thing he certainly loves is the fact that he has spiral staircases in this place. There’s just something about them that makes his inner child light up. With that thought he smiles and starts moving towards the staircase with a skip in his step. Lukas catches sight of him and can’t help but laugh.

“What are you doing?”

Jesse laughs, spinning around to face him, “I’m walkin’! Yknow, general mode of travel for human beings. Perhaps you’ve tried it yourself?” He bends over a bit as he raises a brow. Lukas rolls his eyes then grins as he grabs another book and aims. Jesse’s eyes widen and he shrieks as Lukas throws the book at him. He uses the box as a shield and laughs as he runs out of Lukas’ range. Note to self: Don’t challenge an archer to a ranged battle. Lukas laughs and leaves Jesse alone once he’s out of his line of sight as he doesn’t feel like standing all the way up yet. Too much effort. He settles back into his routine of organizing and placing books back on the shelf. Jesse smiles as he refocuses. Now, to just --

WE’RE BAAAAACK!!

The slamming open of the front door nearly makes Jesse drop the box. It startles Lukas just as much as the two look back at who’s decided to show up. It’s no surprise to see the hulking figure of Axel, stack of boxes in a balancing act and with a grin on his face as he hurries in.

“Hope you two didn’t think we were just abandoning ya!” Axel snarks as he goes to set down his stack amongst a few other boxes in the corner. ‘Hardly half way through and still more to come..’   The thought grinds Jesse’s patience just on it’s own. They’re almost done with this half of the apartment, but the other half through the archway is practically untouched. He snaps back to reality as Olivia follows Up behind Axel.

“We were gonna grab some bigger things, buuuut the trek here from the treehouse is already a trip, and I don’t think any of us are ready to carry anything too heavy all the way up here just yet..”

“Amen to that!” Lukas pipes up as he throws a now empty box onto the pile. A satisfying sight. Axel slinks to the ground, leaning against all the cardboard with a hefty sigh. Olivia holds back a laugh at the sight, covering her mouth and sharing a grin with Jesse.

Yeah, ‘sides if we brought it all here for ya you’d be missin’ all the fun!” The sarcasm drips from his voice and Jesse playfully rolls his eyes. He sets down his own box and begins sorting through the one Olivia brought in. They all take a minute or so to just catch their breaths. They’ve already been at this for seemingly hours and it feels like they’ve hardly made a dent. Axel watches as Jesse sifts through the box and shakes his head. “Man… Yknow I never realized how much stuff you had Jesse. That tiny treehouse packed a lot in it.”

“I gotta agree with Axel on this one Jess, I can’t believe you never told me about how many old books you had!” Lukas crouches down next to him, pulling one of the leftover books out of Jesse’s box, “They’re all fascinating! Though, not exactly what I expected you to have. No offense.”

“Nah, none taken. Honestly most of these are hand-me-downs…”

“Hand-me-downs..?”

“Things you get from older siblings or parents, Axel.” Olivia punches his arm softly, silently scolding him for lingering on the topic. Lukas observes curiously. He’d never heard much of anything about Jesse’s home life, and it seems like there’s a reason for it. Bad subject. He notes that for the future.

“Oh! Right, right..” A heavy silence hangs as Axel trails off. Lukas takes note of Jesse beginning to tap on the box he’s holding, a telltale sign of his anxiety gnawing at him. One of the many little habits of Jesse that he’s picked up on during their time together.

“Where’s Ivor and Jack anyways? I thought they were going to help unload a few of these things?” Lukas changes the subject, Jesse immediately perking up once more. Olivia snorts.

“They’re taking their sweet time; played the ‘we’re old men’ card as an excuse!” She shakes her head and the small group laughs. “Honestly I think they’re up to something… You know how bad at lying Jack is already and Ivor certainly wasn’t helping.”

“Yeah! They were totally suspicious. We couldn’t get ‘em to spill anything though…” Axel pouts and Jesse shrugs, picking up the box.

“Whatever they’re doing, I’m sure it’ll be worth it. Sides, I don’t expect us to unpack all of this stuff today.” He walks over and sets down the box next to some more shelves that border the bottom of a ceiling high window. He stares out of the glass at the city down below. Beacontown. His home. Rebuilding after Romeo dealt his hand was certainly tough and Jesse is glad he didn’t leave everyone to do it behind themselves. While Radar is capable of leading things these days, it still would have overwhelming for the poor kid. Plus, with him staying behind, he was able to get Lukas involved. Lukas being a fantastic builder already seriously translated into city planning. The place is far more spacious and the community hubs are gorgeous. A stroke of genius on Lukas’ end. After a second of silence and mulling over how nice everything looks these days, Jesse snorts and shakes his head.

“Remind me. How did I actually let people convince me to live up here? I’m already a clutz as is so one wrong step by the edge and I'm gone!” He laughs.

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll make sure to baby-proof everything for you Jess.” Lukas grins and Jesse rolls his eyes.

Ha ha, hilarious.”

“You walked into that one! And all joking aside I don’t think it’s too shabby of a place to call home. You certainly have lots of space up here.”

“Yeah I just…” Jesse hesitates, trailing off as he stares back down at Beacontown. The sky base Romeo had built during his tyrannical rule of Beacontown had been completely remodeled and ready for use. A lot of extra space for those more akin to the skies had opened up, and while Jesse never intended to live up there himself, the people insisted. Their assurance still makes him nervous. He sighs and looks back to the group, “I-I don’t like the feeling of looking down on everything like some ruler o-or dictator.” He shakes his head and paces slowly, “I-I don’t know if they genuinely wanted me up here or if maybe they’re scared to suggest otherwise these days.. Don’t you think all this,” He gestures around them, “Is a little much?”

“Jesse… The people here love you, and their faith in you has been proven time and time again.” Olivia walks over and takes him by the hands, looking up at him. “They insisted that you be up here because they trust you, and they know that you will do right by them! Honestly just…” she thinks for a minute as she finds the right words—she’s not used to being the one to comfort Jesse, best to do it right. “Just think of this as like, a bigger treehouse! Friends all around and a comfy place you’re safe with a super cool view!” She wraps an arm around his neck and makes a sweeping gesture with her hand. Jesse cracks a smile and Lukas pipes up again.

“Olivia’s right. And, hey, if you end up getting stressed out all the way up here, I've always got a spare room you can bunk in. You could probably get away with this place sorta acting as a figurehead type thing. If it makes the people feel better to have you ‘living’ up here, then sure thing. But you don’t actually have to live up here, er, you get what I’m saying..?” He offers a sympathetic smile and Jesse nods.

“Thanks Lukas, I’ll consider it.”

Olivia smirks and playfully whispers under her breath to Jesse. “Oh so you thank pretty boy over your best friend huh? Y’know you two have been awfully friendly lately..”

“SHUT.” Jesse laughs and dances out of her grip, his cheeks slightly reddening at the suggestion. Before anyone has the chance to interrogate him anymore, the doors fly open again and a familiar ginger runs in, grinning from ear to ear. Jesse and the others stare, wide-eyed.

“PETRA?! What on Earth are you— GAH!” Jesse’s shaken out of his initial shock as his friend runs over and sweeps the shortie into a tight hug.

“Ooooooh! I’ve missed you!! I’ve missed you all so much!” Petra backs off momentarily to grin excitedly as Jesse processes everything.

“How did— When did— What are you doing back so soon?”

“Soon?? It’s been months since I left Jesse! ‘Sides with the weather and seasons changing it’s getting a bit more difficult to just pass the night in caves and stuff… Too cold.” She crosses her arms and trails off. Lukas grins and walks over, leaning on her shoulder.

“Which is Petra talk for, ‘I wanted to be with you guys over the holidays’!”

Petra opens her mouth to argue but is instead yanked into a surprise hug by Axel, Olivia soon joining. She sighs and rolls her eyes.

“Okay, okay, hugging time has passed now guys.”

“Not when Axel or Olivia are around.” Jesse chuckles. “We’re glad to have you back.”

“You better be!” Petra grins as she’s finally let go of, “Though I couldn’t have gotten back without some help...” She grins, holds up a finger, and then hurries back out of the room. There’s the sound of a few indistinct voices before Petra comes back in, arms slung over the shoulders of Jack and Ivor, both toting grins of themselves and a few boxes in hand.

Jesse crosses his arms with a smile, “ Of course you’re behind this, Ivor!”

“Jesse!” The bearded man smiles and sets his stuff down, hurrying over and hugging the young man, Jesse laughing and returning the hug. Ivor beams, “I’m so glad to see you again!! I hope this was a good surprise?”

“You kidding? I-I thought it might be years again before we were all together again! It’s great!”

Fantastic!! But, I’m not quite done yet!”

“Ivor what do you—“

“Shush shush shush!! Listen,” he jerks Jesse aside--much to his surprise--and starts speaking in a more hushed tone, “Remember how I told you I was leaving town to go reconcile with the others? Gabe, Magnus… Soren?”

“You didn’t…”

“I did and HAVE!! Look I would have waited to surprise you with Gabe and Magnus but I know Soren left on a bad note to say the least last you saw him so… Best to tell you in advance so you don’t immediately try throwing him through a wall!” Ivor gives Jesse a hearty pat on the back and laughs. Jesse laughs tensely. Soren. He knows that the guy was a little off thanks to the isolation but man.. Jesse never liked two types of people: Liars and Cowards. And Soren was both. He shakes his head.

“Why did you decide to bring them here now?”

“It’s the first time in ages you’re all in one place without the world ending. They’re all stubborn enough as is, especially Soren. If he can apologize to all of you at once, that’ll make things far easier and loose ends will finally be tied up!” He pauses and notes Jesse’s lack of enthusiasm. He sighs, “Okay, I know you’re past it, but I’m unfortunately fond of Soren and if he doesn’t get this he’s just gonna keep tearing himself to bits.” Ivor rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

“That bad huh..?”

You wouldn’t believe the condition Harper and I found him in.”

Jesse sighs and looks down while he thinks, hands on his hips. Ivor taps his fingers in anticipation. Honestly, the thing that irks him the most about Soren is the fact that it took him so long to show his face again. Aiden and Romeo, despite both doing awful things--some worse than Soren’s by a long shot--at least faced the repercussions of their actions almost immediately . Then again maybe they’re not great comparisons as Jesse already beat their swelling prides out of them. Jesse shrugs and eventually nods, Ivor lighting up.

“Okay I’ll do it. I’ll talk to him, BUT!”

But??”

“I want to talk with him privately before he comes in and sees the others.”

Done!” Ivor grins and claps his hands together, “They’re all just outside, I can escort you to Soren then usher the rest of them back into here so you can straighten things out. But do try not to break him would you? He’s a pain as it is, I don’t need him moping even more.

“Sounds like a plan. Lead the way.” He gestures Ivor forward and gives a brief nod to the others who have been watching, their suspicion growing as Ivor and Jesse begin walking.

“Woah, woah, You guys are just leaving??” Axel blurts out. Jesse tries to stop and briefly explain but Ivor grabs him by the shoulders and keeps him moving, causing Jesse to stumble over his own feet.

“I came with more company! We’re just going to greet and usher them all in! Do not worry!” He yells to the group, waving them off as they hurry out of the room.

“Right… Okay.” Axel shifts a side glance to Lukas and Olivia, who are equally unsure. Petra, still hanging off Jack, waves them off with a smile.

“Lighten up! It’s Ivor, how bad can the people he brings along be these days?”

Chapter Text

Passing through the doors and re-entering the tall hallways, Jesse feels an odd weight off of his shoulders. He can handle crowds and tight spaces, but that doesn’t mean he preferred them. He eases out a sigh, though despite his efforts to mask it, Ivor picks up on his stress and offers another light pat on the back. Enchanted blue eyes glance up to the browns he’s become accustomed to. A few years ago, and Ivor was the last person he’d look up to, but with time has come a considerable amount of change. He wasn’t a timid 20 year old anymore, and while Jesse’s grown stronger with time, Ivor’s bitterness has also dissipated. The old man offers a reassuring smile before reaching a hand up and messing up the youth’s hair, running ahead before Jesse can get payback.

“HEY !! Unfair!!!” Jesse hurries to fix his hair as he starts chasing after his old friend, Ivor’s laughter ringing out through the halls, signaling their approach.

As Ivor turns the corner, a sly grin on his face while he speedwalks towards the small group, Jesse swings around the corner full force after him. He quickly slows however once spying the familiar old faces. His slick boots against the waxed tile floors make him slide across the floor, coming to a stop beside Ivor. He meets the gazes of Harper, Gabe, Magnus and of course, Soren. The tension returns full force and hits him head on as no one breaks the initial silence as he stands there huffing to catch his breath. A few strands of his hair fall back into his face. He nervously glances up at Ivor before Harper hurries over.

“Well well well! Look at what little Jesse has grown into!!” She takes hold of his hands and holds their arms out, glancing over him and shaking her head. He smiles up at her. It’s been a while since he’s actually *seen* Harper. She’s been around as Ivor has been hanging around her since they got back from the portal hall and while he’s seen her a few times since, they’re sporadic. She chuckles with a grin, “ Man It’s only been a year or so and you’ve already changed! You’ve become an intimidating little thing!”

“Don’t call him little, he has a short fuse.” Ivor jabs Jesse with his elbow, causing Jesse to roll his eyes to the Aether and Harper to cackle.

“You’re pulling our legs Ivor, no way this is the same kid!” Magnus shoves his way into the group, taking Harper’s place to her disdain. He squints, getting rather up close and personal, making Jesse have to lean back for an inch of room. “I don’t believe it!”

“Do not be ridiculous Magnus!” Gabe bellows from behind him, clamping a hand on his shoulder and pulling him back. His eyes sparkle with pride at the sight of Jesse as he smiles. He puts out a hand and Jesse shakes it readily with a grin. Despite his ego, Jesse always liked Gabe.  “ Fantastic !” He glances back to Magnus. “If you want to continue to be ridiculous, a simple solution is to just check the scar! There’s no one that has one quite like Jesse’s. Surely you’ve noticed.” Gabe pushes a handful of Jesse’s bangs back to his own embarrassment, revealing the scar that frames his right eye. Magnus gives a hum of thought before Ivor scowls and pushes Gabe’s hand away. Jesse hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he let it go. Never liked showing off his scar. Ivor had learned that the hard way during one of Jesse’s brewing lessons. He sucks in a breath and decides to actually enter the conversation.

“If you really need me to prove that I am me, we could always have a rematch of our original TNT battle Magnus. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that.

“Ugh, no way I’m bringing back ol’ Amulet Holder! Last time I faced that guy I was blown right out of the sky in a humiliating defeat!” Magnus holds a hand to his forehead, leaning on Gabe for support, who just rolls his eyes in turn. “My poor psyche can’t deal with that again… Tell ya what, I’ll believe ya kid, as long as ya keep the Amulet Holder outta my hair!” He winks as he points at his own bald head. Jesse laughs but nods.

“Sounds like a deal.” He offers his hand out to Magnus who not only takes it but yanks him into a tight hug. Jesse laughs as Magnus pats his head, putting on the theatrics.

“Oh Gabe! Ivor! Our little fighter is all grown up! He doesn’t need us anymore!” He fake wails and Jesse snickers as he tries slipping out of Magnus’ headlock. The guy has a stronger hold than he looks, but looks are always deceiving with Magnus.

“Oh let the poor boy go , Magnus!” Harper bats the back of his head and he rolls his eyes, then dramatically sniffles.

“Ohh….. If I must….!” He swings Jesse out of his grip then grins, clapping his hands together. “Now where’s the rest of the crew!! I gotta say hi to my man Axel!”

“Yes, I would like to see the others now.” Gabe nods at Ivor who waves his hands.

“Yes yes yes, you’re all dying to see them again! Just follow me and I’ll—“

“What about ol’ orange head?” Magnus jerks a thumb back at Soren, glancing between him and Ivor. Soren had been watching the group silently. Looking over him, Jesse could tell he had changed. The air about him was almost weak , it was rather a sorry sight.

Jesse,” Ivor meets his gaze and nods at him, “Will lead Soren back. No more questions.”

“But—“

Move Magnus.” Harper ushers him forward and Gabe follows her lead. Ivor hangs back a second and places a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. He gives a gentle squeeze and nod before turning and making his way back to the others. He glances back and meets Soren’s gaze briefly before disappearing around the corner. A silent warning, this was his one chance.

Silence fills the hall once more, and Jesse can’t help the dread that creeps into his stomach. He clenches his fists anxiously before getting the strength to suck in a breath and turn around.

Soren’s shoulders hang as he gently hugs himself. There’s no confidence in his stance, only shame. He and Jesse’s eyes meet, but he can only stand the intensity of Jesse’s stare for a few seconds before his eyes drop to the floor. Jesse sighs and opens his mouth.

“I’m glad to see you alive.” His tone was colder than he meant for it to be. Then again, he still wasn’t exactly very happy with Soren. Magnus and Gabriel weren’t able to fight out of necessity, Ellegaard gave her life, and Ivor would have stayed with Jesse and the others for the entire Witherstorm fight had Soren not fled. And how he decided to say goodbye, it seemed like he figured none of them would have made it out alive. The others at least apologized and spent the years since attempting to make up for their faults. Soren had not. He opted to remain a coward until Ivor and Harper stepped in.

Jesse’s tone and words cut deep, and Soren visibly shrinks with them. The man lets out a sigh before raising his head as much as he can.

“You don’t have to lie Jesse--”

“Unlike you I don’t.” He’s blunt, catching Soren off guard. He blinks then manages a weak chuckle.

“You… You’ve gotten me there I suppose…”

Yeah.” There’s a pause and the silence momentarily returns. Jesse realizes that he’s really gonna have to be the one to push them through this. He sucks in another breath and continues. “I do mean it. Despite our differences, I’m not one to just wish death upon someone. If they have potential to do right, then I’m glad and willing to help see them through it.” He waits tensely for Soren’s reply. The bearded man nods slowly to himself, processing his words.

“That’s… That’s a big thing to do. Also a big risk to take--!”

“I’ve taken it with people worse than you. It’s worked. But of course you haven’t exactly been around to know that so.”

Jesse once more takes Soren by surprise. He was expecting a lot of things from Jesse when he showed up, but those were all based on the Jesse he knew. The 20 year old that was in over his head 6 years ago. That timid, lanky kid was a different person than the built young man before him. He shakes his head in amazement.

Absolutely incredible… Ivor was right, you have changed… A lot… In good ways though.” He pauses and smiles gently, “Full of energy still! However this time, you’re clearly confident… Comfortable with yourself. You’re brave. Bold, even…” He sighs and stands up straighter, “But let’s get to the elephant in the room, shall we?”

Jesse simply crosses his arms and nods, gesturing for him to continue. Soren hesitates, having expected Jesse to say something. Anything, really. Oh well. He nods either way and continues.

“I… truly cannot express how sorry I am Jesse… I cannot express the shame and guilt I’ve felt for the past 6 years over just leaving you and your friends in your time of need.” He opens his mouth to continue but finds himself stumbling over his own words. He scowls and clenches his fists, some actual volume and life returning to the skeleton of a man as he does. “It’s despicable! I knew exactly the consequences of what we--er, you were facing. I knew what that thing was capable of and I-I was even on the right path for making up for the lies the Order kept up for years!” He takes a deep breath through his nose before sturdily meeting Jesse’s gaze. “But I was a coward.”

Jesse holds his stare for a few seconds before slowly beginning to nod.

“Thank you for your apology, Soren.”

Soren blinks.

“Er… Thank you…?” Not exactly the answer he was expecting. Jesse nods again.

“I can’t say I accept your apology, because like I said, I don’t lie. But that doesn’t mean I’m unappreciative for you wanting to finally make amends.”

“I don’t--”

“I can’t forgive you if it really took you 6 years and Ivor and Harper to drag you out of wherever the hell you’ve been hiding away to apologize. I can tell you’re sincere, don’t get me wrong. But you need to start stepping up a bit more if you really want my friend’s and I’s respect back.” He sighs and finally relaxes slightly, resting his hands now down on his hips. “I’m sorry for being so curt, but I’m past beating around the bush with people like you. There’s still hope for you. You just have to be brave enough to start facing the music.”

Soren stands there, taken aback and slack jawed. He tries to form some sort of response, some sort of acknowledgement, but with several attempts and failed stutters come and gone, he eventually just gives up and settles for nodding. He clenches his fists briefly, sighs and nods clearly.

I understand.” He pauses for another while and steps back a bit, causing Jesse to grow a bit suspicious. “Thank you for being honest with me Jesse… As much as I dislike hearing the truth sometimes, I need the refresher…”

“Of course.”

“Right… Look I know when I’m not wanted and I don’t want to ruin your reunion with everyone so just tell Ivor I-- AGHK!” Soren had begun to turn and leave but Jesse--quick on his feet--easily closed the space between them and caught him by the collar. He swings Soren back around and pushes him in the direction of Jesse’s new little apartment where everyone else was.

“Not a chance! Just because Im not forgiving you yet doesn’t mean I don’t want you around! A good first step to regaining that good reputation you had is to actually spend time around others. You came here because you want to change things for the better, so, I’m not letting you be a self-loathing hermit!” Jesse’s pushes easily send Soren stumbling,  but he’s at least stumbling in the right direction.

“Ivor’s bullheadedness has rubbed off on you, I see!”

“Absolutely! Don’t try and convince me that’s a bad thing either!”

Chapter Text

Reintroducing Soren to the crowd was an awkward task to say the least. Axel, Lukas and Olivia were the most upset of the bunch, as they were there when Soren ran off. While Petra was there to fight too, her Withersickness left a lot of the whole Witherstorm debacle in fog. She’s upset, just less personally. Jack had heard about the shit Soren pulled, and while frustrated with it, he’s probably the most calm about it. It happened years ago and he can at least somewhat relate. Sometimes people freeze up, like in the sea temple.

It only takes about 15-20 minutes for everyone to— thankfully— fall into a peaceful lull. Everyone has found their groups to chat with and the tension has disappeared substantially. Despite some.. differences, Jesse can’t help but be glad to see everyone together in one room. Especially without some looming threat that could destroy everything. It’s certainly a rare sight, but hopefully one he can get used to.

Slipping away from the main crowd, Jesse grabs another box and carries it into the next room—what will eventually be his bedroom. Right now it’s just a bunch of boxes and rolled up carpets on tile. He takes in the fun architecture of the room. High ceilings, tall windows and a spiral staircase the leads to a second story—that’s honestly more akin to a loft—with plenty of extra room. He bounces up the stairs. While there’s still the stress about moving into this place and being a whole leader and all, he can’t help the childlike excitement and wonder that wells up in his chest with the idea of getting a cool new home and room. The white quartz, dark oak borders and trim mixed with the modern art, architecture and general aesthetic of this place is surprisingly welcoming. Stella has good taste.

It’s refreshing. Perhaps this is a good change for him. A restart, a blank page, a new home to reflect his dramatically different lifestyle.

He sets the box down on his bare mattress, among many others. They hadn’t even begun with this room. He sighs as he glances around at the work they’ve yet to do.

‘Might as well start here.’

He opens the box he brought in and begins to dig through its contents. Books, books, more books. God he had a lot of those. He pauses, recognizing the cover of one from his childhood. He unburies it from the bottom of the box. It’s a simple leather back, with a strap that keeps it tightly shut. The colorful parrot feather that was used to write everything in this book still tucked in between the pages, sticking out of the top. Jesse sits down on the ground and stares at the journal. He runs his hands nostalgically over the ebbs and cracks in the leather. Despite everything around it being different, this old book is the same as it was ages ago.

It takes a few minutes for him to build the courage to reopen the old thing. It’s been years since he’s even thought about it. Nonetheless actually acknowledge that it—and everything else —exists, whether he likes it or not. His hands shake as he grips the end of the strap. A small droplet surprises him, falling onto the cover, darkening the leather. He sighs and curses under his breath as he wipes it off, then rubs the tears away from his eyes, sniffling before he refocuses. He berates himself but continues and finally unbuckles the strap. He slowly and carefully opens the journal to the random page the feather’s been stuffed in.

“Hohh my God…” His voice cracks as the familiar handwriting floods him with memories. He takes out the feather and closes the book momentarily. This is the thing about moving, you always dig up old memories whether you like to or not.

It’s suffocating.

He focuses on the details of the feather in his hand in an attempt to ground himself again. Within seconds he has to grip it with both hands, the shaking making it too hard to inspect otherwise. The half that had been sticking out of the book was far more beat up than the bottom. It was faded, bent, and brittle. Oppositely, the bottom half was still soft as he ran his fingers over it. The reds, yellows and blues still as vibrant as they were when he was a child.

And there the memories are again.

Jesse curses to himself again and hastily reopens the journal to another random page, stuffing the feather back inside. He rubs his eyes and forehead, wiping more tears away. He thought he’d be better by now. It’s been years--almost two decades --since it happened and yet—

Jess?”

AH—Lukas!” Jesse jumps, slamming the journal shut and jerking his head to look back at him, eyes wide in shock. Lukas puts his hands up, still halfway on the staircase as Jesse takes a few deep breaths. He starts laughing weakly as he bends over and groans. Lukas chuckles weakly with him and continues up the stairs and over to Jesse. Jesse looks up at him with a grin, still laughing. “ Man! You nearly gave me a heart attack!!” He holds a hand over his heart as Lukas sheepishly sits down by him.

“Sorry… I just noticed you slipped away from everyone and wanted to check on you. I suppose if you’re laughing then that’s a decently good sign.” He chuckles softly, Jesse smiling and nodding along with him. Had Lukas not been an observant person, the conversation would have ended there. His chuckle dies out quicker than Jesse’s as he notices the watery glare in his eyes. Had it just been that, he would have assumed that he had just started crying from laughter, but it hadn’t been that funny, and the redness of his eyes otherwise betrays him. He glances down and notices the (albeit shaky) deathgrip Jesse has on the book. Jesse hadn’t even noticed he started clutching it to his chest. Eventually Jesse realizes that Lukas has stopped laughing. The atmosphere around them has changed.

His heart starts pounding as he dares to glance up at Lukas, almost regretting it. Two pairs of blue eyes meet; calm ocean meeting sparkling sky. Lukas gently caresses Jesse’s cheek, lifting his face to match his gaze. Jesse feels his cheeks grow hot as Lukas frowns, studying him. Normally, he’d be upset with someone trying to get into his head so intimately, but with the way his heart flutters as Lukas gently brushes his cheek…

He’s powerless .

“Talk to me, Jess…” Lukas’ voice is soft and comforting. Jesse sighs, briefly leaning into his touch before backing up and sitting up straight. Lukas lets his hand awkwardly drop back into his lap and Jesse looks to the side, trying to think of how the hell to begin explaining. He’s been caught red-handed.

But it’s all just.. so much..

He lets out a sigh and tries to casually sit back, propping himself up with his left arm and throwing the journal back up into the box with his right. He tries not to linger too long on it, he certainly doesn’t want to talk about it. He gives Lukas a weak smile before giving a half hearted shrug.

“I-It’s just… Memories is all…”

Lukas raises a brow, deadpan.

Memories.”

“Yeah.”

“Just… vague thoughts that get you so emotional that you were shaking, crying, and didn’t even hear me coming?”

“I’m an emotional person, what can I say?”

Jesse—“

“Lukas, I’m fine. Really!” He sighs and grabs Lukas’ hands, squeezing them tight, “I’m just… still kinda overwhelmed by all of this, y’know? Plus with all the Order members here, then all this old stuff that I’m honestly seeing again for the first time in years…” He trails off, shaking his head with a chuckle. “It’s a lot. And while I normally deal with a lot , it’s like, different, yknow?” He shrugs, giving a sideways smile up at his friend. Lukas locks eyes with Jesse and stays there for a minute, silently interrogating him before eventually giving up with a sigh and small smile.

“Alright I’m… I’m gonna trust you on that okay? But, for real Jess, if you ever need to talk .” He grips Jesse’s hands, inching in closer, “I will be here for you. No matter the fight you’re in, never think you have to go through it alone.” Lukas hesitates but reaches up and moves Jesse’s bangs out of his eyes as he speaks. Once out of the way his hand lingers, lightly outlining the scars around his eye before his hand slowly drops back into his lap. He knows Jesse’s definitely holding out on him, but seeing how upset he was, Lukas decides not to push it. An awkward silence settles as the two suddenly both become acutely aware of how close they are to one another, but neither daring to be the first to move and pretend it didn’t happen.

“YO JESSE COME CHECK THIS OUT !!!!” Axel’s voice booms throughout the apartment. For once Jesse’s thankful for Axel’s timing. The two rip apart from each other at the initial sound of Axel, both quickly bouncing to their feet once a few feet apart. Jesse runs over to the railing and yells back.

“BE THERE IN A SEC !”

Jesse pushes off the railing and begins walking quickly to the stairs. He and Lukas share a brief glance before Jesse reaches the stairs, hopping onto the railing and sliding down while Lukas hurries after down the steps. The two walk in stride back to the other room.

~~~~~

Through the doorway they’re greeted by grins. Jesse raises a brow and turns, looking at Axel, Jack and Petra who jump aside, revealing a polished and shiny record player. The three pose around it, emphasizing the surprise. Jesse can’t help but laugh at their antics, however there’s a bit of tension in him as he smiles through gritted teeth.

“You guys… You didn’t have to do this.” He chuckles. Jack comes over and clamps a hand onto his shoulder, giving him a reassuring little shake.

“Oh come on! You’ve done plenty for us, allow us to get you a little housewarming gift! I actually got it on one of my big adventures ya know…” Jack winks at Jesse, who’s eyes widen, darting from him to the player and back to Jack. He shakes his head.

“I-I can’t take that! It’s yours you—“

“Want to give it to a friend.” Jack cuts him off with a smile, placing both hands on Jesse’s shoulders to steady him. Jesse stares up at him in shock for a few seconds before turning his gaze downwards and dragging his eyes back to the player. His eyes shine with the guilt of a child who just got something he didn’t deserve. Jack cocks a brow, noting his uneasiness. “Jesse? Is that okay?”

Jesse snaps back to look at Jack, his face heating up in embarrassment as everyone’s attention focuses on him. ‘Just accept the damn thing Jesse. People are staring.’ Thoughts flood him and he nods quickly.

“Yes! Yes , it is I-I’m sorry.” Jesse lets out an awkward laugh as he steps back a bit. He looks back at the record player, lingering for a moment before he lets out another nervous laugh. “I-I just feel bad. I don’t— haven’t— listened to any records in years! I don’t want it to just sit and collect dust…”

Jack smiles fondly. This kid man.

“Hey don’t worry about it Jesse, we could—“

“Aw come on Jesse, don’t be so modest!” Axel interrupts, bringing the attention to himself. He’s sat beside the record player on the ground with another box in his lap, one Jesse recognizes. His hair stands on end at the sight of the old thing. Nothing special exactly about it, as it’s just a battered and stained old wicker box. But it’s contents have haunted Jesse for years.

Where did you—“

“You’ve got a handful of old disks in here! Like uhhh…” He reaches in and plucks a random cover out, reading the title and squinting a bit. “Cat…” He blinks in dumbfoundment. Jesse winces. Axel continues, “That’s an odd name. Whatever though!” Axel shrugs and chuckles. Jesse clenches his fists at his sides, taking a deep breath in through his nose. He speaks calmly as he can, but he’s too quiet.

“Axel. Please just put those back—“

“Is there like, a ‘Dog’ one to go with it or something? Heh! Petra, Olivia, come check these out.” He smiles at his friends, waving them over, not noticing Jesse. Neither pick up on Jesse’s discomfort and get a bit closer, Olivia crouches down herself with a smile and Petra ghosts Axel’s side.

The others have grown interested in the conversation, watching things play out from afar. Ivor absentmindedly takes a few steps forward. He and Jack share a mutual look of discontent. Lukas steps up again, noting the tension in Jesse’s frame. Especially with the conversation they just had.

“Hey guys maybe we should just let Jess—“

“Oh relax Lukas, it’s just some music! Jesse won’t mind us finding a good selection!” Axel waves him off and Lukas bites his lip as he glances at Jesse, whose eyes have narrowed. Jesse takes another breath, raising his voice to be more audible. There’s a slight tremble in it, clearer now that he’s louder.

“Axel, please I would appreciate—“

“If I put together a sweet mixtape for you? Already on it my man!”

“No if you would just—“

“Hey man I get it, you’re stressed! Let me handle that, some tunes can always help put that edge at ease!” He makes the gesture of a small wave with his hand, smiling nonchalantly. Jesse starts stepping closer and Petra and Olivia have begun picking up on the tension surrounding him. They share a glance and let go of the covers they had been looking over, beginning to back off a bit.

Axel just let me—“

“Jesse I thought you could trust me man!” He chuckles a bit, teasing him.

“Maybe if you would LET ME SPEAK and quit pawing around in my things , I COULD!” Jesse snaps, snatching the one disk right out of Axel’s hands. He slams it back in the box, making Axel jump and scoot back as Jesse throws all the records back in and slams the box shut. I said to leave them alone. He hisses, voice dangerously low as he shoots a glare at Axel before picking up the box and carrying it away from him, not really having a spot to place it in mind. Just as long as he can get those things away.

Axel, Olivia, Petra and the others can only really look at each other in shock. Olivia breaks the silence.

“Woah.. Jesse hey we didn’t—“

Leave it.” He frowns as he tries making his way out of the room. Lukas however has other plans. He steps in front of Jesse, blocking his path. Jesse sighs, not looking up to meet his gaze. He tries stepping around Lukas, only to find his movements mirrored by him. He tries again. He’s blocked again. Another try. Blocked again. Frustration builds as he snaps up at him. “ For God’s sake Lukas! Let me pass! What’s your problem?!”

I should be asking you that.”

Jesse shakes his head, blustering. “It doesn’t matter just let me THROUGH!”

“What is wrong with you?!” Lukas stares at him in disbelief. “They’re disks Jesse! Why are you getting so ridiculous! This isn’t like you!”

“Lukas is right, Jesse! You can’t just blow up like this and then say it doesn’t matter! What are you keeping from us? What’s eating at you?” Olivia stares worriedly at her best friend. Petra nods.

“Jess, we can’t help you if we don’t even know what’s wrong. We’re all your friends here, why are you hiding things?” Petra crosses her arms. Jesse doesn’t look back at them, hell he doesn’t lock eyes with anyone. He just keeps his gaze locked on the box in his hands as he gets some space from Lukas, backing up. His grip tightens as he’s barraged by his friends.

“Yeah man, after Romeo, we promised no more secrets. We can’t afford that kind of thing again...” Axel gets his voice back and gently tries pushing with the others.

“This is different!” Jesse snaps, swinging around to face them, his voice cracking towards the end. For the first time they can really see the emotion flooding him as the tears begin to stream down his face. He’s long past caring about making a scene now. He just wants this done. He doesn’t want to talk about this, to think about this! It hurts too much to process it, so it’s better to just bury it like he always has. Why is that so hard for them to get? He starts huffing as he tries getting his words out, tears and mucus making it hard as that tight lump in his throat forms. He can’t and just scrunches up his face and shakes his head, sniffling as he moves out of the center of everything to go set the damn thing down, suddenly feeling its weight drag him down.

Everyone watches in silence, slowly moving into more comfortable positions before Jesse slams the box down on a counter nearby. They wait for him to turn and say something. Do something. But he doesn’t. He stands there and leans on the box for support, rubbing his eyes and trying to get a hold on himself and finding nothing but frustration when he doesn’t.

Everyone shares glances of equal concern. What do they do now? The tension is certainly not letting up and someone’s gotta make a move. Ivor takes a step forward but is stopped by Jack. He gives a general nod to the group and gestures for them to stay back before speaking up in a gentle tone.

“Jesse, how are these disks different..? Can you tell us?”

There’s hesitation. Jesse audibly sucks in a breath as he strains to hear Jack. Then a pause. A consideration. Jack feels his own hair stand on end as he waits for Jesse to either blow up or stay where he’s at. He recognizes this kind of behavior from his own actions. Certain items triggering bad memories, which just makes him hurt and when people are hurt, they can get irrational. Snappy.

When all that comes is Jesse simply sniffling and shaking his head, Jack lets out a sigh. He doesn’t know if he prefers this or Jesse cursing them all out. He’s bottling up something. And he’s bound determined to keep it that way. At least that’s a bit more information than what they had. ‘ We’re getting somewhere.

“Alright… Let’s give him some space now, alright everybody?” Jack repeats the silent message he’d given earlier, for Jesse to know. The crowd lets out a few held breaths and generally backs up even more, small side conversations starting up and helping create a more casual atmosphere. Though everyone’s focus is surely still on their friend. Jack cautiously makes his way over to Jesse, whispering in greeting as not to surprise him when appearing at his side. He crouches down, looking up to Jesse as he speaks. “Hey tough guy..”

Jesse only sniffles in response, glancing down at him out of the corner of his eye. Jack offers a small smile and Jesse lets out a sigh, dragging his gaze away from Jack. He shakes his head, holding his head in his hands and gripping at his bangs in stress. Jack watches as Jesse squints and fidgets, trying to keep himself from crying. He shakes, jaw clenched tight as air hisses in and out and Jesse tries swallowing that lump in his throat, only causing it to hurt more. It’s a losing battle. Jack sighs softly.

“You’ve been holdin’ something big in for a long time haven’t you Jess..?”

Jesse shuts his eyes tight and bites his lip, only nodding in response. Jack nods in understanding and places a hand on Jesse’s back.

“It’ll be okay kid..” He pats his back and with that, Jesse breaks . An angry sob is ripped from Jesse’s throat before he collapses to the ground. Immediately his fists clench and he bites his lip again, trying to keep himself silent and drawing blood in the process. Everyone jumps at the sound, the edge to the air returning. Jack frowns as Jesse sits there, hunched over.

“‘M sorry… ‘m sorry..” Is all he manages to croak out before clamping a hand over his mouth, holding himself up with the other. Lukas tries approaching, hating just watching this but Jack quickly holds a hand out, warning him to back off. Lukas freezes but looks determined so Ivor steps in and pulls him back a step. Jack takes a complete seat on the ground, tucking one of his legs in and getting comfy before speaking to Jesse again.

“Jesse.. You shouldn’t hurt yourself to keep from crying. It’s okay to not be okay..” He hesitates but reaches out and clamps his hand down over Jesse’s. Another sob. Jack continues. “You are in fantastic company. You are safe…” He pauses, “Do you feel safe with us Jess?”

There’s silence, and a long pause as Jesse sits there, struggling to get a grip and failing. All eyes are on him while Jack waits patiently for a response. Soon, Jesse nods. A small wave relief sweeps through the room. Jack nods slowly and gives his hand a squeeze.

“Do you trust us, Jess?”

Another nod as the waterworks flow freely now.

“One more question then…” He grips his hand and Jesse peeks up at him through his hair. Jack nods slightly and takes a breath, “ Will you let us help you?”

Without breaking eye contact, another nod. Jack smiles warmly and lets out an anxious laugh, the tension dissipating from him. He just keeps nodding and claps Jesse’s hand.

Alright kid now get in here.” Jack pulls his hands back but then opens his arms, Jesse darting into the hug without hesitation. Jack nearly gets the wind knocked out of him but chuckles with a grin, wrapping Jesse into a tight ol’ bear hug. He winces a bit at how tight Jesse clings, but it’s worth it. The kid needs all the support he can get.

Jack glances around then gestures with one hand for anyone who wants to, to join.

“C’mon ya saps, this kid needs some good ol’ fashioned comforting!”

A laugh is heard between cries from Jesse and Lukas is the first to join in. He and Jesse’s eyes meet before he hugs him tightly.

“See? Never alone, like I said. Dork...” He lets out a tense sigh and Jesse laughs again. For the first time in a while he croaks something out.

“I’m sorry for lying to you.. A-And,” He looks behind him, over at Axel and the others, “ I’m sorry for snapping at you… You didn’t— I didn’t..” He trails off, clutching at his own hair but is cut off by Axel.

“Aw man… I can’t stay mad at you, you know that. Come on dude.” Axel plops down by the small group forming and wraps the three in a big hug, making Lukas nearly yelp and Jack laugh. Jesse smiles, starting to laugh more than cry. Olivia covers her mouth, trying not to laugh at the sight, and Petra grins.

“Alright..! There’s the shortie we know..” She walks over and messes up her friend’s hair, leading to her shrieking when Jesse shoots an arm out to snatch her bandana. “ Why you little—!”

Jack’s boisterous laughter keeps them from escalating and Petra just shakes a finger at Jesse.

You are so in for it. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when . BUT! I’m gonna get you back.”

Jesse sputters, wiping his eyes before he grins and replies, “I-I’d be offended if you did anything less..!”

They laugh, the familiar light hearted atmosphere returning. Ivor lets out a sigh and hesitates but moves over to the box on the counter. He doesn’t touch it but simply directs Jesse’s attention back to it.

“I hate to be the asshole here but I still think an explanation is in order Jesse…” He crosses his arms and waits. Petra immediate goes off.

“Ivor for real !? Now?!”

“We’re all already emotional messes here, I simply think it’d be easier to lay everything on the table now before we get the chance to put our walls back up.”

Oh for pete’s sake.” Lukas huffs and Axel rolls his eyes. Jesse simply looks down as he thinks about Ivor’s words. Eventually he looks back to Jack who simply shrugs in response.

“I can’t control your choice. Whatever you feel comfortable with…”

He sits back against Lukas, thinking for a few minutes while the others go back and forth with Ivor. He tunes them out easily. A skill he’s learned with time. The ability to tune out chaos around oneself is incredibly useful in death defying situations, enabling yourself the chance to focus for even a second can make all the difference. He looks up at the wicker box on the counter blankly, lingering on it.

Eventually he comes to a decision.

He leans his head back, looking upside down at Lukas who lets out a curt chuckle as he moves Jesse’s hair out of his face.

“Lukas?” He whispers up to his friend.

“Mhm?”

“The book I had earlier.. The leather one with the strap. Can you go grab it for me?”

Lukas frowns, confused. “Why—“

“Please.”

He hesitates but nods, “Of course, sit tight and I’ll be back.” He pats Jesse’s arm and slips out of the pile on the ground, bouncing to his feet. Petra blinks.

“Where’s he—“

“Don’t worry about it.” Jesse sniffles through his assurance and takes a deep shaky breath, steadying himself. “ We’re doin’ this..” He pushes himself off the ground and shuffles over to the countertop. Ivor steps aside, trying not to step on anyone else in the meantime. Jesse grabs the basket once more and walks over by the record player in the middle of the room. He gestures for everyone to sit down around him, and everyone starts shuffling over to sit around him in a circle. Magnus and Gabe give Jesse some pats on the back as they make their way over to sit down. Harper hunches down next to Ivor who kneels in an outer rim of the circle. Olivia and Axel sit by the record player, Petra sitting by Olivia and Jack by Jesse.

He stares at the box in silence for a while, gripping and ungripping the sides.

“Deep breaths Jesse. You must always be calm before a fight, no matter the type.” Gabriel’s voice snaps him out of his trance-like stance. He nods in thanks before taking some deep breaths and opening up the box. He pulls out the first record sleeve then stares at it in silence, nostalgia washing over him so quickly he has to start batting at his eyes again.

“Shit sorry.. God I’m so emotional it’s ridiculous..” He tries laughing it off but it dies quickly. Lukas returns to his side, sitting down and placing the journal beside him. “Thank you Lukas…” He passes the disk to Jack and nods at him, “Pass it around or something. These things haven’t seen the light of day in 16 years.” He pauses the nods, shoving the words out, “My father loved sharing his music…” He picks up another record sleeve and stares at it for a good minute or two before passing it to Lukas.

“Jesse, your father made these?” Soren, who had quietly joined to group, was the one that piped up this time. Jesse is caught off guard by him, he had honestly forgot Soren was here . Talk about embarrassing….

“Yeah… My dad liked making music as a hobby. At least, it was his hobby when he wasn’t out adventuring..” He huffs a bit with a smile as he pulls out another disk. He runs his hands over the cracking cover art, taking in every little detail. Just like how he remembered them. “I… I used to listen to these all the time when I was young…”

The idea of Jesse telling stories of his childhood makes Olivia and Axel’s hearts leap. It was always a complete grey area for them. All they knew was that Jesse didn’t like touching the topic with a hundred foot pole, so they didn’t. They listen closely.

“Growing up it was just me, my dog, my uncle and my father… My uncle was in and out doing his own things. I couldn’t tell ya what. But my dad was always up to something around the house.” He smiles fondly and slips the record out of its cover, admiring it. “He always had at least one of these playing, because I was scared of silence when I was young.”

“Scared of silence?” Petra raises a brow.

“And the dark. That’s when the worst things happen you know...” He simply shrugs before passing that record to her. He looks through the box while he speaks. “My father.. H-He was…” He shakes his head, “ He was the best.. And my hero… H-He always said he would have done anything for me, a-and frankly I know without a doubt that wasn’t a lie..”

Lukas tentatively picks the journal beside him back up. He looks at Jesse for permission to open it. Jesse hesitates, staring at it. Seeing how conflicted he is, Lukas opts to simply set it in Jesse’s lap.

“I won’t touch it until you’re comfortable with me doing so..”

“I just… I want to read them first…” He picks it up and turns it over in his hands. “My dad had dozens of journals that he filled up… I remember him scribbling away in them night after night.” He smiles and laughs, “From my room, when I peeked out of my door I would be able to see my father’s desk and cup of quills. As a kid, I was always able to tell if he was still awake or not depending on it that feather was in his cup or not. Eventually of course he caught onto my system. One time when I tried sneaking out of my room, he surprised me and swung me up into the air. He spun around with me a few times on his shoulders and loved on me before he actually punished me for sneaking sweets after my bedtime.” He snickers and a chorus of chuckles rings out. “He never liked punishing me, but since it was just him he had to.” He shrugs.

“This is so trippy… I honestly never thought you like, had a dad!”

Axel!” Olivia and Petra hiss simultaneously, earning him a swift punch in the arm.

“Ow! Cool it! You didn’t let me finish!! I never thought you had a dad, nonetheless one that sounds so cool, man. You said he liked adventuring on top?”

Jesse nods, “Yeah, he and my uncle used to go out all the time when they were young. But then my uncle…” He frowns, looking down and picking at his fingernails.

“Adventuring got the best of him…” Ivor finishes Jesse’s thought, and Jesse nods.

“Yeah… It wasn’t the same without him and I’m sure it definitely got to my dad but, on surface level I couldn’t tell. Too young to really pick up on that stuff, yknow?”

“How old were you when your uncle died?”

Jesse blows some hair out of his face, rubbing his forehead as he digs through the memories. This is tiring. Every part of it.

“I think… Six-ish?”

A string of sighs and curses blow through the group. Jesse nods solemnly.

Yeah… He was a great uncle too. His name was Brian I think.. There was somethin’ interesting about his name if I remember right. It was like, hyphenated. Couldn’t tell you his second first name though.” He shakes his head, “Just… Too young to remember everything. Especially since I blocked it all out for ages… I was ten when stuff with my pop ...” He blows out a breath, trailing off as he stares off into nothing in particular.

“Jess?” Lukas speaks up and tired blue eyes perk up momentarily as he looks back at him. He raises a brow, waiting for the question.

Lukas hesitates, gripping the carpet and looking between the ground, Jesse and the journal he brought out.

“What happened to your father, Jess…?”

Jesse visibly recoils, shutting his eyes tight, fists tightening in sync. This was the question he hated. The one he’s avoided. The one that haunts him endlessly. A chorus of memories play through his head in a flash. Everything he saw and heard and more importantly, all the things he didn’t. He eventually gets the strength to find a reply and sucks in a deep breath. He looks back at Lukas sadly.

I can’t answer that right now...” He drops his gaze and stares blankly at the floor, shaking his head. Jack leans forward and pats him on the back.

“We understand Jesse, you’ve already said enough. Thank you for—“

“That’s not what I meant.”

There’s a pause, everyone shares confused glances at what the hell Jesse’s talking about at this point. He sighs.

“I can’t say because I know about as much as you all do about my father’s disappearance.” He glances around at the faces of the small crowd, everyone instinctively leaning in, intrigued. Jesse takes in a deep breath.

“My Father disappeared mysteriously when I was a kid. Practically gone with the wind and only a few weird breadcrumbs left in his wake. Let me tell you what I know.”

Chapter Text

“Strong.. A strong… what?”

“A Stronghold, Jess.” His father chuckles as he continues making breakfast. Jesse frowns, kicking his legs as he sits at the high counter. It’s a lovely morning, sun streaming into the cozy home and dancing across the warm wood floors. A cabin in the forest, a perfect setting for an easy life.

“What’s that?” He asks, getting antsy as he wants to learn more. How could he not? His dad just dropped the fact that he found this super cool and rare place underground! Jesse had to know more and he had to know everything. His father however took his sweet time as he hummed to himself. He threw a few more things into the pan on the oven as Jesse let out an exasperated sigh. “ Daaaaaaad!”

“Hang on son!” He held one hand up causing Jesse to sink back in his chair and stare at the ceiling impatiently. Patience. Gotta have patience. It wasn’t Jesse’s strong suit though… Eventually his father turned around to face him and Jesse perked up once more. The bearded man’s soft blue eyes shimmered with glee. “Real quick, wanna see something cool?”

This piqued Jesse’s interest and easily distracted him from the previous topic and conversation. His father nods at the frying pan in his hands with a grin and Jesse stares at it curiously. He nods back, excited to see what his dad’s gonna do.

Alright, Let’s see if your old man can still flip these things over…” He grins and winks at Jesse, garnering a giggle from the young boy. A curious whine comes from their dog, a big white and grey husky type mix as he makes his way over to the man’s feet. He sits and stares up at him, eyeing the frying pan in his hands. His father laughs, “ No way you’re getting extra bud, I’m gonna stick this!” He waves his elbow at his old dog, which gives him an unbelieving huff. “Oh ye of little faith…” He rolls his eyes then grins again as he locks eyes with his son, “ Alright, here we go!”

He grips the frying pan with both hands, playing up the scene, making Jesse grin and giggle. He stands with his legs shoulder width apart and shakes the pan. He nods at Jesse who starts tapping the countertop for a makeshift drumroll. His father shakes the pan, grinning ear from ear before he bites his lip and flings up the food. It flips a good 2 or 3 times before he snatches it back near flawlessly. The moment it settles, he throws a fist in the air and cheers. Jesse throws up both his arms in sync and they both scream.

“WOOOOOOOO!!!!”

“You did it!!!” Jesse squeals, nearly pulling himself onto the counter as he strains to eye the inside of the pan. His father leans it over and shows off his work with pride. He snickers as he pulls it back, casually setting it back on the stove for a few minutes. “ Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.” He gives a slight bow and Jesse claps. He smiles warmly at his son. It’s mornings like this that he loves. Sun’s out, it’s warm and he’s home and content with his family. His son, his dog and--

Oh. Right. He still gets a stab of pain each time he realizes his brother isn’t around. Nor will he be despite the 4 years it’s been since it happened… Losing family is always difficult, it was already hard enough when his parents succumbed to their old age. But he always had his twin by his side to get through it. Facing the world with someone everyday for over 30 years, it’s unreal when they’re suddenly gone. Old habits die hard as he still overcompensates with the amounts of food he gets, the things he buys, and how he plans.

“Dad..?” His son’s soft voice pulls him out of his thoughts. The little light of his life. If not for Jesse, he wouldn’t know where he’d be. He lights up again.

“I’m fine Jess, I’m sorry if I worried you for a second there.”

“Is that strong-hole thing worrying you..? Is it dangerous?” Jesse’s voice cracks a little bit at the end. His father chuckles warmly, his deep voice soothing Jesse’s frayed nerves.

“Nah. Strongholds,” He emphasizes the pronunciation, “have been abandoned for years, Jess. Nothing but me and the Earth down there. Maybe some treasure if I get really lucky.” He leans over the counter and grabs Jesse’s hands, shaking them and making him smile. He doesn’t like lying to his son, but he can’t have him worrying to death either. Besides it’s technically not a lie. “Even so all I’m planning on doing down there is simply lighting the place up! Which, knowing how monsters work…” He trails off, eyeing his son who proudly continues.

“Makes things even safer!”

“That’a boy!” He reaches up and ruffles Jesse’s hair, causing him to squeal and try to shove his hand away.

“Nooooo!!! Stoooooop!!! I can’t see!”

Bah you’re fine!” He snickers and finishes by pushing his boy’s hair out of his face. His hand lingers as he spots the scar over his son’s eye, standing out against all of his freckles. Still relatively new. His own smile falters just briefly enough for Jesse to notice. Jesse picks at his fingernails, looking down suddenly. He frowns, “Hey… Come on now little buddy. It’s healing well yknow!”

“It looks stupid…”

What?” He takes an incredulous tone. “What do you mean?”

“What I said.” He shrugs, not looking up at him and his father lets out a sigh. He lets go of Jesse briefly and stands up straight. Blue eyes glance back to the food on the stove, then back at his son. His son’s priority. Always priority. He clicks off the oven real quick then hurries around the little island. Once on the side of his son and pulls out another stool and sits down next to him, facing him. Jesse, knowing what’s coming begrudgingly turns in his seat as well but doesn’t look up quite yet. His father settles and hunches down a bit, trying to meet his son’s gaze.

“Now, why do you say that Jesse..?”

Jesse shrugs again, making a noise akin to ‘I dunno’. His father huffs a bit in amusement before taking his hands.

Look at me Jess.”

He peeks up at his father, who locks eye contact and gets a little closer for emphasis. Giving his hands a squeeze, he starts.

Scars are nothing to be ashamed of.” He pauses letting the initial thought sink in before he puffs his cheeks, thinking of how to phrase things. “I see them, if anything , as reminders that we’re human. I have ‘em, your uncle has--” Past Tense. “-- had them, everyone has them Jess, and you’re going to get more as time goes on... The memories associated with some will hurt , yes. And they will sometimes bring up bad memories, yes. But trying to bottle that up and hide it?” He shakes his head, “All that will do is hurt yourself even more. Do you understand..?”

“Yes Dad…” He mumbles. His father nods. He smiles and uses a hand to push back Jesse’s messy curls again.

“‘Sides… I think it looks pretty cool, Jess.” He grins and a smile tugs at the corners of Jesse’s mouth. He hesitates then speaks up quietly.

For real?”

“Mhm! And,” He leans in, a sly look dancing across his face as he glances side to side, as if checking to make sure no one else was listening. “Don’t tell your father I said this,” He winks playfully, making Jesse light up as he knows what that phrase is always followed by. “but when you’re older? That scar will make you look Bad. Ass.” He grins and Jesse squeals, bursting into laughter and pushing his father back.

YOU’RE my father silly! Now you gotta get in trouble for cursing!!”

Nuh-uh!”

“Yeah-huh!!”

He laughs and snags Jesse from his seat and pulls him into a tight hug. Jesse goes into a laughing fit and starts flailing as he tries slipping out of his dad’s grip. His father in turn holds him tight and eventually pulls him close to give him a fat kiss on the forehead. Jesse recoils and screams as his father quickly sets him back in his seat, hops up and runs out of his son’s reach with a grin.

“GROOOOOOSSSSSSSS!!!” Jesse feverishly wipes at his forehead, trying to get rid of any kiss remnant left over. His father fake-pouts as he scoops out breakfast.

“Awww… You don’t love me Jess? I’m hurt.”

“You’re silly Dad.” He snickers and his father grins.

“When I want to be! Now come on, it’s about time we actually eat some food.” He slides a plate across the counter to Jesse then goes to sit down by him. Their dog trots over, sitting down next to Jesse’s seat and looking up at him expectantly. Jesse glances down at him with a mouthful. His father watches him curiously and just as Jesse turns to ask his dad something, he holds up a finger. Jesse lets out a sigh through his nose as he rolls his eyes. He finishes chewing, swallows, then speaks, loudly.

“Dad can I give Ziggy just a little piece???”

His father blinks long, brows raised before he lets out a breath and laugh.

“If you promise not to blow my eardrums out, then yes.”

“COOL!”

“Volume.”

“cool…!” He whispers loudly before tossing Ziggy a piece.

~~~~~

“Have you been to strongholds before, Dad?” Jesse looks up at his father as they walk through the forest path his father helped pave. The mossy cobblestones beneath them shimmer and stand out against the green grass in the sun. It’s spring, and everything around them is dancing with life. The leaves filtering the sunlight just right. His dad purses his lips as he slowly nods.

“Yeah a few times…”

“Only a few..?”

He smiles and chuckles a bit as he glances down at his son, “Like I said earlier Jess, they’re rare. Remnants of an old world made by people that have been lost to time.”

“Did people live down there??”

“Maybe--”

“Like mole-people??”

His father laughs and Jesse just stares up at him, 100% serious. Mole people were a concern considering what his uncle would always tell him. And he certainly didn’t want his father involved with them! His father shifts the conversation in a more “logical” direction.

Or maybe that stronghold used to be above ground.”

“How does that work?”

He shrugs, “The world works in mysterious ways Jess. And you’ll come to discover as time goes on that the land is just as alive as you and me. Everything has some sort of life, sentient or not. And furthermore, everything has their own unique journeys. Just like you and me.”

“... That sounds really corny.”

Eh. Might as well try it. You’ll learn more about tectonics later.”

“Tech-what-ies?”

“Exactly.” He chuckles and pats Jesse on the back. Jesse pauses walking briefly to think things over. He’s nudged forward by a snout and turns around to find Ziggy. He smiles and ruffles the old dog’s fur with a smile, his purple collar jingling. He barks and slips out of Jesse’s grip, running ahead with Jesse running after. They pass by Jesse’s father and play chase as the small group of three makes their way down the path. Jesse’s father smiles as he watches his family play. Ziggy at one point darts a bit off of the path to grab a stick. He shakes it around before running back at Jesse. Jesse laughs and spins around as he tries hopping in front of the large dog to grab his stick. He misses, but tries again.

And again.

And again until Ziggy darts off towards his father. Jesse stands there and stares, huffing and puffing as he watches the dog simply trot up and push the stick into his father’s hand.

“Aw why’d he give it to you?”

“Simple! This old coot knows that your old man has a good throw.” He tosses the stick in his hand before hopping to a sudden stop, Ziggy hunching down and getting ready to run at the same time. His tail whips wildly back and forth as he eyes the stick. He grins as he winds up. “Alright old boy… Let’s.. GO!” He hurls the stick further down the path in a well practiced throw, Ziggy immediately darting off. Jesse jumps out of his path as he grins. His father continues walking and soon catches up to Jesse.

“Dad? How much further?”

“We’ll get there soon Jesse. The cave entrance that leads to the stronghold itself is remarkably close. Almost feels too good to be true.” He smiles brightly down at his son, who’s still a little bit unsure.

“Why are you taking me if it’s still gonna be dark in there..?”

“I’m only taking you to the entrance Jesse.” He suddenly takes on a stern tone. “I don’t want you going in there no matter what happens, do you understand me?”

“Then why am I--”

Jesse.” He stops and gives his son a stern look. Jesse sighs and nods.

“I understand, Dad… But I don’t get why you’re taking me with you if I’m not even allowed in.” He pouts, obviously frustrated to be denied another adventure by his father. His dad sighs.

Now he had to come up with an answer. ‘Oh I want you to know where to look if something goes wrong!’ He can’t just say that to his 10 year old. Hell, Jesse’s asking a pretty good question. Why is he taking Jesse with him? He certainly isn’t planning on travelling to the End or something. Not when Jesse still needs him. All he’s planning on doing is making the system it’s in brighter and generally safer. An in and out job. So why is he taking the extra step to show Jesse? He concludes that he didn’t really think of a reason besides gut instinct.

Brushing off the ominous fact that this was what his gut told him to do, he shrugs. “Well, since it’s not that far, I might as well just show you just how close I’ll really be. Help ease your fears. I know your Uncle probably intimidated you with all his creepy cave stories so maybe showing you that I’m within an hour’s walking distance could help you to not worry.” He smiles, brushing a hand through his son’s hair. “Plus… It’ll give you something to look forward to.” He winks and Jesse lights up.

Look forward to… You mean…”

“When you’re old enough, yes. I think that cave system would be a good one to have your first adventure in. Just you and me kiddo, like you’ve always talked about.”

“For real?! No joke??”

“Jesse, do I ever break a promise?” He smiles as his son becomes ecstatic. Jesse starts jumping excitedly in place, holding his head as he bounces around and cheers aimlessly. Ziggy finally returns, passing by and eyeing Jesse oddly before continuing to his father. Ziggy drops the stick in the hand of Jesse’s dad before trotting back off. The man huffs and rolls his eyes at his dog before stuffing the stick in a side pocket on his bag. Typical Ziggy.

Jesse hurries back over, taking his father’s hand gleefully. He’s still bouncing with excitement, one could almost swear his freckles were bouncing around with him. He swings his arm with his father as they walk, eventually looking back up.

“How long do I have to wait?”

“Tragically, a few more years at least Jess.”

“What! Didn’t you start adventuring when you were younger than me?”

His father laughs, a warming sound. He shakes his head. “Not in the way you’re thinking Jess. The most your uncle and I did around your age was play with fire in the fields.”

Jesse looks up at his father with an unbelieving frown. His father clicks his tongue.

“Okay, maybe we also had stolen some of our parent’s TNT. But again that was very different than what you’re expecting Jess! The type of adventures I tell you stories about are dangerous and…” He hesitates which draws his son’s attention. He lets out a sigh then crouches down to meet him at eye level. “It’s just you and me kiddo… You don’t have the extra back-up I did as a child like my brother and extended family. And if anything ever happened to you Jesse…” He can’t help but glance away briefly and shake his head as he gives his hand a squeeze. “I-I don’t know what I’d do Jess. Your safety is always my number one priority so that’s why I just.. want to make sure you’re truly prepared for it. Physically, mentally, and skill-wise.”

“Like practicing holding and swinging the axe right…?”

He smiles and chuckles with a nod, “That’s right. Basic skills you learn now will be essential foundation for later in your life.” He hesitates then looks at him, “I hope none of these things are overwhelming for you, son. You know you can always tell me if you change your mind about anything, or if you get nervous.” He nods and stands back up straight.

Jesse nods back up at his father, “I know, I’m not overwhelmed dad. I just wish it would all come sooner!!”

His father smiles fondly and pulls him to his leg, giving him a hug from the side.

“That’s my boy.”

~~~~~

“What happened once you got there Jesse?” Petra’s voice pulls the young man out of his thoughts, eyes that had fogged turned sharp once more. Though it only lasts a second.

Jesse drops his head as he digs through his memories. As rude as it sounds, the memory of actually showing up at the place was so bland that he had trouble remembering the details. There wasn’t much of importance aside from looks. The mouth of the cave was relatively normal. It was flat going in as it didn’t start declining into the Earth for several meters, and was settled in the side of a mountain. Vines and grass hung down and framed the entrance and moss stuck out of the stone as the dirt gave way. Coming back to the present, Jesse simply shrugs and sucks in a breath.

“Well. My dad introduced the place to me, ruffled my hair and then told me to stay outside a moment as he went to check inside. Couldn’t tell you what he went and did, he never told me nor did he show anything off afterwards.”

“Jesse?”

“Hm?” Jesse peeks over at Gabriel.

“Could you perhaps, describe your father a bit further? Physically, I mean. So far he sounds like an excellent man…”

“He was. Let me think… He was… Around 6 foot, maybe taller. He had dark blue eyes and dark brown hair. He was darker skinned--like me--and had a beard as well. He always wore military style boots, blue jeans and his favorite color was teal. Always wore shirts of that color.” He laughs softly, “H-He and my uncle would sometimes match outfits, when I was really young they’d use that to mess with me.”

The small group chuckles.

“Wait, wait, wait--!” Petra interrupts, “Okay, I get that like relatives look similar, and like,  everyone was stupid as a kid. But usually people aren’t so similar that you’d get them confused, and I know you’re good at recognizing people Jesse.”

“They were twins. That uhh…” He laughs weakly, “That probably helped.”

“Ha! Twins! Fantastic! Do continue Jesse.” Gabriel beams and Jesse gives a half-hearted smile.

“I mean.. There’s not much to continue from at that point. After he finished up, we went back home and that night was… Normal. Serene. I-I remember I…” He scrunches up his face as he recollects, his mouth hanging open and waiting for his thoughts to catch up with him. “It wasn’t a nightmare that drove me out of bed again, but rather a bad feeling in my gut.” He rubs his hand over his mouth, closing his eyes and sighing. He drops his hand in frustration. “It was there for a reason. I just wish I had somehow known! I-I coulda-- s houlda--”

“Jesse stop. Just, stop… You can’t blame yourself when you were just a kid. ” Lukas interrupts but Olivia butts in as well.

“Let him vent Lukas.”

“I wasn’t saying that he shouldn’t I just… I-I don’t think that kind of negativity is the next healthy step here.” Lukas sighs and places a gentle hand on Jesse’s shoulder and Jesse drags his gaze back to Lukas. He continues, “We don’t even know what happened yet, a-and as you said, you don’t either. I don’t think it’s right for you to blame yourself for something you don’t even completely understand…”

“Speaking of which Jesse, was seeing him that night the last time you saw him? Did he disappear out of your home?” Olivia has a tense edge to her voice, concern and terror for Jesse welling up. Jesse started shaking his head before Olivia was even finished.

“No, no. That night was fine… A fond memory, sort of a calm before the storm almost. Just me, my dad, Ziggy and a nice fire. I fell asleep next to him on the couch, a-and I felt safe. The house was warm. Life was nice. I cherish that…” He pauses and briefly makes eye contact with everyone in the group. He shakes his head. “But no . The last time I saw him was the next morning.”

Chapter Text

“Dad do you have to go so soon?” Jesse looks up to his father as he fiddles and straightens Jesse’s shirt and suspenders absentmindedly. It’s mid-morning, the sun’s high in the blue sky and the air is already warm. Jesse sits on the porch steps, his father crouched down before him and their dog sat a bit behind Jesse. Today’s the day! Jesse’s dad is off to explore that stronghold! Despite Jesse loving to hear his father’s adventuring stories, he always hated having to watch him go. It was fun being home alone sometimes! He got to do whatever he wanted (and hide the evidence it happened)! But once the silence set in, he hated it. That’s one reason his father made more music. To help ease the fears of his son. Speaking of which, he pauses at Jesse’s words, giving a simple a warm smile.

“I won’t be gone long kiddo! Look at this this way, the earlier I get a move on, the quicker I get there, the sooner I get started aaaand…”

“The sooner you get home..” Jesse finishes his sentence half heartedly. His father sighs and lifts his son’s face to look at him.

“Jesse sweetheart, you know I would never let anything separate me from you. Not forever. I love you too much to just leave you on your own.” He smiles and runs a hand through his son’s hair. Jesse hesitates a second.

Promise?”

His father is briefly struck with surprise at his son’s insistence. Big blue eyes stare up at him, assuring that he’s being honest. Is Jesse truly that worried? He’s gone on small mining trips like this before so Jesse is used to them. Though considering the last time he went somewhere truly dangerous he came back without his brother doubled with the fact that he told Jesse strongholds were dangerous, he figures the behavior of his child makes sense. He moves back and draws an x shape across his heart with his usual smile, “Cross my heart and hope to die!”

“Or stick a thousand needles in your eye?”

His father laughs and Jesse giggles. He nods and pulls his son into a tight hug.

Absolutely.”

They hang tight for a good minute, Jesse clinging to his father as best as his little arms can and his dad giving him a tight squeeze, resting his head on his son’s. Jesse always loved hugs, so his father never robs him of a good long one. He feels Jesse finally ease up and lets out a small sigh as they back off. His son smiles up at him and he returns it, ruffling his hair.

“Hang tight and no house parties!” He points at him with a smirk, winking. Jesse grins from ear to ear and looks away innocently, hands tucked behind his back as he sways on his feet. His father chuckles. “Be safe, you know the rules.”

“Sure do!”

He nods and then reaches out to Ziggy who wanders over. He pets his old dog, scratching his back, neck and behind his ears before holding his head in his hands and smiling. Ziggy’s tail wags wildly as he sits there for a moment before finally lunging towards his owner, licking his face eagerly. Jesse squeals and laughs along with his father.

Alright, alright down boy! I won’t be gone forever!” He pushes the big dog back and Ziggy eventually sits back down by Jesse. His father points at Ziggy, the husky’s ears popping up as he does so. “You’re in charge Zig.”

“WHAT!”   Jesse interrupts, hurting his dad’s and Ziggy’s ears as they briefly recoil. His dad plays it off though.

“You heard me Jess.”

“But he’s… a dog!”

Ziggy snorts and headbutts Jesse’s side. Jesse doesn’t let it take his attention away from his father as he pouts. His dad merely shrugs. He loves messing with his son in little ways.

“A dog that’s older than you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

He snickers and gives Jesse a kiss on the head before he stands up. He’s got a teal t-shirt, some straps to keep small things stashed in, a simple satchel, blue jeans, lace-up boots and a jacket tied around his waist, an iron sword and pickaxe slung lazily at his sides. Travelling light for light business. He points once more at his dog.

“Guard Jess and the house Zig, I’m trusting you.” He gets a bark in return and smiles. “ That’a boy. Jess, you remember what I said right?”

“3 days at most! So I shouldn’t slack off on my chores until the last minute!”

Smart kid.” He begins walking backwards away from the house. “Alright… You know the drill. I love you, Jess, and I’ll see you again soon. Be safe! I don’t like worrying about you, son.” He smiles and Jesse stands up on the porch steps where he’d been sitting. The front of their little cottage is pleasant. Nice smooth wood, a porch swing and vines climbing the lattices with jasmine blooming and sweetening the spring air. The mossy path at the front of their house leading off into the gentle forest and nearby lake.

“You have to tell me all about the stronghold when you get back!! I want to know everything!” He calls after his father who smiles and nods.

“It’s a promise!” He waves to his son, lingers a moment, then finally turns his back to him. His path away from Jesse and to the stronghold begins. It’s at least one filled with beautiful scenery. Jesse stands at the porch, Ziggy at his side and watches his father go like always. He always gets a pit in his stomach when his father leaves, despite him knowing better. His father always comes back.

 

Always.

~~~~~

The few short days come and go in ebbs and flows. Time flies at some points but in others the seconds slowly tick by like hours. The first day is always the longest. The feeling of a cavity slowly opening in one’s chest takes over Jesse once he realizes he’s alone. A common feeling for only children like him. Sure he has Ziggy with him but he’s a different type of company.

But, knowing better than to let that get to him, Jesse decides to get a move on and start finding things to do.The first day is filled with him and Ziggy doing a wild variety of things around their home, inside and out. Flowers are picked, fish are messed with, tree branches are swung on, floors are slid across, and papers are painted on with a mix of colorful paw prints and brush strokes.

Despite never being a dog intended for Jesse, Ziggy has become a good companion for him. A big rough and tumble dog for a rough and tumble kid. He’s certainly never lost his puppy-like energy.

The second day is less fun. First there’s the adjustment of waking up all alone. Even small cottages feel huge when you’re all alone. Furthermore, the weather had a dramatic change of pace, typical of the time of year. Winds picked up and clouds rolled in. By noon, Jesse was racing around to close all of the shutters and windows, Ziggy barking behind him. The sounds of their wind chimes cut through the winds, but Jesse honestly didn’t mind the chaos. Once buckled down and settled in, Jesse took up a window seat and watched what he could of the rain and wind while bundled up in his blankets. Ziggy slung himself across his lap, content to just sitting down and relaxing for a while.

Eventually, as night came, it got too hard to see anything outside. With the winds earlier, Jesse had to take down their lanterns hanging on the porch. Previous experience certainly taught him that they wouldn’t last a storm like this.

He sighs and closes the blinds of the large window. He probably shouldn’t have been sitting by it in the first place, as it’s the biggest one in the house and the one that his father hasn’t exactly made storm-proof yet. No shutters, no guards, it could definitely be a hazard. But Jesse knew he’d be fine this one time, and he was right. Hopping off the couch, he starts throwing some wood and paper into the fireplace to start a fire. One of the first things his dad taught him to do. Ziggy trails him and he smiles as the fire’s easily lit. He scoots the screen back in place and smiles at the dog triumphantly, but a sudden bang of lightning spooks that attitude out of him. Both jump and look upwards in reaction as the pounding of the rain continues. Jesse lets out a sigh, hoping his father was planning on staying below ground the whole time, as not to get caught up in this mess.

The third day wasn’t much better but the rain at least eased up to a manageable downpour. The lightning and thunder had lasted throughout the night, even into the wee hours of the morning. It woke Jesse up far earlier than he would’ve naturally gotten up at. He tried going back to sleep, but his nerves were already abuzz with the idea that his father should be back sometime in the evening. That’s how it normally worked. Two days gone? He’d be back on the second day. Three? Back on the third. Four? Back on the fourth and so on and so forth. Though throughout the day as Jesse stared at the weather outside, his stomach sank as he realized his father may be a bit late with returning. He may even be an extra night.

Ziggy lets out a whine from behind Jesse, and the young boy looks back at his dog with a sympathetic smile.

“Yeah I know Zig… But if anything he’ll be back tomorrow! It’s just another night. We got this..!” He reaches back and ruffles his fur, scratching behind his ears before he hops down off the couch. Best to find something to do now so he doesn’t have time to worry. A habit he’s already created for himself. Ziggy watches Jesse walk off for a second before glancing back to the front door. He holds his gaze before huffing and hurrying through the house after Jesse.

The night, as Jesse guessed, comes and goes with no sign of his father. He even stays up late just in case. Reading was a good way to pass the time and Jesse had become a speedy one, though it was hard for him to get through a single chapter that night. Despite the reasonable explanation that his dad was probably just waiting out the storm, his stomach was still doing somersaults. What if something happened? He sets down his book and sighs, looking blankly around his little room for an answer hidden in the walls.

It’s small and simple, even a bit cramped, but the place he feels safest. Wooden planked walls and dark oak floors. Simple black bed with thick red blankets and two matching nightstands. Tall shelves line his back wall by his small window. The shelves are lined with a mix of books, toys, crafts and records; the common mix of things to find scattered about his room.

Ziggy, who had been lying at the foot of his bed notices Jesse’s nervousness and crawls up closer to him. Jesse smiles and laughs a bit as he starts licking his face.

“Zig..!!! Nooooooo! I’m okay silly!” He pushes his snout back and Ziggy sneezes in response before talking to him in the noisy way huskies do. Jesse snickers but doesn’t reply. He opts to just pet him for a while to try and ease up. After a few good minutes, when that doesn’t work, he leans in and hugs him. He buries his face in his dog and lays there, listening to the rain and his own breathing. Ziggy sits there awkwardly for a minute but, realizing Jesse needs this, settles down and lets the boy find comfort in him. Jesse eventually sniffs, turning his head on its side so he can actually see and speak.

“He just got caught up in the storm… He’ll be back tomorrow for sure Ziggy. We shouldn’t worry..!” Jesse nods and he rambles, directing his assurance towards Ziggy but really just trying to convince himself. He falls asleep soon after, his nerves not enough against his exhaustion.

~~~~~

Jesse mumbles his annoyance at the bright light he’s greeted with when waking up. The sunlight streams in, acting as if there had been no storm at all and dancing across his room. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes and rubs them as he looks at the dog strewn across his legs. He drops his head back down with a sigh and stares at the ceiling as his memory slowly comes back to him…

Then he shoots up.

He begins looking around more quickly, searching for the wall his clock is on. Behind him, above his bed. He twists and turns sporadically as he tries to get a good look of it.

Already one.

He feels his heart seize as the excitement wells in him. A grin creeps across his face before he turns back to Ziggy. The dog has hardly budged since Jesse woke up so he begins the process of wiggling his legs out from under him. Once freed, he shoves himself off his bed and near drops to the floor. Legs still asleep. He huffs and shakily balances upright then swings around the end of his bed to dart out of his room. Ziggy looks up, the noise grabbing his attention. Seeing Jesse leave the room, he hops down off the bed after him.

Dad! How was the—“ Jesse starts yelling before he even gets to the main rooms. It’s an open floor plan, kitchen in front of him, living room to his right and office/study area to his left after coming out of the hall. He trails off and loses steam as no immediate change appears. Everything is untouched from where it was last night, hell the door isn’t even unlocked. He stands there huffing, mumbling the end of his sentence under his breath. “ ... Stronghold.”

Ziggy makes a noise of uncertainty behind him and Jesse glances back at him, sharing a look of worry. He frowns, turning determined. His father should be here by now. Perhaps he’s on a different part of the property? Only one way to find out.

Jesse nods at Ziggy, indicating to follow him. He walks further into the house, just getting different perspectives to see if anything has really changed or not. Is there a book out of place? No, it’s always been like that. Are his quills moved? No, blue and green one still in front of the smaller white ones. Any kitchen utensils moved? No, no sign of any food missing either. He frowns and calls out.

“Dad?”

He pauses to listen. Ziggy mirrors him. But there’s nothing. He heads back to the hallway, his footsteps making the wood creak below him as always. He’s not in Jesse’s room, he already knows that. That leaves his father’s room, the guest room, or the bathroom. He starts at the most logical place and leans against his father’s door, listening intently.

“Dad?” He knocks lightly and listens again. Silence. He scowls and opens the door to the bedroom. Twice as big as his own but still cramped. He wanders in, finding it still untouched from when Jesse cleaned the other day. He wanders over to the closet past his bed and yanks it open, peeking inside. Nope. Nothing hiding. He lets out an irritated sigh. “You better not be pranking me! It’s not funny!” He calls out as he slams the closet shut in frustration and makes his way out of the room.

Standing in the hallway again, he listens once more for a response. The silence dulls his small burst of anger. He clenches his fists in nervousness and takes in a steadying breath before continuing his search. He no longer bothers to knock as he searches the bathroom—empty—and guest bedroom. He lingers in the room for a minute. This was the room his uncle often stayed in. At the moment, it somehow feels even more empty. He doesn’t have to call out to know there’s no one in here, so eventually he turns and leaves, shutting the door behind him.

Back in the hall he stands in silence. He takes in the familiar views of his home as his mind flies. His father would never be this late, not when he had the chance to get home. He begins pacing aimlessly in circles as his anxiety starts to spike. Maybe a cave-in was holding him up? No, his father would be able to mine past that in hardly any time at all. Maybe he was attacked? Even if he was, he would’ve found a way out. He’s been in bad situations before, hopefully this time wasn’t different. Even then, if he got swarmed, he would have just blocked off that path. So, that can’t be it.

Maybe he just go super into things and lost track of time?

That’s plausible!

Jesse, brushing his instincts off as nerves, accepts that possibility. It makes sense after all! A stronghold is rare, like his father said, so he’s probably having the time of his life exploring it! With no clocks underground either, he could have easily lost track of time. Even if he had brought his pocketwatch, Jesse had learned a long time ago that he pretty much brought that around as decoration, despite what his dad claimed. He probably left it somewhere in his excitement.

Jesse sighs but is glad to have found a bit more comfort in that explanation. It’s… a bit out of character for his father, but this is a special occasion! It’s justified.

He finally stops and turns back to Ziggy, hands on his hips.

“I-I think he just got excited! He’s probably still exploring and just lost track of time! Like I would!” He forces a smile and Ziggy just stares back at him. They stay that way for a minute before Jesse deflates and rolls his eyes, jogging over to his dog then gently tugging on his collar. “It’ll be fine boy! But we should get to it! There’s probably a lot to clean up outside after all that wind..”

And that there was. Jesse grabbed a quick snack then ventured outside to scope out the damage, Ziggy right on his tail.

There were a lot of leaves and small branches scattered across the grass. A lantern he had forgotten to take down had smashed and shattered by the base of a tree. Jesse makes sure to keep Ziggy away from the glass. He goes around the house and continues out towards the little gated and covered farms they had. They weren’t really farmers but the little things were good to have just in case. Jesse wasn’t huge on farmwork himself but it was a necessary thing to do.

He’s especially happy to find none of the animals hurt. He always liked pigs and they had one little piglet that loved to run around. His father said that if he did well with keeping up on his chores and other responsibilities, that he’d be able to raise one by himself! So overall, did Jesse like farming? Not really. Did he like the farm animals? Absolutely.

He leaves the animals for the moment to go scope out the actual crops which were probably hit a bit harder. Thankfully, they weren’t be a complete swamp as the cover helped guard then from a majority of the downpour. But some work was definitely gonna be needed… Not his ideal day but at least it was sunny. He’d still have to definitely get his heavy and muddied boots and overalls, but that’s honestly the fun part! He was never opposed to playin’ in the mud. But that’ll happen a bit later in the day.

He continues around the other side of their home and comes full circle. He puts his hands on hips and nods to himself. Time to get down and dirty.

~~~~~

He’s thankful it’s not super hot outside, the sun may be out but it’s still cool enough that he isn’t dying within the first hour. He’s used to yard work as it was something he often helped his dad with. Hell, he was proud at how good he’s gotten! He knows exactly what to do with the mess, where things are put away, and how to tackle the more annoying things like broken fences or shattered lanterns.

Ziggy helps him as well, bringing and taking whatever tools he needs at the moment. He was a brilliant dog and Jesse was glad to have him here at least. He smiles and pets his head as he runs up and grabs hold of the ho Jesse was done with before running it off. The plants were a lot easier to take care of than he had thought and he was certainly grateful for it. Though, he was right about the amount of mud that he’d get covered in. His overalls were a whole new shade of brown thanks to it.

He heaves up his bucket of debris and begins walking back to the house, smiling as he passes the animal pens. Everything’s back to normal now.

He drops the bucket off by the side of the house next to a few others before rounding it back to the front. All he’s got left to do is hang the last few lanterns back up. Jesse stops before climbing up the front porch steps. He already cleaned it, so he’d rather not ruin it. He kicks off his boots, leaving them by the steps and then hops up the stairs. Ziggy barks and runs up after him, shaking off some mud as he does so.

“Ziggy!! I just cleaned--”

Too late. Jesse sighs as the porch and some of the walls even were splattered with mud once more. Ziggy blinks and looks around, sniffing the mud before looking at the kid innocently. Jesse rolls his eyes and sighs before opening the front door for the dog.

Go on, you might as well.”

And with that he races inside, Jesse following after to grab the lanterns that need rehanging. He stuffed them away in his closet, as it was the best place he could think of in the rush to get them down. After grabbing them, he heads back out.

Back on the porch he hesitates a second then sets the lanterns down. He moves to the edge of the top step and hangs onto the column, leaning out and shielding his eyes from the sunlight. The sun’s far past its peak in the sky by now and slowly starting to lower once more. The sky’s still blue and bright but in another hour or so the sunlight will start dimming once again. He frowns, the anxiety returning but shakes his head. He’ll be back, he already discussed this. The best Jesse can do until then is stay safe, and light his way home back up. With that, he grabs one of the lanterns.

He hoists himself up onto the railing of the porch--it’s the only way to get high enough to put the lantern back on its hook--and stands up tall. He wavers a bit, catching his balance then grabs the lantern. He holds tight onto the column with one hand and leans out, reaching for the hook with the lantern with the other. Had his father been here, he probably would be scolded for taking the quick and risky route over the slow but safe one. He would’ve insisted on getting the ladder out, but Jesse is impatient. A dangerous quality to have.

~~~~~

The night passes with the lanterns lit and the house cleaned once more. Jesse and Ziggy wander and find random things to keep themselves busy but Jesse eventually falls back to reading. He camps out on the couch for the night though. Thick blanket wrapped around him, Ziggy at his side, fireplace roaring and a book in his hands. Like the previous night, he stays up extra late in case his father came in late. He didn’t. Jesse worries and tires himself out once more, waking up late once again.

Day five. Waking up alone in the cottage is starting to get lonelier but less shocking. The new emotion that bunches his stomach into knots is a form of hopelessness. If he’s not here now, then he probably won’t be home today. But the worst thing now if that Jesse is left with nothing else to do. He’s already done so much around the house, there’s nothing more to straighten up, playing with his toys would just feel forced and once he’s done with his few daily chores, it’s just him, Ziggy and his thoughts.

He runs through the daily motions. Eat, chores, clean up what he can, and he’s done within an hour. He finds himself laying on the floor on their home, staring up at the ceiling. His brows are fixed in a furrowed state as he runs through everything in his head. 5 days. He said 3. He knew he meant 3 too. 3 at most . As the hours tick on, the likelihood of him just losing track of time gets more and more unlikely. But what is Jesse supposed to do about it? He knows next to nothing about strongholds and he hardly stepped in caves for himself. Too dangerous. Too dark. He hated the dark. He hated the silence.

He squeezes his eyes shut and holds his mouth tight, trying to bite back a sob. He succeeds, letting out only the shaky breath and blinking the tears out of his eyes. He’s interrupted by a slobbery tongue suddenly licking his cheek. He screams and rolls away from Ziggy, who follows after, determined to cheer Jesse up. He sits up and squeals as he tries pushing the big dog back, his crying turning to laughter. He at least wasn’t alone. Never completely.

He eventually traps Ziggy in a hug, burying his face in his neck to keep him from licking it. He giggles and Ziggy squirms for a few seconds. Ziggy yowls a bit, making Jesse laugh. Both noises echo through the small house. Jesse eventually lets go and holds Ziggy’s face in his hands, making eye contact. He plays with his dog’s cheeks and puffs his own, mimicking him. Ziggy snorts at the kid and Jesse just grins before finally letting go. He wipes his eyes with his sleeve, sniffling with a smile. Patting his dog’s side, he nods.

“Thank you Ziggy… You’re a great boy, I’m glad dad decided to leave you home with me.” He sniffles again and stares at the ground with a pause, “I’m really worried about him… I don’t know how much longer I can just sit here and wait. What if he needs help? H-He might even be in trouble!” He trails off, frowning. “I don’t know what all we could do though… I wish Uncle Brian were here, he’d know how to handle this…” He digs and picks at his fingernails with a frown, the tension becoming suffocating once more. Ziggy makes a noise of unease. Jesse looks up at him again, “You know what I’m thinking don’t you?”

Their stare lingers, Jesse eventually breaking it with a nod. He sucks in a breath through his nose and stands up.

“We’ll… We’ll give him some more time before heading out. But if he doesn’t come back soon, I-I have to go see!”

Ziggy growls in disapproval. Bad idea. Jesse rolls his eyes.

“We don’t have to go in too deep Ziggy, i-it’ll just be showing up, checking it out, making sure everything’s okay, and then coming back if it is! Dad will understand, especially if I tell him about how long he’s been gone! Yeah… I-It’ll be fine.”

Ziggy stares at him. Jesse frowns.

“Don’t give me that look! I-I’m not being hasty I’m just…!” He looks around trying to come up with an answer, “I-I can be patient!” He said, getting impatient. Why is he even explaining himself so much?? It’s just Ziggy, a dog. He crosses his arms and huffs, kicking the ground. Truth be told, if he has to suffer through another day and a half minimum, he’s gonna go stir crazy.

“I want to go check on him. I have to make sure he’s okay.” He pushes past Ziggy and goes to grab his boots, jacket and bag. Ziggy huffs and meanders over to the door, plopping himself down in front of it. Jesse comes back out in a new outfit. Brown lace up boots, his jeans and t-shirt still, then a black long-coat pulled around him and and dull brown satchel slung over his shoulder, the top flap decorated in fun little pins and flowers he clipped to it for decoration. He moves to the kitchen and stuffs a few snacks inside, then wanders over to one of the bookshelves, looking for a book he’s been eyeing for a while.

His eyes scan the shelves, trying to pick it out among all the others. His eyes light up when he spots it. Second shelf from the top. He stands on his very tippy toes and plucks the book down from the shelf. Turning it over in his hands it seems to be an old beginner’s mining guide. Definitely worn from use. He opens the cover and finds a note scrawled in handwriting he doesn’t recognize in the cover.

 

 

To my adventurous sons, Steven and Hiro,

Only ten years old and yet, I can tell you boys are bound for marvelous things. But what’s a good adventure without a little bit of treasure to speak for it? The sooner you get these skills down, the more time you have for grand adventures. Be safe, and make us proud! I have the utmost faith in you two. Have each other’s backs and you will accomplish great things.

Be smart!

Papa

 

Jesse hums a ‘huh!’ . This was a birthday gift to his father and uncle when they were Jesse’s age. An introduction to mining, the start of all of their adventures. His uncle always talked about how their father encouraged them to be adventurous. Jesse never got the chance to meet him though, he got sick and was pretty roughly hit before Jesse was even born. Same with his grandmother. His father, despite being sad over the loss, always tried making it seem better though. At least he and his grandmother were and are together.

Jesse smiles and mumble his own thanks to his grandfather for looking out for him in spirit. This book would be useful down the road. He pockets it then heads to the living room. He picks up the small stone axe hanging by the tools for the fireplace. This is the weapon and tool he’s become most accustomed with. He’s never really had to fight anything--save for one bad occasion-- but he knew how to swing it if he had to. He hangs it on his belt loop and hurries for the front door, only to be stopped by a growl.

He looks down at Ziggy and blinks, surprised to be stopped by him. Then he frowns.

Move, Zig.”

The dog huffs, sitting up but not moving and simply making getting out of the door more difficult. Jesse tries moving him,--which fails-- going around him,--which fails-- and begging him--which fails.

“Fine! I’ll leave another way.” He throws up his hands in frustration before marching off towards the back door. Ziggy perks up and runs across the house, the sound of his nails tapping against the hardwood alerting Jesse as Ziggy passes him, beating him to the door. Jesse gasps then scowls, clenching his fists. He stops, and they stare at each other tensely. He’s often come into conflict with Ziggy before, in fact this situation is quite familiar. Ziggy’s being extremely pushy this time too considering how the last situation ended up.

Jesse stays determined and quickly turns on his heel, sprinting back towards the front door and getting a good distance before Ziggy can react properly. He barks after him but Jesse reaches, flings open, and races out the front door. Ziggy follows after but stops at the edge of the porch, barking at him. Jesse stops a few meters out once he realizes he’s not being followed. He looks back, holding tightly to the strap of his satchel out of general nervousness.

“Ziggy I have to! This time is different!” He hesitates, noting the fear in the old dog’s eyes as he hears him whine. Jesse closes his eyes tightly, trying not to get guilt tripped by him. He shakes his head and stands his ground. “I’m going! I-If…” He hesitates, not wanting to leave Ziggy on his own. He stands there, feeling his dog’s gaze on him for a long while before he sighs and walks back up to the porch. Ziggy’s tail wags, and he steps out of Jesse’s path, expecting him to go back inside. Instead though, he climbs back up onto the railing and swings over, plucking the lantern he hung up yesterday off of its hook. He hops back down and Ziggy makes a confused whine.

Jesse crouches down and lights the lantern, shutting it then glancing at Ziggy briefly over his shoulder. He sighs.

“I told you buddy, I’m going.. But… I’d really feel a lot safer if you came with me… Y-You don’t have to but…” He trails off as he sets the pack of matches back on the railing. Sparkling blue eyes look back at Ziggy and it’s his turn to try not to get guilt tripped. But, knowing Jesse, the best Ziggy can do at this point to keep him safe is to go with him, because the kid is too stubborn to change his mind now. He lets out a noise of defeat and pushes past Jesse, down the stairs and waits for him on the pathway.

A gasp escapes the young boy as a grin spreads from ear to ear. He nearly hits the ceiling with excitement. It’s like his first little adventure! The thrill of it temporarily pushes the foreboding reason for it out of his mind. He quickly slams the door to the house shut, nabs the lantern and runs off onto the pathway.

“Let’s go Zig!” He rushes past his dog who barks at him then gives chase. The pathway is enveloped in the warm orange glow of the slowly setting sun as they venture off, the sunbeams dancing across the cobblestones, Jesse’s hair and making his blue eyes shimmer. It’s a beautiful day.

~~~~~

Jesse feels his throat tighten as the cave entrance comes into view. They slowed to a walk a while ago to save their energy, but the slower speed meant a loss of time and night time was creeping up fast. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon at this point and there was now a cold bite to the air and a breeze ran through the trees, whistling in the twilight. Jesse swallows and holds the lantern higher as they reach the entrance. With the now lacking daylight it’s harder to make out the details inside. He leans a bit into the cave, making Ziggy nervous.

“Dad?” He calls out. His voice reverberates across the rough walls, travelling further and further into the cave until his echo is replaced by silence. He waits for a response.

None.

He takes a few cautious steps inside then tries again.

“Dad are you there? It’s Jesse!”

His name echoes back at him and he lets out a sigh of nervous frustration. He glances back at Ziggy, “I-I think he’s just too deep inside to hear us from all the way up here.” He moves further into the cave, the distant sounds of bats sending shivers through him. His boots are surprisingly soft against the stone. The few sounds now are those of the cave, Ziggy’s nails clicking against the stone and the flickering and whistling of the flame in the lantern. Jesse raises his light and studies the walls, finding unlit torches. He frowns and steps closer to one.

“Ziggy, go keep an eye by the entrance please. I-I won’t go very deep in here and I don’t wanna get cornered in here…” He nods down at his dog who whines but does as he’s told. Jesse focuses on the torch once more, reaching up and plucking it off the wall.

Just what he thought.

The torch didn’t burn out with time, it was blown out by some sort of wind gust. Odd for the inside of a cave, but with the storm he supposes it’s plausible. Just odd. He sets the torch down on the ground and continues exploring. A few feet further and his father’s workbench and furnace come into view. His heart leaps as he notes an array of things scattered across the tops of both. The mess being a telltale sign of his absent minded father being here. He lets out a large sigh of relief and makes his way over with a smile. He sets the lantern down on the top of the furnace and looks over everything piled there. Random materials, papers with random scribbles--probably maps for planning--that he didn’t understand, and something even more interesting buried beneath them.

The familiar shine of vinyl catches Jesse’s eye as he unburies the disks. He stares down at them in awe. It wasn’t often his father made new records, so this was exciting. The note attached to the top disk--one with a simple black band in the middle to differentiate it--made his heart leap. The handwriting was a bit fancier than how his father normally wrote, in fact it was pretty different, but he brushed it off. With the storm, his father must have hit a roadblock, so he made these disks to pass the time! He probably got bored and tried making his writing fancy, just for him! He read and reread the words over and over in excitement. So few words but it was more communication he’d had in days with his father.

 

‘A Gift.

11

13’

He picks up both disks--note included--and finds some large blank papers to wrap them up in. He notes the odd titles but figures that it’s just a work in progress. Once wrapped up safely, he tucks both disks into his bag. He walks past the workspace and slightly deeper into the cave, stopping at the edge of the light his lantern gives off. He cups his mouth with his hands and takes a deep breath.

“DAD I found your recoooooords!!” He waits with a grin, expecting a response. He listens to his echoes run down the deepening cave before him. His smile slowly falls as the silence gets drawn out long after the echoing stops. He stands there, taking larger breaths than normal. No response. He feels his throat tighten once again as worry dances across his features. He cups his hands and calls out again, voice cracking from a newfound desperation.

“DAD!!” His yell pierces the silence, but only temporarily. Once again. Nothing. He feels his breath quicken and his vision fuzzes. He runs a few steps further into the darkness. It surrounds him, engulfing him. S-SAY SOMETHING! He begs with the harsh underground, a world he knows nothing about. He clutches the strap of his bag, listening to his voice fade completely. He bites his shaking bottom lip as he shakes his head. He just can’t hear him. He just can’t hear him. But actually processing what he sees, he notices that aside from the light of the now moon and light of his lantern, there is none. He frowns and hurries to snatch his lantern, hopping down a ledge to take a closer look.

More unlit torches. Blown out. Same as the one by the entrance. Jesse backs up, shaking his head. Impossible. Even if it was the storm that cause the entrance ones to go out, the wind wouldn’t have reached all the way in here and wouldn’t have been strong enough to blow all of them out. Jesse should be able to see light further into the cave. But there is none. His father would have re lit all of them, there’s no way he wouldn't have. Something is wrong. Something is horribly, horribly wrong.

He gasps, holding back a shriek as an ominous noise blows through the cave. It’s followed by the faint noises of scuttling rattling, and a deep foreboding hum. Monsters. He shouldn’t be here. Jesse turns on his heel and books it back towards the entrance, but something on the ground catches his eye. He skids to a stop, huffing and puffing as he lowers the lantern to get a better look.

Footprints. His father’s footprints.

Sharp blue eyes dart back and forth throughout the cave. Nothing immediate. He has time to look. He crouches down and studies the bootprint. No doubt, it’s his dad’s. Stepping back, he notes several paths he took, some clearer than others. There’s a main trail, darker, fuller. With more mud, it was probably during or after the storm. But there’s something different with this path. The prints are farther apart, and they come from within the cave, trying to get out. Jesse’s face scrunches up.

Was he running?

Then another set of prints catch his eye. Inhuman. Larger. Paired with his father’s. Jesse’s own pace quickens as his father’s seemingly did. His mind races, he hears his heart pound in his ears. Chased. He was chased. He was in trouble. He was attacked.

And it all comes to a head near the entrance. The moonlight helps light the scene and Jesse’s surprised he didn’t even notice this as he came in. The monstrous prints had disappeared for a good 2-3 meters then suddenly appeared next to his father’s. He notes one print that looks like his father slipped-- or was yanked back-- and then a small array of both the monster’s prints and his father’s a struggle. Then they both stop there.

Jesse’s stomach sinks, but doesn’t get the chance to linger on it. The light from his lantern reflects off of something on the other side of the batch of prints. He hurries around the prints, not wanting to remotely touch them and crouches down to see what was so shiny. He sets the lantern on the ground next to him. He stops himself from kneeling down as he realizes that it’s glass that’s scattered about. Something shattered. Something small. He frowns and picks up a small piece and studies it. It’s thick and curves dramatically near the edge. He sets it down and looks among the pieces for anything that might tell him what dropped.

Bingo. He spots a small black shard, but pulling it closer, he realizes it’s a clock hand. One of the clock hands to his father’s pocket watch. But where’s--

Ziggy’s bark from behind him startles Jesse, he quickly looks behind him and only sees Ziggy on alert before the whistling of an arrow jerks him attention back to the cave. He shoves himself back falling and cutting his hands on the glass beneath him. The arrow lands right where his hands were a few seconds prior. He hisses but has no time to dwell on it as he hears the sound of a bowstring being pulled taut once more. He shoves himself up and scrambles to his feet, snatching the lantern and slipping momentarily on some of the glass pieces.

“ZIGGY RUN!! GO GO GO!!” He screams to his dog as he starts into a sprint. Ziggy waits a moment for Jesse to catch up before running full speed alongside him. Jesse shoves the small clock hand into his pocket, freeing up his left hand to grab his axe if he needs to.

Jesse jerks his head to look behind him, his eyes quickly widening. He hastily ducks and lets out a yelp as another arrow whizzes past his head. His heart pounds in his ears as the night strikes to life. It dulls the noises of everything else, the arrows, the wind, the noises, the thudding of his feet slamming against the cobblestone with each step.

Ziggy barks and slams into Jesse, knocking him down and back into reality. A disgustingly large spider leaps over them, hissing as it lands a few feet behind him. The wind is knocked out of Jesse as he hits the pavement, and fearful blue eyes can only stare at the eight glowing red. Ziggy grabs a mouthful of Jesse’s shirt and jacket and yanks and pulls, ushering him to his feet once more. Jesse can hardly process everything that just happened nonetheless move. But with the shimmering moonlight against the sharp stone tip of an arrow pointing down at him from a distance, he feels the adrenaline truly set in. With the help of Ziggy, Jesse pushes himself back to his feet. Ziggy lets go of his shirt half way up and switches to his sleeve, pulling him along and back into a run. Another arrow whizzes between them.

The spider and skeleton give chase and inevitably, other monsters join the mob with the moon now high in the sky.

“ZIGGY!”

Jesse snatches his dog by the collar and yanks him to the other side of the path as a creeper blows up part of the path. Ziggy lets out a pained yelp and has to stop and recoup after being yanked so harshly. Jesse stays by him, eyes darting from mob to mob as they encroach upon the duo. The skeleton archer and spider joined up to make a spider jockey. Zombies also joined the mix, their rotting flesh shown in disgusting detail with the light of the moonlight and Jesse’s lantern. Jesse backs up what little distance he can, feeling the panic choke him.

He’s been here before. He’s been stuck like this before. But this time his father isn’t going to swoop in and save the day. Jesse’s on his own.

The orange light from the flame in his lantern he holds high lights up the fear in his eyes as time slows down. His eye hurts just thinking about it. Then the light catches his attention. He shifts his attention from the monsters to the burning lantern in his hand. Kept ablaze by oil sitting in the bottom. He looks back to the monsters, noting where their positions. A newfound burning determination replaces the fear in his eyes as the world comes back to speed and he winds up to throw.

EAT FIRE! He yells and slams the lantern into the ground before the monsters, which immediately lights up into a blazing orange fireball. The area now bright with the quickly spreading blaze. A barrage of shrill hissing and hoarse screams from the spiders and zombies pierce the silence. Ziggy coughs and shakes off before starting to run once more, Jesse right on his tail, not daring to look back. The crackling of fire is their new pursuer, but one they can easily outrun.

Each step is an adrenaline filled blur, the run is seconds long yet lasts years. Every few seconds there’s another monster reaching out from the darkness. An arrow whizzing past their heads, the soft hissing of a creeper trying to sneak up and blow right as they pass, and the outstretched arms of zombies clawing at Jesse.

The hiss, yelp and thud of a spider tackling Ziggy infuriates the young Jesse. Without stopping mid stride he pulls his axe out of his belt loop, grabbing the hilt tight with both hands. Using the momentum to help he yells as he swings and bats the spider off of Ziggy in a move more akin to swinging a baseball bat than an axe. The spider gets flung off the path and into a tree, stunning it for the moment. Ziggy, unharmed, scrambles to his feet and continues running alongside Jesse.

The light of home soon comes into view. Safety. Home. It’s so close. His grip on his axe grows tighter, palms getting sweaty. The reality of how much his body aches and longs for rest sets in as they run the final stretch. He looks back, noting the monsters’ loss of interest in them. His vision blurs as a grin of triumph dances across his face. Entering the ring of light that surrounds their home, his heart floods with happiness and a warmth seeps through his body, hands and feet tingling as they approach the front steps.

Jesse speeds up and passes Ziggy, flying up the steps and desperately grabbing the door handle, not nearly stopping himself soon enough and hitting the door. He stumbles and yanks, jiggles and struggles getting the doorknob to work with him but eventually hears the click and flings the door open.

GO GO GO GET INSIDE!” He yells, ushering Ziggy inside before taking one last and briefly look at the monsters before darting inside. He spins around and slams the door shut, dropping his axe and immediately locking up all the locks on the door he can. One lock. Two lock. Three. Four. Five. DONE!

He jumps back from the door, bloodied hands up and eyes wide as he pants. He hisses as the adrenaline seeps away and the stinging and pain quickly start coming back full force. He scrunches up his face, staring down at his cut up hands in a dazed shock as he staggers through to house towards the bathroom. Ziggy watches him stumble on by but it too tired to immediately follow. He drops down by the warm fireplace to rest.

~~~~~

Jesse sits quietly in front of the fireplace with Ziggy, blankly staring into the flames. Bandaged hands gently comb through his black and white fur. It’s gotten rather late now, but the moon hasn’t reached its peak yet. Everything is a panicked blur to Jesse at the moment, all he has is a deep hollow feeling in his chest. He lets out a sigh and glances over at his bag sat at the foot of one of their armchairs. He pauses, considering it then reaches over and picks it up carefully. He sets it down lightly in his chest before flipping it open and digging out its contents.

He pulls out the two records and frowns at the papers they’re wrapped in. He hardly remembers doing that. He rips the paper off, smiling to himself. It’s like opening a birthday or christmas present! Maybe not as colorful of paper and… I mean he already knows his gifts but! He’s excited regardless.

Once undone, he throws the paper aside and admires the new records of his. The one that had been sitting underneath the black one, 11, had a simple yellow and white design in the center. He smiles and runs his hands over the records, feeling the grooves in their surface. Without looking at him, Jesse speaks.

“You wanna listen to some of Dad’s new music Zig?”

His dog looks up at in curiously. New music? Since when? Jesse laughs at the look and stands, wandering over to their old record player. Red lined with ornate golds. His father loved it. Jesse elaborates and he sets the machine up.

“I found them on his workbench. There was even a note attached! It said they were gifts! I think they’re still works in progress or somethin’ though… At least name wise. This one is called 13 I think…? Yeah, 13. I don’t know what that could mean but we can always ask Dad when he gets back.” He pauses as the words leave his mouth. Ziggy notices his hesitation and lets out a small whimper. Jesse nods to himself and looks at Ziggy. “Hey, don’t… Don’t worry boy… We’ll see him again, he’ll be back…” The kid’s denial is unnerving but understandable as he sets the disk to play with a smile, stepping back and giving Ziggy a comforting look.

The warm atmosphere is shattered the moment the music starts ringing out. Jesse pales. This is nothing like the music his father has created before. The haunting tunes the lingering bells create makes the hair on the back of his neck stand tall. The long and eerie notes set him on edge as he quickly gets the urge to look over his shoulders. The cave noises mixed in with the tune are too much for him to handle at the moment. He shakes his head, mumbling protests under his breath and he hastily stops the record short. He yanks it out of the player and stares down at the record for a brief moment, before his face scrunches up is a form of disgust. He lets out a frustrated huff and drops the record down on his bag as he moves over to the windows.

He grabs the line and yanks the warm red blinds shut. Ziggy watches worriedly as Jesse rushes throughout the house, closing the blinds on all the windows he can. He comes back looking nervous and fearful, arms crossed tight. Ziggy lets out a whine of concern and Jesse nods down at him.

“I-I’m okay! I just…” He pauses, finding something to say, “I-I’m not in the mood to listen to that one. I-I’ll wait until Dad’s back to listen to it. B-Besides we have plenty of other good records to listen to! We still have this other one too!” He quickly picks up 11 and shows it off to Ziggy in a futile attempt to make himself feel better. He nods, looking over the new record. “This one will be better… I-It’s gotta be..”

He places the disk on the player, setting it up like that last but taking a bit longer this time. Closer inspection and you’d be able to tell his hands were shaking. It plays, but there’s not music.

He grimaces at the cave noises, readying to take this out too when a familiar sound makes him freeze. It was his father. He knows his father’s mannerisms, even without him speaking he recognizes the familiar huffs, the deep cough and small hums. Ziggy recognizes them too and watches as Jesse’s captivated by this record. It’s the first time he’s heard his father in days afterall. Hearing this makes his heart momentarily jump with joy, forgetting the past several days and frankly hours of anxiety and struggle.

He walks back over and sits down. Ziggy moves over by him and rests his head in Jesse’s lap as the sounds casually continue. His father’s flint and steel clicks. Light source. He grunts as if he’s crouching down. Same sound as always. The cover and pages of a book begin to flip. The hms and hums of his father continue, judging the contents of the book until his breath hitches. Jesse’s breath does the same, near silently and in sync. He freezes, and Ziggy’s attention is drawn at the familiar sound of his owner noting trouble, a sound he was familiar with after years of experience. Jesse feels the thud of his own heart pounding like a drum as the tension of the record strikes up. A dull thudding from the record nearly matches his own heart beat. Another click immediately after the hitch of breath. Using the flame as a light source. Silence.

Seemingly endless silence.

A shocked breath and another click --lights out-- before the sounds of hurried movement. His father struggling to his feet, bag shuffling and him hitting the ground running. The cave noises grow louder. Jesse strains to take in every noise, gripping and digging his fingers into his jeans.

Jogging. Footsteps. More than one pair.

Ziggy growls.

Running. No, sprinting. He knows where he’s at. Jesse understands what’s happening.

The sound of his father’s heavy footsteps. His huffing and puffing as he sprints. Stone. He steps in dirt. The mud. He’s running faster and faster. The noise of the tape gts louder and louder. Jesse covers his ears and shoves himself up, starting back towards the record player. Ziggy barks. He feels the world closing in around him. Images flash as his mind puts together the puzzle he never wanted to solve. The stone sounds, the cave floor. The running, the muddy footprints. The monstrous noises, the other pair. The disarray by the entrance, the hustle of his father.

Jesse near screams for it to stop but finds the words getting stuck in his throat, choking him as the noise gets louder and louder, shaking him to his core. A roar, a struggle and Jesse’s so close to just grabbing the RECORD HE--

 

It stops.

 

Jesse comes to a dead halt as the record before him does the same. Only static fills the home now. A hollow feeling crawls and spindles throughout the pit of his stomach. He stands there in shock, blankly staring at the record player before him. Ziggy whines as the record finally comes to a dead stop. He tries grabbing the poor boy’s attention, but it’s useless in this zombie like state. After a long still minute, Jesse tentatively picks up the record and stares at it in a blank terror. There’s nothing for him to say. Nothing for him to do.

Sleep didn’t come to him that night. Nor the night after. He only slept later from sheer exhaustion. Jesse knew only a few things for certain now. He was scared. He had the feeling of being watched, and the fleeting shadows out of the corners of his eyes, be it the fear or the overactive imagination of a child, it didn’t matter.

 

He no longer felt safe within his own home.

Chapter Text

“Jesus Christ Jess…” Lukas murmurs under his breath as Jesse finishes up, staring at the ground before him. He picks numbly at the threads of the grey carpet. There’s a stiff tension that hangs heavily in the air as everyone processes. Jesse shuts his eyes tight and lets out a breath at Lukas’ soft touch on his back.

“That’s terrible… Simply terrible!” Ivor scowls and shakes his head, an intense look dancing across his features as he ponders all the details of Jesse’s story. He echoes the thoughts of the majority who emptily nod in agreement. Petra fidgets a bit where she’s sitting, catching Jesse’s attention out of the corner of his eye. She feels his gaze on her and bites her lip. Great. Now she HAS to talk.

“I just… What did you do next Jesse…?”

Jesse lets a sigh out through his nose then shrugs, eyes shut. “I tried… I-I tried burying it all… Both literally and figuratively..” He lets out a pained chuckle, “I-I grabbed the disks, ran to my room and stuffed them under everything in the corner of my closet. I stayed there for 3 more days, but each day got worse than the last. I felt like I was being watched. Hunted. The.. The home turned cold.. Unfamiliar. I hated it! I-I couldn’t STAND it!” He shakes his head in his hands, gripping his bangs as he begins to shake again. Lukas leans forward and starts rubbing his back.

“Hey hey… Easy Jess…”

“All of it was just… It was too much to handle. I-I couldn’t stay, I couldn’t. I was so scared, I was so scared .”

“It’s alright now Jesse, we got ya..!” Axel speaks softer than usual, trying to add some comfort. Jesse sits there sniffling and shaking for a few more minutes. But not in a way that means he’s calming down.

“I’m so tired… And I miss him... I miss him, I miss him, I MISS HIM!” He yells before breaking back into sobs and wails, making the group jump in their seats. “WHAT DID I DO!?” He violently sucks air back in through his teeth, “All I EVER wanted was to just grow up with my family in PEACE! F-First I lost the chance to have a MOM, then when things were going good I lost my UNCLE, a-and then! Of COURSE! I had to lose my own Father…” He lets himself cry again and Olivia starts scooting across the floor over to him.

“C’mere, bring it in Jess.” She reaches him and opens her arms wide, Jesse immediately darting into her hug. He buries his face in her shoulder, muffling his cries in her red coat. Olivia pats his back and lets him cry, but notes Petra’s antsiness at not really getting her question answered.

“I met Jesse years ago when we were both 11. I was in town with my mother when I saw him giving his little piglet,” She pauses with a smile and nod, “ Reuben-- an apple. I thought it was one of the cutest things I’d ever seen so I of course approached him about it. That’s when we became friends! So… To answer that question for him, he left… Which I-I mean I probably would have as well!” She pats Jesse on the back again, who’s slowly settling again, “We becomes besties pretty quick! Then we met Axel when we were 14, Axel was 15. We went our own way not long after and… Well,” Olivia pulls back and cups Jesse’s face in her hands with a warm smile. “The rest is history..!” Jesse doesn’t meet her gaze and she rubs his cheeks with her thumbs, talking more to him now than the group. “We’ve become a family… And with time, we’ve just kept growing and growing.. Maybe we’re not a traditional family, yeah, but we’re all family nonetheless.” She holds her forehead against Jesse’s for a second, then pulls him back into a hug. He lets her.

Jesse sighs, just hanging against her for a good minute longer. This is all exhausting, yet some part of him tells him that sleep won’t be coming easily to him tonight. He eventually sniffles again and some life is pushed back into his body as he sits up and moves back from her. He wipes his eyes, nodding, before clenching his fists and resting them on his knees.

“I… I hate to be that person and keep picking at old wounds Jesse.” Soren’s voice cuts through the temporary silence. Everyone looks back at the ginger, who suddenly grows more nervous with all the focus on him. Despite the newfound pressure, he takes a breath, and continues. “When you were describing the second disk, the one that seemingly depicted your father’s…” He trails off, immediately regretting his poor choice of words. He grimaces and while Jesse hates hearing it he can tell Soren isn’t meaning any harm.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve Soren--” Petra jumps to the defense. Jesse holds a hand out to her, gesturing for her to stop and let him continue. She frowns, but complies, switching to just crossing her arms and giving Soren a sour look while he talks.

“On that disk, you described some sort of monster noise… Is there any mob you can identify that made that noise…?”

“Why do you want to know Soren?” Axel eyes the man suspiciously, Lukas quickly nodding and doing the same. The man puts his hands on his hips, getting a bit impatient.

“Look I just would like to know! At the moment, all Jesse knows is that his father seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth! If we can pinpoint what mob was recorded then perhaps we could put together a clearer picture of what happened. For the sake of some actual closure.

“Why do you suddenly care about closure?”

“Because I know how much you can get eaten up inside without it!” He jabs a thumb at himself then crosses his arms, head held high with confidence for the first time in years. Axel rolls his eyes but backs off seeing as Jesse seems okay with where the conversation’s heading. Eyes follow Axel’s gaze back to Jesse. He sits there, face scrunched up in concentration as he tries placing some sort of face with the mystery screech. He lets out a noise of frustration and shakes his head, biting his lip.

“I-I can’t.. I-I don’t know it was different I-I haven’t heard those noises before, I…” He shakes his head before frowning, a newfound determination lighting his eyes up as he furrows his brows. “Maybe an Enderman…? But it doesn’t sound quite right… I’ve never heard it make the sound that I heard.”

“Which was like…?” Soren rolls a hand, ushering for him to try and continue. If it was an Enderman, then Soren might just be able to help a bit more than he initially thought. The other Order members also pick up on this and grow more interested themselves. Not the way they expected spending their day, not at all. When Ivor approached them with surprising Jesse at his new home, they thought it’d be all fun and games, not Jesse suddenly breaking and dropping all this baggage he’s carried with him. And now they’re seemingly starting to dive into a small mystery. Certainly a wild turn of events.

Jesse just shakes his head in frustration. “I.. I can’t even describe it! It was… just.. Awful! Spine-chilling!” He knocks on the air with his fist as he thinks. He sits there, his thoughts obviously eating him from the inside out as his face contorts and shifts with each new thought. Eventually, it seems he comes to some sort of solid decision. Jack raises a brow as Jesse stands, beginning to hurriedly walk off to the second half of the apartment. He looks over at Lukas and Olivia, who shrug helplessly. They aren’t mind readers. Jesse disappears into the second half of the apartment and Jack shares a questioning glance with the group. ‘Do we go after him?’ The look says, but nobody makes any immediate moves.

They hear the sound of Jesse’s feet pounding up the stairs and darting around upstairs. There’s at least some sort of spring in his step now. He’s searching for something. Jack feels his stomach drop as he realizes what Jesse’s gone for. He quickly pushes himself up onto his feet and points to Axel.

Help me set up that record player. Quickly!”

Axel blinks, processing what he said before he nods and starts scrambling. Jack rushes over and the two of them pull it further into the room to a place where everyone can reasonably see and hear without it being muffled. Jack waves Axel off and looks over the last little details, making sure everything was in check and it was ready to play. When everything looked good, he held his hands up and inched back. Just in time too. Jesse comes back through the archway, the sounds of his heels clacking against the ground announcing his presence. He freezes briefly as he sees the record player pulled out. He meets Jack’s gaze. Jack glances at the two weathered disk sleeves in Jesse’s hands before looking back up at him with a nod. Jesse takes a deep breath, not taking his eyes off of the record player as he makes his way back over.

Jesse kneels down before the player, a small crowd quickly building around him, Soren included. Soren sits opposite of Jack, Jesse on the side between them. Everyone watches as Jesse runs his fingers over the covers. They’re blank and plain compared to the other disks. The only writing on them are their respective names written in red ink by Jesse if the handwriting is any indicator. 13 is on top. Jesse sighs and sets that one down beside him, revealing the battered cover of 11. There’s a note taped on top, the same one he described finding on them as a child.

“A Gift.

 

11

13”

The simple note is almost mocking. Jesse scoffs and pulls it off, slamming it down on the side of the record player. Magnus eyes the note curiously. Jesse holds his breath and reaches into the cover, grabbing the familiar bumped surface of the disk. Pulling it out reveals a somewhat shocking sight. The record is cracked and broken around the edges, it looks downright unplayable. The air about Jesse reflects the group’s sudden deflation. Soren gently hits a palm to his forehead, rubbing his eyes.

“It’s… Broken , Jesse.”

“Not completely.”

‘Not completely’ Jesse that won’t play! I-It’s just a useless set a shards at this point!”

Jesse just huffs in amusement and shakes his head, placing the record in place on the player. The group around him all share equal glances of increasing concern. Great. They broke him. What on earth were they gonna tell Radar?

But then sounds sparked to life, and Jesse immediately stiffened. Just like he described, the disk started with ominous chimes and whines from the cave, accompanied by the sound of a man hurrying through the space. Jack and Soren look incredulously at each other. The damn thing works! And boy is the damn thing haunting. Jack locks arms with Jesse, trying to comfort him. Jesse looks at him with wide blue eyes, Jack just smiles in response. Silent assurance. Jesse nods back and refocuses.

Everyone is crouched around the player, listening intently. Had it not been playing, the silence was strong enough to hear a pin drop. Lukas locks hands with Jesse’s other hand, gently squeezing it. Jesse squeezes back absentmindedly, a form of acknowledgement they’ve grown used to. It’s habit at this point. The silence aside from the record is briefly dashed by the sound of a soft chuckle from Jesse in response to the mannerisms of his father right before he begins flipping through a book. The smile on Jesse’s face was the warmest one they’ve seen all day. Pure adoration and love. It makes it so much more painful to watch it drop as his father’s breath hitches.

Soren holds a hand over his mouth, eyes closed as he immerses himself in the sounds, trying to build a mental image. The tension of the tape builds in the way Jesse’s all too familiar with. The seeming white noise begins to become more prominent as his father clicks off his lighter and begins running. Soren notes the raw fear in the hitch of his breath. Jesse picks up on it too. The noises of the caves, dancing and creating the haunting melody that plays in the background, yet drowned out by the sounds of his feet against the stone makes his skin crawl. Then it’s the noise that Jesse was failing to describe. That white noise grew louder and louder, more intense with each fleeting step from his father. Jesse squeezes Lukas’ hand tight and Jack’s arm as the disk approaches its climax. All those images flash through his head. The scene he saw mixed with the terrifying movie his mind paints for him. He shakes. Petra grimaces, Olivia covers her ears, the loud noise hurting them. Lukas shuts his eyes and looks down, Axel can only stare in shock and the Order do the same. The mob reveals itself with that inhuman screech that haunted Jesse’s childhood, occasionally visiting him as an adult too. Jesse sucks in a sharp breath as the record cuts.

It’s over. There’s only static now.

A silent sigh moves throughout the small crowd. Jesse eases up his grip on Jack and Lukas, murmuring an apology to the latter under his breath. He didn’t mean to, but had been digging his nails into Lukas’ hand. Lukas just smiles and shakes his hand out a bit. He’d never be mad. Everyone glances to each other, then to Jesse and eventually Soren.

“That…” He starts, leaving everyone unsure of if he was referencing the noise or the record as a whole.

Either way, he had an appropriate reaction.

Jesse looks to him, his eyes shining with a desperation for some kind of clear answer from Soren. Something to go on. Anything. A child just wanting to know the truth. Soren sighs and rubs his mouth, nodding as he refocuses on what they set out to do. They had a reason to listen to this again.

“Your initial guess was right. That was an Enderman…”

Jesse shuts his eyes and hangs his head, using his hand to support it and leaning on the record player. He covers his face and the group shares some somber looks as they let Jesse process in silence. Magnus is the one to break it in frustration.

“I don’t get it.”

Everyone shoots him a look of disapproval for cutting in with that. Jesse sniffles but looks up at him. His mouth is still obscured by his hand so he can only tell his expression by his eyes. Jesse cocks a brow at Magnus, slightly aggravated but wanting to hear him out. Magnus hesitates but nods and continues, directing his attention to Soren.

“Like Jesse said earlier, I’ve never heard an Enderman make a sound like that! How can you be so sure it was one?”

“It’s a rare noise to hear, and even more rare to catch on tape!” Soren gets a brief flare of excitement and fascination, but takes a deep breath and refocuses. “Rare doesn’t mean nonexistent. It’s a noise that only happens under certain circumstances…”

“Like?” Gabe butts in.

“W-Well… If the scene Jesse described was correct, and my own research is anything to back it up, then I have reasonable evidence to believe that that was the noise it makes before a certain attack. One that isn’t as aggressive as others… That’s the noise they make before they grab whatever they’re hunting and teleport away with them…”

That grabs Jesse’s attention as he snaps up. “Just teleports?”

Soren nods. “Yes. It’s an assault, but one they usually never follow up on. Leaving their prey to whatever environment they yanked them into…”

“That’d explain the sudden halt of footprints you described around the cave’s mouth Jesse… As well as evidence of a struggle as your father attempted fighting off that hellish creature--” Ivor pushes the thought along, and is classically cut off by Soren.

“Not hell! End. Endermen don’t step near the Nether.”

So he died in The End then..” Jesse murmurs, gripping at his pants, a new wave of anger flooding him. Surprised looks barely get a chance to last before Soren steps in again.

“W-We don’t know that! Besides Jesse, if he had been in The End, dead or alive, we would have found him. Our uh… Encounter with the Ender Dragon occured around the same time after all. And you know I was in the End a lot. He couldn’t have wound up there… Maybe he’s still--”

No. If my father was still alive on the Overworld he would have found me.”

Olivia gently places a hand on Jesse’s arm, speaking softly, “ Jesse the world is so big…”

He rips his arm away and snaps, “YOU didn’t KNOW my father! He would have found me. It wouldn’t matter where in the world he was. He would have found his way back! He would have.”

Olivia recoils a bit and just shuts her eyes with a silent sigh. The opinions of the group have now split down the middle. Those who simply believed Jesse was in denial, and those who trusted Jesse’s judgement of his father. Gabe was in the latter. He tapped his finger on his armored arm, making a soft clinking sound with each tap. He looks at Jesse, changing the subject.

“Your father and uncle, you said they were twins, correct?”

Jesse eases up and nods. Gabe nods slowly, a slow smile creeping across his face.

“With the way you described them earlier, well, I think the Order had a few run ins with them in our prime. Prior to the Dragon fight!”

“You…” Jesse chokes, leaning forward in awe at the thought of his father being remembered by someone other than himself. “ You knew my father…?”

“In passing, I must say that I… I think that we did! And, frankly, if we’re thinking of the same people then the reason you are the way you are, makes far more sense…” Gabe chuckles heartily, then snaps to grab Magnus and Ivor’s attention. “Come one! Don’t you two remember the twins we always ran into when we were young? Oh my lord, Jesse,” He leans over, a grin sweeping across his face as he recalls the tale. “One of our earliest expeditions was down into the depths of a mineshaft! Rumor had it that there was a dungeon deep within, with chests filled with treasure upon treasure!”

“Oh dear.” Ivor snorts, hiding a grin as he remembers where this story from their youth goes. Gabe giggles with his wide grin and continues. “Now we had been prepping to go down there for days. Luckily there was a small village near the mouth of the cave. When we arrived we were all decked out in armor, equipment, the like. We certainly brought attention to ourselves. The people of the town had plenty of questions too! We also caught the attention of two other travellers.” He smirks and winks to Jesse, who lights up. “A pair of adventuring twins. Word of mouth was good to them and they had a local reputation that was uncomparable! According to the stories from the locals, they ventured far and wide searching for adventure!” He pauses, trailing off a bit. He huffs with a smile, suddenly becoming less glorious and more genuine.

“That was one of their key differences. They adventured and did what they enjoyed purely for the sake of doing it. For the fun. Not once did I ever get the impression that either of them were doing for bragging rights or making a legacy…” He nods to Jesse, “They were both great young men. But, continuing! We got the pleasure to meet the duo, and they were quite interested in our mission. We of course were proud to share the details. The self proclaimed older brother of the twin duo was absolutely fascinated by Ellie’s plans that she wrote up.”

“My father…” Jesse mumbles, chuckling. Gabe continues.

“While the other one spent his time learning a few of Magnus’ tricks in TNT…!”

Jesse snorts, “ Uncle Brian. Of course.”

Oh you have no idea yet!” Gabe snickers and Soren scoffs, rolling his eyes in amusement. “Soren talked with your father as well if I remember correctly! Though I don’t think he could tell you much…” Gabe leans forward, cupping his mouth so Soren couldn’t see his lips move but otherwise made no effort at all to hide what he said. Jesse leaned forward as well to listen. “ The Old bird has the memory of a goldfish I swear.”

“I do not!”

“Oh yeah? What did you eat for breakfast this morning Soren?”

Soren opens his mouth to defend himself, but ends up at a loss. He fumbles over his words. Multiple times. Then eventually sighs and crosses his arms. “ Just get on with your story Gabe.”

“Now, that’s not the spirit Soren! Bring a smile onto that face!” He waits but when it doesn’t happen, Gabe simply shrugs. “I’ll get him in a second, he always laughs at the end. So there we were, heading deep into the cavern… Your father and uncle had finished looking through our plans and stuff and went on their way, so we decided to get straight to work while we were inspired. The fight through the mineshafts were unlike no other! Cave spiders, skeletons, creepers and zombies galore! Magnus was nearly poisoned had Ellie not lent him a helping hand!”

Magnus smiles fondly at the memory of Ellegaard.

“Hours passed as we fought through and lit up the giant maze. It took so long to find a breakthrough… And we almost gave up on it too! But then, the proper tunnel to follow to the dungeon hit us with a boom!”

“Eugh! That’s a horrible pun Gabe--”

“SHH! So there we are. Tired, hurting, armor tearing at the edges when we hear the faint boom of TNT followed by a whooping that echoed through the caves. Initially, we believed that it was Magnus, hitting the jackpot without us! But when he came up behind us, just as confused, we realized something else had happened.”

“Magnus offered up the idea of it being a ghost coming to kill us for intruding in his mineshaft.” Ivor adds with a snicker. Magnus crosses his arms, as his face flushes red.

Harper wheezes from behind him. “GHOSTS?? Really?”

“It was ONE TIME .”

“That’s a lie Magnus…”

IVOR YOU HAVE SAID ENOUGH--” He points at him accusingly and Ivor laughs, falling back a bit onto Harper who’s also in the midst of her own giggle fit. Gabe smiles and nods back at Jesse and his friends.

“We of course ran down that tunnel. After all, someone else could have been in trouble! We hurried through the darkened mineshafts, bats and cobwebs at every turn! Until finally we reached our final staircase and saw light from below. I was the first one to jump down into the entrance of the dungeon and what I saw at the time infuriated me to no end. THERE THEY WERE! The twins from earlier, digging through our chests and stuffing our treasure. They were both covered head to toe in gunpowder, all that remained of their TNT aside from the direct path they made down to the dungeon. The smug bastards were grinning ear to ear. I dropped my sword from shock! Not only had these boys beaten us to our own prize, but they came up with a successful plan to reach that treasure within a few hours whereas we took days. They didn’t even know about that dungeon before we told them!” He shakes his head and Soren snickers a bit at the memory. A group of fully armored young adults coming down only to face two prideful  young men who wore nothing more than the clothes on their back, and were covered head to toe in gunpowder. He continues the story for Gabe.

“Ellie was SO mad… I never heard her swear before that day. But she walked up to your father, Jesse, and absolutely tore him apart. Or at least, she attempted. All he did the entire time was look down at her with a smug smile. Not ill-willed, but certainly proud. Then after all was said and done and Ellie finished chewing him out, he simply responded with two words…” Soren grins and looks over to Ivor who finishes the story.

Finders Keepers.”

Olivia shrieks with laughter at the thought. Someone saying that to Ellegaard’s face? Magnus breaks into laughter too, catching onto Olivia’s train of thought. He waves to get the group’s attention and speak through his laughter.

“Ellie I swear went red as an apple! She looked like she was about to rip them both limb from limb! Never in my LIFE have I seen two grown men book it like they did! The just sprinted back up that cavern like nobody’s business, laughing the whole way up as Ellie tried chasing after them! We had to hold her back!”

“H- How..!” Olivia barely manages to spit out and Jesse beams.

“My father had a photographic memory! A few good looks at Ellie’s plans and maps and he would’ve had the location pinpointed and memorized! He was always the one that made maps and did the logistics of a trip, whereas my uncle--”

Stole my TNT tactics!”

“That you willingly shared!” Jesse bounces back with a grin, “My uncle was a charmer but that didn’t mean he was a dunce. He could schmooze any detail out of people and then would use it for his own advantage! He was the one that turned my father’s plans into action but also made a lot of adjustments on the fly, usually for the better.” Jesse pauses and chuckles, “ Usually…” Jesse beams with pride over his family, his friends chuckling along with him. Jesse settles down, falling into a comfortable silence for the first time in hours. He nods to Gabe, “Thank you for telling that story… I.. I dunno I never thought I’d hear stories about my father and uncle from someone else.. Especially ones I didn’t know. I-I’m sorry for today turning out like this, and Olivia,” He looks over at her, “I’m sorry for snapping at you like that. I should’ve--”

“It’s okay Jesse. This is all a lot for you… I know you didn’t mean anything personal.” She smiles and pats his arm reassuringly, and he lets out a sigh. He nods silently to himself.

Lukas sighs, “If… If we can, I still think we should try clearing up what happened to your father Jesse. Like Soren said, some proper closure would probably be good for you… I believe you that your father probably would have found a way back to you if he had survived and just been taken to another part of the overworld. If the Enderman left him alone once teleporting them away, like Soren said, escaping cave systems or whatever would have been relatively easy for an experienced miner. Which, considering how many books he owned and the fact that he was exploring a stronghold when he went missing, I don’t doubt he was.”

Jesse takes a deep breath and nods. “He was. And.. unless he was killed, then the only other place the Enderman could have taken him was to the End, but we already established why that wouldn’t work… Same with the Nether.”

“So, what then?!” Petra huffs, “Are we just supposed to assume that he disappeared into thin air?? He had to have gone somewhere. We’re just… We’re MISSING something!”

“Unless he was taken to an End City.” Magnus mumbles in thought, surprisingly pensive. Jesse snaps up.

“A what??” Jesse nearly cuts Magnus off he’s so quick to respond. Soren grimaces and shares an equal look of uneasiness with the other Order members. Jesse’s heart starts pounding in his ears. He pushes for information. “Someone tell me what that is. Start talking, please! Why didn’t this come up before?”

Soren hesitates but begins to explain. “There is… More to the End Dimension than just the Dragon alter, Jesse. Once the Dragon is defeated, another portal opens up to the other distant islands of the dimension. They’re dangerous to cross, and unless you have an endless amount of building supplies, the only way is with Ender Pearls. They’re barren and cold with groups of Endermen wandering about through the forests of Chorus Fruits. But.. Hidden amongst those islands are varying End Cities, supposed buildings that spiral high into the black sky. Those are the natural homes of Shulkers and varying treasures. Rumor has it that some End cities even have floating ships docked at them with some sort of rare find…”

Jesse shakes his head, “I don’t get it, why are you falling back on explaining through rumors?”

“We never left the Dragon Alter Jesse. You know how our Dragon “fight” went! Trying to venture out to an End City was a suicide mission! We don’t…. We can’t confirm a lot of things we’ve heard about it because we’ve simply never been there. And all the information about the End that we had stockpiled is in our old Nether base…” Soren trails off with a pained look, Magnus, Gabe and Ivor also grimacing.

“Okay… So you just go to the Nether and grab your shit and come back! It’s not that hard! And it’s your base! I’m surprised you left it in the Nether of all places when you could have had it all in your weird End Mansion.”

Gabe rubs his neck, “We would have..! But there were… complications…”

Oh for God’s sake, What Complications?!

“We got kicked out of our own base…” Magnus lets out an awkward chuckle as his words sink in. Jesse blinks, absolutely dumbfounded. Lukas buries his face in his hands, Olivia and Axel roll their eyes and Petra grumbles. Jack and Harper share an equal look of ‘ Are you serious right now.’ and Ivor just offers a sympathetic shrug and a shake of his head. Lukas sits up again, rubbing his temples.

“What do you mean you got kicked out? Who… Who would want to kick you out of a NETHER base??? Nobody but looters care about the Nether and even then, your reputation precedes you. And despite being liars, you all can still put up a decent fight. How the hell were you chased out?”

Generally, when an angry man appears in a flash of lightning and demands for you to leave, you don’t want to stick around and piss him off further…” Gabriel lets out a stressed sigh, his comments sparking a new fascination in everyone. A man appearing in flashes of lightning, in the Nether nonetheless, and demanding The Order - -during its prime -- to abandon their own base? They’ve never heard of anything like that…

“King of the Nether…” Axel murmurs, garnering confused looks from Jesse and Olivia.

“The what?”

“The King of the Nether! There’s this ghost story that’s been around for a while, started picking up steam when I was a kid of this guy… A lost miner! Or like, I dunno his ghost or something… Anyways! He supposedly looks just like an average dude, except for his eyes. Which are a pure and glowing white! Those who saw him claimed to feel like he stole their soul by just looking at them--!”

That is not the story!” Petra butts in. Axel looks at her surprised. She crosses her arms, hiding the small smirk on her face. “He’s a demi-god and a fighter! Always showing up just in time when people needed him and saving lives! He has ‘Hero’ in his name after all, Axel.”

“No no no, seeing him somewhere dangerous has always been a bad omen. Most who’ve seen him have claimed that their friends lost their lives because of him! He’s a griefer man! Have you even heard about half the stuff he’s done? He blows up homes, strips trees of their leaves, builds traps and leaves cryptic signs, filling the mind of his prey with paranoia until he can just show up ! The shock of him often leading people to their own unruly deaths…!”

“You are full of it, Axel.” Petra shakes her head.

“Well, whatever he is, a ghost story is far from it. There’s a reason we don’t use the Nether as a shortcut much anymore, and that’s because he doesn’t like unwanted guests.” Soren rolls his eyes and crosses his arms. “The Nether’s just… off-limits.”

“We never ran into him during our time in the Nether during the Witherstorm debacle…” Olivia frowns, suspicion in her voice.

“Doesn’t mean he wasn’t watching.”

That sends a shiver down the spines of everyone in the room. Lukas rubs his arms. He already hated Endermen’s weird stares, but the idea of some sadistic demi-god just watching them as they struggled… It gives him the creeps. At least Romeo had some sort of character! He may have had more powers than this guy, but despite that Romeo always had flaws and character akin to any other human. It’s not often that an urban legend gets confirmed to be true, nonetheless by some of the world’s best. Lukas lets out a sigh and rubs his head.

“You know… I really thought we were done with chaotic, glowing eyed gods..”

He gets a few laughs out of that comment and Jesse nods, offering a sympathetic smile. He lets out a sigh and looks back at the still record on the player. He carefully takes the disk off, being careful not to crack or break it anymore than it already has. Jack watches him then speaks up.

“How’d that thing still play Jesse..?”

“I think my father enchanted them with something.. Ensuring that they’d still be able to play. It frustrated me when I first discovered it but I’m kind of glad that it ended up that way. I uh… I threw the record out of anger the last time I listened to it.. That’s why it’s all cracked, so that’s my bad.”

“I suppose that makes sense.. Can’t say I blame you for throwing it around either. I prob’ly would have done the same. Romeo already got me pretty bad with how he disguised himself as Vos… If all I had to know about his death was a record that played his last moments… God…” He grimaces, shaking his head and biting his lip. Jesse nods silently as he stuffs the disk back in it’s sleeve. He leaves the note taped to the record player. Jack clamps a hand down on Jesse’s shoulder, then pats him on the back in silent comfort. Jesse gives him a tired smile. One good thing came out of Romeo’s bull was having Jack as a friend.

He picks up 13 from the ground beside him and places it on top of 11 again. Despite not listening to it, he always kept the two of them together. He stares down at them intensely, mind flooding with thoughts. He was too tired to make any detailed plans at the moment, he definitely would need to sleep on things but he knew the first step he had to take. And he can’t say he was looking forward to revisiting the Nether.

Chapter Text

As he had guessed, sleeping was near myth for the first night. Lukas had held up on his offer and let Jesse camp out in a spare room of his home. He initially protested but purely for the sake of being polite. Being 100% alone was the last thing he needed right now, and they both knew that without needing to say it. The rest of the Order made a small change of plans and decided to camp out in town for a few days longer, same went for Petra, Axel and Olivia. Once they had all parted ways for the night, Jesse understandably became far more reserved. It was a mix of exhaustion and general sense of being overwhelmed.

Lukas had stayed up late editing part of his next book and just had to watch as Jesse ghosted about the home throughout the night. He had tried asking him little questions, ‘You feeling okay?’ ‘You want to talk?’ ‘Do you need anything? Water? Food?’ But all of which were met with small shakes of his head. That was alright though. Jesse at least was in company, and knew that Lukas was ready to help if he needed it. Eventually, Lukas was struggling to keep himself awake and herded Jesse to the room he was staying in one last time, saying goodnight, then leaving to go get some sleep for himself.

Jesse collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. His blue eyes stood out in the moonlight. He frowns, folding his hands over his chest. So many thoughts buzz around enough, just enough to keep his eyelids from getting too heavy.

An End City. His father was ripped away to an End City. And he died there. He died there alone. But that thought wasn’t enough.

Jesse rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands. He wanted to know more, he needed to know more. But dear lord, the trips that would require. The Nether has always been a bad time. Its sweltering, there are monsters everywhere, fire and lava are the main sources of light and one wrong step in there can plunge one to a cruel burning death. Not only that, but to get the information they need,—so they don’t run into the far reaches of the End blindly —they’re going have to break into a fortified base home to a demi-god. And a base in the Nether means that they’re gonna be faced with some of the worst creatures their world has to offer. Blazes, Witherskeletons, and Zombie Pigmen are all walking deathtraps in such an enclosed place.

And those are only the predictable dangers. Who knows what this Herobrine guy has up his sleeve. He scoffs. Herobrine. What kind of name is that? Hero of the brine. As in like? Salt water? Oceans? What idiot chose that name then thought it’s be a good idea to take up base in the Nether. It’s one hell of an oxymoron. Axel told him the name as they were leaving. Axel said it with horror laced in his voice, meanwhile Petra said it with a tone of admiration. Either way, Jesse laughed the first time he heard it. Probably not a good thing but whatever. What’s another god as an enemy.

He lets out a jaded sigh and rubs his face. The rest of the night is filled with his mind dancing through different streams of thoughts. Worst case scenarios. Terrors. Plans. Tangents. Anything and everything under the sun. That is, until the actual sun starts peeking over the horizon. The light starts shining in through the high pair of windows in the room and Jesse groans, rolling over and burying his face in a pillow, the exhaustion finally sweeping over him and knocking him out. Lukas checks up on him mid-morning but doesn’t wake him. Any rest he needs he deserves to get.

The day is slow, surprisingly calm. Surprisingly normal. Lukas tends to small chores around the home. He doesn’t want to leave the house before Jesse wakes up, but will have to eventually. He procrastinates, doing aimless things while he waits. It’s mid-afternoon by the time Jesse starts stirring again. He squints at the golden sunlight sweeping into the room. His face half buried in the pillow and blankets half kicked off the bed are at least sure signs that he-- miraculously-- slept well. He groggily tilts his head a bit to look up at the clock on the wall. Three o’clock. He huffs and rolls his eyes. Of course. A majority of the day already wasted. It explains the yellow sunlight being so prominent. With winter steadily approaching, the sun’s of course started setting earlier and earlier in the day. Even better. He takes a deep breath and pushes himself up with a grunt, followed by a long stretch. He swings his arms back down to his sides and scoots over to the edge of the bed, standing up. He staggers forward, having to regain his balance briefly and shaking his head. He internally laughs at himself before continuing.

Reaching the door, he hesitates a second. Squinting at his own behavior, he just sucks in a breath and pushes open the door. Looking out into the home, he’s momentarily struck with an odd terror until spotting Lukas on the couch, flipping through a book as usual. He sighs probably a bit more loudly than he should have which catches Lukas’ attention. Blue eyes snap over to Jesse in surprise before pulling into a bright smile. Jesse smiles back softly.

“Hey! Check out who’s actually alive!” Lukas teases and Jesse chuckles quietly as he pads into the living room. Jesse falls onto the couch next to Lukas who marks his place in his book and sets it aside before shifting to face Jesse, resting his head against his hand as he props it up on the back of the couch. “Slept well I take it? Seems like you really needed it…” He chuckles a bit, “You slept for a good 16 hours!”

Jesse huffs, chuckling a bit before shaking his head. “Actually I didn’t pass out until dawn… So more like 8 hours.. Maybe 9 if I’m lucky.” He shrugs, “But I was pretty deep in it so, I think I’ll survive.” He shrugs, “I made a bit of a mess of the sheets and stuff though, but I’ll worry about that. Sorry.”

Lukas just laughs, shaking his head. “Don’t apologize. My home is your home Jess, don’t stress about something like that right now.” He smiles sympathetically and Jesse nods a bit with a smile of his own. He’s glad that Lukas was who the one he was staying with. Even if they have their differences at times, he always tried being understanding and put the health of others first. He’s forever thankful that they’re back on good terms. After escaping the terminal, Lukas wasn’t exactly thrilled to see that Jesse let Romeo live and furthermore let him go. Which, looking back now, the frustration makes sense with everything he went through. Had Romeo not whisked Jesse away to some untouched world after he got his hands on the terminal password, his reign of terror would have been done in a matter of days. Not… Not nearly two months. Lukas was the one who stepped up to the plate in Jesse’s absence, leading a full-on rebellion. He got… Shockingly infamous during his time as a rebel leader, as he was loud, destructive and could slip away better than anyone. He had a lot of close calls with Romeo, hell, he was chased out of their world at the height of it. When Lukas figured out Jesse was stuck in another world, he raided the Hall for the portal atlas and enchanted flint and steel. Had he not have had backup, the confrontation with Romeo there could have ended much, much different.

But that was over. Things worked out, Lukas gained some new allies, they were reunited and Romeo was taken down and while not physically punished by Jesse, he was allowed nowhere near his home or town. And knowing how many others perceived the guy, he probably wasn’t easily accepted anywhere in the overworld. But the thought didn’t exactly haunt Jesse either. He got what was coming while also getting a chance to better himself. Away from Jesse. Lukas and him fought a bit harshly in the moment, but the aggression didn’t last. They were too happy to see each other in one piece.

Lukas clears his throat a bit as his face flushes and Jesse realizes he had been staring at him all dreamily as he thought. Jesse coughs and backs off, causing Lukas to laugh a little as Jesse tries acting casual. He crosses his arms and legs, bouncing one as his face reddens with a sheepish grin. Lukas stands and places his hands on his hips, a slight bounce in his step. Jesse knows what that means. Time to tackle the-- almost finished-- day! He looks up at the blonde with a brow raised as Lukas already starts moving about the home, gathering his things.

“I have to do a few errands around town. I think you should come with. Get some fresh air for a bit, maybe tell the others that you’re doing at least somewhat okay…”

Jesse leans back against the couch as Lukas speaks, resting his eyes. He hums at the idea of going outside. That was probably the responsible thing to do, yet at the same time he really didn’t wanna get out of his sweatpants. Lukas walks by and playfully flicks his forehead, startling Jesse. He laughs and speedwalks away before Jesse can get back at him. Jesse shakes a finger at him accusingly before hopping up. Alright. Clothing. He calls to Lukas who has disappeared to another part of the house.

“Give me a minute to actually get dressed and I’ll head out with you!”

~~~~~

Jesse sucked in a deep breath of the rather crisp air. It was a nice afternoon and the town was lively as usual. He and Lukas ducked down a bit as a few colorful parrots jetted by. They grin at each other then continue on. Jesse slipped into some casual jeans, boots and loose black shirt rolled lazily half way up his forearms. He was presentable enough for the day. They two had already been in and out of a few shops, one of which being Lukas’ publisher. With his next book almost complete, discussions for distribution have already begun. Lukas spent a while chatting with the man but Jesse didn’t mind and was able to just meander about the large bookstore. It was a relaxing day, just getting to wander town as one of its inhabitants rather than the mayor.

Or leader. Or hero. Or whatever the people saw him as. He didn’t really have an official title. Regardless, he enjoyed a day without it and people around town seemingly gave him a bit more space than usual. He hadn’t even heard from Radar. He couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for leaving him to run things so suddenly. Olivia or Axel probably stopped by his place last night and told him the situation… And knowing radar, he probably made some sort of notice to leave him alone for awhile. Jesse was certainly grateful, but still felt a tinge of guilt.

But now, with his wits about him, the wheels in Jesse’s mind started turning. He was gonna be going to the Nether, so he needed supplies and a game plan. As he and Lukas continue walking through town, Jesse pats his pockets while partially zoning out. The abrupt motion catches Lukas attention. He raises a brow as he looks down at Jesse, who’s head barely surpasses Lukas’ shoulder.

“What are you doing…?”

“Hm?” Bright eyes look up to Lukas as he actually processes what was asked. “Oh! I was just making sure I had some emeralds and stuff on me… But, unsurprisingly, I don’t.”

“What for?”

“Well…” He sucks in a breath. Lukas isn’t gonna like hearing that Jesse’s already thinking about how to tackle the Nether, but it’s the truth so… “I’m gonna stop by the drop shop and nab a few things before going into the Nether. Yknow, so I just don’t run in blindly with nothing to fall back on.”

Lukas stops walking for a brief moment to process, and Jesse continues walking, cringing slightly as he hears Lukas speak then rush to catch up once more.

“Now hold on--”

“Lukas you can’t change my mind about it. I’m going and--” Jesse goes to pre-emptively defend himself but is cut off.

“I wasn’t going to say that.” They both stop walking, turning to face each other as Jesse looks up in dumbfoundment.

“Wh-- Wait really?”

Lukas huffs, amused, and shakes his head. “ Really. I was gonna say that you’re making it sound an awful lot like you intend on going in there alone.”

“W-Well I mean this is my problem Lukas. I-I don’t wanna drag you all into danger for something that doesn’t matter to you!” He laughs a bit in disbelief.

“I’m going.” Lukas states matter-of-factly and walks off, leaving Jesse stumbling over his words. He hurries after him.

Lukas! Don’t be ridiculous!” He drops his voice to be more of a harsh whisper and Lukas just rolls his eyes with a smile. “You know how the Nether is! A-And with this Heroin guy--”

“Herobrine?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Him. We have no idea what is gonna happen or what this guy could do!”

“Fair! All the more reason however to have me tag along. And you know the others are gonna feel the same. You shouldn’t feel guilty about us wanting to help.”

“Yeah but this time is just… I dunno.. Different! There’s no world at stake here, I don’t want you all to feel obligated to go along with every little thing I do.”

Little?” Lukas shakes his head in disbelief. “You know, sometimes you sure are something Jess. Look,” He locks arms with Jesse which already makes the small man’s head spin. Then he gets closer and Lukas’ voice grows genuine, soft. “Jesse, your world is at stake here… And as someone who cares about you, this is something that does matter to me. The others will agree. You are not in this alone, so don’t plan or act like you are.” He slides his arm down and intertwines their hands, giving it a squeeze to emphasize his words.

Jesse finds himself at a loss for words. And he knows that Lukas knew exactly  what to do to get him like that. He sputters a few times, Lukas watching with a smirk, before he gives up with a sigh and just swings their arms as they walk with a grin. Lukas chuckles, and they stay that way as they continue walking.

“Oh shoot! I nearly forgot! I-I still don’t have any money…” Jesse laughs weakly. “Maybe I can have Bruce put a few things on hold for me…”

“Bruce?” Lukas raises a brow.

“Yeah! He owns the drop shop. I’ve known him for a while now. Fun to chat with! Just don’t tell Jack that I’m friends with him, they’ve got like a rivalry going or something…” He chuckles and Lukas nods thoughtfully.

“Well, I could probably pay for a few things now.”

“What? No, Lukas, you don’t have to waste your money.”

“Not a waste if we buy stuff that keeps us alive!”

Hmm… Well, I’m paying you back either way and you can’t change my mind!” Jesse speeds up a bit, tugging Lukas along before he can shoot back. He changes their direction and takes them off the main road. With their arms locked and a happy bounce to their steps, they continue through the quaint streets of Beacontown, passing by boths homes, businesses and other miscellaneous parks and builds. The cobblestone streets lined with beautifully green grass and plants are always comforting to walk down. As the sun starts dipping lower into the sky, the strings of warm light that line the small side streets begin to glow.

Music and chitter chatter of random townies further breathes life into the place they call home. Jesse smiles, feeling truly blessed to have gotten the chance to help foster and grow this place. But celebration and dance parties in the square could wait, right now they still had things to tend to. And with that, Jesse pulls Lukas into a nice two story shop on the corner.

Built with wood in a style reminiscent of a cornerstone saloon, the shop has an open look up to the second floor and is lined with green carpet. A bell rings as they step in and the door shuts behind them. A man peeks out of the back room and immediately lights up.

“Well look at what the cat dragged in! Jesse! What brings you and your…” He studies Lukas, his questioning gaze dropping to the pair’s interlocked arms. Jesse gets a bit flustered and pulls away with a laugh. He grins and gestures to Lukas.

Heyy Bruce! This is Lukas. Hit author and one of my best friends!”

The man leans on the main counter in interest as Lukas approaches and offers a hand. He gives it a hearty shake and nods. The man is just under Lukas’ height by an inch or so and has poofy black hair tied back into a lazy ponytail. There seemingly wasn’t even an attempt to move the bangs out of his face and mint eyes. Light skinned with faint scars dusting his arms from experience, the man sports a simple green v-neck, baggy tan pants and dark green steel toed combat boots. He accessorizes more simply than most with a collage of homemade bracelets and a beaded necklace and bandana tied around his neck. The backpack he usually sports when out and about thrown to the side for now. Tacky, but in a way that’s suiting.

“Hmm… Lukas huh… I’ve heard the name and seen the face but not with books…”

“I also led the rebellion against Romeo in Jesse’s absence. You might be remembering my wanted posters…”

Jesse blinks in surprise at Lukas’ casual bluntness over the topic and Bruce just lets out a laugh and stands up straight. He rubs his chin and neatly trimmed beard.

Yeah! I think that’s where I saw ya before… You’ve got your own plethora of identities now! Be careful Jesse; you take your eyes off this one and he may one-up you!”

“I dunno about that… Though considering he always says he’s gonna settle down before getting head deep into something crazy… You might be onto something!” Jesse leans on the counter, looking at Lukas, “Sounds like the type of thing someone scheming to beat me at my own game would do…” He grins playfully and Lukas scoffs.

“Oh please. I think I’ll leave your title to you. I don’t exactly want some mysterious gauntlets whispering to me next!” He crosses his arms and Jesse chuckles, shaking his head.

Alright. Another point to Lukas then!” He drums his hands on the counter, turning to the shopkeeper before them. “Anyways! We actually came to buy stuff as well.”

“Oh? Alright, what all are you thinking?” Bruce crosses his arms and leans back on his heel, glancing between the two.

“Well we’re going on a trip to the Nether… Maybe a few ender pearls just in case we get in a bind…” Jesse looks up to Lukas who nods and continues the list.

“Maybe some enchanting books.. Namely fire resistance ones if you can.”

“Hm.. You guys sounds like you’re taking quite the Nether trip… What’s the extra threat I’m missing here?”

Jesse and Lukas glance at each other, sharing an equally nervous look, which only peaks the shopkeeper’s interest further. ‘Do we tell him?’ ‘Do we trust him?’ Bruce rolls his eyes at their blatant hesitance.

“Look, I’m not gonna chase after you on this perilous trip to the Nether y’know?” He chuckles then holds his hands up, “ But if you don’t wanna tell, I suppose that’s understandable.”

“Well…” Lukas trails off, looking to Jesse who eventually just shrugs and nods. Might as well man, everyone’s gonna know eventually anyways. Bruce takes a swig out of his waterbottle while the two share looks. “We’re going to break into the Order’s old Nether Fortress that’s been taken up by a demi-god.”

Now that makes Bruce choke on his water. He nearly spits then goes into a coughing fit, hammering his own chest and causing Lukas and Jesse to jump. Oh God. How do they tell everyone they killed an innocent shopkeeper. Bruce waves off their momentary panic as he gets his voice back.

I-I’m fine! Fine, TRULY fine! Eugh…. Now…. Slowly this time for the sake of my old man heart--”

“Aren’t you only like 45…” Jesse murmurs and Bruce just points at him and gives him a Look. Jesse can’t help but recoil a bit before shrugging with a half grin. Bruce had a piercing glare, despite him using it lightheartedly. Lukas goes into explanation.

“There’s some information we uhh… Want to help the Order get back but, like I said, it’s in their old Nether Base which has become the home of the Ghost story, Herobrine.”

“Herobrine.” Bruce repeats, unsure if he heard Lukas correctly. Lukas nods.

“Herobrine.”

“What kinda name is that? Like yeah menacing I guess but it also sounds like some poor guy just got his name smeared and misread. Also brine? Like? Water? Oceans?” He looks to Jesse, trying to get confirmation. Jesse nods with a chuckle.

“That’s what I thought too… But yeah, that’s the guy. White eyes, lightning powers, overall chaotic deity who shows up just to fuck with things.”

“Also he can supposedly control mobs. As if the mobs in the Nether weren’t already bad enough on their own…” Lukas sighs.

Bruce nods slowly, processing everything. He stands there silent for a minute, drumming his knuckles on the glass counter before shaking his head and looking back at the two.

“I’ve never heard of him. Nor have I ever encountered him, and you know  how many times I’ve been to the Nether. I mean! Look around.” He gestures to his large shop. “I kill monsters for a living. I know a thing or two and I’ve seen a thing or two. But some white eyed freak that controls the monsters isn’t one of em. Sides, fear is how you get the nasty things to do what you want! Just like they do to us.”

Lukas raises a brow and Jesse explains.

“Bruce specializes in mobs. Drops, tactics, herding, you name it and he can pull it off!”

“Ah, interesting! I can see why Jack would see you as competition..”

To that the man snorts. “It’s a one-sided rivalry! I’ve been nice as hell to the man but… I dunno, he just doesn’t trust me. Probably thinks I’m tryna encroach on his territory or somethin’... Which I should clarify! I am not!”

“We believe you man. I know Jack can get that way. He’s still a good guy though, don’t let his defensive nature get to you.” Jesse stands back and places his hands on his hips. “So anyways Bruce, do you think you could help us out here?”

The man pauses, looking up to the ceiling as he weighs his options, lips pursed exaggeratedly. He drops the act then looks at Jesse with a grin. He smacks the counter and backs up, pointing to the two of them.

“I can do you one better than just a measly book!”

Jesse and Lukas share an excited grin as he disappears into the back room. Bruce always has a trick up his sleeve. In a minute the man hurries back out, a child like excitement in his green eyes as he sets down a small wooden box. Very basic with a few pieces of hay slipping out between the cracks. He looks between both young men with a sly grin before removing the lid. Inside, protected by the excess of hay, are 8 small compartments, each holding a potion. They all softly glow and Bruce reaches in, pulling one out to show off. He palms it, the light from the potion highlighting his features.

“I’m sure you two already know what these are… Fire resistance. One of these bad boys will make swimming in lava a relaxing hobby. Burning doesn’t exist while these things are active as well as helping regulate your own body temperature. With all that armor, that aspect will be a lifesaver. But! That’s not all!” He stuffs the fire resistance potion back then snatches one of the dark blue ones. He tosses it up casually--stressing both Jesse and Lukas out--then catching it again and showing it off. “Now, this one probably isn’t one that you had in mind, especially in the Nether but it’s always a lifesaver. Nightvision. Regular Nether Fortresses are already dark as hell, which is something I always see looters forget. But an ex-Order base? That thing is probably massive, and if some hell god is ruling it now, I’d bet most of that light is already gone.” He stuffs the potion back inside.

“I-I didn’t know you made potions! I thought you were just--”

“The mob guy? Yeah, well, had to start learning these tricks for myself once I went solo! Hey, I mean, it’s good business and I’ve got plenty of ingredients lying around here so, why not?”

Yeah! How much do we owe you?”

“Well you still wanted the Ender Pearls too right?”

Jesse and Lukas nod. Bruce nods as well and squints while he thinks, shutting one eye and scrunching up his face before he just shrugs.

“Pay for the pearls, I’ll give ya the potions free!”

Lukas nearly drops his bag and Jesse’s jaw drops. They stand there in shock and glance to each other while the man rushes back to grab a small pouch of Ender Pearls. Coming back and throwing it on the counter, he laughs at the looks on the pair’s faces.

“Yeah yeah, stingy ol’ Bruce is giving you an amazing deal. Don’t go braggin’ about it otherwise I’m never gonna hear the end of it from other customers!” He rolls his eyes and chuckles, “You know how retail is. Just uhh… Call it a hero’s discount of whatever! There’s also a speed potion or two mixed in. Got a total of 8 potions there, use them wisely.”

“I-I… Thank you! You don’t understand how much this means to me, really. If there’s ever anything I can--”

Bruce cuts Jesse off with a hand and smile.

“Say no more Jesse. The only thing you owe me, is making sure you come back in one piece! I mean, you’re one of my best customers after all!” He teases and Jesse laughs, picking the box and pearls carefully off the counter while Lukas tosses a few emeralds his way. The pair say their goodbyes and good nights before finally leaving the shop and starting back to Lukas’ place. The night has fully arrived and the stars dot the night sky. Furthermore, the nightlife now is in full swing. Different colored lanterns paint Lukas and Jesse in rainbows as they talk and laugh with each other on their way home. This was the last place and situation either of them expected to end up in, but it’s home. Jesse’s laugh and smiles are infectious as they walk, certainly being brighter than any lantern, light or star in Lukas’ eyes. But then again that may just be the sappy poet in him speaking.

Regardless, it’s a calm and surprisingly normal night. Their plan at this point is simple still, but they’ll figure out the details once in the Nether. Like usual. But for now they’ll drop the new goods off, let the gang know that the Nether’s their next stop, then head back to crash for the night. Well, if they can sleep before venturing to hell, that is.

Chapter Text

Jesse takes a deep breath, adjusting his gauntlets as he paces the room. He harshly blew some hair out of his face then rubbed his neck, the small breeze created by the portal only feet away threatening to mess it up further. His blue heels clack and echo throughout the iron and stone faced room. Ender Defender. The ol’ reliable of his armor sets. It was the very first set he owned, picking it before the final Witherstorm confrontation.

That was 6 years ago.

It’s an odd thing. It feels just like yesterday yet at the same time like it was a completely different life. The extent that Jesse’s grown and changed since then is striking. Physically is already a big start. The built young man casually pacing before the portal now is near unrecognizable compared to the small skinny 20 year old he was before. Sure he had a little brawn back then, but nothing close to now. And personality wise, while he’s kept all his sweet and charming attributes, he’s certainly gained a good amount of confidence, gaul, and humility. Recently he’s spent more time wondering how say, Aiden for example, would react to such a drastic change since the last he saw of him. Is he even recognizable? His right eyes twitches a bit and he reaches a hand up to rub it, then pauses, remembering the scar there. No, despite how quickly life has changed around him, he’s still Jesse.

Furthermore, even in light of it all, the armor still fits and works like a charm! It’d help him stand out more in the Nether than Tim’s armor— his favorite set— anyways. What could he say? He looked good in white and gold.

With the renovations over the years, the Order Hall became far more expansive of a structure than just a little treasure museum. The large hallways had room after room of storage, places to meet, and below the surface were entrances to mines, cart systems to travel quickly and where Jesse was standing now in the Portal room. It was simple but sturdy for certain. Iron floors, stone walls with accent lines of gold halfway up them and sea lanterns periodically strung throughout the ceiling. The room itself was rather empty and somewhat small in comparison, the stairway up taking up a majority of the space. This room was currently the deepest one they had, with provisions to block it off if need be. You never know what’ll sneak through those portals.

The sounds of excited footsteps and faint voices echoing down the stairway shake him out of his thoughts. He smiles as Petra slams into the ground, seemingly jumping the last few steps with a wide grin across her face. Jesse laughs a bit and swings his arms open wide, Petra hurrying over and giving the small man a quick hug. She steps back and slogs him in the shoulder.

“You ready for a good ol’ fashioned Nether raid?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be!” He grins back as the others--Olivia, Lukas and Ivor--come off of the stairs and meet up with the two. Jesse can’t help a small sigh of disappointment at Axel staying behind, but they were focusing more on speed than brute force. Axel certainly wasn’t a bad sport about not going on a dangerous Nether trip, in fact he seemed more confident with staying behind and helping Radar watch over town while they were away. He trusted Axel, and if he felt he’d be more helpful by staying in town, Jesse couldn’t say no. God , he really owes everyone for going along with him through all of this.

Olivia picks up on his slight sadness and gives him a small smile and pat on the shoulder. Good old Olivia. Ivor claps his hands together, getting the attention of the group. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the light of excitement in his eyes from getting to go on another adventure with Jesse and the others was apparent. They all share brief smiles before Ivor begins speaking.

“Does everyone have everything? Potions?” He pauses as Olivia and Lukas double check their bags for the potions, giving a pair of thumbs up. He nods and continues, “Ender Pearls?” Jesse nods and unslings the pouch from his belt, holding it up. Ivor nods once more, “Good, good! And everyone has their armor I see, weapons?” He takes a slight step back as he watches for everyone to pull out their weapons. Lukas unslings his bow. Custom made from when Romeo was active, the grey, green and brown would have easily resembled the foliage at night. He plucks the string, checking if the enchantment is still active. The small purple-pink sparks that fly off assure that it is. An Infinity enchantment, the best he could have gotten. Petra of course unsheathes her glorious Ms. Butter proudly, Ivor smiles and shifts his gaze to Jesse. He yanks the custom axe off of his back, giving it a good toss then letting it slide out of his hand until he’s just holding the strap at the end. He starts giving it a spin, the figure of the diamond blue axe getting blurred as he speeds it up. Stopping it abruptly he just gives Ivor a smirking nod. The axe is a culmination from years of him constantly throwing axes away in battle. Literally. This one is crafted using the hilt of a trident as the main body of the axe so it can sport a loyalty enchantment. The axe is bent at a slight angle, allowing it to be thrown similarly to a boomerang with enough power, and with a blade as sharp as it is, you wouldn’t want to be caught in its path. It’s decorated and framed with ornate gold patterns—blue, white, and gold being the major colors of it.

Ivor nods and turns to Olivia who smiles and pulls out a red, brown, silver, and gold shield, then turns to show off the iron sword on her back. Not exactly a redstone machine, but with the place they were going, they wouldn’t have time to make anything spectacular. Best to carry light.

Jesse looks back at the portal behind him, taking in a deep breath. The rest of the group exchange small glances and nods. Olivia, the dedicated speaker gently puts her hand on Jesse’s arm, speaking softly.

“Jesse… We all talked and—just in case—if you’re not sure you’re ready for this, you can turn back. There’s no shame in it and no shame if this is all just… Too much too soon.”

Jesse looks back to her, a bit surprised to be hearing this. He raises a brow and looks at the others, all nodding in agreement with Olivia. Seems they all talked this over before coming here, giving Jesse the option to turn back if he needed. He pauses, considering it briefly, but then shaking his head. Without a doubt, he wants to go through with this. Olivia and the others smile and nod. Lukas slings his bow back onto his back and puts his hands on his hips.

“Well! We’re not making any progress by standing around! Jesse, would you like to do the honor?” Luks nods and gestures towards the Nether Portal. Jesse grins.

“What a gentleman!” He waves to Lukas who laughs and takes the lead. He looks up at the portal, takes a deep breath and takes a running leap into the purple portal. The silence that follows a person once they disappear into the Nether is always one that makes Lukas, Petra and Olivia’s stomachs drop. It’s ominous. Foreboding. A sneak peek of what could come. Ivor notices the slight tension and clears his throat.

“Well, let’s get in there! Can’t leave Jesse waiting for long! You all know his level of patience…” Ivor rolls his eyes then hops through the Nether portal, trying to lighten and keep the mood as casual as possible. Olivia goes through next, then Petra and Lukas takes one last glance behind them all before running through. A habit he’s built.

On the other side, well, it’s just what one would expect from the Nether. Jesse groans, already feeling the heat seep through his armor. While he’s learned to appreciate the aesthetic of the Nether, he could never stand the practicalities. How could someone live down here, god or not? Probably another reason the Order didn’t try taking back their base themselves if he’s being honest. Maybe he’s just exaggerating because he hates the heat, but whatever, his point probably still stands. He looks back to the others with an already tired half grin as he gestures around them.

“Welcome back to Hell! How you guys feeling?”

“Like I’m boiling alive! We haven’t really come down here in full suits of armor before…” Olivia sighs, re-adjusting the strap of her bag in an attempt to get more comfortable. Ivor quips back.

“It’s better being a little sweaty now than dead later!”

“Inspiring, Ivor.” Lukas snorts and goes to pull out one of the fire resistance potions only to have Ivor place his hand over Lukas’ and push it back. He looks to the older man questioningly.

“Save those until we really need them. They have limited durations and we don’t know how long we’re going to be here. Best to use them sparingly.”

Lukas nods and carefully sets it back in his bag. Olivia puts her hands on her hips and turns to Ivor.

“Well! You’re the one who knows where this fortress is, Ivor. Your turn to be leader!”

He huffs, hiding a smile as he stands up straight. He walks over to the nearby line-up of minecarts, hitting the hull of one and grinning at the satisfying sound. He looks over his shoulder to the group.

“Best grab a cart! Hypothetically, the line to our base should still be functional. There were a few entrances but the minecart system was the least perilous, though it also means a lot of stairs to get up to the main level of the fortress unfortunately...”

Timeout Ivor.” Petra holds her hands in a ‘T’ before rubbing her temples and pointing at him accusingly, “You said hypothetically. Considering where we are at, I’d rather not trust a hypothetical and get thrown into a sea of lava because the line was destroyed!” She crosses her arms with a frown and Lukas nods in agreement.

“I’m with Petra on this one. You said there were multiple entrances—“

“That, if my last scan of the Nether is anything to go by, are closed off.”

There’s a momentary silence before Lukas speaks up again, “Closed off?”

“Metaphorically.”

“Alright, backing up further! ” Lukas holds up his hands, causing Ivor to rolls his eyes impatiently. Lukas continues, “Your last scan of the Nether? When was that Ivor?”

Ease up Lukas…” Jesse murmurs, resting a hand on the small of his back and frankly surprising him. For someone in a full set of armor, Jesse can still move incredibly quietly. His hand ghosts away as he takes a few steps towards Ivor, hands on his hips. “Let’s just lay it all on the table now. How’s it looking for us actually getting in the place?”

Well… Unless we decide to fight our way through the hordes of monsters loitering by each land entrance—which would be loud and immediately give out our location—the minecarts I’d say would have a very good chance of working.”

“But we’ve heard stories that this guy can teleport, confirmed by you … What good would a minecart line be for someone who can just zip to wherever he wants without breaking a sweat? He certainly doesn’t want visitors!” Jesse can’t help but laugh a bit whereas Ivor just sucks air in through his teeth. Jesse drops and swings his arms a bit, a newfound tightness in his chest, “Right…?”

“Considering the stories I myself have heard on top of the Order’s first experience as we were uhh… Driven out, I can’t say I’m so sure.” He crosses his arms, using one hand to gesture as he speaks. “When we all hurried into the Nether from Gabriel’s portal after the Witherstorm was first unleashed, I tried approaching from one of the land entrances only to find it absolutely surrounded by monsters. I had hoped that maybe the loon had gotten bored and left so I could snag something from our old armory, but of course, no such luck. The place was built up and frankly quite a bit more impressive than when we left it. You’ll enjoy the architecture Lukas.” He nods to the blonde who would be lying if he said he wasn’t excited, “But as I was hurrying to leave, I was able to get glimpses at the old minecart line.” He stops his pace. “Back then, it was absolutely untouched. Spotless!”

“So… He chases you guys out, successfully scaring you all away from the Nether and getting the place for himself, but then doesn’t even bother getting rid of the easiest mode of entry?” Olivia huffs, “He’s either stupid, lazy, or doesn’t want to keep people out.”

“Well that seems pretty counterintuitive…” Lukas mumbles.

“Hey, maybe he’s just lonely! I don’t think Pigmen carry a good conversation.” Jesse jokes with a laugh, getting a chuckle out of Lukas and a snicker out of Olivia.

Petra shrugs, “I dunno, I mean I always heard he wasn’t really a bad guy.”

Listen!” Ivor interrupts, “Despite the jokes and whatever you have heard previously, he’s still incredibly dangerous! Do not forget that! The moment we get into that fortress we will be in a race against the clock and that man will be on our tails. While yes, he chased us out without much past a few burns, you have to remember that we didn’t attempt resisting a man shooting lightning and appearing in flashes from every direction. Moreso, that encounter was 19 years ago! Just a year before our venture into the End. People change, and isolation contributes to that.”

“If he didn’t get rid of the minecart line for the 13 years between chasing you all out and the Witherstorm, he probably hasn’t touched them in the last 6 years either. But we could also be sitting ducks…”

“Perhaps. Yet if he didn’t want to be known about, the rumors and stories we’ve all heard would be few and far between.”

There’s a bit of silence that hangs in the air as the gang thinks over the pros and cons of each of their options. Of course they would wait until the last minute to get the plan ironed out. Typical. But better now than in the face of danger Jesse supposes. He rubs his neck with a sigh, looks like they're gonna be taking a gamble.

“Let’s just get going.” Petra breaks the silence. No one really disagrees.

Everyone hops into the small line of minecarts and Jesse moves to the back of the line once they’re all settled. Getting a good stance, he leans down and heaves, pushing the line of carts forward just a step or two. Enough to get them started. With the small bit of momentum, they begin. Jesse hops in place before sprinting alongside the line as it speeds up, hopping into the first cart before he gets the chance to be left behind. There’s a string of laughter at the sight of him flinging himself into the cart, practically popping a wheelie. Jesse sits up, still catching his breath and grins back to his friends.

The ride is surprisingly relaxing. Sure, it’s a bit hotter than one would desire but there’s something about the steady rumble of the cart moving along the tracks that was almost soothing. Compared to the other tracks, this one didn’t have many extreme twists, turns nor tumbles. The view isn’t half bad either. A bit nerve wracking if you think too hard on it, but generally nice. The line takes its time and travels through the cramped and confusing maze of Nether caves, rivines and generally small but familiar openings. Eventually they pass into a long darkened tunnel, lit only by redstone lamps in the ceiling and redstone torches strung along the sides. This line is quite a feat, and one with a lot of time and effort obviously put into it. It’s rather saddening to see how much passion went into this place only to have it never be seen.

Moving through the tunnel, they’ll occasionally see other openings where other lines converge and meet with this general one. There’s one for every Order member, had he known the Nether better Jesse may have been able to guess which line belonged to who. The dynamic and ever shifting lighting as they move in and out of the lantern and torch light is beautiful, bathing everything in a warm red glow. Lukas can’t hold back his awe at the architecture of just the tunnel. The mix of Netherrack, brick, quartz and gold accents as they climb and arch above them to highlight each lantern is gorgeous. Olivia grins from ear to ear as she spies and guesses all of the behind the scene engineering that would get this place to work. Jesse, Petra and Ivor just share contented smiles.

The group gets jerked back as they speed up. Jesse looks back to the others, all readjusting and hanging on a bit tighter as the end of the tunnel comes into view. They speed up faster and faster to the opening where they’re harshly swung to the left. Petra shakes her head to reorient herself while the other gawk at the new environment they’ve been thrown into. Ivor merely smirks with pride. They’ve been thrown out into a spacious zone where one could potentially see for miles if the haze and darkness weren’t so stifling. They’re suddenly hundreds of feet above the popping and sizzling magma and squeezed up against one of the near sky scraping cliffs of Netherrack that outline the area. Such a sudden change of pace, it’s fitting for the Nether. One look over the right side of their carts and it’s a straight shot down to the beautifully dangerous lake of fire. Olivia turns behind her, looking past Petra and calling to Ivor at the back.

“Can I ask why you guys built the line in such a precarious place??? This ledge is 5 feet wide at BEST!”

“Ha! Magnus and Ellegaard agreed to it! Magnus thought it was dramatic and ‘cool’ and Ellegaard agreed because it’d be a challenge. You know how she was.”

“Yeah…” Olivia mumbles, glancing back over the ledge of her minecart. A few small pieces of Netherrack crack and break off of the wall and tumble all the way down to the lava. They hit the surface hard and send a small ripple through the lava, flames shooting and dancing upwards from the hit before dissipating into thin air. A chill runs up Olivia’s spine as she settles for either staring straight ahead or at the wall they’re crunched up against on their left.

“Jesse…” The breathtaken Lukas catches the freckled man’s attention from the waterfalls of lava that were scattered about, no start of them in sight as they seemingly came out of the red haze above them. He turns behind him only to find Lukas wide eyed and seemingly staring out at nothing. He raises a brow.

“What is it?”

Look.” He extends an arm, pointing out across the lake. Jesse squints, trying to make out what he was pointing to in particular. There was a peninsula of sorta at least, far below them and still a ways out across the orange ocean. The magma popped and licked at the small cliff sides, but it was hard to see through the haze. But there was something else to be seen through the darkness, and once he spotted the shape of it, Jesse went slack-jawed.

Jesse’s seen a Nether Fortress or two before in his life. But this wasn’t a fortress anymore. This thing was some sort castle. The original shape of the Nether Fortress can still be made out, but it’s near nonexistent with the sheer amount of changes and extravagant additions built upon it. It’s a beautifully decorated labyrinth that stretches both outwards and upwards. Glowstone and Redstone are the main sources of light, and the ornate lanterns strung about highlight each twist and turn. The complex stretches into the haze of the Nether, every time you think you’ve found the edge of it, you spot another addition. The roofs are steep and octagonal, the buildings themselves feigning a gothic or victorian style. Sharp angles but beautifully intricate archways and ornately carved quartz or red brick columns that periodically travel as high as the given building. There’s a surprising mix of materials, the classic bricks that Nether Fortresses are known to have, but with quartz, netherrack, gold, and even stone mixed in. In some of the towers, the light of the lava shines off the stained glass windows that replaced the typical bars. Everything is built off a large middle tower, the tallest and certainly grandest aspect. But it’s closely matched with the other 3 spires it’s connected to and surrounded by. About a third of the way up, the main 4 towers meet at a square courtyard and balcony. Beneath that point it’s more difficult to tell the bits and pieces of the former fortress apart. It stretches far out and overhangs some of the lava while others reach and blend with the terrain. A large walkway coming from the back right is visible, featuring its own small courtyard before blending in to the rest of the complex. One of the land entrances Ivor had mentioned.

Ivor whistles, leading to four already awestruck faces to look down at him in unison. He looks back with a shrug.

“What? Look, Soren made our base nice sure, but we didn’t leave it like this! It’s quite impressive though considering the amount of time this man has on his hands I can’t say I’m surprised with the amount of detail and expansion! I’d keep an eye on where we step though as we make our way through there, if he’s constantly building the place up there’s no telling where holes or unfinished hallways could be.”

“I can see some of Soren’s original style in the main building. The part below that main courtyard. The was probably the original center the Order created, then this other guy built up on it. Soren always loved making big centerpieces for his builds, this one certainly wasn’t different. I wish I could have seen the original to be able to compare…”

“I can assure you Lukas, the difference is… Spectacular.” He scratches at his beard for a moment in thought, then laughs a bit under his breath before readdressing him, “Soren would positively throw a fit if he saw what became of his perfect little fortress! If we really wanted a threat against this man, I suppose we could have just brought Soren along to critique every change this man has made!” He jokes and Petra snickers.

Jesse huffs, giving a lopsided grin at the thought of Soren being apart of this group. He’d complain, worry and nag all through the cart ride here. His inevitable gasp at the stomach churning height they’re moving at though would have been hilarious.

Speaking of shock, Jesse and the others can’t help a scream as the line very suddenly drops them. Jesse grips the sides of his minecart as they’re whipped back and forth through some tight turns and another drop. They’ve picked up speed once again and Lukas grits his teeth before yelling to be heard against the newfound wind whipping past them, messing up his hair.

“Olivia if we die here, I want you to know that I am going to personally PUNCH Ellegaard in the afterlife for designing all of these ridiculous roller coasters! I just want one, ONE--normal minecart line in this hellscape!”

“Good luck with that Blondie!” Ivor yells up with a knowing smirk. Lukas looks back at him in annoyed confusion before they harshly drop again and a scream is ripped from his throat. Petra bursts out laughing before whooping as they go down. Olivia just sits in her cart anxiously while Jesse nervously braces himself for whatever comes next. The tracks harshly straighten out again, jolting everyone forward. Jesse slowly exhales through his mouth as he sits back, bumping Lukas’ head in the process. He glances behind him to see the blonde hunched over and head resting on the front of the cart. Jesse laughs softly and reaches back to tap his shoulder. Lukas lets out a sigh before sitting back up with a grunt, the wind whipping the hair out of his face once again. Hardly a half hour in and he already feels like a disaster. Jesse snickers and that at least helps lift his spirits, the blonde tiredly chuckling along with him.

The rest of the ride is just the straight-shot approach into the lower levels of the fortress. The heat of the now uncomfortably close lake of magma is near overbearing and already makes Jesse feel tired. He’s never been extremely fond of the heat. He can deal with it sure but he always preferred mild or even colder weather. He loved snow and being on the ice. Hell he’d be lying if he tried saying he wasn’t at least a little excited when Romeo made that giant ice castle as a challenge. He lets out a sigh as the carts start slowing down as they get inside the fortress.

“Hang on!” He calls back. They were slowing down, yes, but not enough to make it a clean stop. He braces as his front cart races and eventually slams against the brick half wall, jerking him forward with a grunt. He lets out an annoyed sigh and is the first to hop out, stumbling a little bit. Got out a bit too fast there. He looks down as he steadies himself, then freezes at the sight. Right now, the only thing separating him from the short fall to the popping lava below is a layer of glass he can only pray is rather thick. He jerks his gaze back to the group and holds up a hand, “Hey uh, be careful guys! I have no idea how fragile this stuff is and I’d rather not find out.”

“There are kinder ways to comment on our weight Jesse, geez.” Olivia teases and Jesse opens his mouth to protest only to be cut off by her snickering and shaking her head. “I’m kidding. We’ll be careful, but it looks pretty safe to me! I don’t think this place will be super booby trapped or anything to be quite honest. Despite all the of the redstone decor, I think that’s all it is, decor! If he doesn’t get visitors that often, why go out of his way to make so many annoying traps that he himself could accidentally trip? I mean sure he could have but I dunno. I doubt it.” She hops out of her cart and onto the glass floor. She smiles as she strides over to Jesse confidently. He shakes his head with a small smile.

He takes a step back and looks around while the others disembark. The room is decently tall but without a lot of substance, simply a large glowstone lantern hanging down overhead. To the right of the minecart of the line is just a large window looking out over the lake and out to the distant terrain. Lukas stares out the window while he waits. The wall they entered through is, of course, wide open from the ceiling to the floor with just a mere half wall guarding the edge. That leaves them with two options. Two different staircases. The gang regroups and everyone looks to Ivor expectantly.

“You think you can still navigate this place?”

“Surely. If not perfectly, I will at least know the general area of things. Let’s just hope he hasn’t changed the interior as drastically as the exterior. But taking a look around here…” He gestures to their surroundings and sighs in frustration. “This mission may take longer than expected. So, we need to be ready for anything and use our potions sparingly. Jesse, what are the potions you all brought along again?”

“8 fire resistance potions, 4 speed potions and 4 night vision potions.”

Fantastic! That’s more than I thought... I have my own fire resistance, one of slowness and two of healing if it comes to it. You should be the first to take a fire resistance one Jesse. Now.”

“What? Why? We’re inside . Save them for someone who needs it.” He protests, pointing to the other group members. He hardly gets a chance to continue his argument though before Lukas shoves one of the orange potions into his hands. He raises a brow and looks up at Lukas who only gives him a look of ‘Just do it.’ He looks to the others for any kind of backup and Olivia just looks away while Petra shrugs.

“No offense Jesse, but despite however many years and Gods you fight, you are still a bit of a clutz at times. Plus we all know you hate the heat. Those potions will help keep you from sweating to death!” She slogs him in the arm with a grin, Jesse just rolling his eyes. He looks up at Ivor and points a finger at him.

“Fine, but if we’re a potion short later, I’m blaming you.”

Ivor lets out a curt laugh, “So be it! You others might as well grab some potions now as well, I doubt we’ll get another break for a while. I’m using Night vision, you should too Jesse.”

“Would you quit telling me what potions I should and shouldn’t--” Lukas pushes another potion up against Jesse’s chest, mildly amused now. Jesse blinks, unamused. “ Take.”

Ivor chuckles, “Someone has an attitude today!”

Jesse shrugs sheepishly as he pops the cork off the potion bottle--Petra snatching it out of the air--and downs the second one. He finishes and holds his hand out for the cork which Petra drops into his palm, closing the potion bottle as he replies.

“I’m just tense. I don’t want things going wrong or getting too out of hand. Especially not for something like this.” His face contorts into a mild one of disgust as he reaches over and tucks the bottle back in Lukas’ satchel. Petra reaches over and punches him in the arm again, a bit harder this time. He recoils, looking rather offended, “ OW?”

“That one is for being so dramatic. Jesse, we all talked about this. We already agreed to this. It doesn’t matter that the world isn’t at stake and it doesn’t matter that we’re not just running in for some treasure either. We’re helping you out here because we care about you and we know that you need this. And frankly you would probably get yourself killed doing this alone.” She rests her hands on her hips and Jesse can’t help a small smile at the classic Petra pep talk.

Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“She’s simply saying,” Olivia walks up and grabs Jesse by the shoulders from behind, being careful not to poke herself on his spiked shoulder pads, “is that there’s no way you’re getting rid of us that easily! Look, even if we somehow end up in a bind, we’ll get through it. We’ve done it before we can do it again. And, don’t even worry too much about it! This guy isn’t a Romeo. Remember that.”

Jesse nods, smiling but not looking up at them. “Alright… Let’s just be safe out there. Stick together definitely and don’t hit any pigmen.”

Amen to that.” Lukas says with a shudder. And so it begins!

Ivor waves them over and leads them up the left staircase. The small group’s stress begins to mound as they move upward and into the thick of things. Miraculously, there’s an extreme lack of monsters roaming the halls. They can’t see any, but can certainly hear them. The ominous groans of pigmen from all around them makes the hair stand up on the back of Jesse’s neck. Everyone has their weapons at the ready, gripping tight and light on their feet. Jesse lightly bounces on the balls of his feet whenever they pause, letting out the pent up stress and energy.

The group creeps through the halls, their emptiness becoming increasingly unsettling. The interior of this place is elegant, beautifully decorated and it’s obvious someone lives here. The floor is outlined in quartz and primarily made of dark nether brick with the monotony of it all broken up by the simple red carpet that extends down the middle of each hallway. Red with simple gold lining around the edges. The ceilings have a mild arch to them, nothing too spectacular but not just a simple box either. Columns dance up and arc periodically in a darker color than the maroon bricks. Olivia dusts her fingers across one, squinting to inspect it in the low light. She quickly hisses and jerks back as the jagged rock cuts her. Obsidian. The purples in the black rock dance thanks to the flickering flames of the redstone torches lining the walls. They bathe the place in warm light, but the haunting emptiness makes it difficult to enjoy. Someone’s put great care into this place, but they’ve left it neat and tidy without a trace. Perhaps that’s what makes it so unsettling.

Lukas downs a night vision potion mid stride, feeling the paranoia start to get the better of his nerves. The metallic taste is familiar, almost homely to him from practice. During his heyday against Romeo, he would always hit at night and creep around via the dark alleys, tunnels and passageways and Night Vision quickly became a necessity. You never know what’s lurking and he would rather not let his nerves get the best of him in the Nether of all places. He shakes his head.

“I don’t like this. None of this feels right…” Lukas breaks the near silence, making the others jump a bit. Ivor stops and glances back to the others, looking over them all. They all share the same unnerved look he sports. Lukas continues, itching to just get what they need and run. “ Tell me you know where we’re going Ivor.”

“I do . See those double doors up ahead? I’m fairly certain that was our base’s original center. From there it will be, hopefully, a straight shot to the library. We can talk more in there, it’ll be bigger, safer.”

Finally…” He mumbles under his breath, gripping his bow tightly. Petra moves further up and falls into step beside Lukas, locking arms with him and surprising the blonde. He raises a brow and Petra just grins. She mouths to him.

‘Lighten up Farm Boy’

He blows out a hushed laugh at the old nickname. Petra smiles proudly and slips her arm away, patting him on the back. Jesse looks back at the two curiously then smiles at the bit of lightheartedness brought back. He often forgets how long Petra and Lukas have known each other--since they were kids! Jesse nods a silent thanks to Petra, then bumps straight into Ivor. He blinks and looks up at the man, receiving a look of disdain for not paying attention. He sheepishly grins and takes a step back. Ivor holds up a hand to make sure they all stay quiet as he listens against the door.

The tension returns with the deafening silence. A minute of silence passes, then another. A third. Olivia and Jesse share an equally concerned look. Jesse sighs and tosses his axe to his left hand, walking forward, grabbing the door and quickly shoving it open. He strides into the open room, carefully looking all around the large clearing. Empty. Completely empty. He sighs and slings his axe back onto his back, turning on his heel to face the group and gesturing widely to the room around him with a grin.

Empty!”

The room is octagonal in nature with a ceiling that climbs a good two stories up and arcs into one point. A magnificent chandelier hangs down from that center peak. Gothic in style, the ornate black base is impressive in size. For the first time, golden light shines down upon them from the shimmering glowstone pieces stung throughout the chandelier. Jesse lets out a sigh at the sight. Redstone torches continue lining the walls around each door or pathway but it’s the light from the chandelier that’s prominent. Color wise it’s a darker room--no quartz or gold to balance out the dark reds and black of that same brick and obsidian columns. The room has no windows, but 5 other passages leading further through this level, further up or further down.

The loud aggravated sigh of Ivor is the first response from the group Jesse notes as the man marches over to him. He shoves a finger into Jesse’s chest, obviously angry.

“Jesse you cannot just barge into rooms around here! It is incredibly dangerous and you know that!”

Jesse rolls his eyes, “Yes but we all also knew that this room was empty regardless. If I think someplace is dangerous, then I won’t do that. But there’s nobody home, Ivor.”

We do not KNOW that Jesse!” Ivor rubs his temples, stressing this to the brash young man the best he can.

“You were the one who said we should be safe about this and stick together Jess…” Olivia approaches, shrugging sympathetically. Jesse put up his hands in defeat.

“Okay, okay. Let’s not make this a bigger deal than it needs to be. I mean, we’re already in and what’s done is done! I will try not to make any other stupid choices.”

Thank you.” Ivor sighs, rubbing his forehead.

“But for real,” Petra walks over with Lukas, who had been once again admiring the architecture. “Can we talk about this place? Because I was hearing things at first but… Now it’s just a straight up ghost town.” She frowns. “It’s really creepy. Honestly Ivor, what made you guys think building a base in the Nether was a good idea?”

“Oh please--”

“What she’s trying to say,” Lukas steps in, eyeing Petra for a moment, “is that it’s extremely suspicious. I don’t like thinking about it but, what seriously are the odds that Herobrine just decided to leave all of this? That he’s just blissfully unaware of us being here?” Lukas looks around the small circle and a momentary silence weighs down on their shoulders. It’s not something anyone likes to think about. The idea of being toyed with the entire time like little guinea pigs. You’d think from the stories that this guy would go off at the first hint of someone else being in his home. Then again with the minecart line still in tact, maybe this guy likes fucking with people’s heads.

Jesse sucks in a breath, ready to voice his thoughts but the words get caught in his throat at the sound of a new voice echoing throughout the room.

 

Want to find out?

 

Everyone’s stomach drops and the light of the chandelier is momentarily blinding before everything goes black with a thunderous crack and burst of wind. Someone screams, Jesse clamps his hands over his ears as he scrunches his eyes shut. Reopening his eyes, the panic sets in. He can’t see. He can’t see at all. His night vision wore off. It’s pitch black. It hurts. It hurts his head as he strains to make out something.

Another crack--a strike of lightning within the room, seemingly shaking the fortress’ own foundations as it strikes. Jesse hears Olivia scream and can make out the fearful faces of his group in the brief white light. That one broke the floodgates as the air around them is filled with the loud repeated snaps and bangs of lightning, drowning out all other noise. He desperately cries out to his panicked group.

GUYS! I’m right here! Stay together!” He feels his chest tighten again as the darkness engulfs the room once more. He hates the dark. He hates this. Breathing starts becoming gasps, tension shifts to panic. It’s too loud. It’s too loud and it’s too dark he can’t think! The sudden tight hand on his forearm makes him shriek as he tries tearing away. Another hand reaches and snags him further up the arm, dragging him along. Jesse jerks and squirms trying to get back. Not like his dad. Not like this.

Jesse easy! It’s me! It’s alright!” Getting close enough, he can faintly hear the reassuring voice of Lukas over the barrage of lightning strikes just outside. His chest swells with relief as he stops resisting and allows Lukas and pull him close. Jesse hugs him tight, burying his face in the crook of Lukas’ neck as he attempts to ground himself. Lukas keeps his grip secure as he scans the room to note the other’s positions. Ivor’s already gotten to Petra and is yelling something to her. Lukas can’t read his lips but assumes it’s something similar to what he had to yell at Jesse. Speak of the devil, Jesse takes in a breath and pushes back, simply opting to keep one arm intertwined with Lukas’. He looks down in surprise but sees that familiar determination. Jesse’s still shaken but trusts Lukas to guide him out, and they need to get moving. Lukas squeezes his hand in acknowledgement and starts tugging him along towards Ivor and Petra.

Lukas clamps down his other hand onto Petra’s arm and he hears her gasp. He shakes it reassuringly as he hollers over the noise. “ It’s just us! We need to get moving!”

“Where’s Olivia?” She yells back, the realization that they’re one short making Lukas’ stomach sink. Both he and Ivor begin frantically scanning the room. Ivor is the one to spot her, catching Lukas’ attention and pointing her way. Separated from the group and in a blitz as she fiddles with her bag, Olivia’s on her own and already at work to get something to help her see--A potion or light source. Lukas squeezes Petra’s arm again and nods.

“I’m gonna go grab her! Stay with Jesse and Ivor!”

He gets no chance to act however as another bolt of lightning strikes inside again, this time even closer than the last. The sparks fly, lighting the netherrack in the floor ablaze, quickly filling the room with dangerous orange light. Jesse’s eyes widen as he hastily shoves Lukas and Petra forward before hopping and stumbling backwards as the wall of fire streaks and billows upwards. The ferocious winds of the flames blow his hair every which way as he shields his face from any free flying sparks. The good news is that they can see again and that lightning barrage outside seems to have calmed, ceasing to only occasional strikes. Bad news, of course, is that they are now split up by the walls of roaring fire.

Jesse squints in confusion at the alarm in his friend’s faces as they seem to yell something at him. It only takes a second matched with the husky sounds of a blaze amongst the roar of the flames to realize his predicament. A quick spin on his heel, a dive, and a roll saves him from burning to a crisp both from fireball and the walls of fire built around them. He bounces to his feet, tearing the axe from his back as he looks up at the smoky creature. It’s a horrid sight for the unaccustomed. The base shape of the skull resembling a human’s but with a thin layer of liquid gold poured over it, bright reds, oranges, yellows and whites like molten metal in a gradient from top to bottom. Flames lick upwards from the top of the skull and burn randomly around the creature. The eye sockets are an empty black hole with glowing red pinpoints for pupils. Smoke escapes every orifice and engulfs it. The golden and feverish sought after rods speed up their orbit around the creature and Jesse’s eyes widen.

He leaps out of the way once more, avoiding a majority of the second set of fireballs that streak towards him. With a hearty and rather hasty swing however, he knocks the last one right back at the blaze, nailing and knocking it back. Through the roaring flames, he hears Lukas draw an arrow before he sees it. The crackling like firecrackers of his bow as a purple-pink arrow forms with the pull of the drawstring gives it away. It lets out a high pitched whistle as it streaks through the air, hitting the blaze above with a flash. The creature is disoriented, now stuck between two targets. It doesn’t get a chance to choose before being hit with another arrow--a third. A fourth! A fifth and the creature disappears in a small flash of light and puff of smoke, the rods that had been so viciously orbiting around it stalling and dropping into the flames below. Jesse meets Lukas’ gaze through the flames and nods in thanks.

Those elusive monsters they had heard but never seen begin flooding the room ranging from the towering and haunting forms of wither skeletons to the small and, frankly, quite cute magma cubes. Jesse yelps at the sudden heat on his ankle and kicks one of the little things away, cringing a bit after. They were sweet little things! One can’t help but feel awful for kicking something akin to like… A puppy! A puppy that’s on fire. And is gnawing on your leg. With the hope of killing you.

Jesse shakes his head, cutting off that line of thought and refocusing. They need to regroup and they need to bolt. He watches Olivia charge through the flames with a yell, slamming into a Wither skeleton and knocking it away from Petra in the process—looks like she found one of those potions in her bag. The pair beat back the wither skeleton, Petra clashing blades with the overgrown monster while Olivia acts as her shield. And so much for staying on the Pigmen’s good side. Lukas breaks from shooting down blazes to turning and beating a pigman back with his bow, at one point catching and holding it’s golden blade back. He rams his knee into the pigman’s exposed abdomen, then bats his bow over its head as it recoils. With it knocked down he quickly turns, drawing another arrow and aiming once more for the burning beasts raining more fire down upon them.

Jesse frowns. He has to get over there. But through all this fire? It reminds him of the wall of fire Cassie tried cutting him off with way back in her world, but these flames aren’t as hot. He could just barge through but that would be bad in more ways than one. If his nightvision wore off then his fire resistance undoubtedly has as well--it would just put him out of the fight. He anxiously bounces in place on the balls of his feet as he scrambles to think of something fast, and it comes to him so fast that he’d beat himself up over it if he had time. He reaches down to his belt, frantically untying and reaching into the small pouch. He yanks out one of the small, cloudy, greenish-blue pearls. He grins, hastily tying the pouch shut then taking aim. He hops into a small running start and chucks the pearl through the flames, aiming for the ground close by a wither skeleton getting a bit too close to his friends. A second’s air time and the pearl hits the ground with a satisfying clink, Jesse taking its place in a crouch but not losing his forward momentum. He pushes up straight, swings his axe and himself in a strong circle, plants his front foot down and rips the shimmering blue blade of his axe up through the creature. It disappears in a black smoke with a raspy screech--seems he got the finishing blow.

Show off!” He hears Petra rag on him from over his shoulder. He looks back at her with a wide grin. He slips his axe down, gripping the strap at the end as he starts spinning it in a consistent spin. The sound is a satisfying whooshing as the blade whips through the air. He rushes an approaching group of pigmen, whistling to grab their attention--works like a charm. His grip tight, he slices through the small group, dancing just out of reach of their own swings with practiced ease. He kicks the legs out from under one--it collapsing and disappearing in a puff--and elbows another in the face using the momentum of a spin and allowing the heavy top of his axe drag him around. He lets go of the strap, the axe flying straight upwards in a spin, then snatches it again mid flight and spin. With the curt stop he grips the hilt of the base of his axe and swings hard for the last pigman. Perfect hit. He cringes a bit at the gross sight and smell, scrunching up his nose in momentary disgust, but he can’t falter for too long.

He wipes his nose as if that’d get rid of the smell and turns to fight off another monster only to get a bit too close of a look at Ivor. He yelps in surprise at the man’s sudden appearance and hardly gets time to respond as the man grabs him by the arm and yanks the others into a group again as well.

“Oh come on Ivor we had ‘em!” Petra rolls her eyes, still holding her sword at the ready, her back to the group.

“This man will just keep sending hordes in, we need to move! But at this point if we want to get out of here in good time the best way to do that is to split up!”

“I’ll go with Jesse!”

“What?” Lukas fires off his arrow and spins to look back at her.

“You heard me! Lukas you need to stay with the distraction group cause you’re the only one here with range and those blazes aren’t exactly gonna run up and give ol’ Olivia a hug!” Petra laughs a bit, “You’ll get your time pretty boy! But not yet!” She grins, turning to Ivor before Lukas can retort, “Point us in the right direction!”

With a nod Ivor points to a stairwell on the opposite end of the room, dead ahead.

Our old library was up those stairs and down the hall! I pray it’s still there but if you need more time, we can buy that! We’ll try to divert Herobrine’s attention and lead him the opposite way!”

Jesse interrupts, finally getting a word in over the quick-paced of the conversation and frustratingly loud flames.

“How do we find you all again? We need something planned!”

Olivia rolls her eyes, reaching over and snatching 5 ender pearls out of the pouch at Jesse’s side as she does so. She gives one to Petra then shoves one into Jesse’s hand, seriously in the eye.

“Just scream! We don’t have time for anything clever and this place is too unpredictable to have a plan. Run and scream while you’re running! Now go!” She spins Jesse around and pushes him forward. He nods back at the group.

“Be safe! We’ll make this quick!”

“Do us all a favor Jess and come back in one piece.”

Jesse grins and gives Lukas a thumbs up before turning to Petra. She quirks a brow at him.

“Still got a good throwing arm?”

“You bet!” The two take aim for the stairwell across the room, blocked itself by the wall of fire just a few feet away. They throw at the same time--the half second as they wait to be teleported feeling like a slow hour ticking on by. The pearls clink to the ground and the pair stumble forward as they arrive at the base of the stairs. The air is already cooler, or at least as cool as the Nether can get. They momentarily glance behind them at the maze of fire and their fighting friends. It’s always an odd sight standing on the sidelines. It doesn’t feel as real. They don’t linger long, looking back at the stairs before them and beginning their sprint up. The hallway at the top is a long one with other hallways breaking off periodically.

“You gotta be kidding me…” Petra complains under her breath. Jesse huffs in agreement. They continue straight though towards the pair of doors at the end of the hall however. Jesse slows himself to a stop as they come to the T-intersection and the doors, taking a brief look down both hallways before focusing on the door before them. He grabs the old-timey handle, jiggling and struggling with it for a moment before getting the satisfying *click!*

Shoving the door open, he feels his hopes get immediately dashed. The room is less of a library and more of a glorified dining room and kitchen combo. He groans and Petra scowls in annoyance.

“Why does he even have this? Do Demigods have to eat?”

“Don’t know, don’t care!” He slams the door shut a bit louder than he hoped, sending a surge of anxiety through both of them. He cringes but shakes it off and looks up to Petra. “Ivor said this area is where the library used to be, let’s at least start here with the doors already in this hall, if we’re lucky, he was lazy and didn’t move it very far.” He begins walking back into the hall, going for a close door on his left.

“Jesse what if he doesn’t have the library anymore?”

That makes Jesse stop mid-stride. There’s silence on his end as he hesitates but eventually just shakes his head. “No. It’s gotta be here. I can’t imagine taking up fort here for 20 years without keeping a few books around. It’d get too boring! They’re here I’m sure of it.”

He continues on, grabbing the door handle and pushing open the second room’s door and peeking inside. No library. Petra sighs and steels herself a very tedious game of hide and seek. The two dart back and forth from door to door down the long hall. Why does he even have so many rooms? Who cares, actually. Right now it’s purely an annoyance. Seventh door’s the charm? No. Eighth? No. Twelfth? No again. Jesse slams the last door shut in a newfound frustration. He marches back down the hall to the double-doored room they first looks into and glances down each hall at the intersection. Which way to go now? Petra catches up to him and picks up on what he’s thinking. She rests her hands on her hips.

“Well, we got a whole ass castle to search. What’s the plan chief?”

“Start sprinting through this place and doing it the annoying way.” He crosses his arms and the two stand there, letting out sighs in unison. Jesse rubs his eyes, tiredly, his guard momentarily down.

You know it’s not nice to snoop through a man’s home, especially uninvited.”

The two feel a chill creep up their spines and their breaths hitch. That wasn’t a formless voice this time. They don’t even have to look back to know they have a pair of glowing white eyes boring into them. So much for distractions. Jesse and Petra work up the nerve to glance at each other and back at the man standing at the top of the stairwell down the hall. Just like the stories, two gloriously bright white eyes light up the darkness. The man stands without an ounce of fear, hands relaxed on his hips and weight shifted ever so slightly onto his left leg. Jesse notes it. That’s probably his dominant side. Left handed.

The man’s outfit is… far different than what he heard from the stories. Before venturing into the Nether, he certainly got an earful as both Petra and Axel talked their own mouths off about this urban legend. But there was always the constant of him appearing like an average man. Teal shirt, jeans, roughed up brown hair. Jesse remembers thinking about how the description reminded him of his father. Even Ivor confirmed that as what he and the Order saw when they were first attacked, but this man looked nothing like that. The only things consistent about the man before them was the brown hair, --now nicely pushed back-- the darker skin, like Jesse’s, and those intensely glowing eyes. His outfit now was far more regal, and fitting of the Nether aesthetic. A loose scarlet button up shirt rolled up to his elbows with an ornate plate of armor on top. The armor gleams of various golds, bright reds in the edges and shimmering white jewels decorating the corners of the shoulder pads and one large jewel over his heart. The straps holding up the armor as well as the lighter bits around his stomach and ribs are a dark red, outlined in a glowing orange reminding Jesse of the lava strewn all about the underworld. His ribcage is protected by the armor as well as the ribs of a passed wither skeleton it seems. Best to avoid hitting those--just in case. He wears a pair of fingerless gloves that match the color of the ribs, the edges laced with a simple strip of gold. Right up from those are the gold similarly bejeweled cuffs on his upper forearms. He isn’t wearing as much armor from the waist down, just black pants and matching gold and red boots. Right. Go for the knees, Jesse. He sports a small crown, if one can even call it that. Matching the color scheme and featuring a similar white jewel that hangs down. The jewel is surrounded in a thing layer of gold, with small round rubies at each point except the top. Protruding from the top two sides of the jewel are two small, red, horn-like features. Right behind them, outlining the main shape of the crown are two larger ivory colored horns that curve out just a bit higher than the red ones. From there the headdress has two matching simple pieces of gold that curve up and around with similar round rubies in the center. The headdress is held on by a string of pearls, completing the piece. It certainly looks like he took the concept of ‘King of Hell’ and ran with it. The final and frankly most glaring addition is the white somewhat transparent cape. Shimmering beautifully from every which way and emanating a similar ethereal glow as his eyes, it’s obvious he doesn’t want to be missed.

The man smirks in the eerie red light, a dangerous gleam in his already bone chilling white eyes. Jesse feels like ice, and that’s saying a lot for someone who loves the cold and is also literally in hell.

“Jess?” Petra harshly whispers, neither one of the two taking their eyes off of the man. His hands slide off his hips and the smile disappears from his face as he take a step towards them. Those white eyes now spell out danger.

Yeah?” Jesse replies, the hairs on the back of his neck slowly standing with each step the man takes.

“New plan. Split.”

Now THAT snaps his attention back to Petra. “WHAT?!” Saying he immediately regrets the volume of his voice would be an understatement. Petra glares a bit at him whereas Herobrine falters in his step for a moment. He blinks, honestly mildly surprised at the sudden shout. That was a new one. But now it was awkward. He rolls his eyes and sighs, opting to dart at the two instead of the saunter he had before. Petra yelps and immediately starts pushing and shoving at Jesse.

“SPLIT! GO! GOGOGOGOGO!!” She shrieks and Jesse knows he has no chance to argue. The two split up, jumping into sprints down the opposite halls. Herobrine skids to a stop, scowling as he looks down each way, trying to decide which one to pursue. He hums in thought. This would certainly be an interesting chase. Finally coming to a decision, he turns left, racing down the hall after Petra.



Chapter Text

Jesse swings around a second corner, sprinting through the maze like halls. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. Not at all. Here he was, all alone in a dangerous Nether fortress with the potential for mobs at every turn and a lightning shooting lunatic chasing after him. But Petra. God, Petra. With the lack of that guy on his own tail, he can only assume he went after her. Man, if anything happens to his friends here because of his own carelessness—

AUGH! Jesse doesn’t get to finish his own line of thought as he runs straight into something— someone? The two hit the ground hard and get thrown, rolling a bit before either comes to a dead halt. Jesse groans as he picks himself up to his knees. Rule number 1 before crossing an intersection, look both ways. Jesse doesn’t immediately register the cursing coming from nearby thanks to his dazed state, but once he picks up on it his face scrunches up into confusion. He’s heard that accent before. That tone is familiar. He’s struck with disbelief as his suspicions are confirmed with one look over at the man he practically body slammed.

Romeo?!” He doesn’t even try to hide the astonishment in his voice. The red-headed man pushes himself up onto his elbow, his other arm holding his own chest. Seems he got the wind knocked out of him. Jesse only feels slightly sorry before he remembers that this is Romeo. Golden eyes glare at him before going wide in realization at who ran into him. He lets out a brief yelp in surprise before scrambling back a pace and sitting up straight.

“Jesse! Good lord why are you—.” He looks over the disheveled, slightly charred and grossly sweaty young man, desperately trying to hide his disgust while doing so. “This is… Certainly awkward.”

Jesse sits there flabbergasted. He never thought he’d be seeing Romeo again! Or at least not for a few years! His face scrunches up in confusion and irritance.

“What on Earth are you doing down here? I-In THIS place especially!”

Oh! Well you see, nobody likes me and—“

“Oh how shocking.” Jesse quips monotonously, rolling his eyes as he scans the area around them. Romeo glares at him for a long second until Jesse makes eye contact again. He then continues with a plastered smile.

“You of course didn’t want me on the surface, and Xara understandably needs some… Space from me. So!” He shrugs, “This realm was the only place left for me.”

Jesse pinches the bridge of his nose, shaking his head as his mind spins all around itself. “ Again! Why THIS place in particular? Don’t you know how dangerous the man here is?!” He asks incredulously. Romeo stares back at him, nose scrunched up in confusion as he seemingly takes a long while to process Jesse’s words. It’s as if he’s completely unaware of the threats of the Nether. After a long minute his eyes light up in understanding and he immediately lets out a long drawn out sigh while rolling his eyes. He opens his mouth to continue then gets hit with another thought and becomes defensive.

“Wait a moment—Why are you interrogating ME? I should be asking you the same question!”

“Oh yeah like I’d actually tell you.” Jesse huffs and Romeo scowls. He goes to push for more information but is abruptly cut off by the not so distant crack of lightning. Both heads snap towards the sound and Jesse feels his stomach sink. That’s right, he needs to focus and they need to get out of here. Romeo mumbles under his breath.

“Hero… Eugh, that doesn’t sound good.” He quickly grabs and jerks Jesse’s arm, yanking him back and earning a good glare. It doesn’t faze him as he looks at him with a hard gaze, “Are you here to fight him or something else?”

Jesse hesitates but doesn’t necessarily sense any hostility from Romeo. Warily, he answers.

“Something else… W-We need information that the Order had here, i-it should still be here since they had to abandon this place empty handed once Herobrine showed up.”

Romeo blinks in mild surprise and holds up a hand.

“Wait wait wait! This place used to belong to The Order of Cowards?”

Stone—Yes! How did you not know?”

“Sorry for not caring about the lore of those liars! I was kinda preoccupied with my own life!” He takes a breath, shaking his head and getting to the point, “Look, I showed up in the Nether, ran into Herobrine, and the man’s helped me out a lot since.”

HELPED you?!” Jesse asks incredulously. Great. Not only did he run into Romeo, but Romeo has gone off the deep end.

“Just listen!” He snaps. Romeo looks back towards where the lightning crack came from, his jewelry jingling as he moves. He miraculously looks quite good compared to the last time Jesse saw him. Decked out in high quality clothes he wears a loose, brown, long sleeved shirt with a dark red tunic over the top of it rimmed with gold. He has fingerless gloves and cuffs similar in style to those of Herobrine. Taking an overall look, they have a very similar aesthetic going on, which—if his claims that Herobrine helped him are true—would make sense. He however kept his own personal flare with the red flame like designs that decorate the bottom half of his tunic, the high collar of his shirt and the base of the cuffs themselves. Small white jewels are placed in the center of each flame, also acting as the studs of his dangling earrings. His eyes are outlined in a bright red eyeliner with gold eyeshadow that seems to be… Mixed faintly with glowstone dust? The stuff shimmers and emanates an extremely faint glow. He has a similar reddish pink mixture faintly dusted across his cheekbones. It certainly blows some life into the man and is a look that’s frankly quite fitting for the already regal wannabe.

He looks back to Jesse, golden eyes hard in determination, “I know I still owe you Jesse, and frankly I’d prefer to not allow Hero beat you and your friends up. ‘Cause then you’d just beat ME up for not helping—”

“Touching.”

“If all you need is a few books then the library is where you need to go.” Jesse goes to interrupt but Romeo holds up a hand before he points to one of the pathways off of the intersection they’re still sitting in. “Down this flight of stairs, take a left then at the end of the hall take a sharp right and it will be at the bottom of the spiral stairwell! There’s only two ways in and out, through the spiral stairwell by which you came and another normal hallway and staircase on the opposite end. I can buy you time. He’ll listen to me but he moves fast. I hope you know what you’re looking for in there.”

“ROMEO?” That same voice rings out, now dangerously close. Jesse can hear the sounds of his boots clicking against the brick at he approaches. Romeo shoves Jesse to his feet and pushes him towards the stairs. His voice is hoarse as he hisses.

Go! Hurry!”

With that, Jesse nods and darts down the stairs, running on the balls of his feet to try and keep himself as quiet as possible, a bit of a difficult feat in such an echo prone place. Romeo takes in a breath as he stands in front of the top of the stairwell. He hastily readjusts his hair as well as dusts off his clothes before reaching down and grabbing the book that got thrown when Jesse ran into him. He sighs and quickly fixes a few of the pages before shutting it as the white eyed perpetrator slows his pace. The man walks over, eyes hardening a bit, and places a light hand on Romeo’s arm as he notices his dishevelment.

“Are you okay? What—”

“I’m fine! Just got knocked over is all!”

“Where’d—”

“I-I think they ran off to the East Wing!” He points to his left, gently blocking the stairwell with his body. The man falls for it with a grin.

“Nothing there for them except a dead end!” He says with a skip in his step and starts running East. Romeo feels a small wave of relief wash over him as he so easily passes by the stairwell Jesse ran down. He throws the book he was holding down on one of the small tables that decorate the halls before jogging after Herobrine. Noticing Romeo trying to tag along the man slows his pace to a speedwalk. “I’m glad to finally get a bit of action around here! Just some more teens in over their heads.” He huffs.

“From the one I saw, they’re unfortunately familiar…”

“You recognized them?” He looks down at Romeo curiously. He nods, letting a sigh out through his nose.

“It’s the Order—” Romeo starts, getting immediately cut off by an annoyed groan from Herobrine.

Great! You know I thought I could go one year without some member of the Order of the Assholes bugging me!” He shakes a finger for emphasis. Romeo just rolls his eyes.

“First off it’s been 6 years according to what you told me.”

“That doesn’t sound right...” Herobrine murmurs. Romeo ignores him and continues, knowing he’s correct.

Secondly! It’s the New Order of the Stone this time.”

“Oh there’s a sequel now! Even better.” The man laughs then lightly pushes off from the ground, hovering in the air so he can go a bit faster. Romeo hums in agreement, causing the man to twist around in the air and face him.

“You know I can’t say I was very fond of them either!” Romeo can’t hide his own smile, making Herobrine chuckle. He was having way too much fun with this.

~~~~~

Jesse reaches the top of the spiral staircase and looks down. Man, that’s a massive drop. He’s easily 3-4 stories up. He’s not even gonna ask how deep this place goes. At this point he just figures this guy has way too much time on his hands. He resists the urge to just leap down there, then lights up again. He still has that pouch of ender pearls! That’ll save some time for sure. He fishes one out and aims, taking in a deep breath. Drops are especially disorienting. But he throws it down, taking a second or so to drop and gets warped to the bottom. He stumbles and hisses through his teeth as his knees scream at him. He stands back up straight and shakes his legs out as he approaches the bright archway, shielding his eyes a bit at the sudden bright light.

Walking into the large room he’s met with an almost homely sight. A towering library, lit up solely by glowstone chandeliers with actually wooden floors. It’s a long room with a second and thin third story—both of which are more overlooks than actual separate floors. He hates to sound like a nerd but the place is rather breathtaking. Each wall lined with bookshelves and larger ones rolled out and breaking up the room. There are various tables strewn about, helping the room feel less crowded. Jesse approaches one with a stack of books on it and several wide open to random pages. Papers lay around with random notes rattled off in hasty but still lovely handwriting. He gets a vague feeling that he’s seen it before but he knows it’s not Romeo’s. Odd.

He scans over the notes and the book the man was reading through. There’s history, urban legends, monster facts and… Jesse laughs.

“Soren’s books? Again?” He figures this place at least makes some sense to find them in—this place was the Order’s afterall. He hums in thought as he considers the odd scene. Herobrine is interested in how the world works it seems. An oddly deep and scholarly subject to tackle for a guy who’s known for destruction and shooting lightning everywhere… Though, he supposes that with so much free time in the Nether he might as well try and solve the problems of the universe. It’s not like there was many other things to do.

Taking a step back, he pushes his initial curiosity aside. He’s here for a reason. He blows out a deep sigh as he looks onwards and upwards at the towers of books around him. All they need are 3 books minimum—a small volume series on The End that Soren used to treasure. They were succinct and to the point about everything one would expect from The End. But those are 3 books out of the probably thousands around him. Best to just get started and pray this guy has some sort of method to his madness—a pattern that’s reasonably easy to figure out.

Jesse starts by moseying down a nearby aisle, fingertips ghosting the spines of each book he slowly passes. Most books are older, scholarly it seems, binded with old fabrics and titles written regally. He mentally tallies title, author, topic and color of each one as he strains to find some sort of pattern to follow. So far? Nothing. But he holds out hope, he probably just can’t tell without looking through more shelves right? There’s no way Herobrine just knows where each book is! Not with how massive this library is!

… This library he built… And obviously spends considerable time in… And has spent time in… For 19 years at most…

Jesse blows a bit of hair out of his face. Happy thoughts Jesse! Happy thoughts. Don’t get frustrated at this eccentric man’s miserable organization skills. He moves on to another aisle, finding another colorful array of books of no rhyme or reason. Drumming his fingers along each spine once again, he continues his search. Stopping, he raises a brow in interest and plucks one book off of the shelf. Faded black and gold cover with a title that’s too worn to be read. He flips it open, scanning the pages for anything related to what he needs.

“You know you shouldn’t be reading those until you’re older.”

Jesse shrieks, flinging the book from his hands. He swings around in pure fight or flight instinct. Missing the side stepping demigod, he stumbles forward and punches the opposite bookshelf causing the entire thing to shake and some books to fall. He gets hit with a few books, each making him more irritated than the last. Herobrine stands at the ready but watches in amusement. He covers his mouth in an attempt to keep his laughter hidden. Jesse’s no fool and frankly doesn’t like being so damn close to this guy. He quickly begins backing up with Herobrine matching his strides until Jesse snatches a larger book off of the shelf and in one swift move chucks it at the Nether King’s head.

“FUCK—! Why you little—!” He growls, his headdress falling into his eyes and messing up his hair. It distracts him long enough for Jesse to grab the upper hand. Reaching the end of the aisle, Jesse grips the edge of the bookshelf and begins pulling towards him. He grits his teeth and the tall shelf creaks in protest, but the moment he feels the back legs lift off of the ground his heart leaps. He and Herobrine briefly lock eyes before Jesse gives the shelf one final yank with a grin. He doesn’t stick around to see what happens, but doesn’t leave the massive library either. He slips out another Ender Pearl and chucks it up to the second floor, teleporting him to the edge of one of the overlooks. He quickly clamps his hands down on the railing, holding tight to keep him from falling. He hops the railing and immediately ducks down on the catwalk as the massive shelf hits not only the ground, but another shelf, creating a domino effect. He gets his barings as he makes his way over to the aisles of the second floor. There’s one half of the second floor that’s just overlooks and the catwalk with bookshelves embedded in the walls, then an actual floor similar to downstairs, a large spiral staircase in the center that leads from the first floor to the third.

He jolts with each crash, noting a good 5 or 6, before they settle. There’s an eerie silence while Jesse moves into the aisles of the second floor, continuing his search albeit a bit faster. Much to his frustration, he doesn’t get much further before someone grabs and yanks him around by the collar. He begins the rip of an angry shout only to get a tan hand cupped over his mouth. He blinks in surprise as he’s greeted once again by the hard golden eyes of Romeo. Romeo hastily hushes the young man, only letting go once he was sure he wouldn’t yell. He yells at him in a whisper.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?! What were you thinking!”

“I panicked! He’s a fucking demigod what did you expect me to do? I had to stall him!”

“Oh so you decided that dropping a bookshelf on him would be a good way to do that?!” Right as Romeo flicks the youth’s forehead in scolding, a loud yell of aggravation can be heard from downstairs. The color drains from both men as Romeo once again begins ushering Jesse away. “ Hide.

“What?! Where?”

“OUT OF SIGHT!” Romeo hisses, throwing up his arms in a frustrated panic. Jesse rolls his eyes and growls to himself before darting down another few aisles. He slips into a tight aisleway and crouches down against the bookshelf near the center. He takes in his surroundings. There’s another section of bookshelves across a small hall to his left, then the overlook to the lower level. To his right there’s a few tables and chairs mixed in amongst the shelves. Shelves shelves shelves. He’s so tired of thinking about these stupid book filled shelves. He hears the quick and heavy footsteps of Herobrine marching up that spiral staircase.

Romeo sees him coming and winces at the sight as the man staggers to the top of the stairs. They lock eye contact and stare at each other in silence for a moment. Romeo takes a breath.

“Do I dare ask—”

“Bookshelf. The pipsqueak threw a goddamned bookshelf on me!” The man responds almost incredulously as he shakes his head, seemingly perking up slightly as he says it. Romeo nods slowly as Herobrine walks over and nearly past him. Romeo places a hand on his chest, stopping him briefly and turning him as the man catches his breath. He looks down at Romeo questioningly, “Did the other Order ever try doing that? I haven’t seen that one before…”

“I think you just answered your own question Hero… Regardless I wasn’t here with you when the first Order showed up, remember?” Romeo reaches up and brushes his brown hair back into place as he speaks, fixing up his crown next.

The white eyed man squints, seemingly straining to remember and not even acknowledging the man’s touch. “ Really? You weren’t?” Romeo nods slightly as he continues fiddling with the man’s outfit. He opens his mouth to respond when Herobrine cuts him off again. The King steps back and brushes Romeo’s arms away absentmindedly as he looks around the second level, regaining his wits. “Have you seen anyone come up here?” White eyes bore into Romeo as he stumbles over his words with the sudden pressure. Jesse meanwhile tenses up at the sounds of walking begin again, keeping a sharp eye on which way he decides to come.

Uh— No! N-No I haven’t seen anyone…”

There’s a pause, a stop in step. Jesse strains to listen.

“You’re an awful liar Romeo…” Herobrine shakes his head with a slight chuckle. He begins to turn down the pathway between the aisles of shelves. Romeo feels his throat tighten as he races off after the man.

Or am I just so good of a liar that I know how to make it sounds like I’m not?” He hops in front of Herobrine, getting him to stop just before reaching the aisle Jesse’s camping out in. Blue eyes shut tight as he silently lets out the breath he’d been holding and begins creeping to his right. Romeo looks up to Herobrine with a wry smile. There’s a moment of silence— consideration —before the King responds and pushes past him.

“Kindly quit being charming for a second and help me look?” He emphasizes his words as he glares down the next aisle. Empty. Jesse, who’s crouched barely out of sight against the opposite end of the aisle cringes at the feeling he gets in the pit of his stomach. He knows those white eyes are intensely searching for something, anything. A book out of place or any bit of movement to confirm that Jesse was still here. Romeo clenches his fists behind his back, trailing the man once more.

“If they’re avoiding you like the plague what makes you think they’d even still be in here after all that?”

“I’ve avoided you like the plague before. Doesn’t mean I’m disinterested.” He replies nonchalantly, grabbing a small end table, lifting it and slamming it into the ground loudly. Romeo flinches and so does Jesse from his evershifting hiding spot. He keeps a tight hand clasped over his mouth, not daring to let out a peep.

“Ex cuse me?” Romeo responds quickly, Herobrine just snickers with a shrug. Jesse sits there with his hand clasped over his mouth, tense from dread but also confused as all hell at what kind of conversation he’s listening to. It’s so casual. He hears the two continue moving through the room, tuning out their conversation and listening solely to how close their footsteps are. God, where is he even going? What’s his plan here? He eyes the spiral stairwell to his right. He could make a break for it… but his logical side is telling him that’d be a bad idea. His breath hitches again as he hears the wooden floor creak from nearby. He rolls around the corner and into the next aisle, slowly inching down it.

“I frankly don’t even think they’re here with ill will.” Romeo says as he claps his hands together in front of himself. Herobrine comes to a dead stop, rolls his eyes and leans back on one leg, dragging his hands to rest on his hips to give Romeo one of the most unamused looks of the century. Romeo frowns and crosses his arms. “ Now don’t you give me that.”

“First off,” He starts, mirroring Romeo’s same tone from earlier. “Need I remind you I just had a bookshelf dropped on me?”

“That you could have avoided by teleporting away had you been paying attention.”

Secondly.” He raises his voice slightly, his way of refusing to acknowledge Romeo’s point. “The kid was pawing through some books downstairs.”

“So?”

So, they’re looking for something. Something other than me. I don’t know if I like that…” Herobrine shakes his head as he strides down another aisleway, frowning in frustration at its emptiness. He scratches his head, maybe Romeo was right and the kid did book it. Romeo huffs from behind him in amusement. Herobrine raises a brow as he watches the man approach and playfully jab him in the ribs.

What? Miss being in the spotlight?”

“Wha— No!” He replies defensively, quickly walking after the red-head. He crosses his arms and closes his eyes with a shrug while he responds. Romeo can’t help but tune him out as he and Jesse make panicked eye contact as they reach the aisle he was hiding and desperately trying to creep out of. Romeo grabs Herobrine by the wrist and quickly swings the two around, forcing his back to the aisle. The man stumbles and yelps mid-sentence. Once steadying himself, white eyes look down at Romeo in shock then quickly shift to suspicion. “What was that.”

“Things were just…! Getting a little too dry!” Romeo lies with a bright smile, praying that he didn’t interrupt Hero while he was talking about something serious… His golden eyes twitch ever so slightly which the King doesn’t miss. He frowns and begins to turn his head and look over his shoulder. Jesse seizes up at the small motion and Romeo panics. He quickly reaches out and cups Hero’s cheek, dragging his gaze back to him. The man looks down at Romeo in rather open annoyance but it fades as he notes the worry in his eyes. He waits for Romeo to explain. The man takes a breath, ghosting his hand away and clasping them together again at his front. “Hero, listen. I don’t know if it was the concussion you received from that bookshelf hitting you or if you’re just being cocky, but I don’t like seeing you treat this group as if it’s just any other group of idiots in over their heads!”

The man rolls his eyes for what felt like the billionth time that night. He shakes his head and holds up his hands before chuckling. He drops them onto Romeo’s shoulders reassuringly.

“Why are you so worried Romeo? I’ve done this countless times, you know that. The worst that happens is a few things get knocked over, the rumors flare up again, and I get more silly teenagers running to see if the big bad Nether King really exists.” He brags, flaring out his cape and making Romeo pinch the bridge of his nose out of stress. He scrambles to find something, anything that’ll get him to hesitate or back off for at least a while.

“You said it yourself, this group isn’t looking for you! Doesn’t that unnerve you?”

Jesse uses this opportunity to make good headway across the room. He ducks behind a halfwall by the staircase, not able to use the stairs themself yet without being in clear view. He holds his breath tight and keeps his eyes trained on the ground before him while he eavesdrops on their continuing conversation. They certainly seemed to have an interesting dynamic, and the more he listened the less threatening this guy seemed to be. Is he truly a threat or is he just scaring people for kicks ?

“This group is different—” Romeo desperately argues, shaking his head. He wasn’t wrong either.

Please, Rom. I chased the old Order out of here—their tails between their legs— without even trying. These guys are already scared shitless, just a little further and they’ll race out of here just the same!” Herobrine shrugs and begins walking off. Romeo scowls and catches him firmly by the sleeve, yanking him around once more and sternly pointing up at him.

“They ARE different! Their little ringleader? The same one that dropped that shelf on you? He’s the one who punched my powers right out of me, Hero!”

Herobrine sighs and just stares down at Romeo blankly. “Does he have that fancy gauntlet on him now?”

Romeo falters. He hesitates but eventually sighs and shakes his head. “No… No I don’t think so but—”

“Then I have nothing to worry about,” He gently lifts Romeo’s chin, speaking comfortingly with a warm smile, “nor do you have anything to worry about.”

He’s not entirely sold, but Romeo eases out a sigh. He can’t help but feel a bit more at ease with Hero’s tone. Damn him. He glances away and Herobrine drops his hand. He opens his mouth to say something when the sounds of more people running into the room from downstairs jerk his attention away. Jesse feels his chest tighten as the new noise catches his attention as well.

Petra’s voice echoes up through the room, “Are they still behind us?!”

“I-I don’t think so!” Another female voice.

“We mustn’t stay still for long though. This is the place we need to be but they’ll find us again eventually! Start looking for those books, quick!” Ivor’s usual yell hits like a punch. Jesse dares to peek around the corner of his hiding spot to see how Herobrine’s reacting. In the quick glances he gets, he sees the man light up in a devious glee, a grin sweeping across his face. Romeo keeps his sternly worried look and crosses his arms. The white eyed man whispers something to him then pushes off the ground again and floats over to the railing, peeking over and down at his friends. Jesse clenches his fists.

Petra rubs the back of her neck as she approaches the mass of fallen shelves and scattered books, Olivia walking up by her and picking one of the many books out of the mess and dusting it off. Petra sucks some air in through her teeth and looks back to Ivor.

“Hey uh… Let’s hope that those books weren’t in any of these shelves! It seems our friend doesn’t know how to clean up his own home.”

“I think this is the result of all those crashes we heard on the way here!” Olivia shakes her head. “Why would he just knock over a bunch of his own shelves?”

“Maybe it wasn’t him. You and Jesse were looking for this place, right Petra?” Lukas walks up, bow still taut just in case.

“Yeah but why—”

“Could’ve run into trouble.”

“Ding ding ding!” The new voice jerks the attention of the small group upwards as the lights of the room go red with a resounding snap and flare. Him again. Lukas’ bow sparks as he yanks the string back even further, the arrow becoming unstable. The white eyed man just smirks in amusement from the catwalk above. He hops the railing and drops down to the first floor, slamming into the ground with a powerful thud. He straightens back up with graceful poise right as Lukas releases his arrow. A raise of his hand, a flick of his wrist and the whistling arrow is batted aside, making Lukas falter in his place.

Lukas sucks in a breath a hums nervously, “ Don’t like that! Liv!” He swings his bow back onto his back and holds out his hand, Olivia tossing her sword to him.

“Where’s Jesse?” Petra speaks up, being the daring one as usual, sword at the ready and her brows furrowed. She just gets a light shrug in return, completely uncaring. It fills them with dread. Petra readjusts her grip on her sword. Her eyes flick to glance at Ivor who was stuck behind the man. The sound of his own sword being unsheathed moves the regal man to merely glance at him out of the corner of his eye. A deep chuckle emanates from within his chest, sending chills down the group’s spines.

~~~

Meanwhile, Jesse darts out from his spot on the second floor the second Herobrine is gone. He runs over to Romeo, panic in both of their eyes. What do they do what do they do what do they do. They can’t have him in here. God, all they want is some books! Not some scars and trauma from this freaks crazy castle!

We can’t have him IN HERE Romeo!” Jesse whispers in a panic.

“I KNOW! I know let me think!”

“We don’t have TIME! He could HURT somebody! Romeo if any of my friends are hurt here then so help me—!

“You’re a fast runner!”

“What?!”

“If you can catch his attention and get him to give chase, then your friends and I will have time to get what you’re looking for. But at this point it’d require pissing him off a bit further…” Romeo plucks at his bottom lip anxiously.

“If he’s mad at me, can’t he just teleport up to me and, I dunno, kill me on the spot?”

“He’s not like I was. His powers are limited and he’s been using them a lot in his little shows for your group.” He rolls his eyes, “He’s… keen on theatrics.”

“Well that’s a stupid thing to waste his powers on!”

“He doesn’t usually have to worry about the people he scares off. He’s underestimated you and you can use that to your advantage. But how to get under his skin!” He frowns, running a hand through his red hair, his earrings jingle as they’re jostled. Something sparks in Jesse as he glances down and takes note of the small dagger Romeo has at his side.

And Jesse gets an idea. Ohhh boy he gets an idea… He’d be lying to say it wasn’t a hint spiteful.

“You know… He seemed pretty concerned about you.” Jesse puts a hand over his mouth to hide his grin. Romeo’s eyes narrow briefly at the smug look.

“This is NOT the time for teasing!”

“I was thinking we could use that to our advantage here.”

Excuse me?

~~~

Herobrine eyes Petra’s golden sword, admiring it. Saying it makes her nervous would be an understatement. She tries taking a step back but only hits the giant piles of books and broken shelves on the ground. She lets out an irritated sigh and begrudgingly stands her ground, Lukas and Olivia right beside her.

He stops encroaching on them and glances back at Ivor, his own golden sword stretched outright and a hardset glare boring into the Nether King. Herobrine hums and flicks wrist, a few small lightning sparks flaring up before a golden sword of his own flashes into existence. He flings his cape back out of his way and gets into a fighting stance, looking between the two targets.

“Good taste in swords. Gold’s strongest. Looks good too!” His voice bounces, not even taking this seriously. He doesn’t even see them as a threat. Petra doesn’t know whether to feel fearful or insulted. The three groups begin slowly moving in a circle, Herobrine at the center. They’re all waiting for someone to make the first move, to start this inevitable brawl.

Then there’s a yell.

All eyes shoot upward as the commotion upstairs starts. The group of four share briefly confused but hopeful glances whereas Herobrine’s hair stands on end. He recognizes that voice. The familiar red-head is thrown into the rail of the catwalk above and he growls, wiping his mouth as he staggers further back down the catwalk. He only gets a few steps before Jesse runs up and grabs him by the back of the collar, yanking him back. Jesse feels his stomach drop as those eyes burn into him. The man gets a serious grip on his sword and is about to rush up there when the glint of Romeo’s own dagger against his throat makes him freeze in his tracks. Jesse has the man in a tight grip, the blade delicately pressed against Romeo’s throat. Wide gold eyes meet glowing white. Frankly, Romeo has to seriously restrain the grin that dares spread across his face. He’s actually taking the bait. Sure Romeo would certainly get chewed out later for scaring him, but at least he knows he actually cares!

You little— When I get my hands on you—!”

“I wouldn’t be making threats in your position!” Jesse calls down, staying tense. His arms and hands tingle out of sheer nervousness, threatening to go numb as his heart pounds in his ears. He had him. It was almost too easy. Jesse briefly glances at each of his friends, and they all use the opportunity to regroup away from the Nether King. He scowls, but doesn’t dare move yet. As much as he hates it, the shortstack has a point. His powers are near drained and any sudden movements from him could put Romeo at risk. He doesn’t know what these kids are and aren’t willing to do, but he knows for certain that he’s willing to make it even.

Jesse whispers to Romeo trying to keep himself from being to readable. “ Interrupt me, and try to get me a head start.” Romeo huffs in acknowledgement. Alright, here we go.

Jesse holds his head high, calling back down. “ You’re surrounded, you’ve sapped yourself of your powers and— HRK! Jesse gets cut off by Romeo swiftly knocking himself out of his grip. A solid grip on Jesse’s arm to protect his neck mixed with a heeled stomp down onto his foot, and ridiculous elbow to the gut sends him stumbling back even despite the armor. The dagger flies, Jesse staggers and Romeo catches his own breath. Jesse holds his side for a brief moment. Geez, the guy was still not someone to mess with even without the powers.

That thought aside, he reaches down and snatches another Ender Pearl from the pouch at his side, clenching it tight in his fist. Right on cue, the madman himself uses the last bit of his main power to teleport up on the catwalk in a flash of wild lightning, and man he is pissed. Jesse bounces back a few paces and eyes the exit opposite to the one he came in through. Romeo had dropped to the ground and sits there against the railing, glaring back at Jesse, a small gesture that makes the man’s chest swell with further rage. Jesse grins.

“Hey you briny bastard! You like playing chase?! FINE! LET’S PLAY!”

Herobrine charges, sword in hand. Jesse quickly winds up his throw towards the exit and Romeo subtly smirks, slightly raising his outstretched leg right before Hero could pass him. Jesse throws. Herobrine doesn’t get the chance to stop him.

“SHIT—!” The man hisses through his teeth as he gets caught and trips, slamming into the ground. He lets out an angry yell and slams his fist into the ground before dragging himself to his feet. He spins around up top, disoriented and trying to spot where the brat went.

“The way we came in! He used a pearl! GET HIM!” Romeo points him in the right direction and the man doesn’t even argue, immediately hopping the railing as he did once before. He doesn’t even pay the other four mind as he sprints out of the room, right on Jesse’s tail.

Romeo, once the thudding of Herobrine’s feet dulled, lets out a long sigh, the adrenaline still coursing through his veins. It’s exciting to be deceiving, but he can only pray Jesse is both quick witted and light on his feet in their new game of keepaway. It’s a short lived peace however as one of those brilliantly sparking arrows sticks in the rail mere inches away from his head. He jumps to his feet and holds up his hands.

WAIT WAIT WAIT LUKAS LET’S NOT BE HASTY—!”

“CAN IT!” The blonde yells, sending another arrow whizzing past his head.

“We need to go after them!!” Petra yells, already hurrying towards the exit. Romeo grips the railing.

NO! I know you all hate me but you have to trust me on this one thing! Jesse and I planned that, he’s baiting Hero away so we can grab whatever books you need and leave. I know this ridiculous library and castle like the back of my hand! Tell me what you need and I can grab them and get you all out of here in no time flat!”

The four look to each other warily. Placing their trust in Romeo? But yet at this point, do they have any better options?

~~~~~

Jesse sprints through the unmarked halls, his feet carrying him aimlessly through the labyrinth. You know, he probably should have had more of a plan on where to go once he was actually being chased. Ah well, c’est la vie and—

“SSSHIT DUDE—!” He yells, eyes wide as a dagger whizzes past his head and digs into the wall. He skids and quickly changes directions at an intersection, darting right. Herobrine slides a bit into the next hallway before he can get any grip on the ground, stumbling back and down the hall after Jesse once again. So that was it huh? Jesse sucks in a breath and starts eyeing any sharp turn he can make. He darts left. Herobrine stalls. He takes a sharp right. Herobrine curses under his breath as Jesse gets more ground. Jesse fakes him out for the third time, sending Herobrine flying past as he darts back into a side hallway. He hears a loud crash as the man presumingly runs into a bunch of furniture. The loud, resounding “FUCK” confirms it and Jesse actually snickers.

WOULD YOU CUT THAT SHIT OUT!” Herobrine yells then throws the splintered wood of the now broken end table to the side, shoving himself to his feet once more.

Jesse didn’t look back and at this point was hardly thinking as he ran, a feeling he hasn’t had in years . It certainly wasn’t helping him keep his panic in check. The feeling of having those white eyes bore into him eventually subsides. He hasn’t been in his presence for long, but he already hated the feeling of having those eyes on him. He couldn’t explain the kind of dread that swelled his chest whenever the man was in the room. But did he really lose him? So easily? He looks back behind him as he turns a corner. Nothing. Not a soul in sight. Hell, he doesn’t even hear anything. Those pounding footsteps from behind are gone and an eerie silence save for his own haggard breathing has replaced them. He grows fearful for his friends, yet something still doesn’t sit right with him.

He doesn’t get the chance to dwell on it though as a newfound panic seizes him with the sight of the hallway to nowhere he’s sprinting straight for. A straight shot out and a several story fall straight into lava. He gasps and desperately tries slowing himself down as he’s engulfed in fear. Tripping over himself and fiercely clawing at the smooth brick wall beside him as he fails to stop his own momentum. He reaches the ledge with small and panicked steps, almost but not quite coming to a full halt right at the edge. He swings his arms in an attempt to fling himself backwards, getting too personal of a look at the long drop to lava before him.

It’s not enough and the world goes silent save for his own gasp as he feels himself topple over. His chest tightens, he goes numb in sheer terror. He was so careless.

Yet there’s a snag. Literally. Confusion engulfs Jesse as he feels a hand hastily grab the collar of his armor—choking him—then getting thrown far back into the hall. He hits the ground harshly, sending his head spinning. He coughs and gasps, his vision blurry and the wind knocked out of him. His haggard breath is matched by the man who saved him. The same man who was chasing him.

Jesse’s eyes shoot open at the realization of who’s standing over him just a few feet away, undoubtedly still pissed. This is NOT the time to be laying around pondering all of his life choices! He scrambles to his feet, balance off and nearly collapsing to the ground again. Regardless, Jesse whips his axe out and attempts to stand at the ready.  It’s a somewhat sorry sight and Herobrine can’t help but have some of his anger dissipate at it. As infuriating as this young man had been, he was still just a kid. A kid in way over his head and who just wanted his friends safe. All he’s been doing is acting out in defense. It reminds him of when he was young.

He meets that haunting pair of white eyes once again and— was that, worry? It’s gone in a flash as Herobrine stands before Jesse with his arms crossed. The look on his face doesn’t give it away but his voice does as his forced amusement peeks through his sarcasm.

“You’re adorable.”

Where’s—”

Herobrine shakes his head with a chuckle, “No no. You are in no position to be making demands right now.” He starts to laugh before Jesse makes a quick move, grabbing his axe with both hands and swinging the blade around to gain momentum in a move he used to always watch his father pull off. He closes the space between them in one fell swoop but doesn’t follow through like his father would have. Opting rather to get up close and personal while holding the sharp and shimmering blade to the man’s neck. There was a hint of surprise in Herobrine’s eyes before it turned to a sharp glare. Furious icy blue eyes glare back as Herobrine lets out a restrained sigh, his sword clattering to the floor as he slowly raises his hands in surrender. His voice is cold.

You’re a bold little pipsqueak, y’know that?” He feels the cool blade make slightly more contact with his own neck. Guess he doesn’t like height jokes. He scoffs. “What do you want?”

“I gotta give you props, for someone who’s threats fall flat you’re pretty intimidating! I was actually scared for a while there!”

“And how would you be the jud—”

“If you wanted me out of the way for real you would have just let me fall a minute ago. Hell I’m sure if you really wanted, you could just teleport behind me right now and kick me off the ledge! You’ve got some powers back by now, we both know it. But no. Instead you’re here feigning helplessness!” He laughs a bit as the King’s glare hardens. He goes to say something but is cut off once again. “I’m not dumb . It makes sense! Hardly any action for 19 years and suddenly we all show up and we’re not even here for you! I’d be curious too!”

“I could kill you where you stand.”

“You won’t. I— however —am quite stressed and tired! Tell me! You got any healing powers as a part of that whole demigod package? I’d love to know now so I don’t just waste my energy.” There’s a hint of a tired grin as Jesse keeps his grip tight. A minute of silence, just the two staring back at each other. Jesse uses this opportunity to study Herobrine’s features up close. Strong jawline, cleancut beard and tousled brown hair shoved back, his crown glistening and matching the dangling earrings. A similar aesthetic to Romeo’s new shtick.

There’s an odd familiarity about this man.

Despite never meeting him until now, there’s some nagging feeling at the back of his mind that keeps telling him he knows him. It’s ridiculous! Jesse’s stern face falters as the internal conflict is pushed forward. It doesn’t make sense. Jesse knows that. But despite it, that same nagging voice makes his stomach tie up in knots, going as far as telling him that this man is studying Jesse in exactly the same light. He breaks eye contact briefly and forces the conversation along, hoping to ease his frayed nerves.

“We’re just here for information… Not even from your mouth. Just some old books from your library that the Order left behind.” He looks up at him, an almost pleading look dancing across his features now, “ That’s it.”

The man can’t hide his confused surprised before he bursts out laughing. “Books? All this effort for some stupid books?” He laughs, making Jesse’s hair stand on end as a new anger rushes through his veins. The man huffs and shakes his head, dropping his voice low, “You’re not here for some damn books. Not with that attitude.”

Jesse bristles, snapping, “ You’re right! I’m here for the information IN those books because they’re the only ones our stupid world HAS! Look asshole , you think you’re hot shit but until just a few days ago I didn’t know who the hell you were nor do I CARE! He hisses, spitting venom as all his built up tension finally boils over. His shake starts getting noticeable and it’s Jesse’s turn to drop his voice. “All I want are some answers. Those ‘ stupid books’? They’re the next best chance at me actually GETTING some. Just… Fuck—Just work with me on this one damn thing man…” Jesse shakes his head and—seeing as he now genuinely has Herobrine’s attention and interest—steps off. Backing off, he lets out a heavy sigh and lazily hangs the axe onto his back once more. He’s completely vulnerable to some kind of attack at this point, but he’s too tired to worry about it. It’s not gonna happen anyways.

He’s right too. Herobrine eases out a sigh through his nose, gently rubbing his neck where the blade had been pushed up against as he studies the young man at full. There’s a heavy silence that drags down the already sweltering air around them. Jesse’s head pounds even more as he shoves his bangs back and out of his face. He saunters over to a wall and rests his head against the cool brick. Herobrine covers his mouth to hold back a tired chuckle. Poor kid. He holds his tongue however, letting the silence settle over for the moment and hopefully letting the kid calm down a bit before speaking up again. The man surprises the miserable feeling Jesse by trying to actually be humorous , a half hearted attempt to lighten the mood as he— anxiously?— picks at his nails.

“Well I mean… Yeesh … What’d you think lived down here kid? Mole people?” The man gives a half hearted chuckle. It takes Jesse a second to process it and he huffs out a smile at the bizarre suggestion. Wow. Here they were now. Going from nearly killing each other to cracking awful jokes. God something must be wrong with him, wrong with them both.

Mole people…

Jesse, within a second of thinking that very thought, snaps back into his sharply animated self. Eyes shoot wide open as he flings himself off the wall and spins to face Herobrine once more, staggering to find his balance. The man jumps a bit and takes an instinctual step back at the freaky change in attitude. The young man stares at him differently, picking him apart piece by piece with shocked eyes. It’s… unexpected and honestly KINDA freaky!

It clicked. It all clicked with that one thing. The reason there were so many familiarities with this man. The stupid joke and warm laughter that brought him racing back. Jesse opens his mouth, trying to spit out some kind of sentence. A question? Herobrine has no idea what to remotely make of it… But the words the young man finally get out of his mouth makes the white eyed King’s blood run freezing cold. He feels like ice and stiffens up as he’s suddenly put under a spotlight he never thought he’d have to shine in again.

“Uncle Brian?”

Chapter Text

“Uncle Brian..?”

Jesse’s voice hangs in the suffocating air. There they stand, a few feet apart with wide eyes and staring at each other like deer in the headlights. The faint whitenoise of the Nether is all that fills the silence as both reel in shock. The vague crackling of fire, the faint popping and sizzling of lava and the occasional creak of the fortress begin to build in volume as the two stand frozen in place. Herobrine stands with a tense hand clenched over his chest, as if he’s trying to keep his own heart from seizing up on him. Jesse’s posture sags with his exhaustion, hunching over as he takes deep breaths, his own heart racing.

The man begins to gently shake his head, but his eyes betray him. The lie he spits out has no purpose aside from pushing this all away.

“No... No , I don’t know what you’re on about.” He sputters in an attempt to get a grip on himself, trying to turn this situation back to the simple cat and mouse game they had been playing. “What kind of stupid play is that? You think claiming to be some long lost family member is gonna get you out of getting your ass kicked?! HA! ” His threat is hollow as he begins pacing. But there’s no saving face now, Jesse caught him red handed. The young man shakes his head incredulously.

“I-It’s me though! Jesse-- ” He starts but the man just huffs and shakes his head, waving him off. Jesse scowls and continues pushing. “It’s me, your nephew. Would you at least look me in the eyes while I’m talking to you--?!”

You’re talking NONSENSE! I won’t--... No, I don’t owe you that! And YOU!” He points a finger at Jesse accusingly, shaking it as he backs up. He laughs with half a breath, “ You have a lot of audacity to come in here, mess up my home, try and steal MY shit, attack both me and my ally, and THEN --!” He throws his arms up in mild outrage, “You actually have the gall, the absolute NERVE! To try and come at me from an emotional standpoint?! Unbelievable !” He shakes his head and crosses his arms, pacing in a quick circle, ending with his back to Jesse. Jesse opens his mouth to retort only to get cut off once more. “Which-- by the way-- How DARE you even attempt that kind of shit! What kind of low-life son of a--”

Would you let me SPEAK?” Jesse actually raises his voice against the man, who spins around with a glare. He huffs and begins to respond in more complaints, but Jesse wins their little shouting match. “Do you honest to god think YOU’RE the only one REELING right now?!” Jesse pushes his bangs out of his face with both hands, gripping them as he stares and shakes his head. His frustration quickly dissipates however and he can’t help the corners of his mouth slipping into a grin as the disbelief starts wearing off and the feelings of awe and hope flood his chest. He feels his arms tingle and begin to shake as he gets teary-eyed at the idea of it all. He brings his voice back down, taking up a simply awestruck tone. “ Look at you! I-I thought--... WE thought--… We thought you were dead !” He laughs, feeling himself losing his breath once more. He blinks the water out of his eyes. “ Look, be in denial all you want, but... I-I’m still me. A-And whether you like it or not, you’re still you!”

Herobrine watches in a numb shock as the freckled young man before him is hit with waves of emotion. He shakes his head, overwhelmed. Watching the kid, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t see the resemblance. The same bright smile of that little boy he once knew.

Oh my god. This is happening.

This kid isn’t actually trying to pull his leg. God, he hates hearing what he’s hearing. Sort of. In a petty ‘I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this how dare you’ type of way. He can’t though. No, he can’t give in. It’s just better off knowing Herobrine as the bully of the Nether, he can’t let this kid see him as anything further. For his sake. He turns his back to Jesse and takes deep breaths as he tries distancing himself once more. Jesse, alive with wonder, doesn’t even pay mind to the man’s attempts to push himself away. His voice shakes with a bittersweet tone.

I-I… I thought I was alone …”

The man’s chest seizes. Without even giving it a thought, Jesse’s uncle whips his gaze back around in newfound shock, confusion, and a frank bit of guilt. He regrettably locks eyes with his nephew for several long seconds, brows furrowed as his gaze bores into him. Inspecting him. The man sucks in a quick breath to speak, but, after sputtering and finding nothing just clamps his mouth shut. Finally, he softens.

“You…” He starts, his voice gentler--less abrasive. He slowly turns his entire body to face him, his shimmering cape catching a bit of air and drifting behind him with feather-like grace. His face is scrunched up in genuine confusion, Jesse feels his chest tighten at the sight of it. He stands there frozen as he waits for his uncle to continue. To acknowledge him. The man hesitates but shuffles over to Jesse and letting out a heavy sigh, but recognition and tired acceptance finally settle in his eyes. The man shakes his head, his tone soothing. “ Now what kind of crazy talk is that, Jesse?”

Jesse feels that lump in his throat form and choke him once again. But, for the first time in a long while, it’s for a good reason. He bites his lip and shakes his head, his uncle tentatively reaching out a hand to comfort him. God, this kid roped him in like nothing flat. He momentarily scolds himself for letting his own emotions so easily influence him, but nonetheless, is too deep now to turn back. But he does hesitate for a second. He pauses, which catches Jesse’s attention. His uncle momentarily retracts his hand and takes a small step back. Jesse watches in confusion and a hint of fear. He’s not gonna just leave him again is he? Like this?

But he’s greeted with a welcome sight. His uncle takes a breath, smiles an awkward yet loving smile and holds both arms out just wide enough for Jesse to take the hint. Wide blue eyes shoot up to white. His uncle just gives a small shrug, not budging and trying to hide the fact that this is a big deal.

A hug. Jesse gets to hug his uncle. His actual uncle. Part of his family.

The boy sucks a deep breath in through his teeth, holding back a choked sob before he darts over to him. The man stumbles back a tad with just the force Jesse ran in at, but he can only chuckle as he wraps his nephew in a tight hug. Jesse nearly has his legs give out from beneath him as he finally lets that bottled up cry out. His uncle grips him tighter at the sound, his heart suddenly aching for the family he buried. Jesse’s cries turn to gasps as he pushes to get a grip on himself, scrambling and holding tight to the back of his uncle’s armor in an attempt to pull himself to his feet. He does a pretty miserable job at it and his uncle eases them to a kneel on the ground.

“Easy! Easy kid, don’t strain yourself… Come on now, easy..”

“You’re alive ! You’re alive..! You’re-- Y-You…” Jesse’s own blubbering gets in the way of talking, eventually just leading to him laughing through the tears. He drops his head down onto his uncle’s shoulder. This might as well just happen. His uncle just keeps a reassuring grip on the young man, being careful not to poke himself on a shoulder spike in the meantime. He blows out a long heavy sigh. Where does he begin with this? And how Jesse first spoke to him still has him unsettled. Alone. Knowing his brother, why on Earth would this kid ever be alone?

“Thought you could get rid of me that easily, huh?” Herobrine remains lighthearted and gets a laugh out of the kid.

“Like I would ever want that!” Jesse unburies his face long enough to get out a somewhat clear reply. His uncle smiles bittersweetly and gently pats his back.

They stay there like that for a long while, letting this all settle in with the quiet. For once, Jesse can understand why the Nether might be appealing. The quiet crackling of fire and distant sizzling, just nearly drowned out by one’s own breathing, is surprisingly soothing. It definitely helps him settle his breathing. Eventually he lets go and just sits back with an awkward smile and laugh.  He sniffles and wipes his face, making an exaggeratedly grossed out look before returning to the smile.

“‘M sorry I’m so gross… I’ve been a wreck these past few days… A-And this…!” He sits back and gestures over his uncle, shaking his head, “I-I never… I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. No matter how weird things get for me, this is… A whole different type of ‘out of left field’ for me… I mean,” He huffs out a laugh and shrugs, “What do I even call you anymore? Like do I go by your stage name now? Do I have to work to earn that first-name basis again..?” He jokes, making his uncle laugh a hearty laugh.

No, no, Brian is fine. It’s what you always knew…” His uncle shakes his head as he chuckles.

“Didn’t you have like… Another name as well though? I’m not sure I remember it right.” Jesse laughs a little and his uncle rolls his eyes to the heavens.

Yeah. My dad thought it’d be a good idea to give me two first names ‘cuz he wouldn’t make up his mind.”

“Sounds like there’s a story there?”

Ha! Yeah there was. See originally the plan was to have your father named Brian while I still had Hiro. But, at the very last minute, the mad man decided that Steven was better suited for him. Which--by the way--I don’t get how you’d see that in a baby! We were twins! What makes a grown man look at one of his newborn kids and think ‘You know what would be a better name for a small child than Brian? Steve.’” He throws up his hands in defeat and Jesse laughs. His uncle shrugs and continues, “My father was still a sap though, so he and mom decided to just tack Brian onto my name. Have it all hyphenated and stuff. It’s a bit of a pain but I suppose it’s nice to have a casual name and formal name… ‘Hiro’ is more reserved for family or people close to me.” He rubs his neck and Jesse slowly nods.

“Hiro and Brian... Hiro-Brian. Herobrine! You know, that’s probably not the best name to pick if you were trying to stay hidden. Had dad actually heard that name, he would’ve probably known in an instant.” Jesse laughs and his uncle grins a lazy half grin as he sits back, rather relaxed now.

“Eh. I didn’t exactly get the chance to rebrand. Some of the first punks that ran into me, I gave my name--er, names-- to them in a slur. I was still reeling from all this,” He gestured to himself, focusing mainly on his eyes that pulse with a small bit more of light, “So I wasn’t exactly very clear and wasn’t in the kindest mood either sooo…”

“... They ran off screaming about a big bad guy named ‘Herobrine’ and the rumors spread too fast to change ‘em.” Jesse finishes his thought, leaving Hiro to just shrug a bit sadly.

“I was already known as a villain before I could pick myself up off my feet. That and… Well, with how the entire situation initially went down there was already too much bad talk to try and fix it. So, if they want some eerie villain so badly then…” He huffs with a sad smile, “Might as well live up to their expectations!” There’s an odd pause as his words sink in and Jesse can’t help feeling sorry for him. But Hiro clicks his tongue, cutting off the silence before it gets awkward and perks up, “But it’s not too bad, yknow? I’ve had a fun time scaring kids off! Probably doesn’t sound like something a ‘ good person ’ does but, eh.” He tries brushing off the topic but Jesse can tell the life he was shoved into isn’t exactly what he wanted, nor what makes him happy. But now’s not the time to dig into heart wrenching details. Not so soon. Instead he jumps back to their initial conversation. He opens his mouth but hesitates, catching his uncle’s attention.

“Could… I uh…” He laughs a bit nervously, feeling a bit stupid asking. “Can I refer to you as Hiro now…?”

His uncle blinks but just huffs with a half grin. “I don’t know, can you? Are you physically capable of such a challenge?”

“Eugh, forget I asked..” Jesse rolls his eyes and grins, making his uncle laugh. After a second he smirks and quirks a brow before patting Jesse’s head in a jokingly condescending fashion.

“Too many names and you poor little thing might just explode!”

Pfft! Stop!” He playfully bats his hand away before fixing his hair. His uncle briefly squints at the scar across his eye, but doesn’t mention it. Not the time. Definitely not the time.

“But, yes, I think I’ll allow a first name basis for you. Don’t piss me off though! Otherwise you’ll just get downgraded!”

“Alright, that sounds like a deal I can work with.” Jesse looks back up, smiling with that classic determination still ablaze in his eyes. He gets a similar smile in return before his uncle hops to his feet. He offers a hand and hoists Jesse back up. Hiro just blows out another sigh, overwhelmed. Jesse looks at him curiously, Hiro just shaking his head in return.

“You--... I just--...” He stumbles over his own words in a struggle to voice his thoughts. “You were so-- Should be so…” He puts his hand near the ground, signifying the height of Jesse when he was young. “A-And now you’re so…” His shifts his gaze back to Jesse and his face contorts in lighthearted confusion. Jesse just shuts his eyes and chuckles with a nostalgic smile.

“You think I’m bad? No offense, but have you looked in a mirror?” He pushes out a weak laugh. His uncle huffs in amusement, glancing down at himself then dropping his hands down to his sides once more.

“Well, I was gonna play nice and not mention you’re serious lack of a growth spurt, Shortie, but now it’s only fair.”

“Oh low blow !”

“Any higher and it would’ve gone over your head!” He grins but quickly drops it as Jesse hurries over to sock him in the arm. “ OW!”

STOP”

“What? Got a short fuse?” The man spits out as he pulls back, a nervous grin spread across his face while Jesse just rolls his eyes and winds up for another shot. The man catches his hand, and just laughs lightly. Jesse can’t help the small smile that forms as he giggles at the small game.

“You gotta stop with the height jokes, or I’ll cut you down a few pegs.” Jesse giggles and his uncle’s eyes widen briefly before he snickers.

“Hey! Humor is my defense mechanism!” He lets go of his hand then crosses his arms, “But, yeah, sorry. Despite my somewhat calm appearance I am still seriously overwhelmed right now. The shock is having trouble wearing off.”

“Well … That at least makes two of us!” Jesse forces a laugh and awkward shrug. His hands hit his sides as he drops them and he and his uncle share their anxious energy. Hiro eventually steps away and runs his hands through his hair. He slowly blows out a breath through his mouth as he brings himself and all of this back to the present. What all was happening. What came up to this. The main room. The blazes. The hallways. The library. Romeo. Their chase.

He gasps and looks back at Jesse as realization hits him.

“Oh my god I nearly KILLED you! I threw a dagger at your HEAD oh my GOD!” Alright, the freaking out was blatant once again. Jesse is shook out of his own serene state as he’s brought back to the present as well. Hiro shakes his head and begins pacing once more, but stops mid step and shakes a finger at him, “But then again ! I cannot BELIEVE your affinity for holding sharp weapons to people’s throats ! Young man you could’ve killed someone!!”

“Are you seriously getting parental with me right now?” His uncle’s sudden panic sets Jesse on edge as he scrambles to piece everything together and clear up all of the fog in his mind.

“I am very STRESSED Jesse! Besides I-I mean it’s suitable right? How old are you now anyway? Thirteen?? No that can’t be right.” Hiro puts a finger to his lips thoughtfully as Jesse just blinks in dumbfoundment. He didn’t know whether to be confused or offended. His uncle rubs his own forehead, straining himself to figure out how Jesse could have possibly changed so much in such a short time. It was a short time right? It had to be.

Twenty-six.”

What?” Hiro stops mid stride to look back at his nephew. Jesse sheepishly nods with a halfhearted shrug before replying.

“I am twenty-six years old. Another few months and I’ll be twenty-seven.”

“You’re lying. ” His voice momentarily shakes, not wanting to hear the truth. It can’t have been that long. It can’t. No. He promised himself he wouldn’t get stuck down here like that, he wouldn’t lose track of time like that.

“I’m not.” His words weigh down on Hiro’s shoulders in heavy dread at all of the implications those words carry. Jesse continues, “It’s… It’s legitimately been 20 years since you disappeared. I was 6. Simple math from there.”

“I…” His uncle loses steam, deflating in dumbfoundment. He just stares, that confusion returning. Jesse gently pushes forward.

“I think.. According to what Ivor--a member of the old Order--told me, you’ve been down here for 19 years…”

“That… No that can’t be right…”

Jesse shrugs helplessly, “It’s the truth… I get it though, I think that if I were in your place I would’ve lost track of the time too. No sun or moon to count the hours, clocks not working, everything here is kind of like a stand still… Not as bad as The End at least though…” He frowns, shutting his eyes tight as the thought of his father having to suffer through that eerie silence flashes before him once again. He doesn’t get to linger on that train of thought however as he notices his uncle’s own grimace at the mere mention of the realm. He cocks a brow, now his turn to be confused. His uncle doesn’t even pay his curiosity mind though as another thought hits him like a train.

He reaches up and grips his hair briefly once again, that panic making him talk at a million miles a minute and not once stopping to think over his words. “Wait, what the hell are you even doing down here Jesse?! My god does your father know? Criminy Jesse are you trying to kill him?! You’re going to give the poor man a heart attack by coming down here!”

This emotional rollercoaster Jesse’s been on hits another low as those questions and accusations wind him like a hard punch to the gut. He blinks, mouth hanging open as he attempts to form his thoughts. Then something dawns on him. Maybe it’s the heat of the place, the ridiculousness of everything happening, or just the stress he’s had to deal with in the past year finally catching up to him but… All of that and then hearing those accusations… He shuts his eyes tight as a newfound frustration washes over him, building quickly and dramatically. His eyes snap open, sharp and more focused than he’s been in a good while.

Excuse me?” Jesse’s eyes narrow, taking his uncle aback. “What kind of hippocratic bullshit is that?!”

“What’re you--”

“Don’t play stupid now! We thought you DIED! Do you know how much my father ached and hurt to have his brother ripped away from him?! We spent YEARS mourning you only for me to find out that you just ran off and ABANDONED us! And now you have the gall to tell ME not to hurt my father like that after you did the very same?!”

“God, no! No, Jesse, that’s not what happened let me explain! I-I wished I could tell you both what happened for years but I just…” He clenches his fists in frustration at himself. Jesse cuts him off.

“You were a coward?

“I didn’t want either of you to get hurt!” He drops his arms and just shakes his head, just praying that Jesse would understand. But there’s one big discrepancy between the two of them. Jesse rolls his eyes to the heavens, clenching his fists before throwing his arms up in frustration.

“Oh for the love of--Hurt by what ?! I can assure you, your absence hurt us more than anything else would have!”

He shakes his head, desperately trying to get his argument in against the fuming young man. “Please just… Look, I know I have a lot of explaining to do. I know you’re angry and you have every right to be, but please don’t ever think I would just abandon you all.”

“But you did. You could have come back.” Jesse glares with an exasperated sigh, taking a step back and rubbing his forehead. Dropping his hand from his forehead, he glares again and shifts his weight onto one leg, a telltale sign of attitude. He flicks his wrist, briefly gesturing to their surroundings. Their reality. “But you didn’t.”

“There were reasons I couldn’t Jesse. Look I’d just… I’d rather explain this to the both of you in one room. There so much I want to tell you and your father--”

Well I have a lot of shit I’d like to tell my father too but too fucking bad !” Jesse snaps up at him, causing his uncle to flinch. His face scrunches up in a mix of hurt and confusion. Jesse immediately regrets his stupid temper lately. This whole experience was really starting to get to him, whether he wanted to admit it or not. He grimaces and bites his lip, looking down as he clenches his fists.

“Wh--..” Hiro starts but trails off. He quickly picks up on the foreboding fact that there’s something he doesn’t know. His stomach plummets at the worst case scenario that dances to the forefront of his mind. He didn’t mean--... No. He couldn’t have. Jesse, now aware of his uncle’s gaze on him, takes a deep breath before crossing his arms insecurely.

“Can we… Talk about this somewhere else..? Somewhere that I didn’t just almost die?” He half jokes, looking sheepishly up to his uncle. Hiro blinks, completely confused for a brief moment before it hits him. He glances back over his own shoulder at the abrupt edge and lava down below then sucks some air in through his teeth.

Yeah. Definitely. Let’s…” He steps up and gently ghosts a hand over Jesse’s back. “Let’s go see if we can regroup with your--”

No!” Jesse blurts out, making his uncle flinch again and briefly draw back. White eyes look down at him in worry and Jesse reddens a bit, but just shakes his head. “N-No… I’d… I want to just talk with you first. There’s a lot to go over and I’d rather just do it in your presence instead of having everyone else’s eyes on me again. I-I trust them but…” He mumbles, desperately trying to explain himself. His uncle gives him the space he needs to gather himself. Eventually he sucks in a breath and nods, “I want to talk with you alone first. Further talk I mean… Less snappy and.. Bad..” He laughs weakly then looks up at him, nervous, “Is that okay..?”

Of course!” His uncle responds perhaps a bit too hastily, immediately regretting it. He takes a breath, settling his own nerves. “Of course… Here, I know a nicer place. Have you been through the main courtyard yet?”

Jesse pushes out a curt laugh and shakes his head. “Ah, uhh, no. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with both fighting and running from you.”

“Oh yeah.” His uncle responds in a disappointed monotone, making Jesse chuckle, albeit still a bit tensely. The two stand there in a stifling silence. Hiro sucks in a breath and eventually taps Jesse’s arm with a slight nod. “Here, this way. We best be on our way…”

“Right, yeah…” Jesse nods and the duo begin walking down the long brick halls. The tension doesn’t dissipate however and Jesse generally keeps his own gaze towards the ground. This is so weird. This is so weird! He picks at and fiddles with his gauntlets out of sheer nervousness, knowing that if he glances over he’s gonna accidentally meet his uncle in the eye. He easily feels his gaze on him. Contrary to Jesse, Hiro couldn’t help but keep sneaking glances over at his nephew. He was awestruck. Awestruck that the little boy he helped raise (and probably corrupt) could be so different yet strikingly similar at the same time. So much had changed aside from just age, I mean, he’s never seen armor or weapons of quite the caliber that Jesse’s group was using. Jesse’s group. That phrase spins and spins through his mind. Sure the kid was a bit energetic around his family when he was little, but never the leader type. His curiosity is dangerously piqued as to what caused the change. But despite it, even with change there’s still some continuity. He’s still got that thick and messy brown hair, face full of freckles, and those bright blue eyes. He smiles a bit as an ounce of pride swells in his chest.

He deflates a bit however when Jesse catches him staring. He clears his throat and crosses his arms as he looks away awkwardly--being humorously over the top in covering it up. Jesse laughs quietly under his breath. His uncle smiles a tad but the light hearted moment doesn’t last, and suddenly the air around them is stifling once more. Hiro feels like it’ll kill him if they have to walk all the way to the courtyard in this heavy silence. Eventually, he gets some nerve to try and ease the tension. He figures that being bold and straight to the point is the best remedy at the moment.

“Jesse I just… I know you want to wait talk details when we get there but… Simply put, the reason I didn’t come back wasn’t because I wanted to leave. But… But because I know your father well. If I came back and he saw me like this..?” His uncle waves a hand over himself then gives a sluggish half shrug. “Well, you know how stubborn he is Jesse. He would’ve made up some stupid excuse about it being his fault and would’ve tried working himself to the bone to fix it!” He sighs and shakes his head in frustration at the whole situation. Blue eyes bore into him as he glances briefly over at Jesse before continuing, “I… You were still so young , I didn’t want to accidentally take him away from you…”

Jesse grimaces and drags his gaze back to the ground before him. His uncle continues.

“I certainly didn’t account for you ever finding me… I never thought this would be your kind of thing, especially knowing your father.” He laughs a bit, “He always talked about the day you two would go on your first trip together! How excited he was! But despite his ambition, I’m sure he ended up coddling you just a bit , right?” He glances down at his nephew for an answer with a smile. Jesse hesitates but nods.

“Yeah he uh… He was definitely protective.” Jesse chooses his words carefully, purposefully being vague. Hiro certainly notices as well. He decides to just steer the conversation towards Jesse for the moment. He gently bumps Jesse’s shoulder, getting his attention.

“I gotta say… You’ve got some good moves and reflexes, kid. I didn’t think you had it in you, yet here you are!” He says with a half smile. Jesse just stares up at him, a bit dumbfounded by the compliment. He slowly begins nodding and nervously smiles.

“Thank you… And uhh… Sorry for pulling a bookshelf down on you. And generally ruining your library…I uh..   I panicked.”

His uncle laughs and shakes his head, “I think I can forgive you. I was impressed with the ingenuity!”

“That sorta thing is my forte I guess..!” Jesse shrugs with a smile, “It seems I can never fight or deal with anything actually normal sooooooo--..”

“Vaguely concerning, but I dig it!” Hiro lightly jabs Jesse in the side. “Say, am I allowed to brag about you to all of my fellow old people friends yet?” He says with a teasing grin and actually gets a chuckle out of the young man. Jesse waves him off.

“If you have more than 1 that hasn’t already heard of me, be my guest!”

Oooh popular huh? Don’t get a swelled ego on me now, I’d have to immediately disown you.”

“What? Don’t like the competition? OW!” Jesse quickly rubs the back of his head where his uncle flicked him. He glares up at the man who just snickers and picks up his pace. Jesse smiles to himself and quickly hurries after him. There’s something warming about the little exchange that he can’t help but feel good about.

The rest of the walk is surprisingly short but filled with peaceful and small conversation. Nothing too deep as the two get a feel for sensitive subjects. They turn down one final hall and white eyes gleam with pride at the sight of the two large doors at the end of it. He grins and claps his hands together, hurrying ahead. The man glances back to Jesse once or twice to catch his expression. His uncle’s excitement was infectious and Jesse smiled as he approached. These doors were differently built than some of the at least relatively simple pairs he’s seen thus far. Tall and curving at the top, they’re a deep chocolate color with ornate patterns seemingly hand carved into the wood. Jesse squints and steps up, running his fingers over one of the patterns--a bushel of roses weaving their way up from the middle of the door all the way to the top. The flowerheads themselves big and beautiful, but the thorns in contrast are nothing to laugh at. Running his hand down over the trademark pains of the plant, he wouldn’t be surprised if you could actually be pricked by the carving. There’s even small slivers of gold whittled into the wood, giving the images volume and almost the illusion of the roses sitting in the sun.

His uncle clears his throat and Jesse blinks. He pulls his hand back and smiles sheepishly up at the man. His uncle cocks a brow. Jesse shrugs.

“I-I just really like all of the details of this place! I’m sure Lukas is geeking out over every little detail internally, especially in that library.”

“Lukas is…” His uncle trails off questioningly.

“The blonde one! Tall. Charming. Bow and arrow. Green goggles.”

Charming?” His uncle murmurs curiously. Jesse either doesn’t hear or blatantly ignores him.

“Did you make these doors?” He points to the pair and looks up at him, impressed. Hiro rubs his neck and laughs nervously, seemingly embarrassed of all things.

“I mean… Yeah, sure did! Though I didn’t expect you to be impressed by some ol’ doors when there’s…” He trails off and vaguely glances around them. Jesse laughs a bit. Well, when putting it that way. He sways on his feet, swinging his arms with a shrug.

“I-I’ve just gotten used to looking for details! They’re beautiful. And this whole place is just… Spectacular! I can definitely appreciate it more when I’m not being chased.”

“Well, hold your breath until we’re actually outside again Pipsqueak!”

“Now you’re just doing that to mess with me.”

We got a quick learner!” Hiro snickers and grabs hold of the door handles, unlatching and swinging the doors open and revealing the vast courtyard. Jesse’s gotta hand it to him, his uncle had a way of making hell quite beautiful. Lined and patterned with red and regular nether brick, quartz and even some regular stone, the courtyard is surprisingly soothing and oddly reminiscent of something he’d find back home. But the artificial plant life probably does the most for it. There’s large “flower” beds with nether wart and in the center a large above ground bed with… A tree? Jesse squints at the seemingly large oak in the center, wandering over to inspect it. Trees don’t grow in the Nether, nonetheless on soul sand which fills the raised bed. He runs his hand through the sand just to be sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him. With the immediate weight he feels as he drags his hand through, his suspicions are confirmed. But how on Earth did a tree get down here then? Flicking his gaze upwards towards the actual content of its branches, he’s baffled. His uncle comes up behind him, ghosting his hand over Jesse’s shoulder as not to startle him with the silent approach. Jesse looks at him questioningly and points at the tree. His uncle laughs a bit sheepishly and shrugs.

“It’s uhh… It’s not alive of course. I pop up to the overworld every now and then to just grab supplies or whatever. I was trying to find something nice to put in here! The Order just had a stupid looking statue; no idea what it was supposed to be. It honestly looked like someone just welded a bunch of metal rods together and decided to call it ‘art.’” He rolls his eyes and Jesse laughs.

“So, let me get this straight. Instead of just making the statue better, you got rid of it and figured that the next best thing was to just haul a huge ass tree back to the Nether to put in its place?”

“Honestly it’s not the most ridiculous thing I’ve done Jesse. I don’t see why you’re surprised.”

“Fair enough. Anyways what’s even on the branches? Is that nether wart?” Jesse squints up at the red hanging over the branches, giving the illusion of the tree flourishing. From far away it almost reminded him of a cherry tree with the color, or a wisteria with how it hangs.

“Yeah… The tree was dead of course when I brought it here. No surprise there. And yeah I guess a dead, bare bones tree could scare a few people, but I personally don’t want to look at something so depressing every day of however long my life is now…” He shrugs and sits down on the brick outcropping of the raised bed. The comment drags Jesse back to the present, his heart sinking as he remembers the conversation they need to have. He slowly sits down across from him. He thinks a moment then tucks a leg beneath him and clasps his hands in his lap. His uncle blows out a sigh through his nose then looks up at the tree they’ve sat down by.

“We used to have an old wisteria out by the house—when your father and I were kids I mean… I remember spending dozens of days just goofing off in the summer sun with him underneath it.” He smiles a bit, “We’d fantasize about all sorts of crazy plans and adventures we were gonna have. We even sorted them! There were the adventures we wanted to take our friends on and the ones where it’d be just us two… There ended up being a lot more for just us than we thought though!” He laughs, “Not many kids our age were interested in risking their lives for some broken chainmail at best…” He grins and Jesse quietly chuckles, a somber look in his eyes. He doesn’t meet his uncle’s gaze and looks down to his hands. Hiro stiffens a bit, his throat feeling oddly dry. Jesse softly urges the conversation along.

“We need to talk… We need to talk about dad…” Jesse looks up at Hiro, blue eyes pained but stern. His uncle holds his gaze, not letting his features slip and give away the uneasiness he feels. He takes a breath but nods.

“I know I have a lot to explain to him and make up for. Trust me I’ve… I’ve dwelled on it more than once... I--”

“You won’t be able to talk to him.” Jesse cuts to the chase, hastily spitting it out. His uncle blinks, processing first being cut off and second being cut off by that. His brows scrunch up in confusion which turns to worry at the hollow look his nephew bares as he stares intensely at the bricks between them. He notes the tension in his position. Bad sign. He leans a bit forward in questioning but doesn’t have to say anything for Jesse to catch on. The young man sighs and shakes his head slowly, voice softer, “Dad’s… Dad’s gone, Hiro… He’s been gone for years now. I’m sorry…” He trails off in a mumble, shaking his head and crossing his arms.

That takes him aback. Hiro blinks, sits straight, then hunches over again in a now rather fearful confusion. He blankly repeats Jesse’s words.

Gone. Gone as in away from home? Away from you?” Hiro nods at Jesse for any kind of confirmation, scrambling for any alternative. Jesse solemnly shakes his head, quickly shutting him down.

“Gone as in dead.” He says it with more force than he anticipated, making himself wince. Feeling those words slide off of his tongue… He already felt his stomach start up with the acrobatics routine. He sighs and slouches, some of the tension in him dissipating. He hadn’t realized how tightly his hands were clasped until letting go and feeling that odd rush of sensation returning.

His uncle meanwhile sits back, slack-jawed and wide eyed. He has nothing to say, not that it’d matter. He was so far from being able to form anything even somewhat coherent. Gone. No, not just gone, dead. No returning. No take backs. No way to every truly apologize. Nothing to patch up if there’s no one to patch things up with. He squints, feeling his eyes burning a bit now. That can’t be real, it can’t.

Jesse catches on to his uncle’s internal struggle—the waves upon waves of mixed emotions and thoughts. He figures at this point saying anything more would either just rub salt in the wound or wrap him up into a tighter sense of denial. So instead, Jesse cautiously scoots a bit closer and kindly draws his uncle into another hug. The man shudders but doesn’t necessarily cry, just sits there in shock. Jesse tries keeping a hold on himself for his uncle’s sake. Hiro hesitates a moment but then tightens the grip on his nephew as the realization dawns on him. It’s just them now. Just these two troublemakers. It takes a long moment for him to gather himself enough to ask one of the questions he fears the answer to.

“How… How long ago did…”

“I was ten.”

Hearing this, his uncle pulls back in shock. He figured it may not have been incredibly recent but that long ago? Guilt begins welling up inside him as he leans forward again. He looks at Jesse, worried but stern.

Ten..?” He repeats, praying that his ears may have fooled him. Jesse shrugs with a half hearted smile and nods.

“Double-digits..! Yeah…”

“And now you’re…”

“Yeah. Twenty-six.”

“Good lord..” Hiro rests his head in his hands, rubbing his face. How does he respond to this? His own nephew spent the now majority of his life without any family to fall back on or talk to meanwhile Hiro just fucked around in the Nether scaring people. He knew Steve shouldn’t have trusted him as a godparent. He looks back up to Jesse with sorrowful eyes, his voice the most genuine he’s heard all day. “ Jesse… I am so so sorry… H-Had I known—Had I checked—… I would’ve been there for you, or at least I would’ve actually tried. ” He goes to continue but finds the words getting caught in his throat. Eventually he just shakes his head in defeat.

Jesse isn’t quite sure how best to respond or reassure him, so instead just opts for a comforting hand on his shoulder. Hiro lets out a pathetic chuckle at the gesture and shakes his head. So easily forgiving. He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands then looks up again.

“How did he die..?”

Jesse hesitates briefly then lets out an awkward and slightly frustrated sigh before shaking his head.

“If I knew then I’d tell you. But um… No, I don’t know. That’s part of the reason I’m here.” He sits back, “We’re trying to figure the whole thing out. It’s kind of a mystery at the moment.”

That grabs Hiro’s attention. He raises a brow. “ Mystery?”

“Yeah..” Jesse nods then sucks in a breath and sits up straight as he starts explaining. “I never found his body, nor did anyone else. Only signs of a struggle and him seemingly vanishing into thin air right by the mouth of the cave.”

Vanishing?”

“Mhm! There were only a few things left behind like some records he made—creepy as hell by the way, but important clues—all the blown out torches, the footsteps from when he was running, and a few remnants of his pocketwatch. The actual watch was missing—he might have grabbed it at the last second—but I found one of the little clock hands and all the glass that protected it.” He pauses for a moment, clenching his fists slightly as he thinks, “I-I’m sure there was probably more left behind but I-I didn’t go very deep into the cave… Too scared and I already ran intro enough trouble.”

“What was he doing away from home in the first place? That doesn’t seem like him.”

“It was. After you disappeared well… He still had to visit mineshafts and stuff to keep our tools and supplies up. As I got older he took more little mining trips. I-It wasn’t that bad! I-I mean yeah it got a little lonely and a bit foreboding whenever he was late given what happened…” he trails off as he glances at his uncle who in turn feels another pang of guilt cut through him. Jesse continues with a shrug, “I-It was supposed to be just another one of those things… I had Ziggy with me, I knew how to care for myself so it was fine..!”

“Until he didn’t come home.”

Jesse remains silent.

“How late was he?”

“He said he’d be home on the third day. When he wasn’t by the fifth I went searching for myself.” Jesse begins picking at his gauntlets again. New nervous habit? Probably. Lukas would probably start scolding him for it. Hiro rubs his brow, slowly shaking his head. Steven, Steven, Steven. He’s not angry, just frustrated. Then he pauses, brows scrunching up.

“Wait. Why did he think a mining trip would take 3 days? I mean, I get one or two if he was going to stockpile a bunch of supplies but you two weren’t in need of diamonds, gold, or even redstone hardly!” He squints as Jesse hesitates and rubs his neck. “ Jesse, what did my idiot brother get himself into…”

“Okay so it’s not as bad as it sounds!”

“That is not reassuring.”

Right.” Jesse sucks in a breath and nods with a half hearted shrug, “He wasn’t necessarily there to mine but rather to just light the place up. It was a big cave system he found with a lot of potential and—“

“Jesse, I know my brother so what was in that cave?” Hiro pushes, making Jesse sigh. He didn’t like the insinuation that his father went looking for trouble.

“... A stronghold.” He mumbles, his uncle’s eyes instinctively narrowing and the man briefly tensing up. Same as when Jesse mentioned the End prior. Jesse continues. “He found a stronghold, wasn’t even too far from home--about an hour’s walk. But all he was doing there was lighting the place up for safety’s sake I know it.” He meets his uncle’s scrutinizing gaze with desperate eyes, “He promised. He wasn’t looking for trouble… He wouldn’t have taken that risk… All he left with was a pickaxe, simple sword and then his bag of stuff and jacket. Casual job. In and out.”

“Except he never made it out…” Hiro rubs his beard, a newfound frustration washing over him. He hisses and stands, shoving his cape behind him as he begins to pace. He holds his head in his hands briefly before he begins ranting. “ What the hell was he thinking? God he knows how dangerous those things are!” He snaps, pointing in emphasis. Jesse blinks in confusion but he wasn’t gonna interrupt yet. He uncle shakes his head. “The last time he was in one of those damn things he… We hardly--... Idiot! He should have never tried going back! That stubborn eye-for-an-eye bastard!” He kicks the ground, some red dust from the bricks flying. Jesse jumps. Hiro stands there, huffing in silence with his hands on his hips.

“Uncle Hiro…?”

“It’s my fault Jesse.” He swings around, dropping his hands to his sides and taking his nephew aback.

Wh--... What do you--”

“I-If I had just… If I had just come back and told him-- showed him--that I was alive!Then… God, then he wouldn’t have even been seeking out those stupid death traps! God dammit!” He slams his foot into the ground and a few lightning bolts strike around them in the courtyard. Jesse yelps in surprise--nearly forgetting who he was dealing with. His uncle wasn’t harmless anymore, he can’t be letting his guard down.

“How is him finding a stronghold your fault?”

“Because it’s just how your father was!” He spins around on his heel to face his nephew. At the look of Jesse’s utter dumbfoundment he just rolls his eyes and clenches his hands in frustration. He runs a hand through his hair, dropping his other to hit against his side. “Your father and I always differed when it came to handling loss of any kind. I-I could always just deal with it, make peace with it, but not your father. No. He always needed gratification and he would hold grudges Jesse…” He notes Jesse’s somewhat disturbed expression. He only knew the best of his father from the eyes of a loving child. He’s never heard the negatives. Hiro sighs and holds his hands up, switching tone to try and ease the kid. “Your father was a good man, Jesse. I… Please don’t get me wrong. But he had some undesirable traits just like the rest of us, and like the rest of us, those traits get exasperated when under distress…” He finds his way back over and sits again, fiddling with the seams on his pants.

“Okay…” Jesse blinks, “Now what does that have to do with you?”

“I…” His uncle hesitates, trying to speak but losing his words. He eventually just sighs and shakes his head, “Look… It means whether I came back or not your father was going to seek out something dangerous to substitute as a solution… To make up for this.” He waves a hand over himself. “He would always beat himself up over something going wrong. He was always the planner after all..! So, when things didn’t work out--even if it was my fault--he would push himself to the bone to fix it…”

“He thought you were gone… So he wanted to settle the score. Make up for what he felt was his own failure...”

“It was 100% my fault too. I was brash, cocky, stupid..! My actions nearly got the both of us killed back then Jesse… And maybe… Maybe if I had just come back I could’ve helped stop him. Convince him against going out and doing something brash.” He rubs his forehead. “I don’t think he was intending on leaving you so soon, but the idiot shouldn’t have even been exploring that stronghold with you still needing him. He was supposed to be the smart one for God’s sake… But Classic Steve always too curious for his own good.” He huffs derisively, “Of course that’d be the thing that killed him in the end. Of course …” He rambles, trailing off and leaving Jesse feeling hollow.

“I’m missing something still. How does the stronghold fall into this?”

“You.. You’re joking right?” Hiro looks at him incredulously. He laughs weakly and Jesse just stares at him in blank confusion. Hiro frowns, trying to piece together why Jesse wouldn’t know about something so crucial.

“No, dad never talked about strongholds before the one he found.” Jesse begins getting anxious himself, what was he overlooking? Hiro is seemingly winded, blowing out a breath and shaking his head. He furrows his brows.

“You weren’t wrong for thinking I died , Jesse.”

That grabs Jesse’s attention and the young man leans forward with a rekindled curiosity. His uncle huffs a bit in amusement, a smile pulling at the edges of his lips. He scratches the back of his head and shrugs, laughing awkwardly as Jesse blinks, mouth slightly agape.

Yeah … I know that’s a weird thing to think about. Your uncle got reanimated! Featuring less rotting flesh and more freaky powers..!” He loses his high spirit quickly though, getting a saddened look in his eyes as he asks, “What did your father even tell you about my death?”

Jesse just shakes his head, “That there was an accident and you wouldn’t be coming back… But nothing else. I think it hurt too much to talk about and didn’t want to scare me with the details.”

“Right, you were still young… Sorry, sorry I just… No that definitely explains it.” Hiro mumbles, tossing a small piece of the brick he began picking at aside. “I didn’t die in an accident. It was my own stupidity that got me killed.” He glances up to Jesse, whose blue eyes are staring intently as he listens. Hiro presses his hands into his legs, not liking to think about it. “We were exploring a stronghold Jesse… A-And I barged in through the portal.”

“You died in the End…” Jesse’s voice is soft, his eyes wide at the prospect. He immediately looks down, his mind suddenly ablaze. How ironic for the End to be the resting place for both of these twins. Talk about weird coincidences. His uncle frowns at Jesse’s silence, misinterpreting it and ending up rambling.

”God I just… I just wish now that I wasn’t the one with the second chance at life. I mean it’s not like I’ve done anything useful with my time here anyways.” Hiro grumbles, glancing around him in mild disgust. He’s guilt ridden. Why did he, the overconfident and childish one, get another try over his brother? The kind and courageous one who always looked out for his family. The father with so much life left to look forward to? He already knows that question is gonna haunt him for ages.

Jesse leans down, catching his uncle’s gaze again, concern welled up in his eyes. “Uncle Hiro, what happened to you and dad?”

Hiro sighs, smiling sadly but keeping his typical snarky attitude about him. “Well… Simply putting it, our plans were ruined by my very serious case of ‘ dumb bitch disease’.”

Chapter Text

“We’re lost.”

“We are not lost!” Steve argues, pulling his nose out of their map just long enough to face his brother. Identical blue eyes roll before Hiro smirks, sword slung lazily over his shoulders.

“Alright then poindexter, where are we exactly?”

“Don’t worry about it..!” Steve shrugs with a sly grin and folds up the map, brushing shoulders with his brother as he passes by. Hiro clicks his tongue, spinning on his heel to follow after his brother.

“You see this is why I’m worried .”

“Oh relax. Keep up that attitude and you’ll be just as bad as Jesse..!” He jokes back to his brother but Hiro catches the small bit of tension in his brother’s stance. He picks up his pace with a skip in his step, slinging an arm around his twin with a reassuring grin.

“Hey the kid’s gonna be fine. Alex’s the best person we coulda grabbed to keep an eye on the little snot-nose!” He kids and his brother snorts in amusement, “Sides, she’s got a kid too right? Brash lil girl? They’ll tire out in no time! Easy job!”

“I suppose you have a point.”

“I do! Which is why you,” Hiro hurries ahead and spins around, walking backwards to keep eye contact with his brother, “just need to chill. It’s a good ol’ fashioned adventure like when we were kids! Enjoy it! Get back to your roots a bit!” He grins and hangs back to jab Steve in the side. His brother laughs and nods.

“Alright, alright, I’ll try not to worry. Though frankly at this point I’m pretty sure looking after Jesse is easier than looking after you.” He grins and Hiro pauses in his stride to squint at him.

“Okay now you’re just being mean.” The man mumbles before continuing on in the cave, his brother’s warm laughter echoing throughout the cramped tunnel system.

The twins haven’t had the chance to go on a search like this one in years but still loved every second of it. Both pairs of blue eyes were alight with awe and excitement with each turn, bend, and step. The cave system they found themselves in today was expansive, twisting and turning with crossroads every few meters. The tunnels varied greatly in size and material, the walls always shifting from pure smooth stone that arched high above their heads or rugged and tight spaces with everchanging veins of minerals. The caves were all rich with untouched ore that twinkled in the torch light, shimmering like the blue armor the pair toted as they crept deeper and deeper.

For a lot of people, caves and tunnels always were ominous, scary, and dangerous—especially if you didn’t know what you were doing. Yet that very same nature is what always captivated the two. They had exploring in their blood! It was always something that seemed to run through their father’s side of the family (much to their mother’s dismay). Ever since they were kids they were an inseparable duo! Maybe it was the fact that they were genetically the same, but that’s not a fun explanation. They’re brothers, yeah, but they’re also best friends! Perhaps two halves of a whole, semi-functioning person as their mother liked to joke. As a team, they felt near invincible; they were both safe as long as they had their brother with them.

“Duck.” Steve says casually as he dips his head.

“Huh?” His brother looks ahead at him in confusion as he keeps walking, soon yelping and beginning to frantically swipe at his face. “ EW! PEUGH! Gross!”

Steve momentarily stops and looks back as his brother fights with the cobweb now stuck on him. He laughs gently only to receive a piercing glare from Hiro. Throwing the last bit of web off of his face and head, Hiro shudders and dusts the rest off of his armor. The two both sported diamond chest plates, boots, helmets--that they hardly actually wore--and swords, leaving iron for their leggings. They weren’t terribly concerned about getting injured during this part of the trip, but better safe than sorry. Sides, they were at least stylish! Steve waves the torch in his hand.

“I mean, I warned you.”

“Yeah well maybe I would’ve caught it if you actually said ‘cobweb’ instead.”

“Maybe. Buuuut I’m pretty sure you would’ve still has your head in the clouds no matter what I said.” He snickers and his brother lets out a strained laugh then shrugs.

“I mean, yeah, okay, but do you blame me? I love this system! It’s so vast with tons of stuff packed in. We ought to just come down here for a mining excursion someday!”

“You say that about every cave system.” He brother smiles fondly, Hiro grinning back and leaning on his brother’s shoulders.

“Yeah, but this time I mean it! I just think they’re neat!”

“Just wait until we actually get where we’re going! You, my mischievous little brother, are gonna be bouncing off the walls!” The torchlight dances across his face, the dramatic orange lighting highlighting his own mischievous grin. Hiro stares at him blankly.

“Steve we’re the same age.”

“Not by a few minutes! It counts!” He laughs and turns around, excitedly picking up his pace. They were both like big children, Steve especially when he had something good. Hiro felt his stomach start tying itself in knots in anticipation, this was gonna be something big, something good! He knew it! With a grin, he hurries on to catch up with his brother once more.

Catching up with him, he spies his brother peeking through a thin crevice in the wall--just big enough to get through. He quickly taps twice on his brother’s shoulder to let him know he was there, what he always did. His brother grinned up at him, pulling his torch out of the crevice and shoving it into Hiro’s hands. He readjusts the strap on his satchel, fixing it so he can squeeze through easier. As he starts shuffling through, he nods to his brother excitedly. ‘This way!’

Hiro tosses the torch between his two hands, deciding which grip he liked better and eventually settling for his left. He grins and quickly hurries in after his brother. The small crack in the wall was a lot longer than he anticipated, taking a good minute or two to push through. Hiro unconsciously holds his breath as he gets through the last bit, carefully weaving his body through that jagged rocks. There was light emanating from the exit, a familiar warm glow that got him curious to see. He hurried out of the crevice, exhaling loudly and theatrically before feeling his brother’s hand on his chest. He blinks, surprised to feel his support. Thinking about it, his brother did disappear from the tunnel for a few minutes. His gaze flicks quickly to his left at the familiar face.

His grin was infectious and with his other hand he guided Hiro to look over the small ledge they were now perched upon. Looking down, Hiro quickly light up with adrenaline filled excitement. A ravine! The stone, water, and obsidian was bathed in the warm reddish orange glow of the lava popping and gently seeping through the stone. Turning his gaze upward, the ceiling of the ravine was practically impossible to see, even at their height. Bathed in familiar darkness, it was beautiful. In it’s own ominous, creepy way. But the pair were entranced by it. The squeaking of a bat makes a warm chuckle bubble up in his chest as the silly little thing started flitting around aimlessly. He looked back to his brother, done with sightseeing for the moment who simply nodded and turns around. He waves the torch in small leftward circles, a signal to creep that way and stick closer to the wall. Hiro mirrored his brother’s movement and began ghosting his hand over the stone wall.

Hiro glances downward again, making sure they could at least get through relatively safely. Spying a few monsters hanging back in the darkness he smirks in amusement, stifling a chuckle. Steve looks back at him questioningly and his brother just nods downwards to the monsters.

“I think we know someone who’d like a closer look at those beasties!”

His brother laughs heartily and grins, “Oh of course! And only to get killed in the process!”

The two laugh warmly, the sound echoing off the walls of the large ravine. This was nice. Just Hiro and his brother, the classic duo! This was how it always ended up, not that he could complain though! Yeah they had their moments of being thorns in each other’s sides, but they always came back around for one another when in need. There was always someone to fall back on and talk to.

“What the--?!”

“It’s a tremor! Get back against the wall!” He hears his brother yell over the sudden thunderous rumble and cracking that echoes through the system. Hiro feels himself pushed back up against the wall and he quickly reaches out to hold his brother the same way. This wasn’t the first time they’ve run into quakes while underground, but that didn’t make it any less nerve wracking. Hiro sucks in his breath as a large chunk of rock falls from above, narrowly missing the pair by a foot as it crashes into the ground below. Hiro winces at the mixture of hissing and bones cracking coming from below. Well. At least the thing took care of their monster problem for them.

After a few seconds the tremor stops and the calm silence fills the cavern once more. The pair let out a sigh of relief in sync, sharing shaky grins before turning and moving on. Reaching the end of their ledge, Steve crouches and waves the torch down a bit to see if there was an easy way down. He scowls as he thinks quietly and Hiro takes the opportunity to peer over his shoulder. His brother was probably making this more complicated than it should be. He taps his shoulder twice then points.

“Let’s just use these rocks as makeshift stairs down, we shouldn’t lollygag if this place is gonna be frisky with us.”

“And getting back up?”

“It’ll be just like rockclimbing! Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure?” Hiro grins and squeezes past him, easily hopping down to the first ‘stair’. He hears his brother gasp a bit then looks up to his tired face with a laugh. Steve holds a hand over his heart and grins sheepishly.

“You can’t just do things like that!”

“Ah come on! I gotta keep you on your toes somehow Mr. Family-Man!” Hiro shrugs and continues hopping down to the bottom of the ravine. Steve rolls his eyes and follows after. Dropping to the bottom level Steve squints, taking in their surroundings.

“Well?”

“Gimme a second here…” He shoves the torch into Hiro’s hands then begins digging through his bag.

“Hey, no offense? But you’re really bad at reading cave maps so I don’t think that’s gonna help us here.”

Steve continues sifting through his bag as he speaks, “One. Fuck you. Two, I got something better than a map!” He beams, snatching the small sphere out of his bag and tossing it playfully. Hiro blinks then squints at it, raising the torch up to examine what on Earth his brother has up his sleeve.

On its own, it has a soft ethereal glow. The outer layer looks like glass, seemingly pretty thick too. With the way his brother grips it too, it’s not incredibly light. The outer rim of it is a dark turquoise, shifting to a faded lime green in the center. There’s small speckles of gold and violet throughout, but the most blood-chilling aspect of it is the intense slit pupil staring right back at Hiro. He moves his head a bit each way, only to have the eye follow him each way, never breaking its gaze. He looks up to Steve in a mix of awe and dread. His brother grins in excitement.

“Check it!” He winks and steps back a bit, gripping the eye tightly. He sucks in a breath and winds up before flinging it high into the darkness straight above them at the top of the ravine. Hiro watches suspiciously, not really knowing what to expect aside from it just falling and shattering. Then it stalls in the sky. He notes his brother’s fascination and excitement in watching it and Hiro briefly questions what they’ve just gotten into. In the sky the eye sits, spinning before some purple sparks shoot and the eye zips down through the ravine like a bee. Upon freezing outside of another cave mouth it shoots back upwards. For a brief moment the ravine is filled with purple light and particles raining down before it stalls and simply drops to the ground, the sound of the glass surface bouncing on the stone echoing from somewhere ahead.

Hiro stands there, mouth agape as his brother pumps a fist in the air in excitement.

“NICE!!! Come on! We gotta go this way!” He waves to his flabbergasted brother before darting ahead, the sound of his boots splashing through a small stream of water ahead snapping Hiro out of his dumbfoundment. He shakes his head and stumbles into action, not wanting to lose his brother.

Steve. Steven. What was that. What the hell are we doing.”

“Oh come on! Where’s your sense of adventure?” Steve snickers, hopping across a patch of lava with practiced ease. Hiro groans at his brother’s hypocritical nature but decides not to argue too much. At least he was having fun again, that’s all he really wanted to see. This was the side of his brother that he always looked up to: the wide-eyed and curious explorer, willing to do anything to find the next big and new treasure with the skills and perseverance to pull it off. He laughs a bit to himself. God have mercy if Jesse ends up anything like his father.

Scooping up the eye, Steve blows the dust off of it and stuffs it back into his bag. He gets a whole ‘nother use of it! Talk about good luck! Hiro catches up to him and Steve takes the torch back from his brother, nodding his thanks then marching into the cave before them. It’s far darker than the others, the sounds of lava and water quickly becoming muted as they venture further. The sound of Hiro’s sword unsheathing cuts through the silence, reminding Steve that they’re actually going through dangerous territory. Man he can be absent minded!

“So, tell me, what was that thing? I haven’t seen them before.”

“An Eye of Ender! I read about them in one of the old books we found in the taiga mineshaft a few years back.”

“Eye of Ender… Like.. Endermen Ender?”

“Uhhh…”

Steve you know I hate those things!”

“Now hang on! Look, I know it sounds bad but we’re not going into some weird Endermen nest, I promise. Eyes of Ender just lead to strongholds!”

“Strongholds? I thought those were just myths.”

“Rare, yes, but far from myths!” Steve glances back at Hiro with a smile. Noticing his brother’s slight hesitance he hangs back and slings an arm around his shoulder. “Look, these things are basically just glorified mineshafts with the flair of jungle temples mixed in! It’s not like a trip to the Nether. And besides! If that book is anything to go by, there’s bound to be a lot of good loot! We just have to watch our step and leave a trail of breadcrumbs so we don’t get lost. Easy!”

“Hm… I suppose you make a compelling argument… But I have one condition.”

“Oh?”

“I get first dibs on any loot we find! I get to pick out what I keep, you can survive with the leftovers!” He grins and Steve chuckles, nodding.

“I think I can agree to those terms.”

The walk through the new cave is rather smooth sailing. A few zombie groans can be heard from above them and occasionally a few footsteps make the pair freeze in their tracks, but they breeze through with no confrontations at all. A lovely change of pace! A nice calm before the storm of sorts. The cave eventually opens into a decently large cavern. Steve lets out a sigh, releasing the tension in his shoulders as he holds the torch high to look around. Then, on the wall opposite of him, he spots it.

Nestled naturally in the rock of the cave lies a wall of old and rather mossy stone bricks with a dusty iron door sitting nicely in the center. Steve has a grin that sweeps from ear to ear as his brother whistles from behind him. Hurrying over to the wall, Steve pulls out some quick supplies to tie the torch to the wall. Now with both hands at his disposal and some consistent light he begins inspecting the door. Hiro does the same, taking in different details that he knows his brother would overlook.

“How old is this thing..? I mean, the stone looks like it dates back centuries but the door is still kinda new. Maybe put together in the last century or last 50 years at the least.”

“Can’t say.” Steve stands tall again, resting his hands on his hips. “But we’re gonna have to break it to get in. There’s nothing rigged to open it from this side at least.”

“Oooo! I got this!” Hiro grins, spinning his sword in his hand, the blue blade shimmering in the torchlight. Steve nods and takes a few steps back to let his brother work his magic. He grabs the small grating at eye level and shakes it to get an idea of how strong this thing is. It clangs and moves a bit but seems more jammed than anything. Clicking his tongue he grips the grating again and holds his breath as he begins to pull. It doesn’t come easy but through the ear piercing screeching of metal against stone, a small gap between the door and wall finally opens and Hiro quickly shoves the blade of his sword in the gap and lets go. He blows out a breath and grins before gripping his sword and pushing, using it like a crowbar to get the door open.

With a loud screech and bang of the door slamming into the opposite wall, the way is opened! Steve claps, making his brother laugh and bow overdramatically. Steve hurries over, lighter in hand and both peer in through the doorway, giddy in anticipation.

Sweet! Let’s go!”

“Ah ah ah!” Steve catches Hiro by the collar, the latter shooting his brother a pouty look. Steve doesn’t even budge, quirking a brow. “Remember the last time you tried barging into some ancient temple and how that worked out?”

“Uh. Yeah. We got a lot of cool shit.”

“Before that part.”

“I got… Scratched?”

“Odd way of saying you nearly got your leg chopped off. Suppose I’ll buy it though!” Steve lets go with a smirk and pushes past his brother, being slow and meticulous about where he steps. Hiro rolls his eyes and crosses his arms as he rests against the doorframe.

“Like you’ve never done the same thing!”

“Those were different situations!”

“Oh different my ass!” He playfully spits as he walks up to his brother’s side. Snatching the lighter from his brother’s hand he spins around and lights one of the unlit torches on the wall, not giving his brother a chance to protest. Steve shoots him an unamused look which only makes Hiro snicker as he tosses the lighter back. He plucks the torch off of the moss covered wall, waving it ahead of him as he scans the ground and walls. He hums with a smile, eventually stopping with a bounce and spinning around on his heel to look at his brother.

“No offense Steve, but I think this place is a bit too old to have any clever traps like what you’re lookin’ for.” He stops his foot against the stone a few times, the clacking of his heel echoing through the halls. He stops and shrugs with a grin, “Nothin’!”

“Alright,” Steve raises his voice slightly but there’s no anger behind it. He chuckles softly as he raises his hands and shakes his head, “You win this time, but if you feel the tug of a tripwire or hear any stones shifting, we run!”

Nah I’d just sit and let it happen! OW--!” Hiro recoils from his brother’s playful punch in the shoulder. Steve laughs, taking the torch from his brother’s hand and taking the lead once more.

Saying the stronghold was large would have been an understatement. The thing was massive and not only that but an absolute maze. With a piece of chalk from within his bag, Steve even started making tally marks on one column each time they passed it. Despite not running into as many chests as they’d been hoping, the odd architecture of the structure was treasure enough to them. There were so many different rooms and different types. Even the staircases were different! There were bridges arching high over other hallways, stairways and rooms. Age had collapsed so many walls and ceilings that many rooms weaved into each other. Despite the cramped intention of having so many rooms and being deep underground, the stronghold had ceilings that arched far above their heads in the rooms that mattered. In one center room lay a large and miraculously still functional fountain. Hiro, the more daring of the two cupped his hands and dared to drink the water. Spectacularly, it was some of the freshest water he’d ever drank.

Lighting up unused torches as they went, the place was slowly becoming familiar to the twins, something new at every turn. Hiro had to pry Steve away from the library by the ear if they wanted to actually move on before the next century. It was so odd. The structure was so vast but no rooms seemed to have any signs of being living quarters yet there were so many perfectly sized. While a bit counterintuitive with the maze-like layout, it certainly seemed to be the perfect place for a community of people to have lived. So many rooms, the libraries, bridges, pathways, spiral stairways and normal stairways between levels and even the odd jail cells they found. It all pointed to this being some kind of enclosed community. They can only wonder at how it must’ve looked in its prime aboveground.

But their exploration didn’t come without problems. Afterall, there was a reason strongholds were only casually mentioned in stories to scare children.

“FORE!” Hiro’s yell echoes through the hall as he whacks a skeleton’s head off of it’s body, holding it still with his boot.

CHRIST!” Steve ducks just in time for the head to pass over him and smash into the wall behind him, instantly bursting to shards and dust. Hiro raises his hands in the victory before spinning and stabbing his sword in the gut of an approaching zombie.

They had turned their backs for a minute, attempting to decide which way to turn next when another small tremor shook and crumbled a wall, a group of monsters taking the opportunity to flood in and blocking their exit. Steve stabs his sword sturdily between the bricks, using it as support so he can double the force of his swing and kick. A creeper and zombie fly across the intersecting halls at the impact only to get caught by Hiro’s swift blade. The ticking green creature gets smoothly defused and the zombie crumbles without its upper half.

Steve rips his sword out of the wall, the sound one of pure satisfaction with some moss flying off with it. He sprints across the open space, jumping into position and slashing wide at a small group of zombies approaching his brother from behind. Hiro taps his brother’s back twice with his elbow and Steve throws his sword between hands to his left. Hiro in response swings around, sword in his right, and locking arms with his left. The two work as one unit and easily cut down the three zombies. Letting go, Hiro spins on his heel to head back towards their exit but freezes in his tracks at the sight of more monsters.

Shit… Tell me there are more ways in and out of this thing!”

“Only one way to find out!” Steve tugs on his brother’s arm and the pair begin sprinting through the dark halls the opposite direction. They run into and practically have to throw themselves off the walls at each turn to keep up their momentum. Reaching another intersection Steve only has a split second to decide which hall is the least filled to the brim with zombies, but he doesn’t get the chance to decide before he feels Hiro tugging him left into another hall filled to the brim with jail cells.

Groans and hisses ring in their ears and Hiro yelps at the sudden burst of hands trying to shove past the iron bars. They violently shake, dust beginning to fall from above as the old steel falters beneath their strength. Hiro drops into a slide to avoid the mass of hands, Steve mirroring him just behind. Hiro bounces to his feet in one swift move, swinging around to pull his brother up and keep running. A loud clang from far behind them is a friendly indication that the way they came is problem a no-go. The zombies turning the bend from which they just came solidifies that. Hiro huffs and blue eyes flick up to their copy.

That’s swell!”

Steve lets out a curt “HA!” in agreement before his face quickly drops into one of serious curiosity. He immediately stops and backs up to another stairway in the wall. Hiro skids to a halt and watches his brother in confusion. What the hell was he doing? Running back to his side, he wasn’t even able to get a word out before his brother pointed down the stairway. Hiro’s brief annoyance subsided and his childlike curiosity took over once more.

Light.

Warm light.

The pair look at each other before the whistling of an arrow and chorus of zombie groans snap them back to reality. No time to stare, time to move! Steve darts down the stairs, Hiro right in tow. It’s a long stairway, like, excessively long. Hiro grimaces and smacks the side of his head at the sensation of his ears popping under his helmet. They were close to bedrock for sure. At the bottom of the several flights of stairs lay a new type of hallway. Thick glass at each corner and edge encases flowing lava. At the end of the hall the wall that stands proud is one like none they’ve seen. With intricately carved stone decorating it symmetrically from a crack down the middle, this was something that gave the twins a serious sense of dread. A dead end. Both head immediately dart behind them before snapping back to their surroundings. The walls left and right to them were also symmetrical, with 3 levers sitting atop more specially carved stone.

Hiro grabs his own head, beginning to get rather nervous. He’s dealt with it before but he never liked being cornered by a swarm of monsters. Steve’s mind spun as he realized his brother was starting to get nervous. Running to the odd wall at the end of the hall he hastily runs his hands over the stone, eyes darting every which way to see what the purpose was. Crouching down he dusts off the ground by the middle seam and takes notice of something grand. Gasping quietly he quickly yanks off his helmet and shoves his messy brown locks aside, pressing his ear up to the seam, or rather, crack. Shutting his eyes tight he focuses and prays to hear what he believes is there and gets a fantastic answer as the soft whistling of air breezing through the miniscule crack. With a bright grin he jumps to his feet, stumbling in the process and runs back to his brother.

“DOOR!” Through his frantic panting Steve grips his brother’s arms, catching his gaze. Hiro blinks in utter confusion at his brother’s words. Steve rolls his eyes and catches his breath, waving a hand as he struggles to form the words. He points at the back ‘wall.’ “ Door! It’s a door! There’s air coming through and scratch marks in the stone at its base meaning it works too! Hurry! These levers gotta have something to do with it!” He slaps his brothers arms and the pair split to opposite sides.

Noticing some odd bumps in the stone above the levers, Hiro reaches up and dusts them off, uncovering some kind of old runes.

“Steve! Above the levers there’s some old writing! It might be the way to open the door correctly!”

“Got ya!” Steve mirrors his brothers movements and uncovers the lines of runes. After a brief minute of inspecting them he lights up, “ Yes! Okay I-I got these! They’re the same thing the writing about the Eyes were in!”

“Will they help us?” Hiro bites, the tension becoming clear in his voice.

“Yes just give me a minute to read!” Steve snaps back before gluing his eyes to the lines of text before him. He can only make out some of it and skims over the beginning as it’s just useless historical blabber. His eyes dart from text to levers as he gets the information he needs, mumbling quietly to himself as Hiro stands at his side, jumping anxiously in place.

Steve?!”

“Okay I got it! Just listen to what I say and be quick! We have to do this simultaneously so you cannot get a trigger finger here do you understand me?” Steve looks back over his shoulder at his brother who nods seriously back. Steve sucks in a deep breath, the scuttling, hissing and groaning from the stairs getting louder. “I’m going to count down before we pull each lever alright? First one is the one closest to the door. My left your right.” Both brothers grab their lever in sync, “ 3. 2. 1. Now!”

They pull, a loud rumbling by the doors starts within seconds and finished with a satisfying thud. Steve and Hiro momentarily look back at each other with childlike glee in their eyes. Steve nods, bouncing back to the middle.

“Good! Okay next one. My right, your left. Closest to the stairs!” They grab, Hiro anxiously readjusting his grip on the old thing as his brother counts down. “3. 2. 1. Now!” Another tug, another satisfying rumble and thud. One more and they both easily know what’s next. Grabbing the middle levers and meeting each other’s gazes, Steve doesn’t even have to count down. They grin, Steve nods and they yank down the last of the three levers in sync.

That settled it. A louder rumbling is heard and is now accompanied by the high pitched squeal of stone being dragged against stone as the two doors slowly pull apart to reveal a whole new room. The two don’t even care about what they’re running into, all they know is that it’s further away from that hoard. Sprinting ahead, Hiro darts between the thin opening, Steve picking up his discarded helmet and then following right behind him. Not even a few steps in they two feel the small tug of string at their feet, momentarily tripping them up. The doors stutter and halt, sitting halfway open for a moment before they begin slowly closing back up. Steve quickly glances around the room in response and thankfully spies another lever off to the side.

As the two slowly back up, Steve feels and hears the sickening crunch of something beneath his feet. He grimaces, and freezes up with Hiro following suit. Steve lets out a long restrained sigh, not even opening his eyes.

“Hiro.”

“Yes Steve?”

“Did I just step on what I think I just stepped on?”

“Fairly certain.”

“Fantastic…” Steve sighs, slowly turning around to face the scuttering and hissing forms of Silverfish nibbling at their boots. He shudders before kicking one back, “ I am never stepping foot in a stronghold again.”

Hiro laughs weakly and shakes his head, “Honestly, I’ll take silverfish over creepers, zombies and skeletons any day-- OW!” He yells as one finds its way up and bites him between the armor at his knee. He smacks it off of him. “Alright, time to be exterminators I guess!”

After a few minutes of getting the damn thing to shoo and scurry off, the pair are finally left in relaxed silence once more. Finally taking the chance to look around the room they’ve run into, they find some very odd sights that oddly fill them with dread. It’s a subtle dread however, one that’s often and easily pushes aside by their fascination and bewilderment of the unknown. The room was about the same height as the hallway before and kept the lava motif as well. A glass layer sat on all sides just before meeting with the ceiling, the lava behind it filling the room with a comforting orange glow. Below that layer was the same stone bricks they’d grown used to seeing, then iron bars that seemingly led to nowhere but darkness and more stone down to the floor. At each corner of the room there were stone bricks stacked as a more aesthetic choice. Luckily enough however they seemingly doubled for decent counters or places to sit. But all of that was nothing compared to what lie in the middle of the room.

Sitting dead center above a pit of bubbling lava was some sort of structure like they’d never seen. Slowly climbing the stone stairs that led up, the twins were met with a marvellous sight. In a neat square lay 12 identical pieces. You couldn’t even call them stones. Their bulk was made of a glimmering tan stone neither twin had seen before. Above that, and beautifully carved in was a gilded pattern of something akin to jade that outlined the top of each piece. There was hints of gold, purple and obsidian mixed in that twinkled in the warm light from the lava. It was a familiar palette for quickly obvious reasons. Smack dab in the center of a majority of these parts were Eyes of Ender, but something was different. The pupils in each of these eyes wasn’t the intense, every-watching black of the eye Steve had stowed away in his bag, but rather a luminescent purple, nearly white and they all stared blankly upwards.

Hiro gets a chill down his spine and backs off which snaps his brother from his own little mesmerization. Steve sputters and quickly backs off and down the stairs to be by his brother. He blinks in absolute dumbfoundment and for a minute, neither truly have anything to say. Steve shakes his head and walks off to one corner of the room, throwing off his bag to rummage through it. With furrowed brows he pulls out the aforementioned book and quickly begins flipping and reading through its pages for any mention of what this is. Perhaps he missed something?

What… What is all of this?” Hiro voices the question on both of their minds, looking to his brother for an answer. Steve just shakes his head, blowing out a sigh through his nose and Hiro blinks in disbelief. “You don’t know ? I thought you knew all about what to expect from this place?”

“I-I thought I did too, Hiro. I-I’ve read this book cover-to-cover nearly a dozen times! Not once is a room like this even remotely mentioned! Nonetheless whatever the hell that is!” Steve scowls, blowing through pages in his book in frustration, praying there’s something between the lines.

He finds nothing.

Steve snaps the book shut and slams it down on the stone counter in frustration. The loud slam catches the jumpy Hiro off-guard and makes him, well, jump. Steve scratches the back of his head before pulling out a few of the books he was able to pluck from the library. He blows the dust off of them and begins flicking through the pages. Hiro sighs as his brother ventures into his own little brainiac zone and leaving Hiro to just stand and wait.

Standing and waiting was not his strong suit. Climbing the stairs again, he inspects the weird structure again. He notes the eyes in particular, trying to spot a pattern. He frowns but then cocks his head a bit in morbid curiosity. The pattern he found isn’t so much of a pattern per se, but rather the fact that there were only 3 eyes missing in random pieces. One spot to his left that was missing one seemed to have glass shards around it. The eye must’ve broke yet there wasn’t a brick out of place in this room so it couldn’t have been falling debris. Odd. Do they burst? Is there a time limit for how long they can stay sitting here? His question in quickly answered however as a sharp whistling cuts through the air and an eye to his right begins shaking in it’s spot. Hiro quickly raises his arms as the eye bursts, one neighboring it following suit. Glass is shot out but luckily either misses the twins or bounces easily off of their diamond armor.

What was that?!” Steve spins around to his brother who’s crouched on the stairs. Hiro huffs, dropping his arms into his lap.

Those damn eyes are just blowing up! I think they’ve been sitting here too long.”

“Now why on Earth would they do that?”

“I dunno! Magic? You made yours with blaze powder and stuff right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“That’s like, magic stuff! Either way it’s both terrifying and honestly kinda cool…” Hiro turns his gaze back to the structure, his brother rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

“Here, before you start leaning in to look at the pretty colors of the lava.” Steve says sarcastically before tossing a glass bottle his brother’s way. Hiro frowns but catches it and warily inspects the orangey-pink liquid. He quirks a brow back to his brother who continues. “ Fire resistance. Drink it.”

“I’m not just gonna fall in!”

“And how many times have I heard that before?” Steve quips. Hiro holds his gaze for a long steady time before sighing, groaning, and downing the potion. He halfheartedly tosses the bottle back to Steve who just chuckles at Hiro’s antics. “You’re such a drama king. I just want you to be safe Hiro.”

“Aww, I didn’t know you cared!” Hiro teases and Steve laughs and only shakes his head in acknowledgement. Not a denial, just a ‘ this little shit’ type shake. Hiro grins but then sighs as silence falls between them once again. Looking back over his shoulder at the eyes and lack thereof his brows furrow. He bites his lip and bounces his leg as he ponders what this all is and what to do next. Eventually he speaks up again.

“Hey Steve?”

“Hm?”

“How many Eyes did you make and like, bring with you?”

“I made five from leftover powder and pearls. Why?”

“Do we need them to find our way out of here?”

Steve blinks, not really processing the words on his book’s page anymore. He pauses to think his brother’s questions over and growing quickly wary of his intentions.

“Not necessarily… Why ?”

“Well I just…” Hiro knows his brother isn’t going to like his next idea. He bites his lip, shrugs, and goes forth nonetheless, “That’s enough to fill in these holes and I mean if you can’t find anything about this in those books then we might as well see what happens!”

Steve responds just as he expected.

“No. No. No. We are not doing that!”

Aw come on!”

“NO. You know I hate diving in blind!

“What are you so scared of? This isn’t a redstone trap or machine that’ll suddenly spring and kill us both. You know that, you’re smarter than that.”

“And so are you.” Steve finally turns to face his brother, eyes stern and set. “We both know that is a portal. There’s nothing else it could be. But we have no idea what could be lurking on the other side, Hiro! I’m not risking our lives for it!”

Opening it isn’t going to kill us! It could give us more information!” Hiro argues his point, gesturing back to the portal outline behind him. Steve rolls his eyes, slowly shaking his head.

How Hiro…”

“We don’t know what type of portal it is but maybe it’s not that different after all! C’mere! Just look, I know you saw it. Each piece has some obsidian in it. What if it’s just some kind of glorified nether portal?”

“It’s made out of stone we’ve never seen before, Hiro! The obsidian is miniscule in comparison!”

“Well okay fine but it at least looks a lot nicer than a Nether portal. While the eyes are a bit weird it’s really elegant and pretty. If so much effort was put into making it then maybe it leads to somewhere better. Somewhere nicer than the Nether. W-What if it leads to like that old Sky Dimension Auntie used to tell us about!”

“The Aether is an old wives tale, Hiro--”

“And so were strongholds before today!” Hiro desperately argues his point and while he may not be the expert, he can tell that he’s at least starting to crack his brother’s shell a bit. He’s made some logical points. But something still feels off. Regardless, Hiro continues. “I just wanna see what the portal itself looks like. Maybe the description will give you a headstart in one of those books.” He shrugs, dropping his hands and letting his words settle in.

Steve doesn’t meet his brother’s gaze as he thinks, and it certainly takes him a long time to do so. But Hiro can force himself to be patient. Somewhat. Eventually his brother sighs and turns around, grabbing the Eyes and tossing two to Hiro.

“We put them in, but no portal travel.”

“Aye Aye Captain.” Hiro lazily salutes with the eyes still in hand before standing and carefully making his way across the portal outline to the two spots the eyes previously burst in. Leaning down, he goes to put one of the eyes in when he feels the thing gravitate towards it’s spot. He furrows his brows in interest. A few purple particles and sparks fly as he plays a game of keep away. It’s like a magnet almost. Taking a chance, he lets go and the eye falls perfectly into place, rolling it’s pupil upwards and turning that weird light purple with a small flare. Hiro hums in interest before moving to the next one, Steve mirroring him on the other side.

The last eye that needs to be placed is back by the stairs and in the center piece. The two hurry off the nerve wracking ledges and back to the safety of the stairs. Steve bites his lip as he turns the eye over and over in his hands, staring intently down at the last slot. Hiro waits beside him patiently.

Steve glances at Hiro who nods, then nods himself and crouches down. Holding the eye out over the slot, he notes that this one is oddly stronger than the others. More forceful. He grimaces. It felt like something was clawing at him. Despite it, he holds it up longer out of curiosity. Like the old saying goes however, curiosity killed the cat. Steve yelps, dropping the Eye into place and recoiling. Hiro quickly moves to check on him but both’s attention are drawn to the sudden flashes of purple in each eye and the wave of purple particles that’s blown out with a gush of wind. Ironically, it smells like lavender. Something surprisingly sweet. The beautiful portal sparks to life, the matter of it looking like it was plucked right out of the night sky. It was gorgeous, with stars twinkling throughout it’s surface and colorful nebulas dancing in the background.

Wow… That’s…” Hiro laughs a bit and smiles wide, in absolute awe. Steve nods in agreement.

It’s beautiful… I’ve never seen anything like it…”

“Look at how it moves too!” Hiro points into the inky mass, “ It’s almost like liquid of some kind..”

“Stunning.”

“Yeah…” Hiro sits back which allows Steve to relax at least a little. It’s short lived though as he hisses again in pain, gripping the wrist of his right hand. It catches Hiro’s attention and suddenly the two snap back to reality. “Oh yikes what hit you? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. Give me a second…” Steve trails off, fumbling as he tries to get his gauntlet and glove off. Somehow, whatever it was, got him beneath the armor. With his hand revealed, 3 large oozing cuts frame the outer edges of his hand. Two below the pinky, one above the thumb. Hiro’s eyes widen as he inspects his brother’s injuries. Steve’s hand shakes as he does so.

“What the hell…”

“That’s not a good sign…” Steve mumbles, his brother sighing.

“N-No it’s not that they’re bad per se but rather…” Hiro shakes his head, dumbfounded. “These look a lot like the claw marks Endermen can leave behind…”

“Endermen?”

Yeah, talk about weird…” Hiro trails off. Steve nods to himself quietly. They hadn’t seen an Endermen the entire day, and nothing physically shot out and grabbed him. Hiro would certainly have remembered seeing the hand and claws of an Enderman shooting out of that black hole. Standing back up, Steve moves back over to his books. Hiro frowns and speaks up again,

“Hey smart-alec, you should wrap up that hand before you start flipping through those books again! I mean if you want a bunch of blood splatters making it harder to read I can’t stop you but…” He trails off with a shrug.

Steve hesitates momentarily, seemingly realizing what he was actually doing. He doesn’t respond but the sigh of annoyance makes Hiro chuckle. He sets down his book and begins sorting through his bag for some basic wrap. Hiro sits back on the steps as he waits and stares at the giant door they came through. The room goes fairly quiet once more, but in a more serene way. Perhaps this was a calm before the storm? Whatever they decide to do next, he’s certain it’ll be a rush. Looking back to the tall stone door they came through, he squints as if it would allow him a peek on the other side. The monsters had probably thinned out a bit and become passive, but the moment they step back out they’d be near overwhelmed once again. They could probably make it, but it’d certainly be annoying and not without some bites or cuts.

He sighs, leaning back and staring instead at the ceiling and allowing the faint sounds of the room flood his ears. There, of course, was the popping and sizzling of lava and the occasional squeak and hiss of silverfish in the walls. Those were what he expected to hear, then the new and foreign sounds. There was the faint and comforting noise of his brother wrestling with his bandages mixed with the sounds of pages hastily flipping, then the new whooshing from the portal. It was a fascinating thing to hear, not the ominous hissing like a Nether portal would make but something almost musical. It was relaxing.

“This… This is good!” The voice of his brother pulls Hiro out of his thoughts and he realizes how long he must have been zoning out. He sits up and stares over at his brother, expecting a solution of some kind. Steve takes a breath and continues as he flips through one of his books. “Maybe the portal wasn’t mentioned by name but by description? I’m sure there’s something in this stronghold that knows what it is.”

“So… You’ve got nothing yet?”

“Well… No… Not yet. But I-I’m sure there’s something here! Why would they just gloss over something like this?! It doesn’t make sense.” Steve rubs his mouth in thought and Hiro rolls his eyes before letting out a sigh. He’s beginning to get impatient being cooped up in here.

“Did those runes on the walls out in the hall say anything? It seemed like a really big chunk of text just for some lever instructions.”

Steve smacks a palm to his forehead, catching Hiro by surprise. He speaks in a blank monotone.

It probably did I’m so dumb. Oh my God.”

Hiro bursts out laughing and earns a tired glare from his brother. Steve grumbles, throwing his book down and rubbing his face. Hiro continues to have a hoot as his brother begins moving around the portal room. Intense blue eyes scan each stone, bump, and crack in hopes of there being any more runes within the room. He doesn’t find any the first lap around. Nor the second. Nor the third, forth or fifth. He stops back in front of the door, clenching his fists and kicking the ground in frustration. Hiro shakes his head and snaps to catch his brother’s attention. With Steve’s eyes on him he jerks a thumb behind him to the portal.

“Okay listen. We can’t coddle ourselves with information forever. Sometimes you just gotta take a leap of faith! Through a cool portal!”

Hiro!”

“Oh come on!” Hiro sits up now, his impatience mixing with his brash and adventurous nature. “Don’t try and tell me you’re not curious! Look. Even if it’s not the Aether per se, it could still be something! And knowing how dimensions work from the Nether, well, there’s bound to be another way out somewhere in there.” He hops down the stairs and over to his brother, gripping his arms and giving him a reassuring smile. “And, as always, if we don’t like what we see we can just hop back through the portal and run through those slowpokes.” He jokes, glancing back at the shut door.

“That doesn’t matter! ” Steve snaps back and Hiro rolls his eyes to the heavens, no longer looking his brother in the eye. He wanders away as his brother continues scolding him, “I don’t have a good feeling about this Hiro! And I can’t just make decisions on a whim anymore! It’s no longer just about me! I have to think about what’s best for everyone, for Jesse. I can’t just disappear for however long I want because we found something ‘cool.’

“You have a bad feeling because you got scratched.”

By an invisible Enderman!! I have a damn good reason to be nervous about a portal that we found hanging casually over a pit of lava!”

“And what do you suggest we do then? I’m sorry but I don’t want to sit here and twiddle my thumbs for hours on end while you search for information that isn’t even there! Need I remind you that this place is seemingly prone to tremors? If we don’t make a decision to run or take a chance with this portal, then we are going to be crushed. And, casual reminder! Those monsters have us cornered.

I would rather dig my way back up to the surface from the rubble of this place than leap through that portal.” Steve’s tone is stubborn; he’s made up his mind. He starts cleaning up the little counterspace and putting everything back into his bag. Hiro shakes his head in disbelief, hopping up the stairs while Steve’s back was turned.

“You’re so dramatic Steve! Always going to the worst case scenario!”

“It’s because I care, idiot.” He ties his bag shut and glances back at Hiro as he speaks. He quickly double-takes however which makes Hiro laugh. Steve frowns up at him. “Hiro?! What did I just say?! Get down--!”

“Leap of faith, man!” Hiro snickers with a grin. He salutes his brother with a wink and yells in excitement as he jumps backwards into the portal. The moment his head goes under his voice becomes muted and quickly disappears.

Steve’s breath hitches and he takes a step forward in pure reaction. He freezes, frowning and waiting for his brother’s head to pop back through with that shit eating grin as always. He crosses his arms and calls out.

Hiro! Asshole, don’t do that shit to me! This really isn’t the time to scare me for laughs!” He calls out, sure he can hear him on the other side or at least know what he’s thinking. He always does. A silent minute passes. He begins growing unnerved. He calls out again. “ Hiro! Get back here would you?”

Silence.

The usually quiet popping of lava blares in his ears as he strains to hear something, anything that would signal his brother coming back. An irregularity in the portal noises, his stupid laugh, something! But he’s left in silence with an awful feeling settling in the pit of his stomach.

Something’s wrong. He would be back by now. He wouldn’t just leave him.

Steve sucks in a breath through his teeth and hisses before quickly grabbing his bag. He slings it over his head, shaking the hair out of his face. Where was his helmet? Blue eyes dart around for it. No time. He curses under his breath and pulls out his sword, immediately regretting it as his hand stings in pain. He grimaces, hesitates, but decides on switching it to his left hand. He could still fight with it certainly, but it wasn’t his dominant hand. Stupid bastard! Jumping through like that and getting into trouble! But it’s just the type of thing his brother would do, and he isn’t just going to turn his back on him.

Light on his feet, he sprints up the steps and leaps into the dark portal quickly being engulfed by the black sky.

In a snap, everything went silent. It was a strange sensation… The inky mass surrounded him as if he had leaped into water, but it was thinker. Smoother. Too much so. He couldn’t see anything yet it was like he could see everything. He couldn’t process it. All he knew was that it started getting hard to breathe and the panic began setting in. Yet before he could start throwing a fit, there was a flash as he was suddenly thrown out and found himself stumbling forward. His feet kicked up a tan and shimmering dust from the stone beneath him. He squints as he gets his bearings. This stone was the same stone the portal was made out of, and around him it was dark. He moved his gaze up a tad and another diamond boot came into view. Bingo!

“Hiro! You fucker why didn’t you--!” He begins to yell, his voice echoing.

SHH! Shut it! Shut up! Keep your head down and be QUIET !” Hiro hisses back at him, his voice strained with panic and alarm.

Steve blinks and, against his brother’s word, dares lift his head to take in their surroundings. Above them is an expansive black sky, littered in stars, galaxies and nebulas akin to what looking into the portal itself looked like. But his blood ran cold as he moved his gaze back down to take a look at the place they stood. It was simple but like nothing he’d ever seen. Mountainous obsidian pillars shot up from the ground, towering high in the sky. At the peaks of each was some kind of odd glowing object, settled on a perch of… Bedrock? That shouldn’t be there… No. They didn’t seem inherently harmful. Hell, a few were even encased in iron cages. Why? He frowns, his curiosity getting the better of him and brushing his fear aside for the moment. Then something moves in his peripherals. Instinctively he follows it only to be met with a horrid sight; dozens of Endermen casually moving about the rocks and land before them. He gasps and his eyes widen but his gaze is quickly pushed back down by a hand on the back on his head.

“I said head down !” Hiro scolds his brother harshly, having moved closer and linking arms. Steve opens his mouth to apologize then stops. Why should he be apologizing right now?! He scowls and snaps up at his brother.

What were you thinking?! I told you I had a bad feeling about this place!”

“Steve, I love you, but can we please save the ‘I told you so’ chat until after we get out of here?”

Steve rolls his eyes and just hisses under his breath. He feels his blood boiling in anger but his idiot brother has a point. Safety first. If they don’t die in here, then Steve can personally kill him back in the stronghold. He sneaks a glance behind them, stifling a gasp at the spindley pair of black legs that towers behind them. He steels himself and peeks past, spotting the portal past the creature. It was weird, it was encased in bedrock yet again but in the shape of a fountain. He supposes it makes sense when thinking about how hopping through the portal actually felt.

He’s pulled out of his thoughts as another pair of those sickening legs makes his way into the picture. Steve feels a chill run down his spine and the back of his throat burn. Something about this makes him feel ill, so horribly ill. Hiro must catch onto his brother’s state and switches from locking arms to slinging his arm over his shoulders. It’s embarrassing. His brother, the one who fears Endermen like nothing else is going out of his way to take care of him. Steve internally berates himself, sensing the way his brother is shaking. Hiro’s head darts left and right, his panic evident. He hisses.

“Why the hell are they grouping up?! We didn’t piss them off! There’s no reason for them to be getting this up close and personal!”

“I don’t know… But I don’t want to stick around to find out.”

“Good call.” Hiro huffs and makes sure his grip is tight. Steve sucks in a breath and gets a hold of himself, standing straighter, as they begin shuffling back towards the portal. It’d thrown them both a ways out. It’d always been hard weaving through an Enderman’s path, but trying to slip by now? It was terrifying. Both men shuffle along, breath held and shaking with each step. One wrong bump and they would be in for hell like no other.

With no warning, the portal flashes again, shooting out purple sparks and a shockwave that knocks the brothers back. They can only scream in reaction as it sends them flying and eventually rolling through the dusty ground. The chorus of Enderman shrieks and hisses as they teleport ring in the pairs ears.

“Shit!”

“So much for quiet and easy!”

“What’s it doing?!” Hiro gasps, pushing himself to his knees as he tries catching sight of the portal. It’s volatile now, the murky black matter spinning at a speed that drags any detail it previously had into a black blur. It’s like a whirlpool, gently whipping up the dust around it. Steve doesn’t know why he knows, or how he could, but regardless he’s certain. His voice shakes in panic as wide blue eyes dart over to his brother.

“It’s closing !”

Watching his brother’s face pale was ghostly. He’d never seen that fear in his eyes before. Steve was sure he didn’t look much better. His hands were like ice yet at the same time his palms were sweating like it was nothing. His right hand stung and he grimaced, shifting his weight to his left hand. Wait, where even was his sword? He pushes himself to his knees and looks behind him, spotting the blue blade. He dives for it, snatching the blade and grasping it tight. He begins the tug back when a large clawed foot slams down on it. His breath hitches as blue eyes dart up in recognition. It was already aggravated, and looking up was a mistake.

“AUGH!” A large clawed hand bats the man across the head, knocking him back toward his brother. His sword at least slipped out from beneath the monster and Steve kept his grip tight. The Enderman screeches in it’s distorted voice and Steve grits his teeth as he shoves himself to his feet and locks eyes with the beast. It freezes, beginning to shake as always and Steve steels himself by steadying his breathing. With his sword ready, he sucks in a breath and shuts his eyes, dropping his head to the ground as well. Immediately the sound the the beast teleporting fills his ears.

Behind him.

He spins on his heel and swings his blade up, catching and slicing the monster across the chest with ease. It screeches and teleports away again.

On his right.

He turns again stabbing the air to his right and catching the enderman once again. He feels his heart rate settle into at least a consistent rate. He knows what he’s doing. Teleports again, he calls it and swings again. A fourth time. A fifth! He spins around one final time and jabs his sword through the monster’s chest, it’s tough outer armor cracking and breaking with a sickening sound. Steve grimaces at the noise but holds strong. It jerks and spazzes for a second before a purple light originates from around his sword and spreads out in a pattern almost like a spiderweb. Within seconds it’s too bright to look at and the Enderman bursts into a puff of purple smoke and dust. A small pearl falls from the debris and onto the ground. Steve scoops it up and pockets it quickly before turning to find his brother.

Blue eyes dart around the desolate expanse, probably enraging several Endermen in the process but it’s a yell that alerts him. Hiro was slammed to the ground by a clawed hand, two Endermen closing in on him. His helmet’s long been knocked off and his chestplate was loosened by that hit in the side. Steve curses under his breath and starts running at the two endermen without thinking. In one swift move he slams into them both, causing them to screech and stumble back. Wasting no time he grabs his brother’s hand and pulls him to his feet. The two begin running, grace and care about the Endermen being thrown out the window.

Bobbing and weaving through the mob of Endermen proves to be a challenge. Clawed hands, bony knees and snapping jaws all catch the pair by surprise. They’ve been thrown into the ground so many times they’ve lost count. One snapping jaw catches Steve in the exposed skin right below the neck. His shrill shriek rings in Hiro’s ears who races over to bat the thing off of his brother, hands shaking in his gauntlets. This was a fight for survival now, and their time was running out. Yet the hellish dimension had yet another twist to throw at them. The two freeze momentarily in confusion as the Endermen, while still hissing, back away from the two. Blue eyes search their surroundings in confusion, both spotting the hellish creature in the sky at the same time.

The purple eyed dragon roars and nearly deafens the two as it nosedives at the brothers, teeth bared. Hiro’s the first to act.

MOVE!” He screams, flinging his brother across the clearing before diving out of the way himself. Hiro lifts his hands off of his head to catch the dragon flapping its wings and soaring high into the sky once more. He squints as one of the odd crystals he spot when he first jumped in creates some kind of link with the beast. An almost ethereal light drags along the dragon’s surface until it’s seemingly out of range. What is that for?

“IS THAT A FUCKING DRAGON!?” Steve’s less than graceful yell jerks his brother back to the moment. Hiro nods and doesn’t waste time hopping to his feet and starting to run over to him. Steve quickly holds out a hand, “ DON’T! GET BACK IT’S COMING--”

He’s cut off by another ground shaking roar and Hiro skids to a stop, eyes locking with the glowing purple slits of the dragon. The beast’s nostrils flare as it sucks in a breath and Hiro’s eyes become near pinpoints as he leaps back out of the way once more. The place he once stood is barraged in a mix of pinkish purple flames and some kind of odd lingering smoke. The loud flapping of the dragon’s wings stirs up the dust and only fans the flames as it flies high once again.

Hiro coughs and furiously blinks his eyes, tears quickly forming as he tries getting the dust out of it. Steve scrambles to his feet and can only stare helplessly at the fire now separating him from his brother. He cups his hand around his mouth and calls to him.

Are you okay!?”

“UH… I mean I can’t see but I’ll be fine in a sec--”

“HIRO WATCH YOUR BACK!” Steve’s throat begins hurting from the screaming and Hiro quickly rolls to dodge the clawed hands that swept over where he once stood. Blinking the water out of his eyes, he staggers and hastily draws his sword. He spots the two Endermen that slowly begin approaching, switching nervously between the two targets. His breathing grows ragged and Steve can easily see the fear in his eyes. He curses to himself, does he have anymore fire resistance potions in his bag? He digs through it to only find glass shards and a gross, somewhat slimy mess. He squints, partially sticking out his tongue in disgust as he shakes off his hand. Okay. Old fashioned way then.

He quickly jogs back a few meters, eyes narrowing on the wide line of fire and weird smog. He could just run around, but that would take too long. They’re already fucked up, might as well. With a small hop, he digs his feet into the sandy stone and begins one hell of a sprint. With the extra strength the adrenaline lends him, he pushes off his feet at the last second, leaping over the hazard and dropping to the ground in a roll. Jerking to his feet and yanking his sword out of it’s holster he quickly darts over and catches and Enderman in the back. Quickly moving from one beast to the next in a fury-filled streak. Hiro spots him quickly, shooting him a dumbfounded look. ‘ Did you just leap over that shit?!’ it says. Steve’s brief laugh, grin, and pride-filled nod can only make Hiro laugh and shake his head. His brother’s insane but God if he wasn’t proud.

Steve staggers back in the few second break he gets to cough, that odd pink smoke billowing out of his mouth. Okay, so maybe he didn’t get out of the scott-free. He frowns, not feeling his coughing fit let up but rather get more intense. His lungs send shockwaves of pain through him and he’s caught off-guard when another Enderman runs into him and knocks him backwards. He stumbles, but doesn’t fall easily. Hiro’s eyes widen, his worry for his brother overriding his fear of the Endermen in front of him. His attention is ripped in four separate directions however as the portal not far behind Steve flares again, a light purple light shooting out as it speeds up once more. Then from above and behind him, he hears that dragon flap its wings once more before it roars.

And just like that, the world slows down for him. He looks past the angry Endermen before him to his brother, still coughing, hacking and bleeding out. The angry sounds of each monster around them becomes white noise, suddenly his own breathing, his brother’s coughing, the dragon’s wings and the sound of his brother’s sword clattering to the ground piercing his ears. His own heart bangs in his ears, but noticeably slows down, steadies. That portal it on its last legs and he has a choice to make in these vital few seconds. Two Options here.

Busting through these Endermen, if he does it right, would be easy. They’re split up just enough with the dragon’s approach that with a few ducks and dodges in the right place at the right time, he could make it through with ease. He could get to the portal in the nick of time before it closes. He wants to run. He wants to run, run and run and never look back. His gaze drags back to his brother once more, and he hears himself blow out a calm sigh before his mind even thinks. But he’s come to a decision. It wasn’t even a competition.

The fear and panic drains from his face and he furrows his eyes in a calm, controlled determination. Then in a snap, the chaos around him returns in real time, but he’s prepared now. Ducking in perfect time to avoid the Enderman claw going for his head, he weaves between the two monsters like second nature. As he starts his sprint, and Enderman on his right races at him. He drops to a slide then flings to his feet once more with ease, running straight into a triage of Endermen that were lined up to take down his brother. Steve’s eyes widen at Hiro’s sudden jump to the offensive. Still rather dizzy and fogged up from the dragon’s breath, he can only squint in confusion.

Not wasting any time or momentum Hiro grab’s his brother by the collar which makes him yelp in alarm. Spinning him around, time slows down again and grows quiet, this time for both of them. Steve’s eyes are wide in confusion and fear, hands ghosting upward to try and grab his brother’s wrists. The look on Hiro’s face softens into something Steve’s never seen before, and it takes him a moment too long to recognize it to properly respond. Hiro’s blue eyes soften and he simply offers a sad smile. His voice is soft but genuine.

 

Forgive me.”

 

Steve has no chance to respond, the world speeding up again and going so fast it’s a blur. Letting go of his collar after saying that, Hiro’s brows quickly furrowed and he gritted his teeth. Ducking low, his brother harshly rams himself into Steve, knocking him back with a force he never expected his brother to have. The last flash he sees of his brother is him standing over the portal with a torn look, tears stinging the edges of his eyes. Behind him, a mob of clawed hands reach for him, with the dragon in the sky making another dive towards his brother.

Then darkness. Darkness and silence.

It lasts forever yet no time at all. He feels like something is choking him. Is it the portal? No there’s something on his face. Tears? Why is he crying? What just happened? A dull pain stabs him in his chest, thudding rhythmically. Why is he hurting?

The first sensation he feels clearly is the pain of his back hitting stone. He cries out, dropping to the brick floor and groaning as he writhes in pain. He feels blood trickle from his neck as he pants, catching his breath. Where was he? He hits the ground. Stone. Stone bricks. No dust.

Blue eyes shoot open. He sits up with a gasp, looking up and seeing the stairs to the portal. His heart sinks.

“Hiro… HIRO !” He scrambles to his feet, every muscle, joint and bone screaming for him to stop but he doesn’t listen. Without thinking, he sprints back up the stairs but screeches to a halt at the sudden popping and banging that echoes through the chamber. “ NO! He screams and shields his face as glass and eye shards shoot throughout the room, the unstable portal blowing itself apart before disappearing. Steve gasps for air, slowly backing down the steps and shaking his head in denial. No. No no no it can’t close, this can’t be happening. He needs to get back. He needs--

He lets out another yell as the ground beneath him starts shaking once more, but this one’s stronger. No, this will pass he has time, he can still--

He gasps as a large chunk of stone drops from the ceiling above, crashing into the portal frame before bouncing into the lava. He can’t stay here. He has to run. Instincts taking over, Steve darts over to the lever he found earlier, yanking it probably a bit too forcefully. He stands close to the wall, the shaking ground and collapsing room around him making his heart pound out of his chest. He grimaces, shutting his eyes tight as a pile of bricks fall around him. He moves along the wall to the opening door. Open just enough, Steve’s heart leaps as he slips through. The race is on as he stumbles through the hall his brother and him were just joking in not long ago, ghosts of them both flashing as he runs by. Reaching the staircase, he pays no monsters mind as he runs the best his beaten and battered legs can carry him against the shaking.

He needs to get out of here, he can’t die here. Miraculously, he reaches the top of the staircase, immediately darting left and sprinting down the hall. He dodges collapsing rocks as they come, kicking downed zombies off of him as he runs by. He leaps over the downed jail bars, staggering and dropping to his knees and he lands. He hisses and pushes off the ground once more, swinging through the mossy halls like he’s never done before. He enters the central plaza of the stronghold, larger chunks of rock crackling as they break off of the tall ceilings, slowly dropping to the ground. Glancing upward was a daunting look as the stronghold and tall cavern above collapsed in on itself. The rumbling here echoed and shook Steve to the core. In here, he felt so small. So so small, and so easy of a target. Through the cracks above he swear he could even see daylight peeking through, blue rays shining through the cracks. But he was too deep below ground wasn’t he? He can’t be seeing the light now, not his time.

Steve gasps, leaping to his right to dodge a chunk the size of a large car. He rolls, tucking into a small ball as the debris from the impact rocket every which way. He sucks in a harsh breath and stretches out again, pushing off the ground once more.

It’s a run that feels far longer than it did the first time they came through. Perhaps it’s the added stress of everything collapsing around him. Reaching the opposite end of the plaza, he grasps the column of the archway out and bolts up the stairwell. Up, up, up and out if he has anything to say about it. He passes the smaller cells his brother made fun of when they first approached, his heart aching as the ghost of him laughing rings in his ears. The tears in his eyes blur his vision without him even thinking about it. He passes the library, hardly even processing what it was. Past that was another fountain with that crystal clear water. On his way by, he angrily splashes the water with a yell. A wolf in sheep’s clothing! This place was deceitful in so many ways, his anger made his blood run cold.

Reaching his final corner, he blows past a hissing creeper and slams into the iron door that led out, knocking the old thing off of it’s hinges in the process. Now, getting out of the maze was relatively easy, these old unsupported caves was going to be the real challenge. He grits his teeth as he digs his boots into the loose and crumbling rock of the cave upwards. He gets a few paces before the shaking reaches a new intensity. He grips the narrow walls, keeping himself upright. Two loud booms echo before the deafening clattering of stone and rock comes from behind him. Looking back through the darkness he watches as the cavern before the stronghold collapses in on itself. Blue eyes widen and he gasps once more as a plume of dust and dirt starts making its way upward. He quickly darts forward, kicking up the loose rocks behind him and in attempt to outrun the worst of the plume behind him. It quickly engulfs the man and he begins coughing once more.

Dust barrels into the ravine, mixing with the dust, mud and lava already being tossed around. Steve runs out of the plume, coughing and hacking up a storm but not letting it slow him. He gasps, hastily leaping over newly splayed lava. He’s less than graceful and his heel slams down into the fiery magma. His shrill scream hardly pierces the boom noise of the earthquake. He stumbles forward, cursing to hell and back as he kicks his foot through the nearby water. He hisses, standing in the cool rushing water just for a moment and catching his breath. Strangled sobs escape him, only coughs and mucus coming out. He gasps in breaths, finding it harder and harder to breathe with each passing minute. He leans down, grabs a handful of the icy water and throws it on his face. With a few splashes and no satisfaction, he hisses and just ducks his head into the waterfall for a minute. Stepping out he gasps, but has a refreshed sense of alertness.

Shaking his head he huffs and starts forward, limping a bit at first with his burned foot but gritting his teeth and ignoring the searing pain. He runs at their makeshift ‘stairs’ from earlier but--surprise, surprise--they’ve crumbled to nothing. He wipes some blood that had begun dripping from his mouth and narrows his eyes, spotting his first hand and foothold. ‘It’ll be just like rockclimbing!’ His brother’s words echo in his ears as he hoists himself up, steeling himself. He forces his breathing to be steady as he reaches up for the next ledge to grab. He moves at a good pace, trying not to think too hard about the rocks collapsing around him. He grimaces, ducks his head and grips tight as a few fumble down the side of the ravine and bounce off him and his armor.

The cliffside he was so desperately grasping to then begins to shake. He feels his heart seize as he quickly looks to his right for something to grab-- there! He gasps and doesn’t even hesitate before leaping upwards, grabbing the thin outcropping and yelping as his battered body slams against the stone. He dangles high above the ravine floor, watching the collapsing rock below him with wide eyes. The orange glow from the expanding lava shines off of his dirtied blue armor, the dramatic shadows dancing over his tired features.

Shifting his gaze upwards, he has a climb to finish. He takes a few breaths to steel himself then sucks in a breath and heaves himself upwards. Reaching a good enough point, with his elbows bent near completely he grits his teeth and reaches his shaky right hand up to grab at the thin ledge above. Snatching it and lets out a cry of relief. He hangs there, the ravine floor now broken up with lava popping from near every corner. The tremors have calmed ever so slightly for the moment, and he prays they’ll stay at this dull thudding just long enough for him to get back through that crack and into the cave that led out of here.

He swings his other hand up, letting out a sigh of relief at the bulk of the weight finally being taken off of his injured hand. No doubt that it’s been ripped open to bleed even more. He could feel the warm liquid soaking his bandages. He hums as he pulls himself up onto the ledge, using the little outcropping he lept to as a boost for his feet. With both feet on semi solid ground again he gasps. Every part of him is shaking, screaming, begging for some kind of release.

 

But not yet.

 

He grunts and slams his boot back into the ground, pushing upwards and onwards as he quickly sashes along the ledge and back to the crevice he and his brother snuck through earlier. Ducking into the tight space, hope flood his chest as he leaves the ravine behind. He’s in the home stretch now. Once out of here, all he has to do is run up and out of this god damned cave.

“Shit!” He growls as the earthquake strikes up again. To his left he watches a large chunk of rock plummet into the lava filled ravine below, making a splash. The whistling of the lava burning away the mineral filled rock pierces his ears. He scrunches his face up in pain and shuffles on. Getting out of that tiny crack, Steve immediately begins to bolt like he’s never done before. The air shoves his stray wet hair out of his face as he stumbles up the crumbling rocks and caves. Darting by torches, the gust of wind he makes blows out their flame in a snap.

He rams into walls, trips over veins of ore and the small spaces of exposed skin get cut as he stumbles on. Grabbing outcroppings in the walls he shoves himself forward with a grunt. He’s grown reckless, desperate even, to just make it out of here. Resorting to pure instinct and reaction. He couldn’t tell you how many bends he made or how deep underground he had been, it was too much of a blur, too many things to keep track of that he didn’t even pay mind to. But when he turned his final corner and saw daylight straight up? He could have collapsed from euphoria right there.

Scrambling up the groups or andesite and stone he barrels upwards to freedom. The rocks crumble in small bits beneath him but don’t deter him. Crossing the threshold, he gasps in the fresh evening air, stumbling away from the cave mouth. He drops to the soft green grass, scrambling back and watching with wide eyes as the entrance collapses in on itself. He doesn’t even register the earthquake as still happening until the only sound he hears is his own ragged breathing. The ground may have stopped shaking, but not the tremors racking his body.

 

He made it.

 

He’s alive.

 

After a few long minutes of sitting there in awe, he pushes out a shaky laugh. They did it! They did it they got out! They--!

He looks around in excitement, his smile quickly dropping as reality settles in. He did it. He made it out. Hiro was gone. In that moment, with his wits finally returned to him, the memories also come flooding back. That dimension. The Endermen. That Dragon. His little brother. His joyous little brother…

Steve suddenly feels his stomach turn over itself and keels over, gasping for air. He’s gonna puke, he feels so rotten! Like he’s just about to shrivel up and die. But that wasn’t his fate, no, that was his brother’s fate. His baby brother he swore to protect. The one he led here, the one he failed to look after and failed to protect. Gasping, he clenches his chest over his heart, feeling a sudden burning. He grits his teeth, strangling a cry as he leans forward in the grass. Tears cut paths through the dirt and grime caked on his face. His chest--his heart? It burns, it burns so much, he feels like it’s just going to cut through his muscles and skin and sear itself into the ground before him. He hears his heartbeat pounding louder and louder in his ears. He cries, shoving his bloody hands over his ears in an attempt to silence it. The pounding, the pounding, the pounding it hurts it--

 

Stops.

 

He lets out a light gasp, letting go of his ears simultaneously. His eyes widen. The burning, the pain there it’s gone. In its place now lies an awful, hollow feeling. Like a hole was drilled where his heart should be. It doesn’t hurt so much as it winds him. They say that twins have a special connection with each other. A secret language almost, or telepathy. Steve of course knows that neither of those are true (secret language they tried but didn’t last very long as kids). But there’s that part of him again that speaks with odd certainty. But this time that certainty is more gentle with him, as a means to lighten the blow. Tears well up in the grown man’s eyes as he sits up in the grass under the blue afternoon sky. Birds quietly sing, a sound that, even just a little, offers him some comfort. His shoulders shake as the man quietly cries.

 

His brother is gone.

 

He was alone.

Chapter Text

“How… What killed you?”

Hiro sighs with a somber smile. He reaches up and pushes some messy strands of hair out of Jesse’s face. He shakes his head.

“I’m not going to tell you that part Jesse…”

But I--!”

Hiro holds up a hand, Jesse goes quiet. He takes Jesse’s hands reassuringly and nods.

“Do not take it as me not trusting you or thinking you immature, Jesse. Far from it. But you already have your own slew of demons you deal with. Those along with your father’s death already plaguing you…” He offers a somewhat nervous smile. Why’s he nervous? Jesse can feel his exhaustion already seeping in as he squints and tries deciphering his uncle’s behavior. Hiro continues, “I don’t want to share my own gruesome details and make you lose more sleep over a man who isn’t going anywhere.

“You…”

Hiro smiles and reaches up, squeezing Jesse’s shoulder. “If… If you’ll accept me that is. I’m putting myself out on the line now because I know that if I didn’t I’d probably be lying awake regretting it in a few days… It’s… All this is a lot to process, but I don’t want to close myself off again. So…” He trails off, rubbing his own neck somewhat nervously. Jesse laughs weakly, making Hiro a bit worried. But looking down at the kid he’s simply met with a beaming face. Jesse nods, sniffling a bit at the prospect.

“I would… I would really like that!”

Hiro beams in return, nodding, “Fantastic! I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for!” He grins, “You know… You’re gonna wish I had stayed dead now!” He waggles his eyebrows, making Jesse snort. Hiro squints his eyes and rests his head on his hand in over exaggerated thought. “Say, do you think I can pull off being the embarrassing and overreaching parental figure?” He kids and Jesse laughs. They sit contently for a second as they chuckle and Jesse gathers his thoughts. Jesse’s gaze eventually drags downwards and he picks at the fingers of his gauntlets. He grows serious again. Hiro straightens a bit in reaction, waiting patiently for Jesse to speak up.

“I… I remember when dad came home that night. He was hurt a lot all over, but I could tell he was sad more than anything. I feel kinda bad thinking back!” He laughs weakly, shaking his head. “One of the very first questions out of my mouth was, ‘Where’s Uncle Brian?’ I remember seeing him just grimace in response before I was pulled aside to go to bed…”

I was one of the first things your crazy little 6 year old brain thought of?” Hiro laughs lightly in disbelief. Jesse nods genuinely.

“I mean, yeah, of course! You were family… I couldn’t just forget about you.” Jesse pushes some hair out of his face as he talks, his hand lingering a moment on his scar before dropping completely with a sigh and shrug. “Yeah I… I took it pretty hard, like dad. After you passed away that was when he started becoming more protective of me. I know he didn’t want to coddle me, and I’m still thankful for how much he let me get away with looking back on it but there was a definite shift…”

Hiro lets out a large sigh, overwhelmed. He didn’t expect to have had… That big of an effect on his family. Facing death in his life, things never changed exponentially. But then again, he and his brother always knew they had each other to fall back on. That was a constant. They always had each other to rely on, and Jesse from a young age must’ve picked up on that. He meets Jesse’s gaze again and gives a small, useless shrug.

“You were his world, Jesse. I don’t dare imagine how he would’ve acted if he ever lost you... He’d be devastated.”

“I know.” Jesse smiles sadly, “He showered me in love! Especially after.. that, he always made sure that I knew that he loved me and cared about me. He was really strong for my sake… I-I feel guilty about it--”

“Don’t.”

“What..?”

Hiro shakes his head. “Don’t waste your time stabbing holes in yourself. You were a kid! And your father was aware that he’d be faced with a lot of hard situations raising you on his own… Granted, he probably didn’t see my death coming but… He wouldn’t want you berating yourself over such a little thing so long ago. So, don’t.” Hiro’s words are stern but caring, and Jesse finds himself only able to nod quietly in response. They sit in silence for a bit, the air growing a bit tense from the odd note they ended on. Thoughts pound through Jesse’s head, and he fiddles with his gauntlets out of nervousness. He’s the first to speak again, asking a rather foreboding question.

“It… Wasn’t an easy death. Was it…?”

“No.” Hiro sighs and solemnly shakes his head. Jesse nods quietly. After a moment, he squeezes his uncle’s hand. Hiro cocks a brow, having fallen into his own thoughts when Jesse suddenly pulls him into another hug. Hiro momentarily stiffens, off-guard and still not quite used to it, but after a second he sighs and hugs back. It was Jesse’s quiet way of not only saying sorry, but proving he meant it. Hiro was always good at picking up on people’s habits. He squeezes his nephew tight a moment, and is content to relax there like that.

However, the moment is quickly ruined by the sound of double doors slamming open against the brick walls, echoing off the walls of the courtyard. The two quickly let go and snap back towards the doors. White eyes squint.

“What the--?!”

Romeo is the first to come sprinting out, gold eyes wide. He quickly shifts from a sprint, to  a very tense speedwalk, to a flat out run over to the pair. He shoves his fiery red hair out of his face before hopping up onto the raised bed and kicking up dust as he stumbles. He hastily ducks behind the two, not quite processing their cease fire yet. Jesse and Hiro blink at each other in confusion, Jesse’s the first to speak up.

“What are… you doing?”

What am I doing? Well, gee, let me think hard on it.” Romeo quickly snaps. Jesse rolls his eyes near immediately. If he has time to be snappy with him, he’s gonna be fine. Romeo hisses at him, catching his attention again,I am running! From your stupid blonde friend!! The madman was ready to put me in a chokehold!!”

“Oh that’s a lie!” Lukas retorts as he runs out into the courtyard and crosses his arms. He pauses to catch his breath, blue eyes glaring daggers into Romeo from across the yard. He softens slightly however when he shifts his gaze to Jesse. He shrugs, “But I mean if you wanted me to put him in one Jesse, I certainly wouldn’t mind--”

Hiro stifles a laugh. Romeo glares at him and Jesse waves his arms.

“No. No. No more fighting! We’re done! We’re being civil now, okay?”

Civil?!” Petra comes huffing out behind Lukas, sword at the ready and obviously disappointed. Ivor and Olivia follow her up, the two shooting scrutinizing gazes at Hiro. Why is he so close to Jesse? Why are they being civil? The last time they saw the two in the same room, Hiro looked like he was ready to rip Jesse a new one. Petra sighs and puts her sword away then gestures between Jesse and Hiro, voicing the question on everyone’s mind. “What’d you do?! You already win him over with some kind of friendship speech or whatever?”

“No, but these days I’m finding the blade of an axe to my throat with the threat of killing me on the spot quite convincing!” Hiro interrupts with a gleeful and near sing-song tone, not giving Jesse a chance to respond. He grins at his nephew who holds his reddening face in his hands.

Ivor leads the group closer, the group of four keeping their distance from the white-eyed king sitting so casually before them. Olivia kneels down by Jesse, Petra sits by him on the raised bed and mirroring Romeo’s own movements, Lukas climbs up and sits in the dusty interior of the raised bed by Jesse. Ivor remains standing, keeping a hard gaze on Hiro who is utterly unfazed by any of them. Romeo eyes Lukas suspiciously and scoots a solid feet or two closer to Hiro and away from him and Jesse. He previously scorned both of them, yes, but Lukas he now knew had certainly held a grudge. He squints, leaning on Hiro’s shoulder and whispering to him.

So does this mean I’m relatively safe from them pounding me to a pulp?”

“I’d say so unless you decide to do something outrageous. Then again, considering the shit you put them through I can’t say I’d blame them if they tried anyways.” Hiro hums with a nonchalant shrug. Romeo straightens in surprise and glares at him, becoming far louder than intended.

“Now WHO’S SIDE are you on?!”

“You know me Rom, family first. Unfortunately for you, that means Jesse’s taking precedence right now.” He shoots back, unfazed by Romeo’s own antics. The sudden announcement not only catches Romeo by surprise but the other few close enough to hear. Lukas is disturbed long enough to look at Jesse in extreme confusion to say the least. Petra’s eyes widen from behind him as she gasps and leans on his shoulder. She looks between the two men, comparing them with wide eyes. Olivia does the same but to the less noticeable extent. Romeo shrinks back, looking as though he has to reprocess his entire existence. Hiro reaches over and gives him a hearty pat on the arm then shrugs as he looks back at Jesse calmly. Jesse peeks up at him through his hands, laughing weakly and shaking his head.

“I’d say you’ve already succeeded with the embarrassing factor…”

“Good! I’ll let you do the ‘Official’ honors. Just don’t introduce me as like, a bastard or somethin’!” He jokes with a playful grin that Jesse laughs at. Romeo damn near faints.

Jesse, I think I speak for everyone here when I ask: What on Earth is going on here?” Ivor speaks quietly at first, then quickly shifts to his classic self as he rests his hands on his hips and nearly blows everyone’s eardrums out. Hiro and Jesse grit their teeth similarly. Not quite a ‘Like father like son’ situation, but uncles are just as good!

“Alright… Well… Long story short then. Everyone, this is Herobrine. But growing up, I knew him as my Uncle Brian..” He pauses with a smile, letting his words sink in. Hiro beams, cheeks flushing a bit at all of the eyes on him. Kind of embarrassing to have tormented all of your nephews best friends. Olivia and Petra both stumble to find any words, the former jolting to a standing position then getting dizzy, and having to slowly sit back down. Petra helps guide Olivia back to the ground though she’s a bit useless in the moment as well. Jesse continues humorously, “So… Everyone, I hope you’re as thoroughly freaked out as both he and I were! No longer do I have a dead uncle but rather, a half-dead demigod uncle!” He purses his lips then raises a brow, “Half-dead or half-alive..? Is there any kind of preference with that thing?”

“Half-Alive sounds more positive as Steve would’ve nagged, but half-dead sounds pretty metal. So, I’m taking that one.” Hiro grins and props his feet up onto the bricks before him. Jesse snickers and Lukas looks at him as if he’s insane. Lukas and Romeo look at each other, and for once, they can both solidly agree with and relate to each other. How the hell are they supposed to take this. Lukas blinks, tapping Jesse’s shoulder to grab his attention.

“Hey, it’s a pleasure to meet and all but why aren’t you freaking out in the slightest.” The strained worry in Lukas’ voice is obvious. Jesse lightheartedly rolls his eyes as Lukas holds a hand to his forehead, “Are you sick? Is the heat here getting to you? Is the heat getting to me? Am I hallucinating all of this right now?” Lukas squints looking between the other members of their group, getting a mix of shrugs. If he’s hallucinating then they’re all hallucinating the same thing.

“For the first time in my life, I’m going to be agreeing with the blond brat on this one!” Romeo leans on Hiro’s shoulder again. “Are you positive? If so why are you so calm. I know you Hiro, I see the humor but where’s the usual tension that goes with it?”

“I think I can safely say that Jesse and I already had our fair share of freakouts and have reached that stage of pure emotional numbness!” He says with a bounce in his voice, like it’s a pleasant and fun thing! Romeo blinks, then runs a stressed hand through his hair as he looks from Hiro to Jesse. Jesse simply shrugs, a bit smug about it. Romeo just becomes increasingly distressed.

“So, okay. Time-out here!” Petra rubs her temples and holds her hands in a T. “Are we just gonna gloss over the fact that he tried to kill us? Are we all just buddy-buddy now Jesse?”

Jesse grimaces a bit, honestly having forgotten about the crazy chase and fight he had before recognizing his uncle. He stutters, suddenly unsure of himself. Hiro straightens up again, becoming more serious and answering for him

“I feel it’s worth noting that I had no intention to kill any of you. Though Jesse got damn close with that dagger trick. SPEAKING of which!” He looks back at Romeo and points at him with a glare, “We are going to talk about that later you shit. Because I know now that you were in on it.” Romeo grins and laughs nervously with a shrug. Hiro rolls his eyes and turns back to the others. “Normally, I wouldn’t be sorry for scaring people because frankly it’s the only entertainment I have these days. But, considering you’re all close to Jesse…” He blows out a sigh through his nose, rubbing his neck. “Yeah, I’m sorry. 52 years on this Earth plus dying once and I still haven’t grown up I suppose.”

“You’re 52?!” Ivor spits, his younger companions looking at him in a mix of surprise and… amusement. Was that a tinge of jealousy in his tone. Ivor crosses his arms and glares between the four, a slight red finding his way to his cheeks. “It’s a legitimate question!”

“You jealous that he doesn’t look a day past 30 yet he’s got you beat by 6 or 7 years, Ivor?” Olivia teases with snicker. Jesse grins with her and Ivor rolls his eyes, regretting his big mouth. Hiro chuckles a bit.

“I suppose that’s one of the nicer side effects of being dying and being resurrected so young. Forever 32!”

“Yes quite, well Mr. Herobrine, I hope you don’t mind but I think we all need to talk to Jesse for a moment alone!” Ivor’s lack of patience shines through clearly as he places his hands on Jesse’s shoulders. A tight grip. Jesse feels a few drops of sweat dribble down the back of his neck. Whether they’re from the heat of the Nether or his sudden nervousness, he wouldn’t be able to say. Hiro’s brows twitch at the slight aggression but noticing his nephew’s sudden anxiety, he just smiles reassuringly.

Jesse smiles back sheepishly then stands, Ivor immediately taking the reigns and shoving him further to the edge of the courtyard. The others follow, and Lukas shoots Romeo a glare before standing and following. With his back turned Romeo sticks his tongue out at the blonde, making Hiro laugh.

Ivor suspiciously glances back at the pair as he switches to hanging an arm protectively over Jesse’s shoulders. Moving over to the edge of the courtyard, a sudden burst of hot wind hits the groups face. Ivor’s happy he’s gotten into the habit of tying his hair up, and Jesse’s bangs get blown back briefly, obnoxiously showing off his scar. He sighs as the hair messily collapses back into his eyes. He blows his bangs back into place before taking a better look at his surroundings, truly dragging himself back into the present.

The courtyard surprisingly had a beautiful view. Looking out you could see the vast ocean of lava that popped, bubbled and burst at random. Then further out and painting the outline of the sea were the towering mountains of Netherrack. They arched high into the red fog, the sharp ends of netherrack and quartz stalactites the only things that cut through. He feels his heart drop at the sheer size of them; what were they like when they fell? Surely a few had collapsed around people before. He’d have to ask his uncle when he got the chance. He finds himself wandering to the half wall of netherbrick and leaning on it as he stares out at the scene. He probably stuck out like a sore thumb. Bright shimmering blue and sparkling silvers constantly painted against the dark red scenery. He’d only been here a day yet he was already growing tired of the lack of variety. How could his uncle stand it? Especially for nearly 20 years?

He realizes how deeply he must’ve been zoning out when Ivor shakes his shoulder, near-yelling his name at this point to snap him out of it. He spins back around to face him and the others, blue eyes wide in the daze of being ripped from his own thoughts. What were they doing again? Oh right. Interrogating him. Jesse eases up with a sigh and crosses his arms in preparation for what’s to come. Olivia places a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, glancing from him back to Hiro before speaking quietly.

“Jesse… How… Well, first off, how are you doing tough guy..?” She cups his face, staring at him in concern. Jesse huffs tiredly, his gaze dropping to the dusty red bricks at their feet. He gently shakes his head before shrugging and looking back up to her.

Overwhelmed? Mainly just…” He sighs, “I’m tired. I’m really tired and numb…”

Olivia slowly nods, fiddling with a few stringy strands of his hair then dropping her hands to his shoulders with a nod. She always had cared for him like a sister would, and Jesse was ever thankful to have her to fall back onto. Petra rests her hands on her hips, catching Jesse’s attention. She jerks a thumb back to Hiro, not even gracing him with a look.

“Is all this… For real, Jesse? Like, you are being 100% serious with us about him being a good guy after all right?”

“Well, yes. I don’t exactly have a reason to lie, especially about something so personal to me. I--” He pauses. He blinks. Then he squints at Petra, the corners of his mouth twitching into a vaguely smug smile. “Hold on. ‘After all’? Why does it matter, Petra?”

Petra goes a bit red from being put on the spot. She lightly smacks Jesse’s arm then crosses her arms, knowing that she can’t play it off now.

“So I want to preface this with, ‘We had no intention of this turning into some kind of weird family reunion.’ But Axel and I bet on whether Herobrine would really be evil or not when we ran into him.”

“You counted on us running into him?” Lukas asks in disbelief. Petra grins sheepishly and shrugs.

“With our luck, how could we not? Might as well have some fun with it. Anyways the important part is that I won and Axel owes me.” Petra grins to Jesse, trying to remain lighthearted. It works, and she garners a laugh from the bubbly young man. He grins back.

Oh good! Let’s hope he doesn’t try scamming you out of your well-deserved reward!”

Yeah! Right, Ivor?” Petra clamps a hand down onto the old man’s shoulder, the grump rolling his eyes to the heavens at what’s coming next. “I don’t know what I’d do if someone tried scamming me out of my hard-earned reward.”

“It has been 6 YEARS you two. How many more diamonds must you guilt me into giving you before you allow me to move forward in my life?” Ivor grumbles, making the group laugh. He eventually smiles though and simply shakes his head. “I can’t tell if you troublemakers are adding years to my life or just taking them! But, back to the topic at hand.” He sighs and looks to Jesse seriously. Olivia backs up a bit, allowing him room to step a bit closer. Old tired eyes bore into the young man as Ivor places a hand on his shoulder. “Jesse, are you certain that we can still trust this man? You must remember the reputation that precedes him!”

Jesse hesitates moment as he thinks it over. Ivor had a point, but he doesn’t like judging on initial experiences or rumors. That had only gotten him into trouble and hurt other people he hadn’t expected. No, he wanted to be better than that, especially with his family. And Hiro was his family. With a newfound confidence in his eyes, Jesse nods assuredly to Ivor, blue eyes locked in a steely gaze. Ivor still has a tinge of troublement in his eyes as he pushes a sigh out through his nose, but trusts Jesse’s judgement. He pats him on the shoulder once more and nods before stepping back.

All right then. With that settled, I suppose it’s about time we grab what we came here for. Your… Uncle will most likely be of some help, correct?”

“I think so. Only one way to find out.” Jesse shrugs before making his way back over to his uncle. It seems he and Romeo had been caught up in some talks that had Romeo in a bit of a frenzy. Jesse supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. Finding out that the one person you’ve become friends with also happens to be the uncle of the guy who kicked your ass is certainly a plot twist if Jesse’s ever seen one. Reflecting on it, it was interesting seeing Romeo interact so warmly with another person, there was obviously a lot of trust that had built up. Jesse’s face contorts slightly as he starts thinking a bit more on their behavior with each other. Gross. No more reflecting. He doesn’t have the emotional willpower to go there right now.

Romeo notices Jesse’s approach first and immediately shuts his trap, Hiro blinking in confusion before noting where his harsh gold gaze has shifted to. Hiro gently jabs him in the side and smiles up to Jesse from where he sits.

“Well?”

“They’ve got some things to get used to but I think they’ll get over it…” Jesse lightly kids with a smile, making the both of them laugh. He grows serious again and sits down, “Uncle Hiro… We still need the books we came for. It’s… It’s really important to me that I get them. Could you help us find them in that library of yours?”

Hiro blinks, brows furrowing at Jesse’s shift in tone. He sounds dreadfully serious for just a few books. He sighs and sits up straight, becoming almost parental in tone.

“I take it these books are gonna help you search for your dad?”

Jesse nods, not meeting his gaze. “That’s uhh… Heh, that’s the hope!”

“And what books exactly are you looking for, Jesse?”

Jesse sucks in a breath and shrugs, opening his mouth to speak only to suddenly be cut off by Romeo. The man has a surprisingly serious tone and look as he leans on Hiro and looks to him.

“They’re searching for the Trilogy on the End Dimension. Apparently they were apart of Boring’s--”

Soren’s.”

Gesundheit! They were apart of that guy’s collection before you ran them out. Older books apparently, from prior to the first Order’s little reign.”

“Do you know much about the End Dimension Romeo?” Jesse perks up a bit, not giving his uncle the chance to respond. Romeo smiles.

“Do I know about the End dimension? Jesse you’re forgetting that you’re asking--” Romeo’s smile falters as he feels Hiro’s cold gaze train in on him. He glances over to him, taking note of the troubled look. He coughs as he finishes up, “...asking uhh… Someone who never had a hand in making it…” He sighs and Jesse looks to his uncle, bewilderingly underwhelmed. Hiro sighs.

“Catch me up first Jesse, what kind of information are you hoping to garner from these books..? What more are you searching for?” He speaks gently, and Jesse gives a half hearted shrug.

Clarity… Clarity and closure.” He sits up awkwardly, “There’s… A bunch of theories about what happened to Dad… Where and how he disappeared but they’re kind of unclear… I want to solve it. Get the facts straight and finally be able to move past this. The first step though was clearing up the rumors of one of the places he could’ve disappeared to…”

“And the End is the most likely candidate at this point…”

“Yeah… But, not voluntarily of course.”

“How can you--”

“I found records at the cave mouth.” Jesse cuts him off, not even willing to hear the idea. Hiro blinks in surprise. Records? Like music records? What would they have to offer? This new little twist piques his interest he must say. It even captures Romeo’s waning attention. Jesse smiles a bit nervously but continues, “Yeah, records like the ones he used to make… But these were different. One is just… Ominous bells and cave noises…” He shivers thinking about it. “The other one though is the worst of the two… It… It’s a recording of Dad’s last minutes on the surface. The last thing heard on it is an Enderman before the noise is cut off as it teleported away… It just goes silent, staticy. So…” He sucks in a deep breath and nods, “We think he was taken away to the End. But some desolate corner of it… An End City is the current theory but we don’t know enough about the End to really know if that’s right. Hell, we don’t even know if End Cities even truly exist! All we have are rumors about the whole dimension. I just want to see if those books can get us any more details on the End and how maybe even the Endermen work? That’s why we came here and well..!” He shrugs, “Here we are.”

Hiro sits back, attempting to take everything in at once. He can’t though. There’s too much there to process and everything else from today is already giving him one hell of a migraine. He shakes his head and slouches, rubbing his temples. Jesse awkwardly shifts in his spot as Romeo gives Hiro a light pat on the back. They stay like that for a while and eventually Jesse’s friends meander back over. Lukas places a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, lightly startling him before he smiles warmly. Lukas nods to Hiro in questioning. Jesse grimaces and shrugs. Ivor pinches the bridge of his nose in response.

“Okay!” Hiro suddenly sits up with a renewed energy that startles everyone. He chuckles sheepishly then eases up and points to Jesse. “I… I can help you get those books--”

Yes!”

“BUT!”

“But?”

Hiro nods. “But we are going to read those and talk about this together.” His voice grows serious as he takes and shakes Jesse’s hands. Jesse blinks in surprise, unable to immediately spit out any words. Hiro continues, “You… You’ve said it yourself. We’re family. And your father was just as much my brother. I want to start being here for you more. This… This could be a good start. If you can accept that…” His confidence in himself dimishes as he trails on. His face reddens as he becomes self-aware in the presence of Jesse’s friends, stealing nervous glances between them.

Jesse is numb. He sits there dumbfounded and blank for several long moments before simply laughing. It’s somewhat startling, everyone striking him nervous glances. He shakes his hand and waves them off before meeting his uncle’s gaze and nodding. Of course he could work with him! Hiro made it sound like his conditions were a bad thing.

“Of course!” He blusters out with a grin, “Let’s go get those books!”

Hiro quickly lights up, beaming. “That was… Easier than I thought!” He laughs awkwardly and Jesse shrugs.

“You make it sound like I wouldn’t want to spend more time with you!”

“Haha, well… I wouldn’t have been surprised after everything…”

Jesse shakes his head and reaches out to squeeze his uncle’s arm. “I’m just happy to have you back now. Now come on!” Jesse grips his uncle’s hands as he quickly darts to his feet, yanking him up as well. Hiro grimaces and stumbles, Jesse quickly letting go and starting back towards to interior of the Nether castle at the head of the group. Hiro blows out a sigh and shakes his head in mild amusement

 

~~~~~

 

              Jesse slows as the halls become nondescript to Jesse once more. They were at least beautiful to be lost in, albeit more of an ominous beauty. He practically forgot that he didn’t know this place well. Squinting as he tries placing where they are, a few energetic taps on the shoulder snap him out of his gaze. He’s met by the casually smug gold eyes of Romeo who points down the hall opposite to where he was looking.

“Library’s that way short-stack.”

Gee thanks.” Jesse rolls his eyes at the nickname, if he could even call it that. He blows some hair out of his face as Ivor audibly hums in the way that means trouble. That or at least something really tedious. He cocks a brow and cloudy blue eyes look back at the man in curiosity.

“I was just thinking. Even with the newfound help of your…” He hesitates on the word, still extremely cautious of the idea. “Of your Uncle… The library was left quite a mess. Now that everything’s sprawled across the ground and slew throughout the room, whatever means of sorting your uncle had in place will be useless. We’re going to be spending some time sorting through those piles I hate to say…” Ivor grumbles and a loud synchronic groan echoes through the netherbrick halls. Romeo pouts and crosses his arms, his jewelry jangling as he does so. Jesse looks over at him miserably. Romeo shakes his head, deadpan.

“I am not sorting through that mess with you.”

Jesse feels like if he rolls his eyes one more time they’re just going to endlessly spin through his skull. Hiro’s heels clack loudly as he picks up his pace, a grin on his face.

“One: I don’t sort those things anyways. Two! We don’t even have to go to the library for these books!” He pats Jesse’s shoulder in passing as he makes his way to the forefront of the group, flicking his cape behind him as he quickly makes his way through the halls. Romeo blinks in surprise, him and Jesse sharing a look before Romeo darts ahead to catch up with Hiro and see what this is all about. Jesse waits a second more for his own group to catch up before continuing ahead.

“Wait! Why don’t you have the books on the End in your library?” Olivia crosses her arms, “You’re not leading us into something are you…” She grumbles and Petra lightly elbows her in the arm. Jesse decides to ignore it. Hiro glances back only briefly but doesn’t quite come up with a proper response. He hesitates before answering vaguely.

“I can assure you I’m not leading you into a trap. I wouldn’t. Your choice whether to believe that or not, I get it. There’s… Reasons I kept them separate from the rest but I’d rather not get into it while we’re walking.”

“Suppose that’s understandable.” Lukas comments as he finds his way back to Jesse’s side. They continue on through the maze of a fortress—maze of a home. How on earth Hiro kept perfect track of every seemingly every nook and cranny of this place Jesse couldn’t wrap his mind around. Then again, he practically built this place. And Jesse knows every nook and cranny of the Order Hall and Beacontown, so he supposes they each have their own place. This was his uncle’s home the way Beacontown was his. After the third stairwell in a relatively short amount of time, Romeo frowns and tugs at Hiro’s sleeve. Soft white eyes look down to him, ready to answer his beck and call. Romeo keeps his voice quiet, seemingly unsure and confused himself.

“Why are you taking them this way”

Perhaps because the books are this way!”

Romeo could practically strangle the man right there. Smart-Ass! He smacks him in the arm, serious, making him laugh warmly.

“I’m serious Hiro! Why do you keep the books… Here?”

“I’ve grown to like reading in bed I’ll have you know!”

“Eugh, as long as you don’t become some crotchety old man…” Romeo teases lightly as Hiro laughs, slamming open the door to his room. The chipper man smiles brightly and nods for Jesse and his group to follow in. He’s like an excited child excited to show off his new toy. He hurries into the large and spacious room, spinning in step once with his shimmering cape blowing outwards at the action. He was certainly proud of his room, and it was for good reason. Lukas gawks, slack jawed at the gloriously high ceilings which arched up highlighting both the large doorframe and huge stained glass window opposite of it. Yellow, orange, red and white light shimmered into the room, casting everyone in a warm glow. It was still relatively dark however.

Hiro hurries up the steps of the platform that held his bed and an array of shelves that expanded horizontally from the center, outlining the window for a ways. The bed was large, certainly the peak of comfort with a makeshift red canopy made from the same heavy fabric of the curtains spread throughout the complex. The wood however is an elegant mix of warm dark wood and the lovely cream of birch. Many things are scattered throughout the room, some random clothes draped over chairs—a typical habit of his uncle that he apparently kept up—as well as several stacks of papers and quills hastily tied together and strewn about. Jesse figures it’d be a safe bet to say that was a habit all of the men of his family had. Jesse knew that this was certainly similar to how his own office often ended up.

“Let’s get a bit more light in here!” Hiro’s voice has a faint echo in the large room and as he waves his arm upward, flicking his wrist, all attention is drawn to the chandelier that suddenly bursts to life high above them. It was pearly white and gold with dark accents that kept it from standing out too much. But it was an elegant and pleasant change from the common gothic aesthetic. The room is lit up further, a few candles flickering to life all around the room after the chandelier.

Jesse laughs in awe, this place was regal! He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised however, given his uncle’s nature. Hiro hums as he skims over the shelves by the bed, moving surprisingly quickly. He frowns and takes a step back after scanning all the shelves then has a visible, ‘ah-ha!’ moment. He easily hurdles over to the other side of his bed (most definitely using his powers to carry him most of the way) and crouches down, digging down by the head of the bed.

Romeo cocks a brow as he wanders up, arms crossed. “I didn’t think you were the type to hide things under the bed, yet why am I not surprised?”

“Oh hush! I don’t like these things being out open to just anyone…”

“The only people who live here are you and me.”

“Your point?” He says playfully as he pulls out the three old books. Jesse approaches somewhat timidly, eyeing the trilogy. They were obviously extremely old, the once tight binding loose and looking as though any little blow will make them crumble to dust. Yet they were near spotless for what could be done. They had seemingly had a lot of use yet were meticulously cared for… Jesse gently runs his armored fingers over the velvety royal purple surface. There were old gold ribbons accenting it that were frayed at the edges along with the cover in general. Jesse shakes his head and looks up to his uncle in confusion when a realization hits him.

“There are various tables strewn about, helping the room feel less crowded. Jesse approaches one with a stack of books on it and several wide open to random pages. Papers lay around with random notes rattled off in hasty but still lovely handwriting. He gets a vague feeling that he’s seen it before but he knows it’s not Romeo’s. Odd.

He scans over the notes and the book the man was reading through. There’s history, urban legends, monster facts and… Jesse laughs.

“Soren’s books? Again?” He figures this place at least makes some sense to find them in—this place was the Order’s afterall. He hums in thought as he considers the odd scene. Herobrine is interested in how the world works it seems. An oddly deep and scholarly subject to tackle for a guy who’s known for destruction and shooting lightning everywhere…”

“You were trying to find your own answers in these… These and all of the other books in the library… You wanted to understand the End Dimension and what…” He shakes his head, brows furrowing, “What it had to do with your new powers… What it was all about… If there had been any warning you and Dad could’ve seen before…” He trails off quietly.

There’s a knowing silence that fills the room. Hiro doesn’t meet Jesse’s gaze at first, simply opting to just stare at the books in his hands. A soft sigh is blown out through the demi-god’s nose before he begins quietly nodding with a bitter smile. Romeo ghosts a hand over Hiro’s arm, the action offering enough reassurance for Hiro to continue. He straightens, sucks in a deep breath and meets Jesse in the eye once more.

“You’re a smart kiddo..! Wasn’t expecting to just get called out like that..” He lightly teases with a weak grin. Clearing his throat however, he nods and continues. “But yes… You got me there. But, I think it’s about time I stop scanning these pages over and over for some answer I’m never going to get when someone else needs them. And needs them for something I’d say is far more important than knowing why I’ve got some glowing eyes…” He smiles and gently offers them out.

Jesse feels his throat tighten at the motion. This was it. The next big step. One goal covered and now onto the next. One step closer. His stomach tightens and he holds his breath as his uncle smoothly slips the books into Jesse’s own tentative grip. Blue eyes stare down at the old covers and he can feel his hands shaking within his gauntlets. On one hand he cannot believe he went through all of this trouble for a few books, yet on the other it feels like he’s just swung open a door that won’t ever be shut on him again. A bright smile creeps its way across his face and eventually a laugh breaks out. It shakes the tension out of him but not the odd numbness cursing his lower arms and legs. Shimmering blue eyes snap back up to the glowing white of his uncle and he smiles gratefully.

Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m… I’m overwhelmed I can’t even think about how I feel! But I-I know that I’m…” He nods aimlessly to himself, deciding on how he feels, “I’m excited! I’m excited to have these, to be one little step closer to figuring this all out, and to have you back and ready to help me with this… I don’t know what in the world I did to deserve so many good things coming out of one day.” He laughs. One day. Only one, though it’d certainly been a long and tiring as hell day. Hiro smiles and squeezes Jesse’s shoulder reassuringly with a nod. He holds his nephew’s gaze for a moment, pride seemingly making his eyes gleam this time.

“You’re welcome. Thank you for even considering giving me a second chance… But now I’d say that you need to get back home and crash young man. I don’t need my nephew collapsing from exhaustion on the way out of here.” He snickers as he lightly pushes Jesse back towards his friends. “The minecart line is perfectly safe, and trust me, you’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of it.”

Jesse nods but then frowns, “What about your library? A-And reading these together? When—“

Hiro holds up a hand, cutting Jesse off. He smiles and shakes his head as he sluggishly saunters down the steps with Jesse back to his companions.

“Don’t even fuss about the library. My home, my mess, I’ll clean it up in time. But those silly books aren’t important right now! As for reading those with you, I say we both need some space and time to process each other first.” Looking from Jesse to the tired faces of his companions he nods, “This… Us…” Hiro gestures between him and Jesse quickly with a nervous chuckle, “It’s definitely weird among other things… How’s about in 2 or 3 days we meet at the Nether portal and then we can start seriously talking with more clear minds. We’re certainly not on the clock and… I could use to time to take this all in.” Hiro laughs weakly and Jesse mirrors him with a nod.

“That would be really nice… Thanks for thinking of that.”

“Eh, don’t thank me yet. It was a good 60% of me knowing I’m about to have an existential crisis!” Hiro snickers as he jabs Jesse in the side. The atmosphere in the Nether for once grows to a comforting and safe one as he garners a laugh from the entire group at that quip. Laughter. Friendship. These halls for so long have been void of these beautifully comforting moments. It left Hiro with a warm feeling in his gut, like he had just opened a door to a better life even if it’s hard at first. He wouldn’t admit it, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to more of this.

The New Order of the Stone packed their things with relative ease. They knew what they were doing and Hiro was mildly impressed! Separating ended on a good note for Hiro and most of them, the younger trio accepting his apology quicker than the jaded Ivor. But that wasn’t to say they parted on bad terms, just tense. He at least managed to get a handshake out of the stubborn man. A truce for now. Jesse was more touchy feely as always and Hiro nearly toppled over from his hug again. He’ll take note of that for the future—small stature, grip tight as steel. But regardless it filled him with a type of glee he hasn’t had in years. The high before the hollow low as they left and the familiar isolation surrounded him.

He knew he wasn’t alone, and certainly it got better with Romeo around. But every time a new band of travelers left, it always left Hiro’s chest feeling hollow for a bit. He knew that tonight was already going to be one hell of a night. He probably wouldn’t sleep. Blowing out a deep sigh, Hiro turns his back to his nephew’s diminishing figure, Romeo catching his hand as they walk.

 

~~~~~

 

“Don’t look at me like that.” Hiro tries keeping his voice stern but it’s obvious he doesn’t have the heart. Hiro tears his gaze away from Romeo’s, his gold eyes drilling holes in him. This wasn’t the night he expected to have. Hell, this wasn’t the day he expected to have.

After Jesse and his group left, Hiro was left alone again. Alone with his thoughts. So many thoughts. So many new things to plague him. He wasn’t ready to be facing life so seriously again, yet he already made the commitment to do so. Had he not, he knows he would’ve learned to regret it. He never liked being alone, but would always become a recluse when he was troubled. It was easier to deal when he didn’t have to worry about being a burden to someone.

But Romeo was as stubborn to keep him company as Hiro was to be alone. He was polite however, knocking quietly and asking if it’d be okay to join him. Hiro wouldn’t have been able to say no. So here they were, Romeo staring hard at him in concern. His voice is gentle.

“Hiro… I know you’re troubled by all of this…”

“I’m fine, Rom. Really I am.” Hiro looks back over to him, arms crossed and trying to reassure the worried man beside him. It doesn’t work, Hiro knows it doesn’t. He wanted to sound sure of himself but simply couldn’t bring himself to. Romeo sighs, closing his eyes momentarily. He reaches up and gently grabs hold of Hiro’s arm at the elbow, gently pulling his arms apart and then clasping his hand inside his own.

“Darling,” Oh God the pet names, here it comes. “I know this is hard for you to talk about, but with everything that’s happened today I can’t stand leaving you to tear yourself apart in silence.”

Hiro grimaces, dropping his head back against the back of the couch and shutting his eyes tight. If he wasn’t tearing himself apart already, having Romeo worry over him surely would. White eyes open and stare up at the ceiling in silence, mulling over all of his choices. Romeo waits patiently by his side, running his thumbs over the back of Hiro’s hand, a small, soothing gesture. Hiro wanted to hold onto this little moment forever. The quiet crackling of the fire, the warm light emanating from it, Romeo quietly at his side, the general calmness that both of their breathing brought…

Yet he knew that at this point, there was only one way out of this. Hiro lets out a long sigh. Romeo continues quietly.

“I can’t imagine how overwhelmed you must be… First it was just… The excitement of new people showing up! Then it was the worry over me getting hurt… Then… Jesse…” Romeo hesitates and Hiro simply stares up at the ceiling. Romeo bites his lip, still having trouble processing Hiro’s family as well. “Then just… The news about your brother…” He mumbles, gripping Hiro’s hand for a moment as white eyes slip shut in pain. Romeo shuts his eyes too and sighs. He leans into Hiro’s shoulder, nuzzling his shoulder briefly and intertwining their arms. He stares into the fire, unsure of where else to look as he speaks. “I’m so sorry Hiro… For your loss…”

Hiro shudders as he sucks in a breath and Romeo winces at the sound. He buries his face into the crook of Hiro’s neck, trying in any way possible to comfort him. Hiro grits his teeth in attempt to keep a hold on himself. Romeo feels his grip on his hands tighten as Hiro clenches his fists briefly. Hiro finally begins to nod.

“I… Yeah it’s… It’s a lot.” His voice shakes as he forces out each word, it hurts to listen to. In all the times he had encountered Hiro, Romeo always saw him as strong and unbreakable. An outstanding man with a will that was rare to see. Reflecting, it makes sense that he’s so closely related to Jesse. The strength runs in the family, however, it seems bottling things up does as well. Hiro feels Romeo nods into his shoulder and finally lifts his head again. He shifts positions, turning to face Romeo. His eyes sting as he speaks. “I just… I never thought I’d see Jesse again, I never thought I’d see Steve again but not…” He shakes his head, his voice quivering, “Not because he was dead and gone.”

“I know… It’s okay, keep talking…” Romeo murmurs to him and Hiro nods, hunching over. He shakes his head.

“I-I feel like it’s my fault, Rom. I was the one who ran us both into the End. I was the one who died and didn’t even give Steve a chance to know for certain. I was the one who didn’t go back when I realized I got a second chance… I knew how my brother was, I should’ve known--I should’ve known he wasn’t just going to let me go!” He gasps, every part of him shaking with guilt. His voice steadily rises in volume and intensity. “It’s my fault he went back, it’s my fault he got cornered, it’s my fault Jesse was alone, it’s my fault he died!” He snaps, clenching his fists and jaw as hot tears travel down his face. They feel like fire against his cheeks, but as the tears come, his anger dissipates, being replaced by a guilt that tears him apart from the inside. He feels Romeo gently take him by the shoulders and pull him into a hug as he cries. Hiro buries his face into the crook of Romeo’s neck, going limp in his arms as the red head holds him close.

“It wasn’t your fault…” Romeo instinctively rocks them as he speaks. Hiro just cries harder, gasping loudly. Romeo feels him shake his head.

“It WAS! It WAS my fault! He wouldn’t have gone back if it weren’t for my stupid actions. He wouldn’t have gone back if I hadn’t died! God why…” He cries, losing steam, “Why did he do it..? Why did he have to care about me?! Why did I get to come back?! Why not him? He was a father… He had so much to lose... I’m just…” He shakes his head, gripping Romeo. “I-I’m just his stupid little brother…”

“Hiro you can’t take the brunt of this… You heard Jesse, right? His father’s disappearance was an accident… He didn’t go in expecting a fight.”

“And how can I be sure?” Hiro abruptly pushes himself up off of Romeo, white eyes boring into his soul. Romeo just stares back with wide eyes, before gently shaking his head.

“Hiro, please, don’t succumb to delusions… Jesse may have been young but his memory is sharp. Trust me, that kid is annoyingly clever and a stickler for details. If his father had left him looking for a fight, he would have known. But he wasn’t… Something else happened that he’s trying to figure out… And now you have the chance to be apart of that.” Romeo reaches up and cups Hiro’s face in his hands, thumbing away his tears. Hiro sighs, gaze drooping. Romeo huffs and leans down to catch his eye again, offering a soft smile. “Hey… Jesse isn’t mad at you… He does not blame you… And don’t beat yourself up for not having been there for him. What’s done is done and Jesse is far more resourceful than you know…” Romeo rolls his eyes, lightly playing, “Trust me. I know.”

“Yeah… We’re gonna have to talk about that later.” Hiro weakly jokes back, and they pair lightly chuckle. Romeo nods.

“I suppose that’s only fair… Goodness, he’s going to truly kill me for being so fond of you.” Romeo grins, lightly tugging Hiro closer. Hiro’s forehead bumps into Romeo’s and they laugh again. Hiro shrugs.

Eh. I’m sure he’ll get over it eventually.”

“He better, I don’t have any plans on just packing up and leaving! Sides,” he shrugs, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Romeo smiles rather deviously, making Hiro chuckle. It’s a warm sound, much better than the sobs and wails that filled the air mere minutes ago. How he had managed to cheer Hiro up he was still unsure. His heart flutters with the idea of just his mere presence helping Hiro feel better. He sighs with a smile, gently running his hands over Hiro’s cheeks. They’re rough from the stubble above his neatly trimmed beard. He could never keep it smooth for more than a day it seems. He wonders what it’d turn out like if he just left it alone for a week? It was hard to imagine him with a large beard though.

Hiro quirks a brow as he notices Romeo staring, the latter only blinking before laughing awkwardly.

“Sorry… Just thinking…”

“About…?”

Romeo snickers, a grin creeping onto his face. “Oh you know..! Just what you would look like with a full beard.”

Hiro rolls his eyes, finally relaxing and leaning up against him again. This was good, this was progress. Romeo gently draws circles in his back, the fabric of his shirt catching here and there. Hiro hums in thought, his head resting against the other man’s chest, seemingly considering it. Romeo quirks a brow and briefly glares down at him.

“Oh don’t even think about it.”

HA! Come on, it’d be somethin’ new!”

“I can’t see you with a bushy beard.”

“That’s because you’re not trying hard enough. OW!” Hiro shoots a glare up at Romeo, who playfully tugged on his ear in retaliation. Romeo snickers. Hiro rolls his eyes, “You’re a shit. Y’know that?”

“Mhm!” He responds with an almost sing-song tone. “Perfect to keep you in check!”

Pfft! Whatever!” He laughs, rolling over onto his back, finally relaxed. Silence fills the room again as Romeo quietly runs his hands through Hiro’s hair. Hiro stares over at the fire, his thoughts returning once more to Jesse and his brother. The quiet was at least comfortable this time, and gosh he suddenly felt the exhaustion seeping in. He was drained in every possible way. Mentally, physically, certainly emotionally. His breathing becomes calmer yet before he gets the chance to slip away he frowns, murmuring.

“I’m worried for him…”

Romeo pauses for a moment, processing his words. He settles back into the calming motions, the pause being enough of a question for Hiro. He continues.

“For Jesse… I don’t know what’s going to happen but I don’t want him going to the End, Rom… Chasing ghosts that aren’t there… Putting his life at risk…”

“With the Enderdragon gone though, it shouldn’t be that horrid should it..? He’s been there a few times before you know…”

“But he’s never left the alter… The alter is still dangerous regardless, and who knows how the Enderman will act without their dragon. I’ve read those books cover to cover hundreds of time, Rom… Past the initial alter is nothing good… Death is one wrong step away in every direction. His father wouldn’t want him running into all of that… Not for anything.”

“Yet… You know…”

“That I won’t be able to stop him… I know.” Hiro finishes Romeo’s thought, leaving a heavy silence in its place. The thought of losing another family member to the End. Losing his little nephew. To that horrible, horrible place. Just thinking of the dimension gives him chills--an odd experience to have in the Nether. Romeo sighs, empathizing with his conflict. He’s learned that Hiro hates Enderman, he especially can’t stand them after how he died… It’s not surprising that he’s scared of them. Romeo would be too.

The next sentence he utters makes Romeo freeze in a dread he can’t quite explain.

“If he goes I’m going with him.”

Romeo falters, quickly feeling his own panic grip him.

H-... Hiro no, you--” 

“I’m terrified of the thought.” He interrupts him, and then finally drags his eyes back up to meet Romeo’s. He could see the fear in those gold eyes, and he stares up sadly but doesn’t falter. He reaches up a hand, rubbing Romeo’s cheek. “If I lost him to the End Rom… And I did nothing to help protect him…” He shakes his head. “I would never be able to forgive myself…”

Romeo sits there, frozen in mild shock. After a long few minutes of thought he sucks in a breath, patting the man laying in his lap. He shakes his head, just in general disbelief of everything happening so quickly. He thought that he’d escaped the exciting and dangerous life, but of course he’s dragged back in. Now, one of the first people he’s deeply cared about in ages could be diving into a place that reeks of death.

But he knows that if Jesse can’t be stopped, then Hiro can’t be either. That stubbornness runs in the family. He grimaces, leaning into Hiro’s touch ever so slightly.

“Just make sure you come back in one piece this time…” Romeo scolds him and Hiro smiles weakly.

“I can’t say I’m looking to die there a second time so!” He laughs a bit, forcing Romeo to smile. Hiro nods, “I’ll make it back…”

“Do you promise?”

Hiro hesitates. Romeo looks down at him with desperate eyes. Eventually, Hiro swallows and nods again more seriously.

“I promise that I’ll do everything I can to make it back.”

Good. You better…” He sighs and leans down, resting his forehead against Hiro’s. Hiro shuts his eyes, soaking in the touch. He feels tired. So extremely tired. After a few minutes Romeo lets out a small sigh and straightens again. He pauses, noting Hiro not really responding. He quirks a brow. He didn’t. He whispers, “Hiro? Hiroooo…?”

Nothing. The bastard just fell asleep. Romeo rolls his eyes and scoffs in amusement before leaning back. Suppose he can’t be too mad. He certainly won’t mind. Going back to combing through his hair, Romeo settles down for the night. Good company and a fire, it makes it seem like nothing is out of the norm. Like nothing’s changed. It’s lovely, yet ominous in its own right. A calm before the storm.

Chapter Text

“So… You’re related to a demigod now..?”

Yeah…”

Axel blows a sigh out and shakes his head, overwhelmed by the sudden and huge drop of information. A soft chuckle comes from Jesse in response to the noise. It’s all he felt he could do at the situation. What a stupid sounding thing, related to a demigod. He hated how cliche it was. The hero of the town and frankly the world having a secret relation to someone grand like that? Sounds like something right out of a cheesy movie. Unlike those movies however, he had plenty of time to let it all fall into place with his life. There wasn’t some giant threat that would destroy everything in time. No fighting against the clock with this little adventure! He had all the time in the world to process each new thing.

And his uncle! Man… That one would certainly take a few days to initially come to terms with. Hell, it’d already been a whole day and he still feels numb from it all. But… Elated too.

Jesse adjusts his position in the giant pile of pillows he and Axel have camped out on in his still unfinished apartment. He crosses his legs atop Axel’s, the latter just watching blandly before dropping back into the pillows again and staring at the ceiling like his friend.

“Whaddaya think?”

“Pardon?” Jesse furrows his brows, looking over to his friend in mild confusion. Axel shrugs, not taking his gaze off of the high ceiling.

“Well I mean, that’s a lot to take in! It doesn’t matter what I think of the guy, it’s all your call in the end. Your family. So… Whaddaya think? Do you think he’s trustworthy? Reliable..?” Axel mumbles, trailing off and finally glancing over to his friend. He finds Jesse’s face contorted in thought, not necessarily upset or anything, just thinking hard. It’s a loaded question without a truly easy answer. Sure Jesse could say that yes, he does, simply because he’s family and family loves each other!

But at the same time that’d be wrapping it up in a bow all nice and easy, and you can’t really do that with people. No, there’s always more to it. Complications happen, people are bought out, they can become corrupt. Jesse’s seen those things all firsthand. He doesn’t know his uncle well enough from an afternoon of catching up to say for certain that he’d remain by his side. He’s already seen one of his weaknesses in action--Romeo. And Romeo without his powers is certainly vulnerable. What if something happened? Something came up? He can’t imagine his uncle choosing himself over Romeo. Hell he can’t imagine his uncle in that situation anyways. Every time the thought runs through his head, all he can see is his uncle freezing up. Perhaps that’s telling of a good heart in him? Maybe Jesse’s just being naive.

After a while of tossing speculation around in his head, he sucks in a tense sigh, bobs his head side to side in thought, then slowly nods.

“Yeah… I trust him.”

“Hm…” Axel only hums in response. Not necessarily in a bad way, just unsure. He doesn’t know what else to say or how else to react. He didn’t meet the guy so for now, he just has Jesse’s word, and hopefully Jesse’s word could still be trusted… Not that his friend was a bad person, far from it. But stress can get to people. He relaxes however--this was why they were here in the first place! Just two old friends relaxing in a nice home. Despite everything, Axel wasn’t a bad listener when his friends needed it, and he figured that a bit of normalcy would be good for Jesse. He smiles a bit with a chuckle, catching Jesse’s attention.

What?” He says with a smile. Axel shrugs.

“Just thinkin’. Laying around like this reminded me of all the times you, me, and Olivia would do the same thing back in the treehouse. Like during the summers?” He grins a bit and Jesse snorts.

“Yeah, when it was too hot to do anything else?”

“Exactly!” He points nowhere in particular for emphasis and Jesse snorts. He was glad to have Axel here today. Despite being a sucker for all things destructive, Axel always had an air of chillness about him. He was good company when you needed your nerves to be smoothed out. Axel purses his lips in thought and Jesse quirks a brow at the sight.

“So… Your uncle. He’s a good guy?”

A warm laugh bubbles up from Jesse’s chest. “ Yes. You lost your bet with Petra, I’d start emotionally preparing yourself for whatever terms it is you guys agreed to.”

Eugh.. Don’t remind me.” Axel grins, the two laughing in the relative peace. The warm noise dies out after some time and Axel can tell Jesse’s slipped back into his own thoughts. It was odd seeing him so quiet, introspective. Sure Jesse had always been a sort of thoughtful person, perhaps overthinking a lot of the time, but he was never quiet about it. Suppose that was a sign of his mind slipping back to his current crisis at hand. Axel sighs and bounces a leg slightly, moving Jesse’s in the process and snapping him back to the present.

“Hm?”

“You doin’ okay man..? For real?” He eyes Jesse more seriously, the classic Axel guilt trip. Jesse sighs but shrugs with a smile.

“Just kinda numb… Running through everything still. You know how it is.”

“Mmm… I get it I guess. Ever try voicing your thoughts? I mean, it’d be more amusing listening to you ramble like a fool than watch you stare silently off into space like some sort of edgy middle aged professor.”

Jesse snorts, his shoulders shaking with quiet laughter. He shakes his head.

“Ew, I’ve gotten that bad huh?

¨Could be worse! I could’ve tacked on the fact that you’re going through a divorce!”

“An edgy and brooding middle aged professor who’s going through a divorce?”

“As he stares out his window at the pouring rain! Yes.”

Jesse sits up to laugh and Axel grins. Creative allegories and comparisons always made Jesse laugh, and Axel had grown good at thinking of ‘em on the fly! Jesse settles down a bit then nods to himself and swings his legs off of Axel’s and to the floor past their little pillow pile. He hops to his feet, a spring in his step as always which drags Axel’s attention back.

Jesse wanders over to the countertop which held his records, including the bad pair. Quietly he plucks up one of the two--the one he skipped previously--as well as the old note he found with them. He wanders back over to Axel who can’t help but frown a bit.

“Alright… So your thoughts led you back to those huh?”

“Mhm..!”

“Okay,” he huffs, “I’ll bite. What’re you thinkin’ Jesse?”

“I’m thinking that if uhhh--” He quickly squints at the old note, “-- eleven had more clues in it than I initially thought, then maybe thirteen does as well…” He sits on the carpeted ground beside Axel, giving him a clear view of both the disk and note. He leans up against the pillows and his friend as he slides the vinyl out of it’s cover. It looked quite lovely! Not a scratch in its surface--a stark contrast to the shape of poor 11. Axel pauses and squints.

“You haven’t listened to this one as much have you..?”

“Only two times.” Jesse sighs, “Only once all the way through. I just remember it being creepy, but there just… There might be something else, anything.”

“How many times did you listen to 11? Seems you had that thing near memorized…”

“It still had my dad’s voice in it. Sometimes when I missed him…” He pauses, staring into the black record with a cloudy yet steely gaze. He nods, “I-I would listen to it. Even though it scared me I just… Part of me desperately didn’t want to forget. I didn’t want the sound of his voice to be lost to my memory even though I didn’t want to think or talk about it…” He scowls and shakes his head, “I know, I sound crazy and hypocritical. I’m sorry.”

“No, no, you’re okay dude..! It’s a crazy situation,” Axel shrugs and meets Jesse in the eye, “I probably would’ve done the same thing if it were my pop. You don’t gotta apologize for being conflicted.” He chuckles a bit and Jesse visibly relaxes. He nods with a small smile.

“Thanks Axel.”

“Not a problem.” He pauses and reaches over, lightly placing a hand down on Jesse’s and pushing the record down. “Hey, look… You’re still pretty tired Jesse. You said that you weren’t going to meet up with your uncle again for a few days because you need time to process. I think what you’ve got is a good idea but, like, let’s save it for later.”

“Well it’ll just take a minute. I just want to see if there’s a clue in this somewhere. I promise it’ll be quick!” Jesse slips away from Axel’s reach and his friend just sighs in a bit of frustration. Axel shakes his head.

“Jesse, dude, you’re mentally exhausted. Give yourself a day’s break from all this would ya?”

“Axel I’m fine I just--”

“You’re not though, Jesse!”

Axel’s frustration slips through momentarily but it seemed to be what Jesse needed to hear. He stops walking, growing hesitant and ever so slightly shrinking in on himself. He remains silent, suddenly unsure of himself to which Axel sighs.

Look man, I’m only scolding ya cause I don’t wanna see you messed up or hurt. Won’t lie! I…” He pauses, scowling a bit in frustration at himself now before shrugging, “All that stuff you went through because of Romeo? It’s still fresh. A-And Olivia and I were just… ignorant of it for so long too! Because we were “busy” and shit. Now I just… I don’t want you to feel like you’re in a place where you have to work yourself nearly to death to fix it. It’s really a bad habit you’ve gotten yourself into y’know.” He mumbles, trailing off as he picks at the dirt and leftover ash under his fingernails. He frowns at the sight, no longer having the confidence to meet Jesse in the eye. His friend sighs but smiles.

“Thank you Axel… I don’t mean to worry you and the others.”

“Yeah well,” Axel lets out a stressed sigh but smiles, “we’ve been friends for pretty damn long now! Can’t help but get a bit anxious when you’re in trouble.”

“I promise I’ll try to stay out of the thick of it!”

“Ehh I know you won’t, but thanks, it’s the thought that counts.” Axel shrugs with a grin and Jesse laughs. He taps the disk in his hands, still not wanting to put it down right away. It was on his mind and would continue to be until he listened to it. Suppose that’s how he was getting through this all, taking one task on at a time and having a one track mind about it. Axel quirks a brow at him and Jesse grins sheepishly.

“Okay, tell you what! Just… Let me listen to this once then I’ll drop it and we can run around town for the rest of the day! Deal?”

Deal!” Axel jumps on the offer, relieved at the concession from Jesse. Plus he’d honestly be lying if he wasn’t at least a bit curious about the sound of that record. Creepy sounds and music always gave him goosebumps but he loved the small rush. What could he say? He was an adrenaline junkie! Pausing in his thoughts he snatches up the note Jesse left behind and examines it. The lettering was quite nice, a bit loopy though. Jesse wanders back over, sharing a look. He frowns a bit as he studies it with him.

“I don’t know how I feel about that note to be honest… I mean, my dad could be curt, yeah, but it just…”

“Seems too robotic? It’s pretty freaky honestly…”

Jesse nods, “It looks a lot like my dad’s writing though is the thing. Or at least…” He pauses in thought. He blinks then holds up finger and hurries over to his other disks. Plucking a random one out of the stack he squints at the old writing written on the cover. Humming in thought, Axel knows he’s come to some conclusion.

“What’s up?”

“Can I see that?” He holds his hand out for the note, curiosity lacing his tone. Axel hesitates but nods and passes it over. Jesse sets it down on top of the vinyl cover right next to the other bit of writing. He sits down by Axel once again and they both squint at the different messages. The two bits of writing are strikingly similar, making Jesse momentarily doubt himself. Yet there’s a slight difference. The writing in the note is a bit larger, with more curves than his father’s. It’s a faint difference however. Jesse frowns.

“You see how this one is more curvy?”

“Yeah..?” Axel nods slowly, not sure where Jesse’s going with this. Jesse shakes his head.

“My dad never wrote like that. Like, okay, I get that it’s not a huge difference but I just feel like there’s something to it!” He holds the record and small piece of paper closer to his face, scrutinizing each stroke of ink throughout both.

“Okay, I get what you’re going for but I dunno Jesse… It’s pretty small. Either someone knew what they were doing or maybe your dad was just stressed, in a hurry.”

“I just… I’m not so sure he did make them. My dad was good yeah but...” He trails off, falling into his own mess of thoughts.

Axel shrugs, “Who else would’ve? Maybe he felt something was up, scribbled that note in a hurry, and hit record in the places he thought he should be recording. Like, two suspicious parts of the cave or whatever?”

“No.” Jesse sits back, “That’s too much effort to go through. Plus I found them on his workbench by the entrance, Axel. It’s just not realistic for him to have been recorded getting caught in 11 then just, I dunno, coming back to the overworld to tidy them up before popping back to the End!” Jesse chuckles lightly at the thought and Axel laughs with a shrug.

“Hey man I’m just throwing out ideas. Know anyone with handwriting the note hints at?”

Jesse pauses.

 

“Papers lay around with random notes rattled off in hasty but still lovely handwriting. He gets a vague feeling that he’s seen it before but he knows it’s not Romeo’s. Odd.”

 

Hiro’s handwriting. The bits of it he saw in the Nether.

A chill runs down Jesse’s spine. No. That can’t be it. His uncle wouldn’t do that. Jesse swallows, the pain suddenly showing up on his face. Axel sits up a bit, suddenly worried. He ghosts a hand over his friend’s arm.

Woah. Hey man you feeling okay? You just went pale… Did--... Did you think of someone?”

I need more time to figure it out. I don’t wanna jump to conclusions, Axel.” Jesse murmurs quietly, shaking his head as he gets up. Axel watches him, brow suddenly furrowed in concern.

Jess what’d we say? No secrets, remember? We don’t want you bottling things up and having them just eat away at you!”

“I-I know I just--!” He stops, not really having a good explanation. He shakes his head, “I-I need to judge first before announcing it or whatever… I don’t want things being tense.”

“Jesse--”

“Drop it, Axel.” Jesse gets a slight edge to his voice, and Axel knows that anymore pushing at this point would just stress his friend out further. He hates doing it, but with a scowl he sighs and flops back onto the pillows. Axel rubs his face and Jesse drops the record and note off on the counter. He picks up 13 again and glances back over to his friend apologetically. Axel just shrugs--what’s he gonna do? He knows that if Jesse’s not gonna budge, then he’s not gonna budge. Jesse nods quietly and pulls the record player out once more and sets it by their pillow pile.

He plops down by Axel’s legs, leaning back and blowing out a sigh. He glances over the record once more, for some reason expecting it to be suddenly scratched, broken or cracked in the few minutes he set it down. Or maybe he was just hoping that’d happen. It was one of the two. He huffs and sets it down on the player but hesitates before setting it to play. Axel quirks a brow then blinks in surprise as Jesse flops back at looks up to his friend.

“I’m sorry for being stubborn and snappy. I don’t mean to hurt you or make you upset.” Jesse shakes his head a bit, blue eyes genuine. Axel stares at him for a minute before he fails to hide his own amusement. He chuckles a bit under his breath and playfully shoves Jesse’s head away.

“You know I can’t stay mad at you. Now come on! Let’s solve this spooky disk!” He shares a grin with Jesse who nods. Jesse turns back to the record player, braces himself by sucking in a breath, and sets it to finally play.

As the first eerie tone rings out he slowly sits back, blowing a controlled breath out. Axel grimaces at the first sound. It was gross. The first bell chimes kick in and Jesse shivers. Axel furrows his brow, meeting Jesse in the eye. He nods--he’s okay. He holds up his hand however and Axel quickly clasps it with a hearty shake. Jesse’s surprisingly composed, however his white-knuckled grip allows his true nerves to shine through. A rising few notes with an odd instrument come in--chimes? Something like that. It reminds him of water. Like dripping.

Axel feels Jesse’s grip relax at least slightly as the tones just continue aimlessly, slowly forming a haunting tune. It’s not much, but it’s there. The echoes and intensity of some notes are chilling however. Several notes just being drawn out for what felt like years. However, when things seemed to fall into a somewhat predictable pattern, there was a curveball thrown in.

“What was--”

“Shh!” Jesse squeezes his hand, suddenly perking up. Right before the music amped up into a note that chilled his blood there was a faint sound. Three to be precise. It sounded off in the distance from wherever this was recording. Bangs? No, it was something different… But familiar.

“Arrows…” He murmurs, Axel blinking in surprise before scrunching up his face as he listens in. Both men now alert, the disk continues, Jesse seemingly right about it holding a few secrets. The bells and chimes continue, soon followed by a deep rumbling which shifts to another odd tune. Not a whistle but not a bell, another wind instrument maybe?

Then it cuts. Jesse and Axel blink.

“That can’t be it… That’s nothing!”

“Well no, hold on, we DID get to hear--”

Then it starts up again. Continuing. Both men go quiet once more as the faint howling of wind grows steadily louder, before an overwhelmingly large gust blows over. The chimes are faint but audible, and another interesting sound is heard. Water splashing! It sounds like something decently sized was dropped into water. The sound of currents flowing gets drowned out once more by the music taking its place at the forefront once again. It doesn’t last much longer, the sound of wind rising in pitch being the last thing heard before this disk grows quiet.

Jesse sits there dumbfounded. Axel matches him and the two just slouch there for a long, quiet minute as everything flows through their minds.

“Wait wait wait. What was all that. Like I get the music, yeah, but the other noises! That shit was weird…” Axel shakes his head and Jesse nods in agreement as he plucks the record up. He examines it as if an explanation would be written all over it. He frowns and sits back in thought again.

“It was recorded at the same time of 11… I’m sure of it.”

That catches Axel’s attention. He squints and scratches the bit of fuzz on his chin. “Okay smart guy, what makes ya say that?”

“Well okay,” Jesse shifts his position to look at Axel, “First off there’s the fact that we heard distant but distinct cave noises. The wind, the water, and the arrows. Which the wind in particular is super interesting!”

“I’m not following.”

“When I showed up to that cave, every torch that my father had lit was out. Not put out from rain nor burnt out. Blown out. Every single one of them! That massive gust of wind that we heard mid way through might have been what blew them out… Then those arrows! Those must’ve been dad--”

“--or a skeleton, Jesse.”

“Well, listen! Listen to this okay? My father snatches a bow from a skeleton, he’s exploring the stronghold further when he gets spooked. Something starts chasing him.”

“The Enderman…” Axel murmurs and Jesse nods.

“He shoots off a few shots to get the thing to back off, it works but one of the arrows knocks open some air pocket or something. That gust of wind! The sudden burst of air blows up and out, leaving my dad in the dark since the torches were put out and--!”

“Cue 11!”

Jesse nods quickly, a smile on his face at the theory. It’s plausible! Some more details cleared up! Some more questions struck out! But… Wait. Jesse frowns, pausing in his celebration and covering his mouth in serious thought. Axel drops his own smile at Jesse’s look of confusion. So, okay, they have a decent idea of what happened in Steve’s last few minutes on Earth. But then again, it was only a theory, no evidence. Hell there’s no evidence this disk even lined up with the time. But then why would it have been on his father’s workbench? Why would it be apart of a pair? Furthermore there was still that water, what dropped?

“I don’t get why this one was recorded…” He murmurs with a sigh. “If someone wanted to leave clues, then the music didn’t help. Yet if someone wanted to scare me off, why leave the clues in there? A-And that water! What on Earth dropped?”

“Sounded like a book.” Axel picks his teeth a bit and shrugs nonchalantly. Jesse blinks.

“How on Earth do you figure that?”

“I’m a man of many talents Jesse!” Axel grins as he sits back, arms folded behind his head. “It was totally a book. Average sized but thick.”

“... Right. Okay. I’m taking your guess with a massive grain of salt but we’ll go with it. I guess it did sound light enough to be just a book.”

You’re totally jealous!”

“I am NOT .”

HA! Just wait. You’ll see it was a book. I’m right.”

“You’re full of it!” Jesse laughs and shakes his head. Axel snickers with a grin that stretches from ear to ear. Jesse nods to himself, suddenly a bit excited, “ Whatever it was--book or not--I-I think there’s a chance that it may still be sitting at the bottom of that cave system! I wonder…” He fails to finish his thought aloud once more, leaving Axel hanging. He visibly runs through a menagerie of thoughts and Axel is a bit sad to see the excitement in his eyes die out once more. Jesse sighs, “Still don’t get why they were made though. Nothing we have makes sense...

“Well… Maybe we gotta start thinking of other things that could’ve happened?”

“What do you mean?”

Axel shrugs and rubs the back of his neck, “Maybe they were tryna scare you--or whoever grabbed those things--off. Some random disks filled with creepy music and terrifying monster sounds? Uh, yeah, I’ll pass on that thank you. And I mean no offense, but it worked! Those things traumatized you as a kid Jesse! It almost feels like they’re just mocking you now. Like whatever show off created ‘em just made ‘em to get under your skin! They probably had the music ready to go on a note block or some shit and started playing it just loud enough that it drowned out anything notable. They were cocky too. If they weren’t then they wouldn’t have recorded these period.”

“I-I don’t wanna think about that possibility Axel.” Tension returns to Jesse as the thought of someone possibly orchestrating his father’s death comes up. That was the last thing he wanted to figure out. He couldn’t process that right now. No. That was one step too far. Too much.

“Jesse, it’s a realistic--”

My Dad didn’t have enemies Axel!” Jesse shoots back quickly, now distressed. He stands, quickly beginning to pace. “There was no one who would’ve wanted to torture him like that or record his last moments! Sides, that’s assuming that they knew the Enderman was gonna attack, which is ridiculous! Last I checked, Endermen don’t keep a neat little calendar with the days they’re gonna randomly yank people to the End on full display! A-And like you said, we don’t even know if this was for sure recorded at the same time..! I-It could just be random cave noises. Manufactured, even.” He trails off, losing steam.

Jesus dude…” Axel blows out a long breath. He frowns, knowing he should’ve just stuck to his gut with not letting him listen to that disk yet. Now wasn’t the time. But, it’s too late to change anything. Now he just has to help Jesse settle down again.

“I-I regret listening to this right now. Let’s just--... Shelf this all. I don’t wanna think about it. Not on top of everything else. I’ll talk to my uncle about it and we’ll see what he thinks… He’ll know some more things about Dad hopefully. A-And when we read those End Dimension books together, we could also go through a few of Dad’s journals maybe…” He nods to himself, forming a vague sort of plan in his head as Axel watches. Finally Axel grunts and stands up. He wanders over to his scatterbrained friend and gently takes the record from his hands. Jesse only blinks in response, too overwhelmed to really respond to oppose at this point. Axel smiles calmly and goes to set the record down next to it’s partner. He nods to Jesse.

“Alright, let’s get you out of the house for a bit. Get some fresh air.”

A-Axel I--”

“You promised Jesse.” Axel meets his friend in the eye and Jesse shuts his mouth. He was caught. He can’t just break a promise. But then again he made that promise honestly not thinking anything would really come from their little mini investigation. Jesse feels his nerves beginning to return a bit as the initial shock begins wearing off and he’s forced back to reality. Back to the present. He locks his hands together awkwardly, not meeting his friend in the eye anymore.

“I’m just… Not sure…” He mumbles, trailing off. Axel drops a hand down onto his friend’s shoulder, grabbing his attention.

Hey, look… I know that you have a lot to take in right now… But you need a break for it. I’m sorry for letting you freak yourself out again. But, this was good, we know a few more things like you said we might! Just don’t let your brain explode from all of it now a’ight?” He lightheartedly jabs his friend in the side before slinging an arm down over Jesse’s shoulders. Jesse looks up at him questioningly, a strained look on his face. Axel just laughs a bit and begins walking, shoving his other hand in his pocket. “Don’t worry! We’re just gonna wander! If you don’t wanna talk a whole lot, then that’s cool too! But it’ll be good to get you out to actually see people, and talk to them, about normal and boring things!”

Jesse takes a minute. Quietly processing. Eventually, he blows his bangs out of his eyes and nods rather absentmindedly. “Normal and boring. I think I can do that.”

“Sweet! Off we go then!”