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Yuu and the Power of Magic

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Summer holidays had always been a brief reprieve—a splash of cold water to her face—a spot of zero in the tumultuous flood of magical activity that drowned her year in its current.

Yuu wondered whether she had felt her holidays to be long or short as she gazed absently out of the window of her pristinely made room in muggle England. The sun was strong, but not strong enough to pierce the lingering chill and fog that early mornings still carried with them. Everything was washed out here, reduced in intensity, so that she felt her own presence fading into the mist.

There was no point in pondering, though. The two months of beautiful, oppressive normalcy had faded into the past. Whether she cared or not—it was over.

It was time to return.

She might feel little more if anyone else did, but Yuu, just like her room, just like the scenery, was stolen by a cool, clean sensation. Bare. Empty. The snug warmth and deep night-sky ceiling of the Ravenclaw Common Room, the smiles and sneers of her classmates, the flare of her wand in her hand; it all faded back into obscurity.

She couldn’t find it within herself to care.

Yuu-chan!” Her mother called upstairs in Japanese. It was the first time she’d heard her voice all year.

Force of habit made Yuu strain her ears, sit up straight. Even after all these years and all her failed experiments, she could not get rid of the tiniest piece of expectation pulling at her chest. Maybe this time would be different.

“Wake your father. He’ll be the one to drop you off at the station. I’m leaving.”

Or not.

“Yes, mother,” Yuu called back, turning away from the misty window and activating the Self-Levitation Charm on her trunk by running a finger over it. She stopped by the washroom on her way over to the master bedroom to neaten her appearance, directing the trunk to the door where it settled obligingly down with a thump to await her. She’d learned from experience that when she dressed more neatly, trouble tended to take longer to find her.

Yuu was no longer a small child wearing clothes too large for her frame. She straightened her clothes carefully and made sure the wrinkles were smoothed out. The solemn-looking reflection gazing back at her through a curtain of hair mirrored her movements.

A cloud passed over it.

Aah! My most beloved lady…

Yuu’s unfocused blue eyes snapped to attention in the mirror beneath her dark bangs. Had someone turned the television on? The sudden echo of a strong masculine voice had filled the room suddenly enough for her to jump, and the mirror had fogged like…

His voice spoke in fluent Japanese, the language her mother possessed, the language Yuu had spent the past few years learning. But she had returned her last instruction CD to the library weeks ago.

Was it just a hallucination—? But in the washroom mirror a flash of green mist obscured her face and Yuu sucked in a gasp.

The noble, beautiful flower of evil…

It is you who are the most beautiful in this world!

Yuu tensed as the mirror burst into green flame. An illusion—a spell? But using underage magic was out of the question. She had better control than that. And this green fire didn’t prickle at her skin like the feel of magic did within Hogwarts.

—Magic mirror, on the wall. Tell me. In this world, who is the…

She ignored the voice. In these situations, it was not wise to just sit and stare at a possibly enchanted mirror. As billows of what looked like dark emerald flames began to fill the reflection of her pale-faced surprise, Yuu’s fingers closed around her wand in her sleeve and she bent down, ready to run.

A rush of sound froze her in place. Yuu jerked her head to the right, cocking her head to listen—was it the ominous creaking of…wood? A carriage? Slowly, the clip-clop of hooves neared…but the window was shut. How could sound pass so clearly into her head?

Impossibly, a flock of ravens burst past the washroom window, their cawing piercing the barrier of her wall like it was paper. She had not seen ravens in her small town for as long as she could remember. A single black feather remained swaying, cradled in the air outside her window.

An omen.

Yuu jerked her head back to the mirror. This green fire was not like Floo Network fire. No magic she had ever experienced felt so…

O, one who has been guided by the Mirror of Darkness.

Was it calling her? Yuu did not answer—speaking to magical artifacts lent them power. She glared at the completely green mirror and backed away one step, two.

Take the hand of the one who is reflected in the Mirror as thine heart desires.

The mirror’s light was extinguished in a wave of pitch black—an inky substance that sent every hair on the back of her neck standing up straight. Still, Yuu could not wrench her eyes away, nor could she turn and run. Her feet refused to obey her movements any longer.

There must have been an enchantment in place, because there was no other explanation for her sluggish response times, her inability to pull out her wand. A heavy gathering of something shoved down on her shoulders and smothered her mind. Yuu had never been good at resisting magic—whatever this was—and she could only watch as a large hand stretched out of the mirror entirely…

Let’s get going soon, she heard someone calling, then a different voice sighing oi. We’re leaving. Follow me. And someone else snapping stop dawdling, I won’t forgive tardiness.

We have to go.

Hurry up. Being outside is killing me.

Shall I guide you to our destination?

Stop standing there in a daze.

If you don’t come quickly, you’ll lose your head.

Come on, let’s begin.

Oh! You’re here! I was waiting…

Your hand.

“Wait,” Yuu gave up on maintaining silence. She realized with horror that her right hand was lifting towards the hand stretching out of the mirror. But the cacophony of voices all spoke in Japanese, so she abandoned her English and repeated in her mother’s native tongue, “Wait! What’s going on?

She received no answer. Her hand met the hand in the mirror and Yuu’s surroundings plunged out of existence.

This was not the same tug in her stomach that meant Portkey activation. It was not the squeezing vertigo of Apparition. Nevertheless, Yuu felt her heart drop dangerously as the world around her faded…

No regrets? The deep voice echoed into her mind solemnly over the blood rushing in her ears.

“I’ve got nothing but regrets right now!” Yuu shouted before the world tumbled into night.

 

Story Cover

 

CHAPTER ONE | The Strange Inhabitants of Night Raven College.

The hall was dark. Through her half-lidded eyes, Yuu could barely make out the dimly lit chain-links of innumerable chandeliers strung across the ceiling. A host of floating coffins glowed that same unearthly green with barely suppressed light, illuminating the room just enough for her eyes to adjust.

Nothing felt solid. Was she dreaming?

She stretched her fingers cautiously. Wiggled her toes. No pain.

Yuu sat up. As she did, she realized her socks were touching the foot of a raised dais suffused in gold, and when she raised her head, a metal-engraved mirror was floating atop the platform, illuminated with a single beam of that same light. It looked ghostly.

She scrambled to her feet and took a few wary steps back, shivering as her hands met the cold stone floor. Two hissing snakes carved into each side of the ovular mirror glinted ominously down at her, their heads sculpted in excruciating detail, before the black mirror’s glass burst into scarlet flame.

Fire! Yuu leapt backwards a step, fingernails whitening around her wand.

The inferno that turns even tomorrow to dust. It was the same voice again—perhaps the voice of the enchanted mirror? Yuu controlled her breathing and straightened cautiously to look up at the burning glass. It was far taller than her.

As fast as it had lit, the fire extinguished, frozen solid by a shard of ice so white it was blue. Ice that seals even time in its tracks!

A burst of leaves consumed the ice and ruffled Yuu’s hair. The great tree that swallows even the sky!

It could only be Nature magic, some artifact, something she didn’t understand if an image in a mirror was affecting the real world like this. She’d only read a little bit about it, only seen the Mirror of Erised once (and not directly). Yet this did not seem like the magic she was so used to, nor the old magick that the centaurs had shown her, nor the curious turning feeling of Time magic spinning with a Time-Turner.

She was utterly out of her element.

Yuu suppressed her panicked breathing and decided that in this situation, she shouldn’t be worrying about Traces or laws anymore, not when the surroundings were so permeated with this strange new magic that she was sucking lungful after lungful with each breath. It smelt electric. The magic (if that was what it was) glowed with impossibly bright brilliance as shards of light flew around her, illuminating her neatly arranged clothing.

The mirror went dark again. Do not fear the power of Darkness.

It seemed as if it were talking directly into her mind, the voice echoing impossibly in the empty hall. Now, show me your power.

“Why do I have to do something like that?” Yuu shouted back—as if in answer, everything exploded into light.

For me! The mirror’s voice projected directly into her head, and she saw a great beast, outgrowing Norberta the Norwegian Ridgeback, roar with a force that rippled the air around it. For them. And for you—time is short.

A crowd of young men in robes faced it down, some bleeding, some on their knees. Yuu gasped as the beast roared again and the mane around its neck burst into cerulean flames. Wings sprouted from its back like a great chimaera and the robed figures fell back with dismayed cries—

The beast reared back and she finally managed to see the heads of snakes protruded from its sides, dancing in the air like a hydra’s. The innumerable eyes were wide open, pupil-less, an unearthly glowing polar blue that burned and froze the air. Around it, piles of rock, columns of mountain trembled and shook and crumbled into sand. The robed young men were shouting, holding up what looked like fountain pens topped with jewels, but several had already collapsed, spent. The ground was sticky with blood.

It was clear they were fighting a losing battle.

There was no time, the mirror had said—was this a prophecy? Yet prophecies were not told through mirrors, and Professor Trelawney had never said…! Still, the terrifying sight drove Yuu to take steps forward towards the mirror, ready to draw her wand.

Yet the voice would not let her, drowning the image once again in blackness. Its deep timbre was solemn when it said slowly—

By any means, do not let go of that hand.

The next time Yuu awoke, it was to a great thumping surrounding her and a small pitter-patter followed by some muttering. For one delirious moment she thought she might have been dreaming, tucked away safely in her compartment on the Hogwarts Express. What had she been dreaming about before? Her mind was hazy and disobedient.

Right. Yuu was supposed to be going to Hogwarts that day. Before—

Her washroom mirror exploded into green.

“Crap. People are gonna come soon! Gotta get a uniform fast-like…ugh…!”

The thin voice came from somewhere around her feet. Yuu’s still swimming consciousness focused on it as she tried to remember what came after. Something about fire, and ice, and…

Uuuugh. This lid is so freakin’ heavy…fine. It’s already come to this, so I’m gonna bust out my hidden move. Take that!”

The thumping intensified and the blackness around her lifted. More specifically, something covering her vision fell to the ground with a loud clatter and a rush of heat.

Yuu jerked upright just in time to miss a giant blue fireball blowing past her hair. “Holy—!” she gasped, waking up instantly and rolling to the side. Consequently, she fell out of the spot she had been lying in and collapsed onto the floor in an ungainly heap.

A catlike creature, from whom the muttering was emanating, glanced over at her and screamed. “Gyaaah———!! Why’re you awake already!?”

Yuu gaped at him and then around at the illuminated room—it was still full of floating coffins and now, irregular patches of blue flame fizzling out into embers. She’d fallen from one of the open ones and it was still smouldering with the blue remnants of the fireball that she’d dodged. Something about these flames seemed familiar to her…

More importantly, she had never seen a creature like this, and it was talking. Despite the existence of magical creatures that could speak—most notably the centaurs—no rat, cat or owl had spoken directly to her like this. So her first statement was a rather stupid, “There’s a talking tanuki standing upright…”

“Who’re you calling a tanuki?! I’m the Great Grim!” The newly named Grim yelled back at her. Standing on his hind legs.

Yuu gaped at him even more obviously. This not-tanuki only came up to her calves. “Grim…?”

“Don’t forget the Great!” Grim corrected her. He looked almost comically human standing upright except for the twin tufts of fiery blue coming out of his ears.

Struck by a sudden headache, Yuu looked away from the ears and down to his bright blue eyes. “Um.” Her social awkwardness prevented anything else from coming out.

“Whatever. Oi, human. Pass me those clothes!” Grim pointed somewhere by where she was sitting. “If you don’t…I’ll roast you!”

At his last words a great cloud of fire burst into life behind him. Yuu flinched backwards and felt the heat and thought that she really had seen that fire somewhere before. In any case, it was probably a good idea to stay as far away from those blue flames as she possibly could.

“Getting literally roasted by a tanuki would be a little too original,” she muttered to herself.

Grim heard her. “I said I’m not a tanuki!” he shouted back.

“Okay Mister Not-a-Tanuki, you can get whatever you need yourself. I’m lost here, so I’m leaving before I turn into a shish kabob!”

“Oi, wait!”

Yuu pushed herself to her feet and ran past him. Eyes cataloguing exits—only one huge set of doors—she dove out of them, down a stone-paved corridor, and into what looked like a lecture hall.

Furiously thinking as she moved, Yuu wished for the first time that she had access to her Yajirushi broom—she was terrible at running and even with her hatred of flying, getting altitude was always good for gaining her bearings in a new environment. Still, now was not the time to be worrying over spilt milk.

Was this Hogwarts?

But she didn’t feel the deep undercurrent of magic that ran in the stone floors. None of the silvery ghosts missing parts of their bodies, glistening with greyish blood as they drifted aimlessly through the air. No trick stairs, no steps turning into slides.

The row of classrooms followed out to a Greek-style pavilion hallway and then to a garden. Doing her best not the trample the grass, Yuu cut straight through the patch illuminated by soft moonlight—just how long had she slept? Or was she still dreaming—thumped her way down a paved stone staircase that spiralled down and down to a long street, and finally dove back inside a building standing tall in the falling dusk. It turned out to be a huge library lit only by ghostly dots of yellow-green light she nearly mistook for fireflies. Yuu, squinting at around at the towering bookshelves, narrowly missed a book that was floating by her head.

Books didn’t float in the Hogwarts library. Any of the unrulier tomes were usually sealed.

What the hell was going on?

“Thought you could run away from my nose, you pathetic human?” Grim skidded to a stop right behind where she was staring, dumbstruck, at the rows of books fading into the darkness and the circling ones floating in front of her eyes. “Now gimme those clothes if you don’t wanna be roasted alive!”

“Wait, my clothes?!” Yuu spluttered, taking a step back and clutching at her button-up sweater. “I’m wearing these!”

“I don’t—fugya!?” both of them jumped as what looked like a long snake whipped out of the darkness around Grim’s small stomach. “Ouch! What’s with this string!?”

“It’s not a string, it’s a whip! Of love!”

Yuu narrowly swallowed a scream. A tall figure had melted of the darkness of the library without either of them noticing and was standing by her.

She hadn’t noticed his entrance at all.

The first thing Yuu observed was the huge mantle the new arrival wore over a neatly pressed vest and dress shirt, because it looked like something a flamboyant villain from a Dixney movie would wear. A great fluttering amalgamation of royal blue and violet gold-embroidered fabric, it was topped off with a blanket of raven’s glossy feathers. Yuu, who had been a member of the fine arts club that barely existed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, admired the beautifully made costume with an open mouth.

The new arrival turned to her as if he hadn’t just called whatever was holding Grim a ‘whip of love’. Too shocked to point out the ridiculousness of that name, Yuu just continued to stare as she met the gaze of a black crow-like mask that covered most of the man’s face. As he leaned forward to stare at her, a matching black top-hat tipped down over his head, exposing a small gleaming mirror attached to its blue ribbon.

“Um,” she said intelligently.

The man narrowed glowing golden eyes behind the mask. “Aah, I finally found you! You are one of this year’s newly admitted students, correct?”

“What?”

“Leaving from the Door without prior permission is expressly forbidden, might I add,” the golden eyes narrowed.

They glowed like the ghost lights floating in this library.

Yuu swallowed, not knowing why those eyes put her on guard instinctively. “Sir, I—”

“Besides! Untrained magical familiars are against the school rules.”

What? “He’s not my familiar! I—”

Grim struggled as the man dragged his whip—and Grim—over to them. “Let me go! I’m not this guy’s familiar! Not the Great Grim!

“Yes, yes, all rebellious familiars say the same thing. Be quiet for a moment, will you?”

The man retracted his whip, fished Grim up by the scruff of his neck, and covered his snout with one gloved hand. Grim’s protests were immediately muffled into inaudible murmurs.

He was still frowning at her. “My word. Never in the history of the school have I seen a new student open the Door and try to leave!” He sighed. “Are you really that impatient?”

“Hold on a second, sir, I haven’t left anywhere—”

“Come now, the school opening ceremony has begun a long time ago. Let us go to the Mirror Chamber.”

Yuu planted her feet and glared up at the stranger. “What do you mean by newly admitted student!? What doors!”

“The room you woke up in that was surrounded by Doors is what I mean.” The man paused from where he was pulling her towards the door with a theatrical sigh but explained patiently with one hand still clamped around Grim’s snout. “All students entering this academy pass through one of the Doors to arrive here—”

“Door?! There was no—”

“Normally, students are not supposed to wake up until a special key is used to unlock those Doors, but…”

“Wait a second, those weren’t coffins?” Yuu blurted out with wide eyes.

“Well, in a manner of speaking. Where one bids farewell their current world and are reborn. That is how the Doors are designed.”

“Bids farewell—are you saying that I’ve died?” she said sharply. “In the first place I didn’t come through the door with a key. That tanuki you’re holding onto blew off the cover with a fireball.”

“So you’re saying that all the fault lies with this familiar.” The man shook Grim once. “If you bring him along, you should take responsibility for him and make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen.”

“He’s not even—”

“Oh my! It’s not the time to be explaining things you already know.” The man began to pull her along again. “If you don’t hurry, the school opening ceremony is going to end. Follow me.”

School opening ceremony…and the way they were all speaking Japanese…had she somehow come to a different magic school in Japan? Having attended the washitsu-filled Mahoutokoro last year, Yuu felt that there was something very strange about all this. Was she really not dreaming? Had the past (rather hectic) semester gone to her head and given her hallucinations, mixing up the European Hogwarts with the Japanese Mahoutokoro and spitting back out some amalgamation?

Did it really matter if this was a dream?

She’d never cared much about these things.

“Wait a second. At least tell me where I am,” Yuu decided to roll with it. Humans were adaptable creatures, and it didn’t look as if she was in control of the situation. Running away would probably be impossible with this man here and she had too many questions about where they were right now.

Plus, the way he had worded it seemed like she had died already. Yuu had never died before—or never remembered herself dying, so it was a rather new and exciting experience. She didn’t feel dead at all; in fact, she was still rather short of breath from sprinting across whatever place this was. Surely if she no longer lived, the concept of breathing would have been irrelevant to her.

“Oh? I thought you were awake…is your consciousness still not fully established yet?” The man lifted a dark glove to his chin in thought. “It seems that perhaps the effects of the Space-travel Magic has left you a little confused…”

“Space-travel?” Not Apparition? Not Floo?

He wasn’t listening. “Well, this happens once in a while. Very well. Allow me to explain as we walk, since I am a kind person.”

The golden eyes curved into crescents.

Yuu decided that she didn’t really trust this new, smartly dressed, strangely masked man. “And who exactly are you, sir?”

“All in good time, child.” He tugged her into a walk and led her back out of the darkened library into the courtyard garden dyed in dusk. Far more open to the elements than she had originally anticipated, the courtyard was filled with apple trees and benches. The cobbled stone pathway clicked against the man’s dress shoes and made no noise on her socks as they crossed the idyllic landscape leisurely, passing a small well.

Yuu glanced around greedily until he cleared his throat theatrically with an “Ahem!” Then she turned back around and nodded expectantly with sparkling eyes. She hadn’t felt this excited since she had seen Hogwarts for the first time.

Just like how Yuu had been saved by magic, just like how she endlessly thirsted and hungered for knowledge—this was an entirely new, different place to explore. Perhaps she cared about little, but knowledge was one of the few things that had stolen her heart, and magic was another.

She could feel both secrets and magic lying here. Yuu could never resist their siren call.

At her eager perusal, Yuu thought she saw the golden eyes soften just the slightest bit. “This is Night Raven College. It’s where the rarest of talents, the magicians holding the most potential, are chosen from all over the world to gather. In fact, it is the most prestigious development school for magic in the entirety of the Twisted Wonderland,” the man explained with a flourish. She saw that the tips of his gloves were fastened with what looked like metallic claws that shone in the rising moonlight.

“Twisted Wonderland?” she repeated with a frown. What a strange name for a world.

“And! I am the Headmaster of this school, entrusted by the board chairman. My name is Dire Crowley.”

“H-headmaster?” Yuu stammered. She had been nothing short of rude to this man without knowing who he was—and although Yuu wasn’t the most rule-abiding student, she respected the wizarding staff of her school immensely. “Umm, I apologize, Headmaster Crowley, I had no idea.”

Crowley laughed, swinging around a rather listless Grim with his other hand. “That’s quite all right. I am nice.”

“…” She wisely refrained from further comment.

“The only ones who have the privilege of attending this school are those who are chosen by the Yami no Kagami—the Mirror of Darkness as having the makings of an excellent magician.”

Yuu noted carefully how he did not use the term ‘witch’ or ‘wizard’. One point for the ‘it was all just a dream’ theory.

Crowley continued, “The chosen ones are summoned here from all over the world using the Doors. In fact, a black carriage carrying a Door should have arrived at your residence to welcome you.”

Yuu wracked her brain and as if through a fog, remembered checking her appearance in the mirror and hearing the creak of a carriage, beholding the flutter of ravens’ wings. If she concentrated harder, she could barely remember glimpses of a dark forest—of a horse with wild eyes—

Her head pounded. What else had she seen?

“That black carriage is expressly for the purpose of welcoming students chosen by the mirror. It carries the enchanted Doors that are connected to this school. Wouldn’t you agree that a carriage is the only way of transportation on a special day? After all, it has been so since time immemorial.”

Why did everyone involved with magic have such a flair for the dramatic, for the appearances, for unnecessary ceremony? One would think that they were all from the theatre department. Although it wasn’t like Yuu had any room to point fingers. Even fewer wizards and witches joined the fine arts club or choir, both of which Yuu was a part of.

For now, she nodded along, trying to put her disordered memories together with little success. She frowned. “…So you’re saying that I was brought here without my permission.”

“That’s such a crass way of putting it.”

Grim had had enough. “Mmph! Mmmmph!”

Crowley ignored both of them. “Now that that’s settled, let us attend the opening ceremony.”

“Headmaster, is there any way of declining this transfer in?” Yuu jogged to keep up with his longer strides. “I think this was a mistake.”

But Crowley had finished his bout of “niceness” and was content to ignore her again. Yuu, who didn’t care much either way, remained pliable as he pulled her all the way back through the winding hallways of the building before they arrived back at the door she’d run from. His hand felt strangely familiar around hers.

Do not let go of that hand.

Yuu squeezed a little tighter. Somehow, being in contact with this person took away some of the unfamiliar tenseness in her shoulders.

She wondered when she was going to wake up.

Crowley cracked the door to the Mirror Chamber open to a flood of noise. Brightly lit with warm orange fire, the cold and dark atmosphere of the stone hall had changed dramatically; curtains had been pulled back on the ring of windows circling the room, adding the softness of moonlight to take the edge off the dark coffins gleaming as they bobbed up and down mid-air. Filling the chamber to capacity were what seemed to be youths all dressed in the same hooded robes ringed with the same violet on Crowley’s mantle.

The youths—students—seemed to be divided into several large parties, each with a hooded leader standing in front of them. They occupied the spot where prefects and Head Boys and Girls would be gathered in Hogwarts’ Great Hall. All of them were chattering, filling the room with murmurs that echoed off the walls and ceiling. Yuu, who was still being tugged along by Crowley, was immediately overwhelmed by the noise and sheer volume of the crowd. She’d never been used to dealing with large groups of people.

She scanned the gathering quickly. Over a hundred, perhaps over two. The sea of hooded robes looked elegant and almost sinister in their black lined with purple. Gold trim flashed here and there, tracing the long bolts of fabric hanging all the way down to the stone floor.

Her head ached. She had seen this uniform somewhere before.

“Now, I suppose the opening ceremony and the division into dormitories has ended,” The closest leader’s voice passed over the crowd in a carrying command. He stepped forward, the firelight gleaming off of a barely visible patch of scarlet hair peeking from his hood. “Are you listening, newcomers? In the Heartslabyul dorm you have all just been admitted into, I embody the rules. Keep in mind that I will behead those who disobey me. Understood?”

The students standing in front of him went unnaturally silent.

Yuu was doing a lot of gaping today. “Headmaster? Is he allowed to say that?”

Before Crowley could respond, the person next to that unbelievably violent prefect yawned with exaggerated slowness, cutting off the end of the red-haired person’s sentence. “…Fuaaah. The tiresome ceremony’s finally over with.” His dark skin glowed in the light as he took a step forward, raising one wickedly clawed—clawed?!—hand in a careless wave. “We’re heading back right now. Savanaclaw dorm, follow me.”

His compatriot, a pale-haired young man wearing thin lenses, smiled over at the group he was standing in front of. “Everyone who has just been divided here, hello,” He said politely, ignoring the other leaders beside him. “On this occasion, I would like to congratulate you on your enrolment in this establishment. So that you can all enjoy your school life here to the fullest, I will do my very best to support you all as the Dormitory Head of Octavinelle.”

A tall, rather androgynous blond brushed their sleek bangs out of their face impatiently. “Anyway, where on earth did that Headmaster go? He hasn’t come back after leaping out of the room halfway through the ceremony…”

The blond was tall and more beautiful than anyone she’d seen in her life. But Yuu was busy staring at the space beside them, where instead of a person there was a floating tablet. Or something. Attending Hogwarts necessarily meant a complete divorce from technological advancements because of magical interference, so as the years wore on, she’d started to fall out of touch with the latest developments in technology…but she was pretty sure tablets couldn’t hover yet. Her father was good with computers and smart devices despite being from wizarding ancestry, but she had never seen him in possession of a machine this thin.

And it was working; it was floating and displaying a video chat app with the words SOUND ONLY splashed across the azure screen, completely unaffected by the clearly magical surroundings. Yuu began to wonder if her magic and this magic were even remotely the same.

More points for the ‘it was all a dream’ theory.

A listless voice commented from the speaker. “Abdication of professional duties,” it muttered. Yuu wondered wildly if it was an AI talking. Even Elexa didn’t sound so natural.

On the tablet’s other side was a dark-skinned boy with large bangle earrings and dark kohl smeared around his scarlet eyes, completely at ease with the floating technology by his elbow. He peered forward and shrugged. “Maybe he ate something bad and had to go to the—”

Crowley let go of her and slammed the door the rest of the way open. “That is incorrect!”

Yuu knew she was escaping reality a bit, but that last exchange had sent her almost into giggles. Belatedly, she noticed that Crowley had tossed Grim into the air; she dove forwards to catch him. He felt like a small, warm stuffed animal in her arms.

“Thought I was gonna die,” Grim gasped, finally able to speak.

Yuu had always liked animals. She stroked the top of his head once. “Are you okay?”

“…Humph! I’m fine!”

“Ah. He’s back.” The red-haired person—who had threatened to behead his dorm-mates—blinked. On second glance, what little she could see of his face reminded Yuu strikingly of a china doll. For someone who’d just threatened to murder a bunch of new admittees, he was built thin and shorter than everyone up front (except for the tablet).

“One of the new students was missing so I went to find them, that’s all! Children these days.” Crowley’s cape fluttered as he turned back to her and plucked Grim out of her hands again. “Now. You’re the only one who hasn’t been put into a dorm yet. I’ll keep this tanuki-kun for you, so hurry and face the Mirror of Darkness.”

Grim was taken struggling from her arms. “Mmmm!!”

Poor guy, Yuu thought absently, before Crowley pushed her bodily before the mirror…which revealed a mask that suspiciously reminded her of the Dixney movie involving the most beautiful of them all. Should she try calling “mirror, mirror, on the wall”?

The mirror opened its mouth. “State your name.”

Never mind.

“My name is Yuu.” She answered honestly, forgoing her last name. After all, it wouldn’t be wise to reveal her identity just in case it was used against her. You could never tell with magical artifacts.

Plus, her last name didn’t matter anymore. Since it didn’t legally exist.

“Yuu…” The mirror paused. “The shape of your soul is…”

Yuu waited. Shape of a soul? Was this some sort of weird Sorting?

“…………….” The mirror deliberated.

Back in her first year at Hogwarts, The Sorting Hat had been silent for quite a while before announcing her addition to Ravenclaw. In fact, it had told her it couldn’t really get a read on her. Yuu, therefore, stayed silent and patient in front of the mirror even as the students in the hall all began to whisper.

“……………” The mirror remained silent.

“Um,” Yuu started for the third time that day.

“…I cannot see it.” The mirror said at last.

The chamber fell pin-drop silent. Crowley gasped, “What?”

“I cannot detect a single wavelength of magical power from this one…” The mirror said emotionlessly. “Both the colour and the shape…are non-existent.”

“But that’s impossible!”

Magical power, it had said, Yuu thought to herself—not magic.

“Therefore.” The mirror paused dramatically. “This one is not fit to be put in any dormitory!”

Yuu’s mind spun furiously while the residual silence from his statement hushed the crowd of students in shock. The mirror couldn’t read her magic. But she knew she was a witch—which implied that Crowley said about her bidding farewell to her world meant that this magic was not her magic. But all magic was fundamentally the same everywhere, from Africa to Russia to the US, she had learnt this in Runes—

Conclusion: she was no longer in a world she knew.

One more point for the ‘it was all just a dream’ theory.

The hall finally erupted into whispering and muttering. All eyes were on her back. Yuu thought ruefully that this must have been what Albus and James Potter had felt as the sons of a saviour. Unfortunately, she had never been on the end of positive attention like that, however misplaced.

Crowley took a step forward. “There is no way that the black carriage has welcomed a human who cannot use magic! In the hundred years of student selections, there has not been one mistake in the process!”

That’s because I can use magic. Just not your magic, Yuu thought to herself, remaining quiet. She was more interested in his ‘hundred year’ declaration. This school was a lot younger than Hogwarts if it was only a hundred years old.

“Just why…” Crowley put his chin in one gloved hand again.

Grim took the opportunity to struggle free. “Puha! Then give that kid’s seat to me!”

And he leapt from Crowley’s slack fingers.

The headmaster was shaken from his thoughts. “Ah! Stop right there, tanuki!”

Grim ignored him, diving mid-air to land lightly on Yuu’s head. “Unlike this human over here, the great Grim can use magic! So instead of that kid, take me into this school. I’ll even show you my magic right now!”

The red-haired boy who had made the beheading statement threw out a hand sharply. “Everyone get down!”

Grim gave an unimpressive cat-like roar—but before Yuu could react, he had set the chamber alight with a tumultuous rumble of blue fire and leapt from her head to land on the stone floor.

“Whoa! Ow, ow, ow! My butt’s on fire!” the dark-skinned, white-haired boy wearing the long bangle earrings leapt out of the way, slapping at his behind.

Crowley clutched his head theatrically. “At this rate, the entire school will be drowned in a sea of flames. Someone! Please catch that tanuki!”

Yuu watched Grim evade a few grasping hands and was reminded of the time when she’d taken care of baby dragons over the summer of her third year. If you didn’t count the fluffy, cat-like structure, he resembled the Chinese Fireball quite a bit. Were dragons feline or canine, anyway? Either way he was cute, and those blue eyes were very pretty.

“Why don’t you hunt him down? He looks just like one of your snacks.” The beautiful androgynous person was smirking unpleasantly over at the tall, dark-skinned young man beside him.

He yawned and waved a clawed hand dismissively. “Why do I have to? Too much trouble.”

“Well then, how about I take on the thankless task of bullying the small animal?” The polite young man wearing glasses adjusted them with a finger, his smile widening ominously.

“Just as expected of Azul-shi,” mumbled the floating tablet, “building up the favourability gauge already.”

“Catch the tanuki! Are you listening to me?” Crowley shouted over the students scattering out of Grim’s way.

“Can someone put out this fire on my butt at least!?” the boy with the bangle earrings hollered.

Yuu cast her eyes over the chaos exploding in the Mirror Chamber and mumbled, “I thought he wasn’t a tanuki.”

As the few students standing in front debated on who was up to the task of catching Grim, the boy with the long bangle earrings ran comically back and forth, sparks of fire flying from his robes. Yuu felt a little sorry for him. Now, in the chaos, was as good of a time as ever to test her magic.

No one was watching her. Yuu decided against using her wand, since she had been studying wandless magic recently, and sucked in a breath. It was a good thing that her favourite spellwork subject was in Charms.

Yuu directed her attention towards the student who was running around with his robes alight with blue fire and silently and wandlessly cast an Extinguishing Charm. She let out a breath of relief when the blue fire fizzled out to smoke. At least she still had her magic, never mind being called magic-less just now. Hopefully this didn’t activate the Trace. Weak Charms like these weren’t powerful enough to catch the attention of the Ministry, so the risk was probably worth it.

As the (scary) redhead and the (ominous) glasses went after Grim, both still smiling wickedly, Yuu headed over to the student she’d helped, who was looking behind him confusedly. “Are you all right?”

“Huh? Oh! Yeah, I’m fine!” He turned back to her with a wide grin, the white teeth bright against his caramel skin. “Guessed someone helped me out or somethin’. Ah ha ha! Wonder who it was!”

“I’m sure they’re just glad you’re fine.” Yuu smiled up at him as he tipped his hood back and scratched his short white hair. She’d never seen someone with hair this white despite being so young; it stood out all the brighter against his dark skin. “Can I ask your name?”

“Huh? Me? I’m Kalim al-Asim! Nice to meet’cha. You’re that new kid who has no magic, right?”

“I’m Yuu,” she introduced herself, wondering briefly why someone who looked like he was from a middle eastern country was speaking Japanese like it was his native language. “Seems like it. I actually have no idea how I got here.”

“Really! That’s gotta suck!” Kalim’s eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he seemed so utterly free of suspicion or malice that she grinned back at him. “But guess you have to go back home now.”

Yuu nodded. “After they catch Grim over there.”

“Is that what they call the tanuki?” Kalim looked comically confused.

“Apparently he’s not a tanuki,” Yuu smothered a laugh.

“Huh? Then what is he?”

Yuu just shrugged, but both of them started at a large crash and looked back over at Grim, who was now backed up against the remnants of a chandelier. Briefly, she wondered how much money he’d just racked up in repairs.

“Can’t you tell that we were letting you swim free?” the glasses was saying, holding what looked like a glowing fountain pen in his hand. He shrugged in a graceful movement that seemed almost boneless, sighing, “What a pitiful creature.”

Funaa—!!” Grim cried rebelliously. “You wanna be set aflame?!”

“Give it up while you’re ahead,” the redhead commanded, his hood falling back and revealing narrowed grey eyes the colour of slate. “If not—”

“No way! I’m going to enter this school if it—”

The redhead clicked his tongue, vein throbbing against his temple. “Azul, get back!”

As if he had been expecting the command, the one called Azul lowered the glowing pen (?) in his hand and neatly moved aside just as the shorter one stepped forward and roared, lifting his own pen, “Off with Your Head!

“What is he, an executioner?” muttered Yuu, but her eyes went wide when a flash of light preceded two halves of a metal collar snapping around Grim’s neck with the click of a lock.

“—Fugya! What the heck is this!?” Grim emitted in a choked voice, tiny feet lifting off the ground with the movement and remaining airborne.

“The Queen of Hearts’ twenty-third law,” red brows drawn together in a glare, the boy stepped forward with his pen (?) still glowing, voice carrying over the quiet hall. “States: do not bring cats into a place of ceremony. Therefore, cat, your presence is an unacceptable violation. I’ll have you removed right away!”

“I’m not a cat either!” Grim managed, waving his stubby limbs around angrily. “I’ll burn this stupid collar up in an inst—! Guh! Wh-why isn’t my fire coming out!?”

“Hmph! Until I take it off, you won’t be able to use magic at all. Just like…a house cat.”

I’m not a pet!

“Don’t worry, there’s no way we’d want a pet like you.” He sniffed down his nose at the floating creature and shrugged. “Well, by the time we throw you out of the grounds, I’ll have taken it off.”

His partner in Grim-chasing, who had been named Azul, clapped a few times. “No matter how many times I see Riddle-san’s Unique Magic, it’s still a sight to behold. To seal any kind of magic is rather convenient, isn’t it? I’d absolutely want to obtain…oh my, I meant to say I would like to refrain from being on the receiving end.”

“Is he even trying to hide his suspiciousness?” Yuu mumbled.

“Azul’s always saying stuff like that,” Kalim whispered back from beside her. He’d been watching the goings-on without reacting with more than a grin. “By the way, Yuu, why d’you look so surprised? Never seen Riddle’s magic?”

“In case you haven’t figured out, Kalim-san, I come from a place where your magic doesn’t even exist.” Yuu gave him a stare.

A second after she’d said the words, she regretted them. The only thing these people knew about her was that she didn’t possess magic—not that she came from some place where there was none. It had been a slip of the tongue.

Perhaps she was more panicked than she had expected.

“Right, right!” Kalim laughed without surprise, not noticing Yuu stiffening. “Then this has gotta be your first time seeing magic, huh? Ha ha! No wonder your mouth was open! Man, you’re gonna be really shocked once I show you my magic carpet! What d’you say, wanna go for a ride?”

“A magic carpet?” Yuu swung around to face him, but was distracted when Crowley swung her around gently with both hands on her shoulders.

“Please do something about that familiar!” he scolded her. “You should have trained it—”

“Like I said when we first met, headmaster, he isn’t my anything,” Yuu explained again. “I actually met him around an hour ago. Just like you, sir.”

“—What?” Crowley paused.

“I told you earlier too,” Yuu hinted, raising a brow.

“…Is that so? Ahem!” Crowley coughed.

“Maybe his ears are going bad too,” Kalim said in a rather carrying voice. “Is it your age catching up with you, Headmaster?”

“I’m still young!” protested the headmaster even as Yuu privately agreed with him. “Anyway! Let’s throw him out from the grounds. I’m a nice person so I won’t make stew with you, tanuki!”

“Let me go—!” Grim struggled under what had been called ‘Riddle’s Unique Magic’ as a hooded student took hold of him and began to pull. “Let me go! I’m going to become—! I’m going to become a Grand Magician for sure…!”

The door shut behind him.

Yuu looked blankly at the space where Grim had been. “Seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it?”

“That so?” Kalim crossed his arms behind his head, seemingly unbothered. “But he isn’t supposed to be here, right? Doesn’t even have a human form. In other places we’d have beheaded him pretty much instantly.”

Again with the beheading. What was this, medieval England?

“Without even hearing his motivation?” Yuu looked over at him with a slight frown.

Kalim regarded her with his beautiful red eyes for a few moments. Then he showed his white teeth in another grin and planted a hand into her hair. “You’re a nice kid, huh, Yuu?”

“Not really.” She denied, letting him mess up her hair. “I’m just…too curious for my own good.”

“Well!” Crowley clapped his hands, bringing quiet back to the hall. “There were a couple of unexpected bumps, but with this, the school’s opening ceremony draws its curtains. Each Head of Dormitory is to take their new housemates back to their dorm…Hmm? But wait, I don’t see hide nor hair of Diasomnia’s Mister Draconia…”

The clawed student rolled his eyes under his hood. “That guy’s always missing,” he spat.

“Huh?” Kalim blinked several times. “Did you all forget to tell him it was today?”

“Then why didn’t you tell him?” the androgynous person put one hand on their hip, sending a derisive glance in his direction.

Kalim crossed his arms, taking the suggestion seriously. “Well. Sure, but I don’t really know the guy…”

Once again the hall filled with murmurs of, ‘Wait, so Malleus Draconia seriously attends this school?!’ and ‘That Malleus Draconia!’ and ‘Holy shit, I go to the same school as someone like that…should I just quit school?’ so that Yuu blinked and nearly missed the quiet voice arising from her other side.

“Oh…I see. I slipped in just to check, but Malleus really skipped the ceremony, did he not?”

Yuu turned and nearly jumped. The measured baritone had come from a hooded student even smaller than she was, and when he turned to peer around the room, she saw the pupils of his large magenta eyes slit like a dragon’s.

“It seems that the ceremony’s invitation did not reach him…again,” the small student with the deep voice crossed his arms.

Azul spread his arms, a comically sad expression erasing his business smile. “I deeply apologize! It wasn’t as if I wanted to exclude him…”

“However, it’s true that it’s almost impossible to speak to him,” Riddle said flatly.

“Well, be that as it may.” The small student shrugged, his low voice clashing horribly with his childlike features. “I will take charge of the Diasomnia dorm’s children. …Hopefully, that boy isn’t sulking because of this.”

Crowley glanced subtly in her direction as people started to exit the chamber. Yuu got the hint and stayed put.

Kalim frowned at her. “What are you gonna do? Wanna come over to my dorm for now?”

“Huh? Oh no…don’t worry about it, Kalim-san. I’m gonna talk with the headmaster and hopefully go back where I came from.” Yuu smiled reassuringly at him. “Thanks for talking to me. You’re in charge of some of these people, right? Don’t worry about me, I’m sure you’re busy.”

“…Well, if you say so.” Kalim frowned briefly before he erased it with a smile. “It was good meeting you, Yuu! Good luck!”

Yuu waved at him.

“—Well then, Yuu-san.” Crowley waited until the last student had exited the hall before he turned to her again. “It is with my deepest regrets that I must inform you that you also need to exit the premises.”

Yuu nodded. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to her. “Right. Doesn’t make sense for a non-magical person to attend a magical school.”

“I am glad to see I speak to someone reasonable for the first time in recent memory,” Crowley nodded. “Don’t worry. I’m sure that the Mirror of Darkness will send you back to your hometown. Now, please stand in front of the Door.”

Yuu obeyed, jogging over and facing the open coffin from which she had fallen out of. “Does this mean I’m not dead?”

Dead?!” Crowley seemed exaggeratedly surprised. “Of course not, dear child. If you strongly focus on the place you came from, you should travel back right away.”

Yuu shut her eyes briefly, opened them again, and decided not to focus on her Ravenclaw dorm but on her room in muggle England. Who knew if the magical interference would let her travel into the Hogwarts grounds?

“O Mirror of Darkness! Return this one to their rightful place!” Crowley spread his hands wide, the raven-feathered cape floating around him majestically. Yuu squeezed her eyes shut again.

The face in the centre mirror was silent. Yuu opened one eye and glanced at it, but there was no sign of it speaking.

Crowley cleared his throat. “Ahem. One more time. O Mirror! Return—”

“Nowhere.”

“Huh?” Crowley and Yuu emitted simultaneously.

“The rightful place for this one does not exist,” the mirror repeated. “Not in this entire world.”

“What!?” Crowley lifted both metal-tipped gloves in exasperation. “That’s impossible! Aah…today has been stuffed full of impossible things…This has been the first time such a thing has occurred in my entire tenure as Headmaster! Just what to do…”

Yuu shifted around, once again not surprised. In the first place she didn’t know if she was in ‘reality’ or dreaming or hallucinating or dead.

It wasn’t like it mattered either way.

“Yuu-san! Which country are you from?” Crowley turned to her rather desperately.

“Born or raised?” Yuu asked. “I was born in County Durham, England, though I spent a few summers in Japan. Oh, but my school is in…er, Northern Scotland. I think.”

“……I hope you realize I have no idea what you just said,” Crowley returned blankly. “I know the names of every country that my students hail from, but I’ve never heard of any of those.”

“You might have books on any of them in that huge library of yours,” Yuu suggested, “with the floating books.”

“Yes…I suppose that is the logical next step, isn’t it?” Crowley sighed. “All right, follow me, please.”

Yuu decided not to tell him that she was betting against them finding anything useful.

“Nothing!”

Yuu, whose legs dangled off the floor as she perched on a library chair, dodged down just in time to miss Crowley’s hands flying into the air.

The headmaster, who sat beside her, slammed a huge book closed. “Not only do your country’s names not exist on the world map—no historical record shows any of the names. None!”

“What do I do,” Yuu sounded singularly unhurried, eyes scanning over a book titled The History of Twisted Wonderland.

Crowley rounded on her. “Yuu-san. You really do come from that…”

“England.”

“…Yes, that place, right? You’re not lying, are you?” he leaned in so that the beak of the raven mask almost bumped into her nose. Up close, Yuu watched in fascination as an unearthly light glowed from his golden eyes to illuminate the eyeholes of the mask.

“Not lying,” she confirmed. She was beginning to doubt this Headmaster was human. Several of the eye-colours, the hair-colours of the students she’d seen today were far too bright to be natural, but none of them had the eerie power to his golden eyes.

He had put her on edge earlier—yet now, for some reason, they made her feel calmer when she looked.

“Now we must consider the possibility of your arrival from a second planet…ah, or from a separate universe,” muttered Crowley, glaring her down.

The magicians of this world were a lot more scientifically advanced if they were speaking about planets and the theory of parallel universes. Yuu, who was actually thinking along the same lines, blinked and said, “Is that even possible?”

“Being summoned from another world?” Crowley leaned back thoughtfully. “Why, nothing is impossible, child, though it would be overwhelmingly difficult to assemble all of the requirements for such a feat.”

One point against the ‘it was all just a dream’ theory. But it was far better for her to be hallucinating than for her to actually have broken the barrier between worlds.

She was not ready to deal with the consequences of ripping holes in space like that.

Crowley was still muttering. “Let’s see…do you have anything you brought with you that can prove your identity? For example, a magical practicing license, or a shoe?”

Yuu swung around and wiggled her socked toes at him.

“…It seems that isn’t the case.” Crowley sighed.

She decided against showing him her wand. Just in case the Trace was effective in different worlds. She’d heard the story from James about his father going through that hellish trial in 1995.

“This is rather troubling. I did say I couldn’t leave you here, but throwing a young child—”

“—I’m not a young child,” Yuu felt the need to put in, “I’m fifteen.”

“Fifteen! You’re not even at the standard admitting age! I can’t throw a fifteen-year-old child out into the world without a single Madol or contacting your parents. My teacher’s heart would be stricken with worry! Because I’m a nice person.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure they wouldn’t really care.” Yuu put in helpfully. “Though my mother might screech a little.”

He ignored her. “Hmm. Hmmmmm.”

“Uh, Headmaster? Really, it’s all right—”

“I’ve got it!” Crowley put his fist in one hand. “There is a building within school grounds that used to be used as a dorm. If we tidy it up a little, I’m sure it can be used as a place to rest your head. If it’s that building, I wouldn’t mind lending it to you for a while. In return, you will search for a way back home during your stay!”

Yuu blinked at him several times.

“Ah…what a kind person I am!” Crowley pressed a glove to his forehead. “The very epitome of a teacher.”

“Headmaster Crowley,” she started.

“Hmm? Anything else you have to add? Ah! Did you find your wallet in your pocket, or—”

“I thought you were a really suspicious person at the beginning,” Yuu told him frankly.

“Why, how rude! I’ll have you know this cape is—”

“But suspicious or not…”

“You’re supposed to apologize there.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to lend me room and board.” Yuu smiled up at Crowley. “Thank you, Headmaster. I will definitely search for a way back as soon as I can, but I will keep your, ah, kindness in mind.”

Curiously, Crowley put his hands down, the pomp and fluttering disappearing from his movements. He looked at her with not a trace of emotion visible on his face or in those golden eyes.

“…Headmaster?” Yuu tilted her head in confusion.

“…Ah, I apologise.” The moment was gone. Crowley’s eyes curved in a smile. “It must have been a mistake that you came here, is what I was thinking. After all, Night Raven College is…”

“Is…?” Yuu prompted when he stopped speaking.

“Well, never you mind. It shouldn’t matter if you’re leaving soon. Anyway! Time is of the essence. Shall we go?”

Crowley seemed to view her as a small child—which was rather unacceptable to Yuu, who had been on her own from the day she was born and liked to be seen as independent and mature. Hence, she would never admit to him how comforting it was in this unfamiliar world that when Crowley walked, he made it a point to hold onto her wrist or her hand to lead her. Like a teacher—or a parent. Not that she knew what parents should be like.

Either way, Crowley was for some incomprehensible reason, likable. Maybe it was because she hadn’t fully accepted that she wasn’t dreaming yet, but Yuu wanted to trust Crowley despite knowing how much she shouldn’t rely on this stranger.

Do not let go.

Yuu kept a firm grip on his glove, fingers warming the cold metal tips that extended like false claws. Her whirring mind slowed down a great deal when she was in contact with him, enough for her to categorize her surroundings curiously.

The grounds were completely dark by this point, the sky gloomier than its dusky colour when they had entered the library. Clouds slowly passed over the moon and hid the surroundings from view. Yuu’s steps slowed in caution, but Crowley didn’t even seem to notice the cover of night and tugged her forwards without hesitation. As they passed the front building, Yuu looked back to see a huge, silhouetted castle fade into the darkness. Perhaps it was as large as Hogwarts.

“Wow,” she muttered.

“It is a sight, isn’t it?” Crowley agreed.

Across the grounds was a large expanse of open grass which he called the ‘Magift Stadium’ and the outline of several other buildings that Yuu presumed were the other dormitories. Crowley then told her they were buildings for physical education and storage, and she decided she should stop assuming things.

Yuu walked in comfortable silence beside him for nearly twenty minutes, the cobbled stone lit on both sides by orange torches, until they reached…

Crowley waved at the wrecked mansion with a metal-tipped glove. “What do you think? Quite a delightful appearance, no?”

A gust of wind blew against the boarded-up windows, which creaked ominously. Yuu’s eye twitched. “A little too delightful, maybe,” she said weakly.

“Isn’t it?” Crowley’s smile widened. “Well, come inside. Welcome to the Ramshackle Dorm!”

“Couldn’t they find a better name?” Yuu muttered, but he still had a hand on her wrist, so she followed him inside obediently.

The interior of the so-called Ramshackle Dorm did not betray her expectations. Although there was a curious resemblance to her muggle England’s room in the wallpaper and décor, Yuu could see that the entire lounge they had stepped in was covered in a sparkling layer of dust and decorated liberally with spiderwebs. Paintings on the wall, weathered into illegibility with age, hung at odd angles, and the remnants of broken furniture were tipped over across the carpet and creaky wooden floor.

“Well! At least with this you won’t be caught in the rain.” Crowley let go of her wrist. “I have some things I must search up, but I’ll leave you to it for now. Please do not! And I repeat do not! Wander around the school unattended! A normal human like you should not go anywhere without my say so. Understood?”

Yuu was staring at the stairs, which were missing several steps.

“Yuu-san! Your answer?”

“Yessir. I won’t go anywhere,” Yuu replied, standing at attention.

“Very well. I will check up on you later! Good evening!”

The door shut behind him with an ominous thump.

Yuu sighed and looked around. “I could mistake this for a winter wonderland, the dust is so sparkly.”

It was time to see how good she really was with wandless Charm work.

It turned out that Yuu was still as proficient at Charms as she had been before the summer holidays began. Being her favourite subject involving practical magic, Yuu tended to fiddle around with the spells outside of class, which lent ease to her handling and feel of the spells she found in the library. She wasn’t as diligent as Hermione Granger, her hero and the soon-to-be Minister for Magic, but all the same her fascination made what seemed like an insurmountable task seem almost fun.

First the floor needed to be scrubbed. A slightly overly strong shout of Aguamenti took care of that rather quickly and had the added effect of pushing all of the broken furniture, sopping, into a corner of the room. Yuu jumped a little when a few spiders scuttled out of the woodwork and blasted them away reflexively with water. She still could not get over her slight illogical fear of bugs after that Blast-Ended Skrewt experiment in her third year.

Next was the dust along the walls and paintings, which an uncontrolled gust of wind was effective in cleansing. Yuu pushed all the windows open manually, ripped the boards off the open ones and clumsily directed all of the dust outside. She still wasn’t good with fine-tuning these spells wandlessly.

Lastly was the light. Incendio put fires into the fireplace and into torch brackets, although some were stubborn. After the lounge was visible, Yuu went around straightening the paintings and dusting off the couch with a flew blasts of air.

She hadn’t quite mastered a nonverbal Reparo yet but managed to affix the legs of the broken chairs and table, setting them wobblingly in the middle of the carpet she dragged straight and pushing the couch before the fireplace together with its coffee table, only for one chair to go straight through the old wood. Great. At least it was good practice for her Repairing Charm. Yuu decided she didn’t really care if the high level of magical activity alerted her to the Ministry anymore. This place was too fricking messy. In fact, she was surprised it hadn’t completely collapsed on her head already.

By the time the rain started, Yuu had finished her first-floor cleaning. Wiping a hand across her forehead, she began to spell the windows back shut against the needles of water—

“—Why is it raining so hard!?”

Until she was met with a face full of Grim.

Yuu yelped and fell back on her butt. Grim, who’d flown in through the window haphazardly, bounced off her face and landed in her lap with an ungainly squeak. He was quick to scramble up and stand on her legs, forked tail waving about playfully, teasing her, “You look like you’re a bat that just got water-bombed!”

What a strange comparison. But she had been surprised. “Grim,” Yuu greeted, “were you all right after that happened to you?”

Grim blinked. “Were you…worried about me?”

“Well…you could put it that way.” Yuu pushed herself up, setting him on her shoulder, and went to close the floor-to-ceiling window behind him. “I thought you got thrown out?”

“Please. As if it was difficult for the great Grim to sneak back in here.” Grim puffed out his chest proudly. “If they think that just flinging me out of the school would make me give up, they really are stupid!”

Yuu carried him over to the newly cleaned couch and sat him down. “Why do you want to come into the school that much? The reason you wanted my clothing was to pretend you were me, right?”

Grim widened his blue eyes at her and grinned, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. “It’s simple, human!”

Yuu sat down beside him and crossed her legs, feeling the warmth of the fire set in. she subtly Repaired a crack in the wall across from them. “Okay, let’s hear it, Grim.”

“I was born with the talent,” Grim explained, “a once-in-how-many-centuries talent to become a Grand Magician! I’ve waited for the black carriage to come get me for oh, you don’t even know how long.”

Yuu thought Grim’s eyes were beautiful when they sparkled with excitement like that. She nodded along.

“But…but…” the eyes filled with tears. Yuu wondered whether cats could cry as Grim sniffed and puffed out his cheeks. “That stupid Mirror of Darkness doesn’t know talent when it sees it! So I came all the way to the school instead.”

Yuu remembered Fred II telling her about the Squibs in his family and winced. She couldn’t imagine what it felt like to yearn so much for magic, for a letter, for acceptance, only for it to…just never come. Not her, who had been born with nothing.

Grim yelped as a gust of wind rattled the dorm and sent a few drops of rain through the creaky old roof. “Fugya! The roof is leaking! My charm point’s going to disappear!”

“Charm point?” Yuu asked.

“My ears, you dumb human!” Grim pointed to the fire burning in both ears.

“They are rather cute.” She nodded, subtly directing a Reparo at the ceiling. Thanks to today’s cleaning episode she was feeling like she’d gotten rather good at it. “I think the leaking stopped.”

“…? You’re right. Whatever then.” Grim squinted at the no-longer-leaking ceiling. “But you should fix it, you know, with magic. Oh wait! You’re a human that can’t even use magic! Ha ha! You’re pretty useless, aren’t you?”

Yuu tried not to laugh, since she had done just that. “Yeah, yeah. Then since you’re such a great magician, Grim, why don’t you fix it?”

“You kidding me? No way!” Grim snuggled into the couch and gave her a dismissive glance. “I’m just a passing Monster waiting for the rain to stop. There’s no way I’d work for free! You gotta at least give me canned tuna.”

“Well then, come with me and we’ll go see if there are any more holes in the ceiling. Or buckets. I’ll carry them, but I’m going to use your charm point as my flashlight.” Yuu picked him up. “Also, you’re warm.”

“Humph! You really are a useless human.”

Grim snuggled in her arms comfortably. Yuu grinned down at his flaming ears and thought he was just like one of Norberta’s children.

The hallway was similarly broken—abandoned—dilapidated. In a way Grim wouldn’t notice, Yuu strode down the creaky corridor casting small repairing spells at the walls and floor and ceiling while he dozed in her arms like a real cat. Therefore, when three comically proportioned ghostlike figures dove out from the corner, she was unprepared and let out an ungainly squeak.

Hee, hee, hee!” the thin one giggled, adjusting his top hat.

“Ah ha ha!” laughed the round one.

“Ho ho ho!” the big one echoed. “It’s the first guest we’ve had in a while!”

“Time for us to show off!” the thin one added.

“Th-they’re not very silver,” Yuu commented. These Dixney-like creatures looked nothing like the Bloody Baron. Even Peeves was scarier.

Still—non-human creatures in a different world meant trouble. It was best not to put her guard down.

“Why is it so loud?” Grim cracked open an eye and then leapt out of her arms with a shriek. “Gyaaaah! Gh-gh-gh-ghosts!”

“The guys who lived here before got soooo scared of us, they all ran away!” the round one did a flip, showing a wisp of white that took the place of his legs.

“We’ve been looking for a new ghost companion for a loooong time,” the big one leaned forward with a wide grin.

“How about it, kids?” the thin one asked, flying in a circle.

“Why don’t you jooooin us?”

“H-help!” Grim gasped, diving back into her arms when one got too close.

Yuu realized she couldn’t really show off her magic and took a step back. “You’re…not trying to kill us, are you?” she said, still rather shaken by the sudden threat.

She had squeezed Grim a little subconsciously. His trembling stopped. “Th-the…the great magician Grim isn’t scared of some little ghosts!” he mustered out.

“Grim!” Yuu managed just as he waved his hands and sent a stream of blue fire at the big one. He missed spectacularly.

“Where are you looking?” giggled the thin one.

“Over here, over here! Ha ha ha!” the round one waved.

“Come on!” Grim growled. His next shot went even wider and set a painting ablaze.

Yuu frowned. “Grim, are you closing your eyes when you attack?” No wonder his aim was terrible.

“Shut up! Don’t tell me what to do! Let’s get outta here!”

McGonagall had once said it’s easier to calm down once you find someone even more frightened than you. Yuu experienced this in action—with Grim trying so desperately not to shake as he spat fireballs everywhere, a strange sort of calm had settled around her.

“Hmm.” Yuu adjusted him in her arms and thought. “Grim, if you manage to stave them off, then how about I try to find a way for you to speak with the Headmaster? About the, you know, enrolling in school thing.”

“—!?” Grim stopped struggling. “Well…I am a genius.”

“A genius couldn’t be confounded by one or two little ghosts,” Yuu encouraged.

“There are three of us!” the thin one protested, doing flips around them.

“We’re not little. And we won’t get got by some little flames!” the round one cackled.

“Grr…that’s cowardly!” Grim cried out, ears pressing down low on his head.

“Umm. Then I’ll find you one of your tuna cans after this too?” Yuu tried.

“Grrrrrr…” Grim visibly debated with himself, and then popped out of her arms. “Hey, you.”

“My name is Yuu.”

“Stop making bad jokes! Fine, Yuu! Tell me where those guys come out, got it?” Grim puffed up. “And I’m not going to forget what you promised earlier!”

“Leave it to me,” Yuu said with a grin. “Being in the fine arts club means I have to have good observation.”

“Huh,” Yuu emitted a few minutes later. “I didn’t know your fire could even work on those guys.”

“You really are a magicless human.” Grim sniffed, blowing a stream of smoke through his nose. “Well, I suppose your directions were a little useful to the great Grim.”

They both stared at the quickly retreating ghosts, all of whom were rubbing at what looked like small burns dark against their incorporeal forms. How on earth did the flames hurt them? Yuu decided it wasn’t worth pursuing right now.

“Well, congrats, Grim, you’ve secured us a victory,” Yuu said, relaxing her grip on the long piece of pale yew hidden in her sleeve.

“We really won…?” Grim squinted.

Yuu bent down to where he was standing and pet his head. “Thanks. Honestly, you’re a lot more powerful than I thought.”

“…I-it was s-sca…” Grim became a little teary eyed. “I mean it wasn’t scary at all!”

“Aww, come here,” Yuu said helplessly. She really was a sucker for animals—dragon, hippogriff, and now this unidentified fireball-spitting creature in front of her.

“Mmmphh!” Grim emitted as she hugged him. “I said I wasn’t scared! The great Grim can’t be scared of some ghosts!”

“There, there. Thanks for protecting me.” Yuu said, petting him behind his flaming ears until his throat started rumbling in a purr. “Good boy, good boy.”

“Hello-o!” Crowley’s voice sounded down the hallway. “I brought you dinner because I’m so nice!”

Yuu jogged down to the lit lounge as he opened the door. “Headmaster!”

“Oh, there you are. I see you really cleaned up the place, no?” Crowley smiled over at her. “Come eat some—that’s the Monster that was causing trouble at the opening ceremony! What is he doing here!?”

“Hmph!” Grim turned around without wriggling out of her arms, still purring a little. “I’m the one who drove away all those Ghosts. You should thank me!”

“Hm? What on earth does he mean?” Crowley set a tray on her recently fixed table, looking flabbergasted.

As Yuu gathered them around the table and explained what happened, sharing bits of food with Grim, Crowley threw back his cloak and sat gracefully, listening carefully. “Come to think of it, the reason students stopped coming to this dorm was the poltergeists that had took up residence here.”

“You forgot? And put me in there?” muttered Yuu, feeding Grim bits of tuna. Luckily, there had been fish in the warm meal Crowley had brought over.

“Give me some of that too!” Grim nudged her hand towards the chicken.

That was the reason why it became an abandoned dorm…” Crowley put one hand on his chin again.

“Mmm! That’s really good! Hey, one more!”

Yuu swallowed her mouthful of soup. “Um, Headmaster. Don’t worry, we managed to drive them away.”

“I am most surprised that you could team up and take care of them so efficiently,” admitted Crowley. “Those ghosts have been causing trouble for a long time now.”

“Don’t say we teamed up! Yuu just sort of stood and ordered me around!” Grim protested, opening his mouth for her to feed him the next piece of chicken. “And I just did it for the tuna!”

“Hm. Well, after you eat, may I have the both of you drive the ghosts out one more time?” Crowley said suddenly, leaning forwards.

“Huh!?” Grim nearly choked on his chicken.

Yuu, who had finished her soup and was now halfway through the plate of chicken and fish she had shared with Grim, swallowed with difficulty (she was really hungry) and repeated, “Huh? Aren’t they already gone?”

“Oh, no. I will act as the ghost.”

What!?” both of them chorused.

“I ain’t doing anything if I don’t get more tuna!” Grim added.

“Very well! If you manage to win against me, I will give you a can of tuna,” Crowley acquiesced. He narrowed his golden eyes in good humour. “Since I am a nice person.”

“But I don’t wanna!” whined Grim. “It’s a drag and I have to be ordered around by this kid…”

Crowley wasn’t listening. “Well then, to change my form…” he waved a hand and suddenly a Dixney style ghost wearing his mask floated across from them as Yuu began to shovel down her food.

She swallowed and whispered over to him, “If you really wow him you might get into the school. Plus, canned tuna. Think of the canned tuna.”

“Grr. Oh all right! But this is the last time, you hear? And you better hand the canned tuna over right away, you hear!!”

Grim was so cute. Yuu decided she’d try her best to prevent him from crying again.

“I didn’t know he could move that fast,” Yuu remarked, subtly putting out the smouldering paintings with an Extinguishing Charm. It looked like this Charm would be getting a lot of use when Grim was around.

Ghost Crowley appeared by her, not seeming fazed at all. A moment later he had transformed back into his regular humanoid form without so much as an incantation. “Indeed.”

“Hey Yuu! Why you gotta be so hard on me!” Grim growled over at her, panting. “Treat me a little more gently!”

“But then you’d get haunted or something,” Yuu shrugged. “I was just telling you where to spray fire.”

“You’re way too fast!”

“The Headmaster was fast.”

“Yuu-san is quite adept at reading my movements,” Crowley murmured, reaching over to pat her head. “Well done, the both of you.”

Unused to being on the receiving end of positive contact, Yuu squirmed a little embarrassedly. “…Thank you, but I didn’t do much. Good job, Grim!” Yuu crouched down as he leapt over and picked him up, stroking the fuzzy head. “Actually, you moved way faster than I expected.”

“Obviously! Who do you think I am?”

“The Great Grim?” Yuu guessed, scratching him behind the ears.

"Good heavens,” Crowley was staring at the two of them and mumbling. “That there could be a magicless human that could make a Monster listen to them…”

Yuu shifted uncomfortably as he narrowed his eyes at her. “Er, Headmaster?”

“You know, from the whole racket at the opening ceremony, my teacher senses have been tingling whenever I looked at you, Yuu-san.”

“Me? Not Grim?” Yuu blinked in surprise.

“You seem to have a…hmm. Yuu-san. Do you like animals?”

“How did you know?” Yuu gaped again. Her number one favourite class was Care of Magical Creatures—overwhelming even Charms, her best subject, and Runes, the most interesting one—so much so that over the summer before fourth year, she had spent a lot of time with Charlie Weasley managing some of the more dangerous ones in an internship.

“Well you see, I detect a sort of affinity…no, potential for you to become a trainer or a wild animal tamer or something of the sort. So I was thinking…but how can a human this tiny be able to control Monsters or magical creatures at all? Still…” Crowley descended into unintelligible mumbling.

Yuu paused in scratching Grim under the chin, remembering her promise. “Um, Headmaster. Grim really wants to attend this school. How about letting him stay in this dorm with me?”

Grim snapped out of his purring. “Yuu?! You’re vouching for me?”

“What?!” Crowley seemed astonished. “This Monster?”

Grim looked up at her with those big blue eyes.

“Please!” Yuu added, and lowered her head for good measure.

Crowley frowned. “…It’s true that leaving you alone here with ghosts hurts my conscience. Very well!”

“Really!?” Grim brightened up.

“However! Leaving him here is one thing, but he was not chosen by the Mirror. In addition, he is a Monster! I cannot admit him as a student.” Crowley glanced at her. “You, too, Yuu-san.”

“That rhymed,” Yuu said.

“Stop that!” Crowley cleared his throat. “Yuu-san, you are staying here without doing anything for the time being. In other words, a loafer.”

“Um, I’m planning on finding a way back.”

“Aw man, I got excited for nothing,” Grim sighed.

“Listen until I finish!” Crowley stared at them until they both shut up. “That your body and soul were dragged over to this school is part of the responsibility of the school that houses the Mirror, Yuu-san. Which means it is my responsibility to see to your safety. So don’t worry about food and board.”

“Headmaster,” Yuu said, a little touched. Although McGonagall would probably do the same, she wasn’t used to treatment like this. Usually the professors had eyes only for James Potter the second and purebloods like Fred Weasley the second and Scorpius Malfoy (for a different reason entirely). Yet Crowley had been nothing but a gentleman the whole time to her, a castaway without a penny to her name.

“For now, I will permit you to stay here without a fee. But clothing, food, and personal necessities must come out of your own pocket.”

“Yessir.”

“Though it is obvious that you have nothing on you worth selling, hmm…I have it!” Crowley smiled rather suspiciously. “Fu fu fu. Let’s do this.”

Yuu waited patiently. This Headmaster sure liked to put on airs.

“I’m thinking of making you take up the odd jobs and chores around the school.” Crowley’s smile widened. “Your cleaning abilities seem to be quite strong, seeing as you’ve made this lounge liveable and even fixed much of the leakage in the hallway. How about pairing you both up as the Miscellaneous Chores crew for the time being?”

Yuu blinked. “So you’re giving me an excuse to be inside the school grounds by doing chores, so I can look for clues back home,” she deduced. “Can I use the library too?”

“I am glad I have a quick learner on my hands! Of course you can. After all, I am a nice person. However! You must finish your tasks first.”

“Huuuuh? I don’t wanna!” Grim started to struggle in her arms. “I wanna wear that cool school uniform and be a student here!”

“Very well, then you shall be thrown out right away,” Crowley replied without missing a beat.

Funa!? Okay fine! I’ll do it! Good enough for you!?”

“Don’t worry, Grim,” Yuu pet his little head again. “I happen to like cleaning.” Or practicing wandless charm-work.

“If only my students were half as good of a child as you…” Crowley muttered, and then shook his head. “That’s impossible for Night Raven College, I suppose. Well then, tomorrow marks the beginning of your odd jobs here! Understood?”

“Yessir,” Yuu nodded, wondering just what kind of people attended this school. “Um, Headmaster Crowley.”

“Yes, Yuu-san?”

The both of them ignored Grim’s muttered complaints. Yuu smiled up at the masked headmaster. It was good social manners to try and be pleasant to someone who was doing so much for her—Yuu, who was not used to anyone being ‘kind’. “Thanks for letting me stay here. I really have no idea what to do or where to go, but I really appreciate it. I’ll do my best as your chores boy.”

Once again, she saw the overblown emotion fade eerily fast from Crowley’s tall frame. He seemed to stare through her with those yellow eyes.

“Yuu-san,” he said after a moment. “I advise you to be careful within Night Raven College. I am a nice person, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the school.”

“Oh…okay?” Yuu frowned, confused.

“You seem like a very intelligent child, but trusting others so easily is dangerous,” Crowley crossed his arms; for once, he was not smiling. “The students…the people attending this Night Raven College are chosen for more than just their talent. They are all hungry—starving and yearning, my child. Be sure you are not devoured.”

The first night Yuu slept in Twisted Wonderland, she dreamed wildly. Visions of magic, light, heat, blood filled her vision. Colours burst unchecked, almost painful in their intensity.

She saw a great multitude of scenes tumbling through her mind. A queen wielding a spectre. A lion’s desperate roar as his claws dragged against rock. An undersea castle and a cave in which a dark cauldron bubbled and smoked. Yuu frantically tried to keep her bearings as she fell through the seawater cave…before her vision was swept up into the night sky facing a desert kingdom.

“Magic mirror, on the wall,” someone was chanting, but the mirror was splintered, a scarlet apple rolling across the floor into scarlet liquid that kept growing in volume…

The slow beep of a machine. The green lines reading an electrocardiogram monitor flashed slowly across a dark screen. Blue fire the same colour as the flames sprouting from Grim’s ears—mechanical fire burning slowly, beating together with a mechanical heart. Don’t leave me, it all cried out without a word. Don’t leave me.

Black liquid dripped from her vision. Yuu’s hair stood on end.

Someone was calling her insistently, and she looked up and saw a great dragon with black scales towering over her. Yuu loved dragons, but this one was not the same kind she knew, and its green, fluorescent eyes burned into her vision unbearably strongly.

“I’ll save you.” It promised.

So don’t let go.

Yuu reached forwards in the night and her arms curled around a snoring Grim.

Chapter Text

Yuu had been rather aghast at the state of the biggest of the upstairs rooms in the Ramshackle Dorm. Consequently, she spent the time until midnight (according to Grim) clanking around upstairs. There was a harrying moment when she went straight through the floor and nearly broke her ankle—a timely self-aimed Levicorpus saved her from an ungainly fall. Grim slept through most of it like a log, which allowed her to discreetly fix and charm the floorboards and wonder just how loud his snoring could get.

Several times she was tempted to use her wand together with verbal spell-casting, but she—along with the rest of the cowed Ravenclaw class—had been yelled at by a visiting Alastor Moody (who was very cranky in his old age) that relying on her wand was the height of idiocy between shouts of Constant vigilance! So even if she had decided she didn’t care about the Trace anymore, Yuu was reluctant to whip it out. Either way, she had scrubbed the room within an inch of its life, as well as the hallways of the three-storey dorm and the stairways to prevent any more floorboards breaking under her weight. It was probably too far gone to withstand anyone heavier than her, though. Yuu wasn’t perfect with wandless work yet.

That cleaning had left her exhausted. So after a quick shower in the cobwebbed washroom—which was, for some reason, a Japanese-style washroom with the shower and bath areas separate—Yuu magically washed the bedsheets and mattress, nearly sent the bed through the floor, fixed the floorboards under the bed, showered, changed into a magically washed blue-striped English nightgown, and collapsed into bed beside a snoring Grim.

And dreamed.

Don’t let go.

It felt like she had only closed her eyes for five seconds when Grim was shaking her awake. Yuu pressed her head into the pillow. “…Five more minutes.”

“The ghosts are back!” Grim hissed.

“Ha ha ha! The cat said the same thing as the new odd jobs kid a few seconds ago! Five more minutes, he was like. What a pair!”

“Hee hee hee! Weren’t you two supposed to be up for your first day of odd jobs?” the thin ghost floated into her line of vision.

Yuu yawned and pushed herself upright. “Morning, guys.”

“Morning! You’re going to be late!” sang the big ghost.

“Okay. I’ll go wash up,” Yuu stumbled out of bed sleepily.

“…Aren’t you afraid of them?” mumbled Grim from behind her.

After cleaning her face and teeth and changing back to her clothes from yesterday—a button-up shirt and sweater paired with old jeans, complete with fluffy socks—she came out to the ghosts floating around aimlessly in her room and Grim glaring at them.

“Looks like the two of you are living here starting today!” The round ghost laughed.

“Sure am looking forward to tricking you!” the thin one giggled.

“Hello,” Yuu waved at them.

“Just wait, we’re gonna chase you out one day!” Grim shook a tiny, fisted paw.

The window she’d fixed sprung open from the outside and Crowley peered in like Tuxedo Mxsk, his mantle fluttering around his shoulders. “Good morning, the two of you! Did you sleep well?”

“We nearly fell through the floor when Yuu sat on the bed!” complained Grim, not even remarking on the headmaster that had just come through the window. “And do something about those ghosts! Just how ramshackle is this dorm?”

“Good morning Headmaster,” greeted Yuu with a smile, “I slept really well. I think.”

Perhaps it was because Grim was so warm, but she couldn’t remember any dreams she may have had. Yuu felt unusually well-rested.

“…Even after being blown into a different world, you sure are bold…impudent…fearless…shameless? I’m glad!” Crowley nodded. “I am here to talk to you about today’s jobs. In short, I’m entrusting you with cleaning the main street leading from the library to the castle’s front door! However! Please keep an eye on Grim to make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.”

“Yessir. I’ll do my best,” Yuu nodded, yawning.

“Very good! You may take your meals at the school cafeteria. I’ve let the workers there know about your situation. However! Do work hard. I’ll be expecting results!”

“Tch. As if I’ll clean anything,” Grim snorted. They both watched Crowley disappear back through the window as fast as he came.

Yuu leaned down to whisper to him. “You don’t have to do much. I’ll take care of it.”

“I wanted to go to magic class and go BANG! And BOOM! And cast cool spells all day!” Grim leapt onto her shoulders, still complaining.

“Then after we reach the library, we can find some cool spells for you to try?” suggested Yuu.

“How about you do that, and I’ll wait,” Grim bargained. “Reading makes me sleepy.”

“Okay, then I’ll read to you,” Yuu agreed. “Let’s go explore this new schoolyard, shall we?”

CHAPTER TWO | Welcome to the Villain’s World.

“Whoa…” Grim gaped at the Main Street spread out in front of their eyes, “This looks amazing!”

“So this is Main Street.” Yuu shielded her eyes against the cool morning sun and sucked in a clean breath of air. “There are a lot of Dixney statues around. Isn’t that Jxfar from Aladdxn?”

“What? Who?” Grim peered in the direction she was pointed. “I have no idea what statues these are but they’re pretty creepy-looking.”

“Why only seven, though?” wondered Yuu. “There are way more than seven Dixney movies. I think. Also, only the bad guys are immortalised here.”

“Hey Yuu! Look at this big woman over here!” Grim directed Yuu over to a statue of a tall, round statue of a portly woman who looked ready to slam her staff down on their heads. “She looks mad.”

“Huh. You’re right. Who is that?” Yuu squinted up at it. She’d only watched a few of the newer Dixney movies (only the ones she saw during class and could borrow from the library) and couldn’t remember seeing anyone like this.

“You don’t know the Queen of Hearts?” an unfamiliar tenor piped up.

“Queen of Hearts?” repeated Grim. “What, is she famous or something?”

“You bet. A long time ago, she used to live in a labyrinth of roses where she ruled.”

The voice had come from her right side. Yuu turned and looked up to meet an unkempt head of hair lit orange by the sun; the stranger who had spoken to them was looking up at the statue with an easy smile on his face. When he blinked, the crimson tattoo of a heart painted on his left eyelid became visible in its entirety.

“Morning,” she greeted with an incline of her head, glancing at the red jewel peeking out from his school blazer pocket. “You know about this statue?”

“Sure I do. The Queen valued law above all else—and she was real strict about it, too. She didn’t permit a single deviation from her Card Soldiers or even the colour of the roses in her garden,” the stranger explained with a grin.

Yuu thought he reminded her a little of Fred II. Not just the pale skin and hair—though its bright brownish-orange was only a few shades darker than her friend’s—but there was something in those narrowed eyes that reminded her of Fred’s smile right before he blew up the Potions classroom in a spectacular burst of fireworks.

The stranger continued. “Even though the country was full of insane residents, everyone obeyed her without question. You wanna know why?”

Grim stammered, “Wh-why?”

He turned to them with a wicked grin. “Because any violation of the law meant immediately beheading the offender, that’s why!”

“Th-that’s scary!”

Yuu frowned thoughtfully. “A classic villainous figure, then?”

“Isn’t it cool? I like it,” the stranger narrowed his amber eyes in a grin. “I mean, no one would follow some queen that was just nice all the time.”

“Well, that’s true.” Yuu nodded. Still, going overboard meant that there would be more people planning to overthrow this queen. She wondered what movie she came from—and how the Queen met her end.

“Yeah, leaders need to be strong more than anything,” Grim agreed. He adjusted himself on her shoulder and frowned at the stranger. “Wait, who are you, anyway?”

“My name is Ace!” he put one hand out; it was encased in a black leather glove. “Starting from today, I’m a sparkly firstie. Nice to meet’cha!”

“I’m the great Grim,” Grim puffed out his chest proudly. “I’m the genius who’s going to be a Grand Magician! And this boring kid I’m sitting on is Yuu. My henchman!”

“Hey, hey,” Yuu chuckled, shaking it. “when did I agree to be your henchman, Grim? Nice to meet you, Ace.”

“Yuu?” Ace shook her hand firmly, orange brows lifting in surprise. “That’s a foreign name if I ever heard one. Holy shit, you’re tiny!”

“Don’t think I’m that small,” Yuu quipped. “It’s the Asian genes, I suppose.”

“Asian?” Ace repeated confusedly.

“Hey, hey, Ace! What about that lion with the scar on his eye? Is he a famous guy too?” Grim hopped on her shoulder impatiently.

Yuu was familiar with this particular movie and listened as Ace obliged Grim and explained the feats of the King of the Pride Lands and his eventual fall. Then they went over to Ursulx’s statue, Jxfar’s statue, Snow Whxte’s Queen, Hxdes, and Mxleficent. Ace excitedly listed the way these villains worked hard, aimed for the top, and took for themselves power, glory, and riches.

“It seems kind of rare for someone to speak highly of these guys,” Yuu commented, reading the plaque of Hxdes’ statue and remembering how much she liked Greek Mythology when she was small.

“Hmm? That so?” Ace glanced over at her. “I think they’re cool. Don’t you?”

“Yeah. You’re right.” Yuu nodded. It wasn’t like she was a big fan, but the ubiquity of Disney’s presence around the world leaked into even the small place she lived in. in the end, Yuu herself had managed to watch a few of these movies through the library or somewhere online. Their simplicity seemed almost boring, but Yuu who liked art appreciated the detail that went into the animation and music much more.

Dixney stories were never complete—or remotely interesting—without the villains. She had always been a little let down at the care that went into the villains’ stories only to be extinguished by a Happy Ending. Well, all of her interest in movies had gone down the drain on her eleventh birthday anyway, so it had been a while and her memory was rusty.

“Right? They’re awesome. Unlike some little tanuki.” Ace shot Grim a wicked smirk.

“?!” Grim jerked back as the new student’s benign grin twisted.

Ace tilted his head back and laughed. “I can’t take it anymore! Ah ha ha ha ha!” He took a step closer, malice distorting his expression. “Hey, you guys were the idiots who made a mess of the opening ceremony yesterday, weren’t you.”

Yuu resisted taking a step back. She lifted a brow at him. “I was wondering why you didn’t react when you saw us.”

“Oh, so you weren’t completely brainless.” Ace looked down at her disdainfully. “You’re the useless kid who wasn’t even summoned by the Mirror and can’t use magic, and that tanuki is the Monster who just had to invite himself. Man! It took all I had to stop myself from just bursting out laughing during the ceremony!”

“Wha—” Grim spluttered.

“Laughing?” wondered Yuu. Seemed like Ace was a good sport. She’d expected anger, not humour.

“This guy’s rude!” Grim managed angrily, standing up pin-straight on her shoulder.

“And in the end, you couldn’t even get in the school and wound up being some slacker chores boys? Can you get lamer than that?” Ace leaned in even further.

This guy was probably a Ravenclaw or Slytherin, thought Yuu absently, despite the Weasley-inspired hair. “I mean we didn’t get kicked out, at least.”

“And you don’t even know the Great Seven! Just how ignorant are you?” Ace poked her in the forehead none too gently. “I suggest that before you come to NRC you get re-educated. From Kindergarten!”

Yuu rubbed at her forehead and looked up at him dolefully.

Ace lost his composure and sunk halfway to the ground snickering. Yuu caught Grim around the neck as he prepared to leap at the first year. “Whoa, whoa. Calm down, Grim.”

“This little brat…” Grim growled.

“Can’t breathe,” Ace struggled to his feet. “I just came to tease you guys a bit but you’re even more than I imagined. Ah~! I haven’t laughed this hard for a while!”

“Well, that’s one positive thing that’s come out of this whole experience,” Yuu shot back dryly.

“Ha ha ha…my stomach hurts. Well then! Unlike some people I actually have classes to attend, so do your best with the cleaning, you two!” Ace waved his un-gloved hand carelessly as he turned.

“As if I’d let you just walk away,” Grim spat out, and a roar of fire drowned out his words. Yuu sighed and tilted her head to move out of the way of the fire.

She should try harder to stop him, but Yuu wasn’t a saint. If Ace was prepared to dish it out, he should be prepared to take it back.

Ace was fast enough to dodge out of the way of the blue flames even without looking. “—Whoa! Hey, that’s dangerous,” he remarked, the humour slipping from his reddish-brown eyes. “What didja do that for?”

“Hmph, you were the one who made fun of the great Grim!”

“I’d have to say fire looks good on you,” Yuu quipped. Her years at Hogwarts had given her ample time to sharpen her tongue. “You know, with that hair that looks like it exploded a few seconds ago.”

Grim snickered. “Hey, Yuu! I should explode it even more! Explosion Head!”

“Explosion…” Ace turned around to fully face them, gaze darkening. “You sure have some guts to face me, huh? How ‘bout I shave you into a toy poodle, tanuki?”

Yuu watched as he pulled out the jewel in his breast pocket—no, it wasn’t a jewel, it was attached to what looked like a ballpoint pen. Ace pointed it at Grim just as the latter released another fireball, and a fierce breeze whipped the fire out of existence.

“So that’s their wand,” Yuu confirmed as Grim leapt from her shoulder.

“Whoa, what’s going on?” she heard someone from behind pause as the wind swept the area.

“Wait, a fight? On the first day?”

“Awesome! Go for it!”

“There are all sorts of ways to use magic, aren’t there?” Yuu commented, ignoring the small crowd gathering behind them. It seemed that ‘fun’-loving students were the same no matter what world she lived in.

“As if that tiny little spark could hit me,” Ace egged Grim on, an unholy light of glee brightening his eyes.

“Ha! Just watch!” Grim puffed up his chest and emitted an impressive stream of flame.

“You moron, I could just change the trajectory of that with magic!” Ace shot back, lifting the jewelled pen.

“Wait a second,” Yuu tried, “Ace, that’s in the direction of the stat—”

“Take this!”

“—ues.” She sighed. It was too late now, and using magic here would be far too eye-catching. A wave of Ace’s pen and the fire flew straight into the Queen of Hearts’ face.

Too late did Ace catch sight of her grimace; he turned and nearly dropped his pen. “Oh shit! The statue! It’s scorched! Aaaah!”

Grim backed up. “It…it’s your fault for changing direction of my fire! You should’ve just stood there and got burned!”

“Would anyone just let themselves get set on fire ‘cause you asked?!” Ace shot back.

“HEY! What’s going on?!” Crowley descended from the sky like a great bird of prey, his ‘whip of love’ at the ready.

Yuu put both hands over her face as Grim and Ace both screamed like little girls and dove out of the way of the first swing. “I don’t know these people.”

Crowley dragged the listless Ace and Grim over, having sufficiently whipped the cheekiness out of them. “Do you two want to be expelled?”

“Anything but that!” Ace spluttered, far less intimidating now than he had looked a few minutes ago.

“And you, Yuu-san. You’re not being very effective at supervising Grim.” Crowley turned his glare on her.

“Sorry,” Yuu apologized contritely. She had been having a little fun watching. “I did sort of try to stop them.”

Crowley sighed. “My word.” He reached forward absently and patted her on the shoulder a few times before turning his glare on Ace. “You. Name and year.”

“Ace Trappola,” the despondent Ace mumbled. “First year.”

“Well then, Mister Trappola. Mister Grim. And Yuu-san. As punishment, the three of you are sentenced to one hundred panes of glass-wiping!”

“Wha—!” Grim pointed at Ace. “It’s this guy’s fault, he just came over and started badmouthing us!”

“Me too!?” Ace had evidently not been expecting to get into trouble.

“Obviously!” Crowley crossed his arms. “After school, gather in the dining hall, the three of you. Understood?”

Yuu caught sight of Ace’s sour expression and Grim’s speechless shock and thought that no, none of them understood at all.

For a first day of school, it had been eventful enough to outweigh a month of her studies at Hogwarts. Somehow, the bright blue sky overlooking them seemed warmer than the grey overlooking the castle she was used to living in.

She pulled up her sleeves and got to work, making sure to hide her smile.

“A hundred windows…a hundred windows…” Grim buried his head in her neck. “I’ve already cleaned enough for a day! I’m going to bed!!”

“I was the one who did the cleaning,” Yuu responded dryly. Thanks to her enchantment of the tools she’d been given, the main street was sparkling clean and the Queen’s statue was back to normal. Mostly. It was still a little charred.

“I’m still tired.”

“You just lay around.” She poked him.

“I need lots of sleep!” Grim protested.

“All right, all right.”

“And that Ace! He’s so slow! I can’t believe he’s making us wait!”

“He might not show up,” suggested Yuu, looking around the cafeteria in which they were sitting.

“…” Grim gasped. “We could’ve done that!”

“Don’t be stupid,” she chided, “Headmaster Crowley can tell if we didn’t show up. But Ace seemed pretty reluctant.”

“That bastard…”

“Language.”

“We’re going to look for him!” Grim puffed out his chest angrily. “No way am I doing his share of the work!”

“Sure, sounds good.” Yuu pushed herself off the cafeteria bench. “Any clues?”

“How about the first-years’ classroom?” Grim suggested.

“But classes are over already…” she’d heard the bell as she was putting the finishing touches on scrubbing the stonework. “Well, better than nothing. Let’s go.”

Wandering through the large halls of Night Raven College was nothing short of an adventure for Yuu and Grim, both of whom stared open-mouthed at the huge ceilings and the gaggles of uniformed students passing them by. Eventually they approached the first-year history classroom, as directed by a helpful student, although Yuu was too busy staring at the two dark brown animal ears popping out of the side of his head to thank him.

Grim pushed the door open. “Oraaa! Where’s Ace!? I won’t forgive you for hiding like a coward!”

“Like I said, classes are over,” Yuu peeked in behind him. “I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who would stay afterwards.”

“No one’s here anymore!?”

“I’m right here!” exclaimed an oil painting to Grim’s right.

Grim screamed. “A painting talked!”

Yuu stifled a snicker. Hogwarts might just knock this little creature unconscious. “Hello, sir,” she asked the bespectacled old man politely. “Have you seen a boy by the name of Ace Trappola recently?”

“He’s got a heart on his face and his hair looks like he just got struck by lightning!” Grim got over his surprise rather fast.

“Ah, that child. Of course I know him, he’s a new student, isn’t he? Yes, yes.” The man adjusted his top hat and stroked at his beard. “He left just a while ago. Most likely back to his dormitory.”

“That bastard seriously ditched us!” snarled Grim. “Hey mister, do you know which way he left?”

“The door to the Dorms is located in the back of the East school building, outside the castle,” the painting said dully. “Well then, off with you.”

“Thank you, sir!” Yuu called back. Grim was already out the door.

True to the painting’s words, one of the many school buildings littering the grounds opened to a wide display of Mirrors just as large as the one that had declared her unfit for the school. Like the second-floor hallway, it was purplish and buzzed with magical power. Even if Yuu couldn’t feel it, she could see the way the mirrors rippled with light.

“Whoa…this isn’t like the Mirror Chamber at all…” Yuu, adjusting Grim on her shoulder, stared around at the circular hallway in wonder. The seven huge mirrors in alcoves surrounded them with a glow, each carved with a crest and several unique patterns atop a few steps.

“As if anyone’d wipe a hundred of those windows,” she heard a familiar voice mutter. “I’m going straight back…”

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” Grim leapt from her shoulder.

“Geh! They found me!” Ace jerked back in surprise from where he had been walking, turning to face them defensively.

“You bastard, I won’t let you off all by yourself!” Grim landed right in front of Ace.

“As if there’d be an idiot who waits ‘cause you told them to wait!” Ace grinned a wicked grin and ran full tilt past him, nearly knocking the little creature over.

“Why do you have to go all by yourself?! I wanna slack off too!” Grim chased after.

Yuu sighed and jogged after Grim. She couldn’t just leave him, although she wasn’t sure how to feel about being his ‘supervisor’, according to Crowley.

The three of them sprinted down the hall, her lagging behind—Yuu caught sight of a tall dark-haired student striding down the hall too slowly—

“Out of the way!” Ace shouted, not bothering to slow down.

“Huh?! O-okay!?” The stranger turned in surprise, green eyes going wide in shock.

Yuu, who hated running, panted, “Please catch that person!”

“Um, wait a sec! What’s the magical way to catch someone again!?” The dark-haired student started to panic. “Stopping his feet—no—tying him up with rope!? Um, was there another…”

“Doesn’t matter, anything’s fine, just hit him with all ya got!” Grim shouted from ahead of her. “Hurry!”

“Anything’s fine!? Anything, anything,” the student stood in front of Ace hesitantly, but then he lowered his centre of gravity and narrowed his eyes, whipping out his own jewelled pen. “Doesn’t matter what, so just come out right now! Uh…Something heavy!!”

Yuu yelped and jerked Grim backwards as a huge cauldron popped into existence mid-air, crashing down on Ace in a spectacular cloud of dust.

Gueh!” Ace cried out from under the cauldron. “What the hell—a pot!?”

Grim burst into laughter. “Nya ha ha ha! Yuu! Look! That guy! I can’t breathe! Who’s the lame one now! Ha ha ha!”

The taller student hovered over the squashed Ace. “I didn’t expect such a big cauldron to come out…did I overdo it a bit?”

Ace shoved the cauldron aside and rubbed at his sore head in a bad temper, completely ignoring the other student as he glared in Grim’s direction. “Ouch. Why don’t you wipe some windows for me and let me go? It’s just a hundred of ‘em.”

“As if!” Grim shouted.

“Well…I don’t mind, but the Headmaster will probably mind. Also, Grim will be annoying the whole time if you’re the only one who gets to slack off.” Yuu crouched down and stuck out a hand. “Um, are you all right, Ace?”

“Ow ow ow. I think I might have broken something,” Ace said theatrically, letting her pull him up and then leaning most of his weight on her. Yuu nearly fell over. “What’cha gonna do? Huh? How are you gonna make up for it? Huh?”

“Whoa, whoa! I’m not equipped to handle this much weight!” Yuu protested, her voice muffled by the blazer. “Are you trying to tip both of us over?”

“You’re just too tiny!” Ace planted a hand in her hair, a grin in his voice, and swung it back and forth. “There’s no way you’re sixteen. Twelve, more like.”

“Ace!” complained Yuu, wavering dangerously backwards.

Suddenly the pressure around her disappeared. The stranger who had sent the huge cauldron on Ace’s head tugged him back by his loose collar. “Did you just say a hundred windows!?” He spluttered. “What’d you guys do?!”

Ace crossed his arms, shaking him loose. He shrugged. “I was just playing a teensy bit with that little furball over there and the Queen’s statue got a bit crispy before classes this morning. That’s all!”

The other student took a step back in shock, the spade mark painted across his right eyelid stretching comically with the movement. “You damaged one of the Great Seven’s statues!? That’s obvious grounds for punishment!”

“Finally, a normal human being who has common sense,” Yuu nodded approvingly, grateful that he’d saved her from falling.

The dark-haired student lifted both hands in a shrug. “You had the privilege of entering a school like this…and what do you do on the first day?” he sighed derisively.

“He just couldn’t help it,” Yuu piped up.

“Shut it, the two of you. Actually, who are you?” Ace squinted over at the student.

“My name is Deuce. Deuce Spade.” The newly named Deuce—she wondered what his parents were thinking—crossed his arms and narrowed those dark green-blue eyes at Ace. “How about you at least remember the face of your classmate? Umm…”

“Says the guy who hasn’t remembered mine,” Ace shot back.

“A-anyway!” Deuce coughed. “If it’s the order of the Headmaster, then you should be diligent in engaging with the window-cleaning.”

“Fine, fine, I got it already,” Ace sighed, appearing to have given up. “Let’s do it fast, then.”

“Hm?” Yuu glanced around. “Have you guys seen Grim? He’s been suspiciously quiet for a little while.”

“Ah—! The furball disappeared!” Ace gasped.

“Heh heh! I’ll leave the rest to you kids. Adios!” Grim’s voice echoed down the hallway.

“That bastard…he used me as a scapegoat!” Ace growled. “Hey! Uh…Juice!”

“Wha—it’s not juice! It’s Deuce! Deu!” Deuce spluttered.

Yuu burst into giggles.

“Shut it, Juice! Anyway, whatever your name is, you’re part of the problem. So help me catch the furball!”

“Why do I have to!?”

“This little runt here can’t even use magic so he’s no help. Let’s go!” Ace clamped a hand around her wrist and pulled her from the hall at a jog. Yuu, who was too busy trying not to bend over snickering, caught sight of Deuce’s confused expression before he, too, followed after.

Half an hour of fruitless running later, Deuce—who had complained about his involvement even as he came after them willingly—and Ace were breathing lightly. Yuu, on the other hand, was lightheaded from lack of oxygen. She also couldn’t stop laughing.

Ace had abandoned her after the first time she burst into giggles, but Deuce was kind enough (or he wanted a fellow victim to commiserate with) to drag her after them as they ran around shooting spells at Grim. Yuu couldn’t help it, though. The two of them had allowed Grim to escape no less than three times because they were so out of sync with each other. Also, Ace kept calling Deuce ‘Juice’, probably mostly because it sent her into hysterics every time.

The three of them arrived at the cafeteria, panting.

“As if you guys can catch me!” Grim leapt onto a lunch table.

“This little furball…” Ace growled.

“I—ha ha—can’t—ha ha—breathe,” Yuu gasped, punching Deuce in the arm lightly with each syllable.

“You really are weak,” Deuce remarked a little worriedly. “That felt like a tickle. Uh, what was your name again?”

“Oi! Henchman! Stop laughing!” Grim scurried up a chandelier and looked down at her exasperatedly.

“S-sorry,” Yuu managed.

“Hey! You can’t go up there!” Deuce shouted at Grim. “…We haven’t learned flying magic yet…! Somehow we gotta trap him…some way…I got it!”

“Gotta think of an idea…wait, wait wait. Why are you pointing your Magical Pen at me?” Ace backed up a couple steps as Deuce rounded on him.

“I can just fling you at him!” Deuce said with a confident smile.

Yuu lost it again, hunching over as she gasped with laughter. She took back what she said about Deuce being a normal person with common sense. At this rate, though, she was going to hyperventilate…

“Stop laughing! It’s not funny—oi, oi, oi! Don’t make me float!” Ace started to panic as his feet left the ground. “Are you seriously going to throw me!? Seriously, stop stop stop!”

“Hold on tight!” Deuce wasn’t listening; the dangerous light in his eyes brightened as he aimed his pen at Grim. “Aim…and fire!”

“You gotta be kidding meeeee!” Ace shouted as he flew through the air.

Grim shrieked. “Funaaa!

The two of them crashed spectacularly together and sent the chandelier swinging in a cloud of dust. Deuce looked so triumphant that Yuu nearly collapsed into hysterics…Until it fell from the ceiling with an audible snap.

CRASH!

Yuu choked on the dust blown over to them by the enormous collapse and tried to get her breath back. “You’re all…” she gasped with tears of mirth in her eyes. “You’re all insane…!”

“I can’t believe he really did it!” coughed Ace in the wreckage.

Grim had tipped over semi-conscious. Yuu winced and started to wade through the dust to get to him.

“Ah, damn,” Deuce muttered in surprise, “I wasn’t really thinking of what would happen after we caught him.”

“Are you,” Ace sucked in a lungful, “an idiot!?!?!?!

Yuu fished Grim from the wreckage. “Yeah, if Headmaster Crowley finds out, we’re pretty screwed.”

“Finds out about what?” Two gloved hands, tipped with metal, settled on her shoulder.

Yuu felt the colour drain from her face.

Ace, who was facing her, smiled politely, the light in his eyes extinguishing so that he looked like he was headed for the gallows. “Ah. Headmaster.”

Crowley’s shout echoed through the entire cafeteria. “You. Are. All. EXPELLED!”

Ace, Deuce and Grim all shouted, “Eeeeeeh!?

“Um, wait a second,” Yuu began, but Deuce cut her off.

“Wait a moment! Headmaster! Please spare me from that at least! I have something I must do at this school!” Deuce said earnestly.

“Then regret that you were stupid enough to participate in this debacle,” Crowley said, unmoved. He crossed his arms and stood in front of them with both legs spread in an intimidating pose.

“If you forgive me, I’ll pay for the damages! I’ll do anything!” Deuce looked desperate.

Yuu felt sorry that she and Ace had gotten him involved in this fiasco. He had only been a stranger who was in the wrong place at the wrong time…

“This isn’t just any chandelier!” Crowley told him. “Using magic as a fuel, it is enchanted to never let its candles go out! It was created by the legendary enchantment master and has been a treasure since the dawn of this school…let’s see…if you think about its age and worth, a hundred million Madols isn’t even enough!”

“A hundred million…!?” Deuce gasped, staggering backwards.

“But, y-ya know, Headmaster, you could just wave your hand and, like, magic it back to normal…” Ace suggested weakly.

Yuu made sure they weren’t paying attention to her before she started to focus on the chandelier. Wingardium leviosa!

The chandelier trembled, but Crowley shook his head. “Magic does not solve everything. In addition, the heart and power source of this magic tool, the ‘magic stone’, has shattered. There are no two magic stones that are alike…there is no way that this chandelier will glow ever again.”

“No way…” Ace went silent.

“Dammit…” Deuce gritted his teeth, looking despondent. “What the hell am I doing…what is Mom going to say…”

“Headmaster.” Yuu stopped trying to Reparo the so-called magical stone (it wasn’t working) and stepped forward.

“Ah. Yuu-kun.” Crowley turned to her.

“Um, I have to be honest and say that this was actually my fault,” she said calmly, adjusting her grip on the unconscious creature in her arms.

“—Oi!?” Ace emitted.

Yuu ignored him. “Not only did I fail to keep a good watch on Grim, but I was also unable to fulfil my duties of wiping the windows. Therefore, the responsibility for this incident should fall on my shoulders.”

“I see…” Crowley said slowly.

“I was the one who involved two unrelated students in this situation,” Yuu explained in a reasonable tone, “so doesn’t it make sense that the punishment falls on me, not them?”

“Hey, stop it,” Deuce said in a hard voice, “You weren’t the one who—”

“I see.” Crowley repeated, staring at her with his luminous golden eyes. “……There is one way.”

Ace and Deuce let out twin exclamations.

“The magic stone powering this chandelier was obtained from the Mines located within Mount Dwarf.” Crowley put a hand on his chin. “If a stone with the same properties is obtained, it may be possible to fix the stone.”

“I’ll go get the magic stone!” Deuce said right away. “Please allow me to go!”

“However, I cannot be sure that the mines still have magic stones remaining…” Crowley sighed. “It’s been a while since the Mines were closed, so there is a high possibility the stones have all been mined out.”

“If you remove the expulsion command then I’ll do anything!” Deuce shouted in determination.

“…Very well,” Crowley lowered his hand. “I will wait for one night only. If, by tomorrow morning, you have not brought back a magic stone, then you are all expelled.”

“Yes sir! Thank you, sir!” Deuce shouted.

“Guess it can’t be helped,” Ace sighed. “Well then, let’s go get the magic stone and bring it back, sharp like.”

“You can access Mount Dwarf from the Gate in the Mirror Chamber. That way, you will arrive quite quickly.” Crowley explained to her. “And Yuu-san. Please do not try to take the responsibility for things that you could not have done in the future. Farewell!”

“Yes sir!” Deuce said.

“…Yessir,” Yuu echoed, and followed the two of them out from the cafeteria in a jog.

“Stop squishing me,” strained out Grim from her neck.

“Oi, it’s okay now,” Deuce’s voice sounded from somewhere above her. “You can let go now, we’re here.”

Yuu cracked open one eye. Deuce was glancing around them with his brow furrowed, allowing her to hang onto his arm.

Ace swung his hand which she’d latched onto. “You’re such a scaredy-cat,” he snickered. “What, never travelled via mirror before?”

“Absolutely not,” Yuu pried her fingers from his and let go of Deuce with a sigh of relief. “I’m still alive? All limbs in one piece?”

“It’s as if this kid hasn’t even seen magic before.” Ace shook his head theatrically. “Gonna cry? Want me to lend my shoulder?”

“That’s okay.” Yuu glanced around, following Deuce’s example. “But…It’s really dark around here. I might need to hang onto you guys so I don’t get lost.”

“I think this place was called the Silent Woods or something,” Deuce was mumbling. Indeed, all they could see in front of them was the dark cover of trees at dusk. A small hut was nestled out of the way across a stone bridge curving over a river. “You know, the Mines on Mount Dwarf were truly famous for their magic stones a while ago.”

“S-something’s gonna come out,” Grim buried his head in her hair. Yuu wondered why she wasn’t burning from the fires in his ears. Friendly fire? Hopefully it wasn’t something dangerous like slow-acting fire they were researching in the Curse Breaking department.

“Well, let’s go check out that house,” Ace took charge. “At least we can see if anyone’s around.”

The hut was empty and seemed to have been abandoned a while ago. Deuce’s powerful knock nearly took the front door off its hinges. The inside looked like a smaller-scale version of Ramshackle Dorm, Yuu thought as Grim spat out a cobweb.

“Why is everything so small?” Ace squinted at the darkened tables and chairs. “Looks like it’s all for kids. And there are a ton of them! One, two…seven?!”

“It was most likely a large household from when the Mines were in use on this mountain,” nodded Deuce.

Dwarves, Yuu thought, studying the small furniture more closely. This was a new world—anything could exist. It didn’t seem as if Ace or Deuce were aware of ‘Dwarves’, though, so she kept silent.

“Guess it’s no use being here then.” Ace shrugged. “Well, let’s go head for the coal mines. That’s where any magic stones would be.”

Yuu glanced back at the hut. The seven dwarves, she thought to herself. With the Mirror and this hut, she was starting to wonder if Twisted Wonderland was based off the story of the Fairest One of All.

Around twenty minutes of walking led them to the entrance of the mine, overgrown with tree branches and greenery. Grim squeaked. “Are we really going i-in there!?”

Yuu winced. “Yeah, uh, it looks kind of scary.”

“Scared? Huh? Scared?” Ace snickered. “Lame. Need to hold my hand?”

“Shut it Ace!” Grim snarled.

“Please,” Yuu said, squeezing the proffered limb. Being in such a dark environment wasn’t quite her forte. She’d braved through Ramshackle Dorm last night but her bravery was fizzling out. There was a reason the Hat hadn’t considered Gryffindor.

Ace froze. “…You’re a weird kid,” he grumbled after a while, but didn’t pull his hand away. “Coward. Scaredy-cat.”

“Say what you will.” Yuu hung onto his un-gloved hand like a limpet. It was big and warm.

“I’m the expedition leader then!” Grim sniffed and prodded her forward. “Let’s go, henchman!”

“I’m not your henchman,” Yuu remarked, heading in with one hand clamped around Ace’s fingers.

They’d barely taken a few steps in when Deuce took a step in front of her, halting their movements. “Stop!”

“Whoa! What is it all of a sudden!?” Ace spluttered.

“Something’s coming,” Deuce squinted into the darkness.

Grim screamed. “G-g-ghosts again!?”

“Ha ha ha!” a round ghost dived out from behind a pillar of rock. “Guests!”

“First guests in ten years!” a smaller ghost bounced forwards.

“Stay a while…!” a thin one clasped its hands together. “…or, forever…!”

Yuu squeezed Ace’s hand tighter. “Do we have to drive them off again, Grim…?” she whispered.

“Aww man,” Grim whimpered back.

“We don’t have time to deal with these ghosts,” Deuce shook his head. “Listen, guys. We’re going to run on my count. I’ll scatter them. Follow me!”

“I’m really not too good at this running business…!” Yuu cautioned.

“That’s all right, just run! I’ll carry you if it gets bad,” Deuce slapped her on the back roughly. “Now come on!”

“Man there’s just no end to it all,” Ace complained, half-dragging her along as Yuu gasped for breath.

“Don’t spare them any effort. Keep going,” Deuce commanded, his pen out and glowing slightly.

“Don’t order me around,” Ace snapped. “In the first place, if you didn’t do something that stupid, we wouldn’t even be here.”

“It’s your fault that you slacked off on window cleaning!” Deuce shot back.

“The guy who started it all is that furball that set the statue on fire!” Ace glared at Grim.

“You’re the one who made fun of me!” Grim hissed at Ace.

“Do you even have any idea of what situation we’re in?!” Deuce snapped. “If we don’t bring back the magic stone by morning, we’re all out!”

“Stop taking charge like you’re the boss or something,” Ace’s voice lowered into a growl, “you really piss me off.”

Yuu reached forwards and took Deuce’s free hand. “Um, guys. In the first place if I didn’t get blasted here from a different world then no one would be here. So you can feel free to put the blame on my shoulders. So uh…don’t get too mad at each other. We don’t really have time to fight right now.”

Deuce gaped. “Blasted here!?

Ace turned to her, his eyes narrowing shrewdly. “Wait. Different world?!”

“Anyway!” She squeezed their hands. “We can fight later but—wait. Do you hear that?”

“No, no, no, you’re gonna explain what the hell you meant by different—” Ace paused as a distant rumble cut him off.

Grim squeaked. “There’s something big moving…!”

Deuce took point, frowning in concentration. “Do you hear that? It’s saying something…!”

The…stones…are…

“What’s the rumbling?” Yuu let go of Deuce to cling to Ace’s arm. “Um, if I’m not wrong that sounds like something huge is coming our way.”

“Yeah, it’s getting close—”

Before Deuce could finish his sentence, a great hulking humanoid figure stomped out of the shadows. “The stones…are…all…MINE!”

Grim screamed.

Yuu yelped and clutched at Ace.

Ace let out an ungainly shout that overlapped with Deuce’s. “What the hell is that!?”

“Its head is a giant…giant…flask of black ink!?” Deuce backed the three of them up.

“I think we should all run,” Yuu suggested in a trembling voice.

No one argued this time.

“What the hell is that thing!?” Deuce shouted as they sprinted back the way they came.

“No one told me there were scary beasts in here!” Grim sobbed, clinging onto her neck.

“Holy shit it’s nasty!” Ace tugged her along with him when she stumbled. “Didn’t you hear it say something about a stone though?”

The stones…stones…stonessss….” The huge faceless creature with a bottle of ink for its head waved a huge pickaxe forward. “They’re all…mine!!

“…!” Yuu frowned. “Is he guarding the stones?”

“Which means there really are some left over!” Deuce grinned.

“Nononono.” Grim got out very fast, seeing the look in their eyes. “Nonono. I’m a genius but I can’t deal with that thing. It’s impossible.”

Deuce had started to glare back at the creature, his jaw set. “But if we don’t bring back a magical stone, we’re all done for…So I’m going!”

“Are you insane!?” Ace spluttered, shoving Yuu behind him reflexively when they stopped running.

“Wait a second!” Yuu wormed back out, letting go of Ace. “Deuce you can’t go by yourself! We—watch out!

“I can’t be expelled! No matter what!” Deuce shouted back.

“Deuce!” Yuu leapt forward.

Leave…leave…LEAVE!” the hulking giant screamed—and swung its pickaxe.

Yuu’s wandless defensive magic was subpar at best. She tackled Deuce, hissing out, “Protego!

It was too weak. Yuu gasped out in pain as the hit landed between her shoulder blades, sending her and Deuce skidding across the floor.

“Oi!” Ace shouted.

“Yuu!” Grim, who’d fallen from her shoulder, called out her name in fright.

“…Tch. The dumb guy with no control should just stay back with the little kid who can’t use magic!” Ace stepped forward, pen glowing. “I’ll take care of this.”

“Ace—!” Yuu tried to push herself to her feet but failed, collapsing back onto Deuce. “Ugh!”

“Take this!”

Wind filled the tunnel; the creature moaned. Seconds later she heard a dull thump followed by Ace’s cry of pain.

“…Oi!” Deuce, who’d finally gotten back his wind, clutched at her. “Why did you jump in front of me! Are you all right…!?”

“Fine! I can’t really move so just shove me off!” Yuu got out. “Go help Ace, please! He’s been hit!”

“Got it, but you stay down, you hear?”

“Don’t come any closer!” Grim’s voice sounded unnaturally high-pitched. “Take this!”

The huge thing screamed again.

“My fire ain’t working at all!” his voice rose further into a squeak.

Yuu struggled to her feet, nursing her aching back, just in time to catch a spark of light flash behind the beast. “Hey! Did you guys see that flash!?”

“Wait a second, there really is something glowing behind him—!” Ace struggled to his feet.

“It’s—” Deuce squinted. An incredulous smile spread across his face. “It’s the magic stone!”

Uoooooo! I won’t…I won’t…I won’t hand it over!” The giant screamed.

“Hey Yuu!” shouted Ace, dashing sweat from his brow. “Can you stand!?”

“Barely… Ace, Deuce, we need to run for now! We have to figure out a way to defeat this guy.” Yuu snatched up a trembling Grim. “Strategic retreat!”

The three of them stumbled out of the mines and back into the copse of trees, gasping with adrenaline and fear. Yuu’s legs were the first to give out—despite being used to dealing with magical creatures, she’d never seen a mammoth…thing like that, not even when she was dealing with Boggarts. In addition, the blow landed on her back had barely been softened by Protego, and she was a lot smaller than Ace or Deuce, a lot less muscly, a lot more vulnerable.

Yuu threw Grim up to avoid hurting him and went down in a tangle of limbs. She gasped with pain and curled up briefly as starbursts flashed behind her closed eyelids.

“Yuu!” Grim’s shout alerted the other two.

“Oi!” Ace was the first to jog back. “Are you seriously all right? You took a pretty bad hit there!”

“Fine,” Yuu gasped, holding up a hand, “One second.”

“You took a hit for me.” Deuce jogged back and looked down at her solemnly. “All right, I’ll piggyback you. Get on.”

“I can walk—”

“No you can’t. Just take him up on the offer, he’s all muscle anyway,” Ace dragged her up and onto Deuce’s back.

“Thanks,” Yuu told both of them exhaustedly, “thank you. I’m glad that I got to come here with you.”

“You’re way too light!” Deuce bounced her up a few times, his ears turning pink in the dim lighting. “Are you eating properly?”

“I’m the average weight I think?” Yuu guessed as they gathered by the hut they’d gone into before.

“As if. You’re tiny!” Ace snorted. “…But man…no one told us there was gonna be that huge freak in there. My frickin’ arm still smarts!”

“I don’t think it’s a ghost,” Deuce said thoughtfully. “After all, it was holding something physical.”

“Dude, let’s just leave and give up,” Ace complained, “If I have to fight with that thing then I’d rather get expelled.”

“Wha—!” Deuce’s shoulders tensed under her arms. He whirled around to face Ace, his voice lowering to a rumble in his chest. “Don’t screw with me. If I have to get expelled, I’d rather kill myself fighting.”

“Ha! You sure talk big for someone whose magical power is even worse than mine.” Ace snorted derisively, the same malice from that morning twisting his well-proportioned face into a sneer. “If you really wanna go, just go by yourself! I’m done here.”

“Oh, is that so!” Deuce’s voice gained a guttural edge. “Then a spineless cowardly bastard like you should just sit and tremble!”

“Huuuuh?” Ace’s smile widened angrily. “Who the hell’re you calling a coward?”

Grim muttered, “Deuce’s character is completely changing.”

“Deuce, you all right?” Yuu patted him on the shoulder. Carrying a human on his back had to put some stress on him.

“—!” Deuce gasped and then coughed several times. “Ahem! My bad. I just, er, lost my cool for a second.”

“Sure,” Grim said doubtfully.

“Well, we didn’t have a plan last time, which is why we failed. But you know, I don’t think we necessarily have to defeat that thing to get the rocks,” Yuu propped her chin on his shoulder and said thoughtfully, “there are four of us and one of him, right?”

“Can’t you guys use some flashy powerful magic and go all BAM! And beat it up?” Grim muttered.

“Large-scale magic and complex spells require training to do,” Deuce explained.

“The whole reason why we’re at this school,” added Ace, “is to learn that stuff. You need a ton of practice to do whatever you want with magic. If I wanna be honest, panicking in this situation is gonna make it real hard.”

“Interesting,” Yuu said, eyes sparkling. “I never heard you guys doing incantations or anything, so I just thought everyone was managing to use magic with their mood or something.”

“Well, I mean if it’s the area of magic you’re gifted in, you can pretty much use it naturally,” Ace shrugged.

“In any case, I am going to go back in there and defeat that giant beast somehow and get the magic stone,” Deuce cut across them sternly.

“Seriously? With the chandelier and now this…” Ace sighed. “You really are an idiot, huh?”

“What did you just call me?”

“Hard of hearing, too?”

“Listen here you little punk.”

Yuu sighed and cleared her throat, angling her head away from Deuce’s ear. She sucked in a breath. “SHUT UP!”

“Wh-whoa.” Deuce wavered with her weight before he stood up straight.

“Holy shit man, how did you get that huge voice to come out from that tiny body?” Ace gaped at her, distracted from his needling.

“Sorry.” she said sheepishly. “I had to use my belly voice ‘cause you weren’t listening. Um. I was saying this earlier, but there are four of us and one of it, right? It’s literally the simplest thing to get a magical stone.”

“Simplest?” Ace squinted at her. “What, you got any clues, shorty?”

“Well yeah. One of us approaches that er…thing?”

“Thing,” Ace affirmed.

“Making a racket, as a decoy.” Yuu continued. “And the other three hide in the shadows. It’s got no eyes, so I was examining it earlier, but it seems that it tracks movement by noise. Therefore, if one of us is really loud we should be able to mask the footsteps of the other three.”

“And then…?” Deuce said blankly.

“And then the other three—one of us—sneaks behind and grabs a rock.” Yuu explained. “Then they pass the rock over and the one in front distracts while the others run. We can change the distraction team to two if it gets tough. That thing looks pretty strong.”

Ace raised both eyebrows at her.

“After that we get the heck out of there, go through the mirror, and tell whoever your teacher is that the Headmaster sent us into a dangerous area with a gigantic beast,” Yuu finished. “So that he’ll look extremely bad if he decides he wants to expel you guys. How’s that for a plan?”

Deuce said slowly, “Wow, you’re pretty smart. What was your name again?”

“Yuu,” she said.

“Yuu,” repeated Ace, a wicked smile spreading over his face. “I like that last bit. You’re not as dumb as I thought you were.”

“Still. I have no intentions of cooperating with that guy,” Deuce said flatly.

“Right. Teamwork? Lame as hell, man.” Snorted Ace, immediately gaining the sneer as he stared over at Deuce.

“What’s lamer, getting expelled on the first day of classes or cooperating?” Grim put in.

Ace clicked his tongue but didn’t respond.

Yuu grinned at the catlike Monster and gave him a thumbs up. “Nice.”

“Oh, shut it, Yuu. Well? Who’s gonna do what?” Ace stretched his arms. “We better hurry if we wanna get out of here before morning.”

Yuu regained consciousness to the vertigo of her entire body swaying. The pain hit her a second later.

“Grim?” she managed in a voice hoarse with the effort of swallowing a scream. “Ace! Deuce! You guys all right?”

“Worry about yourself a little!” grunted a voice right beside her head. When Yuu turned, she was met with a face full of Ace’s wild mop of hair as he ran. “When I saw that thing hit you in the stomach, I nearly had a heart attack!”

“Yuu! Yuu! You’re awake!” Grim’s voice floated into earshot from somewhere up ahead. He sounded teary. “You’re alive!”

“Really!? Thank God! Ace, do you want me to carry him?” Deuce’s voice echoed back to them.

“You’ve got the rock, just keep running!” Ace managed. “This little runt’s the lightest thing I’ve had to carry all day!”

“We got it!” Yuu lifted her head and then put it down again. “Oww. I might have a concussion.”

“What the hell is someone without magic doing putting themselves on the front line!” Ace’s complaints flowed like a stream from his mouth. “Just a while ago you fricking dove in front of that Juice guy to save his life too. Are you an idiot? A real live idiot?”

“It’s Deuce! Deu! Not Ju!”

“We got the rock!” Yuu cheered weakly, flinging her arms around Ace’s neck. “You guys are the best!”

“Hell yeah we did!” Deuce growled rather animalistically.

“It’s still coming after us—we’re not out of the woods yet.” Ace puffed out a breath.

“Hilarious,” Yuu deadpanned, her voice tight with pain, as the trees rushed past. “Very punny.”

“Well? What’s the next plan, Yuu the Wise? It’s gonna catch up sooner or later.”

“I was thinking,” Yuu explained, “you know how oxygen gives power to fire? And I’m guessing your strong point is wind-element magic, right? If we can’t outrun it, sooner or later we’re going to have to fight it. Grim has fire, you have wind. It’s a perfect combination.”

The four of them broke out from the woods just as a huge bellow shook the trees from behind them. Ace, panting, set Yuu down and she pulled them to the other side of the bridge as she explained her battle plan, ignoring the twin spots of fiery pain coming from her side and back. She wondered if she’d hurt a rib. At least her headache and dizziness were receding.

“I can’t do magic—” at least not their magic. “—So I’ll focus on observing and tell you guys when and where its attacks are coming.”

“Just like we did before, back in that shack with the other ghosts?” Grim nodded. “I’m on board with that idea.”

“Great. And if we can direct the spells in line with each other, there’s a good chance we can really amp up the power to hit him hard,” Yuu explained. “Like fanning Grim’s flame with Ace’s wind.”

“Why the hell do I have to cooperate with that guy?” Ace grumbled, pointing at Deuce.

“As if I’d want to work with you,” Deuce retorted, giving him the stink-eye.

“It’s going to be fine. You guys did a real number on it from behind when I took a hit, I saw,” Yuu said weakly, rubbing at her bruising stomach.

“Yeah, well, this time you’re going to stay the hell off the front lines like a self-sacrificial idiot,” Ace turned on her.

“Isn’t it good to be self-sacrificial?” she quipped, grinning up at him.

“This school isn’t for anyone who endorses those sickeningly pure ideals,” Deuce rolled his eyes, to her surprise. He hadn’t seemed like someone who would call ideals ‘sickening’. “Anyway, I don’t wanna see you fly into the air like a rag doll again, so stay out of the way and just tell us when to shoot what. You seem pretty smart, so I’m trusting you, all right, Yuu?”

Yuu stared at him.

Ace waved a gloved hand in front of her face. “O~i. Earth to Yuu!”

“I trust you too!” Yuu lunged forward and grabbed onto Deuce’s hands, staring him earnestly in the eyes. “I’m trusting you to beat the heck out of that thing! So trust me!”

“O…kay?” Deuce blinked several times and tried not to grin. “You’re a weird kid, aren’t you?”

“A~ah. Stop being all lovey-dovey, you two, and let’s do this. Better not get scared, you serious moron!” Ace rolled his eyes at them.

“I’m not a moron! And same to you, punk!” Deuce sent him a glare.

Grim puffed up, regaining his confidence. “I’m gonna give it a taste of my real power!”

The battle against the hulking, faceless creature was much easier once the four of them could focus on attacking him in an open space. True to Yuu’s expectations, Grim’s fireballs were almost triply powerful when paired with Ace’s wind magic. It didn’t take long for their opponent to stagger backwards as it lost momentum.

“Grim! Finish it!” Yuu cried out a few steps away. “And Ace, add some oomph behind his fireball if you can!”

Funaa!

“Take that, you big bully!”

The dying roar of the beast sent sound waves shooting through the ground like an earthquake. The river churned and spat water over its edge; the door and foundation of the small hut creaked ominously. Yuu yelped and fell onto her butt as the hulking giant froze and then broke into a stream of ash, a condensed crystal of something black falling onto the ground in its place with an unceremonious thump.

Deuce bent over, wiping the sweat from his brow, and caught his breath. Ace stared with his pen still half-raised, gaping at the remains of the once-enormous creature.

Grim sank to the ground with a tired groan. Yuu snapped out of her own daze, ignoring the band of pain across her back and stomach, and scrambled over to the three of them in excitement.

“We…did it?” Ace gawked, clearly not having expected to win.

“We won…The Great Grim…we won!” Grim threw his hands in the air.

Yuu caught up to him and picked him up. “You were all smashing! I can’t believe you all actually defeated it!”

“We did it!” Deuce came in close with both hands up. Yuu put Grim on her shoulder and slapped him a high five before trading another one with a similarly grinning Ace.

“I can’t believe it—that thing was huge!”

“Hell yeah it was!” Ace seemed a little high on adrenaline; he gathered her over for a noogie. Yuu swallowed down a yelp of pain. “Man, what are you, some strategist? What the hell was with those directions!”

“I knew Yuu had a good head on his shoulders!” Deuce puffed out his head.

Ace gave him dead fish eyes. “Hey, I knew him way before you did.”

“Yeah, if you mean bullied him.”

“Huh?”

“Wanna go?”

“Oh, come on, you two,” Yuu laughed, “Victory handshake!”

“Woo-hoo!”

“But it’s not like I get along with these weirdoes or anything,” Deuce was quick to add.

“Tch. As if I’d look at you twice,” Ace shot back.

“Yeah! We won because I was a genius, all right, Yuu? Not because we cooperated or anything!” Grim ignored both of them.

“Are you kidding me? Maybe you guys didn’t see, but that move where Deuce dropped three cauldrons successively on the thing’s head was to die for,” Yuu said excitedly. “It was just one after another, like bam! Bam! Bam!

“How many cauldrons do you have?!” Grim spluttered at him.

“Couldn’t you think of something else to drop?” muttered Ace. He sighed. “…Oh, all right, Yuu. It isn’t cool to keep denying it. Your plan worked way better than I expected.”

“I’m impressed Yuu was able to keep a cool head in a situation like that and call the shots so accurately,” agreed Deuce. He went a little misty-eyed as he continued, “this means we don’t have to get expelled…Thank God!”

“Come on, stop making this about me,” Yuu dismissed it, “I just stood there while you guys did the heavy lifting.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you took two hits head on.” Ace shot back.

“Honestly I was about to direct us to make a run for the Mirror instead of actually defeating it, but you all were stronger than I thought.” She finished. “Anyway, we’re all safe, which is what matters.”

“You sound like a girl,” snickered Ace.

I am a girl, though. Yuu squinted, a little confused. But they were in a hurry, so she let it go. “Let’s hurry up and get back. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.”

“Same here.” Ace yawned. “All right, let’s go.”

“Wait a sec…I used up too much magic…I’m hungry…” Grim complained. “What’s that black thing on the ground? Candy?”

Yuu frowned. “Candy—wait. That came from the thing we just defeated, Grim! Don’t—”

“Smells good…” Grim leapt from her shoulders and picked up what looked like a piece of black glass with his paws.

“A black rock?” Deuce frowned. “Doesn’t seem to be a magic stone.”

“But it’s like…glass…” Ace squinted. “…Oi. Don’t eat it, furball.”

“It smells real good!”

“You gotta be kidding me!”

“Maybe it’s food!” Grim licked his lips. “Man I can’t take this smell!”

“He really ate it!” Yuu spluttered, jogging over as he shoved the entire thing in his mouth. “Hey! Grim! Spit it out!”

Grim froze.

“—Oi! Is he okay!?” Deuce started to panic.

“That moron. Didn’t they teach him not to eat from the floor?” Ace shook his head in mock sympathy.

“Ugh…this…this is…”

“Grim! Spit it out! Right now!” Yuu said worriedly, patting him on the back.

“This is…” Grim spun around, his eyes sparkling. “Delicious!

The three of them harmonized perfectly, “…Huh?”

“This slowness of the flavour! The unspeakable depth! It’s like a flower field opened up in my mouth!” Grim chewed furiously. “I’ve never tasted anything this good! Mm~!”

Yuu dropped her hands. “…?” she turned to Ace and Deuce and pointed at Grim. “…??”

“Calm down, Yuu,” snickered Deuce.

“Guess Monsters have different taste buds compared to humans,” Ace wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“I should suspend my human sensibilities,” Yuu sighed, shoulders slumping. “As if I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief after landing in this world.”

“Right, right. I wanted to ask you about that,” Ace nodded as Grim bounced up onto Yuu’s shoulder on her outstretched arm. “About the whole thing you said earlier.” The four of them began to head back the way they came in tacit agreement.

“What do you mean, blasted to another world?” Deuce was less subtle.

So Yuu explained to them as they walked the series of curious events that had led her to wake up in the coffin and become an odd-jobs worker in the school grounds, excluding only a few things—like how she was a witch. She figured it was the least she could do, since Yuu had become fond of these two and Deuce had said he trusted her. Ace and Deuce were good listeners, although the former tended to start teasing with little provocation.

“Wait…that’s why you came all this way without shoes?” Deuce pointed to the ground.

Yuu, who had laid a Cushioning Charm on her socks, blinked and wiggled the dirt-encrusted toes. “Yeah, I don’t have shoes on me. I was in my room before I came here so it’s just me and my socks, I guess.”

“Seriously…” Ace looked a little disgusted. “Can’t the Headmaster give you a pair of shoes at least? I mean, come on.”

“Yuu…you’ve been through a lot these past couple days…” Deuce patted her on the shoulder. “And you have absolutely nothing on you! Just tell me if you need my help for anything!”

“Aw, don’t make a big deal out of it,” Yuu scratched her head modestly.

“Nonsense. At least let me lend you a pair of shoes!”

“This is why morons are…” Ace sighed. “Dude. Look at his feet. Now look at your feet. Lending him shoes isn’t gonna do anything other than make the poor kid trip.”

“…Yuu…” Deuce squinted at her socks. “Why are you so unbelievably small? Are you really a teenage boy?”

I’m a teenage girl, she wanted to say, but it seemed too troublesome to explain after all the ‘different world’ stuff. She had a feeling that they would blow it out of proportion, since they were both of the opinion she was male. Maybe she’d tell them after this whole fiasco was solved.

“I’m still in my growth period,” she settled with at last.

“Man, you’re a lot tougher than I expected though,” Ace nodded. “If I got sent across worlds randomly, I’d have been pissed off. Or lose my mind.”

“Yuu really is nothing like an NRC student,” Deuce furrowed his brow.

“True that. Anyone else would’ve snapped already.” Ace agreed, for once, with his classmate. “I mean instead of being apologized to you get shoved in that terrible old building with Ghosts? And forced to clean the street? Man, talk about getting the short end of the stick.”

“Huh? Why?” Yuu tilted her head at him. “Headmaster was really good to me. He could’ve just left me to fend for myself.”

“It’s his damn fault you got dragged here in the first place,” Deuce grumbled. “And forcing you to do all that work without shoes on…!”

“You know, when you think about it…” Ace wrinkled his nose. “Yuu has a disgustingly nice personality.”

“Disgustingly nice…?” Yuu echoed. It was a rather refreshing way to be referred to. For a girl who was nearly sorted into Slytherin, she was sure it was also a misnomer.

Deuce nodded, evidently in agreement. “Absolutely repulsively nice. I wonder why he got sent here?”

“You and me both, Deuce,” sighed Yuu.

“No, not this world, this school. In the first place you would’ve been more natural fitting in with those RSA guys,” Ace mumbled.

When the three of them, plus one Grim dozing off on her shoulder, finally arrived back through the mirror—Yuu clinging desperately onto Deuce as they passed through—they bumped into Crowley, who was striding through the chamber.

“Ah…The three of you…” Crowley mumbled, and then did a double take, whirling to face them. “Oh my!? What on earth happened to the three of you!? You look like you’ve been through a blender!”

“Yuu,” Deuce patted her as the light of the mirror faded. “You can let go now. We’re back.”

Yuu cracked one eye open. “Oh thank God.” She let go of him. “I think I hate mirror travel.”

Ace snickered. “Scaredy-cat.”

“Don’t tell me you really went to the Mines on Mount Dwarf to look for the magic stone!?” spluttered Crowley.

The three of them harmonized, “Huh?”

Crowley pressed his metal-tipped gloves to his mouth theatrically. “I didn’t expect them to actually go…” he glanced towards the lump of glowing purple stone in Deuce’s hand and added, “and to come back successful, of all things…”

Yuu raised her brow and wondered how much of Crowley’s theatrics were an act. Surely from Deuce’s personality he could have guessed that the three of them would wind up braving the danger. Had he known there was something lurking in the depths of the mines?

“I don’t believe it…” Crowley shook his head, sighing exaggeratedly. “I even went and got all of your expulsion paperwork done.”

“When we were being attacked by an unbelievable beast…!” Deuce got through gritted teeth.

“Unbelievable beast?” Crowley went still.

Ace narrowed his eyes. “You bet. A huge, nasty, violent thing that nearly killed Yuu twice! You know how close we were to not coming back at all?”

“Says the guy who almost gave up,” Yuu sing-songed under her breath.

Ace nudged her in the shoulder. “Oi, not the time.”

Crowley was suddenly in her face. “Specifics, please. What do you mean Yuu-san almost died?”

Yuu yelped. She hadn’t even seen him move.

They ended up relocating to the Headmaster’s Office, a room cloaked in purple with unmoving portraits of the Great Seven—identical to the statues that lined Main Street—floating aimlessly through the air. Crowley took his seat at the back of the room behind his office desk and waved three chairs over for them to sit in as Ace and Deuce went through their adventure on Mount Dwarf with some embellishment.

Yuu watched the sky’s navy blue thin into pastels of pre-dawn sleepily. She hurt everywhere. Maybe once she got back to the Ramshackle Dorm, she’d risk an Episkey with her wand—but Yuu was terrible with healing magic, terrible enough to have abandoned any inkling of doing it wandless. It made her subpar defensive magic look good.

“…see,” Crowley’s clear voice was oddly soothing to her half-conscious brain. “I suppose I will have to check Yuu-san for any injuries afterwards, then.”

“Yeah, that’d be a good idea,” Deuce sounded subdued. “He took a hit for me, Headmaster. And the second time—it was really bad, the thing hit him with full force and he just sort of got flung across the cave like…like…”

“Hey, Headmaster. Are you sure this kid should be admitted into this school? He looks like he’s twelve.” Ace sounded free of his joking tone, for once. “I mean…it’s NRC. Isn’t it dangerous for an ignorant little kid to be exposed to this school without protection? Hell—he can’t even use the most basic self-defence in form of magic. He’s gonna get murdered.”

“Ah, but you two,” Crowley said after a pause. “Would you both have been able to make it back without Yuu-san’s presence tonight?”

The ensuing silence almost pushed Yuu right over the edge of her drowsiness into dreamland.

Crowley sighed. “That’s what I thought. The reason you three were able to use your magic together smoothly—in fact, the reason why the two of you are not at each other’s throats right now…I’m sure you know who to attribute that to.”

“Yeah but—wait a second, is he sleeping!?” Ace spluttered, turning in her direction.

“This kid really is shameless,” Deuce mumbled.

“Oh my. Yuu-san! Please stay awake for a little longer,” Crowley called.

Yuu lifted her unbearably heavy head. “Yessir,” she mumbled sleepily.

“Yuu-san. Am I correct in assuming the four of you made a joint effort to defeat the beast and retrieve the magic stone tonight?” Crowley laced his hands under his chin and leaned forward.

“It wasn’t really a joint effort,” Ace grumbled.

“Our goal happened to be the same, that’s all,” Deuce mumbled.

“I would’ve been goners if the three of these guys didn’t work together,” Yuu said blearily, petting a still-dozing Grim. “They can really be amazing, you know. I didn’t know magic could work like that.”

It was the truth. Yuu liked duelling, but barring life-and-death battles, it was usually a one-on-one, rather dull affair. As rehearsed as a pre-recorded speech. To team up and take down something stronger than themselves in the heat of the moment was far more impressive.

The magic they used in this world was also far lighter, far quicker and dare she say…more colourful than the magic she was used to. As if the bright bursts of scarlet fire and viridian wind contained elements themselves. It looked, in Ace’s words, cool.

This world’s magic reminded her a bit of the fairy dust used for Potions ingredients. Fairy dust had inherent magical properties due to the way it was made, and one didn’t have to be especially bright to scatter it over an area to take effect. The magic Yuu was used to wielding was unmanageable, wild, and exhausting—a far greater, fatter mass than the spells she’d seen here. It was also woven into her being, not an external force like the magic she’d seen today. Which meant…

She was broken out of her stupor when Crowley made a funny moaning noise. Yuu rubbed her eyes and squinted with mild interest as the headmaster buried his head in his hands and burst into loud sobs.

Grim jerked awake on her shoulder. “…What the…What’s a grown man doing wailing like a baby?”

“I am just about as confused as you are,” Yuu shrugged.

Ace shook his head with an incredulous laugh. “I should’ve charged my smartphone and recorded this.”

Deuce looked vaguely repulsed. Yuu pointed out his expression to Ace and they burst into suppressed chortling. It was totally worth the pain rocketing up her side.

“Of all my time…” blubbered Crowley, “Of the X decades I’ve been the headmaster of this school…!”

“Wait a second, how old is he?” Grim put in.

“That I could live to see the day…that students of the Night Raven College joined hands to face down an enemy!!” Crowley buried his mask in his gloves and wailed. “Waaaah!

“Wha—!” Deuce jerked back. “I didn’t hold hands with him!” he pointed at Ace as if pointing at a piece of dung stuck to his shoe.

“Who’d hold hands with you? Don’t make me sick,” Ace wrinkled his nose.

“Huh? I feel like I was hanging onto one of you for most of the trip though,” Yuu squinted. “Plus Grim.”

“Yeah, well, you’re small.” Ace said lamely.

“Yuu’s different,” Deuce agreed.

Crowley lifted his head suddenly, birdlike. “Hearing that has impressed me ferociously!

“That I’m a coward?” Yuu muttered. Ace and Deuce stifled grins.

“I have finally gotten my proof. Yuu-san! You are, without a doubt, blessed with the potential to be a fearsome animal tamer!” Crowley said dramatically, his tears gone.

“Animal tamer? You mean Grim?” Yuu squinted. But they’d already been through this last night.

“I’m not an animal! I’m a Monster!” Grim protested.

“As I have told you, the students chosen by Night Raven College’s Mirror are all eggs that will hatch into legendary magicians,” explained Crowley.

“Eggs? But mammals don’t hatch eggs,” Deuce mumbled confusedly.

“It’s a figure of speech, moron,” Ace muttered back.

“You’re the moron!”

“However! Due to their potential—their talent—they are unbelievably proud and egoistical, confident in themselves. The school is full of narcissistic, selfish brats who put their own…vibrant personalities…ahead of all else and would not think of cooperating with another student if the word bit them in the behind.”

“Wow,” Yuu blinked, “get insulted, guys.”

“He’s literally just snubbing everyone who goes here,” Grim muttered.

“Yuu-san, however—cannot use magic.”

I can, she thought.

“Because of this! Somehow, for reasons beyond me, you have managed to wrangle these self-centred students to cooperate like this and accomplish things that even I thought would never be possible.” Crowley smiled widely. “I’m sure it’s someone as unremarkably dull and normal as you who this school needed all this time!”

“Your turn to get insulted,” snickered Ace.

Crowley smiled at her. “Yuu-san. I am sure that you are unmistakably going to be a very…important asset to the future of this school. My teacher’s instinct is telling me so!”

“Really? I don’t think so?” Yuu squinted. “I’m just some random kid who got sent here by accident though.”

Once again, Crowley was back to ignoring her. “Mister Trappola! Mister Spade! I hereby remove your sentence of expulsion from the school—and together with that…”

Yuu rubbed her eyes sleepily.

“Yuu-san. No, Yuu-kun. I hereby admit you to the Night Raven College with the full privileges and rights of a student!” Crowley finished with a flourish.

Suddenly wide awake, Yuu stared at the headmaster as Ace and Deuce leapt upright, shouting, “What!?”

“Me!?” she spluttered.

Grim squeaked, “My henchman!?”

“Wait, wait a second. I can’t be a student at a magic development academy if I don’t have any magic,” Yuu put up a hand, trying to remain rational. Too many crazy things had happened today.

“Yes you can! Since I am an amazingly nice person.” Crowley clasped his hands in front of him. “Ah, however, there is a condition. Since you do not possess magic, I’m sure that you’ll understand when I say it is impossible to admit you as a magician. Taking classes will be difficult as well, I’m sure. This is where Mister Grim comes in.”

Grim pricked his flaming ears. “Me?”

“On the contrary, you have much of the raw power needed to become a magician, as shown today,” Crowley nodded. “Therefore! Together with Yuu-kun, you two are two in one—admitted to Night Raven College as a single entity.”

Grim sounded shaky when he managed, “So, the Great Grim…so I can attend this school? Not as a chores boy…as a student?”

Yuu squeezed him.

“Yes,” Crowley said gently. Then he glared at them. “However! You will not cause any more incidents like today—yesterday morning! Understood?”

Funa, funaa……” Grim’s blue eyes went glassy with tears. “Yuu…I…”

“Congrats, Grim! Your wish got fulfilled!” Yuu held him at eye level, beaming at him. “I’m proud of you!”

“I did it!” wailed Grim, flinging his paws around her neck.

“Well then, if you could turn this way, Mister Grim, I shall provide you with the magic stone signifying your license as a student.”

Yuu spun him around; Crowley waved his fingers, and a sparkle of light preceded a small silver collar’s appearance around his neck. The magic stone that hung from it glowed briefly, a muted purple that matched the surrounding décor.

“Originally, students are supposed to use Magical Pens with magic stones attached to them, but with your rather round appendages, I figured that this was a better choice. Oh, how kind I am!” Crowley said dramatically.

“Look, Yuu!” Grim ignored him. “Don’t I look awesome? I’m cool, aren’t I?”

“It matches your white patch of fur on your chest really well,” complimented Yuu. “Oh, wait a second. Here, wear this ribbon underneath so you don’t chafe.”

She took off the ribbon around the neck of the shirt she wore under her sweater vest—it was a little singed from the fight they’d just been through—and wound it under his collar, fastening it behind his head in a smart bow. “There you go.”

Grim looked like he was ready to fly straight through the roof. “This is the best collar that’s ever existed!”

“No one’s listening to me, I see,” sighed Crowley. “Yuu-kun, you can see that Mister Grim is rather…unaccustomed to societal rules. I am leaving it up to you to take the reins properly and make sure he does not cause trouble by directing him!”

Ace laughed. “Hey, this has gotta be a historical first! Yuu, you’re pretty amazing, huh? You haven’t even been a student for an hour and you’re already a Directing Student?”

“I see…since your dorm only has two students…” Deuce puzzled out, “So Yuu, who’s entrusted with Grim’s direction, gets to be the Directing Student?”

“Dude, I can’t take this,” Ace snickered, “A Directing Student who can’t use any magic! …I like it. Doesn’t it have a cool ring to it?”

“Huh…” Yuu blinked several times. “So as a half-student, I get to go to classes now? Wait. What about my whole way home thing?”

“Oh, that?” Crowley grinned and flapped his hand. “Don’t worry about it! We’ll search for it!”

“I don’t believe him at all,” Yuu told Ace and Deuce.

“He just said you were an important asset for the future,” Ace agreed. “Just give up and try your best, Lord Directing Student!”

“I see…Directing Student…” Crowley smiled. “I have just the thing! Now that you have a title, it should be easy to pile work—er, I would like to entrust you with an artifact. It is called the Ghost Camera!”

“Ghost…” Yuu blinked as he set a palm-sized square camera in front of her. Yuu dimly remembered seeing Kodxk disposable cameras like this when she was very young. “Why ghost?”

“I think I might’ve heard about it from my grandma,” Ace piped up, squinting at it. “I hear it’s a reaaaaally old magical artifact.”

“It’s not that reaaaaaaally old…ahem.” Crowley sighed. “It is true that it might have been invented when your great or great-great grandmother was a little child.”

“How old is the headmaster?” mumbled Deuce.

“Anyway! There is an enchantment on this camera so that instead of capturing just the target, it can also take a picture of part of their souls!”

Sounded like moving magical photography, Yuu thought privately.

“Or one can call it taking a picture of a memory altogether.” Crowley explained. “And! The interesting thing about this enchantment is! Depending on the depth of the bond between the wielder—the cameraman—and the one being captured through the lens, the memory captured can jump out from the taken picture, move, interact with you, and all sorts of things!”

Yuu blinked. “How on earth does that work?!”

“As the cameraman becomes closer with the subject, pictures of the subject will move like videos, gain corporeal form, jump out of the picture, and such. Isn’t it interesting?”

“Jump out?” Squawked Deuce. “Like Spirit Photography!?”

“The subject’s still alive, Deuce,” Yuu said dryly.

“Well, that is why it is called the Ghost Camera.” Crowley shrugged. “In the age before videos existed, it was developed to keep memories as close to reality as possible…however, when they saw the corporeal forms of the subjects in the picture, they reacted in a similar way to Mister Spade and shrieked about ghosts. Which is why they were extremely afraid of taking pictures and having their picture taken by this camera.”

“Sounds like it’s literally just good for making a racket,” Ace shrugged. “We’ve got phones that do better now.”

“Mister Directing Student. Please take this camera and film students, your school life, and Mister Grim with this camera as part of your everyday duties,” Crowley said.

“That’s it?” Yuu said dumbly. She picked up the camera, aimed it at Grim. “Hey, say cheese.”

“You got it, henchman! Be sure to take a good picture of me!”

Yuu fiddled with the camera, snapped a photo of Grim, and then snapped one of Crowley for good measure. She wasn’t sure it worked, as nothing happened—no flash of light, no reaction.

Yuu clicked the shutter several times in quick succession. Nothing.

“Is it broken?” Deuce peered down over her shoulder in interest.

Yuu shrugged at him.

“Please always take a Memory of when that creature becomes hard to control,” Crowley added in a strained voice as Yuu checked the insides for film. “It can serve as a replacement for reports to me.”

“How do I develop this film?” Yuu asked, ignoring him. “Also, can I have a scrapbook to keep pictures in?”

“I will direct you to the Mystery Shop to do just that later on this week. Oh…just how kind am I to hand you a magical artifact and even directions on how to sue it…I astound myself sometimes.” Crowley pressed a glove to his mask theatrically.

Yuu yawned. “Thank you very much, Headmaster.”

Crowley sighed at her fondly. “Very well. It is late…or early. Let us save the details for later on, and off to bed with you four. Good night!”

“G’night,” Yuu rubbed her eyes.

“Well then, if you will excuse us,” Deuce tugged her upright to leave.

They emerged onto the second-floor hallway, its window side completely cut open coliseum-style, displaying a sea of stars and so many ramparts poking into the sky on their other side. Ace and Deuce ignored the beautiful scenery by complaining vocally about how tired they were, how close it had been to expulsion for them, ad nauseum.

Yuu subtly snapped a picture of their exaggeratedly long faces. Still no reaction. How did someone use this thing?

“Can’t believe I’m gonna be a student here tomorrow!” Grim hopped up and down on her shoulder. “Just watch me beat the two of you and become first in my year!”

“Oh come on, you’re half a student! Wouldn’t you have to get two hundred percent to become first?” Ace teased him. “Good for you, furball.”

“We’re classmates from tomorrow, then, Grim. Yuu.”

“Huh? Me too?” Yuu pointed at herself.

“Obviously. Who else is going to watch over that fire-starter?” Ace rolled his eyes.

“Right…but I really know nothing about your magic, all right? Like…literally Kindergarten level,” Yuu warned. “So I might ask you guys for help if you don’t mind. I’ll be relying on you!”

“Ah~ all right, all right, I suppose I can deign to help you once or twice,” Ace waved her off. “Stop with the formalities, it’s embarrassing.”

“I guess he’s right,” Deuce’s face softened in a surprisingly gentle smile. “Starting tomorrow I’ll be seeing your faces every day ‘til I get sick of them anyway. Especially this guy, since we’re in the Heartslabyul dorm together.”

Ace’s eyes narrowed with that wicked grin. “When I think of having to greet this overly serious guy every day, I can feel my consciousness fading already.”

“That’s my line…slacker Ace.”

“Yeah, yeah, poor Deuce who nearly started sobbing at the idea of expulsion.” Ace shot back.

“Um, guys,” Yuu intervened just before they started to fight. “Let’s take a picture together! Using the Ghost Camera. You know, as a commemoration.”

“Aww, what, you like us so much you want a picture of us to carry around or something?” Ace teased.

“Well…” Yuu thought for a second. “If you put it that way.”

“Huh!? I was just kidding!”

“You guys are my favourite people on this planet,” she said frankly. “Please?”

Ace made an exaggerated face at her, but didn’t turn to leave. If she looked closer, his face was kind of pink.

“Yuu…” Deuce looked touched. “Leave it to me! I’ve got longer arms, so I can hit the shutter. Come on in!”

“You too, Grim,” Yuu tugged him onto her shoulder as Deuce and Ace gathered on either side of her. “Say cheese!”

Chapter Text

Yuu had counted three minutes and thirty-three seconds before the Sorting Hat at pushed her into Ravenclaw. It had been utterly silent for one of those minutes, confused for another, and debated between Slytherin and Ravenclaw for the remainder of the time she had sat, feet dangling off the wooden stool, her eyes obscured by the black fabric.

It was probably because the hat didn’t quite know what to make of her—a common expression she would find on her professors’ faces were a slight bemused smile, a lifting of the brows in surprise; surely, she had not angered them or disgusted them, but all the same Yuu was aware that she wasn’t quite…the regular student. She was missing something that allowed her to blend in with the rest of them.

Still, she thought Ravenclaw might have been the best decision the Hat could have made even four years later. Yuu might have possessed a stunning lack of ambition, bravery, and goodwill that other children had in spades, but her ferocious, unabating hunger for magic made up for it all. Quiet and uninvolved when unprovoked, Yuu would burst into a flurry of activity—a whirlwind of speech—when she found something to be curious about.

With her arrival in the strange world of Twisted Wonderland, Yuu had learned that she wasn’t just curious about her magic. It turned out that separate worlds, an entirely different magic system, all of this stimulated her ravenous hunger like nothing else. It didn’t hurt that she was now living with a magical creature the likes of which she didn’t know existed. She could almost call herself excited—excited in a way she hadn’t felt since her first year.

Magic had saved Yuu. Now this world was powering her motivation and mood in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time.

Yuu had overslept on the second day, which was to be expected, since it was hours past midnight when she and Grim finally dragged themselves back to Ramshackle Dorm. However, Crowley had swept her off as soon as she pushed the door to Ramshackle’s lounge open late in the morning and commanded her to show him her wounds, where she had been hit, because he was ‘too kind’ to allow an injured student to stay that way.

So Yuu let him pull her into what looked like a quiet infirmary, filled with rows of curtained beds and one doctor’s desk, and was sat on a pristinely made white bed while Crowley bustled out of the room. She had been mostly successful last night in easing the bruising on her back—hissing Episkey over and over in the washroom during her shower so Grim wouldn’t see—but her stomach and side was livid with a rash of dark purple, and she had been far too tired to keep using her weakest magic.

A moment later, Crowley strode back into the room, followed by a stunningly tall man whose parted hair was snowy white on one side and pitch black on the other, all artfully styled to fall slightly over his eyes. Yuu catalogued that this person might be the most beautiful man that she’d seen, although she had yet to meet someone who wasn’t beautiful in this Night Raven College. Unlike Crowley’s elegance, Ace’s mischievous boyish charm and Deuce’s serious handsomeness, this new arrival walked with poise, almost like a muggle runway model, and there was a coolly disinterested slant to his hooded eyes that spoke of confidence.

The man lifted one brow after scanning her up and down. “Headmaster Crowley…Isn’t this the ragged little puppy who caused trouble at the opening ceremony a few days ago?”

“That’s right, though I did tell you about him afterwards,” Crowley flipped his mantle, revealing the shine of three more mirrors hanging at his belt. “Yuu-kun! I would like you to meet the sciences professor here at Night Raven College, Divus Crewel.”

“Nice to meet you, Professor Crewel,” Yuu, whose manners had been drilled into her by her Japanese grandmother during one visit a few years ago, bent her head in greeting.

“I heard you were injured.” Crewel crossed his arms, fur rolling with the movement. He was clad in a great sleek coat, striped white-and-black all over, and she could see the handle of a wand—? No, it was a crop poking out of his belt. “As the head of the alchemy department, and because Crowley is too incompetent to hire a nurse, I am entrusted with injuries any students may suffer.”

“I’m not incompetent!” Crowley said shrilly. Crewel ignored him.

“It’s just bruising, really,” Yuu stared at Crowley, not having expected him to take her adventure yesterday so seriously.

“Nonsense!” Crewel snapped. Yuu sat at attention immediately. “You were attacked by an unidentified beast. You should be worrying about side-effects of magical creature attacks, foolish puppy!”

He was right. “Yessir,” Yuu answered, eyes wide.

“Well? Strip!” Crewel commanded. “Where are you injured?”

Despite not being very concerned with how her gender was perceived—and never having really made the distinction between being male and female here (or back at Hogwarts)—even Yuu felt hesitation at taking off her shirt in front of two adult men. Instead, she shucked her sweater-vest and shirt up to her ribs to show the bruising that had been hurting her for several hours.

Crewel’s glare zeroed in on the purple. There was an oppressive, chilly silence before he snatched up his crop and turned on Crowley. “You raven bastard.”

Crowley put both hands up. “I do deeply apologise!” He said quickly, sounding truly remorseful. “After all, who would have expected them to actually go to the Mines? Though Yuu-kun…aren’t you a little too thin?”

“That’s not it, you fool. Out.”

“I am the headmaster, you know,” Crowley started.

Crewel lifted his crop. A small red collar dangled from its handle, jingling with the movement. “Out!

Crowley shut the door behind them without a peep.

Yuu, who was still holding her clothing up to her ribs, blinked. “Um…is it okay to shout at the Headmaster like that?”

“Puppy! Put that shirt down right away.” Crewel pointed the crop at her.

Yuu was used to listening to professors with one or two personality quirks. In fact, she felt much more comfortable following McGonagall’s barked orders, Moody’s commands, than she did with the hesitant prodding of the new Potions professor whose name she kept forgetting. Crewel felt like the former, so without questioning him, she put her shirt and vest back down.

Crewel let out a long sigh, tapping the crop against his leg with a frown. He pulled over a chair and settled across it elegantly. “…Before I administer medicine for your bruise. Am I correct to assume that you came here not of your own volition?”

“Yessir,” Yuu tucked her shirt in. There was no reason to lie to him, and he seemed a lot more reliable than Crowley. “I woke up and I was here.”

“And the raven—Crowley put you up in that wreckage of a building,” Crewel’s voice fell half an octave. “And made you do menial labour?”

Yuu blinked. Why was he so angry? “Um, he actually let me stay here and even gave me food. Plus, yesterday I became an, er…Directing Student. Headmaster’s been really good to me, sir.”

“…” Crewel let out a long sigh, a line appearing between his brows. “Puppy…how much do you know about Night Raven College?”

“Um…nothing, pretty much. It’s a good school, I hear?” Yuu shrugged and winced a little. “I think it might be my only chance at finding a way back home.”

“A way back…”

“To my world,” explained Yuu. “Since I don’t come from this one.”

Crewel dropped his crop.

CHAPTER THREE | The Feeling of Belonging.

“Huh? Hey! It’s that kid from the opening ceremony! What was his name again? Oi~!”

Yuu, who was nibbling sleepily on toast in a corner of the cafeteria, wondered just what was in that disgusting medicine that Crewel had made her swallow. It had only been a couple of days, but all the bruising across her body was gone. She felt lighter than she had in weeks.

Crewel had told her with a rather harried expression that she should probably get out of here as fast as she could. Yuu agreed heartily, but this place was so interesting…

“Oiii! Can you hear me?”

The magic here was far more complicated than she’d imagined and drew heavily on physics and scientific theory. Indeed, magic behaved like a force separate from gravity, and the meaning of ‘being born’ with magic was more closely related to ‘being able to use’ magic. Yuu had been living almost exclusively in the library for the past few days, reading to Grim when he was awake and being teased by Ace for being a bookworm. But it was so interesting…

“Hey!” A pair of scarlet eyes popped up in front of her face. Yuu choked on her toast and nearly tipped a napping Grim off her shoulder.

“Whoa, sorry! Were you sleeping?” Kalim was all smiles as he slid into the seat beside her comfortably. When he moved, the scent of oudh drifted up her nose from a gold bangle on his wrist. “It’s been a while! Yuu, right? I thought you went home!”

“Good morning, Kalim-san,” Yuu managed to clear her airways with a cough. “Good to see you again. You sure are energetic so early.”

“Ha ha! Is that so! You sure seem out of it! Not a morning person?” Kalim set down a tray and laughed at her through a mouthful of what looked like naan filled with some fragrant meat. “So what’cha doing around here?”

“Oh right.” Yuu tilted her head so that Grim’s dozing form became visible to him. “Actually, I got admitted as a Directing Student together with Grim. So for the time being, I’ll be around.”

“No way!” Kalim’s eyes shone. “You sure are something, huh, kid? I never heard of a Directing Student or whatever it’s called, but you must’ve impressed Crowley. Anyway! Now we get to be schoolmates!”

Yuu shook her head, unable to resist grinning back. “Apparently, the Headmaster thinks I’ll be useful for something.” She explained the Ghost Camera to him and was subsequently cajoled into taking a selfie together. Still, Yuu had no idea if it worked, since the shutter clicked without any flashing. She shoved it back in her bag with a shrug.

“Huh? Wait, you don’t have a uniform!” Kalim gestured to his unbuttoned maroon vest and wrinkled white shirt underneath. Several metal bracelets rattled with the movement. “Didn’t you get put in a dorm yet?”

“Oh, I’m living in the Ramshackle Dorm in the grounds,” she explained, putting the camera away.

Kalim wrinkled his nose in confusion. “Whassat?”

“It’s an unused building. Since I’m not a magician I’m living there instead,” she explained. “That’s why I’m in my regular clothes.”

“Got’cha, got’cha.” Kalim nodded, the huge cashmere-looking robe draped over his shoulders sliding half-off his shoulder with the movement. “Well, I am the leader of the Scarabia dorm, so feel free to ask me stuff you don’t get! You seem like an all right kid, even if you’re a bit thin!”

“Thanks,” Yuu said gratefully after swallowing a mouthful of milk. “It must be tough to be the leader. So what’s Scarabia dorm like?”

Kalim moved his hands emotively when he spoke, but his face was so expressive anyway that it intimidated her slightly. Today his earrings were curved in a twisting spiral and jingled with something magical when he shook his head. He was good at diving into personal space without being intrusive, making himself right at home beside her. Yuu, who had never had anyone be so overtly friendly towards her, immediately took a liking to him. It helped that he did most of the talking.

The Scarabia dormitory seemed to be located in a desert—wait, wasn’t it on campus?—and built on the back of a ton of money. Judging by the material of Kalim’s robe, he was by no means poor. Breakfast passed quickly with the dorm head offering to take her on a tour of Scarabia as his ‘newest friend’. He also told her he was a second year, which made her apologize for being so familiar with him. Kalim laughed it off with a wave and told her that friends didn’t need formalities.

Yuu blinked. “I’m your friend?”

Kalim blinked back with a confused grin. “Yeah, obviously? Why, you didn’t think so?”

“Oh.” Yuu grinned up at him. “Um, I guess that makes you my first friend in this world, then, Kalim-senpai.”

“Really? Awesome!” Kalim’s eyes disappeared into a full-faced grin. “Hey Yuu! You’re a firstie, right?”

“Right,” Yuu nodded.

“Quick tip as your first friend!” Kalim winked at her. “Don’t sleep at the table in public places. ‘Specially with your position as a Directing Student or whatever. You never know who might be watching and waiting, ‘kay?”

“…!” Yuu widened her eyes, remembering how she’d been dozing a little while ago. “It’s dangerous to sleep here?”

“Well…” Kalim’s eyes went curiously blank as he glanced over her head. Then the smile was back. “This is Night Raven College. Can’t be too careful, right?”

“Okay.” She saw no reason to doubt him. Yuu nodded solemnly, “I’ll be careful.”

“Good fellow!” Kalim ruffled her hair. “Man, I can’t believe you’re academy age, you’re so small and skinny. I should treat you to some of our food, you won’t believe how delicious it is. Like this chicken stuffed naan! Jamil’s a genius.”

“Chicken for breakfast?” Yuu blinked. “I didn’t see that on the menu.”

“I was in the mood,” Kalim said lightly.

In the mood…? Had he custom-ordered it or something? Yuu wondered.

A dark-haired, dark-skinned student approached their table, arms crossed. “Kalim.”

“Speak of the devil!” Kalim brightened up like the sun. “Hey, Jamil! Meet Yuu, he’s the new Directing Student! Yuu, this is Jamil Viper. He’s my vice dorm head!”

Yuu tilted her head at the new arrival in a greeting politely. “Good morning, Jamil…senpai? I’m Yuu. Nice to meet you.”

“So you’re the Directing Student we’ve heard about,” Jamil Viper’s voice was a calm baritone as he scanned her up and down. “Nice to meet you. Hopefully our Dorm Head hasn’t been causing too much trouble.”

“Hey, I was teaching him the ins and outs of Scarabia!” Kalim protested in good humour. “And it was Yuu who caused the trouble a couple days ago, you know.”

“Kalim, I told you to tell me before you ran off,” sighed Jamil, turning his exotically slanted eyes to the Dorm Head. He, too, had kohl smeared around the tops of his lashes, a darkish sienna that complemented the earthy tones of his skin well. In contrast to the bright woven fabric of Kalim’s uniform, he wore a dark red-and-black hoodie under his blazer that looked like it was straight out of a muggle Hot Topic store.

Kalim waved a hand. “Sorry, sorry! I saw Yuu here and couldn’t resist! How long before the warning bell?”

“Around five minutes.” Jamil didn’t miss a beat. He turned his gaze back to her, frowning. “What are you staring at me for?”

“How do you braid your hair like that?” Yuu wanted to know, staring at Jamil’s long glossy black hair pulled back from his head with three neat rows braided away from the right side. Gold shone from between the strands; Jamil was sporting feathers and tiny beads in his hair.

Jamil raised a brow at her. “Carefully,” was his clipped answer.

“Jamil’s real good with his hands!” bragged Kalim. “He can do anything.”

“As expected,” added Jamil dully.

It would’ve sounded prideful, but for some reason, Jamil just looked exhausted. Yuu frowned, catching an unnatural twist in the end of his sentence.

Kalim didn’t notice. “Jamil surpasses expectations all the time. Anyway, we should probably get going to the second-year classrooms. Catch ya later, Yuu!”

“Bye,” she waved as the two of them stood. “Kalim-senpai, Jamil-senpai. Nice meeting you.”

Jamil dipped a nod at her before he took Kalim’s tray from under him and followed the white-haired boy from the cafeteria.

“His hair was really pretty,” she remarked to herself. Both Kalim and Jamil followed the example of every NRC student she’d met so far—unusually good-looking. Especially Jamil, whose beauty outshone that of almost everyone save for the tall blond at the entrance ceremony. She kind of wanted to try braiding her own hair the same way as he, though it had been cut to her chin (now reached her neck) and was always tied back into a knot so she didn’t find it bothersome when reading. Probably not practical.

“Heh? What? Is it already morning?” mumbled Grim, rubbing his eyes as the warning bell rang. He sniffed. “What did you eat this morning? There are spices everywhere!”

“Oh, nothing special,” Yuu hid a smile as she pushed herself to her feet. “Just made a new friend.”

The first years’ classes were split into two overarching subjects—humanities and sciences—plus outdoor training, mostly in Flight magic. Yuu hadn’t noticed, but later Deuce told her with a scowl that she had been on the receiving end of some rather negative attention when she sat on the side during the first Flight class.

Usually the first years gathered in the classroom and studied magic history during the morning hours, broke for lunch, and studied alchemy—also called Potions—in the afternoon with Crewel, who Yuu was getting the feeling didn’t like her very much. He kept glaring in her direction between barks of “Bad boy!” and “Stay!”. Otherwise, flight classes were sprinkled on odd days and confused the schedule out of its usual pattern. It was easier to just look at the day-to-day schedule Ace and Deuce carried with them.

The first day of class was, of course, met with Grim running off in the middle of history classes because he didn’t want to memorise boring dates. Yuu had sighed and traded her lunch with Ace and Deuce in return for their help in catching him. She’d never seen Deuce make such an evil face as when he asked her what she’d give him in return for his help. This kid was just as messed up as Ace, Yuu had thought rather admiringly.

She learned that day that Ace and Deuce worked together like the best of partners when they were terrorizing other students. Unfortunately, Yuu was on the receiving end. She gave Grim a good noogie for bringing down calamity on her head.

A couple of weeks of classes passed by in a whirlwind of action. Yuu was far too busy to pay attention to anything outside of classes except for dragging Grim out of trouble—and boy, did he get into trouble—so she lost track of the passage of time even more completely than usual.

Before she knew it, the third week of classes had already dawned on Night Raven College, and Yuu had finally scraped up an understanding of most of what the history professor—a stately older man called Mozus Trein who carried his cat with him—taught daily. However, the Flight classes were impossible. Probably would be for the rest of her life. Yuu had gone under some questionable methods learning how to ride her Yajirushi and never wanted to use another broom, ever, unless the alternative was dying.

Just like she was getting used to doing, Yuu plodded into the first-years’ classroom and shuffled into the bench next to Deuce, who had his pen case and notes out already. “Mornin’ Deuce.”

“Yuu!” Deuce’s aquamarine eyes brightened in a smile. “You look as sleepy as usual.”

“I stayed up late reading.” She yawned, glancing down at her desk, and grimaced. “Wow, you can’t even see the wood anymore.”

Ace whistled as he slid in on her other side. “Damn, haven’t seen someone get bullied this obviously, ever. What’d you do, kill their parents?”

Yuu rolled her eyes and swung her book bag down to withdraw a bottle of alcohol wipes she’d begged from Crowley a few days ago. “That’d be way too much trouble. I don’t even know anyone here.”

Deuce sighed. “I still don’t see why you don’t get back at them,” he said in frustration.

“Says the guy who keeps saying that personal fighting is prohibited in school grounds,” Ace parroted back.

“Yeah, personal fighting.” A wicked grin twisted up Deuce’s face. “Getting back at a bunch of cowardly punks isn’t necessarily fighting.”

“What’s with that great smile,” Ace grinned excitedly, leaning over her, “what, got any ideas?”

Yuu rubbed at the graffiti covering her desk and was relieved when it came off easily. She shrugged as she worked. “Hey, at least they didn’t come up to me and punch me in the face yet. Or dunk me in a river and hold my head under. Or throw my book bag into mud. Stop looking evil, you two.”

She’d been on the receiving end of some nasty pranks during her first and fourth year at Hogwarts, so all of the above were things she’d gone through personally. Compared to that, being whispered about in the hallways and ostracized in the lunchroom was rather insignificant. Sure, at Hogwarts most people (save the bullies) didn’t know she existed and NRC’s students universally disliked her, but no one here had been stupid enough to pick a full-frontal fight with her…yet.

When she looked up, Ace and Deuce were staring at her with unreadable expressions. Yuu blinked. “What?”

Ace traded glances with Deuce over her head. “Oh, nothing,” he said cheerfully. “Anyway, let’s go check out the new menu together at lunch. You get free food from Crowley, right? Pile on a double helping of dessert and share some with us. I heard it’s real good this time!”

“Sure, sounds good.” Yuu grinned back, passing him the soiled alcohol wipe. Ace obligingly sent it across the room into the garbage bin with a flick of his Magical Pen.

She poked at the fuzzy creature nestled into her neck. “Grim. Grim, wake up, class is gonna start soon.”

“Ugh…” Grim yawned. “It’s your fault you kept me up so late last night doing homework. I need fifteen hours of sleep a day, you know!”

“I thought you said you weren’t a cat?” Deuce muttered.

As Grim settled onto her recently cleansed desk, blowing a raspberry at Deuce, Ace frowned and whispered in her ear, “The furball’s gonna find out his ‘henchman’ is being bullied eventually.”

Yuu took out the notebook Crowley had provided for her, whispering back, “No he’s not.”

“I’ll give you that you’re good at hiding this stuff, but it hasn’t stopped for almost a month,” Ace didn’t let up. His orange brows were furrowed down in a serious scowl. “Shouldn’t you ask a teacher for help? Or at least plan something to get back at them? You’re gonna get hurt.”

“Class is starting,” Professor Trein marched in the room, his cat perched grumpily on one outstretched arm. Ace sighed and gave her a glance that read ‘later’.

Yuu refrained from telling him that she was probably the hardest person to hurt at this entire school. Not only was she being kept here by the Headmaster himself—which scared most of the NRC residents off from any overt acts of bullying—but her Charm work was nothing to scoff at. No one had even managed to get into her windows since she’d set up some simple wards and protective Charms. She didn’t know if it was from lack of trying, though; Yuu had slept like a rock these past several weeks. Maybe the Ghosts were deterrent enough to scare any students off when they neared.

Ace and Deuce were her second set of friends made at the College. Despite Ace’s tendency to tease her and Grim, or because of it, he tended to stick around her more often than not. On the other hand, she appeared to have won Deuce’s loyalty after taking a hit for him during their adventure in the Dwarf Mines. Being the taller of the two of them—and the nicer—Deuce would plunk himself on her right during lunch and glare ferociously at the people whispering about her while Ace made fun of them rather mean-spiritedly. She’d had to stop Deuce from punching one of the cat-eared classmates when he made a rather unkind comment about her stature. After he’d said no personal fighting, too. Yuu had noted with exasperated fondness how Deuce was a little too quick to action. In Ace’s words, ‘an idiot’.

They hadn’t said they were her friends—but unlike with Kalim, Yuu didn’t need them to say it. She felt at home with Ace and Deuce in a way that she had never felt with anyone before. Perhaps it was because they didn’t hold anything back, didn’t try to be ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ or ‘normal’ to her. Ace had one of the most warped personalities she’d ever seen and Deuce was, although generally kind enough, prone to snapping and slightly off in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. They also both liked to hold things above her head and make her jump for it like delinquents.

Yuu didn’t know what to make of it. Yet she was far to starstruck, far too enamoured with this new world to dwell much on the startling fact that she spent almost the entire day with the two of them (plus Grim) yet never felt the need to be by herself. For the highly asocial Yuu, this was a miracle, if she had stopped to consider it.

The other half of the day was spent with Grim. Despite his rather arrogant personality (as Crowley said, hardly a rare trait in this school), Grim was small and cute and Yuu loved animals, Care of Magical Creatures, whatever she wanted to call it. She and Grim stuck to each other like two halves of a whole, sometimes arguing, sometimes laughing, and most of the time bent over homework they couldn’t understand. Grim knew much more than her about this world’s magic, but he was hardly first place material.

Ever since she’d arrived in this world, Yuu had developed a bad habit of seeking physical contact. Since she’d woken up all alone in the coffin, she had not been able to calm down until Crowley closed his gloved fingers around her wrist, although she did not recognize her panic at the time. After the episode in Ramshackle Dorm, she’d only been able to sleep as well as she had because Grim was warm on her pillow. And the traumatic next day would have probably destroyed her mentally if she had not clung on to Deuce and Ace the whole time they were away from school.

Even now—Yuu made sure to be attached to Grim all the time. Whether he was curled around her neck, sat on her lap, lending her a furry paw to hold, purring on her stomach…they were in contact at almost all times of the day. Sometimes, Yuu would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat only to find that Grim had rolled away from her.

Yuu catalogued this unhealthy trend within her coolly, had noticed that she was not as okay as she seemed travelling worlds—but with the aplomb of a teenager, she didn’t consider it important enough to speak to a professor about. Instead, the only worry that was pushing at her mind was the issue of money.

Madols were the form of currency in Twisted Wonderland (she guessed it was short for ‘magic dollars’), and to her eternal confusion, one Madol was roughly equal to one Japanese yen, or one one-hundred-and-thirtieth of a British pound. Yuu, who had been born in England, but was familiar with her mother’s Japanese family during visits, and was an exchange student last year, didn’t find it anything more than a little strange, but all the same—she had no money.

The shoeless issue—which Ace and Deuce brought up incessantly—was solved, surprisingly, by the Flight magic instructor Ashton Vargas. Although he was as much of a narcissist concerning his muscles as she had ever seen, Vargas had taken one look at her and told her he would have shoes for her by the next day. And he did—striding into the humanities classroom early next morning and scaring Ace and Deuce comically into drawing their Pens, he had passed her a bag containing an unbelievably soft pair of black leather dress shoes that fit her small feet perfectly. Vargas was, needless to say, Yuu’s favourite instructor. Unfortunately, she still hated his classes.

Still, having no pocket money was a problem. Crowley had provided immediate needs: a cauldron, textbooks and notebooks, pens, a book bag. But she only had one set of clothing and the pyjamas she’d found within Ramshackle Dorm. Yuu would have been fine magicking her clothing clean daily, but it would attract undue attention not to have more than one set. Plus, what Kalim had said about the uniform made her desirous of one.

Mostly, she was a little tired of fishing her possessions from the school’s well. It was better than having them tossed out of school grounds, because no one could leave without permission, but Drying Charms only did so much and it was getting hard to read her textbooks and notes when the ink ran. She had refrained from charming her things not to get wet because it would raise suspicion, but…

“I need a job,” Yuu decided to herself as she waved Ace off after school. He had been muttering about a match and how he was going to join some sports team all day. Deuce had long since left for a reason he refused to disclose. She had the sneaking suspicion he didn’t want to tell Ace he was also trying out for a team until he made it.

Grim, who was muttering the list of ingredients needed for that day’s alchemic experiment, paused. “What?”

“I need a job,” she repeated.

“Why?” Grim looked absolutely flummoxed, peering up at her with those great big glassy eyes. “I think you should be trying to pull up your flying lessons marks, not wasting time doing something as useless as that.”

“Ugh. Well…yeah.” Yuu winced. “But I wanna buy at least a school uniform.” And underwear. Did they sell clothing around here? Maybe she’d have to transfigure something. It was just bad luck that the day she’d left home she’d been wearing a vest-like structure to flatten and protect her chest, a leftover habit from her summer before fourth year travelling across dragon-rich countries. Now she was stuck wearing it the whole time in lieu of a brassiere and it was getting rather hard to breathe recently. Had she gained weight?

“Hmm? Why don’t you just ask Crowley for stuff you want?” Grim cocked his head. “Well, whatever. C’mon, you said you’d get me some tuna cans from him today! That guy keeps avoiding us!”

“All right, all right.” Yuu sighed. She really needed a job, if just to fund Grim’s unreasonable addiction to canned fish. Crowley kept running away whenever they saw him, and the cute little Monster was beginning to lose the last of his short temper.

Yuu was curled up by the fireplace, Grim stretched around her shoulders like a furry scarf. Her nose was buried deep in A Detailed Look into the Queen’s Reign with a lamp on the coffee table brightening the room when a storm of knocking dislodged a cloud of dust from the ceiling.

Grim fell off her shoulders onto the couch with a start and a yelp. Yuu Banished the dust, coughing, before calling out “one second!”

She had been close to dozing, the unfamiliar scene of a blonde girl walking through a labyrinth of roses dripping with scarlet paint fresh in her mind. Shaking the strange picture out of her head, she padded over to the door and pushed it open. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” Ace said grumpily. He shoved his way past her, nearly stamping into the foyer.

“Whoa, one sec,” Yuu caught him around the waist. “The floorboards are really weak so I’ll guide you. Also, shoes off.”

“All right, mother,” Ace spat, kicking his shoes off rather violently.

“You all right?” Yuu peered up into his face in concern, squeezing his hand. Then she froze. “Wait—why do you have that huge collar around your neck?”

His ire seemingly alleviated by her honest shock, Ace sighed and swung their hands back and forth impatiently, long since used to her need for physical contact. The firelight gleamed off of the metal lock hanging around his neck. “That’s exactly why I’m here. Hey, Yuu. Can I stay over tonight?”

“Sure.” Yuu said without hesitation as Grim approached them. “C’mon in. I can at least make you some tea. Grim filched a tin from the Headmaster’s office instead of a tuna can by accident.”

“What a useless trip that was,” Grim grumbled, leaping up onto her shoulder. “Oi, Ace, watch out. The board in front of you probably can’t take your weight.”

“What kind of garbage place did he shove you in?” Ace hopped carefully over the floorboards as Yuu made her way across the lounge into the half-collapsed kitchen to boil water. “I can’t believe you live here.”

“I don’t really care as long as it’s sort of clean and I can sleep,” Yuu called back.

Ace had made himself at home on the couch and was muttering fiercely at the fire by the time he’d come back. Grim had curled up on the table, half dozing. Yuu had learned that he could sleep anywhere.

“Thanks for waiting.” She passed him a warm mug. “We can go find a pair of leftover pyjamas later. I washed them, but they’re gonna be old.”

“Don’t care.” Ace waved her off, his glare smoothing over slightly as he took a draw without checking the temperature. “Like hell I’m going back to Heartslabyul. Hey, Yuu. I’m joining Ramshackle dorm starting today, just so you know.”

Yuu raised both brows and plopped down beside him. “What are you on about? Also, I think I’ve seen that metal…what is that?”

“Like hell if I know.” Ace muttered moodily, tugging at the curve of metal binding his neck. When she looked closer, one half of red and one half of black made up a heart-shaped collar from which a padlock hung.

“Grim got hit by it at the opening ceremony,” she remembered. “Something about sealing magic?”

“Yeah, exactly!” exploded Ace. “With this thing on I can’t do anything around here!”

“What’d you do?” she gave him a flat stare.

“I ate a tart.”

“…” Yuu squinted. “You what?”

“I ate a frickin’ tart, okay?” Ace burst out. Grim started awake.

“Wow, sorry I asked.”

“I want a tart,” Grim remarked.

Yuu arched a brow at Ace, scratching Grim behind the ears. “I think you might want to explain the details.”

Ace obliged. The series of events had happened not even an hour ago. He’d gone back from his basketball team try-outs—which were rather successful, if his proud smirk said anything—to an empty lounge, exhausted and hungry.

“So you opened the fridge and found a tart?” Yuu finished, surprised that basketball existed in this world.

“There were three whole tarts in there!” Ace was quick to add. “I was so hungry I figured one couldn’t hurt.”

“Okay.” Didn’t seem like a huge deal. “And then?”

“The Dorm Head found me.” Ace lost his momentum and sagged on the couch, nursing his tea sulkily.

“Dorm Head…?” repeated Yuu. “…The scary redhead from the ceremony?”

“That guy who nearly killed me with that collar!” Grim recalled, clutching his neck protectively.

“He spouted something about a rule where no one could touch his food and then bam! Uses his stupid Off with Your Head on me!” Ace sulked. “And that’s it.”

Grim stared at Ace.

Yuu stared at Ace.

Ace glared back. “What!?”

“Both of you are idiots,” Grim concluded, curled up, and went to sleep.

“What did you say, you furball?” Ace growled, shoving himself to his feet.

“Calm down, calm down,” Yuu tugged him back into a sitting position. “Um, honestly I agree that it wasn’t such a big deal, but uh…that redhead is scary.”

“He’s insane!” Ace gulped his tea.

“If you knew your Head Boy—um, Dorm Head was that scary, why would you risk offending him?” she pointed out. “I thought you were smart.”

“I was frickin’ hungry, dammit!” Ace whined. “But getting my magic sealed for that is way too unfair! It’s like…being put in chains for a magician!”

“Well, you said there were three whole tarts, right?” Yuu recalled.

“As if he could eat them all himself! How selfish do you get!?” Ace was still complaining.

“But what if it wasn’t for himself?” Yuu said thoughtfully. “He might have been hosting a party or something. Or handing it out to the residents of the dorm.”

“Nope nope nope. Dorm Head would never do something like that,” Ace shook his head several times. “Well I don’t know the guy…pretty much at all, since we haven’t been in ’Labyul much the past few weeks…”

“You know you could’ve just apologized and asked him to take it off,” Yuu suggested.

“Like hell!” Ace said angrily.

“Ace…you don’t feel sorry at all, do you?”

“Having three tarts sitting in the fridge is just asking for someone to eat them,” Ace told her stubbornly. “Hey Yuu. I thought you were my buddy!”

“I am your buddy.” Yuu rolled her eyes. “I’m letting you stay over, aren’t I? But Ace, your buddy suggests that you don’t throw away Heartslabyul over a petty thing like this. You have a place where you belong, full of other people who are your fellow students. Ramshackle Dorm is, well…”

“A dump?” Ace put in dryly.

“That,” Yuu answered with a grin. “Even if your Dorm Head is scary as heck, I’ve learned how crazy people and Grims get when they don’t get their food.”

“Oh yeah! Deuce said he saw the two of you chasing the Headmaster all over the second floor again. Canned tuna?”

“Exactly.” Yuu rolled her eyes. “Heartslabyul has food in the fridge, at least. We don’t even have a fridge here. It’s a miracle that hot water works…sometimes.”

Ace drained his tea and gave her a look of pity. “Man…that Headmaster isn’t ‘nice’ at all with the way you’re living.”

“Can’t complain since I’m getting it for free.” She shrugged. “So, Ace. My strategy for getting out of this with the least casualties is for you to just apologize and get the thing taken off. Then, if you really wanna get back at the Dorm Head, we can think of a plan. How’s that?”

He puffed out his cheeks. “I don’t wanna.”

Yuu was tempted to abandon him on the couch, but that pouting expression made an unexpected swell of affection rise up in her chest. She sighed helplessly. “All right, all right. I’ll come with you to try and convince him. How about that?”

Ace lost the pout and looked back at her in surprise. “You’d do that?”

“Yeah. We’re buddies, right?”

“…Fine. Fine! All right! We’ll go tomorrow morning!” Ace threw up his hands. “You win again, Yuu. Why you gotta be so…”

“So…?” Yuu repeated, confused.

“…Never mind.” Ace reached forwards and messed up her hair. “By the way, what you said about ’Labyul being a place I belong…you’re wrong. That place isn’t anything as fairy-tale as that.”

“What do you mean?”

Ace grinned at her. “Ramshackle dorm is better. Even if you guys have no fridge.”

Yuu jerked upright at a loud persistent banging at the door the next morning. Beside her, Ace groaned and shoved his face under her pillow, dislodging Grim, who didn’t even notice.

“Five more minutes,” Ace said irritably.

“It’s not me, it’s the door,” Yuu yawned, rubbing her eyes. “I’ll be right back.”

The banging persisted as she changed out of her nightgown in the washroom and shook the hallways, nearly sending her flying down the stairs. Yuu hurried to the door. “Calm down!” she shouted past the dislodged dust, “I’m coming already!”

“Ace, you—” Deuce’s hand paused mid-knock as she swung the door open. “Yuu! Have you seen that moron? Also your hair’s a mess.”

“Morning, Deuce. Ace stayed over last night.” Yuu stepped aside, not particularly surprised that their friend would be the one to show up. “C’mon in, but be careful, that floorboard is no good.”

“You live here!?” Deuce hovered in the foyer, looking aghast. It quickly transformed into anger and he clenched a fist, growling. “That Headmaster! How can he—!”

“God, are you loud,” Ace stumbled downstairs, his vest buttoned up the wrong way and his hair an even bigger mess than it usually was. The collar locked around his neck gleamed. “This place is fragile so if you keep pounding on the door like a moron it might just collapse.”

“Ace…so it was you who caused Yuu more trouble yesterday,” Deuce sighed, lifting a sardonic brow. “By the way, how dumb do you have to be to get caught sneaking food? And the Dorm Head’s food? Are you asking for it?”

“You’re the only person who I don’t wanna hear that from, you moron,” snorted Ace. “Yuu, your hair’s sticking up in the back.”

“Yuu’s hair is longer than I thought,” Deuce watched her run her fingers through it before pulling it back in a knot. “Must be hard to take care of.”

“Girly as hell,” Ace nodded.

“Oh shut it, explosion head, your vest’s all wrong,” she retorted, hopping over to him to rebutton it properly.

“Was the Dorm Head still pissed this morning?” Ace asked Deuce, staying still for her to get the buttons through the buttonholes with a long-suffering air.

“Not really. He just seemed a little irritated. Put around four kids who overslept a bit in collars like you.”

Yuu winced. Ace spluttered, “That’s what you call not really pissed?!”

“Anyway, looks like we should go and apologize early,” Yuu sighed, patting Ace as she finished, “after we wash up.”

Main Street was lit warmly by the early morning glow of a cloudless sky. Yuu walked beside Deuce sedately while ahead of them, Grim teased Ace mercilessly about being unable to use magic for the time being. Deuce jerked a thumb at them and muttered to her, “How did you live under the same roof as those two idiots?”, sending her into a round of giggles. Mostly because Deuce was the one who had hurled Ace into a chandelier without a single moment of hesitation.

As they walked, the dark-haired student explained to her that the building containing the Hall of Mirrors was the designated spot for students to travel to their dorms. Because there were seven dorms, seven Mirrors had been set up to link to each dorm.

Yuu paled. “Wait, we’re going through a mirror again?”

“Don’t worry,” Ace called back with his sneering grin. “I’ll hold your little hand if you get scared.”

She had never been so relieved to live in the Ramshackle Dorm, which was not linked to a mirror. The twenty minutes of walking to get to the castle seemed like nothing compared to that dreadful room full of the dreadful travelling devices.

Unfortunately, Yuu had already given her word to apologise together with Ace, so once again she became attached to Deuce, physically, as they approached the hall full of alcoves. (Deuce was the tallest one out of all of them by a narrow margin and also the most solidly built by a wider one.) The three of them, Grim settled in her hair, approached the one with Heartslabyul’s crest engraved above the purple alcove, where an ovular mirror was engraved in the wall of rough rock.

Curious about this new dorm, but unwilling to open her eyes, Yuu clung to Deuce desperately as they passed through the mirror into a field of light. When she cracked them back open, the vibrant greenery made her and Grim both gape in shock.

“Wow,” breathed Yuu, slowly turning to take in the lush green shrubbery. Behind her, the ovular mirror leading to Heartslabyul Dorm glowed briefly, light illuminating the steel-wrought roses adorning its crest, before the brilliance faded.

Heartslabyul Dorm was a castle all by itself. The four of them stood at the entrance to a courtyard, on a wide street lined on either side with electric lamps and rosebushes, a labyrinth of green shrubbery stretching out from both sides of the street into obscurity. But Yuu and Grim were both enchanted by the scarlet castle standing proudly beyond a burbling stone fountain—rising up into the distance, its white-sanded parapets and huge carved-out heart-shaped entrance stole her own immediately. Unbidden, a picture of a blonde-haired girl in a blue frock dress passed through her mind.

“Wow!” Yuu repeated, gaining momentum, as Grim’s tail whipped at her neck in excitement. “You guys get to live here? This looks straight out of a movie! It’s beautiful!”

“Really? The heart theme isn’t manly at all.” Ace wrinkled his nose, looking less than impressed. He nudged her. “Hey, Yuu, if you like it so much, you wanna come move here?”

“Not a bad idea for you; nothing’s worse than that shack,” Deuce put a hand on his chin in thought. “Might as well ask later…”

“Huh? I can’t come here, I have no magic,” Yuu said frankly.

“Aw, come on. It’s just a technicality.” Ace protested. “We can transfer you in somehow.”

Ace and Deuce led her through the quaint patterned cobblestone path into the maze of rosebushes. Yuu nearly asked why they weren’t going straight, but realized the courtyard ended far before the castle, separated by a bed of grass, and followed behind them obediently, chatting with Grim about the benefits of moving dorms.

Halfway through the rose labyrinth, Yuu yelped and leapt backwards, bumping into Deuce. “Is that blood on the ground!?”

“It’s just paint, you scaredy-cat.” Ace rolled his eyes. “We’ve gotten used to it. Can’t you smell it?”

“Um, you’re talking like I’m crazy, but why is there red paint everywhere, Mister Ace?” Yuu shot back.

“Not good, not good. Gotta hurry and paint the roses red.” A tall student jogged past them. His chin-length orange hair flapped as he snatched a brush from off the ground where it had been soaking in a red puddle. “If I leave one half-painted my head’s gonna fly.”

“Hey, someone’s here!” Grim leapt from her shoulders to chase after him.

“Your brother?” Yuu asked Ace.

“Why?!” Ace spluttered. “His hair’s way more orange than mine. Mine’s brown!”

“Okay,” she said doubtfully. Brown was hardly the colour she would use to describe the fiery vibrance of Ace’s messy hair, but it was true that the stranger’s hazel-green eyes were curved down in a friendly way that didn’t match the sharp catlike slant of Ace’s. Not related, then.

Grim returned with the orange-haired student. “Did you guys need me for something?” said the new arrival with an easy smile. A small red diamond was painted on his right cheekbone.

“What are you doing?” Ace looked at the dripping paintbrush sceptically.

“Oh, this? I’m just painting the roses,” he answered.

Ace made a face, but didn’t seem too surprised.

“Yeah, I see them doing this all the time,” Deuce nodded seriously, “only I still don’t know the reason. It’s the rules, so no one asks.”

“Wait, painting the roses?” Yuu gaped. Sprout would have a heart attack. “Um, if that’s just regular red paint, you know it’ll damage the plants, right?”

“The three of you are freshies, aren’t you?” the student pointed his brush at them with a grin, ignoring her. Then his eyes lit up with remembrance. “Wait a sec, aren’t you the three musketeers that smashed the hundred-million Madol chandelier and nearly got expelled? Actually, how did you get around getting expelled?”

Ace sighed. “No one’s ever gonna let that go, are they.”

“The other day someone called me a chandelier bastard,” Yuu piped up, distracted. “I meant to tell you guys. I actually nearly collapsed laughing.”

“Chandelier—” Deuce bent over snickering.

“—bastard,” gasped Ace over Grim’s sniggers. “Are they even trying?”

“And you,” the student winked in Ace’s direction, “are the kid who ate Dorm Head’s tart without permission and got Off with Your Head-ed!”

Ace stopped laughing and put his face in his hands with a long-suffering groan. It seemed as if the news had spread quickly.

“Man, I’m pretty lucky to get to meet the newcomers that are the talk of the school!” the student flung the paintbrush back in the puddle of paint—Grim squawked and leapt onto her shoulders—and leaned in conspiratorially. “Hey hey hey you three. Take a photo with me. C’mon!”

Yuu yelped as he pulled her in, whipping out his smartphone, and snapped a selfie of the five of them huddled together. For good measure, he took another one and leaned back, satisfied.

“Hey, can I upload this to MagiCam?” the student waved his smartphone at them. Yuu followed the movement of his hand, wondering how smartphones and magic worked together, and also what the hell was with that weird phone case with diamonds all over it?

She echoed, “MagiCam?”

“Yeah! Tell me your name so I can tag you.”

Deuce blinked, still confused, but responded right away, “My name is Deuce Spade.”

“Ace,” muttered Ace, staring suspiciously at the smartphone.

“I’m Grim!” Grim stood on her shoulder proudly and tugged at a bang. “This is my henchman Yuu!”

“Um, nice to meet you?” Yuu said hesitantly. Was MagiCam some form of magical Instxgram? “What’s your name?”

“And upped.” The student grinned, shoving his phone into a pocket, and snatched her hand in a shake. “Nice to meet’cha! I’m Deuce-chan’s and Ace-chan’s upperclassman! My name is Cater Diamond, third year. You’re the rumoured Directing Student, Yuu, huh? You’re tiny!”

“Everyone says the same thing when they meet me,” Yuu monotoned, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you, Cater-senpai.”

“Just call me Cater-kun! Cay-kun is fine too!” he winked at her.

“Nice to meet you, Cater-senpai,” she repeated.

“Ah ha ha! This kid’s cute! Hey, Yuu-chan, what’cha doing in ’Labyul so early in the morning?” Cater seemed unbothered by her refusal. His grey eyes twinkled with mirth.

“Well you see, this guy over here…”

“So!” Ace cut across her loudly, “Why are you painting the roses anyway, Cater-senpai?”

“Me? There’s gonna be a party the day after tomorrow,” Cater explained, the paintbrush flying back into his hands with a swish of his Pen. “Gotta finish all the painting before then. So I have no time to lose!”

“A party…” Yuu raised her brows and exchanged glances with Ace and Deuce.

“What does a party have to do with the roses?” Ace said dumbly.

“I me~an, red roses are photogenic! White roses don’t look so good in pictures, you know? My followers will cry!” Cater’s grin didn’t waver. “Plus after this I gotta add colour to all the flamingos for the croquet tourney they’re holding during the party. No time to lose!”

Ace and Deuce gaped and harmonized, “The what?”

The latter cleared his throat, regaining his composure. “Don’t tell me that’s the party that the Dorm Head made the cakes for? So it was his birthday in two days…No wonder he was so mad.”

Grim mumbled, “Flamingos? What? Croquet?” Yuu petted him absently.

“No? You got it wrong,” Cater responded to Deuce lightly.

“See!” Ace burst out. “Wait. Then whose birthday was it?”

“Why d’you guys think it’s a birthday?” Cater shot back. “The day after tomorrow is the first of our dorm’s traditional Unbirthday congratulation parties, that’s all. When it’s no one’s birthday and our Dorm Head is in the mood, it gets held randomly. There’s tea and sweets!”

“What the heck is that!?” Ace spluttered.

“More weird rules,” Deuce mumbled despondently.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Yuu muttered to herself, finally remembering the dream she’d had of Alice wandering through the Rose Maze. The Queen of Hearts Statue—the Unbirthdays—the tea parties. She hadn’t known there was a Dixney movie, had only read the Lewis Carrol work when she was very young. Still, she was sure the image of the girl she’d dreamed of was Alice.

Yuu’s mind worked furiously. They’d called this world ‘Twisted Wonderland’.

But Alice in Wonderland had no magic she could remember—in the first place, wasn’t it written on a particularly strong acid trip? The residents themselves were…not exactly magical, but not non-magical either. What with the caterpillar that smoked, the Cheshire cat…

What was going on?

“Anyway, who cares about the reason! I’m behind schedule, so would my cute dorm-mates help me out here? Deuce-chan and Gri-chan can use magic, and poor Ace-chan and Yuu-chan can use a brush!” Cate pushed the brush into her hands.

Yuu came out of her thoughts blankly. “Paint the roses? But they’ll die.”

“Don’t worry! The roses won’t die that easily. We’ve done this before, and Cay-kun guarantees the roses will be fine!” he winked at her. “If we don’t hurry, classes are gonna start, you know?”

“…Phew.” Cater lowered his Pen. “That’s half of them done!”

“Aaah I wish I could use magic!” Ace threw down his paintbrush. “This is taking way too long!”

“I think I got the hang of it!” Deuce, on the other hand, looked rather proud of himself. “Grim keeps turning the roses green and pink and blue, so fixing his mistakes actually made me better at the spell.”

“Funaaa! It was once!” Grim insisted. His spell went awry and set the next rose on fire. “AAAH! It’s burning!”

“Wha—!?” Deuce lost his concentration and transformed his next rose blue. “Oh shi—! Put that out!”

“You guys are such…interesting…underclassmen,” Cater wiped a tear from his eye, “Senpai can’t believe it. Time’s a-wasting, so let’s keep going. Let’s see, where should we paint next…”

Yuu tapped Cater on the shoulder. “Senpai?”

“Hmm? What’s up, Yuu-chan? Did you have a question?”

“Yeah.” Yuu put her paintbrush in an empty can of red paint. “What should we do once we’re done?”

“Done? Well, that’s all I had to do this…wait. Done?” Cater blinked several times and then turned around.

“…Done?” Grim echoed, turning around. “Funya!? Yuu, you painted all of those?”

“I was a member of the fine arts club,” Yuu shrugged. She evaded mentioning she had Charmed the rest of the paintbrushes to paint at the same time as her. “So I’m used to painting stuff. What do I do next?”

“Yuu…” Deuce looked touched. “You’re so hardworking…!”

“For a magicless dude, he’s kinda scary,” Ace said, sweating.

“You’re just sulking ‘cause you can’t use it right now,” she shot back.

Cate started laughing. “I didn’t expect you to be so diligent! Hey, hey, Yuu-chan. You live in that nasty Ramshackle Dorm, right? Don’t tell me Headmaster made you clean it?”

“Come to think of it, it was pretty nice inside other than all the dust…and the floorboards,” Ace commented. “Plus the bed was really clean.”

“I mean, who else was going to clean it?” Yuu asked rhetorically.

“You’re even more diligent than my sisters…” Cater wiped another imaginary tear from his eye. “So you’re saying it might be possible for me to snap a couple pictures of your dorm, Yuu-chan? Ah, of course, for my MagiCam followers.”

“I mean, I guess I don’t mind?” Yuu wondered what the big deal was. Couldn’t they do the same thing with their magic? And Ramshackle was hardly a tourist spot.

“Awesome~! Just tell me when and I’ll drop by. Oh wait! I should get your phone number…”

“Ah…I don’t have a phone,” she said sheepishly. “I got sent here from another world by mistake, so I didn’t bring anything with me.”

Cater’s smile froze on his face. “…Sorry?”

Ace sighed. “So why did the roses have to be red?” he questioned. Yuu sent him a grateful look—she shouldn’t have mentioned that so casually. “White looks good too, doesn’t it?”

“It’s the rules,” Cater came back to himself and recited, “The roses have to be red. For croquet, the bat used has to be one of the seven-coloured flamingos. The ball has to be a hedgehog. Ah, but the flower concerts in the spring garden have an exception where the roses have to be white. It’s an important distinction!”

Grim put into words their thoughts: “What’s with all those arbitrary rules?”

“We have to follow these rules every single day, you know,” Deuce muttered, “it’s easier to just shut up and do it.”

“C’mon, don’t you want to know the reason?” Ace nudged him. “Mister Pink Leopard-print.”

“I told you to stop mentioning that!”

Yuu gave both of them a wide-eyed look. Ace muttered ‘later’ with a wicked grin; Deuce groaned and buried his head in his gloves.

“Legend has it that one of the Seven Greats, The Queen of Hearts, came up with all the rules,” Cater lifted a finger to explain as the three of them exchanged glances. “Riddle-kun is a stickler to match the best of them in the history of the school. He’s a pretty serious kid, you know.”

Yuu looked around at the red roses and wondered if this Riddle person was all right. The last time she’d heard about someone with the name Riddle was from James’ father who had then personally killed him. It would be cruel irony if a second Voldemort was born in this world, too.

“That’s right!” Ace gasped. “I don’t have time to be doing this. Hey senpai, do you know where I can find the Dorm Head? I need to talk to him.”

“Hm? Yeah, I suppose at this time he’s still in the dorm,” Cater nodded. His smile deepened mischievously. “By the way, I-Stole-the-Tart Ace-chan. Did you bring an apology tart?”

“Apology tart?” Ace repeated dumbly. “I came straight from Ramshackle, so I’ve got nothing on me…”

Cater hissed sympathetically. “You know that that violates the Fifty-Third Law of the Queen of Hearts to always return things that you steal, right? So I can’t let you in.”

Ace spluttered again. “What!?”

“Sorry, kid. If you’re in this dorm, you gotta follow the rules.” Cater grinned, not looking sorry at all. “If I let you go, I’ll be the next one whose head will fly off.”

“Wait a second,” Deuce put in.

“I’m gonna have to get you all to leave before Riddle-kun notices.” A sinister light entered Cater’s eyes as his smile widened. “By force.”

Having been kicked back in front of the mirror, the four of them looked at Cater’s retreating back dumbly. Deuce and Grim were a little worse for the wear, but they were all too shocked to really be concerned about losing the fight they’d just started.

Yuu was the first to speak. “You know, he could’ve kicked us out immediately after seeing us. I know he recognised me.”

“But he didn’t,” Ace’s voice sped up with realization, “because he frickin’ wanted to use us for help! That bastard…as expected of a third year here…using me when he knew I couldn’t use magic…!”

“Hey, just think of it as you being able to learn a new spell. In theory.” Yuu shrugged. “Plus we got to learn some more about your dorm.”

“Have you ever gotten angry in your entire life, once?” Ace stared at her like she was insane.

Deuce cut across them with a gasp. “What was that magic he used just now!?”

Grim had finally snapped out of his stupor, too. “I swear I beat him up real bad! Ten times! How’d he make so many copies of himself!?”

“Another spell?” Yuu said carelessly. In truth, she was rather interested in how Cater had managed to make so many perfect copies of himself, since they were able to move and attack separately. It easily violated some of Gamp’s principles.

“Aaaagh! We have no time for this!” Ace clutched his head. “Classes are gonna start soon and Trein said there’d be a quiz today! Dammit…my breakfast…and how am I gonna spend all day without my magic…?”

“It’s not like you usually use magic in class,” Yuu nudged them into a walk. “But we’ll load up at lunchtime, since I have the luxury of having free food from the cafeteria. Then we can figure out a way to make a tart and deliver it to your Dorm Head after school. Okay?”

“Make a tart…” Deuce gasped. “Yuu, you can clean, paint, and cook too!?”

Ace prodded, “You know how to bake, Yuu?”

“Um, not really. But I can follow a recipe,” she added hastily. “If the internet exists in this world too, then just search up a video or a recipe or something and I’ll ask Headmaster if we can borrow the kitchens after school. So cheer up, Ace. Okay?”

Ace draped himself all over her, sobbing comically. “Yuu…I’ll follow you for the rest of my life!”

“Hey! Yuu’s my henchman!” Grim protested, slapping at his hair.

“Whatever you say, just someone hold me when we go through the mirror,” Yuu said uneasily. “I’ll never get used to that thing.”

By lunchtime, the four of them were so hungry that they had barely paid attention during Trein’s lecture on the origin of magic stones. Well, Yuu tried, but Deuce’s stomach made hilariously loud noises when he moved and the four of them were trembling in their seats the entire time out of laughter.

“I think the entire class heard me.” Deuce didn’t seem too embarrassed as they joined the line for the buffet-style lunch table. There was a distinct gleam of pride in his voice.

“First Year, Class A. Also known as the group with the growling stomachs,” Ace said theatrically. “We even out-growled Lucius!”

“That cat was looking at you the whole time,” Grim said grumpily. He was still angry that he had been unable to sprint from her clutches between classes and skip. “Better watch out, Trein’s gonna call on you tomorrow.”

“I don’t care, because I’m a genius,” Ace sang.

Yuu remembered Scorpius’ grandfather, who went by the same name as Lucius the cat, with a strange sense of dissonance. Lucius Malfoy was as grumpy as Trein’s cat, but where the feline familiar was content to emit a continuous rumble during class and glare students into submission, the aging Lucius Malfoy seemed rather washed-out in comparison.

After fighting over what to pile on their trays and having Ace and Deuce shove all sorts of dishes on hers, Yuu narrowly avoided bumping into three groups of unfriendly schoolmates in line—one of whom had stuck out his foot to trip her—and stopped Deuce from going after a passing student with leopard ears that had sworn at her under his breath before they finally made it to a table.

“What the hell is with them?” Grim had noticed the last group and was puffed up in affront. “What do they have against you, Yuu? They didn’t even look at me.”

“Something about me rubbed that guy the wrong way, maybe?” Yuu started doling pasta onto Ace and Deuce’s plates as they plopped down across from her on a bench, the latter still stewing. “Grim, wipe your paws before you eat, please.”

“Yes, mother,” grumbled Grim, forgetting his retort.

Ace gave her a Look that told her he was still not over that topic. Deuce cracked his knuckles threateningly.

Yuu sighed at them. “It’s whatever,” she said exasperatedly, “and they’re just complaining, all right? Who was the one who got this weird soup?”

“Me,” Deuce said reluctantly, uncurling his hands, “I wanted to try it. I guess I’m more surprised than anything that in a famous private school like this, there are still lowbrow garbage like that walking around…”

“Right, this was a good school,” Yuu remembered. “Can I have a bit of this soup?”

“Go ahead, try it first and tell me how it is,” he responded. Deuce chewed thoughtfully on a meatball. “I keep forgetting you’re from a different planet.”

“Universe.”

“I’m not good at the complicated stuff,” Deuce waved it off.

“Or the simple stuff,” Ace paused, halfway through his plate of pasta, to add cheekily.

“But you really know nothing about this school, do you?” Deuce elbowed him.

“Ow! You fricking—”

Grim swallowed some of his omelette du fromage and cut in, “Speaking of this school, we saw your dorm today, but I still know nothing about the other dorms. And Yuu just spends all day with his nose in a book instead of exploring! So tell me what you know, Ace, Deuce.”

“He’s surpassed the definition of a ‘bookworm’ by now and should get called ‘bibliophile’,” Ace rolled his eyes at her. “What, is that the reason your bag’s so heavy all the time?”

“You’re not funny, mister Off-With-Your-Head-ed,” Yuu shot back.

“I think that being so studious is a good trait.” Deuce couldn’t resist retaliating. “Unlike someone who keeps slacking off in alchemy class.”

“Mmm! This soup is a bullseye!” Yuu’s entire face brightened up. “Deuce, hurry up and try it, you’ll love it I swear.”

“Really? What’s in it?” Ace peered over Deuce’s shoulder as she passed the bowl of soup over.

“Mushrooms, carrots, some sort of fish-based sauce,” Yuu listed, “scallions, and corn. I think there might be some garlic too.”

Ace made a face at her. “What are you, a gourmet? Deuce, leave some for me.”

“As an erstwhile member of the fine arts club, we take appreciating all art very seriously,” Yuu sniffed, “especially the culinary arts.”

Still, before she’d come to this world, Yuu had never found food very tasty. Maybe Twisted Wonderland’s ingredients were better than the ones in her world? People in Hogwarts raved about the food all the time—Yuu had never felt much when she ate in the Great Hall or Hogsmeade. Sure, she tasted and separated the ingredients, but it all tasted the same.

But food here was really good. She wondered why.

“Plus, Grim gives better food reports than I do,” Yuu added as an afterthought.

“His is weird,” Ace protested. “He eats everything. Even grass.”

“That was once,” Yuu said sheepishly. “I stopped him the other times, okay? Us culinary appreciators have to maintain some composure!”

“Who cares,” Grim slapped her arm with his tail, “just tell me about the other dorms!”

“As if I’d know anything,” she muttered, dropping the pompous demeanour.

“We don’t really spend a lot of time in there,” Deuce explained through a mouthful of soup, “other than sleeping. Shouldn’t you know? We’re usually together, aren’t we?”

“Now that Grim mentions it, though, I do wonder what other dorms exist here,” Yuu passed him a napkin. “I think I counted seven of those mirrors in the hall this morning.”

“There are seven statues outside, each for one of the Seven Greats, right?” Cater said from her right side, stealing a meatball deftly. “That’s where the seven dorms come from. Good eye, Yuu-chan!”

Geh…” Ace leaned away from him. “It’s you…”

“Hey! It’s that guy who knows how to make copies of himself!” Grim leapt onto the table.

“Stop that, it’s bad manners,” Yuu fished him back off gently, ignoring his grumbling. “Hello, Cater-senpai. Hopefully you got all the flamingos done.”

“That’s for after school!” Cater winked at her. “Here, have some eggs, they turned out great today!”

“Whoa! Thank you.”

“Plus, I was just following the rules back then, so don’t get mad at me,” he cajoled as Yuu took a bite of the fluffy egg and clutched her cheeks in bliss.

“I forgive you,” she mumbled.

“Don’t forgive him!” Ace shouted at her. “You totally tricked us into painting your roses!”

“Tricking sounds so bad when you say it like that,” Cater sighed, “I had to do it, you know?”

“You had a humongous smile on your face the whole time,” Deuce put in weakly.

“Well, Deuce-chan, since we’re not in ’Labyul, the Cay-kun right now is just a kind upperclassman to his new dorm-mates…and Yuu-chan, of course!”

“Don’t call me Deuce-chan, please!” Deuce looked rather affronted.

Yuu decided Cater was being honest enough, even if his voice had sounded rather scary when he said, ‘just a kind upperclassman’. What could she say? Those eggs were really well done.

A pleasant laugh from behind them caused her to turn around. Approaching their table was a tall bespectacled student, his short hair an unusual pine green. “The way he calls other people is just his way of showing affection, so please don’t mind him.”

Yuu blinked as he sat himself on her other side, sandwiching her and Grim in. “Are you Cater-senpai’s friend?”

“My bad, I hadn’t introduced myself.” He narrowed his ochre eyes at her in a friendly smile behind the glasses; unexpectedly, Yuu was reminded sharply of James’ father, who sometimes taught Defence, because his smile was much the same. “My name is Trey. Trey Clover. I’m a third year at Heartslabyul, same as Cater.”

“Nice to meet you, Trey-senpai. I’m Yuu and this is Grim. You might have heard of me as the Directing Student,” Yuu said wryly, smiling back. She could not help but hold a positive impression of someone who looked so much like James’ father. After all, Harry Potter had saved the wizarding world twice—and he taught a mean class of Defence.

“Of course I’ve heard of you. They put you up in that ramshackle…” Trey cleared his throat. “the unused building, didn’t they? It must be tough on you. Feel free to rely on your upperclassmen if you need anything.”

“Okay,” Yuu mumbled shyly, the positive impression shooting through the roof. It was said that the first six seconds of meeting someone decided much of what you thought about them forever. If so, she was sure that Trey had become her favourite person in this entire College already.

Trey adjusted his dark-rimmed glasses, revealing a small three-leaved clover painted on his left cheekbone. “I heard about what happened yesterday. Sorry about our dorm student,” at this he flicked a glance at Ace. “Hope he didn’t cause you too much trouble.”

“Ace is my buddy,” Yuu said with a smile, “so please don’t worry about it, senpai. Plus, the only good thing about Ramshackle Dorm is its huge bed, so there was enough space for all of us.”

“Or you’re just too small,” Ace rolled his eyes at her.

“The vertically challenged thing is getting old,” she monotoned at him.

“No it isn’t. Even after carrying you over my shoulders for like half an hour I was barely breathing hard. It’ll never get old.”

“Yuu isn’t small,” Grim squinted.

“Compared to you, no one’s small.”

Funa!? I’ll have you know—”

Yuu tugged Grim backwards a bit and shoved the rest of the omelette in his mouth to shut him up. Grim made a slightly dissatisfied noise but chewed with gusto. “Did Cater-senpai have anything you wanted to talk to us about?”

“Aw, c’mon, can’t an upperclassman try and make friends with his cute underclassmen?” Cater pulled out his phone. “Let’s be friends, Yuu-chan! Do you do MagiCam?”

“I don’t have a phone, remember?” Yuu gave him a regretful smile. “Sorry.”

“He got summoned here by accident from a different planet,” Deuce explained through a mouthful of bread.

Cater started. “Right, you said something like that this morning. Wait, you weren’t joking?”

Trey lifted one eyebrow behind his glasses, blinking benignly. “Sorry, could you repeat that?”

Originally, Yuu had realized it was best to keep her circumstances quiet. Other than Kalim, who had a good instinct and still didn’t quite know where she was from, and Ace, Deuce and Grim, whom she had decided should know (they had a high chance of finding out anyway), it wasn’t too wise to spread the information around. Ace, who was probably thinking along the same lines as her, elbowed Deuce none too gently, making him choke on his bread.

It was a little late now, especially since she’d sort of let the cat out of the bag that morning. Yuu explained the circumstances of her arrival to a raptly listening Cater and a more sedate Trey, who was working his way steadily through his lunch.

“…I guess you can’t help it,” Cater said ruefully when she was done, “that you don’t have a phone here. But I think you might be the only kid in this entire school without one. In a way, are you a national treasure or something?”

Yuu couldn’t help but grin at his reaction. “Thanks, Cater-senpai.”

“Hmm? What’cha thanking me for?” Cater kept smiling like he hadn’t said all that to take the stress of her back. “Anyway, you need a phone at least if you’re gonna keep living here. How about I tell you about a good shop for them? We can go on a phone-searching date on the weekend!”

“Hey! Don’t steal my henchman!” Grim dove between Cater and her.

“Whoa!” Cater jerked backwards in surprise.

“Cater,” laughed Trey, “calm down a bit. The new student needs some time to react.”

“Actually, I don’t have any pocket money on me either,” Yuu told him regretfully around Grim’s round head. “Sorry. I’m pretty lucky to be living here for free. Maybe after I figure out a way to earn some money.”

Trey frowned. “…Isn’t Crowley giving you pocket money?”

“He gave me all my belongings and school things already,” Yuu explained. “Plus, there’s no need for me to have a smartphone, not really.”

“What the heck…” Cater gasped. “This kid is actually a good kid! In this school! And he doesn’t need a phone? What kind of world did you live in?”

“You don’t know, senpai,” Ace complained, “this little kid is so much of a bookworm that he should just transfer his dorm to the library.”

“I can’t help it! I’ve never been in a world with magic like this,” Yuu protested, “it’s all new to me.”

“Remember, you promised you’d explore the castle with me after,” Grim grumbled. “Which brings us back.”

“Oh, right! The dorms!” Cater remembered with a light smile. “Sure, I’ll explain ‘em to you! Just leave it to your big brothers here.”

“Why don’t you start with our own dorm,” Ace grumbled, tugging at his collar uncomfortably. “What’s with those insane rules, anyway? The Law of the Queen of Hearts or whatever.”

“Well, you should know all about the legendary Queen,” Trey began in measured tones. He paused and glanced at her. “Except our transfer here.”

“I finished A Detailed Look into the Queen’s Reign last night, so I think I’ve got a good idea,” Yuu grinned at him. “She valued order above everything else and ordered beheadings daily, right? Apparently, she and all the residents of her country were insane in one way or the other.”

Trey raised both eyebrows, impressed. “You finished that? Not exactly light reading.”

“Really? It wasn’t too bad.” Yuu had sat through history treatises far duller than the one she’d read last night.

“In respect of the Queen’s accomplishments,” Cater picked up where he’d left off, “our dorm’s main colour is red, as you can see from the uniform’s vest, and black, as you can see from our armband.”

“The colour of our Pens is red too.” Ace fingered his ruby-red jewel.

“Are the vests optional?” Yuu wanted to know. “And what about the ribbons on your arms?”

“Vests are optional! Actually most of the uniform is optional.” Cater flapped a hand at his unbuttoned blazer; he was only wearing the untucked dress shirt underneath. “I personally can’t take that vest. It makes it hard to breathe. Ah, but this ribbon—the crest on the ribbon showing off your dorm—that’s an armband and it’s required.”

“Identification purposes?” Yuu guessed, feeding Grim bits of her leftover lunch. Yuu wasn’t someone who could eat a lot in the first place, but to her delight, Grim was—which meant that he got all her leftovers.

“You’re a pretty quick one!” Cater nodded at her. “Most people just wear the uniform but there are always people who mix and match. Oh, and the other must for being in ’Labyul is to obey the Queen’s laws.”

Grim looked singularly unimpressed. “Feels unbelievably cramped. Ace was right, Ramshackle’s better.”

“See?” Ace said smugly.

“The thing is, it’s up to the Dorm Head to see how tightly he wants us to stick to the rules,” Cater leaned one elbow on the table, “and the Dorm Head before this one was pretty chill.”

“Dorm Head Riddle, on the other hand, is one of the most serious, strict ones in history,” Trey said, sounding nothing short of amused. “He’s doing all he can to protect the traditions around here.”

“What a pain,” Ace muttered.

“I see,” Deuce pressed a gloved finger to his mouth.

Grim was done with the topic already. “And the other dorms?” he said excitedly.

“So the Heartslabyul dorm was founded upon the severe spirit of the Queen of Hearts, which we are affiliated with,” Trey summarized, setting his fork down. “After that, we’ve got…the dorm founded upon the indomitable spirit of the King of the Hundred Beasts, the Savanaclaw dorm.”

“Savanaclaw,” Yuu repeated, feeling an instant kinship with the dorm. Mostly because it sounded quite a bit like her own Ravenclaw.

“Right, all of the animal-ear dudes you see around are from Savanaclaw.” Cater nodded.

“Animal—you mean the people with the really cool animal ears and stuff!?” Yuu leaned forwards excitedly. “They’re real? I thought it was just a weird costume.”

Cater burst out laughing. “They don’t have these kinds of people in your world?”

“Not at all.” Werewolves were far less benign.

Grim thwacked her with his tail. “Hey! I wanna hear about the other dorms!”

“Sorry,” Yuu cleared her throat sheepishly. “Um, keep going.”

Trey hadn’t lost that amused gaze. “There’s also the dorm founded on the benevolence of the Witch of the Sea, the Octavinelle dorm,” he held up a third finger, “the dorm founded upon the careful consideration of the great wise man of the desert, the Scarabia dorm…”

“Scarabia!” Yuu blurted out, remembering Kalim and Jamil.

“Hmm? Yeah. You heard of them?”

“You could say that.” Yuu coughed. “Sorry. Keep going.”

“Then we have the dorm founded on the spirit of effort of the most beautiful queen—Pomefiore,” Trey ticked off, “the dorm founded on the King of the Dead’s diligence, Ignihyde, and lastly, the dorm founded on the noble spirit of the Witch of Thorns, Diasomnia.”

“That’s way too much information at once,” mumbled Ace. Deuce nodded confusedly. Grim, however, looked as excited as he had been on the first day of class.

“Sounds cool!” He turned to her expectantly.

“Are you going remember the names?” she raised a brow.

“Heck no. That’s your job, henchman,” Grim said as if it were obvious.

Yuu rolled her eyes. She was wondering about these dormitories—even before she had left home for Hogwarts, Yuu was not a Dixney addict, but she could recognize the tragic figure of Scxr, the devious Ursxla, the coolly evil Hxdes. Yet here, they were praised by Ace and Trey, described as “hard-working” and “indomitable” and “merciful”.

Twisted Wonderland. Were the facts twisted—or were its residents?

“Anyway, you’ll get the hang of it pretty fast,” Cater said lightly. “Don’t worry about the names.”

“Okay.” Yuu, who liked Cater fine enough, agreed without complaint.

“As you guys know, you’re put into dorms based on the Mirror’s judgment of the shape of your soul at the opening ceremony, but there is sort of a common character among each dorm,” Trey explained.

“Yeah, yeah, a common sort of personality trait or something,” Cater agreed.

“Character?” Deuce and Yuu chimed in simultaneously.

“Hmm…” Trey looked around. “For example, that guy.”

The person he indicated, who was sitting alone at a bench, had the most magnificent set of canine ears that Yuu had ever seen. They stood tall on both sides of his head in a shock of curled silver hair that fell to his neck and darkened to a sooty grey. He was facing the other way, but what little she could see of his skin was baked brown.

“He’s huge,” muttered Grim, a little intimidated. It was then that she saw how his arms strained at the fabric of his uniform blazer and how, even bent over his food, he towered above everyone in the cafeteria easily.

“Ears,” Yuu gaped, all of that unimportant.

“If you take into account that muscle, you can probably assume that guy’s from Savanaclaw,” Trey explained.

“You bet he is,” Cater snapped his fingers. “That dorm is full of muscle men and people who are in the athletic or self-defence clubs.”

“Their armbands are sandy yellow-and-black,” Trey pointed out for them, “and you can usually tell by their ah…square appearance.”

Ears,” Yuu insisted.

Ace snickered at her. “Here comes animal lover Yuu.”

“Do you think he’d let me pet them if I asked?” Yuu wondered dreamily.

“I’d stop right there,” Cater laughed nervously, “those types tend to be quick to action, if you know what I mean.”

“Aw, man.”

“What about that guy?” Grim pointed.

“Oh, the grey-and-lilac armbands belong to Octavinelle.” Trey obliged. “And the ones sitting at the neighbouring table with the rouge-and-sand armbands are from Scarabia. Both of those dorms are full of the brainy types, so exams are always a dead-heat race between the two of them.”

Yuu followed his gaze. “Hmm…but Kalim-senpai doesn’t seem like he cares that much about exams.”

“That’s right, the dorm head of Scarabia’s…” Trey paused and raised a brow. “Transfer, you’re acquainted with them?”

“Huh? Yeah, I sit with him sometimes at breakfast. And when Ace and Deuce get dragged out for remedials by Professor Crewel.” Yuu nibbled on her dessert cookie absently. “He’s a great guy.”

“What! You didn’t tell me!” Ace pointed at her, looking betrayed.

Deuce clutched at his chest. “Yuu! Was I just a joke to you? So you’ve had someone on the side this whole time!?”

Yuu dropped her cookie. “Deuce, please believe me!” she adopted an earnest expression. “You’re the only one for me. I’m serious about you!”

“You said that about me yesterday, you adulterer!” Ace put his head in his hands, starting to fake sobs.

“Scarabia’s dorm head seemed like kind of an idiot,” Grim said blankly, “but these three are the worst idiots I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t wanna hear that from you,” Ace, Deuce, and Yuu dropped their act to deadpan at Grim simultaneously.

Cater was bent over, trembling. Trey chuckled, “You four are a real riot. I think you’ll be just fine here. Next are those, uh, sparkling students over there…”

Yuu picked up her cookie again and glanced at the table in the centre, where dark indigo-and-red armband sporting students were engaging in quiet conversation. “Wow, they’re so pretty.”

Grim nodded emphatically. “Those girls are pretty cute!”

“Huh? In a boy’s school!?” Deuce seemed shocked.

Yuu dropped her cookie again.

“You moron,” Ace rolled his eyes, “like anyone properly enrolled in this school would be a girl.”

“Transfer?” Trey peered over at her. “You okay?”

“…Boy’s…school…?” Yuu repeated very slowly.

“Man, you know nothing about NRC, do you?” Cater laughed. “Sorry to disappoint, but there are no cute girls he~re. You’ll have to find your girlfriend somewhere else!”

“You didn’t notice?” Trey muttered. “It’s been a month.”

Yuu planted both hands on the table and shot to her feet, her voice rising. “You gotta be kidding me!”

“You really want a girlfriend?” Ace squinted at her. “Give it up, kid. You’re probably shorter than most girls your age. Add some muscle first.”

“Yuu! Don’t go to school with such an impure reason running through your head!” Deuce scolded her.

“Aw man…I wanted to see cute girls,” Grim complained. “I feel like I’ve been tricked.”

Boy’s school? Night Raven College was all-male!? Yuu’s mind whirred furiously. This was going to be a problem.

Sure, she didn’t really care if she was mistaken as a boy, but Yuu wasn’t actively trying to cross-dress. It was simply because she didn’t care—and because people tended to assume that she was male here, with her hair tied back and her chest pressed down—that she’d not bothered to correct others when they’d assumed she was male. In the first place Yuu hadn’t really understood why they were so quick to think her male—until now.

“Not a single girl in this entire building?” Yuu stared at Trey with beseeching eyes.

“Nope,” he killed her hopes cheerfully. “Other students might come to our school during games, though. You can try picking some up then.”

How the hell was she going to get underwear now? What would Crowley say if he knew? She’d get kicked out so fast…and then she’d have to find a way back by herself…but how long could she stay here without being found out? With her stature? Yuu put her head in her hands despondently and collapsed into her seat, cookie forgotten. “I’m doomed.”

Ace snickered. “Sorry you’re stuck with me,” he fluttered his eyelashes at her.

Yuu swatted at him grumpily. “Please. Deuce is prettier than you.”

“Like hell he is!”

“You’re just jealous,” Deuce said haughtily.

“There is the painting of Rosalia hung in the West school building,” Cater recalled. “Her portrait’s pretty cute! If you’re interested, I’ll introduce you. Or want me to set up a blind date?”

“No thanks,” Ace twitched. “She might be cute, but she’s er…kind of two-dimensional, isn’t she?”

“Me, me, introduce me,” Yuu waved a hand.

Deuce gave her a rather unimpressed stare. “You sure are desperate.”

Yuu gave him a cheeky grin. “Being surrounded by un-cute guys like you all the time leaves something to be desired.”

He gasped comically. “That’s horrible of you! I thought we had something!”

“Ha! In your dreams. I’ll admit it! I only care about true beauty!” Yuu made a flourish. “It’s over between us!”

“Noooooo!” Deuce buried his head in his hands.

“You guys are having a little too much fun, aren’t you?” Trey shook his head at them. “Well, it is true that Pomefiore holds their students to a high beauty standard.”

“You should’ve been put in there,” Ace said blankly to her, “with your ‘I’m-a-fine-arts-club-member’ vibes.”

“No thanks,” Yuu shook her head, “I might be a bit of a snob about it, but c’mon, I’d look like a dirty dishrag next to that tall blond over there.”

“That’s the Dorm Head!” Cater brightened up. “He’s got five million followers on MagiCam already. Can you believe it?”

Yuu tried to remember how many followers famous people had on Tweeter in her world and then gave up. Five million was nothing to scoff at.

“Beauty’s what Cater cares about, with his MagiCam addiction,” Trey cut in, “but Pomefiore students tend to be talented in curse magic and medicine as well.”

“Curse magic?” Yuu forgot about her despair at being trapped in a boy’s school and scooted closer to him in interest. “That stuff isn’t frowned upon?”

“Why would it be?” Trey looked askance at her. “…Oh, I forget you’re not from this world. It’s just another name for magic that takes place over an area-of-effect. You can call them ‘incantations’ too.”

Yuu resolved to look up curse magic in the library.

Cater had been squinting around the classroom, but he shook his head with a sigh. “Can’t see any of the blue-and-black armbands from Ignihyde, sorry. Truth is, those guys are pretty secretive. Even I don’t have a friend from Ignihyde.”

“What a shock,” Ace mumbled.

“Ignihyde’s full of what Cater calls gloomy characters,” explained Trey, “which is pretty much the opposite of Labyul, since we’re apparently stuffed to the brim with sunny characters.”

“So they’re all glum?” Grim asked.

“That’s not fair to them!” Trey laughed. “It’s true that there are a lot of quiet students in ’Hyde, but they’re wicked smart with magical energy engineering and digital stuff that involves it. I hear the reason we have electricity and running water and such is because someone from Ignihyde engineered it a long time ago.”

Yuu added ‘magical engineering’ to her research topic list. “Too bad they aren’t around. I’d have loved to talk to one of them.”

“You sure are curious, huh?”

“He might as well just pitch a tent in the library,” Ace rolled his eyes.

“There’s just the Dialalalala dorm left, right?” Deuce pulled them back to the topic.

Ace and Yuu exchanged glances. “He looks confident, but he has no idea what the name is, does he,” she said.

“I’ll give him five points for that confident face,” Ace relented. “It’s Diasomnia, all right?”

“I, I just bit my tongue, that’s all!” Deuce rushed to backtrack.

“Right, Diasomnia…” Cater glanced around. “There. In the back, at the special seating area up those stairs. That’s Diasomnia, with the yellow-green and black armbands.”

Yuu craned her neck together with Ace and Deuce to stare up at the raised mezzanine where a few students were gathered. “Special seating?”

“How d’you put it? That place is full of celebs,” Cater shrugged. “They have this aura around them. It’s hard to even get close. And the Dorm Head is like…he’s maxed out his intimidation stat.”

“Huh? There’s a kid over there?” Ace squinted.

“Our school allows grade-skipping and entering based on merit,” Trey explained.

“Oh good,” Yuu sighed, “at least I’ve got that going for me.”

“This kid’s fifteen,” Ace shoved a thumb at her.

“Just turned fifteen end of August,” she held up two fingers in a victory sign.

“Really?” Trey blinked at her. “You must be intelligent, then. Most people here are sixteen when they enter.”

“Considering I don’t know anything about this world and its classes, I highly doubt that,” Yuu said weakly. She’d always thought that Ravenclaw’s insistence on ‘intelligence’ being their highest virtue was kind of stupid in itself.

“But you kno~w, that guy you pointed out is a third year,” Cater brought them back.

“Right, he’s not a kid at all,” Trey said ruefully. “His name is—”

Yuu felt it a millisecond before a head swung upside down to face her. “—Lilia. Lilia Vanrouge.”

Yuu stared wide-eyed at the child floating upside down over the table. She’d felt it when he’d moved. His…teleportation? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the same thing as the magic Ace and Deuce had used. This was closer to her magic—apparition, Floo—than anything else she’d felt.

Also, his hair wasn’t being pulled downwards by gravity. Somehow he was counteracting his blazer’s tendency to fall downwards, too.

The boy’s hair was as black as hers, but streaks of vivid purple brightened the chin-length strands. The same magenta glowed in his eyes and she realized with a start that these slit pupils were the ones she had seen from the deep-voiced child at the opening ceremony. Skin pale as moonlight and features formed delicately small, he looked like a fairy, not quite human, a little too much to be normal.

Yuu only realized that she and this Lilia had been locked in a staring contest when Ace and Deuce reacted with twin shouts of surprise. Yuu blinked out of her stupor as Lilia Vanrouge flipped upright and dropped down between Cater and Yuu gracefully, his blazer settling around his shoulders like a mantle. Grim had fallen over in Ace’s lap from the surprise.

“You children are curious about my age?” once again, his deep voice and manner of speech sounded ancient. Two cowlicks of magenta stood up on either side of his head, bouncing with his movements rather incongruously.

“That guy just teleported,” Grim recovered from his shock belatedly.

Ku fu fu. I sure look young and energetic and cute, right?” Lilia’s smile revealed two sharpened canine teeth. “However, like that glasses said, I’m not at an age where someone could call me a…child.”

“Energetic and cute…” Trey looked a little repulsed.

“You don’t have to just stare at a distance.” Lilia glanced around the table and then looked up at her with those catlike eyes. “Why don’t you come up to us and ask about us? We’re students attending the same school, aren’t we?”

Yuu nodded, wide-eyed, at him. Lilia’s eyes narrowed in a smile.

“Our Diasomnia will welcome you at any time,” his voice softened briefly.

Deuce glanced over at the table again. “Those guys over there look like they’d rather die than talk to us,” he pointed out.

“Wait,” Ace hissed at him. “Those guys are at least thirty meters away from us! How the hell did he hear what we were talking about?!”

Yuu couldn’t look away from Lilia. This person, her guts were screaming at her, wasn’t human. She’d dealt with all sorts of magical creatures—and though she was pretty sure he wasn’t a ‘creature’, there was something about Lilia that made her feel itchy, discontent.

Lilia stared back, his smile unchanging. “So, child, what do they call you?”

“Yuu,” she said carefully. It was not wise to reveal her last name, but she’d gotten it struck a year ago due to her internship overseas with Charlie Weasley anyway. It was an extra layer of protection to lessen the names bound to a witch or wizard’s soul. Either way, this person wasn’t human, which meant that names could hold power over her.

Lilia, evidently, had not missed her cautiousness. “Yuu,” he repeated slowly, “I would love to have a nice chat with you sometime.”

Yuu gulped. “Yessir,” she squeaked. She wondered if this school was going to let her live past the first month.

Lunch the next day saw Cater and Trey approach their table, sliding in on either side of Yuu. She thought it must because both Ace and Deuce were collapsed on the table. The former still had the collar on—in the end, they hadn’t been able to meet the Dorm Head, so he’d stuck around Ramshackle for another day complaining.

“What’s up with the firsties?” Cater asked, pouring dressing over his salad liberally.

“Hello, senpai,” Yuu greeted them with an exasperated smile. “They got scolded by Professor Crewel.”

“There’s no way we could’ve known all that!” Moaned Ace into his arms.

“I should’ve studied more,” Deuce muttered despondently.

“Crewel’s a pretty strict teacher, so getting called on is the end of your luck,” Trey shook his head. “Grim looks like he’s done for too.”

Funaaa…” Grim curled up on the table. “I’m quitting this stupid school.”

“Aww, don’t say that,” Yuu sighed helplessly. “Here, have some chicken.”

“You got lucky?” Trey asked her as Grim sulkily reached for the plate she set in front of him.

“Huh?” Yuu gave him a confused look.

“You think this nerd didn’t know the answer?” Ace scoffed. “He can’t use magic, runs slower than a turtle, has no sense of self-preservation, gets all snobby about art and food, reads so much his eyes might as well fall out—”

“Are you just here to insult me?” Yuu cut in tonelessly.

“—but Yuu is smarter than everyone else in the first year’s Class A,” Deuce finished, picking his head up. “Especially in alchemy.”

“I’ve read some of this stuff before,” Yuu shrugged. Alchemy and potions resembled each other in some strange ways despite being completely different subjects.

“Huh…” Trey gave her a considering glance. “You managed to answer Crewel’s quiz on the spot?”

“I happened to know the answer, that’s all.” She swallowed a mouthful of rice. Today’s topic on mandragoras had made her realize that they didn’t differ between worlds at all. “Plus, I think Professor Crewel doesn’t like me very much.”

“He does seem to glare at you a lot,” Deuce said thoughtfully.

“Really? To me it looks like he’s worried. He even calls you little puppy.” Ace disagreed. “Probably scared you’ll fall into a cauldron one day.”

“Look, those cauldrons are too big,” Yuu said in affront, causing all of them to burst into laughter.

“I’ve heard the Dorm Head saying the same thing,” Trey told her with a grin. “That the cauldrons are unnecessarily large.”

“Really? Is he the same as me then?” Yuu said interestedly. She’d had to crane her head up to stare at these students for most of the month, so Yuu was eager to meet someone of a similar height.

“As if that mega crazy Dorm Head is the same as you!” Ace burst out.

Cater nodded absently. “True that. Diasomnia’s Dorm Head is super crazy, but our dorm head is kinda mad, too.”

“Yeah! Crazy selfish!” Ace leaned forwards angrily. “It ain’t even on the scale of crazy anymore, he’s just being a tyrant!”

“Hmm…?” A chilly voice answered from above her right shoulder. “So I’m a tyrant?”

“Obviously!” Ace continued, shoving food in his mouth, “Absolutely nobody’s—”

Deuce smacked him frantically. “Ace! Look up!”

Yuu turned around as Ace gasped out, “Oh shit! It’s the Dorm Head!”

Without the dark fabric of the robe covering his head, the redhead who had caught Grim looked like an exquisitely fashioned china doll. Indeed, he couldn’t be much taller than her, and in the bright chandelier light of the cafeteria, his red hair glowed with an especially brilliant shine.

She didn’t have time to be staring at him, though. Gloved hands folded across his neatly pressed uniform, he narrowed his long-lashed grey eyes at her for a brief moment—Yuu held her breath—before moving his gaze up to Cater.

The third year laughed nervously. “Hey, Riddle-kun! You’re as mad cute as ever today!”

Riddle’s nostrils flared delicately. “Hmph. Cater. If you keep exercising that smart mouth of yours, I’m going to have to Behead you.”

“Aw man, forgive me!” Cater replied easily, but his hands had curled a little tighter around his fork and knife.

Grim leapt upon the table. “Funa!? Hey, this guy’s the one who put me in that weird collar at the opening ceremony!”

Riddle’s sharp gaze transferred to him—Grim immediately leapt onto her shoulders and hid behind her hair. Yuu, met with the unimpressed grey gaze of this Dorm Head, ducked her head in a greeting. “Um, hello. I’m sorry about Ace.”

“You two…and those two,” Riddle’s gaze flicked over her head to the silent Ace and Deuce briefly. “You’re the students who nearly got expelled at the beginning of the month.”

Yuu hadn’t been a student at that time, but she had caused trouble enough where she usually just nodded along. “Yes sir.”

“It’s rude to call someone’s Unique Magic a ‘weird collar’,” Riddle’s large eyes narrowed a little more. He sighed. “The Headmaster sure is lenient. Even though relaxing the punishments on rule-breaking will weaken the entire foundation and send everything into collapse, he’s…”

That she could agree with. The Headmaster had indeed been unbelievably lenient on them—unbelievably kind to her, all jokes aside. Yuu petted Grim, who was getting puffy with anger on her shoulder, and bobbed her head along with his words.

Riddle looked down at her coldly. “He should just gather all the rule breakers together and sever their heads in one clean sweep.”

“Literally…?” Yuu asked quietly, a little afraid.

Ace muttered from behind her, “It’s even scarier when he makes threats with that doll-like face.”

Riddle had heard him. Thin scarlet brows slanted down severely over his eyes. “It seems that the Headmaster has forgiven you. But remember well that the next time you go against the rules, I will not.”

“Um, would you like to sit down?” Yuu suggested, scooting over a bit to make room. “Have you had lunch yet? Today’s risotto is really good.”

Riddle lost his glare, staring down at her in surprise. Grim made a funny choking noise and Ace dropped his fork with a clatter. The Dorm Head frowned. “You are…”

“I’m the ah…unruly new Directing Student,” she said sheepishly. “My name is Yuu. My partner student here is Grim. Nice to meet you!”

Riddle returned her slight lowering of the head with a blink. When surprised, his eyes looked even bigger, making his small face seem almost childishly young. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, Ace cut in with a loud cough,

“Ah…Dorm Head!” he said cheerfully. “Would it be okay if you, you know, took this collar off?”

Riddle’s eyes narrowed right back down. “I was looking to see if there was a scrap of repentance on you so I could make that judgment, but it seems that from your earlier statements, you’re quite content with the way things are, aren’t you?” he put one gloved hand on his waist. “Why don’t you wear it for a while longer. Before you worry, first-years usually don’t do practical magic this early, so there should be no drawbacks in your classes.”

This time it was her turn to be shocked. Yuu gaped at Riddle. He had come to their table quite deliberately to check on Ace, a student in his dorm which he’d punished, and was open to removing the collar if Ace was truly sorry. In addition, he was well aware of the consequences of removing Ace’s magic and had checked ahead of time that there wouldn’t be a problem in his classes. And although his manner of speech was rather prideful and unfriendly, Riddle had yet to exact punishment on either of the people who had been speaking behind his back.

From Cater’s and Ace’s complaints, she had thought that Riddle was a simple despot—yet this person was making his decisions with thought put behind each one. He was nothing like the Queen in the history account she’d read yesterday.

Ace spluttered, clearly not thinking along the same lines as she did.

Riddle ignored him, scanning their table. “Well then, if you’ve finished eating, don’t loiter and prepare for your next class. According to the Queen’s two-hundredth-and-seventy-first law, one must leave their seats no more than fifteen minutes after finishing lunch. You understand what happens to rulebreakers, don’t you?”

“More rules?” Ace looked singularly unimpressed.

“Your answer should be, ‘yes, Dorm Head!’” Riddle’s sharp voice cracked at him like a whip.

Ace and Deuce sat up straight. “Yes, Dorm Head!”

Riddle transferred his gaze to her.

Yuu echoed, “Yes, Dorm Head.” She wasn’t part of the Heartslabyul Dorm, though…in fact, wasn’t she the Dorm Head of Ramshackle, technically? Either way, it seemed wiser to go along with Riddle for now.

He nodded once. “Good.”

Trey took pity on them and cut in, his cheerful smile never fading. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to watch over them.”

Riddle relaxed his glare marginally, sighing at Trey. “You’re the vice Dorm Head, so don’t be so flippant and fulfil your duties properly.”

Yuu lifted her hand hesitantly. “Um, sorry, I don’t think I’ve been introduced.”

Riddle blinked several times. “Ah, where are my manners? I forget that you weren’t here for the entirety of the opening ceremony. My name is Riddle Rosehearts. I am a second year and the Dorm Head of Heartslabyul.” Like a gentleman, Riddle pressed his right hand to his chest and lowered his head in a refined bow.

“Nice to meet you, Rosehearts-senpai,” Yuu said with a smile, bowing back. “Would you like to join us for the remainder of lunch?”

“Your invitation is appreciated, Directing Student, but I must protect the three-hundred-and-thirty-ninth law of the Queen of Hearts,” Riddle explained, “The tea after finishing a meal must be lemon, with two sugars. Thus, I am off to the school canteen, so I will take my leave here.”

Yuu gaped. “That sounds tough. Um, good luck.”

Riddle left, muttering something about running out of sugar in the sugar pot being a heavy crime. As he turned, she thought she saw the Magical Pen fastened to his chest pocket glow black for a moment.

The students around the retreating Dorm Head burst into whispers when they left. She heard mutters of ‘thank God’, ‘finally gone’ and ‘wanna switch dorms’.

Yuu muttered to herself, “Is Rosehearts-senpai okay?”

Trey gave her a sharp glance, but Cater had collapsed on the table with a sigh and distracted them. “Phew! That was a close one.”

Grim jumped back on the table unhappily. “That guy’s unpleasant.”

Deuce smacked him. “Don’t be rude!”

Trey patted her on the shoulder. “You don’t look very scared, transfer.”

Yuu shook her head. “Your Dorm Head seems like he’s really responsible.”

“Responsible,” spat Ace. He sighed out his anger and poked at the remnants on his plate. “Hey Yuu. Apologizing obviously didn’t work, so what now?”

“Now?” Yuu shrugged absently. “I want to talk to him again, so we should go ahead with the tart-making plan, right? I mean, if we’re allowed to borrow the kitchens. But I don’t have any ingredients…should we serve tea with the tart?”

Deuce gave her a nod, recovering from his pale-faced shock. “Yuu…you’re a true man. Courageous and decisive! I like it!”

Yuu made a funny face at him. She wasn’t even one percent male.

Ace muttered, “I don’t get why you’re not afraid of that guy. Just listen to what the others are saying.”

Trey and Cater exchanged sombre glances. The former cleared his throat. “…Our Dorm Head filled this spot not even a week after he first began schooling.”

“A week!?” Yuu repeated. “The Headmaster…”

“Just because Riddle’s words are a little tough to hear doesn’t mean he’s not an excellent prefect. He’s got the best interests of ’Labyul in mind,” Trey explained.

“So he just randomly seals away the magic of students?” Grim argued, unimpressed. “What is that, anyway?”

“Grim,” Yuu cut in. It was unwise for him to make a public stance against Riddle when he already had a black mark on his back.

“You mean his Unique Magic?” Trey answered him.

Grim forgot his anger. “What’s that? Sounds cool!”

Cater explained, eager for a topic change, that the Unique Magic of a student was a spell innate to the shape of a magician’s soul that skilled magicians were able to develop. Apparently, because of the unique way the spell was created—which reminded Yuu a little of the Patronus charm—the Unique Magic of one person was usually unable to be used by anyone else. Riddle’s magic was to ‘seal the magic of others for a brief period of time’, although Ace’s collar had already been locked on his throat for a day and a half.

“Why does the name have to sound so scary?!” Grim clutched at her arm, eyes teary.

“That’s ’cauuuuse,” Cater leaned in with both hands held up into claws. “For a magician, getting your magic sealed is basically as painful as losing your head!”

“Why? Because it’s inconvenient? Or because you’ll be made fun of? Or is it because magicians have a lot of enemies that will aim for their weak spots?” Yuu listed absently. Having lived in a rather peaceful time—missing the war against Voldemort by only a decade or so—she could hardly imagine magic being a target for assassination, but with the state of the Pureblood families in Wizarding England, she couldn’t rule it out.

Trey stared at her. “…What was your name again, kid?”

“Me?” she pointed at herself. “I’m Yuu. Why?”

“…” Trey shook his head, his cheerful smile returning. “Oh, nothing. You sure have a vivid imagination.”

“Really? I get told the opposite all the time,” Yuu furrowed a brow, wondering why he had looked so surprised. “Well, in a way, it’s quite easy to get into the Dorm Head’s good graces. As long as you follow the rules, you’re in the clear, right?”

“Don’t say it that easily! His rules don’t make sense!” Ace flung a piece of lettuce at her. “You said you’d help me, brat!”

“I’ll help you,” Yuu rolled her eyes. “You free after school for tart-making?”

“What, you’re going to make tarts? Yuu-chan, you can cook?” Cater peered into her face with an expectant smile. “Man~ our new firstie’s so cute! He’s like a little housewife!”

“Are you calling me a big housewife?” Trey raised one eyebrow at Cater. “Tart-making isn’t even that difficult.”

“That’s true. Since they’re all made by a big hulking dude like you.” Cate returned easily. “But you always make whole tarts since Riddle-kun likes to eat the first piece the most, don’t you? That’s pretty much what a housewife does.”

Yuu swung around to face him in surprise. “All those were made by you, senpai?”

“No way,” Ace said slowly, mouth open, “I thought they were from a store. It tasted frickin’ decadent.”

“Thanks,” Trey scratched the back of his neck with a smile, “It’s my hobby to make sweets anyway. If you guys are making a tart, want some help?”

“Yes! Yes please Trey-senpai I want some help!” Ace leapt at the suggestion.

Trey’s smile gained a devilish twist. “Well…I’m not going to suggest it for free, though.”

“What!? I don’t have much on me!”

“Why would I need to take money from my underclassmen?” Trey said reasonably. “You see, the next tart that I’m making for Riddle needs a ton of chestnuts. How about you three collect the chestnuts for me and we’ll make the tarts together?”

“The party’s tomorrow, isn’t it,” she remembered. “Your uh…Unbirthday party?”

“Got it in one. Usually we make huge tarts for that day, especially since guests tend to be invited.” Trey thought for a moment. “I guess for tomorrow’s tart, we’ll need around two to three hundred chestnuts.”

“That much?!” Deuce and Grim chorused.

“And once you get them all collected, I’ll need your help roasting, peeling and straining them.”

“Can I go home?” Grim smiled widely.

“Me too.” Deuce added.

“You heartless jerks!” Ace cried.

“In return, you get to eat it after you make it together! I’m sure it’ll be de~licious!” Cater put in from the side.

“And you’ll appear to eat the finished product, senpai?” Yuu guessed.

“Ah ha. What on earth could you be talking about, Yuu-chan?” Cater winked at her. “Just think about it. Making memories with your friends in the kitchen…you could even debut as a food blogger!”

“No phone, remember?” she deadpanned.

Trey smirked. “It’s a secret from the Dorm Head, but the Marron Tart is most delicious when it’s just come out of the oven. And the only people who get to eat the freshly made tart are the people who did the hard work.”

“Hey, hey, you slackers! Put your backs into it! We’re gonna pick chestnuts and keep picking ’em till we all drop, got it?” Grim changed tacks at the speed of light.

“As expected of the great Grim,” Yuu rolled her eyes. She turned to Trey. “Senpai, where should we gather the chestnuts, and are there boxes or containers we should use?”

“I guess I’m not worried about them if you go together with those guys,” Trey gave the three salivating students a wry glance. “The woods behind NRC’s botanical gardens are ripe for the picking. We’ve got permission to borrow tools from the gardens, too, so you should go grab buckets and gloves from inside the greenhouse.”

“What about ingredients?” Yuu asked, reaching for her bag. “Do we need spices, baking powder, flour, eggs…”

Trey laughed and ruffled her hair. “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got most of the stuff already. The chestnuts are really what we need, transfer. Be careful, though—the spikes can be really painful.”

“Okay,” Yuu said. “Then we’ll gather at the gardens after school to pick up gloves. Um, by the way, this school has gardens?”

Ace smacked his head. “You’ve been here for a month! How do you not know where the gardens are?”

“I only know the Headmaster’s office, the first-year classrooms, the infirmary, and the Mirror Chamber are.” She ticked off.

“And the library,” Deuce added.

“Only the library,” Ace muttered.

“Where else am I going to find info about this world?” she shot back.

“I’ll tell you where to go, but we can’t meet you at the gardens right away,” Ace rolled his eyes at her. “I’ve got to do a physical for the basketball club and so does Deuce.”

“Huh? Deuce, you’re joining the basketball club too?” Yuu squinted at the dark-haired student.

“Not me, I’m in track and field.” Deuce clarified. “It looks like we’re both going to make the preliminary tryouts, so we all have to make sure we’re in good shape before we do actual tryouts next week. You’re not gonna join any clubs?”

“I might not even be around next week,” Yuu said dryly, though she doubted it. “Grim, d’you wanna go with them to see or do you want to hang out with me in the gardens? If you want to join a club—”

“What are you talking about?” Grim looked at her like she was insane. “You’re my henchman. Why should I go anywhere without you? Stop being dumb and let’s go to class.”

“Grim…” Yuu, touched, squeezed him to her.

“Looks like this year’s first years are really interesting,” Cater put his hand on his chin and examined their group with a narrow-eyed smile. “Right, Trey?”

Trey smiled and didn’t say anything in response.

Chapter Text

By the end of the school day, Grim had expended all of his energy. Yuu had noticed that classes ended rather early to accommodate for the incredibly strong extracurricular activities NRC boasted, but she guessed the extra action was a bit much for her partner, who was curled around her shoulders, snoring into her neck blissfully. Yuu sympathized with him—though she wasn’t tiny like Grim, she was a good deal smaller than most of the students she’d seen and not a match for the scarily muscled players who joined the sports teams. (Yuu still didn’t quite know what the huge field was for, but NRC seemed to be strong contenders of this sport in the league of magic schools in this world, second only to one other school called ‘RSA’ or something.)

The school castle was mostly empty now as students rushed to their respective clubs and dorms. Yuu’s comfortable leather shoes clicked on the stone steps and echoed up around the stairway as she left the school through the east entrance, which was a good deal closer to the botanical gardens (according to Ace). The castle was so big that Yuu felt as if she would never figure out where she was going—it didn’t have the false steps and trick rooms Hogwarts dished out in spades, but Yuu had already found one hidey-hole and one unbelievably useful shortcut out back that hinted at the bounty of secrets NRC hid. She squashed down that curiosity that always damned her.

Right now, Yuu’s first priority was to search for a way home, not to be distracted by this school. It was enough that she was allowing herself to tear through all of the books about magic in the library—at least then, she could make the excuse she was ‘looking’. Even though there was a dearth of material on the topic of space-travel, doing something was better than doing nothing.

If she were being honest with herself, Yuu wanted badly to explore, to dive into this world searching for all of its secrets. But she knew that she wasn’t supposed to be here, that it was dangerous for wizards to mess with space and time, that she needed to get back before something unravelled and sent them all spinning into the darkness.

And before that, she had to find gloves so she could pick chestnuts for the marron tarts they would be making today.

Yuu came across the botanical gardens relatively quickly. Of the comparatively smaller buildings scattered around the grounds (barring the seven dorms, which were acres away and usually accessed by those dreadful mirrors), the great glass dome of the gardens surprised her with its magnitude. It took Yuu ten minutes to pace around the perimeter after she arrived at its door.

Grim was unresponsive except for to push at her cheek with his paw when she tried to shake him awake. Though eager to share her discovery with her partner, Yuu decided to leave him be and pushed the glass door open noiselessly. When it shut behind her, the whistle of the wind outside, the distant cry of Vargas’ coaching, and the students’ cheers faded down to silence.

NRC’s botanical gardens were surprisingly temperate and dry—most likely maintained by magic. On one of their merry chases around the third floor of the castle (Grim shouting about tuna), Crowley had told her that he controlled the heat and cold within the dorms and the castle buildings, with the help of some workers, which shocked her to no end. Even for a great wizard like Albus P. W. B. Dumbledore, who had earned his place on a Chocolate Frog card, maintaining an extended heating and cooling spell over one building was no small task—yet Crowley had brushed it off like it was nothing to control the temperature of the entire campus, a forgettable fact that neither he nor Grim seemed to find impressive.

Inside this miniature garden, the comfortable warmth in the glass house and Grim’s quiet rumbling breaths nearly lulled Yuu into a doze as she sunk into thought. She shook herself out of it and glanced around. Ace and Deuce said they’d perhaps arrive an hour later than her, so Yuu decided she could slack off a little and take a leisurely tour around the colourful conservatory.

Unlike Hogwarts’ seven rectangular greenhouses, this one had an unbelievably high ceiling and was by no means sorted out as neatly as Pomona Sprout would have liked it. In fact, it reminded her of a museum’s indoor tropical display; apart from a few stone bridges and a small, cobbled path looping into the lush multicoloured foliage, the only noise was a burbling of water. Bursts of bright flowers dangled from old chains; trees shaded her eyes, hung down by exotic fruit. The centre courtyard was clean and open and looked like an excellent spot for a picnic.

Yuu followed the murmuring of the stream hazily, captivated by the sweet scent of a bunch of blooming flowers whose name she didn’t know. Now that she was alone, her mind drifted. She wondered about the reason she was here, and of how powerful Crowley really was. Of why the villains from Dixney movies were so lauded. Of what Scarabia looked like. Of Lilia Vanrouge and why he had reminded her of something fey, of the line between Riddle’s elegant brows when he frowned, of Ace holding her tight over his shoulder as they ran out of the Dwarf Mines.

Of her absent father. Her oblivious mother. Hogwarts and its seething lake, Fred II’s huge grin as he told her he’d found a way into the Ravenclaw girl’s dorms, Norberta’s children who nestled under her arm, Charlie Weasley tackling her out of the way of a giant plume of flame that obliterated the building behind them. Scorpius Malfoy fighting back tears in her common room at 3 AM. Hiding under the dining tables in the Great Hall to surprise Albus with a birthday present. Auror-Professor Harry Potter crouching down before her to ask gently if she was okay—that she didn’t need to try so hard to pretend to be like everyone else. Meeting Hermione Granger from the law department for the first time, before she had become next-in-line for the Minister. Approaching the great pagoda of Mahoutokoro, being knocked off her Yajirushi again and again and again.

All of these reasons to return home, all of those reasons to stay. Yuu looked down at her thin fingers, at the invisible imprint of her long yew wand tucked safely up her sleeve. She felt empty. No desire to leave—no desire. Nothing.

Hogwarts was beautiful and blinding, but it was no more Yuu’s home than her pristine, unused room in County Durham was.

What did it matter? It was all meaningless.

Yet she needed to go back.

Grim snuffled on her shoulder and she started out of her thoughts. The foliage was unfamiliar—Yuu had stopped walking at some point and now she’d lost her bearings. As she started moving forwards again, Yuu watched the creature who was her current school partner press closer to her, ears twitching.

You’re my henchman, Grim had said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I trust you, Deuce had told her. Ace had held her hand without complaint.

Yuu’s chest felt a little funny. She supposed that right now, her reasons to stay exceeded her reasons to leave. Though it didn’t change her need to return, it still felt rather nice.

Her foot brushed something. Trained by years of remaining constantly vigilant in a greenhouse, where a Venomous Tentacula was prone to leaving its limbs prone in front of feet, she jerked backwards a step. But instead of a plant, her wary glance was met with a long, curled tail the colour of sunburnt grass.

CHAPTER FOUR | The Red Ruler.

Curiously, Yuu crouched down and poked the appendage, forgetting it may have been poisonous (or who knows what else). Where Grim’s tail was small and pronged in three, like a pitchfork, this larger tail was supple and silky, more than triple its length. The sandy colour was tipped with an unbelievably soft fuzz of dark brown.

After it lay in her palm for a few seconds (where she tugged at it, wondering what kind of animal it belonged to), the tail curled around her fingers slowly before retreating back through the grass on one side of the cobblestone.

Yuu stared in the direction it had gone, and without thinking much of it, followed it off the path into unchecked grass. She was careful to prevent too much pressure in her steps in case she crushed something—like the animal whose tail she had been holding like a fool a little while ago—but even Yuu wasn’t prepared to nearly stumble over a body lying under the shade of a huge leafy tree.

He was far bigger than her. She could only see the back of a goldenrod vest, but even that was large enough to stop her in her tracks. When she traced her gaze down, the tail was thumping slowly up and down against the thick bed of curated grass, sprouting from a dark pair of uniform pants.

Wait. What?

Yuu whipped her gaze back up to a great head of rich brown hair, the colour of melted Honeydukes chocolate in winter, but what had caught her gaze were the two matching brown velvet ears that flicked even as she stared.

Wait. What?

Poring through all of the Ministry of Magic records for magical creatures had revealed to Yuu the full scope of diverse and beautiful Magical Creatures that hid in plain sight within the Wizarding World. She’d read about everything from humanoid Veela to unfriendly merfolk to noble centaurs to giants and dragons and Lethifolds. This was her element—this was what she loved to study, and she had done so with gusto. Werewolves, in particular, had been researched in detail over the past several years as recent graduate Teddy Lupin had been a most cooperative resource and Hermione Granger was a force to be reckoned with even when she was in the Law department.

Yuu had seen her share of magical beings. Enough to make her realise how prideful humans were to assume themselves the pinnacle of civilization.

But.

The creatures—people—at this school were nothing like anything she’d read. Yuu had been completely dumbfounded at the multitude of students possessing animal ears and tails (and often looked completely human otherwise) at NRC. She had absolutely no idea if it was just one of their forms, if they were born this way, if there were special qualifications…

And everyone laughed at her when she tried to ask, even Cater and Trey who knew she was from a different world. It seemed that the coexistence of many species (?) was common knowledge here.

Anyway, even with the brief explanation of Savanclaw’s students given at lunch yesterday, she could not get used to…whatever species this was. Because they were nothing she’d ever seen before.

It was so interesting!

Yuu only realized she’d lost herself in thought again when a deep, slow voice growled, “Oi.”

She blinked her eyes into focus. In place of the long curtain of lush hair, Yuu met two brilliant viridian eyes with hers, narrowed in a threatening glare.

The man, who’d turned without her noticing, spoke lethargically, the remnants of sleep still in his voice. “Just ’cause I didn’t say anything earlier, you sure have the guts to be doing whatever you want. Touching others’ tails and interrupting my nap…are you prepared for the consequences?”

Oops.

“Sorry,” Yuu winced remorsefully. “Um, I didn’t know it was your tail. It was in front of my foot so I just…”

“If you see something in front of your foot then you touch it right away?” when his eyes narrowed, she saw the remnants of a dark scar bisecting his left eyelid.

“You’re right,” she mumbled, chastened. “Sorry for bothering you…um, are you the caretaker of this garden, sir?”

Aah?” he blinked once. “The caretaker’s not around right now. You’re…ahh, aren’t you that herbivore who got told he had no magic by the Mirror at the opening ceremony?”

“Herbivore?” repeated Yuu dumbly. “I mean, I eat all sorts of meat, but I suppose you’re talking about me.”

“Hmm.” he narrowed his eyes. Much faster than she could perceive, he was sitting up, rising over her crouched form. Before Yuu could do more than gasp, the man pressed his nose to her head and sniffed.

Sniffed?

Yuu remained extremely still, just like she would if cornered by a dragon or another large creature, wondering how the hell Grim could stay asleep in a situation with a possibly aggressive fellow animal-like person in his face like this. The man sniffed her behind the ears, at the neck, and sniffed Grim for good measure. When he pulled back, he was wearing a magnificent glare.

“Oi.” This time his voice dragged against the ground so that Yuu went stock still and Grim grumbled in his sleep unhappily. “What the hell is the meaning of this?”

“Sorry?” she squeaked. “I’m pretty sure I don’t smell that bad. I take showers every day, you know? Even when the hot water doesn’t work.”

“That’s not what I mean.” The man ran a hand carelessly through his hair. Yuu absently wondered if he was a model—that move would have probably murdered a bunch of photographers—before he sighed and dragged her over with his tail. It was surprisingly strong as it curled around her leg.

Yuu yelped and hopped forwards gently. The man pointed at the grass beside him; she sat confusedly. “Is there something wrong?”

“First of all…what’s that smell on you? You really don’t have any magic…but there’s something else. Almost like that bastard Draconia…something…” the man shook his head sharply as if to dismiss his muttered thoughts. “No. That’s not important. Oi, herbivore. Don’t try to fool me. Why the hell do you smell like a female?”

Yuu was not a bad liar. She knew the best ways to fib: to speak the truth, to only omit what was not to one’s advantage, to maintain eye contact, to foster trust with the target.

But she was not a natural. Hadn’t been bred with falsehoods ingrained into her lifestyle, didn’t need to lie to overly strict parents daily, wasn’t forced undercover in a House she didn’t belong in. When Yuu lied, her heart sped up. When she was caught off guard, she felt sweat on her palms.

There was no way that a predator like this would overlook its prey.

Still—she tried. Yuu didn’t know this person, so she lied through her teeth. “…Because I have a female sibling,” she started.

The man laughed. “Your eyes darted to the right and your heart’s racing. I can hear your pulse in your jugular, herbivore. Do you really think lies can fool someone like me?”

“Who are you, anyway?” Yuu said rebelliously, frowning at him, “and who cares if I smell like—”

A black glove slammed into the dirt. Yuu’s world spun; it took her several seconds to realise she had been pinned to the ground. Grim tumbled off into the grass with a displeased grumble, and yet he was still asleep

“Oi,” the man growled at close range, “Watch the way you refer to me.”

“You shouldn’t manhandle people,” Yuu said shakily, heart racing, “it’s not very nice.”

Nice!” he barked a short laugh and narrowed those brilliant green eyes, baring two sharp canines in something close to a snarl. “I’m being nice enough by not tearing you to pieces right now. Try again, herbivore. Why do you smell female?”

Yuu tried again. “What, can I not have female family members anymore?” she responded coolly.

“Heh.” His left ear flicked once. “Not bad, but you’re sweating too hard for it to be convincing. Don’t underestimate my sense of smell. That scent is far too strong for it to be a family member you haven’t seen for a month.”

“Why does it matter to you, anyway?” she tried to struggle out from under this predator, but the tail wound around her leg tightened in warning.

“To me? It doesn’t matter at all. But to you…” the grin widened wickedly. “I wonder what Crowley would say if I dragged you before him telling him how a little girl had snuck her way into an all-boy’s school. Naa?

“Picking on the weak isn’t a very good hobby,” she returned calmly.

“Please. You call something as small as this picking on you? Picking on you would to be sinking my teeth into your skinny little neck the second you intruded on my territory.”

“I apologized for that,” Yuu said with a frown. “Um, first of all, how do you know I smell like anything at all?”

“…You don’t know?” The last word was spat out with distaste.

“I figured you would have known from the day of the opening ceremony that I have no idea what anything is around this place,” Yuu responded, making sure to stay still. “Do you have some sort of smelling magic or something that’s really strong? Unique Magic? Or something?”

“Are you an—obviously not,” he growled. “Everyone in our clan can do it. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen someone with animal ears before?”

“Before I came to this school? Obviously not,” she parroted flatly. “And I haven’t had the chance to ask anyone I know if those are real. Can I touch them?”

The man stared at her with half-lidded eyes, unimpressed.

“Sorry.” Yuu mumbled. “But honestly, whether I smell like a field of roses or a garbage dump, I really don’t see how it’s any of your business.”

“Ha. It looks like you really don’t fear for your life if you’re talking to me like this,” his lip peeled back to reveal a frighteningly sharp tooth. “You know, struggling only makes it harder for yourself. I’m not about to just let you go, herbivore.

“…It seems like we are at an impasse.”

“As if. I hold the power here, and you know it.” The man said slowly, as if savouring his victory. “Now hurry up and spit it out. I could just rip your throat out and be done with it.”

“You wouldn’t do that to someone who is here under the protection of the headmaster,” Yuu told him surely, “if you were smart.”

The smile disappeared from his face. “Spit it out, herbivore.”

“Please tell me your name.”

“…Huh?”

“I don’t know who you are,” Yuu told him, stretched out flat on her back with a man nearly twice her size blocking out the sky. But her voice didn’t shake as she continued, “it’s common sense not to talk to strangers.”

She was treated to the sight of a genuinely surprised expression that brightened his eyes before the man tipped over into a graceful slouch beside her and laughed freely. His voice rang out over the clearing and into the trees.

Yuu sat up gingerly, gathering Grim into her arms. He’d finally awoken at the loud noise—looking sleepily around him—but now that her secret was out (not that she’d been trying to hide anything), Yuu was all for him going back to his nap so he didn’t hear. She put his head against her neck and patted him behind the ears until he had been assured there was no threat around except for the chuckling man. Usually Grim would have made some comment about how it was loud and not to disturb his nap, but this time he went straight back to sleep.

It was probably a testament to how tired he was that Grim didn’t even ask her who this man was. It was also a stroke of luck. Yuu wondered if she’d sniffed Felix Felicis today. Or if there was some plant in here that was lulling him to sleep?

She gave him a questioning glance, but now was not the time.

“Leona.”

“Huh?” Yuu looked back in the direction of the stranger. Was he talking about the muggle singer?

“Leona Kingscholar.” He repeated, narrowing his eyes at her. “Third year, Savanaclaw dorm. Your turn.”

“Nice to meet you,” she tilted her head down in greeting. “…Sort of. My name is Yuu. I’m a first year from…er, Ramshackle Dorm, I suppose.”

“Amazing.” Leona said dryly. His voice brooked no argument. “Herbivore. You’re female, aren’t you?”

Yuu let out a long sigh. “If it helps, I had no idea this was a boy’s school until yesterday.”

Leona Kingscholar looked singularly bored as Yuu explained how she had come from a different world to this one—it was useless to try and continue lying to someone who had a lie detector in his nose, anyway. Still, his ears were pricked in her direction, so she explained at length that Crowley obviously hadn’t realized she was female when he employed her as an odd-jobs boy first, and then as a student later on. Yuu herself hadn’t been too concerned about her gender until yesterday, when it was revealed that the school didn’t have a single girl in it.

“But,” she stressed, “none of that matters. I’m figuring out a way to go home as soon as possible, and it’s counterintuitive now to reveal that I’m female. Not only would it create an unnecessary clamour, but this school’s library has a wealth of resources that I must be a student to access. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s a better idea to allow them to continue thinking I’m male as I figure out a way to return home and just…leave?”

Leona raised an eyebrow at her. “You think you won’t get found out? With that smell and that face?”

What face? Yuu shrugged. “I’m just not going to say it. People conform to expectations easily, so they’ll find some reason to accept why I couldn’t be a girl. I’ve been a student for almost a month and no other animal-ear students have asked me about it either.”

“Ha. That’s because their noses are useless.” Leona sighed and leaned forward. A long braid fell past his shoulder with the movement. “Refusing to consider any backup plans is foolish, no matter how much of an unhappy coincidence it is that you’re here.”

“You’re going to believe me now?” she asked sceptically, raising a brow at him, “when you didn’t believe me before, senpai?”

“You’re no longer lying, are you, herbivore?” he shot back. “If you had snuck in here as an agent trying to murder me or someone else, I would have ripped you to pieces, but you don’t seem to be that stupid.”

“Agent…murder?” repeated Yuu slowly. She gave him a strange look. “Why on earth would I try to murder someone like you who can tell if I’m lying?”

Leona’s throat rumbled; it took her a moment to realize he was laughing again. “Why indeed,” he said lowly. “Anyway, if you’re not gonna get in my way, it’s none of my business how you spend your time. Try your best not to get caught, herbivore.”

Yuu blinked several times in surprise. Despite his initial hostility, once she’d broken down and told him the truth, Leona seemed content to let her off. Perhaps it was the sheer confidence that he exuded from his pores or maybe it was the irreverent attitude, but she felt the tenseness in her shoulders relaxing. In some way, he reminded her of the Opaleye she’d taken care of while in Romania—unpredictable, but also beautiful and self-assured. Unlike the pale Opaleye dragon though, Leona was a rich shade of brown all over.

“Can I ask you a question?” Yuu cocked her head at him. “Is it possible to hide my smell?”

“…Huh? If you wear a strong scent you can hide it pretty effectively. Why?” Leona raised an elegant brow.

There really were only handsome people in Night Raven College. Yuu wondered if there was a requirement to be handsome in order to apply. She sighed. “Would you mind telling me any ways to get a strong scent on me?” she said resignedly. “I don’t have a single Madol right now since I came from a different world and would really appreciate it. In addition, I would also appreciate it if you didn’t tell everyone my gender.”

Leona sighed and grumbled, “Why do I have to…”

“You don’t have to,” Yuu said hastily. “It’s good enough that you’re not trying to blackmail or threaten me. But—”

“Ahh, shut—…I get it already.” Leona clicked his tongue loudly, carded his fingers through his hair, and started to undo his vest. “Listen, herbivore.”

“Yessir.” Why was he removing his vest?

“It’s just this once. Got it? You’re on your own afterwards. I don’t care if you’re a woman or not and I don’t care if that bastard Crowley is the one at fault or not. It’s not my problem.”

As he spoke, Leona shucked off his vest deftly, leaving only a poorly buttoned dress shirt underneath, and dropped it on her head.

Yuu gaped at him dumbly.

“Well?” he snapped, irritated. “Get outta—go do whatever you were doing. I’m going to take a nap.”

“Why do you keep changing what you were about to say?” she muttered. “Also, um, what am I supposed to do with this vest?”

“Are you a fool? …Tch. You were the one who asked for a way to hide that scent of yours. Until you go get something from the Mystery Shop, cover your head with that or something. Covering a scent with another is the easiest way.”

He was explaining it to her. Slowly. Despite his obvious poor mood—displayed in his sharply swishing tail and killer glare—Leona had caught himself after calling her a fool and rather patiently (compared to before) told her what to do.

“Leona-senpai,” Yuu said slowly from under the rather nice-smelling vest, “are you being nice to me because I’m female?”

“If you don’t want me to devour you right now, then get the hell out of here,” he growled, rolling onto the ground where she’d found him. Yet she noted carefully how he didn’t assert or deny her question, nor did he slam her against the ground a second time.

“Um, thank you.” She hastily stuffed the vest into her book bag and bent her head in gratitude. “That was really kind of you, senpai. Please don’t tell anyone.”

“Tell anyone what?” he drawled.

No one had treated Yuu any different because she was a girl, so this rather old-fashioned (?) gentlemanly behaviour of Leona’s confused her a little. Either way, it looked as if he wouldn’t have helped her if she was male (maybe would’ve actually bitten her) so she was grateful enough, she supposed. He’d insisted it wasn’t his problem and behaved generally as if he didn’t care—yet the vest sitting in her bag said otherwise.

Was it because this world was so intertwined with Dixney movies? The very epitome of princess movies? That girls were treated with the utmost respect—or at the very least, protected and nurtured and held so highly?

Yuu decided to take what she could get. This Leona seemed like a reasonable character, and she was the one who provoked him. Thinking back, she had been pretty rude…maybe it would be best to take back a slice of tart as an apology. He’d said he was a Savanaclaw resident, hadn’t he? Was using the Savanaclaw mirror permitted for all students? But she hated that mirror…Maybe she could ask Ace or Deuce to come with her.

Yuu dusted herself off, rearranged a snoring Grim—God, could this guy sleep—and sucked in a steadying breath, making sure her legs weren’t trembling. She’d never been very brave, but being cornered against the ground by someone so overtly threatening had been a little…a lot scary.

Perhaps thinking of him as a manticore would help with the fear? He was much smaller than a manticore.

“Leona-san!”

As she stood up and prepared to leave, a messy head of dirty blond hair popped into the clearing from between two trees. Yuu met eyes with the new arrival, both of them freezing in surprise.

“Uh…hello.” the new arrival’s big, wide ears flicked in her direction hesitantly. “Who’re you? What are you doing over here?”

“The herbivore was just leaving,” Leona grumbled.

“Right, I was just leaving.” Yuu smiled at the stranger. “I’m Yuu. Nice to meet you.”

“Yuu?” repeated the student, tilting his head and squinting his blue-grey eyes at her. Then he dismissed her with a flick of one big ear. “…Well, okay. Leona-san! Today’s a remedial day. I knew you’d be hiding here!”

Haa…the annoying guy’s here already.” Leona groaned, pushing himself to his feet. Upright, he towered over her and, to a lesser extent, the new arrival. Yuu had to crane her head up to look at him.

“Leona-san, you’ve already repeated more than once. If you keep staying back a year, next year we’re gonna be in the same class, you know?” The student seemed to be quite friendly with Leona, enough to lecture him, at least.

Aah, you’re so loud. Stop yapping, Ruggie.” Leona growled.

“’S not like I wanna be the one saying it! Geez. Even though you could do anything if you tried, why do you never try…” The one called Ruggie clapped his hands together briskly. “Where did your vest go? Weren’t you wearing it this morning? Anyway, c’mon, let’s go already.”

Tch……Hey. Watch out next time, herbivore. Try and work that tiny little brain of yours to try and keep from getting caught.” Leona spared a single glance in her direction. “I’m not taking any responsibility if you get kicked out.”

Yuu bobbed him an incline of the head. “Yes sir. Thank you for earlier, senpai. Um…sorry for disturbing your nap. I’ll pay you back.”

“Pay him back?” Ruggie squinted at her. “You acquainted with Leona-san?”

“I just met him. Senpai was giving me some advice.” Yuu lowered her head in a bow. “Well, I guess I’ll be leaving now. Umm. Ruggie-san? Goodbye.”

“O…okay?” Ruggie squinted as Yuu dove out of the clearing. “That kid smelled kind of strange. I don’t remember that smell…something sweet…hmm. Leona-san? What’s with that kid?”

“Hurry up. We’re going, Ruggie.”

“Heh!? Leona-san got up by himself! And seriously, where’d your damn vest go? You’ve got to stop leaving your clothes lying around. At least give ‘em to me if you don’t need them! Do you know how expensive…”

“You’ve been pretty quiet since we left,” Ace remarked on their way back to the kitchens. The three of them were covered in leaves and dirt from the impromptu leaf fight that had delayed their return a good twenty minutes during their chestnut-picking trip. “What’s up? Tired?”

She blinked at him as he waved a hand in front of her face. “Huh? Oh, just thinking.”

“Yuu always goes into his own world when he starts thinking,” Grim grumbled, having been shaken awake to help with the chestnut-picking. He rubbed at his stinging paws sorely.

“Something you’re worried about?” Deuce shifted the huge box in his arms. He was carrying most of the chestnuts like it was nothing, leaving Ace and Yuu to hold a smaller container each.

“Not really…” Yuu decided she’d ask them about it. “You know, after coming to this world, I haven’t seen a single girl.”

Ace snorted. “Yeah, to your eternal disappointment.”

“If a girl showed up here half the students would have a heart attack,” Deuce affirmed.

“What’s the societal position of women in this world?” she wanted to know. “In my world there was a pretty unpleasant historical gender imbalance, historically, anyway.”

“Are you an anthropologist or something?” Ace looked playfully disgusted. “You really are curious about everything.”

“Societal…huh?” Deuce squinted.

“Sometimes he starts babbling stuff like this,” Grim told him, “I don’t get it, either.”

“Women are treated well here, though?” Deuce said slowly. “Like, it’s the first rule in a bunch of countries. Don’t mistreat women. Only garbage disobeys that rule.”

“Whoa,” Yuu lifted her brows as they passed a gaggle of students jogging through the grounds. “The first rule?”

“Well, yeah.” Ace shrugged. “I mean there used to be this problem where women were expected to be protected only. But you see that over half of the Seven Greats are women, right? They’re obviously as capable or whatever, so the whole treating them like breakable glass thing was scrapped a while ago. You’ve got those old-fashioned people who still do it, too…”

“Huh. There wasn’t like…discrimination in the workplace or preventing them from reaching the same position as men or anything?” Yuu asked interestedly.

“Nah. Maybe there would’ve been the opposite if some women in power didn’t put a stop to it. Like they say Twisted Wonderland is patriarchal, but it’s pretty much matriarchal.” Ace shrugged. “It’s just common sense to be kind to women, though. In one way or another, disrespecting them is pretty much unbelievably stupid and appalling. …Well, NRC might be different.”

“NRC might be different?” Yuu repeated slowly.

“This school’s an excellent school!” Deuce looked affronted.

“Sure, in terms of rankings and education and stuff.” Ace agreed. “But you know what kind of person goes to Night Raven College.”

“What kind?” Deuce asked dumbly.

“What kind?” Yuu parroted.

“…Never mind,” Ace sighed, glancing at her as they reached the back door. “I forgot I was talking with a bunch of morons.”

“Hey! I’m not a moron!” protested Grim, who hadn’t been listening. The three of them exchanged snorts.

Trey had explained to them at lunch that he often used the kitchens after school to bake sweets for Riddle’s parties. As vice Dorm Head, he had some privileges that other students didn’t—and one of them included unlimited access to school buildings like the huge kitchen behind the cafeteria. As long as he cleaned up after himself, no one seemed to care.

Thus, by the time the four of them arrived in the kitchens carrying well over three hundred chestnuts, Trey had already pushed a huge-looking tart crust into the huge-looking oven, two similarly loaded ovens burning beside it. He smiled over at them. “Welcome back. You guys sure picked up a lot.”

“We can make a huge batch of tarts with this much!” forgetting his stinging paws, Grim spread his arms in excitement. His stomach growled.

“After we peel all of them,” Yuu monotoned. “By the way, senpai, I don’t see Cater-senpai around.”

“Ah, he said he had club activities,” Trey shrugged. “He’ll probably be back when we finish.”

“That guy’s only here to eat the frickin’ tart!” Ace growled. “Club activities should be over!”

Yuu set her book bag down and peeled chestnuts together with the other four at a massive table as the tart crusts browned in the oven slowly. She examined the kitchen while Trey taught Deuce and Grim how to use magic to peel the chestnuts while Ace muttered angrily about having to do them by hand.

These kitchens were strangely reminiscent of Hogwarts’ kitchens (which, of course, she had only accessed by tickling the poor pear in the portrait). Small arched windows peeked out to the grounds, but the rest of the walls were covered in hanging pots, pans, ladles, and other utensils. Surprisingly, the oven and stove seemed to run electrically (?), and there was even a dishwasher beside one of the long islands across which Trey had been working. Apart from a few barrels, though, all of the materials for food had been put away cleanly and the tiled floor shone under a dark green rug. The table they were gathered at was one of many spaced irregularly around the kitchen floor.

“Hey Yuu, pass me another box,” Ace rolled his shoulders with a yawn, dusting his fingers as he tossed a chestnut into the bowl.

“Here you go.” She pushed one over. “…Ace, you’re really good with your hands.”

“I’m good at everything,” Ace shrugged immodestly.

“I’m surprised Ace is so skilful,” Trey raised a brow behind his glasses. “Transfer, you’re doing quite well too. Careful not to hurt your fingers.”

“Okay.”

“As if I’ll lose to Ace!” Deuce clenched his fist. “Look at this technique!”

A flick of his Pen split a row of chestnut shells cleanly in half…and also split the chestnuts inside.

Grim rolled his eyes. “Watch me show you how it’s done.”

Three chestnuts flew into the air and cracked themselves open, only to scatter their contents all over the table messily.

“You sure are energetic even after peeling so many,” Trey laughed, sending the scattered chestnut pieces into a bowl deftly.

Yuu thought he really was the paragon of an upperclassman. Riddle would probably have been seething at the three troublemakers, but instead, Trey had just smiled and fixed the problem without difficulty. Her respect for him moved up another few notches.

After they’d finished peeling and straining the chestnuts, Ace and Deuce lay down at the table in exhaustion while Yuu, who hadn’t gone through club activities, helped Trey crush the nuts and start to whip the heavy cream together with butter and eggs.

“I’m so tired,” Ace mumbled with his face in the table.

“Ha ha. It’s been hard on you guys today. I’m sure the tart will taste great since you’ve worked so hard for it.” Trey laughed.

“Trey-senpai, you’re like a big brother,” Yuu commented, looking up from her mixing bowl. He was right—a fragrant scent was beginning to emanate from the oven in front of which where they were standing.

“That so? Oh, transfer. Tilt your face this way for a second. You’ve got cream on you,” Trey smilingly wiped a smudge of cream off her nose.

“Big brother,” she repeated. “So what do we do with this…”

“Marron paste.” Trey finished for her. “After you finish whisking it, we’ll add sugar, and at the very end some of the secret ingredient to finish it off.”

“Secret ingredient?” Grim muttered tiredly from her shoulder. “Like what?”

“The heaviness of oyster sauce added in an appropriate increment to the cream will make it taste a lot thicker,” Trey said, holding up a long bottle.

Yuu blinked. Ace and Deuce shot up from the table, spluttering “Oyster sauce!?”

“This Walrus Seal Young Oyster Sauce is used by famous pâtissiers for tarts all over the world.” Trey explained.

Yuu squinted at the dark bottle suspiciously. “…Um, if you say so, senpai.”

“Seriously…?” Deuce pressed a glove to his mouth. “Isn’t it a super salty sauce?”

“But you know…” Ace said slowly, “we do stick chocolate in curry to make it taste good…maybe it works?”

“What are you guys getting all up in arms about?” Grim squinted from her shoulder. “Who cares what goes in.”

“I don’t want to hear anything from a guy who eats rocks off the ground!” Ace shot back.

Trey’s grin twisted and to her surprise, he burst into laughter. “Ha ha ha! I was joking! There’s no way anyone would put oyster sauce into sweets!”

Ace slammed the table with a fist playfully. “What! I took you seriously!”

Trey’s laughter abated a little. “If you just thought about it for a second, you’d know it was obviously impossible. Don’t believe everything you hear so easily, all right?”

Ace grumbled something about acting like he was their caretaker.

“As if I know about what you guys put in your food,” Grim grumbled. “As long as it tastes good. Right, Yuu? …Yuu?”

“—Huh?” Yuu swung her head up to blink at him slowly.

“You okay?” Grim asked her in undertone. “You’re sweating.”

“Fine,” Yuu said a little shakily, “no problem.”

She was no natural liar, and Yuu was well aware that most people were obvious when they told a lie. Some tic could give them away. Otherwise, their smaller expressions and movements and scent could be detected by people like the unfriendly Leona-senpai.

But just now—Trey had told them a perfect lie. She’d been looking at him. His explanation had been reasonable, not an ounce of nerves colouring his voice, and his eyes hadn’t wavered once. Yuu wouldn’t call herself perfectly observant, but she’d grown up being taught to see the details in things, to paint them, to practice a song over and over again until she could sing it in the sweetest way.

She wasn’t a natural liar. But Trey Clover was.

Yuu wiped her sweaty hands on her sleeves and told herself she was thinking too much.

“Whoa…” Deuce paused in his tracks as they neared the school store. “This place looks…”

“Funky?” Yuu suggested, eyes narrowed against the bright purple entranceway of ‘Mister S’s Mystery Shop’. For a school store, it was huge, taking up its own brick building that was perhaps only outdone by the gardens. Crowley had told her he’d gotten her supplies from this place, but she had yet to enter.

After Trey realized he’d run out of eggs, he’d asked for volunteers to go grab the leftovers from the school shop, which according to him had ‘everything under the face of the sun…and then some’. Deuce had volunteered, looking a sight better than the exhausted Ace, and Yuu had hurried to raise her hand as well.

It wasn’t like she was afraid of Trey now. But Yuu needed some time to get her thoughts in order. Overthinking things was bad—underthinking things was even worse.

Grim had gamely followed her out for a few steps, but after he’d nearly fallen asleep at the entrance to Main Street, she’d held him in her arms to let him doze. Yuu was grateful for his warmth; it lent her a measure of comfort. She wondered briefly if she was becoming unhealthily attached to this small creature.

Deuce cracked open the door and poked his head in. “Excuse me…whoa, look at this place.”

Yuu ducked in under his shoulder. “Let me see.”

Mister S’s shop was indeed straight out of a mystery. Illuminated by a large hanging green lamp, the front room reminded her of an antique shop from a forgotten corner in a bustling city. Yet the piles of furniture looked dust-free and the walls crammed with paintings, busts, and cabinets were worn but clean.

Yuu’s fingers itched as she laid eyes on a piano. Deuce had taken a step in, gaping at the rows of jarred herbs on a shelf; Grim was peering into a huge crystal ball and making a face at his reflection. An open treasure chest overflowing with jewels and gold sparkled as she moved hesitantly inside.

An energetic jazz tune played softly from somewhere inside the room. Deuce, who was squinting over at the shelf, motioned her over. “Look at this. A crystal skull…all of these books on magic…is that a stuffed head?”

She wrenched her eyes from the piano and whistled. “I guess Trey-senpai wasn’t kidding when he said this place had everything under the sun.”

“Yeah, but are we really gonna find heavy cream here?” Grim said dubiously, returning to her shoulder.

“Hey!” from behind them, a loud voice overwhelmed the music; when they spun around, a dark-skinned man in a magenta suit was smiling at them with teeth. “How fare you, little lost demons?”

Grim yelped in reaction, instinctively pushing himself behind her ear.

“Welcome to Mister S’s Mystery Shop.” When she looked closer, she saw that his top had had a skull fastened to it and was tilted artfully over his short dreadlocks; also, the outlines of chalk-white bones had been painted over his night-dark skin, on his collar, on exposed arms and down into his pink shirt. The man in the shop narrowed his alluringly painted eyelids at them. “What are you looking for today? A charm from unexplored land? The mummy of an ancient king? Or perhaps, a cursed deck of tarot cards?”

“Are you the Mister S that Headmaster was talking about?” Yuu wanted to know as Deuce fished in his pockets for the shopping list Trey had given him.

“Ah!” he clasped his hands in delight. “You’re the little demon that became a Directing Student last month! It is my absolute delight to meet you. My name is Sam—please, call me Mister S.”

“Nice to meet you, Mister S,” she said, “My name is Yuu and this is Grim. We’re new here, so once I have the means to purchase things, I’ll probably be back.”

The first thing she wanted to get was some sort of scent to hide hers. After hearing about how respected women were here and seeing Leona-senpai’s change in attitude when he discovered her gender, she was eager not to be known as a girl. Yuu was used to struggling through things and after what she’d heard about this world, she rather liked being “treated as a boy” compared to being held at arm’s length.

Besides, she didn’t want to see the reactions of the Heartslabyul students—of Ace, Deuce and Grim when they found out that she’d inadvertently lied to them.

Not when they were the first people who had not rejected her.

“Do you have canned tuna?!” Grim piped up, getting over his initial fear of the sudden appearance.

Yuu snapped out of her darkening thoughts with a blink.

“Oi!” Deuce cut in. “Sorry about him. Um, we need the things on this list, but I don’t know if you…”

“Let’s see here,” Sam received the scrap of paper elegantly. The bone-white paint on his cheekbones gleamed in the green light. “Heavy cream, eggs, aluminium cups, canned fruit…this is quite a sweet line-up of items. Okay! I’ll get it for you right away.”

“Ooh,” Deuce emitted, impressed, as Sam dove back behind a curtain. “He really does have them.”

“I wonder if he’s hiring,” Yuu mumbled. “Um, Mister S! Are you hiring?”

“I’m afraid that this is a one-man business, little demon!” Sam’s muffled voice returned from somewhere behind the curtain. “Unfortunately, I can’t afford to let my trade secrets leak, if you know what I’m saying.”

“Darn,” she sighed.

“What’s up, Yuu. Are you looking for a job or something?” Deuce peered down at her with a frown.

“I mean, I have not a single Madol to my name,” she explained as Sam started to carry plastic-bagged items out to the old-fashioned register at a table. “You know, seeing where I came from.”

“Ah.” Deuce guessed with a serious nod. “I’ll tell you if I find any places that are hiring. I don’t know if this school allows off-campus jobs, but if things get real bad I can lend you a little money.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Yuu thumped him gently on the arm, “I refuse to take money from you. Plus, I’m not in a school club, so a part-time job will be good for me too.”

“Thanks for waiting, little demons,” Sam finished carrying the bags out and dusted off his white gloves with a flourish. “The bags are quite heavy. Can you two carry them without trouble? —Right! Now! I can include a floating model UFO at one one-hundredth of its actual size for thirty percent off!”

“What the heck is that?!” Grim blurted out, amazed. “I want it!”

“No thank you!” Deuce shouted over him, handing over Trey’s wallet, “that will be all today.”

“Come on!” Grim thumped his little paws on her shoulder. “I wanna play here for a while longer!”

“Are you a little baby?” Yuu asked him dryly as they left to Sam’s energetic farewell, sweeping up the heavy bag of canned fruit into her arms.

“You two are too serious!” Grim protested, yawning. “…Wake me up when we get back.”

Deuce noticed her struggling as they approached Main Street and paused. “Here, Yuu. That bag looks heavy. I’ll hold it. There’s a trick to holding heavy bags.”

“Thanks,” Yuu said gratefully, accepting the bag of aluminium cups, eggs and butter in exchange. “If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not exactly the most athletic of people.”

“Everyone has things they’re good at,” he said dismissively, hauling up the bag like it was nothing. Deuce’s smile was softened by the sinking sun as he told her, “Your quick thinking and kindness have saved me and Ace a bunch of times already. Not to mention Grim. You should be proud of yourself.”

Yuu beamed shyly back at him. “Thanks,” she said, “I think you’re pretty kind yourself. And you’re stronger than any one of us. Are you used to getting groceries?”

“You have no idea,” he grimaced. “I come from the Kingdom of Roses and our stores have timed sales all the time.”

“Oh, we have those where I came from too,” Yuu remembered the hellish rush for vegetables at grocery store’s timed sale in Japan. “It’s…a warzone.”

“You understand.” Deuce nodded. “My mother always stuffs everything she can into the shopping basket, so in the end the bags get crazy heavy. And since I was the only male in our family, all of the power work fell to me.”

“Women really are treated well,” Yuu mumbled. “Good thing Leona-senpai didn’t tell on me.”

“What?” Deuce blinked and rubbed his head sheepishly when she shook her head with a smile. “Sorry, I talked too much. Hope it wasn’t boring.”

“As if. I want to know more about you,” Yuu told him, her eyes shining. “And this world! We’re buddies, right?”

Deuce laughed. “There’s nothing really interesting to know. But it’s the first time I’ve seen you directing that expression at me. Usually you only look that excited when your face is in a book.”

“It’s not so much that I love reading as…” Yuu shrugged. “I’m an avid seeker of knowledge, I guess. Back in my boarding school, we also get sorted into dorms, but my dorm is characterized literally by the intelligence and knowledge of its founder. I think that intelligence is overrated, but I love learning new things.”

“I know,” Deuce said wryly. “You were at a boarding school?”

“Yep, it starts at age eleven and goes all the way up to seventeen or eighteen. I was just beginning my fifth year,” Yuu told him.

Deuce was quiet for a moment as they walked. “…Hey, Yuu. Do you miss it?”

“Hmm?” Yuu squinted at the falling sun.

“The…” he sounded unusually hesitant. Deuce, who typically talked and moved before he thought, cleared his throat and managed, “you know you’re finding a way home, right? I bet you really miss the place you were at before.”

“Oh, my school and my home? I mean…” Yuu was the one to hesitate this time. “Actually, not—not that much. To be honest.”

She would have nodded the rehearsed ‘yes’—but she’d remembered Deuce telling her he trusted her, way back in the Mines on Dwarf Mountain a few weeks ago. So Yuu told him the truth in a stammer.

“Really?” Deuce frowned and peered into her face. “Not your family? Friends?”

“My family’s great,” she said tensely, nervous about peeling back her defences a little, “but I haven’t really spent much time with them. And I’m not really ah…the type to make friends. You know. Like Trey-senpai said about Ignihyde, I’m one of those gloomy characters or something.”

“Are you kidding? You’re one of the best people I even know,” Deuce looked at her like she was insane. “Plus we’re friends, you moron.”

Yuu smiled helplessly at him. “Yeah. I know. You and Ace are…the best friends I’ve ever had.”

“…Then don’t—” Deuce caught himself and stared down.

“Deuce?” she prompted, but at his silence, tactfully cast around for another topic, “Umm. You’re pretty great yourself, helping out your mother with the groceries.”

On the contrary, Deuce’s brows sunk even lower down over his eyes so that his face was cast in shadow. “That’s not it at all. I—my mother…”

Yuu caught the change in personal pronoun from the politer boku to the rougher ore with a frown. Deuce usually tried to be polite and a ‘model student’—which he sometimes succeeded at, if one discounted the fact that he understood nothing of what was going on in class—but she could catch him grumbling something violent under his breath on occasion. Like now, Deuce changed his speaking style when he was unhappy, making her wonder.

Someone jostled her shoulder painfully, sending Yuu staggering into Deuce’s side with a yelp. Her fingers tightened on the bag in her arms and crunched.

“Ah!” Yuu gasped, “I broke an egg! Two!”

“Whoa!” Deuce caught her with one hand, steadying her before she crashed against the ground. “Are you okay, Yuu?”

“—Damn, watch where you’re going,” the person who’d bumped into her growled. When she looked back, she recognized the scarlet Heartslabyul armband and Pen. “…Hey, aren’t you the wimpy new kid at lunch who keeps throwing his weight around?”

“Huh? Who are you?” Yuu squinted.

“That’s the bastard who tried to trip you!” Deuce growled.

“Oi, oi, you again?” a second Heartslabyul student joined the first, arms crossed. “Seriously, first you almost ruin our lunch and now crash into us for no reason? Get a hold of yourself, kid, geez.”

“The one who crashed into him was you,” Deuce said quietly, “Senpai.”

Yuu was impressed. She had no idea these people were second years, but Deuce seemed to know who they were. He was much better at these social things than she was.

“Aaah?” the alleged upperclassman leaned forward threateningly, seeming to have noticed Deuce for the first time. “What’cha doing with this guy, firstie? You sayin’ this is all our fault?”

“Yes.” Deuce didn’t even pause. “Please pay us back for the eggs. Also, apologize to the chicken.”

Yuu slapped a hand over her mouth, nearly dropping the eggs again, to stifle her unexpected giggles.

“Huh? You’re making way too big of a deal for a couple eggs,” the second student leaned in with a sneer. “Not like it’s fallen on the ground, so you can still eat it, right? Don’t be so sensitive. You’ll end up like that tiny kid beside you.”

Deuce’s voice dropped an octave, stopping Yuu’s laughter abruptly. “Aah?

There it was again. That unexplainable edge of violence to his voice that she sometimes detected. Ace tended to poke fun at it, but there were times that she felt the thin thread of Deuce’s goodwill fray. This was one of those times. When she dared to peek up into his face, the coldness of his usually gentle aquamarine eyes could freeze water.

The upperclassmen didn’t seem to notice. “Hey, we even saved you the trouble of crackin’ ‘em! You should thank us!”

The two of them burst into crude laughter.

Yuu nervously pulled at Deuce’s sleeve. “Uh…hey. Don’t worry about them, they’re just dumb and…”

“…king laugh.”

Grim woke up with a start. “What’s with this violent atmosphere?!” he hissed, fur standing on end, “Someone smells like they’re gonna kill someone else!”

Yuu sighed, gathered the heavy bag of fruit cans as Deuce dropped them, and retreated to the side. “I think we’re finally going to see what happens when Deuce gets angry.”

“Ah? What’s wrong with this guy?” one of the upperclassmen sneered over at Deuce, who’d bent down.

But a second later her friend lunged forwards, pupils dilating as his lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. “I said stop f*cking laughing. Aaah? You’re not the bastards who get to decide if a couple’a eggs is a big deal or not!”

“Holy…” Grim gaped. “He finally snapped!”

“A moment of silence for Deuce’s sanity,” she put her hands together.

“You know those eggs?” Deuce had gotten right up in the upperclassmen’s faces, an unearthly light shining in his eyes. “Instead of becoming healthy little chicks, they were gonna become delicious tarts. Get it, shitheads? Huh?”

“Wh-what’s with this guy all of a sudden?!” one of the students jerked back, clearly taken off guard.

Deuce cracked his knuckles under his gloves, rolling his neck threateningly. Yuu flinched at the cracks. “One pack of six eggs,” his low voice gained the same guttural edge that it had back when he’d nearly punched Ace in the Dwarf Mines. “If you don’t replace ‘em then I’ll land six shots in you bastard’s faces.”

“What!?”

“Grit your damn teeth goraa!

“It was only two eggs I broke,” she said weakly, but Yuu didn’t look away as Deuce’s first punch sent an upperclassman flying.

“I am never ever going to get Deuce angry ever again,” Grim said weakly. His tail was still standing straight up in caution.

Briefly she wondered why he’d been able to sleep through Leona’s similarly bad mood despite being startled awake here. Perhaps Leona hadn’t really been trying to murder her? Or perhaps Grim had been too tired to detect it.

Now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that—now was the time to be feeling sorry for the poor fools who had challenged her friend.

Yuu watched with fascination as Deuce spat on the ground. The two pitiful upperclassmen were running in the opposite direction, screaming about how he was even crazier than the rest of them.

“That was way more than six punches!” one wailed.

“I’m sorry Mister Chicken!” the other sobbed.

“Hmph.” Deuce tossed the wallet of one of the retreating upperclassmen up and down in his fist, unimpressed. “The next time you eat eggs, apologize a hundred times before you open your damn mouths! You imbeciles!”

Yuu whistled. “He’s got a mouth on him. It’s not even at the level of what Ace calls ‘delinquent vocabulary’ anymore.”

Deuce was breathing deeply. Yuu stumbled forwards with the heavy bags and set them down beside him, unable to stand the weight anymore. “Er…You okay?” she said tentatively.

His unfocused eyes snapped to attention before he bent over. “…ugh!”

“Did they get you!?” Yuu exclaimed, worried.

“—I…I did it again.” Deuce shut his eyes and pressed the heel of his palm against his forehead. “Even though I swore I was going to be a model student this time…!”

“Deuce?” Yuu peered into his face worriedly.

Deuce lowered his head and it knocked into her shoulder; he barely seemed to notice, consumed in self-deprecation. “…In middle school,” his voice had lost its violent edge, “I was a problem kid. Around your age, I guess.”

Grim and Yuu fell silent, though the former moved to her unoccupied shoulder. He was still a little wary of Deuce after what he’d just seen.

Yuu wondered absently what country this NRC was located in—she had been sure it was a mix of England’s atmosphere with the language and culture of Japan, but ‘middle-school’ made her think American. Come to think of it, this school was a four-year high school too, which didn’t exist in Japan. The ages were definitely bumped up a year, though, like Japan’s.

“I meant it when I said you’re a great guy,” Deuce let out a short laugh, his face hidden by her shoulder. “Around this time last year, I was skipping school all the time—getting into fights morning, day and night. You’re a lot better than I was.”

Yuu sensed this wasn’t the time for her to talk, and Grim remained mercifully silent. Instead she stood in the middle of Main Street with bags scattered around her feet, supporting Deuce’s head as he spoke.

“I called my teachers by name,” Deuce listed. “I hung out with the wrong upperclassmen crowd. Hell…I bleached my hair ridiculously white.”

“Seriously? I can’t imagine a blond Deuce for the life of me,” Yuu said, unable to resist a giggle.

“It looked terrible on me anyway. But I didn’t care.” A small smile had crept into his voice. “I even challenged cliffs with my Magical Wheel.”

Yuu decided now was not the time to ask what a magical wheel was.

“I was an unbelievable…bad guy,” Deuce sighed, “who got his kicks dunking on people who couldn’t use magic by using magic on them.”

“That’s a pretty standard delinquent template we don’t see much nowadays,” Grim sounded rather impressed.

Yuu patted Deuce’s shoulder, refraining from commenting that she had been more or less aware of the roiling violence bubbling beneath his model student exterior. She hadn’t said anything because she could see that Deuce was nothing like the ‘bad guy’ he was painting himself as. Sure, he was quick to fight and tended to default to the Hammurabi code, but he was also the boy who got angry for her, who told her he trusted her, who had said he was her friend.

As if to prove her thoughts correct, Deuce continued lowly, “But one night. I caught a glimpse of my mother crying as she called my grandmother. ‘Was it my fault for raising him wrong’, ‘was it because I raised him all by myself’, she was saying. Even though that wasn’t true. There was nothing wrong with my mom—the problem was all me!”

“Deuce,” Yuu’s chest squeezed at the pain in his voice.

“…So when the carriage from the famous NRC arrived at my door, I decided I’d never make my mother cry like that again. Not when she was so proud of me as I left.” Deuce gritted his teeth. “I’d decided I’d be the model student she could be proud of. ……And look at me now. Dammit!”

“Is keeping your head down in the face of those morons what a model student does?” Grim asked him.

“…Huh?” Deuce finally looked up.

“Deuce, you’re not a bad guy at all,” Yuu told him surely. “A stereotypical bad guy doesn’t do things for the sake of others, doesn’t worry and regret over his actions like you do. Just then, the ones who were obviously in the wrong were the other party, which you knew, and you didn’t punch them until they displayed an obviously unrepentant demeanour. Right?”

“…So? In the end I still socked them.” Deuce replied sullenly.

“Um, do you think that letting yourself be pushed around and bullied and watching the same thing happen to others is what would make your mother proud?” Yuu asked him. “That guy shoved me. Right? Indirectly, you saved me just now.”

“…Yuu…” Deuce looked at her, surprised.

“To be honest, I don’t understand your desire to make your mother proud. Nor do I understand why your mother would be crying over your behaviour,” Yuu shrugged, “since I’ve never really had those experiences. But your mom seems like a swell lady, so I’m sure that seeing her son save another student would make her far prouder than you trying to be a model student and letting it pass.”

“Plus,” Grim added cheekily, “if you didn’t punch him, I was gonna do it.”

Yuu rolled her eyes. “All right, I’ll admit it was hilarious when he actually apologized to the chicken.”

Faced with the two of them grinning at him, Deuce’s gloomy expression broke into a small, embarrassed smile that she’d never seen him make before. “…That so…heh heh. I guess the poor little egg can rest in peace in that case.”

Yuu winced. “…Um…Deuce…this is kinda hard to say in this situation, but that egg is unfertilised, you know.”

“Unfertilised?” Deuce repeated dumbly.

“Yeah…you know…most eggs that hens lay aren’t alive, especially for use in food and stuff…so…I thought you should know.” Yuu scratched her head awkwardly. “Um, so don’t feel bad.”

Deuce’s shocked yell echoed over the rooftops and scattered a flock of ravens into the air.

Spelling the whipped cream up on the tarts was simpler than expected, although Deuce looked like his soul was ready to depart from his mouth. Ace gave her a look that read, ‘what the hell is wrong with him?’ but Yuu shook her head to get Ace to leave him alone. Deuce was an emotional teenager going through puberty and mostly the shock of believing the eggs he’d eaten his whole life were murdered baby birds.

She wondered what it said about him that he loved eating eggs the most even when he had been under the impression that he was eating dead baby birds every time.

The filled tarts that came out of the ovens were truly large and the bowl of whipped cream—which she tasted to make sure there was no oyster sauce included—wonderfully full. Yuu sat back with Ace at the table and watched Grim, Deuce, and mostly Trey send enchanted curls of cream out of the bowl onto the tops. As a finishing touch, Grim dolloped a large serving of sugared, crushed chestnuts atop each tart, or what Trey called ‘marron glacé’.

“God, I’m hungry,” Ace moaned, “it smells so good, but my arms hurt. Hey Yuu. Can you feed me once it comes out?”

“Are you a little baby?” she monotoned for the second time that day.

“You didn’t say no,” he gave her a cheeky grin. “C’mon, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal.”

Trey finished sprinkling the confectioner’s sugar over the tops of the tarts and put one on the table where they were sitting. “All right! We’re done.”

“We’re done!” chorused Ace, Grim, and Yuu.

“…done…” Deuce echoed dully.

Ace jerked a finger at his friend. “What happened to this guy while you guys went shopping?”

“We should leave him,” she said wisely, “it’s just the baby bird shock.”

“Everything that I’ve believed for sixteen years has been a lie,” Deuce muttered to himself.

Grim stifled a snicker.

“You’ll feel better when you eat something sweet,” Yuu tried, patting the seat beside her. Deuce flopped down on it rather despondently.

“Good work, everyone! Oh, and you’ve finished the tarts? The decoration looks real cute!” Cater popped his head in the kitchen, taking a whiff. “Mm! And it looks ready for MagiCam already! Lemme take a shot.”

“Agh!” Ace glared at him. “You’re just here for the food!”

“I wanted to check on my cute underclassmen since they were working so hard,” Cater didn’t take offence and shot him a wink. “Ah ha, you look exhausted!”

“When you do stuff you’re not used to, it’s easy to get tired. Which means it’s time for sweets.” Trey plated several slices and set them in front of each one of them. “It tastes best fresh and the makers get first slices. C’mon, dig in!”

“Thank you for the food,” Yuu said, her voice overwhelmed by Cater’s, Grim’s and Ace’s synchronized cheer.

“It looks so good,” Grim salivated, “the chestnuts on top are shiny and the cream is fluffy and it smells delicious and I’m going to eat ten slices.”

Yuu finished half of her slice quickly, having been hungrier than she expected. True to Cater’s word—Trey was an excellent cook. The cream was made with an expert’s touch and the marron paste lacked the overly sweet flavour store-bought tarts often had. She wasn’t the biggest fan of chestnuts, but Yuu decided she could eat this all day.

“Trey-senpai,” she told him seriously as the people around her made various noises of delight, “if you opened up a tart shop, I would be your customer every day until I die.”

Trey laughed from across the table, leaning his head on one hand. “High praise.”

Ace had wolfed down his slice fast and was now staring at hers hungrily. Yuu sighed and shoved her laden fork in his mouth obligingly. “Just a little, you hear?”

“Mmm!”

“Delish!” Cater said, having only taken the corner of the crust. He put a finger up, eyes brightening. “Oh yeah, Trey-kun. Do that thing!”

“That thing?” Trey blinked and grinned. “Oh, you mean that. Hey, you guys. What kinds of food d’you like to eat the most?”

Yuu, who was irrationally hesitant on giving Trey information now, didn’t answer right away. Grim jumped in her place. “Canned tuna! And omelette du fromage and roasted meat and pudding and—”

“That’s enough,” she said dryly.

“I guess I like cherry pies,” Ace shrugged, “and hamburgers.”

“If I had to pick, I’d say omelettes…or omelette rice, maybe?” Deuce looked like he’d recovered a little after eating his slice.

“Oh, me!” Cater grinned, “I like grilled lamb meat with Diablo Sauce on it.”

Trey turned to her.

Yuu thought for a moment. “Um…this tart,” she mumbled.

“Huh?” Ace blinked. “You really liked it that much?”

“No, it’s just…” Yuu struggled with her words briefly. “I’ve never really considered food very tasty until I came here.”

“What, with all your gourmet snobbery?”

“It’s different from being able to taste ingredients,” she tried.

“Was the food in your old world disgustingly bad or something?” Grim asked with his usual lack of delicacy.

“No, I think it tasted the same,” she shrugged, “it’s just that I didn’t feel anything was ‘delicious’ until eating together with you guys in the cafeteria. So I guess everything we’ve had so far from the cafeteria is what I like.”

“Yuu…isn’t that—” Ace started with a strange furrow of the brow.

“Yuu,” Deuce looked moved.

“Oh! You mean like yesterday’s mushroom soup? That was real good, wasn’t it?” Cater cut in, giving her a dazzling smile.

Yuu smiled back at him. “Yeah. Then I guess that mushroom soup is my pick.”

Trey waved his Pen and sent new slices flying into their dishes except Cater’s, which was mostly untouched. “All right, here we go. Doodle Suit!

Yuu blinked as her slice sparkled. Deuce asked, “What happened?”

“Try another mouthful,” Trey encouraged in lieu of an answer.

Obediently, Yuu sliced off a piece with her fork and stuffed it in her mouth. She felt the cream melt and the texture of the chestnuts against her tongue. Yet the flavour that burst in her mouth was the unmistakable seafood base of the mushroom soup she’d enjoyed a couple of days ago. Carefully trying another bite, Yuu discovered that this one tasted like one of the fleshy mushrooms in the soup. Another one, carrot and potato.

As Yuu experimented slowly, Trey explained to a similarly impressed audience that his own Unique Magic was the ability to change an attribute of an object for a short amount of time by ‘overwriting it’ with something else. He often used it with foods, but it worked just as well with colours, smells, et cetera.

“It doesn’t last very long, so it’s more like graffiti than anything,” Trey was quick to shrug it off as the first years stared at him with impressed gazes. “That’s why I called it a ‘doodle’ suit. Its other name is ‘Paint the Roses’.”

“Don’t you think it’s cool? I bet this Unique Magic would be popular with the girls,” Cater told them with a grin, digging into his Doodled tart in earnest.

“Which means with Trey’s Unique Magic… I can eat as much canned tuna as I want!?” Grim gasped.

Yuu finished her mushroom soup tart and tried not to feel nervous. In her opinion, this Unique Magic was far more dangerous than Riddle’s Off with Your Head. Trey could overwrite any attribute of an object—smell, taste, touch, even what something looked like—maybe even some attributes she hadn’t noticed yet. Wasn’t this a perfect spell for a perfect crime? A perfect lie? What’s to say that he hadn’t already altered the taste of the tart, or altered the scene she was seeing right now, or altered what was in his wallet to ‘look’ like real money?

“This spell is way cooler than that bully Riddle’s!” Grim was cheering.

Yuu felt a cold sweat break out on her palms. It was, indeed, far more dangerous—a far greater piece of magic than Riddle’s seemed to be. Invisible, undetectable.

Trey shook his head solemnly, to everyone’s surprise. “Not at all. My magic is child’s play compared to the Dorm Head’s. The entire level is different.”

The strength behind that statement made her raise her eyebrows. He sounded like he really meant it. Or wanted to mean it, at least. Either way, Trey did not seem proud of his Unique Magic at all.

By the time the tarts were placed in the fridge in advance of tomorrow’s Unbirthday party, the sun had set outside and the three first years, plus Grim, were completely tuckered out.

Cater laughed at the three of them leaning on each other, half-asleep. “For first-year strangers who met half a month ago, you three sure are close.”

“Huh?” Ace gave Deuce a disgusted glance. “Like I’m close with him.”

“There’s no way I’d want to interact with you.” Deuce shot back.

“You guys staying over tonight?” Yuu yawned, adjusting a snoring Grim in her arms. “Ace still can’t enter his dorm, right?”

“Me too?” Deuce seemed a little surprised.

“Yeah?” Yuu looked askance at him. “Oh, if you’re worried about Ramshackle, it’s okay. I took the room with the king-sized bed so we should all fit with room to spare.”

“You don’t have to come,” Ace said spitefully.

“If you’re going, I’m going,” Deuce shot back, “stop taking advantage of Yuu just ‘cause he likes you.”

“That can apply to yourself you know.” Ace gave him an unimpressed glance.

“All right, all right, you three. I’ll give permission as the vice head for you guys to stay at the Transfer’s dorm,” Trey said good-naturedly, “just don’t be late for the party tomorrow.”

“Me too! Me too!” Cater waved an arm. “I wanna go stay at Ramshackle with the firsties. Hey, Yuu, you don’t mind, do you?”

“Huh? Well, no—”

“Not you, Cater,” Trey raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got stuff to do, right?”

“Aw, no fun,” Cater stuck out his lower lip.

Trey laughed, every inch the perfect big brother as he ruffled their hair. “I’m entrusting these two idiots to you, Transfer. See you guys tomorrow, all right?”

Yuu opened her eyes to the ceiling of her room in Ramshackle. She had been dreaming quite vividly of the Queen of Hearts pointing her spectre at a row of trump cards bent before her. Someone had dragged one of them away struggling as he sobbed for mercy, but the Queen merely stared coldly at him until he disappeared.

“I can’t eat anymore,” Grim’s muffled voice came from somewhere around her foot. “No…nooo…”

Letting the dream go, Yuu rolled her eyes and made to sit up, but the heavy weight on her stomach sent her falling back on the pillow before she could manage more than a few inches.

She looked down and found a mass of brownish red hair on top of her stomach. How was Ace breathing with his head down? It was a good thing she had her vest on under the nightgown or he might have rolled over into her chest and figured out she was a girl right away.

Yuu scanned the area around her for Deuce’s head, but when she turned to her side she came face to face with a large foot and a scattered pile of cards. Remembering how Grim had failed miserably at his first few games of Old Maid made her tremble with remembered laughter.

The movement made Ace turn in his sleep. “Pillow,” he mumbled. “…Why is this pillow making noise?”

“It’s my stomach, you buffoon,” Yuu rolled her eyes.

Neither she nor Ace (not to mention Grim) were morning people, but Deuce sat up with nothing more than a yawn and a “Time to get ready” to the three of them. While the two of them got dressed, Yuu went and washed up, surreptitiously changing into her usual clothing with the addition of the Savanaclaw vest she’d begged off of Leona-senpai yesterday over her shirt. It really did smell very nice, good enough to mask any scent that she might have had. Was it a rule that handsome people also smelled nice? Yuu decided anything went in this rather fantasy world.

Grim told her she smelled weird and that he didn’t like it, but with the bustle of the morning he forgot quickly, excited for the day’s events to come.

It was a weekend, but they were all alert early, since the Unbirthday party started at breakfast time. As Ace grumbled to himself, gathering the cards they’d scattered all over the floor after remembering his Pen didn’t work, and Deuce swished his to make her bed neatly, Yuu heard a playful knock on her door and hopped downstairs to answer it.

“Good mo~rning!” Cater poked his head inside with a smile. “Happy Unbirthday, Yuu-chan. Did you guys have fun last night enjoying your youth?”

Yuu snorted. “Sure we did. Though none of us really slept. You look like you’ve just been through an all-nighter too, Cater-senpai.”

Cater yawned in an exaggerated manner. “Got too excited for today!” he said cheerfully.

“Hell yeah.” Ace popped up from behind her. “Today’s the day I get this damn collar off once and for all.”

As they made their way over to the hall of mirrors, Ace and Yuu regaled Cater with stories of just how bad Grim was at Old Maid, of how Deuce slept upside down with his feet on the pillow, of when a ghost had popped out of the washroom mirror and made Ace scream like a little girl. This time, Yuu clutched Cater like a lifeline as they passed through the mirror, because he was the tallest one in the group and she’d seen how he could fight yesterday. Cater let her hang onto him with good grace, though he did snap a picture of her head hidden in his shoulder for MagiCam.

Three more Caters greeted them at the entrance to Heartslabyul’s rose maze. “Hey! You’re finally here. I was waiting, Mister Me!”

“Mister Me?!” Yuu let go of Cater in surprise. “…It’s that spell you were using a couple of days ago during the fight. The one that multiplies you.”

“Ca-Cater-senpai,” Deuce gasped, “You were a twin?”

“There are two of him!” Grim was startled out of his light snooze.

“No, no, I’m the only guy out of my siblings,” Cater shot them a peace sign. “This is my Unique Magic! I call it Split Card, or ‘Dancing Card Shower’. I can make copies of myself!”

“Welcome back!” Another Cater ducked out in the robes from the opening ceremony.

“Hey, hey!” Cater in the alchemy lab coat and goggles waved at them. “Welcome, Yuu-chan!”

“Thanks to you we finished earlier than I expected!” Cater in gym clothes sent her a wink. “By the way, I’m the real Cater. Using my UM takes a ton of energy so usually my other selves don’t last long. Anyway, we gotta get you in costume so stay still for a second!”

“Thanks to me?” Yuu wrinkled her brow. She was still marvelling about having hung on to a ‘copy’ of Cater who had all the warmth, strength and physical presence of the real thing.

“You painted all those roses, didn’t you?” Ace reminded her.

The four of them stood still as Cater dismissed his clones and drew his pen. Without much difficulty, he had transformed their clothing into fancy white dress attire. The ribbon she’d tied to Grim’s collar had been brightened into a huge red, white and black-checked bow. Ace, Deuce and Yuu were outfitted in bright white glossy fabric, yellow-striped belts tied artfully at the waists of their pale dress pants. Yuu had to get Cater to shrink the practical croquet shoes several sizes before she was able to walk without them falling off.

Grim whistled as he examined the glossy Ace of Hearts card pinned to Ace’s rose boutonniere. “Dang, did you design this?” he asked Cater.

Deuce fiddled with the black vest under the suit jacket. “Amazing,” he said, awed, “that was one hell of a magic spell.”

“We look pretty damn cool,” Ace ran his hands through his hair a few times, undoing a button and generally showing off.

“How’s this?” Cater shrunk her shoes another few centimetres.

“Not bad?” Yuu hopped up and down, her pure white suit flapping a little. “I feel like a groom at a wedding without the checks and hearts on mine.”

“Pfft! You’re too cute to be a groom,” Cater laughed at her. “I kept your design white since you’re from Ramshackle. I think there’s a rule somewhere in the hundreds about not wearing uniforms not meant for you.”

“Thank you senpai,” Yuu said gratefully, adjusting Grim’s bow and buttoning up her suit jacket. Cater was far more considerate than he showed.

“Man…now that you’re wearing clothes that fit…” Ace squinted at her, “you really look way too girly. Like one of those far eastern idols on TV.”

“I bet if you had any form of magic, they’d have put you in Pomefiore without a second thought,” Deuce said thoughtfully. “I mean that guy with five million followers was stunning, but you’re not too far off yourself.”

“Hey, if you start a MagiCam account and make it big, don’t forget your friends Ace and Deuce at home,” Ace winked at her.

“Okay, okay, stop making fun of me,” Yuu rolled her eyes, brushing her bangs from her face impatiently. “Let’s go already.”

Several minutes of walking through the labyrinth of scarlet-painted rosebushes had made it known how hopeless it would be for her to find her way in this maze. Yuu had never been the best with spatial orientation so she just plodded after Cater, who moved with confidence and chattered lightly to them as he walked.

They finally emerged into what Cater had called the Tea Garden surrounded by a copse of trees. Once again, Yuu’s breath was taken away—she imagined that this extravagantly decorated outdoor garden was what a Mad Hatter’s tea party would look like.

Pristine white tablecloths hung from round tables that stretched out into the distance, almost all of them occupied by Heartslabyul students similarly attired in white suits. Scarlet roses hung from floating flowerpots and grew unchecked over the table corners, accenting stacks of books, strange top hats, and oversized playing cards. Each table was laden down with a large candelabra, ornate plates and china cups, the occasional goblet or two peeking out from behind vases of flowers. Banners hung from the sky in great swooping curves of fabric, decorated with all manners of spades, hearts, clovers and diamonds; seven-coloured flamingos perched neatly in a row behind the tables.

Yuu was distracted from her examination of a delicately arranged macaron tower at the sharp blast of a bugle.

“Here arrives our leader!” shouted a Heartslabyul student from beside the bugle. His voice trembled slightly. “The red ruler! Make way for Dorm Head Riddle!”

As if rehearsed, the rest of the students shouted as one, “Long live Dorm Head Riddle!”

Riddle, clad handsomely in a suit matching the rest with the addition of an extravagant cape, arrived at the table in front with a satisfied hum. His high-heeled boots gave him several extra inches to look down at the gathered students. “I see that the roses are red and the tablecloths are white. It’s a perfect Unbirthday.”

“Wow,” Yuu mouthed. Even without raising his voice, Riddle’s words carried clearly over to the entrance of the garden, where the five of them were standing. When he moved, his long eyelashes caught the sun and flamed a brilliant scarlet, offsetting a golden crown perched askew in his hair.

Riddle glanced once at Trey, who was standing behind a plush chair at the front table. “I expect that the dormouse is inside of the teapot.”

“Of course,” Trey said with a smile. He looked utterly at ease, his vest unbuttoned all the way and a trilby set atop his messy green hair. “Just in case, we have the jam prepared to paint on his nose.”

“Excellent.”

“Why does everyone in this school look so cool?” Yuu said a little enviously, staring at the embroidery on Riddle’s cape.

“I hate to agree with you,” grumbled Grim, “but he is pretty cool.”

“And the clothing.”

“Yeah.”

Cater put his nose in the air, showing off the sparkling Heartslabyul crest attached below his Four of Diamonds card by puffing out his chest. “Why thank you. It’s great for MagiCam uploads. Plus, it’s one of the rules to be in uniform.”

“You made these?” Yuu gaped at him.

“Not all of it,” Cater said modestly.

“O wise purveyor of the clothing arts, please teach me your ways.”

“Oh, shut it,” Ace turned her head back to face the front. “It’s starting!”

Cater directed them to an empty table, where their marron tart was sitting in a glass case. “Speak up when there’s a lull,” he advised, sliding into a chair on her left side. “Good luck, Ace-chan!”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Before the croquet tourney, let us toast in honour of the occasion.” Riddle glanced around the garden, which had fallen completely silent when he opened his mouth. “Does everyone have their teacups ready? Well then. In celebration of a day in which no one has a birthday—cheers!”

“Cheers,” Yuu echoed, sipping at the fragrant tea in her cup. She wondered if it was proper form to cheer with tea.

There was some idle chatter as Riddle tilted his teacup back elegantly, so Yuu gave Ace an enquiring glance. He sucked in a breath and cleared his throat. “Here goes nothing,” he muttered. “Ahh…Dorm Head!”

Riddle set his teacup down and cast his big grey eyes their way. He raised a brow. “You are…ah, the first-year tart thief.”

“You see,” Ace grinned, stretching the painted heart on his left eyelid, “I wanted to apologise for eating your tart, so I baked you a new one.”

“Hmm?” Riddle didn’t seem impressed. He crossed his leg and leaned back into the plush chair. “I’ll ask just in case. What kind of tart is it?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Ace flourished.

“That guy overacts like it’s his job,” Deuce muttered in her ear.

Yuu snickered. “He’s got an excellent personality, no?”

“If by that, you mean ‘worst’.”

“…filled with freshly picked chestnuts. An unbelievably delicious marron tart!” Ace was bragging to Riddle, looking in his element.

Riddle pushed himself to his feet, his eyes widening in shock. “—A marron tart!? I don’t believe this!”

Deuce and Yuu froze. Ace let out a funny “Heh?” noise.

Riddle slammed one gloved hand on the white tablecloth, voice lowering in anger. “The law of the Queen of Hearts, number five hundred and sixty-two. Do not bring marron tarts into Unbirthday parties.

The Tea Garden went frighteningly quiet. Across from her, Yuu watched the confidence drain from Ace’s grin as all eyes turned on him.

“This is…a grave violation of the rules!” Riddle glared Ace straight in the eyes. “You’ve ruined this Unbirthday Party utterly!”

Chapter Text

Heartslabyul’s tea garden echoed with Riddle’s shout. Ace staggered upright, shouting, “The five hundredth law!?”

Yuu glanced at Trey instinctively, brows furrowing into a frown. Had he known the rule forbidding marron tarts to be brought into the party? She remembered him suggesting it yesterday—Riddle had wanted to eat it, so it was a good idea to make next, he’d said.

But Trey was staring at Riddle with a white face.

“How many rules are there?” Deuce yelled out, forgetting to stay quiet and scraping his chair back in a hurry.

“The complete set is eight hundred and ten.” Riddle crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes at their table. “Of course, I’ve memorized all of them, obviously. I am the Dorm Head.”

Cater signalled Trey with his eyes. “Did you know?” he mouthed.

Trey mouthed back anxiously, “I only memorized up to three hundred and fifty! I should’ve checked…to think that there would be rules about the type of tart to bring!”

Yuu watched the interaction carefully. But she couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or lying—Trey’s worry was too well created. Leona-senpai would’ve been useful in a time like this.

Riddle gritted his teeth. “As the Dorm Head of Heartslabyul, which is found on the severity of the Queen of Hearts, I cannot turn my eyes away from this without punishment.”

“Dorm Head,” she started, struck by the frustration in his eyes. Could it be that Riddle himself was trapped by these rules—?

That the one who was suffering the most was him?

“Destroy that tart right away,” Riddle commanded without a hint of hesitation. His eyes were dull. “And throw him out. Now!”

Ace had had enough; never patient, he lost his simpering act and glared rebelliously in the Dorm Head’s direction. “Wait a damn second! What’s with that ridiculous rule!?”

“Yeah! If you’re gonna throw it out, I’m eating it!” Grim added.

Geminio,” muttered Yuu. “Accio real tart. Reducio.

No one paid attention to her in the chaos as the rest of Heartslabyul looked on with bated breath. The shrunken tart zoomed obligingly into her flashy suit pocket. For good measure, she laid a Shield charm on top of it to prevent accidental crushing.

“—Dorm Head,” Trey stepped forward, face a mask of calm. “I apologize. The one who suggested he make the Marron Tart was me.”

“Right, right!” Cater stepped forward, smiling, although sweat was beading on his brow. “We didn’t know there was a rule like that at all! So don’t be…”

“The crime isn’t that you made it. The crime is bringing it here! Today! Into this garden! That’s the violation!” Riddle ground out, a vein throbbing in his delicate temple. And yet he still looked laden down with something shading his expression, still looked like the oppressed even though he was the oppressor.

“Losing sight of the reason for rules by looking only at the rules themselves is the work of a fool,” Yuu commented with a shake of her head, unable to hold it back. Unfortunately, she’d said it during a lull in the wake of Riddle’s shout—her voice was heard loud and clear.

Riddle swung around to face her, an unholy light entering his grey eyes. “…Did you just call me a fool?”

“Stop,” Cater hissed over at her, “you can’t say stuff like that here.”

“Oops.” Yuu covered her mouth. No matter how much she had been unable to help herself, the Ravenclaw action would have been to stay silent especially within earshot. Yet, watching Riddle, seeing that undecipherably blank expression in his eyes brought up such an unfamiliar vexing emotion in her chest that she found herself losing control of her words.

Because Riddle had looked…

Time was still moving. Riddle’s attention was still on her. The Ravenclaw thing to do now would be to take back her words. Apologize. Prevent the situation from unravelling.

Yuu didn’t produce a peep.

Cater cleared his throat and pushed back his chair once he realised he couldn’t trust her to alleviate the situation. “Um, Riddle-kun, these kids have barely been in school for a few weeks, all right?” He pushed her behind his shoulder in a rather touching move of upperclassman responsibility. “They’re so fresh they’re not even out of the oven yet.”

“No,” Ace planted his feet on the ground, jerking his chin up defiantly, “I’m gonna say it. Don’t screw with me. Throwing out a tart just ‘cause of some stupid rule makes you stupid.”

“I have to agree with Ace,” Deuce said quietly, the edge of violence once again sharpening his voice. “Of course I also think that students should protect the rules already in place…but these rules are too over the top!”

It wasn’t about the rules for Yuu, though it was easy for her to say—she wasn’t the one wearing a metal collar sealing her magic.

But Riddle himself was weighed down with the red and he looked like he was slowly dying under the heavy mantle. She just couldn’t get past that burden on his thin shoulders. Not when it reminded her so much of the past. Not when it felt like there was so much more behind his angry mask.

This was no longer a situation where Yuu could separate herself cleanly and view things impartially.

“You have quite the cheek to be speaking back to me,” Riddle was saying lowly as he fixed Ace and Deuce in his intimidating glare. “Listen well. Small revolts against a rule are connected to bigger problems.”

“So? No one cares.” With his signature callousness, Ace’s face twisted into a wicked grin, the same grin he was wearing the first time they’d met. “I bet you everyone else sitting here drinking tea is thinking the same as me—they’re just scared you’re gonna Behead them.”

A blue-haired student he swung too nearly fell of his chair in fright. “Wh-what? No, we—”

Riddle turned slightly to face the neighbouring table. “…Is that so?”

“Absolutely not, Dorm Head!” his neighbour spluttered in a panic.

“Everything should go according to the way Dorm Head thinks!” another student rushed to add.

“Hmm. No wonder this dorm hasn’t been able to do anything about this problem,” Yuu gave up on pretending to be polite. She lifted an eyebrow. “They’re just a bunch of two-faced cowards, aren’t they?”

“Lame as hell,” Ace agreed with her, casting an extraordinarily gold glance over at the table beside them.

“And yet in the year which I have been Dorm Head,” Riddle said imperiously, “not a single student has been held back or expelled. Do you know how difficult that is? As evidence, the only dorm that managed that was Heartslabyul.”

“I thought this was a good school?” she squinted at Deuce, muttering across the table.

“…There are unexpectedly a lot of delinquents here?” Deuce shrugged back at her helplessly.

“Within Heartslabyul, my grades are the highest. My magic is the strongest.” Riddle snapped, shutting them up. “That is why I am the law around here. There wouldn’t be any problems if you just shut up and listened to me.”

“Yes there would.” Yuu got to her feet, turned, and looked Riddle squarely in the eyes. “Maybe on the surface everyone would be listening to you. And if you only look at the results, that’s all that matters. But Dorm Head, living in a system of punishment is only going to—”

“It’s not like I want to be Beheading people left and right!” Riddle shouted at her, heat rising up his neck. “It’s your faults for breaking the rules so foolishly. Your faults for being so subpar! Now say ‘yes, Dorm Head’, or I’m going to Behead you all!”

“You forget that your magic has no effect on someone who’s never touched a Pen,” Yuu said without missing a beat. “So give it all you’ve got, Dorm Head, because I don’t believe that agreeing with you will make the situation better for anyone.”

Including yourself, she wanted to say. But Riddle was not in any state to listen.

“Yuu’s right…” Deuce stepped up beside her. “I can’t say it.”

“I’m not about to fold under a selfish tyrant,” Ace sneered.

“What he said!” Grim growled from her shoulder. “Me and my henchman aren’t gonna listen to you!

“…What did you say just now?” Riddle murmured quietly.

“What, that you’re a selfish, easily angered tyrant who wastes food?!” Grim snarled.

“I didn’t say that much—” Deuce spluttered.

The roar echoed across Heartslabyul’s Rose Maze, shaking leaves against the bushes. “Off with Your Head!

CHAPTER FIVE | Two Sides of Sanity.

“That—! That!!” Ace flung his arms in the air, incensed. “That selfish little redheaded prick!”

Yuu ducked to the side to avoid getting hit, the bag with their old clothing dangling from her arm as they walked. Cater had apparently not Transfigured their clothing (or the equivalent here) but literally swapped them, which meant that her suit was custom-made for her size. For a moment she wondered if he’d measured her, worried he might have a clue on her gender, but Cater had filled the uneasy air with chatter about how the spell was automatic and flashy enough to cover its practicality. He’d shoved the bag with their uniforms and her clothing into her hands as they were ‘escorted’ out of the garden and shown the way to the mirror. When no one was looking, she took the Shrunken marron tart from her pocket, placed a Stasis Charm on it, and dropped it in.

The three of them stood before the road leading back to the mirror and school building, where Cater and Trey had ever-so-politely herded them before leaving an unhelpful comment about apologizing once Riddle was no longer angry. The morning sky was almost irritatingly blue and sunny. Ace and Deuce didn’t seem to notice; the former was fuming, and the latter was in a state of shock not unlike his baby bird shock last night.

Yuu, who was mostly worried about the collar nearly choking Grim, was trying to figure out a way to make him more comfortable. She’d seen the way it closed tightly around his neck before changing size to fit snugly. Unfortunately, Grim was a lot smaller than a regular teenage human and teetered back and forth with the weight. When she held him in her arms to try and pry it off, Yuu nearly staggered with the load. Grim wasn’t exactly as light as a house cat, but the metal collar was heavy.

“I can’t believe our upperclassmen actually listened to him and threw us out,” Deuce said despondently. “They seemed all right. Why are they so content to listen to him?”

“Cater-senpai seems to have his own interests in mind first and foremost,” Yuu remarked, sliding a finger between Grim’s neck and the metal collar surrounding it so that he could breathe easier. “He seems really opportunistic.”

“And that Trey-senpai is too wishy-washy!” Ace exploded. “He looks like a big brother who only knows how to spoil his little siblings! Just letting that dorm head run around doing whatever he wants…”

“Really?” Yuu hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. “Ace, you said Trey-senpai is spoiling the Dorm Head?”

“Obviously. The marron tart was ‘cause Riddle wanted to eat it,” Ace ticked off, “the dormouse and jam or whatever is all done by him, Riddle seems to trust him, he made his stance clear he’s not on our side…it can’t get clearer than this.”

Yuu realized with shame that she had completely missed these cues because of how wary she had become of the vice Dorm Head. Right now wasn’t the time to worry about whether Trey had planned this entire thing by suggesting they make a marron tart.

Someone as intelligent as Trey could have figured a way out of this situation long ago. Yet he remained at the right-hand spot as vice head without wavering and had situated himself firmly on ‘Riddle’s side’. Whether it was out of sympathy or something else, though, she had no idea.

While she thought, Deuce was moaning, “We just got kicked out of the dorm after rebelling against the dorm head…my dream of being a model student is dying…”

“Push the collar up a bit more, Yuu…” Grim managed and puffed out a long sigh when she popped it past his chin. “Phew. I can finally breathe again.”

“If I were good at physical activities, I would punch him once for doing this to you,” Yuu told him calmly.

Ace snickered. “Man, Yuu, you keep impressing me. Do you have no fear or something? You said some pretty cool stuff back there.”

“I just…” Yuu hesitated. “I just couldn’t stand to see him like that.”

“Oh my, oh my. Those collars are pretty stylish, nya!” someone said from behind her.

Yuu turned and jumped. A floating head was hovering several inches above hers, sporting a shock of messily cut purple hair and two triangular catlike ears pierced through with metal arrows.

The golden slit-pupil eyes narrowed at her. “Are you talking about Riddle?”

Ace, Deuce, and Grim harmonized when they screamed, “A floating head!!”

“Whoops.” In the blink of an eye, a body had emerged under the head. The new arrival waved a hand in apology, his fingers all but covered under an oversized white shirt, and showed his sharp canines in a smile. “I forgot to materialize fully.” He didn’t look very sorry.

“He has a body…” Deuce exhaled in relief. “Ahem. You are…?”

Yuu gave him a look. Wasn’t he going to display more shock that someone had materialised from thin air?

Or was that normal in this world?

“I’m Alchemi Alchemievich Pinker,” the stranger introduced with a wink, the shoulder of his dress shirt falling to reveal a checked purple shirt underneath. “I’m an incomprehensible being. You can describe me as catlike or human-like.”

“Alche-what?” Ace spluttered.

He giggled. “Everyone calls me Che’nya.”

She was sure this person before her was also somehow not human. But ‘humanity’ was starting to lose meaning when so many of the people here had ears like his. “Che’…nya-san.” Yuu said cautiously. “Nice to meet you. I’m Yuu. This is Ace and this is Deuce. The one in my arms is Grim.”

“Pleasure,” Che’nya laughed again, holding up a curled hand like a cat in greeting. “Anyway, my magic’s on another level compared to those guys over there.”

This school really was full of egotistical students. Yuu examined Che’nya curiously, wondering what it was about him that made appearing and disappearing at will possible.

Ace didn’t seem to care. “I’m in a bad mood right now because of that redheaded tyrant,” he glared at Che’nya, “so leave me alone.”

“Riddle, a tyrant?” Che’nya cocked his head, the smile never leaving his face. “…Well, I suppose he’s not not a tyrant. He’s been overly serious like that ever since he was yay high.”

Yuu concluded it was the slightly old-fashioned way in which he spoke that made her sure he wasn’t human. Like Lilia Vanrouge whom she’d met in the cafeteria, there was something about Che’nya that overflowed his humanoid body. Something Other.

Or maybe it was because he attached ‘nya’ to the end of his sentences without an ounce of embarrassment. That took some guts.

“Do you know something?” Deuce asked eagerly.

“Perhaps I know something, perhaps I don’t,” Che’nya’s mouth pulled up in a slow, wide smile at them.

“Which is it?” Grim, who’d recovered from his choking, rubbed his face on her clothing in thanks and gave him a flat stare.

“What, you guys want to know about Riddle?” Che’nya drawled.

“That’s right,” Ace growled, “how the hell does one grow up to be that…high handed?”

“Then you should go ask the Glasses,” Che’nya told them without ceremony.

“The Glasses…you mean Clover-senpai?” Deuce frowned.

“That guy’s known Riddle since he was a wee boy.” Che’nya jerked a thumb over at the labyrinth, beyond where the Tea Garden lay. “If I wanted to know about Riddle, I would go to him first.”

“They’re childhood friends?” Deuce contemplated. “But it didn’t seem that way at all.”

Yuu agreed with him. Yet Trey was so good at acting she didn’t trust her own judgment any longer. Che’nya was right—going around in circles thinking wouldn’t do anything; she had to ask him straight.

Che’nya looked bored. His right ear—pierced with a circular badge reading UP—twitched before it faded into nothing briefly. “If you think they’re unrelated, then I guess they might not be? Then you don’t need to ask me anymore. See ya.”

Yuu watched him disappear as abruptly as he’d come, leaving just the faint imprint of a smile before that, too, vanished. A Cheshire-cat like existence.

That wasn’t important right now.

“Weird guy,” Grim grumbled.

“We need to track Trey-senpai down,” Yuu said flatly, dismissing the encounter with a shake of her head.

Ace peered into her face with a grin. “Took the words right out of my mouth. Though…Why’re you so determined all of a sudden? Most of the time you’re sort of just floating around aimlessly.”

“Don’t call me a jellyfish. There’s just something about Dorm Head…” Yuu hesitated.

“That jerk?” Ace lifted a brow. “What, you can’t take his despotic reign either?”

“…I’ve got a bad feeling,” Yuu sighed. “Anyway, I’m going to the library. There’s something I wanted to look up.”

The four of them, now freed from the stifling confines of the Unbirthday Party, trudged towards the entrance to the dorm with slumped shoulders. Now that Grim, Ace and Deuce were all wearing the heavy metal chain around their necks, they were much more invested in getting it off, debating fiercely among themselves when they should corner Trey or Riddle or if they should just punch their way into the dorm.

Yuu listened to them absently, deep in thought and falling slightly behind. As they prepared to go through the mirror, she nearly fell over when Che’nya’s head appeared next to hers. “Oh, by the way.”

“Wha—!?”

“Hey, hey,” the head floated closer, its gold eyes shining, “You’re a real interesting character, so I’m gonna give you a hint, nya.”

“Che’nya-san?” she hissed, wondering why no one else noticed him. “What are you—?”

The sets of three barrettes in his hair looked almost like whiskers, twitching as he smiled widely. “You’ve got good instincts,” Che’nya ignored her. “So I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss your judgements if I were you, little lady.”

“What!?” Yuu gasped.

“Or should I say…Little lost Alice? Careful you don’t fall under a curse in this school,” Che’nya’s laughter preceded him fading out of sight for good this time, leaving Grim to leap back over to her, asking what was wrong.

Although she’d been prepared for Riddle’s fallout—some form of retribution against her thoughtless words—the next few days passed uneventfully, even if Ace refused to apologize and forbade Deuce or Grim to try. Classes resumed as usual, and she continued her trips to the library in her free time. Yuu had been a little overwhelmed with the strangeness of Che’nya’s ‘advice’ and wondered how on earth he knew her gender, but she couldn’t do anything about it now.

She’d felt her spine go cold when he’d called her ‘lady’—but days later no one had approached her about her gender. So Yuu moved on. She was never one to dwell needlessly on something outside of her control.

If the secret came out, she wouldn’t be able to remain a student in a boy’s school.

Was surviving alone in this world even possible?

Yuu ignored the niggling worry in her head. She’d manage. Somehow. It was unproductive to be concerned when there were more pressing matters at hand.

There was a wealth of information concerning Unique Magic in the library (though so far, nothing had come up about dimension-travelling), and she’d borrowed several of the thicker tomes on the topic, but it was three days later after dinner when Ace finally lost his patience and followed her to her usual table by the window.

Ace Trappola was smart. Perhaps intelligent enough to be sorted into Ravenclaw, at least by Yuu’s judgment. He was far too pragmatic to enter Gryffindor and, despite valuing his reputation, disdained ambition and ‘dreams’ which disqualified him from Slytherin. (Hufflepuff was out of the question.) Ace shot through the Magical Analysis classes—which mirrored Arithmancy—so fast even she was impressed and rather left Deuce in the dust with his train of thought.

Yet he was hardly the type to spend time in the quiet, dusky corners of the library.

“Why are you here?” she prompted with a raised brow as Ace French-braided her hair in sheer boredom while she read. He was quick and light with his hands—perfect, she thought, for sleight of hand tricks. Indeed, Ace had showed them quite a few tricks with cards when they played in the evenings.

“Waiting for Trey-senpai to show up.” Ace responded, not bothering to whisper. “What shampoo d’you use?”

“The same one as you do, moron,” she rolled her eyes, “since we share a shower right now.”

“Your hair is so much better than mine.” Ace complained. “I don’t know why you tie it back so tightly all the time. You could wow the ladies with one of those hipster hair-flips.”

“It’s in the way. And what would you do if I tried a hipster hair-flip?” amused, Yuu bookmarked the page of How the Shape of a Soul Affects Unique Magic and met his slanted red-brown eyes.

Ace didn’t hesitate. “Roll around on the ground laughing and pretend I don’t know you.”

“What a paragon of a good friend,” Yuu scratched a snoring Grim absently behind the ears as she put her book down. “So why is Trey-senpai coming here tonight?”

“I heard someone in ’Labyul talking to him earlier. He said he’d return the recipe book here today.” Ace rolled his neck aggressively. “So I’m gonna corner him with this thug over here.”

Yuu eyed Deuce on her other side, who was sleeping blissfully, looking less like a thug and more like a department store model. “Sure, good luck with that.”

“Slap him awake for me,” Ace grumbled.

“Too much effort. Are you done your homework?”

“I’ll do it before class tomorrow morning.”

By the time Trey showed up, all three of them were dozing (and Grim was deep in his REM cycle). Movement out of the corner of her drooping vision brought Yuu back to reality with a start.

Trey was standing at a shelf across the library in a spot where she could see, cutting an impressive figure half hidden in the shadows. Yuu yawned, gently moved Ace’s head to the stack of books on the table from her shoulder, and slipped from her chair.

“Senpai,” she whispered as she neared.

Trey blinked over her in apparent surprise as he slid a book back into a shelf. “Transfer. What are you doing here so late? Also, what’s with the braids?”

“I’m usually in here,” she shrugged, “And Ace was bored.”

“That kid is unexpectedly good with his hands,” Trey said wryly. “I hope you realize you look like a little girl right now.”

Yuu rolled her eyes, letting it slide. “…Thought I might want to let you know that both Ace and Deuce want to talk to you. They’re snoozing at the table over there.”

Trey sighed and massaged his brow. “I thought so,” he said wearily. “Those two are the first to speak up overtly against the Dorm Head since he took the position. Figured they wouldn’t give up so easily.”

“Ace probably won’t stop bothering you until he’s satisfied, so I suggest talking it out with them,” Yuu yawned.

“Both of them have been staying at Ramshackle recently?” Trey asked her.

Yuu nodded.

“Sorry for pushing them on you,” he gave her a troubled smile, “it should be our job to take care of them, but…”

“Don’t worry about it. They’re my friends.” Yuu brushed it off. “…More importantly. I wanted to ask you a question.”

“About Riddle?”

“No…well, not yet,” she frowned. “About someone called Che’nya-san. Do you know him?”

“Che’nya?” Trey raised both eyebrows in surprise. “How did you meet him?”

“He appeared right in front of us,” Yuu grinned, “and scared the living daylights out of Grim ’cause he only showed his head at first.”

“That guy…” Trey rolled his eyes, “he always does that on purpose to scare people. I keep telling him not to use his Unique Magic for… Yeah, I know him. Me and him…we were childhood playmates.”

“Really? I thought he might be another one of those older-than-he-looks types,” Yuu said in surprise.

“At least as far as I know, he’s aged just like me,” Trey chuckled at her. “…Why did you want to know about him?”

Yuu decided to take a risk. Talking with Trey made her nervous, but she wasn’t going to get anywhere by avoiding discussing things.

“He gave me some weird advice the other day,” she explained, “which I honestly still don’t really get, that’s all.”

This time Trey raised both eyebrows and turned to her, leaning on the shelf. “To just you?”

“Yeah.” He’d also known her gender without even trying. Could he smell it like Leona?

“Hmm. It’s pretty rare that Che’nya takes enough of a liking to someone to give them advice for free. He is good at it, though.” Trey rubbed his chin thoughtfully, considering her. “He’s not a bad guy—nowhere near as bad as the guys who go to this school, anyway. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He wouldn’t steer you wrong.”

“I sort of got that feeling.” Che’nya had behaved like a wise grandfather. Yuu wondered, “does that mean you two were both friends with the Dorm Head when you were little?”

“He told you that?” Trey said, not looking surprised. “Yeah. Well, with the way Riddle’s home life was, we didn’t get the chance to play together too much, but the three of us came from the same area.”

“No wonder,” Yuu mumbled. Che’nya had, though not obviously, pointed them towards Trey for information about Riddle. She wondered how close they were.

Trey narrowed his eyes at her. “Transfer, not to be rude, but why are you asking me this?”

Yuu blinked. “Sorry?”

“You’re not directly involved like Ace or Deuce are, since they’re Beheaded,” Trey clarified. “And from what I can see of your personality, you’re not one to stick your nose in fights that don’t belong to you.”

“You could tell?” she grinned sheepishly.

“You’ve got this slight resemblance to Che’nya,” Trey grimaced back, “this…detachedness. I’ve hung out with that guy for more than ten years, so I can tell.”

“You’re probably right,” Yuu nodded.

“That’s why I don’t understand why you’re asking me about this.” Trey frowned at her. “Is it for your friends? You’ve only known them for a month.”

“Ace and Deuce are…” Yuu searched briefly for words and then shrugged helplessly. “My friends. They’re part of me, I don’t know. Of course I’d help them. Plus, Grim is my charge and he’s been collared too.”

Trey didn’t look very satisfied.

Yuu sighed, not having expected to be able to put one past him. “Which is a front.”

“A front?”

“Your friend, the Dorm Head…Rosehearts-senpai.” Yuu squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t know. When I see him like that I can’t stand it. I feel like…” taking a hold of his collar and shaking. She swallowed that bit before it came out.

Trey looked the most genuinely surprised she’d ever seen him when she opened her eyes again. Yuu understood then that he hadn’t been ‘truly’ surprised when she’d approached him a few minutes ago. It seemed that this was the first glimpse of real emotion she’d detected from the third-year vice Head, ever.

“You’re worried about Riddle?” Trey said slowly.

“Worried isn’t the right word for it,” she demurred. Yuu shook her head to change the topic. “…But whatever the reason is, none of us are satisfied in leaving the situation like this. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you to tell me about Rosehearts-senpai. I know it’s rude to ask when he’s not around, but I don’t think he’d be very open to talking to me after I insulted him.”

“I’ll admit it was a shock when you called him a fool,” Trey grinned, face brightening the same mean way it had when he’d told them the oyster sauce was a joke. “For a first year, you sure have guts.”

“I didn’t mean to say it,” Yuu said sheepishly, “I just…watching him like that was…unpleasant.”

“Yeah.” Trey nodded, looking like he really understood her. “All right, transfer. Let’s sit down—it’s not a short story.”

Once she was seated in an armchair across from Trey in a darkened corner of the library, he pushed his rectangular-rimmed glasses up absently and told her there was a reason he didn’t just resist Riddle’s tyrannical rule. With a bit of a self-deprecating smile, Trey stared down at his large hands. “I don’t have the right to scold him.”

Trey Clover had grown up as the oldest son of a pâtissier family. He’d spent his childhood in the same neighbourhood as a family of famous magical doctors. It was to those talented doctors that Riddle Rosehearts was born—marking the beginning of Riddle’s controlled life.

As she listened to Trey describe the minute-to-minute schedule created for Riddle by his mother, Yuu remembered hazily how years ago, a scandal in in the muggle world had arisen about a ‘tiger mother’ who controlled her children’s lives to the letter. At the time, Yuu had scanned the news with a complete lack of interest. She had no point of reference to understand why people were so angry, because Yuu’s own life was the very antithesis of a controlled life.

Sure, she studied Japanese and her grandmother on her mother’s side (met during her time visiting Nagoya) drilled the quiet politeness of a Japanese lady into her. But her own mother had never taken responsibility over Yuu—never prepared a meal. Never glanced her way, no matter how much she called.

Her father? She could count on one hand the number of conversations they’d had.

Riddle’s mother was the very opposite of hers: a ‘tiger mother’. Perhaps that was an understatement—Yuu had never heard of a mother who measured out individual caloric meals for her son every year as he grew. Apparently, as one of the most famous doctors in the Kingdom of Roses, where they hailed from, she expected the same performance from Riddle that she had achieved herself. From the moment he was born, his life was planned out in minute increments, as regular as the ticking of a clock. According to Trey, it wasn’t an overstatement to say Riddle had been created by rules—his abilities, his knowledge, his magic, his nutrition, his friends.

Yuu felt unpleasant. She wanted to stop listening. What had been just another piece of news several years ago felt like glass in her ears now.

Trey was wearing an expression similar to how she felt, as if he’d bitten down on a cavity. “Still, Riddle quietly completed all the tasks required of him and in a historical record, completed his Unique Magic at the age of ten.”

“I’m reading about Unique Magics right now,” Yuu blurted out, “that’s ridiculous. Ten is so young.”

She hadn’t gotten her Hogwarts letter until she’d turned eleven. Hadn’t even known what the wonderful and terrible thing called magic was at ten.

Trey gave her a helpless smile. “Throughout elementary school and middle school, he kept the first place in his year the entire time,” he continued. “I can’t even imagine how hard it was for him.”

Because it was all he’d known, Riddle believed in the power of rules to shape a person. Instead of rebelling against his parents, he was sure his mother was “correct” and her rules were for “his benefit”. Therefore, protecting the rules at all costs was a natural mindset for him to take, because Riddle had been fed and raised on rules. Fear of punishment and ties to rules were tools for growth. That was what Riddle knew.

Yuu studied Trey as she listened to him speak. She still didn’t know what parts of his expressions were true and which were lies, but she couldn’t make herself doubt his concern over Riddle. If Trey had been fed up with him, he would have figured out a way to leave, and yet he was still here, making tarts daily and borrowing books from the library to bake sweets that Riddle wanted to eat.

Surely this wasn’t out of ‘duty’.

To Yuu it looked like Trey had been walking a tightrope since he’d become friends with Riddle, more than ten years ago. Denying the rules that Riddle abided meant denying everything that Riddle stood for. When someone was being pressured into an unfair lifestyle, it was easy enough to tell them what they were doing was ‘wrong’. And yet Yuu could tell it would have been the cruellest thing to do—surely if Trey had tried to persuade Riddle to change his ways, or tried to remove him from his parents, it would have hurt the Rosehearts family and most deeply, Riddle himself, because he had laboured in that family for seventeen years.

Trey could not in good conscience—or even in bad conscience—leave Riddle alone either. She could see it in that frustrated expression that matched the boiling in her gut at the thought of what the Dorm Head had to suffer through. There might have been some selfishness in there too—she didn’t know him well enough to guess—but it was far from the emotionless person she had imagined days ago.

Maybe he was a perfect liar, but that didn’t mean anything right now.

“Sorry,” Yuu said when Trey paused.

“Hm? Why are you apologizing?”

“I made a mistake,” she said calmly to make sure her voice didn’t shake. “The other day when I called him a fool. It really is the truth that the one who calls another a fool is a fool himself.”

“No, you had the right,” Trey shook his head, “after all you four went through these past few days.”

“No I don’t. I had no idea what his life was like, what his values were like, and I judged him according to my standards,” Yuu denied him flatly. “I owe Rosehearts-senpai an apology, as well as you, Trey-senpai, for hurting your childhood friend inconsiderately.”

“Transfer…” Trey gave her a lopsided grin. “You’re pretty serious yourself, huh?”

“Not particularly. But some things need to be taken seriously.” Yuu swallowed. “I understand that you can’t just turn on him in your position, not when you’re the closest to his heart.”

Trey tensed, as if anticipating her next words. “!”

“But,” Yuu bit her lip, “because of your reluctance to talk to him, the situation is getting worse and worse. So—”

“So the reason Dorm Head Riddle’s like that is ‘cause you’re spoiling him,” Ace said from somewhere to her right. “I finally get it.”

“Ace,” snapped Deuce from her left, “show some restraint.”

“Where’d you go?” Grim crawled up into her lap despondently. “Wake me up next time.”

“You three.” Trey didn’t seem very surprised. “Since when were you listening?”

“Since the beginning.” Ace put on a sneer. “Dorm Head can’t help being born to his parents, which is fine. But you’ve hung around him enough to know that his parents are like that, right? Why didn’t you say something? And now that he’s going down the same road his parents are—why don’t you stop him?”

Trey went silent. Yuu was sure he’d asked himself the same questions, struggled through the same thought process. By now, she felt like after so much wondering she might have finally touched on the core of what made this person tick.

“Ace,” she sighed, “it’s not his fault. You can play the blame game all you want, but this is way too complicated to blame Trey-senpai for something he couldn’t do. Not everyone’s as…inconsiderate…as you are.”

“Huh!?” Ace glared down at her from where he was perched on the couch. “Who the hell’s inconsiderate?”

“You are,” Deuce rolled his eyes, “there’s no way anyone else would have the guts to say stuff like that to Dorm Head.”

“In any case, it’s very simple,” shrugged Yuu. “Trey-senpai cares more about Rosehearts-senpai than everything else. In a way, he is spoiling him…like a big brother. In another way, he’s making the most logical judgment with the priorities he has. If he’d just inconsiderately said whatever he was thinking, he’d ruin his relationship with Rosehearts-senpai forever.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Ace rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know what your home life is like, but there’s no way that what Trey-senpai put into words right now is the end of what he went through,” Yuu shook her head. “I’ve seen what overly controlling parents do to their kids back in my school. I’m not going to mince words, okay: it’s abuse. That’s not how you behave towards a child.”

Even in the peaceful era they currently lived in, Hogwarts was not a happy paradise. Plenty of students were carrying scars on them, in one form or another. Riddle was no different.

Ace fell silent, staring at her. Assessing. Not quite understanding, but feeling the weight of her words.

“I like that merciless part of you,” Yuu told him with a grin. “If it was me, I’d want someone to slap the sense into me that I’m sure you’d know how to do best. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should expect the same of Trey-senpai. He’s already suffered through watching his friend walk on the edge of sanity for a while.”

“Sanity?!” Ace repeated.

“Haven’t you seen your Dorm Head’s face?” Yuu grimaced, remembering the heaviness in those grey eyes. “He’s not—ugh. I’m not here to discuss semantics. Listen, you can’t push the responsibility on Trey-senpai for no reason.”

“But what Trey-senpai’s doing is effectively just watching as Riddle gets separated from and hated by the entire dorm,” Ace ground out, unwilling to back down.

Deuce reached across the seat to slap his arm. “Hey, watch your words!”

“The alternative is to take the fragile trust he’s built up for over ten years and smash it all over the ground with impunity,” Yuu said flatly. “You want him to do that?”

“So what! In the end isn’t he just afraid? Afraid of hurting and getting hurt? Afraid of letting out what he really thinks!?” Ace’s voice rose. “That’s not what I call friendship. It’s just lame cowardice! Hell, I’m better friends with you and I’ve known you for a month!”

Yuu shoved herself to her feet. “Ace, you don’t have the right to judge someone without seeing their pain.”

“As if I care about their mushy emotions,” Ace scoffed, “the result is that there are problems in the school, isn’t it? Who cares.”

She gaped at him. “Are you a sociopath or something?!”

“Hey!” Crowley swooped into the room, his mantle sweeping behind him. “STOP YELLING IN THE LIBRARY!”

“You’re the loudest one in here!” Yuu and Ace snapped at him in unison.

The gathered group apologized sullenly to the headmaster, but Yuu was done with discussing ‘mushy emotions’, as Ace called it. She liked Ace even if she didn’t agree with his conclusions on what ‘friendship’ meant and she knew that the two of them probably wouldn’t come to a consensus on this topic anytime soon.

Both Ace and she knew that right now that wasn’t the problem.

“Headmaster,” Yuu said firmly, “I need your opinion on something, please.”

“Hmm?” Crowley perched on the back of the armchair she had been sitting in, looking more birdlike than ever. “What on earth could it be, child?”

Ace shot her a look. He was hesitant about speaking in front of the Headmaster, and Trey had gone very quiet, but she trusted Crowley more than was strictly necessary. Yuu went through a simplified version of their current predicament without mincing words.

It went something like this: they disagreed with Riddle’s methods of control in Heartslabyul and wanted to stop him. However, with the collars around Ace’s, Deuce’s and Grim’s necks, they were at a disadvantage. And Ace was absolutely dead set against apologizing to Riddle.

Crowley listened to her and rested his chin on a metal-tipped glove. “Hmm…if you have such a bad relationship with your Dorm Head, there is always the option of transferring. You aren’t the first to clash against their Dorm Head this year.”

“Transferring dorms?” Yuu blinked, surprised. “I thought your dorm was based on the shape of your soul or whatever nonsense that was.”

“It’s not nonsense!” Crowley chopped her gently on the head. “However, you are right that switching dorms is not an easy task because of the Mirror’s decision. A lot of paperwork and ceremony is involved.”

“Nah,” Ace made a face. “Don’t wanna do that.”

“He’s probably going to say something like ‘that’d be like losing’,” she muttered to Deuce and Trey in undertone.

“That’s like…the same thing as losing to the Dorm Head, which is lame,” Ace said.

Deuce gaped at her. “You can read minds!”

“I think I have a hold on what kind of person my friend is by now,” she said dryly.

Trey gave her an unreadable glance. “So you do,” he said softly.

“Hm.” Crowley made a thinking pose again. “Well then, how about you submit a challenge to duel him and become Dorm Head instead?”

A moment of silence suffused the library.

Deuce broke it. “What?”

“Um,” Yuu managed. “Huh?

Grim shouted, “You can do that!?”

“Lower your voices!” Crowley scolded him.

Yuu thought distractedly that the image of Grim slapping his tiny paws over his mouth was the cutest thing ever.

Crowley sighed. “It’s not as if I said anything out of the ordinary. Mister Clover should know very well, since Mister Rosehearts became the Dorm Head using the very same method.”

“By a duel?!” Yuu gave him an incredulous stare. “Headmaster, you let people take responsibility over an entire dorm by having them fight over it!?”

“So that’s the way they decide who gets to rule over the rest of ‘em?” Deuce, excited, clenched his fists and reverting to the trigger-happy figure his upperclassmen had called ‘insane’ several days ago. “Didn’t someone say Rosehearts-senpai stole the seat not even a week in?”

“There are many ways one may become Dorm Head.” Crowley ticked the methods on his fingers. “The previous dorm head can appoint him, or he can win a duel he challenges the current dorm head to. There are a few other ways as well, but duelling is one of the simpler ones.”

“I can’t believe it,” Yuu said slowly. “No wonder the cowards from Heartslabyul were so content to be stepped on by him. Instead of merit, Dorm Heads are decided by a barbaric system relying almost half on luck? Headmaster…are you serious?”

“Yuu can really lay it out sometimes,” Deuce muttered weakly.

“In the hundred or so years NRC has existed, this method has been surprisingly the best one,” Crowley told her wryly, his golden eyes narrowing in good humour.

“But I thought personal fights between students were against the school rules,” Ace frowned.

“Ah, but a properly applied and procedural duel wherein the Headmaster acts as the judge is no personal fight. It becomes an official event.” Crowley transferred those narrowed eyes to him.

“It’s true that because handicaps on either side are forbidden, you would get your collars taken off before the duel began without apologizing to Riddle,” Trey pondered. “But still…”

Crowley spread his hands. “The right to challenge a Dorm Head is given to each student the moment they are accepted into NRC,” he smiled. “What will you do, Mister Trappola? Do you wish to challenge Mister Rosehearts?”

Yuu remembered when, after their adventure in the Dwarf Mines, Crowley had told her he was admitting her with the full rights of a student. Did this mean she was also able to be challenged to duels? If so, being unable to use their magic might prove a problem. People didn’t like her very much here.

Ace, predictably, jerked his head down in a sharp nod. “Right. Let’s give it a shot then.”

“Then I’ll challenge him too,” Deuce slammed his fist into a palm threateningly.

“Me three!” Grim leapt onto her shoulder.

“Ah, Mister Grim. Unfortunately, students from other dorms are not permitted to challenge a different dorm head,” Crowley explained. “In addition, because you are two in one, all fights you accept must be handled by both you and Yuu-kun here. Since Yuu-kun has no magic, this is not a wise decision.”

“Don’t worry, Grim,” Ace smirked confidently, “when I become the Dorm Head, I’ll order Riddle to take it off for you.”

“C’mon, it was my chance to show off my power!” Grim puffed his cheeks out.

“Are you serious?” Trey cut in, the line between his brows deepening with his frown. “Deuce. I didn’t expect for you to join in too.”

Deuce grinned wickedly. “That so? But if you’re a man, I think it’s natural to want to aim to be the gang leader once or twice. And if we’re challenging someone, it’s gotta be the current boss.”

“There’s Deuce’s delinquent vocabulary for ya,” Ace snickered.

Deuce blinked. “Huh? Isn’t this normal?”

“Former delinquent,” she whispered to Trey, who looked rather confused, under her breath.

“Well then, I will get the paperwork for the two of you completed,” Crowley said willingly enough. “How nice am I? Sometimes I astound myself.”

Yuu secretly felt a little disappointed she couldn’t challenge Riddle to a battle—not that she had any hopes of winning over someone who was talented enough to create his Unique Magic at age ten. She clapped her hands. “Which means we got to plan a strategy.”

“Any ideas, oh great strategist?” Ace nudged her with his arm, their earlier spat forgotten.

Deuce sighed, “I honestly don’t see us winning over him with magic alone.”

“But,” she prompted.

Deuce smirked and cracked his knuckles under his gloves. “If we’re talking with fists, I could probably handle it.”

“That guy is pretty weak-looking, almost as weak-looking as Yuu,” Grim commented.

“You insulting me?” Yuu poked him in the forehead.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” Crowley lifted a hand. “In duels, the only acceptable form of fighting is magic. Everything else is forbidden.”

Deuce dropped his fists. “Wha—”

“Ha ha ha! I’m looking forward to a duel that follows the rules!” Crowley laughed. “I’ll have the paperwork done by tomorrow afternoon, so you may challenge him any time after that. Farewell! And keep your voices down in the library!”

“Says the loudest one,” Yuu mumbled.

Ace laughed nervously as the Headmaster left as quickly as he had appeared. “All right! A little less sure about fighting with magic only, but there’s where Yuu the strategist comes in.”

Yuu rolled her eyes. “I should just leave you on your own, bozo.”

“You guys…” Trey said quietly.

“And I’m gonna make him get down on his knees and say I was wrong, I’m very sorry once I become Dorm Head!” Ace was waving his hands animatedly at Deuce and Grim.

“We’ll figure something out,” Yuu smiled up at the third year, “Ace is a little, er, callous, but no one is benefiting from this current situation, so there really is nothing left but to change it. You can sit back and watch us figure it out if you don’t want to step in.”

Trey gave her a complicated grimace. “I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

Again, Yuu dreamed of the Queen of Hearts. She didn’t recognize the cartoonish images of this Dixney movie but knew the scene as the titular character facing the Queen in her trial. Alice’s Adventures came down to logic games in the end, she remembered dully as the Queen screeched and attacked Alice with her card army.

What made a despot? Yuu wondered, watching the Queen go scarlet with rage. Was it the hopelessly tyrannical nature of the Queen herself? Of Riddle himself?

No—that was just an easy out.

Then was it the product of their environment? Wonderland that had encouraged the Queen’s madness, Riddle’s mother that had pressured him again and again and again? Was it the fearful residents of Wonderland who refused to stand up to the Queen, the inability of Trey to hurt his friend, the way the Heartslabyul students refused torebel against him?

But that wasn’t it, either. Riddle could have made the choice to stop listening to his mother. Of course, he was obviously not in his right mind due to the way she punished and treated him. However, Trey had said that Riddle responded eagerly to the expectations his parents had shoved onto his slim shoulders. He could have rejected it, but he didn’t.

What was it that made a despot? Yuu thought that in this case, it was the good intentions that had twisted everything beyond measure. The mother’s good intentions to turn her son into a perfect human. The son’s good intentions to listen to his mother. The friend’s good intentions to maintain his friend’s sanity. All of this kindness was more bitter than the cruellest strike.

Yuu opened her eyes in the pre-dawn light filtering through Ramshackle Dorm’s biggest bedroom, Grim a solid weight on her chest. After all this thinking, she still couldn’t get over that look in Riddle’s eyes.

I don’t want to do this, he’d said. Every time he Beheaded someone she thought she felt him get a little more desperate.

It was very simple. Yuu could think all she wanted about definitions. But she was tired of this emotion that strained her chest every time she remembered those stricken grey eyes.

Yuu usually acted as a bystander. In this world, she was even more of one—someone who obviously didn’t belong. An outlier.

But for the first time in her life, she couldn’t bring herself to keep watching.

She’d planned what she could with Ace and Deuce all day yesterday in preparation for today’s duel. Yet Yuu had read all about how hard it was to form one’s Unique Magic. Riddle had done so at age ten—he was nothing short of a magical prodigy in this world. Chances for victory in a magic-only duel were slim at best.

Yuu lifted Deuce’s foot from over her arm and decided she was done watching from the side-lines.

The first notes of fall were beginning to crisp at the bushes in Heartslabyul’s Rose Maze. However, the afternoon’s weather was excellent; Yuu forewent Leona-senpai’s vest in the heat and abandoned her sweater vest halfway through the day, leaving her in a white button-up shirt and jeans.

Ace and Deuce might have been brash and insensitive, but they looked coolly confident as they waited for the challenged party to arrive. The two of them wore a certain unshakeable aloofness that gathered a small audience of Heartslabyul students who had heard about the incoming duel. The crowd whispered nervously as they lined up against the bushes forming the labyrinth, some decked out in the Unbirthday party attire and some still in uniform. It seemed that there was an event originally planned for the afternoon.

Grim was vibrating in excitement on Yuu’s shoulder as she blended in with the crowd of dark blazers and white suit jackets, infecting her with his energy. Her wand buzzed warmly against her sleeve.

Riddle, flanked by Trey and Cater, arrived at the mouth of the maze regally, though his grey eyes still looked shuttered to her. Her chest twinged.

There was no trace of the usual easy-going smile Trey wore; instead, a deep frown was etched into his features. Cater was smiling like always save for a certain strain at the corners of his mouth. Yuu caught the former’s eye and nodded at him; Trey managed a quick upturn of the lips before Crowley swept down out of the sky.

Cater popped up beside her as the Headmaster dictated the rules of the duel, his hazel-green eyes bright with what looked like interest. “Hey Yuu-chan! Are Ace-chan and Deuce-chan serious about aiming for the Dorm Head’s seat?”

“Afternoon,” Yuu smiled back at him, detecting a note of concern in his voice. “It’s more of a desire to make him apologise than anything.”

“I tried to stop them,” Trey sighed from her other side.

Grim snorted.

“I don’t think it’s possible for you to stop them,” she told him, “not when you’re part of the problem.”

Trey frowned at her. “You know I am your senpai.”

“Sorry,” Yuu said sheepishly, covering her mouth. “I’m told I can be insulting when I don’t mean to sometimes.”

“These firsties sure do some dangerous things,” Cater sighed, for once not taking out his phone to snap a picture, though his right hand was tucked loosely in his pocket where it lay. “Hopefully it doesn’t go down the drain.”

“You wouldn’t do something like this?” Yuu asked him.

“Me!?” Cater gave her a look like she was crazy. “Of course not! What good would come out of that? It would cause way too many problems!”

“Right.” Cater was probably another Ravenclaw, though he seemed to be trying to hide it.

Crowley cleared his throat and they all fell silent. “I hereby announce the carrying out of the duel for the seat of Heartslabyul Dorm Head!”

Ace and Deuce, both dressed in their white suits from yesterday, took one step forward. Yuu squinted. “Is there really a reason to wear those suits other than to show off?”

“It’s a man’s pride,” Cater told her with a grin, “plus it’ll look good when they get filmed. These are sort of our Dorm uniforms.”

Yuu wondered what the heck a ‘man’s pride’ was as Crowley continued, “The challengers are Ace Trappola and Deuce Spade! The recipient of the challenge is the current Heartslabyul Dormitory Head, Riddle Rosehearts. According to the regulations of Duelling, please remove the magic-sealing collars that are impeding the match.”

“I wish he’d remove mine too,” Grim grumbled, shifting uncomfortably on her shoulder. “It’s so heavy.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll win and then you’ll be free.” And if not, Yuu wasn’t about to sit around and let Grim suffer for much longer. He was her partner, after all.

Riddle flicked back his cape, revealing his Pen, and the collars locked around Ace and Deuce vanished with a trail of sparling light. Yuu wondered if he’d changed his Pen recently. The magic stone attached to it was darker than she’d remembered.

His smile was arrogant and wicked as he watched the two of them rub gratefully at their necks. “It doesn’t matter, since soon enough you’ll have them back on. Enjoy your brief moment of release. …I doubted my ears when I heard you’d challenged me to a duel. Are you two serious?”

Ace glared straight back. “Obviously.”

“I wouldn’t joke about challenging someone to a duel,” Deuce stepped up beside him.

“…Hmph.” Riddle crossed his arms, the smile fading from his face. He looked tired and almost bored, eyes still empty. “Fine. Let’s get this over with quickly.”

“Riddle-kun,” Cater called over, checking his phone, “what do you want to do for tea today?”

Yuu shot him a glance. This guy was kind of a jerk too, wasn’t he?

“What a foolish question. You know what I always do for teatime at 16 o’clock,” Riddle barely spared him a glance. “It is, after all, one of the rules.”

“Ah, yeah, but it’s sort of past fifteen thirty already…” Cater laughed nervously.

Those grey eyes narrowed. “Do you think I would ever be late? This battle will be settled quickly, don’t worry.”

“You know, even without all the whole rules tying him down thing, I think this guy has an inordinate amount of pride in himself,” commented Yuu as Ace and Deuce bristled at the dismissive tone Riddle had taken.

Trey was startled into a genuine laugh. “You might be right.”

“He’s just a jerk,” Grim grumbled, not having forgiven Riddle for the uncomfortable collar.

Riddle sighed and rubbed his delicate brow. “All right, you heard him. I have no time to be wasting, and accepting the duel one person at a time will take up too much. The two of you, come at me together.”

“Whoa! It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Dorm Head that serious!” someone whispered in front of her.

“Go Dorm Head!” shouted someone else.

“Smack ‘em out of shape!” another few chorused.

Trey murmured, “You know they don’t stand a chance.”

Yuu glanced up at him.

He pressed his trilby down on his head, hiding his eyes. “Sorry to rain on your parade when you look so confident. But whether it’s two of ten of them, Riddle will finish the battle in less than a minute.”

“I look confident?” Yuu had never been very good at understanding her emotions.

“I know you believe in your friends,” he started.

“If you know he’s going to win, then why are you wearing such an unhappy expression?” she asked him. “You should be the confident one.”

Trey fell silent.

“I guess the reason I look confident, like you say, is because I’ve broken through my worries a little. Or actually, I just gave up thinking.” Yuu smiled at him. “Sure, I believe in my friends, but I’m not an idiot that blindly trusts them. That’s why I’m here, aren’t I?”

“That’s why you’re here?” Trey repeated, tilting his head up to frown at her.

“Apparently when it comes to my friends, I can’t leave well enough alone,” Yuu sighed. “So I’m not gonna worry about getting in their way anymore.”

“Hey, you say some good stuff, henchman,” Grim grinned from her shoulder.

Trey’s frown deepened. “Hey, transfer. You can’t use any magic. Don’t tell me you’re going to—”

“I’m not going to take that insult lying down,” Deuce cut him off, his voice ringing across the Maze.

“Go get him!” Grim cheered.

“It’s not like we don’t have any strategy,” Ace added. “We’re ready any time.”

Riddle couldn’t be bothered with them. “Headmaster. The signal for the duel, please.”

Crowley drew one of the ornate mirrors that were hanging at his belt and held it high. “The signal for the beginning of this match is when this mirror I throw breaks against the ground.”

Silence reigned in the Maze as he tossed it high, the light glittering off of its silver oval. The air was tight with tension; at the nearly tangible concentration of the three facing each other in the field of fresh grass, Yuu felt the hair at her nape stand on end.

“Ready…”

The mirror fell against stone and shattered into ten thousand tiny shards of glass.

Crowley’s shout of “Fight!” was overwhelmed by Ace and Deuce ducking low and rushing forwards.

True to Trey’s words—the duel didn’t last past a minute.

Yuu had a limited grasp on the magic structure of this world. She knew that using it expended ‘magical power,’ and not magic, but was convinced that the magic they were controlling did not come from within them like the magic Hogwarts taught did.

Still barely beginning her fifth year into her magical career, Yuu had barely touched the world of Veela, house-elf and goblin magic—not to mention fey magic—so the more she read about Twisted Wonderland’s take on the power the more confused she’d gotten. Even with all of the books she had been reading this past month, the differences were far too great to absorb so quickly. But with the information she had, she was forced to make a number of assumptions to move forward with her strategy.

This much she’d figured out for certain: the Magical Pen’s stone was a channel for which one’s magic was materialized (a less-sentient wand), and magic was deeply connected with the emotional and mental state of a person. Yuu had counted on this second part when forming a strategy with Ace and Deuce yesterday.

She’d expected Riddle to allow both of them to participate at once, taking into account his abilities and pride, and assigned them one crucial task to do together: take him off guard. Riddle’s magical ability was out of their league, but if they prevented him from executing a spell, they could remain in the running.

Ace and Deuce put up a valiant effort. Their sudden mad dash in Riddle’s direction made him take a startled step back, and their first spells were fast and precise, aimed at his Pen to knock it away. But if she was aware of magical theory, how much more aware could Riddle be? Two slashes through the air and he’d dispelled their attacks—the distraction had not worked well enough.

Off with Your Head!” he roared, blowing Ace and Deuce backwards with the force of his spell.

Unmindful of the gust of wind that sent the crowd covering their heads, Yuu gathered Grim to her chest and shoved her way up front beside Crowley. “Headmaster!”

As if he’d read her mind, Crowley stayed her with a gloved hand on her arm. “The strength of a spell can be equalled to the strength of one’s imagination,” he said to her softly. “You can see how tangible that spell was. A spell’s accuracy is decided almost entirely by the ability of the caster to visualize—to know the true shape of its effect.”

“You’re saying that Dorm Head’s spell was so strong because he knows the collar so well?”

“And its effects—don’t forget about the sealing of magic.” Crowley released an impressed breath that disappeared behind his mask. “Mister Rosehearts has truly polished this Unique Magic as of late.”

Yuu was grateful that she hadn’t been born in this world. With her poor imagination, she was sure she’d be the weakest caster ever found. If she even had any magical power.

“I’ll give you points for your beginning move,” Riddle lowered his Pen; it caught the light darkly. “For a couple of students in the first year, your only chance was to catch me off guard. But even so, it left too much to be desired. Are you not ashamed of your abilities?”

Yuu wondered briefly if Riddle would’ve been this proud had he not been born under a family of geniuses. Somehow, though, she had the feeling that his smile would always hold that slight arrogance to it.

“When you break the rules, that’s the end of it,” Riddle said coldly. “Nothing can make it right again. …It’s just as Mother said.”

She barely caught the end of the sentence, but Yuu stopped breathing as she saw the way his face twisted as he said it. She hadn’t seen someone make that face since Fred II told her that his father had mistaken him for George Weasley’s twin again.

That—desperately, overflowing, unbearably suffering face.

Maybe Yuu had imagined the expression, because it was gone now—Deuce was saying something about how ridiculous rules being pushed on students was nothing more than tyranny, but there was a dim roaring in her ears that she barely recognised as her pulse racing.

“Yuu-kun?”

Crowley was peering into her face with those golden eyes.

Yuu stared back at him.

“You’re pale as a ghost,” Crowley lowered his voice.

“Fine,” she managed. “Just—remembered something. Grim, I’m going to put you down for a second.”

“Yuu, you okay?” Grim asked her as she set him on the ground gently.

“I’m fine,” she said, “I don’t think anyone else is, though.”

“It doesn’t matter how much idealistic nonsense you spout,” Riddle’s voice rang over to her. “If you break the rules, you will be punished. And rules are decided by the one in power. The power here is me. It’s a simple logic game! All who can’t keep the rules can’t complain when they’re Beheaded!”

“Why do you keep repeating that to yourself?” Yuu blurted out, catching his eye. “Like you’re trying to convince yourself more than anyone. Why do you keep hurting yourself by repeating lies!”

“Whether it’s a lie or not is for me to decide!” he shouted back at her, as if stung. “And stop turning this on me. You couldn’t follow one of the easiest rules.”

“Easiest? I doubt many people would be able to follow all eight hundred and ten rules and stay sane,” Yuu shook off Crowley’s staying hand and took a step forward. “You can talk about rules, rules, rules all you want, but you’re focusing far too hard on something that matters far too little.”

“Matters little?” Riddle laughed, his face twisting in almost a snarl. “You say that because you can’t do it, that’s all. What kind of education have you had? Oh, let me guess. From the looks of you, you couldn’t have been born from parents who could use magic very well, could you?”

“No sir,” Yuu responded, wondering why the topic had changed, “I don’t have an ounce of your magic in my body.”

“And you managed to scrape your way all the way here with a subpar education and a subpar upbringing. Yet you try to defy me? Ignorance really is bliss. I feel sorry for you,” Riddle took a step forward, that same darkness blotting out the lights in his eyes.

Deuce hissed. “You bastard—”

“You’re full of SHIT!”

Yuu actually jumped as Ace, who’d approached her right side somewhere during the exchange, lunched forwards and drove his fist straight into Riddle’s cheek. A collective gasp rippled through the watching students as Riddle stumbled back, clutching his face.

“Riddle!” Trey shouted from somewhere behind them, overlapping with Cater’s cry of “Riddle-kun!”

The pounding in Yuu’s ears cleared up a bit and she realized she’d moved into the middle of the makeshift arena without realizing it. What impulse had—?

Ace backed her up a step, his suit jacket bumping into her nose. His shoulders were heaving, and she finally noticed that he was furious, his pupils blown wide and lips pulled back from his teeth.

“That was one clean right hook,” whistled Grim from somewhere behind them.

“Ace!?” Deuce gaped at the same time as Crowley managed, “Mister Trappola!”

Ace shook out his fist, straightening; the anger retreated back into his eyes, but his voice still burned with it. “…I’m done. Forget it. Who cares about being a Dorm Head or a duel or anything anymore?”

“Did you just…” Riddle said blankly, his large eyes open in almost childlike surprise. “Did you just punch me?”

Ace,” Yuu caught his shoulder as he made to move forwards again. Once again, she remembered what Headmistress McGonagall had said to her. About only being able to calm down if one saw someone even less calm than they are. The pounding in her ears had faded when she’d seen how angry he was.

Which meant…

“You okay?” Deuce muttered to her in undertone.

“I was…” Yuu whispered to herself.

“Was?”

“I was angry?”

Her epiphany went unheard. Ace had managed to swallow down the impulse for a second punch. “Listen. Kids aren’t their parent’s trophies, and a kid’s behaviour doesn’t determine their parent’s value,” he gritted out. “I’d thought you were a pitiful guy after hearing what Trey-senpai had to say, but from the looks of it, it’s obvious that your being full of shit has nothing to do with your parents.”

“Ace,” she hurried to interrupt.

“You stop defending him when he said all that about you!” Ace snapped at her before turning back to Riddle. “Apart from this idiotically nice kid here, not a single person has warned you to stop or even tried to give you advice in your year of schooling, have they? And obviously they haven’t. ‘Cause you’re like that! Insulting those who aren’t like you!”

“…What are you…saying?” Riddle’s eyes looked as if they were made of crystal. His reddening cheek went unnoticed. In fact, she was wondering if he was really registering anything that was going on around him.

“Sure, you might’ve gone through some brutal education system with that uptight mom of yours,” Ace blasted on, “but are you seriously just going to listen to whatever she says and assume that’s right? Just going to stop thinking otherwise? All you can do is believe what mommy says? What ‘red ruler’—you’re just a baby with magic!”

“A…baby…? Me…?” Riddle repeated, colour rising in his pale neck. “…You don’t know anything about me. Stop talking like you know when I’ve been through!”

“I don’t,” Ace sneered, “as if I would know with the attitude you take all the time. Stop expecting people to bend over backwards to please you!”

“Ace, that’s enough,” snapped Yuu, “there’s a difference between attacking him because you’re angry and trying to fix the problem.”

“He insulted you,” Ace said quite reasonably. “He needs to be able to take what he dishes out.”

Yuu stared at his completely unrepentant expression, all the momentum rushing out of her with surprise. “Dude,” she said, “you really are a sociopath.”

“Shut up.” Riddle’s face twisted in anger. “Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up! Mother’s words are correct!! That’s why I’m absolutely correct!

“Riddle!” Trey fought his way out of the crowd to approach his childhood friend. “The match is over. Calm down!”

Crowley took a step forward. “As Mister Clover says. The challenger is disqualified due to use of physical force! All parties stand down.”

“I’m sick of this!” someone shouted in the crowd. “It’s as the new student says. The Dorm Head’s way too strict!”

Something white sailed past her head and broke against Riddle’s cape. A funny silence fell over them as everyone stared at the runny trail of broken egg bleeding down the red-and-black fabric.

Trey’s ochre eyes widened in shock. “…An egg…one of the students!”

Who is it!” Riddle flung his cape off, whirling on the students gathered as it flew into the air behind him. “Who threw the egg at me?”

The crowd went fearfully silent. Yuu and Ace traded disgusted glances. “They could at least show their face if they’re gonna throw an egg,” she muttered.

“Cowards,” Deuce spat.

“I mean, he kind of deserves it,” Ace started just to be a jerk. Yuu socked him gently in the arm.

The silence was broken by Riddle’s low laughter. As if someone had cut a string holding him up straight, he doubled over before smiling at the crowd with a wild look in his eye. “Ha ha…Ha ha ha. Sick of this? The one who’s sick of this is me.”

Grim hopped up beside Deuce, whispering, “I think he snapped.”

“No matter how many times,” Riddle’s voice trembled lowly. “No matter how many times I Behead you. No matter how many times I repeat the rules you all still break them! Every last one of you is so small and self-centred!”

His voice had risen to an uncontrolled shout so that it strained. Yuu could feel it in the air, that same look that had distorted his face was in that voice. The boiling seething frustration that had no escape.

“Very well,” Riddle smiled madly. “If no one’s going to answer, then I’ll hold you all responsible together. All of you! Off with Your Head!

The magnitude of the magic spell was palpable as it rushed through the crowd. Chaos descended. A great cry rose up from those watching as clicks of metal snapped collars into place on the necks of all of the watching students. They scattered, shouting and screaming, completely overpowered by the strength of Riddle’s rage.

“Run! There’s no telling what he’ll do!”

“My neck—”

“Gah…we gotta get out of here!”

Ah ha ha ha ha!” Riddle tilted his head back and laughed freely, spreading his gloved hands before him. “Look! None of you can stand against me. In the end, the one who adheres to the rules is right. I’m the most correct out of all of you!”

“Stop right there, Mister Rosehearts! The match was over!” Crowley shouted. “This isn’t like you! Personal fighting is forbidden!”

Trey and Cater made to move forward. “Riddle!” the former shouted, a note of urgency creeping into his voice, “That’s enough! Stop using your magic!”

“Just because you’re right doesn’t mean everything’s going to go your way,” Ace couldn’t resist egging him on. “It’s ‘cause you throw tantrums like this that you’re such a baby!”

“You moron, are you trying to get us killed!?” Deuce shouted.

Riddle whirled on him, the red spreading up his neck to colour his face and darken the forming bruise. “You take that back right now! Do you want me to skewer you!?”

Skewer!?” yelped Yuu.

“I’ve never seen anyone go that red,” Deuce whispered, looking a little ill.

Ace, of course, didn’t even hesitate. “No way. I’ll never take it back.”

Riddle screamed in wordless anger, readying his Pen, and the entire garden trembled with the force of his anger. Every hair on the back of her neck stood up on end. There was something distorted in the air—

Cater shouted, “Everyone get out of here right now!”

Yuu managed to tackle Grim from behind her just as the trembling ground exploded where he stood. The two of them rolled a few times in the grass until a shower of dirt blasted them into a bush.

She coughed out dirt. “Grim!”

“I’m okay!” He responded from around her chest. “That guy’s gone crazy!”

“That was mostly Ace’s fault,” she said. “I might punch him when this is all over.”

When they stood up again, the Rose Maze was no longer a well-curated sunny garden.

Clouds—or maybe it was dust—blotted out the blue sky, clumps of dirt leaving the ground as it shook. The air around was dusty and reddish-brown. Cans of paint had spilt across the green grass, sending patches of red everywhere and tripping the unfortunate student who’d taken an unlucky step into a slide. Scarlet smeared everywhere.

Through the dust Yuu saw that the reason for the dirt storm were the rosebushes that had risen into the air. As she watched, another one trembled as it uprooted itself—no, as Riddle’s magic ripped it out of the ground.

Yuu shook briefly in fright. This was not the same as a burst of uncontrolled magic that had pulled library books out of the shelves for her when she was six. It was simply pure, unadulterated power. In her years at Hogwarts she’d only seen the Whomping Willow produce this much raw power.

Grim went very small in her arms. “All of the trees are floating…”

“Yuu!” Deuce, coughing, jogged up to her. “You okay? Stay close to me! I’ve never seen a piece of magic this big!”

“Deuce!” Yuu hung onto his hand in relief. “Where’s Ace!? Riddle might be aiming at him!”

“O Trees of Rose!” Riddle’s dignified voice echoed over to them; Yuu found Ace who’d been knocked against a bush with the Dorm Head standing directly in front of him. “Rip him to pieces!”

Yuu panicked, dropping Grim. She ripped the button of her sleeve open and drew her wand in a rush. “Ace!

The rosebushes trembled and rushed towards Ace too quickly—but before her eyes they popped out of existence and suddenly a shower of playing cards fell at Ace’s feet in a burst of multicoloured lights.

Ace cracked one eye open from where he’d folded in on himself. Very calmly, he picked one up. “I’m alive. What are these, cards?”

“How did all of the trees change into cards?” Deuce was muttering, but Yuu had caught on; she spun around and located Trey, who had his Magical Pen held out in front of him grimly.

“Riddle,” he said quietly, “that’s enough.”

“Trey, your Doodle Suit…!” Cater gasped, getting to his feet.

Grim gasped from her feet. “My collar’s gone!”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Trey explained in a low voice. “I can replace any attribute with another. So I replaced ‘Riddle’s magic’ with ‘my magic’. It won’t last long, though, we need to get out of here fast.”

“That’s just as big of a spell as Dorm Head just used,” Yuu murmured, impressed. “And he used his magic to switch out the trees at the same time as using his Unique Magic to overwrite all of Dorm Head’s magic.”

“You can do that!?” Cater spluttered, echoing her thoughts, “that’s practically cheating!”

“…Tch!” Riddle was staring through Trey as if he couldn’t see him. The Dorm Head turned his Pen on the few surrounding people left as they ran pell-mell, trying fruitlessly to recast his Unique Magic. “Off with Your Head! I said Off with Your Head! Why are cards coming out of my Pen!?

The dust started to settle as cards replaced the dirt in a spray of white, revealing Trey nearing his friend, one bead of sweat running down the side of his face. “Riddle, that’s enough. If you keep going, you’ll only be isolating yourself. Look at the faces of the people around you!”

The few unlucky students who had failed to get away in the confusion had gathered together, staring at Riddle in a mixture of loathing and fear.

“He was really going to stab him…”

“The guy’s gone crazy…!”

“He’s not human…”

Riddle took in their huddled forms without particularly recognising them. He stared emptily at his Pen, which looked nearly black. “…Huh?” he emitted. “…My magic was…overwritten by Trey’s?”

“Riddle,” Trey shut his eyes, “it’s not—”

“So you’re saying,” Riddle shook, “that your magic is more powerful than mine.”

“No!” Trey shouted, losing his cool for the first time she’d seen him. “That’s not what—”

“So you’re more powerful than me!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, as if that’s true!” Trey sucked in a steadying breath. “Riddle. Listen to me and compose yourself. I—”

“You too?” Riddle looked up. His eyes were empty. “You think I’m wrong too? Even after all I went through to keep those unbearable rules!?”

“Riddle—!” Trey looked stricken.

“Even after I endured and endured and endured!” Riddle’s face contorted in the unbearably heart wrenching expression. “I…I…I refuse!”

“His Pen!” Crowley was somewhere by the fleeing students. “Mister Rosehearts, you cannot use anymore magic! Your magic stone is already almost full of Blot!”

Riddle clutched his head, gasping. His huge grey eyes stared into nothing as a dull red transformed his face. “I’m…I’m…absolutely right!

His Pen flashed. Trey covered his face. “RIDDLE!

Riddle let out a bellow and pointed his Pen at his friend, the pen tipped with the dark magic stone.

But she could not let him attack his friend, not Trey who had walked a tightrope for years and suffered silently alongside him.

Yuu sprinted in Trey’s direction. “Protego maxima!

The yew wand she had received when she was eleven was imbued with a Dragon heartstring as its core. Mister Olliviander had told her with a rueful smile all those years ago that the heartstring she had was the only one that had been taken from a Hungarian Horntail that had murdered an entire squad sent to tame it. He’d warned her that dragon heartstrings tended to be the most prone to accidental magic, that this wand was eager to involve itself in a fight.

The last time she’d used her wand was back in June for her exams. A long time—too long for her wand. A great heady rush of magic numbed her arm; the rigid yew thrummed and exulted in the return of its use and the shield exploded from its tip so violently that she nearly fell over in her scramble to approach Trey and Riddle.

Whatever Riddle had tried to cast at Trey fizzled against the silvery white barrier and cracked it before bouncing off. Yuu gasped at the unbelievable force behind the spell—it had outstripped every other spell she had defended herself against in her lifetime. She glanced over; Trey was looking at Riddle with a sort of shock that suggested he hadn’t even noticed he could have died.

Yuu let the shield dissipate, ready to cast a second one, but Riddle’s Pen was leaking great dollops of viscous black ink that dripped on the ground instead of the light usually accompanying spellcasting. Dimly, Yuu remembered Crowley saying something about not using anymore magic—and Riddle had ignored the warning—but why was the Pen leaking?

That same uneasy feeling jolted up her spine. She had felt this before, in a dream long forgotten. Every hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

There was dark liquid dripping everywhere now. From Riddle’s Pen and out of his pale fingers and sleeves, eating them away like acid; he turned his stare on her and his beautiful grey eyes were glowing an angry scarlet and his right eye lit on fire as black ink leaked down his forehead and neck.

Riddle’s feet lifted from the ground. Wind whipped around the three of them and made her close her eyes for a brief moment to protect them—when she wrenched them back open, his entire uniform had changed. His once-white suit was dyed in the black ink that dripped from his skin like so many tears gathering at his feet. Even the golden crown that the Dorm Head wore was suffused in the liquid, forming a latticework around his body like a queen’s ballgown. His scarlet eyes burned with an unearthly glow and scattered flames around his right cheek that did not burn.

Yuu had never seen something like this transformation, and the black was still spreading, still growing as Riddle threw back his head and laughed in a voice deepened and layered with power.

“You fools who dare to revolt against me,” he said lowly. “I don’t need the likes of you in my world.”

Yuu held her wand in front of her and shoved Trey back behind her—he was still staring at Riddle as if he’d lost his soul. “What’s happening?!” she shouted.

“In my world!” Riddle’s voice echoed endlessly across the maze. “I am the law. I create and enforce the rules! And I will not allow any answer other than yes, lord Riddle.

Something had snapped, realised Yuu too late. Trey’s magic had been the last straw. His careful abstaining from involvement had been holding Riddle back from this—whatever this was, which was why Trey had been so reluctant to do anything, because he had foreseen this, this ink-soaked Riddle who lifted his hands in the sky and laughed a chillingly cold laugh that shook the very air.

She remembered how Auror-Professor Potter had described Voldemort to them one class, when a bunch of Gryffindors had wanted to know what it was like being a hero.

His laugh was the coldest thing I’d ever heard,” she remembered him saying. But it couldn’t be colder than this. Than the expression of giving into despair that the person in front of her was wearing right now.

Riddle had been careening towards this event horizon for the last several days; his whole life he’d spent trapped, collared just like his Unique Magic, barely able to breathe. And now, he had tipped over the edge completely.

“I’ll Behead anyone who dares to rise against me!” Riddle declared. His scarlet eyes darkened in pure unadulterated glee as he laughed for the world to hear.

Crowley appeared by them. “How could I have let a student Overblot right in front of me?” he gasped theatrically.

“What!?” Yuu barely spared him a glance. “Why does he have such a Dark aura around him? Headmaster!”

“Overblotting is the one thing magicians must prevent at all costs,” the dramatic tone to his voice faded slightly. “In effect, Mister Rosehearts has lost control of the magic and his emotions due to the negative energy overwhelming him.”

“What?” she repeated dumbly. “So it’s not Dark magic?”

“If you wanna put it simply, he’s fallen to the dark side,” Cater managed, jogging up to them. His eyes were dead serious in the chaos as he tugged her backwards. “Anyway, it’s too dangerous to stay here. With his magic, he could really kill someone. You guys need to get out of here, especially Yuu-chan, since you have no way to defend yourself.”

“Did you not just see me?” Yuu gaped at him.

“What?” Cater said distractedly.

Trey snapped out of it with a gasp. “We can’t let this keep going,” he said urgently, “Riddle’s own life is in danger right now.”

His life!?” Yuu spluttered. Everything was spiralling out of control.

“All students follow me!” Crowley cried, already heading for the entrance to Heartslabyul dorm. “Lives are at stake! And after this, we must return Riddle to sanity before his magic power runs out.”

“His magic power!?” Yuu repeated. “I thought he was just controlling magic!”

“All magic power is generated from within!” Crowley called over. “Yuu-kun, you must run. It will be terrible if he loses his life, but in the worst case…”

“I’ll go get a teacher!” Cater said, his smile non-existent. In this moment she finally saw the fierce intelligence and seriousness that brightened his hazel eyes.

“Yes, find other teachers or someone to—”

“So I was wrong,” she muttered to herself. “I was thinking too much. All magic is the same.”

All magic followed the same principles. Given this, Riddle’s transformation could only mean one thing: corruption due to Dark Magic.

She couldn’t let this happen.

“Yuu-kun?” Crowley’s voice was hard with caution.

Riddle lifted his Pen. Yuu spun around and levelled her wand at him, slashing it to the side. “Impedimenta!

The jet of light hit him head-on; Riddle was blasted back a couple of inches, blinking sluggishly. He turned on her with those red eyes. “You…!”

Now that she recognized this new and unusual feeling as ‘anger’, it bloomed headily in her stomach and brightened her vision like a rush of gamma to a computer screen. The feeling gathered as a tingling in her wand so that magic zapped the air in front of her in a hiss of sparks, lifting her hair.

“Yuu!?” Ace and Deuce gasped.

“Henchman!” Grim shouted from their other side.

“What on earth!?” Crowley breathed.

“Everyone get out of here!” Yuu barked, mouth set in a grim line. “As if I’ll let him die—let him fall if I can help it. Flipendo!

“Ugh!” The Knockback jinx moved him back slightly more violently. Riddle snarled, “Off with Your Head!

“I told you,” Yuu said calmly, letting the sparkling of bright light rush through her neck. “I don’t have a single ounce of your magic. You can’t seal mine. Expelliarmus!

Riddle summoned a gust of fire which consumed her spell before it could hit him. “I don’t know what you are,” he growled, “but I won’t let you stop me! Not a brat like you!”

Stupefy!” she cried. “Stop doing this to yourself!”

“Hah!” he cut through her Stunner with a slash of wind-based magic. “You don’t know anything about me!”

“As if I care. Listen well, Riddle Rosehearts,” Yuu planted her heels into the ground and pointed the wand right at his forehead. “I’m not here to argue semantics with you the way everyone else did. I’m here to save you.”

It had been a long time since she’d duelled.

Unlike most of Hogwarts’ young students, Yuu did not find pleasure in Defence Against the Dark Arts, nor did she see the point in winning and losing duels. It was the same for Quidditch; she had never quite understood what it was that brought so many people into a tizzy when they watched.

Her favourite subject involving spellwork was undoubtedly Charms—she loved to fiddle with spells, find out the theory of their working and what made them strong and weak. She liked to alter bits of spells and make them more suited to her needs. Had done some research with Professor Flitwick.

Unlike Charms, Yuu thought fighting and Defence was rather unnecessary in the wake of the defeat of the Dark Wizard Voldemort. In-class duels were lacklustre and the Duelling Club filled with people who liked to bully others. Duelling was boring and pointless.

Until now.

Just like she’d been wrong about the magic of this world, Yuu had been wrong about duelling. It was necessary—if not in wizarding Britain, then in Twisted Wonderland, in the Heartslabyul dorm, in front of Riddle who was bleeding ink and dying with Darkness in his eyes. For duelling was the only way she could think of to stop him.

To hell with the Statute of Secrecy. To hell with the Trace. In a world she might never be able to escape from, Yuu was not about to hide under a mask of uselessness when she had seen the pain in this face right in front of her.

When not a single person had reached out to him.

When just like her—he had been all alone.

Ace, Deuce and Grim were watching her, but she resolved not to look at them, not wanting to see the betrayal, the shock on their faces as she hurled jinx after spell at Riddle’s floating form. Trey and Cater hovered within peripheral range, looking confused and grim; Crowley had given her a long look before herding the students from the destroyed maze.

But Riddle was strong. A prodigy—even without the use of his Unique Magic, which could not affect her, conjuring fire and water were well within his arsenal.

Yuu ducked and rolled under a stream of fire. “Aguamenti!” she hissed, blasting water in its direction to prevent a burn. A cloud of steam obscured the air around her which she Banished with a slash of her wand.

The steam cleared, revealing Riddle—and a huge monstrous cloud of ink forming the body of the Queen of Hearts, towering behind him like a puppeteer. She’d seen the figure in her dreams; now it was larger than life, outsizing Riddle by more than four times, dripping with ink.

Yuu gasped. “What is that!?”

“We saw the same phial of ink for a head back in the Mines on Mount Dwarf!” Ace shouted over. Indeed, in place of where a head would be was a glass heart filled with the same black ink dripping everywhere, screwed tight with a stopper in the form of a crown. The huge beast behind Riddle ripped a bush out of the ground and hurled it at her.

Arresto momentum!” Yuu shouted, slowing it down, and whipped her wand to the side. “Mobiliarbus!

The bush soared over the maze harmlessly, eliciting shouts of shock from her friends. Yuu shouted over at Riddle, “Dorm Head! What’s that behind you!?”

“I’m right,” he was growling, “I’m right! Don’t get in my way! I have to be right!”

The Queen behind him raised its inky arm.

Yuu aimed at it and snapped out, “Expulso!”

For the first time in their fruitless duel, she saw the ink disappear; the Queen staggered backwards, its ink arm tearing in a splatter, and Riddle sank a few inches towards the ground.

“Aim for the puppeteer,” Yuu muttered, mind whirring, “got it. Bombarda!

“Oi, transfer!” Trey shouted, jogging up to her, “What are you doing!?”

“I think getting rid of that thing behind him will get rid of the ink or whatever!” Yuu shouted back grimly. “Ace and Deuce got rid of one of these things the first day of school.”

“But—!”

“You just watch me,” Yuu said roughly, “I’m going to finish this. Protego!

The whirlwind aimed for Trey bounced against the shield she’d erected around him just in time.

“Transfer,” Cater shouted, “You can’t do this by yourself.”

Yuu laughed. “Watch me! Immobulus! Bombarda Maxima!

“Holy shit!” he gasped as the Queen reeled backwards, an explosion rocking its shoulder, “That’s the most destructive magic I’ve…wait a second, why can you—!”

“Stop getting in my way!” Riddle screamed. “Why do you have to keep getting in my way!?”

“Because no one else is helping you!” Yuu shouted back. “Incendio! I’m not the best Duellist, but I said I’d save you. So just let yourself be saved, starting with that ink queen. Scourgify!

“I don’t need you to save me!” Riddle’s voice cracked. “I’m correct! It’s you who’s wrong! You don’t know anything about what I’ve been through!”

Panting, Yuu barely put a shield up in time to absorb a bolt of lightning. “That’s right. I don’t know you! I have no idea what it’s like to have a parent that controls your every movement. I’ve never had anyone care about me like that!” she shouted back.

“Transfer,” Trey whispered.

“What do you know!” Riddle screamed.

“Nothing!” she shouted back. “Because no one’s ever put expectations on me. No one’s cared enough to give me rules. Unlike you, I was abandoned the second I was born! I’m lucky because I’m freer than you are. That’s why I’m trying to tell you that you’re only hurting yourself!”

“…I can’t stop now.” Riddle looked at her with his empty red eyes. “Otherwise…why have I…what have I been living for…”

Trey sucked in a breath.

“I can’t tell you what to live for,” Yuu told him, “But I can tell you that your mother was wrong and that you were wrong.”

“I—!”

“Which is fine!” she shouted. Riddle stopped in surprise. “Everyone is wrong sometimes. What is not fine is you desperately repeating the things she forced you to learn because you don’t know anything else! I won’t let you suffer in the dark anymore. I won’t let you tie yourself to these chains anymore! Even if it means I have to fight you to do it! Diffindo! Reducto!

A great crack formed in the vial of the Queen’s head.

“Leave me alone!” Riddle cried, clutching his head desperately. “I don’t want your help!”

“I don’t care!” she yelled back. “I can’t take that look on your face anymore. I’m doing this for my own selfishness, so I don’t need your permission! Avis!

A great cluster of ravens burst from the tip of her wand. She heard Grim and Ace yelling something, but Yuu concentrated on the Queen’s deteriorating body and shouted, “Oppugno! Verdillious! Diffindo!

“Stop it!” Riddle shouted at her. “Don’t come close to me!”

The Queen behind him lifted its hands as he lifted his. His next spell was too fast and hit her just left of her heart, sending her flying backwards into the ground with a rush of breath.

Yuu cried out in pain, but struggled to her knees immediately after. “Diffindo maxima!”

The Queen’s bodice exploded into a splatter of ink.

Riddle swayed and touched the ground. “I’m not wrong,” he muttered deliriously, lifting his Pen again, “not wrong, Mother, not wrong—”

“Oi, Yuu!”

She rolled out of the way of another hurled rosebush. Yuu struggled to her feet just in time to take a direct hit to the stomach.

Yuu!

Lights popped in her vision as she went airborne, retching. Yuu clutched her head and braced for impact with the ground.

It never came. Two sets of arms caught her roughly, steadying her upright; when she squinted dizzily, unable to open her watering eyes completely, Ace and Deuce were peering concernedly into her face.

“Are you okay!?” Deuce shouted. “I told you to stop taking hits for people!”

“You idiot. You absolute idiot. You had to get involved. I told you to stop being so disgustingly self-sacrificing you absolute idiot,” Ace spat out.

Yuu whipped her wand past his head. “Petrificius totalus! Stupefy!” she gasped out.

“Henchman!” Grim leapt onto her shoulder. “Leave it to me. Funaa!

Following her Stunner was a cloud of blue fire. The great hulking queen reared back to avoid it, giving them a brief respite.

Deuce sighed. “I guess we don’t have a choice.”

“Can’t let Yuu do all the work, can we,” Ace turned and rolled his eyes at her. “You just stay there like the injured idiot you are and let us finish it off.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said weakly, “I said I’d save him. Stand down.”

“You don’t be ridiculous,” Grim snapped in unusual anger, “you’re about to pass out.”

“No I’m not. I have to see this to the end. Otherwise I won’t know if the Darkness disappears, will I?” Yuu struggled a few steps past Ace and Deuce. “’Cause I said…I’d…”

The colour seemed to be fading out of the world. Yuu wondered absently why everything was spinning. Still, she was close, the Queen was damaged, and there were great cracks forming in the phial that held the ink.

Yuu levelled her wand at the dripping ink behind Riddle. “It’s okay,” she said slowly, “I’ve handled worse. Confringo!

Ink splattered everywhere as the Queen exploded into shards of glass and liquid. Riddle hit the ground; Yuu staggered over to him but tripped and fell before she could reach his prone form.

“Mother,” Riddle gasped, his dark costume ripped and torn. Yet the dark pattern had faded from his face.

“You should become a bit more independent from your controlling parents,” Yuu told him deliriously, peering down to his wonderfully grey eyes, “otherwise you’ll explode from the stress. Again.”

“Why…?” he stared up at her starkly.

Yuu managed a shaky smile, wondering why there were three of him. “I told you…I’d save you, didn’t I?”

Crowley was murmuring something. His distinctive clear voice was lowered in sobriety.

Yuu regained awareness slowly as his voice seeped into her hearing. She had been dreaming about a boy who had begged for a strawberry tart for his birthday. About a mother who dismissed every opinion the boy might have had for himself. About the boy crawling out of a window to play with two other boys, and then coming home to the mother tapping her heel on the ground…

For the first time in her life, Yuu was rather grateful for her absent parents.

—Riddle. Was he all right?

She jerked upright with a start and almost tumbled out of Crowley’s arms.

“My word!” He adjusted his grip on her, voice rising in comical surprise. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”

“Sorry.” Yuu brushed his words off impatiently. “Sir, where’s the Dorm Head? Is he still trapped by the Darkness? How long was I out? Is Grim and Ace and Deuce—”

“Slow down, dear,” Crowley peered down into her face and narrowed his golden eyes in a smile. “You’re an injured party, you know. More injured than he is.”

“So he’s still trapped by the ink!?” Yuu tried to struggle upright and hissed with pain. “Sir, please put me down, I have to…”

“Absolutely not!” Crowley snapped. “You’re injured! We are going to the infirmary.”

“But—”

“—Where Mister Rosehearts is recovering, if you would let me finish,” Crowley sighed. “My word, youngsters these days are so impatient.”

“Oh…” Yuu let herself fall backwards with a sigh of relief. “…Wait, Headmaster, you can put me down now.”

“Nonsense. Could you walk if I put you down now?” Crowley made no noise when he walked, so that it felt more like he was gliding across the ground. Come to think of it, this man always moved quietly. When he descended into the fields during Flight classes, when he appeared in the library, when he climbed in from her window—Crowley never created sound.

She should have found it suspicious—right now, it was just reassuring.

Yuu muttered something about being heavy and princess carries being embarrassing, but she was dizzy enough to rest her head against his shoulder obediently. “How long was I out?”

“No more than half an hour. We would have taken you to the infirmary earlier, but it was of the essence to get Mister Rosehearts examined right away for any aftereffects of the Overblot. I do apologize.”

“I need to know what that is,” she muttered, “do you have a book on it?”

“All in good time, dear.”

Yuu made a face and looked around them. They were in the second-floor exterior hallway that was exposed to the outside coliseum-style; the sky was starting to glow magenta with the late afternoon air. “Everyone else was all right, right?”

You were the most damaged of all of them,” Crowley sniffed. “Mister Clover even said that you were the one who almost single-handedly returned Mister Rosehearts back to sanity. Worry about yourself a little, shall we?”

“I’m fine,” she shrugged. “Or I will be. I don’t think I broke anything.”

“…We will probably need to have a conversation,” Crowley sighed, “about your inclination to put yourself in the road of danger.”

Yuu tilted her head up to view the slim chin poking out from under his mask. “Headmaster, aren’t you going to ask me about something else?”

“Hmm?”

“Something more important?” she hinted. “Like how I was able to stop him in the first place?”

“All in good time,” Crowley didn’t seem very bothered. “Right now, I am more concerned about your stunning lack of self-care. You know your BMI is alarmingly low.”

“You can measure my BMI just by lifting me?!” spluttered Yuu. But she couldn’t distract herself from her dream. “…Headmaster, is he going to be okay?”

“Mister Rosehearts?”

“…Where I come from,” she said quietly, “Dark Magic is…really bad for people.”

“Ah…” Crowley paused. “I wouldn’t be too worried. Mister Rosehearts has several people around him that will probably check that danger.”

That was true. Yuu sighed and pressed her nose into Crowley’s nice-smelling vest. “Phew.”

“I told you that this school was full of the starving,” Crowley’s movement slowed. “Do you remember?”

“Hmm? Yeah, I guess.”

“Be careful about feeding beasts without thinking.” He said with gravity. “Not unless you’re prepared to take responsibility for owning them.”

“Huh?” Yuu emitted. “I think you lost me on this metaphor, Headmaster.” Crowley loved to use the ‘beast-taming’ metaphor, but she never really understood what he meant. Especially since he refused to explain.

“We’re here,” he ignored her, pausing in front of the infirmary door, which had been left open.

No one noticed them when they entered—Yuu supposed that if there was one thing Crowley was good at, it was entering and leaving silently. Sometimes he would sit in on their history classes and surprise-quiz them, scaring half the students out of their seats.

Riddle sat on one of the infirmary beds with the curtains drawn back to reveal his small figure. Ace and Deuce were sitting on stools by his bedside, Grim lying rather comically over Ace’s head. By Riddle’s other side sat Trey, who had taken off his trilby to expose his dark green hair tousled into an even messier state than it normally was. They were conversing in low voices. When Riddle turned to Trey, she saw the remnants of tear tracks on his face over the reddish-purple bruise on his left cheek.

Ace had landed a solid punch, Yuu winced with memory.

“It looks like no complications were found in the Mister Rosehearts’ check-up,” Crowley said without warning. Yuu stifled a laugh as all five residents jumped a little. “Good, good.”

He set Yuu on the hospital bed beside Riddle’s in a surprisingly gentle manner, even taking the time to tuck her in under the sheets. Yuu tried to hide her wince—that thing had gotten her pretty hard in the shoulder and stomach. Again. Why did she get injured in the same places all the time?

“Yuu!” Grim dove at her face without a pause. Yuu yelped. “You’re alive!”

“Alive?” she peeled him off gently from around her cheeks and squeezed him to her. “It was just a couple of hits.”

“You flew across the garden like—” Ace slammed his hands on the side of her bed, crowding into her personal space, “—an idiot!”

“You sure like calling me an idiot,” Yuu deadpanned, meeting him nose to nose.

“Seriously, stop doing that,” Deuce rubbed his head tiredly, sitting at the foot of her bed, “it’s bad for my heart.”

Grim sniffed, looking like he might cry. “It was scary.”

“Sorry,” Yuu said, a little touched. “You guys worried about me?”

“Just ‘cause you’re not used to your parents caring about you or whatever doesn’t mean we won’t,” Ace said frankly.

Yuu winced. “Uh, can we forget about that please? It’s not really important.”

“Yuu, I never knew you had such a home life,” Deuce grabbed her hand. “Don’t worry, I—”

“Let’s just forget about it,” she sing-songed, swinging his hand back and forth, “I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine, wait. Wait, Dorm Head! Is Dorm Head fine?”

“I am,” Riddle called from the next bed over. “Thanks to you, it seems.”

Yuu perked up and struggled out from under the sheets despite her friends’ protests, stumbling over to his bedside and taking Ace’s seat. “Rosehearts-senpai! You’re okay!”

“Oi, stop moving around when you’re hurt!” Deuce started.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she waved him off.

Riddle looked a world apart from that desperately screaming boy in the garden. Dressed neatly in a hospital gown with his hair straightened, he was back to the dignified, delicate Dorm Head with the huge grey eyes. More importantly, the ink was gone—the darkness in his gaze had cleared.

When she took the vacated seat by him eagerly, he gave her a rather curious stare. “I seem to have caused you quite a bit of trouble.”

“Oh, who cares about that,” Yuu waved it off impatiently. “I need to apologise to you.”

“Apologise?” Riddle repeated, blinking. “I can find numerous times where I should have apologised to you, Directing Student, not the opposite.”

“Are you kidding me? I yelled all sorts of things at you earlier,” Yuu winced, “and a while ago I even called you a fool when you obviously aren’t one. So, I’m sorry.”

She put her head down. Yuu still wasn’t sure exactly ‘where’ this world corresponded to, but they spoke Japanese here, so she would apologise the Japanese way.

“…Lift your head,” Riddle’s voice was gentler than expected.

Yuu looked up at him. He was contemplating her with a stability in those grey eyes that had not existed before. Riddle smiled at her and said, “You were right. I was a fool.”

Yuu stared. Who was this person?

“Trey told me what the four of you were talking about the other day,” Riddle elaborated, adjusting himself against the pillows. “Honestly, when I look back at my actions, you’re absolutely correct. To lose control of myself in such an undignified manner is nothing more than the work of a fool. You made me notice that, Directing Student—no, Yuu.”

“Dorm Head,” Yuu said, moved. “I always knew you were a good person.”

“Good person!?” yelped Ace from behind her.

“Seriously!?” Grim muttered from her shoulder.

Riddle wrinkled his brow at them, but didn’t protest. Yuu thought this might have been the greatest mark of growth she’d seen from someone—anyone—yet. Crowley had been right.

Riddle would be fine.

“I’d been thinking the whole time,” Yuu explained. “After listening to your story from Trey-senpai and watching you suffer, I couldn’t get over why you let yourself be crushed under that rock for seventeen years. If it was me, I couldn’t have taken it.”

“Ah,” Riddle’s eyes went dark with remembered pain. “You mistake me, Yuu. I was merely too cowardly to stand up against Mother.”

Yuu remembered the little boy asking for the tart. “That’s not it,” she said strongly. “You had the ability to break away, and it isn’t just because you were too afraid to disobey her. Sure, there was the whole Skinner’s box thing of reward-punishment that she was forcing you into, but you’re too intelligent to be brainwashed that easily.”

“You sure have a high opinion of me.” Riddle raised both brows at her.

“That’s why you’re a good person,” Yuu told him. “You willingly did it. You willingly stayed in that house, in that little room with the small window overlooking the garden where the others played, all because you didn’t want to hurt your mother. I couldn’t have done that.”

“How did you—!?” his grey eyes widened.

“I think that’s why you’ve remained Dorm Head for so long,” she smiled at him. “It’s not like people are stupid. They can probably tell that you’re amazing, just a little too strict. So don’t get too down about yourself.”

Riddle blinked at her in amazement for several moments before the surprised look broke down into an incredulous laugh. “This new Directing Student really is something.”

Yuu nearly jumped as he reached out and brushed her mussed hair out of her face with an unexpectedly large and calloused hand. “Rosehearts-senpai?”

“You’re not angry at me for collaring your friends?” he asked her.

“I was only ever angry that you were hurting yourself,” Yuu responded honestly, letting him straighten her hair for her. “It was the first time I got angry, too. I was wondering why I was so uncomfortable.”

“Even your anger is for others, huh? For me,” Riddle’s eyes crinkled in a genuine smile. “Yuu. If I end up on the wrong path again, will you become angry for me again?”

What a weird question. She nodded. “Of course I will. Though you have a bunch of people who are here to stop that from happening.”

“I’ll be depending on you to be one of those people,” he said expectantly.

Riddle really was kind of arrogant. Perhaps it came from his upbringing or maybe it was just in his personality; either way, Yuu rolled her eyes and smiled an affirmative. “Yes, Dorm Head.”

“That Glasses...Trey already spoils him enough,” grumbled Grim, “he doesn’t need you chasing after him all the time either.”

“I apologised for that already,” Trey spoke up for the first time since she’d entered the room. He had been watching them with a peaceful look in his eyes. “I also told Riddle that what he was doing was wrong.”

“You just told him not to think about anything and to cry it out!” Ace protested, “like a mom!”

“Here’s where you say like a dad or brother, Ace,” Trey rolled his eyes.

Yuu wondered briefly what they had been talking about while she was out. It looked like Trey had leapt off that tightrope he’d been balancing on; even with the suit still on he looked as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

Trey caught her eye and turned to her with a smile across the hospital bed. “Allow me to thank you as well, Transfer. Riddle’s life would have been in danger if you hadn’t stepped in to save him. You did what I couldn’t do and broke him out of his own collar.”

“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Yuu smiled back at him, “and it was you who supported Dorm Head all of these years, or he would’ve snapped long ago.”

“Yuu is right.” Riddle nodded to his friend gratefully. “Trey, you and Che’nya were my only respite.”

“Riddle…” Trey smiled at his friend. “I can finally rest easy.”

“I’m glad you two are okay now.” Yuu mumbled in relief.

“Okay?” Riddle repeated.

“Never mind,” Trey told him. He turned back to her and lifted a green brow. “So I’ll be the one to step on the elephant in the room then. Directing Student. What was that stuff you did back in the Rose Maze? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“…Right,” Yuu sighed. She glanced around—during their conversations, Crowley had disappeared as silently as he’d carried her in. “Um, what about Cater-senpai? Where is he?”

“He’s directing the clean-up of the garden,” Riddle said nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t been the one to uproot most of it. “Don’t worry about him, Yuu. We’ll tell him about it later.”

“Right…but shouldn’t we help him?” she hinted. They’d caused quite a bit of damage to the Rose Maze.

“Injured people should stay in the infirmary,” Deuce grumbled, sliding in on the seat to her left. “Just tell us, already, Yuu. I don’t know what you’re worried about, but we’re not mad at you.”

“It was pretty awesome, the way you waved that stick and went bang! And that big thing behind the Dorm Head exploded,” Grim waved a paw excitedly.

“Don’t think you can keep pretending nothing happened at this point,” Ace leaned his weight on her from behind her, lacing his arms around her shoulders in a threatening manner. “Well? Spill.”

Yuu looked around at the five staring at her expectantly and sighed. “It’s a long story.”

Chapter Text

The five others in the infirmary forced her to lie back down and drink some water before she told them her story. Yuu, who was starting to feel the pain swell in her shoulder, didn’t protest too much. She’d taken a harder hit than she expected in the Rose Maze.

Yuu started with the letter that had changed her life and skimmed briefly over what magic meant in Wizarding Britain. How she’d been completely unexposed to magic before then and how her father had been a half-blood wizard who had kept the existence of magic from his wife and child until she’d been selected as an admittee to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. How Hogwarts was one of the most renowned magic schools in the league of magical training schools in her world.

“Remind you of something?” Ace mumbled over to Deuce.

“Sounds exactly like NRC,” Deuce mumbled back.

Yuu pulled her yew wand from her ruined sleeve and showed them the ten-plus inches of pale wood. She explained that her magic had manifested in her life in small accidents until she turned eleven and rode the Hogwarts Express to school. Yuu also mentioned briefly that she was entering her fifth year during which she would take her Ordinary Wizarding Levels to be admitted as a trained wizard (she nearly said witch), although instead of going to the station she’d woken up in a coffin here.

“Then you can do your magic, just not our magic. How come the Mirror didn’t recognise you?” Ace asked shrewdly.

“Probably because I’m not from this world?” she shrugged. “That Mirror’s a magical artifact, right? It’s made with the magic of this world, so since I’m a foreign existence, it would be strange if it did recognise me. I think that despite some similarities, our magic and your magic are completely separate entities. Plus, my magic tends to destroy technology without discrimination.”

“Seriously!?” Deuce gaped. “What would you do without electric lighting? Even magic stone powered electric lights are sort of both!”

Lumos,” Yuu murmured; her wand glowed brightly at the tip. “This plus conjuring fire pretty much solves the problem of light.”

“That would do it,” Trey nodded. He reached for his pocket. “By the way, my phone is working fine. Seems like our technology is safe. Maybe it has to do with being powered by magic stones?”

“Right, sorry. I forgot.” Yuu extinguished her wand. “To be honest, I haven’t touched a phone for so long I forgot that most people used one nowadays. But magic stone-powered electricity doesn’t seem to be affected by my magic either way.”

Trey put his phone away and prompted her, “Why did you keep your magic a secret when the mirror said you were magic-less?”

“Come to think of it,” Riddle said thoughtfully. “I was watching when you were shoved in front of the mirror by the Headmaster, but you were calm throughout the entire ordeal.”

“Um, there is a reason,” she started.

“That’s what I was waiting to hear,” Grim said from her uninjured shoulder. He had been listening patiently enough, but was starting to fidget.

“You’re pretty secretive,” Ace grumbled, leaning back. “As your friend, you should tell me everything about you! Height! Weight! Secrets!”

“And have you blackmail me for the rest of my life?” Yuu raised one brow.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he looked playfully affronted.

“Yes he would,” Deuce rolled his eyes. “Yuu, we’re not angry at you for hiding things from us. In fact, I’m personally kind of relieved.”

“Relieved?” Yuu repeated confusedly. She had been expecting anger and cold glances, maybe even a severance of their friendship.

“That you have self-preservation instincts.” Deuce smiled that unexpectedly gentle smile at her, warmth darkening his teal-green eyes. “NRC is a school full of…”

“Psychos?” Ace suggested.

“That’s just you.” Deuce rolled his eyes.

“Not just me!” Ace protested, “and I’m not exactly a psycho anyway.”

“Don’t you know?” Riddle questioned from the foot of the bed, where he was perched rather regally against the footboard. He ignored Ace and Deuce soundly. “Just how little were you told after you appeared in this school?”

“Basically…nothing. I woke up by falling out of a coffin, ran away from Grim who was shooting fireballs at me, got dragged back by the Headmaster and…couldn’t get back,” Yuu shrugged.

Riddle raised both eyebrows. “That’s it?”

“You must’ve been so confused,” commented Trey.

“So you weren’t even notified you were accepted?” Deuce frowned.

“Remember, I didn’t even know this entire planet existed, let alone that I got wrapped up in this mess,” Yuu sighed. “The Headmaster said that no mistakes had been made in a hundred years, but no matter how you think about it, I’m not supposed to be here.”

“And yet,” Trey frowned, “you didn’t make a fuss or demand to be sent back.”

“Terrible things happen to wizards who mess with time-space,” Yuu told him solemnly, “so it was best to figure out everything by myself and disappear quietly. But I’m not a good honest person, so forgive me if I put my secrets in first place.”

Ace released a low whistle and leaned back.

“You’re pretty resilient, huh?” Trey looked visibly impressed.

“I’m just used to going with the flow. I didn’t expect to be here for long,” Yuu shook her head, “so it didn’t really matter to me what happened. But there really is not much about the Mirror in the library. Let alone magical travel.”

The third year pushed his glasses up thoughtfully, looking almost ridiculously like Professor Potter. “Well…then let me give you some advice, Transfer. You should at least know that NRC is a good school, but it’s not a good school.”

“What Trey means,” Riddle elaborated, “is that the character of the students attending this school can be rather…”

“Messed up?” Grim piped up.

“…Uncultured,” Riddle finished with a sigh.

“I’ve heard Ace and Deuce mention it before,” Yuu blinked.

“It’s part of the…ah…requirements for admittance,” Trey explained, smiling awkwardly. “The Mirror chooses based on the amount of magic power someone has, but also what they’re like.”

“There are other schools in Twisted Wonderland too,” Deuce said, “that choose on magic and, uh…good character.”

So everyone here was what a Gryffindor would call a ‘sneaky, slimy Slytherin’? Yuu blinked several times in surprise. “That’s not why I didn’t tell anyone about my magic, but I’m happy I didn’t now.”

“It’s not?” Ace squinted at her. “You’re pretty quick on the uptake, so I thought you’d noticed we were all off somehow.”

Deuce shook his head. “I don’t think Yuu really cares about whether someone’s ‘off’ or not. Even if he did notice, he’d probably just say ‘oh’ and forget about it.”

“That’s true,” Ace agreed, to her surprise. “I mean it’s exactly how he reacted to me.”

You really are a sociopath,” Grim imitated her. “…And that was it.”

“Hey, even if I didn’t get chosen by the mirror, what’s to say I’m not off either?” Yuu shot back. “I might have been chosen just on account of my terrible character.”

Everyone burst into snickers. Even Riddle was laughing.

“What!?” she spluttered, swatting at a giggling Grim, “I wasn’t joking!”

“I can’t breathe,” Ace gasped.

Deuce tried, “What he means to say is…pfft!”

“Ah, transfer,” Trey lifted his glasses to wipe at his eyes. “You really are interesting.”

Riddle recovered first. “Yuu,” he told her warmly, “you are not a Night Raven College student. An NRC student would not have saved my life.”

Yuu stared at him.

“You should be careful,” Trey suggested, regaining control of his laughter. “That, ah, genuineness of yours is unseen in this school. If you’re not careful, you’ll get swallowed up or worse.”

“Swallowed…?”

“Can we get back to the reason you didn’t tell us anything?” Ace nudged her impatiently. “What, you’re not allowed to talk about magic or something?”

“Got it in one,” Yuu nodded. Ace really was intelligent. She explained quickly what the Statute of Secrecy meant to the Ministry of Magic and how for years, wizards and witches had secluded themselves from the muggles completely. How important it was that the law was not broken, and consequently, how there was a Trace in her wand, which she didn’t know the implications of in a world not her own.

“You broke the most important law of your world for me!?” Riddle spluttered, lunging forwards and taking a hold of her uninjured shoulder. Grim tipped onto the sheets with a yelp.

Yuu bit off the beginning of her next sentence in surprise. “Eh? Huh?”

“Damn,” Ace whistled, leaning back with a shake of his head, “you really are a stupidly nice guy.”

“It was sort of a calculated gamble,” Yuu protested, leaning back as Riddle got in her face aggressively. This guy really was all about the rules after all. “I mean, the Ministry hasn’t come after me so I’m pretty sure they can’t reach me here.”

“You’re taught to obey that rule since you learnt about your magic and you broke it for me!?” Riddle ignored her, grey eyes wide.

“I just considered you more important than some law,” Yuu said helplessly, “my body just moved on its own, okay? I’d do it again for you even if I could rethink my choice.”

“That’s foolish!”

“No it’s not,” Yuu looked him in the eye earnestly. “Your life was worth it.”

Riddle went stock still. So did everyone else.

Grim was the first one to move. “Yuu,” he said grumpily, climbing in her lap, “I finally get what Crowley said about being a tamer now. You’re my partner, got it? Mine!”

“Huh?” Yuu emitted dumbly.

“One hell of a passionate confession that was,” Ace muttered, looking somewhat pink.

“Damn, is this what they call an animal tamer?” Deuce seemed a little impressed.

“It’s a little different,” Trey said wryly, “when the person in question has no idea what effect they have on people.”

Riddle was slowly turning red. Yuu started getting nervous. Was he angry at her again?

Grim sucked in a breath and swatted her head. “Stop going around training everyone else!”

CHAPTER SIX | Castles of Sand and Shell.

In the end, Yuu made her friends promise not to tell anyone about her magic. She’d let loose spectacularly with the duel, but luckily, all other students had been evacuated and according to Trey, no one had noticed her ‘gift’.

Riddle was, if nothing else, responsible—he promised her immediately that her secret would not be revealed from him nor any of his dorm-mates. Trey nodded along, and Ace and Deuce grumbled a bit before they relented.

“You could just show everyone and they’d stop messing with you,” Grim suggested.

“No,” she shook her head firmly. “So I broke the law once, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to walk around firing Stunners left and right because someone scribbled on my desk.”

“If you say so,” Grim grumbled doubtfully. “I’d blast ‘em though.”

“You should know by now how careful this kid is,” Ace rolled his eyes. “…Though it probably is the right decision. Some of the upperclassmen in this school are frickin’ scary even with Yuu’s ’splodey magic.”

“Yuu prefers to be a hidden tiger, crouching flamingo,” Deuce nodded proudly. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Crouching what?”

“What, you hard of hearing?”

“Huh? You hard of thinking?”

“You’re going to trust us to hold your secret?” Trey asked her as Ace and Deuce bickered.

“Yes,” she said solemnly.

“Are you sure?”

“…It was probably going to leak eventually,” she sighed. “That it’s you, senpai, who knows is much better than some random student here. Will you keep my secret?”

If not—Yuu would have to figure out another plan. She didn’t know the Fidelius Charm yet on account of its complexity, but maybe with enough experimentation…

“Hmm,” Trey let it go with a smile, to her relief. “Well…you did save Riddle. Suppose we should return the favour somehow.”

Eventually, the Heartslabyul students cleared out of the infirmary. They could probably tell she was in pain. Even if Yuu didn’t believe everyone here was psychotic, she had discovered that everyone here had the quality to be sorted into Slytherin. Their social abilities and observation—well, maybe barring Deuce—was something to be feared.

Yuu smiled rather shamefully at herself. She’d been trying to hide how much pain she was in, but none of them seemed fooled. She had to work on that.

After peeling a struggling Grim from her lap—“Funaaa! I’m not leaving my henchman!”—and telling her they’d be back in the morning, Ace ruffled her hair with a sigh and told her to hurry up and get better so he could copy her homework.

Yuu dozed for a while as the sun fell low in the sky.

She had forgotten she was alone.

Since she had arrived in this world, Yuu had not slept by herself—at the very least, she’d had Grim to clutch to her stomach when she’d woken at night. The past week, she’d also had Ace and Deuce on either side of her (the latter often ending upside down) which had allowed her to experience an unprecedented period of sound sleep. Now, none of them were present.

Yuu had always felt that humans were closest to death when they became aware of sleep. In that period between wakefulness and nothing, they had to accept and make peace with the possibility that they would never awake again—however subconsciously.

Perhaps that’s why she had developed an unhealthy attachment to be with someone during that most vulnerable time.

No one wanted to die alone.

“—Yuu-kun!”

She gasped, snapping back into awareness. Yuu came face to face with Crowley’s mask and those gold, gold eyes and she reached forward and hung on to him. Crowley might not have been human, might not be ‘nice’, might have been the least trustworthy person she knew. But he was warm and he was right here and she liked him a lot more than she should have.

Contrary to her expectations, Crowley didn’t burst into theatrics about how he was so nice to comfort a student. Instead, he sat down at her bedside and gathered her bodily over to him without a word.

Ah, Yuu thought hazily, nose in his shirt.

Is this what a parent’s hold feels like?

“Have you calmed down a little?” Crowley said quietly a moment later.

“Yeah,” Yuu mumbled back sleepily. “Thanks.”

“Yuu-kun,” Crowley said placidly, as if discussing the weather, “you are a girl, aren’t you?”

She almost nodded, lulled by the surrounding warmth and her own relieved drowsiness. Yuu repeated the words in her head instead and fought to maintain a steady breathing pattern.

“…Headmaster,” she said after a moment, wide awake, “you’re kind of a jerk.”

The feathers on Crowley’s mantle shook with his silent laughter. “My dear, did it take you this long to figure that out?”

“Why did you have to pick that exact moment to say it?” Yuu sighed and pulled herself back onto the infirmary bed, casting a brief glance around. The windows overlooking the second floor were royal blue with dusk and the first glimmer of stars; within the room, soft yellow light glowed from the candelabras at her bedside.

Crowley crossed his leg over the other, looking very much a villain from a 1950s musical, shadows painting him most beautifully in the evening candlelight. “Don’t you think that choosing the perfect moment is important?”

“All right.” Yuu shrugged and leaned back against the headboard and window behind her, the cold glass of late September night against her head. She looked up at him through her lashes, feeling the throb of pain bite her shoulder as she settled down. “You know the answer, sir.”

“I want to hear it from you personally,” Crowley told her with his usual untrustworthy smile curving his darkly painted mouth.

“And what will you do then? Fling me out?” Yuu picked idly at her nails. “Tell me that you can’t help me find a way home after all? Convict me of the crime of falsifying my identity?”

After a beat of silence, she glanced up; Crowley was peering at her with that complete drainage of emotion from his face. When he perched on her bed with the unnatural stillness he sometimes displayed, Yuu could not escape the presentiment that she was looking at something far greater than a human.

Yuu stared it back in the eye.

Crowley tilted his head back and laughed. “Oh, Yuu-kun. You are indeed not from this world!” he exclaimed. “There is so much you don’t know. How wonderful and terrible it is to have you before me, my dear.”

“Why?” she asked flatly.

Why? Such an obvious question, yet I suppose that to you, it is truly a mystery.” Crowley’s smile spread wide and he spread his hands as if holding all of Twisted Wonderland behind him. “The Alice who fell down the rabbit hole; the heroine who finds herself in a different world. How truly marvellous—how beautifully the stage has been set. Don’t you think so as well, Yuu-kun?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Yuu squinted, “but you don’t seem to be very angry.”

“I’m impressed you managed to hide your gender from me for close to a month.” Crowley said in high spirits. “I’ll admit I didn’t even think of doubting it, but your cool disinterest cemented your disguise perfectly.”

“Well, that would be because I wasn’t trying to hide anything until a week ago when the Heartslabyul dorm students explained to me that this was a boy’s school,” Yuu said pointedly, “which you didn’t tell me.”

“But because of your presence, things went quite well, didn’t they?” Crowley asked cheerfully. “Overblotting is quite rare in this world, so I’ll admit I was worried about our future, yet thanks to you we managed to make it through intact.”

“Things went well for you, maybe,” she muttered. Yuu sighed. “Are you not going to ask me about my magic?”

“I heard it all earlier,” he dismissed her, “It’s common to have otherworldly magic if you come from another world.”

“Common?!” Yuu spluttered. “Heard earlier…you were listening in?”

“But it seems like no one else has discovered your gender except for Professor Crewel. Very good.”

“Wait, what!?” there was too much information rushing in at once. Yuu winced as her movement strained at her bruise and collapsed back with a hiss. “…So you’re not going to kick me out?”

“Now, why on earth did you think would I do that?” Crowley blinked his luminous eyes at her in complete confusion. “I wasn’t lying when I said you had the qualities of a tamer I haven’t seen before.”

“You’re saying I’m useful to you,” she raised a brow. “You want me around?”

“Think about it for a moment,” Crowley looked at her as if she were dumb. “You must be aware, but in these four weeks, you have forged strong bonds with several Heartslabyul students. Bonds strong enough to stop an Overblot in its tracks—though you may not understand how difficult that is. These NRC students do not cooperate easily…but they worked together with unprecedented willingness today. And Mister Grim’s attachment to you is far beyond that of a mere partner, is it not? On top of that, your mysterious magic is powerful enough to physically defend against a phenomenon that we still have not researched.”

“When you say it like that, it sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is,” Yuu mentioned weakly.

“It’s the truth. Yuu-kun, you have made yourself far too useful for me to let you go this easily,” he told her matter-of-factly. “The role of heroine for this stage cannot be played by anyone besides you anymore. And kicking you out is out of the question.”

“Someone from another world is more dangerous than beneficial,” Yuu warned him. “It’s not a good idea to…”

“You still don’t understand,” Crowley sighed theatrically. “My dear girl. It’s got nothing to do with you being from another world. Nothing to do with your magic. It’s you that has changed this world, and you would do well to remember that.”

There was a heavy weight behind his words that pressed back another protest she might have made. Yuu had been ready to deny it. She was not special. Not her, who had been ignored, shunned, excluded since the day she was born. But Crowley’s glowing yellow eyes spoke of an uncountable knowledge that shut her up quickly. He was not about to change his mind.

Had she been in a hurry to return home, Yuu would have argued harder. Be that as it was, she should argue harder—Yuu knew better than everyone else that she shouldn’t be here, that she was destroying order and bringing about calamity just by continuing to exist.

“Then, are you still going to help me find a way back to my world?” Yuu narrowed her eyes at him. “That was the condition that we agreed on back in the beginning.”

“Of course, of course! I am a nice person.” Crowley nodded emphatically. Too emphatically.

“You’ll have to forgive me if I say that it doesn’t look like your kindness has resulted in anything important,” Yuu deadpanned.

“More importantly!”

“Headmaster, there is nothing more important than the issue of returning,” Yuu sighed.

The weariness in her voice paused his flourishing movements. Crowley tilted his head at her, birdlike. “Hmm? Yet I cannot feel a strong desire coming from you to actually leave. You mention it often, but you don’t look enthused. And yet you say it is important?”  

“Doesn’t matter if I desire or don’t desire anything.” Yuu explained. “But I have to go back. Although not as scary as messing with time, travelling across the boundaries of worlds—if these boundaries exist—breaks a ton of laws that govern the universe. You should know this far better than me, Headmaster, that introducing an anomaly as big as me into this world is dangerous. The lives…the order of your Twisted Wonderland’s residents is at stake.”

In her third year, Yuu had been introduced by McGonagall to the Time-Turner, which were technically all smashed during the last Wizarding War but had been recommended to her to experiment creating if she wanted to take extra classes. She immediately declined its use. Messing with time was awful.

Messing with worlds?

Crowley pulled her out of her sinking thoughts with a sigh. “You are truly an intelligent young woman, Yuu-kun. And ever the more perfect for the seat of the Directing Student. It is a stroke of luck that of all the people to have landed here in Night Raven College, you were the one to arrive.”

“Were you even listening to me?” Yuu frowned at him. “It’s fine for you that I’m here, but it might be bad in the future. I should leave. Right now.”

Crowley smiled at her without saying a word.

She deflated with a sigh. “…Okay, so it’s probably way too late to be talking about stuff like messing with the order of things since I’m already wrapped up in this mess. Headmaster, it doesn’t look like you’re going to let me go anytime soon. But I’m not giving up on finding a way back by myself.”

She didn’t know anything about Crowley, not really—not his abilities, his true personality, his own goals. She had no clue if he was truly looking for a way home for her. Just because she thought he was interesting didn’t mean anything.

“You’ll understand in due time,” Crowley’s golden eyes narrowed in delight. “Although I am grateful that you’ve proven to be far more interesting than I first anticipated. Truly a child who carries the future in her eyes, indeed. Of course, I would be delighted if you allowed those animal taming abilities of yours to be exercised for the good of this school.”

“You keep talking about stuff like that,” Yuu’s head was beginning to hurt. Crowley never talked understandably, with all of his metaphors and gesturing. Just what did he mean by ‘animal tamer’, anyway? She hadn’t tamed anything.

Still, what was more important right now was that he’d discovered her gender and was still willing to let her stay. “In any case. Am I correct in assuming that I’m still going to be a student here?”

“…A student?” Crowley blinked slowly. “My dear, you have no need to falsify your gender and continue your schooling. To make up for my ungentlemanly conduct during your arrival, the school can take responsibility for your continued stay.”

“What?” Yuu squinted. “But isn’t it more logical for me to continue the way I am as a student? That way I can access the library easily.”

“What?” He parroted. “You want to continue as a student? In this den of beasts? As a young lady!? There is no way a nice person like me would force you to stay here!”

“I have no idea why you’re freaking out,” Yuu squinted bemusedly as he clutched at his top hat, “but you’re not forcing me to do anything. In the first place, you offered me food, lodging, and education when you could have just flung me out into the forest and be done with it.”

Crowley spluttered. “…What on earth have you been through, child!? The way your mind works is…in the first place, why are you wearing a chest protector? You say you did not purposefully pretend to be male, but when I carried you here…”

“Oh.” Yuu felt the strap of the thick padded vest that cushioned her chest down to her diaphragm. “You felt this, right? This is self-protection. I didn’t intend to be dressing as a boy, but back in Hog…where I used to go to school, I dealt with dangerous magical creatures often.”

“Dangerous magical creatures,” Crowley repeated slowly.

“Right. In addition to being light armour for when I get swatted out of the sky, it was enchanted to be fireproof,” she explained, “since dragons are pretty vicious in the area where my summer internship was held. It’s saved my life a bunch of times and I guess I just…kept wearing it afterwards out of habit.”

“…Dragons,” he muttered. “…No wonder you seemed to used to handling magical familiars like Mister Grim even when you came from a separate world without our magic. And Monsters such as he have a sharp intuition…yet he’s warmed to you so fast…hmm.”

“It’s normal,” Yuu shrugged. “Grim gets lonely easily, like me, so we make a suitable pair.”

“In any case,” Crowley let the remark slide past uncommented, “it is not proper to force a young woman to attend an all-boy’s school, even under disguise. It is natural for us to provide better accommodations for you, so don’t hold back on your part.”

“Why?” Yuu squinted.

“…Why?”

“Just because I’m a girl?” she guessed. “You’ve changed your way of addressing me and suddenly want to improve my lodgings because I’m a girl?”

Crowley crossed his arms. “Naturally,” he nodded. “Even if this is Night Raven College, no one is going to mistreat a lady.”

“Please,” Yuu snorted, unimpressed. “I’d rather you just let me keep going as I am normally. It’s not like I’m planning on being here for long, and removing my student license will affect my chances of getting in the library as well as Grim’s own chances of going to school here.”

“…So you’re saying that you want to continue dressing as a boy to attend this school for the sole purpose of research,” Crowley got out slowly. “…Yuu-kun. I have never met anyone like you.”

“Your weird world here is too nice to women,” Yuu shot back. “And it’s not like it matters whether I’m a girl or a boy. Although I would really like a uniform or a change of clothes or a place where I could buy underwear and stuff.”

Crowley made a strangled noise.

Yuu didn’t notice. “I mean, you find me useful too, so it’d be inconvenient to suddenly remove me from the school, right? But magically cleaning my clothes is wearing them out quick and this whole Overblot thing sort of shredded my sleeve…”

Ooooooh!” The rest of her sentence was cut off when Crowley buried his face in his gloves and started bawling loudly. Yuu jumped, mouth falling open in shock as he blubbered, “How could I force a young girl to…! Without even a change of clothes…and of all places, in that wreck of a shack…”

“You were so eager about it when you thought I was a boy,” she muttered.

“This is too much of a tragedy!” Crowley wailed.

“No it’s not. I just need a few sets of clothing.”

“Of course I’ll provide them,” he sniffed loudly, “on my honour as a Headmaster. As if I could allow a courageous girl sacrificing the knowledge of her own gender to stay in a school full of…! Just thinking about it brings me to tears…”

Yuu refrained from mentioning he didn’t have any honour and leaned back with a sigh. “Well, then I don’t have any special requirements or complaints. Since you don’t seem to be against me continuing schooling here, can I ask you to keep my gender and my magic a secret?”

“As if I would reveal a lady’s secrets!” he looked almost offended. “I was planning to from the beginning. You are quite resilient to not feel any discomfort being the only girl living in a school like this. Shall I move you from the Ramshackle Dorm into the school? I’m sure I could find a…”

Yuu held up a hand. “Please don’t treat me differently now that you know I’m female,” she said firmly.

“…Ah, and yet you live in the Twisted Wonderland.”

“I don’t know what it’s like here. I don’t care what it should be like,” Yuu told him flatly. “I’m not saying it’s bad to be gentlemanly, but I also have a right to decline that treatment. Please.”

“So you’re saying you want to stay in Ramshackle Dorm?” his mouth twisted.

“Yes sir.” She said firmly. “In fact, I would love it if you just completely forgot about my being female and pretend this conversation never occurred.”

Crowley put one gloved hand under his chin and leaned forward, a manic light shining in his golden eyes. “My dear girl, are you not making this too easy for me? You seem to be allowing the situation to move along despite not wanting things to go the way they are going.”

“Because I’m used to things not going my way.”

“Here is where you refuse to comply to the situation. Demand a way home. Reject an answer that doesn’t satisfy you! As twisted as this world is, we are living in a Wonderland. A fairy tale. Haven’t you read the stories? Good always wins in the end, does it not?”

Yuu’s head pounded. “What are you even talking about? You think me seeking my selfish wishes is ‘good’? In the first place, I’m just a kid—I have no idea how to go home. I don’t know what fairy tale you’re talking about, but this is reality for me. I’m not interested in some illogical happy ending that gets served up on a silver platter. In the first place, those things don’t exist.”

“You don’t believe in fairy tales? How sad,” Crowley shook his head grievously, lifting both hands to his shoulders in a shrug. The claw-tipped gloves gleamed in the dim lighting. “Didn’t you think you were dreaming first when you arrived here? There is no logic to dreams.”

“How did you—? Never mind. I don’t want to know. Why are you talking in circles so much?”

“Yuu-kun, you could have your happy ending,” Crowley lowered his voice conspiratorially, smile showing his white teeth. “You could live…happily ever after if you sought it, if you demanded it from me.”

“I don’t care for unrealistic things like that,” Yuu was unimpressed. “And I don’t believe you in the slightest. Why are you talking about endings all of a sudden? It’s one thing if you’re going to send me back home—though I very much doubt I could convince you right now. That’s the best ending for me.”

She had the strange feeling that their conversation was not lining up. As if Crowley was speaking layers deeper than she was understanding. If she were less confused, less injured, less tired…but right now Yuu was kind of irritated and sleepy and really wanted a hug from Grim.

“Look, I don’t understand anything you’re saying, Headmaster,” Yuu rubbed at her eyes. “I might have managed to travel across worlds, but that doesn’t mean reason has abandoned me. Whether I’m living in reality or not, there is nothing fairy-tale about this place.”

“So you think.”

“And even if there was, I don’t care. What’s important is what’s going to happen to me right now. Headmaster, are you going to kick me out or not?”

“No,” he answered her readily.

“Send me back home immediately?”

“No.”

“Are you going to cause me harm?”

“Are you saying I would hurt a lady?” Crowley sounded deeply offended. She was sure it was all false.

Yuu throbbed all over. Her headache grew stronger the more they talked—there was no way she could best this gentlemanly villain in a game of words. She enunciated her words clearly. “Then please let me continue like I had before, sir. Don’t do…anything unnecessary. Whatever you’re thinking. I don’t need a happy ending if it’s only self-satisfaction.”

Crowley considered her for a long time before he opened his mouth. “…You won’t regret not backing out when you had the chance?”

No regrets? A long-forgotten voice echoed in her memory.

“Honestly, I haven’t regretted anything yet,” Yuu told him sleepily, rubbing at her sore side as the voice echoed in her head, “and I sincerely doubt that I will in the future.”

There was a long silence.

“…is what she says, Professor Crewel. Are you satisfied?” Crowley called out.

Yuu blinked as the door to the infirmary swung open noiselessly, revealing Crewel’s great striped fur coat and his glare. “Of course not.”

“Professor Crewel,” Yuu tried to sit up straight, surprised.

Bad girl! Stay. Lie back down this instant,” Crewel snapped. Yuu lay back against the headboard as he pressed a scarlet glove to his strong brow, looking even more done with her than he usually did in class. “I heard you injured yourself throwing yourself foolishly against the puppy from Heartslabyul.”

“Yessir,” Yuu responded at once, “Sorry for the trouble, sir.”

“Why is your response with him so different from your response to me!?” Crowley wailed.

“Silence,” Crewel cut him off. He fished a bottle from his sleeve, approaching her bedside. “It’s the same bruise medicine I concocted for you last time, girl. Finish it now.”

Yuu obediently took the diamond-shaped bottle of glass, uncorked it, and swallowed the unpleasantly brownish liquid in one gulp.

“Ohhh,” Crowley emitted, impressed, “it’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone drink one of those without complaining.”

“There’s no point in complaining,” Yuu frowned, “since I’d have to drink it in the end anyway.”

Good girl. I’d like the other whining mutts take an example from you,” Crewel sighed. He had a deep frown etched in his face as he looked down at her, glitter shining artfully on his dark-coloured eyelids. “…I didn’t expect you to last this long.”

“Sorry?”

“Back when you were injured from the foolish trip Crowley sent you on to the Mines,” Crewel explained civilly, “when I checked your side. It was obvious your bone structure was not one of a male’s.”

“You figured it out that early!?” Crowley cried out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Fool! As if I could give away a lady’s secrets.” Crewel growled at him. “She’s your student. Shouldn’t you know all about the puppies in your pack? If I were in charge, I would be able to identify each one of them down to the last spot.”

“It’s as you say,” Crowley said obediently, withering under his glare.

Yuu tried not to laugh.

“At first I thought it was her choice to be enrolling in this school as a boy, so I remained quiet…reluctantly.” Crewel made the same glare that he used to drill into her head during alchemy.

“You drilled me quite a bit, professor,” Yuu commented.

“I was trying to get you to leave,” he gritted out. “NRC is no place for foolish little girls to wander in at will. All the other times it happened they were discovered by the Mirror immediately and given due punishment.”

Yuu noted that there were other girls who had snuck into this school. She wondered what was so good about the Night Raven College. Surely there were other schools that taught girls magic in this world that valued women so highly.

“But,” Crewel sighed, “from what I’ve heard just now, you aren’t here of your own will. Nor were you dressing as a male of your own accord. And most importantly, your performance in class is eye-opening.”

“Look, I only have this one set of clothing,” Yuu said.

That,” Crewel told her with a sniff, “is the most unforgiveable thing about this whole situation, little puppy.”

“Um.” Yuu stiffened as his voice dropped an octave. “Sorry?”

“Your attire,” Crewel growled low enough to send goosebumps shooting up her arms. “Forgive me for using such words in front of a lady, but I am appalled that that bastard crow didn’t provide you with enough funds to adorn yourself sufficiently, male or female. No wonder you were mistaken for a boy with that shabby clothing.”

“Hey!” Crowley protested.

“And no wearing chest coverings!” Crewel steamrolled on. “Do you know how bad those are for you? Not to mention unpalatable. There are plenty of ways to protect your chest without such a tacky vest!”

“Tacky!?” He’d seen it?

“If you are to remain on this campus, I’ll not have you looking like a ragged abandoned puppy on a street corner,” Crewel said imperiously. “Since we clearly can’t rely on the Headmaster to provide you with decent dress and living conditions, I will personally prepare the clothing. From his funds, of course.”

“Professor!?” Yuu gaped.

“Ah…we’ve set off Professor Crewel’s pickiness about fashion,” Crowley buried his head in his hands despondently. “My budget…I was saving up for a vacation, you know!”

“But Professor, I would like to remain in Ramshackle, please,” Yuu said hastily, because Crewel had pulled his crop out and was tapping it against his dark pants, glaring down at Crowley rather threateningly. “It’s grown on me. Though it would be nice if the hot water was fixed.”

“A simple request,” Crowley perked up. “Don’t worry, Yuu-kun, I’ll see what I can do about the dorm. No matter what you say, it is rather…unpleasant to force a young lady to abide in lodgings such as those.”

“If he doesn’t do it, I’ll whip that mask into a thousand pieces,” Crewel promised grimly.

“Professor, it’s all right—”

“And you! Little puppy. You have no awareness of yourself. Do you understand how dangerous it is to live in a school of several hundred untrained adolescent dogs?” Crewel turned on her. “And you want to continue your education here? Unlike Royal Sword Academy, this school will not treat you with the respect you deserve because you are female.”

“Royal…?” repeated Yuu dumbly, both hands up in supplication.

“Those eyes are telling me you don’t understand.” Crewel tipped her chin up with the crop like he had done so many times in class. “The second these half-bred mutts sniff out your scent, they’ll be on you like wolves.”

Yuu blinked at him, letting his incomprehensible words pass through her ears. More importantly, she’d thought… “Then Professor, you weren’t glaring at me because you disliked me?”

“I was making sure your intentions were not base and that you weren’t being attacked,” Crewel snapped.

“Oh…” Ace had been right again. Yuu firmed her stare. “Thank you, Professor. It’ll be okay if no one finds out, though.”

“If no one finds out?” he repeated, an incredulous smile tugging up at his thin mouth. “Little puppy, while your disguise might have worked due to your lack of care for your fur—which is inexcusable, by the way—even the Pomfiore students don’t have such a delicate cheekbone. Up close, I don’t see how anyone could mistake you for a boy.”

“Really?” Yuu felt her face absently. “Don’t I look just like a random student? I don’t think I stand out much.”

“…”

For the first time since she’d met him, Yuu saw Crewel shocked into silence, his ice-grey eyes widening. She frowned back in confusion. In all of her years as a child, she’d been ignored, dismissed as uninteresting, so why did he look so…?

Crowley sighed from the foot of her infirmary bed. “Well, she’s got that part of the heroine thing down, at least.”

“Do you usually wear your fur over your face like this?” Crewel asked her intently, changing tack. “Tied at the back?”

“Well…I had it long until last year, but I chopped it off because it was getting in the way,” she shrugged. “The bangs covering my face are a common hairstyle around the place I got it cut, and it hid my eyes, which are a rare colour for that area.”

“I see,” Crewel said thoughtfully, removing his crop. “It seems that the beauticians in your world leave something to be desired.”

“Sorry?”

“It worked out for the best, didn’t it?” Crowley beamed. “She hasn’t gotten discovered by a single person apart from us!”

And Leona-senpai. Yuu wisely kept silent. She still had to pay him back for lending her his jacket.

“…Little puppy.” Casting a disdainful glance at the Headmaster, Crewel slid his crop back into his studded belt and frowned at her. “Ignore the crow for a moment and tell me. If you refuse to be here, I’ll have you out no matter how much faith he has in your abilities.”

“Professor,” Yuu said, touched, “you don’t have to do that for me.”

I offered to take you out too!” Crowley protested. No one listened.

“Nonsense. It is deplorable that a lady has been treated like this against her will up until now,” Crewel sniffed. “And one so oblivious to herself. You do not belong here.”

“That’s okay,” Yuu shrugged. “I don’t particularly mind being here. To be honest, I kind of like it. It’s fun.”

Fun?” Crewel repeated incredulously. “In this stuffy old castle full of mutts?”

“I made friends like I’ve never done before,” Yuu explained, “and I even learned what it was like to be angry for the first time. So I’m okay with continuing my status as a student for now. Though I’m still looking for a way home.”

“And you want to continue dressing like a boy to continue this incomprehensible fun.” Crewel said slowly.

“To find a way back to my world.” Yuu grinned sheepishly as she corrected him. “Um, also, I like your classes. Sir. Studying has kind of been my only hobby for as long as I’ve lived.”

“…I’ll give you that surviving and thriving in this kennel is no simple feat,” sighed Crewel, massaging his brow again. “But girl, you are a breed I have never laid eyes on before. You won’t regret this?”

“No sir.” Yuu paused. “Oh! Although if possible, I’d like a favour in return.”

“Name it,” the alchemy professor responded right away.

Being a girl really did have some benefits, Yuu noted, first with Leona and now with Crewel and Crowley. “Well, you see, I was trying to find a way to earn some money…”

For some reason, some incomprehensible reason, some illogical, ridiculous reason, Riddle had taken a liking to Yuu.

She’d been prepared for some kind of rule-breaking punishment. With all that she’d shouted at him, during the duel with his Overblot form and together with Ace before, Yuu had expected to have earned his hatred—or at least irritation.

Which was a little disappointing. Yuu valued Riddle’s seriousness and abidance to the rules, because it showed an understanding of society and a desire to improve the quality of life for the greater population. For a less noble reason, Yuu liked talking with smart people. Riddle was nothing if not intelligent. Even with seventeen years of hard work under his mother’s thumb, to succeed at everything asked of him was a sign of nothing short of genius.

But Yuu had been less than civil. So she had prepared herself for almost any response.

Except opening the door the next morning, newly equipped in a smart black uniform (personally fitted by Crewel), only to be faced with Riddle staring wide-eyed back at her. One black glove was raised as if to knock at the infirmary door.

Yuu said dumbly, “Good morning?”

Riddle regained himself with a cough. “…Good morning,” he responded, lowing his fist. Red was creeping up his neck. “I trust you’re doing better than yesterday.”

“I feel pretty good.” That disgusting medicine worked wonders. Yuu looked askance at him. “Did you forget something in the infirmary?”

“I came to apologise,” Riddle told her with a furrowed brow. “It is, after all, my fault you suffered such injuries.”

“Oh, that? I’m pretty much all better now. There’s no problem.” Yuu was quick to wave it off, even if her shoulder still ached a little.

“No, at least let me apologise,” Riddle smiled at her with a painful twist of the mouth, “I won’t be able to get over it if I don’t. Even I feel some guilt having caused you to fall into that state.”

“If that makes you feel better,” Yuu responded slowly. “I forgive you.”

“…By the way, did you finally got fitted for a uniform? It’s about time,” Riddle changed topics with another cough. “I was about to report you for not obeying the school rules.”

“I finally managed to get the Headmaster to give one to me,” Yuu grinned, “through Professor Crewel. Now I have two sets of clothes, including Cater-senpai’s suit he gave me.”

“…” Riddle gaped at her. “Two sets? You only had that one ruined set of clothes before this?”

“Well…” Yuu scratched her head sheepishly. “Landing in another world without my wallet wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Why didn’t you say so!? And that Headmaster—he didn’t even think to provide you with proper clothing? I sure would like to have some words with him.” Riddle started to turn a dull red at the neck.

“Professor Crewel already did,” Yuu recalled the fearful Crowley with an amused smile, “and really, it isn’t a big deal. Clothing wasn’t that far up on my requirements list anyway.”

Riddle shook his head, amazed. “Yuu…I’m beginning to worry about you.”

Yuu tilted her head. “Why?”

“That lack of self-awareness is going to get you into trouble one day,” Riddle said with an exasperated smile. “…All right, come on. I’ve fetched your book bag from Heartslabyul, since you left it in the maze yesterday. Let’s go.”

“Oh, thank you…”

Riddle swung the bag out of her hands when she reached for it. “As if I’ll allow an injured party to carry it. I’ll walk you.”

“Huh!? No, I couldn’t trouble you that much,” Yuu shook her hands in front of him. “Plus, Grim is…”

“Ace and Deuce will be waiting in the classroom with him,” Riddle said impatiently. “We’re just in time for breakfast tea, so follow me to the cafeteria.”

“I can carry—”

“Don’t think I didn’t see you wince when you stretched your arm just now.”

Yuu gave up. “Senpai, you’re too nice.”

Riddle looked at her like she was insane. “I’m not nice.”

“Yes you are, you’re just not used to hearing—”

“Oh, Yuu,” he smiled at her pityingly, “that’s not it. You call me a good person, a nice person…but how mistaken you are. There’s not a single good person within this school.”

“Then why are you carrying my bag for me?” Yuu shot back as they left the infirmary.

“Isn’t it simple?” Riddle’s smile darkened a little into a smirk; he leaned into her face so that they were eye-to-eye. “It’s because I’ve taken an interest in you.”

“…is what he said,” Yuu collapsed exhaustedly on Ace’s other side in the first-year classroom. “It’s not even first hour yet and I’m ready to go back to Ramshackle and put my head under a pillow. What is going on with that Dorm Head?”

“Huh? You say that after you tamed him?” Grim wrinkled his nose at her, burrowing into the space between her neck and shoulder. He sniffed. “Man you smell like that disinfectant stuff. Gross.”

“Tamed him!?” Yuu spluttered. “Rosehearts-senpai isn’t an animal. I mean technically, biologically we all are, but you don’t tame humans.”

“I’m gonna have to agree with Grim on this one,” Ace rolled his Pen on the table idly as she dug in her book bag for her homework. “This was all your fault.”

Et tu, brute?”

“Who’s Brute?” Deuce squinted from Ace’s other side. “Anyway, Yuu, you really impressed Rosehearts-senpai. Which is obvious since you kind of saved his life. He’s taken a real shine to you!”

Huuuuh?” she dragged out. “I insulted him and attacked him though.”

“I think it’s useless,” Grim sighed, “this kid’s completely oblivious.”

“Anyway, you got invited to the party after school today, right?” Ace nudged her. “That Riddle’s baking a tart to make up for the one he destroyed last time, all by himself. You gotta come.”

“Oi, watch the way you address your upperclassmen!” Deuce shoved him.

“I bet it was you who made him bake it,” she gave him dead-fish eyes.

“Got it in one,” Deuce grinned over at her. “Can you believe this guy? After Rosehearts-senpai broke down crying he was all I’ll never!! EVER! Forgive you! Like a five-year-old kid.”

“When he was crying? Read the atmosphere, man,” Yuu teased Ace.

“As if a simple apology can make up for all the work he put me through,” Ace sniffed. “I’m gonna milk this for all I’ve got.”

“All right, Mister High-functioning Sociopath. What time is the party?”

“I think it’s at half-past four, since everyone has club activities,” Deuce tried to remember. “Meet you at Heartslabyul then?”

“Wait, someone please pick me up in front of the Mirror, I can’t go through that thing alone,” Yuu said very quickly as Trein entered the room carrying Lucius on one arm.

Ace snickered. “Scaredy-cat,” he sing-songed under his breath.

“You keep saying that and I won’t let you copy my homework,” she sing-songed back.

Ace blinked his slanted brown eyes at her innocently. “What’d I say?”

Yuu could not stop her answering grin. For the entire day, stuck to Ace and Deuce like a limpet, glad that she hadn’t taken Crowley up on his offer to leave. There were benefits to being treated well as a girl—but she wouldn’t trade the world for this.

“You fool,” Yuu said to herself calmly, staring up at the barren mirror surrounded by white bone. Two torches set eerie shadows ablaze against the wrought iron crest of Savanaclaw. “You stupid idiot.”

Her book bag slung across her back and the Shrunken marron tart folded carefully in a pocket, Yuu cursed herself for forgetting to find someone to grab onto. But then, she couldn’t have taken anyone with her—Grim didn’t know she was a girl (probably) so bringing him would reveal her secret. In any case, he’d wanted to watch Ace’s first practice match in the basketball team. Deuce had joined the track and field team and had apparently impressed the instructor a great deal.

So she was on her own.

But Yuu really didn’t like mirror travel. Apparating was one thing—one had to be aware of their destination and could control their travel themselves. (Never mind that she wasn’t supposed to know how to Apparate yet.) Methods like Floo, Portkey and now Mirror were completely out of her control.

Still, it was illogical to be standing around wasting time. She had a little over an hour and a half before the Heartslabyul gathering, and having never been to Savanaclaw before, Yuu was confident she’d get lost. Her spatial orientation had never been good.

Yuu sucked in a breath, refused to close her eyes, and stepped forward into the shining mirror.

Savanaclaw was nothing like she expected. After Yuu managed to stay upright passing through, she wobbled a little bit, watching its light go out slowly, before spinning around and releasing a breath of wonder.

Savanaclaw’s dorm had the structure of a grand castle from the Moorish empire. Clay-coloured domes forming slabs of wall heaped up and up and up until the pale blue sky overwhelmed its last floors. In the bright daytime, a crescent moon hung visibly in the dry air, a silent sentry to her arrival. Yuu was standing in the cradle of bones forming a sharp ribcage split open at its centre; if she looked around, similar curves of white lay in an artful mess along the dirt road leading away from the mirror.

“That rock looks like Pride Rock,” Yuu mumbled, squinting up at the jagged outcropping and the only visible tree beside it, from where a sandy yellow banner hung, displaying Savanaclaw’s lion crest for all to see. “Nants ingonyama indeed.”

The afternoon air was dry and consequently a little chilly. Yuu, however, was protected with the blazer she had received as part of her new uniform and didn’t so much as shiver. She was too busy casting her awed gaze over the wide-open plains that stretched behind Savanaclaw’s castle as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful.

Forgetting her purpose, Yuu walked around the front side of Savanaclaw’s castle, marvelling at the ever-burning tiki torches standing on either side of the huge square entranceway. In lieu of a door or gate, two rich falling curtains drew multicoloured triangles down in front of her in greens, whites and oranges. Yuu felt the thick fabric in delight.

“Wow,” she said dumbly, “I love this place.”

The curtain shifted; a tall student brushed it aside and nearly bumped into her. “—Oi, watch where you’re goin’, brat.”

“Whoops.” Yuu stepped aside. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

The tall student brushed past her with a sharp exhale of disdain, his small triangular ears twitching at his head. Following him was a shorter student with tall black ears, who sniffed the air a few times.

“Hey, you,” he growled at her. “You don’t smell like a Savana firstie. Haven’t seen you ‘round these parts, kid. Don’t tell me you’re stupid enough to come in our territory without permission?”

“Huh? What’re you talking about? He smells like…” the tall student sniffed and made a strange face. “Like a ton of stuff. But there’s the Savana on him, no doubt.”

“What’s wrong with your nose? He doesn’t—” the tall black ears pricked upright. “—Oi. This scent.”

“—There’s no mistake.” Growled the tall student, and both of them turned on her.

Yuu blinked as she felt the aggression in the air rise a few notches. “Am I not allowed to be here?”

“Oi, oi, oi. You don’t have your armband on. What dorm do you belong to, kid?” the tall student cracked his knuckles.

“Don’t think we’re gonna let you go without asking you why you got that scent all over you,” the black-eared student growled.

“Yeah. How come you smell like Dorm Head when you’re so disgustingly weak looking? Don’t tell me you went and filched his clothes.”

“’Cause we’ll beat it into ya,” Black Ears bared sharp teeth, “that the worst place you could steal from is Savana. Aaah?”

Yuu squinted at them confusedly. “Um, sorry but I have no idea what you’re saying. I didn’t steal anything, and I don’t know who your Dorm Head is.”

You don’t know who our Dorm Head is!?” both of them chorused.

The first one slammed his fist into a hand. “Oh hell no. Bro, we can’t let this disrespectful flea go. Not when he just dissed our Dorm Head.”

“Hell yeah, brother. I’ve been pretty irritated lately. Good thing this prey showed up out of nowhere,” black ears rolled his neck threateningly. “Hey, you idiot kid, you should curse your stars that you met with us today. We ain’t gonna let you off that easy.”

“No wonder they have a lion as their crest.” Yuu palmed her wand and raised a brow. “Has anyone told you guys you’re all brawn and no brains? Why would you suddenly attack a random student? Unless there’s a law forbidding me to approach this dorm.”

“Law? The laws are unwritten here, moron,” snorted the tall student. “But the first one I’ll teach ya with my fists is—never trespass on Savana territory!”

Yuu jumped back out of the entranceway as he swung. The fist whistled past her nose alarmingly quickly—he was fast, faster than anyone she’d seen, faster than even Deuce when he’d punched the lights out of the Heartslabyul upperclassmen before—

“Ha! You little mouse. You’re too slow!” the one with black ears jeered, pulling back his fist.

Yuu yelped as the first one fisted her collar and dangled her off the ground. She barely held on to the shrunken tart in her pocket to prevent it from falling out. But in this awkward position she couldn’t move freely to avoid the punch, so instead of drawing her wand, she curled up small and prepared for the pain to hit. Man, these dudes with animal ears were—

“Hey,” snarled a low voice, “what the hell are you bastards doing?”

—so quick-tempered.

Before she could crack her eyes open, Yuu was dropped to the ground unceremoniously; she stumbled a couple steps before managing to find her balance and look around.

“Leona-san!” gasped the one with the black ears.

Yuu perked up. Indeed, approaching them from inside the darkened doorway were Leona Kingscholar’s nearly fluorescent green eyes narrowed in a glare. His velvet brown hair fell freely down what looked like a black leather biker vest, two loose braids dangling at his shoulders.

“Welcome back,” the tall student stumbled over his words, switching abruptly to polite speech. “Has—”

“I asked you,” growled Leona, crossing his bare arms so that muscle visibly rippled against his forearms, “what the hell you were doing. Aah?

The students panicked. “There was this little mouse running around—”

“Wanted to teach him a lesson—”

“How many times,” Leona narrowed those green eyes even further, several strands of dark hair falling across his face. “Did I say. Not to cause problems? With the tournament lined up next month, you don’t want to know what I’ll do to you if I see you turning to public violence again.”

The tall student gasped. “Of course not,” he snapped to attention, “I apologize, Leona-san.”

“We weren’t thinking.” The one with the black ears backed off, both hands up in supplication. “Don’t worry, Leona-san. We won’t cause any trouble for you.”

“Hmph.” Leona jerked his well-formed chin in the air. “Get lost.”

Yuu dusted herself off with a sigh of relief, turning to him with a smile as the two of them ran for the transporting mirror. “Phew. Thanks, Leona-senpai. You saved me.”

Leona took two steps out into the sunlight, his bronze skin glowing. The day set the necklaces across his collar ablaze with multicoloured jewels, not the least of which was gold. Underneath the biker vest he wore only a cut-open shirt in gold and black that did nothing to cover the exposed muscle. Leona uncrossed his arms and glared at her in irritation. “Are you an idiot?”

“I seem to get asked that question quite a lot,” she observed. For a Ravenclaw, it would have been the highest insult, but Yuu had never been a typical Ravenclaw.

“Why the hell are you here?” Leona clicked his tongue at her impatiently. “If I hadn’t gotten here in time, you’d have had your nose broken.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I would have deserved it too.” Yuu winced. “To be honest, I should have probably just asked to find you during school instead.”

“…Hah? You’re looking for me?” Leona looked disgusted. “Listen. Just because I know what you are doesn’t mean I’m going to help you any time you ask. Go beg Crowley or something.”

“What are you talking about?” Yuu wrinkled her nose at him. “I don’t want your help. I’m just here to return my thanks for not spilling the beans earlier. And for lending me your vest.”

“…Return?” Leona blinked those catlike eyes once, twice. “To me?”

“It’s just manners to repay debts,” Yuu shrugged. It was also a good logical decision—she would be in trouble if Leona decided to hold the debt over her head later on.

One ear twitching, the third year in front of her stared at her like she was an alien.

Yuu, who was used to that look by now, ignored it. “Don’t worry, senpai. I have no intentions of bothering you more than necessary. Here, let me just hand it to you and I’ll leave.”

Leona put up a gloved hand, two multicoloured bracelets sliding down his arm. “Wait. You…came all the way here into Savanaclaw territory to repay me?”

“I didn’t know that it was an unwritten rule that foreigners weren’t allowed here,” Yuu said sheepishly. “Sorry if I caused your dorm trouble. Your Dorm Head isn’t going to come out and Behead me or something, is he?”

Leona stared at her before he shook his head with an incredulous laugh. “…Right,” he said, “different world.”

“What?”

“Leona-san! I got your afternoon snack ready. Are you going to take it in the…” the honey-brown-haired person with the huge ears popped into the entrance and stopped talking, squinting at her. “Who’re you?”

“Oh, we met before, briefly,” she lowered her head in greeting. “I’m Yuu. You’re uh…”

“Right, you were with Leona-san in the gardens a couple weeks ago. Ruggie Bucchi.” Ruggie grinned, adjusting the yellow patterned scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. “But man, coming into Savanaclaw alone? You sure got guts, li’l kid. Good thing Leona-san found you, else you would’ve been chewed to pieces.”

“I guess I owe him again,” sighed Yuu. How was she going to pay him back now?

“Ruggie.” Leona turned. “Set up the snacks in the lounge. For two.”

“Huh?” Ruggie and Yuu echoed simultaneously.

“You’ve got something for me, don’t you?” Leona’s tail swished in her direction impatiently. “Hurry up, herbivore.”

“Okay?” Yuu followed him under the heavy curtain.

“What’d you do to get into his good graces?” Ruggie whispered to her, tugging at a matching black vest. “You even sorta smell like him.”

“Uh…I don’t know?” she said hesitantly. She couldn’t exactly tell him Leona was only being semi-polite to her because she was female.

Still, Leona sure was proud, ordering his friend around like a servant. Ruggie didn’t seem to mind, so she refrained from making a stupid comment about it. It was none of her business anyway.

Yuu followed the two of them into the dorm, but stopped walking accidentally when they reached the lounge. She sucked in an amazed breath. “Wow!”

The lounge was cut open to the elements in lieu of having windows; across a build-up of sienna rock was a small wooden fence lined with palm trees that peeked out to the bright daytime sky. What was more impressive was the gigantic rushing waterfall coming down at them from several levels above, hitting a number of ledges to descend into a clear blue pool of water that flowed backwards deeper into the castle. A walkway of wood curved right behind the falls, supporting several deck chairs on tribal carpet; the rest of the room was carved in several levels of rock interspersed with greenery.

Students lounged across the rock and carpet without discrimination, chatting and laughing. Electric lights—Deuce and Trey had explained to her that NRC’s lights were powered by magic stones—glowed between patches of rock, warming the room. Almost all of the students had ears, a tail, or most commonly, both; a few of them were curled up against each other in piles, napping.

When she slowed, jaw dropping at the incredible sight, Leona coiled his tail around her wrist and dragged her over to the back of the room, where curtains covered an alcove table snuggled cosily to a circular sofa in muted reds. Ruggie, who’d gotten the hint of a flicked ear, gave the two of them another strange look before he disappeared behind a curtain.

Yuu sat obediently on the maroon sofa—she sank a good inch into the plush fabric—and Leona slid liquidly into the seat across from her, yawning.

“This place is amazing,” Yuu breathed, leaning forward in her excitement, “It’s beautiful! Can you swim in that pool? Who made it? Don’t tell me it’s natural!”

Leona’s eye twitched, but he managed to catch himself before he insulted her again. “…Calm down and stop yapping.”

“Sorry.” Yuu cleared her throat and retreated back to the sofa. Under pretext of rummaging through her book bag, she withdrew the Shrunken tart from her pocket and Enlarged it in the bag. “Here, this is what I brought for you.”

The marron tart looked delicious in its glass container even as she surreptitiously cancelled the Stasis charm on it; it really had been too much of a waste to watch the tart get destroyed. Yet there would be too many questions asked if it showed up again—even if they did know she used magic now, they’d seen the other tart get destroyed—so Yuu decided she’d make a better use of the tart and pay back some of her debt simultaneously. Plus, Trey’s cooking was nothing to scoff at.

Leona raised an impressed eyebrow. “Hush money?”

“A bunch of us made it together,” explained Yuu, setting it in front of him. “I ate one of the other ones, but it tasted really good, so don’t worry about the flavour. Though I’m not sure if you like sweets or not.”

Ruggie appeared, carrying a large tray of what looked like tropical fruit and two tall glasses of frothy yellow tipped with lime. “Kept you waiting. Whoa! What’s with that delicious lookin’ tart over there? Don’t tell me that’s the thing you wanted to hand off to Leona-san?”

“That’s right,” Yuu smiled as he set one of the glasses in front of her. “Wow, thanks for the drink.”

Shi shi shi.” Ruggie laughed it off. “No problem. But what did Leona-san help you with? To get such a big reward in return. Actually, why on earth did he help you in the first place?”

“Tch. You’re too loud, Ruggie,” Leona flicked an ear at him in irritation, reaching for something that looked like a slice of pomelo.

“I’m the new Directing Student—you might have heard of me,” Yuu said dryly, sipping at the drink in front of her. “This is amazing. Ruggie-san, did you make this?”

Shi shi shi. Sure did! I’m pretty confident in this one, though Leona-san refuses to praise me for it,” Ruggie showed his sharpened teeth in a grin, sliding into the seat beside her deftly. “And wait, what? Directing Student? You? No wonder you stumbled in here with that dumb-looking face without a single shred of wariness.”

“I’m aware that I was being pretty stupid,” she said sheepishly, budging over to give him space. “But me getting in NRC was kind of a last-minute thing so I knew literally nothing about the place. After I nearly tripped over Leona-senpai in the garden, I bugged him until he gave me some tips. He’s my benefactor.”

Ruggie gaped at her. “Do you know no fear?”

“I mean, senpai’s pretty nice,” she shrugged. At least to women, Leona acted rough but behaved rather politely.

“Senpai’s…pretty…nice…” Ruggie turned his disbelieving stare on Leona. “…Leona-san, did you suddenly develop a weakness for scrawny little kids or something after all your complaining?”

“Shut up, Ruggie,” Leona growled across the table at him. “Oi, Directing Student. Don’t come to Savana without someone from the dorm with you in the future. Got it? You’ll really get your nose broken this time.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Yuu saluted him with a smile.

“And he’s giving him more advice!” Ruggie gasped. He took hold of her hand, huge grey eyes sparkling as a grin slid across his face. “Kid! Yuu-kun! Let’s be friends. If you can calm down the legendary temper of Leona-san’s then I’ll…your hands are tiny!

Yuu blinked at him several times. This guy changed topics at the speed of light. “Are they really that small?”

“I thought I was skinny.” Ruggie squinted at her, squeezing her fingers experimentally. “Are you seriously sixteen, cub? Not six?”

“Why does everyone keep saying that,” she muttered. “I’m fifteen. Are you Leona-senpai’s acquaintance, Ruggie-san? Wait, what year are you?”

“Second Year, Class B,” Ruggie winked at her. “Nice ta meet’cha. Let’s get along, Yuu-kun.”

“Nice to meet you senpai.” Yuu grinned back. “I mean I don’t see what you would gain from being friends with me, but sure, I guess. By the way, can I ask you guys a question?”

“Shoot,” he leaned forwards and stole a slice of grapefruit.

“Those ears and tails everywhere,” Yuu squinted confusedly around the lounge. “Um, they’re real, right?”

Ruggie choked.

After a long explanation about the Therianthropes that were almost always sorted into Savanaclaw, as well as a discussion of their advantages over humans, Yuu’s mind had floated into outer space. She hadn’t expected that this world would have separate species that intermingled with the human race and in fact, had better senses and athletic abilities than they did.

“That’s cheating,” she blurted out, “you guys are better in every single way, aren’t you!”

Leona rolled his eyes. Ruggie, on the other hand, had tipped over snickering.

Ruggie Bucchi seemed to find Yuu endlessly interesting, funny, whatever way she wanted to spin it. His large grey eyes had a decidedly calculating glint as he examined her. Yet when she asked him what kind of ears he had, he’d told her readily enough that he was a hyena Therianthrope and that Leona was, aptly, a lion.

Her question concerning if they could shift into animal forms, though, had broken his control over his laughter, sending him into hysterics until Leona kicked him out for being too loud. Yuu had no idea what it was about her statement that had made the two of them react so unexpectedly. Was there some sort of common knowledge of this world she was missing out on?

“Nice to meet’cha, Yuu-kun!” Ruggie grinned ear to ear as he departed their table. When he waved, she was surprised at how bony his wrists were. “See ya ‘round sometime!”

“Bye,” Yuu waved back with a grin. “Ruggie-senpai seems like a nice guy.”

Leona snorted. “That is not a nice guy. He was laughing at you, not with you.”

Yuu glanced around and then scooted around the couch to sit beside him. “Leona-senpai,” she whispered, “can everyone hear me if I whisper like this?”

“You’re fine,” Leona yawned, tossing a cherry into his mouth. “I’m blocking their way. No one in their right mind would eavesdrop on me anyway.”

“Ruggie-senpai and the other two Savanaclaw students said I smell. Could they tell I smelt like a…not-male?” she asked him lowly.

Leona, who seemed to have lost most of his bad mood as he ate, leaned forwards and traced his nose from her head to her neck obligingly. “…It’s better,” he said grudgingly after a few inhales. “Though you smell like the infirmary…Crewel…and Crowley more than anything. What, got injured lately?”

His voice was teasing, so Yuu nodded back without much thought. “Yes, though thanks to Professor Crewel it’s mostly better now.”

The air around them prickled. Leona growled out, “Hah?

She jumped in her seat. “What?”

“Explain. Now.”

Unsure why he was so angry, Yuu gave him a brief account of what had occurred over the past week or two since she’d met him, surreptitiously examining the roaring lion inked in black on his left arm to avoid meeting his glare. She hesitated a little when she got to the Overblot—didn’t know if it was appropriate to let him know—but since she still owed Leona, and perhaps because she had always loved animals, she ended up telling him everything that had happened after warning him not to let it pass beyond the two of them.

The one thing she kept under wraps was her magic. It wasn’t wise to reveal all her cards.

Leona listened just like he had when she’d first met him—with the same coolly disinterested look in his dull green eyes, but a swishing tail that urged her on. Despite being warned time and again that there were no good people—no trustworthy people—within the boundaries of the NRC, Yuu thought that apart from Trey (which was mostly because his resemblance to Professor Potter), she liked Leona the best. There was something refreshing about someone who disregarded her so totally with the absence of politeness that suggested power or honesty or both.

Not that he seemed brash, but the sharpness around him that cut to the quick fast felt good in the same way as she’d been more comfortable with Crewel barking commands at her. Yuu liked clean-cut directions more than ambivalent people.

She still wasn’t sure what to make of his behaviour towards her as a girl, but Yuu also enjoyed talking to him because she felt like he was listening far deeper than what she was saying on the surface. As expected of NRC—its students were all ridiculously intelligent.

When she got to the part about being hurt in the scuffle during Riddle’s Overblot, the tail whipped her gently across the arm. Leona gave her a singularly repulsed look, as if he couldn’t believe she had been this stupid, before reaching forward with one gloved hand and seizing her around the chin. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“It turned out fine.” Yuu let him turn her face left and right, as if searching for a wound.

“Do you know how rare and dangerous Overblots are?” Leona put his head in a hand, still clutching her cheeks. “Wait. Don’t answer that, herbivore.”

“It’s a different world,” she sang.

Leona let her go after flicking her in the forehead. “You’re an absolute fool. An absolute. Fool. Where’s your sense of self-preservation? Your intelligence? I’d thought you were smart enough to scrape by in this school. I take it all back.”

“Senpai,” Yuu said, rubbing at her forehead sorely, “You sure like to insult people.”

“I don’t make it a hobby of insulting women,” he snapped. Leona focused that narrow-eyed green glare at her, shadows deepening on the scar that bisected his left eye as he leaned in. “I just can’t believe there is a living female that would throw herself headfirst into an explosion.”

“Overblotting is like an explosion?”

“It’s worse. How the hell did you end up alive?”

“We stopped him together,” Yuu shrugged. Her wand buzzed excitedly against her arm.

“Ha…!” Leona shook his head, looking reluctantly impressed. “Stopped him. Without magic? You’re either disgustingly lucky or there’s something more to you than meets the eye.”

“Either way, I got injured and so was in the infirmary until this morning,” finished Yuu with a smile. “Oh, though Headmaster and Professor Crewel ended up finding out about my…you know.”

“And you’re still here?” Leona raised both eyebrows now, looking engaged.

“Headmaster was really happy for some reason,” Yuu shrugged. “But Professor Crewel was angry at him for forcing me to live in the Ramshackle Dorm.”

“You still live in the Ramshackle Dorm,” Leona repeated. He shook his head. “You sure can withstand some unbearable things, herbivore. I would have smashed down Crowley’s door right away and demanded it to be rebuilt.”

“It’s not that bad.” Yuu imagined Leona kicking down Crowley’s door and snickered. “I’m being given lodging for free. Though Professor Crewel was all for me moving.”

“…So that’s why Crowley was running away from Crewel this morning during alchemy,” muttered Leona.

“Really?” Yuu perked up. “That sounds hilarious.”

“You really are kind of interesting, aren’t you,” Leona shook his head slowly, those laser green eyes trained on her. “Crewel…huh. You managed to convince both Crowley and Crewel to let you stay here? Dressed like a boy? I’ll admit it: I’m impressed.”

“Right, it seems like this world is quite sweet on women,” Yuu nodded. “Where I come from there’s some of that, but I’m not used to getting special treatment because of my gender. So to be honest, people behaving nice to me just puts me on edge.”

“There’s nothing scarier than unfounded kindness,” Leona agreed, leaning back. “Though in Twisted Wonderland—where I come from, only the lowest of the low take cheap shots on women. Attacking women is not only stupid, but it shows how low your pride really is.”

“I’m going to have to get used to that,” she sighed weakly. “To be honest, it sort of stings when people treat me differently. Like they’re changing their perception of me due to something I couldn’t change. I didn’t ask to be born a girl.”

Leona swung his gaze down to her sharply. “…Don’t you want to be treated appropriately, regardless of the reason?”

Yuu noted that Leona spoke with poise when he was surprised. “Not really,” she said honestly, “because it’s false treatment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of being treated worse because of something out of my control either. It’s just—I try not to be too proud, but I guess it stings my pride. I don’t need anyone’s false pity or praise because I’m a girl…it just shows me there’s a huge ravine between me and them.”

“A huge ravine, huh.” Leona swirled his drink absently in his glass. “And every time they repeat those words, you’re shown just how uncrossable that ravine is.”

“So I’m not anything to be impressed about,” Yuu gave him a self-deprecating smile, “it’s all my own ego. There’s nothing to admire.”

Leona’s mouth curved in an unfamiliar kind of bitter smile. “Now that I can understand.”

“Wonder if there’s some magical formula that can turn me into a boy,” Yuu mused, “so I don’t have to waste time on this problem anymore.”

“Pfft!” to her surprise, he bent over and let out a laugh. “You really are different.”

“That sounds kind of like you’re making fun of me, senpai,” Yuu deadpanned.

“I haven’t seen someone as uninterested in themselves as you are in a long time,” Leona shook his head at her, grinning. “Will you get pissed if I treat you like a lady?”

“No. I mean, I appreciate it. It’s this…feeling of exclusion that I don’t really like,” Yuu shrugged with a self-deprecating grin. “My sore spot? Though I never noticed it before I came here.”

“That, I can understand,” Leona said uncharacteristically sombrely. “…Don’t worry. I won’t treat you like that. No one should be treated like that.”

Yuu smiled up at him. “I still think you’re a nice guy, Leona-senpai. No matter what you say.”

“Ha.” Leona showed her his canines, a playful light brightening his lazy green eyes. “Let’s see how long you can keep that up, herbivore. Be careful that one day I don’t rip you to pieces.”

Heartslabyul’s second Unbirthday Party was much smaller than the first—mostly because almost all of the dorm students were busy replanting rosebushes and preparing for some sort of tournament selection Yuu wasn’t too clear on. She’d offered to help out with the replanting until one glance from Riddle silenced her. This guy was seriously a Queen. More accurately, a King. Whatever he was, she was not ready to stage a revolt against this particular ruler.

Instead, the seven of them (Grim included) had gathered around a pristinely made circular table in the Tea Garden while sounds of students digging and shouting were heard outside.

Inside the garden, the abrupt departure from the chaos of uprooted trees, dirt piles and splashed paint was nearly surreal. It felt like they had entered a dream world with the nearly designed decorations piling left and right and the little dormouse sleeping blissfully in an extra teapot. The atmosphere was such a divergence from the Savanaclaw dorm that Yuu was getting whiplash.

Back in Savanaclaw’s beautiful lounge, Yuu had gotten wrapped up in her conversation with Leona to the point where she’d forgotten about the time. Five minutes before she was supposed to meet Ace and Deuce at the mirror, Ruggie’s reappearance in the lounge asking Leona what he wanted for dinner made her get up in a hurry, leap out of the alcove, and nearly pitch into the pond. If Leona hadn’t caught hold of her stomach she really would have tumbled headfirst into the river.

Ruggie was full-on gawking at her when Leona set her back on her feet. He made a funny squeaking noise after Leona told him he’d be back after sending her off. Yuu thought the sending-off thing was a bit much, especially in front of someone who didn’t know she was a girl, but Leona didn’t seem like he was ready to accept any protesting. This guy was just as bad as Riddle, if not worse.

Headmaster, you’re right, Yuu thought dryly as she waved to a frozen Ruggie on their way out. Every single person here has an ego the size of a small planet.

But Leona was nice no matter how much he growled, because once she’d admitted to him she was afraid of Mirror travel (he’d asked her why she smelt so scared), he’d gone all the way through with her like a gentleman before heading back alone with a yawn. It was only after she arrived by the Heartslabyul mirror just in time to meet her friends that she found what looked like a small spray bottle in her pocket.

Yuu decided to leave whatever that was for later. Especially because…

What the heck!” Ace choked. “Salt. Salt! It tastes too salty! Water…water…”

…Right now, there were more pressing matters at hand.

Yuu passed him her half-drunk teacup. “It’s jasmine tea, but better than nothing.”

Ace gulped it all down and pounded a choking Deuce on the back. “Yuu…” he gasped through teary eyes, “how the hell are you swallowing that?”

Grim looked at them uncomprehendingly, demolishing his slice and starting on a second without complaint.

“It’s pretty salty, but it’s not unpalatable.” She cut into the slice of tart that Riddle had painstakingly made himself as an apology at Ace’s behest. “Plus, Rosehearts-senpai hand-made it. I gotta reward his effort somehow, right? It’d be bad manners to not eat it.”

“Yuu…” Riddle looked rather embarrassedly pleased. “I don’t know why it’s so salty. I followed the recipe to the letter.”

“The only way it could get this salty is if someone mixed the salt and the sugar,” Deuce said weakly, his eyes watering.

Yuu poured him a cup of tea. “It tastes fishier than anything to me.”

“Wait a second…” Trey, who had been hovering over the three of them at the table, took a step back at her words. “Don’t tell me you put the secret ingredient in, Riddle!?”

“The oyster sauce?” Riddle blinked innocently. “Of course I did. You said it would bring the flavour out in the tart, didn’t you? Though I didn’t know how much to put, since there was no direction on the bottle, so I just added a sizeable amount.”

Geh…” Cater, who had been filming Ace and Deuce’s tragedy, lowered his phone, eye twitching. “Trey-kun, this is why you need to stop lying. You’re so good at it that everyone’s going to believe you.”

Yuu winced. No matter how much she liked Trey and how good she thought he was to his childhood friend, it was true that she couldn’t quite get over her slight caution around him. Most likely unfounded—but still.

Grim had no scruples about saying it out loud. “You’re a pretty crafty guy, huh? You’re so good at lying you scared my henchman for a while.”

Yuu dropped her fork. “Grim!” she hissed. She hadn’t expected him to read her so well—but then, she was always together with him, so it was inevitable that he knew her.

Grim blinked at her with his huge blue eyes. “What?”

“Don’t be rude to your upperclassman!”

“But I was telling the truth.”

Yuu felt herself turning red. She turned to Trey in a panic and lowered her head in embarrassment and apology. “Um, sorry senpai. It’s not that I was scared of you I just—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Trey hurried to reassure her with his usual smile.

“I thought Ace-chan was the smartest one out of you four,” Cater cut her off cheerfully. “Didn’t expect it was Yuu-chan.”

“Don’t use that suffix with me!” Ace growled through his second cup of tea.

Riddle was eyeing her in interest again. “Indeed. I don’t know how I missed someone as intelligent as Yuu before.”

“Yuu’s wicked smart!” Deuce bragged, still looking a little ill, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“You two little kids just stay the way you are,” Cater winked at them.

“Huh!?” Ace stuck out his tongue. “Gross, senpai.”

Trey laughed benignly. “Now, now. Don’t tease the first years.”

“Hey Yuu-chan!” Cater beckoned her over from across the table.

Yuu slid out of her seat and jogged over to him, leaning in so he could whisper in her ear as the others resumed light conversation. “Senpai?”

“Don’t worry,” Cater said in a low voice. “It’s true that Trey-kun has a…bottomless depth to him that no one’s ever seen, but he’s harmless ninety-nine percent of the time.”

“I know he’s a good…A sort-of good? A normal guy,” she hissed back, “but once you see the yawning abyss it’s hard to just sort of ignore it!”

“You’re too serious!” Cater grinned over at her. “Relax, relax! It won’t affect you…probably ever. So don’t worry about it.”

“…Won’t affect me?” she squinted at him suspiciously. “How do you know, senpai? Are you best friends with him?”

“Pfft. No way. That guy keeps others at arm’s length.” Cater’s smile gained a sharp edge. “But me and Riddle-kun have hung out with him long enough and you don’t come to NRC without learning how to read people. Trey-kun is grateful to you for saving Riddle-kun, you know. He’s on your side.”

“…Should I be afraid of you?” Yuu asked him curiously. “’Cause I’m sure there’s more to you that meets the eye.”

“In this school, it’s better not to say that stuff to someone’s face,” Cater advised her, the smile never changing. “We all like you here, Yuu-chan, so we won’t mind so much if you’re honest with us, but…”

“You like me?” Yuu blinked. “But why?”

That’s why.” Cater reached forward and patted her hair. “Plus…Me and Trey are from households full of people. You’re the kind of kid who’s the antithesis of that. It’s a big brother’s instinct to dote on cute little siblings who listen to them.”

“…I have no idea what you’re saying?”

“That’s okay,” Cater’s hazel green eyes narrowed. “Yuu-chan, you’ve earned your stripes in Heartslabyul. That’s all you need to know. So don’t worry.”

Yuu was sure she didn’t deserve this positive emotion aimed towards her. She was far more used to the shoves in the hallway, the doodling on her desk, the way a Savanaclaw student had grabbed her by the collar. Still, Yuu liked Cater and Trey and Riddle, really liked these five people in a way she’d never liked anyone before, so she smiled back hesitantly.

“Good kid.” Cater leaned back and glanced around the table. “So by the way, weren’t we talking about transferring Yuu-chan into our dorm?”

“Oh, right,” Riddle set down his teacup with barely a clink, long red eyelashes shading his eyes briefly. “Trey. How’s that going?”

“I’ve got all of the paperwork in order, but it seems like there needs to be the consent of two professors and the headmaster as well as a good reason.” Trey had taken a seat by his other side so subtly she hadn’t noticed. He put his chin on a hand and shot her a wink. “I was just waiting to see what excuse we should make up.”

Yuu straightened and put out both hands to stop them. “Wait, wait, wait a second please,” she spluttered. “Who said anything about transferring dorms?”

“You said you liked Heartslabyul.” Deuce, who’d recovered from the salty tart, looked at her with those guileless teal eyes like it was natural.

Ace smirked. “So we figured you probably wanted to come live with us.”

You,” breathed Yuu, “were the one who suggested it, weren’t you.”

“You can thank me later.”

Deuce looked confused. “Isn’t it a good thing?”

“There is something called getting one’s permission, first,” Yuu told him dryly.

“Even if he hadn’t suggested it, I would have been speaking directly to the Headmaster in our next meeting,” Riddle sniffed superciliously. “Honestly. Forcing such a small child to live by himself in ruins. The nerve of that man.”

“You know, I’m only a year or two younger than you,” Yuu raised her hand. They all ignored her.

“I’ve never been, but Cater showed me pictures,” Trey nodded reasonably, that signature warm smile on his face. “It’s far too dangerous for you, transfer. We’ll fix it.”

“Seriously, it’s okay, you know. Ramshackle has grown on me,” Yuu said frantically. It would be tough to conceal her gender in a shared dorm.

“Nonsense,” Riddle barked, narrowing those huge grey eyes at her commandingly. “You need to learn how to rely on people around you, Yuu.”

“Trey bakes every week,” Cater tempted her with a grin.

“But Cater doesn’t like sweets so he always finds a way for me to Doodle Suit it into what he wants to eat at the moment,” Trey shot back.

“Ah~. Was I so obvious?” Cater laughed sheepishly. “C’mon, Yuu-chan! It’ll be fun! We’ll welcome you here anytime.”

“You wouldn’t say no, right?” Deuce smiled at her without an ounce of doubt in his eyes. Yuu briefly thought he was the worst one out of everything here solely because he had the purest intentions in mind.

“We should ask Grim’s opinion,” she hurried to point out, looking around. “Since Grim’s a student along with…Grim?”

The five others all looked at where Yuu had been sitting. Grim, who had polished off Riddle’s oyster tart, was lying flat upon his back on the white tablecloth, snoring gently. His bulging stomach moved with every breath.

“He’ll get hairs all over the table,” Riddle frowned disapprovingly.

“He ate that?” Deuce said, awed.

“I think I just gained some respect for the little furball,” Ace whispered.

Cater and Trey traded glances and at once, they all burst out laughing.

“I still don’t get why you need to do a stupid interview,” Grim grumbled, rolling around on Ramshackle’s biggest bed. “They fixed the hot water and gave me tuna cans. What else do you need?”

Yuu yawned, wondering how she was supposed to tie the striped tie included with her uniform. Having never worn ties underneath her robes—learning from her father how to tie one was out of the question—the long fabric looked impossible to fold. She gave up and made a butterfly knot instead. “Grim,” she sighed, “I only have a stack of these uniforms right now. No normal clothing.”

“So? Just wear those all the time.”

“And my other clothes got destroyed in the Overblot fiasco.” Yuu gave him a look. “It’s not the most comfortable wearing a uniform all the time. More importantly, the uniforms will get wrinkled and I’ll get in trouble with Rosehearts-senpai.”

“…Just ask that Crowley to get you some more,” Grim bounded over to the dresser where she was getting dressed and snuggled against her hand, making attractive purring noises. “You don’t need a job.”

She smiled at him fondly. For all everyone said about Yuu not being a typical NRC student, she was aware, at least, that Crowley was not a good person. Asking for favours from him was like sticking her hand into the mouth of a dragon.

“Grim,” Yuu said gently, setting the small bottle she’d found in her pocket on the dresser. She still needed to ask Leona if he’d maybe slipped it to her last time.

Funa?” Grim peered up at her with those huge blue eyes.

Her smile went wicked. “I’ll buy you canned tuna every week from Mister S’s shop once I get my first paycheque.”

“Deal!” Grim stopped rubbing at her hand immediately, ears going pin straight. “…Plus it’s not like you’ll pass the interview for sure.”

“Hey,” she said mildly. “I want to pass it. I know you don’t know much about human beings, Grim, but they need money. I don’t have any money so I can’t even get extra underwear and socks for myself.” Crewel had supplied her with several sets, but it was best to have a fallback in case something unexpected happened. Like an Overblot.

Grim puffed out his cheeks. “…But what am I supposed to do while you’re working?” he asked plaintively.

Yuu sighed and hugged him to her. “Oh, Grim,” she said helplessly. “I’m sorry. I’ll ask if they’ll let you watch while I’m working, okay?”

“Okay,” Grim mumbled against her shirt. “I still hope you don’t get the job.”

At first, Crewel had tried to persuade Crowley—with his crop—to give her an allowance, but Yuu firmly denied it. She was already receiving free shelter and food from him, and now she had a row of uniforms lined up in her closet too. Day by day she stacked up the amount of resources she’d spent in this world—in this school. She wasn’t expecting Crowley to hold it over her head, but Yuu herself didn’t like owing anyone anything.

Was it her own pride? Perhaps. Yuu had never had anyone do anything for her—since she was small, she’d been by herself. Fended for herself. Suffered by herself. Being handed things just felt strange and uncomfortable. Too good to be true.

There was the issue of staying too long in a foreign world, there was the issue of relying on someone who she couldn’t trust, but in the end, she was beginning to think it just came down to her stupid ego.

Yuu thought that she might have been suited for this school after all. Every last one of its students was narcissistic, proud, arrogant. And she was starting to believe she was no exception.

Crowley had then suggested, after her refusal to accept money, that she work with Sam at his shop. Yuu had turned that down right away. Sam had already said he didn’t take any hired hands and she wasn’t here to make more trouble for him just because of her desire to work to make money. Crewel had sniffed and said something about it being the duty of an owner to keep up the grooming on his pets and told her she should just act like a dumb puppy and let herself be groomed, but Yuu shook her head.

In the end, Crowley handed her two options. One was to work in the kitchens—whose peak hours were during lunch and dinner—and one was to submit a job application at the only other business within school grounds.

The former was rather unrealistic to consider, as Yuu would have to be up much earlier for a breakfast shift, skip classes for a lunch shift, and miss any potential activities during an evening shift after school. However, when she asked for more information about the latter option, both Crewel and Crowley exchanged complicated glances.

For some reason, neither of them had been eager to suggest her the privately-run café called ‘Mostro Lounge’, though Yuu thought it was an excellent option. Not only were they seeking part-timers, but a privately-run company—by students, no less!—meant that rules wouldn’t be enforced by the school. Which, in turn, meant more freedom concerning hours, tips, and working styles.

Apparently, the dormitory in which it was located, Octavinelle, was situated entirely underwater, so Crewel gave her a small bottle he told her to drink the contents of if, for some reason, she was to enter the sea against her will. He told her it would help her to stay alive until she reached the surface again.

Underwater, Yuu repeated, excited in spite of the professors’ cautions. The entire dorm was located at the bottom of an ocean. An ocean!

Her interest sufficiently hooked, Yuu submitted her job application on the spot—Crowley sighed and reluctantly promised he’d send it out for her—and received an embossed invitation for an interview that weekend. That was why, despite Grim’s grumbling, she had straightened out her uniform and tied her tie into a neat bow. All interviews required one to make a suitable first impression. Which meant that she left way earlier than she needed to—Yuu was counting on getting lost again.

It was all the same when she volunteered to do neighbours’ chores for cash; when she had teamed up with some of the Ravenclaws and Slytherins to earn money during the summer of her second year. One needed to look the part, no matter how unqualified they were on the inside, to gain a reputation and therefore money.

So Yuu tied her lengthening hair tightly into a bun at her nape, clipped back her bangs at Crewel’s advising, and shoved herself through Octavinelle’s shell-covered mirror before she could give herself time to fear it.

When the light cleared this time, Yuu was confronted with a vast blue sea swelling up to oblivion above her.

Night Raven College had to be huge—the campus itself was just as big as Hogwarts, and the field large enough to hold a stadium plus grounds for club activities, not to mention a garden, a forest, and Sam’s shop. Yet each dormitory had its own separate building surrounded by its own grounds. Heartslabyul was a brick castle with a moat and a labyrinth of rosebushes. Savanaclaw was a fortress hewn out of sandy rock surrounded by wide-open plains of sun-scorched grass.

And Octavinelle was nestled quietly at the mouth of a vast ocean.

For one giddy moment, Yuu had thought she was breathing underwater—but the coral walkway she stood on, leading up, up, up towards the dormitory building, was dry. She craned her neck back and saw the distant sunlight filter through an enormous cylindrical dome of glass stretching far beyond her before the top of the dormitory building broke the surface of the sea; beyond it, more jagged colonies of coral faded into the far distance of blue saltwater. As she watched, a ragged patch of kelp drifted above her head, shading her face briefly. Small glimmers of fish—or were they shells?—blinked in and out of the edges of her vision.

Yuu realized she’d stopped inhaling in awe and sucked in a long, shuddering breath. The air was fresh despite the lack of visible ventilation, although there was a slight burn of a saltwater scent in her nose. Yuu had never been to the ocean, had never been to an aquarium, but the deep, absolute silence she experienced sitting at the bottom of this tube convinced her of its appeal immediately.

Some unidentifiable amount of time passed as Yuu forgot her original purpose and revelled quietly in the blue enveloping her. It was a calming feeling being submerged deep in the ocean—though she was protected by the dome—and Yuu thought she might want to die here one day, fall asleep in this forever blue and drift off peacefully.

Eventually she blinked out of it, because she had an interview to attend and just how long had she been standing on this uneven purple walkway?

Still, Yuu could not stop herself from marvelling as she descended, leaping from chunk of coral to chunk of coral. Several towers sculpted out of purplish rock curved up to the dome like gigantic shells buried in the sand, rows of windows circling up the sides. A particularly large one had the carvings of octopus legs curling upwards until the lilac and lavender banner displaying Octavinelle’s shell crest hung off of a metal trident attached to the tip of one.

What a beautiful…fairy-tale. Yes, fairy-tale was the apt word to describe the uneven purple pillars rising up on either side of her as she neared Octavinelle’s castle. It was fashioned out of lighter purple rock than the surroundings, small streams of bubbles leaving its glowing blue windows, lilac ribbons curling up the two pillars gating it and a host of similar ribbons dancing up the impossibly tall shell-like structure.

Octavinelle looked like a dream out of an underwater fairy-tale.

Yet when Yuu stepped slowly into the entranceway, looking up at the jagged edges above her, she couldn’t shake the premonition of entering the wide-open jaws of a shark.

Contrary to the rather old-fashioned appearance of its outsides, Octavinelle was the most modern dorm she had seen yet, a great deal more so than the natural roughness of Savanaclaw or the eighteenth-century England of Heartslabyul. Close to the entranceway of the dorm had been a velvet-lined set of stairs, lit with soft blue electrical light, down into the opening of a dark entranceway titled Mostro Lounge in elegant cursive.

Briefly, she wondered why the written language alternated between English and Japanese when everyone spoke flawless Japanese, regardless of ethnicity. Yuu dismissed it for now—there were far more important things to be worrying about. She’d leave that puzzle for later. For now, it was enough to be grateful that she didn’t get lost right away.

Yuu slowly descended the wide stairway, reminded of a movie theatre’s light-embedded steps, admiring the carved wooden handles. To her surprise, the staircase pointed straight out of the building down a long, narrowly designed path that led outside, cutting through the sea. Yuu made her way back into the blue ocean and down the pathway into the open bony jaws of a smaller building fashioned from a fish. Once again, Mostro Lounge was fashioned in the same cursive across the entrance.

However, Mostro Lounge was nothing like the café she expected. Instead of chairs, luxurious black sofas surrounded ivory-purple tables carved elegantly to catch the bright lamplight. The walls were painted a royal violet, save for the back wall, which was made entirely of glass and outlooked the bottom of a garden of coral fading into the vast plunge of ocean beyond. Jellyfish-shaped chandelier lights hung from the ceiling, their glass-strung legs glittering with the glow of the sea, and a stylishly minimalistic bar lined one side of the café, behind which a barman in a suit was polishing glass against five shelves stacked full of bottles. Unobtrusive jazz music leaked quietly through to her ears.

Once again, Yuu’s breath was stolen—a café was not enough to describe this place. Mostro Lounge, indeed; she wouldn’t be surprised if they tacked on ‘and bar’ to the end of it. Was this classy place really a student-managed establishment?

As expected of a Saturday morning, the Lounge was empty of customers; however, Yuu’s open-mouthed examination of the place caught the eye of the barman, who put away his glass and cloth and left the bar politely to approach her.

“Good morning,” he said in a beautifully cultured voice, lowering his head to her with one white-gloved hand pressed politely to his chest. The man took a breath and paused abruptly.

“Morning,” Yuu responded, having to crane her neck up to see his face.

“…How may I help you today?” the barman continued after a period of silence.

Whoops. Had she been rude? “I’m due for an interview today with the manager at Mostro Lounge.”

“Very well,” he responded without a hint of surprise. “The one scheduled for an interview at ten, I see. You have arrived quite a bit earlier than the meeting time, so we will have you wait for a while, if that’s all right with you.” When he stood back up straight, the accented grey stole hanging over his black suit caught the light as he narrowed his gaze at her.

“Of course.” He was so polite that Yuu found herself straightening her back and returning it with the same level of speech. “I apologize for coming so early. Since it was my first time at this dorm, I was expecting to get lost a couple of times.”

“Please don’t apologize. It is a virtue to be punctual.” The man stretched out his hand, indicating the bar and displaying the beginnings of a violet dress shirt under the suit. “I will show you a way, so please follow me.”

“Thank you,” Yuu said cautiously. If everyone was as perfect-looking as this barman she was doubtful she’d even get the time of day, let alone the job, as comparatively unimpressive as she was.

The barman retreated behind the bar after indicating one of the counter chairs at her (again, luxuriously black leather seating and a short metal back). Yuu had to climb up onto it bodily, which made him chuckle politely with a fist covering his ever-smiling mouth. Soon after, he set an iced glass of water before her before returning to a row of wet wineglasses.

Yuu briefly wondered if they sold alcohol underage here before cutting that line of thought off. It wasn’t her business (yet). Instead she examined the barman, because he was the closest thing to what she imagined a butler was that she had ever seen.

Even though she sat on a high bar stool, he towered above her, the fedora perched on his turquoise hair adding an extra few centimetres to his impressive height. It was just as black as the suit, tied with a pale grey ribbon from which a dark purple shell gleamed. This guy would probably make Ace very angry if he was an opponent in the basketball team, she thought, impressed. He shot up over a hundred eighty-five, easily the tallest person she’d seen at this school.

Yuu decided to ignore the yawning vertical chasm between them. She had never been very tall, even for a girl, and she didn’t care. Not one bit. At all.

The stranger’s hair was a beautiful turquoise that matched the sea-hue stretching out to their sides. One streak of black highlight fell elegantly straight past his left cheek. She’d never seen hair that colour before, and his thin eyebrows and long eyelashes matched the blue so that she began to wonder if he was like Teddy Lupin’s deceased mother, Nymphadora Tonks, who had changed hair colours at a mood (according to pictures Victoire Weasley had shown her)—or maybe this world had different rules concerning hair colour. Unlike Tonks, his eyes were heterochromatic; the left shone a brilliant pure gold while the right was a deep olive. Below each eye was a streak of purple tracing the bottom eyelid, though she couldn’t tell if the colour was natural or eyeliner.

The barman chuckled politely and turned his head towards her, a chain of three sea-blue diamonds dangling from his left ear. “Is there something on my face?”

“No sir,” Yuu answered, sipping at her water, “it’s just that it’s the first time I’ve seen someone dressed as smartly as you. Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“Well, well.” The smile widened. “Thank you for the compliment…?”

“Yuu,” she introduced herself. “I’m a first year. Class A. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the headmaster appointed me as a Directing Student.”

“Yuu-san.” Again, the barman showed no surprise at all, his face in that ever-present mask of politeness. “I hear much about you indeed. My name is Jade Leech. I am a second year and the Octavinelle’s vice Dorm Head. I look forward to our acquaintance.”

Second year!?” Yuu blurted out, then regretted it. “—Um, sorry Leech-senpai. It’s just that you behaved so professionally I had no idea you were a student.”

Jade chuckled again. “You are quite the cute first-year, aren’t you, Yuu-san.”

“Did you rhyme on purpose?” Yuu squinted.

He didn’t change his expression. “I wonder?”

Yuu didn’t quite know what to make of this person called Jade Leech. With that smile he wore as a mask she had no idea if he was lying or not, if he was a student or not, a vice Dorm Head or not, but she supposed it didn’t matter in the end. More importantly… “You hear a lot about me, senpai?”

“Why, yes, we do,” Jade hung a dry glass on the wall and fetched a second one with deft movements. “It is, after all, the first time in the history of this school that a student was admitted to NRC without being able to use magic.”

“To be more specific, half a student,” Yuu explained, “since the other half who can use magic is a Monster called Grim.”

“Ah, yes, the creature who caused trouble at the opening ceremony, among other things.” Jade somehow managed to peek up at her through his lashes despite being taller than her. “I’ve seen him running across the courtyard many a time.”

“Ah ha ha.” Yuu winced. “He’s good at causing trouble. I’ve been trying to get him to stop with mixed success.”             

“For a human without any magic, that is quite the accomplishment,” Jade commented placidly.

Yuu didn’t really think so, but she nodded along and sipped at her ice water.

The two of them descended into quiet for a while after. Yuu was used to silence and didn’t particularly feel the need to overwhelm the lazy jazz music with chatter; instead, she gazed out into the ocean spreading out behind the glass wall with quiet wonder and debated swallowing Crewel’s potion in her pocket to go out for a swim. She had never swum before, but Yuu was already enamoured with the sea.

“Do you like the ocean, Mister Directing Student?” Jade prompted gently.

Absorbed in the scenery, she nodded absently. “I’ve never seen it before today. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

“It is rather nice,” he agreed. “…First time?”

“I’ve never been to an ocean before,” Yuu turned to him with a sheepish smile. “Or any body of water larger than a lake. And that lake was more like a swamp than anything. So forgive me if I’m a little entranced.”

“Hmm.” Jade pressed gloved fingers to his chin in thought. “Usually it seems that non-Octavinelle students are rather frightened by the ocean scenery when they arrive. There is nothing more than a thin piece of enchantment separating them from drowning.”

“That’s true,” Yuu conceded, remembering the dome outside. Had he just made a pun with seanery?

He raised one elegantly thin eyebrow and she decided not to ask. Jade Leech blinked his heterochromatic eyes at her and asked smoothly, “You’re not afraid?”

This person was beautiful too, Yuu noted absently, in a completely different style of elegant beauty than Leona’s wild handsomeness and Ruggie’s youthfulness. “Not really,” she shook her head, “Sitting at the bottom of this ocean is…rather comforting.”

“Comforting,” repeated Jade quietly. He smiled at her again, that same polite smile. “Mister Directing Student, has anyone told you that you are…especially interesting before?”

“Pretty recently, actually.” Yuu shook her head. “I am personally of the opinion that I’m the most uninteresting human I’ve ever encountered. I can’t even use magic.”

“That makes you all the more interesting,” Jade said politely. “I’m sure there’s more to you than meets the eye.”

Yuu didn’t quite know what to say to that, but she was saved from a response as a second man in a matching suit, unbuttoned, ducked out from a subtly hidden door at the back of the bar. “Jade, have you—oh? A customer this early?”

“Ah, Dorm Head.” Jade turned his smile onto the new arrival. “Mister Directing Student…Yuu-san is scheduled for an interview in another thirteen minutes.”

Yuu slid off the stool to greet the new arrival, who she had recognized from the opening ceremony. He was the polite young man with the thin lenses who had chased Grim together with Riddle. “Nice to meet you, Mister Dorm Head. My name is Yuu and I’m the first year Directing Student.”

“Well, well.” The Dorm Head’s smile revealed a dimple and a small mole at the corner of his mouth. His fedora, matching Jade’s, tipped to the side, exposing a shock of artfully styled silver-white hair that curled against his ears. “It is wonderful to finally meet the Directing Student we’ve heard so much about. My name is Azul Ashengrotto, second year in Octivanelle. As Jade has said, I am the Dorm Head as well as the administrator of Mostro Lounge.”

Yuu shook her head in amazement. “That’s incredible, Ashengrotto-senpai. Your café is beautiful.”

Azul’s pale blue eyes narrowed shrewdly behind their lenses. “…I’ve heard about you from the Headmaster, Yuu-san,” he said, “it seems that you are in need of a place to work?”

“Yes sir,” Yuu nodded. “As I think you remember, I was brought here by mistake. However, when I tried to leave via Mirror, I was told there was no place for me to return, so I became stranded here without a penny to my name.”

“How tragic,” exclaimed Azul, not looking sad in the least. He clasped his hands in front of his unbuttoned suit jacket under the purple ribbon and revealed his teeth in a smile. “…Yet I am very interested in hearing how you managed to convince the Headmaster to keep you here as a student. Follow me, Yuu-san. Shall we start our interview?”

Yuu had never taken an interview in such a professional setting, but even without that handicap, there was something about Azul Ashengrotto that made her nervous.

His appearance was, unsurprisingly, just as handsome as the others she had met in this school—perfectly symmetrical features, slightly hooded eyes the colour of liquid mercury that slanted up towards his temples, a mature and rather dangerous appeal about his full mouth as he draped a lavender coat over his suit and guided her towards the back of the Lounge into a room labelled with the sparkling letters V.I.P.

Azul did not have the height Jade boasted nor the same perfect politeness the latter wore so deftly. And yet—

“Please, come in,” Azul held out a gloved hand much in the same way Jade had done when inviting her to a table.

“Thank you,” she said, entering the VIP Room ahead of him.

Yuu took in the office-styled room without the wonder with which she had examined Mostro Lounge. It was no less beautiful, especially the murals of undersea life done in stunning detail on the little patch of wall that was not smothered in bookshelves, and the glittering paint on the ceilings talked of mystery and magic—but everything inside of Yuu that had worked with dragons, hippogriffs, and all manner of chimaera were screaming at her not to be deceived.

Shown to a couch even plusher than the ones outside, though just as dark, Yuu took a seat in front of a glass table filled with seawater as Azul set aside a long black walking stick and sat down in front of her, lacing his fingers in front of his mouth and leaning both elbows on his outstretched legs.

“First of all, why don’t you tell me the reason you applied for a job here,” Azul narrowed his eyes at her shrewdly. “As a Directing Student, are you not given lodging and tuition covered by the school?”

“But that’s all that’s covered,” Yuu responded back, careful not to relax too much into the comfortable fabric. “The bare necessities. In fact, I didn’t have a school uniform until last week. No nightclothes, no tea, no extra notebooks. Additionally, the Headmaster has told me that your Mostro Lounge is currently hiring for the autumn season, so I don’t believe it’s too bad of a deal for you.”

“Ah, but you see,” Azul said lightly, “we don’t hire out of dorm too often. Although it may be true that we need help, hiring someone who will just make a mess of things is worse than not hiring someone at all. No?”

Yuu took the bait. “Why don’t you hire out of dorm?”

“Why, don’t you know?” Azul looked delighted. “Octavinelle students are without an exception Mermen. Hiring humans often puts unnecessary social strains on the Lounge, which of course no one wants. Of course, everyone who knows of NRC is aware of this already.”

So he’d been trying to expose her ignorance on the subject. Yuu felt a slight prick of irritation at the smug expression on his face, which resembled Scorpius’ rare moments of arrogance a little too much for comfort, but she knew Azul was in the superior position right now. He had too much information she didn’t.

Yuu decided she wasn’t going to hide it, especially since this Dorm Head already seemed to have an inkling of the truth. “I didn’t know anything about NRC before I got here,” she told him honestly. “You saw the mirror label me as an unknown at the opening ceremony, right? Headmaster tried to send me home afterwards, only to be met with the answer that I didn’t belong anywhere.”

“Oh?” Azul arched a silver brow, leaning forwards emphatically. “And yet, there are a number of ways one could find your hometown without relying on a mirror.”

“We tried all of them,” she played along with his charade, now completely sure he knew what she was about to say. “However, my country didn’t exist on any maps, so according to the Headmaster, I was probably sent here through dimensions or worlds.”

“My word. How unfortunate for you!” Azul looked thrilled. “I hope you understand how rare a dimension-traveller is. And one who has never heard of or used magic—it’s a wonder the Headmaster admitted you as a student.”

“Half of a student.” Yuu explained how she had partnered with Grim and how the Headmaster had labelled her as an animal tamer for some reason.

Azul blinked, leaning back in more genuine surprise. “You didn’t trick him into enrolling you?”

I’m not you, she wanted to say. Yuu shook her head. “In fact, I was content being a chores boy, but Headmaster was eager enough, and I didn’t care so much.”

“Didn’t care so much, huh.” Azul considered her. Abruptly he changed topic. “Hiring out of dorm is not out of the question—in fact, one of our regular top batters is a second year from Savanaclaw. However, he is the exception, not the rule. Give me a reason I should allow a…rather vertically challenged…first year like you scramble around the hall serving customers.”

“Isn’t it better to be small if you’re a server?” Yuu responded. “So as not to get in the customer’s way. I’m not very impressive or intimidating, so others should feel comfortable talking with me. Ah, but I don’t know if there are any societal tensions between humans and merfolk.”

“That is the least of your concern,” Azul dismissed. “It’s true that a small and quick-moving staff is valued over a tall one. Yet can you say truthfully that you’re not afraid of this dorm or its residents?”

“At this point?” Yuu thought for a moment. “I’m not afraid only because I’ve met Leech-senpai and you, Ashengrotto-senpai. Just on guard. But since I don’t know anyone else in Octavinelle, it seems rather rash of me to answer you based on only two people.”

Azul nodded. “Good answer. If you had said foolishly that you weren’t afraid of me, I would have kicked you out on the spot.”

“Fear is a good thing,” Yuu shrugged. “All humans and animals have it for a reason. It’s useful.”

Azul considered her for a long moment. “…And it seems that you are not a typical human,” he murmured.

“I think I’m the most typical human around,” Yuu demurred. “A completely normal person who doesn’t stick out. Isn’t that kind of person useful in a shop like this? Whether in the kitchen or as a waiter?”

Azul was startled into a chuckle. “I’ve never had someone advertise themselves to me in that way. Isn’t it a better tactic to brag about your strong points?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not in my character to brag,” Yuu said dryly. “I suppose if I had to choose my strongest quality it would be my intelligence, but recently I’ve been getting called stupid quite a bit, so that is questionable too.”

“Entering Octavinelle all alone is an action only a fool takes,” Azul nodded. “Yet in this case I’ll attribute it to your ignorance, which in itself is a heavy minus.”

“That’s true,” Yuu nodded. “Though there are some advantages to ignorance. If I’d grown up in this world I would not be speaking to you about this dorm the same way I am right now. Right?”

“And what a curious thing it is,” Azul murmured, “that you are able to meet my eye without sweating.”

The seawater in the table below him caught his pale eyes and turned them a beautiful, sparkling blue and for a second, she thought she saw his pupils flatten out into a horizontal line.

“With all of the hinting at how frightening this place is,” Yuu arched a brow at him, not looking away, “I would appreciate it if you told me a little information you think I should know.”

“I’m interviewing you, Yuu-san,” Azul gave her an amused smile, his silver-blue eyes cold.

“Isn’t it common for an interviewee to ask some questions?” she shot back, not backing down.

Azul narrowed his eyes. “…Very well,” he said at last. “Although I should charge you for the information. This time I’ll generously include it as part of the interview.”

Yuu waited as he pondered visibly over what to say. She was starting to get a feel on his character: self-interest above all else.

“Octavinelle is the dorm built on the merciful heart of the Witch of the Sea,” Azul began smoothly. “When I entered this school last year, I noticed an excellent opportunity to use…ahem. To provide a yet unseen service in the school in the form of the Mostro Lounge.”

“You built this place?” Yuu raised both eyebrows in surprise. “In your first year? Did the Headmaster let you?”

“He was quite agreeable after hearing ten percent of the profits would be transferred to him,” Azul pushed the bridge of his glasses up with a gloved finger. “Mostro Lounge has been quite successful, if I do say so myself. In fact, this year, we are looking to expand to booths during school festivities and games.”

So not only had he built a successful business from the ground up in his first year of schooling, but he’d achieved the title of Dorm Head by his second year. If the rules were anything like Heartslabyul’s, this mean that his grades and demeanour were beyond reproach. An intelligent businessman.

Working under this person would not be easy.

Azul continued, “Because Octavinelle’s residents are all Mermen, we usually use potions to change form during the school year to attend classes aboveground and within the dorm. I’m assuming you don’t know about Mermen either?”

“Not at all,” Yuu answered honestly. The merfolk in wizarding Britain were notoriously unfriendly. “I’ve only read about them in storybooks.”

“A magicless world…” Azul sighed in mock pity. “When you said such a thing earlier, I could hardly believe it. It is one thing to be magicless in a world full of magic—it is quite another to live in a world bereft of it entirely. To us, it is impossible to imagine a place in which magical power does not exist.”

“Does your transforming potion wear out periodically?” Yuu asked, ignoring his postulating. She couldn’t suppress her curiosity. In effect, Azul had to be a Merman too, but he looked one hundred percent human, and Jade Leech was the same. She only knew of Gillyweed and Polyjuice that were able to change a human’s body structure without resorting to complicated transfiguration or Animagus training, and the former methods never lasted long.

She’d leaned forwards in excitement—Azul was blinking his silver-blue eyes at her in surprise. She wondered exactly what colour they were, and did they change with his mood?

“There has been much research into this particular area of transformation,” Azul explained with a polite cough, “so the possibility of one turning back into their true forms unexpectedly is close to zero. Of course, a long time without a second dose of the potion will cause its effects to wear off.”

Fascinating. “And Mermen can’t breathe aboveground at all originally?”

“It depends heavily on the species. However, the more magical power one has, the easier it is to find ways around breathing problems. Not only are merfolk strong against the cold—deep water becomes cold, much colder than you humans would think—but our physical strength outshines that of you humans’ by an order of magnitude,” Azul’s polite smile twisted up in a sarcastic tilt. “You can guess how rare it is for humans to intermingle with us. Therianthropes relate more easily, but humans are so prone to jealousy and fear…”

“I see,” Yuu nodded thoughtfully, glad he was so willing to explain. “It makes sense why there aren’t many humans in this dorm, I suppose.”

Azul paused for a long moment. He was looking at her with a funny expression on his face she couldn’t understand. “…Yuu-san, are you considered one who is good at hiding their emotions?”

“Me?” Yuu thought for a moment, confused by the non sequitur. “I think I’m about the same as the next person, I suppose. Why?”

“…No, you are truly a strange human, that’s all.” Azul frowned briefly before it was wiped away by his smile again. “In addition to being a café, Mostro Lounge also offers students a place to voice their worries or needs. Within this VIP room, we extend general consulting services for anything from searching for a lost item to studying for the next exams. For a suitable fee, of course.”

“Wow,” Yuu commented, “with all these things on your shoulder, Dorm Head, how can you keep it all up without collapsing?”

“Please. It’s merely a matter of effort, although there are days in which the sheer stupidity of the common populace and their inability to produce the needed funds that were promised beforehand truly inspire me to teach them just how they should approach a business agreement,” Azul said very quickly.

Yuu had noticed before when he was talking about Mermen, but Azul was rather eloquent, to put it lightly. She wondered if he had really meant to spill all of that out about his customers just now, especially when it sounded pretty close to illegal.

She decided to let it pass by unchecked. Yuu knew how to choose her battles. “Would I help on that business as well as in the café if I were to work here?”

Azul’s eyes widened and he dropped his folded hands. “Pardon?”

“Are there any special requirements to working in this room? This er…general consulting department?” Yuu wrinkled her nose.

“Yuu-san,” Azul pasted his smile back on. “I’m rather surprised you haven’t run away from this interview in a hurry yet. Are you really that desperate for some small change?”

“That’s not it. I don’t see any demerits to working here, that’s all,” Yuu said.

Azul blinked. “…After all I described to you just now?”

“It seems reasonable enough,” Yuu shrugged. “Though if there are any customs that I should follow while among the merfolk—er, your Mermen, I’d like to know so I don’t offend them unduly.”

“…I’m beginning to see how you’ve survived this long,” Azul muttered, “though I don’t know whether to call it foolish bravery or resilience.”

It was magic that had saved her, Yuu thought, though she didn’t say it out loud. Azul Ashengrotto was the one person she didn’t want to reveal her secrets to—she was sure he would be the first to use it against her.

Chapter Text

October dawned on Night Raven College with a subtle browning of the grass. Warm, sunny weather still clung onto the days with the last vestiges of summer, but the apple trees in the courtyard were beginning to hang low with their harvest. Yuu had seen several clumps of students gathered below the trees on the weekend armed with baskets and ladders, and when she arrived in the cafeteria’s kitchens after school on Monday, Trey was skinning a particularly shiny red apple at one of the tables, surrounded by bowls of similar fruit.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said guiltily, setting her book bag on a chair and sliding into the seat across from him. “I had to ask Professor Crewel for clarification on some homework.”

“I’d like Ace and Deuce to take an example from you and be a little more serious about their schooling,” Trey said mildly. “Go wash your hands before you touch those, please. I just soaked them.”

“Okay.” Yuu went and rinsed her hands as Grim plodded into the kitchen, grumbling about being inside on such a nice day when he could be napping in the sun.

Trey raised his brows at the Monster as she returned to the table. “Why does Grim look like he’s in such a bad mood?”

“I told you, you can go hang out outside if you want,” she said exasperatedly as Grim hopped onto the table and sat against a bowl of apples.

“But you’re not going outside,” Grim said sulkily.

“So here we are,” she explained to Trey, unable to resist petting him with her sleeve (so her hands wouldn’t get dirty again). “Isn’t he adorable?”

“Shut up! Don’t call the Great Grim adorable!”

“I see,” Trey chuckled, tossing her an apple and indicating a spare knife. “You like animals and Monsters, Transfer?”

“Yeah,” she nodded emphatically, “They’re so interesting. Back at Hogwarts my favourite subject was Care of Magical Creatures.”

“But I’m better than all of them,” Grim put in.

“You’re the only one who could talk,” Yuu rolled her eyes at him. “So yes, O Great Grim, you are better than all of them.”

Grim didn’t notice her slight sarcasm and puffed out his chest proudly. “You better give the first slice of pie to me after you’re done!”

“Sorry, Grim, I’ve already promised the first slice to transfer here,” Trey grinned down at him. “Since he’s being so nice to help me.”

“Tch. Glasses,” Grim said, as if insulting him.

“You know you could help too,” she suggested.

Grim flicked his tail at her dismissively and settled down in a patch of sunlight to nap.

CHAPTER SEVEN | Within Enemy Territory.

“Sorry about him,” she pointed at the lightly dozing Monster. “I swear his ability to sleep at a second’s notice is unparalleled.”

Trey laughed. “I’m sure he’s exhausted from a day’s worth of classes.”

It was times like these when Yuu was hit with just how good-natured he was. Trey never seemed to get angry—not even when Ace was needling him—only worried about Riddle or amused otherwise. That kind of maturity was tough to find anywhere, let alone in a boy’s high school.

The two of them worked at skinning apples for a few minutes until Yuu remembered she was a witch. “…Trey-senpai, um, since you guys know my secret, do you mind if I Charm the knife to speed things up a bit?”

“Hmm? You mean use your own magic?” Trey put down his perfectly skinned apple and tilted his chin at her obligingly. “Go ahead. I’ve been interested in it since you protected me with the shield back in the Rose Maze.”

Yuu slid her wand out of her uniform sleeve and flicked it at the table. Both her knife and Trey’s lifted into the air and began to peel the apples that floated towards them one by one. “Thanks.”

“That’s some really precise magic,” Trey said, looking impressed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Magic in this world is divided into elements, so it’s completely different than magic in my world,” she explained, putting her wand away. “Like painting the roses and adding whipped cream to a tart all draws from wind magic, right?”

“The former also uses water magic,” Trey nodded, “but you’re right.”

“Our magic is sort of like the Nothing…the ‘void’ element you guys use,” she explained, watching the scarlet peels curl into spirals on the table. “It’s not about magical power or about elements. It’s just a force all by itself, so Charms like these aren’t that difficult to master.”

“To have such a deep understanding of our magic after one month here is plenty impressive,” Trey said mildly, swishing his Pen. A row of pie crusts zoomed over from behind him and arranged themselves on the table. “Would you go fetch the nutmeg, vanilla extract and cinnamon from that cupboard, transfer? I’m going to prepare these for the oven.

“Okay.” Yuu got the ingredients, pretending not to notice Grim steal an apple to chew on. Trey didn’t say anything, so she was sure he didn’t mind either.

Despite her continued wariness of the third year, Trey was so unceasingly genial and friendly that she felt bad about doubting him. She’d considered asking his friends about what they thought of Trey, but had not had the opportunity to do so.

Riddle was probably the closest thing to the vice Dorm Head’s friend that she’d seen in the dorm, but it was largely due to the atmosphere Trey created around him. Riddle trusted Trey unflinchingly—had appointed him as vice Dorm Head pretty much instantly, he’d said—and yet there was still a glass wall she felt on Trey’s end. But Yuu had been going back and forth so much she was no longer sure whether the wall was a product of her shabby imagination.

Cater, who probably knew what was going on far better than she did, had told her not to worry. And the problem was—she wasn’t. Despite some small gut feeling telling her she should be on guard, run before it was too late, Trey was so unassuming. So harmless. So helpful.

Yuu did not have enough experience navigating social situations to outmanoeuvre him.

So here she was, far less worried than she should be, making apple pies with Trey in the school kitchens for Riddle as his evening snack. As the only one of her friends without club activities, she’d volunteered to help out with the leftover apples since Ace had been whining about wanting to eat sweets lately. After the pies were ready, they were going to have an after-dinner party in Heartslabyul before bedtime.

Yuu liked Trey. It was rude to behave this way to someone who’d never wronged her and most importantly, worrying was useless. So Yuu brushed her unfounded unease off and chatted idly with him about school and her magic.

On his end, Trey was an excellent conversationalist, and he never pushed too hard. It was this part of him that reminded her so closely of Auror-Professor Harry Potter who dropped by to give lectures in Defence sometimes. They both knew when to back off, manipulating conversations and topics with an expert’s touch born, perhaps, of experience. Yuu didn’t know if she was an introvert or an extrovert, but the usual carefulness she exercised in speaking with others fell out the window when talking to Professor Potter and now, Trey Clover.

“Come to think of it, I haven’t heard your last name,” Trey commented as he started to add corn starch, nutmeg and cinnamon to a mixing bowl. “Is there a different naming system in your world?”

“What?” Yuu blinked, confused. “No, not really. It’s just that I got my last name magically struck so I don’t have one anymore.”

Trey paused for a moment. “Mind explaining what ‘magically struck’ means?”

“You guys don’t have that sort of thing?” Yuu asked. “I don’t really hear of it in the muggle—er, non-magical world—but magic manifests in words too, especially names. Names have power to them.”

“That sounds like something out of a novel,” Trey commented, stretching out a hand.

Yuu put the vanilla extract on his palm, gathering the chopped squares of peeled apple as the knives did their work beside her. She grinned, “I’ve learned to stop associating my misguided sense of reality with magic a long time ago. There are all sorts of magic dealing with words, like Vows, prophecies, and the like. Anyway, it’s possible to identify, curse or track someone with their name, so after I asked my father for permission, I got rid of mine.” It had been similar to the way a Black had gotten his entire picture struck from the family tree over fifty years ago, though Yuu was surprised at how quick the process completed after all the paperwork went through.

“Your father gave you permission, just like that?” Trey asked sceptically, whisking his forming sauce with water.

“Yeah?” Yuu shrugged. “I don’t think he particularly cared one way or another. Though he seemed kind of amused that I’d decided to do it so quickly. My father’s a reasonable person.”

“Hmm. And so you got your last name…er…magically removed?” Trey squinted. “Like removing a tooth or something.”

“Good comparison,” Yuu said with a chuckle. “I had to go to the Ministry—that’s the specifically magical government in my world, by the way—and go through a complicated procedure, but I got it removed a couple years ago. It’s a good thing, too, since a year ago, I went on a trip with a mentor to research magical creatures and nearly got targeted by one that used last names to devour humans.”

Trey blinked once, slowly. “I suppose that was a wise decision for you to make, then.”

“Sure was.” Yuu filled her first bowl of apple cubes and grabbed a second. “It’s easier for me to introduce myself, too. I can make a lot of puns with my name.”

“I didn’t take you to be the type to make jokes,” Trey raised a brow, receiving her first bowl and starting to mix in the apples with the thickening sauce.

“Actually, I’m not. Nor am I funny. One of my…friends? Acquaintances? From my school is good at them, so it’s fun to use terrible puns because they’re so bad and they make him angry.” Yuu grinned cheekily.

“Ah, sorry if I brought up an uncomfortable topic,” Trey realized, “I’m sure you don’t want to talk about your family or friends since you were blown here through worlds.”

“Hm? Why?” Yuu blinked back questioningly.

Trey’s hands stilled momentarily. “…You don’t mind?”

“Mind what?” she squinted. “I’ve already told you about magic so there’s not much left for me to hide…”

“No…Don’t worry about it.” Trey’s smile was back. “You think your family’s searching for you by now?”

“Depends. My school is a boarding school, but I disappeared out of my bedroom in my parents’ house so my mother, at least, would check the neighbourhood. Or maybe not. Though I’m pretty sure they’ve assumed I’ve gone to school by now and stopped searching.” Yuu started to gather the peels of apple and toss them in the bin.

“I’m sure they’re worried.”

Yuu was almost positive they’d forgotten her existence by now, so she hummed noncommittally. “Though I guess my professors would notice I’m not around. Some of them, anyway.”

“And your friends?”

“Sure. Though even if I say ‘friends’ we’re not that close.” Yuu said matter-of-factly. “As you can see, I’m not very, er…eye-catching. At least, not in a good way. There were always a group of people who picked on me.”

“That’s not true at all,” Trey snorted. “You might be a little small for your age, but there’s nothing about you that’s inconspicuous.”

“Really? Is it my eye colour?” Yuu touched her bangs absently. “When I was studying abroad, they said it was rare for my hair colour. But I don’t think anyone can see my eyes.”

“Not your physical appearance,” Trey demurred, setting aside the bowl of marinated apple bits and starting on his second sauce bowl, “though you remind me of some of the first-year Pomefiore students. I meant your personality.”

Personality.

“I have a personality?” Yuu blurted out.

Trey jerked backwards in surprise as she leaned in, his square-rimmed glasses sliding a couple of inches down his nose. “Whoa, transfer!”

“Whoops. Sorry.” She winced, glancing down at Grim, who had turned around in his sleep at her outburst.

Instead of admonishing her, Trey put down his bowl and burst into snickers. It was the same kind of laugh that had surprised her so much back during their marron tart baking episode—one side of the mouth curled up to reveal white teeth and a slight narrowing of those ochre eyes, just enough to make her uneasy. Yuu chastised herself again. She was being paranoid. Probably. And even if she wasn’t, it didn’t really matter.

“Ahh, you really are so unexpected.” Trey pressed his glasses back up his nose with an un-gloved finger, seeming inordinately amused. “Yeah, you have a personality, obviously!”

“I mean, I’ve been called the opposite pretty often,” Yuu was still staring at him in surprise. “Like boring, flat, plain, unimpressive. So I always thought I was born without a personality.”

“No one’s born without a personality,” Trey narrowed his eyes at her in a smile. “And yours is especially obvious.”

“Then describe it to me,” Yuu said. “…Please. Senpai.”

“Seriously, you never stop surprising people. But I don’t know you very well, do I?” Trey pointed out.

“You’re good at reading people,” she shrugged, “and you’re on the top five list for people who know me well anyway. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to though.”

“Good at reading people, huh,” Trey said thoughtfully. “I think the same could be said about you.”

“Really? Not as good as you. Plus, the only reason I might not be terrible at it is because Japan—where my mother’s from—sort of specializes in reading between the lines.”

Trey showed his teeth at her. “Are you trying to get me to answer your question by flattering me?”

She hadn’t been. Yuu arched a brow. “Is it working?”

“How about you help me load these crusts with the apples and then we’ll see,” Trey challenged.

“Okay,” she reached for a bowl. But Yuu frowned and paused. “Wait a second. Aren’t we supposed to chill the mix first? At least that’s how I learned to make an apple pie.”

Trey raised a brow. “I’ve thought so before, transfer, but you know how to cook?”

“Yeah. I’ve been doing it for pretty much my whole life anyway.” Yuu smiled. “It’s sort of like Potions…er, what you guys call alchemy here. Always interesting to figure out different combinations.”

“I think we’re going to get along just fine,” Trey laughed, “since I’m in the Science Club where we do those things all the time. To answer your question, there’s a trick we use back at the shop to soften apples quickly with magic, so go ahead and load those crusts.”

“Okay.” Yuu started to dollop the unexpectedly warm marinade into an open crust. It had to have been magically heated.

The two of them fell into an easy silence for a few minutes before Trey hummed. “I guess the way I’d describe your personality as…straightforward, for better or for worse.”

“Straightforward?” This was the last thing she’d been expecting. “Um, Trey-senpai, I’m not a good person or anything.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Trey waved his hands. “And being a straightforward person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person—or that you don’t lie. But transfer, you live forwards. Most people live looking back, hiding something, fearing something.”

“I’m not brave or future-thinking either,” Yuu protested, wondering if Trey was trying to flatter her.

“It’s rather tough to describe your particular personality with words,” he gave her a troubled smile. “I don’t think there are many people like you, though. Especially not here at NRC.”

“Really?” Yuu wrinkled her nose. “I find that hard to believe.”

“I think that’s the part of you,” Trey said thoughtfully.

“The part of me…?”

Trey smiled at her. “Anyway, apart from your complete indifference about yourself, I think that what makes your personality so unique is your quickness from thought to action. Not that you’re stupid—far from it—but you think about something and then do it.”

“Like…everyone else.” Yuu deadpanned.

“Not like everyone else,” he contested her. “For example, in the case where Riddle Overblotted. You decided you’d fight him and then you did—even though it broke your laws.”

“I did debate over that decision for a while,” she protested. “I’m not the kind of person you’re making me out to be.”

“That’s what you think,” Trey continued, taking her filled crust from her and beginning to layer the top with crisscrossed dough. “The straightforward bit is when you cut your losses without flinching, transfer. When you land in a world not your own, most people worry endlessly about their home and friends. Not you.”

“I’ve been told it’s because I have the emotional range of a thimble,” Yuu said dryly, starting on her second pie crust.

“I don’t know about that, but you’re actively looking for a way home anyway, right?” Trey asked rhetorically. “You go to the library daily. You don’t try to make connections here to stay. There’s something very…clean and quick about your thought-to-action pathway.”

“I’ve never had someone describe me like that,” Yuu mused, “I don’t quite know how to feel about it.”

“I find it more surprising that you haven’t had anyone say this to you before,” Trey considered her through his lenses carefully.

“Why would they? People don’t usually hang around me.”

“…Well, it’s their loss,” Trey shrugged. The easy smile came back. “If you transfer over to Heartslabyul, we’ll hang around you all the time, you know.”

“Are we still talking about that?” Yuu grinned back. “I don’t know what ideas Ace and Deuce put into your head, but I’m staying in Ramshackle.”

“Come on. Don’t you want to live around us?” Trey teased.

“That’s not it.” Mostly, she was reluctant to be found out as a girl. “Ramshackle’s grown on me, you know.”

“They’re ruins,” Trey told her, unimpressed.

“I happen to like ruins.”

Trey sighed. “Honestly, you’re a mature guy and I’m not trying to get you to move dorms, it’s just Riddle…”

“Dorm Head?” she repeated.

Trey gave her a wry look. “I mean, you did sort of save his life and everything, but he likes you a lot, you know.”

“He said I was, er, interesting…” Yuu furrowed her brows. “But that doesn’t mean he likes me. It’s probably the unusualness of someone magicless.”

“That’s absolutely not the case,” Trey said dryly. “Call him what you want—Riddle is an excellent judge of character and he doesn’t take interest in others easily. In a way, you’re pretty lucky to have caught his eye, you know.”

Yuu wrinkled her nose. “I don’t get it.”

“That’s okay.” Trey crinkled his eyes and reached forward to wipe a smudge of cinnamon sauce off her cheek where it had splashed. “But Riddle already considers you one of his own…one of the Heartslabyul students, anyway, so he’s probably not going to give up soon.”

“Aren’t you the closest thing he has to a childhood friend?” she asked him plaintively. “Can’t you nudge him in the other direction?”

“And why would I do that?” Trey lifted one dark green brow.

Right. No good people in NRC.

“Then what about Che’nya-san? Do you know where to find him?”

“Che’nya?” Trey blinked in surprise.

“He seemed cooperative enough.” Yuu squinted as she started on the third pie. “Maybe he can try convincing Rosehearts-senpai.”

“Ah…Che’nya’s actually not a student here,” Trey said awkwardly. “He’s probably not on campus grounds. Usually he comes visiting us once in a while, but…”

“Not a student here?” she repeated, blinking. “You can get in this school without being a student?”

“Che’nya’s a special case.” Trey winced a bit. “You’re not supposed to be able to wander in, but like Riddle, he managed to develop his Unique Magic—which lets him disappear and appear at will—years ago and keeps messing with everyone. Fortunately, he’s the kind of person who stops at teasing, so there’s usually no harm done…Anyway, Che’nya’s a student from a school called Royal Sword Academy.”

Yuu remembered the smile hovering in the air before Che’nya faded from existence. “For a private school, NRC sure lets a lot of strangers in. Like me.”

“I can’t deny it,” he laughed. “Anyway, it’s easier to give up early if Riddle’s got his sights set on you. That guy looks small and pretty, but he’s got a bit of a difficult personality.”

“I noticed,” she said weakly. It still sent shivers down her spine when she recalled those darkened grey eyes as Riddle smiled at her the morning after his Overblot. Even without the huge monster behind him, Heartslabyul’s Dorm Head was scary.

Trey took her third filled pie, considering her. “…Do you really want me to tell him to stop?”

“Huh?” Yuu blinked in surprise. “Of course not, I was just kidding before. If I was going to deny him to his face, I’d do it myself.”

“Ah.” Trey shook his head, looking a little relieved. “I should have expected that.”

“But for some reason…” Yuu hesitated. “I don’t know. For some reason I…I can’t bring myself to say no flat-out when I look him in the eyes. Rosehearts-senpai might think me interesting, but I think I quite like him as a person too.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” Trey said warmly. “You’re welcome any time, you know.”

Yuu started shovelling pie filling into the fourth crust, not trusting her mouth not to betray her again. She hadn’t meant to say that much.

Never too intrusive, but just friendly enough for her to be exposed to the illusion that he was interested in her as a person—the ambiance surrounding Trey Clover was far too comfortable. Unlike Scarabia’s Dorm Head Kalim, who was a great big sun, Trey was the pleasant breeze on a warm afternoon.

She knew she was being paranoid, but he put her in a place of safety she hated and loved; Yuu vacillated between relaxation and full-out caution around this person so heavily she was starting to get dizzy. No matter how she scolded herself, she was getting the creeping feeling that the most dangerous person in this school was not Riddle Rosehearts, not Leona-senpai, nor Azul Ashengrotto, but the pleasantly smiling young man sliding pies into the oven before her.

“Go on without me,” Ace groaned, forehead pressed to the wood table of the desk in front of him. “I’m done for.”

Yuu gasped, clutching at his shoulder. “Ace! Don’t say that! We’ll still make it out of this together…”

“Yuu…” Ace choked. “…Tell my mother…”

“Mother…?”

“That he’s a miserable excuse of a human being who can’t even finish a single homework assignment,” Deuce deadpanned from her other side.

Ace tilted his head to the side with a thump, scowling up at the person he refused to admit was his friend. “Who’s the moron who did the assignment and still ended up with a zero?”

“At least I put in the effort. I just used the wrong column to fill my multiple-choice answers.”

“Really?” Yuu gaped at him. “I’ve never seen someone do that in real life.”

“Putting in effort and still getting a zero is lame,” Ace sniffed, “At least I spent my time in a meaningful manner.”

“On your phone?” Grim put in.

“Oh right,” Ace lifted his head and pulled them in conspiratorially. “Guys, there’s another Unbirthday party this weekend. You’re all coming, right?”

“Wait a sec, Trey-senpai told me that those are actually supposed to be for Heartslabyul dorm students only,” Yuu hurried to put in.

“What are you talking about?” Deuce gave her a weird look. “You’re one of us already.”

“Deuce!? Not you too!”

“I happen to like the big bed we have at Ramshackle,” Grim frowned.

Ace smirked at him. “But if you come to ours you get Trey-senpai’s sweets every week.”

Grim gasped, eyes shining. “Maybe we should move dorms, Yuu.”

“Stoppit, you poser.” Yuu smacked Ace in the shoulder. “Don’t tease Grim like that, he’ll believe you.”

“I’ll stop it if you come to the party,” Ace said unrepentantly. “Anyway, I was thinking of disguising the tea as Coxa-Cola and flinging a pack of Mxntos into it just as Dorm Head starts pouring. I saw a real hilarious video about it last night and can’t stop imagining the contents exploding in his face. What’d you guys think?”

“…Do you perhaps have suicidal tendencies?” Yuu asked him carefully.

“What the heck are Mxntos?” Grim squinted.

“I never knew Ace was a hardcore M.” Deuce grinned wickedly. “Let’s do it.”

“You two are both beyond hope, and I refuse to be a part of this debauchery,” Yuu monotoned.

“Hey, what the heck are Mxntos?”

“Aw, come on, Yuu!” Ace flung an arm around her.

“Yeah, we’re buddies, aren’t we?” Deuce flung his arm around her other shoulder.

“You guys are heavy! Gerroff me!”

“Not until you say yes,” Ace sing-songed, leaning most of his body weight on her so that she almost tipped over.

“Yuu’s shoulders are so thin,” Deuce commented, supporting her from the other side. “You should eat more.”

Yuu was contemplating giving both of them painful Tasers in the sides before Lucius’ low meow made the three of them look forward. Professor Trein had turned in their direction as the class dispersed instead of leaving like usual.

“What did you do?” she whispered at them.

“You mean what didn’t I do?” Ace retaliated.

“Mister Trappola, Mister Grim and Mister Spade,” Trein said slowly. “Stay behind for a few minutes. Mister Yuu, you may be dismissed.”

“Grim!?” Yuu swung to her partner.

Grim let out a squawk, firmly not looking in her direction. “I know nothing!”

So Yuu bade a farewell to her rather listless friends and partner, saying her greetings to Professor Trein and Lucius before heading out alone in the crowded after-school exterior hallway. It was in times like these that she appreciated her tendency to do her homework diligently. Though she was by no means condemning of Ace’s and Deuce’s energy and drive to have fun, Yuu was the one with free time now instead of being held back.

Along the route out the front doors and down the long winding staircase towards Main Street, she heard jeers directed at her and was nearly run over by a crowd of students wearing Scarabia’s crest. Yuu, who was pretty sure the elbow jabbing into her side painfully had been on purpose, allowed them to manhandle her briefly before she ducked out of the malicious crowd and broke into NRC’s field. She squinted in the pale warm light of October afternoon and wondered how the gardens fared during changes in season, rubbing at her sore shoulders and sides.

Having finished a stack of books about the founding and maintenance of the Heartslabyul dorm—and thereafter not being able to find any books on dimensional travel—Yuu had been a little bored recently. Today was a free day in which she didn’t have the warmth of Grim around her neck or the solid presence of Ace and Deuce pressing on either side of her. Instead of heading to the library alone, she wandered through the fields towards the garden on a whim, sucking in the fresh air to try and distract herself from the solitude that suddenly yawned before her.

Yuu wondered absently if she might suffer a mental breakdown if she let herself think. All of the laws she was breaking by being here. All of the connections that she was making in this place. And Riddle’s face screwed up with the Dark blazing so brilliantly in his red eye.

When Yuu was alone, she tended to think too much in the wrong direction.

The interior botanical gardens hadn’t changed a bit from her last visit two weeks ago. Tropical quiet settled over her like a heavy blanket as the doors closed behind her, but Yuu was busy looking around at the colourful plants that sprawled all over the walkways.

Good enough for a distraction, she decided, and plunged into a copse of trees.

Perhaps around a quarter of an hour later, Yuu’s ears picked up low murmurs coming from behind a row of tall flowering bushes. She had been examining what looked like an orange Venus flytrap and wondering if there were any insects or small creatures in here for it to eat. She had yet to see any animals in this school bar Grim (who was questionably not an ‘animal’), but the cafeteria served meat almost daily for lunch… And Ace had shown her some adorable animal videos recently.

“…worry.”

“Hmph. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“You really think I’d leave any evidence behind?”

Curiously, Yuu left the plant alone and headed in the direction of the voices. Was the elusive keeper of this garden finally here today? Maybe she could ask them some questions…

Yuu brushed aside a fern and came nearly face-to-face with Ruggie Bucchi.

Ruggie’s large blue-grey eyes reflected her startled reflection. He recovered first and took half a step back. “…Yuu-kun? What’re you doing here?”

“Good afternoon Ruggie-senpai.” Yuu said with a blink, backing out reflexively. “I was taking a walk in the gardens. What about you?”

“Oi, Ruggie,” Leona’s voice echoed over from somewhere behind him, “Is that the herbivore? Drag him back here for me.”

Ruggie sighed, the easiness fading from his expression. “Sorry, kid. I’m gonna have to have you come with me.”

Yuu sat seiza in front of Leona, who was lying lazily like a magazine model against the trunk of a tree, and Ruggie, who had crossed his legs and was staring at her unsmilingly. She had no idea why there was tension strung so tightly in the air, but looking at Ruggie’s emotionless face, Yuu was wondering if she had made a mistake.

“Am I not allowed in here?” she asked slowly.

Leona yawned into a glove, none of the seriousness of Ruggie’s present in his indolent expression. “Oi, herbivore. How long were you listening?”

“Listening?” she repeated. Yuu remembered the murmurs and frowned. “So you guys were talking about something you didn’t want me to hear?”

“It’s better for you not to pretend you weren’t,” Ruggie advised, revealing one sharp canine. “For your own safety.”

“You guys can tell if I’m lying, can’t you?” she wrinkled a brow at him. “Do the whole smelling test to see, then. I was just taking a walk when I heard murmurs. I have no idea what you guys were talking about.”

Ruggie gave her an extremely strange look that could only be described as ‘weirded out’. “…Leona-san. Is this kid sane?”

Leona cast her an unimpressed scowl. “You fool. Don’t let a Therianthrope sniff you so easily.”

“Huh? Why not?” Yuu frowned. “You can smell me normally, can’t you? Plus you’ve done it before.”

“He doesn’t have any of the common sense used in this world, so you can just ignore him,” Leona told Ruggie lazily.

“Common sense? Is it not normal for you guys to smell other people?”

“Not like…not straight-up sniffing!” Ruggie spluttered. “It’s rude! And humans are already at a disadvantage. Why would you let someone like us remember your scent? Are you an idiot?”

“But he already did it.” She pointed at Leona.

“Don’t point at Leona-san! Are you trying to get yourself killed!?” Ruggie clutched at his honey-brown hair, huge ears standing up straight. “He’s different!”

Leona sighed and sat up in irritation as Yuu eyed Ruggie strangely. “Ruggie. Ignore the kid. He’s as ignorant as a new-born baby.”

“You’re just going to let him!?

The third year revealed his sharp teeth in a grin. “When it comes to this level of stupidity, he stops being stupid and starts being funny.”

“Making fun of me again,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.

Ruggie shook his head at her in amazement. “Is your spine made out of iron? I’ve never heard anyone talk like that to Leona-senpai and not be ground to dust.”

Yuu thought that he must be exaggerating—even when she’d visited Savanaclaw before, Leona was rather rude, but never made a move to hurt those people who’d tried to punch her. Still, she had met Leona a total of three times now, and unlike her, Ruggie seemed to share a real bond with him.

“Ruggie-senpai, have you been friends with Leona-senpai for long?”

“Friends—” Ruggie choked and immediately burst out laughing.

Leona’s ear closest to him went flat. “Stop yapping, you’re so loud,” he grumbled, turning around and flopping onto his side with a yawn. He appeared to have lost interest in the conversation. She was reasonably confident that he, at least, believed her to be innocent of listening in—Leona’s sense of smell seemed stronger than even Ruggie’s.

Yuu absently wondered how much of him was feline and how much of him was human. Or if he really was a fusion of the two. Therianthropes were so interesting; perhaps if asked a few questions, he would answer…

Ruggie slapped at the grass, wheezing. “…It’s been a long time…since I’ve laughed this hard,” he managed, wiping tears from the corner of his large eyes. “Yuu-kun. Let me correct you on one thing.”

Yuu broke out of her seiza—her feet were starting to get numb—and pulled her knees up to her chest, cocking her head obligingly.

“Leona-san and I aren’t something as disgusting as friends,” Ruggie narrowed those blue-grey eyes and bared a full mouth of sharpened teeth at her. “You’d do well to watch your words in our territory, cub. They might turn around and bite you in the ass.”

“So then why did you make food for him and stuff then?” she inquired confusedly. “Do Therianthropes have a different perception of friendship? Or did you lose a bet or something?”

“As if I’d do all that for free.” Ruggie rolled his eyes, appearing to have given up his intimidating glare. “It’s none of your business, cub.”

“I’m fifteen,” Yuu felt the need to point out.

“Seriously, I’ve never seen someone who’s so…” Ruggie waved his large, bony hand in the air, searching for words. “So…different from normal humans. It’s like you lack the common sense everyone else has.”

Leona’s tail swished slowly, but he remained silent, turned away from them.

Yuu was a little touched. Leona could have told Ruggie about her—her gender, her history, the world she came from—but he hadn’t. Even though they’d barely met. Either he really valued women, or he was just a good guy.

“Anyway, we’re not done. What did you hear?” Ruggie leaned in menacingly.

“Nothing,” she repeated.

“If you don’t spit it out,” he threatened, “I might have to take drastic measures.”

“If you thought about it, Leona-senpai would have probably done something to me already if he’d smelled a lie on me,” Yuu pointed out. “Plus, don’t hyenas have a really good sense of smell, too?”

“…There are plenty of ways to mask a scent,” Ruggie was unmoved, “and Leona-san’s just asleep.”

“Huh!? Already?” She whipped around and stared at the upperclassman stretched out prone on the grass floor. Indeed, his breathing was even and slow.

“That guy sleeps anywhere and everywhere.” Ruggie rolled his eyes. “Alright, I’ll let you off for now, but if I hear you blabbing about what you heard anywhere, a broken bone will be the least of your worries.”

“Broken bone…” she echoed. “Okay. Since I didn’t hear anything, it doesn’t really matter. Still, you know you guys shouldn’t be talking in a place like this where anyone could hear you.”

“No one comes in here,” Ruggie shrugged, “and we aren’t afraid of anyone who would.”

Yuu watched him crack his knuckles with interest. “Your hands are normal.”

“Huh?”

“I thought they would be clawed or something. Like Leona-senpai’s.”

Ruggie gave her a weird look. “Stop staring at me. I’m gonna charge you money.”

“Sorry, don’t have any,” Yuu said cheerfully. “Your hands have nails that look just like mine, though.”

“Obviously. We all do. And Leona-san was just too lazy to cut his nails a while ago.” Ruggie glanced over at the (apparently) sleeping Leona and muttered, “That guy seriously needs to stop making me do everything.”

Yuu examined him quietly. Ruggie had seemed a lot brighter before, back in the Savanaclaw dorm full of students. Perhaps some of it was because he was wearing the calmer colours of the school uniform, whose dark blazer looked slightly too big for his bony shoulders, but there was also an edge of exhaustion gathered at the end of his sigh. The wide triangular ears poking out of the side of his fluffy hair turned so they faced backwards, flattening slightly into his head.

“Hold on a second,” she said, shedding her book bag and reaching inside. “Here, have this.”

The past few days had seen a drastic upshoot in the amount of time Yuu spent in the school kitchens. The pies she and Trey had baked together had caused a sensation a few days ago, and Yuu rather liked hanging out with him, so she’d been baking everything from tarts to pies to macarons with the third year. As thanks, Trey sent her off after tea each day with a container full of leftovers, which she reserved for Grim when he was hungry and herself when she was flagging from lack of brain glucose.

Sugar was the best remedy for a tired body (other than rest), though it had the side effect of weight gain. Yuu was used to burning the midnight oil—literally—at the back of Hogwarts library’s Restricted Section, sucking on Sugar Quills or Chocolate Frogs to stave off her sleepiness, and it wasn’t like she ate much anyway. But right now, the one who seemed most in need of a pick-me-up was the hyena Therianthrope sitting across from her.

Yuu pulled out one of the leftover slices of lemon cobbler from last night’s teatime out of the plastic container, laid it on the lid with a fork, and offered it to Ruggie.

The hyena Therianthrope blinked in confusion before comparing her and the slice of cobbler. “You’re giving this to me?”

“You looked tired,” Yuu shrugged, “so I figured you’d need this more than me. I swear it tastes good.”

“…I don’t get you,” Ruggie said slowly. “I just threatened you, cub. What, are you trying to poison me or something?”

Poison!?” she spluttered. “What kind of world do you guys live in? Also! Where the heck would I get poison from!”

“Please. Everyone knows how easy it is to brew up poison from alchemy classes,” Ruggie scoffed.

“Directing Student,” Yuu pointed at herself. “Knows nothing.”

“Is what it looks like, at least.” Ruggie lifted his lip in a sneer, none of the friendliness from the other day visible from the disdain in his eyes. “I hope you know that no one in this school’s stupid enough to trust an anomaly like you.”

“I don’t expect anyone to trust me.” Yuu said patiently, “and was the tart I offered last time poisoned? Leona-senpai would be out for the count, wouldn’t he?”

Ruggie snorted. “Leona-san’s been brought up resistant to a whole host of poisons, unlike me.”

What the hell was ‘brought up resistant to poisons’ supposed to mean? Yuu decided she wasn’t brave enough to poke that hive of bees. “…He didn’t share a slice with you?” she tried instead. “It was totally fine, wasn’t it?”

The hyena Therianthrope fell silent briefly. “…I don’t need your fake charity, poison or not,” he said after a moment.

“Then why don’t you think of it as a repayment for that really good pineapple drink you made when I visited Savanaclaw Lounge,” she suggested. “That way, I’m the one who owes you.”

“You were Leona-san’s guest, and I’ve already received my reward from that,” Ruggie snapped.

By this point, it was obvious even to Yuu that Ruggie held no positive feelings for her—not really, though he’d been friendly enough in front of Leona during her visit. Yuu supposed that it couldn’t be helped. She’d been largely ignored at Hogwarts and at home, but ever since her entrance into the Night Raven College, encounters with people who hated her had become commonplace. There was real animosity in the dark eyes of the students glaring her way, far outpacing the petty spite that her bullies had worn in their sneers. People here hated her.

Like the Heartslabyul upperclassmen who’d bumped into her hard enough to break the eggs she was holding. The Savanaclaw residents who’d nearly punched her lights out for standing in the entrance to their dorm. The multitude of students who checked her into walls when she walked alone down the hallway.

It was an interesting change. Yuu—the least visible student—had become Yuu, the most visible student. Even if it was in a negative way, there was a strange sense of vertigo at being noticed.

“Okay,” Yuu said, unbothered by the hostility laid bare before her in his expression. She put the cobbler slice back in the container, sealed the lid, and laid the plastic box between them. “I’ll leave this here then. You can take it if you want. If you don’t want it, you can throw it out.”

Ruggie eyed it briefly. “…And why would you be so revoltingly nice?” he queried after a moment.

There was the same derogatory tone Ace and Deuce had used when they’d called her ‘nice’. She’d recalled once some kid named Zabini calling her the same thing when she’d sent Scorpius back to his Common Room one day. Disgustingly nice.

It seemed Yuu still had much to learn about this world. But she had to clarify something. “I’m not being nice,” she said.

“So the reason you’re giving me food for free is?” Ruggie challenged.

“Because you look like you need it.” Yuu answered. “It’s simple logic. I don’t need food right now. But you’re tired. Sugar is effective in hiding the tiredness for a while.”

“And?”

“And if it gives you pause in breaking my bones or other such injuries, then all the better,” Yuu grinned at him.

Ruggie barked out a laugh before he rubbed his forehead. “…Do I really look that tired?”

“Just a bit,” she shrugged. “Working too hard doesn’t lead to effective progress, so I’d take a break if I were you.”

Ruggie gave her an exceptionally wicked smile. “But you see, the whole world revolves around risk and reward,” he lowered his voice as if telling a secret. “So if I get something good in return, then I don’t mind overdoing it a little.”

Behind the huge wooden desk, Crowley laced his metal-tipped gloved hands under his chin, regarding the four of them behind his mask. “Do you know why I’ve called the four of you here today?”

Grim flicked his tail out impatiently, whipping her in the shoulder. “Hurry up and get it over with! Today was supposed to be the one day I got temporarily released from that remedial class hell.”

“Language, Mister Grim.” Crowley said placidly. “And that was no one’s fault but your own.”

Funaaa…” Grim’s ears drooped.

“Is it about our grades, maybe?” Ace picked at his nails, looking innocent.

“It’s true that classes have been hard for me recently,” Deuce said politely, sitting ramrod straight in his chair. “But the remedial lessons have been helpful, sir.”

“Says the guy who got three problems wrong in a row,” Ace needled him.

“You’re the one who didn’t do his homework!”

Yuu wondered if these three had learned anything from being held back after school every day. Then she wondered if she’d been called here because of her own grades. Crewel had praised her work this afternoon, but she didn’t usually hear from Trein concerning her essays. The stern instructor never smiled and never said anything to her, though he was unfailingly acerbic towards Ace who tended to slack off.

“Thanks to those stupid lessons I can’t even sit on Yuu’s shoulder,” Grim grumbled under his breath, “and he always comes back smelling like animal…I don’t like it, it makes my hair stand on end.”

Yuu sniffed her sleeve surreptitiously, but only smelled the detergent she’d dug out from the closet to wash her uniform. Perhaps Grim was smelling Ruggie and Leona’s scents? She hadn’t come very close to either of them, though hanging around the gardens this week may have been the reason for his complaints.

Her partner seemed to be in a foul mood today. He’d been sullen all the way here and much less gregarious than usual.

“What’s up with him?” she muttered over to Ace.

“He traded the Deluxe Minced Cutlet Sandwich he wanted to eat for lunch today with some stranger,” Ace rolled his eyes. “If he wanted it that much, why the hell did he trade it?”

Yuu, who had stayed back at lunch due to her abysmal performance in today’s physical education class, enduring Vargas’ enthusiastic lecturing, hadn’t gotten a chance to eat anything. She patted Grim consolingly on the head. Sometimes Grim just did things without thinking (though she thought it was adorable).

“Ahem.”

The four of them looked up at Crowley. Yuu decided it was better to ask. “Sorry, sir. Why did we get called here?”

“It’s been around a week since the incident at Heartslabyul has resolved,” Crowley sighed, rubbing the beak of his crow mask. “Grades aside, there are some things the four of you should know concerning Overblots as parties involved in the debacle.”

“You mean that berserker mode Dorm Head went into?” Ace perked up, interest caught.

“That’s correct.”

“I mean, I sorta heard a little about it from my big bro, but always thought it was an urban legend,” Ace rubbed the back of his head.

“What’s a ‘blot’ anyway?” Grim raised a paw.

“Yes, I thought that Yuu-kun and Mister Grim would have this question.” Crowley spread his hands and smiled. “Therefore, welcome to Headmaster Crowley’s special after-school lesson, where I am kind enough to answer your questions!”

The four of them stared at him, unimpressed.

Crowley coughed and dropped the theatrics. “‘Blot’ is the waste matter that is always generated with the use of magical power,” he explained.

“Waste matter!?” Yuu blurted out. “Your magic generates waste matter?”

“It would seem that yours does not,” Crowley sighed. “How unfortunate for us!”

“It’s the same as a Magical Wh—a motorbike,” Deuce explained to her. “You use up gas, you get the black smoke.”

Yuu made a face. She was glad she wasn’t a magician in this world. “So what does Blot do?”

“There has been much research done in this field up until the present day, although the existence of Blot is shrouded in mystery.” Crowley sighed. “The one thing that has been proven is its lethality. Blot is poisonous to the body and an abundance of it can be life-threatening.”

“Come to think of it, a long time ago my grandma used to lecture me about Blot,” Ace recalled. He imitated an old lady’s voice, shaking an imaginary cane. “Don’t use magic so lightly! Do you want a build-up of Blot in your body!?

Deuce and Yuu trembled with the effort of suppressing laughter at his terrible impression as Crowley continued. “Power comes with danger,” he said, ignoring them. “Even powerful magicians cannot use magic inexhaustibly.”

“Wait, then the more magic we use, the unhealthier we get!?” Grim yelped.

Crowley shook his head. “Not necessarily. …Hmm. In this case, I suppose it is easier to show you an example instead of talking through it.”

“I’m getting a bad feeling about this,” Yuu muttered.

“What a coincidence,” Deuce snorted. “So am I.”

“Oh, Gho~osts!” Crowley called out, clasping his hands together. “It’s time for you to do your jobs!”

“I’m starting to wonder what the role of these Ghosts are,” Yuu muttered as she watched the cheerfully waving figures fade through the walls. “They work in the kitchens, they give advice, they pop out of my mirrors, they respond to the Headmaster…”

“They fight us,” Grim wheezed.

“Plot devices?” Ace suggested, breathing lightly.

Deuce lowered his Pen and squinted at his friend. “What?”

“He’s just breaking the fourth wall,” her partner hopped back up onto her shoulder and licked his paw a few times disinterestedly.

“Shush, not the time,” Yuu rolled her eyes at him. “So what was the point in suddenly making them fight these guys, Headmaster?”

“It’s simple.” Crowley smiled at them beatifically. “Please take a look at your magical stones, those of you who have one.”

Yuu peered down at Grim’s collar. “You mean this dirt he’s got on his stone?” she rubbed at it. “…Wait, it’s not coming off.”

“That dark stain inside your magical stone is the Blot generated by your magic,” explained Crowley, steepling his fingers under his chin as the three of them sat back down.

Deuce squinted down at his own red stone and gasped. “Mine’s got some on it too!”

“Ugh…” Grim wrinkled his nose. “That’s kinda gross.”

“Come to think of it, Rosehearts-senpai’s Pen was completely dark back when we duelled,” she recalled. “There is a way to get rid of that dirt, though, right? His Pen is red right now.”

“Good eye, Yuu-kun,” Crowley nodded at her.

“This kid,” Ace ruffled her hair fondly.

“With enough rest, Blot disappears from the magic stone over time,” Crowley explained. “Magic stones not only aid with the physical manifestation of magic, they also prevent the accumulation of Blot within a magician’s body directly by absorbing it into themselves.”

“No wonder the chandelier cost a hundred million Madols,” Yuu muttered.

“Guh. Don’t remind me,” Grim emitted.

“It’s quite an amazing item,” Crowley beamed at her. “To act as a substitute for its user.”

“So what you’re saying is, if you see your pen getting cloudy, you should rest,” Deuce summarized.

“Correct. Eat well, sleep well, and Blot should disappear in a jiffy,” Crowley nodded.

“Then there’s nothing to worry about!” Grim puffed up his chest. “Once I become a super magician, I can hurl huge spells left, right and centre!”

“Obviously not,” Yuu said dryly, “or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m guessing that over-filling the magic stone causes problems. Right?”

“But I eat well and sleep well,” Grim protested.

“The amount of magical power one holds varies wildly depending on the person,” Crowley said, “but the amount of Blot one person can hold does not vary much at all…with a few exceptions.”

“What?” Grim said dumbly.

“He means that even if you’re a super magician with a ton of magical power, you have the same Blot resistance as any average Joe,” Yuu explained, used to helping him through his homework. “Which means that you have to be careful using big spells so you don’t overload your stone. Blot gathered in the stone is still close to your body even if it isn’t in you. Right?”

“As expected of Yuu-kun.” Crowley nodded. “Magical geniuses like Mister Rosehearts have to act in a most careful way with the way they use their magical power.”

“Just ‘cause you got a lot of magic doesn’t mean you can just fling spells around,” Ace shrugged, “’cause your Blot will build up faster than ever.”

“Well, considering the pitiful amount of magical power you have, I’m sure the three of you don’t have to worry much about that,” Crowley shrugged. “Aren’t you glad?”

Ace’s eye twitched. “Not at all. Sir.”

“Wait, so if we use too much magic and our stones get all black then we go berserk like Riddle did a while ago?” Grim grimaced. “And that huge thing pops up behind us?”

Crowley’s smile faded. “…The amount of Blot that gathers as a result of a spell is largely dependent on the mental state of the magic user,” he said solemnly. “Rage…grief…terror…chaos and confusion…negative emotions like these carried within a body causes Blot to gather unbelievably quickly and bring about an Overblot more easily.”

“Negative energy,” Deuce repeated. “So Ace punching Riddle made him Overblot.”

Yuu and Grim started snickering as Ace spluttered. “It wasn’t all me!”

“The giant shadow that appeared behind Mister Roseheart’s rampaging form is said to be the fusion of the gathered Blot and the tangible negative energy within him,” Crowley explained, “but there is little known about it.”

Just how driven into a corner had Riddle been? Yuu remembered the huge ink Queen behind him and clenched her fingers into fists.

Ace frowned. “We fought something like that in the Mines on Mount Dwarf, but there wasn’t a single person in there.”

“Come to think of it,” Deuce recalled. “What was that, then?”

“There is truly little known about Overblots,” Crowley shook his head regretfully. “Especially since the historical occurrences of them are very rare.”

“In a way, Riddle’s pretty amazing,” Grim quipped, “I don’t think normal people can get that crazy.”

“At least call him senpai,” she muttered. “And being trapped by your emotions probably isn’t a good thing.”

“As if I’d stand there being more than a few occurrences,” Ace crossed his arms angrily. “There’s no way I ever want to see anything like that ever again!”

“Thanks to Yuu-kun’s timely intervention, Mister Rosehearts was able to be returned to sanity quickly,” Crowley sighed, “but if we had been too slow…”

“Too slow…?” the four of them chorused.

Crowley abruptly buried his head in his hands. “Ahhhh! I don’t want to think about it! It’s too scary!!” he yelled out.

Yuu leapt a foot in the air and clutched Grim to her chest in fright. “I wish he’d stop doing that!”

Ace and Deuce both started shaking with laughter, so she socked them both lightly in the shoulder. Everyone in this school enjoyed laughing at her misery…

The headmaster cleared his throat. “Excuse me. I lost my composure for a moment. In any case, please remember that the use of magic always comes with a risk. Do not forget this, children.”

“I’m pretty lucky I’m not from this world,” Yuu commented. “Having to watch your Blot levels all the time sounds exhausting.”

“You mean lame,” Ace stuck out his tongue. “It’s losing control of your negative emotions or whatever, right? Only idiots do it.”

“Don’t call Rosehearts-senpai an idiot!” Deuce snapped.

“So, Headmaster,” Yuu ignored the two of them as they slapped at each other behind her back. “How’s the research into finding a way back to my world going?”

Crowley cleared his throat. “Hmm? Ah, your way home, yes. Ahem! Of course, of course I’m working on it.”

“This guy’s not even pretending to do it,” Grim muttered.

“I am working on it!” Crowley protested. “It’s just right now, the preparations for the Magical Shift Tournament at the end of the month are eating up all of my time. You would do well not to underestimate the amount of planning that goes into such an event!”

Yuu raised a hand. “Sorry. What’s Magical Shift?”

“And everyone looked at me like I was insane,” she finished.

Afternoon light filtered through the canopy of leaves in the Botanical Gardens’ temperate zone. Across from Yuu’s comfortable spot in the shaded grass, Ruggie leaned against the trunk of a tree, licking crumbs of yesterday’s banana bread from his fingers. Dappled patterns of shade fell across his soft-looking triangular ears, which were both angled in her direction.

“You didn’t know what Magift was,” he deadpanned.

Leona yawned, stretched out lazily from beside them, and rolled over to curl into a more relaxed position.

“Ace and Deuce—my friends explained it to me, after they made fun of me for ten minutes,” she shrugged. “Basically, it’s some famous sport like American football, right? People sure like sports everywhere I go.”

“Amer…?” Ruggie squinted at her before he dismissed it. “It’s less the sport itself and more the attention it brings to our school. We are one of the top contenders.”

“They said the same thing,” she nodded. “Something about the school-wide tournament held here every fall being broadcast on TV and stuff around the world?”

“Yeah. Everyone’s watching, and it’s one of the rare opportunities for people to visit the campus, which is good for our reputation and treasury.” Ruggie explained willingly enough. “Not to mention—scouts from national Magift organizations are always on the lookout for excellent players.”

Yuu equated this Magical Shift to American football even more strongly in her head. The rules about guarding a flying disc and putting it through the other team’s goalpost was identical to the sport, though Magift used teams of seven players each like Quidditch, and the field looked quite a bit smaller than a football field.

“But being able to use magic during the match sounds kind of…dangerous, to say the least,” Yuu commented. Even Quidditch banned all forms of magic during a match.

“That’s where the kid gloves come off,” Ruggie shrugged. “I mean I can’t see any students being stupid enough to intentionally maim someone in front of international TV and reporters, but weak players deserve to get offed.”

“What about contact? There are rules about physical fighting, right?”

“Physical fighting isn’t even needed if you’ve got magic,” Ruggie pointed out.

That was true. Magic was the great equalizer in situations such as this—even slow, stumbling, small people like Yuu could take control of the field if she was allowed to use her self-made Charms. Still, given the physical component about guarding the flying disc (which was probably enchanted) with one’s own body, she was content to watch this sport from a distance.

Plus, the mode of transportation was most commonly broomsticks.

“It’s got nothing to do with me I guess, since our dorm doesn’t have enough players to attend,” she shrugged with a grin. “Though Grim—my partner—was wailing about not being able to appear in front of the cameras and wow the girls.”

“In the first place, how is a little Monster like him supposed to handle the disc against someone way bigger?” Ruggie snorted, seemingly familiar with the school’s smallest student. He patted his stomach with a satisfied sigh. “The bread was good, but I prefer something crispier. Bring cookies or something next time.”

“Grim tends to eat the cookies the fastest,” Yuu said sheepishly, “but I’ll see if I can bake some extra next week.”

“Anyway, I can’t believe someone existed in this world who didn’t know what Magift was,” snorted Ruggie condescendingly.

Yuu pointed at herself without offence. “Right here.”

“Yeah, I noticed. You’re pretty…” Ruggie waved a bony hand in the air. “blunder-headed, aren’t you?”

“Not necessarily,” she protested, “it’s not my fault I have no knowledge of something. I’m learning, aren’t I?”

“What’s stupid is revealing how disadvantaged you are,” Ruggie lectured her. “Here’s where you stay quiet and don’t reveal to people like me that you’re as ignorant as a cub.”

“Leona-senpai already knows I know nothing, and so do you,” shrugged Yuu. “I can use my lack of knowledge as a weapon, too, you know.”

“This kid…” Ruggie muttered. “When a senpai gives you advice, you’re supposed to thank ‘em, kid, not act so un-cute and sure of yourself.”

“Un-cute isn’t a word, and I’m giving you my leftover baked goods, aren’t I?” She shot back. “Sorry, senpai, but I’m not really good at the respect without question thing.” Unless one was a professor.

“I’ll say. If I ever met one kid here who was I’d swallow my tail.” Ruggie stretched and then frowned at her. “So why do you keep hanging around here? Trying to get into my good books?”

“If I said yes, what would you do?” Yuu asked curiously, twirling the pencil she held around her fingers.

Ruggie glanced at it. “…Too obvious,” he concluded after a moment. “I’d call you a liar.”

“It’s not smart to lie in front of someone who can tell,” Yuu said reasonably, indicating Leona’s back with her chin. “So I won’t say anything.”

“Looks like you’ve learned something,” Ruggie exposed one canine briefly in humour. “Though hanging out in front of two predators like us so defencelessly still tells me you’ve got more to learn.”

“This is a famous school,” Yuu deadpanned. “I’m sure that you won’t murder me with the consequences looming before you. Plus, for better or for worse, I stick out like a sore thumb. Any action taken against me will be really obvious.”

“Oh yeah?” challenged Ruggie. “Your fingers are stained black, kid.”

Yuu blinked in surprise, glancing down at her hand. Indeed, the oil-based permanent marker covering her desk had taken some serious scrubbing to clean today—and had left some ink on her fingers in the process.

“…What does that have to do with anything?” she asked carefully. “I write a lot of notes, you know.”

“The day before yesterday, you were limping,” Ruggie listed succinctly, “yesterday your sleeve was wet, today your fingers are black…do you want me to keep going, Yuu-kun?”

Yuu met his stare evenly.

Ruggie’s big blue-grey eyes narrowed, catching the light dangerously. The air prickled with danger for a moment.

She was preparing to push herself to her feet when Ruggie leaned against his tree and burst into his signature shi-shi-shi laugh. Surprised, Yuu fell over backwards onto her arms and watched the oversized black school blazer shake with his mirth.

“Ahh…it’s been a while since I laughed this hard,” Ruggie wiped at the corners of his eyes. “You’re really amusing, Yuu-kun, you know that?”

“I have no idea what was so funny,” Yuu lifted a hand like she was in class.

“For a kid who so obviously doesn’t belong here, I was wondering why you hadn’t quit school yet,” Ruggie told her, still hiccupping. “I mean…I’m not bragging, but I’ve been here for a while. The kids aren’t gonna sit still and let a magicless kid run around freely.”

“I mean, I don’t really have anywhere else to go.” Yuu still didn’t see what he was laughing about. “Plus I can deal with it.”

“Yeah…yeah, you can,” Ruggie nodded, the friendly smile from back in Savanaclaw’s lounge making his face look younger. “I underestimated you a bit, kid. Guess you’re not as much of a useless waste of space as I originally thought.”

“Ouch,” Yuu grinned back. “Well, even if I am a useless waste of space and everyone hates me, I’m not going anywhere soon, so those ‘kids’ are going to have to deal with me too.”

While Ace and Deuce and Grim (though the latter was usually caught escaping from windows) were trapped in remedial lessons, Yuu had wandered around exploring the Botanical Gardens, which were full of more exotic plants than she could have ever imagined. After her encounter with Ruggie and Leona the first day, it would have been a wiser decision to avoid the area—clearly, they were both talking about something they didn’t want her to hear.

But Yuu was alone. And she was much more afraid of her own mind than of the possible physical danger of being exposed to two Savanaclaw students.

When she’d found Ruggie and Leona in the same spot the next day and waved in greeting, both Therianthropes had given her the most taken-aback stares she’d ever seen come from them, sending Yuu into a fit of laughter. Yet Leona, who appeared to be extremely sensitive to others’ emotions and intentions (like a real feline), didn’t threaten her or tell her to leave. Ruggie was more-or-less submissive in Leona’s presence, so apart from a few strange glances, she was left alone.

Before she’d known it, the first week of October had entered its latter half. She’d gone from walking by the two of them in her garden observations—this clearing was, apparently, Leona’s favourite napping spot—to handing Ruggie today’s extra sweets, since he still looked haggard. The past few days, due to a twisted ankle from a particularly unkind Scarabia student, she’d been sitting in the clearing trading idle conversation. Leona slept through most of the afternoon, but Ruggie, when he was not cajoling Leona to do his homework or give him the dirty laundry the former had left lying around, made for an interesting enough conversation partner.

Yuu was glad none of them fussed about her ankle, not even Leona who was kind to women. (She’d only briefly considered that they hadn’t noticed at all—Leona’s subtle glance down at her feet destroyed that thought rather quickly.) The harassment was her problem and she didn’t want it to be blown out of proportion. A twisted ankle healed relatively quickly, too, though her Episkey was as weak as ever.

Yuu had been through much worse. And ever since she’d come to this world, the benefits in her favour had heaped up so high—lodging, food, Grim, Ace, Deuce, and a new library full of new magic—that the pestering didn’t really enter her line of vision.

In return for the baked goods she brought—which Ruggie seemed to savour—he allowed her to sit within the clearing and sometimes engaged her in conversation. Despite his unfriendly warning their first meeting, Ruggie had not made any moves to really threaten her yet, which might have been due to her peace offerings, but he also didn’t seem someone who could hold onto his anger for too long.

Ruggie Bucchi was a careful second year who displayed an almost animal awareness of his surroundings, full of sharp edges that none of the Heartslabyul students possessed. Yuu was beginning to associate this intensity with everyone from Savanaclaw, including Leona when he wasn’t asleep. Ruggie, however, was nothing like the lion Therianthrope whose favourite pastime was napping—the hyena Therianthrope was always on the move.

Yuu had learned this past week that Ruggie did chores for Leona only in return for a case-by-case reward system. While Leona slept, Ruggie would create his meals, do his laundry, make his bed, even sometimes braid his hair in the mornings. After he came back from fetching his lunch, Leona would toss his wallet at him carelessly. Ruggie had complained to her about this several times, repeating over and over that Leona had no idea what the value of money was and that he should just steal the entire wallet and leave.

Amused, she’d commented that he was like a mother before his glare silenced her. Even without Leona’s chores chasing him around, though, Ruggie was always doing something, always moving and gathering information and lecturing Leona about showing up in class and running back and forth completing whatever task his mind was set on.

“You’re lucky I like food,” he grumbled at her one day, pie crumbs and berry filling staining the side of his mouth, “or else I wouldn’t be around here.”

“Not ‘or else I’d kick you out’?” she questioned.

“This is Leona-san’s spot, not mine. And it’s none of my business where you sit,” Ruggie said matter-of-factly. “’S not like you’re causing trouble here, is it?”

Unlike her acquaintances so far, Ruggie had a bit of cold practicality to him that Yuu could identify with closely. Perhaps he’d detected that same quality in her, too; Ruggie obviously didn’t trust her, but he no longer made derisive comments about her and instead told her that if she didn’t make it a bad deal for him, he wouldn’t mind her hanging around. Hence, the extras she baked went all to him now that Grim was in remedials.

Yuu thought privately that this senpai was surprisingly gluttonous for his thin stature (though he was a good fifteen centimetres taller than her). Perhaps it had to do with the whole hyena thing, but he ate voraciously, though it never seemed to fill out his slight figure.

She wasn’t complaining—if he let her hang around, she could study his ears and tail without making excuses. Even if Ruggie Bucchi disliked her, he himself was plenty interesting to observe.

Still, Ruggie was loath to talk about himself and he never asked about her. Unlike almost everyone she’d met—in Hogwarts and NRC—he was eager to doubt and reluctant to trust in a much more intense way than Fred II, Ace, or even Leona. Ruggie had everything in his life sorted out and understood, and he made it very clear that he didn’t need anything else unless it granted him some sort of benefit.

Yuu respected this way of thinking immensely, because it meant Ruggie would almost never get taken advantage of. Here was a true Ravenclaw. Intelligence did not lie in the blind pursuit of knowledge, for that in itself was a fool’s errand—intelligence was the practical, composed way Ruggie behaved. No one would ever best him in any situation.

Now, Yuu pondered him as the hyena Therianthrope scribbled down on his homework across from her, ears flicking in Leona’s direction once in a while. “Senpai. How do I be like you?”

Ruggie dropped his pencil.

Friday after school saw Yuu staring up at the employee entrance of Mostro Lounge apprehensively. Perhaps it was due to her unbecoming manner during the interview, but Azul Ashengrotto had mulled over his decision for a long time before he told her he’d have her on for a testing period of one week. When he’d learned she had no phone, he had suggested that she get one for communications and that he could ‘make a deal’ with her for a cheap one.

Yuu declined for now. She didn’t like the look in his eyes when the word ‘deal’ had left his mouth—and he’d only promised her a test-hire, not a full-time job. Azul didn’t seem very surprised or disappointed at her refusal; instead, an elegantly stamped letter had reached Ramshackle’s creaky door the next day detailing her first shift Friday afternoon.

Despite leaving right after school, Yuu had gotten quite lost in Octavinelle’s exterior path looking for the employee entrance of Mostro Lounge. She’d been lucky last time, but her lack of spatial orientation had come back to bite her. It was only after she circled the fishbone building entirely after half an hour of fruitless wandering and paced back and forth between the dorm through a twisting path leading back down (looking rather shifty and suspicious) that she’d reached the door buried in the fish’s side, helpfully labelled EMPLOYEES ONLY.

Now she was stuck. If this had been Heartslabyul or perhaps even Savanaclaw, Yuu would have walked in without a second’s hesitation—but she had no idea what the people living in Octavinelle were like. Had come with nothing but an expensive-looking piece of thick parchment detailing the date and time of the meeting. If Azul’s personality was anything to go by, going in without permission would trigger some sort of misconduct policy she was unaware of and put an eighty million Madol debt on her shoulders or something.

Hemming and hawing in front of the door proved to be a fatal mistake.

Yuu looked up just as the door swung outwards and met a deep lilac button-up shirt with her nose. The other party was just as startled as she was, but instead of jerking back a couple of reflexive steps like she did, he merely went unnaturally still, one hand curled around the doorknob.

Once again, she had to crane her head back to meet the new arrival’s face. Yuu immediately held her breath in unconscious caution. He was tall, and a mirror image of Jade Leech—literally, with the same turquoise hair parted on the opposite side, one dark strand laying boldly across the right side of his head. Even his heterochromatic eyes mirrored Jade’s; the right one a brilliant sparkling gold and the left a dark olive. Standing before him she felt like an ant as the man—boy? But he was so tall—narrowed those olive-and-gold eyes and stared down at her.

“…Who’re you?” His voice was dragged in a long tenor drawl.

For a long, tense moment, Yuu could not find the words in her to respond. This stranger may have looked almost identical to Jade, but the air surrounding him was nothing like the polite barman’s calm manner. While Jade wore his uniform buttoned up all the way, this person had the suit jacket completely undone, revealing the ribbon of his bow-tie dangling around his collar. The shirt itself had the first two buttons popped off messily. His eyes were slanted down in an almost gentle manner, the curve of his mouth wide and prone to smiling—but those eyes were colder than an arctic breeze.

Yuu fought past her instinctive response to the naked danger bared against her in those darkened eyes and cleared her throat. “Excuse me. I’m the new test hire whose first shift is today. This is the entrance I should come in from, right?”

He let go of the doorknob and leaned against it lazily, but even with his slouch, the Jade lookalike towered over her, the top of his head nearly reaching the doorjamb.

Those beautiful and dangerous eyes narrowed in an unfriendly sneer. “Huh? You think such a terrible excuse is gonna fly? Don’t make me la~ugh. So what’s the real reason a tiny fish like you is skulking around this place?”

Yuu frowned, wondering why he didn’t believe her. Had Azul not told him she was coming in today? Perhaps he’d tricked her—but for now, she needed to get rid of this misunderstanding because this huge person in front of her looked ready to snap any second. “I’m really—”

She didn’t get to finish. Her sentence was cut off abruptly with a loud BANG!

Yuu leapt backwards instinctively before she realized that the man in front of her had slammed his fist into the wall by the door with one white-gloved hand. His face was still slack as he regarded her.

This was nothing like the open hostility displayed when the Savanaclaw students tried to punch her. The person in front of her made those students look like children at a playground. He hadn’t so much changed his loose expression, but the entire wall had shaken with that one punch—

And those eyes weren’t human.

The stranger scanned her up and down with absolutely no emotion on his pale and delicate features before laughter bubbled out of him effervescently. He bent over to look her in the eye, his own narrowing almost sweetly. “Wha~t are you flinching backwards for? You look like a little shrimp.” 

Yuu swallowed. Every cell in her body was telling her to run the hell away from the person—the animal in front of her. Still, she stood her ground. “I’m not a shrimp. I’m the new part-timer here.” 

At her continued efforts to convince him, all expression dropped off from his cheerful face again, which she was starting to think looked nothing like Jade’s. He tilted his head to the side, exposing his right ear, from which dangled three matching blue diamonds, and bared a mouth full of unbelievably sharp teeth, filed to points. “Like I said, don’t spit out boring lies at me. It’s real…annoying.” 

Those teeth were sharper than shark teeth. They gleamed against the ocean backdrop like knives.

Yuu had a couple of options. She could beat a strategic retreat or she could continue to plead her case. Unfortunately, time was running out until her shift, and Yuu had given her word to be here today. Someone like Azul would not let her off lightly if she were to slack off.

This meant that she’d have to brave the person standing before her. Yuu was no Gryffindor and this stranger was the scariest person she’d ever met, with maybe the exception of Lilia Vanrouge. But she gathered her shaking hands into fists and tilted her chin up at him. “It’s the truth.”

Seeing her resolve on display did nothing for his temper. The teeth flashed in unfriendly scorn as he pushed himself off the side of the door and took one huge threatening step in her direction. “Hey, Koebi-chan, are you talking to me like that even knowing who I am? Do you really want me to…squeeze your li’l neck that badly?”

Yuu could not suppress her shiver as the last word dropped an octave. “…Then what will it take for you to believe me?” 

He made a playful gesture of sinking in thought, tapping one long finger against his head before turning to her with a wide smile. “Hmm. I guess I’ll believe you i~f you disappear.”

“Sorry. I can’t do that.”

She watched his temper fray and the smile twist. “……You keep being irritating, li’l shrimp. What, you really want me to strangle you? Then guess I’ll have to grant—that—wish!”

“Wha—hold on, ugh—”

It happened too quickly for her to move. One second he was standing several steps away, looking bored and unengaged—the next he was in her face and that huge hand had closed around her throat.

Yuu hadn’t not been expecting physical violence. She’d gone through plenty of it in her early years at Hogwarts, not to mention the petty shoving and squabbling aimed her way at NRC. Even last time, at the entrance to Savanaclaw when two of its residents had held her up by her collar ready to punch her, she’d prepared herself somehow—expected somehow to take a punch or two.

Still. If those two Therianthropes were fast, this person was even faster. Despite his height he had looked lanky, pale, and delicate with his pretty face, and she was taken off guard enough to let him catch her by the throat and lift her into the air.

Yuu managed to get half a breath in before he squeezed. There was an unbelievable grip strength in this guy’s fingers, enough to cut off her air supply laughably easily, and the fingers were so long they wrapped around the sides of her neck and crushed her voice-box—

Belatedly, she clutched at the arm dangling her from the air and tugged at it fruitlessly.

“Aha~.” Past the roaring in her ears she heard the elated laugh, spiking upwards in a completely out of place calm. “Koebi-chan, you really are as light as a li’l shrimp. You call that struggling? Don’t make me la~ugh.”

Yuu made a choking noise as she tried to respond.

“Listen up, small fish,” his voice dropped threateningly again. There was no trace of humanity in those beautiful eyes as the stranger smiled cheerfully. “I don’t know who the hell you are and why you’re hanging around this place, and I don’t care. But cheeky little brats like you shouldn’t even think of intruding in our Mostro Lounge for free. Got it?”

Guh—”

“No matter how small you are, if you’re a student here you’re at least old enough to understand what I’m saying, ri~ght?” he shook her once, twice. Sparks flew across her vision. “Even kids know they shouldn’t wander around in places like these.”

Yuu gave up on trying to respond to him and started focusing on staying conscious. The pressure in her airways had become unbearable, and blackness was creeping around the edges of her vision.

“C’mon,” the tenor drawl sounded pleasant to the ears. “I’m talking to you, so why don’t. You. Respond. Ko-e-bi-chan?”

Yuu scratched at the arm holding onto her in an effort to get him to let go. She could feel the tell-tale spiral of vertigo that always preceded unconsciousness beginning to tug her down…

“He~y, don’t you think you’re being rude?” his voice fell again, down down down into the pit of her stomach and he was saying something in that sickly-sweet voice about manners and responding when someone was asking you a question—

But she could no longer understand…

“Floyd!”

The shock of hitting the pavement brought Yuu back to the afternoon sea blue outside Octavinelle with a burst of pain; she teetered on her unsteady feet and fell onto her behind. Her airways were free—she gasped in one breath, two, three. The air tasted unbelievably refreshing; she was alive.

“Wha~t?” she heard as she coughed desperately to get the air back into her collapsed lungs, bright spots bursting behind her eyelids. Yuu cracked one watering eye open to come face to face with a huge pair of wingtip brogues done in black and white stitching. Distantly, she noted how classy, how clean they looked for someone who’d nearly choked her to death just now.

The man with the deceptively sweet voice was saying something she’d missed, but Yuu recognized Jade’s slightly harried, cultured baritone. “Floyd, that’s our new test hire. What are you going to do, strangling them on the first day?”

“Eeh~? Li’l shrimp was telling the truth? But why would Azul hire someone this tiny?” the newly named Floyd dragged his words cheerfully, not seeming repentant in the least.

“That’s not for you to say, is it?” Jade sighed and a second pair of brogues entered her hazy line of vision before the Yuu left the purple coral rock of the ground.

“That’s boring,” whined Floyd.

Jade set her upright without seeming affected by the weight of a fifteen-year-old and steadied her. “Are you all right, Yuu-san?”

Yuu coughed a couple times, dashing the tears from her eyes, and opened her mouth to say yes. Nothing came out but a pitiful croak.

“Floyd,” Jade sighed in light disappointment, “At least refrain from crushing his thorax. Humans are quite delicate there, you know.”

“I didn’t even put in any strength!” Floyd complained, coming over beside Jade and leaning on his shoulder casually. He grinned down at her. “You sure are fragile, huh, Koebi-chan? How’re you gonna survive in the world like that?”

Yuu sighed and motioned for him to hold out his hand.

Jade blinked at her in interest and Floyd tilted his head on his lookalike’s shoulder, smile not changing, before he obligingly stuck out a glove.

She wrote on his palm, it’s none of your business. Yuu tapped on his hand to get him to retract it and gave him a big smile before she stuck out her middle finger in his face.

“This is Floyd Leech,” Azul said, indicating Floyd beside him, who was leaning over the back of the couch in a boneless slouch. “He is our top batter in the kitchen and a regular in the hall. And you’ve met my vice Dorm Head, Jade Leech. They’re twins in the second year.”

“He~y Azul,” Floyd poked Azul’s shoulder with one gloved finger lazily. “Why’d you hire such a weak-looking shrimp? This kid has no resistance at all.” Not a single shred of repentance was found in his dismissive glance in her direction.

“Floyd, you need to reflect on your actions,” Azul lectured, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his second and third fingers. “I told you not to go strangling people without my permission. What were you going to do if today’s help became useless because of you?”

Yuu was careful to note that he didn’t mention any concern for her health—only the concern for his shop’s continued ability to run. She hadn’t misjudged Azul at all. This person couldn’t care about her less than he did a rock lying on the ground.

Currently, she sat across from the three Octavinelle students in the VIP Lounge, nursing a glass of ice water. Her voice was done for today, but she had escaped with only a couple of bruises and a red welt across her neck, which she counted as lucky. It was within her expectations that one of the NRC students would be completely off his rocker—that she’d met him this late seemed like a miracle.

More importantly…

Yuu caught Azul’s eye and pointed at Jade, who was seated on his other side. The vice Dorm Head was still bent over shaking. Every so often a cross between a sigh, snort, and gasp would escape him, tilting his fedora sideways.

Floyd rolled his eyes and bent forwards so that he somersaulted onto the couch gracefully. “It’s not that funny, Ja~de,” he pouted, looking almost criminally guileless for someone who surpassed a hundred and ninety centimetres.

“Just what on earth happened?” Azul glanced over at the trembling Jade with a disgusted sort of interest before he turned to her, seeking explanation.

Yuu smiled widely and pointed at Floyd. Even if she had expected this—even if she wasn’t necessarily angry at him, there was no love lost between them right now.

“What? You cheeky li’l shrimp. Seriously, even after my warning, you’ve still not learned your lesson?” Floyd leaned forwards with a manic grin. “What…d’you want me to strangle you again?”

Yuu rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him.

Floyd seemed to freeze solid where he sat slumped against the couch.

Azul shook his head in amazement. “…Well, I suppose I should be glad that you weren’t scared off by the twins. I do sincerely apologize for this one’s actions! Floyd, you apologize too.”

“…Why should I have to apologize to this li’l shrimp?” Floyd grimaced in her direction. “With that attitude, he’s lucky I didn’t strangle him a second time.”

“Oh my, how unfortunate,” Azul’s smile widened. “Well, that’s how it is, Yuu-san. If you are reluctant to work here with this problem child—”

“I’m seventeen!”

“—then I advise you to terminate your job efforts here. How about it? It’s not too late.”

Yuu gulped down half her glass. “Don’t worry,” she croaked. “No big deal. Just tell me what to do, Ashengrotto-senpai.”

Jade coughed several times before sitting up straight, face set in its signature polite smile, though his eyes were wet with laughter. “The Directing Student’s perseverance is truly something to be admired. I can take over training for you, Azul, if you accept him.”

“Huuuuh!?” Floyd jerked upright, gaping at his twin. “When the hell did you get interested in this li’l shrimp? He’s like…tiny!”

Jade chuckled. “Yes, he is, Floyd. And your point is?”

Floyd spluttered. “This weak, small fish won’t even last a day.”

“Oya. We’ll have to see about that, won’t we, Directing Student?” Jade smiled in her direction.

Yuu, wondering why he was being so polite to her so suddenly, nodded back with an answering smile.

“No way,” Floyd grumbled. “Why is this kid even here? Find some other place to work.”

Yuu arched an eyebrow at him before turning to Jade in askance.

“Please don’t mind my brother,” Jade said politely. “Floyd has a bit of a troublesome personality, but he’s not so bad.”

“Not so bad…” Azul coughed into his glove, eye twitching. “Very well. Since you volunteered, Jade, you can take over Yuu-san’s training for now. Although…we’ll have to see how long he can last in here. After all, it’s rare for a human to come down to Octavinelle.”

Yuu gave his unpleasant smile a deadpan glance. Azul and Floyd didn’t seem to want to make things easy for her. Still, it wasn’t like she had any options, so Yuu sighed and pushed herself to her feet to follow Jade to the kitchens. As she walked after his broad back, rubbing at her sore throat, she wondered if this person in front of her was another saboteur.

Living in a different world was, after all, not easy.

Mostro Lounge was—contrary to expectations—a workplace created around rules. With Azul’s insistence on profit, self-interest, and his business-like disregard for the safety and health of others, she was expecting a place resembling a mafia headquarters, or in Japanese terms, a ‘black company’. Instead, a code of conduct was pasted in large letters on the wall; the kitchen was clean and gleamed with metal accessories; a few kitchen staff were chopping ingredients at the back, laughing cheerfully among themselves.

Jade walked her through a tour of the kitchens behind the bar, which were larger than she expected, the break room, where a student was fiddling with his phone, and the changing room, in which he presented her a change of clothes. Yuu made an excuse about going to the washroom when he hurried her to change in front of him and quickly struggled into the Mostro Lounge uniform standing in a stall.

Crewel, who had been extremely disapproving of her ‘tacky vest’ which protected and hid her chest, had provided her with a few unbelievably comfortable sets of undergarments last week which were, according to him, enchanted to hide the shape of her chest completely. Still, they were more fashionable and…girly…than any brassiere she’d worn before, so Yuu obviously couldn’t let them be seen in an all-boy’s school. Crewel, according to Crowley, could get a little crazy when he was confronted with fashion. Boring clothing was out of the question for him.

He would have approved of Mostro Lounge’s uniform, Yuu thought privately. Even though her provided set was small, there must have been some sort of Self-Shrinking Charm or whatever this world’s version of it was—the black dress pants fit snugly enough around her hips and over the well-fitted lilac dress shirt. She laced the white ribbon around her collar, hurriedly pulled the long suit jacket on, and stumbled out into the hallway, where Jade was waiting with his back against the wall.

Oya oya,” Jade smiled down at her. “It almost looks like you’re a miniature Octavinelle student. Well, we don’t have a hat or stole for you, as you are not a part of the dorm, so it will have to do.”

“I’ve never worn anything this formal,” Yuu said hoarsely, tugging at the bow. Her voice was still more-or-less shot. “Would you mind telling me if anything’s out of order?”

Jade chuckled. “Well, first of all, the way you tie your bow should be different. That’s a butterfly knot, where…” he leaned down, undid her bowtie deftly, and made a complicated series of movements before fastening a much comelier bow-tie shape under her collar. “This is what it should look like.”

Yuu winced. At her interview she’d done the same method of tying—which was obviously wrong. “Leech-senpai…please teach me how to tie that next time.”

“We’ll see if there is a next time,” Jade said ominously without losing his polite speech. Perhaps that made it sound even worse.

Yuu shadowed him through the kitchen as he laid a menu in front of her and began preparations for that night’s dinner menu. As it was Friday evening, they were expecting a higher volume of incoming customers than usual. When she read the prices and was told how much they made in a single night, Yuu stared at Jade with such admiration that he nearly dropped an egg covering his mouth to stifle laughter.

It was all Azul, he told her proudly, Azul who created this Lounge out of nothing his first year of school and fought his way up to success. Yet Yuu was sure Jade (and maybe Floyd) had at least one hand in its rise. For all their obvious danger, these two twins looked intelligent in Jade’s case and physically capable in Floyd’s.

Mostro Lounge made her little experiment with the group of Hogwarts entrepreneurs in the summer of Second Year look like child’s play. These NRC’s second-year students were making so much money that she wondered what Azul was doing with it.

Still, Yuu had cooked for herself her whole life—it was either that or starve. After reading over the menu until she could reasonably remember most of what they served, she pulled on an apron that was so big that Jade had to shrink it with magic and started to peel potatoes beside him, eager to get to work.

It had been a while since she had made anything other than baked goods, and Yuu had never minded cooking, so she took to the job with enthusiasm. Jade Leech was an unbelievably efficient worker and so good with a knife that it was frightening. She quickly learned to leave the slicing to him and focused on piling up vegetables fast enough for him to grab onto.

The only way to keep time was the silent clock hanging above their heads. When seventeen o’clock passed, Floyd waltzed into the kitchen and whistled at the piles of ingredients gathered neatly together.

“Dang, Jade, you’ve gotten faster,” He leaned on his brother, completely ignoring her.

“Is that so? It must be because I have an excellent helper,” Jade said smoothly.

Floyd’s good mood vanished in the blink of an eye. “As if li’l shrimp could do anything around here.”

Yuu rolled her eyes and ignored him. This guy reminded her of all of the psychopaths she’d seen in movies and then some. The way his mood changed so quickly nearly gave her whiplash.

Her blasé attitude did not sit well with Floyd, who let go of Jade, stomped over to her, and dropped over a hundred and ninety centimetres of weight on her shoulders. “He~y, Koebi-chan. It’s rude not to greet your co-worker, you know.”

Yuu teetered back and forth for a minute. “…Hello Strangler-senpai,” she managed hoarsely.

Jade snorted.

“Wha~t is with this cheeky li’l shrimp?” Floyd pinched her cheeks from behind painfully. “Careful I don’t just squeeze you to death one day.”

Yuu put down her peeler and handed the last carrot over to Jade. “I don’t think it’s very nice to exert violence on a co-worker, senpai. Some of us are being quite diligent here.”

“What’s with this seriously irritating kid. Hey Jade. Can I strangle him? Can I frickin’ strangle him?”

Jade pressed a gloved hand over his mouth and chuckled politely. “Of course you can’t, Floyd. Please resist the urge. Besides, you’re up next in the kitchen, so first you’ll have to do your job.”

Floyd sighed and put his chin on her head. “......Haa. I’m not in the mood today. Since so~me cheeky Koebi-chan’s caused me to lose my motivation.”

“My fault?” Yuu shot back, though her voice cracked. “I don’t believe that Strangler-senpai would be so affected by my very presence that he isn’t able to work. How unfortunate.”

“This kid…” Floyd growled. “You have no idea what I do or how I do it, so don’t make comments about me.”

“Well then I’ll have to ask you not to make comments about me,” she said smartly.

“Fine. Fine!” Floyd stood up straight and turned her around, glaring her down in the with a slash of white teeth. “You just watch, Koebi-chan, and I’ll show you who’s not affected. You better get down on your knees and apologize later.”

“Whoa, he’s saying a lot, but can he put his money where his mouth is?” Yuu monotoned like a commentator. “Mostro Lounge, five PM. Will the psychopath be able to defeat the monstrous pile of ingredients in time for orders? The show continues.”

Floyd almost reached out for her neck again, but instead brought his fist down on her head. Yuu yelped as she saw stars; once she regained her vision, he’d started making a racket pulling out pans and pots and slamming them on the long row of ovens. Yuu scrunched up her nose at the noise before Jade leaned down to whisper in her ear.

“Are you not afraid of him?” he murmured curiously. “…Ah, and me, by extension. It’s been quite a while since we weren’t, ah…”

“Faced with screams of fright?” Yuu guessed.

“At least you know the proper reaction,” Jade said ruefully. “I’d been starting to wonder if you were just a tiny fool.”

“People sure love using that phrase about me,” she sighed.

Jade’s smile widened. “Which? Tiny or fool?”

“I’m going to step on your foot, Leech-senpai,” Yuu said pleasantly. “It’s just that as someone who is in a tough position, I am in no place to be shrinking back in fear due to bosses or co-workers who may have antisocial personality disorder.”

“Oh my. Lack of monetary funds poses quite the problem,” Jade said blandly.

Yuu was starting to see what kind of person this guy was. “…Anyway, it’s not that you two aren’t frightening. It’s just that I don’t have an option to avoid you, so it’s useless for me to try.”

“How resolute of you,” Jade murmured, watching Floyd fill a pot with water from the sink. “…You see, my brother…Floyd lives by the seat of his pants. His performance and mood change on the tip of a hat, but when things are going well, he accomplishes things that almost no one else can.”

Yuu peered up at him. Jade’s glance was narrowed almost as if Floyd was glowing too bright for him to see. “He usually does the cooking?”

“Oh yes…the kitchen is practically run by Floyd,” Jade chuckled. “Though when he’s not ‘in the mood,’ he slacks off…when he is, ah, inspired to put in some effort, everything he makes is delicious.”

Following his glance back to Floyd showed the other Leech twin carelessly pouring oil into a pan and slouching back over to the chopped scallions. Yuu had to look closely, but indeed, the movements resembled Trey’s practiced manner when he moved around the kitchen. Floyd himself looked sloppy and bored, but he was handling seven or eight pots and pans simultaneously—as if he were used to it.

“I didn’t expect him to actually be good at cooking,” she commented, impressed.

“It’s thanks to you for lighting a fire under his proverbial bottom,” Jade’s smile was back to the usual polite curve that she could never tell if reached his eyes. “I’m sure that to prove to Mister Shrimp that he isn’t affected by you at all, tonight’s dinner will receive a warm welcome in the lounge.”

Yuu made a face, unsure of how to feel about being the reason for Floyd’s resulting diligence, but the shifts had changed and tonight’s waiters were coming in, sliding their hats and stoles on their uniforms, so she lost her chance to continue the conversation.

In ‘consideration’ of her voice—or lack of it—Jade had received orders from Azul to keep Yuu in the back tonight. She was briefly introduced to the other staff, all of whom were Octavinelle dorm students, and was met with a surprising mix of indifference and pity-filled glances. Another scan of the food menu and they were off.

It was her first night working at a café-slash-restaurant and Yuu was swept up in rush hour orders in no time. After she caught a kitchen staff carrying the wrong order to the waiter’s pickup area the first time, Jade situated her firmly in the area between the cooks and the waiters. She quickly became the ferry between orders and the kitchen, though Yuu was too busy to wonder why she’d been put here.

Jade himself managed the kitchen superbly with both experience and talent. Under his control, none of the cooks acted out of form, except for Floyd, whose rather extreme approach to managing the fire often sent shoots of flames high up into the sky, scaring the people around him badly. Yuu noticed that despite the obvious authority both Jade and Floyd held in the kitchen, none of the staff seemed very friendly with them, a few outright scuttling around them like they were terrified.

She didn’t have time to observe the dynamics closely. Yuu ran back and forth between one of the waiters, who ruffled her hair every time she gave him a tray of food, and the kitchen staff, who barked at her irately for being too slow.

Still—everyone here was competent, even the dishwasher (who looked rather dejected). They pounded out orders that had hit triple digits by the time the flow slowed down.

Yuu blinked out of her stupor when she saw several of the waiters disappear out the employee entrance and glanced at the clock. With surprise, she noted that it was already past nine thirty.

“Good work,” Jade appeared by her side, looking none the worse for the wear. “We’ll be starting clean-up now, so after we’re done that, you’re free to go.”

“Huh? But the hours go until midnight on Friday, right?” Yuu cleared her throat several times to try and improve the quality of her voice and pointed towards the sign on the wall.

“Koebi-chan’s still here?” Floyd poked his head in from where he’d been serving drinks at the bar. He shooed her with a white glove. “Hurry up and get outta here. It’s too early for kids like you to stay out so late.”

“Strangler-senpai…” Yuu clutched her heart. “You’re worried about me?”

“Like hell,” he spat, “part-time kids can’t be here when the alcohol starts getting served, obviously.”

“Alcohol,” Yuu echoed. “…Is that legal?”

Azul stepped into the kitchen from the breakroom. “As long as we follow the regulations to serve above the legal age, it is,” he said smoothly. “Jade. How was Yuu-san’s first day on the job?”

“Quite a bit above my expectations,” Jade smiled back, folding a hand across his chest in subservience. “The Directing Student comprehends quickly and catches on to new tasks without any trouble. He has already surpassed our two newest hires and has only made one mistake in nearly two hundred orders.”

Yuu blinked. “Nearly two hundred? I guess I lost track of time.” She tried to keep going, but her sore throat only allowed a cough.

Azul leaned in to squint at her before he sighed and withdrew a small glass bottle curved in the shape of a shell. It was filled with a greenish liquid. “Here you are, Yuu-san.”

Yuu took the bottle and tilted her head in question.

“A small token of my apology for our Floyd’s behaviour today,” Azul clasped his gloved hands in front of him with a rather smarmy smile. “It should more or less cure your throat’s malady.”

Nodding, she uncorked the bottle and swallowed it in a single gulp. By now, Yuu was used to the disgusting taste of all potions brewed in the Twisted Wonderland, so she didn’t so much as wince.

When she tilted her head back down, she met Floyd’s face, still halfway out the door. He was staring at her like she had just grown a second head.

Yuu blinked over at Jade and Azul, who were both similarly frozen. “What?” she said much more clearly and massaged her less painful throat in surprise. “Hey, it works really fast.”

“You just…swallowed that without even checking to see if…” Azul started haltingly and then pressed a glove to his forehead. “Are you a fool?”

“No?” Yuu tried, corking the bottle again. “I don’t think that you’d be so obvious as to give me a phial of poison for no reason after I worked for you all evening. Plus, there are so many ways you could have harmed me without making it this obvious. And you’ve got a reputation to uphold, right? Poisoning a worker in your restaurant is the foolish move to make.”

“All true,” Jade sighed, “but usually people—especially humans—are a little more cautious.”

“There’s no reason to doubt someone like Ashengrotto-senpai with things like these,” Yuu said matter-of-factly. “He’s more likely to trick you with details than with something so obvious.”

Azul exhaled. “…Today has been full of surprises,” he murmured. “Yuu-san, as expected from someone who has come from a different world. You are truly an anomaly.”

Jade went still beside her.

Floyd gave up hovering and ducked into the kitchen. “Hey, hey, Azul. What the hell does that mean? Different world?”

“Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu groaned.

“Whoops,” Azul said with a wicked smile. “Well, if you are going to work here, they would have figured out eventually. These two are both far too intelligent not to.”

“Are you kidding me? This li’l shrimp came here from a different world! No wonder he’s got none of the common sense anyone else has. Hey, hey, does he not know what we are?!” Floyd, suddenly bursting with momentum, charged over to her and lifted her bodily into the air like a child.

When someone approaching two metres in height manhandled her, Yuu didn’t even try to fight him. “Sir, this is harassment.”

“Aw come on, don’t be so uptight. Hey, you’re a human right? Are humans all the same or are different-world humans even weaker or something?” Floyd fired off, his grin widening and showing a mouth full of those sharpened teeth. “You’re a baby! Literally a baby who doesn’t know anything about this world. I could tell you anything and get you to believe me!”

“From now on I will never believe anything Strangler-senpai says,” monotoned Yuu. “Please put me down.”

“No way. This is too good.”

Yuu noted absently that when excited, Floyd Leech didn’t look very scary at all. The childish light sparkling in his mismatched eyes and his wide smile brought out the full force of his handsomeness.

Yet those hands under her arms could kill her without a second’s thought.

“Indeed,” Jade, whom she had thought about relying on as the voice of reason, finally spoke. But when Yuu turned to him, the same unholy light brightening his twin’s eyes transformed Jade’s gaze into something even more frightening as he smiled politely up at her. “Directing Student, why on earth didn’t you tell me something like that earlier? No wonder you were so…innocent.”

Yuu went very still under that inhuman stare. She felt like a butterfly pinned to a board, unable to move. When Jade finished the last word, his lip lifted slightly to reveal the same knife-sharp teeth—

“Floyd, put Yuu-san down, please.” Unexpectedly, Azul was the one to break the sudden dangerous air weighing down the kitchen. “And Jade, stop threatening our newest hire. If your report is true, I don’t want to toss him out just yet.”

Fine,” sighed Floyd, dropping her. Yuu landed with a stumble.

“I sincerely apologize,” Jade said smoothly.

Yuu trusted him about as far as she could throw him. Since he most likely outweighed her twice, this said a lot.

These twins were trouble. Yuu resolved to hide behind Azul should any of them get angry at her—he seemed to be the only one able to control them.

Azul crossed his arms and considered her behind his glasses. “I did not expect you to last this long, Yuu-san,” he said at last, “or at all. However, it is true that Mostro Lounge was in need of help, so honestly, you are an unexpected blessing.”

“So I’m hired?”

“Not so fast,” his smirk was back. Azul was someone who smirks befit well. “The test period lasts one week, and believe me when I say we will work you as much as permitted in that time frame. If you last the week, we’ll hire you.”

“Do I get paid for the test period too?” Yuu wanted to know.

Azul looked offended. “What do you think I am? Of course you will. I’m not in the business of unfair labour here.”

Floyd sniggered. “Yeah, sure.”

“Shut up, Floyd. Yuu-san, your shift was quite long, and you haven’t had a break, so I’ll dismiss you now. Your next shift is Sunday afternoon. Understood?”

“Do I still come in the employee entrance?” Yuu asked pointedly, eyeing Floyd. “I need a working voice if I’m going to be interacting with customers.”

“Ah, don’t worry. Floyd will no longer be impeding your entrance. Right, Floyd?” Azul glanced over at him.

Floyd crossed his arms behind his head and whistled at the ceiling. “Not my fault I wasn’t informed,” he sang.

“So don’t worry,” Azul finished with his suspicious-looking smile.

“You know…I’m wondering if you purposely didn’t let him know because you knew he would try and scare me off by strangling me half to death,” Yuu mused. “And you just let him because you wanted to test me or something.”

Azul’s smile froze. Floyd made a funny choking noise.

“…Directing Student, a point of advice is not to say things you think,” Jade advised from the side. “It’s not good for your safety.”

“What, really?” Yuu blinked in surprise at Azul. “I wasn’t serious. Ashengrotto-senpai, you’re kind of a jerk, aren’t you?”

“Is that any way to talk about your superior?” Azul raised one silver brow.

Yuu crossed her arms. “Do you want me to work here or not, senpai? That’s a lot of sabotaging for someone in need of help.”

“It’s too suspicious for someone to volunteer so conveniently. Doubly so if you’re magicless, weak…someone like a Directing Student.” Azul sniffed down at her superciliously. “Do forgive me if I had to take some preventative measures.”

“Okay. Did I pass them?” she asked back without anger.

“…Does this li’l shrimp not value his own life?” muttered Floyd.

“It’s quite interesting, so let’s leave it at that,” Jade murmured back.

Azul sighed. “Yes, Yuu-san, you’ve passed them. Quite spectacularly, in fact. I’m beginning to wonder if you’ll regret it in the days to come.”

Chapter Text

When Riddle and Trey arrived outside Ramshackle Dorm around noon on Saturday, Yuu and Grim had given up their game of Magical Shift against the Ghosts and were rolling on the grass in a fit of laughter.

Mostro Lounge’s first shift had taken it out of her—the second she’d arrived back at Ramshackle, Yuu had fallen over onto the huge bed and conked out for a good nine hours. As a result, when Grim woke her up the next day, whining about wanting to play Magical Shift for the tournament, she was energetic enough to suggest a one-on-one match with a flying disc generously provided by the Ghosts in the old building. (Yuu didn’t ask how they found it. There were things you didn’t ask Ghosts.)

As the only other ‘dorm-mates’ she had, Yuu tended to chat the most with the Ghosts when they saw fit to materialise out from nothingness. She had always enjoyed speaking with those who were more experienced and knowledgeable than she, and the Ghosts had decades and decades (both living and…not) of both that was endlessly interesting to her. Grim himself tolerated their presence in Ramshackle well enough, but Yuu actively sought them out for conversation. It was this way that she finally learned the rules and regulations of Magift.

According to the host of spectres, several of whom were allegedly famous Magift players back when they lived, its disc was enchanted—much like a Snitch—to float by itself. Under their instruction, Yuu activated what looked like a simple Frisbee by touching it and it burst into a ball of red flame, floating up into the air.

“The fire doesn’t hurt, don’t worry,” one ghost assured.

“It’s just for show, so it’s not even fire,” Another one laughed.

Grim immediately dove in from the side and swiped the disc from her fingers. “It’s mine now!”

“Oh, you’re on,” Yuu laughed, whipping out her wand. “Get back here!”

CHAPTER EIGHT | A Crime Without a Criminal.

Yuu was never good at physical activity, and her grades here were being tugged down only by the Flying and strength building classes. But Grim could not match her size, no matter how adept he was at twisting through her fingers, and he had given her permission to use her magic in return for his.

Still, the game lasted quite a bit longer than she’d expected, because none of them could put the disc through each other’s opposing goal (which was a pile of sticks fashioned into a makeshift triangle) due to how silly they were being with their spells. Eventually Yuu’s misfired Charm turned Grim’s tail into a curled spring, sending him bouncing straight into her stomach and rolling them across the browning grass several times.

Yuu lay on the ground in stunned silence before Grim hiccupped and then they were both laughing. She could barely undo the Charm on his tail, her fingers were shaking so hard; lightheaded, she gathered Grim into her arms and rolled around on the grass to try and get her composure back. Both of them kept sending the other back into giggles until her stomach ached.

“What on earth are you two doing?”

The commanding tone in that voice could only belong to Riddle. Yuu rolled onto her back, squinting into the dry autumn day as he and Trey appeared in her line of vision.

Trey caught sight of the aimlessly floating Magical Shift disc and laughed, bending down and stretching out a hand. “I see you two were learning to play.”

“Grim was,” she wheezed, “Insistent.”

For a pâtissier’s son, Trey was a lot stronger than she had anticipated; without much effort, he tugged her upright so that her feet dangled briefly from the ground before she was set down again. Riddle muttered something about having no dignity, but when Trey drew back, he leaned in close and brushed the dry leaves from her hair with an air that reminded her of Headmistress McGonagall.

“What’re you guys doing here?” Grim asked rather rudely, leaping up on her shoulder with practiced ease. Yuu swayed briefly under his weight.

Riddle shot him a glare for his cheek but let it go. “That’s right. Yuu, do you know how inconvenient it is when I have no means of communication with you?”

“Er…” she scratched her head sheepishly. “Can’t be helped?”

“Hmph. I meant to invite you earlier, but it seems that the letter has not reached your door yet. Very well.” Riddle sighed. “Yuu, how would you like to come with me and Trey to the equestrian club I’m a part of? I was thinking you might like it, since you mentioned earlier how much you liked animals.”

Yuu gaped at him before breaking out into an incredulous smile. “There’s an equestrian club at this school! Yes I want to go, Dorm Head! Please!”

Riddle, pulled along by her cheer, dropped his severe frown for a small grin. “I thought you would say that. I’m glad I invited you.”

“Good for you,” Trey commented warmly from behind them.

“Wait a second!” Grim puffed up, pressing a round paw to her cheek to lean dangerously forwards into Riddle’s face. “Yuu’s finally got a free day, so it’s mine! We were gonna practice for the Magift Tournament!”

“Excuse me?” The Dorm Head raised one elegant brow at him. “Since when did Yuu belong to you? As far as I know, you’ve barely known him for a month. And according to the school competition rules, you should know that Ramshackle Dorm doesn’t have enough students to participate in the match.”

“Shut up!” Grim blustered back, “you…thief! Yuu’s mine!”

Riddle jerked backwards in outraged shock. “…Thief!? Why, I—”

“Grim,” sighed Yuu. “…Sorry about him, Dorm Head. One second. Grim. Aren’t you interested in equestrian club? You’ve never been, right?”

Grim, who was clinging to her neck, rubbed his head into the side of her head rather painfully and refused to respond.

Yuu scratched him behind the ears patiently. “We can practice for Magift any time, can’t we? Like tomorrow. But today’s one of the only days that there aren’t designated club activities. Right?”

“I hate it when you’re logical,” Grim growled, “and it was supposed to be just the two of us today.”

“Then think about it. One option is, we could go take up Dorm Head on his kindness and see if there’s enough time to play another game after. Another option is we don’t go. Which option would leave you with less regrets?” Yuu asked him reasonably.

“…I want a tuna can,” Grim sulked. “And we’re redoing the match tomorrow too. Just because you’d sulk about not seeing the horses.”

She would have been fine, but knowing that he’d made the decision for her made her chest feel funny and warm. Yuu squeezed him to her face. He really was a cute Monster. “Thanks, Grim.”

“Hmph. Yeah you better thank me.”

When she looked back up at the two upperclassmen, Riddle was focusing on her face with an almost frightening stare and Trey had raised both eyebrows.

Yuu blinked. “What? Did something happen?”

“Tamer, indeed,” Riddle murmured, peering down at her. “Even without my debt, there is plenty to be studied about you, it seems.”

Trey chuckled. “Transfer here almost looks like Grim’s mother.”

“That’s quite rude to say to a teenage boy, Trey,” Riddle commented mildly.

Yuu refrained from telling him it was okay, since she wasn’t a teenage boy, and followed the two of them up the hill over to NRC’s main castle. She had been apprehensive about going through the mirror, but Riddle reassured her that the stables were located just behind the rise of land where the castle stood. In its shade, there was easy access to running water, and it was close enough to Ramshackle for a walk.

She sighed in relief. “Phew. Mirror travel freaks me out.”

“I keep forgetting you come from a different world,” Trey laughed. “But don’t you travel by mirror there too?”

“As if we’d do something so dangerous,” Yuu grimaced. She refrained from mentioning Floo networks, of which she wasn’t the fondest either.

“I heard from Cater that you can’t even go through a mirror by yourself,” Riddle said disapprovingly.

“Pretty much. If we ever have to travel together, please let me hold your hand,” Yuu said earnestly, “or else I probably won’t make it.”

Riddle blinked.

Trey leaned over her to whisper something that sounded like, “Ace said he’s got no sense of personal space.” Yuu glanced between the two of them curiously, wondering what they were saying as they murmured back and forth.

Grim grumbled something about her being too touchy-feely, but immediately subsided into purring when she absently started to scratch him behind the ears.

“I see,” Riddle said more audibly after responding to Trey in a low voice. He gave her what looked like a rather pitying smile. “Very well, Yuu. Until you get over your phobia, feel free to rely on one of us for Mirror travel. It is an upperclassman’s job to support their fellow students, after all.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Yuu said gratefully.

The Dorm Head coughed, red rising up past the collar of his athletic uniform. “You’ll get nothing from flattering me. Come on, we’re almost there.”

The stables built of wood and stone stood shaded by the huge castle NRC boasted as its main building. Before the three of them could do much more than approach it, though, a group of students hovering near the stables noticed them and came jogging towards them enthusiastically. From the scarlet of their athletic uniform, they were from Heartslabyul, though some were wearing the black track jacket overtop their shirts in the chill.

Yuu jumped as one red-shirted student came right up to her face. “Hey Dorm Head! Vice Dorm Head! And firstie!”

“Dorm Head! You finally brought the firstie,” a second, taller one approached them at a more sedate pace. The students gathered in a crowd around them, all wearing wide smiles. For some reason the positive expressions were directed mainly at her, which confused Yuu a great deal.

“What the heck is with these guys?” Grim jerked out of his stupor, annoyed. He buried his head under the jacket of her newly acquired athletic uniform, flattening his ears. Yuu made space for him to burrow more securely inside. Grim let nothing disturb his early afternoon naps, whether it was a rowdy student or even Professor Trein. Come to think of it, that might have been why he was dragged into remedial lessons all week. Trein had said something about grading based on attitude in class.

“You lot…” Riddle sighed with the usual strict frown he wore. He crossed his arms and glared them down. “What have I said about not running up and surprising people? What if someone got hurt?”

“Sorry Dorm Head!” said one cheerfully, not at all stymied.

Yuu raised both eyebrows.

“Don’t worry Dorm Head! You know us members of the equestrian club are stronger than that!” A second one bared one upper arm and flexed proudly.

“More importantly, you guys always keep Ramshackle’s cute li’l firstie between you and the Cards,” whined a third, nudging her conspiratorially. “Can’t help if we wanted to meet the kid, can we?”

Riddle spluttered, “I’m not keeping Yuu anywhere!”

The Yuu in question, who was now full-out staring, turned back to Trey and indicated the group. Trey obligingly bent down so she could jog over and whisper in his ear, “What happened this past week!?”

“September passed and October started,” he quipped with his signature easy smile.

“Senpai,” Yuu rolled her eyes.

“It’s a good thing, isn’t it? That Riddle’s finally being accepted by his dorm mates.” Trey glanced past her to the noisy group with his brow furrowed in care and relief. “Since the Overblot, he’s slowly been changing…and they’ve noticed.”

Yuu liked this expression much better than the smile he wore all the time. It was a testament to how fond she was of Trey that she reached out to squeeze his hand. “You look a lot less worried now.”

Trey looked surprised for a moment before he grinned and squeezed back briefly. “Thanks to you. You broke him out of it when we couldn’t.”

She shook her head. “He’s being supported by you and the rest of the Heartslabyul students, so you can really pat yourself on the back once in a while, no matter what Ace says.”

Evidently, the Heartslabyul dorm was recovering in places she couldn’t see. Yuu never really approached the red-bricked castle by herself—usually she was fooling around after school with Ace, Deuce and Grim in places such as the forest behind the Gardens or the library—but for the first time she wondered if she should be sticking close to Riddle instead.

Yuu could not begin to understand the darkness inside of his mind that had been so vicious it had leaked out of his skin in great black globs of magic. Sometimes she dreamed of the Overblot, though. That anguished expression Riddle wore as he screamed at her to leave him alone, the nearly audible please don’t deafeningly silent behind those words. She could not bear that echo, often squeezed the sleeping Grim next to her until she could close her eyes again, but now those thoughts came back with a vengeance. Wasn’t it her responsibility to see if he had really recovered? Just because she’d managed to destroy the Overblot figure behind him didn’t mean his shackles were broken yet.

She wondered what this uncomfortable pressure was in her chest—not anger. This was heavier. Unhappier. Directed not at Riddle, but at herself.

Yuu was brought out of her sinking thoughts when a large warm hand laid over her hair. She looked up in surprise.

Trey smiled down at her, the sunlight crowning his dark green hair with gold to match those eyes. It was an unfamiliar sort of smile. “Transfer,” he said softly, “don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Beat myself up?” Yuu repeated slowly, tasting those words for the first time on her tongue.

“You’ve done plenty,” Trey assured her. “And wouldn’t it be arrogance to assume that you’re the one who’s responsible for everything? It’s better not to start playing a hero you don’t know.”

Mysteriously, those cryptic words stole the weight in her chest. Yuu took a deep calming breath. “Senpai. Are you maybe a psychologist or something?”

Trey chuckled. “As if cutting lines like these would earn me any patients. Don’t worry. I only study the people I like.”

“Right,” she muttered, then, “Wait. People you—”

“Hey firstie!”

Yuu yelped as one of the Heartslabyul students jogged over and got right in her face, grinning. “He-hello?”

Several more of his compatriots joined him so that Yuu was faced with a wall of friendly faces. Most of them had coloured suits—diamonds, spades, hearts—painted on their faces, but none of them looked familiar. She started preparing for jostling or threats and was nearly surprised into a reflexive leap when hands reached out to pat her on the shoulder, head, back.

“We never got to thank you,” one student explained as Yuu accepted the pats in a bewildered manner. “Cater-senpai told us all about it!”

“Yeah! Whatever happened to the Dorm Head, you were the one to save him along with Trappola and Spade, right?” Another chimed in, grabbing her arm and pumping it up and down vigorously. “Right on, dude!”

“I can’t believe some pipsqueak like this managed to win Dorm Head over!” laughed a third gruffly. “How’d you do it?”

“Oh,” Yuu emitted intelligently. “You’re not angry?”

“Angry?” one said confusedly. “Why’d we be angry?”

“Wasn’t it you who convinced Dorm Head here to remove the stick out of his—”

His friend elbowed him. “Oi, you’re gonna get Offed.”

“Ha ha. Don’t get mad at me, Dorm Head, it was just an expression.”

Riddle approached him and twirled his Pen around his fingers, an unpleasant smile darkening his face. “I suggest you watch your word choice.”

“See?” the tallest one bent down to whisper to her conspiratorially. “A couple weeks ago there’s no way anyone would’ve been able to fool around in front of him.”

“Senpai’s change isn’t necessarily thanks to me,” Yuu protested, not really understanding the situation. “It’s Trey-senpai and Cater-senpai and you guys who made the effort to get closer to him.”

She wondered if they were unaware Riddle had undergone an Overblot. But according to Crowley, Overblots were both rare and dangerous—had he somehow suppressed word going out?

Or were they pretending not to know?

“The one who made that possible was you, kid, so stop acting gross and modest and stuff!” the one who’d gotten elbowed slapped her around the back in a friendly manner, nearly sending her pitching forwards.

“Yeah! Heartslabyul’s got no reason to act mushy on ya. We just owe you one,” another clarified. “But every time we’ve wanted to come talk to you, you’re with one of the Cards, so we never got a chance.”

“Cards,” Yuu repeated. Her vocabulary was at top form today, it seemed.

Riddle sighed and took the opportunity to explain. “You’ve noticed the pattern Trey’s and Cater’s names form,” he looked rather disdainful. “Now that Ace and Deuce have joined the first years, the other students have taken to calling them ‘Cards’ collectively.”

“Wait,” Yuu blinked, “it wasn’t on purpose?”

Trey said dryly, “My sense of humour isn’t as blatant as that.”

“C’mon, the chances of the names Ace, Deuce, Trey and Cater lining up so easily is…” Yuu began. “Not to mention your last names.”

“That’s what I said!” one of the Heartslabyul students nodded eagerly.

“But Cater-senpai was only like, ‘this is gonna hit MagiCam fame! Wanna form a band?’ and none of the others seem to care,” whined another.

Yuu wondered if there were prophecies or magic contained in names in this world. She wouldn’t be surprised.

According to the Heartslabyul students that made up a good chunk of the equestrian club’s regular members, Yuu had become a sort of local hero for her feat in causing Riddle to ‘mellow out’ even if it wasn’t her doing all the work. Yet denials met an iron wall of laughter and goodwill, so she gave up ahead of time to save her effort.

Though Yuu was used to being ignored—and now, hated—she was badly shocked by the positive treatment that she received from Heartslabyul. Unlike how Hogwarts’ students would group around James and Albus Potter in admiration, NRC’s were not so obvious or purely intentioned.

And they still liked her.

A warm welcome was a warm welcome. Yuu was told in no uncertain terms that she could rely on Heartslabyul for help on homework, directions if she got lost, extra food…

Eventually Riddle lost his temper and pulled her apart from the crowd, surprisingly strong for someone not much taller than her. “That’s enough. We’re here to show Yuu around the stables, not for you to mob him.”

“Come on, Dorm Head! Don’t be stingy.”

“Yeah! You and Trey-senpai and Cater-senpai always hog the kid to yourselves!”

“Can’t you lend him to us for a day?”

“Or a week?”

“What about my opinion?” Yuu tried. No one listened.

“Now, now,” Trey said mildly, “if you crowd him too enthusiastically, the transfer’s going to run away.”

“Just ‘cause you’re a pâtissier’s son and can train him with food doesn’t mean—”

“Train!?” she spluttered. “Um, guys, in the first place you don’t need to avoid me just because Ace and Deuce hang out with me. I don’t mind…”

You don’t mind,” one muttered.

“Those two first-years are frickin’ scary,” another one grumbled, “and I’m older than them!”

“Deuce-kun nearly took off my head the other day ‘cause I mentioned something about how small you were,” a third told her unhappily. “And I was complimenting you!”

“Oh yeah, Deuce can be a little violent sometimes,” Yuu recalled thoughtfully.

“A little!? That kid brought his Magical Wheel into school grounds and nearly ran me over with it!” spluttered one.

Yuu looked to Riddle for help.

Riddle looked at her exasperatedly but explained, “It’s a wheeled vehicle powered by magic. A form of transportation here. Don’t worry, I confiscated it right away.”

“Don’t even mention Ace,” another one waved his hands animatedly. “That kid is seriously nasty. He’s the kind of guy who mixes half a bottle of salt into the sugar when you accidentally bump into him in the hallway and then blames it on you.”

“That happened to you, didn’t it?”

“Shut up. I never wanna get onto his bad side. Teenage boy my ass.”

“All the Cards are psychos,” finished the tallest student. “I mean they’re fine most of the time, it’s just that we gotta be careful we don’t get on their bad side.”

“You’re pretty brave to say that right in front of me,” Trey raised a brow.

“Sorry.”

“Please don’t murder us.”

Trey laughed. “That’d take too much effort.”

“Trey-kun, you’ve gotten a lot scarier since the whole Dorm Head Over—er, incident, haven’t you?” one of them mentioned weakly.

“Idiot,” another hissed, “he’s just stopped hiding it so much. Do you want to live a peaceful life in this school?”

“I said nothing!”

Yuu thought Trey was probably joking. He wouldn’t be so obvious with his threats, even if he seemed to have shed his reluctance to reveal any thoughts he had since the Overblot. The third year had probably been used to hiding things in Riddle’s favour. After all, it had been his magical performance that had sent Riddle over the edge.

Still, there was a liveliness, a friendliness, a lack of restraint in this crowd of students making jokes with Trey and Riddle that served as the ultimate proof that they were accepted. Part of the dorm for real. Liked, respected—an existence that was good enough to joke with, no matter how much the students called them ‘psychos.’

Yuu’s chest felt light even as the phantom ache of that weight reminded her of its existence. As Riddle tugged her over to the stables to meet the rows of quietly grazing horses, she decided that sticking a little closer to Heartslabyul’s students might be okay.

Even if they kept suggesting for her to transfer dorms.

Sunday afternoon marked the beginning of Yuu’s second shift at Mostro Lounge. She’d spent the morning working on the homework due Monday, since yesterday’s adventure had prevented her from doing much of anything at all (including her schoolwork).

Predictably, Yuu had taken to the horses with zeal Saturday, though due to her lack of experience, she rode in front of Riddle the majority of the day. Though their heights were comparatively similar, with Grim napping in a watching Trey’s arms, she relished having the warmth of another human against her back and was loath to try riding on her own.

Riddle, who was an excellent teacher and an even better rider, walked her patiently through the steps; from letting the horse become familiarised with the rider to boosting her up with his two laced hands, he didn’t leave her side the entire time. Yuu’s suspicions were confirmed when he’d explained to her how he enjoyed the view from a horse’s back because he could look down at everything around him. Riddle had flat out refused when one of the other students volunteered to take over riding with her—apparently no one else was good enough.

“Superiority complex,” one of the students riding beside him had whispered to her. Riddle silenced him by lifting his Pen threateningly.

Perhaps it made her a bad person, but Yuu enjoyed it when Riddle was so openly arrogant, eager to look down on others, unapologetically condescending. It was something that made him endearingly human and also meant that he wasn’t hiding within the darkness in his heart if he was displaying it for all to see. He was right, too—the view from the saddle was so much wider than her usual vantage point that her breath was taken away.

The great field behind NRC’s castle looked much less intimidating from this spot. Riddle would probably neutralize anything within a mile’s radius, as according to Crowley, his practical magic performance was unparalleled in his year.

Surprisingly, Trey didn’t ride; several horses shied away from him when he neared, making him the target of teasing by the rest of the club. Trey rubbed his head sheepishly and said something about animals tending to run from him, but after Yuu and Riddle had tired themselves out racing back and forth the fields, he’d taken them back to Heartslabyul where a hearty meal was waiting for them with the rest of the Cards.

Ace and Deuce, who had overslept due to playing video games all night Friday, were outraged that they hadn’t been invited and spent most of the evening heckling her and Grim, who growled back that it had been his day originally. Consequently, Yuu had only reached Ramshackle close to midnight. She walked together with Cater-senpai who’d accompanied her back, as he was eager to check out her dorm again. He’d taken a bunch of snapshots of Ramshackle before leaving, satisfied, to let her crash minutes after she crawled into bed.

Sunday was tough. Her thighs and bottom were sore the next day from a day of riding, but Yuu defaulted to societal fulfilment when she could, so instead of sleeping in, she pushed Grim awake and laboured over her history report before the afternoon shift.

So wrapped up was she in recalling Twisted Wonderland’s history that spanned back to the First Year of Magic, when magical stones had been found initially, that she didn’t even notice where she was going until she nearly walked right into Floyd. Today no one had been near the Employee Entrance; instead, an impressively coloured drawing of a shrimp had been laminated with a laughably large red X painted over it and stuck on the door.

Yuu, who tended to sink too deep in her thoughts to react to her surroundings, hummed at the sign in absent humour before ignoring it altogether. Unfortunately, it was not the only blockade in her way.

“Hey,” Floyd’s tenor could drop unbelievably low when he was irritated.

Yuu blinked out of her musings and craned her neck back. The (infinitesimally) taller of the Leech siblings was leaning coolly against the wall beside the changing room. “Hm? Oh, hello Strangler-senpai.”

BANG!

Yuu jumped. Floyd had lifted one unbelievably long leg and kicked the wall beside her, boxing her in. Those cold eyes narrowed even as his smile widened. “Didn’t you see the sign?” he drawled slowly.

“Sign?” Yuu wondered absently if this guy was still going to get taller. “Oh…you mean the shrimp? It was nicely done. Did you draw it?”

“Jade gave me the idea. …That’s not it!” Floyd bared his sharp teeth at her. “No shrimps allowed! That means you, Koebi-chan. So get outta here!”

“But doesn’t Ashengrotto-senpai’s rules supersede yours?” she pointed out, examining the gleaming points warily. “I’m just here to work, you know.”

None of them mentioned the fact that she was human—not a shrimp. By now, Yuu had learned to choose her battles.

“Azul could care less whether you live or die,” Floyd snorted, “and it’s not like you’re useful here anyway. Now be a good little prey and scuttle off.”

“Can’t do that,” Yuu said cheerfully. “Unless you’re willing to fund me fifty thousand Madols a month for living expenses. Then I’ll think about it.”

“Look he~re,” Floyd dragged out the end of his sentence lazily, but his eyes were gleaming with that cold inhuman light again. “Koebi-chan, you seriously missing a few screws? You instigating me like this can only mean you wanna get strangled, ri~ght?”

“Not really,” Yuu replied promptly. “Though I am pretty ignorant about Mermen. Ashengrotto-senpai told me most of the Octavinelle students are Merfolk…Mermen of some sort, so there must be something about me that doesn’t agree with your delicate sensibilities.”

Floyd laughed incredulously. “Small fry,” he called her in that scarily gentle voice, “shall I teach you how to show respect to your upperclassman personally?”

“Floyd,” Jade poked his head out from the kitchen, “Where did you put the—oya. If it isn’t Mister Directing Student. Early as ever, I see.”

Yuu flashed him a peace sign over Floyd’s shoulder. “Good afternoon senpai. You look dashing as usual.”

“I’m flattered,” Jade lowered his head, smile widening.

Floyd growled, “Oi. What’s with this difference in attitude.”

“Why, senpai,” Yuu pressed a hand to her chest incredulously, “weren’t you the one who told me to show respect to my upperclassmen? I was just following your advice.”

“Hey Jade. We’re gonna need a new hire,” Floyd said manically, reaching for her throat.

“First you’re going to find the sea spice powder,” Jade pulled him upright by the collar without a change in expression just as Floyd’s fingers brushed her neck. “It was you who misplaced it yesterday, was it not?”

“Why are you protecting that small fry,” the taller Leech whined, letting himself be dragged backwards into the kitchen. “He’s impertinent!”

“I thought you liked rare objects?” Jade’s voice faded as he ducked into the kitchen. “The Directing Student comes from a separate world—isn’t that the height of unusualness?”

“You’re the one who likes weird objects!” Floyd countered.

“Not an object,” Yuu sang under her breath.

“And that li’l shrimp’s not even that special. He looks so normal and…weak and…” Floyd’s complaints faded into silence as the door closed behind them.

Yuu stuck her tongue out at the closed door and headed into the locker room to change. This openly dangerous Leech twin was the night to the friendly Heartslabyul students’ day. She still wasn’t quite sure what he had against her, but Floyd Leech was probably going to murder her in her sleep one stormy night.

Sunday afternoon was much quieter than the bustle of Friday’s crowded hall in Mostro Lounge. Yuu helped Jade with the afternoon kitchen prep while Floyd sulked off somewhere—according to his brother, he tended to skip work when he didn’t feel up to it. When Yuu asked dubiously if that was acceptable, Jade widened his ever-present smile and told her that Floyd’s genius was worth just that much.

“But why does he hate me so much?” she wondered, stifling a yawn. It seemed that yesterday’s exercise had taken a toll on her.

Behind his polished wood desk, Azul flicked a glance at her before turning back to his stack of parchment. “You really can’t guess?”

Yuu, who was squinting at the gigantic gold-leaved wheel hung on the wall behind the VIP room’s office chair, shook her head. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Your attitude towards him says otherwise.”

“Hey, he choked me first,” Yuu said mildly. “I’m not a saint. If you expect me to just forgive him for no reason, you’re talking to the wrong person.”

“No one asked you to forgive him.” Azul scanned a curling page of parchment with a rather evil-looking smile and set it to the side before shooting her an exasperated glance over his thin lenses. “But isn’t it common sense not to instigate him more? He’s obviously stronger than you and you can’t even use magic. I can’t believe I have to spell this out for you, but Yuu-san, even in your world it should be simple to just keep your mouth shut and apologise when necessary.”

“You sure like to rant, Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu cocked her head at him, swinging her legs back and forth as she perched on the arm of the black leather sofa. “Do you enjoy hearing the sound of your voice that much?”

“That’s the part of you I’m talking about,” Azul smiled sickly sweet at her. “One more word and I’ll be docking your pay.”

“I sincerely apologise for my thoughtless actions,” Yuu snapped out smartly, sitting up ramrod straight. Sometimes she tended to be a little too blunt.

Azul sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose under his glasses with one white glove. Even that simple movement modelled a frame cut from a movie; with his artfully styled hair and elegant, dangerously expensive suit, the Dorm Head looked just like the young don of a famiglia ‘tidying up’ his affairs.

“Honestly,” he muttered, irritated. “I can’t believe someone this clueless has managed to survive a month at NRC. Just that mouth should put you out of commission when a more sensitive member of the community snaps, you know. And of all people you could have gotten on your bad side, you angered Floyd. Floyd Leech! Do you know how hard it is to control that merman already? He’s already moodier than a teenage girl and it’s bad enough that you look so small and unimpressive. Even if Jade seems kind of interested in you like a particularly grotesque museum exhibit, he’ll get tired quickly and then you might really be strangled to death. I’m being unbelievably kind as you employer when I advise you to abandon whatever responsibilities you have when that happens and run because…”

Yuu’s eyes glazed over as Azul continued on his diatribe. She had the feeling he wasn’t even speaking to her anymore; though the muttering continued, he had begun to write neatly on another long sheet of parchment. Azul seemed to have a flair for appearances—he could have used paper, since in this world, paper was the main instrument for writing, but she could admit that the yellowing curls of parchment felt more familiar as a resident of Hogwarts (which didn’t even have electricity).

Azul had called her in here during a lull in the dinner hour to explain to her the detailed job description, wages, and hours her position would entail. She supposed that she had finally managed to convince him that she was here for work and not some other nefarious purpose by the end of her first shift.

Yuu couldn’t hear a single strain of music from outside, even though this VIP room (also serving as Azul’s office) was located at the back of the lively Lounge. She wondered if it was soundproofed, then wondered why it would need to be soundproofed, then decided that for her safety it was best not to pursue that line of thought any further.

Judging by the state of this school, Crowley would turn a blind eye to any violence if he didn’t see it happen.

As she waited for Azul to finish whatever he was doing with the stack of paper, Yuu took the opportunity to observe him. Her employer was yet shrouded in mystery, and she’d always been a sucker for secrets.

Even if this mystery was cackling madly to himself as he shuffled sheaves of parchment together.

He seemed to be counting something, gaining momentum enough to mutter a string of numbers by himself. Was he calculating numbers in his head? Yuu peered at the stack of yellow papers on his desk and wondered if it was a trick of the light that they seemed to glow slightly.

Eventually, Azul swept the reorganized documents from his desk, folding them neatly into a drawer before motioning her forward. Yuu obligingly hopped off the far too comfortable couch arm to approach the opposite end of the gleaming desk, receiving the smart black portfolio he swept across to her with a hand.

“I’ve printed out the details in the documents there,” Azul explained as she flipped open the leather cover to examine its contents. “A copy of the employment contract sits inside, together with all of the legal nonsense that you most likely don’t understand since you’re, ah…not from around here.”

Yuu hummed. “Why is this typed out when everything else on your desk was handwritten?”

Azul rolled his eyes at her. “Handwritten contracts are reserved for my general consulting business. These paper contracts adhere to the school rules on campus employment, so they’re mass-produced, mostly. And isn’t type easier to read?”

“But your handwriting is so neat,” Yuu motioned to the drawer. Everything here was so different from wizarding Britain’s contract work. Was there even magic contained in this contract? “I still don’t quite understand this magic technology thing.”

“…Magic technology thing?” Azul’s eyes narrowed in confusion.

“Never mind. Mind if I read the whole thing before I sign it?” Yuu asked absently, retreating to the couch again.

“Please do. How surprising, that a fool like you is at least aware of contract fine print,” Azul sniffed, somehow managing to look down at her despite sitting down.

“I’m not a fool, necessarily,” Yuu mentioned, scanning the first page of the job description (which was, for some reason, in Japanese). “I’m just obedient to my human desires. Curiosity, retribution, hunger, sleep. Et cetera. So I just put those urges ahead of other things like doing the right or safe thing. That makes me a bad guy, I guess, but I used to hide it all under a societally acceptable mask until it backfired.”

“…Hmm.” Azul emitted quietly. But Yuu was too focused on reading to notice if he said anything after that.

The more she read, the more her respect for Azul ramped upwards. For a second-year high school student, the draft was immaculate; each article of her requirements as a student worker were noted clearly (if a little verbosely) with, surprisingly, no fine print. There were a few vaguely worded sections, which Yuu pointed out with a wrinkled nose, but Azul seemed willing enough to modify the text with a wave of his Pen.

The words rearranging themselves on the slightly glowing papers told her that indeed, there was magic contained within the contract.

The article about ‘promising the rest of your four years at NRC to Mostro Lounge if you break anything, fail to work properly, or cancel the contract without sufficient reason’ made Yuu give him such a dry glance that Azul furrowed his silver brow. “Seriously?” she deadpanned. “In the first place, senpai, this is my best prospect for earning a weekly allowance. An article like this just makes you look more like an organized crime syndicate than ever.”

“It’s routine to include that part,” Azul said in clipped tones, “since most students who begin working here seem to quit mysteriously under a week.”

“Huh? Why?” Yuu thought back to her first shift. “There’s nothing shady about this job at all.” Even if Azul acted suspiciously, he seemed to know how to toe the line.

“It’s not the job,” Azul sighed, but then shook his head and dropped it. “Are you disagreeable to that column?”

“Can you change it to ‘if I try to quit the job without a valid reason’?” she suggested. “Oh, and define valid as Headmaster approved.”

Azul raised both brows in surprise. “Not ‘take it out entirely’?”

“Employees have a responsibility to their post just as the employer has a responsibility to manage,” Yuu shrugged. “If I’m stupid enough to abandon the job without reason then I deserve to get trapped here.”

The silence made her look up. She met a pair of pale blue eyes opened wide in surprise. They really were pretty, the colour of sea-spray before dawn. Yuu thought enviously that she would be glad to possess half the beauty any student at this school wore so casually. Even the teachers were all handsome. Maybe it was a requirement in this world to be good-looking to survive. In that case, she was already screwed, to borrow Ace’s wording.

Azul said slowly, “It seems I have misunderstood you, Yuu-san.”

Yuu had forgotten what they were talking about. “What?”

“About being thoughtless.” The Dorm Head’s smile was slow and considering. “Not that you aren’t, but that way of thinking will keep you alive for a while yet.”

“What kind of thinking?” Yuu frowned.

“That kind,” Azul said. “Never taking anything for granted. Knowing that you’re not entitled to anything. I’m glad you’re not the type of fool who expects things to go well for no reason.”

“Of course not,” Yuu said matter-of-factly. “For people who were never given anything, they know not to expect anything.”

“Indeed,” Azul’s agreement was heavy with understanding. “Well then, Yuu-san. Will you sign your name on the dot, please?”

Apparently, her lack of this world’s magic meant that she couldn’t be magically bound to a standard enchanted contract. Azul, who had looked her up (where? She wondered), knew just as much as Crowley did about the whole ‘other world being a magicless world’ thing, bar wizarding Britain, so didn’t even raise a brow when her signature didn’t so much as glow.

“Even if you were bound to this contract in particular, it would only feed me your pitiful magical power should you break the terms,” Azul shrugged, producing a copy of the employer’s contract with his Pen and presenting it to her. “That’s the enchantment I created on this employment contract, anyway. Without any power to give, it’s merely a legally binding piece of paper.”

“Senpai, is there anything you can’t do?” Yuu received the white paper gingerly. “I didn’t even know you could enchant contracts here.”

“Please, everyone can do something like that—you haven’t seen the beginning of my abilities yet,” Azul lifted his nose in the air, looking a little pleased. “Well, since you’re as helpless as a…baby…in this world, any funny business and I can have you down on your knees in a second, physically. No magic is not necessarily a blessing in this case.”

She believed him. Despite his relative politeness, there had to be a reason why both Jade and Floyd (who were the most dangerous people she knew, except maybe Lilia Vanrouge) obeyed him without hesitation.

By the time Yuu had shut her copy of the contract away in her personal locker with the newly received key, most of the dinner crew had left, leaving a heaping pile of dishes that Jade was soaping up by the sink. Floyd was nowhere to be found. Earlier, she’d passed him by on her way to Azul’s VIP room and he’d cracked his knuckles threateningly, getting all up in her face. In comparison to the openly hostile stare, Jade’s identical face looked almost angelic.

“You guys seem to get along well, though,” she mused, turning the knob for cold water with a squeak to begin rinsing the dishes. Yuu had to step on a small stool to reach it properly.

Jade’s brows drew together in a troubled smile. “We are twins.”

“Is he always like that?” she asked him curiously, laying a clean dish into the rack of drying plates and reaching for another. “PMS—er, quick to change his mood? Or is it just me who’s making him angry?”

He laughed. “Why, Mister Directing Student. What do you think?”

The infinitesimally shorter Leech twin (it couldn’t have been more than a centimetre’s difference) was a study in contrasts from his brother. Where Floyd’s restaurant uniform was rumpled and half-buttoned, Jade’s looked freshly ironed down to the stole. Where Jade’s lashes winged upwards and hid his calculative eyes often, Floyd’s drooped at the edges to give him the impression of a friendly smiling countenance. Floyd eschewed gloves completely and his dress slacks were worn pulled up high to expose a pair of frankly hilarious looking wavy purple socks, while Jade’s covered the tops of his wingtip brogues to conceal any sign he was even wearing socks.

Yet they still had the same nearly translucent pale skin, the same lock of black hair that framed opposite sides of their faces, the same looming height, the same unexplainable coldness in their beauty that reminded Yuu of Victoire Weasley’s mother, Fleur, who was a quarter-Veela. The similarities far outnumbered differences in the twins’ appearances.

Yuu had never seen identical twins—though she wasn’t sure if Jade and Floyd were—so she didn’t know how they behaved, if they got along. But when they stood together Floyd was eager to be in some sort of contact with his brother. Perhaps it was in the moodier Leech’s personality to be touchy-feely, as he’d leaned on Azul until the latter shoved him off on Friday, but Yuu, whose need for physical contact had extended to include Riddle yesterday, wasn’t one to talk.

Either way Floyd seemed to complete Jade and vice versa. They ‘got along’—they were closer than she’d ever seen anyone else.

“My pa never really got over his twin’s…you know,” Fred II had mumbled to her one day, huddled against the cold in the line to Honeydukes. “I don’t really get it, but apparently it’s like having half of yourself ripped apart. The wound never seals up.

“Must be nice to have a sibling,” Yuu mumbled thoughtfully.

Jade had better hearing than she expected. He turned his face towards her, blinking those heterochromatic eyes slowly. “…That is,” he murmured back, “the first time anyone has said so.”

“Really?” she found that hard to believe.

“Usually, I am given condolences for having to pick up after Floyd all the time.” He made an exaggeratedly rueful sigh.

“But you don’t,” Yuu wrinkled her brow.

“Pardon?”

“You don’t pick up after him. Er, at least not that I’ve seen. Sometimes you encourage him to do something else—” like earlier today, when Jade had saved her from being strangled a second time, “—but if he didn’t want to, I doubt it would have worked. Anyway, you seem to egg him on more than you pull him back.”

“True.” Jade’s smile widened. “But isn’t it fun to watch the way Floyd lives? He never does anything he doesn’t want to. It never gets old.”

“Must be nice,” she repeated, beginning to rinse out a clay pot. “Someone once told me that twins can complete each other’s missing parts. Not that there’s anything missing from you, but watching someone express your feelings without you having to sounds pretty luxurious.”

“When you put it that way, I am indeed lucky,” Jade said slowly. “I’d never thought about it that way before. …Are you an only child, Mister Directing Student?”

“Yes sir.” And probably an accident, at that. “Growing up beside a sibling sounds fun.”

“Oh…it is.” When Jade smiled, the barest hint of a sharp tooth caught the light. “The possibilities are endless.”

“But I wonder why your twin hates me,” she pondered, deciding not to chase that line of thought any further lest it should swallow her whole. “According to Ashengrotto-senpai it’s because I don’t behave submissively.”

“You don’t agree?”

“I have a feeling that if I did behave submissively, he’d crush me for being a coward,” Yuu said dryly.

“An astounding hypothesis,” Jade chuckled merrily. “You are indeed correct, though Azul’s advice is sound for surviving in Octavinelle.”

“I figured that you would understand your brother best,” she grinned back. “How about it, Leech-senpai? Are you willing to reveal some pearls of knowledge or do you dislike me just as much as he does?”

“Dislike you,” Jade looked taken aback. “Why, I never, Mister Directing Student. You are an anomaly among anomalies. A non-existent student record, an inability to perform magic, a hometown from another world—and the foolhardy resilience to walk right into the jaws of Azul’s lair looking for petty change. How on earth could I hate someone like you, who is so, so interesting?”

Yuu had not been expecting the fervour in his voice and gaped at him unattractively. “…Those are all circumstances surrounding me. Not me,” she managed after a moment, “I’m not impressive—wait a second, you know I don’t have a student record?”

“My mouth slipped,” Jade said smoothly. “And you are plenty interesting yourself. In our few meetings, it is evident to me that the headmaster did not keep you here for no reason, not the least of which lies in your delightfully dry wit.”

Briefly, she wondered how on earth he had access to the student records and then gave up. Yuu, who was not used to being praised, even if it was by someone who was regarding her as a particularly surprising science experiment, felt embarrassment rise in her cheeks. “Um…anyway,” she coughed. “You may think I’m interesting, but your brother only thinks I’m annoying.”

“Why don’t you ask him why?” Jade said rather carelessly, passing her the next soapy bowl. “Even if we are twins, I don’t know everything about my brother, you know.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Yuu muttered under her breath, “and I was trying to be roundabout in asking if you had a hand in provoking him.”

Jade’s soapy hand stilled momentarily, his fingers just as long as Floyd’s as they curled around a sponge. “…Oya?”

“Since you’re better at wordplay than I am, I couldn’t manage to get an answer out of you, so I’ve decided to ask straight,” Yuu explained, her calm voice accompanied by the hiss of the water-jet raining upon the elegantly conch-shaped bowl in her fingers. “Are you in on the whole inciting Strangler-senpai to try and get me to quit?”

“And why on earth would you think so?” Jade’s eyebrows drew together in a troubled smile. “Have I not been nothing short of polite to you?”

“Yeah, but he told me this morning that the shrimp sign was your idea,” she retaliated. “And somehow I get the feeling the two of you have very similar thinking patterns.”

“Even though we behave so differently?”

“But you don’t?” Yuu scrunched up her nose. “Sure, you use polite speech and Strangler-senpai doesn’t. But otherwise you have the same sort of…aura about you. Of sadism or something. Just wearing a different mask.”

Jade threw back his head and laughed, exposing those razor-sharp teeth. Yuu leapt into the air, nearly dropping her bowl, and stared at him incredulously. Damn, she thought, those teeth are sharper than the knives he uses.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that,” Recovering, he smiled his usual polite smile at her, those turquoise brows still drawn close in a parody of sadness. “How troubling, Mister Directing Student. I only want to be of help.”

Yuu noticed then that Jade Leech was the second natural liar she had met at Night Raven College. His only difference with Trey was that he didn’t seem very motivated to hide it.

She despaired. Was there a single decent person in this entire school?

With the addition of a part-time job to her schoolwork, Yuu found Monday even tougher than usual to sit through. The classes she liked so much faded into a lullaby of Professor Trein’s droning and her body ached mercilessly from standing and from Saturday’s episode at the stables. Grim, who was usually asleep during classes, made it even harder for her to keep her eyes open with his steady breathing.

Yuu gave up at lunchtime, plunked herself between Ace and Deuce, and unapologetically used the former as a pillow. Ace complained about it for a good five minutes, but he was softer than the (former) teenage delinquent Deuce, so she ignored him until he started to steal her lunch and spent a blissful half hour in dreamland.

It was, surprisingly, a passing Trey who woke her up at the end of lunch hour. “I don’t know if being able to sleep anywhere is an ability you should nurture,” he said, peering down at the three first-years plus a sated Grim with a strange sort of grin as she rubbed her eyes and tried to worm straight through Ace’s blazer.

Her friend slapped her upside the head. “Ow, you moron!”

“I’m tired,” she whined.

“Weak,” Deuce shook his head disapprovingly.

Grim gave her a rather disgusted look that told her it was all her fault for taking up a part-time job. Yuu stuck her tongue out at him in response.

Trey’s comment reminded her of the morning after she’d transferred in, when Kalim had advised her so cheerfully not to sleep in the cafeteria. Still, Yuu didn’t regret her nap, since it probably saved her from an alchemy experiment explosion that afternoon. As it was, she slogged through the rest of her classes trying hard to concentrate.

After school found the Monster and Directing Student alone as Ace and Deuce left for club activities, which were beginning to enter full swing. Yuu didn’t have a shift today and she was starting to flag again, so she and an already napping Grim aimed straight for the Botanical Gardens. By now, she had fallen for the quiet warmth within the temperate zone that combated October’s deepening chill. A perfect spot for a nap. No wonder why Leona always skipped classes to sleep here.

Today, Ruggie wasn’t around, which was no great surprise. The hyena Therianthrope loathed staying still, wasting time, and useless activities, so he was probably somewhere doing something profitable that she couldn’t muster up the energy to guess at. Yuu entered the clearing where Leona was curled up—he didn’t even flick an ear at her—before she settled down on the other end, hugged Grim to her firmly, and drifted blissfully out of consciousness.

Her second nap lasted until Grim wormed out of her embrace and smacked her nose. “Hey,” he hissed at her in the tiniest voice she’d ever heard from him, “there’s a predator sleeping on the other side of the clearing.”

Yuu pulled him to her and snuggled sleepily into the white patch of softness under his chin, breathing in the smell of his fur. The Monster put up with her briefly; by now, he was probably used to her inordinate need to be in contact with him when she was asleep. Still, he was never patient, so only a minute of dozing was afforded her before a second smack on her cheek brought her back to the afternoon green of the temperate zone.

Grim, who seemed unusually quiet, jabbed a round paw in the direction of the sleeping Leona with bulging eyes. His gaze demanded them to leave.

At least an hour must have passed—Yuu’s mind felt more-or-less clear. She gathered him up and left the clearing silently. Surprisingly, Grim waited until she’d left the indoor gardens entirely, the door hissing shut behind them, before he finally exploded, “Yuu! Why were you sleeping in the nest of a predator!?”

Yuu blinked at him, yawning. “Predator?”

“That Therianthrope that arrived before we woke up,” Grim explained, settling down on her shoulder as she started the trek back to Ramshackle. “…Wait, you’re a weak human. Couldn’t you smell it?”

Grim seemed to be under the misunderstanding that Leona had arrived after her, but Yuu let it pass. “Smell what?”

“Ugh…that predator is nothing to sniff at,” Grim’s ears drooped. “His scent was marked all over the place. Yuu, is this where you’ve been napping? It smells sorta familiar. Like you did last week, when I was trapped in that remedial hell.”

Yuu hadn’t been napping here, just talking, but she nodded, since it was close enough.

“You can’t,” Grim told her urgently. “That…whoever that is, that predator is dangerous. Do you know how many years it took off my life when I woke up?”

Leona was dangerous? “Why is he scary?” Yuu asked curiously.

“He smells…I don’t know…threatening. Like a big fish.”

“I thought you ate fish.”

“Not like that! He smells like a big animal! The top of a food chain. Someone…” Grim hesitated. “Someone who doesn’t need claws to rip you into pieces.”

Yuu was ready to press him with more questions, but the two of them were distracted from their conversation when they crested a hill and were met with the sprinting figures of Ace and Deuce in their athletic uniforms, both heading alarmingly quickly for her.

“What the—!?” Grim sputtered.

“Yuuuuuuuuu!” Ace shouted, pumping his arms.

“Don’t move!” Deuce bellowed.

“Oh hell no,” Grim muttered, escaping her shoulder.

Yuu winced, but she stood obediently still. A moment later Ace was upon her—he sunk low, grabbed her around the calves, and lifted her bodily into the air. Deuce, who wasn’t far behind, used the momentum to sling her onto his back. She grabbed him around the shoulders in the chaos.

“Back to Heartslabyul,” Ace panted, “c’mon!”

“What the hell is going on!?” Yuu yelled out as he snatched Grim up by the collar and Deuce started to run back the way they came.

“Shut up and get kidnapped!” Ace snapped back.

Deuce, who was saving his energy for the weight of one more person piled on top of him, managed his breathing and didn’t deign to answer. Yuu was still sore from Saturday, but she sighed, arranged herself more securely on Deuce’s back, and braced herself for the incoming Mirror travel.

It was not unusual for Ace and Deuce to come sprinting at her after their club activities were over, whether it was because they had been chased out for painting the fences with obscene imagery or because they (usually Ace) had poured water on an upperclassman in retaliation for whatever insult they’d caught. Yuu had long since gotten used to being wrapped up in their schemes. Mostly, it was Ace’s fault and Deuce was just along for the ride, but any physical fighting was always due to the latter. (Ace tended to avoid physical contact since personal fighting was, in his opinion, ‘lame’ and ‘stuffy’.) Yuu had lost track of the times she’d had to apologise to an incensed team captain or an amused-looking Professor Vargas for the actions of her two worst best friends.

However, Deuce didn’t let her down even as they crossed into Heartslabyul and for the first time, carried her right into the dorm.

Yuu whipped around to look askance at Ace. “What the heck is going on? Seriously!”

Ace shook his head. “Just…” he panted, “hang on.”

So she did, peering eagerly at the red-checked decorations and painted vases clustered with flowers that brightened up the ivory interior of Heartslabyul dorm. Yuu was pretty sure there was an article somewhere in the Queen of Hearts’ 810 rules about not entering another dorm without permission. Still, she was enchanted by the merrily crackling fireplace as they crossed through the lounge, which was heaped full of students grouped on the sofas and tables.

“Hey, it’s the little Directing Student!” one of the members of the equestrian club caught sight of her and waved.

Yuu waved back.

A small cheer arose from the students in the lounge.

“Pipsqueak!”

“Don’t let Ace and Deuce drag you around too much!”

“Look, it’s that Monster. He looks just like my cat.”

“I can’t believe NRC has such a tiny student.”

Grim hissed at them, hackles rising. “I can roast you alive, you know!”

This time the lounge burst into roaring laughter.

Deuce and Ace left them behind without so much as a snarky remark, cutting through the hallways and up the stairs into Heartslabyul’s maze of walkways—Yuu caught the hint and lost her grin, exchanging glances with Grim. It seemed that whatever had happened this time was more serious than she’d anticipated.

A dizzying number of stairs later, Deuce set her down, panting. Yuu fished in her bag for a water bottle and passed it to him. Ace and Deuce tossed it back and forth until it was empty, both looking tired but determined. Deuce was frowning grimly, his aquamarine eyes gleaming with concern and anger; Ace had that wicked smirk narrowing his reddish-brown eyes, but all the same both of them wore the tension tight under their skin.

Yuu knew it was better than to ask, so she hung on to them physically instead. She followed them down this unfamiliar hallway to the second door from the end. Deuce, who had caught his breath, cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

“Come in,” Trey’s muffled voice came across from the other side.

Past the door was a bedroom slightly smaller than her Ramshackle Dorm’s master room. Resembling the rest of Heartslabyul, the curtains hung around the wood-framed windows and draped luxuriously down a four-poster bed were scarlet. Yuu ignored the huge dresser curved like a heart and the various white-and-red furniture scattered around the room and rushed over to the four-poster, where Trey was relaxing.

“What happened to your leg!?” Yuu blurted out, immediately tripping over Cater, who was sitting at the foot of the bed.

Cater caught her as she tipped over with a laugh, swinging her into the air like a child. “Whoa there, Yuu-chan!”

“Careful,” Trey said mildly, setting down his phone as Cater plunked her beside him. “Next victim’s gonna be you if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings.”

Yuu waved it off impatiently. “Trey-senpai! Did you decide you wanted to ride a horse after all?”

“What?” Cater blinked and then grinned widely. “I sense a story! Hey Yuu-chan…”

“Let’s not,” Trey rolled his eyes. “Transfer, don’t encourage him.”

“Trey-senpai,” Yuu repeated earnestly, pointing at his leg, which was encased in a white cast. “What happened?”

The third year read the anxiety in her face and glanced over her head at Ace, Deuce, and a confused-looking Grim. “You guys didn’t tell them anything?”

“Didn’t have any time.” Ace glared back sullenly. “If we would’ve taken it any slower, I’d have gotten hit with Yuu’s question torture!”

“I thought that Yuu would want to see you right away,” Deuce explained. “Plus, it’s not like we know anything either.”

“I suppose we couldn’t expect more from the A-Deuce combo,” Cater shrugged lightly in his year-mate’s direction.

“A-Deuce!?” Deuce spluttered.

“What the heck’s with that name?” Ace squinted at Cater before he waved it off. “Whatever. Trey-senpai, we only saw you being carried in here. What happened to your leg?”

“It’s no big deal.” Trey reached forward to smooth down Yuu’s windswept bangs, his easy smile firmly in place. “I took the wrong step off a flight of stairs, that’s all.”

Ace blew out a breath and collapsed on top of the rug. “Don’t scare us like that!”

“Ace was laughing,” Deuce mentioned, but looked just as relieved. His friend punched him in the shin.

Yuu was not as appeased. “Trey-senpai, how bad is it?”

“Worse than it could’ve been,” Trey said sheepishly, “I didn’t manage to fall the right way and ended up doing in my right ankle. It’s not broken, but there might be a fracture or avulsion. Anyway, I’m stuck with crutches for the time being.”

“I’ll carry your things for you then,” she volunteered immediately. “Until you get better, we can walk together to classes.”

“Aww, Yuu-chan is such a cute underclassman!” Cater teased her.

“But it sounds kind of serious,” Deuce pressed a glove to his mouth, furrowing a brow. “How long do you think it’s going to take to recover?”

“A few weeks?” Trey sighed. “This year’s Magift Tourney is probably going to end up with me on the side-lines.”

“Senpai, you play Magift?” Yuu blinked in surprise.

“He’s one of Heartslabyul’s strongest regulars,” Cater winked at her. “Along with yours truly, of course!”

“Ouch,” Grim hopped up on top of her head, draping himself over her hair comfortably. “Too bad for you, huh? Glasses. I’d give you a can of tuna if I had one.”

Yuu thought for a minute before she pulled out her wand from her sleeve and pointed it at his ankle. “Episkey!

Trey jerked upright as the cast glowed. “Whoa! Stop that, transfer, it tickles!”

“Tickles?” Yuu looked down at her wand. “I knew I wasn’t very good with healing charms but…”

It hadn’t worked at all?

“You guys have healing magic?” Ace pushed himself over and squeezed in on her other side, peering down at the pale yew curiously. “We usually only use potions. Healing magic exists, but it’s usually faster to just drink a potion instead.”

“Right! Won’t you get better right away if you drink a potion?” Yuu perked up, dismissing her failed Charm for now. “I’ll go find Professor Crewel and we can brew a…”

“About that,” Cater put in. “I went and asked him already, but it looks like these things get tricky for small bones like in a wrist or ankle. Plus, it doesn’t seem like he’s broken anything, so a potion to join bones would probably do something funny to his leg if we’re not careful.”

“It’s easier to just let it heal naturally,” Trey shrugged, not seeming too bothered.

Cater eyed him without mercy. “Spare me,” he said, “We’re already pressed for time now that you’re out of the line, but reselecting players is going to eat up even more! If you have any idea of how important your defensive magic is then you would’ve been more careful, Trey-kun.”

Ace leapt upright, exchanging excited glances with Deuce. The two of them put their heads together and started whispering.

“If I were better at spells, I could have just cured it,” Yuu muttered, feeling rather angry? Rather…something at herself. Why had she focused on the Charms she was good at instead of trying to overcome her weaknesses?

“Like I said, don’t beat yourself up over it, transfer,” Trey brought her out of her self-deprecating thought spiral with a shake of his head. “We talked about this, right? Acting like a hero is nothing but empty pride in this school.”

“I don’t care if it meant you wouldn’t have been hurt,” Yuu caught his hand miserably. “Who cares about pride or heroes or whatever.”

There was a beat of silence.

“…Hey, Trey-kun,” Cater said over her head. “Can we keep him?”

“Haven’t I told you I’m working on it?” Trey muttered back, letting her hang onto his fingers.

“I’m coming in,” Riddle’s voice followed a couple of firm knocks at the door. When he pushed it open to the five visitors, the frown forming a line between his brows deepened severely. “What on earth are all of you doing in here?”

Grim let out a yelp and started to worm his way under her uniform blazer. “Funa!? It’s that bad-tempered Riddle!”

“Bad-tempered…” Riddle sighed. “You know as long as you three don’t break the rules, I have no reason to get angry.”

Ace and Deuce laughed nervously.

Riddle glanced over them critically before rubbing his forehead with a glove. Yuu noticed how pale he looked. “Trey,” he said more gently, “How are you doing? Anything you want to eat or drink?”

“Oh, me! I’ll make something,” Yuu started to push herself off the bed. “Hot cocoa or…”

“Yuu-chan, it’s okay!” Cater pulled her back down and rubbed her shoulders soothingly.

“That’s right.” Trey squeezed her fingers back reassuringly. “I’ve had way worse, and it’s just my ankle. You two are such worrywarts.”

Riddle approached them, still frowning. “Yuu, you’ve heard? I do apologise for causing so much trouble.”

Yuu had lost any restraint in physical contact towards Riddle since the weekend, so she reached forward for his hand automatically. “Why are you apologizing, Dorm Head?”

“The truth is, his injury is because of me,” Riddle started.

Ace and Deuce both looked up. “Because of you?” The former repeated.

“There was an after-school meeting concerning the scheduling for this year’s Magift tournament,” Riddle explained, taking Ace’s spot on Yuu’s right side. “We were descending the stairs to head for the practice field after that, but I…I must have taken a wrong step.”

“So Clover-senpai took the fall to protect you,” Deuce said slowly. He turned to Trey with sparkling eyes. “Senpai! That’s so manly of you!”

“But you know,” Trey rolled his eyes, “Riddle’s magical control is legendary. He would have been able to save himself with flight magic, no problem. So honestly, it was just me unnecessarily jumping in and getting hurt by myself. Don’t worry about it, Riddle.”

“But…” Riddle didn’t seem appeased.

“Yuu, c’mere,” Ace beckoned her over.

Yuu, who was staring dolefully at Trey’s casted foot, extracted her fingers from Riddle’s and plodded over to him. “What?”

“Aw, cheer up, you weirdo,” Ace slung an arm around her shoulder and drew her and Deuce in. He lowered his voice as they huddled together. “Listen. Me and Deuce have been seeing a bunch of similar cases happen this week. We’re suspecting this wasn’t an accident.”

“…!” Yuu sucked in a breath. Within her blazer, Grim popped his head out interestedly.

“The truth is, the other day Headmaster Crowley came asking us to research what was going on,” Deuce told her in an undertone. “Since we owe him for not expelling us…Plus the whole Overblot incident.”

“Since October started, people have been getting injured left and right. You remember that huge explosion in the alchemy classroom the other day?” Ace prompted.

Yuu winced, recalling Professor Crewel’s shouting piercing into the hallway as the three of them returned from Vargas’ outdoor lesson. “Man, I pity the poor people in Second Year Class D.”

“And that’s not it—we saw a third-year Pomefiore student tumble down the stairs on our way back from remedials almost a week ago,” Deuce explained lowly. “Anyway, we both think it’s absolutely impossible for someone like Clover-senpai to get injured from a simple fall down the stairs, even if he was protecting Dorm Head.”

“So you’re suspecting something else,” Yuu finished for him.

“Isn’t everyone just overly excited for the Magift tourney in a few weeks though?” Grim pointed out. “The whole school’s practically bursting at the seams.”

“We thought so too, at the beginning. But get this,” Ace lowered his voice even further. “Every single victim was slated to enter the Magift tournament.”

The six of them were kicked out of the room shortly after by, surprisingly, Cater, who had managed to cheer up a fretting Riddle along with Trey. As Grim, Ace and Deuce started to mutter among themselves about finding a culprit, Trey waved Yuu back for a moment before she could leave the room with them.

“Cater’s probably got something to tell you guys,” Trey said, casting a shrewd glance at the retreating third year. “Since I don’t expect Riddle to leave this alone. But Transfer, I want you to promise me something.”

“Stay with Rosehearts-senpai?” Yuu guessed. She nodded solemnly. “Don’t worry, senpai, I don’t plan on leaving him alone for a second especially if…”

“No, that’s not it,” Trey laughed, “Cater and the, ah, ‘A-Deuce’ combo can manage that well enough, though I’m grateful for your support.”

“It’s not?” Yuu wrinkled a brow in confusion.

“It’s not,” he confirmed. “I want you to promise me you don’t get in over your head.”

“Me?” she pointed at herself. “What do you mean?”

“We might not have known each other for too long, but from what I saw during Riddle’s Overblot, you tend to disregard your own safety—ignore yourself.” Trey narrowed his ochre eyes at her, for once not smiling. “If anything happens to you, my injury will be the least of your worries.”

“Least of my worries…?”

“Every student that lives in this dorm is good at following rules,” Trey said. “But when one of their own is hurt—well, hopefully you never have to see that happen.”

Yuu tried to comprehend his words. “…Wait a second, I’m not a Heartslabyul—”

“Discretion is the better part of valour,” Trey quoted. “Whatever happens, I’m asking you to put yourself first and stay out of it. Just like you worry about me, we all don’t want to see you hurt. Got it?”

Yuu nodded. She didn’t understand what he was saying, but Yuu liked Trey and he was the one injured right now. Any arguments or confusion she had could wait.

Trey rubbed her head fondly. “Good kid. Go catch up to Cater and them. I bet you he’s got some information for you.”

“I’ll come back to visit you later,” she promised.

Yuu emerged onto the black-and-white checked floor of Hearslabyul’s common lounge, shading her eyes against the sunlight filtering through the balcony window. Now that she had time to look around, she could appreciate the rose-patterned wallpaper etched in vermillion silk and decorated with all sorts of ticking clocks. Picture frames stuffed full of playing cards hung crookedly from the walls, illuminated by small glass lamps and the still-flickering fireplace.

When they’d passed through previously, the lounge had been full; now, it was mostly vacant. Cater waved over at her from his relaxed slump beside Riddle on a scarlet lounge sofa, so Yuu crossed over to the other side of the wide coffee table where Ace, Deuce and Grim were sitting on a loveseat. Without hesitation, she pushed their legs aside to make a tiny spot for herself and squeezed in between them. Ace and Deuce shuffled over for her just barely enough for her to fit.

Cater and Riddle regarded the three of them with bemused smiles as Ace set a gently snoring Grim on her shoulder. “You guys did meet at the beginning of the year, right?” the former checked.

“A little more than a month ago?” Yuu looked to Deuce, who nodded.

“How mysterious,” Riddle murmured, crossing his arms, “The three of you behave like siblings who have been together their whole lives.”

“Who the hell would be siblings with him?” Ace made a face over her head at Deuce.

“As if I could stand living in the same household as you,” Deuce sniffed, similarly disgusted.

“Never mind,” Cater said weakly, “I guess it’s just Yuu-chan who’s gluing the two of you together.”

Ace and Deuce got along just fine, in Yuu’s opinion, despite the fights they put on for show. But their conversation wasn’t advancing, so she nudged both her friends on either side of her and tilted her head at Cater. “Trey-senpai said you probably had something to say to us.”

Cater blinked his hazel-green eyes in surprise before breaking out into a grin. “Riddle just said the same thing,” he seemed inordinately entertained. “And here I took all the trouble of leaving his room to talk out here where he wouldn’t hear…”

“Is that a pun?” Yuu mentioned, distracted.

Riddle cleared his throat. “…Anyway. Ace and Deuce were just explaining the task entrusted to them by the Headmaster. About the upshoot in recent accidents involving Magift regulars.”

“Right,” she frowned, “I was wondering about that too. Is there magic that can control another’s movements in this world?”

“Even if there was, it can’t be the reason behind this chain of accidents.” Deuce explained. “Magic usually emits light, right? And it can’t be used too far away from the target.”

“I didn’t feel any spells being cast on me,” Riddle shook his head, “and I had Cater gather information right after Trey’s fall about other such accidents.”

“What a slave driver,” complained Cater fondly. “But I guess I have to pick up some of the slack now that our vice head’s out of commission for a while. Anyway, from what Ace-chan and Deuce-chan have told me—”

“Please don’t call me that,” Deuce muttered.

“—it matches with what I’ve learned, which is!” Cater pointed his extravagantly cased smartphone at them. “Each injured party is not only a Magift player slated for this month’s tourney: they’re all really good! But none of them reported any use of magic on their person.”

“At that time,” Riddle went on, “I didn’t feel anyone push me, and the stairs weren’t crowded enough for me to trip. But there was one moment in which despite not planning to step forwards, my foot seemed to move by itself.”

“We heard a lot of reports like that,” Ace added. “In the infirmary, a dude who fell down the stairs just like Dorm Head told me that his body ‘moved on its own’.”

“Imperius?” Yuu muttered to herself.

Did this world have Unforgiveable Curses?

But if they did exist, Yuu had a hard time believing the students at NRC wouldn’t use them left and right, legality be damned.

“In any case, I’m making the judgement that these events are intentional crimes,” Riddle narrowed his grey eyes, beginning to regain some of the colour in his pale face. Yuu thought it was fitting that this beautiful second year wore authority so well. She’d call him a Queen if he were female. King Riddle?

“So someone’s aiming for the regulars on other Magift teams to reduce their rivals during the actual tourney,” Ace summarized, bringing her out of her nonsense thoughts.

“Not an unusual strategy,” Riddle said, surprisingly even. “And with the worldwide scale of the broadcasts, the results from one day of effort can echo into a player’s future career. In fact, I would say such actions are within expectations.”

“True, but it’s still mysterious how no magic was used on them,” Cater was scrolling through something on his phone absently. “Definitely not your usual culprit. Don’t forget about the kids who got injured during class…if magic was used, I find it hard to believe a professor wouldn’t catch them.”

“Who cares how they did it? After all, we just have to slowly force it out of them after we catch the criminal,” Riddle’s eyes glowed with an unholy anger. “All of you will participate in the hunt together with me. Is that clear?”

He was controlling his breathing with forced calm, but Yuu could tell it was just because Riddle knew how useless venting his anger would be right now. She echoed the others in a smart “Yes, Dorm Head!”

“Finally, some action,” Deuce started cracking his knuckles, that evil grin twisting up the side of his face. “We gotta settle the score for Clover-senpai, after all.”

“Hell yeah,” Ace narrowed his eyes enthusiastically. “The more the merrier, I say. Let’s get this show on the road.”

The rest of them regarded the two first-years curiously. “Why are these two so willing to help?” Riddle asked her, blinking his big grey eyes.

“In this case, it’s going to be for personal benefit,” Yuu guessed.

“Oh, I got it!” Cater pointed his smartphone at them. “I bet you’re aiming for the free positions in the Magift Dorm Team!”

Ace laughed. “Was it that obvious?”

Deuce spluttered unconvincingly. “No, I’d never think something like…! We’re part of the same dorm, so we should help each other out!”

Yuu gave them weird looks. She’d never understand the obsession with Quidditch or Magift or football that drove people insane.

Riddle rolled his eyes. “Well, depending on your performance in the hunt for the criminal, I can take your wishes into consideration.”

Ace and Deuce cheered from either side of her, making Grim grumble in his sleep. Yuu wondered if she should wake him up—but remembered that she wasn’t part of Heartslabyul, so even if Grim wanted to be on the team, it would be impossible.

How dangerous, she admonished herself. You’re Ramshackle. Not Heartslabyul. No matter how much you like it here. No matter how much they clamour for a transfer.

In the first place, you might not even be in this world for long.

Yuu cleared her throat to distract herself. “So, shall we weave a strategy for looking for the culprit?” she suggested.

“Of course,” Riddle leaned forwards, lacing his hands under his chin. “First of all, I believe it’s best for us to take the offensive. If we wait for the next victim with this little information, it’s going to turn into a war of attrition, especially since we don’t know anything about the culprit.”

“So then we should do something like anticipating the criminal’s moves,” Yuu said thoughtfully. “For example, tailing the next guy who is likely to get attacked and protecting him…or something. Of course, one or two should watch the surroundings from afar to detect any foul play.”

Riddle nodded. “That way, the second anything occurs, we’re able to take the victim into custody and search and destroy…ahem, capture the criminal in the surroundings.”

“A stakeout, huh?” Ace scratched his messy hair thoughtfully. “Should I find a slingshot or something?”

“But how do we decide who to mark?” Deuce leaned in eagerly. “Is there a list of strongest players or something?”

“That’s where Cay-kun comes in!” Cater snapped a wink his way. “I’ve just finished compiling a list of people who have the highest probability to be targeted next—based on their past performance, anyway.”

“Cater-senpai,” Yuu sighed in admiration. “Teach me your ways in clothing creation and information gathering.”

“I’ve shared an album with the three of you via MagiCam’s direct messages,” Cater told the other three, “and Yuu-chan, you can look over someone’s shoulder.”

Deuce pulled his phone out as it buzzed. Yuu leaned her chin on his shoulder as he loaded up the MagiCam app; they both made an impressed noise as an album over a hundred images thick popped up in his DMs. “That’s a lot of information,” Deuce remarked, pulling up the first image of a tall blond wearing the black athletic uniform over a dark indigo shirt and a baseball cap. “Look at all this stuff in the description.”

“Very good,” Riddle didn’t seem surprised as he scanned through the folder. “It’s getting late today, so according to Rule Three Hundred and Forty-six, the daily croquet competition will be held out in the gardens at 5 PM. Tomorrow we begin the hunt. Understood?”

“Yes, Dorm Head,” Yuu echoed the others. “Me and Ace and Deuce will keep an eye out during the day, too.”

“That culprit better watch out,” Ace quipped. “If Deuce gets to him first, there won’t be enough for us to clean up afterwards.”

Riddle regarded the four of them imperiously as they all laughed. “Keep him alive, at least,” he narrowed both eyes. “I still have to exact my revenge over what the uncouth coward did to Trey.”

“I can’t tell if this thing is filling up or not,” Yuu dangled the Ghost Camera from a hand, lying on her back in Ramshackle’s largest bedroom. The night outside was blocked by thick, dusty curtains, but Yuu didn’t mind. There were a few lamps glowing in their sockets within her room that she’d used her wand to light, and it wasn’t quite cold enough warrant her summoning a jar of flames by her bedside.

Grim climbed over and sat on her stomach, eliciting a whoosh of air. “That thing you’re always using everywhere? You’re fiddling with it again? Don’t waste your time. Nothing ever happens when you click it.”

“But Mister S told me the other day that the memory card inside is some crazy size,” Yuu’s voice strained briefly under his weight. “You’re getting fat, dude. Maybe you should cut down on tuna.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” Grim gave her an offended look. “Eating is one of the greatest joys in life.”

“Yeah…I hadn’t noticed, with you giving me your critics’ impressions on whatever you shove into your mouth every day,” she responded dryly. “Anyway, whenever Ghosts show up to play tricks on us or talk, I usually try snapping a picture—and last week remember we tried with Cater-senpai a bunch of times? And we take pictures with Ace and Deuce and at Heartslabyul too. But I don’t really know how to view the pictures we’ve taken, if I’m being honest.”

“Who cares? Just hand it in to the Headmaster. That’s all he wanted, right? He didn’t say your pictures had to be any good.”

“I got a really good one of Deuce hanging upside down on his broom the other day,” Yuu reminisced, “so I wanted to show you. Also, two nights ago, the Round Ghost made one of the weirdest faces in memory and I managed to catch it.”

“They’re just pictures.”

“Memories, says Headmaster Crowley.”

“Whatever. You’ve only been here for like a month,” Grim rolled his eyes. “I’m right in front of you, aren’t I? The real-life version of me is way better than how many thousands of pictures you’ve taken of me when I nap.”

“Cuteness equals justice,” Yuu said solemnly, dropping the camera beside her. “And it’s a lot easier to summon Ghosts when I use the Camera. Look!”

She reached around and clicked the shutter. Where nothing had happened during her first uses of it, a brief flash of dim light lit up the air in front of them; momentarily, a thin Ghost poked his head upside down through the ceiling.

“Somethin’ going on?” he asked, top hat remaining impossibly anchored on his head.

“Hey,” Yuu grinned up at him, crossing her hands behind her neck on the pillow. “You guys should really tell us your names sometime. I keep having to refer to you in my head as Thin Ghost, Round Ghost and Big Ghost.”

“…Directing Student, your naming choice is pretty unoriginal,” Thin Ghost remarked, turning right side up. “And us Ghosts aren’t free all the time, you know! Stop clicking that thing, it’s distracting!”

“I thought Ghosts didn’t do much?” Grim squinted up at him. Both living residents of Ramshackle had long since gotten used to the random appearances of the non-living, so he didn’t so much as jump.

“Well, since we technically aren’t among the ranks of the living, we don’t ‘exist’ in the same plane as you creatures…that’s not it!” Thin Ghost made a playful somersault in the air. “We do a lot! Before you two bozos came around, we were the terror of NRC, you know.”

“And the kind Headmaster let you stay in this building to make mayhem, huh?” Yuu grinned back. “You’ve really had the run of this place for years, haven’t you.”

“Too bad, this is the Great Grim’s castle now,” her partner said with satisfaction, stretching out on her stomach comfortably.

“We can share,” Yuu corrected.

“As long as you don’t kick us out, anything interesting goes,” Thin Ghost said agreeably.

She considered him. “Though you know, I would have expected you guys to be more suspicious of me. You noticed that I could use magic early on, right?”

Round Ghost emerged halfway through the floor. “Actually, it wasn’t as early as you expected,” he crossed his arms. “Coming in and out of existence means we come in and out of consciousness too. Even dead people don’t have unlimited energy, ya know! Fighting takes it out of us. It’s much easier to…‘stop’ for a while.”

“But it was pretty unnatural for the Lounge here to become sort of liveable in two days,” Thin Ghost nodded pensively.

“And you didn’t tell on me, didn’t suspect me?” Yuu asked curiously. “Didn’t bother me about it?”

“Who cares if it’s interesting?” Big Ghost poked his head through the wall briefly before retreating back and bursting into the room. “Us Ghosts love trouble. Mischief. Scares! And you, Directing Student, are a huge wave of all of that the school hasn’t seen in decades.”

“Oh…well…” Yuu blinked in surprise. “I suppose when you put it that way, I’m kind of a troublemaker too. That makes us partners in crime?”

My partner in crime,” Grim cleared his throat.

“Hoo hoo hoo!” Round Ghost clutched his belly and floated into the air. “That’s rich! I haven’t heard a human asking a ghost to be anything in a hundred years!”

“Have you even been dead that long?” Thin Ghost squinted at him.

“Anyway, people are usually too scared of us to start a conversation, let alone live in a mansion full of us,” Big Ghost put a big cold hand on the space above her head and patted the air a few times. “So don’t worry your li’l head about it, Directing Student. Your magical secret’s safe with us.”

“Not that I get why you’d ever hide it,” Thin Ghost shrugged, “but now, the business of the livin’ ain’t ours, is it? As long as you make it interesting, we’re all for it, kid.”

“Not that you looked very scared,” Round Ghost commented. “Of us being around…or of us blabbing your secret.”

“I figured you wouldn’t tell anyone…since nothing’s happened yet,” Yuu grinned cheekily at them. “I’ve lived with Ghosts before and compared to them, you’re not bad at all. Plus, we’re fellow Ramshackle Dorm students, aren’t we? Isn’t it against code to out your dorm-mates so easily?”

“Dorm-mates don’t take pictures of each other’s scary faces and then try to show their cat,” Round Ghost said through suppressed laughter.

“It was funny.”

“I’m not a cat!” Grim protested.

“Anyway, I still don’t know how this thing works…” Yuu picked up the Ghost Camera again. “This world’s full of magical gadgets and stuff and it’s kind of confusing. Back in our world, magic and technology hate each other. So I don’t know how to read the memories and haven’t touched a camera for years…not that non-magic cameras are even used much anymore. I swear I’ve snapped like three hundred pictures already but can’t access a single one.”

“Let me guess. Ninety percent are of Grim-boy sleeping?”

Yuu laughed. “How did you know?”

“I feel like we had those around when we were younger,” squinted Big Ghost. “Couldn’t tell ya how to use it, though. But isn’t it fine if you hand it in to the Headmaster when he asks? Not like it matters the quality of your shots.”

“Grim said the same thing. You guys are so irresponsible,” Yuu rolled her eyes. “Oh well…I don’t really have time to deal with this right now. Maybe I’ll research it after this incident is solved.”

“Incident?” the three Ghosts chorused.

“That’s right!” Grim sat up in excitement. “You better listen up. We think that there’s a conspiracy going on in this school…”

Yuu, who was more familiar with the area by the botanical gardens’ forest than anywhere else in NRC (except the library), was assigned the surrounding fields and the gardens as her patrol areas the next day. Grim had taken to the idea of criminal-hunting after she told him the specifics along with the Ghosts last night; he kept pestering Ace to show him the album of Magift players.

Yuu wondered if he wanted to hunt the players or the criminal, but since she was still exhausted from her third shift at Mostro Lounge last night, she waved the three of them off to the athletic fields and the first floor respectively and trudged outdoors after school towards the distantly visible glass dome rippling in the sunlight.

Though she tried not to let her few emotions affect her actions, Yuu’s exhaustion was compounded by her foul mood. Her sleep had been broken repeatedly by nightmare after nightmare watching Trey fall down a flight of stairs and then chasing Riddle down an endless hallway where he turned scarlet eyes at her and screamed at her—

How could you let this happen!?

Yuu felt awful. She didn’t know what, specifically, this ‘awful’ meant, but for someone who always tried to be logical and even-tempered, the unfamiliar squeezing in her chest made the day unbearably long.

Still—she had a job to do. Yuu packed a hefty leftover slice of shortcake in her bag along with a fascinating plant encyclopaedia to try and combat these unnecessary feelings and slogged around the forest looking for students. For better or for worse, the afternoon was cool and windy, and the area around the glass dome of the botanical gardens was empty.

With her entrance into the temperate zone, Yuu felt her mood lighten a few shades. She pulled out the plant encyclopaedia borrowed from the library and began to trace a path through the area, half-looking for people, half matching the exotic flora to images in the book.

The undersea castle Octavinelle was a deep blue, Yuu recalled absently. Mostro Lounge was classy and elegant, its residents dangerous and full of secrets like the depths of a sea. Despite the persistent danger hounding her steps in the form of her employer or the twins, Yuu had marked down that place as the perfect place to drown out her life forever.

The gardens, on the other hand, were a lush and rich green, sometimes matching the cheer of Cater’s peridot eyes, sometimes the gentle aquamarine of Deuce’s, and rarely the brilliant emerald of Leona’s. She’d seen a flytrap close around one unfortunate fly stickily. Been warned by Ruggie that the hanging ivy was poisonous. Felt the grass tickle against her pants as she relaxed under a tree. Yuu thought that this place was too green for her to die, but no spot in the NRC would beat it for a nap.

“Oi.”

She’d stumbled across the edge of the clearing that Grim had warned her away from. Yuu took in a breath experimentally but didn’t smell anything. What had the Monster meant when he’d said Leona had marked the area? Surely he hadn’t relieved himself here.

The thought was so ridiculous that she grinned.

Oi.”

Yuu looked towards the big tree. The object of her thoughts leaned lazily against it, long legs stretched out to display soft-looking leather sandals that encased his feet. His narrowed eyes were trained on her face as he tossed something white in his fingers up and down.

“Good afternoon, senpai,” Yuu lowered her head in greeting.

“What’s with you?” Leona asked abruptly, snatching whatever he’d been tossing out of the air.

Yuu shut her book and went to sit by him. “I was just taking a walk around the area. Have you seen anyone around here today?”

Leona barked out a laugh. “The only one in this school…special enough to come in here knowing it’s my spot is Ruggie…or you.”

“What about the garden keeper?” Yuu pointed out, having long lost any offence she might have taken at his brusque manner.

“He comes in the early mornings.” He lifted one corner of his mouth to expose a fang. “Since I scare him.”

Yuu didn’t think she would ever understand why Leona thought people were afraid of him. Her confusion must have shown in her gaze, because he sighed and shook his head of richly woven hair once.

“I heard from Ruggie-senpai that your attendance is getting dangerously low,” Yuu mentioned. “Did you skip again today?”

“None of your business,” Leona dragged out his words lazily. “If you have time to be worrying about me, go and fix those huge bags under your eyes.”

She touched her face reflexively. Yuu had not been aware that her exhaustion was so evident. “I should do better,” she scolded herself.

“What, your fun cross-dressing high school life not going the way you want it to?” Leona provoked her with a cynical smile.

“Just tired,” Yuu rubbed the area under her eyelids. “I started a part-time job last week, since I need money.”

She refrained from mentioning her fitful bursts of sleep.

Leona yawned indifferently. “Ha. How industrious of you.”

“At least I’m more industrious than someone who just sleeps all day,” Yuu shot back with a challenging smile.

“Watch that smart mouth of yours,” Leona said without any real heat. “I nap since I’m awake in the evenings and mornings anyway.”

That was new. Yuu felt the curiosity eat away at the weight in her chest as she leaned forwards excitedly. “So you turn into a lion at the full moon or something?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He snorted. “I know you’re ignorant to the point of it being hilarious, but go read a treatise on Therianthropes or something. We don’t change our forms, we don’t have any other animal features than the ears and tail, and we eat meat the same way you full-humans do.”

“I have a huge stack of books to get through before I hit the section on your kind,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry if I offended you or anything.”

“Like anything you say could offend me at this point.”

Leona’s unrestrained dismissal of her was such a departure from the friendliness of Heartslabyul, the enmity of the students throughout NRC, the deep danger hiding within Octavinelle that Yuu found herself breaking into a fit of giggles. “Right, since you’re a gentleman.”

“Stop.” Leona flicked the item in his right glove into the air again. When she looked closer, she saw that it was a white bishop carved from ivory, turning round and round in the air before his dark glove hid it from sight.

Yuu opened up her book again and sat a little distance away from him in companionable silence. It was good that she wasn’t alone. With the dark thoughts still haunting her mind, she wasn’t sure what she would do if she didn’t have the warmth of a living person in the area. Leona might have been the best person who she could have chosen to sit in the vicinity of; unlike everyone else, he didn’t care.

Leona himself—was it because he was a Therianthrope?—seemed to be able to sense her mood with alacrity and precision. A while later when Yuu set her book down to stretch, he lifted the eyelid that had a long scar running through it to fix her with a demanding stare. “So? What’s with you?”

“I told you. I’m tired,” Yuu repeated. “And you, senpai? You’re not sleeping for once.”

“Aah. Not in the mood today.” His tail flicked back and forth. “…Don’t think you’ve changed the topic.”

Yuu weighed the consequences of asking him, but her lack of sleep and Leona’s ears turned her way pushed the scales. “…What is the feeling,” she asked slowly, “of a heavy squeezing feeling in your chest that gives you nightmares?”

Leona blinked his catlike eyes wide. “…What?”

“I know that heat in your stomach and a trembling in your fingertips and feet mean anger now,” Yuu tried again, “but this feeling is self-directed and it’s not as clear as anger.”

They stared at each other for a long silence.

“Are you asking me,” Leona finally mustered, “the name of an emotion?”

“Yes. You’re the only Therianthrope who’s figured out my gender, and you’re just about the smartest person I know besides a teacher,” Yuu said. She wrinkled her nose at him. “Plus you were the one who asked me what was on my mind.”

“I didn’t expect you to…” Leona shook his head. “What, do they not have emotions in your world or something?”

“They do. I always thought I was just born missing them,” Yuu explained matter-of-factly. “But recently I’ve stood corrected.”

“About ‘anger’, huh…?” Leona eyed her interestedly. “Even for an otherworlder or whatever, you sure are an unusual kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” she protested.

“Someone who doesn’t even recognize their own emotions is nothing more than a little brat,” he laughed down his nose at her. “And you should know that everyone feels emotions differently. There’s no way I can explain to you what goes on in your head.”

“That’s true,” Yuu sighed.

“I am interested in what kind of an environment you had to be in that forced you to suppress your emotions to the extent you couldn’t even recognize anger,” Leona narrowed his eyes at her.

“Forced?” Yuu raised her brows. “I’m a normal person, senpai. Some people just don’t feel emotions as intensely as others, you know.”

“No,” Leona rolled onto his side so he was facing her. His smile was slow and sure. “Not you, who lights up like a firecracker whenever you ask about Therianthropes. Maybe you’ve just lived in a cage for so long you can’t recognize its bars.”

Yuu didn’t quite understand what he was saying.

Leona watched her bewilderment with a stare that wasn’t quite present. “…Like a kid,” he murmured, eyes narrowed as if he were staring at the sun. “…Hey, herbivore. Do you know how to play chess?”

Growing up, Yuu hadn’t had the wherewithal to be dallying in hobbies like chess—even her longing for the piano had been left unfulfilled simply because she had no money or time. At Hogwarts, she’d never been the one to join in on games of wizard chess or Exploding Snap, preferring to watch from beside Fred II (who usually ended up with singed eyebrows).

Still, she knew the basic rules. Yuu was of the biased opinion that knowledge didn’t betray you in any situation, so she’d at least managed to absorb some information about chess in her library trawling.

Leona rolled over in the grass to reveal a gorgeous chessboard behind him, where he had plucked the bishop from, and tugged it over when she nodded hesitantly. “I don’t expect anything from you,” he said condescendingly, “so don’t worry if you’re terrible.”

“Wait, you want me to play?” Yuu’s plant encyclopaedia slid off her legs in her surprise. “I’ve been told I don’t have a strategic mind.”

“But you’re not brainless, are you?” Leona waved her over with one gloved hand. Unlike the severe commanding tone Riddle used, there was something natural about whatever Leona said that made people listen.

Ruggie was one example—Yuu thought she might be becoming another. Obediently, she put her book away and scooted across the grass so that she faced him over the chessboard.

Leona turned the line of white pieces to her, setting down the bishop in its place. “Tell me, herbivore. What is the purpose of chess?”

“To bully the king into a corner?”

“Not a bad answer,” he revealed his canines in a sharp grin. “At least it’s better than saying ‘to win’.”

“When you think about it, chess is a game for bullies,” Yuu said cheekily. “Instead of going straight for the king’s life, they set up this whole elaborate scheme to try and seal off every chance he has to escape.”

“Please,” Leona snorted, “going for the king’s throat like an uncivilized savage is the move a bully would make.”

“Not as much as slowly extinguishing all his options and forcing him to abdicate or kill himself,” Yuu lifted a pawn and slid it forwards. “Now that’s a bully.”

“It’s just smarts,” Leona argued, moving his own piece forward.

It was a little tough to tell—especially since he insisted on sleeping the day away—but Leona Kingscholar was far from stupid. When he was in the mood, he would even haughtily correct her and Ruggie as they mulled over the day’s homework. Yuu could not understand why he was on his second repetition of his third year here; his intelligence had a faster edge than even the genius magician Riddle.

What disqualified him from Ravenclaw, which favoured intelligence, was the way he played chess.

Yuu wasn’t as strategic as Rose Weasley and she wasn’t as keen on games as Fred, but even she could tell the way Leona played wasn’t the typical attack-and-defend nature of a regular chess game. To accommodate her inexperience, he would give her sound advice—that led her into a trap whenever she took it.

“Has anyone told you that you’re a jerk?” Yuu said rather sulkily as he tipped her queen over.

His earlier lethargy nowhere to be seen, Leona’s smirk stretched all the way up to his ears. “Is that any way to speak to someone who’s teaching you the game?”

“You’re just having fun dragging me right into your traps,” she protested.

“Take it as me teaching you the ways of the world,” he said carelessly. “This is charity, you know, you should be thanking me.”

“Oh yes, thank the great Leona-senpai for deigning to pick on a beginner at chess to get his kicks,” Yuu said theatrically. “How could I have forgotten.”

Still, she could tell he wasn’t just ‘good’ at the game. Often, Yuu wouldn’t even know what had hit her by the time her piece was swiped off the board. Leona played with the same lazy confidence he wore around him like a second skin, and she lost so easily that Yuu didn’t even feel the frustration that often accompanied a loss.

“You like chess?” she asked him curiously between games.

“You don’t?” he countered, setting up his rank of pawns. Yuu’s eye twitched. Was he really going to challenge her again? She’d already lost six times.

“It can’t be fun playing against someone who only loses,” she said weakly, nevertheless accepting the handful of pieces he held out to her to set in place.

“Your basics aren’t bad,” he drawled, “and chess reveals a lot about thinking patterns. It’s not just the game.”

“I suppose,” she frowned thoughtfully. “Like how much of a shrewd, sly bully you are.”

Leona raised one eyebrow at her, as if to tell her he was above her petty insults.

Yuu moved her first pawn again. “So senpai, what have you gleaned about me from the game?”

“Let’s see,” he pushed his own forward, “the way you sacrifice your pieces like it’s nothing? How you fall into the trap of a one-track mind when you see a potential path? Your extraordinary calm? Take a pick.”

“How about a weakness,” Yuu suggested. “Something I’d do well to fix.”

Leona took her pawn with a knight. “…You don’t seem to hold your king in high regard.”

“The king?” she echoed.

He propped his head up on one arm so that a curtain of mahogany covered his face. “The most important piece, and yet you almost ignore it.”

Leona seemed to be speaking almost to himself. Yuu wondered at his expression, but shrugged and explained, “It’s true that the king should be protected, but as long as the game exists, he’s going to be in danger. It’s dumb to put the king in first place, and ignore everything else, since it’ll lose you the game…right?”

“…Ah, but all of his troops,” Leona dangled a rook from his fingers, “are loyal to him. They put him first.”

“A king’s only as good as the weakest person in a kingdom. And if he’s such a weak piece that can only move one space at a time,” she made a face, “he’s not particularly worth anything, is he?”

Leona looked up at her, his hair falling back to reveal a surprised set of green eyes. “You just called the king useless?”

“A chess king,” Yuu clarified. “…I don’t know if there are kings or queens in this country, but the history in our world demonstrates just how useless some kings were.”

Leona sat up. “You studied histories of kings in your world.”

“I like to read,” she shrugged, “and most students go through a brief overview of world history sometime in their schooling.”

“Hmm,” Leona squinted at her across the board. “Your world is…interesting. We study the Seven Greats here all the time, but this school is an exception to the rule. Usually the only ones educated on a country’s kings are those who are set to inherit it. Great noble families, the imperial line, et cetera.”

“Seriously? You guys are less advanced than I thought,” Yuu wrinkled her nose. History of Magic existed in Hogwarts to educate students on history, although less focus was put on rulers and more on great wizards and witches. Still, education seemed more unbalanced in this world than she’d expected.

Night Raven College was rather isolated. Yuu began to realise that maybe she knew nothing about Twisted Wonderland at all. Just where was this school located?

“So tell me,” Leona prompted her. “What were the kings in your world like?”

“You’re talking about the one who forced ten thousand troops to be buried together with him? The one who had eight wives? The one who fled the throne from his cousin? The one imprisoned on an island?” she ticked off. “Usually the good stories are all about kings that failed.”

“And the good kings?”

“Good kings, huh,” Yuu said thoughtfully. “I don’t remember any.”

Leona cast his glance down. “Check.”

“Aw, shoot. Stop distracting me,” she protested, focusing on the game.

“What about coups d’état?” Leona asked as she manoeuvred a pawn to cover her king.

“Like rebellions and stuff? There are a ton of those. Really famous ones get turned into plays. Tragedies and suspense.” Yuu recalled the Pride Rock-resembling outcropping at the entrance to Savanaclaw and added, “Like Hamlet.”

Leona flicked a tail at her to continue, so she obligingly spun out Shakespeare’s longest tragedy for him to hear. Just like all the other times she talked, he feigned disinterest, soundly thrashing her in another four games, but his hovering tail was once again evidence that he was listening. Towards the end, she felt hunger tugging her stomach towards her spine, so Yuu pulled out her slice of shortcake and shared it with him.

When she was done Leona laughed, seeming as genuinely entertained as she had ever seen him. “What a fool,” he commented, licking cream from his fingers.

“Who, Hamlet? I agree, but…”

“Not him, although how ironic it was that his feigned insanity overwhelmed him in the end. I’m talking about that uncle of his.”

“Claudius,” Yuu nodded. Scar’s counterpart. “How so?”

Leona gave her a look like she was crazy, tossing the empty cake container at her head. “How so? In the first place, he should’ve killed the king in a way that didn’t leave a ghost wandering around.”

Yuu blinked at him, catching the box.

“Ghosts are tied to the world by strong emotions or regrets,” Leona rolled his eyes at her. “If the kid’s father hadn’t seen who his killer was, there wouldn’t be a story in the first place.”

“I thought you were going to say ‘don’t kill the king in the first place’,” Yuu said thoughtfully.

“That would be the wisest move,” Leona let his dark lashes shade his gaze. “Still, without the first move, there is no game. And lust for power isn’t anything new.”

“And Leona-senpai likes chess.”

“That’s right, herbivore. There’s such a nice playing field set up in front of you,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I take a few turns?”

“So you’d do better than Claudius, is what you’re saying,” Yuu grinned at him cheekily.

“…Please, as if I’d waste my time. Like you said, in the end he brought about only the miserable death of himself and that woman.” Leona pressed a glove to his mouth in a yawn and lay down on the grass. “It’s meaningless to bet everything on a losing battle. Better to just give up.”

Yuu dropped her box. “…That’s not like you,” she mumbled without meaning to. After all he’d just said about playing the game, after the ruthless and intelligent way he’d beaten her ten times today…

Leona barked out a short laugh as she started to clean up the chess set. There was, however, a bitter, guttural edge to it that she’d never heard coming from this person. She expected him to snap back at her—argue that she didn’t know what he was like, not really—but instead he rolled onto his back away from her. “Perhaps. But isn’t it good that I’m not stupid enough to try revolting?”

Yuu went still. Revolting against what?

But he was no longer looking at her, his mind no longer in the garden. Leona murmured, “No matter how hard you try, how many plans you come up with, some things are just impossible.”

The dead note hanging on to the end of his voice brought to mind a nearly forgotten memory of her staring at the backs of her retreating parents. How tiring, she’d thought, staring at the front door as the noise of the car sputtered to life outside. Why did I even try?

Aah…that’s right. How come I didn’t realize before?

It was useless to talk to them in the first place.

In the evening glow, Leona’s green eyes were dull, his mouth in a flat line. He looked like she’d felt.

Better to just give up,” he’d said dully.

She didn’t know what she could say to him without being insensitive, and all of a sudden that heavy weight had doubled back to strike her in the chest again. So Yuu watched silently beside Leona as the sun sank past the glass dome into a falling burst of orange light and cursed herself for her leaden tongue.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Azu~l,” Floyd dragged out the Dorm Head’s name, collapsing across one of the leather couches in the VIP room. “I saw Goldfish running around today after school.”

Azul lifted his focused stare briefly from a long, curled parchment the colour of goldenrod. “Running around?”

“Kingyo-chan was herding his school of baby fish looking for something. I gave him a good chase.” The taller Leech twin bared his teeth in an uncomfortably wide smile.

“So that’s why Jade isn’t around,” Azul murmured. He turned to the other couch. “Yuu-san, you’re acquainted with the…is he sleeping?”

“Awake,” Yuu mumbled, prying her eyes open.

Floyd emitted an incredulous laugh. “Aha. What’s with this shrimp,” frustration bled into the edge of his voice, “he really pisses me off.

Yuu rubbed at her dry eyes. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“How many times have I said not to reveal your weaknesses in here?” Azul snapped.

“A lot,” Yuu recited. She’d received a lecture about it the day before.

“What are you being all nice and advising Koebi-chan for?” Floyd narrowed his mismatched eyes at her. “Just let the tiny thing get swallowed. It’s his fault for behaving like a fish born yesterday.”

“Why, Floyd,” Azul pressed a glove to his sternum and made an exaggerated bow in his seat. “Octavinelle is founded on the merciful heart of the Witch of the Sea. How can I not extend my hand to the poor, the unfortunate, the needy?”

“So why was I called in here again?” Yuu ignored his flourishing and Floyd’s insistent glare.

“That’s right. It looks like one of our Saturday day shifters has requested a switch to Friday, so I was wondering if you would be willing to take the switched shift instead,” Azul tucked the parchment away and leaned his chin on a hand to consider her. “I was told by Jade that you performed excellently in the hall last night, so consider Saturday as your last test-shift.”

“Sure, I’m okay with that,” Yuu nodded readily. “Managing the hall is fun. I get to see all sorts of people.”

“You have no idea how much it pleases me to hear you say so,” Azul said dryly. “Since some of my waiters tend to decrease my sales just standing there.”

“Really?” Yuu blinked. “Like who?”

Azul stared at her.

Floyd’s laugh was a little less angry this time. “What’s with that? Koebi-chan, do you not have eyes?”

“My eyesight was pretty good last time I went to an ophthalmologist,” Yuu tilted her head at him. “Someone I know messing up the atmosphere?”

“Yuu-san…” Azul said carefully, “what do you think of Floyd when you see him?”

“Think?” she repeated, confused.

Azul sighed, as if reaching for his patience. “Impressions on his appearance,” he told her slowly, as he would a child.

“Is blue a common hair colour in this world?” Yuu wondered. “…Is what I thought.”

“That’s it?” Floyd squinted at her.

“Well, obviously you don’t need anyone else to compliment you on how beautiful you are,” she squinted back. “I’m sure you get it all the time.”

Floyd tipped off the couch onto the carpet with a thunk.

Yuu jumped, clutching her chest. All remaining dregs of sleepiness had been shaken out of her forcibly. “What the heck!?”

“…Yuu-san…” Azul’s glasses slid down in his nose in shock as he stared at her.

“Ashengrotto-senpai?” Yuu pointed at the long stretch of black fabric marking Floyd on the ground before catching sight of his expression. “Oh, don’t worry, senpai. You’re pretty unbelievably good-looking too. Is it a Merman thing to have otherworldly beauty or something? I should read up on this.”

To her surprise, Azul sputtered with none of his usual composure, his fedora sliding off to reveal the tops of his styled silver hair. Red burned the pale whites of his ears.

“What on earth is wrong with you!?” Azul managed after a few moments of opening and closing his mouth like a fish.

“Uh…” Yuu started to feel stupid. “Sorry. Was it a taboo to touch on looks or something? Is it that normal for people to be good-looking here?”

“Koebi-chan,” Floyd said weakly, shoving himself back onto the couch, “just…shut up for a second.”

Yuu obediently shut up, looking between them confusedly.

Azul composed himself with a cough, though he had given up on his hat. “Anyway! The hall is yours Saturday. After that, we will be limiting hours at Mostro Lounge through the end of October.”

“Sudden topic change?”

“Ko-e-bi-chan,” Floyd enunciated pleasantly, “If you do~n’t shut up right now I’m gonna squeeze that thin neck of yours again.”

Yuu rolled her eyes but turned back to Azul’s office desk. “Why is the Lounge limiting hours?”

“Why, I’m glad you asked, Yuu-san,” Azul clasped his hands together in delight. “Perhaps you are not aware, but the school hosts a world-renowned Magift tournament at the end of October each year. Don’t you think it’s a wonderful business opportunity?”

“Come to think of it, Headmaster said something about there being booths and things set up for visitors,” Yuu recalled.

“Precisely. And after last week’s Dorm Head meeting, I was given permission to manage such an event. It is truly an honour,” Azul said with a sinister smile.

“So you’re going to be busy working on the event until the day of the tournament,” Yuu summarized.

“Correct. My, it is so nice to have someone who can keep up for once,” Azul clapped his gloves together. “Therefore, I will not be able to draft out a schedule for you until the beginning of November. However! You, my poor first-year student, are in need of monetary funding, are you not?”

“Asking that while knowing the answer is called malice,” she told him, unimpressed.

Azul ignored her. “That’s where my compassion comes in.”

Floyd snickered from the couch. Yuu fought to keep a straight face.

“The tournament occurs two Sundays from this one,” Azul smiled benevolently at her. “I would like for you to help with sales within the audience during intermissions. Since it’s a school holiday, your wages will be quite impressive. How about it, Yuu-san?”

“Quite impressive?” Yuu asked interestedly.

“I guess it’s like this much?” Floyd spread out his gloved hands to show her.

Yuu spluttered. “For one day? You’re not tricking me again, are you?”

“How sad that you don’t believe me!” Azul pretended to wipe at his eyes. “I have no reason to lie to you. Especially with the performance you have been completing during the past four shifts, including this one. In fact, I will even give you a contract to sign.”

“Senpai sure loves contracts,” Yuu noted as Azul pulled open a drawer.

“Isn’t it interesting?” Floyd grinned wickedly. “Azul never does anything unfair and he still manages to scare the shit outta his enemies. If you sign a contract with him, it’s all on your head.”

Floyd’s eyes looked alive when he talked about Azul, Yuu noted. It was a far sight from the anger darkening his gaze directed towards her.

He noticed her staring, and the brightness faded from his eyes. “What?”

“Oh…nothing,” Yuu shrugged, hopping off the couch to receive the leather binder Azul passed to her. “Senpai, you really are good at typing this stuff up.”

“I had some help,” he said dismissively.

“…But what does this part mean?” Yuu, who was scanning through the Magift sales contract, frowned. “‘The aforementioned will suggest, to the best of their ability, ideas pertaining to items to be sold at the booths.’ Ideas?”

“So you noticed,” Azul smiled at her conspiratorially. “In order to make our proceeds swing further up than they did last year, we are constantly in need of new products to sell. Last year was rather lacklustre, which couldn’t be helped, as Mostro Lounge was still being built and we were limited to a single booth.”

“You did this last year too?” Yuu asked him.

“Of course I did,” Azul said like it was natural, “Why would I let such a big opportunity pass me by?”

Yuu shook her head in amazement. She was beginning to see what had chased Azul all the way up to attaining Dorm Head status his second year. Not just his intelligence and his business acumen—this person worked harder than anyone she had ever met. Managing one business on the side was already impossible for most students, yet he was accomplishing duties of a Dorm Head in addition to planning for events like the Magift tournament and doing his shady side business. Did he even sleep?

“Okay,” she said decisively, “I’ll help you think of ideas.”

Both Azul and Floyd gave her surprised looks. “…Oh?” the former raised one elegant brow. “I was expecting you to protest that article like you did when you read your contract last time.”

“You read that entire thing?” Floyd stuck out his tongue in disgust. “Koebi-chan, you gotta be crazy.”

“In return,” Yuu lifted one finger, “Can you help me set up whatever this world’s version of a bank account is? So I can store my money.”

“That’s all?” Azul looked even more confused. “I finished doing so a long time ago. I’ll have the account information given to you by Saturday.”

“Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu shook her head in admiration again. “You’re amazing. How do I become like you?”

“…Aha,” Floyd turned to Azul with delight pulling his mouth wide.

For the second time that day, Yuu was treated to the sight of her employer’s ears turning scarlet.

CHAPTER NINE | March of the Fools.

Yuu liked working in the kitchens well enough, but she took to waitering (waitressing) like a fish to water, pun intended. Mostro Lounge was beautiful, and the atmosphere settled around her like a dark blanket, but it was talking to the guests that fuelled her curiosity like nothing else.

After everything, Yuu still loved learning new things.

The most common customers were Octavinelle students and surprisingly, ones from Savanaclaw. Perhaps it had to do with the menu, which was heavily slanted towards a carnivorous diet. However, she almost never saw anyone from Heartslabyul or any of the other dorms show.

“Hey waiter, more ice water over here please!”

“Be right there,” Yuu called back, reaching for the pitcher.

Wednesday evening was fuller than Monday—but couldn’t match Friday night’s frenetic energy or Sunday’s slow hours of long-staying customers. Yuu moved orders back and forth with light footsteps, ignoring her aching feet. It was important to display an upbeat attitude towards people who were spending money in your presence, not the least of which was because they left tips behind on the counter.

It was a good thing that Floyd was in the kitchen. Last shift, he’d tripped her with those ridiculously long legs and she’d nearly crashed into a moving waiter. Jade, who was supposed to be her trainer, had just stood back to avoid his brother’s classy shoe pass by and laughed politely.

Those twins, Yuu thought, had to be the exact same on the inside.

“See ya later, kid,” the last departing third year Octavinelle student ruffled her hair roughly before heading out up the stairs.

Yuu stretched after returning the greeting. It was getting late and the Lounge hall was empty. It was time to clean up.

With just the quiet pull of the jazz music to accent the darkened café and the other waiters long gone, she was plunged into solitude. Yuu stared at the dark ocean, only illuminated by the crystal jellyfish lights that hung from the ceiling, and wondered if she could just…break the glass and walk into nothing…

…Now was not the time for this.

But she was all alone.

Yuu was starting to think she had a serious problem if every time she was by herself, she started to have a nervous breakdown. It was probably due to her flaw of never being able to stop thinking—especially with all the things weighing down on her shoulders. What she would have given to be able to hug Grim to her right now…

As it was, the thoughts rushed at her all at once.

Messing with time-space. Existing in a world she shouldn’t. Interacting with people she shouldn’t. Riddle dripping ink and magic from his feet suspended in the air. Trey’s foot in a cast; her failed charm glowing against it fruitlessly.

Waiting for her father to pick her up from school for hours…

Everything is meaningless anyway.

That empty, dull glaze to Leona’s eyes when he had said it was better to just give up would not leave her mind. Yuu wondered why he had looked like that in the sunset gardens.

She hated how it reminded her of herself so painfully.

Aah, if she could just—

“—Hey.”

The gravel in Floyd’s usual sweet tenor made her lift her head his way warily, the remnants of her thoughts sifting through her fingers like sand. When he talked like this, he was usually in a foul mood, and the aggressive slant to those turquoise eyebrows made Yuu tense slightly.

“Senpai,” she acknowledged carefully.

Floyd took one step—but for someone nearly two metres tall, it still brought him right up to her face. Yuu’s nose barely reached his solar plexus as she ducked backwards reflexively. She was not eager to be choked again.

The movement backwards seemed to irritate him even more. Floyd lifted one large hand. “Hey,” he repeated, still with that lower register lining his voice, “I don’t like that look on your face.”

Yuu stuck her hands behind her back to toss the rag she was using onto a table. “What look?”

“That…” the outstretched hand spasmed. “That corpse-like look. It pisses me off.”

“I thought I, as you say, ‘pissed you off’ with my very existence,” Yuu regained some of her usual equanimity. What did he mean by corpse-like look?

“Yeah. Yeah, you do,” Floyd leaned down so that those wild, inhuman eyes locked onto hers. His grin was not friendly. “All of you pisses me off. Jumping around like a tiny shrimp. You’re so small I could just…snap you in half with one hand…”

Yuu winced as the hand closed around her shoulder. It spanned across her collarbone with ease as it squeezed.

“Is it just because I’m small?” she challenged nevertheless, almost glad for the distraction. “You were small when you were a baby, weren’t you?”

“Not delicate like you,” Floyd narrowed his eyes, “not fragile like you. The weak die and get hunted, and you’re even softer and smaller and…Just looking at you makes my teeth itch.”

None of them had been very clear about Mermen with her, but Yuu was sure that neither Floyd, Jade, nor Azul were human. It wasn’t just the unearthly cold in their eyes. Not just the beauty that no one else seemed to be touched by.

Floyd was the easiest for her to tell. He wasn’t quiet about his intentions to strangle her. Neither was he eager to behave in a manner similar to other humans, follow the act that Azul had pulled under his belt like a costume. His was a completely different style of threatening from his brother Jade, who maintained a gentle disposition just so that his cruelty could be shown even more clearly.

No, Floyd was simply a predator. An apex predator.

Yuu looked it in the eye. “Are you going to rip me to pieces?” she asked absently.

“…That’s the first time someone on land has said something like that to me,” Floyd gritted lowly after a moment. “That pisses me off too.”

“Ouch,” Yuu hissed, tugging at his hand, “My collarbone’s going to snap, senpai!”

“Just like that!?” Floyd laughed incredulously. “I didn’t even put any strength in…Your hands are tiny! How the hell have you lived up until now without getting devoured by some hungry beast!?”

“Compared to you, everyone’s small,” Yuu said in a strained voice, “and I come from a world without the danger of being devoured physically.”

“And you fell into this world,” Floyd said slowly, “like a clam without its shell.”

“That’s quite a simile,” Yuu retaliated, but his other hand squeezed her other shoulder and she shut up smartly.

“Ah…” Floyd’s eyes narrowed in delight. “You’re so helpless…it would be so easy to snap your neck and be done with it. Koebi-chan, you can’t survive without someone to symbiote with, can you? What a pitiful little shrimp.”

That slightly unhinged expression put Yuu on edge. “Senpai,” she managed stiffly.

“And you don’t even want to live that much, not really,” his voice lifted until it was that deceptively friendly tenor again. “Not with that look on your face like shattered glass. How about I end it all for you here?”

Yuu, not expecting him to pinpoint her thoughts so clearly, felt her throat whistle as she sucked in a gasp.

No one had ever been able to—

“That’s right,” Floyd tightened his grip, “you really thought it wasn’t obvious? Those eyes are the ones of a prey that’s lost their fight. How about it? If I just squeezed a little more…”

If he just squeezed a little more.

Yuu tried to string together a word, but she only managed a vowel. She should deny it. Hurry and find her usual calm. Respond in a biting refusal.

She couldn’t let him dig any deeper.

“Weak,” Floyd said almost dreamily, “small and breakable. I can’t believe there’s a guy that’s so girly in this world.”

—Right.

The words splashed against her head like ice water. Yuu was playing the part of a boy right now. If Floyd killed her here, whatever autopsy procedures were conducted would reveal her gender. Now was not the time to be so swept away by the crevices of her own thoughts.

“…Ocean,” she managed finally.

Floyd blinked. Light from the chandeliers caught his golden eye and made it glimmer with reflected brightness. “Ocean?” he repeated.

“I want to die in the ocean,” Yuu told him. “Sink all the way down so that the pressure is my blanket forever.”

The blue-haired second year holding onto her shoulders went completely still. He was still bent over to look her in the eye, so she saw the way his two mismatched ones widened as they fixed upon her.

“But you shouldn’t kill me,” she kept going. Her fingers touched the cool, nearly translucent skin under his eyes—compared to his face, her hand really was small. “Don’t dirty your hands with me…don’t be kind to someone like me.”

Floyd’s face contorted. A second later, the pressure around her collar was gone; he’d taken a step back, staring at her as if she were a Ghost or worse.

“Not me,” Yuu told him calmly, picking up the rag. “I’m not worth it. Bad things happen to magicians who meddle with otherworldly things.”

But he wasn’t listening. Floyd’s pale skin was rapidly losing any colour it had; with the blue of the sea dancing against the glass on his right, he looked almost liquid. “…Azul,” he said.

Yuu blinked. “What?”

“Koebi-chan,” Floyd said seriously. “Stop acting like a jellyfish. You need to bite back when you’ve been bitten. Otherwise someone really is going to finish you off one day.”

What?

“Not everyone’s going to fish you from the ocean.”

“Seriously, what?

Floyd ignored her; he’d turned to leave. Yuu watched him go in confusion, wondering at the sudden shift in his manner. Floyd changed emotions on the tip of his hat, but she had never seen that white-faced, indecipherable expression he had worn before he’d told her with such vehemence to change.

Bite back when she’d been bitten.

“Does he want me to bully him or something?” she mumbled in the darkened Lounge. Only the swing of the lively saxophone answered her.

The stakeout team consisting of Riddle, Ace, Deuce, Grim and Cater had made contact with several of the dormitories after school while Yuu was working. She’d entrusted Grim with her apology for not being able to make it, but the next morning Ace and Deuce nearly took her door down with their knocking to fill her in eagerly on their progress.

“Pomefiore was seriously straight out of some period movie,” Ace slung an arm around her shoulders as the four of them approached Main Street. Yuu stifled a hiss as he knocked against one spot still bruised from Floyd’s fingers. “Everything was purple and flowery and stuff.”

“Everything’s red in Heartslabyul, so there really isn’t much difference,” Deuce remarked, pushing a snoring Grim back up on her head as he began to slide. “But seriously…it’s hard to believe some of the students in there are male. They’re so…girly.”

“It’s a scam,” Ace muttered darkly. “Who wants to see pretty dudes? Bring in the girls! Right, Yuu?”

“Right,” Yuu said vehemently. “Just make NRC open to all genders.”

“You two,” sighed Deuce with an eyeroll. “…Anyway, after that we were going to visit Octavinelle, but…”

Ace shuddered. “Don’t even bring it up.”

“It’s the first time I’ve seen Rosehearts-senpai look remotely afraid,” Deuce muttered.

Yuu raised both eyebrows and opened her mouth to ask further.

“Anyway! Then we went over to Savanaclaw and got into a fight with the Dorm Head. That guy’s terrible!” Ace complained, cutting her off. “He rubbed our faces in the ground in Magift without a shred of mercy.”

“You guys sure met a lot of people,” Yuu was impressed. “Even the Savanaclaw Dorm Head? Cater-senpai must be a genius with communications.”

“You sure got that right. Remind me never to get on his bad side.”

“There’s this one kid from Savanaclaw we were thinking would be the best candidate to guard,” Deuce frowned.

“The Dorm Head?”

“Not that scary bastard!” Ace bared his teeth. “In the first place, Savanaclaw’s Dorm Head could probably wipe the culprit in the dirt without help. Just because we stepped in his territory or whatever he fricking…”

“Savanaclaw is a place that relies on the rules Therianthropes use,” Deuce explained, “so we should have probably been more careful entering. But it was a good fight! We lost, but the Dorm Head was really strong.”

“I’m glad you got a punch or two in,” she grinned weakly, remembering her own encounter with the students who’d nearly knocked her teeth out. “But I guess I don’t wanna meet this Savanaclaw Dorm Head anytime soon.”

“Yeah, stay away from him. He looks like he’ll murder someone any second,” Ace waved the memory away. “The kid from Savanaclaw we wanted to guard was all like ‘stay out of my way’ though, so we couldn’t really get further than that with him.”

“But he did help us out in the Magift match,” Deuce said thoughtfully.

“Why on earth were you guys playing Magift?” Yuu muttered, “wasn’t it a fight?”

“You can use magic freely during Magift,” Ace grinned, “even though magic is forbidden normally in fights between students. So it was an excuse to wipe their asses.”

“We got our asses wiped, unfortunately,” Deuce sighed. “Still, I think we can get through to the Savanaclaw first year we wanted to guard. What do you call those types? Tsundere?”

Ace guffawed. “Yeah, that.”

“For guys who got their butts whipped you sure look sprightly,” Yuu commented with a grin.

“Please. Don’t underestimate teenage boys,” Ace flexed. “Minus you, who sits in the library all day. And Deuce is just a delinquent.”

“I’m aiming to be a model student!” Deuce protested. He coughed. “…Anyway, Yuu. Grim told us you were busy yesterday. Everything all right?”

Yuu blinked as their attention turned to her. For a moment, she hesitated—but Yuu liked Ace and Deuce, trusted them, and indeed there was something on her mind. She decided to ask. “How do you bully someone?”

Ace choked on his spit and nearly fell over.

Deuce rounded on her, a savage gleam brightening his eyes. “Yuu! You finally…you’re finally going to…!?”

Yuu tilted her head at him, confused. Before she could question why the two of them had reacted so strongly, though, a commanding voice cut through their conversation.

“Step aside, the three of you. You’re blocking the path walking so slowly.”

Geh, Dorm Head,” Ace shuffled aside as Riddle approached them. His hair was a little wet.

“Good morning Rosehearts-senpai,” Yuu greeted him, pleased to see that there was some more colour to his face today.

“Yuu,” Riddle inclined his head before he stepped up to her. “Your tie is all wrong.”

Ace and Deuce stepped back out of respect—or more likely, reflexive fear—but Yuu, who had gotten used to close contact with Riddle after last week’s excursion when she rode in front of him on a saddle, obediently exposed her collar for him.

“Morning, Yuu-chan!” Cater approached them at a jog. “Geez. Riddle-kun, don’t run off without me just because you see the Directing Student, okay? I thought something had happened.”

“It’s a slippery slope once you begin to wear your uniform incorrectly.” Ignoring Cater, Riddle lectured her, untying her ribbon completely to fasten the tie properly. “As a Directing Student, you should set a good example for your dorm…though as of now, only one snoring Monster is part of it.”

“Thank you senpai,” Yuu said sheepishly. “Um, the truth is I never tied a tie before, so I usually just put it in a bow.”

“Like me?” Riddle raised a brow and nodded. “Very well. Until you learn how to do so, allow me to fix your tie for you.”

“Okay,” she nodded meekly. Yuu reached into her pocket for a freshly laundered handkerchief filched from Ramshackle and pressed it to his slightly wet hair. “Senpai, did you take a shower?”

“I went for a ride this morning to clear my mind,” Riddle explained, lowering his head for her. “There wasn’t enough time to dry my hair after the shower I took. I suppose I was a little rough with my spell.”

“You can have this, then,” she passed the damp handkerchief to him after a few passes across his surprisingly soft tresses. “So you don’t get a headache from the cold.”

Riddle smiled down at her and patted her head fondly. “Thank you, Yuu. I’ll have it washed and returned to you later.”

“Hey,” Cater whispered over to Ace and Deuce in a carrying voice. “When did these two get so close?”

“Are you asking me?!” Ace hissed. “Doesn’t Dorm Head like him ‘cause he follows the rules and saved his life?”

“Everyone should like Yuu,” Deuce didn’t even bother to whisper. He crossed his arms proudly. “Yuu is the best person I’ve met.”

If she had been within arm’s length, Yuu would have reached for Deuce’s hand. He was the best friend she could ever ask for.

“The three of you,” Riddle commanded them. “We’ll be late for class. Come along.”

Used to following rules, the three Heartslabyul dorm students gathered around them with dull noises of agreement as Riddle took her hand and tugged her along towards the castle.

Cater came up on her other side and lowered his voice. “So the thing is,” he said, linking his other arm with her, “someone else got hurt last night.”

Riddle didn’t seem surprised, but Ace, Deuce and Yuu stiffened simultaneously. “…How did you figure out?” she asked him lowly.

“One of the portraits witnessed the accident after school yesterday,” Cater explained. “Probably around when we were at Savanaclaw. According to the portraits, the injured party was a second year from Scarabia named Jamil Viper.”

“Jamil-senpai!” Yuu clutched his arm in surprise. “I know him! Sort of.”

“Really?” Ace peeked around from Riddle’s other side. “I’ve seen him around after school at club activities, but never talked directly to the guy. You know where he’d be this time of day?”

“Not particularly, but…” Yuu thought for a moment. “Yesterday I left you all to do the hunting, but today would you let me make up for it by asking Jamil-senpai about the culprit? You guys still have other people on your list, right? It would be more efficient that way.”

“Huh? But,” Riddle began, “We can’t just leave you by yourself. You don’t have magic to…”

“Ha ha,” Cater gave him a teasing smile as the Dorm Head caught himself, “Yuu-chan can protect himself well enough, can’t you?”

“I wanted to bake something for Trey-senpai as a get-well gift anyway,” she said sheepishly, “plus I feel bad for not really making any progress. Promise I’ll report to you before tomorrow!”

“Yuu,” Riddle frowned at her sternly.

She gave him a tentative smile. “Um, please?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Cater piped up from her other side, swinging her arm back and forth. “We still have to visit the spots we didn’t make it to yesterday. Plus marking that kid from Savanaclaw. If Yuu-chan says he knows him, I suggest we leave it up to him.”

“Pleaaaase,” Yuu dragged out, imitating Grim when he wanted a tuna can.

Riddle sighed with what looked like a helpless grin. “Oh…all right, Yuu. Promise that you’ll be careful, though I don’t expect the criminal will aim for someone as small as you. And find me if anything happens, all right? I’m in the second year’s Class E.”

“Okay.” Yuu surreptitiously fist pumped. “I’ll make sure to bring you results, Dorm Head!”

“Mm. See to it that you do.” Riddle nodded once and tugged her forward. “Come along, we’ll be late if we keep dawdling.”

“Riddle-kun, we’re early,” Cater laughed.

“Hey Yuu,” Ace called over before Riddle pulled her inside the building. He was smiling—that narrow-eyed wicked grin that he’d been wearing when he’d first met her.

Yuu liked this smile. “What?” she obliged him.

“To answer your earlier question,” Ace winked, “to really bully someone you need to know your enemy.”

Know her enemy, Yuu repeated in her mind.

It didn’t seem like Azul or Jade would be willing to divulge information on their fellow dorm-mate. Which meant it was up to her to figure it out by herself.

Yuu thought about Floyd’s white face and resolved to ask Cater for information gathering tips when this was all over.

After school found Yuu in the school kitchens, rolling out well-aired dough into small oblong balls. She’d asked Riddle about Trey’s favourite foods, and although she couldn’t get access to candied violets, there was enough leftover flour from lunch to create madeleines. Good enough for a snack. They were also easy to make, leaving her time to prowl the school—she still needed to go find Jamil Viper and ask him what had happened.

Yuu tried to think of places that the quiet second-year would be as she worked. Over the past month, she’d sat with the friendly Kalim several times during meals, and Jamil joined them around half of those occurrences. In stark contrast to the friendly ball of energy that made Scarabia’s Dorm Head so likeable, Jamil ate without a word and urged Kalim to chew properly in a way that reminded her of a mother.

Maybe she should go ask Headmaster Crowley where he would be this time of…

“—said, Kalim, you need to give me warning when you suddenly decide…”

Yuu looked up from her huge wooden cutting board and came face to face with the object of her thoughts.

Jamil blinked his charcoal grey eyes at her, hefting a box with both hands. Dark strands of glossy hair fell across the side of his face into his eyes. “…Directing Student? What are you doing here?”

“But Jamil, I’m hungry,” Kalim’s bright and clear voice cut over the end of his sentence. “We can make it together, all right?”

“You stay away from the ingredients,” Jamil rolled his eyes. “And it looks like the kitchens are already occupied.”

Yuu lifted one floury hand in a tentative wave as Kalim popped his head curiously past the doorway under Jamil’s shoulder. The gold-embroidered shawl tied around his white hair gleamed in the light; he caught sight of her, and his face lit up in a beam. “Hey! It’s Yuu!”

According to Kalim, who bounced inside to greet her, today was a day in which both the basketball club, which Jamil was a part of, and the light music club, which Kalim was a member of, were on break. Kalim had been loitering within campus after school before he was suddenly struck by a bout of hunger.

“And here we are,” Jamil set the box down on the counter next to hers with a surprisingly heavy thump. “Do you mind if I work beside you? I won’t get in the way.”

“Of course not.” Yuu shifted her cutting board to allocate room for him before she caught sight of his hand. “What’s that white stuff on your palm?”

“Right! Listen, Yuu!” Kalim leapt up to sit cross-legged on a table, his bracelets and anklets jangling. “Can you believe that Jamil cut himself with his knife yesterday? I’ve told you about how good he is with a knife, right?”

“It’s a plaster.” Ignoring Kalim, Jamil flipped his palm skyward briefly to show the white bandage stretching across. “There’s medicine on the inside. I’ll be fine, though I can’t grip anything with this hand for a couple of weeks.”

“Right! I heard from Cater-senpai that you got injured,” Yuu peered concernedly up into his face. “Was it your hand? What happened?”

Jamil jerked back in surprise briefly. “…What’s with you all of a sudden?”

“Yuu’s just curious, isn’t he?” Kalim grinned in her direction. “I told you, Jamil! Yuu’s a nice guy!”

The vice Dorm Head blinked before straightening as if he had not reacted at all. “…Don’t worry, Directing Student. It’s not that serious.”

Yuu wasn’t so sure. “How about this, senpai? I’m almost done with my baking so would you mind if I put these in the oven first? Then I’ll help you out with whatever you’re doing.”

Kalim perked up, shaking his ankles over the edge of the table excitedly. The curved tops of his khussa bounced with the movement. “Jamil! If I can’t help you, get Yuu to!”

“As if I could do that,” Jamil shook his head in restraint. “Your offer is appreciated, Directing Student, but this is my duty. I’m fine.”

“Duty?” Yuu echoed, squinting.

“I said you didn’t have to,” Kalim sighed, his scarlet eyes drooping a little.

Jamil didn’t respond. Yuu glanced between them cautiously.

“Um…then how about I’ll be your left hand for a while,” she pointed at the bandaged appendage. “That way you’re doing whatever you need to do, I’m just following your directions. How about it, senpai?”

This time those charcoal grey eyes narrowed in her direction to show the kohl drawn in an elegant curve above his eyelids. “What do you want?” Jamil asked her suspiciously.

Here was another student that wasn’t very friendly. Yuu had sort of expected it (especially since many of her tormentors in the school hailed from Scarabia), but Jamil’s gaze was as empty as the night sky.

“Jamil,” Kalim started, the smile fading from his face.

“How about this,” Yuu smiled disarmingly up at him. “If I help you, will you tell me about how you got injured in return? I have reason to believe that the wound may not have been your fault. This way, we’re both doing each other a favour.”

“And what will you do with that information?”

“Hopefully we’re going to catch the perpetrator,” Yuu shrugged.

Jamil lifted one dark brow. “Who’s we?”

Kalim had hopped off the table to circle around her other side. Yuu wiped her hands on a towel and cleared off an area for him to sit without getting flour on his cashmere cardigan. With the comfortable ease of a man used to others working for him, Kalim waited for her to finish before he hopped up beside the sink so he towered over her.

Yuu explained Trey’s accident and the series of mishaps that had systematically removed Magift regulars from the field. She was careful to arrange Kalim’s draping cardigan so it didn’t fall onto her flour-dusted dough. The thing probably cost more than she did.

“I see.” Kalim didn’t seem very surprised—or unhappy. Those beautiful red eyes blinked once before he remarked, “Jamil’s on Scarabia’s Magift team too. I mean so am I, but it makes sense that he’d get hurt first.”

“First?” Yuu repeated.

The Dorm Head grinned at her and ruffled her hair. “Sure! We’ll tell you about Jamil’s incident if you help as thanks.”

The person in question rubbed at his brow with a deep sigh. “…Well, I suppose I don’t mind,” he said at last. “After all, it would be beneficial to have some knowledge of these incidents to prevent anything similar from happening in the future.”

Jamil began to pull bottles of spices from the box he had brought. She realized with surprise that instead of using any of the leftover ingredients that the kitchen was ever stocked with (Trey had told her where the leftover flour and condiments were usually located), he had pre-measured out varying amounts of his own coarse, brownish floury dough and sealed bowls of vegetables and meat.

“Are you left-handed, senpai?” Yuu asked, sliding her own madeleine egg-and-flour dough into the heated oven and setting the timer for ten minutes. “Which side should I stand on?”

“Right-handed,” Jamil replied. “Stay where you are. Could you get a knife and clean cutting board to dice the vegetables here? Cut them as small as you can.”

“Okay.” The instructions given to her were clear and snappy, much like Crewel’s or Riddle’s. Yuu put her dirty utensils into the sink and got to work.

The Scarabia dorm seemed to fit with the image of a middle eastern or Arabic-speaking country back in Yuu’s world, or perhaps India—Kalim told her about his home surrounded by desert, about riding elephants into a parade, about how his healthy bronze skin was still considered pale for someone from his country. When she asked the name of the place he came from, Kalim laughed at her ignorance without malice and told her that it was the ‘Country of Hot Sands’.

“Two countries now,” Yuu commented as she diced what looked like leeks. “One is the Kingdom of Roses, and one is the Country of Hot Sands. I should go look up a world map.”

“You say that as if you’ve never seen one,” Jamil passed her an onion. “Mix this in.”

“Are we making dumplings or something?” she questioned, tipping her thinly cut slivers of leek into a bowl.

“Something like that. It’s a variation on samosas that Kalim always eats in this weather.” Jamil waved a hand at the window, where dark clouds were gathering visibly.

“No potatoes?” Yuu blinked, rinsing her knife in cold water before she began to slice the onion.

“Not in the mood for the regular stuffing,” Kalim said cheerfully. “Anyway, Jamil, Yuu here doesn’t know anything about this place! I told you when he got here right?”

“It wasn’t just you who told me,” Jamil said dryly, “but I find it hard to believe that any resident of Twisted Wonderland is living in this world without having heard of two of its largest countries.”

“Guess he has some unique circumstances,” Kalim shrugged magnanimously.

Yuu liked this part about him. She’d compared him to a sun before—a great big ball of fire that was just barely in gravitational position to provide adequate heat and light for earth. Kalim didn’t ask her any questions. Didn’t expect her to reveal anything. And still he smiled with joy crinkling the corners of his eyes and told her she was a good kid.

Kalim al-Asim shone barely in the right spot, shedding heat. A sun.

Jamil made a humming noise. “All right. …Directing Student, are you used to cooking?”

“Hmm?” Yuu ran her knife briefly under the cold tap again before starting to dice the remaining onions. “I mean, just by necessity. Recently, I’ve been helping Trey Clover-senpai out with baking, so I think I’ve gotten a bit better at sweets.”

“You’re pretty amazing, Yuu,” Kalim tilted his head to the side with a grin. “Not as amazing with a knife as Jamil, but then, Jamil’s knife skills even put our head cook to shame.”

“Really?” Yuu paused as the oven beeped and washed her hands before she went to flip the madeleines. “Well, even really good cooks make mistakes sometimes.”

“Maybe he was tired from Magift practice yesterday afternoon,” Kalim said thoughtfully. “Practices have really been ramping up lately.”

“As if my hands would slip from something as insignificant as that,” Jamil shook his head. “However, during prep there was a moment where I felt my consciousness fade.”

Yuu shut the oven and set her mitt down, turning back to him in concern. “Consciousness?” she repeated tensely. Something like a Confundus Charm or the Imperius was accompanied by similar symptoms.

Kalim cocked his head to the side and looked towards Jamil, waiting for him to continue.

But Jamil just tipped a bowl of ground meat in her vegetable mix. “Will you put a pan on the fire, Directing Student?”

“Okay.” Yuu, catching his drift, didn’t chase the topic and got cooking oil to heat in the pan.

Jamil Viper was a truly excellent cook—perhaps he was even better than Floyd. Not only were his directions clearly laid out and easy to follow, his pre-preparations in separating food and spices were done without a single flaw. Where Floyd Leech would send jets of flames in the air just because he was bored and fling ingredients haphazardly into pots, Jamil was utterly in control of his every movement. He’d probably made these fillings thousands of times before.

None of the people in this school behaved like the typical teenager. Yuu thought that perhaps Hogwarts had ten students total that could make a decent meal, if she were being generous, but here at NRC, Trey, Ruggie, Floyd, Jade, and Jamil had all proven to her they were more self-sufficient than she could have expected from young and talented magicians. That was almost half of the people she knew.

Yuu found it interesting how different Jamil’s cooking style was from the Leech twins. She’d thought Jade approached every meal like a science experiment and Floyd like a mad science experiment. Jamil made it look like an art as he fished out bits of food to taste before adding a dash of spice here and there.

While he adjusted the flavour in the sizzling pan, Yuu took her madeleines out from the oven and packed them in a box to take to Trey and Riddle. The leftovers she offered to Kalim and Jamil.

The latter put up a hand to stop her. He shut off the gas powering the stove before breaking a piece off one of the steaming baked treats and tasting it. Kalim waited until Jamil nodded before reaching for one.

Yuu looked between them with a bemused smile. “Are you his taste-tester or something, Jamil-senpai?”

Jamil tucked a long lock of hair behind his ear, looking exhausted. “Well…you’re not wrong.”

“Jamil’s my friend!” Kalim said cheerfully, biting down on a madeleine and completely circumventing the question. “…Mm~! Yuu, this is really good!”

“Thanks,” she said sheepishly, “I learned from the best. Trey-senpai’s the son of a pâtissier.”

“I should talk to him more often,” Kalim said thoughtfully.

Don’t wander around unsupervised,” Jamil cautioned, weariness leaking into his voice.

Kalim didn’t seem to notice. “Na ha ha! I know, I know!”

Yuu followed Jamil to the counter where he took out what looked like pre-prepared floury crusts and began to follow his example in stuffing them with the fragrant meat and vegetable stir-fry. “Senpai?” she asked cautiously. “Are you really doing all right?”

Jamil cast a disinterested glance her way. The scarlet stone fastened to his hair tie gleamed in the light. “I’m fine,” he said dully. “Directing Student, you look more exhausted than I do.”

Kalim hadn’t mentioned it, so Yuu hadn’t noticed. “Do I really?”

“It’s easy to see when someone hasn’t been getting sleep.” Jamil took a filled samosa from her fingers to pinch the edges together. “Before searching for criminals or running around chasing that cat of yours, you should be taking care of yourself.”

Yuu smiled wryly. “Grim’s a Monster, not a cat. And I’m fine.”

“Right.”

“I’m fine just like you’re fine,” she clarified, examining the exquisitely done braids running back from his head.

Jamil’s long fingers paused. He looked her way and the beautifully made-up eyes narrowed just the slightest bit, transforming his serious face into something more sinister. “…You’ve got a sharp tongue, Directing Student,” he said softly. “Hope it doesn’t come back to bite you.”

Yuu stared back at that expression evenly, refusing to look away. Despite his obvious fatigue, the fine arts club member in her appreciated how the gold pieces hanging in his hair glowed against his healthy dark skin a few shades deeper than his Dorm Head’s. “So senpai. I’m sure you have a clue about the reason you cut yourself.”

Jamil held her glance for a long moment before he sighed, backing down. “…I won’t stop you, but you should know how dangerous it is for a magicless first-year like you to stick your nose into these things. Your reputation among the rest of the school isn’t the best.”

Yuu wondered if he knew about the students under his care bullying her. She wouldn’t be surprised if he did. “Yeah, I don’t really care.”

“Foolish,” he murmured. “If you don’t think ahead and remove your obstacles, they’ll eventually trip you.”

“Are you going to tell me or not?” she arched a brow at him.

Jamil laid the last samosa on a baking sheet and turned to the oven she’d kept warm. “Follow me.”

The three of them circled one of the kitchen tables, Jamil taking a position on the Dorm Head’s left as Kalim’s snack browned in the oven. The vice Dorm Head flexed the fingers of his injured hand absently as he watched Kalim ask her to pass on the madeleine recipe to Jamil.

Yuu nodded. “Sure, I’ll write it down and give it to you next time I find you.”

“Really? Thanks, Yuu! You’re the best! Hey, pass me another one.”

“Don’t eat too many of those,” Jamil cautioned the Dorm Head. “You’ll put off your dinner.”

“C’mon, Jamil. We’ve been exercising so much more lately ‘cause of the Magift tournament,” Kalim cajoled him.

Jamil completely ignored him. “Directing Student. I said earlier that I felt my consciousness fade for a second.”

“Right.” Yuu frowned. “You think it wasn’t natural?”

“Perhaps almost everyone else would believe it a moment of exhaustion…” Jamil clenched his injured hand, a shadow falling over his eyes. “But I’m familiar with that sensation. It’s almost certainly a type of Unique Magic.”

“Unique Magic,” Yuu repeated, eyes widening. She hadn’t thought about that, but if Riddle could seal someone’s magic and Trey’s could replace it, then it would make sense for someone to be able to…

“I get it,” Kalim nodded, flashing perfectly aligned white teeth, “Jamil would know, since his Unique Magic is mmmmph!

Yuu watched Jamil cover his mouth with his blazer immediately and tried not to laugh. These two were truly polar opposites.

Kalim broke free with a gasp. “Hey, why’d you cover my mouth!?” 

“Stop talking about me,” Jamil’s voice rose a little shrilly. “We’re on the topic of the culprit right now!”

“But Jamiiil!”

“You two are hilarious,” Yuu commented with a smile, passing Kalim another madeleine.

“In any case,” Jamil coughed, his voice descending back to its calm baritone. “My best guess is that it’s a spell that can limit the movements of others at will.”

“I see,” Yuu murmured. “What about normal spells? Are there spells that can you know…confuse people or control their minds or whatnot?”

“Normal magic usually focuses on elemental spells,” Kalim explained cheerfully, “but I know a bunch of Unique Magics that can brainmmmmph!

“Ka. Lim.”

“Mmmph!!”

Yuu looked at the two struggling students in bemusement. “You two sure get along well.”

“We’re friends!” Kalim beamed, his voice strained as he fought to push Jamil’s hand away from his face.

Jamil scoffed, but whatever he was about to say was overwhelmed with the insistent beep of the oven.

By the time Yuu was let go from Heartslabyul, the sun had set completely. She’d ended up sharing the delicious snack Jamil had created because she’d gotten embroiled in a spirited discussion about the nature of magic in this world. As a result, the deliverance of her findings to Riddle ran far later than expected.

“What magic works on someone who doesn’t have any?” Yuu had asked.

Kalim peered over at her through a mouthful of piping hot filling. Crumbs spotted the sides of his mouth.

Yuu elaborated. “Heartslabyul’s Dorm Head has a Unique Magic that seals the magic of others for a short period of time, right? But when he used it on me, nothing happened.”

“Interesting,” Jamil raised an eyebrow. He ate with short, careful bites, but she’d only finished half and he was already through his second. “Usually, the collar itself should snap onto your neck, even if you don’t have magic. The physical aspect of the spell should be unimpeded.”

Yuu wondered if it was because she did have magic—just not the same kind. Did her own magic do something to this magic within her body?

“But elemental spells like offensive magic work, right?” Kalim managed through his food, blowing on his samosa. “Like if I cast a Fire Shot at you, you’ll get burned.”

“That’s right. So I’m wondering if I might be immune to other spells after all.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Jamil said with a frown. “I don’t know what environment you’ve grown up in until now, but there is a clear biological advantage to those who possess magical power in their body.”

Yuu prompted him to continue with a nod.

“Like the hypothetical criminal that can control movements,” Jamil explained willingly enough. “His Unique Magic would work on you just the same as it would work on me. Same with any magic influencing the mind or the body. I’ve seen Unique Magic being used on the non-magical more times than I could count. None of them have been ‘immune’.”

“Come to think of it,” Kalim nodded thoughtfully. He licked his fingers before gasping. “Wait! Yuu! How have you survived in a school full of magic users until now!? You’re like a helpless little salamander!”

Yuu sat up straight in surprise as Kalim lunged halfway across the table. “Whoa!” she put up both hands to steady him. “But I was appointed the Directing Student by Headmaster Crowley, you know. I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to murder a student like that.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Kalim’s red eyes bore into hers. “You’ve been here for a month and a half. Don’t tell me you don’t see what I’m saying. You really haven’t been hurt?”

“…Kalim,” Jamil, to her surprise, was the one who saved her. “Sit down. It’s none of your business.”

“Yuu’s a good guy, though,” Kalim nevertheless sat back down, puffing out his cheeks in a frown. “And he has no way to defend himself…that’s right! Yuu! Come join Scarabia!”

Jamil gave up and put his head in his hands.

It took nearly an hour of persuasion to assure Kalim that she was, indeed, able to handle herself and didn’t need to go through the mountain of paperwork that would be necessary for a dorm transfer. He didn’t look very convinced, but Yuu was adamant in staying at Ramshackle. She was not about to move to a dorm with people who hated her—plus, there was the issue of her gender.

After her explanation to Riddle of the Unique Magic-resembling symptoms Jamil had suffered—whereupon he, Cater, Grim and the A-Deuce combo had begun whispering among themselves—and dropping off the madeleines at Trey’s, she and Riddle had been caught by Cater and consequently dragged to an impromptu tea party. After that, Ace and Deuce had snagged her in the hallway and introduced her to the other two residents sharing a room with them, upon which the friendly first years whose names she’d forgotten to ask had roped her into a game of Super Smxsh Brothers…

Heartslabyul was, according to Cater, the fullest dormitory in the entire school. Accordingly, there were so many people who had come seeking conversation with her that Yuu was a little overwhelmed. Ace and Deuce still looked on guard whenever a student with a suit painted on their face approached her, and sometimes downright prevented them from introducing themselves, but Yuu was of the mind that Heartslabyul students were quite kind compared to the people she knew at Hogwarts. Especially the ones who were in the Equestrian Club.

Grim, who had gotten far too excited and flailed around during the video game matches, snored in the hollow he’d created between her blazer and uniform shirt. Yuu stifled a yawn and trudged up the cobbled road leading to Ramshackle. She was bone-tired from the long hours of play and prior ‘investigation’…perhaps it would be a good idea to skip the pre-bedtime reading she made a habit of doing and instead sleep early for once.

A gust of autumn wind chilled her skin as she approached Ramshackle’s rusted gate and pushed past it. Yuu sighed into the night and wondered when she would be able to leave this world.

Wondered if she could.

Wondered why her chest was squeezing like this.

Yuu deposited Grim onto her bed along with her school bag before she took a shower, but perhaps her exhaustion had surpassed the event horizon—she left the hot water (fixed by Crowley himself) and dressed in one of Ramshackle’s old nightgowns, completely awake.

The night sky had been punctured open with a thousand tiny dots of light. Yuu clutched a steaming mug of tea using the leaves Grim had stolen from Crowley several weeks ago and tiptoed past the creaky floorboards to shuffle outside in slippers. Her hair, still damp from her shower, fell past her neck to tickle her shoulders.

Idly, she thought she should cut it soon, gazing up at the wisps of cloud floating across the sea of stars. Lights danced around her head, green and yellow, winking in and out of existence as she thought.

Maybe just chop it off like a boy so no one could doubt…

A rustle of grass.

Yuu looked down at the stone steps as a figure melted from the darkness. Her grip tightened on the mug of tea in surprise.

He was tall—she’d been intimidated at Jade’s and Floyd’s height, but this man was even taller, surpassing the two-metre mark and all the lampposts he walked by. As he neared, she saw the neon green of his armband glow warmly in the torchlight burning down the cobbled stone road.

The student—for if he was wearing a uniform, he must be a student—caught sight of her, tilted his head to the side, and came through the gate to approach her. “…Who are you?”

Yuu was too busy gaping at the two magnificent horns sprouting out of his hair to answer. Black with a shimmer of green, they curved outwards and then up and in like a dragon’s.

A feeling of déjà-vu swept over her. Where had she seen this before?

The figure crossed his arms, blinking in matching surprise. Long black lashes shaded his beryl eyes, pupils slit in a way that reminded her of the Norwegian Ridgeback she’d nearly died against as well as Leona’s darker green eyes. Strands of glossy black hair fell past his ears, which were pointed sharply at the corners; when he fixed his gaze on her Yuu could feel in her bones that this unearthly beauty was even less human than the Mermen’s.

And indeed he was beautiful with skin pale like marble. For a moment Yuu fell under the illusion she was appreciating a sculpture before he opened his mouth.

“What a surprise.” The stranger’s voice was unexpectedly soft for someone who was taller than her door. “A human child…and a woman, at that.”

Oh no. Yuu felt a cold sweat bead down her back as the voice broke her from her daze. With her hair down and without Crewel’s protective underwear flattening her front, it was impossible to hide her femininity. Never had she wished for her chest to be flat as much as tonight.

At her continued (involuntary) silence, the horned student lifted one glove in askance. “Are you perhaps living here, human child? This mansion was abandoned long ago…as a spot where I could spend time quietly, alone, I was quite fond of it.”

The eyes narrowed in displeasure.

Yuu had always loved dragons. Before she’d known magic, she’d read countless stories of dragon-slaying, of being slain, of heroes and villains and the great threat—the beautiful, horrifying, powerful dragons that roasted cities and worlds alive with their fury. And after her admittance to Hogwarts, she’d been so enamoured with the visiting dragon tamers in their Care of Magical Creatures classes that she’d begged all sorts of teachers until she’d been able to meet Charlie Weasley and Norberta again.

This man was wearing a human form, but more than anyone she’d met, he resembled the dragons she had fought against, worked with, loved. Whether it was the resemblance or the mysterious aura he wore that tickled her Ravenclaw interest, Yuu was already caught.

“Who are you?” she found herself asking, feeling as if she wasn’t quite walking in reality.

“…Who am I, you say?” Yuu was treated to the beryl eyes widening in genuine shock. The man crossed his arms over his bright green Pen tucked inside the uniform blazer he wore. “You don’t know of me? Truly?”

Yuu nodded honestly, not trusting herself to speak. She was still staring at the dark green shine to his black hair and the way the moonlight caught his horns.

The student smiled slowly so that she shivered. “…Hmm. I see. That is quite…unusual, indeed. What do they call you, human child?”

“Yuu,” she told him distantly. “I was assigned by the Headmaster to be a Directing Student here. I’m a first year.”

He supported his chin with one gloved hand, looking down at her in thought. “Yuu…an unusual name with an unusual ring. There is an extraordinary glow within you, human child…something that shouldn’t exist here. How interesting.”

Yuu gazed up at this person. “And your name is…”

“I am…” the man lowered his eyelids briefly. “…No, I’ll refrain from telling you for now.”

“Sorry?” Yuu blinked.

The smile he gave her next was gentler. “Little human female, it is much more to your benefit not to know my name. If you were to know, I am sure you would suffer fear worse than the chill of frost against your skin.”

“Are you someone dangerous?” Yuu asked him curiously. Or was he just another prideful student who liked to put on airs?

The wind blew and blocked her vision. The person across from her brushed back her lengthening bangs to examine her eyes. “…Not to you,” he said at last, gloved fingers tracing her cheek before he drew back. “As an exception to the child who is so innocent, I will grant you the privilege of calling me any name you would like.”

Privilege. Maybe this person was kind of standoffish after all. Yuu challenged, “Any name at all?”

The horned student revealed his teeth in a predatory smile—his canines were long and sharp. “Though it may result in you regretting it dearly.”

She ignored the threat; Yuu squinted, mind racing. What on earth could she call this stranger? Dragon? Hornsby? Pointy Ears? Despite her enjoyment of the fine arts, Yuu had no naming sense to fit her lack of spatial orientation. One time she’d tried to name a new-born hippogriff ‘Hippogriff’ and sent the accompanying Fred II into a fit of hysterics so loud that he’d gotten five House Points docked.

Time to stall. “Was this place yours before?” she asked, shivering as a burst of wind cut her way. She’d have to ask Grim what names a giant horned person could have.

The man shifted a step to the right; the wind stopped. “One of my favourite spots within the school,” he nodded, “but if you have been assigned here, it is no longer a ruin; thus, no longer a spot I like. How disappointing.”

She smiled sheepishly. “Um, sorry…”

“It is not wise to express your apologies so lightly,” he cautioned her.

“I mean…I’ve inadvertently destroyed one of your favourite spots,” Yuu looked around her. “It’s not much, but would you like a cup of tea? I took a sip, but it’s still warm.”

The man raised both of his thin brows as she extended the steaming mug towards him. Slowly, he reached out and took it, as if he had never been offered tea before. His green eyes were soft in the steam as he smiled at her. “You have my appreciation.”

This school really was full of good-looking people, Yuu thought absently as the man took a long draw. He made even a sip of tea look like a scene from a beauty commercial. “It’s the least I could do.”

“If I remember correctly,” he lowered the cup at length, fixing that unearthly gaze on her again. “This school was for boys, was it not? How was it that a small female child came to be a Directing Student?”

Yuu laughed nervously. “Well, you see…it’s a long story. Would you like to come in? The wind’s picking up.”

Her counterpart stood still for a long moment as he examined her. Yuu met his stare curiously. But he only shook his head with a musical laugh. “…Fearless human child, I will take exception this once, but do be careful inviting those like me into your abode.”

“You could be dangerous,” she agreed, “but you look so interesting. I really like learning things. Won’t you teach me about you?”

“…so I was trying to think up of a name for…” Yuu squinted down at Grim, who was fidgeting on her shoulder. “Grim?”

“Yeah? What’s up, henchman?” Grim rubbed his cheek obligingly against hers. He wrinkled his nose. “You smell weird again. What is this scent?”

Yuu gave him a strange look. Usually, her dorm mate was only this physically friendly when he was begging for a second can of tuna.

“What’s up with you?” she asked curiously as she followed behind Ace and Deuce to exit the alchemy classroom. Yuu rubbed at the remnants her (Crewel-provided) goggles had left on her cheeks as she stuffed them in her book bag.

“Nothing, nothing. What were you saying?”

“Just trying to think up of a nickname for a really tall student,” Yuu repeated. “With horns.”

“Horns?” Grim wrinkled his nose. “Like Tsuno-tarou?”

By this point she was ready to give up. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Tsuno-tarou it is.” Yuu wondered if this would piss the student off, but to be honest, she wasn’t willing to invest any more effort into finding him a name that wasn’t something stupid like ‘greenie’ or ‘dragon’.

“Henchman,” Grim whispered to her, “Ace and Deuce and me are going to go chase after the culprit after school.”

Yuu blinked, dragging her attention back to him as she settled into her usual spot between Ace and Deuce. “You guys found out who he is?”

“Grim did,” Ace said cheekily. “Guess that Cutlet Sandwich was worth it, no?”

“I’m gonna slap ten of those sandwiches out of him,” Grim cracked his knuckles (which, considering his tiny paws, should have been impossible).

Deuce patted her shoulder. “Anyway, the bell’s going to ring in a few minutes, but Dorm Head and Diamond-senpai are going to go around to his class to corner him first. But you’re kind of bad at looking intimidating, so…”

“Kind of?” Ace snorted. “This kid can set a world record for the cutest boy. Or the most athletically unimpressive.”

“Yes, yes, we can’t all be blessed in athletics like mister Ace of the basketball team,” Yuu droned, bumping him with her hip.

Deuce sighed. “But Yuu is excellent at observation.”

Yuu blinked. “You think?”

“We’re buddies,” Deuce gave her that smile she liked so much. “You think we wouldn’t notice? Anyway, we were thinking of putting you down by the entrance to Main Street so you could keep an eye on any other suspicious figures while we drilled the culprit.”

“No objections here,” Yuu nodded. “And I’ll ask around to see if anyone else got hurt.”

“’Atta kid.” Ace stretched out his fist; Deuce and Yuu reached out and bumped knuckles while Grim squinted at the three limbs confusedly. “So we’ll be borrowing Grim for a while. Wish us luck!”

Yuu waved them off and descended the stairs to exit the castle. Someone jeered at her, but they didn’t try to block her way or trip her, which was unusually kind of them; she headed straight down the endless spiral of steps past the circular stone fencing that ringed the interior gardens and stopped at the large open expanse of Main Street, where those seven Dixney statues stood tall.

Friday afternoon saw a larger crush of students than usual. Yuu was careful to avoid the groups with the rouge and yellow Scarabia armbands, but she tried her best to keep a listening ear out as she mingled into the crowd heading for the entranceway.

“—gotta try this new game, it’s—”

“Can you believe that dick said that? He—”

“…date this weekend, so I can’t—”

“—gift tourney’s in two weeks and a day already. Though…looks like our team’s pretty terrible this year.”

Yuu wandered closer to the last speaker, scanning the crowd. He was wearing an unfamiliar electric blue-and-black armband that she guessed was from the elusive Ignihyde.

“Yeah,” his friend, sporting the same armband, sighed. “I mean, ’Hyde’s got nothing to do with the normies that run around chasing a flying disc, but the three kids who actually like sports in this dorm are all out.”

“You think it’s on purpose?”

“Who cares? If I had time to come up with conspiracy theories, I’d be grinding this week’s event.”

“Man, you really are addicted. Don’t spend all your money on Quartz, fool.”

“Says the guy who keeps hogging my controller to play Xekiro.”

“Dude, that game is just good, all right? You need to play it after me. And let me watch while you die over and over.”

“But if anyone was going to do something about the meagre Magift team, it would be Dorm Head, right? Why isn’t he investigating?”

“Are you kidding me? Shroud-senpai hasn’t left his room in a week. Ortho-kun said it was nothing more than a few sprains after he examined the kids, so who cares. Serves ‘em right for being so careless.”

“…True. For a ’Hyde to be taken off guard so easily and get injured…pretty embarrassing.”

“We should go heckle ’em in the infirmary later on.”

“Just steal their tablets or something, that’ll get ’em.”

Yuu reached the entranceway at the end of NRC’s long spiral down its school doors and broke off from the group she’d been listening in on to stand on the side of the wide cobblestone road. It was her first time seeing students from Ignihyde—usually, they didn’t even show up in the cafeteria for lunch—and she wondered why these two students were, well, visible. Cater had said something about them disliking being out in the open.

Still, it wasn’t her business, and she’d gleaned some useful information. Three Ignihyde students had been injured with minor sprains, all of them originally on the Magift team. Yet the students’ callous attitude suggested that Magift was neither appreciated nor celebrated within Ignihyde.

Just what did they mean when they’d said someone called ‘Shroud’ hadn’t left his room in a week?

Yuu frowned out at the sea of black uniforms flooding out into the fields, looking aimlessly around. How long was she supposed to be here listening in, anyway? The weather had been gloomy these past few days, and because of her meeting with Tsuno-tarou last night—he was so interesting, and they’d carried the conversation too long—she’d been running on lack of sleep and an abundance of cafeteria coffee the entire day.

She fidgeted with her book bag and decided that once this big crowd of students disappeared, Yuu would make a beeline for the gardens. She needed a nap. Hopefully Leona would be…

Leona’s dull eyes flashed through her mind.

“Whoa!” someone passing by yelped in surprise. “What the—!?”

Yuu snapped out of her thoughts just in time to see a figure ducking low and worming expertly through the gap between two Pomefiore students. When he straightened, she caught sight of the two wide brown triangular ears and head of honey-blond hair.

“Whoops,” Ruggie Bucchi gave the two strangers an unrepentant grin. “You guys should move faster, ya know?”

“Why, I never—!?”

“Ruggie-senpai,” Yuu called, waving. “Headed to the gardens?”

“Yuu-kun,” Ruggie turned towards her, his smile widening and those ears pointing up in her direction. Yuu fought the urge to touch them as he hopped expertly through gaps in groups of students to approach her, leaving behind the two spluttering Pomefiore students. “That’s right. What’cha doing over here?”

“Human observation?” Yuu shrugged. “If you’re going to the gardens, can I come with you?”

“Depends on what you’ve got for me today.”

“They were having a tea party yesterday in Heartslabyul,” Yuu said cheerfully, falling into step with him as Ruggie laced his hands behind his head comfortably. “So I have a bunch of cookies and—get this—macarons.”

He whistled. “Sounds like the kind of food a bunch of uselessly rich young masters would be snacking on for afternoon tea.”

“I made some madeleines too,” Yuu remembered. “You should try them; I think they came out all right. The texture should be the kind you enjoy the most.”

Ruggie side-eyed her with those big grey eyes. “Are you trying to win me over with food?”

Yuu gave him a grin. “You don’t want any?”

He sighed dramatically. “Oh, woe is me to be such a weak man. Yet I cannot overcome my stomach!”

“I think you should eat more,” Yuu rolled her eyes. “Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re an ectomorph, but sometimes I get worried just looking at your wrists.”

You? Get worried about me?” Ruggie peered down at her incredulously. “Yuu-kun. Look at yourself. You’re like fifteen centimetres smaller than me and you look like a stick.”

“Really? I think I’ve gained some weight since school started.”

“That’s probably true too. But worry about yourself first, you li’l dummy.” He flicked her in the forehead.

“Oww.” Yuu rubbed it sulkily. “If you keep abusing me I’m going to eat the macarons in front of your face.”

“You mean these?”

Yuu blinked as Ruggie dangled the box of sweets she’d tucked into her bag from his bony hand. “…Senpai…you should do something about those sticky fingers of yours.”

“Don’t make me sound like a klepto,” he rolled his eyes, “I haven’t stolen from you that much.”

“Why would you need to steal anything from me?” Yuu raised a brow. “I’m poor as dirt. You sure like showing off, don’t you?”

“Of course not,” Ruggie passed the box back to her cheerfully. “I’m just in a good mood today.”

Having Ruggie with her gave Yuu a measure of confidence to face Leona without any awkwardness. The hyena Therianthrope was never still for long enough to let a heavy atmosphere develop—perhaps on purpose—and he and Leona certainly shared a stronger bond than hers.

After Yuu had declared she wanted to learn from him, wanted to become like him, Ruggie’s caution around her seemed to dissolve into slightly condescending amusement. His signature nickname for her was ‘li’l dummy,’ but Yuu didn’t mind, because there was a reluctant note of entertainment in his voice that told her she’d passed that unfriendly bump in his attitude.

Yuu liked Ruggie for his practicality, for his ruthlessness, for the times when he would steal her pencil from her fingers just to show her he wasn’t as ‘safe’ of a student as the others. But he was an unusually good-humoured fellow when separated from his gluttony. It was probably how he put up with the surly Leona for so long, and Yuu was sure that despite Ruggie’s denial of their friendship that the two of them were as close as she and Ace and Deuce. As Trey and Riddle.

Leona was, once again, lying in his usual clearing, though this time he was stretched out flat on his back with one muscled arm slung over his eyes. Ruggie ignored him and sat down on a soft patch of grass a little ways away before looking up at her expectantly, his two large ears cocked in her direction.

Yuu had always loved animals, magical or not. When Ruggie turned his head like that she felt her breath catch—cute! There was no other word to describe those huge limpid grey eyes peeking upwards at her through his honey-brown bangs. He was almost as cute as Grim when the Monster was trying to beg for her attention. She supposed it was part of the reason she was so willing to give him food—feeding magical creatures had been one of her favourite jobs as an intern.

The two of them pulled out their homework as they ate. It was a tacit agreement that they got it over with quickly—Ruggie found some of the things they learned laughably impractical. “It wouldn’t even pad my stomach,” he had snorted about the Astrology class the second years took. So he scribbled down answers at a breakneck pace while Yuu plodded through her assignments more slowly, trying to keep up with him.

A large black glove stretched out from behind her shoulder to pull a madeleine from her fingers. When Yuu looked upwards in surprise, Leona was masking a yawn as he lounged behind her, his own ears pressing low on his head with the movement. “Did you start a baking club or something? With all the food you bring, I’m surprised you haven’t filled out more.”

There was no trace of the empty expression that had chased her nightmares. Yuu masked a sigh of relief. “Heartslabyul had a tea party yesterday.”

Leona snorted. “Just like them to take part in such a useless bourgeoise activity.”

“Sometimes you and Ruggie-senpai say the exact same things, you know,” Yuu set down her pencil and turned around to observe him chewing on the madeleine. His tail swished back and forth with energy—he seemed to enjoy it. A hit, then.

“It’s the truth. Even the royal family of the Afterglow Savannah don’t waste time on tea parties.” Leona sniffed.

Yuu scooted closer in curiosity. “Afterglow Savannah?”

“…Right. It’s one of the larger countries in Twisted Wonderland.” Leona explained willingly enough. “Ruggie and I both live there. Before we came here, anyway.”

“What a cool name,” Yuu said a little enviously, “I should get permission from the Headmaster to go visit the other countries in this world.”

“Whatever. You done your homework?”

“Almost,” Yuu pulled her Magical Analysis problem set over. “I don’t really know what this last question is asking.”

“Let me see.” Leona bent over her shoulder and hummed. “You’re supposed to use the two new equations Trein probably taught you today one after another. Pass me the pencil.”

Yuu passed him the pencil. “Why are you being so nice today?”

He gave her a look. “You can’t play chess with me until you’re done, right?”

“Oh come on! I lost ten times last time we played!”

From behind them, Ruggie mumbled something about not understanding their relationship and about Leona’s hobby being just as bougie as a tea party, but when the third year pulled out a chessboard, he shoved his notebook away and scooted to her other side to watch. Yuu caught herself reaching out for his oversized sleeve and scolded herself harshly.

Just because she thought he was a cute animal and respected him didn’t mean she could lose all restraint.

Yuu wondered absently if she should fix her habit of needing human contact.

Yuu arrived at Mostro Lounge for her Saturday shift unusually well rested. It might have had to do with her super-effective nap yesterday afternoon in the warm gardens. Her body must have decided that Leona’s clearing counted as a ‘safe space’, because sometime through their fifth game, her memory cut off.

By the time she’d woken up, dusk had fallen and she was curled up warmly against the grass. Neither of the Savanaclaw students were in sight, but when she sat up, Ruggie’s oversized blazer fell off her shoulders. It smelled excellent and insulated even better.

Tucked in her hand was a scrap of paper that read, don’t fall asleep in front of predators, li’l dummy in messy lettering. But she didn’t regret it. With this nap and a full night’s sleep (post her daily report to Heartslabyul), Yuu thought that she could even deal with Floyd Leech without shrinking back today.

Once changed into her waiter uniform, she ducked through the hall—a couple of students sipping soda snickered at the ‘tiny new waiter’ moving across the Lounge—before entering the VIP room, where Azul had called her. Like usual, he sat behind the huge wooden desk, lavender coat draped across his suit jacket elegantly, a stack of paper piling up on his right side.

“Ah, you’re early. Take a seat.”

Yuu perched on the side of the couch like usual, tucking her notebook under her arm to wait for him. It was, by now, customary for her to watch as Azul took care of whatever job he was right in the middle of, because he was always busy. She wondered if his sleep was as fitful as hers. Just how much work could a person do without getting sick?

“Can I help you with whatever you’re doing?” she blurted out.

Azul glanced up at her briefly. “No, you won’t be able to,” he said absently. “Twelve-point-five multiplied by one-twenty is fifteen hundred plus…”

“Okay then.” Yuu left him to his mental calculations with a sort of disgusted interest. She was nowhere as good at maths as this person was.

Perhaps ten minutes later, two soft knocks echoed against the door before Jade entered the room noiselessly. The smile on his face was wider than usual, and a sparkle brightened his heterochromatic eyes with excitement. He was carrying two plates on one arm.

“Not now, Jade,” Azul said without looking up. “The customers are?”

“Taken care of,” Jade replied smoothly. “Good day, Mister Directing Student.”

“Hello Leech-senpai,” Yuu smiled back, wondering if she should drill him on information about his brother.

Yuu had never bullied anyone before. She wasn’t feeling very confident. If it didn’t go well, she might go to Ace the great bullying expert for help. After all, he’d even bullied Riddle, as Deuce had taken great lengths to explain to her, while she was unconscious post-Overblot.

Ignorant of her thoughts, Jade crossed over to the couch and set the two plates down. “You’ve come at just the right time, Mister Directing Student. Why, the other day I was lucky enough to succeed at a new recipe and would love for you to be a taste-tester.”

Yuu blinked at him and then looked down at the heaping plates of food. “Stuffed mushrooms?”

“Ah, but not just any mushrooms. For anyone to get their hands on Portobellos this fresh and large is quite a feat, don’t you know?”

She eyed Jade carefully as she took a spot across from him and set her notebook down. Despite his perfectly ironed-out appearance, two spots of pink burned high in his cheekbones and the sparkle in his eyes had brightened considerably.

“Leech-senpai,” Yuu said carefully, “are you all right?”

“All right!” Jade gasped. “I have never been better. Do you see this lustre? This shine! Come on and take a bite, I promise you’ll like it.”

Yuu edged backwards. “I’m going to ask just in case. Is it poisoned?”

He broke into low, rather creepy laughter, the kind that preceded an evil villain’s loud mwahaha; Jade bent over to smile into her face so wide that she gulped. “Why, I’m shocked that you would think so lowly of me.”

“Jade,” Azul set his last sheet of paper aside and sighed. “Stop scaring the poor Directing Student with your mushroom mania. He looks more afraid of you than he does of Floyd.”

Yuu looked past Jade’s shoulder at him and pointed at the plates with wide eyes.

Azul coughed to hide a chuckle. “They’re probably not poisoned,” he said wearily. “Jade enjoys picking mushrooms and creating dishes with them. To our dismay.”

“Mushroom mania?” Yuu cocked her head to the side, turning back to Jade a little reassured. “There aren’t fungi below the sea?”

“Almost none,” Jade said dreamily, handing her a fork. “Which is why Land is so interesting, don’t you think? My first year here I fell head over heels for the maitake I found past the forest. Please, take a bite, I promise it tastes good.”

“Ashengrotto-senpai.”

“What is it, Yuu-san?”

Yuu gave Jade a careful once-over. “He hasn’t eaten any hallucinogenic mushrooms, has he?”

Azul bent over shaking. “No…” he managed, “no he hasn’t, just—pfft—try the mushrooms before you set him off on a tangent.”

Unsurprisingly, the stuffed mushrooms were delicious. Jade had managed to bake them so that the outsides were crispy and the filling was soft without being wet. Yuu chewed slowly as Jade stared at her with those slightly creepy sparkling eyes. He looked a little deranged.

“Well?” he demanded. “Well, well, well? What do you think?”

Yuu bit back her next words telling him he should get checked in to the infirmary and thought for a while. “You were trying to pull out the flavour of the Portobellos, right? So you didn’t add much spice or flavouring to the stuffing. It tastes very good, but I think that if you were a bit more daring with the insides it would be even better.”

Jade blinked at her. “But the mushrooms will get overwhelmed.”

“Not necessarily. I mean you put the innards you cut out back in the filling, right? If you get rid of the chicken insides and replace them for vegetables…like red pepper, onion, parsley, garlic, egg…” Yuu ticked off, “and take it easy on the turmeric or something I think it would taste better. If you make the mushroom this prominent within the meal, people who aren’t mushroom fans will probably get sick after one or two of them.”

She stuffed the rest of the mushroom in her mouth (pun intended) and looked up. Both Azul and Jade were staring at her again. Yuu, who was starting to get used to this ‘what planet did you come from’ series of looks, ignored them and savoured the impromptu meal. Saturday’s lunchtime rush had just faded, and she’d had no time to eat, so any food was welcome. Jade was a great cook.

“Are you a food critic?” Azul asked after a few moments, pressing his glasses up.

“You should hear my partner Grim go on and on about food,” Yuu told him dryly. “I never knew someone could wax and wane about tuna so eloquently when his usual vocabulary leaves so much to be desired.”

“Mister Directing Student,” Jade’s face glowed. “Please repeat what you said just one more time.”

Yuu swallowed the rest of her food and obliged him—the politer Leech twin had whipped out a notebook and scribbled down her offhand advice enthusiastically as she spoke. She had only seen this slightly manic part of him once before, when he’d called her interesting, but if this was how he behaved in front of things he really liked then comparatively, she was nothing more than a leaf lying around somewhere.

“I was a member of the fine arts club,” she answered Azul sheepishly, “so I tend to be picky about stuff like appearances, art, food, music, stuff like that.”

“Appearances?” he repeated, looking down his nose at her. “I’ll admit that you dress neatly, but with that ungainly mop of hair covering most of your face, I find that hard to believe.”

“Right, I should probably cut it or something,” Yuu tugged at her bangs thoughtfully. “I mean I look pretty unimpressive anyway, so I gave up about myself a long time ago.”

“You don’t look unimpressive,” Azul gave her a strange look, “what are you talking about, Yuu-san?”

“Hm?” Yuu returned his confused stare. “But I don’t stand out at all.”

“At first glance,” Jade corrected absently.

“At all,” she refuted. “In fact, people seem to dislike seeing my face.”

“Who told you that?”

“Who told me that?” Yuu tried to recall the many instances. “…Uh. Everyone?”

Her employer started to frown, anger darkening his sea-spray eyes, but before he could open his mouth to respond, the door bounced open against the wall with a loud bang.

“Hey Azu~l,” Floyd slouched inside, scratching the back of his neck, “The lounge is pretty empty so I…geh!

Yuu turned towards him tensely, but he wasn’t even looking in her direction. Floyd had his face screwed up in an almost comical expression of disgust as he stared down at the plates of mushrooms set on the seawater-glass table.

“Jade,” he started weakly.

“Floyd!” Jade’s smile widened just enough to show the beginnings of his sharp teeth. “Why, you’re just in time. I was just explaining to Mister Directing Student here about the Portobellos I managed to pick the other day. You and Azul should have some too.”

Azul slid off his chair to take a spot beside Jade with a long sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Just one, all right? I don’t have time for this nonsense.”

Oya oya. You don’t eat enough at all, Azul, so it’s not nonsense, it’s taking care of your health,” Jade passed him a fork mildly.

Yuu examined the exchange between the Dorm Head and vice Dorm Head and wondered at their relationship. They seemed to behave politely towards everyone, but Azul’s polite speech fell apart a little when he spoke to Jade and Floyd. And despite his whole ‘I only care about profits’ schtick, here he was, obediently taste-testing Jade’s mushroom meal. Just because they were friends?

“I think I’m gonna—” Floyd began weakly, taking a step back into the doorway.

“Floyd,” Jade cut him off with a wonderfully polite smile, “you owe me.”

Yuu stared in bewilderment as the taller Leech slunk around to her couch and pushed her aside to slump on her left. He looked like a man heading off to the gallows, but he sat down without another complaint.

“I thought you couldn’t control him,” she mumbled at Jade.

“Control? Why, I never.” Jade’s smile didn’t change. “I’m being kind enough to bring him in as a taste-tester. Plus, the other day I saved his life in Flight class.”

Yuu nearly responded dryly that blackmail wasn’t very nice—but a lightbulb turned on in her head.

Wait.

Wasn’t this bullying?

She sat up straight. The highest form of bullying! And she hadn’t even had to ask for information about Floyd.

Yuu eagerly turned to Azul, who was chewing absently on a mushroom as he scrolled through something on his phone. “Ashengrotto-senpai, does Leech-senpai usually do this?”

“Jade loves mushrooms.” Azul answered her readily. He swallowed. “Floyd, his, ah, victim, usually has to eat half of his creations. I have become the third victim, of course, which is why I’ve developed a trauma towards certain species. This time it seems relatively harmless, but that great trumpet-shaped black mushroom will haunt my nightmares forever…”

“Stop, Azul,” Floyd covered his mouth. “I’ll hurl.”

“Senpai,” Yuu looked at Jade in admiration, “you bully your brother so easily.”

“Shut it,” The brother in question snapped, looking ill. “I think I have a mushroom allergy now. Can I leave?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jade said cheerfully. “Mushroom based foods are delicious, good for the body, and can pair with anything. It’s the perfect food. Now eat up, Floyd, before it gets cold.”

“I don’t wanna eat shiitake,” Floyd whined.

“These are Portobellos,” Yuu corrected, starting to grin in heartfelt joy.

“Shut up, Koebi-chan. All mushrooms are the same.”

Jade gasped comically, covering his mouth with one perfectly fitted glove. “I can’t believe he just said that.”

Sometimes Yuu wondered if she had Felix Felicis running through her veins. Just when she had been thinking up ways to get under Floyd’s skin—to remove that white-faced something in his eyes—his brother introduced kryptonite to her so easily.

There was no way she wouldn’t use this. In Ruggie’s words, she would take every scrap she could get. Yuu speared a stuffed mushroom with her fork and offered it to Floyd, trying desperately to hide her smile. “Here, want some help?”

Azul made a funny choking noise and dropped his phone.

Floyd stared at her, his face going utterly slack. “Koebi-chan?” his voice was as small as a mosquito’s.

Yuu almost backed down—it was unfair that a one-hundred-and-ninety-one-centimetre man could make such a perfect sad puppy face—but she remembered those long fingers digging into her shoulders and steeled her resolve. “Strang—no, Leech-senpai. Mushrooms are full of antioxidants, you know. They’ve got protein and fibre and vitamins B and D.”

“Mister Directing Student,” Jade breathed admiringly.

“Not to mention the chewy texture that resembles meat while not being meat,” Yuu inched forwards, mirroring Floyd’s slow leaning backwards as he started to sweat. “And even better, they increase cognitive capacity while tasting so good. The ingredients in this recipe are turmeric, chicken, shredded cheddar cheese…”

“Koebi-chan,” Floyd burst out, “get that thing away from me.”

“Oh c’mon, it can’t be that bad,” Yuu gave up on hiding her giggles. “Just one mushroom. It tastes really good. Well, the Portobello flavour is a little strong…”

“No way!” he wailed. “No way am I eating this! Get away from me Koebi-chan! You’re just a little prey!”

“Say a~h,” Yuu sang, pushing the fork over to his mouth.

Jade snorted uncharacteristically loudly. “Mister,” he began before collapsing into a fit of laughter. “—Ha ha. Mister Directing Student, you shouldn’t tell him of all people to ‘say aah’…”

Yuu squinted at him. “But you wanted him to eat it, right?”

“…Right.” His voice trembled. “…Right. Floyd, please give up and try the mushrooms.”

“You jerks! Monsters!” Floyd flailed as his back hit the side of the couch. “Koebi-chan are you still holding a grudge from a few nights ago?! Stoppit!”

“Say ahh,” she repeated through her laughter.

“Remember this,” Floyd told her rapidly, face turning blue, “I swear I’ll mmmph!

“I underestimated you,” Azul told her with genuine admiration brightening his lilting voice. “To think that you could so utterly get back at Floyd…I was so sure that you would have let his, ah, strangling incident go.”

“I mean, he keeps bullying me,” Yuu plopped down beside him in the otherwise empty VIP room. She held up two fingers in a V sign for victory. “So I figured it wouldn’t be unfair to bully him back a little.”

Azul laughed. “I take back my advice about apologizing and keeping your head down,” he said high-spiritedly. “You never fail to surpass my expectations. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“Maybe I surprised him a little today…”

“Surprised is a bit of an understatement, isn’t it? You’ve disabled him for an entire afternoon.”

“…But,” she ignored him, “next time I see him he’s probably going to murder me happily.”

She recalled the chaos that had overtaken Mostro Lounge’s VIP room just a few moments ago. After she’d force-fed Floyd the stuffed mushroom, he’d swallowed with a blue face before staring at her like she had grown three heads. Jade wore the biggest smile she’d ever seen and had even clapped for her, making a 10 sign with his fingers. This guy was just enjoying others being tortured, she’d thought. But when Floyd had stopped functioning, his brother took enough pity on him to manage, between snickers, that he was going to haul him back to his room.

She and the Dorm Head had watched the twins go—one being dragged bodily—but Floyd had not recovered the entire way out of the lounge.

Yuu felt good about herself. She was also sure she would become fried shrimp next time Floyd laid eyes on her. It was a good thing she had no more shifts until November (plus the Magift tourney stand job). Maybe she should beg some mushrooms off Jade to hold like a cross before a vampire for protection?

Azul crossed his arms and considered her with those intelligent eyes unreadable behind his thin glasses. “…In return for showing me something quite nice, I’ll give you a piece of advice,” he lifted a hand haughtily. “You should fix your low opinion of yourself. And it might be hard to tell, but Floyd doesn’t hate you, not really.”

Yuu gaped at him. “Um, what? Did you see that glare he gave me?”

“Throughout all of my years at sea and on Land, I have indeed never seen anyone as hard to read as those two twins,” Azul sighed, “but we’ve been together for a long time. Floyd would not leave you alive—excuse me, he would not allow you to be here if he truly wanted you out.”

Ignoring the slightly unsettling words in his sentence, Yuu examined him back. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t sitting so pompously behind his desk surrounded by papers and silhouetted by the giant golden wheel, but Azul sitting beside her looked as young as his seventeen years and less the leader of a crime syndicate. Without that coat draped over his shoulders, the line of his face was more delicate, the shadows under his eyes darker. He gazed into the seawater table as if walking through a distant past, the ocean reflected in his eyes.

“You’ve known them for a long time?”

“That’s right,” Azul murmured, silver lashes falling down over his gaze briefly. “The two of them are geniuses—both of them unbelievably so, although Jade seems to consider himself ‘normal’ compared to his brother. It’s often said that geniuses come with a few quirks, no? As you can tell, this is the case for both of them. Floyd, especially, eschews responsibility and social order with aplomb.”

Yuu remembered what Jade had said in the kitchen as they washed dishes together. “He only does what he wants?”

“And he’s afforded that luxury because once his switch is on, everything he does is perfect.” Azul shrugged. “In a way, you’ll never find someone more honest than Floyd. He won’t hide his loathing of you if he hates you. He won’t let you stick around if he doesn’t want you here.”

Yuu remembered those inhuman eyes boring into hers as he squeezed her neck. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want me here.”

“Then you still have a lot to learn about reading him,” Azul sighed, lifting both hands in a dismissive gesture. “I suggest you start now. If you keep misunderstanding him, there will be problems down the line that come back to hurt you again. I should know.”

“You went through the same thing?” She grinned, trying to imagine Jade and Floyd in a verbal match with him. It was impossible.

“With both of them,” Azul grimaced. “Surprisingly, it looks like you’ve got a good handle on Jade’s personality, which is rare—I don’t think I recognized that guy’s true nature until over a year after we first met. But Floyd is both simpler and more complicated than I think you give him credit for.”

“Thanks, that isn’t confusing at all,” Yuu said dryly. “…I recently met someone who shares some similarities with Leech-senpai, so I’ve just had practice identifying people who are ah…”

Both of them shared a commiserating glance. Even apart from his mushroom mania (which Yuu found endlessly entertaining—of course this person would be obsessed with something like mushrooms), Jade balanced on a thi