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“Smile Now, Dear. It’s Sunrise.”

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Man, the entrance ceremony was hella crazy, Ace Trappola thought, yawning into his palm before stretching his arms over his head.  The ginger-haired first-year sighed as he then dropped his hands to his sides, walking down the stone path that led to the school.  It was pretty hilarious at first to watch everyone run around like headless chickens, but then he got soaked.  Last night, he almost expected to wake up with a cold since he was wearing wet robes for so long, but that didn’t happen in the end.  And now, here he was, walking over to the main school building before class began.

Ugh, Ace was kinda dreading the years ahead in the Heartslabyul dorm.  The dorm leader--what was the shorty’s name again?  Ryan?  Ric--nope, it was Riddle.  Riddle Rosehearts.  Anyways, Ace felt like the dorm leader would be a pain in the ass in the near future; the redhead just seems way too strict!  When all of the first-years had arrived at the dorm, the dorm leader had gone over an unreasonable amount of ground rules.  And what the hell was with the chores?  ‘Paint the flamingos pink’?

Ace sighed as he shoved his left hand deep into his pants pockets, spotting the Main Street just up ahead before he rubbed at his face with his right, wishing he could’ve slept in a little--hm?  Ace slowed to a stop and peered through the fingers of his right hand before dropping his hand entirely from his face when he caught sight of a certain cat-monster and...a human.  Ace felt some annoyance at the sight of the damn cat, remembering all of the shots of blue flames he nearly got hit with last night.  Sure, the chaos was fun to witness, but almost getting his ass and face burned wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.  And speaking of last night, why the hell was this cat still here?  Shouldn’t he have been kicked off the school grounds by now...?

The ginger-haired freshman then abruptly remembered what that dorm-less kid had said to the Headmaster and groaned internally.  Frick, was the feline really going to be allowed into this school because of what the other teen had said?  The stranger wasn’t even planning to enroll into the school!  Ace frowned slightly as he watched the cat grumble as he wiped down the statue of the Sea Witch.

The ginger-haired teen was at least amused to see the cat doing some manual labor.  Maybe the cat wasn’t going to be a student.  Perhaps the monster was just being forced into labor for wrecking the school?  Ace hoped so.  Also...who was that person in the navy-blue overcoat?  Ace turned his amber gaze over to the teen that was sweeping dead leaves out of the path.

They...look like death warmed over, dark smudges beneath their half-lidded gaze, cheeks slightly sunken in, skin pale, and their hair slightly unkempt though it looked like they had attempted to make it look neat.  So yeah--this person looked like shit, yet they were awake and moving around, sweeping the Main Street while the cat wiped down the Great Sevens’ statues behind them.

They were shorter than Ace, looking almost around Rosehearts’ height, and--besides the overcoat with gold-colored buttons--they were dressed in a white dress shirt, black slacks, blue socks, and onyx oxfords.  That definitely wasn't the school uniform.  Were they a part of the school’s staff, making sure the cat did his punishment?  They looked young enough to be around Ace’s age or so--...huh.  Their right hand is bandaged...

Something nagged Ace as he studied the other teen’s bandaged hand, their thin fingers loosely wrapped around the broom they were using.  Who had Ace seen last night with a bandaged hand…?  The ginger-haired freshman then blinks...and blinks again.  Oh.  Oh.  This was the dorm-less student from last night, who had subtly talked back to the Headmaster, stating that they ended up in the school on accident.  But...why were they still here then?

Were they being punished too?  That chaos last night was...technically not their fault, since they pretty much got dragged into it because of the cat and, apparently, the Headmaster.  So what was the stranger here for?  Did they do something wrong?  Ace didn’t have much time to think about the stranger for much longer since the cat suddenly spoke up.

“Hey, henchman, who’s this snobby-lookin’ lady?” Ace heard the cat ask when he got close enough to one of the statues.

What the hell?  How the hell could the cat not know about the Queen of Hearts?  The ginger-haired freshman wanted to snort, but he held it in, watching as the teen cleaning with the cat turned from where they were sweeping.  There was an amused smile on their lips, opening their mouth to probably explain; well, at least one of them seemed to know who the Queen was.

“You don’t know about the Queen of Hearts?” Ace decided to speak up as he started walking forward again, wanting to poke fun at the cat before he finally went off to class.

Ace watched as the human and monster quickly turned to look at him, startled by him finally announcing his presence.  It was funny to see the cat puff up a little, but when Ace looked over at the other human here, he was...startled by the sharp glint in their gem-like eyes.  Their shoulders, which had been relaxed and lowered earlier, were now raised with tension, grip tightening around the broom they were holding.

Jeez, did they not like getting surprised?  Ace felt a nervous sweet start to break out at the side of his face when the other teen continued to look at him with a narrowed gaze, their expression eerily blank.  It was as if they were waiting for the ginger-haired teen to make a wrong move.  The tension was broken when the cat spoke, and Ace exhaled slowly, unsure when he had stopped breathing for a second.

“‘The Queen of Hearts’?  Is she important?” The cat asked, his fur settling as he looked at Ace with confusion and interest.  Ace pressed his lips together, seemingly gathering his thoughts--while he was struggling not to guffaw.  Holy crap, this cat must’ve lived under a rock.  Ace quickly regained his control over his emotions before responding.

“In the past, she was the queen who lived in the Rose Maze.  She was someone who valued rules and discipline above all, strict in all things--from the march of the Card Soldiers to the color of the rose bushes.  It was a land of madness where all submit to her rule.” Ace explained before smirking a little as he said his next few words. “...And why, you might ask?  Why should everyone submit to her rule?  Well...it was either obedience...or it was off with your head!”

A visible shiver went through the cat, and Ace struggled to not snicker.  Meanwhile, the other teen was...still pretty expressionless, though their eyebrows furrowed slightly.  Ace couldn’t really read them, so he turned his attention back to the cat.

“Th-That’s terrifying!” The cat stuttered, free paw rubbing at his own neck while his claws dug into the rag he was holding.

“Really?  I like it.  I think it’s kinda cool.” Ace replied with a grin as he moved a little closer, glancing over at the statue of the Queen of Hearts. “I mean, no one would listen to a queen who’s just nice all the time, right?”

“I...guess so.  A strong leader is better than one who’s all talk.” The cat said thoughtfully before he frowned at Ace, inclining his head slightly at the ginger-haired teen. “By the way, who the heck are you?”

“I’m Ace.  Ace Trappola.  A fresh-faced first-year.” The ginger-haired teen winked at the monster and the other teen, giving a friendly smile to the odd pair. “Nice to meet’cha.”

“I’m Grim, a genius who will become the greatest magician.” Pfft, like that would ever happen.  Ace watched the cat--Grim--then wave a paw over at the human next to him. “And this is my henchman, Yuu.”

What the heck?  ‘Henchman’?  When Ace chanced a glance over at the slightly unnerving teen, the ginger-haired student was surprised to see that the blank expression was gone from their face, and there was a tentative, warm smile on their lips--though there was still a little furrow between their eyebrows, gaze still assessing and slightly...knowing?  Did...did the other teen--Yuu--know that he was faking his friendliness...?

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Trappola.” Yuu said, their voice slightly raspy, as if they had yelled themself raw recently--or maybe they were a heavy smoker?  And Ace couldn’t quite stop himself from visibly cringing at how they addressed him.  ‘Mr. Trappola’?

“Uh, you can just call me Ace.” The Heartslabyul first-year said with a crooked smile, watching as Yuu merely nodded in acknowledgement, adjusting their grip on the broom in their hands slightly.  The cat then spoke up once more.

“Hey, Ace.  What about that lion over there with the scar?  Is he famous for something too?” Grim asked--and oh, this was just too good.  Grim must’ve definitely lived under a rock.

“Of course!” Ace gestured over to the statue that was pointed out, idly noting how Yuu was going back to sweeping.  Well, if they did know about the Great Seven, then they didn’t really need to listen to him.  However, Yuu did look like they were at least partially paying attention, occasionally glancing at Ace and then Grim.  The ginger-haired teen shrugged internally before he turned his attention back to his explanation. “That’s the King of Beasts, and he ruled the Savanna.  However, he was not born to be the king, and so he took the throne through his own efforts and elaborate planning.” Was it just Ace, or did Yuu seem to flinch for a second?  But the strange teen seemed to be focused on their sweeping still, so Ace continued. “After becoming king, he even allowed the loathed hyenas to live in his kingdom without discrimination.”

“Ooooh.  So he was a rock not held captive by his status!” Grim said, amazed, as his tail swayed this way and that.  The cat then pointed at the statue he had been wiping down recently. “Who’s the lady with octopus legs?”

“The Witch of the Sea.” Yuu surprisingly spoke up, and Ace blinked before turning his gaze over to where the other teen was standing, pausing in their sweeping as they looked over at the statue of the octo-mer. “...She lives in a cavern in the deep, blue sea, and she helps all of the unfortunate merfolk that seek her out.” Yuu then smiled a little.  Huh, this just confirmed that the other teen really did know something about the Great Seven.  It was also strange how they were speaking as if the Sea Witch was still around. “She can grant the wishes of those who are willing to pay the price.  If it is within her power, she can do just about anything.  The prices can be quite high though…”

“Oh-ho~?  Then I can become extremely rich if I become a great magician?” Grim asked, a glint in his eyes as his cat ears twitched on top of his head.

“I suppose that’s one way of putting it.” Yuu replied with a little laugh, and it made them a bit more lively despite how exhausted they look.

“Then what about that guy in the turban, henchman?” Grim asked as he floated over to the statue, circling the stone figure briefly before stopping in front of it.

“...He is a powerful sorcerer, cunning and quite knowledgeable.  When he was a vizier, he defended the sultan he served from assassins, liars, enemies, etcetera...and then he eventually became the sultan himself through his own efforts...” Yuu said, and they shift their weight a little, gaze slightly distant.  Ace inclined his head with mild confusion.

“You’re leaving out some of the good parts.” Ace then spoke up, and watched as Yuu and Grim turned to look at him.  The ginger-haired teen merely continued to smile. “The sultan the Sorcerer of the Sand served was pretty foolish.  The sultan almost let his daughter get deceived by a street rat who pretended to be a prince.  The Sorcerer of the Sand fortunately saw through this and put a stop to the fake prince’s deception.  The Sorcerer of the Sand also gained his power from a magic lamp, turning into quite an accomplished sorcerer among many.  They say it was with this power that he became the next sultan.”

“So being the center of attention is important for magicians, huh~?” Grim grinned, and Ace kept himself from raising an eyebrow.  Out of the corner of his eye, Ace saw Yuu sigh heavily before they went back to sweeping. “Woah!  That lady over there is really beautiful.”

Ace glanced over at Yuu, wondering if the other teen would give an explanation like they did for the Sea Witch and the Sorcerer of the Sand, but they seemed to be strangely deep in thought, gaze slightly distant.  And so Ace decided to take back complete control over the summary of who all the Great Seven were.

“She’s the Beautiful Queen.  Everyday, she checked the ‘Beauty Ranking’ in her magic mirror.  When it looked like she might fall from the number one spot, she never hesitated to do anything to get it back.  She was pretty determined to keep her place as most beautiful in the world.  Don’t you think that’s amazing?” Ace then grinned sharply at Grim, watching with amusement as the cat’s interested gaze turned to one filled with a bit of fear at the first-year’s next few words. “They say she was pretty adept in making potions--specifically, poisons.”

“U-Uh...yeah, sh-she’s pretty.  B-But...er...I don’t think I would’ve wanted to go anywhere near her.” Grim stuttered, floating away from the statue as if it would come alive.

Pfft--haha!  Really?  I think it’s pretty cool that she has something she’s not willing to give up.  A lot of people could easily give up on their goals--but the Beautiful Queen didn’t.” Ace said, watching Grim flounder slightly, the cat obviously not agreeing with the ginger-haired teen.

“Um...I-I guess that single-minded drive is pretty cool...probably…” Grim replied haltingly.  The cat then drifted over slightly to point at a statue at the end of the line. “How about that guy whose hair is on fire?  He’s kinda givin’ me the creeps…”

“That’s the Lord of the Underworld!” Ace said with some flourish, silently agreeing that the statue does look a little...unsettling.  Maybe it’s the grin? “He ruled a land crawling with evil spirits all on his own.  No doubt that he was extremely skilled.  Even though he looks scary to you, he still kept doing his detestable job without ever taking a vacation, and his dedication won over Cerberus, the hydra, and a number of titans to fight for him.”

“Huh...so you can’t be too haughty despite being talented.” Grim mused thoughtfully before looking over at the final statue. “What about that one?  The lady with the horns?”

Damn.  Ace thought Grim might know at least one of the Great Seven, but the cat proved him wrong.  Holy shit, this cat knew nothing!  The laugh that wanted to bubble up from Ace’s throat died down a little when the ginger-haired bit the inside of his cheek.  He took a few seconds to calm down, under the guise of thoughtfully gathering what he knew about the last statue that needed an introduction.

“She’s the Witch of Thorns from the Magic Mountains.  She’s noble and elegant.  They say that even within the Great Seven, she’s top class in magic and curses.  She can summon lightning and storms, and she even covered an entire country with thorns.” Ace chuckled as he stuffed his hands into his pockets, watching Grim’s reactions with some amusement. “She’s on a whole new level.  I heard that there was a time where she transformed into a huge dragon!”

Glancing over at Yuu, they were still looking at the statues with a slightly lost expression, and were they...muttering to themself?  What was up with them?  The Heartslabyul freshman shrugged mentally and turned his attention back onto Grim.

“...You wouldn’t want to challenge her in a one-on-one duel...”

Ooooh!  A dragon?  All monsters look up to them!” Grim said excitedly as he then glanced back at each statue, impressed. “I gotta admit--all of these magicians are pretty cool.”

Freaking hell, Ace can’t take it anymore.

“Yeah, they’re all really cool--” Ace agreed, a smirk pulling at the corners of his lips, edging closer to a sneer. “--unlike a certain raccoon.”

The cat paused for a moment, grin quickly fading as he quickly turned to look back at Ace, blue eyes narrowed and pupils slitted.

“Wh-...Wh-What was that…!?” Grim growled after snapping out of his stunned state.  He floated a little higher, but Ace continued to smirk, a laugh starting to bubble up from the ginger-haired teen’s lips.

Pfft--!  Y-You two--hahahaha!  Damn it, I can’t take it anymore…!” Ace nearly doubled over with his laughing.  He can almost feel tears at the corners of his eyes.  Ah, damn, his stomach was starting to hurt. “Y-You...you guys were the ones who went crazy at the entrance ceremony, right?  Frick, it took everything in me not to lose it then…!”

“You bastard…!” Grim snarled, his tail lashing around sharply as his claws dug into the rag in his paw. “You’re bein’ pretty rude!”

“Lord Grim--” Yuu, eyebrows pinching together, started to utter--and what the heck?  ‘Lord Grim’?  Now that Ace thought about it, Yuu had called the cat that in the entrance ceremony.  What the hell was their relationship?  Anyways, Ace continued to speak despite Yuu trying to interrupt.

“Hey, I’m not being rude.  I’m just stating facts.” Ace replied instantly, still smirking at the cat. “And now you’ve been regulated to be a janitor?  How lame.”

“This is just temporary!  I’m gonna be kickin’ your ass in class tomorrow!” Grim hissed sharply, and Yuu took a step forward towards the cat.  Damn, so the cat was really let into the school.  And his punishment will only last a day?  What the hell. “You’ll soon be in awe of my skills and worship the ground that I, the Great Lord Grim, will walk on!”

Hah~?  Like that will ever happen!  I can’t believe they even let you into Night Raven College!  You didn’t even know a single thing about the Great Seven until I told you just now!  How ignorant can you be?  I recommend you go back to kindergarten before becoming a student at this school.” Ace taunted with a sneer.  He then heard footsteps from behind him.  Glancing over his shoulder, the ginger-haired teen saw that other students were about to walk down Main Street; guess the fun is over, huh? “Now, I’ve gotta get to class--unlike you, raccoon.  Hope you can make this school squeaky clean by the end of the day.”

Grim only hissed, eyes glowing brightly while the flames at the tips of his ears flared brightly as he slightly tore into the rag in his paw.  Ace’s smirk merely widened at the sight before he began to walk past the cat and Yuu, the latter whose lips have pressed together into a thin line as their gaze followed the ginger-haired teen.

What was the zombie-like teen thinking right now?  Honestly, Ace wanted to know why the other teen was still here and sticking around the cat...but the Heartslabyul student guessed that that wasn’t really his business.  Something probably went wrong with the Dark Mirror, and they were forced to stay the night.  Yuu might be gone the next day, and Ace would just know them as a weird stranger passing through the school.  Ace shrugged to himself as he made his way past the statues.

“...Lord Grim, calm down.” Ace heard Yuu speak softly, yet firmly; Ace still can’t get over the fact that the other teen was calling the damn cat ‘Lord Grim’.  They really were weird.  When Ace heard a sharp growl, the Heartslabyul freshman glanced over his shoulder to see Yuu standing closer to the cat, who had smoke seeping out of his mouth.

“Keep quiet, henchman!  He can’t just…!  He can’t just leave like that after saying those things!  This little jerk is gonna get it now!” Grim snapped back at Yuu--and oh?  The cat wanted a fight?  Ace was abruptly torn from his thoughts when a ball of blue flames suddenly went flying towards his face.

“Woah!” Ace quickly moved to the right, right hand automatically going up to his pen, which was tucked into the breast pocket of his uniform.  The ginger-haired teen spun around as he pulled out his pen, the red gem glinting slightly under the light of the morning sun. “Hey, watch it!”

“I’m just givin’ you what you deserve!” Grim sneered as he floated a little higher, throwing his rag--he had to shake his paw a little to dislodge his claws--to the side.  Well, well...looks like Ace managed to make the cat snap.  And was Yuu face-palming on the side?  While one hand was still holding the broom, the other was definitely pressed firmly against Yuu’s face, the shorter teen sighing heavily.  Ace couldn’t pay much more attention to Yuu since another flicker of blue flames began to crackle around Grim’s mouth. “Just stay still so I can light your hair on fire, bastard!”

“Oh, you’re gonna light my hair on fire, huh?” Ace taunted as he brandished his pen through the air, letting his magic slowly come to the surface as he waited for Grim’s next attack. “Go on and try it, raccoon!  I’ll easily turn you into a puffy, little toy-poodle before you can hit me!”

“F’naaah!” Grim cried out, a wave of flames surging towards Ace.

The Heartslabyul freshman smirked as he felt the heat of the flames getting closer and closer.  With a flick of his pen, Ace manipulated the air around them, a sharp breeze making Grim’s blue flames go completely off course.  Ace’s smirk widened when he caught Grim’s surprised and frustrated expression, cool wind and a few leaves brushing past the ginger-haired teen’s face.

“Where do you think you’re aiming?” Ace mocked as he carefully dispersed the flames with a sharp gust of wind before it could start spreading.

“You jerk!  Stop twistin’ up my fire!” Grim growled as he sent more shots of blue flames at Ace.

Woah, is there a fight going on?  Between a student and a...monster?” Ah, Ace almost forgot about the other students he saw heading towards Main Street earlier.  Nonchalantly sending a ball of flames to the side, Ace could hear a few students continue to talk to each other. “How’d a monster get onto school grounds?”

“Didn’t you hear the freshies last night?” A different student asked.  ‘Freshies’?  Were they upperclassmen then? “Apparently some sort of raccoon interrupted the entrance ceremony.”

“Doesn’t explain why the monster’s still here though.” The first student that had spoken replied.

“Who cares?” A third student butted in, voice filled with excitement. “It looks like they’re really going at it!  Go get ‘im!”

To be honest, Ace wasn’t sure who that last upperclassman was cheering for, but it probably didn’t matter to him.  Ace focused all of his attention back onto Grim again, grimacing inwardly when he felt a flicker of flames getting a little too close for comfort.  Outwardly, Ace continued to smirk as he kept Grim’s fire from hitting him.

“Is that all you got!?” Ace goaded with a grin, amused to see Grim growing more and more frustrated. “Those flimsy flames are nothing to me!”

“Oh yeah!?” Grim snarled, and Ace smirked when more flames and smoke began to seep out of the cat’s mouth.  The Heartslabyul freshman raised his pen up a bit, shifting a little to prepare for the next few balls of fire coming his way. “Then take this!”

A large wave of fire, bigger than the previous attacks, left Grim’s mouth and went hurtling towards Ace.  The Heartslabyul freshman sneered as he then waved his pen through the air, making the flames get caught in another twister of wind.  Ace then planned to redirect the flames back to Grim, but the ginger-haired teen was startled when the blue fire slipped out of the mini twister and went flying backwards to--SHIT!  THE FLAMES WERE ABOUT TO HIT THE QUEEN OF HEARTS’ STAT--!

A hand shot forward, intercepting the flames.  Ace stared with wide eyes as Yuu caught the ball of flames, unflinching as it snapped and popped within their grasp.  The fire seemed to shrink a little within Yuu’s grasp, dying out ever so slowly.

Holy crap, Ace didn’t even see them move...and weren’t they standing a good few meters away from the Queen of Hearts’ statue earlier? They had been standing where the other students were watching, right?  Anyways, Yuu looked at the, fortunately, unburnt Queen of Hearts’ statue...and then the fire in their raised hand...before finally looking at Ace and Grim, their usually distant, or wary, gaze now blazing brightly with barely suppressed anger.

...F-Frick.  Ace didn’t think the zombie-like teen could actually make an expression like that; he swallowed. The ginger-haired teen shivered when he could faintly feel...unknown magic buzzing through the air.

“...Enough.” Yuu quietly, yet sharply, said, closing their left hand into a tight fist, completely extinguishing the flames they had caught.

As steam rose from their palm, Yuu then waved the same hand through the air, and Ace, who had yet to stop his wind spell, was stunned when the gust around them settled in an instant with that unknown buzz of magic spreading throughout the area.  Was that all Yuu?  The shorter teen gazed evenly at Ace, eyes slightly narrowed as they spoke again, voice still soft yet cold.

“...It wouldn’t be good for students to have a fight and get into an accident on their first day of school.”

“You are absolutely correct, Mx. Yuu.” A stern voice said, and Ace felt his stomach instantly drop.

Oh.  Crap.  Ace knew that voice.  Guess it was really time to go.  Before the ginger-haired teen could get far, a black cord quickly shot forward from a certain Headmaster and swiftly snaked its way around Ace.  Out of the corner of his eye, Ace saw Grim get caught too.  Well, Ace thought, at least he wasn’t the only one at the Headmaster’s mercy--but still, frick, the magic binding him kinda stings.

Guh!  It hurts just as much as the first time...!” Grim whined as he tried to wiggle his way out of the black cord.

“Hmph!  It’ll be another hundred years before any of you can escape my Lash of Love!” Headmaster Crowley--crap, it really was him--huffed as he made sure Ace and Grim wouldn’t be able to run away. “Honestly, Mr. Grim, I thought that you would attempt to not do such things since you wanted to become a student in this prestigious school!  You were already walking on thin ice--but then you and another student go and nearly char one of the statues of the Great Seven!”

Grim’s ears flatten on his head, but he looks more petulant at getting caught and scolded for his actions.  Since the cat didn’t know the Great Seven until now, it would make sense that the monster wouldn’t really care if the statues were burned or not.  Ace saw the cat scowl at him, and the Heartslabyul student merely sent a sneer back at the monster.  Ace was then dragged out of the little stare down when Headmaster Crowley abruptly addressed the ginger-haired freshman.

You, what’s your grade and name?” The Headmaster demanded, golden eyes bright and slightly narrowed within the holes of his mask.

“A-Ace...Trappola.  First-year…” The ginger-haired teen replied with some reluctance.  Frick.  Here we go…

“My goodness, another first-year is causing trouble when it is only the first day of school?  Mr. Grim was already a troublemaker, so I somewhat expected him to do something during his punishment--but another first-year?” Headmaster Crowley sighed heavily as he shook his head, daylight glinting off of his sleek mask and golden talons as he lifted a hand to his face, exasperated.

The masked man then lifted his head from his palm and looked over at Yuu, who had moved closer at some point.  Yuu was gazing sternly at Grim, and the cat actually seemed to deflate under the zombie-like teen’s stare as he remained in the Lash of Love.  Huh, despite being called the ‘henchman’ of the monster, it looked like Yuu was the one who was really in charge.  Headmaster Crowley turned his attention to Yuu, whose expression turned to one of mild guilt as they looked back at the masked man before ducking their head slightly.

“And what are you doing here, Mx. Yuu?” The Headmaster asked, sounding exasperated.  So Yuu wasn’t even supposed to be here? “This is supposed to be Mr. Grim’s punishment--not yours.  I expected you to...sleep in.”

Okay, so Yuu had no apparent reason to be here--yet they were helping the cat with his cleaning tasks.  Ace couldn’t understand Yuu’s motives.  Why help the monster that dragged them into trouble?  Why help with cleaning when it wasn’t their punishment to take?  Didn’t they want to go back to wherever they came from soon?  It just didn’t make much sense to Ace.  

“...I apologize for the chaos that occurred.  I should’ve stopped it earlier, and as for being here...I...didn’t really feel like lying around much.” Yuu replied with an uneasy laugh, moving their right, bandaged hand up to run it through their messy locks as they smiled wearily at the Headmaster.  As they continued to hold their broom in their left hand, Yuu dropped their right hand back down to their side. “I did sleep like a rock for a good few hours though, and I’m grateful for the little spell you cast.  I recovered much quicker than usual.”

“...‘Than usual’?” The Headmaster asked, sounding baffled and...worried?  Yuu’s smile fades fast, expression looking like they said something that they didn’t mean to utter. “Y-You mean this happened befo--”

Headmaster Crowley cut himself off, lips pressing together firmly before he shook his head, sighing heavily.  The masked man stared at Yuu for a long moment, and the teen merely shifted slightly in response, ducking their face from view slightly.  Huh...it looks like something more serious is going on.  The Headmaster then abruptly turned his gaze over to Ace, who shrank slightly under the masked man’s glare.  The masked man also looked over at Grim, who tried to put up a confident front under the glowing, golden gaze...before finally lowering his head, though still looking a little mulish.

“Mr. Trappola and Mr. Grim, as punishment, the both of you will clean one hundred windows around the campus!” Headmaster Crowley ordered before he finally dispelled his Lash of Love with a flick of his wrist, golden talons clinking against each other.

“Me too!?” Ace couldn’t help but protest as Grim groaned beside the ginger-haired teen.

“What the heck!?” Grim snarled as he puffed up slightly, the fire flickering on his ears flaring a bit as he pointed a paw in Ace’s direction. “It’s this joker’s fault!  He was making fun of me!”

“Both of you are responsible for this near catastrophe!  Be grateful that I’m not expelling either of you.” Headmaster Crowley snapped back, and Ace held back a flinch at the e-word.  Damn. “You two will meet up after school in the cafeteria before you carry out your punishment together.” Double damn.  Ace grimaced as he tucked his pen back into his breast pocket before rubbing at his shoulder, where the Lash of Love had awkwardly pinned his arm to his body.  The Headmaster then turned his attention back to Yuu, voice...softening just a bit. “And Mx. Yuu, why don’t you head back to your dorm?  I do believe you’ve been dragged into enough trouble already.”

So they were staying at a dorm?  Ace thought that Yuu wasn’t sorted into any of the dorms though. 

Um...I still don’t exactly feel like resting just yet.” Yuu replied hesitantly, and where had all of that confidence from before gone?  It’s like that glare from earlier had never happened in the first place. “Perhaps I can watch over Lord Grim while he cleans?”

“Like a…’supervisor’, hm?  Honestly, with you watching over Mr. Grim like he’s your responsibility, it’s almost as if you were his dorm leade--...” Headmaster Crowley said before pausing, looking deep in thought.  It looked like he was forming some sort of plan as he stared at Yuu, who was starting to nervously shift their weight a little. “...Hmm...that might not be a bad idea…”

“What might not be a bad idea?” Yuu asked wearily, but the Headmaster Crowley merely shook his head and smiled.

“Not to worry, Mx. Yuu!  We can discuss it at a later time.  For now...” The Headmaster heaved a great sigh before continuing. “...I suppose you can stay and keep an eye on Mr. Grim for me.  But please do not push yourself too much.  You’ve gone through a lot just last night, and I don’t think I would like to see you in that state again so soon.”

“I’ll do my best, Headmaster Crowley.” Yuu replied with a weary smile, and the masked man huffed in response before looking at the surrounding students in the area.

“Now it’s time for everyone to get to class!  If any of you are late, all of you will be facing a similar punishment!” The Headmaster called out, and that certainly made everyone scramble their way down the stone road to the main school building.  Headmaster Crowley then sent a nod to Ace, Yuu, and Grim. “...Well, I shall be off now.  I expect good behavior from all of you for the rest of the day.”

With some flourish, the Headmaster spun on his heel and made his way down Main Street, his coat swaying behind him.  Ace watched the masked man go on ahead before looking over at Grim.  The Heartslabyul freshman and the cat glared at each other at the same time, but Yuu quickly stepped between the two, blocking the human teen and monster’s view of each other.

“...I apologize for the chaos that occurred to get you landed with a punishment, Ace.  Lord Grim could’ve tried to control his magic a bit more.” Yuu said, and Ace looked over at the shorter teen with surprise.  Grim seemed shocked as well, starting to frown at the fact that Yuu was apparently on ‘Ace’s side’--but then the coat-wearing teen continued to speak, and that flinty look in their eyes returned, standing up to their full height as they continued to look at Ace.  Despite the hollowness of their cheeks and the dark half-circles beneath their eyes, it seems that Yuu’s confidence and fire was back. “But a lot of what you’ve said was uncalled for.  The next time you insult and taunt Lord Grim...I won’t be so forgiving.”

Grim’s ears perked back up, and the cat stared at Yuu with something that looked like...awe and wonder.  Ace stared back at Yuu for a long moment, still trying to get a good read on them...but the ginger-haired teen just couldn’t really understand what was going on through their mind.

“...Whatever, I guess.” Ace said after a long, drawn out sigh.  He then waved his right hand through the air dismissively as his left one went to run through his ginger locks. “I’ll just get out of your way now.  See ya’.”

Ace then spun on his heel and began to briskly walk down Main Street, moving further and further away from Yuu and Grim.  Before Ace was completely out of hearing distance, the ginger-haired teen heard Grim speak up, words directed to Yuu.

“...You know, henchman...I think I might promote you sooner than expected.” Grim said, and Ace heard Yuu let out a soft, amused huff.

“Headmaster Crowley was right though, Lord Grim.  You are already walking on very thin ice.” Yuu murmured, and Grim let out a low grumble in response. “I will still help you with cleaning, so why don’t we get back to work?  The faster we finish, the longer your break will be before your second punishment.”

Geh!  You don’t need to remind me about that.” Grim replied with a groan.  

Ace didn’t hear anything else after that since he was far away from Yuu and Grim now.  Since Yuu and Grim weren’t following Ace to the main school building, the ginger-haired teen assumed that the two of them probably had to finish cleaning up Main Street before moving on to their next few tasks.  Ace silently hoped that some of the damn cat’s cleaning tasks were the dirtiest ones on campus.

As Ace also made his way further down Main Street, he then groaned to himself when he recalled what he had to do after school.  Exhaling long and slow, Ace gazed up at the blue sky with a frown.  ‘Clean 100 windows’?  Was the Headmaster trying to kill them both?  

...There was no way in hell that Ace was gonna actually do it.

~~

This is gonna be a boring week, thought Floyd Leech, as he made his way out of his second class of the day.  Since it was just the first day, most of the classes were just explaining the syllabus of the semester and so forth.  So...yeah.  It was boooooring.  And Jade, his twin, was lucky--he had the little Goldfishy in his class!  It was really unfair.

Floyd huffed as he walked down the stone halls, ignoring a few of the shorter students that gave him wide berths.  The turquoise-haired teen hummed as he thought about which class he had to head to next, the earring on his right ear jingling softly as it brushed his cheek.  Floyd was kinda debating whether he should just skip right now, but then Jade and Azul would nag hi--

...Hm?  Floyd abruptly stopped in his walk, blinking his bicolored eyes rapidly.  Something smelled like……the sea?  Was Azul and Jade out of their second classes already as well?  But then...Floyd took another whiff of the air, inclining his head thoughtfully.  That...doesn’t really smell like Azul or Jade.  Floyd turned his head to the left, where the hallway opened up and led to the courtyard.  The faint smell of the sea was coming from somewhere around the open area, and the Octavinelle second-year hummed with interest when he spotted something--or rather, someone--nearby. 

There was a person sweeping around the courtyard.

Floyd studied the stranger.  He couldn’t quite see their face at the moment, but he could observe other things about the person for now.  They were short--maybe as short as Goldfishy.  The navy blue coat they were wearing seemed to be just a bit too big for them, making them look even smaller.  They were not wearing the school uniform, so were they not a student?

The human--they seem to be human--gripped a broom in their tiny, tiny hands as they went about the stone paths to sweep away the leaves that were here and there.  Were they a part of the school staff?  Occasionally, the little human paused in their sweeping to look over at something--and is that a cat?

There’s a floating cat with flaming ears--A monster?--snipping away at the hedges nearby with a pair of shears, and Floyd was greatly amused by the sight.  The cat seemed to grumble to himself as he snipped away at the hedge he was working on to make it look neat.  Seeing that the cat was still working, the human nearby then returned to their task.  To be honest, Floyd was confused as to why these two were doing this.  Doesn’t the school’s contract-fairies take care of these sorts of things--?

The short human abruptly turned around and made eye-contact with Floyd, and the turquoise-haired teen was stunned by the intensity in their eyes, gaze assessing.  Floyd now had a good look of their face, and despite how tired and thin they looked, there was something about their eyes that said that the little human didn’t want to be messed with.  The Octavinelle second-year felt a smile start to spread across his face, excitement bubbling up in his chest.

Floyd has now found a reason to skip class.

He was sure Azul and Jade would understand.  And so, with a little hum, Floyd left the hallway and walked out into the courtyard, feeling a cool breeze pass by as he went straight towards the little human who was still watching him.  It was kinda funny; they looked like they were about to scuttle away...like a little shrimp.  Haha, ‘shrimp’ kinda suits the little human in front of Floyd.

Hehe~!  Hey, Shrimpy!” Floyd decided to greet them as he approached with a wide grin, showing off his slightly pointed teeth. “What’cha doin’~?”

They studied Floyd for a long moment as he moved closer and closer, looking wary--but there was no fear, nor did they seem intimidated.  Usually, a lot of shorter people were intimidated by him simply because he was taller, but this human just seemed to be wary of his...intentions.  Honestly, Floyd wasn’t planning on doing anything bad.  He just wanted to learn more about Shrimpy, who had suddenly gained his interest.  Floyd came to a stop, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he rocked back slightly on his heels, waiting for Shrimpy’s answer.

“U-Um…” They uttered, nervous--and aw, Floyd kinda wanted to give them a little squeeze all of a sudden; not the kind that would hurt though.  They propped the broom against their right shoulder as they fiddled with the big cuffs of their coat. “I’m just...sweeping.”

“But why~?”  Seriously though, why? “I thought the school takes care of that stuff.  Are you a new staff member?  I haven’t seen you around in school before, haha~!”

They blinked their eyes rapidly at his words, looking a little overwhelmed.  Shrimpy glanced around the area for a brief moment before keeping their gaze firmly on Floyd.  They continue to watch him with caution.

“Due to some...complications...I’m helping a friend with his cleaning punishment.” Shrimply finally replied, tone polite, and Floyd glanced over at the cat that was moving onto a different bush.  Was that Chubby Seal the mentioned friend? “It’s only temporary, so he can start school the next day.”

“Eeeh~?  Wow, the Roly-poly Seal is gonna be a student here?” Floyd watched the corners of Shrimpy’s mouth twitch upwards with amusement at the little nickname of the cat, and it made Floyd beam brightly, feeling somewhat accomplished.  Anyways, a monster being a student?  Floyd wondered if Azul would like to hear about it.  Would a floating cat that was on fire be a potential client?  Also… “But why do you have to help with the cleaning, Shrimpy?  Did you do something bad too?”

“Not really.” They replied, and that smile on their face grew a bit more, though they still looked a little nervous.  Shrimpy went back to holding their broom, and Floyd’s gaze was absently drawn from their weary face to the bandages around their right hand.  Was Shrimpy hurt? “I had nothing better to do, so I wanted to help out.”

“I see…” Floyd hummed as he inclined his head a little.

It was...strange, Floyd thought, as he silently studied the little human before him.  The longer Floyd stood before Shrimpy, the more he noted the...calming effect they had on him.  It was like hanging around Jade and Azul; those two were pretty much the only ones he enjoyed being with, even though they do get irritating sometimes.  There was just...something about them that was...familiar...and warm.

Floyd gazed into those tired eyes, and he was almost lost in the shadows that lingered there.  The Octavinelle second-year wondered about what could have happened to Shrimpy to get that look of caution and weariness there--and he was abruptly reminded of something in his past.  Floyd remembered a similar look in the eyes of a certain octo-mer child, who was diligently scribbling down spells and different pieces of knowledge with his own ink.  There had been so much mistrust in the eyes of that chubby octo-mer when Jade and Floyd first came upon him, but underneath all of that cold and cruel front...was someone who had been hurt too many times.

Maybe that was why Shrimpy seemed so familiar to him.

“...What’s your name, Shrimpy?” Floyd then decided to ask as the warning bell for next class rang in the distance.  The turquoise-haired teen grinned brightly. “I’m Floyd!”

“Yuu.” They--they were named Yuu, but he was still gonna call them Shrimpy--introduced themself with a small, shy smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Floyd.”

Floyd made a face in response to what Shrimpy had just called him.  That sounded way too stiff for the Octavinelle student.  The turquoise-haired teen just wanted to be friends with Shrimpy.

“Just Floyd is fine, Shrimpy.” The turquoise-haired teen replied as he frowned a little--and he wasn’t pouting like Jade and Azul says he does when he gets upset.

“It’s nice to meet you, Floyd.” Shrimpy corrected themself easily, amusement twinkling in their tired gaze.  Speaking of their tired gaze, Floyd was about to ask about how Shrimpy ended up looking like...well...looking like they came back from the dead or something.  They looked like they really needed sleep.  But before the Octavinelle student could ask, Shrimpy abruptly looked past Floyd, eyes widening a little. “Lord Grim, you can’t burn the bushes!”

Lord Grim’?  Was the cat royalty?  Was Shrimpy actually a servant?

“It’s faster this way!” Floyd heard the cat--wow, the Chubby Seal can speak--respond indignantly.  The turquoise-haired teen watched Shrimpy’s face go through multiple expressions at once with amusement; their emotions seemed to range from exasperation, to exhaustion, to resignation, and then mild fondness.

No, you’ll end up--!  Um, sorry, Floyd.  It really was nice meeting you, but I better stop my friend before he does something rash again.” Shrimpy said in a rush before they quickly ran over to where the floating cat was.  Floyd smiled, entertained, as he turned a little to watch the shorter teen go.  The turquoise-haired second-year was about to follow after Shrimpy, but a familiar voice called out to him.

Jade Leech, vice-dorm leader of Octavinelle, sighed when he caught sight of his twin, who was obviously not on his way to his next class.  Jade supposes he should have expected this; the first day of school is usually one of the more boring days in the semester.  Still, Jade can’t have his brother acting out so soon.  Floyd was certainly smart and could keep his grades up with ease, but Jade wouldn’t want him to get into trouble already.

“Floyd,” Jade called out, and his twin paused in his walk across the courtyard.  When Jade watched his brother turn around, a flicker of exasperation and fondness made the vice-dorm leader smile a little. “Are you already trying to skip class?” 

It was a rhetorical question; Jade and Floyd both knew it.  Both Octavinelle second-years gazed at each other for a moment...before Jade blinked when he heard a slight commotion.  The vice-dorm leader turned his head and saw a peculiar sight: a human and a monster trying to trim a bush.  The human was young-looking, and they seemed to be around the same height as dorm leader Rosehearts.  Since they were not dressed in the school uniform--they wore a large coat, white undershirt, black slack, and oxfords--Jade was inclined to believe that they were not a student.

The monster was an even more bizarre sight to behold.  The tips of the feline’s ears were on fire, and his tail had three prongs like a trident.  It was apparent that the cat-monster was attempting to set a bush on fire, and the short human was stopping him.  The sight was almost comedic, the human putting out leaves that had caught on fire with a whisper of magic before dragging the cat away from another bush he was attempting to burn.  Jade saw that Floyd had also turned his gaze to where those two were, and the vice-dorm leader of Octavinelle could see the interest and amusement glinting in his brother’s eyes.

“Hm?  Did something catch your eye, Floyd?” Jade asked, his own amusement curling a corner of his lips higher.  Floyd could skip class for no reason at all, but it seemed that his twin had found something that caught his interest.

“I met someone new.” Floyd simply replied, still watching the odd human and monster duo before looking over at Jade with a toothy grin. “Their name’s Yuu, but I like to call them Shrimpy~!  And Shrimpy said that the Chubby Seal is called Grim.”

‘Shrimpy’ and ‘Chubby Seal’, hm?  Floyd usually gave ‘special’ nicknames to people who caught his eye; everyone else was usually called an anemone.  Jade turned his head to observe Mx. Yuu again, blinking when a light breeze brought the faint scent of the sea to his nose...

...Oh.  Was this why Floyd was interested in the human?  It couldn’t just be that.  Jade tilted his head a little as he studied Mx. Yuu thoughtfully, eyes eventually trailing down to their bandaged hand.  Something stirred in the back of Jade’s mind, like he was trying to recall something.  And then multiple things clicked together at once in Jade’s head, and he began to realize why the human-and-monster duo seemed so familiar to him.

“...Oh?” Jade said aloud as he moved a glove hand up to his chin, smiling with amusement as interest stirred within him. “I thought they would’ve been gone by now, since they did claim that arriving in Night Raven College was a mistake……I wonder...what had changed?”

“Hmm~?  You know Shrimpy, Jade?” Floyd asked, and it was apparent that Jade’s twin had yet to realize who Mx. Yuu and Mr. Grim were.

“Those two are the ones that Azul had mentioned to us last night.  Do you not recall?” Jade replied as he dropped his gloved hand from his chin.  He watched Floyd blink his bicolored eyes rapidly...before realization also dawned on his brother’s face.  Floyd’s grin seemed to widen as he looked at Jade with excitement.

“Azul would want us to keep an eye on Shrimpy and Seal, right?” Floyd asked brightly as he glanced back over to Mx. Yuu and Mr. Grim, his earring jingling softly with his movements. “Since I got to meet Shrimpy first, then I can--”

Floyd.” Jade interrupts, slightly admonishing, but amused and fond. “We’ll have plenty of time later to learn about Mx. Yuu and Mr. Grim.  I’m sure Azul will be pleased to know that you’ve already made contact with at least one of them...but you should get back to class.  You only have a few minutes before it begins.”

“I wanna stay with Shrimpy and Seal!” Floyd protested, looking at Jade pleadingly.

“Perhaps another time, Floyd.” Jade said softly to persuade his twin.  The vice-dorm leader of Octavinelle continued to smile. “I would not like for you to upset the teachers so soon.”

“...Fiiiiine.” Floyd groaned as he briefly ran a hand through his hair, expression mulish.  He then looked back over to where Mx. Yuu and Mr. Grim were.  Jade watched his brother cup his hands around his mouth before calling out to the human and monster. “Bye, Shrimpy and Seal!  I’ll see you later~!”

Jade watched as the cat-monster jolted with shock; the feline probably hadn’t noticed the Leech twins until now.  Mx. Yuu, on the other hand, turned away from the bush they had recently saved and merely smiled tentatively while shyly waving at Floyd.  Their tired gaze then slid over to Jade, and Mx. Yuu’s eyes widened briefly with surprise.  It was always amusing to see people do double-takes at the sight of Floyd and him, and so Jade chuckled softly, smiling politely at Mx. Yuu.  Twins were apparently a relatively uncommon thing on land compared to the sea.

But then Jade was surprised by the wariness that began to edge into Mx. Yuu’s gaze, their smile fading just a bit.  Hmm...so Mx. Yuu seemed to be the cautious type around strangers.  That might be a bit of an obstacle if Azul wanted Mx. Yuu to make a Deal; Mr. Grim looked like one of the simpler ones to trick.  For now...the Octavinelle students will just have to find a way to gain Mx. Yuu’s trust.  Jade hummed to himself as he nodded his head in Mx. Yuu’s direction before following Floyd out of the courtyard and back into the school halls.

“...They reminded me of someone.” Floyd abruptly commented as they went deeper into the main school building.

Jade blinked before looking over at his bother with a slightly raised eyebrow.  When Floyd turned his head to look at Jade, the latter was surprised by the uncharacteristically solemn look on the other’s face.  Floyd didn’t say anything else after that, and it left Jade feeling a bit lost.  Jade glanced over his shoulder to look at where Mx. Yuu was holding up a pair of shears for Mr. Grim to take again.  One thing was for certain.

Mx. Yuu had caught the interest of Azul, Floyd, and Jade.  They were a potential client...and a person who was about to do various things that would be very...very amusing in the near future.

~~

That human kid over there is way too skinny, was the first thing Ruggie Bucchi thought when he looked over at a teen, whom he had never seen before around the school grounds.  They were sitting on a table in the far corner of the cafeteria with some sort of funky-lookin’ cat, who was digging into, what looked like, a tuna sandwich…while the human had nothing.

What the hell.  Anyone could see that the human kid was underfed.  Sure, they had some meat on those bones, but the unhealthy hollowness of their cheeks and the bags underneath their eyes were quite telling of their current well-being.  Ruggie’s knee bounced as he sat at a random table in the cafeteria, giving careless waves to random Savanaclaw students that greeted him.  He wasn’t the vice-dorm leader, but he was somewhat respected among the students because of his closeness with a certain lazy lion.

The hyena-beastman kept on glancing over at the odd human and the cat, hands resting beside two multi-meat sandwiches on the table for his and Leona’s lunch; it wasn’t as good as the deluxe minced cutlet sandwich, but it was something to sate his kingliness’ tastes.  Anyways, he had been planning to leave the cafeteria immediately after getting lunch, but his nose caught a familiar, unpleasant scent.

The human kid didn’t actually smell bad; their natural scent was sweet and soft with a mix of other things that Ruggie couldn’t quite identify.  The thing that Ruggie was smelling, beneath their natural scent, was the state of their health.  Sick people and healthy people smell different--and this kid right here was smelling like the former.  And the coat-wearing human didn’t just smell sick...it was that nauseating, sour scent of someone who was starving.  Ruggie loathed that scent, having smelt it for so long when he was little. 

...Damn it.  Ruggie’s nails scraped over the wooden surface of the table as he warred with himself for a moment.  He really shouldn’t get himself involved, but he found himself finally standing up from the table he had been sitting on while eyeing the kid and cat--but mostly the human.  After scooping up the sandwiches, he swiftly made his way across the cafeteria, doing his best to relax his posture to come across as friendly. 

“...Heya, kid.” Ruggie called out with an easy-going smile while mentally cursing his habit of immediately wanting to feed any malnourished-looking kid he comes across.

Ruggie watched as the kid turned around in their seat slightly.  They didn’t look very surprised to see him, and the hyena-beastman silently wondered if he had been staring that intently at them for the human to have expected his approach.  The human did look a little tense though, wary eyes darting around the cafeteria for a moment before settling back on Ruggie.

Damn, they really looked terrible up close.  The human looked like they should be in bed at the moment.  The large coat really wasn’t helping; the clothes that seemed a bit big for them just made them look smaller...and frail.  However, the assessing glint in their eyes did make Ruggie pause a little.  It was like the look of a cornered prey about to fight back--...no, that was wrong.  It was like being in front of a wounded predator, who was prepared to lash out at any second.  Ruggie felt a strange sense of pride within him at the sight; he was reminded of the few strays back home who had such a look in their eyes as well--the ones who were determined to live.

The cat on the other hand jumped slightly at the sound of the Savanaclaw second-year’s voice, puffing up a little before he quickly scampered along the surface of the table, half a tuna sandwich in his mouth, to sit with the human slightly between him and Ruggie.  Obviously, the cat hadn’t expected Ruggie’s sudden appearance at their table.  The cat narrowed his blue gaze at Ruggie suspiciously as his dark gray fur continued to stand on end, canines sinking into the soft bread of his sandwich as he held it in his mouth.

“...Hello…” The human finally greeted softly after a slightly awkward pause of looking at each other.

“I noticed ya’ weren’t eatin’ anythin’.” Ruggie hummed, and frick, this was awkward...but he handed out his sandwich to the human. “Ya’ look like you’re skin n’ bones, so why don’t ya’ have somethin’?”

“I…” They blink their eyes rapidly with surprise, pausing.  They glance down at the sandwich held out to them before looking back up at Ruggie.  They flex the fingers of their bandaged--Why was it bandaged?--right hand. “I...finished lunch already, and I had a big breakfast this morning.”

...Wildebeest-frickin’-shit.  Ruggie’s lax grin became slightly strained.  He may have come into the cafeteria after the human and the cat, but it was obvious that the kid hadn’t eaten lunch.  The thing about eating a ‘big breakfast’ seemed like a lie as well.  The hyena-beastman had to admit that the human had a good poker face, lying in front of him without batting an eye.  They did hesitate briefly, but their expression definitely looked like a hard mask to crack; Ruggie silently wondered what kind of people they met since they had to apparently perfect it.  Before the Savanaclaw second-year could say anything, the cat spoke up.

“No you didn’t.” The cat butted in with a look of confusion as he held the remaining bite of his sandwich between his paws. “You didn’t eat lunch--you said you weren’t hungry.  And for breakfast, you barely finished the soup that the bird-man gave you last night.  In fact, I don’t think you didn’t even finish it at all this morning.  You’re super slow at eating, henchman.”

Judging by the human’s face, they had not expected Grim to blatantly give out information to Ruggie just like that.  They jerkily look at the cat with wide eyes before glancing back over at the Savanaclaw second-year, trying to regain control over their expression.  Ruggie tried to keep his face blank, but a grimace wormed its way onto his lips.  They looked ready to completely avoid this conversation all together.

Ruggie went about this the wrong way.  Thinking back to new strays that he would come across, he was being a bit too suspicious with the kid in front of him.  If they wouldn’t take the food immediately, he had to gain their trust first.  Ah, but even if they won’t accept the food in the end, Ruggie will just throw it at them and leave.

“...I’m Ruggie Bucchi, a second-year.  I’m one of the students in the Savanaclaw dorm.” Ruggie decided to introduce himself with a grin, still holding the sandwich in front of the human before him. “Ya’ don’t have ta’ tell me who you are, but at least eat somethin’--even if yer’ slow at it.”

...The kid still didn't take the food.  Well, on to Plan B--leave the food and go.  Before the kid could form a response, Ruggie quickly deposited his sandwich down onto the table in front of them; he had quite a few sandwiches he could eat stashed away back at the Savanaclaw dorm, so it was fine.  The hyena-beastman grinned toothily at the human kid as they glanced at the sandwich and back at him with a slightly open mouth of surprise.

“No take-backsies~!” Ruggie sang...and then his grin became a little lopsided. “...Even if ya’ get nauseous, try to eat as much as possible, ‘kay?”

Ruggie didn’t wait for their answer, quickly turning on his heel before he began whistling a random tune to show some nonchalance, as if he did this for any stranger he met.  He heard a jumbled sentence of protest from the kid, and the hyena-beastman groaned internally, wondering if he had to argue with the human to just.  Take.  The damn.  Sandwich.  But then the cat surprisingly cut in.

“Just eat the sandwich, stupid human.  I can’t have a weakling as one of my henchmen.” The cat grumbled.

Kudos to the feline, since the human’s protests seemed to die out soon enough.  Ruggie wasn’t sure if the human was gonna actually eat the sandwich, but he hoped they would in the end.  The Savanaclaw student frowned faintly to himself as he made his way out of the cafeteria, thinking about the hint of scars nicking the human's fingers and the slightly visible ones around their neck--

Ruggie then shook his head.  He had no damn reason to stick his nose further into things that had nothing to do with him.  The Savanaclaw student sighed to himself as he glanced down at the multi-meat sandwich in his hand, thinking back to his original reason for coming to the cafeteria in the first place.  He had a certain lazy lion to take care of…

… 

…And yet…Ruggie idly wondered if that too-skinny kid in the cafeteria had a favorite food they wanted to eat.  Maybe he could ask the cafeteria cooks if they can make it for him.

~~

This really sucks, Grim thought, as he lounged around on one of the empty cafeteria tables.  It was now the end of school, so there wasn’t really anyone around at the moment.  After the...weird situation with lunch, finishing up his first punishment was easy.  Grim had to admit that his henchman was really good at cleaning; they did it quickly and neatly.  The Great Lord Grim did his fair share of his punishment as well, and he felt relieved that he only had to clean from Main Street to the library area.  Still, it was a stupid amount of work.  Becoming a student at Night Raven College better be worth it.

And now, Grim was waiting to start his second punishment with that crappy bastard from this morning.  At the moment, Grim’s henchman had to leave because that stupid bird-man stopped by to drag them off to some person named 'Sam'.  With the knowledge of the conversation last night that the cat-monster half-payed attention to, Grim deduced that his henchman was about to be interviewed by the Sam-person to get a job at a store.

It was bad timing though.  Grim was sure, with the help of Yuu, he could’ve quickly gotten through the 100 window punishment without that fire-head student!  And speaking of that bastard, Ace, Grim was silently wondering why that inferior human was taking so long to get to the cafeteria.  Well, Ace didn’t have the advantage of flying, so that was a thing…

If that bastard Ace had forgotten about the 100 window punishment, then Grim will be pissed--...damn it.  That crappy human probably didn’t forget--he purposely skipped, and he was probably laughing at the Great Lord Grim right now!  Grim growled lowly as the claws in his forepaws came out; he barely stopped himself from scratching the surface of the table below him since the cat had already been nagged enough by Yuu to not damage school property.

Honestly, Grim is inclined to forget about all of Yuu’s admonishments at this point.  That fire-head bastard was going down…!  Grim flew up from the table, glancing over the clock to indeed confirm that it had almost been an hour since school had ended.  The cat-monster huffed, flames edging at the corners of his mouth as he then quickly left the cafeteria.  The Great Lord Grim was gonna find Ace and drag that bastard back over here to make him clean 100 windows!

...And then Grim will sneak away and leave the punishment for Ace.  It was the bastard’s fault that he got caught up in this mess in the first place.

~~

Gazing into the blazing, gold eyes of the Headmaster, Deuce Spade, a freshman of Heartslabyul, wasn’t exactly sure how it had all happened.

The first day had been...a little stifling.  It wasn’t something he couldn’t handle.  But it was just...something that he wasn’t used to doing.  Yet Deuce had to do this--for the sake of his mother.  A part of him warms at the thought of her...and then it twists into something painful.  Deuce silently wondered if he could’ve possibly done anything bad today, but no teacher had said anything, so he believed he was in the clear.  Was he on the right path in making his mother proud?

Deuce had been calmly making his way back to the mirror that led to his dorm--and then he heard shouting coming from behind him.  Deuce had then paused in his walk, blinking his eyes rapidly with surprise before he turned slightly, widening his eyes when he saw a ginger-haired student running down the dimly-lit hall towards him.

“Outta the way!  Move it!” The ginger-haired student had barked at him, and Deuce could only stumble out of the way, watching with wide eyes as the other student barreled past.

“Hey, you!” Another voice had shouted at Deuce, and the Heartslabyul freshman was surprised to see a talking raccoon rushing towards him through the air--wait, wasn’t that the monster from last night’s ceremony?  Deuce could only lift a hand to point at himself.  What the hell was going on?  Deuce just wanted to get back to his dorm in time before he could anger Prefect Rosehearts.

“M-Me?”

“Yeah, you!” The raccoon hissed with anger as he panted heavily.  He started to sag downwards slightly, looking prepared to flop onto the floor, but his bright blue eyes were filled with determination and anger.  He jabbed a paw through the air to point at the student who had ran past Deuce. “Stop that bastard!  He’s trying to escape a punishment!”

“S-Stop him…!?” Deuce whipped his head over to look at the retreating back of the ginger-haired student.  And this other student was trying to escape a punishment?  What had the ginger-haired student done to get in trouble--?  Argh, Deuce had no time to think about this!  The raccoon said to stop the student because he was running from a punishment, right?  It would be right for Deuce to lend a hand and stop this ginger-haired teen right here and now. “Do I freeze him place--?  No, no, no…!  What about rope--?”

“Just do something already!” The raccoon shouted as he regained enough breath to start flying after the other student, who was just at the end of the hall.  Deuce bit his lip as he reached for his pen tucked into his breast pocket, the gem glinting slightly as he waved it through the air.  Maybe...something heavy?

Deuce concentrated sharply, and with a spark of magic, a cauldron popped into the air...and slammed down onto the head of the ginger-haired student before he could make a turn into a different hallway.  Deuce winced a little, silently wondering if he had overdone it as he dismissed the cauldron, which disappeared with a sparkling cloud of smoke that quickly dissipated.  The navy-haired teen was a little satisfied by his accomplishment though as he quickly jogged down the hall to catch up with the ginger-head.

Gyahaha~!  Now you’ve become a pancake, stupid human!” The raccoon laughed with triumph as he floated above the student on the ground.

“Frick, that hurt…!” The ginger-haired teen hissed, and Deuce felt like he had seen this person before, but he wasn’t sure where.  The navy-haired teen was pulled out of his thoughts when the other student--another person from Heartslabyul, Deuce noted--spoke, words directed at the raccoon. “You damn cat.” Oh, the raccoon was actually a cat. “I don’t see the reason why you need to chase me down.  You can wash a hundred windows on your own, right?”

“Wh--a hundred windows?” Deuce spluttered, baffled as he watched the ginger-haired student get back up onto his feet without assistance. “What exactly did you do?”

“‘What did I do’?” The ginger-haired teen parroted with indignation as he whirled around to face Deuce, rubbing the back of his head with a grimace. “I didn’t do anything!  It’s all that cat's fault!  He’s the one that almost burned the Queen of Hearts’ statu--”

“You two burned the statue!?” Deuce cried out, appalled.  Damn it, did he already get mixed up with the wrong people?

Almost!  The Queen of Hearts’ statue almost got burned.” The ginger-head stressed with exasperation. “And I had nothing to do with that incident!  I got dragged into it by this little piece of sh--......” Deuce and the other Heartslabyul student turned their heads to see the empty spot of where a certain cat should have been.  The ginger-haired teen’s voice became eerily calm, a tinge of anger beneath it all. “...Where the hell did he go?”

Did...did he just help the wrong person, Deuce wondered, mouth slightly agape when he barely caught sight of the cat running back in the direction they had all come from.  Deuce could faintly hear the cat’s cackling before the feline was too far away to be audible.  The navy-haired teen could feel and hear the ginger-head silently seething beside him.

“...Okay, you’re helping me catch that damn raccoon!” The ginger-haired teen abruptly said, and Deuce turned a startled look to the other Heartslabyul student.  Wait, was the animal a cat or a raccoon?  Deuce was getting a bit confused, but more importantly...

“Wh-What?  Why me!?”

“Firstly, you probably gave me a concussion with that damn pot.” The ginger-haired teen said, and Deuce winced a little, fingers fiddling with his pen guiltily. “Secondly, you’ve become involved with this situation, so now it's part of your responsibility to help me get the cat.  So let’s go...uh…?”

“Deuce.  Deuce Spade.” The navy-haired teen introduced himself while beginning to realize where exactly he had seen this ginger-head before--at the entrance ceremony.  Deuce’s next words were dry. “We’re both freshmen of the Heartslabyul dorms.  You should know the name of your fellow classmates...”

“Oh yeah?” The ginger-head snapped back, raising an eyebrow at the navy-haired teen challengingly. “Then what’s my name?”

Damn.  Deuce floundered for a moment, realizing his hypocrisy.  The other Heartslabyul student merely smirked with amusement as he brought out his own pen from his breast pocket.

“Ah, whatever.  Just call me Ace.” The ginger-head--Ace--said flippantly before he quickly began to run down the hall, calling over his shoulder. “Let’s hurry and catch the raccoon, Juice!”

“It’s Deuce!”

And so the chase began once more.  Deuce just hoped that he would be able to return to the Heartslabyul dorm on time.

~~

Apparently, being late to the dorm should have been the least of Deuce’s worries.  After chasing the cat into the cafeteria, Deuce had tried to launch Ace at the feline, but that had gone...poorly.  And now...Deuce, Ace, and the cat stood--the latter was floating--before the Headmaster...and there was another, shorter teen just off to the side of the masked man.

They were dressed differently from a student, the thin fingers of their bandaged right hand wrapped around the handles of a plastic bag they were carrying.  The short teen looked shocked at the state of the cafeteria...then exasperated...and finally accepting and guilty, as if they had expected this to happen.  They exhaled softly and shut their eyes for a moment.

Deuce felt a cold sweat run down the back of his neck as he swallowed harshly, lowering his gaze to the colorful shards of glass at his feet.  He was almost afraid to turn and see the full extent of the damage he had caused.  Oh no...what would his mother think when she hears the news?

This…!” Headmaster Crowley hissed. “This...IS THE LAST STRAW!” Deuce flinched at the volume of the masked man’s voice. “You three…...I shall have all of you expelled!”

E-Expulsion?!  Deuce’s heart plummeted to his stomach as he sucked in a sharp breath, fingers trembling with how hard he was clutching his pen at the moment.  If only he hadn’t…!  Damn it, he couldn’t let this happen!

“I-Is there any way to rescind the expulsion?  I can pay for the expenses of the chandelier if I must!” Deuce nearly begged. “Please, Headmaster!  I still have something to do at this scho--!”

“This chandelier cannot be lit again due to the idiocy of every single one of you.” Headmaster Crowley interrupted coolly. “The magic core-crystal within the chandelier--which was a masterpiece that had been crafted by a legendary master of magical tools, mind you--has been shattered and cannot just be replaced by another.  Also, addressing your offer of paying for the damages, Mr. Spade--are you willing to give a billion madol to fix the chandelier?  As I mentioned before, this chandelier is extremely unique, and cannot be mended through simple means.  And before you say anything, Mr. Trappola, this cannot be fixed with mere magic!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Deuce saw Ace lower his raised hand, the ginger-head’s lips pressed together tightly.  Deuce himself was panicking internally, squeezing his eyes shut.  It was only the first day, and yet he messed everything up so badly.  He had his only chance, and he blew it.  Was there really no way to get out of expulsio--?

“Is there a way for them to find a core-crystal that originated from the same place?” A soft, scratchy voice spoke up.

Deuce snapped his eyes open and looked over at the teen who wore a coat that was just a bit too big for them.  They were looking at Headmaster Crowley at the moment, gaze calm.  The masked man stared down at the short teen for a bit with surprise in his gaze and posture before he turned contemplative.  Deuce felt hope stirring within him.

“I…...well, there is a place where they could get another core-crystal.” The Headmaster murmured thoughtfully, and Deuce stood up straighter, glancing over at the short teen beside the masked man with gratitude for a brief moment before focusing completely on the next few spoken words. “The core-crystal that you all shattered had come from the Dwarf Mines.  If you can find another one that resides in those mines, then the repairs to the chandelier might be possible.” Before Deuce could make a comment, the Headmaster continued to speak, one gloved hand moving underneath his chin as a taloned finger tapped his cheek pensively. “However, I cannot guarantee that there are any crystals left in the mine.  It has been closed for quite some time now…”

“Please allow me to go, Headmaster Crowley!” Deuce pleaded. “I’ll do anything--as long as I don’t get expelled.”

There was a brief pause, and Deuce waited with bated breath as the Headmaster mulled over his options.  After a few more tense seconds, the masked man made his decision. 

“...Oh, alright.” Headmaster Crowley relented with a sigh, and Deuce sagged with relief.  The masked man dropped his hand from his chin as he continued to speak. “I shall give you three one night.  By tomorrow morning, you must come back to me with a magic crystal, or you shall all face expulsion.”

“Thank you very much, Headmaster!” Deuce replied as he quickly bowed, watching out of the corner of his eye as Ace merely ducked his head in thanks while the cat huffed, looking upset.

“Well, I guess we gotta go and get that crystal.” Ace muttered with a sigh as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“This is just another punishment…” The cat grumbled as he crossed his arms, tail lashing around behind him.

It ticked Deuce off.  They should be grateful for the chance that was given to them!  Honestly, Deuce wanted to give those two a piece of his mind with his fists--no, no, no.  He couldn’t do that--shouldn’t do that.  Deuce had to calm down.  Still, the navy-haired teen’s hands closed tightly into fists at his sides, his gloves squeaking softly as he exhaled shakily.

“May I go with them?” The soft voice of the short teen spoke up once more--and who was this person?

Deuce had a feeling that he saw this person before recently.  Similarly with his introduction with Ace, Deuce was struck with a realization; this person had been the one sorted into no dormitory last night...and they had assisted in bringing the cat under control.  Also, didn’t they give up their place in the school for the cat to become a student?  Why were they still here?  Well, all Deuce knew was that the cat had been an intruder and this short teen beside the Headmaster had teleported to Night Raven College on accident.  Deuce wondered what had happened throughout the rest of the night when all the freshmen left to their dorms and the short teen and cat was left with the Headmaster.  

“I have a feeling that if they go on their own, something bad might happen.” They explained to Headmaster Crowley, and there’s nothing condescending in their tone, so Deuce isn’t really offended.  Thinking about it, it might be good to have at least one mediator in the group before Deuce can start strangling someone.  The navy-haired teen doesn’t feel like he can trust himself with his own emotions at this point.  They also seem to be a calm, level-headed person to keep an eye on Deuce, Ace, and the cat.

“Mx. Yuu, it is not necessary for you to--” The Headmaster protested.

“I was the one who badgered you into letting Lord Grim become a student of Night Raven College, and so he is somewhat my responsibility.” They--Yuu--cut in softly, and they smiled lopsidedly at the Headmaster as they adjusted their grip slightly on the bag they were carrying.  Why did the cat--Grim, apparently--have ‘Lord’ added to his name? “That means it’s partially my fault that the chandelier ended up broken.” Huh? “I should’ve asked to meet Mr. Sam tomorrow in order to keep an eye on Lord Grim throughout the rest of his punishment.”

Why were they...taking some of the blame?  Ace seemed equally confused, and Grim’s frown faded instantly.  The cat actually looked a little guilty for once now, ears flattening on his head as he stared at Yuu with wide eyes.  The Headmaster gazed at Yuu for a long moment, lips pressed together...before finally sighing with acceptance.

“...W-Well, alright--but you are not at fault for anything that has occurred this afternoon, Mx. Yuu.  I hope you know that.” The Headmaster replied softly--and Deuce, for some reason, felt like the masked man was acting very...gentle with Yuu?  Perhaps it was the navy-haired teen’s imagination. “You four can use the Gate in the Chamber of Mirrors to get to the Dwarf Mines.”

“We shall return before you know it, Headmaster!” Deuce replied earnestly.

Headmaster Crowley merely sighed softly as he shook his head for a brief moment.  The masked man looked at Yuu once more, and they sent a small, reassuring smile back at him.  With another sigh, the Headmaster finally nodded at the short teen and left the cafeteria, muttering to himself.  Everyone watched the masked man go for a moment before turning their gazes to look at each other; Yuu walked forward a little to stand just a few feet in front of them, the contents of the plastic in their hand making soft, clinking sounds with their movements.  Deuce idly wondered what was inside of the bag.

“...Hello again, Ace.” Yuu was the first to break the silence, their free hand held loosely at their side as they looked at the ginger-head.  It was as if their eyes were gazing into Ace’s soul, and the irises that seemed to glow flickered to look over at Grim from time to time.  They weren’t smiling, but their expression wasn’t unkind.

Uhhhh...sup, Yuu?” Ace replied awkwardly…...before jabbing the thumb of his gloved hand at Grim. “By the way, all of this happened because he was running away from the window punishm--”

“You were the one who ran away first!” Grim snarled, the fur on his back standing on end. “If you hadn’t--!”

“Lord Grim.  Ace.” Yuu called out coolly, and their eyebrows are now pinched together slightly, though their overall expression was still calm.

Deuce was amazed when the ginger-head and cat actually went silent--just because the shorter teen called their names.  The navy-haired teen was a little confused with Yuu’s current place in this school.  Were they a student despite not wanting to end up at Night Raven College in the first place?  Were they a staff member?  Deuce was quickly drawn out of his thoughts and stood up straighter when Yuu’s gaze fell upon him next.  The furrow between their eyebrows faded, and they sent a tentative smile at Deuce, making the Heartslabyul student relax a little at the sight.

“I’m sorry that you ended up getting dragged into this.” They say--and they really apologize a lot for things that were out of their control, don’t they? “You can call me Yuu, Mr….?”

“A-Ah, my name is Deuce.  Deuce Spade.” The Heartslabyul freshman quickly replied with a small smile, stretching a gloved hand out for Yuu to shak--Deuce blinked his eyes with surprise when the shorter teen flinched back a little.

Before Deuce could retract his hand in confusion, Yuu reached out.  Deuce wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a slight tremble in their small, thin fingers before they tried to wrap around his hand; the navy-haired teen couldn’t help but study the tiny scars nicking their knuckles and their fingers for a moment.  Yuu smiled nervously at Deuce, giving a quick, loose shake of their hand with his before releasing their grip.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Spade.” They reply with that scratchy, soft voice of theirs.

“‘Deuce’ is just fine, Mx. Yuu.” Deuce quickly protested, and the shorter teen smiled.  Were they older than him despite their height?  Yuu acted like they were older.

“Then just ‘Yuu’ will be fine with me as well.” Yuu replied, and Deuce felt his awkward smile strengthen a little.

“Can we get going now?” Ace complained, and Deuce frowned at the ginger-head’s rudeness--though the navy-haired teen silently felt the same.  They have to get a magic core-crystal by tomorrow morning or the three of them will end up being expelled.

Yuu merely nodded their head at Ace and stepped to the side; it was apparent that they wanted someone else to take the lead.  And so the ginger-head walked forward and made his way out of the cafeteria, Deuce quickly following.  Grim was floating after the two Heartslabyul students, but then Deuce noted how the cat paused for a moment, looking back at something.

When Deuce was just out of the cafeteria doors, the naby-haired student looked back into the wrecked room and followed Grim’s gaze to Yuu, who was still standing where they were.  The shorter teen was saying something to the air in front of them, but Deuce couldn’t quite make out their words with how softly they were speaking.  They then lifted the plastic bag up and placed it down onto a table before...bowing to the room?  What? Even Grim was staring at the short teen with confusion before they quickly made their way over to the cafeteria door.

“U-Um...what were you doing, Yuu?” Deuce decided to ask as the shorter teen came to a stop beside the navy-haired student and Grim.

“Just apologizing to the ones working here.  I left them something small for their hard work.” Yuu replied simply as they smiled mysteriously at Deuce before walking on ahead. “Let’s get going for now. Ace is almost at the end of the hallway.”

Looking over at Grim, the cat merely shrugged before floating after Yuu.  Deuce was lost for a moment...before he shook his head, sighing to himself; he had far more important things to worry about rather than Yuu’s mysteriousness.  Glancing at the empty cafeteria before he left, Deuce thought he caught a glimpse of...tiny, glowing figures flitting around the plastic bag on the table; there was also faint, tinkling laughter in the air.  The navy-haired teen merely sighed and quickly jogged down the hall to quickly catch up with the others.

~~

“May I...ask about your relationship with Grim?  It’s very...odd.” Deuce decided to ask as they made their way down a dirt path covered in patches of overgrown grass and weeds.  Ace was on the left of the navy-haired teen while Yuu was at his right.  Occasionally, Grim floated ahead before eventually returning to drift at Yuu’s right side.

“I’m Lord Grim’s henchman.” Yuu replied instantly with a small smile, and Deuce gaped slightly at the shorter teen.  Floating behind Yuu’s turned head, Grim grinned proudly, puffing his chest up.  Honestly, Deuce wanted to hear a bit more backstory than that.

“Just go with it.” Deuce heard Ace whisper to him, and the navy-haired teen turned his head to look at the ginger-head. “Yuu’s just a little weird.”

Deuce frowned at the other Heartslabyul student.  Didn’t Ace realize that Yuu had been the one to save all of their asses from expulsion on the spot?  The ginger-head should be grateful to Yuu...though, they are a bit strange.  So many things have happened to him after school had ended, and Yuu was just adding onto the whirlwind of thoughts running rampant through his head.  However, right now, Deuce just wanted to get the core-crystal and head back to the school; that was all he had to focus on at the moment.

The four of them briefly stop at...some sort of cottage after they crossed a wooden bridge arching over a sparkling river.  They wanted to ask some questions about the mine, but the little home was abandoned and covered in a heavy layer of dust.  Looking at the small chairs and beds scattered around, Deuce frowned faintly and wondered if a family had lived near the Dwarf Mines before they unfortunately closed; it made the navy-haired student feel a little sad for the inhabitants of the cottage that were no longer here.

Before they left, Yuu stayed at the entrance of the cottage for a long moment, seemingly lost in thought before they followed after Deuce, Ace, and Grim.  Finally, the group saw the entrance of the mine just a handful of yards away, the road becoming harder to discern from the grass lining the edges of the dirt path.

“...I smell ink.” Yuu whispered softly once they all slowed to a stop at the entrance.

The two Heartslabyul students and Grim looked at Yuu with confusion, but they were gazing intently into the darkness of the mine.  Deuce turned his gaze back to the mine, shivering when cold air brushed his cheeks.  The entrance alone looked ominous; it was too dark to peer inside, and the roots of the tree growing above it looked like creeping, spindly fingers slowly edging their way over the opening.

“Uh...we gotta go in...th-there?” Grim hissed, tail lashing around.  Deuce noted the slight tremor in the cat’s voice.

“What, ya’ scared, raccoon?” Ace sneered at the feline--though Deuce caught the slight furrow between the ginger-head’s eyebrows.  Was Ace worried about whatever could be inside the mine as well?  Deuce had to admit that he was feeling uneasy as well.  Yuu seemed the most calm about this situation.

“Wh--no!  The Great Lord Grim is not scared!” Grim snapped back, floating a little higher as he crossed his arms; however, the cat’s tail continued to lash around agitatedly. “I bet you’re the one who’s scared, stupid jerk!”

“Oh, you want a rematch, pipsqu--?”

“We’re not here to argue!” Deuce huffed as he stepped forward slightly to block the Ace and Grim’s view of each other.  The navy-haired freshman was careful to not trip over the rusted minecart rails below his feet. “All we need to do is find a magic crystal and bring it back to the Headmaster!  We can bicker later.”

“Who put you in charge?” Ace mocked back, and Deuce felt a vein pulse at his temple.

“I don’t take orders from the likes of you, lowly human.” Grim scoffed.  Deuce was getting really inclined to strangle this little--!

Stop.” Yuu cut in, and there was something sharp and cold in their voice that made the other three pause; Deuce shivered when he felt something in the air for a moment.  Magic?  Ace and Grim froze, and Deuce sent a wary look over to Yuu.  Their expression was still calm...but their blazing eyes stared them down. “...As Deuce said...we just need a magic crystal to bring back.  Right now, we won’t get anything done if we all fight.”

Once again, Deuce admired the authority Yuu managed to use to instantly silence Ace and Grim’s bickering.  Although Ace made a face and Grim frowned, the two said nothing to each other for a long moment.  The ginger-head then sighed, throwing his hands up into the air before he began making his way into the mine.

“Fine.  Fine!  Let’s just get the crappy crystal and get out of here.” Ace huffed as he then lowered his hands and reached into his breast pocket for his pen.

Muttering a spell, the gem lit up a little, casting a soft, red glow over the area.  It wasn’t very bright, but it was better than nothing; Deuce brought out his own pen to do the same.  Grim didn’t really have to do anything, the flames at the tips of his ears casting a blue glow over everything.  The light from their pens and Grim’s ears mixed a little, purple light flickering on the rough, stone walls of the entrance.  The three of them made their way…..wait, the three of them?

Deuce blinked.  Ace was in front of him...Grim was a bit behind Deuce, and Yuu was...by the entrance?  Ace and Grim noticed as well, and they turned to look at the opening of the mine, where Yuu was still standing.

“What’s the h-hold up, henchman?” Grim was the first to prompt.

It was apparent that the cat was still uncomfortable with being in the mine, his fur standing end, but he was further inside compared to Yuu.  Deuce was concerned when Yuu didn’t respond.  It was a bit hard to see their expression with the moonlight shining from behind them, casting shadows over their face.  Were they alright? 

“Aw, Yuu, are you scared?” Ace teased once he moved a good few feet further into the cave, voice slightly echoing.  The ginger-head waved his pen around, the red glow of his gem following his movements.  Despite the bad lighting, Deuce could see the little smirk on Ace’s face.

“A little.” Came Yuu’s response, and Ace stuttered to a stop at the instant, honest reply.

“...What?” Ace laughed a little, though it sounded unsure.  When he turned to look at the entrance, Deuce could see his amber eyes glow a little, reflecting the glow of his gem and the moonlight that managed to reach this far into the cave. “Are you...afraid of the dark?”

“...I’m...mildly uncomfortable with enclosed spaces, to be honest with you all…” Yuu murmured softly.  They were...claustrophobic?  Deuce sent a concerned look over at Yuu, who was still standing at the entrance of the mine.  The navy-haired teen moved his way back towards the opening, and Yuu’s face became a little more visible.  He was startled by the...murky look within their gaze...before they blinked their eyes rapidly, as if coming back to themself.  A crooked smile--fragile-looking--managed to appear on their face, and their next few words were apologetic. “A-Ah, but I’m wasting our time.  I’ve been in a few caves and mines before when I was...little, so I should be sucking it up.”

What the hell were you doing in those caves and mines when you were a kid, Deuce wanted to ask.  Maybe Yuu and their family liked...hiking and going into mountains?  That was plausible--though Yuu just didn’t seem to be the type of person who did those kinds of things.  Well, Deuce could be wrong.

“I’m sure you can stay outside if you are uncomfortable, Yuu.” Deuce offered, eyebrows pinched together with worry.

“...Someone has to keep an eye on you three and make sure you don’t fight.” Yuu then managed to say, a cheeky look that Deuce had never seen before entering their gaze.  Their smile gained a little more strength and they exhaled, shutting their eyes for a moment.  After a handful of seconds, they opened their eyes once more. “Sorry for wasting all of your time.  Let’s get going.”

After about ten minutes of searching and finding beautiful, colorful, yet unfortunately, normal crystals along the walls, the four of them run into a group of ghosts.  It was when the three humans and a monster entered a more open area linked to various tunnels, that the ghosts appeared, laughing and circling the group.  The spirits made comments about games, pranks, and new friends.  Grim puffed up briefly, hissing loudly.  Ace and Deuce had jumped, alarmed and prepared to defend themselves against the ghosts, but Yuu quickly intervened. 

“I’m sorry that we’re invading your space.” Yuu said as they bowed a little, and the ghosts paused in their actions, watching the short teen with mild surprise.  They obviously weren’t expecting those words to be the first to fall from Yuu’s mouth. “My companions and I are here to find a magic core-crystal.  I know it might not matter to all of you, but they really need one.  We’re sorry to disturb you, but we’re not here to do anything else--I promise.”

There was a brief pause, each group glancing at their companions for a moment, contemplating.  The ghosts were the first to break the silence, voices cheerful and friendly.

“Aw, well aren’t you a polite one, ya’ little ankle-biter!” The second ghost chortled merrily at Yuu before looking over at the first phantom. “Hey, can we keep them?  Pleeease?”

“Yer’ all lookin’ for a...magic crystal?” The first ghost asked Yuu, ignoring the second phantom’s words as he crossed his arms, looking at the short teen with bemusement. “You all should know that this place has been closed down for a good long while…”

“But you’ve seen one?” Deuce interjected hopefully, overcoming his wariness with desperation.  They had to find a crystal--soon.  But the navy-haired student’s eyebrows furrowed when the ghost seemed to...shiver?  It didn’t look like the phantom did it because he was cold--rather, he was...remembering something?  The first ghost looked away, his pale face a mix of emotions.

“W-Well, even if we did tell you…” The third ghost murmured to himself, looking extremely troubled as he fiddled with his cloak. “I-I don’t know if it’ll be a good idea for y’all to look for it…”

Why?  Deuce was getting frustrated.  It could take hours to look through the entire mine without directions.  Looking around briefly at the walls and tunnels filled with non-magical crystal, Deuce was feeling a little hopeless.  Earlier, he was worried about time, but now he was concerned about finding a single damn magic crystal in this place--   

Out of the corner of his eye, Deuce saw Yuu abruptly tense up beside him, and the navy-haired freshman looked over at the shorter teen with concern.  He had been keeping an occasional eye on them as they all went deeper into the mine, and Yuu had been a little skittish, eyes darting around the area.  Deuce had been prepared to help guide them back out of the mine if they didn’t want to be here anymore.

Right now, their gaze focused on something that wasn’t the ghosts around them, head tilted slightly to the side as if they were listening closely to something.  While Ace and Grim continued to ask the ghosts questions about the place, Deuce watched as Yuu shifted their feet slightly, facing one of the tunnels that led deeper into the mine.  The navy-haired Heartslabyul student thought he saw a flicker of blue flames lick at Yuu’s fingertips, but then his gaze was drawn to the dark entrance of the tunnel they were looking at.  He squinted, trying to peer into the darkness, but he couldn’t see anything.

“Yuu...?” Deuce decided to call out tentatively--but he snapped his mouth shut when Yuu jerked a hand up into the air for silence.  This actually caught the attention of the others, and they fell silent too, everyone listening to their surroundings.

First…...there was nothing.  Deuce strained his hearing, wondering what was making Yuu act like this.  Grim then seemed to be the next one to tense, ears twitching on top of his head, nose scrunching, fur standing up, and tail lashing around nervously.  What was--?  And then Deuce heard something soft.

...øn’t....iv..e....ø....ne...

Was that...a voice?  Was it just another ghost?  When Deuce glanced over at the ghosts already here with them, he felt worried when he saw that the mischievous phantoms look so...fearful.  Deuce snapped his gaze back over to the tunnel Yuu was staring at when he heard something...metal scrap along a stone surface.  There were also heavy footsteps.  Frick, he still couldn’t really see anything in there.

“...H-Hey, if you rug-rats don’t wanna get hurt, you should leave while ya’ still can!” One of the phantoms said nervously.  When Deuce glanced over at the ghosts, he was astonished to see that a few of them had already gone, one spirit vanishing and another.

SšSśtØne...!  Mi..ne....ït’s...mÿ StoNę...!” The voice is much louder now, and Deuce shivered at how...raspy and warped it sounded.  What...what the hell was coming their way?

Deuce’s question was answered within a few seconds.

What stepped out of the tunnel was...something Deuce had never seen before.  Deuce felt a chill spread throughout his body as he stared at the...monstrosity in front of him.  It was dressed in a ragged, red, long sleeve button up covered in patches, and on its legs and feet were long, brown pants and pointed shoes; on its...head was a floppy hat.  But Deuce wasn’t really paying attention to its clothes.

It’s...head...it’s face…...it was some sort of large glass jar of black liquid, which seeped out and dripped onto the floor like obsidian blood, reflecting the glow of Ace and Deuce’s pens and Grim’s lit ears.  Deuce felt some sort of...darkness seep out, sucking all of the warmth in the area away, leaving them to feel...cold.  The navy-haired teen’s gaze nervously went down to the large pickaxe in its hand, the heavy metal part resting upon the ground; that was probably the cause of the scraping sound he heard earlier.  A dark miasma surrounded the monstrosity as it ‘looked’ at them without eyes, growling and gurgling.  And then...it spoke once more, shattering the tense silence it had created with its presence.

Ł E Ê E Ę A V E !” It screamed, and Deuce had to resist the urge to hold his hands over his ears, eyes widening with alarm--a bright ball of blue flames abruptly struck the monster in its side, causing it to stumble.

Deuce and Ace’s gazes immediately went towards Grim, but the cat was looking back at them both with confusion and terror; the three then looked over at Yuu, who had blue flames licking at the fingertips of their left hand, their bright eyes narrowed sharply.

“Everyone, find cover!” Yuu barked as they summoned another ball of flames, and Deuce found himself quickly obeying those words without question as the demonic creature wailed at all of them--before Yuu’s second attack struck it once more, smoke filling the area and obscuring them all.  The creature began to swing its pickaxe around blindly and violently.  Shit, shit, shit--!

“Woah!” Ace shouted when the pickaxe nearly hit him.

The ginger-head cursed up a storm aloud as he darted around the area, finding cover behind a tipped-over mining cart, Grim following after the amber-eyed teen despite disliking him; the cat was obviously too focused on the new threat to think about past events right now.  Deuce moved towards a formation of rocks beside the mining cart, Yuu at his back, and for some reason, it felt like the shorter teen was ushering him forward like a protective mother hen to her chick.  Deuce and Yuu quickly hid behind the rocks, and the navy-haired teen tried to calm his breathing, heart beating loudly in his ears.

With wide eyes, Deuce peered past the rocks to keep track of where the monster was now.  The navy-haired student wondered if it saw where all of them hid, but the abomination was fortunately stumbling towards a different area of the spacious mine, hacking and groaning as it moved in search of three humans and a cat.

W Ø N ‘ T . . .G I V Ę E Ê Ę E . . . !” It groaned.  Crap, what were they all gonna do in this situation? “W ø o O Ø o O n ‘ t    g - g Ï v e . . . T H Ê   S T Ö Ø O Ø Ö Ø N E !

The demonic being howled into the air around it, mutterin to itself still as it swung its pickaxe through the air agai--...wait a second.  Deuce widened his eyes a little.  Did it just…!?

Wait, did you all hear what it said?” Deuce then abruptly came to a realization, back straightening slightly in his crouched position.

“No, I was too distracted by the eldritch abomination murderously swinging its pickaxe at us!” Ace whisper-shouted in response with a deadpan expression as he glanced over at Deuce, who looked frustrated.

“Well, I’m certain it mentioned something about a stone!” Deuce hissed back sharply, quickly darting his gaze around the area. “It could be talking about a magic crystal!”

If this...monster was guarding a magic crystal, it had to be somewhere nearby, right?  Deuce quickly darted his gaze over to the tunnel where the creature had come from.  It was a little far, and it was dark.  Deuce strained his eyes, wondering if he might be wro--wait…!  Over there!  Just a few meters within the tunnel that the demonic being had left, there was a soft glow that magic crystals would show off compared to the other glittering gems within this mine.  All they had to do was grab that gem and get out of here!

“There’s a magic crystal--right over there in that tunnel!  The one that the monster came from.” Deuce quietly, yet quickly, reported, trying his best to form a plan despite the sudden situation. “If we distract the monster first, we can go and grab it.  And then we can run--!”

“Are you crazy!?” Ace hissed, gloved fingers wrapped tightly around his pen as his burning, amber gaze looked over at Deuce with disbelief; Grim trembled like a leaf in the wind beside the ginger-head.

“Th-There’s n-n-no way I’m gonna r-risk my life for that!” Grim stuttered badly, fur puffed up as his tail curled around himself.

Damn it.  Deuce stared at Ace and Grim with frustration before turning his gaze to Yuu.  The navy-haired teen felt his heart deflate a little when he immediately deciphered the disapproval in Yuu’s gaze; they didn’t like Deuce’s plan.  But...but…!  Crap, he was hoping that at least Yuu would understand a little.  But then...if no one was going to take the chance to get that crystal--

“Deuce.” Yuu said tensely as they watched the navy-haired first-year with narrowed, knowing eyes. “Deuce, don’t do it alone.  We need to get out of here first and--”

“I’m sorry, Yuu, but what if something happens when we retreat?  What if the crystal is no longer there by the time we get back here with a plan?  What if this...th-this thing takes it deeper into the mine?” Deuce whispered back harshly, his grip tightening around his pen as he concentrated on his magic.  He felt a little guilty at the panic that was starting to seep into Yuu’s gaze. “I-I’m really sorry...but this may be our only chance to get that crystal!  I’m going.”

“I can’t protect you all at once if you do thi--Deuce!”

Before Yuu could say anything else, Deuce sprung out and drew his pen through the air sharply.  All he could think of was the spell he used earlier that day, summoning and dropping a heavy cauldron onto the head of the monster.  The abomination let out a choked noise, and Deuce heard the cracking of glass as it staggered from where it was on the opposite side of the open area.  Deuce took this as his chance to run to the tunnel with the magic crystal.  He had to do this.  If he didn’t, his mother would be--!

DEUCE!” The navy-haired teen heard Yuu call out to him sharply.

Deuce gritted his teeth when he heard footsteps rush towards him, catching up with the Heartslabyul student quickly.  Was Yuu trying to stop him?  Couldn’t they just understand that he needed to get this crystal?  Deuce screeched to a halt in his running, prepared to confront Yuu as he quickly spun around to face them--and all words died in his throat when he saw that the monster was now looming over him, pickaxe raised high in the air.

Crap.  The abomination was much faster than he expected.  Deuce wanted to move--he really did, but his legs suddenly didn’t respond to his wishes.  The navy-haired teen did lift his pen up though, trying to think of a spell that could help him in this situation.  But everything was happening too fast.  Shit.

G ø . . . A W A Ÿ Y Ÿ Y!” The demonic being roared, its voice reverberating through Deuce’s head as black liquid leaked from its head and splattered onto the ground below.  Deuce was sure that something red would soon join the mess on the cold, stone floor.

...Deuce braced himself as the pickaxe swung through the air...and there was an audible ‘CRUNCH’ when the metal curve slammed into…

...Yuu’s back.

Deuce, who had been abruptly pushed backwards, distantly heard Ace and Grim inhale sharply or cry out with horror, but all of the falling navy-haired teen’s attention was on Yuu, whose face twisted into a sharp grimace...before their weight--which was concerningly light--abruptly fell upon him, the both of them hitting the ground harshly.

They...saved him, Deuce belatedly realized with growing shock as he laid there on the unforgiving ground, as if everything was suddenly hitting him at once.  Shit.  Yuu took a direct blow for the navy-haired teen because of his reckless charge towards the magic crystal.  Their...th-their spine must be...shattered…!

This was all his fault!  Panic rising within him, Deuce shakily wrapped his arms around Yuu, but his hands hovered over their back; he couldn’t see the extent of the damage now, and he was unsure if he would make it worse if he touched them.  The navy-haired Heartlabyul freshman cursed up a storm in his head at his own carelessness while calling the shorter teen’s name out loud with worry.

YUU!”