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Felix Culpa

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Petra and Jesse walked in silence through the town's high street. They passed the closed doors of the grocer with his window full of apples and oranges, the library with its sea green bound books displayed with signs pressed against the glass advertising enchanting, the small bank covered in vines, and the open market with the blacksmith's—all dark.

 

Past the glowstone streetlamps and the tall stone buildings, the smell of scorched pumpkin drifted down the wide road, jack-o'-lanterns lining the street corners. Some had E.C. carved into them, others gaped widely with the faces of Creepers, some were carved like cats or rabbits. They glowed in the night as greetings to the Con goers heading in early, walking back home with skeleton masks, Creeper heads, replicas of Gabriel's helmet, even hats with yarn stitched into them to mimic Ellegaard's signature curled hair and goggles.

 

Jesse was drying off the leather of her new baldric with her old shirt, adjusting her damp braid. Petra was squeezing out her cloth based armor pads, equally damp hair pulled back by her wet bandana and a hair tie from Jesse. They huddled close against the chilled air nipping at their dampened clothes.

 

"Let me know if you see Reuben anywhere," Jesse said, folding the yellow shirt up and sucking it back into her inventory with a pop.

 

"He's got to be here somewhere, Jesse."

 

"I hope you're right." She said, looking ahead of them at the EnderCon banner strung up over the end of the street.

 

"So, when we're making the deal, I need you to let me do the talking, okay?" Petra said, playfully snapping the leather strap around Jesse's waist for her attention. "I just don't want anything to screw this up. Or anyone."

 

"But talkings what I do best." She pressed a hand over her hip, tossing her braided hair over her shoulder. Petra didn't seem to catch the joke.

 

"Just, do me a favor and suppress your inner talent, okay?" She said earnestly.

 

"Petra, I'm only kidding." She bumped their shoulders with a smile.

 

"Oh, right yeah. No, of course." Petra said. She hesitated and bumped her back with a small upturn of her lips. "Sorry, not used to extended company."

 

"It's fine, I'm probably too used to being around Axel and Olivia. Our humor just hasn't totally adjusted to the other's yet." She said, idly tapping her nails against the small jar of resin in her pocket. She had taken it out of her inventory earlier, spending the journey to Beacontown turning it over in her hand and watching the sap loll about, "And since we're both being open here, should I be nervous about this?"

 

"Given your personality, your life experience, and everything else you've done to make it to this moment? Yes."

 

"Oh."

 

Petra nudged her with an elbow, smiling, "I'm also joking."

 

"Oh! No, right!" She laughed a little, moving the squat jar into her inventory next to the rolled-up shirt, lacing her hands together in front of her, "Right."

 

"Jeez, you were right. This really isn't a strong suit between us," Petra said, pushing back a damp clump of hair. "All joking aside though, can I trust you to work with me on this—with the deal?

 

"Of course. I'll let you handle all the talking and my mouth will remain shut." She said, holding her hand up in a scout's promise.

 

"If you really want to be useful, try to look intimidating."

 

"Oh, okay! Like this?" Jesse spread her feet apart and raised her shoulders, hands unfurled as she tried to growl. She looked like she was trying to mimic a feral cowboy more than anything.

 

"...I'm less scared of you than scared for you," Petra said, concealing a mirthful smile behind her hand.

 

Jesse dropped her stance and punched Petra's shoulder, the two laughing and approaching the tall black and magenta banner. "ENDERCON"  was printed across in bright purple; Jesse's woolen Creeper design towered over the entrance.

 

As they passed under the long stretch of fabric, Axel and Olivia turned the corner of the Creeper, whispering loudly to each other with wild hand gestures. Jesse noted their hands were as stain free as hers, exempting their deep green cuticles.

 

"Guys!" She called out, running to them.

 

"Jesse!" They called out, meeting her halfway as Axel grabbing her into a hug. He quickly let go with an "Egh!" at the wet state of her clothes, almost dropping her to the ground.

 

"And… Petra?" Olivia looked the two damp girls over.

 

"Hey, you all know Petra. My new super close friend." Jesse said unconvincingly, grinning proudly nonetheless. "We're super close now."

 

The two looked at her, unimpressed, and Petra placed a hand over her face.

 

"We… ran into each other while I was looking for Reuben," Jesse admitted lamely.

 

"Couldn't find him, huh?" Axel said, brows pulling together.

 

"He'll turn up sooner or later—I just know it." Olivia stepped forward, grabbing Jesse's shoulders and giving them a squeeze, looking over the leather straps covering her chest with curiosity as she released her.

 

"It's—Petra gave this to me—but Reuben, I found him, and then before I knew what was happening, we were under attack by this monster hoard. I told him to run—it was for his own good, I could barely protect myself." She looked at the redhead, "Thankfully Petra was there."

 

"What were you doin' in the woods, Petra?" Axel asked, tilting his head in question.

 

"Nothing. Just… drawn by the sound of Jesse's high-pitched screams." She shrugged.

 

"I would've been spider-bait if she hadn’t found me," Jesse said, looking to Petra appreciatively. The other girl looked away—crossing her arms, ears turning pink in embarrassment as she gave the ground a tenuous look.

 

Axel's large hand gave Jesse a sound pat on the back, "Sorry we didn't come with you, Jesse."

 

"But hey, we won!" Olivia cut in cheerfully, turning to face their firework dispensing Creeper.

 

Petra turned as well, eyebrows raising a hair. "Huh, you weren't kidding when you said you made a super cool statue. Didn't even realize this thing was yours"

 

"Right? It turned out so great!" Jesse had her fists balled up in front of her in excitement.

 

"Looks like abandoning friends in their time of need paid off yet again," Axel said, laughing when Olivia hit his arm.

 

The dense redstone blocks pressed behind the towering creature lit up the varied green wool, faintly illuminating it’s middle and sending red sparks off it that glowed in the night compared to the daytime.

 

Jesse surveyed the tall structure, eyes raking over green wool sparking with redstone.

 

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think that Creeper was really gonna explode," Jesse said, looking at Olivia. "That redstone was the perfect touch."

 

"We did okay, didn't we?" Axel looked to Olivia as well.

 

"I mean, we won… but I still wish I'd gotten that part in the back to look better."

 

"Yeah… there could've been more fireworks in there… somewhere…"

 

"Are you two being serious? It's amazing! You guys did incredible." She insisted, tugging them in by their arms as she smiled widely. "I'm so proud of you guys."

 

"Aw, shucks, Jess." Axel pressed a hand to his cheek bashfully.

 

"Yeah, don't make me blush." Olivia smiled at her, shoving her arm and receiving a shove back from Jesse, also smiling.

 

Axel quickly stepped between the two girls when Olivia tried to shove her again and Jesse was winding back for a second shove, preventing another devastating shove war.

 

"Hey, Jesse, it's time to go see about that thing," Petra spoke up casually, giving her a pointed look.

 

"Oh! Right! The… thing."

 

"Subtle," Olivia commented.

 

"Yeah?" Jesse asked, looking to her with a bright smile.

 

"As a punch to the face." She shook her head at her but grinned. She pointed to Axel with a thumb, "Axel and I were gonna head into EnderCon, anyway. See you in there?"

 

"Heard somebody saying there was free pie by the map booth," Axel said in a sing-song voice, trying to tempt her to join. Jesse gave him an apologetic smile, silently motioning to Petra.

 

"I already promised Petra I'd help her with something. I'll see you guys in there soon. Keep Olivia away from the squid vendor for me until then, Axel."

 

"Roger that."

 

"Hey!"

 

Axel waved to Jesse and she waved back, watching Olivia take off as Axel barged after her.

 

Petra tapped her arm, "Let's get moving, we're supposed to meet in the alley over there."

 

She pointed over Jesse's shoulder, and the short girl looked behind her to see an old alley wedged between two rose colored brick buildings with cobblestone foundations, a few windows lit up by flickering oil lamps.

 

"Oh, okay. Convenient, I guess." Jesse said lightly, following Petra.

 

They stepped over the threshold of light and dark, leaving the lit street behind. Jesse dragged her hand against the brittle ivy covering the sides of the sparse walls, crawling across the brick like veins as she peered into pitch black windows.

 

"Dark. Dark. Veeery dark in here." She whispered to herself, looking down a second passageway that led along the other side of the building and back to the street. Iron bars sectioned it off from the alleyway on the street adjacent to them. A rickety plywood chest was shoved into a corner, a compost bin by the smell of it, and sat among several dark wooden crates of differing sizes.

 

"That's weird—he said the dark, creepy alley close to the gates, but he's not here…" Petra brought her hand to her chin, looking around thoughtfully, "Maybe he's late."

 

"Are you sure this is the specific dark, creepy alley he meant?" Jesse asked, stark undertones of sass in her voice.

 

"Huh. I was." Petra said, either not catching the sarcasm or ignoring it. "Okay, new plan. You stay here, just in case this is the spot he meant, and I'll look around. I guess I could have heard him wrong. Then again, I've never gotten a meet-up spot wrong before… but then why would he be late…?"

 

"Something about this feels off to me," Jesse said, interrupted the other's mumbling with a touch to the arm.

 

"All of my secret deals feel off. That's why I usually keep them a secret." She said, leveling Jesse with a duh look.

 

She sighed after a moment's pause. "Okay, I'll hold down the fort."

 

"Thanks, Jesse, I'll be back before you know it."

 

"Wait, what do I do if—"

 

"If he shows up while I'm gone, just stall for me," Petra said, turning back down the alley and disappearing as she rounded the corner.

 

Jesse stood there for a moment, rubbing her hands over her arms with a shudder. Her clothes were no longer sopping wet, but were in a state of damp that drew the cold into her skin. She kicked at a piece of gravel, sliding her hands deep in her pockets and stepping further into the alley. Looking around, her eyes landed on the crates, noticing all but one were locked. She stepped towards it, looking the box over. It was the smallest of all of them, resting atop a larger one that reached up to her waist.

 

"A-hem! "

 

She yelled in surprise, turning and nearly falling back against the wood.

 

"And just who are you?"

 

A man with long, slick, black hair and an uneven beard that reached past his neck was looking at her, arms crossed. Long, olive green robes with gold clasps down the side hung over his thin frame, dark green pants skimming past his ankles. A polished leather belt was buckled firmly around his middle with what looked like a square cut of lapis lazuli centered in a bronze belt buckle. He had deep eye bags, their intensity only heightened by his large eyebrows that cast a shadow over his face in the warm light from an open window above them.

 

"I'm waiting. Answer me!" He demanded, "I asked, who are you?"

 

"No, who are you? " She shot back, squinting her eyes at him.

 

"If you belonged here, you would know!"

 

"You know, you really shouldn't creep up on people like that. It's… creepy."

 

"Don't test me, girl ." He lowered his voice, pointing a finger right back at her and narrowing his eyes. Jesse made a noise of affrontement.

 

"I'm supposed to meet with a redhead, not… whatever you're supposed to be!" He said, waving his hands over her. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't walk out of here right now."

 

She looked up at him, running through excuses in her head and feeling very much put on the spot.

 

"Well? I'm a very busy man."

 

"I'm with Petra—the redhead—I'm her… partner." She said, standing straighter.

 

"My deal was with her, not her partner."

 

"She'll be here, but... we can—we can get started without her."

 

"You have the skull?"

 

"Uh… well, define 'have' and 'skull.'"

 

"You do or you don't." He said gruffly, "You'd better not be toying with me."

 

"Take a breath, would you! I'll show you the skull when I'm good and ready!"

 

"This is unacceptable, I'm not wasting any more time with you. Out of my way!" He went to push past her when Jesse held her hands out, stopping him.

 

"Wait, wait! Petra has it—and she'll be back any minute now!"

 

He sighed, lowering his long arms at his sides. "Well, so long as she's bringing it… I supposed it wouldn't kill me to wait a minute longer. You're lucky I'm not letting this sour the whole deal."

 

"Sorry, I got—I got carried away."

 

"All is well. Now stop it, there will be no groveling."

 

"Right."

 

They stood in silence. Jesse rubbed the back of her neck, looking around. "Uh… well…"

 

He looked down at her expectantly.

 

"So, Hi. Hello. I'm—um, Jesse?" She raised a hand for him to shake. He merely stroked his beard and looked at her offered hand.

 

"Hello, Um-Jesse."

 

"What—"

 

"Ivor!" Petra called, making the two of them turn. She ran to them from behind the iron bars, easily climbing them and landing deftly on the other side.

 

"Ah, see? There she is." He said, looking to Jesse like it had been her who was waiting for Petra and not the other way around.

 

"Sorry I'm late, but good things are worth waiting for. I've got what you asked for—"

 

"—If," Jesse interrupted, "You have what you promised us."

 

Petra quickly stomped on her foot. Smiling pleasantly at Ivor as Jesse bent over it in pain.

 

"Sorry." Jesse wheezed quietly, looking up. "You know, you've got a boney foot."

 

Ivor observed the two with a bored expression, eyebrow quirked. "You didn't say anything about an ' us' when we first met. And I don't like surprises. If these are the sorts of people you associate with, perhaps we should call the whole thing off."

 

"My friend is fine, right Jesse?" Petra smiled tightly, lightly pushing her hand against the small of Jesse's back to get her to stand up straight. She grabbed her around the shoulders and pulled her up into a side hug. "There's no problem here, Let's not be too hasty, okay? This is just a, uh, little misunderstanding. Right, Jesse?"

 

Petra looked to her, nudging their connected shoulders for her to say something.

 

Jesse instead tugged Petra in close, whispering, "Maybe we should rethink this whole thing. This guy gives me a bad feeling."

 

"I'll give you a bad feeling if you ruin this for me, now answer!" The redhead hissed, pulling away.

 

She gave Petra a look, crossing her arms with a reluctant sigh. "I'm cool if he's cool."

 

"It's settled then, you're both cool." Petra released her, holding her hands out amicably and bringing them together.

 

"Proceed, then," Ivor said slowly, stepping forward.

 

Never once taking her eyes off him, Petra reached into her inventory and carefully took out the Wither skull, holding it out to him. His long fingers closed over the head, pale skin contrasting horribly against its dark pallor as he looked it over, seemingly pleased with it if his smile was anything to go by.

 

"I'll take those diamonds now."

 

He motioned his head at the small, dark crate behind them. "Take them, you've earned it."

 

Jesse watched over Petra's shoulder as she knocked the open lock off the crate, opening the latch.

 

"Uh, these aren't diamonds…" Jesse said astutely, peering into the box.

 

"No, it's lapis!" Petra growled, holding out chunks of the deep blue and looking behind them where Ivor had vanished.

 

"Of all the dirty, underhanded tricks to pull!" She loudly threw the rocks back into the crate. "I can't believe that guy got one over on me!"

 

"Well then let's go after him," Jesse urged, waving wildly towards the end of the alley. "He's getting away as we speak!"

 

The redhead slammed the box shut, giving her a nod. "Let's hurry then!"

 

She took off, Jesse right behind her. Petra looked to her as the shorter caught up to her side, "I'm either getting those diamonds, or I'm getting my skull back—"

 

"Or you'll make him pay, right? Right?" She asked excitedly.

 

"Just come on!" Petra grabbed her hand and led her through another alley, this one much longer than the last. They took twists and turns, zigzagging through areas Jesse hadn't even known existed before skidding to a stop at an exit right on the brink of EnderCon. The streets were abuzz with crowds of people, some skittering between game booths and others hovering around food vendors.

 

"We lost him!" Jesse groaned, looking through the crowd before them.

 

"Then we'll just have to find him again!" Petra turned to Jesse, pushing red hair from her face, "Go!"

 

Jesse nodded, and they split into opposite directions.

 

The whole private life of the street was threaded in lanterns hanging from crisscrossed rope, decorated with streamers of black and purple. Keystone hall was lit up, the dome shining softly under the moon. Tarps of booths and stalls alike were decorated with so many flyers and banners, Jesse could scarcely tell what the original color underneath it all was. The sweeter than sweet smell of cotton candy and fried dough overpowered her nose, intermixing with the sharp smell of burning jack-o'-lanterns and the chilled night air. There were two mounted posters of Gabriel next to the blue and yellow information desk, framing a sign painted, 'Keystone—SOLD OUT .'

 

Passing the mask booth that had become a staple of the Con, she excused herself through the long line of people fencing her out from her path. The counter displayed thin painted masks from cows to ghasts. They were popular enough that they could cut her, Axel's, and Olivia's admittedly meager EnderCon spending money in half with a single purchase.

 

Jesse barely passed a heavily decorated potions booth before she was shoved out of the way, nearly slamming into a small hutch advertising warm beverages.

 

"There he is! Gabriel! Gabriel!"

 

"Step aside please—" She caught a flash of a large usher wearing a light blue EnderCon staff shirt with a lanyard around his neck, holding his tree trunk arms out. Her vision was cut off as someone shoved in front of her, nearly knocking her over.

 

"I have just one question!"

 

"I love you, Gabriel!"

 

Curious, Jesse tried to push her way through the tightly packed bodies, only to be thrown back onto her butt. Getting to her feet with a huff, she started jumping, peeking over the shoulders of the gathered mass and catching a glimpse of a man wearing dark armor with teal accents reflecting the lanterns above him.

 

"Hold all your questions until after the keynote!"

 

"But the keynote's sold out!"

 

"Hold all your questions anyway." The usher moved Gabriel along as he cut him through two vacant booths, the crowd attempting to follow. The large man blocked the way with his body, looking down over everyone.

 

The crowd having moved, Jesse carried onward, picking her way through the scattering people around the throng who had come to investigate the commotion. Passing the DJ, she spotted Lukas leaning against a counter selling raw clay by the pound, stacked behind him in wet canvas bags. The stall owner was busy lugging in heavy sacks from a wheelbarrow parked behind the furthermost support beams of the blue tented booth, paying no mind to the lounging blonde.

 

Noticing her approach, Lukas pushed off the surface with a tiny smile.

 

"'Sup." Jesse greeted, hand on hip.

 

"'Sup." He greeted back.

 

"Nothing, 'sup with you?"

 

"Nothing, 'sup with you?"

 

"...I just said. Nothing."

 

"Oh, right—Yeah." Lukas rubbed his shoulder, looking down and back up. "Hey, uh... congrats on the win. I mean, I still think our beacon was amazing, but you guys did a pretty good job too. I thought the whole monster theme was pretty cool, but fireworks too?"

 

She raised an eyebrow at him, smiling. "Well, it was a firework dispenser."

 

"No, I know. I'm just saying... it was pretty cool." He shrugged, hands in his pockets. "I think Aiden even kind of like it."

 

"…You know, that stunt he pulled really hurt my pig."

 

"Oh… okay, maybe—But I had nothing to do with that."

 

"Yeah, all right, no." Jesse began, tucking a stray hair behind her ear and leaning a hand against the booth's counter, leveling Lukas with a hard stare. "You're the leader, right? Of The Ocelots?

 

"Yeah, I don't see how—"

 

"Then you either need to own up for your friends' dumb actions or make them own up for it themselves." She punctuated her next words with two pokes to his chest, "You're the leader. They listen to you, not the other way around."

 

Lukas had backed up with each poke, his long legs bumping against an empty stall behind him. "I'm not a leader in the sense that I'm in charge of them, I'm just the best builder."

 

Jesse opened her mouth to retort, but Lukas beat her to it.

 

"Listen, it's not like you're wrong. I know I can be a doormat. We might have gotten runner-up if we weren't the ones responsible for—you know—almost burning down several builds or whatever. And for what it's worth, I am sorry, it's not fair you had to deal with Aiden being an idiot."

 

Jesse heaved a sigh, looking at an abashed Lukas. Petra was right. Lukas was arrogant, but his heart was in the right place. Even if he was a little dumb sometimes.

 

"You know," She said slowly, "Your beacon wasn't too shabby. You guys would've earned that runner-up if you'd gotten it."

 

Lukas held up a hand for her to stop, "You don't have to do that, okay? You guys won, fair and square."

 

She smiled a bit at him, and he smiled back hesitantly, looking down at her.

 

"Hey, you didn't happen to see a creepy guy with long hair and a beard roaming around, did you? Wearing green ugly robes that probably have a million pockets inside?" She asked.

 

Lukas looked thrown for a loop, face scrunching up in mild confusion. "Uh… I don't think so. Why?"

 

"He kinda scammed Petra out of a bunch of diamonds earlier." She explained, resting her hip against the booth next to her.

 

"Oh-ho, everyone knows you don't mess with Petra." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "At least, not if you know what's good for you."

 

Jesse blinked. "Why'd you say that all ominous."

 

"Petra's ominous." He stated. "I'll keep an eye out, okay?"

 

"Thanks, I appreciate it." She let a grin slide across her face. It fell when the taller of the two looked away nervously, smoothing back his hair.

 

"So, uh… we're cool?" He finally said after ten seconds of incredibly uncomfortable silence; at least on Jesse's end.

 

"Yeah, we're cool."

 

"Cool, cool."

 

"Cool beans."

 

"Cool-o-rama."

 

She laughed, waving behind her as she turned to continue her search. "See you later, Lukas."

 

"Yeah! See you!" He called after her, craning his head over the crowd as she disappeared, waving back despite the other being gone.

 

Jesse bypassed a little hut with two banners of shortbread cookies painted down the cloth. She stopped several paces away from what appeared to be some kind of chicken machine, and stared at it for a good minute with squinted eyes. She could not for the life of her discern the purpose of it.

 

Looking down the side, she quickly took note of Axel who was practically pressed up against the machine's fence.

 

She saddled up next to him, following his gaze up to a glass box of panicked chickens running in circles. One of them stepped on a pressure plate and the block below it whisked out from underneath its feet, dropping it into a pen below.

 

"Thought you could wiggle out of that trap, didn't you? Well, wiggle as much as you want! you're not going anywhere!" He laughed, slapping the fence in his mirth.

 

She rolled her eyes, grabbing his thick arm to make him look at her, "Axel, listen up. Any chance you've seen a creepy looking beard-y guy anywhere?"

 

"No, but Petra told me what happened—I'm keeping an eye out for him."

 

Jesse could only look at him, setting her hands on her hips and looking between Axel and the chicken-dropper with a narrowed gaze.

 

"Okay! So I got a little distracted." He said. "It's just—this machine presses all my buttons! Unnecessarily complicated, mean to birds for no reason… and I mean, when something like this calls out for you, you gotta answer!"

 

Jesse remained silent, and he was shrinking under her stare as much as a '6"5, burly guy could; which was surprisingly a lot.

 

"I swear though, as soon as the demonstration is over, um—I mean, Petra did make it sound kinda serious…"

 

Jesse shifted her weight to one leg as she sent him a mild glare. He sighed.

 

"The ol' silent treatment and stink eye, huh? All right, all right, I'll look." He said. "...After I watch one more chicken get totally wrecked.

 

She let out a gust of air and rested her arms at her sides, looking around absently before a thought shot through her head like an arrow as a second chicken fell.

 

"Hey! Have you seen Reuben anywhere? I was hoping that he'd made it to the Con by himself."

 

"Haven't seen hide nor hair," Axel said, eyes glued to the contraption in front of him. "But I'm sure he's fine. He's a tough little ham. Now just... one more… that last one wasn't any good..."

 

" Axel! This is serious!" She slapped his arm with both her hands, physically shoving him away from the machine. "Get away from this thing, we have more important things at hand!"

 

His arms were immediately up in defense and he was turning from the chicken-dropper, walking off. " Going! I am going!"

 

Jesse shook her head at him, facing the crowd once more. She quickly glared at Lukas who had been watching the exchange from the clay stall. He looked away, messing with a strand of hair and pretending there was suddenly something very interesting in front of him. Blowing a piece of hair from her face and turning away, she cut through the street—catching sight of a dull, green-ish robe and long, dark hair.

 

"Hah!" Her eyes narrowed victoriously, "I see you now, weirdo."

 

Jesse took off after the figure, dodging and ducking under both people and empty booths. The green cloak was almost at arm's reach when she nearly ran headlong into Aiden, who had quickly stepped out in front of Jesse at the sight of her.

 

"Well, if it isn't team trash bag!"

 

"How is it a team if I'm the only one here." She said, not really paying attention as she attempted to lean around him to keep her eyes on her target, but Aiden just shifted every time she moved so he blocked her gaze with his face.

 

"How's your stupid pig? I hear intense heat causes brain damage." He pretended to look up in thought. "It does boost the flavor something crazy, though."

 

She took the opportunity to look behind him, scanning the crown for Ivor. He was nowhere to be seen.

 

"Ugh! Aiden, you Idiot!"  She pushed his chest roughly.

 

"Hey! Who you calling an idiot?"

 

"You! Now move!" She pushed him again, this time forcing him to veer off to the side so she could walk past.

 

"Hey!" He grabbed her wrist, pulling her back.

 

"Kinda busy right now, man." She growled.

 

"What, busy trying to get a life? Busy trying to find some friends?"

 

She looked at him dully, glancing down at her wrist. She really didn't feel like breaking Aiden's entire arm—not today, at least.

 

"...Nice comeback, jerkwad." Aiden said at her extended silence.

 

"What's that!" She suddenly cried, pointing in a random direction and feeling incredibly dumb resorting to such a tactic. Even worse, Aiden actually looked. Jesse grabbed his hand and physically pried it off of her, Aiden yelping and pulling away when she accidentally cracked one of his knuckles.

 

"Are you twelve?!" He nearly shrieked at her, holding his hand like she's snapped the entire appendage in half.

 

She shoved past him, rolling her eyes at the heated glare she could feel on her back. What a baby.

 

The short girl squeezed through the crowd, eyes alighting with determination as she spotted Ivor, the muted earth tones of his clothes sticking out against a red-topped merchant's tent that was showing off different designs of iron chest plates. She power-walked madly towards him, cutting through the line of people and ignoring their indignant noises of protest.

 

Jesse grabbed his shoulder, less boney than she had expected, and turned him around. "Hey! Where do you think you're—"

 

"What do you think you think you're doing?!" A woman yanked away from her.

 

Jesse backed up. "Oh! I'm sorry—"

 

"Get away from me!" She exclaimed with the sort of ire someone would use on a pickpocket caught in the act.

 

"I said I was sorry."

 

The dark haired woman glowered at her, two men coming up behind her and crossing their arms at Jesse.

 

"All right, jeez—"

 

Shrill squeals sounded faintly across the Con, and Jesse was whipping around, forgetting entirely about the three in front of her as she shifted to high alert.

 

"Reuben?" She took a few steps forward. "Reuben?!"

 

She rushed from the merchant's tent, ignoring the yelling from one of the men, dodging carts and people as she frantically looked around her. She nearly ran into a woman at the sight of a large rendition of a pig's head looking down over a stall, knocking a candied apple from her hand.

 

"Sorry! I'm so sorry!" Jesse apologized profusely, searching a hand through her inventory and emerging victorious with a single emerald coin. She pressed it into the frazzled Con goers hand, dashing past her with a, "Please-enjoy-your-night-bye!"

 

She came to a halt within running distance of the booth, breathing heavily as her eyes darted around before landing on a dark haired man.

 

"Getcha pork chops here! Fresh off the bone!" He bellowed, wrangling down a medium-sized pig in his arms that was shrieking frantically. Jesse's eye's zeroed in on the dark birthmark over its back. "Nothin' sticks to your ribs quite like a juicy pork chop!"

 

"REUBEN!" Jesse shouted, across the street before she even knew it, seizing the butcher's raised hand that was clutching an ax before he could bring it down over the struggling pig.

 

"Hey!" He jerked away from her, grabbing Reuben with a hairy arm as the pig attempted to scramble over the counter towards Jesse, "You got a problem? I'm trying to run a business here."

 

"That's my pig!"

 

"Oh really? Well I found him out in the woods, so I think that makes him my pig." He said, waving the ax around as he spoke, making her take a step back. "Not the fattest pig I've ever seen, but he could cook up real nice."

 

"Please, he's my friend." She pleaded.

 

"To me, he's inventory." He shrugged, chuckling as he grabbed Reuben under an arm like a sack of potatoes when the pig attempted another mad dash towards her, "I might be amenable to some kind of trade. Not that you look like you got much of value."

 

He itched behind his ear with the blunt backside of the ax blade. "I gotta get some kind of return on my investment. Otherwise, it's straight to the grill for this one."

 

She clenched her fists, glaring at the butcher as her face began to feel hot. With nary a thought running through her head, she slid her sword from her back, leveling the tip to the butcher in a swinging arch. His face dropped its color and fell into an ashy white.

 

"Give—me—back—my—pig." She ground out, holding back the tremors that wanted to let loose over her arm, unused to the solid weight of a stone blade.

 

"All right you little maniac, fine. Take him!" He dropped Reuben on the counter, shoving him off. "He's all yours."

 

After a few tries, she managed to re-sheath her sword, crouching down to take Reuben in her arms and marching off, hugging him close to her. Her face had cooled and felt chilled against the biting air. Reuben was sniffing curiously at her shirt, then at the baldric strapped to her, and finally oinked against her cheek for her attention. When Jesse looked down, he was glaring.

 

"I know—I'm sorry, Reuben. I never should have let you run off in the woods." He huffed before leaning up and touching his snout to her ear, licking once then looking back at her questioningly.

 

"It's fine, bud. Petra got me all patched up, it wasn't anything too bad." She touched the small square of gauze over the shell of her ear, wincing a little. "Hurts like a blaze rod, though."

 

Jesse smiled when Reuben chuffed against her neck, holding him close and burying her face into him before letting go and setting him down, taking a knee in front of him.

 

"All right, so let me catch you up to speed. First of all, I'm glad you're safe and I love you very much," she said, pressing her hands over his cheeks and bringing his head in for a kiss, Reuben squeaking happily. "Second, I helped Petra out with a deal but we got scammed, and now we're all looking for the guy. He's gross and has a beard. Think you can look out for someone like that?"

 

Reuben gave an affirmative grunt, clicking his hooves against the stone beneath them.

 

"Cool-o-rama. Let's head out."

 

Circling the Con, they passed by Axel once, stopping for him to hug it out with Reuben, happy to see him safe. They saw Lukas, who waved to Jesse and blanched at the sight of the pig at her side. They ducked behind a booth when Aiden came around, looking for something or someone. They stopped at Petra who gave a pet to Reuben and received a face full of licks in return. They got called a gremlin when they passed by the butcher, who had chucked a handful of pork rinds at them.

 

It was a long thirty minutes.

 

Stopping at the chicken-dropper, Jesse rested her aching feet as she leaned against the fence, body drooping. Reuben laid next to her and yawned. She absently watched people pass her, wanting to close her eyes and sleep right there against the weird poultry device.

 

She managed to pick herself up, dragging a whining Reuben behind her for round one of see if we can circle the Con a second time without passing out  when she saw Olivia not far away, scrutinizing a width-y machine. A large chicken head was anchored to the top, fashioned out of wool.

 

"What is it with chickens?" Jesse muttered as she walked towards her friend, Reuben slow on her heels. She tapped Olivia's shoulder and she turned around.

 

"Wow, you look awful."

 

"Thanks. Remember that thing I had to go do with Petra?" Olivia nodded once. "Long story short, we met up with this guy, he cheated me and Petra on a deal—well, cheated her more than me, really—and now we're trying to track him down. You in?"

 

"Oh, I'm in all right." She said, then broke into a wide smile the pig behind her. "Reuben! You found him!"

 

"Yeeeah…" Jesse toyed with her braid, "Technically the butcher found him and then I threatened him with bodily harm if he didn't give Reuben back. Today hasn't been a great me-day."

 

"Speak for yourself, I would've done the same and more, " Olivia said, leaning down to rub to a gleeful Reuben's ears. Standing, Olivia's eyes locked onto something over her shoulder, and touched the side of Jesse's arm, motioning her to turn around. Jesse looked behind her, Petra and Axel coming to a stop in front of them.

 

"Any sign of him?" Petra asked.

 

"I thought I saw him earlier, but, uh... it was just a false alarm." She said, thinking back to the furious woman. "Basically, thi—wait! Wait there he is! "

 

Jesse pointed towards Keynote hall, where Ivor was running up the wide steps, checking over his shoulder. He was barely illuminated by the glowstone lamps above him casting eerie shadows over his face.

 

"Looks like he's heading towards the Hall," Olivia said.

 

The building was surrounded by a delicate, oxidized copper fence, the main gate blocked by the wide frame of the blonde usher Jesse had seen earlier. Petra eyed him.

 

"We're going to have to get past that usher to follow him." Her voice was hushed.

 

"Then let's go. A direct approach could be best here." Jesse beckoned them, already walking towards the gate.

 

They climbed the small flight of stairs to the outer entrance, stopping before the tall man who could give Axel a run for his money. Petra pushed Jesse forward when she didn't speak right away.

 

"So, yeah. Hey." Jesse said casually. The blonde only looked at her with lowered brows, looking more awkward by the second as Jesse stood there silently.

 

With a roll of her eyes, Petra moved past her. "What would it take to get us inside tonight?"

 

There was a pause as he stared at them blankly, then laughed, "Uh, tickets."

 

"Here's the thing," Jesse started, moving in front of Petra and pulling her best embarrassed look, messing with her hair sheepishly, "We had tickets, but we… lost them."

 

"Ah, man, I hate when stuff like that happens." He said, looking down at them. "It's like, the worst. Just forgetting everything all the time."

 

"Same! I feel like such an idiot sometimes."

 

"I'm sorry about your tickets and all, but no tickets, no show."

 

She sighed, getting ready to lay on the charm when a chicken jumped by them, squawking. The usher scrambled out of the way with a cry, practically cowering.

 

"Chicken! Chicken! Chicken! "

 

They watched in silence as he eventually got to his feet, breathing heavily and dusting off his shorts, talking to himself as he did so, "It's gone—you're totally fine, you're a totally cool dude."

 

Petra gave him an odd look before motioning at all six of them to follow her. They headed back down the steps as the usher continued to talk himself down from his abrupt panic.

 

The redhead gathered them in a circle, bringing both her hands down in a chopping motion as she spoke, "We have to do something."

 

"Like what? I saw from a sign that the show’s sold out." Olivia said.

 

"I could bust right through, I just need a little bit of wind up room."

 

"No, Axel." Olivia pushed his flexing arms back down.

 

"Any other bright ideas?" Petra looked around at them.

 

Jesse glanced up, staring up at the chicken machine Olivia had been looking over earlier as a thought formulated in her head. A flurry of chickens were visible through a glass plane, the machine collecting plumage down a wired over chamber big enough for the feathers but too small for the chickens.

 

"What we need," A slow grin crossed over her face, "Is a distraction ."

 

Petra followed Jesse's line of sight, a sly smile spreading her pale features. "A bunch of chickens running around might be a distraction."

 

The others turned to see what they were looking at.

 

Axel glanced back between the two girls, "Could someone please tell me why we're smiling at the feather machine."

 

Jesse took his arm, discreetly pointing to the usher who was shooing away the same chicken, curling back from the bird like it was going to bite him if he got too close.

 

"The usher is afraid of chickens," She said quietly, looking back to the group, "What would you say if I told you I wanna break this guy's machine to create the mother of all distractions?"

 

"But you have to break that pane of glass," Olivia said, motioning to the top of the large device where the machine seemed to reach the apex of its chicken speed, eyes narrowed as her brows furrowed. "How're you going to reach it?"

 

"Let's look around." Petra glanced around, "There has to be something we can do."

 

Axel and Olivia stayed by the machine, checking it over for possible kinks and exploitable weaknesses. At least, Olivia was; Axel only seemed interested in the vortex of chickens above.

 

"Axel, any ideas?" Jesse tapped her fingers in his shoulder.

 

"Yes." He smiled.

 

"...That pertains to our current situation?"

 

"No." His smile fell.

 

"Don't worry about it, Olivia looks like she's thinking hard enough for the both of you." She said, looking to the girl who was eyeing a lever with more intensity than a single lever really deserved.

 

Jesse passed an indistinct booth for redstone repeaters that was closed down for the night, stopping on the outskirts of a small group watching a man jumping on slime block, advertising the slime booth behind him. She visibly lit up at the "FREE" sign.

 

"Hm…" She tapped her cheek, narrowing her eyes in thought as she mumbled to herself. "I bet I could reach that glass with a slime block. Reuben?"

 

The pig looked up from where he stood at her heels.

 

"Reuben. I need your guidance. What would you do in a situation like this?"

 

He closed his eyes sagely, nodding once with a single oink.

 

"I year ya brother." She said, patting his head.

 

Approaching the line-less slime booth, she stopped short, the attendant already glaring at her. It was the woman she'd mistaken for Ivor.

 

"Ooh, hey! We meet again!" She laughed uncomfortably, rubbing the back of her head. "Um… one slime block, please?"

 

She crossed her arms. "We don't give out slime blocks here, just slimeballs."

 

She held up two green, gelatinous orbs from under the counter, showing them to her. "You could craft a slime block yourself, but we've got a limited supply today and we're only giving out two per person."

 

"Hey, um," Jesse tapped her fingers together, feeling thoroughly patronized by the woman's stare, "I'm really sorry about early. I honestly thought you were someone else."

 

"Apology accepted." She said, though her face remained impassive. She carefully handed the slimeballs to Jesse, who took them with a grateful smile.

 

"Thanks—"

 

"A round of slimeballs for everyone, please!" She heard Axel's voice approach from behind, Jesse turning to the sight of Petra and Olivia on either side of him, grinning and forming up in a short line. The woman seemed to sigh, but pulled up a flat, open-topped crate beside her and doled out the green balls to everyone. They grinned around at each other, leaving in the opposite direction with their slimy haul.

 

"Wait." Jesse said, stopping and looking over the squishy orbs they had amassed, "This is only eight slimeballs, we need one more to make a block."

 

"Okay, we need to find another way to get some more slime, and quick."

 

"On it!" Axel ran off with Olivia. Jesse distantly wondered where they thought they were even running to.

 

She looked to Petra, "I'm gonna try the slime lady again. Come with?"

 

"Can't, sorry. I'm going to head around and ask people if they can spare one. There has to be some one here who can bear to part with a ball of slime."

 

"All right well, good luck."

 

"Back at you."

 

They parted, Jesse heading down the stall-made path back to the three teal green banners painted with green squares.

 

She smiled a bit sheepishly as she came to a stop at the booth, receiving a raised brow at her returned presence. "Hi, me again."

 

"Yes, you again."

 

"Um! Just—one more thing, ma'am?" She worried her hands, the tall woman before emitting major angry-mom vibes. "Could I get another slimeball, please?"

 

"I'm afraid not, kid. If I break the rules for you, then I have to break them for everybody and then I'll be out of slime completely."

 

"Come ooon, please?" She clasped her hands together before her, smiling up at the attendant who merely gave her a look that sent Jesse slinking away, feeling like she had just been silently scolded.

 

She looked around, helplessly. "We just need one more slimeball, Reuben. Why is this so difficult?"

 

Reuben stood up, balancing his front hooves on her leg to get his snout into her hand holding the slime. Jesse moved away with a "Hey!"

 

"No, these aren't for you. I know they smell weird, but— oh! " Her face brightened in realization. "Okay. Do these smell different enough that you think you could pick them out in a crowd? Think truffle season, but with slime."

 

Catching on to what she was getting at, Reuben squealed affirmatively, leaning forwards and pressing his nose in her lowered hand, snuffling and coming back with a slime-covered nose. He took off.

 

"Hey, wait!" Jesse ran after an oinking Reuben, who skidded around a corner. She heard a loud squeal and then a shrill yell from someone.

 

"Oh, jeez." She said under her breath, rounding the corner and finding Lukas up on a booth, both arms wrapped around a pole as Reuben jumped for the slimeball he held in his hand.

 

"Reuben! Down!"

 

Reuben turned towards her, running to her and looking proud of himself, butt wagging.

 

"Yes, good boy. C'mere." She cooed, opening her inventory and letting her old shirt drop into her hands, wiping it over his snout with a hand holding his chin up.

 

"Good boy?" Lukas sputtered as he let go of the pole, standing from the booth and trying to adjust his jacket like he hadn't just physically climbed onto a stall to get away from a small pig.

 

"Hey, Lukas. Sorry about that. Give me a second," She looked to Reuben, pointing a finger at him, "No. No scaring Lukas. It was cute the first time but we do not scare Lukas anymore, Okay? Now go and apologize."

 

Reuben looked away with a huff, but dragged himself over to Lukas, who took a measured step back, The pig nudged the other's leg with his head followed by a soft oink. Jesse waddled over to them, still squatting on the ground she could stay at Reuben-height.

 

"Give him a pet." She smiled, craning her neck up at Lukas, "He only ever bites Axel, don't worry."

 

Lukas looked at her, unsure, but she beckoned him forward, grabbing his hand and placing it over a grumpy Reuben's head. The blonde awkwardly gave him a robotic-like pat.

 

Jesse stood with a small grin, throwing the folded shirt into her inventory and looking between the two of them.

 

"Settled?" She asked Reuben, who made a reluctant snorting noise. It was good enough for Jesse, who gave him another quick, "Good boy."

 

"So, hey, Lukas." She said, "Can I ask you something?"

 

"What, and not address what just happened?" He tossed the slimeball in his hand once, catching it.

 

"Uh, yeah, sorry. I told him to sniff out some slime and he just gets like, really excited by crowds—and he also might sometimes take on my opinions of people, and get protective?"

 

"And that was your opinion of me?"

 

"I mean earlier today it was," She admitted. "But I didn't know you were cool then."

 

He blew out a sigh, pushing back a stray piece of hair and looking at her. "What's your question."

 

"Actually it was more like a favor I was gonna ask if you could do."

 

He paused. "Anything's possible."

 

"I need slimeballs." Lukas gave a slight quirk of his brow, and Jesse quickly held up her hands, "I swear, I have a really good explanation."

 

He shot a look at something over her shoulder, smiling and crossing his arms. He held out his slimeball and Jesse accepted it with an appreciative smile. "Whatever you're doing, count me in."

 

She looked behind her, seeing a smiling Petra accompanied by Olivia and Axel.

 

"Told you he was useful," Petra whispered to Jesse, hand on her shoulder.

 

"Aw man—this guy isn't actually cool is he?" Axel asked.

 

"Remains to be seen." Olivia looked him over with distaste.

 

"Guys, come on. Let's just get crafting, okay?" Jesse cut in, taking Axel and Olivia by the arms and leading them to an open boothed crafting station. Petra pushed Lukas along with a hint of an encouraging smile.

 

They all huddled around Jesse at the crafting table, placing their slimeballs out onto the scratched wooden surface for her. The dark haired girl rolled them with her arm to the guided grid of squares, carefully placing a slime in each one.

 

"So, you guys been building together long? You've got good chemistry." She heard Lukas say, voice friendly.

 

"You jealous?" Axel asked.

 

"I'm just saying, I think it's cool you have a team that works so well together."

 

"You're totally  jealous." He snorted, moving closer to Jesse and gazing down over her shoulder, "How's it goin' Jess?"

 

She hadn't realized she had stopped, distracted by the short conversation over her shoulder.

 

"You know how to do this—a slime in every slot, and in every slot a slime."

 

"I know how to make a slime block Axel, I just want this to bind together as strongly as it can." She said, brushing her braid over her shoulder once more.

 

She placed the last ball in the middle square, wiping her hands against her overalls, the slime shuddering in place before surging together into a cube.

 

"Ta-da! One slime block." Jesse smiled. She examined it, smacking the cube and watching it jiggle. "Gross."

 

"And I'll be taking that." Olivia picked up the block and walked over near the machine, looking up at the glass pane and then down at the ground a few times before placing it, "Riiight… there. The perfect distance."

 

"It's all you, Jesse. You're the smallest; you'll fly the farthest." Axel said.

 

"Right, gimme a boost!"

 

He leaned down, and she crawled up his back, standing on his shoulders and jumping. Her hands just barely reached the flat roof of the building station. She swung a leg over the ledge, pulling herself up with a grunt. Walking to the edge, she looked down at the slime block waiting for her. Petra and Lukas had moved to the base of the machine, holding their interlocked arms out in front of them.

 

"We'll catch you!" Lukas called.

 

"Try to," Petra added.

 

Brows lowered in determination, she nodded, backing up. Bouncing on her heels and steeling her nerves, she ran forwards and lunged off, giving herself extra momentum by propelling herself off the side with her legs. She brought her arms and legs together as she fell, landing down on the block and rebounding off at a speed she hadn't been prepared for. She coiled her fist back nonetheless, punching out the glass planes as she hit the machine with the side of her body, chickens instantly pouring out.

 

She let herself fall to the ground, landing back first over two pairs of arms. She opened her eyes, looking up with a smile.

 

"Thanks, guys."

 

"What're friends for?" Petra said, letting her get up and stand to her feet.

 

"My poultry! My precious poultry!" A mustached man with thick glasses ran around the machine, attempting to grab at the chickens and stuff them in his shirt.

 

Jesse placed a hand on her hip, walking to stand next to a smiling Axel who was standing by the Hall's gate. They watched the chaos fold out together. The usher ran from his position, screaming.

 

"Keep your eyes closed! They'll peck out your eyes!" He tripped, shrieking as chickens ran across his body with their little feet.

 

"Do you feel bad?" She asked Axel.

 

He paused for a moment, thinking. "…Nah"

 

"Me neither."

 

"You two need to be separated," Olivia said from where she came up next to Jesse, arms crossed.

 

"Now's our chance!" Petra cried, running past the gate. Jesse grabbed Reuben who was being drowned in chickens and secured him under her arms, running up the steps with a grin.