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Decay Day Date

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"Man, the Boiling Isles sure has some weird holidays...” Luz marveled as she studied the booklet in her hands. Hunter gave her a noncommittal grunt, scowling down at his homework for Necromancy. He normally didn’t struggle with any of his subjects, but he was convinced the Necromancy Professor had it out for him and kept giving him topics to write his papers on that were much trickier than what the rest of the class got. How was he honestly supposed to make a two-thousand-word essay on the properties of black henbane that helped with bringing back the spirits of the dead?

Maybe Willow could help him pad the stupid thing out? He had the top grade in the class, even though the teacher clearly hated his guts, and he didn’t want to lose that over something like this. She didn’t study Necromancy, but she knew more about plants than anyone else he knew. Surely, she’d be able to offer some tips about things he could include to hit the word limit...

“Are you even listening to me?” Luz huffed in annoyance, flicking a screaming bean so it hit Hunter dead in the cheek.

“Are you actually saying anything important?” Hunter snarked in return, flicking the bean back with a finger so that it hit Luz directly in the center of her forehead. Flapjack then caught the bean after it hit the table, hopping a small distance away to nibble on it while his witch and the human talked.

“Jerk,” Luz said, grinning. “How come you’re not more excited about this, huh? It’s your first time getting to celebrate Decay Day, too!”

“It’s not that big a deal, Luz,” Hunter rolled his eyes and sighed as he tucked his paper back in his bag. Clearly, he wasn’t going to get any more work done on it with his hyperactive friend around. He’d have to try and tackle it again after Derby Practice. “A bunch of smelly flowers bloom, and everyone throws a big party and uses it as an excuse to ask someone out.”

“Well yeah, but it’s bigger than THAT! All the Corpse Flowers on the Boiling Isle Bloom at the same time, for just one night every ten years! And it’s going to be happening in just a few days! How can you not be psyched for that?”

“Stinky flowers. Yay.” Hunter deadpanned as dryly as possible as Flapjack finished chowing down on the bean and flew to take his favorite spot on Hunter’s shoulder.

“Well, what about the super romantic flower viewing ceremony that takes place WITH the stinky flowers?” Luz asked pointedly.

“Yeah, no thanks,” Hunter scoffed. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than go on some dumb date to some dumb dance because of some dumb flowers.”

“Scared to ask someone to go with you?” Luz asked, sounding sympathetic and understanding instead of teasing him.

“Wh— NO! Of course not! I’ve faced terrors you wouldn’t even believe, why would the thought of a DATE scare me?” Hunter demanded, visibly offended at the mere suggestion.

“Yeah? Well, I’VE faced terrors that YOU wouldn’t imagine. And one of the scariest things I did was ask Amity to go out with me,” Luz said, sounding obnoxiously wise for a girl he’d seen nearly get eaten by her own locker on no less than three separate occasions in the eight months he’d been coming to Hexside after the Boiling Isles had been saved from Belos.

“I’m not scared to ask someone out, Luz. I just have better things to do with my time than awkwardly standing around at a dance.”

“You could try, oh, I dunno, dancing, maybe?” Luz pointed out with snark that would make the Owl Lady proud.

“Not exactly something I got taught when I was in the Emperor’s Coven and considering how much attention I still get everywhere I go as the ‘Former Golden Guard’ I really, really don’t want to embarrass myself trying for the first time at one of the biggest celebrations on the Isle.”

“Valid,” Luz said with a thoughtful hum, looking around them at the people who kept glancing in Hunter’s direction from the other lunch tables.

Hunter still wasn’t comfortable with all the attention that he got everywhere he went, so he tended to keep to himself when at school of in public, except for the rest of the Emerald Entrails, Amity, and Luz. Luckily, his friends were all understanding about why he wasn’t thrilled with all the eyes on him all the time and did their best to help him out as much as possible. Hunter knew that right now, the only thing keeping people from approaching him was the fact that Luz was at the table with him and would send anyone away if they asked probing questions, and he was grateful for that. Even if it meant dealing with HER probing questions as a result.

At least he didn’t mind her knowing his more personal thoughts and problems.

“But put the dance part of it aside for a second. Isn’t there anyone you wanna take on a date? This is a once in a decade event, Hunter, it’d be a shame to miss out on it.”

“I’ll be fine, Luz. You, Viney, and Skara all have dates, Gus is gonna be helping his dad, and Willow’s volunteering to help with the set up. I don’t wanna third wheel anyone, or get in anybody’s way, and there’s no way I’m going to something like this with anyone else.”

“Yeah, but after everything is set up Willow should be all good, right? You should ask her to hang out with you! You know she’d love that. She’s been more hyped up about this thing than anybody.”

“Exactly. She’s been really looking forward to this, and it’s not really my thing. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for her because I can’t get as excited about all of this as she is, and have her more worried about trying to make sure I’m having a good time than having one herself,” Hunter said curtly.

“Oh, come on! Willow wouldn’t—!”

“Willow wouldn’t see it that way, but that’s what it would be. She takes care of people. It’s what she does. And normally, that’s great, but she shouldn’t have to do that at the expense of something that’d make her happy. I’d be a pretty crappy friend if I did that to her,” Hunter said.

Friends might be a fairly new thing for him, but he had come to know and appreciate the few witches that he’d gotten close to. Willow especially had been an anchor for him in the chaotic mess his life had been thrown into after Belos’ true colors had come to light. Hunter would never be able to repay her for the things she’d done to help him when he was spiraling and had no one else to turn to, but the very least he could manage was not to ruin something she was excited about for her. Willow deserved all the happiness she could find.

“Hunter—”

“I’m done eating. Gonna head to the library and check out a book. Catch you later, Luz.” Hunter told her, standing up and shouldering his bag. He tossed his half-eaten lunch in the trash on his way out the door as Flapjack flew loyally beside him, frowning to himself as he made his way down the hall to get away from his friend before she could pester him about this anymore.

He knew Luz meant well and appreciated everything she did for him, but sometimes she just didn’t know when to leave something well enough alone. He hoped that her excitement over her Decay Day date with Amity would distract her enough that she wouldn’t sick her nose in his business anymore, but Luz had an unfortunate ability to multitask when it came to stuff like that.

Sighing quietly in frustration, Hunter made his way into the library and took a seat at one of the tables. Flapjack perched himself on the back of his chair as Hunter reached into his bag to pull his essay out. Well, at the very least, maybe now he could focus on—

“Hey there, Golden Boy~!”

‘SLAM!’

Aggravated, Hunter dropped his homework and books on the table while glowering at the empty air in front of him at the sound of the obnoxious and tragically familiar voice of the girl who was currently taking the seat right next to his.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that, Trioculi?” Hunter asked coldly, not turning to look at her as he began flipping to the section he needed in this textbook.

“As many times as I have to tell you to call me Boscha, apparently,” Boscha responded with a smirk. Hunter scoffed a little, before setting about doing his work. He didn’t have the patience or inclination to play nice with the three eyed bully and ignoring her was usually the best way to piss her off and make her leave him alone. Lucky for Hunter, Flapjack knew Hunter’s technique well enough to help his witch with this annoyance, keeping an eye on Boscha in Hunter’s stead and telling him if she did anything he needed to worry about.

“So. A little birdie tells me you don’t have a date to the Decay Day Festival?” Boscha asked slyly, getting a VERY offended series of chirps from Flapjack over her wording. Hunter felt a small stir of annoyance at Luz for bugging him about the stupid festival in public. Boscha must’ve been lurking somewhere nearby, eavesdropping, and followed him to the library after he left Luz.

Whatever. He couldn’t care less about what Boscha thought of him.

“You know, my family happened to score VIP bracelets for the whole thing. VERY exclusive. There’s no other way to attend the stupid festival if you ask me. And I bet even you would have a good time if you got to experience how things are for the best of the best. I mean, it’s what you deserve, right? Not hanging around with little miss Weeping Willow and her dumb wannabe gang of losers,” Hunter clenched his jaw, his eyes practically burning holes into his essay as Boscha continued her vapid rambling.

The bratty socialite had made it very clear from the day he entered the school that she wanted him on the Grudgby team, but Hunter couldn’t care less about that. The idea of willingly spending any amount of time in Boscha’s presence made him want to eat his own socks. Unfortunately, Boscha actually seemed to find his repeated refusals and insults to be attractive and kept persistently hitting on him every time she saw him now. Skara had told him that Boscha was always like that, and that the only tried and true way to get her to back off was to give in and give her what she wanted, after which she usually got bored after a week or so and then lost all interest entirely.

“It’s the chase she likes more than anything,” the bard had explained one time when he complained about Boscha to the team, “the more someone tells her no, the more she pushes and pushes until it becomes a yes.”

There was sound logic in his friend’s suggestion. But since Hunter was completely serious about how he’d rather eat his own socks than willingly spend time with Boscha- let alone be her boyfriend- they were left as a bit of a stalemate. One which Hunter refused to be the one to break.

“So? Whaddya say? That’s gotta sound more fun than sitting at home all bored when everyone else is out partying is, right?” Boscha tempted him, leaning in close and reaching out a hand to touch him. Flapjack immediately warned him of the approaching hand, and without even bothering to glance in her direction Hunter proceeded to slap a prepared glyph he had kept in his pocket down on the table.

It was one of his own creations, a consisting of a fire glyph in the center connecting to two smaller light glyphs on either side with a straight line, and a secondary line connecting each light glyph to two even smaller ice glyphs at the very edge of the overall circle. When Hunter slapped it hard against the table to activate it, it produced a bolt of lightning which came dangerously close to striking Boscha, causing her to instinctively jump away while loudly shrieking. She immediately lost her balance and toppled over to the ground, knocking her chair over with a massive crash as she fell.

“No noise in the library!” the librarian snapped, glaring at Boscha from his place behind the desk. With his head ducked low, Hunter allowed himself a smirk as Boscha growled a little at the warning, getting back up on her feet and dusting herself off.

“You don’t owe that loser Willow anything you know,” Boscha told him, crossing her arms. “Her dumb little team would have never happened in the first place if it wasn’t for you. You’re too good for trash like that. And if you quit the Flyer Dweebs and join the Grudgby team, you can actually show everyone how good you really are.”

Hunter’s pen nearly threatened to snap in half in his hands at the three eyed witches’ words, and he barely heard Flapjack chirping at him in concern. His vision swam for a moment as he stared, unseeingly, down at his paper while those words rung around his head like a sinister song. Taking him back to the years, and years, and YEARS he spent desperately trying to be the best. To do everything right. To show everyone he was worthy. And how, ultimately, it all amounted to nothing.

And then, a memory stirred up. Soft, gentle, and kind. Yet also undeniably strong.

“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, Hunter. You are enough. You always have been. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise doesn’t deserve to have you in their lives.”

It felt like so long ago that Willow had said that to him, accepted him in a way he’d never been accepted before in his life. The way he knew she had wished more had accepted her while she was struggling to keep her head above water. And it was hard for him not to believe her, when she stared up at him with those green eyes that always seemed like they knew more than he could begin to imagine.

Blinking back into reality, Hunter stared down blankly at the paper in front of him, at his latest desperate attempt to win approval from someone who didn’t like him. The realization that he’d slipped back into his old bad habits hit him like a staff to the back of the head. Despite himself, Hunter couldn’t help but chuckle, shaking his head in amazement.

“You really are pathetic, huh?” he said out loud to himself.

Ex-CUSE ME?!” Boscha gasped, clearly offended. She must’ve assumed he was talking to her, even though he’d been ignoring her the whole time she was trying to speak with him. Whatever. He wasn’t about to correct her.

He wouldn’t have gotten the chance to anyways, as it turned out. Clearly fed up with Boscha’s outbursts, the librarian drew a spell circle in her direction, and a massive bookworm burrowed up from the library floor to wrap around the pink haired witch, snarling at her with its fangs bared.

“That’s the last straw, Ms. Trioculi! You are banned from the library for the next three days!” he declared angrily, before urging the worm to drag the shrieking girl out of the library. Hunter smirked a little as he watched her being hauled away while he tucked his homework back into his bag.

Maybe he’d come back to the stupid thing after he took a break. Look at it again with fresh eyes. But he wasn’t going to stress himself out trying to impress someone who wasn’t worth the effort. Not again. Pulling out his scroll, Hunter began rereading some of his old messages from Skara, looking for a book he vaguely remembered her recommending to him but couldn’t recall the title of. Hopefully, it’d be able to distract him during all this stupid Decay Day nonsense…

 

-

 

Luckily for Hunter, the other students of Hexside left him alone for the rest of the day, until classes finally let out and he could join his friends on the field to practice for their upcoming Flyer Derby match. They had a game in Olecranon against the Bursa Bakunawas in two weeks, and the Bakunawas were a highly aggressive team that had been on a winning streak since the season started. Their last match had been especially brutal, leading to two kids on the opposing team being taken to the Healers and needing three weeks to recover after the match because of how bad their injuries were.

Not that that sort of environment was anything Hunter was unfamiliar with, but he’d rather spare his teammates the same pain if he could.

Because of that, Willow had decided to put more of an emphasis on speed and evasion for the team and was running them through the wringer to make sure that nothing and nobody could touch them. Obstacle Courses, Flying Drills, Reaction Time Tests… It had been exhausting, but everyone was showing results and Hunter felt pretty good about their chances. And apparently, the rest of the team did as well.

“Man, the Bakunawas aren’t even gonna be able to touch us!” Gus boasted as he hopped down from his staff, looking smug about the fact that he had managed to outrace everyone else. Hunter could have probably won, if he’d been allowed to teleport, but Willow had forbidden it for this training exercise.

“If we rely too much on your teleportation, other teams will start expecting it and make plans to counter it,” she had explained. Hunter saw the logic there. It was the same on the battlefield, after all. If the enemy used the same tactics over and over, then it made it easier to find and exploit an opening for an attack, at which point their defeat would be the sure outcome if they had too much confidence in their tactic to think of how to respond to the possibility of it failing.

“Good job, everyone. You’re all doing great at defensive flying tactics,” Willow told them with a smile that was all dimpled cheeks and rosy lips. Her face was almost glowing with pride as she looked at her team, and Hunter felt like he could fight a full-grown Titan bare-handed when she looked at him like that (A daunting task, he was sure. He and King had gone one-on-one for Camila’s last cookie a week ago, and he still had bite marks all over from the vicious little beast. And Hooty had eaten the cookie before either one of them could claim it). “Now I want to try to move on to practicing Protective Maneuvers.”

“Protective Maneuvers?” Hunter repeated, puzzled as Flapjack chirped curiously from his shoulder, also not understanding the term. Willow nodded to affirm that she had indeed said those words.

“Speed and evasion are excellent ways to deal with the Bakunawas and their more brutal playing style, but something that’s also going to help is the fact that we are friends, and that makes us a much more cohesive team. The Bakunawas are like a herd of angry Minotaurs, just charging at whatever’s in front of them and not stopping until it goes down and doesn’t get back up again. Which means they aren’t paying attention to anything other than their target. Which includes both their teammates AND the opponents they aren’t targeting.”

“Oooh, I get it!” Skara said, face brightening. “Basically, if we all practice using our magic to protect our teammates when they’re under attack, then we can use that in the match! If we’re all looking out for each other, the Bakunawas will have a harder time picking us off!”

“Exactly, Skara. As clever as always,” Willow said, grinning at the bard as she puffed up at the praise from their captain, “That’s why for our next drill, everyone will be pairing off, two vs two. Each pair has to protect their partner but can’t use magic to defend themselves from any oncoming attacks. You must trust that your partner will stop them for you instead. Evading is fine, but no defense.

“Remember that each team of two needs to defend their partner from any attacks while also trying to use any methods at their disposal to get the flags from the other pair. Regardless of how things go, we’ll all stop after 15 minutes and switch up the teams, to give everyone a chance to get comfortable with any team ups that might occur in the game. Understand?”

“Yes, Ma’am!” Gus said seriously, straightening his back and giving Willow a salute. Hunter barely stopped himself from telling the younger boy that his elbow’s position was wrong as Willow gave their friend an affectionate laugh.

“Just get ready to get in the air, you goof,” she said, shaking her head with fond disbelief. Gus grinned and sprinted off to do as he was told while Viney and Skara followed him at a more leisurely pace, laughing and chatting as they went. Only Hunter remained behind, lingering where he stood with a complicated expression on his face. Willow noticed this and stopped, brows furrowing in concern as she turned her attention fully on the blond boy before her.

After giving a quick glance at the others to make sure they hadn’t noticed they weren’t with them yet Willow stepped a little closer, leaning down slightly to catch Hunter’s downcast eyes and get his attention without needing to touch him or call out to him. She knew that sometimes Hunter got stuck in his own head, trapped there by the things Belos had done to him, and she had quickly made herself learn how to approach him when he was in such a state to pull him out without causing him to panic or set him off. Hunter felt guilty that she’d ever need to learn such a skill, but was grateful she cared about him enough to go that far for him.

“Hunter? You okay? Do you need a breather?” she asked quietly, her worry clear in her eyes. “This isn’t too much for you, is it? “

“I’m fine,” Hunter reassured her quickly. Willow narrowed her eyes at him, and Hunter could tell she was weighing his words to decide whether or not she was going to bench him for this exercise, for his own mental health. She’d done so in the past a couple times when he was too overwhelmed by something to actually play properly yet still tried to do so anyways because he didn’t want to let the team down. Realizing he’d have to plead his case quickly, Hunter almost tripped over himself to prove he’d be fine to continue with practice, telling Willow, “Honest, Captain. The people on this field right now are some of the only ones I actually DO trust, after everything that happened. Like, logically I know I’m being stupid about it, and the rest of the world doesn’t hate me or want me dead, but some days it’s hard to really make myself buy that.”

And besides, most of his issues stemmed with the adults in his life. But he was getting better, though. Kinda. Especially with Eda, Darius, Raine, and Camila. He rarely flinched anymore when someone raised their voice around him, or when they moved too quickly to try and touch him (Camila, it turned out was a VERY enthusiastic hugger. It was sweet, but Hunter nearly panicked the first time she came charging at him to welcome him into the Noceda’s home). But sometimes, he still felt himself getting tense or leaving the room as soon as he could if he was around one of them while they were in a bad mood.

Eda in particular had picked up on that pretty quickly, and now made a habit of disappearing whenever she was upset until she cooled off enough not to make him nervous. He was actually really touched about that, honestly. She was kinda crazy and a little reckless, but the Owl Lady was way more considerate of others than he ever would have imagined, given her reputation. Smarter than his impression of her at Eclipse Lake had led him to believe, too.

“You’re not stupid, Hunter. Don’t say that about yourself,” Willow chided, looking a little pained. At his shoulder, Flapjack empathetically agreed with the plant witch’s assessment of his intelligence. “You were hurt. Badly. And you’re still healing. You wouldn’t expect someone to go out running right after they broke their leg, would you? It’s okay to still need time to come to terms with everything that happened to you,” Hunter could feel the bittersweet smile come to his lips at Willow’s assurances.

Sometimes, he felt like he didn’t really deserve someone as patient and kind as her in his life. But he also knew that she cared about him too much to let him push her away, even if her life would be better without him in it. And as selfish as it probably was, he was a little grateful for that. Willow kept him sane when his life was falling apart around him, and she’d always be the first person to come to his side and make sure he was okay when he needed it. She knew how to be caring, without being suffocating, and was so genuine and gentle in a world full of harsh lies and violence that it gave Hunter hope.

“I know. I’m trying, Captain. I promise I am. It’s just… harder some days than others,” Hunter told Willow before giving her an honest smile, “but things are different now then they were when I was in the Emperor’s Coven. I’m different now. And I don’t want to let the team down by always sulking all the time,” or his Captain.

Besides, Hunter knew that he had been struggling with trusting others ever since he learned the truth about Belos. Even people he liked or who he saw as friends. And he hated thinking that Belos could have taken that from him as well. That any time he got close to anyone now, there would always be a sinister voice in the back of his head wondering when they would stab him in the back. Trying to convince him that they couldn’t actually care about him and that they were just using him. Making him hate himself because no matter how much evidence to the contrary piled up and he saw and felt the ways that his friends cared about him, he didn’t have the strength to make that voice shut up completely.

“You’re not ‘letting us down,’ Hunter. No one here would think less of you if you need to take a mental health break,” Willow assured him.

“I know, but I really do want to train right now. I feel better when I get up in the air and play, instead of sitting around with the bad memories and nothing to distract myself from them. Please, Captain?” Hunter begged her, his eyes pleading as he stood and awaited her judgement on his fate. Flapjack even took flight from his shoulder and sang sweetly around Willow’s head, trying to encourage her to let Hunter join in as well.

Lucky for him, Willow seemed to understand from his expression and Flapjack’s pleas that this was important to him and her frown softened. Breathing out a deep sigh as her shoulders lost some of their tension, Willow gave Hunter a curt nod of approval that had his face splitting into a massive grin.

“Okay. But please pick a partner for yourself for the first match up? I don’t want to potentially throw you into a situation you aren’t comfortable with up there, Hunter. If you at least start off with the partner you trust the most to keep you from getting hurt, then maybe things will go smoother,” Willow said seriously, giving him a stern (but somehow kind) look.

“Th-then… can it be you?” Hunter asked, a little awkwardly. He could feel just cheeks start heating up a little as he asked, especially when she looked a little taken aback at the question, but he kept Willow’s gaze.

“S-sure,” Willow said, a pretty pink color dusting the apples of her cheeks for a moment before she cleared her throat and affected an air of authority once more. “I mean, yeah. Of course. Let’s go meet up with the other now then, okay?”

“Aye-aye, Captain!” Hunter said, grinning proudly when Willow groaned and rolled her eyes, yet smiled nonetheless as she gave him a playful little shove before trotting off to join the others. Heart soaring, Hunter followed closely on her heels, Flapjack flying freely over their heads. The lingering emptiness in his chest at the topic he and Willow had just spoke about slowly filling with an almost addictive warmth as he caught sight of the serene smile on Willow’s face as she gazed affectionately at where the rest of the team stood as Gus made a big display of casting unflattering illusions of their upcoming opponents.

She cares so much about all of us. Hunter thought, a little amazed. He’d never known compassion like that before. A witch who devoted their heart and soul to the people they cared about without fear of being broken or betrayed by others, despite the fact that she’d been hurt before. How could Hunter help but be a little in awe of her? He wished he could have even half of her strength.

“Alright guys, enough goofing off,” Willow said, still smiling at their team as she stopped in front of them and crossed her arms. “Gus and Viney, you two are teaming up against me and Hunter. Skara? Can you record us on your scroll, and keep some notes about any strategies you might think of, or weaknesses that could be exploited?”

“Sure thing!” Skara agreed happily, taking a seat on the bleachers and allowing her palisman to hop into her shoulder as she pulled out her scroll.

“You and Hunter, huh?” Gus hummed, smiling at his friends. “I guess I could use a challenge, after showing everyone how awesome I am in the Obstacle Course.”

“Yeah, you two better not think you can go easy on us,” Viney said, grinning as she and Gus mounted their staffs.

“We wouldn’t dream of it, right Hunter?” Willow said, turning to her partner for the exercise with an inviting smile.

“Got that right, Captain,” Hunter agreed, his heart soaring as he took his place at her side and transformed Flapjack into his staff form, preparing to take to the air.

“Everyone ready?” Willow asked, waiting patiently with a determined smile as the rest of her team sounded off one at a time to confirm they were good to go. “Alright, then let’s begin!”

 

-

 

“Okay everyone! You all did a great job, but we’re all done for today!”

Two hours later found the Emerald Entrails breathing sighs of relief as their Captain’s voice rang out across the field to deliver those sweet, sweet words. Not that practice hadn’t been enjoyable, but all of them were starting to feel the effects of being in the air for so long, despite the fact that all of them got switched out several times to get a brief break from the action to catch their breath.

“Awesome!” Viney crowed from where she was sitting on the bench, hopping to her feet and effecting a bone popping stretch. “Is it alright if I duck out on post-practice snacks today? Gotta get some stuff gone for Decay Day.”

“That’s fine, Viney. Catch you tomorrow?”

“You know it, Cap!” Viney grinned, giving Willow a playful punch to the shoulder and waving a cheerful goodbye to the rest of the Emerald Entrails before racing off the field to where Puddles was waiting on the sidelines.

“Speaking of the post-practice snacks, I convinced the Cafeteria Witches to let me keep them in the fridge today, so I actually gotta run and go get them. You guys okay with waiting for me for a bit?” Willow asked, smiling at the remaining team.

“For your homemade Slaughtermelon Pops?” Gus asked, looking dismayed that she’d even ask. “You KNOW I count down until the end of winter, longing for a taste of that sweet, sweet snack, Willow. I think can manage a few minutes.”

“I don’t got anywhere to be for a while,” Hunter said with a shrug. Eda and Raine planned on “reconnecting” today, whatever THAT meant, so they were told to entertain themselves outside of the Owl House for another hour or so. King was spending time with Gwen and Lilith for the day (Lilith was VERY gleeful for the chance to study a living Titan, and King was happy to assist her as long as Lilith kept paying him with candy and ice scream), and Luz and Amity had a study date at the library while Darius was having a Spa Day, which left Hunter limited on people who he’d actually want to spend time with. Most of which were already on the field with him.

“I’m cool waiting, too,” Skara agreed as well from where she’d taken up sitting on the railing that separated the field from the bleachers, feet swinging freely as she grinned at her teammates.

“Perfect! I’ll be back in a bit then,” Willow promised, running off to grab their snacks.

“So Gus,” Skara said, grinning at the illusionist. “What sorta stuff are you and your dad gonna do at the Decay Day festival?”

“Dunno yet. Probably just interview people and show off all the stuff there is to do,” Gus said, shaking his head a little in annoyance. “Sucks I probably won’t get to have as much fun as everyone else, but I gotta give my dad a hand, you know? Besides, Luz and Amity are supposed to have a date there, and if I stick with my dad I can keep him from trying to jump them for an interview about the whole “Day of Unity” thing.” Hunter winced a little at that.

Ever since Belos’ defeat, the denizens of the Owl House had spent ages getting harassed by reporters itching to interview them about what had happened. Eda had been forced to go Harpy a few times to chase them off, when they started to overwhelm even Hooty. Fortunately, it had died down a little when the patchwork family doggedly when back to their daily lives and the reporters slowly gave up, realizing that they weren’t going to get the thrilling expose they wanted, but every once in a while a particularly stubborn one would crop up again.

Luckily, Gus was really great about keeping his dad off their backs, and giving them a tip off if he heard anything about other reporters trying anything sneaky to violate their hard won privacy.

“Maybe me and Vesper can swing by and help you have some fun.” Skara promised him, earning a grateful smile from the boy.

“Thanks. Willow promised to come around too, but I don’t want her missing out on stuff because she’s helping me. She’s been looking forward to seeing the Corpse Flower bloom since she was six.”

“Yeah, I heard her talking about it earlier with Amelia,” Skara said as she hopped off the rail. “Apparently, she even made a brand new dress, just for the festival?”

“Yeah, she’s been doing some part time work at a greenhouse to save up for the materials and everything.” Gus said warmly.

“That’s the reason she’s been working for Mr. Mulch?” Hunter interjected with a frown. He hadn’t known that…

“One of the reasons, yeah,” Gus confirmed.

“You don’t have any plans for Decay Day yet, do you Hunter?” Skara asked him.

“It’s not really my thing. I’m probably going to just stay in my room and finish reading the book you recommended to me last week,” Hunter replied.

“Oh, you started it?!” Skara said, perking up at the mention of the book she’d been bugging him to read. “How do ya like it so far?”

“It’s good. Nice world building, and the characters have all been good so far. A little heavy with the romance, though.”

“The romance is integral to the plot! Alexavier and Stephan are soulmates, torn apart by war and forced to choose between their love and their responsibilities to their people! It’s a heartbreaking tragedy!”

“Maybe, but they kept doing stuff that didn’t make any sense. Like Alexavier giving up the priceless sword that was the only thing he had left from his father to get the house Stephan wanted. And Stephan spending the entire war meeting daydreaming about Alexavier’s eyes and how much he wanted to hold him again.”

“Well, yeah. Because that’s romantic,” Skara told him as though it was obvious.

“It is?” Hunter said, more than a little baffled at the idea. He knew his experiences with romantic love were stunted- amazing how years of service as a child soldier could do that to a guy- but he found it hard to wrap his head around the idea that romance made people act like that.

“Yeah, dude. Look at Luz and Amity,” Gus said, sounding a little bemused.

“I figured they were the exception, not the rule,” Hunter said, feeling his cheeks warm with embarrassment. Though come to think of it, Raine and Eda were kind of like that too. Just… quieter about it? Or more mature, maybe, was a better way to put it? Hunter wasn’t sure if that was really the right way to describe the vibe he got from the couple, but it was the best he could come up with.

“Nah, that stuff is real common when someone’s gotta crush. Always thinking about the other person, or wanting to be around them, feeling happier whenever they ARE around, always thinking of them. Obsessing about the things you like about how they look, like their eyes or their smile…” Skara told him, looking at him with a weirdly expectant stare.

“Sounds… distracting,” Hunter said, suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable. Flapjack chirped rather pointedly from his shoulder, telling him that Skara’s description sounded pretty familiar to him. Maybe he was talking about Luz? She was constantly fawning over Amity, after all. Sometimes Hunter got annoyed with it himself, and started messaging Willow on his scroll to distract himself whenever the two of them were flirting in the Owl House. It always worked a little too well though, and he’d end up messaging her even after Amity finally went home and then well into the night, until Willow had to go to sleep. Then he would go back through his scroll and reread his favorite parts of their chat history after bidding her goodnight, until he fell asleep himself.

Thinking about Willow had Hunter glancing up at the nearby clock, frowning a little when he noticed how long it had been since Willow had left. It didn’t take THAT long to get from the cafeteria to the field… maybe Willow ran into some kind of trouble?

“Hey, Willow’s taking a while to come back. I’m gonna go see what’s keeping her, alright?” For some reason, hearing him say that made Skara give a low, frustrated groan and bodily throw herself to the ground, much to Hunter’s confusion.

“How can someone be so OBLIVI-!”

“It’s fine, Hunter. Go ahead and find Willow,” Gus told him, cutting Skara’s complaint off with a nervous smile at his blond friend. “We’ll just hang out here until the two of you get back.”

Sparing one last confused look at Skara, who seemed dangerously close to throwing a full on tantrum for some reason, Hunter decided to leave their bard to the more socially-adept Gus, and bolted off of the bleachers and past the field to find his Captain.

It didn’t take him long to make it to the entrance of the school, only to notice a lot of students standing around focusing on something on the steps. Puzzled, Hunter drew closer to see what had captured everyone’s attention, only to freeze up at the sight of Willow standing off against Boscha and some of her lackies, who seemed to be blocking her way down the stairs.

“See, what did I tell you?” Boscha was saying loudly, making sure everyone in the area could hear them. “Someone like her could never get a date for Decay Day. Even if it’s a once-in-a-decade dating opportunity, NO ONE is desperate enough to wanna go with Half-a-Witch Willow.” Hunter felt a red haze descend upon his vision as rage boiled his blood. Hunter could tolerate Boscha being annoying. Barely, but he’d manage it. But harassing Willow? BOSCHA was the one who wasn’t even half a witch compared to Willow!

Furious, Hunter started to step forward, determined to intervene before Boscha could spew any more of her nonsense. Urgent chirping from Flapjack made him pause mid step though, when the bird reminded him that if he stepped in to try and fight Willow’s battle for her, it could hurt both her reputation and self-esteem by making others think that Boscha was right and Willow didn’t have the strength to fight for herself. Hunter could see the logic in his palismen’s words— he often suffered the same issue growing up, after all, with people convinced he was nothing without Belos to protect him— but at the same time, he didn’t want to stand by and do nothing as Willow was harassed by the bratty bully. Almost too innocently, Flapjack sang at Hunter, offering an alternative that had his cheeks going pink. It WOULD work, he had to admit. And it should offer up an opportunity to get Willow away to safety without damaging her reputation. But could he really—?

“I don’t recall you having a date for the Festival either, Boscha. Do you really want to throw stones over something like that?” Willow asked the pink haired girl coolly, staring her down without a trace of fear or intimidation. Boscha’s face started to turn pink— from shame or rage, it was hard to tell— as everyone around them started whispering amongst themselves at Willow’s reminder.

“Ha! I could have any date I wanted! It’s just none of the losers around here are good enough for me,” Boscha said with a sneer. “But you? NO ONE is gonna want a lame little wallflower like you. But hey! Maybe you can convince one of the corpse flowers to go out with you. If you can find a really, REALLY desperate one.” Boscha laughed, loudly and cruelly, at her own joke.

And, just like that, Hunter’s mind was made up for him.

Turning Flapjack into his staff form, Hunter smoothly teleported a small distance away. Confident that no one had seen him, Hunter mounted his staff and took to the sky in an especially flashy aerial display that was guaranteed to get the attention of everyone in the area. Glancing at the ground, Hunter grinned triumphantly when he saw both Boscha and Willow staring up at him in surprise.

With as much flair as he could manage, Hunter gracefully pulled off a landing— right between Willow and Boscha, coincidentally— And gave Willow the most charming grin he could manage, trying to channel some of his old “Golden Guard” charisma and confidence into his expression, which was much harder than it ought to have been. Confidence was easier behind a full-face mask and armor…

“Captain! Glad I finally caught up with you,” he said brightly. “Actually, I had a question for you after today’s practice, and figured that now was probably my best chance to ask.”

“O-oh, of course!” Willow said, looking slightly confused but too kind to turn her friend’s request down. It helped that Hunter had both her and Boscha off balance, too. Surprise attacks were often difficult to counter, so if one got skilled enough at launching such combat, they could control the fight from the start. And while this wasn’t exactly a fight, it was close enough that the same tactic could work. Hopefully?

Hunter was trying REALLY hard not to think about it too hard, or else he might panic and mess up.

“Did you want to ask me something about the team, or…?”

“No, not the team,” Hunter said, trying his best to appear casual even though his heart was now hammering in his chest for some reason. “I was just wondering if you wanted to go to the Decay Day Festival with me. As my date.”

There was a beat of stunned silence from everyone in the area after that, which was finally broken by Boscha’s furious screech.

“WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?!!”