Gifted Art by Ro

Gifted Art by Noor

Content Warnings: canon typical body horror and violence, inebriation, mention of drugs.

Blob, blob, blob ... Bunny? Nobara pointed a finger up towards the blue sky, singling out a cloud with what looked like two fluffy pointed rabbit ears. "That one there," she called out. "Bunny." She then used two of her fingers to immitate the animal.It had taken some time but Nobara was getting used to the slower lifestyle of the Care Center. There was part of it that reminded her of back home. It was comforting in a way to have this place of peace in the middle of the chaos of Jujutsu Tech. Almost like a hideaway."Oh!! Gurgi sees it!!" The Curse beside her leapt up, scampering about excitedly. "It is a rabbit! Gurgi sees it in the clouds! Twenty points for Nobi!""Stop shouting!" Hibiki scolded just as loudly, sitting up from where she lay in the circle and swatting at it. "This is supposed to be quiet time!"Nobara also sat up, watching with some amusement as the two quickly devolved to a game of chase around the yard. The two scrambled between the trees and into the bushes, and her mind wandered as the happy chaos encircled her. She had texted Maki the blurry picture of Mochi hours ago but still hadn't received a reply. It had already taken her what felt like forever to work up the nerve to even send it to her in the first place, having eventually reasoned that this was probably just simply mere coincidence and nothing would ultimately come of it. But ... there had been an awful lot of coincidences lately. Too many to overlook. Was Maki ignoring her? Or just busy? Or ... had something happened?"Lemonade?"Nobara perked at the voice, realizing said glass of lemonade was hovering by her head. She took it from Aiden's hand with a nod, drinking from it greedily. Summer seemed to be making an early appearance, scorching sun and insufferable heat in tow. She started to relax until she remembered-"Wait!" Nobara called as Aiden began to turn to head back into the house. She pushed herself up to her feet, following him as he'd kept walking away anyway. "There's something I wanted to ask you about."Aiden stopped in his tracks, lit cigarette clasped between his lips. He quirked a tired brow, entirely unbothered by the growing rowdiness around them as more Curses joined in on the fun of the nonsense game raging in the yard. He said nothing, only stared. Waiting. Besides exhaustion, it was hard to tell whatall he was feeling. Everyone at the Center was shrouded in mystery, both Curse and Sorcerer alike and Nobara wasn't entirely sure just how much she could get away with prodding before something blew up in her face."Those two that came to visit yesterday, right when I was leaving, who are they?" She did her best not to seem like she was overly-invested in finding out but she couldn't help the curiosity building inside her - especially at the revelation she'd had the night before about ..."My kid and his cousin," Aiden replied dryly.Nobara gave a slow nod, processing his words for a moment but quickly cutting off her train of thought when Aiden made to walk away again. "Wait!" She ignored the annoyed look he shot her and went on, "I feel like ... I just ... Maybe I'm imagining it but ... You guys look a lot like this kid in our class."Aiden gave her a weird look, one that made her quickly clarify herself, "No, I mean it!" Her voice was more resolute now. "Look, I'm sorry if it came out wrong. It's just that Jasper ... is a mystery and we're all trying to figure them out." She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Maybe I'm being stupid.""What?" Aiden spoke at last. The cigarette fell from his mouth, picked up by a few smaller Curses dancing by his feet. He paid them no mind. His eyes had narrowed and he leaned in close to her, expression straining, as if he was doubting what he had heard her say, as if he was scrutinizing every detail on her face to ensure she wasn't lying. "Jasper?"Nobara was somewhat taken aback by the sudden switch in demeanor - stone cold suddenly. Almost frightening. "Yeah, they-"Aiden reared back, lips curling into a deep scowl. His eyes were wide. Wild. Furious. Without another word, he walked away from her entirely now, disappearing into the house.Not hesitating, Nobara followed after him. She kept very quiet, focused on observing her teacher. Had her gut feeling been right? Was he related to Jasper somehow? If so then ... did he know what Jasper was? Her eyes followed Aiden as he grabbed his phone off the coffee table. He tapped at the screen, almost frantically. She could see his hands were shaking. He brought the phone up to his ear. His eyes were downcast but burning with an intensity that sent shivers down her spine. He was pacing back and forth in the room, like a caged tiger. Her eyes followed him, brows knitted with confusion.Whoever it was he was calling must've picked up because the next words out of his mouth were a demand - loud and booming, "YOU TELL THOSE GEEZER FUCKS AT THE TOP THAT AIDEN CAPRICIEN WANTS A WORD!"

'What did you do?!'"Oh, great. You're back."Kyoshiki pushed through the crowds, eyes locked on the building ahead - towering at the top of a dozen steps. The sign above the door read in large lettering: LIBRARY.'Did you kill someone?!'A loud annoyed sigh puffed out of its mouth. "No, I didn't kill anyone. Will you calm down?" Its palms had begun to sweat, a deep and foreign anxiety swelling in the pit of its stomach. A few odd looks from passersby shot its way but it didn't notice or care for them. "Don't stress unless you want to end up killing someone because you made us lose control again."'I'll ... try ...' Jasper's voice was trembling. 'Why are we here? What time is it? Aren't we missing class? We'll get in trouble.'"Do you ever shut up?" Kyoshiki hissed as it shoved open the door to the library. A couple of people that'd been on their way out lunged out of the way to avoid getting slammed into by the door, giving Kyoshiki agitated looks as it ignored them and continued its journey in. "I need to use a computer."'You know, you said yesterday I shouldn't speak outloud to you or I'd look crazy ... but you're doing it right now and everyone is looking at us.'Kyoshiki snorted, "I don't care if you look crazy, but you do so I just- ugh, whatever! I don't have to defend myself to you! Brat!" It stamped its foot. All heads around it turned to stare and it received a very stern shush from the librarian nearby.It scowled before going forward.Jasper was quiet a moment, as if contemplating their next words. 'There are computers at the school,' they mumbled.Kyoshiki could feel them wince at its retort, "This is private! Top secret shit. We can't use the ones at the school." It was beginning to get exasperated, but then again - this wasn't the first time and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Jasper had been a prison to it for the last fifteen years. Being in control for once after so long, was strange but freeing. Though it would never admit it, the main reason it spoke out loud was because it struggled to function under its new circumstances. It still stumbled. It still swayed. Hands trembling. Heart racing. Its eyes followed the signage over to the computer cubicles, scanning the rows for an empty one.'You're gonna do something top secret on a public computer?'"Stop hassling me!! You're pissing me off!!" Kyoshiki barked, taking the first empty seat it found. The two people seated on either side of it gave it a nervous glance, one scooting a few inches away from it. It remained unbothered by these gestures of fear, instead withdrawing the USB from Jasper's school jacket pocket and searching the PC tower for a slot to plug it into, "Let me focus."It did get a prolonged silence in return, but it could feel Jasper's presence still, as if they were looking over its shoulder.Most of the snooping was inconsequential. There were hundreds of folders, all loaded with information on generations of Sorcerers - but not the information it was looking for. Even peering through Gojo's file was uneventful, other than finding out he had bad cholesterol.'What're you looking for?'"None of your business! Quit looking. I said it was private," Kyoshiki grumbled as it clicked through what seemed like a neverending stream of information.'Where did you get this from anyway?'"Does it matter? Just shut up and look away." Kyoshiki was only half paying attention to the words coming out of its mouth, expression hardening as it finally came across what it had been looking for. The file titled SUBJECT2436 - buried in a maze of folders, as if hidden away on purpose. Its breathing picked up, a grin spreading across its lips.'What-'"Nothing!" Kyoshiki quickly minimized the folder that had popped open at a double click. "I told you not to look!" A swirl of emotion fester in the pit of its stomach. "Can you just trust me? I need to read this without you looking!" It's palm was sweaty on the computer mouse.'Why can't-'"If you look I'll kill everyone in this fuckin' building." Its goice dropped to a growl as it leaned forward so it was partially hidden from the people around it by the privacy walls on either side of it. "How about that? That make it easier for you?"As expected, Jasper caved immediately at the threat. 'Okay! I won't look! Just ... don't do anything bad ...' It took a moment but eventually, Kyoshiki felt Jasper's presence fade. As if drifting into a sleep. It waited longer, chewing on its knuckle as it hovered the cursor over the only document icon in the folder. It drew in a sudden breath, giving the mouse it clung to another double click.Nothing happened.It clicked again.The screen on the monitor flickered before seemingly all electricity in the building vanished. Angry groans from other computer users who had lost hours of work joined a few squeals of fear from readers in higher levels. Kyoshiki grit its teeth, ripping the harddrive from the computer tower and taking off.This was no good. It was gonna have to get help.

Megumi ran his hands carefully over the wood of the table at the center of the room. The last he remembered before losing consciousness was the terrifying silvery eyed gaze of Dr. Engel Amajiki. After that, things were a haze. He had blacked out for what felt like an eternity and when he'd come to, he'd awoken in the same decrepit temple but with this rather quaint new addition. He actually couldn't quite place if the table had always been there, though he felt like he would've noticed it sooner if it had been. It was a simple table - dark polished wood with no notable detailing. Before he could rack his mind too much over what to make of it, a voice made him jump."Have a seat."Megumi turned on his heels, heart pounding in his chest as he locked eyes with Engel. He looked back at the table to find two chairs had appeared, on opposite sides. They were the same dark wood and simple design as the table. He looked back at Engel, who stared back at him with a calm but indecipherable expression. "Why?" he bit out. "Am I awake? Is this real?" He felt stupid for asking but around the doctor, reality was difficult to quantify.Engel strolled across the old floorboards, footsteps not making a sound. "You spoke to Sukuna, yes? I know what you're here for and if you want it, you'll have a seat."Some hesitation festered in Megumi but after a moment, he relented. For a second he was afraid he'd phase right through the chair but found it to be solid when he sat. It let out a scrape when he scooted it closer to the table.Engel took the seat across from him, crossing his legs. "What's your favorite game?" he asked cheerfully.Furrowing his brows, Megumi mumbled, "I don't like playing games.""And I don't like repeating myself."The answer left him before he could stop it. "Menko." He bit down on his lips, memories of playing the game with his sister when they were younger flooding into him. He lowered his gaze, clenching his fists on his lap."Oh? Interesting," Engel chirped, genuinely amused at the response. "We won't be needing these then." He stood just as the table and chairs vanished from the room. "You struck me as more the mahjong or shogi type. How fun!" He clasped his hands together, a strange light in his eyes.Megumi didn't react quick enough when the chair disappeared under him, falling to the ground with a grunt. When he glared up at the other, he found him shuffling through a deck of the familiar cardboard cards. The holographic superheroes etched into them struck a chord in his heart. There was no use in asking him how he knew. There was no use in asking him anything. He just needed to play the game and earn what he was looking for ... Whatever that was. He stood, dusting off the back his pants, and held a hand out for his half of the deck.The cards appeared in his hands. He began to feel his hesitance build again. "How do I know you won't cheat?" he asked as he fingered the cards with some apprehension."I would never cheat at a game. That would defeat the purpose of playing one," Engel reassured with a nod. "but I'm willing to take a Binding Vow if that will make you feel more confident in me.""I'll take your word for it," Megumi muttered. He still wasn't sure what exactly he was dealing with, who or what Engel was, and further intertwining himself with him was the last thing he wanted to do, but did he have any other options left? Without waiting, he set a card down on the ground between the two of them with a crouch and then straightened back up again. It was as he stared down at the card he had placed that he realized there was something odd about it. The face looking up at him wasn't the hero he knew, although the figure wore the familiar costume. It was Nobara grinning out at him. His eyes widened before they narrowed before they upturned at Engel.Engel grinned down at him, drawing his own. "Let's begin."

Grass was Mahito's favorite touch. He loved ripping fistfuls out of the ground. He loved how the blades bent and crunched under his weight. He loved running across it in his bare feet. The bunker was a pit of depression compared to the massive backyard of the Capricien mansion. He'd run outside to explore it every chance he got and that day was no different.Or well, maybe it was a little different.Dodging a fist with a lively flip backwards, Mahito couldn't contain the gleeful laugh escaping his lips. Once his feet made contact with the earth, he reared up for his own attack, sending his arm stretching out and tactfully wrapping itself around Minerva's waist - careful to avoid contact with her skin. Like a slingshot, he sent her flying across the yard, releasing her before she could manage to get her own hands on him.Just as he had, Minerva landed on her feet, hitting a tree before using it as a launching pad forward and soaring back after him."Be careful, guys!" Haruta shouted from the safety of the gazebo - staring at the tree with some trepidation as it had almost uprooted at the burst of power. He was standing by the railing at what he hoped was a safe distance from the spar. A tray of abandoned finger sandwiches sat on the table at the center, a pitcher full of lemonade beside it - the ice in it half-melted.The words of warning were hardly registered by the dueling two, with Mahito also running forward to meet Minerva. He slid under her arm as she reached for his face but she turned before he could catch her by the shirt again, narrowly avoiding his curling fingers.A playful game of cat and mouse ensued at the proximity with the roles rapidly reversing.Mahito warped and contorted and shrank and twisted as Minerva reached for him and Minerva dodged and slid and leapt and spun as Mahito reached for her. It was almost like a dance, one of unbridled chaos, wildfire - too quick to follow for the untrained eyed.It all came to a very abrupt stop when Minerva found herself facing Jasper.As if the air had been sucked from her lungs, the energy drained from her body, the blood from her veins - she froze. Her amber eyes grew wide, like that of a deer that had frolicked too far into the road, faced with the unexpected presence of a semi-truck. Her knees felt weak. Her head spun."Ti Ja?"It was not Jasper, but Mahito that swept his leg under her and knocked her to the ground. He'd quickly retaken his appearance, now twisting his body around her as if it were rope to bind her and digging his fingers into the ground to pin her. She put up no struggle, still stunned. "I win~" he sang out gleefully."I didn't know you could do that!" Haruta shouted, eyes wide and jaw dropped. He had hopped over the railing as the spar came to an end, quickly running over to the two. He couldn't contain his awe.Mahito preened. "I didn't either 'til recently!" he shouted back, subconsciously giving his captive a happy squeeze. "Saw someone do it in a movie so I thought I'd give it a try. Cool, right?" He looked down at Minerva.The excitement was not reciprocated from the girl. Greatly contrasting the excitement of the other two, a dark look had crossed her face - an odd distance in her golden eyes. "Let me go," she bit out, voice seeping venom.Grin faltering, the Curse did as he was ordered. He quirked a brow, looking annoyed. He stood beside Haruta, hands on his hips. "What- Hey!"Minerva didn't acknowledge the two as she stood, turning on her heel and storming off towards the house. She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand as she left, not so much as sparing a glance back at the two. Her shoulders shook, cheeks wet as she kept her pace quick and determined."Minnie!" Haruta called after her, echoing the same confusion on Mahito's face - but the call went unheeded as she slammed the door shut after her and vanished into the house, glass panels cracking from the impact."What a sore loser," the Mahito grumbled, though an unfamiliar, sickening sensation swelled in his chest. He crossed his arms and snorted. "Whatever."

"He's fast asleep now, tucked away in bed. Stop worrying. I'll talk to him tomorrow when he wakes up. I'm sure he's fine. It's just been a stressful time for him."Utahime's words were of little comfort. Shoko tugged at her hair, a lock twirled tight around her finger. In her other hand, she clutched her phone. "He told me he thinks he's hallucinating. How is that fine?" she hissed.A long sigh came from the other line. "Let me talk to him after he gets some rest, okay? If he's still freaking out, we'll talk to the higher ups and get him put on medical leave. But if he wants to stay and wants to help and he's coherent and able to work ... we could really use him." Utahime's last few words faded to almost silence. She worked herself up to push on. "Anxiety's building with the Exchange Event coming up. I just don't want anyone to crack under the pressure.""I know. Okay. I get it. I know," Shoko mumbled. She finally freed her hair for her grasp just to rub at her tired eyes. "It's just ... between this, my harddrive going missing ..." She paused to look towards her open office door. "and Satoru driving me up the wall, I'm under my fair share of stress.""And you don't remember where you left it last?"Shoko nearly cried at the question. "It's all I've been thinking about since this morning. Retracing every single step I took, doubting every single step I took." She collapsed against her desk, crumpling into a pile of herself."Are you gonna get in trouble for this?"There was a pause. "Everything is backed up so nothing is really lost. The problem is that if that harddrive falls into the wrong hands ... into the hands of someone who really knows what to look for on there ... it could be trouble."Before Utahime could respond, Shoko muttered, "I bet it's that bastard. Playing games with my head. It's all he does. Like we're fucking toys." She drew in a sharp breath. Memories of dealing with the doctor and his bizarre antics when she was still only a student floated in her mind. They made her shake with frustration. His smile was carved eternally into her mind."But he has access to that information. You're saying you think he took it just to mess with you?" Concern resounded in Utahime's voice. "Or ..." Her voice faded, unsure if her next words were Shoko's paranoia seeping into her own train of thought."Or he's given it to someone he wants to snoop around in it?" Shoko finished the suspicion for her. She drew in a breath. "I don't know. I do know it sounds insane, though, but there's no knowing with him. He has no allegiance to anyone but himself."Utahime sighed. "Shoko ...""No, no. I know I sound crazy, but I was his student once. I know him better than most.""And it's why you took his whole ... situation the hardest."The words struck her like a bullet. The phone in her hand shook, a tremor of frustration coursing through her - but not directed at Utahime. She couldn't even speak, throat tight."I know. It's okay to be angry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even brought it up," Utahime sounded genuinely apologetic. "I already know the answer to this but ... why not talk to him about it? You deserve some closure. Even if you don't get any answers out of him. You should tell him how you feel. Maybe it'll make you feel better." The suggestion was coming from a good place, one of worry, of love. The emotion weighed on her tone.Shoko bit her lip, staring down at her desk."You could ask him about the harddrive too. If he won't be mature about it and tell it to you straight, then maybe at least ... you could come away from it knowing you tried.""I just think that whatever answer he does give me ... I won't believe.""I know ...""I should go home and sleep.""You should ..."Shoko sighed, taking a moment to gather herself. "Call tomorrow. Tell me how Dom is feeling, okay?" she mumbled."I will. Love you.""I love you too."

Pleasant dreams of ocean waves and fruity margaritas faded into the darkness of lucidity as the faint droning of a vibrating cellphone dragged Kento from his peaceful respite. He reached for his nightstand to grab at the phone, promptly blinded by the light of it when he check to see just who the hell was calling him at three in the forsaken morning."Who is it?" Hiromi grumbled beside him, also roused by the sound."Who do you think?" Kento sighed in aggravation before answering, tone harsh. "This better be important." He didn't know why he bothered. He already knew it wasn't. He sat up on the mattress, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the back of his free hand."Nanamiiiiiiii~" Satoru called on the other line and Kento felt his agitation grow. "I had a bad dream."Kento grit his teeth. "And what exactly am I meant to do about that?" he asked."Come comfort me!" the other whined. His words were slurring into each other. He could practically smell the reek of alcohol off the other over the line. "I'm miserable and I need a big strong man to hold me."Kento hung up the call, glaring into the darkness of the room. He could feel Hiromi's eyes on him but he didn't know what to say."You should go," Hiromi said, breaking the silence. He reached out a comforting hand and pressed it to Kento's back. "He's clearly having a rough time. Maybe if you talk to him ..." His voice faded, mostly because he wasn't actually sure what would come of talking to Satoru.With a shake of his head, Kento bit out, "No. He's always being babied by everyone around him. I won't feed into it. He needs to grow up." As the words left him, his phone began to vibrate again. He turned the phone face down, taking his head into both his hands. He was both wide awake and exhausted all at once. "He's been like this since Dominic left to Kyoto." He then snorted. "Well, he's always been insufferable but he's worse now with Dominic gone.""Then you should try to get some sleep. You have to be up early."Nanami sighed. Easier said than done, he wanted to say but bit his tongue. He understood why Dominic had left but without him around and Satoru seemingly collapsing into himself at the absence, only he was left to try and hold things together at the school. It had only been a few days and he didn't know how much longer he could keep things together on his own."If I say yes, would help unburden you?"Kento felt the shackle of guilt tighten itself around his heart. "I don't want you to say yes because of me. I want you to say yes because it's something you want to do," he mumbled with a slow shake of his head. "This isn't a decision you can easily back out of once you've made it. It will uproot your life.""I know." Hiromi had sat up, now wrapping an arm around his partner and pulling him close to his side. "I know all of that."Taking a moment to enjoy the touch and the comfort it brought him, Kento remained silent. He didn't want to say anything that would sway the conversation further. It didn't feel right to him. In fact, it wasn't until now that he started to think asking Hiromi that cursed question years ago had been a mistake."I'll do it," Hiromi said, planting a kiss to the side of his head. "but only if you get some sleep." With his embrace, he dragged the other backwards onto his pillow. His finger traced soothing circles into the other's skin.Kento clung to his partner, and stared over his shoulder as terror bloomed deep inside him.

The glow of a dozen computer monitors lining the wall were the only source of light in the cramped and messy room. The security detail, or rather the bits and pieces left of them that could be made out, painted the space a vibrant red. Hakari did nothing but sit and drink his champagne patiently, waiting for his unexpected guest to make his way up to him. It was all he really could do. He'd crossed his legs, a look of mild disappointment etched on his face. What a way to kill his buzz. And things were going so well too."What do we even pay them for?" Kirara sighed beside him, laying on her back on the couch and mindlessly thumbing at a rhythm game on her phone.Hakari gave a shake of his head, an annoyed hiss of air escaping him. He had no answer for her. He had to admit he'd been greedy and this greediness had made him foolish. What else could he have expected from-"Alright! Where is he?!"The door behind the two slammed open but neither budged an inch from there they sat. The metal door had dented from the brutal impact, lock hanging off the ridge uselessly, and formed a crack in the door behind it. Hakari rolled his eyes and took another deeper drink from his glass. What a pain in the ass.Tsukuna leapt over the couch, landing on her feet and facing the gory monitors. "Oh, I see! You're admiring my handiwork?" he grinned. She pointed up at one of the screens, looking at the unimpressed couple over his shoulder. "This one's my favorite! Cute, right? Barely screamed, that one. He popped like a firework.""He's downstairs," Hakari sighed, giving a nod to a second wall of monitors to his right. "I thought his wife would be coming for him. Not you." He sat up as Tsukuna denied him a response, instead walking across the room to look at the monitors Hakari had gestured towards. "Can you tell Mrs. Capricien we'd like a word, at least? For our trouble?" He motioned around him, to the door, to the maimings.There was no immediate response from Tsukuna, eyes locked on the far more intriguing violence on-screen. Roger tearing and pummeling through his fighting opponent at the center of a ring. The crowd around him was fanatically cheering, an incomprehensible static. He wasn't even using his technique, feeding only off his rage. Blood covered his clenched fists, splattered across his face. How charming. Tsukuna couldn't keep his smile from splitting into a pleased grin. "Is he high?" she asked, tapping a screen zoomed closely into the mindless fury on the Sorcerer's face. It held the frame. He gave it an affectionate look. "Or drunk?""Both. Off his ass," Kirara replied, perking her head up. "Are you gonna fight him?" Her eyes had lit up at the prospect.Tsukuna shook her head. "Not today, no," he turned on her heel and motioned grandiously towards the couple. "You are." He strutted over to the couch, letting herself drop onto the cushion between the two. Kirara looked annoyed as the movement ruined her in-game combo. "If I fight him, he'll end up like your boys outside. Besides, if you guys want the missus to see you, this'd be a good way to get her attention. Defeating him, I mean."Hakari scoffed, "Bullshit. We beat him and you go and take all the credit. That's how that'll play out." He stood regardless, stretching his arms over his head.With a playful laugh, Tsukuna relented, "If you impress me, I'll put in a good word." He offered. "Just 'cause I like your coat."Quirking a brow, Hakari looked down at his fluffy faux fur coat. It was old and ratty, stained with dried blood and liquor. He shrugged it off, tossing it over Tsukuna on his way out the door."I'll be back."

Content Warnings: N/A

It was still early. The sun was just beginning to break over the horizon. Everyone that should be sleeping, still was. Well, save for one wolf in wool creeping the halls - Kyoshiki had done its best in masking its appearance, having managed to suffocate its CT enough that it could pass for Jasper at a glance in case any early birds caught it wandering the school. Its contorted halo was the only giveaway, thorned and twisted. It took far too much effort to conceal, especially in this new body both so familiar and foreign to it. It had been so long since it had last been out. So long, in fact, that it had been in a different vessel entirely. It felt weird to move, to walk, to use its hands. It could almost say it had missed the freedom of it.It had taken it some time to find Shoko's office, relieved to find it empty. That relief, however, was shortlived - deterred by the password necessary to access anything on her computer. It stared at the monitor, agitation growing with the patient blink of the cursor awaiting the input of the necessary code.'Jujutsu Tech,' it typed with one finger. It was rejected. 'Ieiri Shoko,' it tried again. It scowled when it too was rejected. 'Curse,' it tried once more, crossing its arms in frustration when that one didn't work either. How was it meant to know the damn password to this wretched machine? The only reason it even knew how to vaguely use it was thanks to those movies Jasper watched with their sister.Smashing it to pieces would do nothing in its favor, though it was tempting.It was in its contemplation that it noticed an odd gadget attached to the front of the computer tower via a cable, face lighting up as soon as it realized what it was. It unplugged the harddrive, warm in its palm, and grinned. Pocketing the device, it hurried out of the room and back to Jasper's dorm. Its investigation would have to wait just a bit longer, but this was a start.

Keep still ...Nobara angled her phone, doing her best to try and point the camera lens at the man sitting across from her without making it seem overly obvious just what she was doing. She hadn't been able to stop thinking about him and it certainly didn't help that the others back at school were too absorbed in their own training to pull her from her spiral. Even when Maki was able to make time to chat, all she could do was think about how much she looked like this guy. She still didn't even know his name. She had just taken to calling him Mochi. He was eating chocolates, too immersed in them to notice her. Just as her finger hovered over the button to snap the picture, a furry blur dropped onto her lap from above."Ack! Off!" She yelled as Gurgi clambered up and over her shoulder to hide behind her head.Before she could get to shouting any expletives, Hibiki came running in, clutching a bottle of nail polish and giggling mischievously. "Come back! We need to paint your nails for the tea party!" she cried at the Curse.With a glance at her phone screen, Nobara grimaced at the blurred state of the picture she was able to capture of Mochi - and much to her disdain, looked back to find he had stood and made his way out as soon as more rowdiness entered the room. She sighed, tucking her phone away before standing."If you guys don't stop, I'm gonna start hammering!!" she shouted, wielding said hammer to demonstrate her point.Hibiki dramatically slapped her hand to her cheek in a show of feigned terror. "NOOOO!" she wailed before running back out of the room, chased by Gurgi and a couple of other Curses that had initially followed the unruly duo in. It was as she was about to take off after them that something caught her eye.A wisp of silver hair, blowing in the wind, outside the window.

"MINNIE!""Oh, not now! We were just getting to the best part ..." Minerva set down the book in her hand, looking grumpily at Mahito as he stormed down the bunker stairs and towards her. In her lap was Jogo's head, eye narrowed out at the approaching Curse. With them were Hanami and Dagon, comfortably sitting in some old folding beach chairs Minerva had found in the garage. They had taken a break after a long morning spent on repairing the bunker. She had been reading out loud to them from one of her favorite books until-"Haruta's stuck in the chimney ... again! It's really funny!" Mahito grinned. "Let's steal his shoes and throw them in the lake out back. It'll be funner than hanging out with these geezers."A deep frown crossed Minerva's face. "Don't be rude!" she scolded before giving him a look of indignance. "Maybe I don't want to bully Haruta. Maybe I want to sit right here all day and read. Have you considered that?"Brows raising in disbelief, Mahito snorted, "Yeah, right!" He turned on his heel, running back up the way he came - fully expecting her to follow. "C'mon before he wiggles himself loose!" His thunderous footsteps on the metal steps mostly drowned out his shouting.A sigh escaped her."It's alright, Minerva. We can finish up later tonight after your dinner," Hanami reassured with a nod. They extended a hand to their side, giving Dagon a pat. "We always look forward to your stories."Minerva flashed them a smile, picking Jogo up by the base of his head and turning him to look at her. "Will you forgive me if I leave now to entertain Mahito's sadisms?" she asked, tone playful.Jogo rolled his eye. "Go on, girl. We will resume another time," he huffed.Bringing Jogo's head closer, she gave the Curse a gentle peck on the temple before handing him off to Hanami. She stood, dusting off the back of her skirt and then taking off upstairs after Mahito."She's nothing like her mother, that girl," Jogo snorted once she was gone, now nestled on Hanami's lap.Hanami didn't respond, looking out towards the crater still scarring the bunker floor.

Papers, folders, pens all littered the floor as Shoko tore her office apart in search for her harddrive. Her breathing was heavy, face sporting a sickly shade of fear and anxiety. Her mind raced as she traced and retraced her footsteps the day before. She knew she had left the drive connected to her computer. It had been an accident. She should have taken it with her, but it had slipped her mind last minute. It had just been this once, and now it was gone.Had he taken it? For what purpose? He already knew what was on there. Just to fuck with her?
It was as she collapsed into her chair in resignation that her phone vibrated in her pocket. She quickly answered it, not checking the caller, if only to take her mind off of this disaster of a situation.
"Dom took off." Utahime's voice said on the other line, skipping a greeting. She sounded stressed.The words took a moment to process. "What?" she asked. "He-""He freaked out and ran off yesterday when we were on our way home after picking up some groceries. He was acting like a total lunatic, threw everything on the floor, yelled at the bus driver, and then booked it down the street. I was hoping he'd come back to the apartment last night but he hasn't shown up since."Even in another city, Dominic found a way to make him her problem."Sorry, I know you have a lot on your plate as it is. I just didn't know what else to do.""No. It's fine," Shoko insisted. They were both quiet for a minute before she resolved, "There isn't a whole lot I can do on my end. It's still early. I'm sure he'll turn up sooner or later. He's got a weird sense of obligation. If he doesn't come back by this afternoon, give me a call and I'll stop by his apartment.""Okay. Love you," she heard Utahime begin to say but her partner was cut off by an incoming call. She couldn't bring herself to respond to either, eyes fogging at Dominic's name in the caller ID.

The fresh air did nothing to make Tabitha feel any better. She sat in silence in her gazebo, staring off into the yard distractedly. Her fingers worked themselves into knots in her lap. She ... No, she wouldn't let anyone in. Not even you, reader. It was imperative that no one knew what she was thinking, how she was feeling - witnessed her bare and vulnerable. She drew in a sharp and sudden breath, hands untangling from each other to grasp her belly. She wasn't showing yet, but if this was the strength of her unborn child at this early stage ... Goosebumps rose on her arms at the thought of what was to come."Do you remember the first time we met?"An amused chuckle left her at the sudden memory. "Yes," she said, rubbing circles into her abdomen. "Ten years ago, was it? You approached me while I was summering back home. Didn't even introduce yourself."Tsukuna approached her from behind, placing tender hands on her shoulders. "I told you that we could help each other, that I wanted in." His hands worked up across her neck, cradling her jaw in her palm. "That I saw your vision.""And I asked you what exactly that vision was," Tabitha hummed, neither leaning into nor pulling away from his touch. She snorted. "Uncharmed, by you."Tsukuna leaned forward so his head hung beside hers. She pressed his cheek into the side of her face, hands wandering down past her chest before finally settling them over her belly - over their kin. "And I told you it was a world we could fuck to death." She could feel the vile Energy building in her womb, growing day by day. His lips split into a poisonous grin."Hm, you've always had such a way with words," Tabitha mumbled with a roll of her eyes. Though amused, there was an air of detachment surrounding her. There was a piece of her somewhere else."I'll bring him back," Tsukuna's grasp around her tightened, pulling her closer into her. "Consider it a gift, from me to you."Tabitha shrugged him off suddenly. She turned her face away coldly and bit out, "What are you waiting for?”

Tender hands caressed their blossoming belly as Kenjaku took themself in in the mirror. The glass surface had begun to steam as the tub in the bathroom filled with hot water, distorting their figure. Since their exchange with Engel the day before, their stomach had swelled, painfully round and bulging from their lean physique. The zygote within festered with Cursed Energy. Their skin felt taut, like an elastic about to snap. It didn't hurt. Nothing he could ever do to them would hurt.'You look terrible.'A chuckle escaped them. Don't be so judgemental. They leaned closer into the mirror, wiping a hand across it to better look themself in the eye. This is what a loved body looks like. They rose their hands, pushing long dark hair back over their broad shoulders.'Is this what you think love is?'You think you know love better than I? A smirk crawled across their lips. You and Gojo really think yourselves the modern day Romeo and Juliet. A chiding breath puffed from their nose as they shook their head and turned from mirror. I won't be the only one to tell you that this performance is a drag.Their host fell silent and they took this as a victory.They crossed the bathroom floor and lowered themself into the tub with care. The hot water was soothing. Their body had grown tender, ready to burst - but that would be over soon. There was little need to carry this bud to blossom. The Cursed concoction brewing in their belly was but a weapon to them, one that would heavily tilt the scales in their favor in the coming declaration of war. The first step was only days away. They had tended the garden and soon, it would fruit.'Is a minute of your time ever spent not scheming?'They sunk further into the water, settling it right below their chin. They stared up at the ceiling above, eyes shimmering with elation.Where's the fun in that?

"Stay safe!""See ya tomorrow!" Nobara called over her shoulder as she left the rickety home for the day. She could hear Aiden's struggle with the overly clingy Gurgi from the path down to the long-abandoned road. Every day, a sinking feeling formed in her stomach whenever she left. At first, she ignored it but it only grew stronger. She recognized it as that same bittersweetness she felt when she left home but wasn't really quite sure what it meant or why she was feeling it. She supposed she was better off not thinking about it.Upon reaching the gate, she froze to see two people entering and walking opposite her - towards the house.Both strangers struck her as familiar, bearing a resemblance to Aiden - dark skin, dark hair and golden eyed. They were even dressed similarly, in heavy boots, spikes and tattered leather jackets. They were older than her, but not as old as him. Aiden hadn't mentioned he had kids. It was in this moment of contemplation that she noticed the pair had also stopped walking."Who are you?" she asked, bristling. She had been told repeatedly that no one else should know where this place was, much less be able to access it. Despite the similarities in appearance to her teacher, they could be intruders.The two exchanged looks before the shorter of the two replied, "Nunya. Bug off, twerp."Nobara's eyes narrowed. "It is my business actually. As far as I know you're trespassing." Her stance grew defensive."Annoying," the one that had spoken before muttered. The other vanished from beside him as he spoke.Nobara had no time to react before the first flipped over her, landing on his feet on the other side and resuming his walk. The second reappeared beside him, neither so much as sparing a look back at her."You-" Nobara started but cut herself off. She couldn't help but think of the day she had first come to the house and crossed paths with Naoya Zenin. Something told her this was different. Maybe the pair's resemblance to Aiden. Maybe they were family. Still, she was skeptical. Should she follow them?She stood there, staring after them - before turning. Whoever they were, she was sure a house full of Curses could handle them. She chewed her lip before continuing down the path, mind buzzing with the pecularities of that day.

Content Warnings: canon typical violence, suicidal ideation, dissociation and hallucinations.

The bus was loud. It bounced and shook at every turn and bump in the road. Dominic craddled the grocery tote close to his lap, staring out at the city as it passed him by. Eggs, milk, bread. Eggs, milk, bread. Eggs, milk, bread. He had repeated the words in his head since they left the apartment. Utahime had asked him not to forget what they absolutely needed, and it gave him something to think about it that didn't make him recontemplate deciding not to end his life. There was no point in the repetition now. He was just too afraid to stop."We should go to a bar or something tonight! We're gonna have a long week ahead of us," Utahime nudged him.Dominic looked away from the window and towards her. "We have to be up early tomorrow. I don't think it'd be a wise decision," he said quietly."Oh, lighten up. You're so wrapped up in your bullshit. You need to be out, let loose," Utahime argued, giving him a stern look. She thought for a moment before sighing loudly, "We won't be out late, yeah? Or get too rowdy. Maybe karaoke or something."Cheeks filling with color, Dominic mumbled, "I don't know about karaoke ..." He had never been, not even when Satoru begged and cried and pleaded for him to accompany him. His heart sunk. He supposed it'd be a while before he'd hear another invitation anywhere from him again. Why did he miss it? Why did he miss him? Why invite him to karaoke in the first place anyway? He'd be no fun. What was the point of him going? He'd just ruin the mood.Satoru's words echoed in his head, 'I just like spending time with you.' A shuddered breath escaped him, tears prickling his eyes."You can just sit there and listen to me sing," Utahime laughed. She had glanced at him, choosing to ignore the miserable look on his face. She was used to it already, these random little drops in mood. He usually worked through them on his own. "You'd make a good audience."Dominic didn't respond, at least not verbally, giving a small quirk of his lips as an affirmation before looking out the window again.Utahime dragged his attention back to her. "I'm glad you decided to leave that briefcase at the house, by the way," she said. "You're so much more relaxed without it around. I mean, obviously you're still all mopey because of the break-up drama but without that briefcase around, you're almost normal."What to say to that? Dominic gave a slow, unsure nod of his head. "Thank you," he replied numbly. He stared down at the grocery bag in his arms, suddenly feeling an odd disconnect with the world around him. The passing building, the tremor of the bus, the chatter of passengers - it was all gone.Eggs, milk, bread. Eggs, milk, bread."We're coming up on our stop," Utahime said after a few minutes, giving his arm a touch to get his attention. She stood and squeezed past the other passengers to get nearer to the door.Dominic followed after her, with some trouble. He apologized quietly as he brushed through the small crowd. Every time he did, a new set of eyes snapped in his direction - hollow and cold. His breathing picked up. He kept his eyes downcast, trying not to give in to the panic. This was fine. He was just not used to being around this many people. He wasn't used to being out so much. His fingers bore into the bag in his arms. He was still adjusting to all of this. Everything was fine.By the time he made it to the front of the bus, he was shaking. He clutched onto the assistive railing with one hand. His stomach was twisting into itself. He felt faint. "Uta ..." he started to say her name but another sudden, familiar presence made his voice catch in his throat."Eggs, milk, bread. Eggs, milk, bread."Dominic looked to the driver, eyes wide in terror. "You ..." he whispered. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?" Tears quickly fell from his eyes. "Why are you following me?" His hand still clutched tight the railing, knuckles white.The driver grinned at him, splitting his lips at the size of it. "Eggs, milk, bread," he recited. "Eggs, milk, bread." His head twisted to one side, a nasty jerk of a movement. "Does that help you not think about it? Does it really help? Or is it a temporary reprieve from what lurks deep within you? That desire, you smother." His head twisted further with a loud pop of the neck. "That's all you do, isn't it? Hide from the truth? The truth of home, the truth of you. You can't stand to face it. It frightens you. But how much longer can you keep this up?"Dominic lurched forward, dropping the groceries in his grasp to the ground, and he clutched the driver by his uniform jacket collar. "Leave me alone! Do you hear me?" he shouted, voice cracking with desperation. "You don't understand! You couldn't! No one could ever understand!""And whose fault is that?"Expression softening, Dominic choked back a sob. "I just want peace ..." he whimpered. "I can't take much more of this.""You've dug your grave."A sudden hand on his shoulder made Dominic turn quickly, flailing to get the hand off him."Dom, what the hell are you doing?! Let him go!" Utahime's face housed both distress and agitation. She didn't try to touch him again.Fingers unfurling from the driver's collar, Dominic felt one thousand emotions sink into his chest. He dared a frightened glance at the driver to find the man returning it. "I'm so sorry." It was all he could say. He looked to the passengers, all staring his way with a mix of confusion and dismay. He looked to the groceries, littering the entryway of the bus. He looked to Utahime again - alarmed, concerned, wary. He rushed off the bus, nearly losing his balance as he did - and he didn't stop, taking off down the sidewalk in a frantic sprint. He could hear Utahime shouting his name. It grew fainter as he put more distance between them.This wouldn't work. This was pointless.

The clock ticked. And it ticked. And ticked. Satoru had spent all night cleaning up the mess he'd made in Dominic's apartment. He was meant to be sleeping; doctors orders and all but he couldn't bring himself to. He had to tidy up. In part because he felt guilty about making the mess in the first place, but mostly because he knew Dominic would be really upset with him if he came back to find things in disarray. He had worked in silence for hours, save for that ticking. Ocassionally, he'd give the clock a glance - watching as the physical embodiment of time went on. Just ticking. Now the sun was up, birds chirping, people commuting; and he still felt empty.It was as he picked up the last of it, as he picked up the shattered glass of the framed amaryllis watercolor in specific, he felt a migraine creep on him. He wasn't sure what to do with the painting so he placed it face down on the coffee table to replace the frame of later. He didn't quite like looking at it. It made his skin crawl. Why that was, he didn't know. He had never noticed it before. He had never known Dominic took up painting.In a sweepingly dramatic motion, he sunk to the ground, wrapping his arms around his legs and touching his forehead to his knees. God, he had been a terrible boyfriend. A terrible person. He squeezed his eyes shut. He was trying to be better. He was doing better. Dominic would be happy to see how much of a good person he was now. All he had to do was talk to him, apologize for everything and everything would be okay. He'd be proud even, and he'd stay. Things would be back to normal.This delusion did very little to comfort him.He glanced at the door suddenly, as if expecting it to open, and hung his head when it didn't. He'd lost count of how many times he'd looked at it while he cleaned, in hopes that Dominic's leave had just been some joke, or that maybe he had changed his mind and came back.Everything recently had been so much to process that having this time alone, in silence, during which nothing really happened, was intimidating. He had just kind of been left alone with himself, tossed aside like trash. Not even his phone rang. Had people forgotten about him? Moved on? He wondered if Engel's session with the students at the school yesterday had gone well. He thought about Shoko's worry that the doctor's presence would only bring trouble. Goosebumps rose on his forearms. He needed to sleep. The whole purpose of taking time off from the school was to sleep, but he hadn't slept. He couldn't sleep. He hated it; sleeping alone. Hated it."Dom!" he called out, but he received no answer. What was he expecting? Why was he so pathetic? No one stayed. Why would they? His life was a revolving door of people. Suguru was gone. Tabitha was gone. He was clinging to Dominic by the skin of his teeth. It was only a matter of time before everyone else ... Kento ... Shoko ... They would be gone too.He always said he was over it but he would never, truly be over it.He needed to sleep.Satoru stood, running his hands through his hair to self-soothe. Yeah, sleep would make him feel better. At least he couldn't think while he was unconscious. He bet Dominic's bed smelled like him. Maybe that would help. He stumbled out tiredly from the living room and into the narrow hall of the apartment, nearing the door to Dominic's bedroom. He slowed to a stop when he realized that the door facing it, what he had known to be the door to the guest bedroom, was no longer there. Brows furrowing, he tried to remember the door to find he couldn't evem visualize it. Had there ever been two bedrooms here? Something in him, something he couldn't quite place, told him there was - but his eyes told him he was wrong. There wasn't anything there. Where would the door have gone?He pressed a hand to the wall.It was as if he had an answer on the tip of his tongue but his brain came up empty. There was more to it than just a missing door. All he had to do was pull the curtain back. He ran his hand over the smooth concrete. Maybe it was somewhere else he was confusing it with. There wasn't much more energy left in him to devote to this mystery.The doorknob on the main door to the apartment rattled.His blood froze in his veins. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He turned his head, at first thinking he had imagined the sound - but no. He could see the knob jiggle - twisting and turning in its slot. His mind raced. Who was it? Who else could it be if not -"Dom?" he asked as the door finally swung open. The hope in his eyes dwindled to confusion - a dark, bewildered confusion.The man standing before him was not Dominic. He was the past. He was pain. He was a flash of light. He was a monster. He was a friend. He was not real. He was not real. He couldn't be real."What're you doing here?" Roger slurred, gripping the doorknob in attempts to keep himself balanced. His button-up shirt was stained with blood, speckled around the collar and left side but a deep seeping crimson on the lower right - over his ribs. His left hand nursed the injury, the liquid red slipping through his fingers. There was more blood on his face, smeared on his upper lip, but that had dried since. "Where's pretty boy?"Words were lost on Satoru. Roger was alive? And standing in front of him? In Dominic's apartment? The world spun around him. He had forgotten about Roger. But why? He didn't realize his breathing pick up until his chest was rattling with air. Why was he here? Why? Why? Why was he here? Why the fuck was he here? Not even his Six Eyes could make sense of this. He fought, he fought back memories of laughter, of naivety, of stupid jokes and stupider pranks, of swimming, of studying, of hiking, of sparring, of trust. Friendship. They had been friends once. They had been friends. Now they stood there, with all the reasons in the world to tear each other apart - unmoving."Can't tell if you wanna kiss me or punch me," Roger snorted, taking a wobbly step forward and slamming the door shut behind him. "Make up your mind already. Let's get this over with."Was he dreaming? Was this real?Roger leaned back against the door, taking a shuddered breath.Satoru's Cursed Energy surged, he could feel it in the pit of his stomach. He harnessed it, letting it swell. What a pathetic sight. Should he spare thousands and end him there? His fists were clenching and unclenching at his sides, eyes foggy. "Why are you here? Why are you alive?" The words were cold, detached. "Why are you here, in this house?" He hadn't moved an inch from where he stood, rooted to the ground. He felt so aware of everything around him, but not there at all at once. He felt sick.With a sneer, Roger snorted, "Could ask you the same thing."With a slow shake of his head, Satoru mumbled, "No. I ... belong here. You're ... an intruder." The tension was almost too much to bear. It was thick, up to their necks. He felt himself grow angry, defensive. "You piece of shit bastard, why are you here!? Answer me!" Why here, of all places? Did Dominic know? Were they still communicating? This whole time? No, of course not. Dominic would have told him. He wouldn't hide something like this. No, he couldn't. He couldn't lie - but had he ever asked?"You think you scare me?"Had he imagined a blue spark in the other's eye? His heart thundered in his chest. There was no fucking way. This was Roger, who took everything a joke. Roger, who slacked. Roger, who took nothing seriously. Dopey, stupid Roger. He couldn't have ... It was impossible. The Roger he knew could never, and this was the Roger he knew, right?No ... It wasn't. They had both become very different people to who they were in school.A loud laugh resounded and Satoru snapped out of his bloodlust. It was a woman's laugh, boisterous and full of life. Where'd that come from? Oh, the apartment next door. Right. There were people here. This couldn't happen. This couldn't escalate. People would die, innocent people. Was the price worth killing this bastard? This liar? This traitor?Roger disappeared before he could decide.Fuck! Satoru turned on his heel, managing to catch Roger's wrist before he could strike him from behind. Or well, it had felt like he had. Roger's arm bounced out of his grasp before he could get his fingers around it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He dodged a second blow, staggering backwards as he gathered himself. He swung back at the other but Roger made no attempts to dodge it, letting the fist connect with its target if only to close the distance between them. This isn't fair! Roger had caught him off-guard, on a rough day. He hadn't slept in so long. He didn't want to be doing this. He panicked as Roger wrapped a leg around his waist."Get the fuck off me!" Satoru slammed backwards into the wall of the hallway, pulverizing the concrete barrier as if it were made of sand. He heard fabric tearing as the blindfold around his neck tore in the grapple. The two fell over into the living room, knocking bookshelves over before hitting the ground. He swung at the other again, striking him on the mouth. The imitated Inifinity was flickering in and out from around the other. Why? Some kind of tactic? Or was he simply not strong enough to use it properly? What an idiot.Using Satoru's extended arm and his own leg, Roger vanished the space between them - securing his arm around the other's neck in a swift move. He squeezed but Satoru's Infinity denied him the desired effect. "The cushy life at Jujutsu Tech's got you rusty, your Highness. What a fuckin' disappointment. If only your students could see you now." he laughed, blood spraying from his lips. "Or are ya holding back on me?"Satoru wasn't choking but he couldn't move. Roger had reactivated the Infinity and the combination of the arm encircling his throat and their repelling shields had made it impossible for him to move. He had two options - the first was deactivating his Infinity and having this come down to a battle of brute strength. The second was ... to come up with a better idea. He couldn't believe it. Had the pendulum swung this far out of his favor? Was Roger right? He couldn't remember the last time he'd fought a real threat. Had it been Tabitha or Suguru? It couldn't have been that long. That was impossible. Panic filled him. He could see nothing but his need to win. No! No! Fuck that! What had gotten into him? Where had he lost himself? This couldn't happen. It wouldn't happen. He rose a finger before him, Cursed Energy swirling in a twisted orb at his chest. It glowed a bright red. He'd sooner destroy it all.Roger vanished suddenly and Satoru dropped to the ground, before quickly leaping to his feet. He felt disoriented but he'd manage. He still harnessed his attack, his endless Cursed Energy flooding into it. The other hadn't gone far. In fact he was everywhere around him. His Six Eyes could sense him, vanishing and reappearing from spot to spot. Did he think he'd lose track of him? And then he caught a glimpse of him, grinning a bloody toothed grin, making the very same gesture, fostering the very same glowing orb, and aiming it right at him.God, we're so stupid.The mattress was soft beneath him.Satoru squirmed under the covers, too tired to wonder. He breathed deeply. The pillows smelled of home. His heart was thundering in his chest. He turned over, dreary eyed as he took in his room around him. It was empty, sunlight creeping in through his window. He gasped for breath, feeling sweat crest his forehead.A nightmare?He clutched his bedsheets if only to reaffirm to himself that they were real - that he was truly there. He could feel himself shaking, with fear, with anxiety.With time, his heartbeat and breath both slowed before he faded into sleep, hand gripping his torn blindfold in its palm.

For a while, the only sound in the room was the impatient tapping of Tabitha's nails on the wooden surface of the dinner table. She wasn't looking at Suguru as they waited, instead staring off out the window. She was antsy and distracted, and he was unsure if it had to do with the meeting or not. He sat beside her, hands folded on his lap and pleasant smile on his lips. He was bored, so after a bit he began to hum. The gentle chipper song vibrated in his throat. He was simply unable to contain his good mood. At first, he tried to match the pace of her tapping but she kept changing it, much to his disappointment, moving slower or quicker at random. He thought about asking her what was on her mind but decided against it. Instead, the two waited in disjointed silence - save for that tapping and his humming.When Engel at last entered the room, the two looked to him - one annoyed and the other charmed. Suguru stood to greet him, giving him a courteous bow of the head."I do apologize for being late. Something came up and I had to ensure it was handled before this conversation," Engel said, approaching the seat on Tabitha's other side. He returned Suguru's nod as the other retook his own seat, neither at all bothered by the nasty looks Tabitha was giving them. "I hope all is well and that the wait wasn't too unbearable."With a roll of her eyes, Tabitha growled, "Get to the point. I'd rather we got this over with sooner rather than later." She had finally ceased her tapping, hand pressing to her belly. Her face refused to reflect the discomfort within.Engel sat, crossing one leg over the other. "Your fight with Jogo. How do you feel that went?" he asked, giving her a slight tilt of his head. He was as hard to read as ever - could be talking about anything from the weather to a war with the demeanor he carried."Well, I won," Tabitha smirked, quirking her shoulders. "So good, I'd say."Engel touched his chin curiously. "And to win was the point of this exercise?" he asked.Tabitha's smile slowly fell from her lips.Leaning forward in his seat, Engel chirped, "You were meant to earn Jogo's respect. Instead, you've further severed the alliance." He gave a shake of his head, "The Kyoto Exchange is in one week. What will you do, marching up to that school, with an army that'd sooner hope you die in the ensuing battle?"A discontented scoff puffed out of Tabitha. "Why's this fallen on me?" she barked, crossing her arms over her chest. She looked at Suguru, who didn't look at her - only at Engel. Her skin crawled."You wanted to lead, didn't you?" Engel rose a brow. Despite the confrontational words, his tone was very gentle. He didn't wait for a response from her. In fact, he didn't expect one. With the cold look she shot at him, he'd need warmth to combat her. "You're a smart woman, Tabitha. In every sense of the word. Build your walls as high as you wish, I can still see the immense amount of emotional intelligence in you. You know how to get what you want out of anyone, but this fight - it was about pride, wasn't it? Or at least, that's what you made it into."Tabitha's eyes narrowed, "You think me that fragile?""Yes," Engel nodded. "You were angry about all the things that Jogo had said about you and you wanted to punish him. You wanted to show the others that this is what would happen to anyone who spoke ill of you - and in doing that, you deepened the divide." He leaned back into his seat now, posture perfect. "You need to connect with Jogo."Tabitha's nostrils flared. "Connect?" she snapped. "Connect about what? Our favorite music?" She slammed her fist on the table, the bang echoing in the room. "This is bullshit! If Jogo won't follow my demands willingly, then I'll give him no other option than to obey me." She stood suddenly, knuckles pressed to the surface of the table as she leaned close to him - looking like a tiger about to pounce. "It's that fucking simple.""I understand," Engel murmurred. He reached a hand to her, placing it gently over one of hers. "You're exhausted, in pain, carrying the weight of the world in your belly. You deserve more than this." She slowly retook her seat, scrutinizing him with her eyes. "But these are unfortunately the cards that have been dealt to us." Her fist slowly began to unclench, melting away in the kindness of his touch. "Jogo is a pawn to us but in order for us to make full use of him, he needs to care - and you can get him to."With a skeptical look, Tabitha muttered, "I'll see what I can do." She turned her head away from him, tearing her hand out from under his.Engel gave a soft smile. "You will do it."Chills rolled up her spine. Tabitha stood again, this time starting to make her exit. "Was that everything to do with me?" She asked, not looking at either of the two men as she approached the doorway. Something about the air around her was frenzied. Her hands were clenching and unclenching at her side, a stiffled anger brewing inside her.Engel rose a hand for her attention. "One last thing," he said. "Your dog. It's off its leash and it's causing trouble. Get it under control." He was midway through his response when she walked out. He chuckled, giving his hair a casual run through with his fingers. "She's such a fascinating woman," he purred. He looked towards Kenjaku, eyes crinkling as his cheeky smile grew in size. "You did well this round. I must say, now that I've had time to catch up on everything, I'm quite impressed with you."Kenjaku couldn't contain their glee, grinning from ear to ear. They stood, approaching the other in a slow but confident stride. "I didn't want this to end up like all those other times. I wanted this ... to be ... perfect ... for you, you alone." They took hold of his shoulders, strong and broad. "I hope you know now that I would do anything for you."Engel placed a hand over Kenjaku's. "By the time this is all over, you will have done everything ... for the sake of me."

Content Warnings: canon typical violence, body horror, dissociation and mention of gore.

Tense was an understatement when describing the airs in the bunker. This was a conflict that far surpassed resolution. There was no understanding to be had. There was only this moment. A boiling point. A stand-off."This isnt a good idea, Jogo," Hanami stood beside their fellow Curse, shooting glances across the way towards Tabitha - who was tying her hair back in preparation for the duel. Beside her, stood her daughter, likely uttering the very same words of reason they did. "We are supposed to be working together. It's been made rather apparent that our plans hinge on us all cooperating."Jogo was unmoved by the pleas of his friend. "You do what you like but it's time someone put this human in her place," he growled, turning away from them to face Tabitha. "Involving her in our affairs will bring about the end of us and I am the only one with the sense to stop this before it gets too far.""She's dangerous, Jogo."The conversation came to an end as Tabitha cleared her throat. She took a step forward to command their attention. "Are you done with your chattering?" she asked, a look of disinterest etched on her face. "Minerva and I have a nail appointment to get to." That domineering aura she had carried on her way in earlier still emitted from her, encircling her like smoke. It was a vile Energy, one that felt paralyzingly familiar to some present. Only she seemed unfettered by it.Mahito whooped with excitement as Haruta pulled both him and Minerva away from where they'd been standing by Tabitha, having them all sit at what felt like a safe distance from the dueling parties. Minerva placed her face in her hands, unable to mask the look of concern on her face.Jogo didn't respond with words, instead conjuring in his hands his pent up Cursed Energy and sending a fiery blaze in Tabitha's direction. She vanished into the flames, but he didn't stop - only intensifying his attack. He was determined to end this quickly, to at last establish himself to both Curse and human alike as a threat. The small volcano at the top of his head bubbled, palms together in front of him as an inferno raged relentlessly from his fingertips.It came to a stop when he sensed her drawing nearer to him, his fire washing over a shield of twisting and contorting putrid rot. It ate away at his Cursed Energy output, parting the fire despite every step she took closer. She was walking slowly, as if strolling through a park - unphased.He leapt backwards, fostering massive orbs of fire in his palms in seconds before he sent them her way.She disappeared suddenly, dodging the attack so quickly it was almost as if she had teleported. She moved in an erratic zigzag as to continue gaining distance on him. He kept the gap between them, denying her any sort of contact - though she was slowly but surely closing in.Is her offensive Technique touch-based? he wondered. She had made no outward attack on him yet, so it seemed that may be the case - not that he'd given her much of an opportunity to attack. If she touched him, her hands would crumble to ash - did she understand that? Part of him considered allowing her to close the space between them simply to watch the fool learn what became of those that played with fire. Or was she just biding her time? Was she fucking playing with him? He jumped up and over her when she once again lunged forward, unable to catch himself when she switched directions and moved back - positioning herself right below him.Powerful bursts of flames came from his palms, propelling him upwards - until they didn't. There was a firm grip around his ankle. He looked down and saw her, smiling wickedly. That look that she was giving him right then struck him, as if she were possessed by him. It sent shivers up his spine.The world spun around Jogo, momentarily causing him to lose his sense of direction. He once again shot flames from his hand, managing to use their propulsion to stop him slamming into the wall Tabitha had flung him towards. He then pushed off it, flying back towards her. The leg she had touched felt tingly, as if hundreds of insects were crawling over his skin but he couldn't risk a glance down at it - eyes locked only on her. She was standing in the same spot she'd thrown him from, as if waiting for him to catch up, looking at him as one would look at a fly buzzing around their head. No, worse. As if he wasn't even there. She was looking through him. She was entertaining him, as one would a finnicky child.He cleared the gap between them in mere seconds, having adjusted his arms so that one was positioned beneath him working as a fiery jet and the other in front of him - shooting more fire in her direction. The room around them had grown to an unbearably hot degree, the flooring charred and shattered, half the water in the pool had evaporated due to the building heat with poor Dagon fleeing from the aquatic sanctuary and joining Hanami, Mahito, Minerva and Haruta to where they had now moved on the stairs.And when the flames cleared, Tabitha had barely broken a sweat.Jogo landed on his feet, staggering when his affected limb crumbled underneath him at the weight. He fell to his remaining knee, using his hands to steady himself on the ground. "This isn't your Cursed Energy. This is Lord Sukuna's, you thieving whore!" he spat. "What did you do? Have you become a vessel? Have you stolen one of his fingers for yourself?"Tabitha laughed before reaching her hands tenderly to her belly. "I'm afraid I took more than a finger for myself."Horror spread on Jogo's face as realization finally dawned. "You ..." He started."But I will tell you that this is my power," Tabitha interrupted in glee. She tapped her heel into the ground, instantly pulverizing it into a withered rotten residue. Jogo fell further down, into a basement below, covered in grime and rubble. He stared up at her where she perched on one of the foundational poles for the floor above. He shut his eye as the bit of water left in the newly destroyed pool poured over him and filled the room, steam rising at contact with his heated skin. He looked back at Tabitha when she spoke again, "If I use my child's Cursed Energy, I risk their well-being. I'd never do such a thing. Something a pathetic little freak like you will ever understand."Jogo made to move, freshly enraged but was struck with a sudden wave of exhaustion, a wave that sunk him right back down to the filthy ground. His Cursed Energy, dropped so low he, for the first time in centuries, feared he would cease to exist right then. "What is this?" he huffed. "What did you do?""Not because you are a Curse and I am a human," she continued. "but because your pride will never allow you to love truly, meaningfully.""Shut your mouth. I won't let you talk down to me," Jogo growled, mustering just enough energy to pull himself up with his arms. When he looked up, Tabitha was in front of him. A lava of frustration poured out from the top of his head, coming over his shoulders and hardening as it made contact with the ankle deep water on the ground. In his hazy eyes, she was a vision. An angel of death. She crouched and reached down towards him, taking his face into her hands. "Get away from me," he warned, but it was empty. This fight was over.Tabitha smiled. It was kind and soft, a look he'd never seen on her face before. A look he'd never seen on anyone's face. Not directed at him. It was pity.Jogo's head hit what was left of the floor of the bunker before Tabitha did. She landed with a little click of her heels, dusting cinders from her dress before she gave a nod up to Minerva."We're just on time."

"You're in over your head, kid.""Not now."Megumi had been sitting silently in the common room, lost in thought. For how long, he had no idea. He only knew the sun was starting to set out the window. He had sat up abruptly at Sukuna's voice behind him, so entrenched in his own mind that he had not noticed him until then. It doesn't matter. None of it matters, he reassured himself, if only to just get himself to stop obsessing about that morning.He turned his head to look over the back of the couch, prickling at the sight of him still possessing the body of the boy he loved so dearly. Had he expected any differently? Every day he awoke to his best friend a prisoner. His hands balled up into fists. Before he could say anything else, the demon spoke."You look like a scared little kid."Baring his teeth, Megumi bit out, "You lonely or something? You've been taking over Yuji more often than usual these days." He gave a little shrug. "Seems to me like you need attention."Sukuna laughed and crossed his arms. "I just wanted to tell you something about the Doc but if you've got this all sorted out on your own, I guess you don't need me to say a word." He turned on his heel, giving a dismissive wave over his shoulder as he began to leave the room.Megumi looked puzzled. "The Doc?" Did he mean Shoko? Or ... Was Dominic a doctor? No ... He was talking about-"Engel Amajiki," Sukuna replied as he reached the doorway. "but you clearly aren't interested in anything I have to say, so don't mind me.""Wait." The word left Megumi before he could stop it. His eyes had widened, attention snagged at the mention of the enigmatic teacher. Just the hearing his name made his heart thunder in his chest. Warily, he asked, "You know Dr. Amajiki?"Sukuna stopped walking at last, flashing a twisted grin back his way. He had clearly accomplished his goal. "We go way back," he said with another wave of his hand. "Don't really like him and he doesn't really like me."Megumi furrowed his brow. "Sorcerors and Curses don't get along? That information's about as useful as you telling me water is wet." He rolled his eyes. He paused for a moment, feeling Sukuna's gaze pierce through him. Despite the casual demeanor, it was obvious the Cursed Spirit was being careful with his words. There was more to this, but why not just be straight-forward about it? Was he ... scared? "You said you go way back ... How far back?""If you got your suspicions about something you should just come out and say it," Sukuna crossed his arms.He should, but he felt like an idiot for even thinking it. It was impossible, wasn't it? It didn't make any sense. If his suspicions were right, then that brought up a thousand more questions. But he just couldn't shake the feeling that something about Engel Amajiki was simply not right, especially if he had the King of Curses himself coming to teenagers for help with his tail between his legs. The trepidation formed at the pit of his stomach like a boulder."You're taking too long," Sukuna said with an exaggerated yawn."What do you want?" Megumi snapped. "With me? Now? Why are you here? You came all this way to tell me something, clearly, so out with it."Sukuna laughed, "Oh, you're just so scary, aren't-""I said, what do you want?!" Megumi barked.Finally, the taunting grin was wiped from Sukuna's face. All four eyes narrowed at Megumi, gaze piercing. "Engel has something we both want. You need to get this thing from him. There's no way he'll hand it over to me, so you need to do it."Megumi's brows furrowed in a mix of confusion and disbelief. He supposed it made sense for a Sorcerer, a Special Grade at that, to not be on friendly terms with a Cursed Spirit, to not want to just hand over whatever relic said Cursed Spirit was after - but what made Sukuna so sure things would work out differently for him? "And what makes you think he'll just hand whatever it is over to me?" he retorted. The idea was insane. "Unless you mean stealing it from him." That idea was even more insane.Sukuna rose a hand to his chin, expression deepening as he sunk into faux thought. He had already planned things up to this moment. He knew exactly what to say, and he knew exactly how Megumi would respond. "He won't just hand it over, and it's impossible to steal from him. You'd get caught right away ... which is why that's our only option." He gave a slow nod as if he was slowly growing more and more convinced by his idea - an idea he already believed in fully. The performance, the show. You having fun, you bastard? "You'll have to try to steal it from him.""But you said it yourself, that he'll catch me," Megumi argued, giving the demon a look of scrutiny. The thought of being caught stealing from and by the doctor was enough to paralyze him right where he stood. It formed a knot in his throat. He hadn't realized how tightly his fists were clenched until he felt the sting of his nails boring into the skin of his palm. "I could get expelled."With yet another wave of his hand, Sukuna dismissed Megumi's concerns. "Trust me, Engel is a complicated guy. The only thing you need to know about him is that he likes a good game. If you try and steal it from him, he'll give you a chance to earn it." He glanced around them, as if checking for prying ears, "He'll be expecting you but he won't act like he is. You just-" He cut himself off, as if getting fed up with being obligated to explain the inexplicable. "Look, just take my word for it. I've played cat and mouse with him long enough to know what I'm talkin' about.""I feel like you're setting me up.""This'll benefit the both of us. This needs to stay between us, though. He already knows what we're planning but you can’t tell your boy toy or any of your little friends. If someone interferes with the game, he'll have a hissy fit and we'll lose our chance."Mind racing, Megumi struggled to respond. Just what the hell was Sukuna scheming? What did he mean that Engel already knew? What fucking game was he talking about? Paranoia and anxiety swelled within him. He forced himself to push aside his fear and asked only what he knew he'd get answers for, "What is it exactly I'm meant to be trying to steal? Where is it?"Sukuna grinned. "I'll draw you a map."

"It will be some time until you are back at your full strength again. You were foolish for challenging her."The words didn't seem to reach Jogo, eye staring out the open door of the clinic and towards the massive gaping hole still ravaging the ground of the bunker. The battle replayed in his mind, over and over and over. The click of her heel against the ground as it turned to nothing below him sounded in time with his very pulse.The door closed suddenly, hiding the destruction from view. Kenjaku stood there now, facing him. "Jogo, I'm speaking to you," he smiled, icy. "The Kyoto Exchange is in one week."At last processing the words spoken to him earlier, Jogo retorted, "She was the one that challenged me!" He rolled his eye and added, "I will be well enough before then to deal with a bunch of snot nosed brats and their trainers.""You accepted her challenge," Kenjaku chirped. "A mistake on your behalf."Jogo snorted, angry puffs of smoke leaving his nostrils. "I-" he began to argue but was promptly cut off."You underestimate those attending this event." Engel joined the conversation from across the room. He stepped away from his open briefcase, having been poking around its obscured contents on the counter of his workspace. "Satoru Gojo alone could easily decimate you and your friends. He'd be something to worry about if it wasn't for Ms. Capricien. The students are strong, especially when working together. Alone, they are competent but their bonds make them quite a force to be reckoned with." He crouched in front of Jogo, where his disembodied head had been placed on an examination table. He pressed his finger to the Curse's lips to keep him from interrupting. "This isn't including the Zenin, Gojo, Inumaki and Kamo clans and several Special Grade Socerers, like Yuta Okkotsu - all of whom will be in attendance." His smile grew with every word he spoke, unbridled glee shining in his eyes. He dropped his hand, allowing Jogo a response. "You overestimate yourself."Jogo's eye narrowed, "How are we, a group of eleven-""Nine," Engel corrected politely. "Ms. Tsukumo and I will not be directly assisting you, unfortunately. It would blow her cover and spoil my fun."Before Jogo could go on to finish, Kenjaku added, "Dr. Amajiki will help even things out for us, just in a more subtle way." He gave the doctor a glance, a twinkle of insecurity in his eye. "It's thanks to his contribution that victory will be ours." Engel had straightened up now, standing beside the man with his hands clasped behind him. "All you needed to do was show up," Kenjaku grimaced. "in one piece preferably.""I already said, I'll be fine in time for the event!" Jogo hissed, a deep sneer on his lips. "Don't treat me like a fool!"Kenjaku snorted, "How else is a fool meant to be treated?"Engel took Jogo by the base of his neck, lifting him up into the air like a child would a favorite doll. His friendly expression never left him, charming smile plastered on his lips. "You've misunderstood this relationship to be one of comraderie." His words were so soft, velvety and smooth - so calming. Like the gentle tap of rain on a window, like leaves shuddering in a breeze, a wave meeting shore. "You are a subordinate. You will learn to obey, or you will be taken out of play.""Play?" Jogo echoed, his tone carrying one thousand emotions. "Is this a game to you?"Something in Engel's expression shifted, as if he was keeping a barely contained secret. His smile never left him. "Yes," he answered truthfully. "Quite a fun one at that. I'd hate to have it end so soon."Kenjaku placed a gentle hand on Engel's shoulder and Engel in response set Jogo back down on the examination table.A knock on the door brought the conversation to a close. As Kenjaku called for Hanami to enter, Engel returned to his workspace. The tall Curse had to duck their head to enter, slowly approaching Jogo with an air of concern. They kept from over-stepping with questions, merely taking in the tense airs between the three with some wariness."Hanami, take Jogo with you. Have Dagon, Mahito and Haruta help the two of you clean and repair the bunker," Kenjaku sighed, irritated. A pout graced his lips as he shook his head in disapproval. "Such ungracious guests we are to destroy our host's home." He crossed his arms, watching as Hanami did just as he asked - wordlessly. As the door closed, he called out, "Get started on that right away!" Once they were alone, he rose a dramatic hand to his temple and looked back to Engel, "They're worse than children."Engel wasn't listening to him, having returned his attention to the contents of his briefcase.Kenjaku dropped his hand from his head. "Do you think this has helped ease the tensions between the two groups? Ms. Capricien is quite the unpredictable sort, isn't she? Knowing Jogo, this may very well simply make him dig his heels." To who did he ramble? This mannequin of a man? The man he loved so deeply, so pathetically. The man that wouldn't spare him a glance, even now as he ran his throat ragged. "We will have to see how he works during the Kyoto Exchange to determine how useful he will prove later." He dropped his head in thought for a moment before perking his head back up, "Jogo isn't my only concern in all this. Mahito and Haruta have both grown very close to Minerva, which I advised them to do - but for the sake of our cause. It seems it's grown past that and that may bring trouble in the future." He began to toy with the ends of his hair, twisting the tufts between his fingers. "Roger's gone missing now as well and Ms. Capricien's son hasn't been present this entire time. It seems like she, Dagon, Hanami and myself, especially, are the only ones that truly understand the importance of this."This is so embarrassing. Please, stop. He's not listening to you.'Quiet, you.'Kenjaku cleared his throat as he attempted at a smooth subject transition. "So how many more sessions do I have left until I've finished?" he asked as he slowly approached the other's desk. He stuttered to a stop when Engel finally looked up at him."You haven't forgotten. Why pretend you have?"Kenjaku's lips twitched and he denied a response.Engel straightened up, withdrawing from his briefcase a small Cursed Orb - one of hundreds left inside it. He held it up delicately with three fingers. A vile black sludge oozed from it and dripped down his hand. "Would you like me to feed you this time?" he asked.A deep red filled Kenjaku's cheeks. "Pardon?" he asked, pretending not to notice his own flusterment. "Where's this coming from all of a sudden?""I asked you a question." Eyes penetrating and never leaving the other, Engel lowered himself back into the luxurious cushioned office chair behind him. His legs were spread slightly, free hand set between them on the seat.Suddenly feeling very timid, Kenjaku brought himself to nod. He neared Engel, mouse and lion, kneeling on the ground in front of him before adjusting himself onto his behind. He placed his head on Engel's thigh, neck filling the gap between the doctor's legs. He took a deep breath, inhaling his scent - roses. Sweet and earthy. A pleased groan escaped Kenjaku's throat along with his sigh."Right where you belong," Engel purred. His free hand stroked the side of Kenjaku's face, a gentle touch but not enough. Never enough for him.Kenjaku peered up at him through dark lashes, mystified."Now, open up."

Unlike the usual hustle and bustle of a nail salon on any average weekend, the spa center Tabitha preferred to go for her nail appointments was the epitome of tranquility. It was scarce, in patron and employee alike, clean and so very quiet. The scent of rain and wood permeated the air and anyone present spoke in hushed whispers. Immediately upon arrival, both mother and daughter had been swept away to a dimly lit private room, with their nail technicians working in silence.The younger of the two was unusually quiet, watching the woman filing her nails absentmindedly. A gentle song played from the speakers in the corners of the room, attempting earnestly to lull her into peace - but it seemed that nothing really could ease her troubled thoughts. Everything had just become too much so quickly. It was difficult to come to grips with any of it."I know you aren't happy with me," Tabitha said, in Haitian Creole, after what felt like far too long without speaking. "but it had to be done. Things will go smoother with Jogo put in his place."Minerva looked towards her, trying but failing to mask the insecurity on her face. "I understand," she said quietly, in the same language."Do you?" Tabitha turned her head to give her daughter a sharp look."Kind of ..." Minerva responded truthfully."If you aren't strong, you will command no respect, and if you don't establish that strength, people will have no reason to respect you." Tabitha gave her daughter a sweet look, freeing a hand from her nail technician to comfortingly place it over Minerva's arm. "Does that make sense to you?"Minerva stared down at her mother's hand, eyes taking in the half-painted red of her nails. She looked away as memories of the gore that had ravaged her body not long ago flooded her mind. She couldn't close her eyes, the darkness only made the visions of viscera shine all the clearer. One of her hands snapped free from the technicians grasp and clasped over what had been her injured shoulder - now neatly repaired, not even a scar to show for it, as if nothing had ever happened. "Yes," she mumbled, adding a whispered apology in Japanese to the service worker as she gently replaced her hand.Tabitha watched her for a moment before slowly sitting correctly in her seat. "It's not going to get any easier, Minerva," she said, tone dire. "What we're doing here, it's what we have worked for all these years. I'm not delusional enough to tell you with certainty that we stand a chance against Jujutsu Tech, which is why I need you to stay grounded. I need you to make good decisions.""Of course, manman," Minerva murmured. "I just ..." She hesitated, pulling her lips back into a tight frown. "I just don't want to disappoint you."Raising her brows in a show of tender surprise, Tabitha pulled both her hands from the workers, taking Minerva's plump cheeks into her palms and guiding their eyes to meet. "Oh, ti Mi," she called gently. "There is nothing in this life you could do that will disappoint me." She brought their foreheads together. "I love you. I would tear this world apart for you and your siblings, do you understand that?"With misty eyes and a lump in her throat, Minerva nodded. "I love you too, manmam." She paused before adding in a quieter voice, "I don't trust Mr. Geto.""Good. You shouldn't," Tabitha said with a nod. Her expression had sobered, back to its usual stern countenance. After a moment of contemplation, she chose to further unravel that thread. "You've gotten quite friendly with that Curse and the blonde boy. I can't say I'm thrilled about it but ..." She pursed her lips. "I suppose this is a good opportunity for you."Minerva's head perked up, brows knitted. "Opportunity?" Did she mean an opportunity for growth? A chance to develop a semblance of normalcy in her life? It was difficult to conceive that Tabitha seemed to be alright with her making friends, especially with such an unruly bunch, but maybe she figured it was time she did? Was that it, though? Was this simply her mother hesitantly accepting that her daughter was maturing, and needed more freedom? Or was it-"You've gained two loyal dogs," Tabitha winked. "Use them well."Ah, of course. Minerva lowered her gaze. "I was thinking we could be more like ... friends, or something," she admitted, struggling with the dismay in her voice."What do you need friends for?" Tabitha snorted, almost as if she was unsure if Minerva was being serious or not."In movies, everyone has friends," Minerva explained. "If you don't have friends, people think you're strange, don't they?" She quickly clarified herself, "And that's not to say I care what people think or anything but it implies that it's a bit of an odd way to be in general, doesn't it?" It took a lot not to fidget nervously as she felt her mother's eyes slowly glide over towards her. "It just looks nice ... in the movies, I mean, to have someone other than family to spend time with and get to know. I thought since Mahito, Haruta and I get along so well, we would make good friends."Tabitha's expression was strange as Minerva rambled. She stared at her daughter until she stopped herself talking, then she downcast her gaze and remained silent. There wasn't a person in the world capable of accurately decrypting the look on her face."I won't ever forget what matters most, manman," Minerva started back up again in a panic, anxiety swelling in her belly. "My family is my priority always. I know we shouldn't trust others, and I know it's dangerous! But it seems awfully nice to have people outside of your family to do fun things with and with Jas gone and Des not being home much, it's so lonely. I just-""Minerva," Tabitha spoke and the teen stopped with a squeak. "I trust you to make your own decisions."Confusion at first, but then relief bloomed. Minerva gave a deep and firm nod, "Yes! I promise I will make good choices. I won't let you or papa down. Nothing will break my focus!"Tabitha gave a faint acknowledgment with a subtle quirk of her head.Minerva turned to her nails, unable to contain her smile as joy bubbled up inside her. "Speaking of papa, where is he?" She inspected the bright pink color on her digits. "I haven't seen him in a while."Unable to stave the grimace on her face, Tabitha sank back into her chair and sighed, "Busy." She gave the glimmering watch on her wrist a glance. "Let's stop for coffee on our way home."

Jasper first felt the soft cushion of their matress. The familiar smell of their bedroom soothed the immediate dread and anxiety that filled them upon awakening. They were somewhere safe. Somewhere quiet and away from him. Their eyes cracked open. Daylight crept through their partially shut curtains, revealing to them their empty room. How long had they been asleep? Was this the tired sunlight of the late afternoon or the vibrant glow of a sunrise? They wondered for a moment where their classmates were, if they were okay. With that, tranquility drained from them. Panicked thoughts filled their mind as they recalled the events that had played out earlier that morning. At first they suspected it had all been a nightmare but a voice in their head soon cemented it all as painful reality.'Calm down.'They jolted up in bed, hands clutching the sides of their head. "H-Huh?" they called out in terror. Had that been their own thoughts? No, it didn't sound like them. Had their thoughts ever really had a voice? Were they imagining things?'I said calm down, damn it. Why are you always so jumpy?'"Who are you?" Jasper asked, dropping their hands to their bedsheets and clutching them tight. Their eyes darted around their room if only to reaffirm to themself that they were in fact alone. It was a blurry lookover, given their glasses were still neatly placed on their nightstand, but they were almost certain no one else was there. "What's going on?"'I've always been here. You've always sensed me. That geezer just freed me, so I guess you can hear me now. Don't ask me why. I understand him just as well as you do.'Jasper's brows furrowed, memories of Engel's devious smile surfacing in their mind. "G-Geezer? You mean Dr. Amajiki?"'Who else would I be talking about? You know you don't have to answer out loud. I can read your thoughts, idiot. If someone overhears you, they'll think you're crazy.'Maybe I am. Jasper's face reddened, experiencing a whole new level of self-consciousness now that someone else had access to their mind - the one place they had always ran to for solace. They took a deep breath, heart racing as the reality of the situation truly dawned on them. There was a stranger living inside them. There always had been. "You're right," they started but caught themself. Sorry.What were they meant to do now? What exactly did this mean? Were they a vessel like Yuji? Was this person inside them anything like Sukuna? They shuddered at the thought. No. They were different. They had always protected them. Eerie as those glowing red eyes were to some, they had always been a source of comfort to them. Company in times of heart wrenching loneliness.'I'm more of an it than a they.'Oh ... Jasper slowly sank back into bed, staring up at the ceiling. They weren't quite sure where to go from here. ... What's your name?'Kyoshiki.'Are you a Curse?'You ask too many damn questions.'Jasper frowned. Sorry. They toyed with the edge of their bed covers before pulling them up over their head and rolling onto their side. Would this be life for them now? They supposed it had always been this way. The only difference was that this entity now had a voice. It was as they wondered just how much access the other had to their thoughts that Kyoshiki spoke again.'Do you ever stop worrying about everything?' It cut them off before they could apologize. 'And stop saying sorry for every damn little thing. It's annoying.'I'll try, they thought, closing their eyes as frustration began to fill them. I don't mean to be annoying ... but I can't help being this way. I wish I was different.There was a pause. A long one.'Then let me take over.'Jasper tensed. "What ...?" The word broke the silence in their room. It had almost startled them. They could feel something inside them pulling, like slipping a tablecloth off a table with cutlery and all. They struggled against it. Slowly, they shook their head. "No ... I can't ..." They opened their eyes, the world still dark under the covers. In that darkness, those red glowing eyes parted and leered at them. They jerked themself up into a sitting position, jolting the unraveling to a stop. They were panting harshly, heartbeat pounding in their head. "I won't." They said, this time with more resolve.Kyoshiki laughed.'If you hate your life so much as a human, then let me take over ... and let us live as a Curse.'"No! It's you that's hurt people! Whenever I've lost control, it's you that's taken over, isn't it? That time at that restaurant ... and then again at the arcade." It was a challenge not to be frantic. "Answer me!"'Shut up! I already told you-'"I won't be quiet! I won't let you take over and ruin my life or ruin the lives of others! That's all you do. It's hurt people! This power it can only ever be used to hurt! And I won't let you!" Jasper was shouting, voice tremoring with emotion. "You're a monster!"'We are a monster.'Jasper fell quiet, still breathing hard after their outburst.'This power is as much a part of you as it is a part of me.'"Help me to understand what's going on," Jasper begged, voice barely above a whisper now. "I'm tired of being kept in the dark. Why is this happening? You know, don't you? At least more than me."Kyoshiki sighed. It felt weird to hear a noise like that in their head. 'I'm as much a pawn to these freaks as you are.' There was a pause. 'I'll tell you now, though, that there is no separating us. I know that much. You're not a vessel to me. We're two sides of the same coin. If we're separated, we both die.'Jasper lowered their head in disappointment.'I don't know how they made us. I don't know why.'"Okay ..." Jasper mumbled, reaching a hand to itch at their foggy eyes.'But ...'Jasper's head slowly rose.'We can find out ... together.'It was as Jasper began to agree that their vision faded. As if they were falling asleep, their mind and body disconnected. They dropped back onto their pillow, labored breathing making their chest tremble. Shadows fell from their closed lids, misty tears of black coating them until every inch was shrouded in darkness. What ... are you ... doing ...? Across their skin, red eyes parted - taking in the space around them. Their vision, still blurry. Had it lulled them into a false sense of security just to take over then?'We're gonna look for answers.'No ... Don't.'The world'll end three times over if I leave the investigating to you.'Stop.

Content Warnings: body horror, derealization and emetophobia.

No sooner had they appeared in the main room with the others than they were sent elsewhere. In less than a blink, they were alone. The only sound in the old rotted room was that of Jasper's heavy breathing. They stood at the center of it, hugging their arms to their chest. It was the only thing they could bring themself to do. The room was bare save for them and an open window. Not even a door. How they had gotten to this particular room was beyond them. Moonlight flooded in through the window, so brightly - almost unnaturally so."H-Hello?" they managed to croak after a few deep breaths."Hello."The voice behind them made them jump. They turned, eyes wide as Engel stood before them. He was radiating a gentle white glow in the dark, his hair floating behind him as if he were underwater. "You have questions. You may ask them." His voice was so tender, so delicate. Everything about him was ... soft."Doctor ..." Their voice wavered, shaken with fear. They couldn't find the will to move, knees threatening to buckle under them. "How did you find me?""You remember me. How sweet," Engel smiled. "The last time I saw you, you were barely lucid after I wretched you back into this life you chose to waste away. You'd given up, remember? Something in you has changed it seems. Overnight, almost." He withdrew his hand from his pocket, tapping at his chin curiously. "It's rare for me to feel surprise but this ..." He paused to give the bare room a look of wonderment. "This life, this world has been so generous to me." He dropped his hand to his chest. His eyes didn't leave Jasper a single time as he spoke. They didn't think they had even seen him blink. "I apologize for my ramble. I am happy to be honored by your recollection. I am grateful for you, is what I wanted to say."Of course they remembered him. Who wouldn't? This strange elusive man. This demon. Their throat tightened and with that, they lost their speech. What could they even say? Any answers he had for them would come in riddles and they had no drive to solve them."How did I find you, you ask," he said, though they hadn't. "I argue that I never lost you. I've always known right where you were. You're an awfully difficult person to lose track of, Jasper."Jasper slowly downcast their gaze, a disappointed realization cast over them - the realization that they would never really be free of their family, of their fate."You're afraid your dear manman knows where you are? You can only assume she knows if I know."They nodded, frantic and eager as they gestured for an answer. They did not get one. At least, not the one they were looking for."Oh, ti Ja. I wish things were as simple as yes and no." He closed the space between the two in mere seconds. "I do enjoy your company ever so much," They hadn't even a moment to react before he pressed a finger to their forehead - a painful tension spreading through them as every muscle in their body contracted at the touch. A strangled cry escaped them, eyes wide with fear. "but you are not the one I wanted to speak to."Blinking rapidly as a black thick liquid began to seep from their tear ducts, it was almost as if they were fighting his will. A fight he ultimately won. They groaned, staggering back and away from him as they held their chest. They lost their sight as the liquid filled their eyes. Their halo wobbled above them, beginning to expand with a twist and a throb. Their fingers tugged at their hair, the sensation of their bones bending and rearranging inside them making vomit spout from their mouth."So dramatic," Engel mused. "Out with you.""Shut up, you geezer." As the crude words left the teen, the halo shot right down over them - a jarring twisting contorted transformation of limb and torso occuring at its center. The halo stopped inches above the ground - spiked and deformed, the entity now hovering up above it instead of the other way around. It was Jasper's mangled silhouette that stood before him but Jasper was not present. Instead there was this shadow, red eyes gleaming from within the darkness coating them. "Don't fucking touch us." A choir of voices snarled the warning.Engel chuckled, hand nestled back into his coat pocket. "How rude. This punishment was meant to make you kinder but it seems to have had the opposite effect." He tilted his head to one side. "Should I end you now and rid this child of the burden of You?"The entity rattled out a broken throated laugh. "Kill me and you end your little experiment," it growled. It began to near him, but it seemed that no matter how much they moved he was unreachable. A universe between them."This world is my experiment. You are merely a microcosm in a centuries long sequence of events. What happens to you or Jasper or anyone else for that matter, is of no consequence to me." There was a pause, his cheeky smile indicating that he wasn't yet finished. "And you, you've developed an attachment to your host - deny it as you like. I am truth. I am reality. And you can not deny me."This accusation ruffled feathers, indicated by the dripping clenching fists, but the entity refused to play into the game. Every eye on the figure was trained on Engel, keeping watch over every inch of him - narrowed with hateful suspicion. "Why did you summon us, fuckhead?""To say hello."A scoff. "We don't understand how your mind works. If you're so lonely, play with your toys but don't bother us."Engel gave an empathetic look, layered in cold condescension. "It must be so lonely, living surrounded by an innocence so foreign to you. They quite enjoy your company, and you theirs - as much as you deny it. I ask that you do what you can to protect them." His words were neither pleading nor demanding, they just were. There was a clinicality to his demeanor that cut to the very soul. "I don't particularly enjoy interfering with this illusion you all call free will but it's quite an easy task to me and I will do it if needed. Is that what you prefer?"The entity remained silent, stifling their retorts."I want you to face this trial together.""Trial?"This was the end of the conversation. The floorboards beneath it began to give way, falling down into a pit of never-ending darkness. The planks plummeted endlessly, never hitting ground. It backed away, nearly losing its balance where it hovered. The eyes on its back witnessed the wall behind it also crumble. Engel hadn't moved, still perched on one of few remaining boards. It quickly stopped its panic, refusing to give him what he wanted. Its eyes narrowed at the man in defiance before the last bit of stability it had ruptured and its feet - and it fell.

The door wouldn't budge. No matter how much Maki pushed or pulled or yanked or kicked, there way no way out. Surely Engel was to be trusted. He was granted access to school grounds after all but given the competence of the current staff at Jujutsu Tech, she had some reservations about this ... training exercise. She was hesitant to even call it that. Nothing they had learned in Jujutsu Tech in all her years there compared to this ... whatever this was. She perked up and turned suddenly, remembering her source of light. She stared at the window across from her with some trepidation. Was taking that exit a trap? It felt too obvious.Following a cautious glance around the empty room, she pressed herself forward and neared the open window. The light on the other side was bright enough to obscure what awaited her. This was no moonlight. She climbed through the window determinedly.This was a spotlight."Action!"Maki blinked, breathing heavy as her surroundings came into focus. She looked back at the temple, now a 2D cutout behind her. She touched the window only to find that the darkness on the other side was solid. Flat. She turned yet again, noticing large bulky filming cameras pointed at her. There were people operating them but they hadn't moved an inch. Overhead lighting dangled above her. A boom mic seemed to follow her movements. The dirt, rocks and dry grass crunching under her feet was merely a pile at the center of what looked like a movie set. She neared the cameras, slowly, in hopes that the people operating them could offer her some sort of explanation.It was after a few steps that she noticed the people weren't, in fact, people - but mannequins. All but one.Engel sat in the director's chair, legs crossed and watching her. He was dressed in something different than what she'd seen him in earlier. A beret, a cardigan tied around his shoulders and a turtleneck underneath. Like a movie director in a child's cartoon."What is this? What's going on?" Maki asked, brows knitted in confusion."What role do you play in this story?" Engel countered, leaning his elbow on the armrest of his chair and propping his chin on his palm. "So close to the stars and yet so unrelated. So irrelevant. What do you contribute to this narrative?"Maki's perplexed expression only deepened. Her mind raced for understanding. "What the hell are you talking about? Where are the others?" Her eyes searched the immediate area for answers but it felt as if there was no world outside of this set. She bit her lip a moment, almost as if to restrain herself from asking, but she couldn't fight her curiousity. "Who are you ... really?""Who, what, when, where, why." Engel chimed, holding up a finger on his free hand for each word. "So many questions are asked in this life. I wonder if more or less ever get answered." He dropped his hand back onto his lap. "Here are some questions for you; Can't you ever just find your own answers? Why must I be burdened with telling you everything you want? Why are you so privileged that things must come this easily to you?"Maki rolled her eyes. "Then I'll beat it out of you. I'd earn some answers then, no?" She made to move her hand back to take the bo staff from the strap on her shoulder but she found herself frozen in place as soon as her hand grasped the weapon.All the cameras had turned very suddenly, all facing her, and within their sight she could not budge an inch. Her heart would have been pounding in her chest if she could feel it. She couldn't even move her eyes. She couldn't breathe."I don't like violence," Engel said with a shake of his head. "So much more can be accomplished with words instead."Just as soon as it happened, it was over. She gasped for breath, feeling her heartbeat shake through her entire body. She whipped her head to look at the cameras to find they had pointed away. Something had changed about the mannequins operating them, however. They were starting to look somewhat familiar. Or had they always looked like this and she hadn't noticed until then? It seemed unlikely. She would have recognized the piss colored hair of Naoya Zenin anywhere."Projection Sorcery," Maki blurted. "You just used it, didn't you? How? And these-" She stopped herself. She chewed on her lips, sores on the inside of her mouth from the subconscious habit stinging. Could it have truly been Projection Sorcery? He hadn't touched her, had he? It felt as if she was searching for sense somewhere it didn't exist. She turned away from him and instead approached one of the mannequins, brows furrowing as she recognized the silly facial hair sprouting from where its upper lip would be. The hair she'd tug as a kid when roughhousing with the old man. The hair at the top of its head was slicked back and gray, its loosely worn yukata an olive green - his favorite color. Naobito Zenin. She then turned her head towards the next closest mannequin, tensing when she recognized her father's topknot on it. Ogi Zenin. She approached it quickly, at first rearing back as if to strike it but stopping herself. What was she doing? She looked to Engel."We're rolling," he winked, gesturing to the cameras pointed at many odd angles - but not at her.Electricity crackled as Maki buried her staff into the camera before the Ogi dummy with a speedy swing. She blinked, realizing with a sudden shock that the mannequin had gone from its spot. She turned just in time to dodge the blade whizzing at her face. She stumbled a moment, using the unsteadiness to drop to the ground and sweep the mannequin of its feet with her leg. She leapt quickly out of the way once more, noticing the cameras snapping towards her out of the corner of her eye."Do you feel like you belong in the Zenin clan, Maki? Do you feel like you belong anywhere?" Engel asked as she rolled behind a standee of a bush. "Will you fight for your place in the world or will you continue letting it pass by you, keeping your head down, wanting to just get it over with? Is that what you're content with?""No!" Maki barked, ducking around the standee as the Ogi mannequin swung its sword down into the wooden cutout. The blade was stuck when he tried to pull it out, but when she took the chance to attack, he swung the blade and sent the cutout into her. It burst as it made contact with her, turning to mist. An illusion? She had no time to question it, spinning out of the way in time to dodge the Naoya dummy's oncoming fists. She froze again, panic quickly setting in when she saw the two mannequins rush at her."It's so futile," Engel sighed once Maki was released from her frozen state. She rose her staff in time to stop her father's katana but Naoya managed a swift kick to her stomach. She flew back, scraping across the dirt pile until she hit the prop temple standee. "You will never earn their respect or their validation. Why keep fighting? Why do you even want it?"Maki pushed herself back up to feet. "I won't give up," she snapped. Her eyes narrowed as more mannequins joined those surrounding her. All vaguely familiar. Like people one sees in their dreams. Jinichi. Ranta. Nobuaki. Chojuro. Even her mother stood among her attackers. All those in her clan who stood against her. Who despised her. Who prayed for her downfall. Only one Zenin member was missing from the crowd. "I will never give up. Not until there is a place for both my sister and I in the Zenin clan." The cameras began to turn towards her. "Even if I have to carve it out with my own two fucking hands! Even if we're the only two left standing!" She lunged forward, staff in hand - the image of her following movements so clear in her mind, it felt like a choreographed dance she had practiced her entire life.The taste of copper. The sting of sweat.Spite. Spite. Spite.She froze - No. Everything else had frozen. She took another step, the reverberation of her boot pounding into the dirt echoed in her head. She knew exactly what she wanted to do, what she had to do. She leapt over her family, flipping across to the cameras and driving the end of her staff into the lense of one. The glass shattered. She could see the individual fragments flying through the air, frozen in time with her for that fraction of a second. The third and final camera met its end with a swift kick, sending it flying across the room. It toppled over in a pile of itself.All at once, time came rushing back to her. She looked to the mannequins, all of which had stopped in place. She was breathing hard, grip on her weapon tight. She was shaking with adrenaline. Her head was spinning. Had she-Engel cleared his throat for her attention. She snapped out of the rush and looked his way. Now standing and holding a director's megaphone to his lips, he finalized, "And cut!"

The woods outside were about as complicated to navigate as the temple. Panda wandered through the brush in search of, well, anything. He'd thought he'd at least find steps leading up to the aged building to follow out? Or a path? Maybe even a sign? Or just, anything that indicated a temple existed there? Anything that connected them to the rest of civilization? The realization that he'd been walking in circles dawned on him as he recognized a tree he'd already walked by at least a couple of times. He was almost certain he'd been walking a straight line, though. With a glance back at the temple he noticed the distance between them had not grown.It was as he approached the tree to mark it with his claws for future reference that a voice in the darkness startled him."Pandas are my least favorite kind of bears."Panda turned, completing a full circle before he found himself facing Engel. "Well, that's rude," he sniffed. "Can't say that I'm all too fond of your outfit. Isn't it a bit early for Halloween?"Engel laughed, smoothing down the front of his gravedigger's attire with a flourish. "I thought I looked quite stylish, albeit grim," he replied. He gestured a hand and with the gesture Panda felt his body jerk. It alarmed him enough to get him to take several steps away, back bumping into the tree he'd been about to claw at just a moment ago. "I thought it'd suit the occasion.""What was that?" Panda asked wearily, big round eyes narrowing with suspicion. "What did you just do?""Oh, when will the questions end?" Engel wondered with bemusement, though his cheery expression did not sync with his tone. He relented with a response, however ... somewhat. "To answer as simply as possible, I'm charmed by the Technique used to create you. I enjoy toys. Especially ones I'm not meant to play with.""I'm no toy!" Panda argued. "I'm ..." He hesitated, nostrils flaring as he let out a breath. "It doesn't matter what I am."Engel nodded. It felt condescending. "That is quite the statement. It makes you feel better not to think about it, doesn't it?" He began to walk, tracing a circle around Panda. "It'd ruin the comedy your very presence provides the narrative. But you do think about it, don't you? It's impossible not to. I am not the only one in your life denying you answers, though it would seem that the ones your creator owes you are far more important than anything I could ever tell you. And that haunts you.""What's the point of this? To hurt my feelings?" Panda asked, sitting down and lowering his head. "You're just being a bully."Bursting into a heartfelt guffaw, Engel didn't answer right away. He clutched at his sides as if they ached. Panda could even glimpse a tear at the corner of one of his eyes. He finally managed to contain himself, extending a hand to one side. A shovel appeared in it. "I'm not here to harm you." He explained matter-of-factly. He drove the shovel into the ground, a rumble tearing across the earth beneath them. "I'm here to help you."A hand burst from the ground, reaching for Panda's paw. He moved quickly out of the way, looking between Engel and the other hands sprouting up from below. They were partially rotted, bones visibile in gaps of the putrid flesh falling from them."Save the pity act. I know your soul. You're intimidated by my power, not my words."The hands turned to arms turned to torsos and heads as the zombified creatures crawled out from the dirt and towards Panda. He bore his teeth, sharp and gleaming. "You're taking the Corpse in Cursed Corpse Technique a bit literally," he pointed out, ducking out of the way as one of the undead tried to take a swipe at him. "Easy mistake to make.""I don't see much of a difference," Engel shrugged as he casually leaned against the shovel. "I wonder if anyone else does."Panda barreled forward, slamming monster into monster until he pinned several of them to a nearby tree. "I feel bad for you if you can't tell the difference between me and these ... whatever these are!" They practically broke apart from the pressure, squirming at his feet. More joined them, determined to ... well, he wasn't all too sure exactly. Kill him? He didn't exactly want to find out. They didn't really seem all that hostile. At first he was worried Engel had been somehow copying Yaga's technique but he sensed no Cursed Energy off them. He didn't sense anything from them, or from Engel for that matter."You seem confused.""A bit," Panda admitted, staying focused on keeping out of the grasp of reaching hands. "I don't get what the point of this exercise is.""Must there be one? If there is, must you know what it is to go on?"Panda thought for a moment, looking at the zombies as he did. "I feel like you're trying to tell me something," he mused. "Maybe I'm too dumb to figure out what ... or I'm overthinking things." No matter how long he stared at the other, answers would not come. Clarity was lost on him. He sighed and then sat, choosing to ignore the hands grasping at him. He itched at his chin in thought. "Something about fear? Or ...""You are so obtuse," Engel sighed drearily. For once, his smile was gone from his face, replaced with a cold stare. "My lesson is lost on you. How disappointing. How boring. I won't waste any more of my time.""I just don't think you're a very good teacher," Panda snorted, blinking in surprise when the forest suddenly disappeared from around him. Trees and brush all shrank into the dirt, shadow encompassing the night sky. Clammy stinking fingers fell away from him, no longer grasping at his fur. He took in his new surroundings and realized he'd been sent back to the main room of the temple - the one he had last seen his friends in. Engel was gone, but Maki was there. He felt relief at the sight of her, standing and rushing to her side.Turning and flashing him a halfsmile, Maki greeted, "Yo. How did your trial go?" Something about the air around her had changed. A proud confidence she typically kept private exuded from her - but also, something else. He couldn't quite figure it out."Trial?" Panda asked."Yeah. You didn't have to ... do anything?"Panda shrugged. "I don't think so," he muttered. "I think he got bored with me. Bored or annoyed. Or both." He sat back down on the old hardwood floor. "Whatever, I'm just glad to see you again."Maki kept quiet, a pensive look etched across her brow."I hope the others won't take too much longer," Panda sighed, rolling onto his back. No matter how much he tried, he couldn't get himself to relax. He could still feel the whisper of undead hands clutching at his fur, making goosebumps rise on his forearms. When he closed his eyes, he could still see Engel's cold and judgmental stare. A look with a heartlessness he had never seen from anyone before. He folded his paws over his belly, claws digging into skin with unease.

The view from the mountain Yuji stood atop was both familiar and foreign at once, reminiscent of images he had only ever witnessed printed on the pages of manga he scoured during his free time. The ancient pseudo-Japanese village he overlooked was pulled straight out of fantasies he'd had as kid and spanned far into the horizon. He had found himself lost looking out at it, for long enough to realize that it was as empty as those very dreams. For one, everything was in grayscale - like etchings on a page. Even he existed in this penciled manner. The inhabitants, tiny in the distance, did not move, as if captured in a photograph. No chatter, no wind, no birdsong. He could not hear a thing, not until he began to scale down from the rafters set up around the massive carvings of human faces along the side of the mountain. The world around him sprung to life - but for a short-lived moment, as it all came to a stop with him when he froze to look back out towards the commotion."Hello."Engel's sudden appearance at his side made him jump. He turned, alarmed, and took in the other man with some curiousity.He wore what he could call a cosplay, of the mentor of the very series the world was pulled from - a dark vest ladden with many pockets, over a long sleeved shirt, and a headband tilted at an angle that concealed one of his eyes. The emblem on the headband that typically reflected the village of origin of the characters displayed the logo of Jujutsu Tech. He seemed to be in a chipper mood, not at all concerned at this drastic change of scenery."Uh, what's going on?" Yuji asked, scratching at the back of his head. "Where are we?""You know where we are."Yuji gave a slow thoughtful nod. "I do ... sort of but ..." He paused briefly. "Where are the others?""They are where they are. What's important is your purpose here."This did nothing to quell Yuji's confusion but he tried to refocus on his surroundings. "My purpose ..." he echoed. He drew in a deep breath and resumed his climb down the rafters. The world chugged to life, clouds passing overhead. He halted his step and quickly looked back towards the village to find that, as it had before, everything had stopped abruptly when he did. There was again no sound emitting from his surroundings, an emptiness resounding within that silence. He moved again. Stop and go, stop and go. Okay, he was getting it. The world only moved with him, like turning the pages of a book. "Fighting bad guys?" he called up to Engel as the man peeked over the edge at him."Bad guys?" Engel echoed.Yuji dropped down to the platform below with a huff, alarmed by Engel when the man suddenly appeared next to him. He looked from him to the platform above and then back with a blink of confusion."What does it mean to be bad?""I dunno." Yuji said with a shrug, now taking the path along the other side of the railing towards the village. He walked with eagerness in his step, failing to mask his excitement to explore this new world around him. Still, he thought about the question. "Hurting people?""Good people hurt people sometimes, wouldn't you agree?"Yuji nodded slowly before adding, "Yeah but bad guys want to hurt people.""And good guys want to help people?" Engel was walking a couple of steps behind him.Yuji grinned, feeling like he'd solved some decades old riddle. "Yeah! So they're different."The ground tremored beneath him suddenly, making him stop in his tracks. His eyes had grown wide, darting around in their sockets for the source of the quake. Nothing seemed obvious so he took another couple of steps only to be met with a second violent shake of the earth. This time, a crack formed along the ground by his feet. He stared at it."And helping is always a good thing?" Engel continued to walk, now leaving Yuji behind. He didn't look back at him. Unlike when Yuji moved, everything around remained in the safety of the pause.Yuji slowly began to turn in time to see a massive beast peeking its head over the mountain. He rushed back towards the platforms, hoping to meet the beast on its descent down the mountain but it moved far too quickly despite its size. It was a massive foxlike creature, rabid drool hanging from its maw. Nine tails all wisped and curled behind it. Its sight was fixed on the village, Yuji a mere insect to it. The mountain broke apart with every terrifying step it took, sending debris into the air. Yuji only skidded to a halt as the beast reared to leap into the air to scale the tall protective walls of the village. And with that small gesture, the world was suspended in time yet again."Is it important that the world see you as a hero?" Engel was now standing back at his side, hands folded behind him. "Is helping always helpful?"Yuji clenched his fists at his side, the creature moving a mere centimeter at the gesture. He struggled for words, mind racing. He thought of his missions until then, of the day he impulsively swallowed Sukuna's finger and resigned himself to his fate as a vessel, to the day he witnessed Junpei's life extinguished before his eyes, to the day he drove Mr. Weon to snapping at him when confronting the Cursed Spirit in the parking garage. What was the right answer?"Turning the page when you don't know what lies in wait for you or others on the other side, it's always a gamble, isn't it? A gamble you always take.""I just-" he stopped himself when now even just moving his lips caused the beast to budge forward yet again. Frustration welled in his chest. Helping was helping, even if it was also a gamble sometimes. Had everything until then been his fault? Consequences of his own impulsiveness? It felt like that at times. As if it didn't matter what his intentions had been, it was as if though everything he ever did just made things worse.Engel circled around him, facing him. "Life comes with no warnings or disclaimers, no rewind. Any decision could change your own life or the life of another in ways we can't even fathom."Yuji exhaled before he took a step backwards, eyes darting towards the creature when it seemed to move back in time with him. "I just ... don't understand ..." he muttered under his breath."Must there always be a conflict? Is that what you find purpose in? Or is that your escape? Could it be both?" Engel was following him, hands folded behind his back. "You've wound up in a cycle of violence and you are feeding that machine."Finally reaching the platform, Yuji slowly maneuvered himself back over it, careful to continue to move in reverse. The beast had disappeared back to the other side of the mountain, the cracks it had formed in the ground gone with it. Something about the sentiment confronting him felt so familiar, something he still grappled with in the days since crossing paths with the Cursed Spirit in the parking garage. "You sound like Mr. Weon," he muttered before he scaled up the mountain. He didn't notice Engel's smile double in size at the observation. "Not everything can be solved with words all of the time." No amount of reason ever seemed to get through to the demon cohabitating his body. He could feel Sukuna's remorselessness whenever he fought for dominance of him, he knew his twisted heart better than anyone. "What am I supposed to do when everything feels out of my control? When compromise won't cut it?" The earth felt so solid in his hands, rock digging into his palms. "I can't let the world fall apart in front of me."As he reached the beginning, he found Engel standing on the ledge peering down at him, sporting his eerie smile. "You close the book." The man chirped, and with that the world fell away from him.Yuji blinked, feet back on solid ground. He stood in the main room of the temple again, disoriented for a moment before he managed to collect himself.Engel was gone but instead Panda and Maki were present, sitting on the floor in wait."How did it go?" Maki asked."I don't know," Yuji answered honestly. He looked down to his hands, curling his fingers. "That was weird. I don't know what to think of it."Maki snorted. "Well, you're not the only one. It seems we've all had interesting interactions with our substitute for the day." She crossed her arms. "Megumi, Jasper and Toge are still gone, so it looks as if our wait is still not over."Yuji nodded, slow. He wasn't really listening to her, mind still clinging to Engel's words. Close the book. He took a seat near his classmates, replaying the events that had just transpired mere moments ago in his head until they all seemed to blur together. Close the book.

Megumi awoke to find himself. He jumped wide awake at the reflection, so close to his face, only to soon realize that he was surrounded. Every visage sported the same startled look, staring back at him. He pushed himself up to his feet, turning in a circle as he took in everything around him. It was nothing but himself, all turning with him. "Hello?" he called out, but there was no answer. He neared an reflection that he noticed was slightly angled, finding only a confusing kaleidoscope of him in what he could only discern to be a maze of mirrors. "Yuji?" he called. He tried to shake off his disorientation. He didn't know where he was. But was anyone there with him? "Maki?" The last he could remember was -"Hello."The greeting startled him. He could see Engel behind him in his reflection but the man wasn't there when he looked over his shoulder. "What is this? Where am I?" he demanded, prickly with agitation. He looked back at the mirror with a cross expression."Where is who?""Me," Megumi snapped at the man, slowly resuming his way down the hall. Whatever this was, he wanted out. He held his hands out in front of him to keep from running into the mirrors, twisting and turning every time his fingertips met cold glass. Engel stood behind him in every reflection, unmoving."And who are you?""I ... " He hesitated, confused. "Megumi Fushiguro.""Are you really?"Megumi rolled his eyes. "Yes," he answered dryly. His frustration was growing with every dead-end he met and every stupid question he was asked. He avoided angry eye contact with his self-image, too embarrassed to meet his own gaze. "What is this? A test?""An exploration," Engel responded. "If you're willing."Stopping for a moment to contemplate his next move, Megumi asked, "And what happens if I'm not?" He couldn't sense any immediate danger but he refused to let his guard down."Absolutely nothing."An exploration, the man had said - but an exploration into what? The answer seemed obvious but he didn't understand it in its entirety. He didn't particularly like looking at himself and having Engel peering at him over his shoulder was unsettling, especially with him sporting that obnoxious little smile. With every passing moment, he felt more and more like a lab rat.With a blink, the reflections around him changed. They no longer showed him in the hall of mirrors. Instead, he stood in his bedroom by his bed. The scene was immediately familiar, probably because the events from that day had played out not too long ago."I'll do it," his reflection choked out and Megumi felt his heart sink. His own voice echoed all around him. He reeled at the pathetic expression on his face, at his defeat. He drew in a sharp breath as he heard Sukuna's taunt, "Hmm? What was that?" and then his repetition, bitter and pained - "I'll fucking do it!" He tried to turn away from it but it was all around him. His remorse overwhelmed him. How did Engel know about this exchange? What more did he know?"I did it," he uttered, raising his hands to his head to grip at his hair. "I feel bad enough about it as it is. I shouldn't have let him control me but what else could I have done?" He shut his eyes."What else could you have done?"Megumi looked back to the mirror to find himself as he was now, frantic and stricken with grief, and Engel, watching him. "I ..." he shook his head. "Nothing. No one would help me.""And that was a conclusion you came to yourself?""You wouldn't get it!" Megumi argued. "Even if I had asked for help, even if I had gotten it - it would have put Yuji at risk!" Don't you have anyone you care about? he wanted to ask but it felt like he didn't have to. Engel's gaze was penetratingly intense. He dropped his head if only to avoid his stare. If he had gotten any of the others involved, if he had made it known that Sukuna could so easily steal control away from Yuji, he would have gotten him killed."This is a new feeling for you, isn't it?""What is?""Letting yourself care for someone else." Engel tilted his head. "These bonds you've formed, they're fresh. Before this, you only ever had yourself."Megumi furrowed his brows. "No, I ... That's not true." He shook his head. "I had my sister ... Gojo ... Maki ..." What would they had done if he had told them? What could be done against Sukuna? It was best they be left in the dark. Things worked out fine, hadn't they? Kind of. What did it matter really?"That's different. You never opened yourself up to them like you are doing with others now. You built your walls and no one bothered to tear them down, until now. Until him."Slowly, Megumi turned to the mirror. He found himself looking at a younger reflection of him. Much younger. A child, full of frustration and confusion. Tiny fists clenched at his sides, lips curled into a deep scowl. "No ... I ... care about them ... and they care about me ... I think." Tsumiki, Gojo and Maki looked out for him in their own ways. An uncomfortable sensation welled in his chest. Even when he caused trouble, they were there - as best they could be."You didn't feel they did. You felt it was out of a sense of obligation. Like paying off a debt."Shoulders untensing, Megumi let out a tired breath. That child glared at him, hatred glimmering in his eyes. "It's complicated," he mumbled. He didn't want to talk about it. It hurt only to think about."Isn't it always?" Engel crooned. In the reflection, his hand grasped his shoulder. Megumi could feel the fingers clasp him tight - reassuring. "Pretending your feelings don't exist won't make them go away."With a grimace, Megumi bit out, "I'm not some needy brat! I can manage just fine on my own." The younger version of himself mimicked his expression, hurt reflected in his eyes. "Without our parents around, Tsumiki did her best. She still does ... her best." Things had gotten busy for them both this year, it was absurd to expect a call every day. "When I joined Jujutsu Tech, Maki looked out for me." But Maki had her own problems, her own demons to face. It'd be unfair to drag her into my business too. "And without Gojo, I wouldn't be any closer to figuring out ..." He wasn't sure if he was trying to convince himself or Engel anymore. "figuring out everything." Gojo didn't owe him anything. He bit his lip."Don't turn your back on yourself. Break through. Don't step back into the dark.""No!" he blurted at last. The mirrors around him shattered, glass glistening in the air before fading to nothing. "You don't get it! You're a stranger! You don't understand me! You don't understand any of us!" The light in the room dimmed with every word that left him. He rose his hands to his head. "Quit prying! Your job is to teach us how to fight Curses! You don't know us! You don't fucking know me!" He looked up suddenly, feeling his heart drop to his stomach when Engel stood hardly a foot away from him, leaning towards him and smiling - emitting a soft light in the pitch dark surrounding them."Oh but I do know you," Engel crooned. "I know you better than you know yourself."With that, he broke into pieces - shattered like the mirrors. In a blink, Megumi's surroundings changed. He was in the main room again, the one he had last seen everyone in. Relief filled him when he saw the others, but it was temporary as he quickly realized they were still missing two of their classmates.A pair of arms wrapped around him and he couldn't fight the urge to return the embrace, holding Yuji for a moment before he pulled away."Yuji ..." Megumi started, but quickly caught himself. He released the other, face growing hot. "What's going on?""Not sure," Maki said, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Panda. "We're still trying to make sense of everything."Yuji pursed his lips, clinging to the sleeve of Megumi's jacket, "Did you see Dr. Amajiki too? In some fantasy world? Did he ask you a bunch of questions?""Kind of. I guess." Megumi muttered, feeling uneasy at the idea of discussing what exactly he'd just experienced. "It was weird.""Yeah, that seems like a recurring feeling," the blonde sighed, running a hand through his hair. "We're still waiting on Jas and Toge. None of us have our phones on us so we don't know how long we've been here." After sharing that much, he fell silent - still clutching Megumi's sleep. It seemed he also wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of talking about his experience with Engel.In fact, outside of speculating how much longer they'd be stuck there waiting - no one seemed to have much else to say.Everyone, it seemed, had grown lost in their own heads.

It was so quiet, not even his own footsteps made a sound. Everything around him was a blinding white that seemed to go on for eternity. It was impossible to make out the ground from the sky from where he stood, so much so that he began to doubt there even was a horizon at all. Toge searched for his phone but his pockets came up empty. He had dared only a few steps into the nothingness but quickly gave up his wandering in fear of getting ... lost ... in this void. What now? Was he meant to wait? For what exactly?"Hello."Toge nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice. He looked all around him but couldn't find its source. He did, however, recognize it as the soothing voice of the man that had introduced himself earlier that day. He hesitated for a moment before signing a wary, "Hello.""You were taught at a young age about your power. About the danger of your words. It must be exhausting to always have to measure yourself, to rush through what you truly wish to say in an effort to avoid burdening those around you. Like many others, you long for normalcy."Toge drew in a breath, eyes widening at the accusation. He shook his head. "I am normal," he replied."You are, but you don't feel normal, do you?"He thought about it. Speaking was a rare occasion, and while it never bothered him, he couldn't help but feel a creeping impatience from those around him every time he pulled out his phone or gestured - as if understanding him was some form of labor. He could empathize with it but would it be a lie if he said it didn't frustrate him?Well, more like he tried not to think about it."You can speak here. Your words bring no harm. You can get it out."Toge blinked at this, confused and unsure. "Where are we?" he signed."Somewhere safe. Somewhere private."Toge toyed with the zipper on his jacket anxiously. Was speaking something he felt he needed to do? Did he even have anything to let out? He swallowed, suddenly very conscious of his tongue in his mouth. It was weird to be given such an opportunity. As if a spotlight had locked onto him and refused to move until he did something, anything."FUCK!"The word escaped him. It took him a second to realize he had clenched his fists at his sides as he shouted. He unclenched them, palms hurting from nails dug into skin. As promised, the world around him was fine. No one was overcome with the untameable desire for physical intimacy. However, there was a small change. The word he'd yelled had singed itself into the white ground before him, as big as he had been loud. He stared at it for a moment before turning and taking a deep breath."SHIT!"Toge laughed this time, wiping at the corner of his eye. It was stupid, yeah, but it was fun to say whatever he wanted for once. Like the previous word, this one too burned itself into the ground. He could smell the sweet scorch of earth."Die."His smile had dropped now, eyes locked on the small floorspace between his feet - where the word had formed. There was a weird feeling settling into the pit of his stomach. An unresolved relief, a conflict brewing. It was never that he wanted to talk, he just wanted people to hear him.His heart thundered in his chest at the realization, but as quickly as the sensation came, it was gone - replaced with shock. The ground at Toge's feet shook with a terrifying intensity. He looked up and immediately saw it, a square of pitch black in the white expanse above. As if a panel had slipped from a non-existent ceiling. Within that darkness, a red eye peered out at him. It felt ... familiar."How troublesome."Engel appeared beside him suddenly. His chipper tone and smile betrayed the dissatisfied words. He seemed more entertained than bothered."You can't patiently wait your turn?" he asked, looking up at the eye. The question was very much rhetorical.A gnarled hand came from the dark, drenched in a liquid shadow. It gushed out. More eyes, all red, all narrowed in their direction. The long and twisted fingers clutched at the white as more of this strange mangled figure left its refuge and began to seemingly take over the room.Toge felt unease well in him, looking from Engel to the creature then back to Engel. The man was unmoving, unaffected by the horror show playing out before them."I apologize for this interruption," Engel sighed. His demeanor shifted but only to one of mild inconvenience, as if he had just realized he'd forgotten his umbrella at home as a storm formed in the distance. "Just as you were breaking through too. How disappointing."Toge swallowed, finger finally tugging at the zipper on the high collar of his jacket as he felt his words form on his tongue."There's no need for that. Jasper would never let it hurt you."A look of bewilderment crossed Toge's face at the mention of Jasper. He looked back to the monster, eyes wide and face a sickly pale. Just what had become of his friend? And what did this mean for the others?"Inu ... ma ... ki." A choir of voice sang out his name before the creature fell from above and hit the ground before them with a loud slam. It recoiled in pain, the voices whimpering."Now now, settle down." Engel gestured a calming motion with one hand.A frustrated growl left the creature, jagged claws digging into the ground as it tried to stand."I said settle down." This time, Engel's tone had become one of warning. The creature fell into the ground, almost as it had been pushed. "You've ruined your classmate's lesson. That was quite rude of you. Apologize."The monstrosity was beginning to shrink in size, the red eyes covering its body closing one at a time. "S ... Sorry," it whispered. "I don't know ... what's happening." The voices that had accompanied Jasper's voice faded to just one. Theirs. It was pained and weak. A human hand extended to the two, fingers twitching."Get up." There was a sudden callousness to Engel's voice that made the hairs on Toge's arms stand on end. He glanced between the two again, eyes still wide as he did his best to comprehend just what exactly was going on. "Look at your classmate and apologize."Don't, Toge thought. It's fine.Jasper attempted to push themself up to their feet but quickly lost their strength, collpasing into themself. They appeared to give up, curling into a ball as they hugged their knees to their chest. The creature that had once consumed them was gone, only the teen left devastated in its wake."Void-""Stop!" Toge yelped and Engel looked back at him, smiling.Everything around them began to crumble. Toge ran forward, towards Jasper but by the time he'd taken a step, they were gone. He looked around him, eyes taking a moment to adjust as he found himself outside - back in the pavilion at school. Everything was exactly as it'd been when they'd left."Toge!"Toge looked up at his name, relief filling him at the sight of Panda rushing over to his side."Are you okay?!"He didn't respond right away, still fighting to orient himself. Instead, he looked for Jasper and gasped at the sight of the teen still crumpled on the ground as he'd seen them last. Yuji was already at their side, shaking at their shoulders and calling their name. He perked when Panda called for him again, finally just nodding at his question."I'm fine," he'd begun to sign but grimaced when he saw Panda instead looking towards Maki."Time didn't pass while we were gone," Maki pointed out, standing beside Megumi, who was crouched by Jasper alongside Yuji. She had her phone in her hand, sporting a perplexed frown.The clear of a throat caught the students' attention. They immediately looked towards Engel, who stood back at the top of the steps - precisely where they'd seen him last before this bizarre exercise began.Engel smiled at them all for a moment, almost as if waiting for them to truly witness him, before slipping his hands into his pockets and turning to leave."Class is dismissed!"

Content Warnings: N/A

The incessant chirping of birds outside the office window was what roused Satoru from his slumber. He flinched as he came to. The sun was bright. So bright it hurt. He let his hair fall over his eyes, a momentary reprieve. He reached up, grasping at his neck and at the top of his head for his blindfold but couldn't find it. He gave up and turned away from the sun, rubbing at his face. A groan left him. He wasn't normally this sensitive to light. Just when he was hungover. The day before was a blur to him, leaving him at a loss trying to explain his state. Was he hungover?"Good morning, Satoru."He tensed in his seat, jerking his head towards the door and meeting eyes with Engel, who stood perfectly framed in the doorway. He looked like a painting. His hands were tucked away into his coat pockets. He wore his same passive expression, pleasant smile on his lips. His long silver hair was neatly tied back with a ribbon.Satoru then glanced at the one other person in the room. Shoko was curled up on the floor under her desk, crumpled in a pile of herself. He couldn't see her face, her dark hair draped over it, but he was struck with relief when he saw her back rise and fall with breath. He could sense her Cursed Energy - still, like water in a pond. She was alive. Good. He looked back to Engel, hands anxiously clutching his knees."You should go home and rest. You made some strides yesterday," Engel suggested with a subtle shrug. "I will take care of the students today for you.""But Kento-""Mr. Nanami is no obstacle to me."Satoru rubbed at the sides of his head, feeling a dull ache spread through his temples. "Yeah, maybe you're right," he muttered. "I should take the day." He wanted to look back at Shoko again but couldn't bring himself to take his eyes off Engel. He felt nervous, as if he was waiting for more from him. An explanation preferably.He didn't get one."I'll leave you to check on Ms. Ieiri. I can feel your concern for her. It's rather amusing," Engel chirped. He turned on his heel. "I trust you'll go rest as soon as you're done. You will need your energy to mentor your students properly this upcoming week." He gave Satoru a final look over his shoulder. "I will be in town until the end of the Kyoto Exchange Event. Do not hesitate to contact me if you need anything."Satoru didn't respond. He just watched the man as he turned the corner and vanished, letting the door close after him. He was no longer there but he never really felt gone whenever he left. "Shoko ..." he called out quietly, looking back to her. He stretched his back, feeling his spine pop from the movement. Had he spent the whole night in this folding chair? "Hey, Shoko ... Wake up."She grunted, starting to adjust herself on the hardwood floor. "What the fuck ..." she began to ask but fell silent again, instead palming the exhaustion from her eyes."I think we fell asleep," Satoru muttered. "I don't know. Yesterday is kind of hard to recall." He forced himself not to look at the door. He knew Engel wasn't there but he still felt his presence. It made the hairs on his arms stand on end. Had he fixed everything? Just like he said he would? "How are you feeling? Do you remember anything?""I don't know," Shoko muttered as she crawled out from under her desk and tried to stand - only to topple back down at the realization that her prosthetic was gone. Her confusion was evident on her face but it didn't linger. She was too tired to care. She pulled her rolling chair over to her and climbed into it with a loud sigh. "I can kind of remember some things." She clarified after taking a minute to think.Satoru chewed on his lip, toying with the edges of the sleeves on his jacket. "What exactly do you remember?" he asked. The day was beginning to come back to him, like the auto-focus on a camera adjusting. Was the same happening to her? He remembered waking up in Dominic's bed, shaken awake by the vibration of his phone clutched tight in hand. He remembered coming into the office to tell Shoko ... something. He remembered the phone. That phone. He felt in his pockets for it but only found his own. He remembered-"Dr. Amajiki is back," Shoko said. "I saw him.""He was just here."Shoko scowled at the confirmation. "I thought his expulsion from the school was permanent," she muttered. It was bad enough he was still working for the school after everything he'd done and it wasn't as if she had the highest expectations of the higher ups - but for them to let him of all people step foot on campus again was absurd. "You need to to tell him to leave."An eerie silence came over Satoru, one that deeply unsettled her."You need to tell him to leave," she reiterated. "He shouldn't come near the students. Not after-""I don't want to talk about that," Satoru cut her off coldly. He could feel her gaze sear into him, her heated rage making his icy demeanor sweat. "We don't have the full story and we'll probably never get it. She's dead and he's a liar.""How do you know that?"Satoru crossed his arms. "I don't know. His whole vibe, I guess? He's always been ..." He gestured vaguely. "an enigma. Hard to read. Too smart. He never says more than he feels he needs to. I guess he's not really a liar. Just scrambles up the truth.""No, how do you know she's dead?"His breathing hitched, "Well, I thought we all-""Because the higher ups told you? You're going off their word?""She's never turned up again. I just assumed."The two shared a long and painful quiet, Satoru staring down at his lap and her keeping her gaze trained on him - deconstructing him.After a while, she relented. She leaned back into her seat, fishing her cigarettes and lighter from her lab coat pockets. He sat silently, fumbling his fingers as she lit her cigarette. When he finally dared a look at her, he wore that miserable self-pitying pout that made her skin crawl. She turned her head away from him, smoke curling from her nostrils."Shoko, I-""Help me find my leg."

It was a tired morning. Everyone around the school seemed to be operating at about half their usual capacity. Kiyotaka had been spotted asleep standing up outside the staff breakroom and even the timely Kento had sent a text informing everyone he'd be running late. Gojo hadn't been heard from since he left looking for Jasper and Shoko had taped a paper to her office door advising people to stay out. Last night had been yet another hill to climb in a seemingly neverending landscape of trouble and waiting for their instructor at the usual spot in the pavilion, the students convened."It's so stupid we have to come to class on a Saturday because we didn't have any yesterday. Like that's our damned fault," Maki complained as she snuck a quick slice of toast for breakfast before their classes started. Crumbs scattered down the front of her jacket, butter on her lips. There was an exhausted darkness encircling her eyes, hints of her late nights studying after they had been dismissed from the search for Jasper."Hm," Megumi barely responded to Maki's grumbling, focusing all of his energy into keeping his tired eyes open. Every movement he made felt heavy, as if he was wading through water. How they would all get any training done that day was beyond him. Maybe it'd be an easy day. Something simple. Surely Mr. Nanami would take mercy on them."Nobara's at the Care Center,""I wonder if I'll get invited to go soon since I've switched to Taming," Megumi wondered outloud. He sat on the steps that lead down into the training grounds. Yuji was sleeping next to him, head resting soundly on his shoulder."Probably," Maki muttered with a shrug. "Things seem kind of out of sorts today what with all the shit that went down yesterday and we're gonna be kicking our training up a notch with the Kyoto Exchange Event coming up so maybe not until that's over and done with."Megumi nodded, glancing towards Toge and Panda who appeared to be in a sleep deprived trance higher up on the steps."You think he found them?" Maki asked, taking a seat on Megumi's other side when it seemed that Kento's delay was longer still than anticipated. "I mean, the search was called off, right? So, we can only assume."Lowering his head, Megumi mumbled, "I guess." He bit his lip before adding, more quietly, "I hope.""Do you mean that?"At this, Megumi tensed. "Yes," he answered, not sounding all too sure of himself. He reached up to his face, rubbing at his eyes as he tried to bring himself to feel more alert if only to keep himself from saying something stupid. "Look, I don't want people to think I hate Jasper or something. I don't. It was just a stupid decision and ... there's more to it but ... I can't talk about it."Maki gave him a skeptical look."Not right now.""Good morning."The voice made the cousins turn suddenly, Yuji slipping from Megumi's shoulder and jolting awake.Any replies were stuck in their throats as Jasper stood before them, hands clutched behind them. Before they could formulate their thoughts, the young Sorceror bowed apologetically. "I worried everyone and that was wrong of me. I want to apologize for yesterday. To all of you." They straightened back up, a foreign look of determination on their face. The ramble was unexpected, with their dazed classmates taking time to process every word. "Everything you guys have said about me is right. I haven't given any of you enough reason to trust or believe in me and I want to change that. I want us to work together. I want to learn to control my power. I want to protect people." They fought away the nervousness beginning to creep over them, their voice raising to a shout, "I want to be your friend!""Jas ..." Yuji called, standing to face them. His grogginess was quickly gone from him. "You don't owe us anything." He frowned. "I'm Sukuna's vessel. I was when I joined this school and I wasn't made to jump through hoops to prove to people that I'm a good person. We just want you to be you."Jasper pressed their lips together, glancing at Megumi before downcasting their gaze. "I-""I'm sorry." Megumi was also now up on his feet, hands clenched in his pockets. He drew in a deep breath. "I saw that your technique changed a bit every time you were stressed and I thought I was doing you a favor. I thought if we sparred together ... if I pushed you a bit, it would grow your power and we could learn more about how it worked.""That's not true," Jasper blurted, promptly slapping their hand over their mouth in surprise at their own words.Megumi stared at them, alarmed."What do you mean, Jas?" Yuji asked, looking between the two.Jasper shook their head, dropping their hand from their face. "No, I ... I don't know why I said that. Sorry." They looked away from them all, no longer able to stave off their anxiety. They drew in a sharp breath, head spinning."You guys need to clear this shit up now!" Maki barked. "No more of this dodgy bullshit! We need to trust each other!""Hey!" Panda called out, startled by the arguing. He approached, Toge trailing after him. "Guys, what's going on?"From Jasper to Megumi the four looked, awaiting an answer - an explanation, anything. Instead, there was a long and uncomfortable silence as the two looked anywhere but at one another or their classmates. Footsteps drew near."They're right," Megumi muttered. "It was-""Good morning!"The teens all turned to look at the silver haired man now standing at the top of the stairs. In one of his hands was a briefcase, plain black to match his equally sombre ensemble - a large contrast to the charming smile he sported."I am Dr. Amajiki," Engel greeted as he began to descend the steps. "It's a great pleasure to meet you all. I will be taking over your lessons for today.""This is getting ridiculous," Maki muttered with a roll of her eyes. "How many teachers are we gonna go through this year?"Engel stopped a few steps above them. "I understand your frustrations but I guarantee that Mr. Gojo will be back tomorrow, ready to take you all back under his wing," he reassured with a nod. "There is no doubt in my mind that this life here for you as student Sorcerers has brought you nothing but stress, fear and anxiety and I do apologize for that."The cascade of questions came one after the other from all but Jasper; "Are you a Special Grade Sorcerer?" "Have you ever taught here before?" "Why can't we take the day off since everyone else is?" "Are you gonna be teaching us again after today?" "Since we're starting late is lunch gonna be pushed back?"They all screeched to a stop when darkness fell over them.The world around them transfigured before their eyes - the bright morning crumbling and rotting into shadow. A new location built itself around them; a musky wood scent filling their noses, the howl of wind their ears. They were surrounded by the walls of an old temple. The doors slid open with a slam, giving way to an outpour of moonlight that lit the room. They instinctively fanned out, forming a circle and standing back to back as they all fought to comprehend the situation. Their faces, sporting a range of emotion from confusion to anger, all turned to him.Engel's smile remained placid, unmoving from where he stood. He watched the teens with a gleam of amusement in his eyes."As I was saying. I do apologize for the troubled lives you've all lead up until now, both before and after you've taken up the art of Jujutsu Sorcery. If there is something that you all share, it is that you are all strugglers - but I lament to inform you that this, my dear pupils, is only the beginning."

"What did I tell you about bringing dead animals into the house?! That they weren't allowed, yeah?! So, what's with the guts all over the fuckin' hall?!""It was not Gurgi!""Oh, yeah. They smeared themselves all over the walls, I'm sure!"The bickering in the other room was nothing if not amusing, though the audience to it had very little interest in whatever brand of entertainment some loser shouting at a freak Curse was. A grumpy Nobara sat splayed on the living room sofa, arms crossed and pouting as cellphone reception didn't reach inside the curtain surrounding the Curse Care Center. She was tired and bored, which was the perfect recipe for irritability in her case. She perked her head when her teacher reentered the room, still shouting back over his shoulder."It stinks! Clean it the fuck up! I won't tell you again!"Aiden smoothed the front of his tiger print button up as he made his way over to the couch across from her. He clutched a mug of coffee in one hand, accidentally spilling some onto the table before him as he went to set it down. The hot beverage pooled over the edge of the table and dripped onto the hardwood floor. Nobara didn't move from where she lay, instead rolling her eyes as the man was joined by a few small flying Curses. They tried to get at the mess, zooming around his hands as he swatted at them."Oh for fuck's sake! No caffeine for you," he groaned, anger swelling as the long tongue of yet another Curse slithered out from under the couch and lapped at the coffee on the ground. He tried to move it away with his foot but it only extended and went around him. "Fine! Whatever! I give up!" he relented, throwing himself back and letting the persistent creatures have at it."Can I go back to the school?" Nobara asked. "Clearly neither of us want to be here.""No!" Aiden huffed. "Just wait for Onyx. She's better at this stuff than me. She'll be back any moment."Nobara rolled her eyes, glancing over to the door when, as if summoned by name, the very woman they'd just mentioned entered with groceries in hand."Morning," the three briefly exchanged as the woman right away left to the kitchen to put her purchases in their proper place.After a quick look towards Aiden to verify that he was, in fact, still tussling with the Curses now swarming him and not paying her any mind, Nobara stood and followed Onyx. She skipped the formalities as she stepped through the doorway, warily eyeing the many armed creature helping sort the groceries Onyx passed over to it. "Don't you think this is a bit useless? I don't know why Mr. Weon signed me up for this shit in the first place.""Most of the things he does seems illogical. He's a weird person," Onyx muttered, packing up the reusable totes she used to shop as she emptied them. "But one thing is for sure and that's that he has good intentions. Maybe you weren't sent here to learn anything as a student, but as a person." A gentle laugh escaped her, it was cold. "Seems like something he would do.""That's idiotic," Nobara scoffed.Onyx didn't respond, feeding the Curse a macaroon from a tin as it finished putting the last of the food away. It took the treat, using its many other hands to propel itself over to the open window and climb outside."Why do so few people know about this place?""The Curse Care Center was Dom's idea. One of his old teachers, Dr. Amajiki put in a good word for him and made it happen." Onyx pursed her lips. "But Dom was our only Tamer here in Tokyo and he hasn't done any fieldwork in ..." She thought for a moment. "a while." She shrugged when she failed to calculate the time quick enough. "There wasn't anyone to teach Taming. There wasn't anyone to bring in Curses. We've just been in this stand still since."Nobara furrowed her brows. "Kind of shitty of him to just up and quit like that." She leaned her shoulder against the doorway, watching Onyx as she began to prepare tea."He had valid reasons for quitting," Onyx assured with a nod, waiting for her kettle to fill with water. "He's back now, though - even if he is in Kyoto for now. I'm sure he'll come back and when he does, he'll get more of you involved with Taming.""Sometimes it feels like no one really wants to teach us." Nobara regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. She sucked in her cheeks. "Not that I care. I don't really need anyone to teach me how to use my Cursed Energy. I already know what I'm doing." She lowered her gaze as she worked up the nerve to ask something that had been at the back of her mind since her first day at the Center.Onyx looked at her. "Right," she snorted. She set the kettle on the stove and then leaned against the counter beside to wait."How come Megumi wasn't picked for this?" Nobara blurted. She gestured vaguely. "I get it. Mr. Weon wants me to be a nicer person or something by hanging around all these freaks but Megumi is a Curse User and he wants to pursue Taming. Wouldn't he be a better fit?""Did you get the sake I asked for?"The unfamiliar voice behind Nobara made her jump. She quickly turned to face the stranger and took a step back. He towered over her, elbow propped against the same frame she'd just been leaning on. How long had he been standing behind her? He didn't even look at her, the rickety pair of glasses on his face clinging to the very tip of his nose. He just gave Onyx a look of vexation when she answered."No.""I put it on the list!""The list is for necessities.""That is such bullshit!"The argument came to a quick end when a furry pointy-eared Curse leapt onto the man's head, digging its claws into his cheeks. He reached up, grabbing it and throwing it across the room. Nobara moved out of the way so it wouldn't crash into her. Onyx caught it before it could hit the wall, binding her arms around it to keep it from dashing back over to its target."You set Gurgi up!!" the catlike creature shrieked. "You put those guts in the hall to get Gurgi in trouble for eating your mochi! Fess up!"The ear-piercing screeching snapped Nobara out of her trance. She forced herself to look away from the man, a weird sensation of familiarity making her feel uneasy."Shut up, will ya? You're so annoying!" the man shouted as he turned and begun to leave, throwing a hand back over his shoulder in a dismissive wave. "But that'll teach ya!""Who is that?" Nobara asked as she turned to look at Onyx. Her eyes were wide. Her words flew from her lips, unmeasured. "I didn't sense any Cursed Energy from him at all. It's like he has no presence." Her heart raced. "He's just like-""He's a bastard is what he is!! An idiot bastard!!" the cat creature interrupted in a wail as it clawed up from Onyx's arms to perch on her shoulder. "Gurgi didn't know it was his mochi!! But now Gurgi had to clean yuckiness from the hall!! They're innocent!!""It's alright. I'll talk to him. Take the tin of macaroons upstairs and share with the others," Onyx said, placing the frantic creature down on the ground gently and handing it the tin. She hardly looked affected by the spectacle, as if it were just simply another typical event at the home. It took the tin, hugging it to its chest before running out of the room with a pitter-patter of paws. Once they were alone, Onyx turned her head towards Nobara sporting a steely expression. "Let's keep our questions related to the Center and Taming, yeah?"Nobara caved with a wary nod, though she couldn't help but turn to look at the strange man once more as he wandered down the hall and disappeared upstairs without a single glance back at her.

You're a bastard, you know that?'You wound me. After all I've done for you, you're still so cruel.'And what, pray tell, have you done for me.'You've gotten to see so many of your old friends. Even touched them many times again. That's more kindness than what's typically offered to the dead, wouldn't you say?'I want to speak to them.'You're so greedy.'And you're a deceiver.'Am I really? If I had tricked you when we made that Binding Vow, I hardly believe either of us would be having this conversation.'This isn't what you promised me.'I promised a second chance at life and I've given it to you. I'm not finished with this vessel quite yet. It's offered me an unexpected amount of leverage. You can have it back when I'm through with it.'Will there be anything left of the world when you return it to me?'I apologize for the misunderstanding but I don't believe I guaranteed such a thing when we made our arrangement.'This is no way to live.'Tell me a right way and you'll have it.'"Are you talking to him?"Kenjaku broke away from the conversation in their mind, returning to the material world around them. They could feel again the plush matress against their back, the satin sheets around their waist, their lover at their side. They turned their head to look at Sukuna, who'd lifted his own from their bare chest to look up at them. Tsukumo's long silver locks fell in waves over his shoulders, stuck with sweat to his skin."Why do you ask?""You were smirking in your sleep again.""Ah, a giveaway," Kenjaku smiled. They rested their head back into their pillow. "We were speaking but it was nothing of importance."Sukuna eyed them for a moment with some skepticism before changing the subject. "Anyway, I got some more information on the kid," he announced. He paused for a moment, visibly reviewing his words in his head before speaking them, "You were right, I think. They're some kind of hybrid. Infused with a Curse - it's what causes the instability in their Technique. I don't know what Curse, though. Something fucked probably, something strong. My guess is that that's how they were brought back. The doc's no joke, but I'm sure you already knew that much given your history." He rolled his eyes at the question on his tongue, clearly begrudging it. "You think you can get him to tell you what Curse he trapped in the kid?"A strange expression came over Kenjaku. They turned their face away a moment before clarifying, "The DNA of a Curse was infused into Jasper when Tabitha was still pregnant. They must have already been carrying ..." They knitted their brows. "something at that point." They shook their head in disbelief. "You don't mean to imply-"Sukuna interrupted, bewildered. "They stuck that test tube freak with more than one Curse?" He scowled, now urging the other. "You need to ask the doc what he did to that fucking kid."A laugh escaped them as Kenjaku surrendered themself to defeat at the mere idea of interrogating Engel. "When it comes to him, there is no certainty." They looked towards the window, partially curtained and allowing only a single determined ray of sunshine into the guest bedroom. Much like Engel, only ever showing a glimmer of truth - of reality, but keeping the rest of himself concealed behind a shroud of mystery. Oh, the desire to tear away that fabric. To witness him in his entirety. Even if it killed them. "I will ask but it's likely he'll respond with unhelpful crypticism."Contrasting Kenjaku's amusement, Sukuna scoffed in annoyance and sat up. "I can't stand that smug fuck." He shook his head, flashing the other a sneer. "I've known him an eternity and I can count the times we've spoken on one hand. I don't know what you like so much about him.""I'm sure you'll be seeing more of him. I hope we can all be civil with one another. It's rather detrimental to our plans that we get along." Kenjaku looked to Sukuna, reaching a hand out to stroke his hair tenderly. He recoiled at the touch at first but eventually leaned into it."And you're sure this plan of yours is going to work?" He rose a brow, eyeing the other with some distrust.Kenjaku nodded, "Yes. With my help, with his help and with Ms. Capricien's - we will return you to your former glory, my king."At this, Sukuna grinned. "Good.""We need to retrieve those fingers first."The grin dropped immediately. "I'm gonna rip that fucking brat to pieces." His eyes narrowed furiously at the thought of Yuji. "You know, the other day I was talking shit to him and he fed me a cracker? Like I'm fucking parrot or something. I'm gonna crush his head.""You can't in this vessel. If you blow Ms. Tsukumo's cover, it will be most unfortunate. She is the only trusthworthy source we have within Jujutsu Tech." Kenjaku was careful not to sound scolding, knowing it would only earn them hostility. "You will have to let us take over for the Kyoto Exchange Event. Have faith in your subordinates."Sukuna repeated the word with a scoff, "Faith." He shook his head. "With the Curses and Tabitha and her kin at odds with the idea of working together, I don't know how we'll accomplish much of anything.""Don't you worry about that," Kenjaku smiled, tugging Sukuna close to him when the other turned to give them a curious look. "Ms. Capricien and I spoke at length yesterday and she will be ensuring that this alliance is unbreakable by the time it's our turn to make a move.""What do you have up your sleeve, you conniver?"A laugh, heartfelt and genuine, escaped Kenjaku."I said not to worry. Just heed my words and know them to be true. Ms. Capricien will head our success. I promise."

Jogo had come to enjoy the rare moments of peace he got within the underground bunker; the times where it was just himself and Hanami, perhaps maybe even Dagon, lounging about and just enjoying one another's company. There were brief moments where he even forgot what his purpose there had originally been. He'd found bliss, a simple little existence with two beings he treasured more than life or pride itself. They'd read together or paint, work on puzzles and maybe even indulge in some music Minerva had somehow found and stored for him onto this device she called an 'eye pod' - which was weird as the hearing mechanisms connected to it went over his ears, not his eyes. Sometimes she would sit the 'eye pod' on a dock of sorts and it would play loudly, and then they all would be graced with the cry of the beloved koto or wistful shamisen. It was during these times he could feel the hate built within him over centuries slowly begin to melt away.And then there were the times where he didn't enjoy his existence in the bunker. In fact, he could say he very much disliked it."I said left hand on green!" Minerva screeched as Haruta committed the grievous offense of placing his left hand on blue instead."I think I'm colorblind," Haruta's observation was drowned out by Mahito's yelling, "IT'S MY TURN! SPIN IT AGAIN!" The two were sprawled over the Twister mat, fighting to get their limbs onto the target marks. Mahito had used his technique to his advantage, pretzeling and contorting his limbs at increasingly impossible angles and distances as the game went on."I don't think this is very fair." Haruta whined but was once again interrupted by Mahito's outburst, "IT'S MY TURN!!""It's spinning!""Spin it faster!""Wouldn't that make it spin longer?""OKAY, left foot ..."The sound of heels on metal made an anxious silence come over the bunker. All eyes went to Tabitha as she descended the stairs, the tail of her long black dress trailing after her on the steps. She carried with her a dark aura, an Energy that had until then been attributed to Tsukumo's presence in the house. It had been Sukuna's root Cursed Energy but something about it had changed, grown more malicious. It was terrifying. She waited until she reached the bottom to address a single individual in her audience with a coquettish smile. "Jogo. I'd like to speak to you."All heads turned to the Curse, who'd been listening to his music on his headphones as he carefully watered the potted plants he and Hanami had taken to tending. He had stopped upon sensing her, a look of dismay on his face. His watering can fell from his hand, spilling at his feet.Tabitha didn't wait for him to respond, instead walking towards one of the many doors lining the walls."Manman," Minerva called out, discarding the game piece and hurrying after the woman. "Sa k'genyen?" She whispered in alarm, clutching her mother's arm when the woman didn't stop.Tabitha turned, petting the girl's cheek tenderly. "Nothing, precious," she reassured."But-" Minerva began to argue.Tabitha's touch grew aggressive, nails digging into her cheeks as she clutched her face. Her words never left her mouth but Minerva understood immediately. She stood, rooted to the ground as Tabitha left her and continued on towards her office. Jogo was already standing at the door, uneasy look exchanged for one of defiance. He struggled to keep it once the door was closed after the both of them.He watched, wary, as Tabitha circled her desk and sank into her chair. His eye darted to the seat facing her as she gestured for him to take it."What's this about?" he barked instead."I don't like that you carry some sort of deluded notion that you're better than me," Tabitha said. "I thought we could talk about it.""There's nothing to talk about. You're a," For once he hesitated on the word. Something about being in this room with her made the wretched Energy newly flowing from her so much more smothering. "human." He spat the word. "Sorceror or not. You're inferior to me. This is the way it's been for centuries and it's the way things will continue to be."Tabitha appeared bored at his degradation, almost as if forcing herself to humor him. It made his blood boil. "Curses only exist because humans do. It is our fears, our pain, our misery that allows you to stand here before me now." she mused, leaning back into her chair. She touched at her chin, looking pensive. "Dominic has a point in his idealistic view that Curses and humankind go hand in hand. He's right in his thinking that you need us, that you're better off with these lowly creatures you despise so much polluting your space." She smiled. "But I disagree with his thinking in that we, as humans, need Curses." She now neatly folded her hands on her lap, eyes never having left him. "I think your very existence is unnecessary. I think you represent sad, pathetic, writhing weakness."Jogo sneered. "You called me here to trade insults then? Is that it?!" He shouted. He dared a step towards the desk, a fiery hatred burning in his eyes. "I don't give a damn what kind of agreement you have with Geto! I'll kill you where you sit!""Do it then," Tabitha said at last with a bounce of her shoulders. There was a coldness to her offer that made him clench his fists at his sides. She leaned forward in her seat, head condescendingly tilting to one side.The two shared long stare before Tabitha broke the silence with a loud laugh. She clasped her hands together and stood, her office chair screeching back. "Let's fight then. Out in the bunker. We'll have the others watch," she chirped. "Since you think you're so much better than me, prove it. This is your opportunity. ""You carry Sukuna's Energy." Jogo redirected the conversation as his suspicion grew. "Did you-""I said, let's fight." Tabitha pressed, her smile only doubling in size at his hesitation. Her amber eyed stare practically glowed in the warm light of the room. "If you win, you are free to head our operations alongside Suguru from here on out. If I win, you will defer to me.""Fine. You have a deal."

Content Warnings: hallucinations and derealization.

The sun was setting. Their stomachs were growling. And they still hadn't found Jasper. Several hours had been spent combing through woodland and school grounds alike with no success. No one knew where else they could have gone and suspicions that they had finally returned home, wherever that was, began to arise. Tense to describe the situation at hand was an understatement."I give up!" Nobara threw herself onto the common room sofa, fanning herself with her hands. "I'm sure they're fine wherever they are. Maybe they went on a trip! I heard Paris is lovely this time of year."Sitting on the arm rest of the sofa, Maki gave the other girl a hard nudge. "This is serious! They're a danger to themself and to others. We don't know what state of mind they were in when they left. The last we saw them they seemed upset so who knows." She took off her glasses to wipe sweat from her face onto the back of her jacket sleeve. "We have to keep looking. Especially since Gojo is nowhere to be found and we're down Mr. Weon." She put her glasses back on and stood, ready to head back out. "By the way, have you heard from Ms. Ieiri? Whenever I've tried to call, I get a busy tone.""Hey! What the hell are you two doing?!" Yuji's voice echoed down the hall as both he and Megumi rushed towards them. "We're supposed to be looking for Jas!"Nobara sat up and turned to glare their way as they approached. "What are you two doing here then?""We were gonna check the dorms again in case we missed something!""Sure you were."Megumi cut in before the back and forth could escalate. "Look, now's no time to argue," he insisted. He swallowed hard, struggling with his next words. An odd sensation overcame him. He felt as he did back in the forest the night before. An anxious trepidation that made his stomach twist and turn. "Now that we got a moment alone, I ... I need to talk to you all about something." He glanced over his shoulder, paranoid about eavesdroppers. When he looked back to the group, he was unnerved to find them all staring at him. "About Jasper ..." The tension rose. "It was ..." He willed himself to say it, "It was my fault that they ran away.""What?!" Nobara and Yuji shouted over one another.Megumi rose his hands in a plea for them to wait for him to explain. "I challenged them to a fight and ... things got a bit out of hand. They ..." He stopped himself when Maki began to leave, instead snatching her wrist to stop her. "Wait!""We need to tell-" Maki started but Megumi cut her off."I don't trust any of the adults with this!" he whisper-hissed. "If the higher-ups decide to kill Jasper because of this then ..." He released her, hands clasping the sides of his head as he felt his heart sink to his stomach. "Then it'll be my fault. If the adults search for them under the impression that they aren't out of control and find them stable and normal and calm, everything will be fine, yeah? But if they think they're out rampaging then wouldn't they ... attack first, ask questions later?" He blinked quickly, dispelling the tears forming on his waterline. No matter what, he kept himself from looking at Yuji - unable to take his look of disappointment ... and too afraid that he'd find Sukuna staring back at him instead. "If we tell them they left-""They left in what state, Megumi?" Maki snapped. "We need to know! And on that note, why would you do this in the first place if you knew what would come of it? Innocent people are at risk, don't you get that? Or do you just not care?""Fighting among ourselves isn't gonna fix anything," Yuji objected.Nobara rolled her eyes. "That's rich coming from you.""Anyway!" Yuji shouted, flashing her an exhasperated look. He grasped Megumi's shoulder. "I think we can handle it ourselves. We just need to put our heads together and come up with a plan.""What're we talking about?""Oh, we were just- ACK!"The four teens leapt back at Satoru's unexpected presence."How long have you been standing there?!" Yuji yelped. He glanced at the others, noticing that Megumi had gone ghostly pale despite his fright not being evident in his expression. "We were just-""Sharing secrets?" Satoru quipped with a playful smile. He reached out, ruffling Yuji's hair. "Sorry that I haven't been around for you guys these days but I'm back now. I'm gonna find Jasper and bring them home." He stuck his hand back in his pocket and flashed a grin. "And the higher ups aren't gonna hurt them, alright? I won't let that happen." It was a superficial cut into his emotions. Was that enough for them?Megumi lowered his head, a small breath of relief leaving him."We should meet up with Ms. Ieiri and Mr. Nanami," Maki stated. "We can catch them up on everything and go from there. We can split up again after that and start covering areas outside of school grounds.""I want you guys to stay here," Satoru quipped. "Don't move from this room, okay?""What?!"Satoru gestured for the agitated teens to settle down. "Those are orders and you've gotta follow them!" he grinned. "Listening to your superiors is an important part of being a Sorcerer.""But we want to help!" Yuji argued."I'm fine with staying here," Nobara grumbled, already splayed back onto the sofa and scrolling through her phone."Should we at least contact the others and tell them that you're taking over the search?" Maki asked, eyes narrowed with skepticism.Satoru tapped at his chin. "You give Toge and Panda a call and tell them I say to stop their search and return to the school. I will handle alerting Shoko and Nanamin!" He clapsed his hands together. "There? Everyone happy?"The looks his way were wary, it made his skin crawl with unease. He dropped the smile and his hands, now holding them behind him. "Look," he said plainly. "I know this past week has been confusing and stressful and weird, and that it has mostly been my fault. I've been wrapped up in unimportant nonsense and I ended up neglecting you guys and pushing you off onto Mr. Nanami or Mr. Weon and that's not fair to you." He scratched the back of his head. "I'm gonna do better! I promise. I'm gonna be a better teacher ... to all of you." Nerves spun his stomach as he added in a mumbled, "Only if you forgive me, of course."Like a fog, the tension began to lift. Yuji was the first to hurry forward and wrap his arms tightly around his teacher, burying his face into his chest. His following words were muffled but Satoru got the sentiment. One after the other, the rest of his students joined the embrace - even Nobara, who was pulled out of her cozy spot by Yuji."My neglect screwed all of this up, so let me be the one to fix it, alright?" Satoru said as he pulled himself from the teens. "I promise I'll get Jasper back, safe and sound. I just need you guys to trust me."After exchanging looks, the young sorcerers nodded - and that was all he needed. He vanished from where he stood.

Over and over and over and over, the record skipped - playing the same shattering note on loop. The room was in a state of chaos. Furniture tipped, fabric torn, knick-knacks littered the ground. Tabitha sat in the center of it all, rubbing soothing circles into her belly. Her migraine had grown into a dull ache spread across the rest of her. She felt disjointed, as if her mind and body were being pulled apart. The inside of her bones hurt. They felt brittle, splintering like old wood. She appeared to be physically fine, however. She suffered no real fractures. This was only hurting her spirit. "Calm," she willed and the soul in her belly did as she asked. With it, the pain began to dwindle. She was able to take a breath without feeling as if her very ribcage would collapse into itself.The door creaked open and she found her venemous demands for Roger to leave caught between her teeth. The presence joining her wasn't Roger. It was far more annoying. "You should knock," she said instead."Are you alright?" Suguru asked, inspecting the damage to the bedroom with a quirked brow. "I just saw your beau rush out of the house looking like a kicked puppy.""What does it matter to you?" Tabitha bit out.Suguru walked over some of the mess, careful not to step on or trip over any of the items scattered, and approached the woman. "You shouldn't strain yourself, Tabitha. You will enter a very delicate state now that you carry Sukuna's brood," he said. "You should be in bed, resting. Think of it as a test of strength. Surviving this grants you the honor of bringing this abomination into our world.""This child has the honor of being carried in my womb," Tabitha hissed. "There is no better mother to a monstrosity than I."Suguru kneeled before her. "We know," he smiled. "This is why you were chosen."There was a long pause between them. Tabitha had begun to untense. The pain was mostly gone from her body but it left her shaken. She wasn't all that sure how to feel about Suguru's comment. She was too preoccupied with trying to build the strength to stand. She rose her hands and pushed her hair out of her face and back over her shoulders. "You should go," she muttered. "I want to be alone.""Do you miss him at all?"The question made Tabitha recoil. She gave him a dark look. "Him? Him who?" she asked. A handful of men came to mind, though one stood out among the rest. A searing pain tore through her as memories of that night returned to her in a bright red flash. Her nails dug into the marred flesh of her belly."Who first came to mind?"Tabitha scowled at first, deep and hostile - before her expression slowly began to soften. "Miss ... is an interesting word," she said quietly. "Do you ever truly miss a person as they are? Or do you miss what you made them out to be in your head? A moment in time when you fooled yourself into thinking they were perfect." Her eyes met his, illegible. "Or is it memories you miss? Better times you can recall only in fragments, times that slip through your fingers like sand when you try to come back to them." She laughed, empty. "No. The only room I have in my heart is for my children. They are my future. Everything else is meaningless.""Why do you deny yourself to feel?"There was something about him that had changed. Not entirely, only in glimpses - an old friend."Don't act like you know me!" Tabitha lashed out. Her earlier tenderness had vanished. Her eyes narrowed with a viciousness that send shivers up his spine. He leaned towards her and she in turn grabbed at the collar of his yukata. "You don't fucking know me! You will never know me!""Are you afraid?""Never.""Are you sad?"Tabitha sneered. "Is this what makes you feel powerful? Playing with people's heads?" She brought him nearer to her, still clutching him tight. "I'm not Suguru. I'm not Dominic. I'd sooner kill us both than I let you in.""Have you so much disdain for me?"Goosebumps rose on her arms. "How can I have disdain for someone I truly don't know?" she whispered. "You're a stranger masquerading as a ..." Her voice faded to silence. She hesitated on the word - but she said it. "a friend."Suguru's lips pulled back into a callous smirk. "Oh, don't say that," he simpered. "I think we can say we're rather well acquainted by now." He kissed her, pulling back suddenly when he felt her teeth clip his lip.Blood dripped from his mouth and down his chin. Her thumb brushed the blood not away, but guided it back up to his lips. He kissed the digit, relishing the red from it. Dropping her hand, Tabitha kept their eyes firmly locked. As if further proving her defiance. He laughed and not at first - but eventually, so did she. There was more to hers, so much more. She was heavy. He wanted to pry her open like one would tear apart the petals of a budding rose."You deserve to feel," he purred as he took her lips to his once more. This time, she kissed back. It was violent. A fight. He fell backwards, letting her climb over him. "Cry," he ordered as soon as their lips parted. He was out of breath, ragged with excitement.She did, her frustration melting into his mouth as they kissed again. He savored it, sweet and raw like sugar. So venemously and irredeemably hers. He reached into her, binding his fingers tightly around her heart - before he pulled.

The salt of the sea was heavy on the night air. The sound of the water coming to shore was calming and comforting, like a lullaby. Their toes wriggled in the wet sand, shivers racing up their spine at the odd sensation. They had never been to the beach before but Yuji and Nobara had talked at length about it as a potential future outing after their night out at the lake. They had seen it in movies and pictures but none of that compared to seeing it in person. It wasn't nearly as populated as they thought it would be but they supposed that it being the dead of night was to blame for that. They didn't even really remember how they got there. Just waking up from a deep sleep on the shore.It was quite dark. The moon was full but hiding behind dense clouds. They looked up at it with a small frown, occassionally catching glimpses of its light."I understand," Jasper said to it. "It's scary when there's so much riding on you ... If you stopped existing people would die." They looked down to their hands, fingers anxiously twisting into one another. "It's not the same for me ... not that I'm complaining. I'm kind of the opposite actually. Me being around puts people in danger. If I died ..." They drew in a deep breath, feeling their eyes prickle at the thought. "I think people would be sad but ... they'd move on eventually. They'd have to, wouldn't they?" They wiped their tears. "It'd be for the best anyway."What would even happen to them when they died? They were a monster. Would they be allowed into heaven? Did heaven exist? Did they even want to go?"Manman!"Jasper's head perked up at the voice. Their own. They turned abruptly, facing away from the ocean to find themself as a young child standing before them in the dark of the night. They clutched to the length of their mother's dress. Their fingers dug into the sand subconsciously, muscle memory kicking in. Slowly, they braved a look up at their mother's face. Tears immediately sprung from them upon meeting her gaze, a deep sorrowful longing for home making them ache."Don't pull on my dress, ti Ja," her sweet voice called. She took their hands into hers, watching them calmly as they sobbed and cried. "If you don't tell me what's making you feel so sad, how can manman help?""Lou isn't waking up! We were playing and now he's not moving, mamman!""That mutt ... I'll have papa take care of it, okay?""I want Lou to wake up! It was an accident!""Of course it was, mon amour," she insisted as she crouched to embrace them. "You don't have an ounce of malice in your heart but sometimes we are called into the next life, ti Ja, and we can't turn our backs to that call.""... Will I be called, manman?"She pulled from them, clutching their shoulders tight in her hands. They could still feel the ghost of her touch on them even now. They could feel her eyes sear into them, devastated. "No, little one. You are special. So special. You and your brother and your sister will never have to worry about such a thing. Manman will keep you safe. Always.""Manman!" they wailed as the memory faded, extending their hands out for her. They were left in the darkness, alone - for just a moment."Hey, I found you!"Behind them, the moon revealed itself. It shone brightly, casting light down on the beach, and yet they found themself trapped in a shadow. They turned, losing their balance and falling back onto their elbows. Their eyes widened as they found none other than Satoru Gojo hovering in the air before them, the bright light behind him casting his shadow down on them."It took me a while to figure it out. I was popping around looking for someone with a strong Cursed Energy output when I shoulda been looking for someone with it in the negatives," Satoru laughed, vanishing from where he floated only to reappear standing before them. "I can sense it as far as I can use it and that's pretty far so once I realized my mistake, I found you in a second!"Jasper didn't respond, wheezing with terror.Realizing his approach wasn't working, Satoru dropped to one knee and rose his hands. "I'm not gonna hurt you. You're not in trouble, okay? Let's just talk. My priority is making sure you're alright.""Stay away from me!" Jasper yelped, scrambling away and onto their feet. They tried to run but Satoru once again appeared before them. They tripped when they struggle to balance themself on the sand, falling to the ground before him. "Stay away from me." Their voice was quieter now, a growl of warning. The halo above their head twisted and bulged."Jasper, calm down. You're afraid. I get it. Trust me, I get it but this isn't productive. Don't shut down on me. I just want to talk to you."Jasper managed to stand again, covered in sand from head to toe. The texture of it made them cringe. "Talk ..." they echoed, hugging their arms to themself. "I don't want to. I don't! Just leave me alone!" It was happening again - but they didn't want it to. They'd never be left alone if they couldn't prove they could control themself. Would even that change things anyway? It felt like they existed to be gawked at, prodded at. They didn't notice the black thick liquid dripping from their deformed halo as it fell over them. Those red eyes, the only ones who'd never leave them, never judge them, never harm them - they coated them. "Get away from me."And then they felt tight. Their eyes opened wide to find Satoru had hugged them. The eyes, the liquid - they vanished. Just the two of them remained. Jasper felt dizzy. They leaned into him and began to cry.Satoru pat the back of their head. "I'm sorry, Jasper. I've been the worst. I made you feel like a freak, like you were unwanted. I was projecting. I was scared. Scared of this." His arms around them tightened. "But there wasn't ever anything to be afraid of. I was being cruel. You didn't deserve that. All I can do is say I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry.""I ..." Jasper was lost for words, hands clenched at their sides. "I don't ...""You don't have to forgive me ... but please, don't give up on the school. You have to learn to control this. Don't give up on yourself." Satoru pulled away from them, holding them by their shoulders. Just like their mother once had. He looked into their eyes earnestly. "I know you can do it.""I can't," Jasper cried."It's a lot of pressure. It's easier to hide. I know. I once was feeling exactly what you are right now but ..." Satoru dropped his head a bit, heart twisting in his chest. "... my friends talked some sense into me." He squeezed their shoulders. "Keep fighting. Don't ever stop fighting. For the people you care about and more importantly, for yourself."Jasper wiped at their tears."I won't ever give up on you, Jas.""I don't want to ... disappoint you. I don't want you to hate me."Satoru's eyes grew wide, the very words he spoken to Engel earlier that day replaying in his mind. "Jas ..." he mumbled. His voice waivered. "Of course I don't hate you. I'm not disappointed in you either and there isn't anything you can do that will change that. You're a good kid. I believe in you."Taking a breath, Jasper met Satoru's gaze. They flashed him a weak but heartfelt smile before wordlessly throwing their arms around him.Satoru sighed with relief, a thousand pound weight lifting from his shoulders, and returned the hug."Let's go home."

Content Warnings: alcohol usage leading to inebriation, abduction and derealization.

Drinking was not something that had ever appealed to Dominic but when Utahime brought out the sake midway through their karaoke night, it would have been quite impolite to turn her down.And now they were here - her apologizing to the neighbors that had unceremoniously banged on her door and demanded they end their festivities, and him sprawled on the living room floor staring blankly at the ceiling as he tried to make sober his intoxicated thoughts.He heard the door close."Alright, I don't think our band idea is gonna work out if that's the kinda feedback we're gonna be getting," Utahime announced as she returned to the living room. She sat on the floor beside him, leaning her back against the couch.Dominic cracked a smile.She nudged him with her foot. "Look at you, all toothy grinned. I don't think I've ever seen you smile." An arrogance came over her. "It's thanks to me, ain't it?""Yes," he breathed. "Thank you."The smug performance quickly grinding to a halt, Utahime struggled not to let her emotions get to her. She reached over to him, ruffling the top of his head. "No need to thank me. I'm just glad you're feeling better," she insisted. "Sucks we had to end our concert so early. It's only-" She glanced at the clock hanging on a nearby wall, startled upon her discovery. "Two in the morning?? Sheesh. Time flew, huh?""Tell me about the students."Utahime quirked a brow, curious at first about the topic shift, but went on to do as he asked as she just figured he was drunk and his thoughts were simply wandering. "Well, there's Aoi Todo. You probably already heard of him from ..." She paused. They both knew what she meant to say, there was no point in bringing it up - bringing him up. "... from back then. He's very strong and smart but bull-headed." She grimaced. Can't imagine where he picked up that trait. "Mai Zenin. We've been working with her weak Cursed Energy output since she was admitted to the school. I have some suspicions that it's more a psychological thing rather than a physical capability like others suspect." She tapped her chin. "There's Noritoshi Kamo. He's pretty desperate for acceptance in the Kamo clan so he can be kind of a brown nose." She tilted her head back, resting it on the couch cushion. "Uhh, there's Kasumi Miwa. She's a bit of a tryhard. Her and Noritoshi can be pretty insufferable together. Huge sticklers." Her head perked up. "Then there's Momo Nishimiya. Kind of a shadow to Mai right now. And last, Kokichi Muta which ... is complicated to get into about.""Complicated how?""I'd rather you just talk to him," Utahime mumbled."Do you ever want to have children?"Bewilderment took over Utahime at the second drastic change of subject. "Huh? Uh. I don't know," she blurted. The idea of having a child of her own was terrifying. Though a bit less so at the thought of Shoko by her side. "What's with the sudden question?""It's so rare for us Sorcerors to start families. It's not unprecendented given the risk involved with our jobs. Only the clans are encouraged to reproduce, aren't they?""Hah! Reproduce. How clinical of you, Dom!" Utahime chuckled. Her laughter died as soon as it came. "The Inumaki Clan has its whole heir nonsense, though I'm not too keen on the details. It's not really common practice for them to keep bastards in the loop. Bastard women, much less." She pursed her lips. "But I get what you mean. I don't think these kids are any luckier just because it's expected of them to conceive.""Yes. You're right." Dominic attempted to sit up but a sudden dizzy spell dragged him right back onto his back. "I just can't help but wonder how different our lives would be if we had never harnessed this Energy within us. If we'd been normal.""So you're one of those drunks," Utahime grumbled.Dominic frowned. "I suppose so. I've only been drunk once before." He closed his eyes."Who would you even wanna have kids with?" Utahime asked, inching over so that she could lay beside him. "You've got some questionable taste in men ... No offense." She didn't wait for a response. "Kento and you were never really official, yeah? So it'd be kind of weird if you weren't even his main squeeze and asked to have a kid with him." She snorted. "I guess everyone you've been with has kinda been like that. You were always kind of a side piece.""Except for Satoru."Utahime soured at the name. "Oh, don't ruin our beautiful night by bringing that freak up," she whined. She nudged Dominic with her elbow, picking up on his sudden shift in tone. "He's a shitty boyfriend and an even shittier teacher. He'd make a terrible father." She rolled her eyes.Dominic started to laugh. "You're right," he said, finally managing to sit up just as Utahime was beginning to get comfortable. He rose his hands to his face, feeling his head spin. "We deserve each other.""If you think about it, the students are kind of like your kids," Utahime derailed. "You've known some of them since they were toddlers. You practically raised them."Lowering his hands, Dominic turned his head to look at her. "I've never felt like ..." He hesitated. "I don't feel like we've ... connected, really.""Teenagers are weird, Dom. You can't take it personally. I bet they miss you and I bet my kids are also gonna miss you when it's time for you to go back." An awkward yet comforting hand was placed on his forearm as Utahime sat up to keep level with him.Go back. The words resounded in his head. He turned to look out the window, pensive.Utahime stood with a loud and exaggerated grunt, rubbing at her aching back. "I'm gonna make us some tea to ... I dunno ... make us sleepy or whatever," she mumbled as she left the room.Dominic didn't respond. The same two words occupied his mind. Go back. Would he? Was there even anything for him to go back to?

It was late. So late it was early.Shoko sat in the dark in her office chair, wondering how much longer she had left before the sun would come up. The ember at the tip of her cigarette glowed a bit brighter as she took a deep inhale off it. The computer before her had slipped into sleep, unattended for a moment too long. The screen was gone, now black - that screen that shook her to the very marrow of her bones. Just thinking about it made her feel as if she'd swallowed a boulder, the heavy weight sinking in the pit her stomach. With a breath, she freed the smoke from her lungs. It wafted around her for a bit before finding its way out the open window.What the fuck was she meant to do now?A sudden noise at the doorway made her jump. She turned suddenly, wide-eyed. The looming presence before her made her blood turn to ice."Dr. Amajiki," she gasped. "You're-"Engel took a single step into the room. "Good evening, Ms. Ieiri." He made no attempts to flip on the light switch beside him, keeping his hands tucked into his coat pockets. "I haven't seen you in so long. You've grown into such an accomplished woman."It was hard to make out the expression he carried in the dark but she would bet it all that he had that condescending smile plastered on his face. She could hear it in his voice. "Is there something I can help you with?" she asked, forcing herself to sound firm. She stood as she spoke, flicking her cigarette out the open window."I stopped by to say hello to my old student.""Cut the shit, yeah? Why are you actually here?""You got the DNA results back."Shoko swallowed hard. She grabbed the sill of the window, knuckles white. "Yeah, and?" she bit out. "What are you gonna do? Kill me?"Engel laughed, "Don't be so grim. I would never do such a thing. I was just wondering what the results were."He hadn't budged from where he stood, and yet it felt like there was not enough room between them - as if the walls were closing in on her. Shoko's grip retightened on the window sill, almost as if to remind herself that it was open - that there was an escape. "It's confidential," she braved at last. "You'll have to ask the higher-ups for approval.""We both know what the results are," Engel purred, taking a second terrifying step towards her. "You'll feel better once you say it out loud.""Get the fuck out of my office!" Shoko barked, surprising even herself. Her chest felt tight, trembling fists now clenched tightly at her sides. She blinked tears from her eyes, fighting the fear that welled within her and forcing herself to remain resilient. "I'm not playing into your game! If I see you come by here again, I'll fucking report you!""A-Ah, I apologize, Ms. Ieiri!"Shoko's face softened, eyed widening in shock. "Kiyotaka?" she called out, reaching for and turning on her desk lamp.It was, in fact, Kiyotaka standing in her doorway. He looked as if he'd been roused from his sleep, suit unevenly buttoned and hair untamed. His hands were clasped in front of him, fingers fumbling nervously. Engel was gone. Had he even been there in the first place? "F-Forgive the intrusion! I didn't mean to bother you!" he insisted. As the words left him, a solemn Megumi stepped out from the shadows behind him. "B-But we have a problem! I didn't know who else to go to! Everywhere I turn, I hit a another roadblock!"Still attempting to orient herself, Shoko struggled with her words. She looked from one to the other. "Well, what's going on?" Her tone was wary, tired - still somewhat dubious on whether this conversation was actually happening."Jasper's missing!" Kiyotaka's shout drowned out Megumi's matter-of-fact reply harboring the very same words. "Megumi last saw them in the outskirts but never again since! Mr. Weon is on leave! Mr. Gojo, Principal Yaga - I get no response from them! Who else can I turn to but you? Please!""Calm down," Shoko instructed, unsure if she was talking to him or herself. "We can sort this out. Just ... give me a second."The two staring at her expectantly as they waited for more did nothing to settle her nerves. Her mind was racing. She felt like throwing up. Had Satoru gone on a fucking self-pitying bender and gone comatose for the night? As self-absorbed as he was, it wasn't like him not to answer his phone - especially when it was Kiyotaka calling him."Wake up the other students and put together a search party. Call Kento too! Start in the forest!" She rose a hand when they began to argue, instead pushing passed them and rushing down the hall. "I'm going to find Satoru!"

Only a few days had gone by since his arrival and there was so much he had done and so much left to do. It was all that he could do to eavesdrop and ask his questions and still, there were gaps unfilled. Monday night's dinner had been quite eventful. Sukuna hadn't wasted any time in getting into detail after grotesque detail on what had gone on after he'd left. It was, however, disappointing to learn that Dominic had skipped town so soon, so easily but it wasn't exactly unexpected. Always the one to duck away with his tail between his legs at the first sign of trouble, Dominic had been one of his favorite trials. Such a convoluted tangle of helplessness; piteous and whimpering and clinging. So obsessed with portioning himself to gratify others for a semblance of acceptance. So pathetic. Such an on-stage tragedy. At least it was speculated this departure was only temporary.And speaking of departures, little Jasper had grown, he'd heard - into an unstable and fascinating creature. The work that had gone into them had paid off tenfold. He couldn't have asked for a better result. And Satoru's reaction to this anomaly was so very pleasing. After his particularly boring response to Sukuna's ninth vessel - Yuji Itadori, he had hoped for more with Jasper and he received it. Surely enough, the reaction had so much more to do with Jasper's parentage than their state of existence. How ironic. If only he knew."Good morning."Engel turned his gaze from the lively gardens and towards Suguru, standing at the entrance of the gazebo. "Good morning," he echoed before he took a sip from his tea. "Please, sit." He gestured to the chair across the table from him when the other didn't move from where he stood."It's a lovely place, isn't it?" Suguru chirped, not moving despite the invitation. "It feels as if time stands still here.""Mmhmm," Engel hummed, looking back to the gardens once again. There was truth to that. The gardens were lush, full of colorful and vibrant flowers. Butterflies fluttered from rose to tulip to peony to azalea. One could spend an entire day lounging right where he sat, just taking it all in. It felt like a checkpoint, like limbo. How fucking boring.Suguru finally approached one of the seats, almost as if he had waited long enough for it not to appear as if he had done it on request. He sat. "How does it feel, returning to Tokyo after so long spent away?" he asked, folding his hands on his lap."Oh, I am enjoying myself very much. It's lovely to see all of my planted seeds take root and sprout." Engel smiled, as if to emphasize his point. "It was pleasant to see my son again. He hasn't changed much from the time he was a teenager.""Was him being your son known to anyone but you and Amaryllis?""Back when I worked at the school? The higher-ups were notified. It caused quite a stir." Engel's smile cracked into a grin, the fond memories making his chest swell with joy. "Amaryllis had her fingers in quite a few pies and when she informed them that she was carrying my child, there were tensions. A lot of jealousy - especially when we made it public we had no plans to pursue a relationship. Everyone in Jujutsu society is very sanctimonious, you know."Suguru watched the man in silence.Engel rose his hand, curling his fingers into his palm to form a tight fist. "The funny thing was that her grasp on everyone around her was so tight that even to this day, decades after her death, they operate only under the assumption of what she would and wouldn't want. They all overlooked it. They forgave her and respected her still. I'm surprised they agreed to my request for Dominic to keep what was left of her." He laughed. "Her and I, we were two sides of the same coin. Our difference came in our methods. It'd be hypocritical to call her unethical but she would stop at nothing to accomplish her goals. This was what most struck me about her, what most drew me. It's rare I'm as fascinated with a human as I was her.""And now she's dead." Suguru hit the sour note on the piano, finger pressing the key long after the tone faded to silence."And so she is," Engel sighed. "But she will return to me. A good pet always does find its way back home." He glanced at Suguru. "Has my son left you so unfulfilled that you still feel the need to pester me?"Suguru's lips twitched. "Quite the contrary. I wanted to congratulate you on becoming a grandparent." He gestured to his abdomen. "I can feel the child within me, mere days old. This is your strength imbued in me now.""How romantic," Engel chirped, disingenuous in every way."Tabitha is also with child," Suguru added.Engel quirked a brow but otherwise remained silent.Like a tea kettle on a stove for a minute too long, Suguru looked about ready to burst as he stared across the table at the doctor. "You're impossible, you know that?" he hissed, polite demeanor entirely gone from him. "You're treating me like a dog. I was your wife once too! Do you remember that? If I didn't know any better, I'd think you've lost all affection for me.""Is that how you feel?" Engel asked with a tilt of his head.Suguru rolled his eyes and denied him a response.Engel stood, abandoning his cold cup of tea. He approached the other man, fingers dancing over his arm, passed his shoulder, up to his neck. He could feel Suguru's pulse against his skin, lips curling in amusement at the discovery. He leaned over, bringing himself low enough so that his cheek pressed to the side of Suguru's head. Suguru leaned into the touch, breath held fast. After a moment, they turned their heads to look at one another.Suguru gave him a twisted look - eyes hopeful, lips contorted into a vicious scowl.Engel pulled away. "You're correct." He left.

"Alright, listen up! This is the last time I'm explaining the rules so you better be paying attention if you wanna play!" Minerva's shout echoed throughout the bunker. She clutched an empty wine bottle in her hand, holding it up above her for everyone to see.From the small rocky den he'd made for himself in a far corner of the room, Jogo snorted. "As if we'd waste our time playing games," he laughed incredulously. "Like children!" He shook his head, casting a sideways glance to his one constant. Sitting near to him, Hanami had been observing the others. They didn't respond to Jogo's pedantic behavior, sitting in silence as they twirled a daisy by its stem between their fingers."This game is for the youth anyway!" Minerva shouted their way. "No one wants a bunch of old hags joining in.""Hags?!" Jogo steamed but was ignored.Minerva placed the bottle at the center of the triangle shape her, Haruta and Mahito sat in. "You're supposed to spin the bottle," she explained as she demonstrated. "And then when it stops ..." She paused as she waited for the spinning to slow. As it did, she concluded, "the two people it lands on are supposed to kiss." She visibly deflated when the tail end pointed to her and the neck at Haruta. She leaned away from the blonde. "This one was just a test!" she barked when the blonde puckered his lips at her."This is a weird game," Mahito grumbled, picking at the dirt under his nails."It's not weird," Minerva argued. "It's normal! I've seen it in movies!""I like it!" Haruta grinned.Minerva grimaced but otherwise ignored him. "I guess we could change it a bit." She took hold of the bottle again - giving it another stronger spin. As it twirled, she pondered, "How about ... whoever the two ends land on, have to spar?""What?! Why that of all things?!" Haruta whined.Mahito perked up, eyes immediately locking on the whirling bottle before him. "I like that idea way more," he grinned. Just as the bottle stopped upon Haruta and him, the door to the bunker creaked open."Minerva."Cheeks flushing with color when both Haruta and Mahito looked to her, Minerva stood at her name. She brightened up immediately upon seeing Engel descend the stairs towards them - an exaggerated performance of graciousness. "Doctor!" she called, a sickening sweetness to her tone. She gave him a curtsy as he approached her. "It's been far too long! I apologize for my absence at dinner the other night!"Mahito and Haruta exchanged odd looks."No apologies needed, my dear," Engel smiled, responding to her curtsy with a bow. "I heard you experienced quite a fright last week." Spindly fingers reached out to her, pressed to her cheek, drew her nearer to him with the warmth of his touch. "I heard you were suffering through the most dreadful fever." He smiled tenderly at her as she nervously dropped her gaze. "I'd like-""I was the one that saved her, by the way!" Mahito interrupted, forcing himself between the two. "It was me.""Mahito!" Minerva scolded, yanking him away from the doctor. "Please, excuse him! He's not exactly housebroken yet!"Engel chuckled, "It's alright. I quite like unbroken things." He eyed a curious Mahito with a callous scrutiny, before he turned - now walking towards one of the many doors lining the walls of the underground shelter. His path informed them that he knew well the direction he was headed in. "I'd like to give you a check-up and make sure you've healed up well. It won't take long. I need to be back at the school in time for lunch." He didn't look back as he spoke. "Your friends can come along for your appointment - as long as you keep them under control. It shouldn't be too hard a task for you."With a purposeful nod, Minerva took both Haruta and Mahito's hands and squeezed - dragging them along after her.Jogo watched them leave with suspicion in his gaze before glancing towards the now-abandoned bottle. A snort left him when he noticed it pointed between him and the stairs.

A hypnotic aria filled the dimly lit and well-furnished bedroom. The curtains were drawn with Tabitha citing a migraine, only a couple of scented candles around on a nightstand or dresser as a source of light. It had taken a while for her to find a way to entirely block out Roger pacing around the room like an under-stimulated dog as she wasn't really all that interested in getting to the bottom of what was making him so fidgety. The method that had been working for her for the better half of the last few hours finally failed when she heard her music stop. Not stop as in her record came to an end. Stop as in someone stopped it.The record scratched to an abrupt halt as Roger pulled the needle from it, gently maneuvering it aside. He stared down at the record as it continued to spin in silence, sensing Tabitha looking his way - burning holes into the back of his head. A war was fought. Who would speak first? The silence was thick."Tabitha." Roger turned to look at her, taking every inch of her in with a pained hunger. She sat in bed in her sheer robe, hair falling over her shoulders in coils. Her hands were working their way over her abdomen, cocoa butter spread on her palms; fingers gentle over the aged mangled and jutting scars on her skin. Her eyes had been closed until her music had been cut - now smoldering in his direction. "You know what this is about.""I don't," Tabitha hummed, now turning her face away from him."Yes, you do." Roger had been approaching the bed but stopped dead in his tracks when Tabitha shot a cold look back his way. "Listen to me!" he cried. "This is not the same as Minnie, Des or even Jas. It's only been a few days and everyone here can sense them, in your belly. I'm no doctor but this isn't your first pregnancy, Tabi. With Minnie, we sensed her Energy sixteen weeks in. With Des, it wasn't until twenty-six weeks. It's been five days.""Oh, good. You still know your numbers," Tabitha sneered, giving him a dismissive wave. "Now do the alphabet."Roger rubbed at his face in frustration before rushing the bed, falling to his knees at its side and taking his wife's hands in his. "I'm begging you, Tabi." He kissed and caressed them, the oily slick mess on them smudging on his lips, cheeks and forehead.With a distant gaze, Tabitha watched him - before pulling herself free of him. "Dr. Amajiki will be watching over me to make sure it all goes as planned," she said as she sunk back into her plush pillows. "We have plans for if the child endangers my life. We have plans for if they don't. We have plans for after the birth. In the same way we planned their conception.""That man ..." Roger climbed onto the bed now if only to be nearer to her. "I don't trust him.""Good. You shouldn't."Roger furrowed his brows. "Then why are we working with him?"Gingerly taking Roger by the chin, Tabitha chittered, "The same reason we are working with Suguru, and Tsukuna." Her grasp on him tightened. "I don't like it when you doubt my decisions. Continue to question me and I'll be upset.""You didn't tell me that the doc was pretty boy's pops! I can't work with him if he's hurt pretty boy. I won't do it."Tabitha released his face and pushed him away from her, knocking him off the bed. "Fuck your pretty boy!" she barked, standing from the bed in a fluid motion and towering over him. "Your pretty boy is Satoru Gojo's bedwarmer!" When he tried to sit up, she planted her foot against his chest and pinned him back. "He's fucking the man who killed your child! Who hurt me!""It's more complicated than that," Roger muttered. "You know it is.""Go on then. Educate me."Roger pressed his lips tightly together, not refusing to answer but rather unable to."What? You don't know? Why don't you give him a call and ask him? Surely he'll answer straight away."Roger looked away from her."I won't ever make you choose between me or him but don't make his problems mine."Grasping her ankle, Roger moved her foot off of him. He did so with just enough strength to manage the feat but with the control to keep her from knocking over. "You love him too, Tabitha. You can't deny that. Maybe to anyone else but not to me." He pushed himself up onto his knees, taking hold of her delicate robe and pulling her to him."Did."The word went off like a gunshot and Roger felt tears spring from his eyes."There are others that I've loved. That have hurt me. I won't ever make the same mistake again."As she moved away from him, Roger let his arms drop to his sides and hung his head.She seemed to walk for the sake of putting distance between them, standing by the window and staring out it with her arms tightly wound over her chest. Her hair curtained her face, keeping her expression a mystery although the shaking of her shoulders left little to imagination.He found the strength to stand, before he turned and walked to the door. The loud shatter of a vase hitting the wall beside him didn't startle him. He just turned the knob, glass crunching under his boots. He didn't look back as she screamed. "Go on! Get the fuck out of here!" He closed the door after him. "Idiot! Bastard!" The shouts were muffled as he took a moment to lean back and sigh.Goosebumps rose on the back of his neck as he felt eyes on him. He turned his head, alarmed but then cautious at the sight of Suguru. He puffed out his cheeks, bouncing a bit against the door when something heavy slammed into it on the other side."Trouble in paradise?" Suguru smiled.Roger dropped his head, the sadness all too obvious on his face, before he left down the hall with his hands in his pockets.Suguru eyed the door.

Chaos came upon Shoko's workspace in the form of Satoru Gojo. He rushed across the clinic and shoved open the door to her back office, just barely stopping his shout from leaving his mouth when all Six Eyes honed in on the foreign yet familiar presence lurking the room. Instead, a retort, "What the fuck are you doing back at the school?" Shoko wasn't here. Where the fuck was she then? He had to tell her about- Wait, no, really. Why the fuck was he here?"How pleasant it is to see you again as well, Satoru," Engel chirped, flipping through a folder full of paperwork. "My person was requested, so I came. Perhaps you could enlighten me on why I would be called upon?"Jasper immediately came to mind. Satoru kept a straight face. He needed to keep cool right now. Everything would be fine. He had it all under control. "Those geezers don't tell me anything. Especially not anything about you. Why would I know?" he muttered. "Where's Shoko?"Engel closed the folder and set it on the desk, turning his silver eyes towards Satoru. "Why don't we sit and talk for a bit?" He smiled as he took Shoko's rolling chair for himself.A sharp pain rung out in Satoru's head, reverberating like the toll of a bell - with it, the hazy memory of Engel before him, but younger, much younger, his own uniform looser fitting, sneakers untied, the visage of the doctor tinted behind the lenses of his glasses. He was a child again, helpless and stupid. It seemed not much had changed. He fell back into his seat, a stiff folding chair. "I've fucked up so bad," he confessed at last, a weeks worth of pressure building within him finally leaving him. He clutched his face, curled forward with his elbows propped on his knees. His blindfold hung around his neck. "Everyone hates me.""Why do you think that?"Shaky breath leaving him, Satoru mustered up an answer, "Dom left because of me. Jasper ... is scared of me. No one cares about me. Not my students ... not my friends ... my lovers." His eyes were wet against his fingers. "I don't even know what I did. Is that bad?" Empty apologies wouldn't fix anything - but he couldn't be the only one in the wrong, right? Dominic and Shoko had lied to him. Wasn't that wrong? Or had he just never given them the space to be honest with him?"Have you asked any of them what you did wrong?""No ..." Was it that simple? Satoru furrowed his brows, slowly turning his gaze to the doctor. "Isn't that a bit pathetic to do?""People are pathetic sometimes."Satoru leaned back in his seat, hugging his arms to his chest. "I guess I could ask ..." he mumbled. "Where ... is Shoko anyway?""On lunch," Engel replied."Lunch?" Checking his phone to verify the time, Satoru broke out into a cold sweat. He'd lost almost the whole day in his frantic temper tantrum. He would have sprinted out of the room to resume his search for his friend at that very moment if something about the phone in his hand hadn't stood out to him. Charms dangled from it, all handmade - a felt heart, threaded beads, a bell. His eyes followed the sleek pink case on the device, bunny ears decorated the top of it. The screen was cracked. But there was more. He'd found her. "This isn't my phone." The words didn't feel like they left him but he heard his own voice speak them. Where the fuck did this phone come from? Why did it look so ... familiar?"Isn't it?""Shoko.""Hmm?""She's in here."Engel tilted his head curiously. "It's rude to be on your phone during a conversation." He leaned forward, moving slowly and quickly at the same time. His slender fingers pinched the phone out of Satoru's hand, holding it by one of the bunny ears. His eyes were locked on the Sorcerer, observing him with a dehumanizing fascination. "Did you know Jasper has gone missing?""What?" Satoru's face twisted up into a look of deep frustration. "I don't- How am I supposed to-"Dropping the phone into his coat pocket, Engel comfortably leaned back in Shoko's seat. "I've heard many good things about you, Satoru. You've endured so much pain for the sake of others. This weight of being the strongest burdening your shoulders, unable to relate to your peers. It's crushing." He paused, goosebumps rising on his forearms as he watched the other relish the pity. "But I've always understood you. You and I, we have so much in common." He turned his head and looked out the window, rays of sunshine poured over him - almost making him glow. He hurt to look at. "Wouldn't you agree?""Yeah but you ...""And you?"Satoru swallowed hard. "Shoko was in that phone. She's sleeping in there. Did you do that?" He furrowed his brows."It's temporary." Engel stood, the light hitting his back and casting his face in shadow. "I need you to obey me, just for now, for your own good."Satoru sniffled, rubbing at his itching eyes. "Yeah, okay." His brain felt fuzzy. He ran his hands through his hair. A strange sense of hyper-awareness overtook him - clarity. He felt so vulnerable and bare, but real. "I just want things to be okay. I want to be a good person. I ... I want people to love me."Engel took a step forward, pressing a soothing hand at the top of Satoru's head."They will be. You will be. They will."

Content Warnings: body horror, derealization and canon typical violence.

"I just feel like something is off."Nobara sat up from where she lay in the grassy shade of a tree. She attempted to rub the sleep from her eyes. Having had to fight her way through rolling out of bed and getting dressed that morning, she existed in a vacuum of regret over staying up far too late the night before. She looked at Maki, who was sitting beside her. "Huh?" she hummed.Maki nodded her head towards the students congregating at the center of the pavilion. Yuji, Panda and Toge were taking turns playing with Jasper's halo, tossing it up into the air only to catch it and repeat the action among the three. Jasper did nothing but wring their hands amidst the group. Megumi stood nearby, keeping watch over them all with a look of disapproval stamped on his face. "Jasper's progress. It doesn't really feel linear, y'know? It feels kind of scattered.""What do you mean?" Nobara asked, smoothing out her hair and clothes as she formally sat up."The first time you ever met Jasper, it was because they had performed a Domain Expansion that had brought civilians into it, right? Then they have another Doman Expansion that covers an entire city block - but this is the same kid who doesn't know how to use their Cursed Energy offensively at all? The same kid that is just now learning that their halo functions as a projectile?" A contemplative demeanor had taken over Maki, her eyes distant as she verbalized the thoughts that had been plaguing her. "Isn't it weird that they never really make progress during training? We only discover these new things about them when they get put in these stressful situations. That's not to say that it's impossible. We've had moments like that - but for them it's just ... exclusively the case." She turned to Nobara. "You get what I mean, right?""I guess," Nobara said with a shrug. "Like I get what you're saying but I don't get the point you're tryna make.""I don't want to say that Jasper is untrustworthy or anything. I just don't think they're a normal Sorceror. I don't think they're human," Maki said at last, a firm nod accompanying her affirmation. "I don't think they know it. I don't think anyone truly knows it. Not even the teachers. Either that or they know it but they're in denial about it. Or lying.""What do we even do with that information?"The two exchanged looks just as a strong burst of wind sent everything around them up in the air. Their hair and skirts billowed. Leaves fell from the branches above them, swirling up into the sky before losing momentum and spiraling back down to the ground. The tree near to them let out an awful creak, warning the girls to move just in time to avoid being struck by it as it fell over towards them."YOU MORONS!" Maki yelled at the boys, all of whom had taken cover behind Jasper.Both Megumi and Nobara stared at the tree stump, noticing the same scorch marks on the wood from back in the common room the day before. The two, along with Maki, all looked up as the halo whizzed back passed them again - coming to an abrupt stop over Jasper's head, the force of it knocking them back into Panda."You could've killed us!" Nobara shouted, standing and storming towards them. Maki followed along, a deep scowl on her lips."It was a mistake!" Yuji insisted. "We'll be more careful next time!"Nobara jabbed her finger into his chest. "Next time?" she echoed. "How about you stop fucking around with Jasper? Especially when you know they can't control their Cursed Energy!""Last I checked, you were the one that said they should push themself more in training!" Yuji retorted with a cross of his arms. "So which is it? Should they never train or should they train?""This isn't training! You guys are just messing around!""Better than you guys, just lounging around in the shade.""Oh boy," Panda sighed, taking a seat on the stone floor as his two classmates duked it out.Nobara was rearing to shout back but Jasper quickly wedged themself between the two. "Stop! Stop it!" they cried. "Stop arguing about me! It's weird and it makes me feel bad!" Tears fell from their eyes as they pleaded. "I just don't want to hurt people! I don't care if I'm strong or smart or good at any of this! I just want to be normal!"With that, they sprinted away from the two - brushing passed Kento as he approached the squabbling teens.Kento stared after them as they rushed off before turning to look at the rest of the group. "I see none of you have wasted any time in acting up," he scolded in his deadpan tone."What're you doing here, Nanamin?" Yuji asked, dropping his arms to his sides and perking up at the sight of the Grade One Sorcerer."Mr. Nanami. Not Nanamin," Kento corrected before adding, "I will be taking over for Mr. Gojo and Mr. Weon for now. They are both away on missions for the time being." His gaze immediately darted to Megumi as he caught the teen beginning to wander. "Are you going somewhere?"Megumi gestured in the direction Jasper had gone. "Could I go look for them?" he asked, head lowered and tone quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, he steeled a glance at Yuji. Shivers rolled down his spine, when he noticed one of Sukuna's eyes peering at him from the side of his vessel's neck - at the perfect angle to ensure no one else but him saw him. He was quick to vanish, almost as if he wanted to leave Megumi wondering if he had ever really seen him in the first place."Quickly," Kento said before turning back to the rest of the students, guiding them towards the training grounds whilst ignoring their fuss.Megumi rushed quickly away as soon as he was out of sight of the others, spotting Jasper as the other entered the woods they'd been wandering through just the day before. After a quick discerning glance over his shoulder, he followed them in."Jas!" he called as the wilderness began to obstruct his view of his classmate. "Wait up!"Jasper did stop but didn't turn. They hugged their arms tightly to their chest and stared down at the floor, vision blurred by tears. They didn't speak, words failing them.A weird sensation bubbled in the pit of his stomach. Was it fear? Curiousity? Megumi thought of Sukuna, thought of Yuji. This would be a good time, no? They were already upset. If he just pushed them a little bit more, then maybe ... Jasper turned suddenly, making him tense. It took him a moment to realize he had taken a defensive stance, arms raised and feet apart. He forced himself to relax when he noticed the look of dismay on his classmate's face."You think I'm gonna hurt you?" Jasper cried. "Is that it? Everyone's afraid of me?" They wiped at their cheeks but it was all in vain, more tears were soon to fall from their eyes and undo what they did. "I just wanted to have friends. I just wanted to be normal. I don't want to fight or kill or train." They fell to their knees now, curling up into themself. "I want my mom. I want to go home."Megumi drew a sharp breath, for a second, he had seen himself as a toddler in Jasper's place - curled up on the ground and weeping just the same. "Jas ..." he started before shaking himself out of it. This wasn't the time for a heart-to-heart. "Look, we all play with the hands we're dealt. Maybe you can be normal ... You just gotta work towards it, I guess." He pursed his lips. Jasper hadn't mention anyone in their family before other than their sister. They had told them all they'd run away from home but never why. Would it work in his favor to try and prod them for information now that they'd cut open that seam? "What's your mom like?"Jasper shook their head. "I don't want to talk about her," they muttered. "It doesn't matter if I want to go home. I can't. Even if the school let me go, I can't. I can never go back."This was pointless. What was he expected to do? Attack them while they were curled up in the dirt, a sobbing mess? No. He had to be more tactful about this. Another time. Megumi sighed. "Look, let's go back to class. Maybe Mr. Nanami can help you learn to control that little halo trick of yours, yeah?" He pursed his lips. "He's a way better teacher than Gojo or Mr. Weon. It'd be a step towards normalcy."Slowly, Jasper looked up at him. "You think I can do that?""Sure," Megumi lied. "Now, come on. We'll get detention again if we don't get back soon." He extended a hand towards the other.Jasper stared at it for a moment, before they took it.

The whistling of the tea kettle in the other room was hardly enough to beckon Kento. His career had long taught him to ignore nuisances. Though said nuisances were much less to do with his work in exorcising Curses and much more to do with the people he worked with. The kettle could burst and burn the whole apartment complex down for all he cared. It would just be him and Hiromi sitting in the cinders. The high pitched ring from the kitchen was persistent, but not more than he, buried deep in blankets on his couch, entangled in the arms of the other. So comfortable and warm, dozing and sinking - until the mound of velvet began to wriggle."I'll get it," Hiromi insisted in a quiet tone, struggling to find his way out of the fabric prison. With a snort, he added, "Eventually."Kento sighed drearily before resigning to unpile the blankets off them both. "I'll go with you. You've had a long day at work as well. It's only fair." He stood, grunting as his joints creaked with the movement. The cold apartment air chilled him to the bone, only heightening the soreness in his body. "I need the exercise anyway." He turned his head to Hiromi, who quirked his lips at him.As the two made their way into the kitchen and nestled at the counter, Hiromi wrapped his arms around Kento's waist. He peered over his partner's shoulder as he turned off the stove and took the kettle off the burner. He poured the boiling water into the two nearby mugs before setting the kettle aside and soaking their tea bags. It all happened in a comfortable silence. Only the sound of the heavy rain against the kitchen window and the muffled low chatter of conversation of the TV in the living room accompanied them."How has everything been with Satoru?"Kento tensed. "Fine.""Sorry I asked," Hiromi chuckled as he relinquished his hold on his partner and instead took his mug when it was offered to him.With some hesitation, Kento relented, "No, no. You're fine. He's just ... concerning." He took a sip of his tea, the aromatic drink warmed him from the inside. Leaning his back against the counter, he added, "Dominic left town. He's going to be working in Kyoto until the Exchange Event. Satoru's been quite difficult to deal with since.""How long as he been gone?""A day."" ... When is the event?""In about a week.""Satoru can't just visit him in the meantime?"Kento grimaced. "It's a bit complicated," he replied. "As far as I was told, a drop in the bucket of reasons for Dominic leaving was to be away from Satoru. Shoko's asked us not to say anything to him about where he's gone. Only she, Kiyotaka and I know." He paused before correcting himself, "And well, the higher-ups. Of course." His gaze grew distant, brows knitting in thought. "You know, it was a bit hard to gauge how everyone felt about his departure. It was randomly sprung up on us all, in a way. Not that I'm bothered by it, personally. It's just ... a bit of a strange and precarious situation, I suppose." He caught himself at last when he made eye contact with Hiromi, who had been curiously staring his way. "Sorry, I've been talking incessantly, and about work no less.""I love hearing you talk," Hiromi crooned, stepping into him. "Will the kids be alright without their sessions with Dominic?"Kento visibly relaxed, allowing himself to lean back into his partner. "I think so. We have all agreed to do our part with them. I trained with them this morning and it went well." He pursed his lips. "I can't do for them exactly what Dominic did but I could try to support them in other ways until he returns."Hiromi watched him, taking deep drinks from his mug."I'm sure Satoru will settle down after a bit. I may just be overthinking things. Besides, we have bigger problems to deal with.""Oh?" Hiromi quipped, following Kento as he left the kitchen. "What problems?" The two returned to the living room, carefully reclaiming their spots on the couch to avoid spilling their tea."Dr. Amajiki is returning to the school," Kento stated, staring down at the drink in his hand. Before Hiromi could ask, he added, "He's a Special Grade Sorcerer. I've never truly met him ... but I've heard some rather unpleasant things.""Unpleasant like what? That he's rude?"Kento's expression grew dark. "Before the Curse Care Center was established, before Dominic, before Shoko - there was Dr. Amajiki's office." Goosebumps rose on his forearms at the mere mention. He took a breath. "He would tend to our wounded. He would provide comfort to those that needed it. He would manage the Curses we tamed. He ... handled our dead." He paused, memories of a friend long lost returning faintly to mind. He gathered himself. "But there were rumors of the things he would do ... for the sake of science." He turned his face away. "Not just to Curses, as some may think - but Sorcerors. To people." Glimpses of the chaos breaking out on campus decades ago returned to him as vividly as if it had just been yesterday. They replaced the warm smile he'd committed to heart. Yu's. He shook him away, shook them all away. How had his heart not ceased aching twenty years later? "He was sent away after a student ended up ... with child."Hiromi looked alarmed at this, having long since abandoned his tea as he delved deeper into the gossip of Jujutsu Tech. "He-"Kento clarified before the question was even asked, "Not exactly. I don't know the details of what the relationship between Dr. Amajiki and the student was or even who the father was. We all assumed it was her boyfriend at the time but the doctor being sent away certainly rose some eyebrows, although that could have very well been because of what he did to the embryo.""... Which was?"Kento downcast his gaze. "What I heard was that he imbued the embryo with the DNA of a Curse. A Special Grade. How true that is, I don't know but she was expelled and, as I said before, he was sent away." He looked back up to Hiromi, face aged decades. "He's returning now. I don't know why."Reaching a comforting hand out to Kento, Hiromi firmly squeezed his knee. "Hey, I'm sure whatever reason it is, it's got nothing to do with you. Just keep doing your work and it should be fine.""I think you may be wrong about that, unfortunately," Kento sighed. "You see, there are rumors circulating ... about Jasper, the one student I'd told you about before. That they may very well be the same ... child." He shook his head and rose a hand defensively. "And trust me, I know how it sounds, especially given the timeline, but when you work in this field for as long as me ... things that sound like nonsense to others, start to become just part of the mundane for you." He dropped his head. "I don't know where I stand with him. I don't know him at all. I would ask Satoru for help, or even Principal Yaga but ..." He let his words fade to silence, closing his eyes tightly.Hiromi rose his hand to Kento's mug, taking it from him and setting both the cups on the coffee table. "You spend so much time in your own head," he said as he turned back to him. He took the other's face in his hands, thumbs soothingly caressing his cheekbones. "It's not nonsense but I think you also may be working yourself up needlessly. Just take things a step at a time. You can't predict the future, but you can handle the present."Gradually, a faint smile fought its way onto Kento's lips. He leaned forward, pressing them to Hiromi's. They were warm and soft. He sank back against the couch, pulling him onto him."Now it's your turn," Kento said once they parted. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing the blonde tufts out of his eyes. "Tell me about your day."Anxious laughter rang out from Hiromi. "It's better we don't. It's all either boring or depressing," he insisted, burrowing his head into Kento's chest. "I only laugh because if I don't, I'll cry. You've already got plenty on your plate. I don't want to add to it."A silence once again fell over them, but this one was strained and uncomfortable. A question cast a shadow over them both."Have you considered my offer at all?"Hiromi groaned a bit, muffled against the fabric of Kento's button-up pajama shirt. He turned his head, eyes shut tight. "Considered? Yes. Come to a decision? Not quite." He chuckled a bit, a nervous affectation. "I know it's been years since you first asked and I keep putting it off and putting it off but-""It's fine," Kento interrupted, eyes closed."Sorry," the words left Hiromi in a mutter.Again, there was silence.

The woods were dark and eerie, the chirping of crickets the only company to the two teens making their way through the brush. A chilly breeze swept through the trees, making the branches above them shiver and shake. Moonlight fought its way through the cracks in the leaves to light their path right up to the large clearing the two finally came to a mutual stop in."Should I try calling your phone?" Jasper broke the silence at last. They had wrestled with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach the entire walk over. "To help find it faster?" Their trepidation only made more anxious words tumble out past their lips. They clutched the front of their shirt, feeling their heart thunder against their knuckles. "Unless you think it's run out of battery."Megumi kept his back turned to the other, head down and fists clenched at his sides. He didn't respond, a tense silence falling over the two."Can I turn the flashlight on my phone on? I know you said not to earlier since we would get caught but ... " Jasper lost faith in their own words as they spoke them. "How else will we find your phone in the dark?"Megumi turned at last, meeting Jasper's gaze. He said nothing and instead took his summoning stance, holding his hands up before him and clasping his fingers together.Jasper was quick to bow low apologetically. "I'm sorry if I've done something to upset you!" they squeaked. Their mind flashed back to the day before, to Yuji's bloody grip on their deformed halo. "If it's about yesterday, I'm so sorry. I didn't know that would happen! Itadori was hurt and it was all my fault." Their thoughts were racing so quickly, their words were beginning to lose their coherence. "Or earlier today! I'm sorry if annoyed you then too! I'm sorry if I annoyed you ever! I don't know what I did! I'm sorry." Everything came out like word vomit."This isn't a punishment," Megumi called out. He pushed away the memories of Jasper curled up and crying from their mother. He deafened his ears to their tearful apologies. This wasn't a time for empathy. He needed to hold up his end of the bargain. He needed to find some truth. "Now take your stance. Like I showed you this morning."Confusion fused with the panic on Jasper's face. Their brows knitted on their forehead. "I-I don't understand," they mumbled."Think of this as training," the other replied."I don't think we should do this without Mr. Nanami or Mr. Gojo around," Jasper insisted. "I don't want to hurt you."Megumi's eyes widened before quickly narrowing. "You won't hurt me," he bit out. Something Jasper couldn't quite catch left his mouth and he lurched forward as a large owl soared from the shadows behind him. It quickly overtook him, speeding towards its target with a remarkable quickness.Ducking their head into their arms, Jasper yelped for the other to stop his attack - but they were ignored.In a burst of sparks and light, Nue collided with what seemed like an invisible barrier at first glance. Megumi strained his eyes to make out the shield in the harsh glow, slowly realizing that his classmate's halo had flattened itself into a circular disc and expanded. It tremored with the electricity Nue had channeled into it but hadn't budged an inch from where it hovered in the air.Nue was stunned, backing off in surprise.Megumi took this opportunity, circling around the shield in a sprint and leaping at Jasper.The other turned suddenly, the halo with it. He leapt up into the air, noting the bottom of the disc searing into the ground where he'd been standing. Nue's talons grasped onto his arm, lifting him higher as he attempted to gage the exact height of this shield. His mind raced as he went higher into the air. This shield ability was new. Same as the throwing technique from that morning and the offensive spinning attack from the day before. It was almost as if Jasper's Technique manifested as a separate entity. One that craved growth while Jasper shrank from the pressure."Be careful ... around them," Maki had told him in passing after class. What did she know?Dark eyes turning towards the shadows of the forest, Megumi barely contained his scowl. He could sense Sukuna lurking in the woods, keeping his distance but a very close watch.Nue released him and he dropped through the air. Cursed Energy built in the palms of his hands. He could feel a feeling course through his veins unlike anything he'd ever felt before. His eyes were locked on the brilliant halo below him as it grew in size the faster he fell. He didn't realize he was smirking until it fell away from his face at the realization that he'd been made a target. Swinging his foot, he managed to ricochet off a tree and dodge the halo as it whizzed by him and disappeared into the night sky.Megumi grabbed onto a tree branch but it gave away under his weight, snapping off the tree. He grabbed onto another and another, tearing them from trunk until he was finally able to keep himself from falling. He dangled then, staring up at the sky for a few seconds before looking down towards the ground.Jasper stared up at him. Was it Jasper? Certainly a pair of red eyes were looking up at him but ... and perhaps it was from the rush of the fight - but he could swear there were several hundred pairs of eyes looking up at him from the shadows. A trick of the mind? It was so dark, especially without the light of Jasper's halo, he couldn't really make much of anything around or below him. The adrenaline coursing through him didn't help things, making it near impossible to focus. Should he move? He hadn't exactly come up with a plan - unsure how to even plan for facing off against someone like Jasper. He heard Nue perch on a tree near to him and took some comfort from that.A ringing noise cut through the silence. Megumi's head perked up just in time to catch Jasper's halo flying back down towards its owner. It just barely missed him, slicing through woodland the whole way down. Even as it got further away from him, he couldn't quite see. The forest was so dark and the halo was painfully bright to look at. Eventually, he forced his eyes shut - the brilliance of the light blinding him."Jasper?!" he called out finally as he pulled himself up so he now stood on the tree branch. He was breathing ragged, gripping tight to the tree as the world around him spun. "You there?"Sudden movement on the branch startled him. He managed to crack his eyes open, barely able to make Jasper's silhouette in the shadow of their still-glowing halo. He shaded his eyes with his hands, horror dawning upon realizing that what he'd seen earlier had been no trick. They were covered in red eyes. They moved about on their skin as if they were slick with them; as if coated in oil, shadows dripped from them, overtaking everything they touched. With those shadows, the eyes spread - all staring. At him. "Hey, Jas," he mumbled. Was this what Sukuna had wanted? Did he know this could happen? "Did you want to stop for the night?" Whatever Jasper was, they weren't human. This was not a Cursed Technique. This was just. Jasper."Afraid?" A choir of voices left them, curious. "Afraid?"Megumi shook his head. "No ... You're my friend, yeah? What's there to be scared of?" He extended his other hand towards Jasper, trembling fingers giving away his lie. "Let's go back to the school. We gotta be up for class in the morning.""Afraid?" The cacophony called out once more."I shouldn't have done this. I know you're upset. Someone pushed me to do it. Just how people keep pushing you to be someone you don't want to be and do things you don't want to do. It's scary," Megumi blurted, lips quivering. The light of the halo flickered. He wondered if this meant anything. "I just ... I have people I love and I'm scared to lose them. I don't know what you are. No one does. Can you blame us for being scared?"He felt so tired, as if just being in Jasper's presence was draining him of not just his Cursed Energy, but his very life force. He didn't understand why he was rambling. It was as if speaking his truth was the only thing he could do, so he clung to that. Would he die here? What a loser. "I don't think I can ever truly see you as an ally. I don't think any of us will. I'm sorry."The halo lost its light, leaving the two in pitch darkness.Megumi closed his eyes.All at once, the tree branch disappeared beneath him, replaced by a pair of strong arms cradling him. He wasn't falling, but rather gliding. His eyes snapped open and he stared up at Sukuna as the demon carried him through the night sky. The more distance put between him and Jasper, the better he felt. For once, he was relieved to see him. "What're you doing?" The words left him in a mumble."Taking you back to your room," Sukuna replied as he landed back on another branch only to once again spring off it and into the air."Why?"Sukuna cracked his grin. "Because I got what I wanted."

Content Warnings: sensory meltdown, derealization, gore and blood.

Anxiety tremored through Shoko in shockwaves. It grew so intense she had to clench her jaw to keep herself from throwing up. A head-spinning nausea ripped through her, like the kind you'd get driving over a sudden steep dip in the road. Her mouth felt dry, tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. Smoking a bowl before work that morning had been a poor life choice but, at this point, it was just one more to throw on the pile.She was being spoken to but her heartbeat was pounding in her head so loudly, she couldn't make any of the words out. All she could process were those all too familiar ominous doors floating in the darkness around her. Encircling her like vulture and prey. "Could you repeat that?" Her words left her in a tongue-tied mumble."We wanted to wish Mr. Weon a good trip before he left but it seems we missed him. You see, his little mind tricks make it quite difficult for us to initiate a meeting once he's off school property."Shoko was toying with the ends of her hair, winding the strands around her fingers and subconsciously pulling them from her scalp. "That's good to know," she replied absentmindedly."Pardon?""You could just text him," she detracted. He's probably gonna leave you on read but whatever. Did these geezers even own phones? With a shrug of her shoulders, she added, "He's likely still on the train. He crashed at my place last night and left just a couple of hours ago. I'm sure he'll get back to you once he's settled in at Ms. Iori's."There was some silence. Deliberation perhaps? She wasn't entirely sure what they could be discussing. It wasn't as if Dominic was running away. In fact, they should be grateful she had resolved him to stay. Not that she'd done it for them anyway. Aside from using him as a punching bag, Shoko wasn't actually all that sure why the higher-ups were so determined to keep him around. She, on the other hand, very much needed him to stave off Satoru's antics."We also called you in because we wanted to thank you for finally getting that physical examination of Jasper submitted. A pleasant surprise that everything came back quite normal but a relief to us all nonetheless."Right, yeah. Normal. She grimaced. "Is that everything you needed to discuss? I've got a lot of work to do today.""Yes. Have a pleasant day."The darkness cleared around her, like a fog lifting, and she was in her office again. She let out a long and loud sigh, collapsing into her chair and rubbing at her face. She recoiled quickly, realizing now just how much of her hair she'd tugged off her head during the meeting as the bunch clung to her fingers. She rushed to get rid of the loose strands, brushing them off into the trash can under her desk.'Sorry to put you in this position, kid, but you're gonna have to pick something for me to check off on this box, yeah?'Her own words echoed in her head. She could still see Jasper's look of confusion before realization dawned and they tearfully effused their gratitude. How awkward. It was the only way she could manage to keep the higher-ups and Jasper happy ... and her conscience clean.It wasn't as if she'd wanted to do this stupid exam anyway. It was intrusive and uncomfortable for both of them. She felt herself grow frustrated as she tried and continued to untangle the hair from her fingers. It was for the best anyway that they kept the higher-ups in the dark about ... well, everything as much as possible. Now they need only wait for the DNA results. Yipee."Have you seen Dom?""EEK!" A squeal escaped her as she jumped in her seat, banging the back of her head into the bottom of her desk. She turned briskly, glaring daggers at the pest that was moping at her doorway. "Knock!" she barked as she sat up, smoothing the front of her lab coat.Satoru did and then stared at her expectantly."He's on sick leave," she lied and his lips pressed into a deep frown. "He wasn't feeling well so I sent him home.""That's not true," Satoru replied, closing the door behind him. "He's never gone on sick leave before.""What do you want me to tell you?""The truth. Is he avoiding me?"Shoko did not flinch."Look, he overheard me and Kento yesterday ..." Satoru paused, eyes rolling in his skull as he metaphorically scrambled for cover. "Kento was saying something about him not being cut out for fieldwork and I agreed. He got all upset about it and I haven't seen him since."Shoko snorted, turning away from him and towards her desk. She wasn't sure what to make of the situation. While she believed Kento Nanami was brutally honest enough to say something like that, she didn't think he believed Dominic wasn't cut out for fieldwork. "Look, you've been sulking around the school ever since Dom was told to return to the field. You wanted him out of your way, didn't you? You got that."Satoru's face contorted in a look of great offense. "Out of my way? Why would you put it like that?" He shook his head, now binding his arms tightly over his chest. "You don't know what you're talking about. Dom was the one who didn't want to return to fieldwork. When I asked him to come back after he left to the seminary, he said he would only come back if he didn't have to do it.""And why was that, hmm? Why did he leave in the first place?"Satoru fumbled his words. "Well, I ... I'm not sure." Before Shoko could get another word in, he threw his hands up in exasperation. "Forget it! Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall!""Because I'm not telling you what you want to hear?""Whatever!" Satoru turned to the door, slamming it open with a viciousness that caused the knob to crack a hole in the wall."Stop dragging me into your bullshit, dickhead!" Shoko shouted after him."I said whatever!"Shoko sighed, staring back at the door with a frown. Her mind was racing, hands shaking. What was this she was feeling? It wasn't exactly the angry rush of adrenaline one would get after a fight. Was she feeling ... scared? Her residual limb began to ache. Something inside her was twisting and turning, making her feel sick. Her eyes moved to the hole in her wall before she turned her attention to her paperwork.Yeah, yeah. Whatever.

"What does it even do?"Jasper looked up from the video Yuji had been showing them on his phone and towards Maki, who was pointing at the halo above their head. They glanced upwards but their halo tilted with their head and moved out of sight. It was when they reached up and touched it that they even remembered it was there and gaped at the question, feeling their face grow hot as all eyes in the room went to them. "W-What do you mean?" they sputtered."Your halo. We were wondering what it does. Why do you have it?""Nothing, I think," Jasper replied, wide eyed and insistent. "I don't know. It's always just hovered there.""Can you make it do anything?" Nobara chimed in, sprawled on the couch beside her girlfriend. "Like can you pull it down over your head and wear it like a hat?" Her hands motioned over her head, acting out the words she spoke. "Or throw it like a frisbee?"Slowly, Jasper shook their head. "I've never really tried to move it from where it is but it hurts when other people yank at it," they explained, albeit very hesitantly. To them, it was like asking to dislocate a joint. Why try to move it? Perhaps it was this kind of mentality that made them feel so much like an outsider at home. Their family had always pushed themselves far past their limits, always in pursuit of knowledge - of mastery. They'd always ran from progress. It was terrifying to witness what their family was capable of. It wasn't anything they'd ever wanted to do ... not there ... or here. "It's kind of like when someone pulls on your arm." Their brows furrowed thoughtfully, staring down at their hands as they curled their fingers into their palms.This only seemed to draw more interest."Wait, so you can feel it? Like if someone touches it?" Panda asked with a tilt of his head. Beside him, Toge was typing furiously into his phone. "What does it feel like anyway?"Jasper downcast their gaze. Memories of Mahito throwing them around the bathroom the week before sent tremors of fear and anxiety throughout them. The bruises still lingering on their skin ached. "I don't know how to describe it but nothing special," they replied, flinching when Yuji suddenly reached up to grab it. He seemed to stop himself, however, when he noticed his classmate's reaction. The two shared a look, awkward and far too long, both relieved when Toge's text-to-voice interrupted it."Does it drain people's Cursed Energy when they touch it like when they touch you?"Faltering, Jasper fought with their words. Chills raced down their spine when they now remembered Sukuna. The mental image of one twisted grin replaced another. They could feel him dragging his claw across their halo, splitting the delicate flesh on it and drawing blood. "Maybe? I don't know." All of this attention was making their heart race. They wished they had better responses. Something more interesting to say, if only to stop the questions, but even at home, they'd always felt like an enigma. As if those around them never really knew what to make of them. At least there they were largely left unbothered, lonely as it was. There had been more direct contact with their halo in the last couple of weeks than they had experienced their entire life - and no one had suffered the consequences of touching their skin. It hadn't been until now that they truly realized. "I think people can touch it and not be affected like they are when they touch me directly." Something told them they'd regret the admission. They rose their hands to their cheeks, desperate to hide.There was silence."Well, who's gonna touch it?" Nobara cut in at last. "Feels like we can get answers to most of our questions pretty easily.""You do it then, if you're so inclined," Maki snorted with a roll of her eyes."No way!" Nobara shouted with a shake of her head. She sat up and nudged the other girl. "You do it!"Yuji rose his hands, calling for attention. "Wait a minute! No one's even asked Jas if they were okay with it!" he argued, frowning deeply. "I don't think anyone should touch them without asking first."Looking to him, eyes wide and watering, Jasper only just barely contained their gratitude. They had suddenly grown so very aware of the floating ring above their head it made goosebumps rise on their forearms. Their hands had balled into tight fists in their lap, tension building in their shoulders - but the words in defense of them had helped begin to ease them."Well?" Nobara snarked, and all eyes were back on them. They clenched their jaw.If they said no, would they grow suspicious of them? Would they give up on them like their family had? Sweat formed on their brow. "I just ... I don't think ..." They fumbled their words, promptly drowned out by a shouting match."It's not that big a deal!" Nobara insisted, only to once again be deflected by Yuji."Calm down, will you? They don't want to!""Maybe we can do it when Mr. Gojo is around in case anything goes awry," Panda suggested, hoping to quell the argument. He looked to Megumi for help but the teen averted his gaze and kept quiet."What's the worst that could happen?" Nobara rolled her eyes."To be fair, we don't know what the worst that could happen is," Maki said with a purse of her lips."Even if Gojo was around, we still shouldn't be treating Jas like a zoo exhibit," Yuji barked.At this, Nobara gestured towards them, "What's the point of them being here if not to learn more about their technique and what they're capable of? If they're never gonna do anything that makes them uncomfortable, then they'll never make it as a Sorcerer! They won't make it anywhere!" She scowled. "We've all been pushed beyond our limits here, but they're allowed to skirt on by without actually doing anything, why?"A silence fell over the group again, but it was short-lived. It was when Yuji looked towards Jasper again that a gasp escaped his mouth."What the fuck?" Maki called out but the words went unregistered by Jasper. They'd clutched their head, glasses having fallen from their face and to the floor. Their eyes were shut tight, tears springing from them and rolling down their cheeks. Above them, their halo had split and thorned - forming a spiked crown, slowly turning and twisting in the air. It began to bulge and contort."Sorry. I'm sorry." The words left them like a chant, a prayer. "So sorry. I'm so sorry.""Jas?" Yuji called but he was unable to reach them. "Are you okay?"A blinding flash of light and a cacophony of crashes filled the room, bringing the students to their feet. Everything moved so quickly it was hard to do much of anything before it was over. There was only damage left behind to assess, environmental clues to what had happened in less than a blink of an eye.For one, the table at the center of the common room had been splintered to pieces. There were several scorching holes in the walls, floor and ceiling. Jasper's halo was no longer over their head, but instead across the room in Yuji's hands. Blood seeped from his hands, palms punctured by the thorns. He looked surprised, as if he had no recollection on just how he had gotten there. Behind him, was Megumi, equally as taken aback by the state of affairs.Jasper opened their eyes, slowly lowering their hands from their head. A miserable resignation fell over them as they took in the damage they'd done and then looked to their classmates, guilt and shame filling them at their shocked expressions. You could have killed someone, they castigated themself, wiping at their wet cheeks with shaky fingers. What could they say to remedy this? Was there even anything they could say?"THAT WAS SO COOL!" Panda shouted now. "How did you do that?" Toge hopped in place next to him, clenched fists raised in a show of excited celebration. "Can you do it again?!""Do you even know how you did it?" Nobara asked warily, not quite yet dropping her guard."No," Jasper croaked. "I didn't do it on purpose. My head just got fuzzy." They looked up as Yuji approached them, still clutching the halo. Their face grew hot as he leaned towards them, releasing the ring and staring in awe as it retook its place and resumed hovering. Gradually, the spikes withdrew and it reformed back into its usual appearance. "You're hurt," Jasper called out weakly. "I hurt you. I'm sorry."Yuji looked down at them, offering a smile. "I'm fine," he reassured. He set his bloodied hands behind his back. "I've definitely had worse."Jasper just barely contained the urge to reach out and embrace Yuji, instead hugging their arms to themself. "Thank y-" Yuji instead lurching forward and wrapping his arms around them brought a swift end to their thankful cries. A small laugh left them, quickly morphing into a surprised squeal when the other leaned back and lifted them off their feet.With a clear of her throat and a roll of her eyes, Nobara gestured to the two. She sniffed, "Okay, well. I guess we got the answer to the one question but-"Maki stood abruptly, grabbing her inquisitive girlfriend by the sleeve of her school jacket. "Hey, let's go listen to music in my room. I'm bored.""But-""We'll figure it out later."

"You never did like long trips."The train out of town was strangely empty. A mother and child sat directly before him, the younger of the two playing on a loud portable game console. A salary man occupied the seats a few rows ahead of them, reading a newspaper, and a couple hid themselves at the back of the car, lost in one another. Dominic had brought books to read on the several hours long trip but couldn't get himself to open them. He just stared blankly at the back of the seat in front of him. His hands were folded and resting on his lap. He'd set his briefcase on the seat closest to the window, propped up on two of the thick books he'd intended to read."You hated getting all dressed up, the packing, the crowds, the sitting still, the walking, the noise of the station, being away from home." A pause. "But you always behaved, though. Despite everything you ever thought about how bad you felt, about how you were scared or tired - you never complained and did what you were told."Dominic closed his eyes, inhaling sharply. He twiddled his fingers, digging his nails into his skin."You're happy now. Try as you might to block me out, I can sense it."Eyes opening, Dominic cast a dark look at his briefcase - the source of this tormentful voice. "Happy is a bit of an overstatement ... but perhaps the train was never the problem," he uttered, voice a low grumble."Yes. Everyone else is the problem. Back then it was me. Now, Satoru. All you do is blame others for your feelings."Dominic stared at the case, mind rushing for an answer. The reminder that there were, in fact, other people within earshot made him keep his mouth shut tight. He didn't look away, however, hoping his stern gaze would somehow bring this conversation to a close."You've propped me on your books, so I could see the view."With a grimace, Dominic allowed himself to settle back into his seat comfortably. "It's a long trip," he sighed. He looked ahead, tensing suddenly when he was met with the face of the child in the seat in front of his, elbows propped on the headrest of the seat and staring at him. He rushed himself for something to say, settling with a meager, "Hello."."Is it a trip you want to end, Father?" The boy was blank faced as he spoke. The voice that left him, didn't quite suit him. It was too mature. "Do you find comfort in it?""I suppose I do," Dominic replied absentmindedly. Was this it? Was he too far gone? "Everyone finds some semblance of solace in escape."The child was unblinking. "And you think running will remedy things?" he asked.Dominic shook his head, slow and deliberate. "Not at all. I learned that much the first time," he said, his words heavy on his tongue. "Who are you? We've met before, haven't we?"At this, the child grinned.In Dominic's coat pocket, his phone began to vibrate for perhaps the hundredth time that day. He pulled the device out, staring down at Satoru's name listed as the caller. His thumb worked its way over the power button, hesitating for a moment before pressing and holding it there until the screen went black. He slipped it back into his pocket, turning his attention back to the child, who was now picking his nose and looking disoriented.Goosebumps rose on his skin as an unsettling eeriness set in. He glanced at his briefcase, finding its silence odd. He could still sense her presence from within. Did she know this was happening? Was this her doing?With a deep breath, Dominic willed himself to calm. He closed his eyes. This was fine. Everything was fine."Priest."He opened his eyes again, startled at the unexpected presence of someone beside him. It was the ticket inspector - but she was blank faced, holding her hand out to him. He glanced back to where the child had been but found him gone, his mother having caught his attention by offering him snacks from within her purse. He stared at them through the gap in the seats, feeling himself break out into a cold sweat."Do not lose your way," the woman at his side spoke. "It's the only thing you truly have.""I don't understand," Dominic said, unable to keep the fear and trepidation from showing in his eyes. Was this a Curse? Why was it tormenting him? Should he attempt to tame it? Could he tame it? The air was heavy. It was getting hard to breathe. "What do you want from me? I have nothing to give you." The words left him in a tired mumble.A laugh, growing in intensity, escaped the woman. She grasped onto his seat, bellowing out her raspy howl until she was screaming in elation. Her appearance grew disheveled, hair falling into her face from the neat bun on her head. Her expression was contorting, twisting unnaturally. Her hat had fallen off and vanished somewhere under the seats. Her face was deepening in color, - pink to red to purple. Veins protruded on her neck, becoming more defined with every mocking shriek of a cackle.And in a blink, it stopped. The woman was now standing straight and giving him a look of puzzlement, brows furrowed tight. Her hand was extended to him. "Ticket?" she asked, in a tone that indicated she'd spent quite a while repeating herself to him.Robotically, Dominic withdrew the ticket from his breast pocket and handed it to the woman. It was only after she punctured it and handed it back that he realized he had been crying. He waited until she handed the ticket back and continued on down the aisle before he reached up and wiped at his wet cheeks. His fingers trembled against his skin. His head was spinning.He never did like long trips.

The room was dimly lit and dingy. There was an odd smell to it, like that of damp old wood. The floorboards creaked with every step Satoru took as he pushed his way through what seemed like an endless curtain of doll parts, all hanging from the ceiling. Wooden arms, torsos and legs all dangled around him, clattering against one another as he passed. Unlike the state of the room itself, the doll pieces were in perfect condition. As if someone had cleaned and polished them that very day.God, that smell was driving him crazy. What a weird place. He hated every second spent there but this was one in a handful of people who could resolve his ... problem. The alternative was those obnoxious geezer higher-ups and he had already spent far too much time with them than he was happy with these last couple of weeks.Finally finding himself in the small clearing that was Principal Yaga's office, Satoru cleared his throat loudly.The man was sitting on the floor, leaning over a low table and painstakingly painting eyes onto an unfinished doll head. There were a menagerie of paint tubes scattered across the surface of the table, a palette splattered with an assortment of colors teetered on the edge as he alternated his brush between painting and dabbing for more product. He either didn't seem to notice Satoru or didn't care to acknowledge him."Yaga," Satoru called, taking a long step closer to him. He shoved his hands into his pockets. "Did you hear about Dom?"Masamichi grunted."You approved his little vacation?" Satoru circled the table now so he was standing before the man. "I don't think it's fair of you to let a teacher go on leave when we're shorthanded enough as it is."Another grunt."You know, I remember a time when I used to have respect for you," Satoru chided, approaching until he felt his shins graze the side of the table. "Do you have any idea what's going on in your school?"Masamichi muttered something but it was too quiet for Satoru to make out."What?"Louder now, "You're in my light."Satoru pulled up his blindfold and turned to look back at the lamp nearby him. Though the light was dim, it still made Satoru wince. He turned back to Masamachi, verifying with his own eyes that he was, in fact, casting a shadow on the other man. His lips twitched into a despondent smile as he pulled his blindfold back over his eyes. "You're pathetic," he growled before disappearing from where he stood."Kento!"The Sorceror had been in the middle of pouring himself a cup of coffee, nearly dropping both the coffee pot and his mug at the sudden appearance of his coworker at his side. He angrily set the pot down and turned to face the other. "What now?" he hissed.Puffing out his cheeks, Satoru grumbled, "If you're sick of me just tell me and I'll give you space." His head dropped dejectedly. Amidst his theatrics, he used his Six Eyes to do a preliminary scan of the break room to ensure they were alone.A pebble of guilt formed in Kento's stomach. "No, I apologize," he sighed with a shake of his head. "I just ..." He stopped himself. Why waste his time on an explanation Satoru would not listen to or care for? "Nevermind. Is everything alright?""No!" Satoru burst out. He dropped to the ground, crouching low and wrapping his arms around his legs. "I feel like shit! Dom hates me! I said all that fucked up shit about him yesterday and now Shoko said he's on sick leave! I'm the worst!" His shout resounded in the small break room. It was as if everything left him in one breath, his hysterics doubling with every word. "If he hates me, I'll die! I can't live with that! I can't! I hate that! I hate it! I can't-""Satoru!" Kento barked, bringing the tirade to a stop.Meekly raising his head, Satoru pulled his blindfold down so it hung around his neck. Tears fell from his eyes. "I should apologize," he whispered. "That'll fix everything, yeah?"Kento gestured for him to calm. "Listen to me. You need to settle down. You are worked up. Maybe what you need is some space from one another," he said quietly. His next words, he hesitated on verbalizing but forced himself to. "I feel like you two have developed an ... unhealthy ... codependent relationship." This wasn't news to anyone but Satoru. Even Dominic knew the deal. This is just how things had been since they were all students. Ever since Suguru and Tabitha had left them. "Take the day off. Go home and get some rest.""Home," Satoru echoed."Yes," Kento nodded. "Do you want me to come with you?""No, no ... I'll go myself," Satoru insisted. He wiped at his eyes, though he couldn't seem to stop himself from crying. "You're right. I should go." When had been the last time he'd gotten any sleep? He couldn't even remember what day of the week it was. Every thought he had now was racing so quickly, he struggled to make sense of any of it. "Thanks." He vanished before Kento could say anything else.The hall was dark and empty. Satoru stared at the spot where Dominic usually left his shoes and briefcase. Nothing there. He couldn't sense the priest or his briefcase anywhere there. Sick leave, my ass. He turned his head, taking in the rest of the apartment. Everything was as it usually was, so neat and so tidy. So fucking perfect.Satoru stood, starting to make his way through the small apartment. With every step, his sadness turned to anger. Of course, he lied. He wasn't sick at all. Then where was he? Did Shoko know? He scowled, grabbing a bookshelf and toppling it over. The ground shook below him, books sprawling across the room. He knocked another over and then flipped over the coffee table. Why was everyone so intent on hurting him? Did they want this from him? Did they want him violent and angry? He was breathing heavy. He tore photos from the walls. Every movement came accompanied with a flash of red. He destroyed until he no longer recognized himself.It wasn't fair.This was all Jasper's fault. That kid had driven a wedge in his life. That kid brought back Tabitha. That kid fucked up Shoko, fucked up Dom. That kid brainwashed his students. That kid ruined everything.Suddenly, his arm was in her again. He could feel her cling to his school jacket. Blood poured out of her belly. She was so soft and warm inside. He could see her face, eyes wide and full of hate. So much fucking hate. But she was so soft. Blood was coming out of her mouth. It gushed as she rattled out his name. Her hands moved up to his face. He let her rot away his flesh, blisters and postules forming on his cheeks and spreading down his throat. He kissed her.Ah, where am I?He was in the apartment again. His arm was buried elbow deep into the living room wall. His lips were pressed to a framed watercolor of a lily. An ... amaryllis. He laughed. Had he lost his fucking mind? He slammed his forehead into the painting. The glass shattered and it fell from the nail it hung on, clattering to the floor. He pulled his arm from the wall, turning to face the room and taking in the chaos left in his wake.Man, Dom's gonna be pissed.It was in the silence that he heard something.A television.Satoru dropped his hand to his side and slowly approached the hall again. Was Dom there? No, no. He would have sensed him. Who the fuck ... ? He neared the two bedroom doors at the end of the hall, looking from Dom's door to the guest room. The sound was definitely coming from the latter. He grabbed the door handle but hesitated in turning it.“Dom?” he called out but received no answer. He opened the door.

"If you're waiting for me to thank you, you'll sooner die standing there." The words were like a shot to the heart.Megumi was sitting on the edge of his bed in his pajamas, thumbing mindlessly at the controller of his game console. He stared straight ahead at his television, keeping watch in his peripherals but otherwise completely ignoring the thousands year old demon that had taken over his boyfriend's body lurking about his bedroom.Sukuna chuckled, having been looking through a stack of CDs haphazardly placed on a shelf. "You sure make it hard to be nice to you, kid," he snorted as he shoved the plastic cases back where they'd been with a clatter. He inspected a dusty plastic succulent plant next, turning it over and poking curiously at the plastic leaves. "The tough guy act would be endearing if I didn't find it so pathetic. I could kill you at any moment. I could kill everyone in this so-called school. I wouldn't even break a sweat."With a roll of his eyes, Megumi refused a response."Have you thought my offer over at all?" Sukuna asked, losing interest in the decorative knick-knacks and turning to face the teen. He crossed his arms, leaning his shoulder against the wallspace near the TV. "It came with an expiration date, y'know."Megumi hesitated, scowling when this caused him to lose health in his game. He paused it and looked towards the demon. "I already said no," he bit out, face flushing with anger. "So, will you fuck off already?""But you didn't mean it when you said it."More hesitation. Megumi looked down. "It doesn't matter how I feel about them. Yuji is right. Jasper isn't some science experiment for people to gawk at. Just leave them alone." He rose his head again, eyes narrowing. "Leave me and Yuji alone. No one wants anything to do with your bullshit.""Where's the fun in that?" Sukuna asked, grinning a sharp toothed grin. "It's a simple ask. You want to know more about them too. It's eating you up inside." He gestured to the controller in Megumi's hands. "Why not push a few buttons and see what you can get out of them? I'm willing to bet that they know more than they let on.""I said it doesn't matter what I feel. They're a person. Not a toy."Sukuna's response made goosebumps rise on his arms. "To you." He stepped closer to the teen, stopping when he stood and took up a defensive posture. "I know some things about Jasper that could interest you." He began to approach again, stopping when the two were only inches apart. "I could share that with you, if you do what I ask - which isn't much, by the way.""If you know so much, then why do you need me?"At this, Sukuna grimaced. "I don't know everything about them. Together, we can sort out these puzzle pieces - and that way, you don't have to involve your precious boyfriend." He gestured to himself - his own hostage. "It's the only reason you still haven't completely shut me down, isn't it? You don't want blood on his hands." He smiled. "If you don't leave me any other way, then ..." He allowed himself to trail off, a menacing chuckle instead escaping his lips. "I'd have to do it myself.""Yuji told me," Megumi snapped, fists clenched tight at his sides."Told you what?" Sukuna asked. His smirk shrunk.Megumi stayed firm. "About your Binding Vow with him. You can't harm anyone while you're in control," he sneered.Sukuna's eyed widened before he all-out burst into a laugh. "You think ..." He gasped for breath, taking hold of Megumi's shoulder in an uncomfortably tight grip. After a minute, he managed to collect himself - wiping a tear from the corner of one of his secondary eyes. "A Binding Vow is only as strong as those making it." His hold on Megumi's shoulder tightened further, claws piercing through the fabric of his shirt and digging into his skin to further demonstrate his point. "This brat's got a long way to go before he measures up to me. Breaking our vow won't kill me. The worst it'll do is give me gas." The words came out in a snicker, cold and mocking.Gritting his teeth, Megumi refused to give Sukuna what he wanted. He kept his chin up, eyes narrowed, shoulders squared - defiant. This came at a cost however. His fear kept his voice trapped in his throat. His heart was pounding in his ears. Was this true? Well, there had to be some semblance of truth to what he was saying. The gashes on his shoulder were evidence of that - but if it was true ... why didn't Sukuna just perform his little test on Jasper himself? He couldn't care less about how it'd emotionally affect Yuji or him so why? His mind raced."I can smell your fear," Sukuna purred, leaning closer. "You can't hide it from me.""I'll do it," he said at last, in a strangled cry. Megumi dropped his gaze, shame and humiliation filling him.Sukuna tilted his head. "Hmm? What was that?""I'll fucking do it!" Megumi barked, tears prickling his waterline."It's a deal then," Sukuna quipped before laughing once again, his chuckles fading as he relinquished control of Yuji's body.When the blonde went slack, Megumi caught him before he hit the ground. He pulled him onto his bed, breathing heavy as the throbbing in his shoulder intensified. Blood streamed down his arm, staining his clothes and bedsheets. "Fuck," he hissed, raising his other hand to wipe the sweat from his brow. It was then that he noticed how much he was trembling. He clenched his fist, face twisting up in disappointed anger. He felt sick - but what else could he do? No one but Gojo was a match for Sukuna - and he had been uncharacteristically absent from them for the last couple of weeks. There wasn't anyone else he could go to without endangering them.In spite of himself, he began to cry. He sniffled as he wiped at his face in frustration, unintentionally smearing his blood over his eyes and cheeks. He tried to gather himself but it was too little too late. He curled up beside Yuji, clinging to him and trying to keep his sobs muffled enough as to not rouse him.Fucking coward, he thought to himself until he could no longer find the strength to keep his eyes open.

Content Warnings: loss of consciousness and threats of violence.

"So where exactly is this place?""I'm not sayin' anything else! I already told ya more than I should've!" Nobara's shout rang out through the pavilion, causing the small mob surrounding her to spring forward to cover her mouth. Hands gave up their endeavor when she bared her teeth."Keep it down! Someone'll overhear!" Yuji insisted instead. He headed the group, sticking his hands into his pockets and giving a pout."It's just weird that we've never heard of this Curse Care Center before," Maki added with a cross of her arms. "Why hide something like that? Especially when it could really be of benefit to Tamers-in-training like Megumi." She gestured to her cousin. "Something fishy is going on here."Nobara shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know! They didn't tell me why I can't tell anyone. Just not to," she grumbled. "but you can't bring it up or else they'll know I told you. Mr. Weon said I'm the only student that knows.""So you need to ask him then," Megumi argued."What?! Why?" Nobara shook her head dramatically. "What if I lose my special privileges for snooping?" With a flourish of her fingers, she brought her hand to her chest and stuck her nose in the air. "Maybe Mr. Weon saw something in me that he just didn't see in you guys.""Of course, it goes to her head right away," Yuji sighed."Of course," the others added in unison, all crossing their arms and giving her varying stares of disapproval.Nobara stamped her foot on the ground, fists clenched at her sides. "What is that supposed to mean?! You guys sound jealous!""Well, I'm glad you got this opportunity," Jasper chimed in at last, fidgeting their hands. They'd kept quiet until then, hesitant about picking sides. "That must mean Mr. Weon wants you to pursue Taming, doesn't it? Or that he at least sees potential in you to do so." They offered a cheerful smile. "That's exciting ..." They then glanced at their other classmates, shrinking a bit at their looks of skepticism. "I think."A grin spread wide across Nobara's lips. "See? Why can't you all be a bit more like Jas? They actually support me. Unlike the lot of you." She wrapped her arm tightly around their shoulders, almost immediately growing a sickly pale and sinking to the ground before Jasper could even manage a word of protest."She forgot you do that, huh?" Panda tittered, nearing her to give her shoulder a nudge."I didn't mean to! I didn't expect her to touch me!" Jasper wailed, hands raising to their face in a panic. "Should we take her to Ms. Ieiri?!""It's fine!" Yuji reassured with a dismissive wave of his hand. "She'll bounce back quick!"As predicted, Nobara jerked right up, rubbing the back of her head and casting an irate look in Jasper's direction. "Stop doing that!" Her shout drowned out Yuji's self-congratulatory, "See? I told you." She pointed an accusatory finger their way. "How're we supposed to work together if we can't even touch you?" She swatted Panda away from her as she stood back up on her own."I'm sorry! I'm trying!" Jasper insisted. "I'm just not sure how it all works yet.""Give it a rest, Nobara," Megumi scolded with a roll of his eyes. "You should know better by now anyway."Jasper looked nervously from one to the other, cheeks filling with color. Immediate confusion dawned on them at the reaction, causing them to drop their gaze and hug their arms close. They broke into a sweat, hoping the others didn't pick up on their private moment of dismay."Whatever! Maki, let's go! We don't need these idiots to train."Maki sighed, giving her classmates a half-wave before following her girlfriend across the pavilion and towards the main building."You're not getting any training done lounging around in the common room!" Panda shouted after them as he pursued the two with Toge perched on his back. "Quit lying, slackers!"An awkward silence fell over the three remaining students."What do we do now?" Megumi asked, glancing at the other two. "I'm kind of over training for now. Should we get lunch?""Let's go to the woods!" Yuji suggested with a shout of excitement.Following his finger with his eyes, Megumi took in the trees encompassing the Southwestern corner of the school grounds. "Yeah, alright," he shrugged, taking the lead as he headed towards the dense brush. Yuji had begun to follow for just a moment, before noticing the third member of their group had stayed behind. "Everything okay?" he called to them. "You comin'?"Jasper had been looking back towards the school, twiddling their fingers and chewing on their lip. Goosebumps had risen on their skin. They looked distracted, haunted even. They drew in a deep breath before turning back to Yuji and nodding. "Yes, sorry." They flashed an anxious smile before hurrying forward to catch up to the two.

"I see you're hard at work today."Satoru nearly jumped out of his skin, quickly turning away from the window to face Kento. He was fast to steel himself, cheery smile twisting onto his lips. "Sneaking up on people is rude, y'know?" he teased, tone lighthearted.Kento's gaze pierced through him, broke his Infinity to pieces. It made him feel vulnerable, nervous. He had to remind himself that the Kento he was seeing was through the chaotic scope of his Six Eyes. He reached up to his face, adjusting his blindfold pointlessly to soothe his unease. When he heard the other speak, Satoru felt his anxiety spike once more. "It's not like you to be caught off-guard." His voice was layered in detachment but a shimmer of concern gleamed beneath the surface, like spotting a coin on the ocean floor.The two stood in silence, occupying most of the hall in the school's main building. Kento had just been on his way to the break room to have lunch when he'd spotted the other staring out into the pavilion with an intensity that threatened to shatter the glass."You're so punctilious," Satoru grinned.Kento flashed a snide look. "I see the word of the day toilet paper was a good investment on behalf of the school." He started to turn to leave but stopped himself, instead looking out the window in the direction Satoru had been gazing in just in time to spot Yuji, Megumi and Jasper roaming about in the distance. He then looked back to Satoru, who'd been giving him the ugliest quivering lipped pout a person could muster, and sighed. "What's on your mind?""Dom didn't answer my calls last night," Satoru whined."I'm sure you'll get to see him at some point today," Kento replied dryly, taking a moment to observe the other before pushing further, "That's not it though, is it?"Another tense silence fell over the hall."If you don't wish to talk about it, I'll go.""Wait!" Satoru insisted, hurrying forward so that the two stood face to face. He struggled for a moment, trying to parse his thoughts before finally relenting, "The mission yesterday went well, I heard."Kento quirked a brow. "And that bothers you?"With a grimace, Satoru continued to fumble, "I wouldn't say it bothers me." He thought for a moment. "More like intrigues me or ... confuses me." Yeah, sure. That was it. "Megumi decided he wants to be a Tamer." He crossed his arms, a loud and annoyed breath escaping him. "He didn't even tell me. I found out through Yuji. He also told me Dom was trying to get Nobara to take up Taming too." He laughed incredulously. "So are we not getting any Special Grade Sorcerors in the next round of graduates? Just a bunch of wimps, holding hands and singing get along songs?"Now raising both brows, Kento inquired further, "Tamers are a necessary part of the school."Scrutiny filled Satoru's face. "Are they, though?" He shrugged in an exaggerated gesture. "We've been without any for how long? And things have been fine.""Are you feeling left out?""They are my students," Satoru sniffed. "I feel like I should be somewhat involved in these kind of decisions.""They are also Mr. Weon's students now that he's back to fieldwork," Kento clarified. "You do understand that much, correct?"Beneath his blindfold, Satoru felt his eye twitch. Nostrils flaring, he whined, "Yeah! I know that!" His arms folded over his chest. "It's just a little ridiculous, isn't it? Do the higher-ups think he's better than me or something?""He certainly follows instructions better than you," Kento snorted before finally starting to walk down the hall towards the breakroom again. "The higher-ups likely see him as more dependable than you.""Is that really a good thing, though?""It is when the lives of children hangs in the balance."A laugh escaped Satoru. He even clapped his hands together at the hilarity. "You think the higher-ups care about the students? Don't make me laugh!"Kento stopped and turned suddenly, eyes narrowed. "No, they don't care for the students. They see them as nothing but cannon fodder. As subjects. As servants. As pawns. They don't care at all for them." His words were like an ice pick to the brain. "But we do." He tilted his head. "Don't we?""Yes," Satoru nodded, although his blindfold kept his rolling eyes out of sight. "That's not-""So we need to all work together to look after them."Satoru couldn't hide his annoyed expression. Or rather, didn't care to. "I feel like this conversation derailed. My point is that Dom is too much of a pushover. It wasn't a problem when he wasn't doing fieldwork, but now that the higher-ups got their little toy back, can we really trust-" He stopped himself, feeling his blood run cold.The two men turned their heads suddenly, looking down the hall in time to catch Dominic as he turned and walked away from them."You think he heard me?""Shut up, idiot."

The closet was dark and cramped. Dominic had wedged himself between a plastic storage bin and the wall, hands clutching at his hair. His eyes were shut tight, tears springing from them. "Idiot, idiot, stupid, stupid," he hissed at himself. Of course, Satoru had never believed in him. It wasn't as if he had truly expected him to in the first place, but to badmouth him to his colleages was something he had never thought him capable of. But why? Why had he thought that highly of Satoru fucking Gojo in the first place after everything he'd done?No, no. He couldn't let Tabitha brainwash him. He needed to stay levelheaded. Satoru ... He had his reasons. He had to have had. He wasn't some bloodthirsty lunatic.But even then, why had he said those things about him, to Kento of all people?"Why are you so upset? Aren't you going to kill yourself anyway? What does it matter if he thinks you're worthless? You've brought this upon yourself. He says you're untrustworthy and he's right, isn't he? Or are you going to tell him where you were last night?""SHUT UP!" Dominic screamed, kicking his leg out at his briefcase. The tote fell over with a clatter. "SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" He lurched forward, slamming his fists down onto it as sweat, spit and tears flew from his face. Her laughs resounded in his head. "I'LL KILL YOU!""Dom?"Dominic looked up suddenly, like a startled animal. The door to the closet had opened, Shoko standing at the entrance. He remained where he knelt, arms now limply resting on his lap. His hair was a messy mop on his head. His face glistened in the sunlight cracking through the window behind her. "Hello," he greeted numbly."What the fuck is going on?""I am having a rough day.""Get out of the storage closet, Dom.""Okay," he mumbled. He pushed himself up to his feet, grabbing onto onto the shelves to keep from losing his balance. "I'm sorry. I've just been out of sorts these days.""What's with the turtleneck?"Hands raising to his neck, Dominic rattled out a nervous laugh. "I forgot to do laundry." He was, unfortunately, not struck dead right then and there because he had, in fact, forgotten to do his laundry - albeit not necessarily being the reason for the change in wardrobe. His fingers dug into collar of his shirt, into the bruised skin hidden beneath it. "Oh, wait," Dominic now extended his hands towards the closet in a half-hearted attempt to get his briefcase.Shoko shut the door before he could. "Go home," she bit out at him. "Get some rest. Now."No, no, no. But his plans. He wanted to resign. He wanted to die. He needed to. Didn't he? Why? He felt like throwing up. "But I-""You're a mess! Look at you!" Shoko was speaking in a whisper hiss, not wanting to attract the attention of anyone lurking corners. "Please, just take the day off. I ..." She looked conflicted for a moment. "I have a favor to ask you ... and I'd rather you weren't in the middle of a psychotic break when I ask you.""What is it?" Dominic asked, dropping his hands to his sides. He swayed on his feet, eyes fighting to stay open. "What do you need?""Are you fucking kidding me?" Shoko cried. "Go home!""I'm sorry," he insisted. "I just- I feel like-" He fought with himself. "I feel like I'm losing my mind."Shoko reached up, rubbing at her face in frustration. "You can't work like this. I'll file paperwork for you to go on medical leave," she said quietly. "I heard everything went so well yesterday. What's happened since?""A lot," Dominic admitted, but that was all he could say. "but it's fine. I'm fine. There was just ... something I needed to do.""And what is that?"A shaky breath left him. "I was going to resign," he admitted at last, although he kept his plans following that to himself. "I don't think I'm cut out for this and I think everyone knows that."Shoko stared at him, at a loss for words."I am sorry if I've disappointed you." He didn't know what else to say."Can I ... make a suggestion?" Shoko asked after a grueling silence.Dominic hesitated but eventually relented and nodded."How about taking a trip?""What?"Shoko tucked some hair behind her ear, dragging her finger through the locks. Her gaze averted. "I know this is the worst timing but ... Utahime needs help with her students. I don't know if you heard but they were blindsided by some Special Grade Curses the other day and she's had some trouble getting through to them." She sighed. "I was hoping you could help ... and maybe going to Kyoto would benefit both of you. You'd be able to distance yourself from ..." A grimace, "all the bullshit here and also help take care of things there."An odd peace came over him quite suddenly. His brows furrowed."You can stay at her place. She has a spare room. It's probably a big ask but I know she'd be very grateful ... and I would be too."Maybe getting some distance would help him clear his mind a bit."I don't know what's going on with you, Dom, but I don't think resigning is going to make all your problems go away. Maybe if you give yourself some time to think away from all this, you'll feel better."Resigning had only really been half of his plans that day but bringing that up would only make this situation worse. He took the other in; the dark circles around her eyes, her troubled frown. His stomach twisted and turned as the realization of his selfishness fell over him. Was it really in him to turn his back on those who needed him? Perhaps when believing that people needed him was itself such a tough pill to swallow. He bit his lip."So ... whadya say? Will you help us out?""... Okay."

It was a beautiful day out. Birdsong filled the woods. Sunshine broke through the branches above in shimmering rays, creating golden patterns on the dirt path. Gentle winds made the branches quiver, an orchestra of trembling leaves joining the avian melody. Jasper walked slowly, staring up at the flickers of light that illuminated their way. They were taken with the scenery ... or perhaps trying to distract from their intimidating company."It's pretty, ain't it?"Jasper perked up, looking at Yuji. "Yes! It's very pretty." they said with a laugh, shaking with nerves as they suddenly became very aware of how closely they were walking to one another. They glanced ahead at Megumi, who was leading the way. They added, a bit more absentmindedly, "I've never gone on a walk through the woods before." Memories of their mother shouting at their father any time he suggested taking them camping with him and their sister resurface in their mind. They could still recall the feel the wood of the door against their ear; there was talk about them being too sensitive, too timid, too dangerous. Stop, they had heard their mother say suddenly and then a creak. The door was ripped away from them.They were in the woods again. They dared a glance at Yuji, wondering if he had picked up on them spacing out."You didn't really get to do much before, huh?" Yuji frowned. "It must've been pretty boring."Guess not.Thinking about home hurt; their head and their heart. "I always found something to do," they replied. Puzzles, cooking, piano, gardening, painting. All rather lonely endeavors as their parents and siblings always seemed busy with something or other. The few moments they spent together were moments they treasured, as stressful as they were at times. "It's very strange," they started before clarifying, "The drastic change, I mean. I haven't had time to think about much of anything since I got here. Before, it was all I did, get lost in my own thoughts. It's kind of nice to have a quiet bit of time like this again.""Well, don't get too used to it," Megumi called back to them. "The Kyoto Exchange is coming up soon. We have to be ready for it.""What exactly is that?" Jasper asked. They'd heard about it in passing with no clear details but it seemed a rather important event.Megumi slowed to a stop as they reached a small clearing by a brook. He leaned against a tree, crossing his arms over his chest. "The Kyoto students will be arriving in Tokyo and we are going to be going up against them to test our skill. It's meant to build comraderie between the schools but everyone gets pretty comptetitive."A ball of anxiety formed at the pit of their stomach. "Against them? Like a fight?" they asked, looking to Yuji in confusion only to recieve a shrug from him in response."This is the first time I'm taking part in it too," he confessed with a puff of his cheeks."There will be different kinds of tests but yes, for the most part they will be testing our physical abilities. The tests change every year, though, so I can't tell you for sure what they're gonna have us do," Megumi explained as he stared off into the trees. "You should probably get as much training in as you can." He glared at them both when Yuji grinned, as if he'd sensed it. "Both of you."Jasper nodded but still looked troubled. "The other students, they're strong?" they asked."Yes," Megumi answered simply.Yuji had approached the stream, crouching down to watch the water pass. "I'm sure we'll be ready when the time comes! We just gotta stay focused." He smiled back at Jasper reassuringly. "Yeah?"Jasper stared at the other, feeling their heart skip a beat. "R-Right, yes, of course." They fumbled their words, face radiating an uncomfortable heat.A sudden tug on their arm startled them. They stared in disbelief when Yuji pulled himself up with their hand as a support. Goosebumps rose on their arms as shock filled them. Yuji hadn't seemed to notice that he'd touched them without getting every ounce of energy he had drained from him, evidence by him playfully jumping over the stream and calling for the other two to follow.On second thought, Yuji had touched them many a time before without being affected.A weird sinking feeling formed in the pit of their stomach.Neither Jasper nor Megumi moved from where they stood, both watching Yuji as he vanished into the trees before exchanging looks.Anxiety filled Jasper as Megumi fitted them with a suspicious scowl. He began to follow their classmate, also clearing the brook with a jump."Wait!" Jasper called after him, running through the water instead. The river splashed up at them, wetting the legs of their pants and filling their sneakers. "I-I don't-""I don't care." Megumi didn't look back at them.Jasper slowed to a stop, hugging their arms to themself as shame filled them. Tears prickled their eyeline. "Okay, sorry," they relented, although they spoke the words so quietly they didn't think Megumi had heard them.They were soon left alone, the woods growing dark as the sun above took cover behind ominous clouds.

Content Warnings: alcohol, threats of violence and mention of child death.

The storm had quelled, almost as if the skies themselves had parted way in the clouds just for their gathering. The night air was chilly enough to form mist at their lips with every word exchanged. They sat at a circular table at the center of a gazebo, lit by the dim strings of light spiraling the ceiling above them. Half the table was unoccupied, both Tabitha and Suguru having excused themselves earlier to greet whoever had rung the doorbell - presumably the person who would be taking the third empty seat.On either side of Dominic were Roger and Yuki; the former who had spent the last ten minutes or so casting worried glances in his direction and the latter who couldn't look more bored with her current company."What's on your mind?" Roger broke the silence, giving the priest a subtle nudge with his elbow."Nothing, for once," Dominic mumbled. He had grown tired of thinking, having given up the daunting task of reason after having every one of his thoughts that night derail into chaos. "It's quite pleasant."Roger frowned. "I just wanted tonight to be nice for you ... for us." He spoke in a disheartened mumble. "I thought maybe getting everyone together woulda been fun."Dominic couldn't help the look of disbelief that crossed his face. He almost started to laugh but was quick to rein himself in, not wanting to hurt the other's feelings. "Roger, sometimes the past is better left alone. It's like a family heirloom, kept safe on a high shelf, away from curious hands for fear of it shattering. You and Tabitha keep looking for ways to pry it from that safety, while the rest of us have simply accepted it as part of the decor." He kept his head bowed as he spoke, elbows on the armrests of his chair and hands folded on his lap. "Why keep fighting for it?" His eyes closed. "Just leave it be.""You weren't wronged," Roger blurted, chair scraping against the wooden floor of the gazebo as he jerked in his seat to turn towards the man beside him. "It's easy for you to let go."A foreign feeling sparked within Dominic. A rage he kept buried deep, so very deep. "Wasn't I?" His voice trembled. "Aren't I?"Roger's brows knitted, a look of mournful regret replacing his earlier defensive demeanor. "Dom ...""Blah, blah, blah." Yuki interrupted with a roll of her eyes. "You two are so dramatic." She reached across the table and grabbed a bottle of wine near what was presumably Tabitha's plate. She pulled the cork out with her teeth and then filled her glass greedily. She gestured with it towards Dominic. "Let's be real, if you were really over the past then you wouldn't be here. You wouldn't be at Jujutsu Tech either. Or even at the seminary. You'd be halfway across the world living your best life, maybe in a cozy little cabana by the beach." She tilted her head mockingly. "You haven't accepted the past as a forgotten dusty little knick-knack on a shelf. You carry it around in a fucking briefcase."Dominic's eyes widened as he fought for something to say, anything to say - but words were lost on him. He just stared at Yuki, and she stared back, impish."We just want to make things right," Roger mumbled.No, you want to get even, he thought but his was a pointless fight. Dominic resolved himself to silent admonishment.Feeling smothered by the tension, Roger reached towards the middle of the table, lifting a metal cover from a porcelain plate to reveal a cake; their dessert that evening. "Your favorite!" he announced, hoping it would lighten the mood. He smiled a feeble smile at the priest.The red velvet cake was beautifully sculpted, a lovely menagerie of fruits atop it. It forced resurfaced memories of better days, years in his life where he had once felt optimistic about his future. The last time he'd had a bite of a cake like this had been the last time his life was in order. It brought tears to his eyes. What better send-off was there?"Thank you," Dominic mumbled and all at once he felt himself sink up to his neck in guilt. Roger was trying so hard to keep this night from falling apart. He'd put so much thought into even this minute detail. It made him sick, sick with hopelessness. It only really cemented that things would never be okay between any of them. There was too much pain. He'd never be able to reexperience that brief happiness from all those years ago. The closest he had was a mouthful of cake, sweet aching nostalgia. Dominic swallowed the lump in his throat, raising a hand to rub at his eyes.Roger wasn't entirely sure if the reaction was positive or not so he antsily watched the other, brows rising high on his forehead, almost pleading."I'm sure it will be as delicious as the last time I had it, if not more," Dominic said at last. He looked to him, lips trembling. "Age has likely only steeled your talent in the kitchen." His stomach ached and it began to really dawn on him that it had likely been far too long since his last meal."Apologies for the delay."A voice brought the moment to a close.Three pairs of eyes met another three and while Yuki and Roger cheerfully greeted the approaching company, Dominic only felt his blood turn to ice in his veins.Accompanying Tabitha and Suguru was a silver haired man, wearing an elegant suit and a charming smile. A familiar face, one that struck a chord long abandoned within him. His chest tightened, the world around him spinning."Father," he breathed."Someone you know from the seminary?" Roger inquired, looking from one man to the other."No," Dominic replied numbly. "My father.""You told me you didn't know who your dad was," Roger said, casting a look of confusion towards him."I don't."With a courteous bow of his head, the man politely introduced himself, "Dr. Engel Amajiki." He took the seat between Tabitha and Yuki when it was offered to him. "I am hardly deserving of the title Mr. Weon has bestowed upon me this evening, but it still is ever so pleasant to see him again." He gestured towards Tabitha beside him. "Mrs. Capricien and I had a chance encounter shortly after her expulsion from Jujutsu Tech ... and we've kept in touch since.""Nothing with you is by chance," Dominic muttered."You don't know me well enough to say such a thing," Engel chirped before leaning forward to peak over the edge of the table to the floor by Dominic. "Where's your mother?""She's indisposed."Engel quirked a brow.Dominic was quick to backtrack. "How exactly did you two meet?"Supressing a laugh, Engel dismissed him. "Let's not sour such a wonderful meeting with morbid details. Instead-"Tabitha cut him off. "After Satoru murdered my baby, Dr. Amajiki was the one who found Roger and I. He kept us hidden until I ..." She seemed to meditate on her words. "recovered." It grated her nerves to admit to the moment of weakness, draining a glass of wine soon after the confession.In an active attempt to hide his shaking, Dominic balled his fists on his lap. "He's the one that's put these ideas of revenge in your head?" He spoke venemously. "You allowed him to brainwash you?""Careful," Tabitha warned, suddenly looking vicious. "If I cut out your tongue, how will you taste this brilliant cake Roger's made for you?"The threat did not silence him. "I thought you smarter than that." His lips quivered."Stop it," Roger scolded, frowning deeply. "He saved Tabi's life. He ..." He dropped his head, brows knit in a show of sorrow. "He saved Jasper's.""What do you mean by that?" Dominic demanded, turning his furious gaze to Tabitha when Roger denied him a response. "Your ambiguity, it's been on purpose. I understand that much." He stood, demanding the attention of all sitting around him. He was met with coy smiles by all but two. Roger gave him a despondent look while Tabitha's was stony and cold. "But I won't stay here another second if I'm not told the truth. You admitted earlier that Satoru hurt Jasper. When?" Neither Jasper nor Satoru recognized one another prior to their meeting the week before. He didn't even know that they were Tabitha's kin. Did he? No, he didn't. He would have told him if he even suspected such a thing. "Tell me the truth! I want to know.""You already know the truth," Tabitha replied nonchalantly."The timeline doesn't make any sense! That night was over twenty years ago! Jasper is still a child," Dominic argued with a shake of his head. The smug looks on Engel, Suguru and Yuki's faces made his skin crawl. Was this a joke to them? No, he was the joke. "It's impossible.""As stated, Satoru succeeded in his task of ending Jasper's life that night," Engel sighed. "I assisted Tabitha in recovering what was taken from her.""How?""I have my ways," Engel reassured with a crooked smile. "That much, you know."Raising his hands to his face, Dominic drew in a sharp breath. He couldn't bring himself to say another word, head spinning."It took a few years," Tabitha said at last. "Jasper spent that time an embryo, any development frozen. Cursed ..." She paused, eyes punching holes through him. "infinitely.""Until I was able to find a way to break them out of their stasis," Engel at last relented. "By the time they finally began to develop, Mrs. Capricien had already brought two more precious lives into this world. This is why your timeline doesn't add up." Engel reached before him as he spoke, taking hold of the pastry knife and cutting into the dessert before him. He set the first generous slice on to Tabitha's plate. "It would be dishonorable for me to say I did all the work. That child lives because they nobly fought for their life. Had they surrendered, not even the grace of God would have been enough to wretch them from the hands of death."A calming hand placed itself on his forearm, willing him to settle down. "We saved our baby," Roger said earnestly.Dominic looked from him to Tabitha to Engel and then back to Roger. His anger began to simmer down. Though his mind reeled, his heart ached. What was he to do with this information? Did Tabitha expect him to play a pawn in her seemingly eternal game of chess with Satoru? After years of denial and fence-sitting, was this when he was supposed to pick to pick a side? "This is all too much to process," he admitted at last. His eyes followed Engel's hands as the man continued to casually portion out the cake. "This is ... too much." He sank back into his chair, defeated.A sliver of cake was set on his plate before him. He looked up to find Tabitha herself placing it."Then eat," she smiled.

Sinking into the plush cushions of the living room couch, Dominic felt himself slip. He could hear distant chattering as goodbyes were exchanged in the main hall of the mansion but couldn't make out any of the words said. His fingers mindlessly traced the seam of a throw pillow as he stared out a window into the black night. He wondered how late it was. This day had drawn out for what felt like an eternity. He had long since lost track of time.Approaching footsteps roused him from his listless state, dark eyes meeting the source. He found himself faced with the ghost of a friend long past. A ghost that'd spent the night haunting him."You look tired," Suguru mused, standing before him.Dominic managed a laugh, dry and lifeless, but said nothing in return."Are you angry?"Was he? Dominic ruminated on the question. Anger took energy, something he couldn't find it in himself to summon. He was just drained. He had nothing to give, to feel. "I don't know. I don't think so," he mumbled. He reached up to his face, fingers pressing into weary eyes."How do you feel now that you know the truth?"Incessantly itching at his face, Dominic uttered, "There's still much more you're hiding from me. All of you. I know that much." He grimaced. "I can't say I blame you given my state at only being told some of it ... although, I can't go as far as to say I've overreacted." The truth about Jasper was one thing but crossing paths with his father of all people and learning of his relationship with those he thought friends, primarily Roger, had felt like a twist of the knife. He moved his hands from his face, staring at them as memories clutching photos of the man he'd found as a curious child in his mother's room flooded into him. The helplessness he'd felt knowing he'd been abandoned to exist with his mother's heel at his back by whom he knew was the only other person who knew of her true character made his stomach churn. "How do you know Dr. Amajiki? You knew him before his chance encounter with Tabitha, correct?""What makes you say that?""A gut feeling," he mumbled."You know, you never look into my eyes when you speak to me."The change of topic caught him off-guard. He lowered his hand, letting it fall limply at his side. "It's a habit. I tend to avoid eye contact with everyone," he said quietly, dark eyes following the intricate pattern on the rug covering a majority of the hardwood floor in the room. "I don't do it on purpose.""I think you do. Are you trying to make yourself seem like less of a threat?"With a quirk of a brow, Dominic dared a glance up at Suguru's face - registering his sly smile, crooked brows, a protruding vein branching his throat. "What?" He'd sat up, hands anxiously clutching at the fabric of the couch.Suguru neared him, every step calculated, before leaning forward. One of his hands steadied him, perched on the arm of the couch. "Your technique only activates when meeting a person's eyes, correct? You never grew past that that stage, did you? Could it be that you never meet a person's eyes because you're aware they fear what you're capable of?"Heart in his throat, Dominic tried to argue, "I wouldn't-""Oh, but you did. Didn't you? You have. Many times."He felt dizzy. "This isn't fair." The words left him in a whine, vision blurring as tears formed in his eyes. He despised this cursed gift, one weaponized against those he cared for by those puppeteering him. His autonomy had been stripped at an early age. He was one of many soldiers, bent and twisted and used by people he felt nothing but scorn for. But what else could he do? Run? Oh, how he wished the solution was that simple. He rose his hands up weakly, grasping fistfuls of the front of Suguru's yukata. He neither pushed nor pulled at him, only clung to him - desperate. "You don't know me. You're ... not ..." He bit his lips.Suguru leaned closer, until their foreheads met. The tips of their noses grazed.Dominic felt his mind go to static, eyes widening before easing into a close. This man felt like Suguru, he smelled like him, he sounded like him. Would it be so wrong to just pretend? He felt a hand at his cheek, goosebumps rising on his arms at the caress. He could feel Suguru's breath on his lips."You could answer your own questions with such ease. A mere glimpse and you could get all the answers you're seeking. Are you afraid?""Yes," he blurted."Let me taste it."Dominic kissed him, desperately, miserably. He pulled him closer, wrapping an arm around the back of his neck as the kiss lost its chastity. He could taste his own tears as they rolled down his cheeks and over their joined mouths. He felt teeth on his lips, hands at his chest, a knee digging between his thighs - a third hand ran through his hair, startling him. He pulled himself from Suguru, holding him at arm's length before he turned to look to his side."How fun," Tabitha smiled, fingers gently gliding from his hair to his jaw. When exactly she'd siddled up beside him was lost on him. Her soothing touch was not unwelcome, even when her palm pressed to the side of his neck. He bid her to sense his quickened pulse, to demonstrate to her he was human; fragile.A recurring theme that night, words failed him. He felt vulnerable, as if his body were splayed open on an operating table. Suguru's lips pressed to the other side of his neck, sending a tremor of need down his spine. He gasped, hands once again raising to his face. "Wait," he pled in distress. "Give me a moment."Their warmth left him.Dominic ran his trembling fingers through his hair, some strands sticking to his sweaty forehead. It was setting in, just how in deep he was. It was impossible to decipher the surface from the ocean floor.A pair of arms wrapped themselves around his shoulders from behind. Yet another presence gracing him. He tensed, tilting his head back to find himself staring up at Yuki - but someone else was with her. Or rather, part of her. "What's wrong, teach? You lost all that fire you had this morning." Two voices left her mouth, overlapping one another but speaking in perfect unison. He rose his hands to her face, fingers tracing over the terrifyingly familiar markings on her cheeks. The skin along her cheekbones slit and parted, a second set of eyes peering down at him."This is insanity," Dominic breathed. "Lunacy.""And yet you're still here," Sukuna grinned.Standing suddenly, Dominic moved away from the couch. He paced, wringing his hands in a panic. "I should go," he said. "This isn't right. This is too much.""Pretty boy."Ah, at last. His safety blanket. Dominic leaned into Roger's embrace as soon as it came to him, fingers digging into his back. "This is wrong. I'm wrong. Aren't I?" he cried."Nothing about you's ever been wrong," Roger reassured as he cradled him. His strong arms were a comfort. He felt safe. "Why'dyou say that?""Wanting this." His words were muffled against Roger's shirt. He was too embarrassed to lift his head from where it rested on Roger's shoulder, shutting his eyes tight. "I'm sick.""Why sick? Because this want is coming from you? If it comes from love, how can it be sick?" Roger leaned away but kept his arms clamped tight around the other.Dominic pulled himself from him, breathing stilted, and stared at him. His instinct was to allow his mind to flood with self-doubt, with reproach - but he disallowed it. He wouldn't silence his heart this time. It'd been long overshadowed by rationality. A rationality that had kept him so very repressed and destitute. So hungry. Craving. His gaze morphed, from meager to resolved before he turned to look at the den of lionsand gave himself in to the slaughter.

Content Warnings: suicidal ideation, alcohol, choking and attempted abduction.

The thoughts were never-ending, buzzing through his mind with such speed and frequency they began to resemble the hum of a bee. They were difficult to decipher, overwhelming. They dizzied him. The only thing that granted him any semblance of peace of mind was that tomorrow would be the end to these thoughts. No more of this sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, no more dread. Just an eternal dreamless sleep.As much as he tried not to overthink his plans, he continously found himself having to rein in his ruminations. He wanted to focus on the dinner, on the conversations all around him. He hadn't seen some of these people in years. And, in a circumstance of bittersweet irony, this would be the last he'd see of them.Had he even missed them?His heart ached in his chest."You seem distracted."Dominic jolted up in his seat, looking to the source of the voice. He met eyes with Yuki, who had called out to him from where she sat beside Tabitha across the table from him. She looked smug, aerating her glass of wine in one hand and resting her other hand delicately over Tabitha's.His apology was stuck in his throat. He was sick of of speaking the damned words. Only a foul taste in his mouth remained every time they rattled out of him. However, this left him with nothing to offer her but a cold stare in response."Oh my! What did I do to deserve such a scary look, Dom?" Yuki chirped."That little look of his brings back so many fond memories."He heard Tabitha's voice but he couldn't bring himself to look at her. He lowered his head."Oh? Like what?" Yuki asked, but the rest of conversation fell to murmurs.Beside him, Roger took hold of Dominic's hand and squeezed. "You don't look so good, pretty boy. Maybe you'll feel better once you eat." He spoke softly, his words falling over Dominic like a warm blanket. "When was the last time you ate something?""I don't remember," Dominic mumbled."Hey! That's not good!" Roger scolded, moving his hand up to the priest's shoulder in attempts to get him to look up at him. "Please, eat. I cooked this meal with Tabi and you in my heart." Despite his worry, he wore a tender smile on his lips.It was as Dominic reached a shaky hand towards his fork that Tabitha spoke to him. A hush fell over the table at the question, all eyes shifted towards him - varying degrees of interest and animosity reflected in them. Even Roger seemed to shrink away from him. The decision to stay behind in Jujutsu Tech all those years ago came crashing down onto his shoulders."How's Satoru, Dominic?""He-""Look at me when you're talking to me."First, his eyes went to Roger, searching for reassurance - but he found none. The other man had turned away from him, fiddling with his own cutlery. Of course there would be no comfort to find there. He had been the one that had turned his back to them in the first place, and for what? What had he made of himself after all this time?Nothing. He remained the dog of Jujutsu Tech, with Satoru Gojo tightly gripping the leash around his throat.Finally, he looked towards Tabitha. His cheeks filled with color as he met her gaze. Her eyes penetrated him, wrapped around his heart and squeezed tight. It was hard to breathe.The words came out all at once. "You're not going to ask about Jasper?" He felt disconnected from his body, dissociative. It was suddenly very difficult to move, like a talking doll with dying batteries. Her presence was smothering. He sensed Roger risk a glance his way. Was he surprised at his callousness? Mortified?Something changed in Tabitha's expression. It sent chills down his spine. Her lips twitched, words dying as quickly as they formed on them.A voice came from the other end of the table. "We're all certain you've been looking after our beloved lamb with the utmost care and attention." Suguru sat in the chair opposite to Tabitha. Jogo and Mahito sitting on either side of him, one guarded and the other entertained. "Since you brought them up, is there something you feel you need to share about them?""They're doing another paternity test on them," Dominic responded immediately. He glanced towards Yuki, who was taking a snide drink from her glass. "Ms. Tsukumo's destruction of the clinic could only stall such a matter for so long." He paused, contemplating his words. "Why burn down the clinic in the first place? Are you afraid of the school finding out that you're their mother? Or ... is there something else you're hiding?" He looked back to Tabitha again, this time with resolve.Tabitha snorted and rolled her eyes. "They already know Jasper is my child," she replied with a nonchalant gesture over to the woman to her left. "Yuki told them this after informing them she torched the clinic under my orders. The paternity test is them coming up with tangible proof of my relationship to them to provide the others in the school without revealing Yuki is acting as a double agent."Dominic's expression twisted up into a look of confusion. "You know she's working for them?" he asked."Of course I do. I know everything," Tabitha smiled.Yuki leaned forward in her seat. "I'm playing double-double agent, dummy!" she chastized before downing the rest of her wine. "I thought you were smarter than this, Dom. How disappointing." She tsked, shaking her head in a show of disapproval.Dominic scrutinized both women before simply downcasting his gaze, hands rubbing at his temples in an attempt to tame the headache blossoming at the back of his head."Jogo's got a question!" Mahito's sudden shout drew everyone's attention. To his left, Dagon was using their tentacles to pick at the crunchier bits of pork off their plate, guiding the meaty pieces into their mouth below them. "He was just telling us all about it down in the bunker!"Jogo looked up from inspecting his own meal before him, alarm morphing into irritation. "Wha-" He started to argue but Mahito promptly cut him off."Remember! You were saying this was all one big waste of time!" Mahito's volume didn't drop, voice echoing through the dining room. He leaned his chin on the palm of his hand as he grinned across the table at the other Curse. "You were asking what the point of all this was! You don't remember?"Jogo's eye narrowed. "Yes! I did say that. What of it?" He sniffed, smoke leaving his nostrils as the miniature volcano as the top of his head bubbled. "I do believe this is all a waste of time. We should be strategizing. Not whatever this nonsense is." He gestured to the table."We already have a strategy, Jogo." Suguru exchanged looks with Tabitha. "There is no need for any more strategization. This meal is a meal of celebration." He rose his wine glass. "To our victory."Tabitha rose her own and nodded, taking a drink as she cast a stony look towards Jogo when he didn't toast.Instead, he fumed. "What? Why weren't we told this?" he demanded, rattling the silverware on the table with a bang of his fist. "I refuse to be looked down on!""Well, now you're asking for too much!" Mahito laughed.Before Jogo could erupt, Suguru gestured for his attention. "The plan is that, when the time comes, you will all do as myself and Ms. Capricien tell you." He gave a courteous nod in the other's direction. Once again, he spoke up before yet another outburst, "That is, if you want us to succeed in our endeavors.""I don't take orders from humans," Jogo growled."You will," Tabitha called out from her end of the table. "Or we withdraw our involvement and Yuki will tell Jujutsu Tech everything you're planning so we can watch you two tear each other apart from the sidelines.""Go on then! I'm hardly threatened by the lot of you!" Jogo barked. "You think you're of any importance in this group? In this world? You petty little bitch! You're a smudge."Roger stood suddenly, chair flying back into the fancy mahogany chest lining the dining room wall. A dark look crossed his face, eyes flickering with a familiar fiery glow. Veins throbbed on his neck, nostrils flared. All of his usual playfulness was drained from him. His Cursed energy had spiked suddenly, no longer the palpable little drone it'd been known to be. He stood before them, a demon. Puffs of smoke escaped his mouth as he retorted, "Watch your fucking mouth." Those were the only words he spoke. They were the only ones he needed to speak.Jogo gaped, eye darting between Roger and Suguru. His mouth shaped words but nothing came out, hands gripping tight the arm rests of his chair."Behave," Tabitha purred, though how much she meant the demand was arguable. She leaned forward, reaching a comforting hand up to his chest. "Not now." Her voice was soft like velvet. She nudged for him to back down. Beside her, Yuki had propped up in her seat, instead eager to see them come to blows.Suguru rose his hands in a show of surrender. "I apologize for my guest's foolish behavior. There's no need to ruin this dinner with violence." He looked at Jogo when the other opened his mouth once again to argue. "I won't repeat myself."Mahito snickered when Jogo begrudgingly clamped his mouth shut and glared down at his plate.Now setting his sights on the devilish Curse, Suguru chided, "Mahito, retire to the bunker. You've caused enough trouble tonight."Eyes widening, Mahito pointed an accusatory finger towards Jogo. "But-""Go now. I won't stand for this unruliness."With a scowl, Mahito relented, leaving his plate untouched as he stood and stormed out of the room. His parting words, "Eat shit."Suguru looked towards Tabitha, mirroring her impish smirk.Roger took his seat, eyes still viciously locked across the table on Jogo.Jogo returned the stare, a look of puzzled agitation boldly reflected in his eyes. He folded his hands before him, nudging his plate away in a refusal to partake in the dinner.It took a moment but Roger's friendly demeanor returned to him. His smile returned to his face, picking up his fork and knife. He looked around him as he motioned towards his food with his utensils, a cheerful demand escaping him as he did."Dig in then!"

Mahito could still hear the light conversation in the dining room from the hallway. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, humming an offbeat tune as he peered up at all the fancy paintings hung along the wall. As he thought about returning to the bunker, part of him pondered Desmond. The look of smug defeat on the Sorceror's face intrigued him. As if the warning had been for naught, as if amused by the pointlessness of it. Just what was Tabitha planning? What did Desmond know that they didn't, and did Geto know? Mismatched eyed dared a glance towards the staircase before he tossed a cautious look over his shoulder towards the dining room. As fun as it would be to track Desmond down and force him to answer his questions, Fortnite with Minnie sounded like a much better time.Devilish smile spreading wide on his lips, Mahito made quick work of the stairs, grabbing onto the banister and leaping up to the second story of the house. It was darker up there, only a couple of dim wall lights lighting his way - but he didn't need clarity to find her. He could sense her, sense her always. He beamed as he sprinted down the hall, wondering for a moment if he was just imagining that she was growing farther and farther away from him.As he reached the door, Mahito just barely contained himself from slamming it open. Instead, he picked a stealthier approach. He cracked the door open, the low light of her nightlight lighting up his wide grin."Miiiinniiieee~" he called out in a sing-song tone. He pushed the door open the rest of the way, throwing his other hand up in the air in a show of excitement. "Don't get scared! It's just me!" His arm dropped when he received no response. Closing the door behind him, Mahito neared the bed. "Hey! Are you sleepin'?" he called. He felt a pang in his chest. Minerva wasn't there. He knew so, but he still yanked back her covers. He stared at the empty matress, brain scrambling for a reaction. What was this feeling he was getting? A weird sick sensation twisting his stomach into knots? He didn't like it.A small gust of wind was the next thing to capture his attention. He looked across the room, spotting one of Minerva's bedroom windows ajar. He rushed over to it, brows knitted with curiosity. His hands pressed to the sill, goosebumps rising on his forearms at the foreign residual Cursed Energy left on the wood. A little hum left him, lips twitching in mild amusement.He searched the night for a sign of the intruders and brightened up when he found them, climbing over the tall iron gate surrounding the home. Two teen girls - but Minerva was nowhere to be seen. He could still sense her, however. She was with them.Leaping from the window, Mahito doubled his arms, connected by a thin layer of flesh. It captured the air, allowing him to glide across the yard and towards the gate. He immediately detected their panic. His grin widened."Mimiko!"The hands on Mahito's two front arms clasped around one of their legs, pulling her from the gate with ease and flinging her into the bushes. She crashed into the shrubbery with a pained grunt.The blonde, hoisted at the top of the gate, rose her phone towards him but he reacted quicker, sending an auxilary third hand stretching out towards her as his other two kept the other girl at a safe distance. Instead of knocking the phone out of her hand however, his fingers bound themselves securely around it and pulled it close to him. This is where he felt Minerva's energy radiating from. He inspected it however, unsure of how or where she was being kept. He rose his hand to smash it-"STOP! YOU'LL KILL HER!"Mahito froze, unsure of whether the girl was being truthful or not. Deeming the other girl useles, he released her and focused on the blonde, extra arms retracting back into him. He chose not to take his chances on destroying the phone, lashing out his free hand and grasping blondie around the throat. He pulled her down from the gate but kept her suspended, hand tightening around her neck. "Release the technique or I'll squeeze until your head pops off." His chipper demeanor greatly contrasted the brutality of his words."Nanako!" came a shout behind him. He turned, prepared to defend himself but it seemed someone had beat him to it."Now, girls. This dinner is for adults only. It's far past your bedtimes." Suguru was tightly gripping Mimiko's wrist, keeping her from activating her technique. She clung tightly to her Cursed rope. The man glanced over to the phone in Mahito's protective clutch. "Breaking into the homes of strangers and kidnapping good young girls that respected their curfew, as well?" He gave them a disapproving shake of his head."Shut up!" Nanako choked out, face growing deeper shades of red with every passing moment due to the continued pressure around her neck. She kicked her legs out towards Mahito in attempts to get him to let her go, growing more and more desperate as she began to feel her consciousness fade.Suguru looked towards Mahito. "Release her," he ordered. He pushed Mimiko towards her sister when he did, the two crashing into one another before toppling to the ground. "They're too pitiful to kill." He watched them with a cold detachment. "Although I can't help but wonder how they came upon this gathering of ours."Toying with the phone in his hands, Mahito began to grow agitated. "I don't care about none of that!" he argued. He showed Suguru the device, gesturing towards it urgently. "Tell them to let Minnie outta here!""You've grown quite attached to this girl," Suguru mused, plucking the phone out of the impatient Curse's hand. He glanced back towards the girls again, giving yet another small shake of his head. "but we'll discuss that another time." He looked over his shoulder at the house, frown on his lips. "We have another very important guest joining us soon and I don't want you girls ... interrupting." He rose a hand, a small flicker of light forming in his palm. The light quickly faded, now forming a dark orb. From within crawled a creature resembling a grasshopper, growing in size with every sickening crack of its shell until it stood taller than even its master. He neednt speak a word, the creature leaping towards the girls.It took hold of their shirt collars with its taloned feet, yanking them up into the air as its wings flapped rapidly."Screw you!" Nanako shouted, trying to tear herself free."You shouldn't lie, by the way," Suguru called out to them as the two were carried away. "Has Mr. Weon taught you nothing in your time with him?" He rose the phone, snapping it in half. There was a crackle of electricity and a small puff of smoke, Minerva appearing in what looked like a cloud of static on the ground before them. She was unconscious, sweaty and frumpy. He tucked the broken device into a pocket within his sleeve. "Carry her inside and retire to the bunker. Until we can speak privately, stay away from her. This relationship you've both developed won't bode well for our plans."Mahito grabbed Minerva, tossing her over his shoulder after ensuring she was alive and well. He had begun to make for the house but stopped abruptly at Suguru's demands. "Our plans?" he asked. "Or your plans?""You're such a clever little creature, Mahito," Suguru smiled.With a roll of his eyes, Mahito resumed his way back towards the house. "By the way," he called, casting a final look back at Suguru. He pointed up at his own face. "You're leaking."Suguru's brows furrowed as he rose his hand to his cheek, feeling the wetness pouring forth from his eyes. His smile spread wide. "How sentimental," he said to himself. "How pathetic." He cast one final look back towards the girls just as the three disappeared into the obscurity of night and shadow.

"Pardon me." Suguru's voice was hardly noticed over the overlapping chattering at the table. While Haruta seemed deep into conversation wth Yuki's chest, Hanami and Jogo exchanged few murmurred comments. Roger had busied himself convincing Dominic to finish the meal on his plate before Dagon found a way to sneak their tentacles down the table to snatch whatever they could off of it once they were done clearing Mahito's abandoned food. Everyone, distracted. Well, almost everyone.Only one set of eyes seared into him as he made his way back over to his empty seat. He glanced towards Tabitha, catching her amber gaze. Before he could make himself comfortable, she gestured with her index finger for him to come over to her.He did, hands clasped in front of him as he did. He hunched beside her. His long hair slipped from his shoulders and formed a curtain of black, almost as if it were granting them privacy from all the others at the table. He waited for her to speak, but she didn't. "We had a small problem come up but it has been taken care of," he said with a courteous nod. "Nothing to be concerned about."A delicate hand traced up the side of his throat, stopping at his jawline. He felt himself tense. He turned his head to her, keeping their eyes locked. Tabitha scrutinized him, as if he were an insect splayed beneath a microscope. "Good boy," she smiled a red wicked smile.Suguru felt a shudder ripple through him. "Did you want me to send the Curses away while we have our meeting with Dr. Amajiki?" he croaked after what felt like an eternity of silence. Her hand was still cradling his face, warm and comforting."Yes," Tabitha purred. "I want to keep it to the bare essentials.""Of course." Suguru hesitated to move away for just a second but managed the resolve to do so. His cheek suddenly felt very cold as he made his way back towards his seat.As he was settling back in, Tabitha turned her attention to Roger. "Go and start setting up the gazebo for dessert," she told him, extending her hand to his and clasping it tight before letting go. "Make sure you set the lights to medium glow and use that gorgeous plate set we got on our trip to Venice with the purple and red flowers on them."Roger nodded his head, quickly taking her hand before it could get too far away from him. He planted several kisses along her knuckles before standing. He began to leave but stopped abruptly. "You wanna help me, pretty boy?" he asked with a fond look towards Dominic.Before the priest could answer, Tabitha cut in. "Leave him here." She drank her wine, gesturing her free hand to Roger's now-empty seat. "We have some catching up to do."A momentary look of defeat crossed Roger's face as he glanced nervously between both his lovers. "O-Okay," he relented before completing his half turn and leaving the dining room. He hung his head on his way out, feeling Dominic's eyes burn holes into his back."Dominic," Tabitha called, once again motioning to the empty seat beside her. "I won't ask you again."With a shaky breath, Dominic switched chairs. He kept his gaze downcast but could see her holding her hand out for his in his peripheral. With some reluctance, he clasped it. Her thumb caressed his knuckles. It was a strangely comforting gesture, easing the tension built up in his shoulders. He squeezed, almost as if afraid she would let go."Show me Jasper," Tabitha murmurred. "I want to see for myself that they're safe."Dominic's head perked up, taken aback by the request. His eyes had widened, mouth hanging open for a second before he managed to compose himself. "You want me to show you?" he asked, still in disbelief. It was difficult to process, that Tabitha would allow herself to be in such a vulnerable position for the sake of ... well, anyone. It wasn't as if he would ever ... He could never ... For a fraction of a second he wondered whatall would become of this decades long feud if Satoru's actions all those years ago had been erased from her mind. He resented himself for the idea but he couldn't help but reason that perhaps, this would bring peace of mind to Tabitha. This was when he realized he was being spoken to, dark red lips mouthing words his head was not registering. He forced himself to calm down and listen."Show me," Tabitha urged. She was searching his face for his eyes but he kept them turned away, ashamed, embarassed.Slowly, Dominic mustered up the nerve to meet her gaze. His heart was racing, throat tightening. His words failed him so he simply nodded, drawing in a deep breath before he allowed Tabitha in.Eyes of ember and those of charcoal met. The memories came in clouds of smoke, rising and curling around them. The first time he'd ever seen Jasper; the recollection of the day came with a sensation of intense apprehension. The day of the blackout downtown; a pang of fear and anxiety. The night they and the other classmates had snuck out to go swimming; the panic, and then the relief that followed when they turned up at last. Up until the last time they saw one another; determination ... and pride. He willed his memories of his interactions about Jasper with Satoru to the back his mind, out of Tabitha's reach. Then, he shut her out again. They were back in the dining room.Quickly dropping his gaze to his lap, Dominic kept his mouth shut. Was she angry? Her hold on his hand had slackened. He braved a glance at her and felt shock strike him as he caught a glimpse of her tear-stained features. "Tabitha ..." Her name slipped from his lips, a gentle breeze - barely enough to make candlelight flicker. He tried to squeeze her hand but she wrung her fingers free, reaching for her wine. He grabbed her wrist, surprising even himself. "Tabitha." His tone was firm this time. She gave him a wild expression, keeping very still, as if his touch had frozen her in time."They seem happy." Tabitha's words were stilted. She gave up her wine, dropping her arm to the table. Her fingers curled into her palm, forming a tight fist. His own hand carefully moved from her wrist, fingers tenderly tracing her fingers with his."They are happy and safe," Dominic reassured, though he was starting to have his doubt that this reality all but comforted her. "And they love you."Tabitha snatched her hand away from Dominic's in a brusque motion. Fingers splayed, she pressed her palm to her chest. Her eyes shut."Please, understand. Jasper is a good kid. All of the students in school with them are. Perhaps a bit misinformed but they can be taught, they can do better and be better than us and those before us. I don't know what you're planning, Tabitha, but they will all inevitably get dragged into it." Dominic was all but begging, voice trembling with emotion. He was leaning over the table, trying to keep his volume down so that others wouldn't be tempted to eavesdrop. "Please, show mercy. Don't involve them with this feud.""Mercy?" Tabitha's voice had lost its humanity. She stood abruptly. "You want me to show mercy?!" she barked. All heads turned towards her. Yuki looked distressed at Tabitha's outburst. All other eyes appeared curious, entertained even. He recoiled, pressing back against the rest of his chair and turning his face away. She didn't seem to mind, or even notice, the stares. "Where was their mercy for me, Dominic?!" Tears of rage had crested her waterline, flying from her face as she shouted."I-""Tell me!""Tabi-""Where was his mercy for Jasper?!"Dominic felt the blood drain from his face. "What are you talking about?" he blurted, eyes growing wide. "Jasper? What do you mean by that?" His heart was pounding in his chest. When she didn't answer him right away, he looked towards Yuki who seemed to be cycling through expressions, and then towards Suguru who hadn't dropped his coy smile the entire dinner. His head was spinning. "Tabitha, what did you do?"Tabitha had reined herself in, picking up her glass and aerating it before finishing its contents. She licked her lips, savoring the sweet flavor. She wasn't looking at him, or anyone. Her eyes were fixed on the empty glass in her hand."Tabitha ..."She looked at him, expression cold."What did you do ...?"The doorbell rang.

Content Warnings: dissociation, hallucination, suicidal ideation and alcohol.

A rich floral aroma filled the luxurious bedroom as Tabitha misted her perfume over her chest and neck. For the last hour, she sat in front of her vanity, admiring her reflection. The surface of the little workspace was littered with esthetic products, accompanied by a half-full wine glass teetering on an edge. She set the fragrance bottle aside, raising her hands to her hair and pushing the tight curls out of her face. Her make-up had been flawlessly applied, amber eyes practically glowing with the complimentary golden shimmer on her lids. Her contour was strong, defining her square features. Her eyebrows sharp, her lashes long.She was almost done.It was as she reached for her lipstick, crimson in color, that a voice broke her entrancement. It called her name, just barely loud enough to be heard over the aria pouring from her antique gramophone. She turned away from the mirror, looking towards the bed where Roger lay sprawled."Yes, pet?" Her voice was as sweet as huckleberries. Despite her fury earlier in the day over Minerva returning home to her in tatters, it seemed that three and a half glasses of wine and a hot bath was all that was needed for her to calm again.A small price to pay.Roger stood from the bed, quickly crossing the room and stopping beside her. He knelt, his hands taking hers tightly. "Let's go on a trip somewhere," he said, a charming smile on his lips.Soft fingers worked soothing circles into his calloused palms. "What are you on about?" Tabitha purred, caressing touch traveling up his arms. "We have so much in the works now, my love. The rest of this year is going to be very busy for us. We can't just up and leave. Especially not without Jasper."Leaning into the touch, Roger sank his head onto her bare thighs. He closed his eyes as she ran her fingers through his hair, locks still damp from their bath together. "There's a lot about all this that don't make a lick of sense to me, Tabi." He grimaced, hurting just from voicing his doubts. "I feel like you've lost sight of things." As soon as the words left his mouth, he began to ramble - desperate for his concerns to be seen as just that, concerns; and not condescension or cynicism. "Look, give me an hour and I'll have Jasper back home. I know Pretty Boy wants out too. We can all just leave this behind us and start fresh!" His smile returned to him, this time desperate, pleading, helpless. "We can go visit your gran in the islands. It'll be fun."Tabitha sneered at the mention of her grandmother but she chose not to address it. She instead took Roger's face into her hands, making him raise his head and meet her gaze. "My main goal is reuniting our family. I will never prioritize anything," A pause. "or anyone over Jasper," Another pause. "but we've had a golden opportunity presented to us and we'd be fools not to take it."Eyes wide, Roger argued, "You're risking everything! Our home, our children ... yourself." With a blink of his eyes, tears streamed down his cheeks. "Is it all worth it? Look at what's happened to Minnie! I'm just scared!" He clasped her hands against his cheeks. "You think we're the only ones who've grown stronger after all these years?" He drew in a deep and shaky breath. "If nothing mattered as much as Jasper did then they'd be home already!" He struggled getting the next few words out but he did, albeit in a whisper. "I feel like you're keeping me in the dark. There's more to all this, isn't there?"Raising her brows, Tabitha turned away from her lover to snag her wine glass and take a drink from it. Was she stalling or was she working up the courage to be vulnerable? Eventually, she spoke, "This isn't just about Jasper anymore. You know that. What are you so worried about?" She turned her head away. The lights of her vanity cast a shadow over her face, cloaking her expression."I'm worried about you!"Tabitha glared his way and opened her mouth to retort, face twisted into a look of severe disdain, but Roger quickly cut her off, raising his hands in a plea for her to let him finish. "And I know you hate it when I do!" he insisted. He paused for a moment, contemplating his next words. "I just ... think the people involved in all this mess ... don't hurt the way you do. Not Suguru. Not Satoru. They don't care." A pained expression crossed his face. "We have everything we could ever want, Tabi. Let's get out of here."Tabitha stood, effectively pushing Roger backwards onto his hands. She stepped away from him, heels tapping against hardwood. She circled around, clearly ruminating her response. She was impossible to read. His gray eyes watched as she paced about the room like a caged tiger."Tabi!" Roger cried, pushing himself back onto his knees. "What's left for us here?! What're you hoping to gain from all this?"Tabitha turned now, eyes alight with a ferocity that shook him to his core."Justice."

Dominic could only hope that the storm clouds gathering in the dark sky and the distant roll of thunder was anything but a foreshadowing of things to come. This day had already dragged on, unbearably so, and now he felt as if he was on his way to a neverending night. But be it tempest or otherwise awaiting him, he had long since learned to uncross his fingers and ready his umbrella. Weathering the downpour had become a pastime.Ironically enough, he'd forgotten his actual non-metaphorical umbrella at home in his rush to make it to dinner on time.The cab ride was almost entirely silent. Had he allowed himself to, he would've nodded off in the back seat to the muted ambient melody around him. The gentle tap of rain on his window; the occasional squeak of the windshield wipers; the low rumble of the car engine; all lulling him to sleep. His buzzing thoughts kept him restless though, eyes bloodshot and lidded as they peered out at the bustling city.It was late and a weekday but people were still roaming the streets, likely trying to finish up their errands before the storm set in for the rest of the evening. He watched them, talking, walking, smiling, shopping, living. He watched them, and he envied them.On his lap, his left hand opened and closed over and over and over, unused to the emptiness. To the solitude. It was strange not having her around to berate and humiliate him every waking moment. It made him look forward to his plans the following day all the more. It'd be so quiet. Forever.Despite the anticipation, every time he thought about it, a pang of sorrow struck his heart. Part of him would miss the students, Shoko, the girls, even Roger. It didn't feel fair. Not for himself or most of anyone involved. He wondered if they'd blame themselves. For a split second, part of him relished the fact that his decision would hurt Satoru. He was quick to reprimand himself for such a thought, however, sinking into a deep pit of shocked guilt.This all had culminated in his descent into heartlessness. It was so unlike him to feel like such a monster. But he was so frustrated, so tired of constantly filtering his thoughts and feelings. Did this decision even have anything to do with Satoru? Maybe. Probably. Was it cruel of him to admit it? He dueled with himself, part of him wanting Satoru to mourn and hurt and ache over it. The other half of him wanted him to learn and better himself and move on and grow the fuck up.Would they try and cover it up, he wondered. Lie that he'd been killed in action to try and save what remained of the pathetic legacy of the Weon family. Not for his sake, but for hers.This was too much to deal with right now. It was overwhelming, so much so that he could cry right then. He forced himself not to think, distracting himself by mentally calling out whatever they drove by at random to occupy himself. To think about anything other than tomorrow. Stranger, shop, car, road, rain, clouds, darkness, darkness, darkness. He felt as if he was sinking."Pardon me, Father."Dominic's head perked up. His hand rose to his clerical collar, feeling disoriented. He didn't speak, merely making eye contact with the driver through the rearview mirror."Rivers are endless mazes. You might lose your way if you aren't careful."A haziness overcame him. "Excuse me?" he wanted to say but couldn't muster the energy. He kept his eyes locked on the other man's through the reflection. Looking away was an impossibility, as if he'd lost all motor function. All he could do was stare on, helplessly."What will you do? Will you swim to shore and end your voyage? Will you weather your uncertain future? Will you turn and attempt to find your way back home? You've come this far. There was no one to see you off."Tears sprung from Dominic's eyes. He tasted copper on his tongue. It felt as if an eternity had gone by in silence. "Who are you?" He spoke at last, voice broken and shaken."Pardon me, Father?"The world returned all at once. Dominic looked around him, heart pounding in his chest. He took in his surroundings, grounding himself, before he turned to meet the driver's confused gaze, too tired to feel embarrassed. Had his exhaustion driven him to the point of lunacy? Had his mind finally crumbled to dust? He shook his head, running a hand through his hair in an attempt to self-soothe. "Nevermind. I apologize."The drizzle had become a downpour by the time the cab pulled up to the mansion. Even then, Dominic took his time going up the steps to the front door. He was soaked to the bone as he stood underneath the overhang. A puddle formed and grew at his feet. His hair was matted to his face. His clothing clung to him. Chills bloomed from within him, making his teeth clatter. The cold was penetrating and he gave himself into it, let it shake him. All he could hear was the curtain of water on asphalt. All he could feel was a hollow painful ache.It took him a while to realize he hadn't knocked and when he went to do so, the door escaped him. Instead, a pair of arms wrapped tightly around him. He recognized Roger's smell. A smoky warm scent. Like a fireplace. Like cinnamon. He sank into the embrace, closing his eyes.

One might not recommend finely chopping vegetables while fatigued and faint, but Minerva wasn't really one for following suggestions. Someone had to make dinner and although Roger could have very well taken the reins on that endeavor, she wanted to do it. She had already wasted the entire evening away lounging around in bed. She wanted to prove she didn't need to be coddled. She wasn't some weakling. She could handle herself. 'I love that about you. Stubborn like your mom,' her father often told her."You're really making quite the mess."Minerva nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected intrusion. It was then that she became aware of the bloody mess before her. The cutting board was speckled with red, even the onions she been dicing were tinted with a faint pink hue. She'd seemingly knicked her fingers several times, evidenced by the blood pooling in her palm. Had she been that lost in thought? How had she not felt them?No time to fret about that."Who are you?" Her grip tightened on the knife but she kept her expression placid as she turned to face the stranger. "Are you a friend of Mr. Geto's?"The blonde smiled, ponytail swishing as he tilted his head. He was sitting on the countertop across from her, swinging his legs out in front of him. His hands rose to his cheeks as they filled with color. "Oh, a pretty girl wants to know my name?" he gushed. "I'm Haruta!" He started to extend his hand towards her for a shake but stopped himself when he remembered her injuries. A devious glint sparked in his eyes. "Want me to kiss it all better?"Face contorting into a look of sheer repulsion, Minerva pointed the knife warningly towards the hindrance. "I'll scoop your eyes out of your head and serve them to your boss," she growled. Despite her feverishness, she stood steady and strong. Her gaze intense. Only a slight tremor in her hand, easily mistakable for a show of rage, was the sole tell of her debilitation."H-Hey now!" Haruta laughed, raising his hands in surrender. "I was just tryna be polite!""Minnie!" The door to the kitchen swung open, giving way to Mahito as he ran into the room with his arms flailing in excitement. "You're awake!" he beamed at her, expression immediately souring upon seeing Haruta. He didn't seem to notice or care for the knife Minerva was clutching. "What're you doing in here?"Haruta sniffed, arms crossing over his chest in indignation. "You guys are awfully rude!" he shouted, irritation growing when Mahito ignored him and instead approached Minerva."You're bleeding!" Mahito shouted, gesturing to her injured hand. He reached towards it but backed off when the knife in Minerva's hand made a target out of him instead. A cheeky grin spread across his lips when their eyes met. "You're just hurting yourself so I'll heal it, arentcha?"A groan of frustration left Minerva and she plunged the knife into the cutting board beside her. It stuck, piercing through the wood and into the counter beneath it. A dizzy spell caused her knees to wobble but she forced herself upright. "You two are insufferable!" she shouted, storming off towards the door to leave and find band-aids.Mahito trailed after her and Haruta shortly after him, both sporting goofy but short-lived grins.It was as Minerva reached to push open the door that Tabitha entered the room, causing her to back up into the two doofuses shadowing her. "M-Mother!" she called out in surprise. Her hands clasped in front of her, nervously wringing her fingers.Tabitha, donning a spectacularly embroidered floor-length low cut dress and her fifth glass of wine for the evening, entered the room. Her steps were measured, stopping as soon as the door comfortably closed behind her. She took a drink from her glass as her eyes scanned her surroundings before they finally settled on her daughter. "Why are you out of bed?" Her words were cold.Haruta and Mahito had shrunk away behind Minerva as the girl fumbled her words. "I was trying to get dinner started," she said at last, downcasting her gaze. This was when she caught sight of her frumpy appearance, smoothing down the front of her fleece pajama shirt. "I was gonna change after I-""Go to your room, Minerva. Your father will handle dinner. You're only making a mess of things." Tabitha gestured to the trail of blood leading up to where Minerva stood. "You're still sick and weak. Is this how you want to represent your family?"Minerva's eyes widened, and without another word she left the kitchen. Her hands had risen to her face, unintentionally smearing blood on her cheeks in attempts to hide her tears.Tabitha's attention then turned to the two nuisances standing before her. "If I see either of you two near Minerva again, I will make you wish I was kind enough to kill you."Haruta didn't need to be told anything else. He nodded frantically before turning and sprinting towards the pantry, figuring he was safer hiding out in the bunker until dinner was ready.Mahito, however, didn't run. His smile hadn't wavered, looking impish."Did I make myself clear?" Tabitha stepped closer to him until only small gap was left between the two. They were eye to eye.Mahito laughed, genuinely and heartily, before he conceded. "Crystal!"

"This is absurd!" The miniature volcano at the top of Jogo's head bubbled with his shout. His hands were clenched into tight fists, up in the air as he voiced his furious disbelief. "A dinner party! A dinner party! Can you believe this?!"Haruta glanced his way, busying himself with belly-balancing on an oversized beach ball. He shrugged his shoulders. "We gotta wait for that big fancy event at the school to happen before we can do our plan anyway. What's it matter if there's a dinner party?" Nearby, Dagon splashed about in the pool, a wave consequently coming down on the blonde and sweeping him away.Jogo's irritation only grew when the water rained down by his feet. "Hanami! Control this buffoon!" he barked, stamping his foot on the floor.Looking up from the thick leatherbound book in their hands, Hanami sighed, "It's a waste of time, I agree but hardly worth this spectacle." They turned their attention back to the weathered pages."Why Geto thinks we need to form any sort of alliance with these humans is beyond comprehension! Beyond reason, even!" His eye flickered from one to the other, demanding consensus. "Is it not offensive to you that he thinks so lowly of us that he's partnered up with these ... these ...""Will ya shut up already?" Mahito stood at the top of the bunker steps, eyeballing the group below. "If you're so tough and strong, then why're you here? To socialize?" His eyes glistened with mischief.A petulant scoff left Jogo as he waved dismissively towards the other Curse. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, what with your bizarre fascination with that weak little freak." He crossed his arms, a vain look on his face. "But you know what they say about birds of a feather."Mahito hopped over the railing of the stairs, landing on his feet only a few yards from Jogo. He was crouched, metal paneling below him dented from the impact. "She's not weak. I've seen her fight," he chirped, wry smile plastered on his face. "Really fight.""She almost died; fighting school-aged children, at that." Jogo snorted, shaking his head. "A human's a human. They'll never come close to our power.""But didntya lose to Gojo?" Haruta countered between laughs. He'd perched himself on the pool ledge, wringing water from his hair.Before Jogo could retort, Mahito piped up, "She's not human."This captured the attention of all within the bunker, eyes locking on him. Hanami was the first to break the silence. "Did she tell you something?" they asked.Mahito shook his head, placing a hand over his chest. "No, but I know it. I could sense it in her soul, when I healed her." His lips split into a jagged grin. "It's corrupt and vile. She's in-between. A fucking abomination. Just like Jasper - but Jasper's power is ... different." He turned his head away, trailing into a ramble of his own. "She's not as strong as them but she's structured the same. I wonder why." His fingers curled into his palms, gripping at the front of his shirt. "Why?""Whaddya mean she's in-between?" Haruta asked, quirking a brow."You met Jasper?" Jogo barked. "When?"Mahito opened his mouth to respond but promptly closed it. He turned suddenly, eyes narrowing. Quickly, his hand rose and pointed towards a vent across the room. It was hanging ajar, the cover hanging in midair."Hey! You peeping on us?" he shouted.Everyone turned, save for Dagon who remained blissfully swimming about in the pool.As if a curtain of invisibility fell away from him, Desmond appeared. He held the vent in his hands. "I was just on my way out. Didn't want to interrupt your ..." He gestured towards them all with a sheepish grimace. "meeting ... or whatever."There was an awkward silence now. Long and painful.Desmond began to move towards the vent again.With a whip of his arm, Mahito's limb stretched all the way out and across to the vent, fingers spidering out and covering the exit. "How much did you hear?" he chirped.Rolling his eyes, Desmond snapped, "Look, I don't give a shit what you freaks are plotting. My family can handle themselves." He shrugged his shoulders. "I'm gonna make some things clear for y'all though." His grip on the vent tightened as he pointed it at Mahito. "I dunno what you did to Jasper but if my mom finds out you two were even in the same room, you're as good as dead. You think she's protective over Minnie? Wait 'til she finds out you laid a hand on her Golden Child."He snorted, then gesturing towards Jogo. "The worst thing you can do is underestimate someone, especially someone you don't understand. You thinking my sister, or anyone in my family at that, is weak is a reflection of your own incompetence."Jogo sputtered, eye growing wide. He looked to Hanami, who kept their attention on Mahito and Desmond.The vent swung around to gesture to the group before him. "You're all way the fuck in over your heads here. I hope you know that. You're better off backing out now 'cause soon enough you'll all-" He caught himself. He scoffed, laughing to himself as he shook his head. "My point is, you don't know what the fuck you're getting yourselves into.""Let him go, Mahito," Hanami said after a moment. "Let's not start any trouble."Mahito didn't move, at least not right away. His eyes burned holes into Desmond. Slowly, his arm began to retract into itself, regaining its usual shape. "Thanks for the warning," he purred.With a roll of his eyes, Desmond left."What was that about?" Haruta mumbled, a perplexed expression on his face.Jogo sneered, looking something vicious. "The ramblings of a brat," he spat venomously.As the others returned to their debate on the productivity of this evening's plans, Mahito's mind wandered. His eyes never left the vent, heart thundering with exhilaration. In over our heads, huh? he thought. How delightful. He beamed.

The storm outside had only grown with every passing moment, lightning striking violently and thunder building up from a gentle murmur to a persistent roar. Wind caused the perfectly manicured trees outside to dance, branches tapping incessantly on the windows. The mansion had been overcome with the scent of herbs and spices, enticing enough to make even a Curse's belly twist with desire. Roger had holed himself away in the kitchen some time ago, shooing away anyone who interrupted his work.Suguru made no rush of going anywhere, taking his time as he wandered down the hall towards the living room. His curiosity had been stroked by the oddities shelved along the walls, all emanating varying degrees of Cursed Energy. A porcelain hairbrush, a pair of cracked beige leather gloves, a small set of metal-worked animal characters and more strange little trinkets. It was as he reached a hand to open what looked like a music box that he caught movement in the corner of his eye.A figure sneaking its way over to the staircase.He was at Mahito's side in a heartbeat."On your best behavior," Suguru chirped as he firmly grasped the scheming Curse's shoulder and directed him away from the stairs. "Leave the girl alone. She needs rest and it has been requested of you not to come near her again."Mahito's eyes widened before they narrowed, gaze sharp as a dagger as he looked back over his shoulder at the stairs. He allowed himself to be pulled down the hall and towards the living room, lips giving way to a displeased scowl. "This is boring! I wanna go play Smash with Minnie!" he whined. The hairs on the back of his neck stood when Suguru's firm grasp on his shoulder became a vice grip on the back of his head. Fingertips dug into scalp."Mahito," Suguru smiled. "This is your only warning."Mahito yanked himself away from the other, storming off towards the kitchen to presumably take the latch in the pantry down to the bunker. He didn't look back as he left, an angry flush transcending his cheeks and spreading down to his shoulders.Suguru's eyes followed him until he was out of his line of sight before finally continuing on his way towards the living room.'Not even your allies have respect for you. Some leader you are.'A chuckle. You are severely mistaken if you believe this is a partnership. These people are merely my pawns. They, like you, are all expendable.The conversation was cut short when a pair of arms attempted to wrap themselves around him, making him quickly lean away from the welcoming embrace. His surprise didn't show on his face as Yuki Tsukumo stood before him, arms crossed and brow quirked."Yeesh. I know it's been a minute since we last saw each other but I figured we were at least somewhat familiar, eh?" She chided. Her perplexed expression was quickly replaced with a devious smirk. "It's very nice to see you again. It's been what? Ten? Twenty years?" She rose her hands, feigning counting her fingers."Right," Suguru said stiffly, maddeningly put off by the fact that he hadn't sensed her approaching. "You startled me."Yuki laughed heartily. "You're gonna wanna keep your guard up 'round these parts, Rūru!" she teased, leaning over to dig her elbow into his side but missing when he casually side-stepped her. Something about her tone made his chest tighten.Nostrils flared. Did she think Geto Suguru incompetent? She wasn't exactly off the mark but to be compared to such a fool never failed to get a rise out of him. He supposed it was unavoidable. "Thank you for the advice." Insincerity dripped from his words. He eyed her with some skepticism and she returned the stare, hers playful and mischievous.Another presence in the hall made him break the eye contact, bringing their tense moment to an end. The energy now pervading his senses demanded Suguru's attention, though he remained hyper-aware of Yuki as she left to the next room. Once he was sure she was gone he turned to face the newcomer, a grin splitting his lips.Looking his antithesis, Dominic stood at the bottom of the stairs. He was disheveled. His hair wet, dark circles ringing his eyes. The clothes he wore fit lengthwise but had clearly been intended for a heftier body. His shirt hung off him like laundry on a clothesline. His pants were belted snugly. He was barefoot. It seemed the rain had caught him and Roger had played dress-up."I was hoping you'd make it," Suguru greeted with a polite nod.Dominic's eyes were downcast. He said nothing, fingers twisting into one another before him."You're trembling. Could it be the cold? Or something else?""I feel sick," Dominic said at last. "I might be coming down with something." He tried to take a step towards the living room but Suguru didn't move out of his way. "Can you move?" The kindness oft found in his tone was gone. In fact, any and all emotion had been drained of it. "I'd like to go sit in the other room until dinner is ready."Suguru moved but pursued the other down the hall. "I was hoping we could talk more." He walked slowly, hiding his smirk when Dominic subconsciously matched his pace."What about?""Well, your involvement with our operation here for one."Dominic stopped in his tracks, turning so suddenly that Suguru was genuinely caught off-guard. "There is no involvement on my behalf!" he barked. Despite this newfound nerve, he couldn't bring himself to meet Suguru's eyes. Only because he knew it wouldn't be Suguru looking back at him. Just this impostor. "I'm here as a ghost, a specter, a corpse." His hands had balled into righteous fists. "Your delusion is insurmountable if you believe I would ever take part in whatever deranged plot you've all cooked up.""Why are you here then?" Suguru quipped.Dominic deflated instantly. To say goodbye. The words danced in his mind but he didn't dare speak them. "I ..." His throat tightened.He was met with patience."I don't ..."Further down the hall, the kitchen door swung open. Out from the room swaggered Roger, a dazzling suckling pig on a well-dressed platter and a million dollar smile on his face. He opened his mouth, a loud and heartful melody escaping him,"Dinner's ready!"

Content Warnings: minor violence, threats of violence, lesbophobia, mentions of incest and pedophilic grooming.

A glance at his phone's homescreen told Dominic he would just barely have enough time to get ready for his plans that evening. But that would only be the case if he sped through his current engagement. After a quick glance over his shoulder at his company - two freshly tamed Curses and a particularly irate student, he resigned himself to running late. Fashionably so, some might say. Roger would get over it. He was lucky he had agreed to go at all."Hey, mister!" Hibiki left Nobara's side and rushed ahead to match his pace. She kept her head down, skipping over cracks in the pavement. "What's this place you're taking us to like? You said it's gonna be our new home but ..." Her voice trailed a bit as she mentally reworked her words, nervous about sounding rude. Eventually, she settled, "Is it a nice place? Will there be friends?"Dominic looked down at the girl, a faint smile on his lips. "You'll be staying with some acquaintances of mine. They run a sort of ... care center for curious creatures like you and your father. You'll be in very good hands."Speeding her own stride to catch up to them, Nobara angrily cut in, "But why did you drag me out here too? This place gives me the creeps!" She gestured around them at the mostly deserted backroads they appeared to be wandering aimlessly through. They hadn't seen another person for several blocks now. Even wildlife, like birds or squirrels were gone. The world was bathed in the deep orange glow of the setting sun. It was unnerving ... and more importantly, "Oh, and me and Maki had plans!" She crossed her arms over her chest in a show of irritation but softened her face a bit when Hibiki skipped into her line of sightWith a look of reproach, Dominic replied, "There are some people I want you to meet. I'll cover your cab fare back to the school so you won't return too late. I appreciate you coming with us."Nobara rolled her eyes but bit her tongue. She slowed her step, letting the others walk ahead of her as she busied herself with thumbing at her phone.A surprisingly deep and rumbling voice joined the conversation. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful but I cant help but wonder why we were spared." Hibiki's father, still cupped tenderly in her hands also had his share of concerns, it seemed. His eyes all pointed up towards Dominic, narrowed - not necessarily with suspicion, but wary. "Why gift us mercy after all the trouble we'd already caused?" he asked. "We've seen what your kind does to Curses like us." A couple of his eyes turned to look towards Nobara when she scoffed. "You and your students were on different pages on how to approach the situation. Why not follow their path? It would've been easier for you."Dominic looked at the small creature, frown etched deep on his face. "I don't particularly enjoy violence," he said quietly. "My students see enough of it as it is. I wanted to teach them something different. Had it been another teacher, then perhaps things wouldn't have ended as peaceably but it was me. Think of it as fate. You have a purpose yet to fulfill in this life.""Yay! Yay! We got a purpose!" Hibiki cheered, hopping up and down and raising her panicking father up into the air. Her sandals clapped against the concrete with every jump. "Didya hear that daddy? How about you Nobi? We got a purpose!" A choir of cheers echoed from her, the power of her voice fueled by her excitement appearing to tremor the ground beneath them - cracks in the cement growing bit by bit.Before Dominic could ask the child to settle down, Nobara chimed in. Her brows rose high on her forehead as she echoed, "Nobi?" She was unsure of what to make of the nickname.Hibiki laughed and nodded eagerly. "Yeah! We can be Hibi and Nobi! The super girls! Like magical girls but way stronger! And cooler!" She paid no mind to her father's pleas that she be careful as she spun in circles and leapt around the puzzled teen. "We gotta have our own theme song!" As one would expect, a vocalization of the rough draft of said theme song immediately followed.Dominic watched them fondly for a moment, not missing the strained smile twitching its way onto Nobara's lips - before angry shouting from further down the street shattered the moment of tenderness. He quickly turned his head down the way, looking alarmed. The road was lined with abandoned shacks, rundown and decrepit - and those structures were only present because they existed prior to the instatement of the barrier keeping those without clearance out of the area. So the arguing could only be coming from one location. A bit further down the road from them was a dead end and to the left of it, an open iron gate. Just past the gate was the path leading up to the Care Center.Keeping his nerves in check, he gestured for Hibiki to settle down. "Keep calm and quiet. It seems there's someone else here." Someone who isn't supposed to be here, he added mentally. He could count on one hand the number of people who had clearance to visit the Care Center and he could think of no reasons for any of them to be here right now. As they approached, it was easier to make out the screaming match."Look, dude. I ain't gonna tell you again to get the fuck offa our property before I rip you a new asshole!""Is that a challenge? Why don't you try making me get off of your property? Or wait - Is it even your property? My family wrote the check that purchased the land.""Last I checked, the name on the deed is Satoru fuckin' Gojo so eat shit. Isn't there an inbreeding convention in town ya needa get to? Fuck outta here already!""Hello?" Dominic called at the gate. He could make out two people down the path, standing at the entrance of the rough-looking house. One was his point of contact, Aiden - a rugged foul-mouthed crusty punk bastard who helped run the Curse Care Center. The other was Naoya Zenin.Both heads turned in his direction and in that very moment Dominic concluded it was too late to turn tail and avoid dialogue with the most irritating person in present Jujutsu Society. Hibiki was hiding behind him, holding her father in one hand and clutching the back of his shirt in the other. Nobara stood at his side, arms defiantly folded over her chest.A look of unconstrained delight came over Naoya. "Well, will you look what the cat dragged in! The Priest of Absolution himself! Who did you pardon this time, Father?" he laughed, lips split into the widest shit-eating grin he could muster. Beady eyes flickered from Nobara back to Dominic. "Oh, spending your free time with school girls now? Gojo ain't doin' it for ya anymore?"Though his jaw was clenched so tight, cracking a molar became a genuine concern, Dominic kept his mind clear and his objective resolute. He firmly grasped Nobara's arm when she made to storm towards Naoya. "Listen to me," he said. He looked down towards Hibiki. "Both of you." He drew in a sharp breath. "We're going to walk over. As soon as we're close enough, Hibiki, you rush inside the house. Ignore him and anything he says, alright?" He kept his voice calm and kind, quiet enough so that Naoya wouldn't overhear but loud enough for her to understand the instructions clearly. “Nobara, don’t say a word to him.”"Oi, Priest! I'm talking to you!"With a deep breath, Dominic began walking. Nobara kept pace with him, walking right beside him. One her of hands had extended behind her, holding Hibiki’s hand tightly as they made their way.Just as Naoya moved his head to try to peer behind them, Dominic addressed him, “What a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Zenin. And a surprise. As far as I know, the only Zenin clan member permitted at the Care Center is your father.” And even that is simply a formality, he thought, with some bitterness.Almost as if he'd read their mind, Aiden reached behind him as they approached. He slid open the exterior door of the home just in time for Hibiki to sprint inside. She clung to Nobara’s hand until the very last moment. Before Naoya could steal a glance inside, the door slammed shut.Smug aura now replaced with deep-seeded irritation, Naoya set his sights back on Dominic. “Who do you think you’re talking to, kinslaying bastard?” His nostrils flared, eyes wide with anger. “You’ll show me respect. I’m not some snot-nosed brat you can boss around.” His gaze shifted over to Nobara, studying her for a moment before realization dawned. “Ah, I know you. You’re the d-” A baseball bat interrupted his sentence.Unfortunately, it missed his face – caught by his hand. The rusty nails driven through it made good work of his palm, however. He turned his head towards Aiden, who clutched the handle of the bat. The man was hardly affected by the piercing gaze of the Head of the Hei. They both stood there, almost as if waiting for the other to make the next move.“Mr. Zenin. I have business to attend to with Aiden. If you would,” Dominic gestured towards the path, catching the look of agitation on Nobara’s face. He was surprised that she was following his instructions thus far. Despite his fighting it, he couldn’t help but feel some semblance of pride well in his chest. He kept his focus on deescalating the situation. “Perhaps one day we could set up a tour for you to look around,” Yeah, right. “but we’re currently busy.” He took a calculated risk. “Surely your father wouldn’t appreciate one of his respectable sons causing trouble at one of our very important Curse Care Centers.”Naoya sneered. Deeply. “Oh, fuck off,” he bit out before storming down the path. He went out of his way to aggressively brush shoulders with Dominic on his way out. “This isn’t over!” he called out in a sing-song tone, flashing them a big wave as he walked.At the sound of the iron gate slamming shut, Dominic allowed his shoulders to sink. He gave Aiden a curt nod and then gestured between both him and Nobara. “Aiden, this is one of my students, Nobara Kugisaki. I’d like to take the time to talk to you both about some of my ruminations regarding her ability and growth as a Sorceror.”Aiden glanced towards Nobara but she seemed distracted, glaring off down the path.Placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder, Dominic gestured towards the door to the house as Aiden opened it. “After you,” he said.She looked at him, words danced on the tip of her tongue but she lacked the nerve to speak them. She gave a quick determined nod before she entered.

"There's never anything good on," Utahime grumbled as she fruitlessly flipped through the TV channels. Eventually giving up on her search, she cast the remote aside and turned her head to look at her girlfriend. "Do you just wanna go out for lunch or something?" She glanced at the clock on the wall before correcting herself. "Or dinner, I guess. Linner? Dunch? We're kind of in that weird in between sp- Are you listening to me?"Shoko was entranced, staring out the living room window. She was undoubtedly lost in thought. The side alley outside wasn't all that interesting save for two cats fighting for scraps of food and an old woman hanging her laundry out to dry."Everything okay?"With a blink, she was back. Shoko looked at Utahime, nibbling at the inner corners of her lips. "Yes," she said quietly. She held a stoic expression before giving up and flopping back against the couch cushions with a look of exhasperation. "Okay, no. Not really." She rose her hands to her face. "I don't think I can handle going out right now. Can we order in?"Utahime quirked a brow. "Sure ... My treat ..." She fished her phone out of her pocket, opening up a food ordering app. She stared at it for a moment before turning her gaze back to Shoko. "In exchange, you gotta tell me what's on your mind."Narrowing her eyes, Shoko argued, "I'll order the damn food then." She tried grabbing for the phone but Utahime held it out of her reach."You don't have to talk about it but I'd like it if you did," Utahime said. "I'm way better at listening to you talk than Dom." She paused, tapping her chin before adding with a smug smile, "I'm prettier too!"Shoko laughed but the joy was quick to fade. She hugged her arms to her chest, smile replaced by a deep contemplative frown. It was a difficult subject. Even during her sessions with Dominic, she always kept her recollections vague and disconnected. As if she hadn't been the one experiencing them, but someone she knew. As if she'd merely witnessed the events from another room. "I've been having a lot of nightmares lately. I keep reliving the day ..." She hesitated. It felt like speaking her name outloud would bring everything back in a way worse than the way it'd been haunting her at night. "the day I lost my leg." She internally chastized herself for her cowardice. "Jasper is a good kid. They don't deserve to get wrapped up in all this bullshit.""Were you able to get Jasper's DNA samples again after the fire?" Utahime asked.With a tired nod, Shoko replied, "Yes. I took them earlier. They over-exerted themself during a mission, so they were brought in unconscious. I just helped myself to collecting the samples before they woke up." She grimaced. "I just-" She cut herself off, shutting her eyes tight and letting out a long breath through her nose."What're these geezers even gonna do after they confirm who their parents are?" Utahime grumbled with a roll of her eyes. "Sentence the kid to death? For crimes they didn't commit?" She scoffed, reaching an arm around Shoko's shoulders and pulling her close to her side. "You guys are doing the right thing giving them a second chance at life."Leaning into the embrace, Shoko felt her worries start to melt away. She moved herself closer against Utahime, slipping her arms around her waist. She kept her eyes closed. "I agree that we're doing the right thing ... but part of me feels ... scared by it all. Like we're luring the fox to the henhouse." Fragments of that night all those years ago came back all at once. The clap of thunder, the smell of wet cement, a hand around her ankle. A sharp pain spread through her residual limb, causing one of her arms to unravel itself from around Utahime to clasp at it. Her face twisted up with pain and determination. "We can't let anything happen to the school. To the students."Utahime's hand settled over Shoko's, squeezing tight. "Look, if anything does happen, we're more than ready for it." She took hold of Shoko's chin with her other hand, making their eyes meet. She felt the other flush against her touch. "I won't let anything happen to you."Shoko leaned forward, giving Utahime a chaste kiss. Once she broke it, she pressed their foreheads together. Seemingly at random, she burst into laughter, echoing words directed at her a few days ago, "What twisted hedonism."Pulling apart to give Shoko a disgruntled look, Utahime shouted, "Eh?! What's that supposed to mean?!"With another chuckle, Shoko ran a hand through her hair, pushing her messy bangs out of her face. "The higher-ups had some shit to say about us dating at our meeting on Saturday," she mused. "They said we were a ..." She rose a finger to her chin as she recalled the exact words. She gave up. "It was that, I think. A twisted hedonist friend group." She laughed once more before falling back against Utahime, who appeared to be steaming at the ears. "They were talking about the lot of us. I suppose all of our dating histories are pretty messy and intertwined." She pulled Utahime closer to her, relishing her rage-fueled warmth, as she dramatically added, "What has the world come to? A bunch of whores and heretics are running Jujutsu Tech!"Utahime didn't laugh, entrenched in her frustration. "I'm sick of those old farts in charge! There's always a problem with them. If it's not 'cause we're gay, it's because we're women," she sneered. "Yaga is useless. Gakuganji and the Kamo and Zenin clans support it. Gojo's head is too far up his own ass to notice or care. This place sucks." She pursed her lips in thought, suddenly brightening up and bouncing excitedly in her seat as an idea came to mind. "Let's start our own school. I know my kids will follow. We might be able to get some of the teachers to go. Dom and Kento, maybe. Y'think the Tokyo kids would come?"With a pensive look, Shoko considered, "Maybe. If we get Gojo to leave with us ..." She then shook her head quickly, as if snapping herself out of a daydream. "If not, I doubt it. I don't think it'd work out without him too ... I'd be pretty worthless as a teacher. I don't really have that uhh ... charm, you and Gojo have with kids and my Technique is pretty useless in a fight. I-""Hold up!" Utahime angrily cut her off.Memories of the last time Shoko had dared to bring this topic up resurfaced in her mind and she instantly lamented ever making the comment. She bit her tongue, a sigh of surrender escaping her.Utahime sat up, forcing Shoko to sit up as well, and firmly grasped her shoulders. "Your Technique is not useless in a fight. You just let yourself get trapped in that mentality back in school and haven't gotten over it since!" She gave her a single earnest shake before adding, more intensely now, "This school would fall apart without your Technique as it is! There’s no doubt you’d be among the Special Grades right now if you worked on expanding on your ability instead of relying on your same tired old tricks.”It was near-impossible to argue with the other woman. Not exactly because she was right, but because she was too damn loud and Shoko was too tired to get into a shouting match. She sighed again, dropping her shoulders. “Look, can we just order something to eat and drop the subject? I’m gonna go to the room and take a nap while we wait on the delivery. You can keep watching TV.”A disappointed demeanor fell over Utahime. She let the other go reluctantly. “Yeah, alright,” she mumbled. Before she could even reach for her phone again, it began to ring. It was a loud obnoxious tone Shoko had forced her to pick so that she’d stop dodging calls. Despite its persistent beeping, she hesitated in answering. Her annoyance had turned to dismay.“Everything okay?” Shoko asked, still sitting beside her.Instead of replying to Shoko, Utahime answered the call. “Mr. Gakuganji?” There was a moment of silence before her face lost its color. Her knuckles grew white from her grip on her phone. “I’m on my way! I’ll be there shortly!” She hung up the call, staring down at her shaking hands in disbelief for a minute before she forced herself to stand.“Hey, is everything okay?” Shoko repeated, her concern more apparently bleeding through her words.It felt like an eternity went by with them both frozen where they were. A war raged in their minds, racing thoughts, panicked fears. Utahime at last spoke, words stilted, “Something happened with my students.”

It was dark.Minerva awoke feeling smothered. She had been dressed in wool pajamas, had the weight of several blankets over her and was coated in a thick layer of sweat. Her curls were sticking to her face, the fabric wrapped around her body was damp. Even her breath came out hot. And yet, despite that, she still felt cold. Very cold. So cold she was quivering."You awake?"In her dreary haze, she was struggling to do much other than shift around on her plush mattress and groan in discomfort - but at the sound of a voice, she jerked up to a seated position, eyes searching for a source.She didn't have to look far.Mahito was sitting at her bedside, cheek cupped in his palm, elbows on the mattress. She could just barely make him out thanks to the dim glow of a nightlight in one corner of the room. His previously bored expression had been replaced with one of excitement."What's happening?" Minerva asked. She felt delirious, as if she were dreaming. With the same speed she had sat up, she crumpled back down. She rose shaking hands to her face in attempts to clear away some of the sweat. "Where am I?" It was as she moved her arms that she realized her shoulder had been mended, not a mark left on her. She was too tired to process it beyond grasping at where there had once been a gaping hole in her body."I patched ya up!" Mahito grinned, giddy with pride. "I fixed your arm after that girl exploded it." He scratched at his chin, now leaning back in the fluffy pink butterfly chair he'd propped up beside her bed. "Your mom said you have a ..." He paused, trying to remember the word. "fever? Told me to stay away. She was real mad. Said she'd skewer me if she saw me near you." He sat up, puffing his chest out victoriously as he added, "Good thing she's too busy setting everything up for that fancy dinner of hers tonight."Minerva blinked slowly, Mahito's words dancing in circles around her. "You'll get in trouble if she sees you here," she mumbled when she finally got the gist of the situation. "You're also very annoying. So leave." The idea of missing the dinner was devastating her. Maybe if she got enough rest, she'd feel better by the time the table was set.Mahito laughed, drumming his hands merrily on the mattress. "But everyone else here either wants to kill me or is boring. You think I wanna spend time with my loser boss, a potted plant and a lava head?" He scoffed at the mere concept before quickly shifting the topic. "Hey, what's a fever?"A loud sigh of exasperation escaped Minerva. "It means I'm sick," she muttered. "I probably went into shock after my arm was blown off and then healed so soon after." Ugh, how embarrassing. And in front of Mahito of all people. As if he didn't already think too highly of himself. The idea of him looking down her would have filled her with immeasurable rage if she hadn't been putting all of her focus and energy into seeing straight and sounding coherent. "It could happen to anyone," she added with a vain sniff. Her teeth began to chatter midway through her sentence, leading her to burrow herself further into her blankets. This was both in attempts to remedy and hide this show of weakness.A look of confusion crossed Mahito's face as he struggled to understand what any of what she said meant. "Are you cold?" he asked, reaching out to touch her.Retreating deeper into her pile of blankets, Minerva whined, "Stop. Don't be weird." Despite her attempts to squirm away, he continued to reach after her. A look of annoyed defeat crossed her face when he finally managed to plant his palm against her face."You feel so hot!" Mahito gasped. "But your teeth are clacking away!" His expression shifted with every sentence, from shock to suspicion to intrigue. "But humans do that when they're ... cold, don't they?" He tapped his chin in contemplation before smugly arriving to his conclusion. "Are you faking it? You're lying for special attention, arentcha?" A sinister smile crept onto his lips.Minerva didn't answer, instead closing her eyes as a wave of nausea and dizziness struck her. Her chest tightened but she kept her breathing steady, worried that if she started gasping for air she'd throw up."Hey?" Mahito called. "Stop being so dramatic!" He stood, pressing his hands into the mattress space beside her. "C'mon! Let's do something! I'm bored!" He shook the bed impatiently, irritated at the perceived theatrics. "Take me for a drive in the car again! I liked that!"Minerva couldn't find the energy to respond, eyes still open but lidded with exhausted delirium. She curled up, breathing labored as she clung to consciousness.Mahito's grin began to fade. "Hey ... Say something," he ordered. He grabbed her shoulder, warmth radiating through her thick stuffy clothing. "Minnie?" He wasn't sure what he was feeling. This ... trepidation was foreign to him. Was he worried? Why would he be? If she died, he could just bring her back, right? He could fix her ... right?"Mahito, please ... I don't feel well ... and I don't want to miss dinner tonight. It's important to me." Minerva spoke at last, just barely getting the words out. "If you can keep quiet, you can stay ... but if you don't stop talking, I'm gonna be the one that skewers you." It was an empty threat, yes, but she was hoping that maybe for once, Mahito would just take the hint and do as requested of him.Giving his options little thought, Mahito climbed into the bed beside her. She was too tired to say anything about his dirty bare feet. He burrowed his way under her blankets, deciding right at that moment that he actually quite enjoyed being near her ... particularly when she was radiating a cozy warmth. He looked surprised when she scooted closer to his side, her forehead resting against his shoulder, but wasn't opposed. He tilted his head, placing it over hers. She felt like sunshine against his skin."Why didn't you kill any of the students back at the arcade?" Minerva breaking the silence was strange given her pleas just a minute ago, and her topic of choice was even stranger. She seemed to be stumbling over her words - tongue tied, making him wonder just how lucid she was. "You could've killed them all if you wanted to ... but you didn't."Mahito pursed his lips. What did it matter? With a roll of his eyes, he asked, "Did you want me to?"At this, Minerva stirred a bit. She drew in a deep breath, cold air filling her aching lungs. Had she wanted them to die? They surely wanted her dead. And they'd have succeeded in killing her if Mahito hadn't stepped in. Her hand went over where her shoulder injury had been, gripping the joint tightly. Her skin was smooth, perfectly reformed. "I don't know," she answered honestly. "I don't think about death really. It's kind of scary to think about, isn't it?" She wanted to turn her head and look at him but everything felt so heavy, as if she was wading through water.Scary? Was death scary? He'd never really stopped to give it any thought. He'd never felt fear before, had he? Was that what he had felt just a few moments ago? Or was that something else? But what was there to fear? Granted, he supposed that humans had a lot more to lose when faced with death but for Curses, death was not permanent. He wondered if it was possible for Minerva to die given her enigmatic biological state. Did she even know? Her injury earlier had not begun any kind of healing process by the time he'd gotten around to fixing it. Would she just have bled out? "Hey, do you-" He stopped himself, having raised his head a bit to peer down at Minerva only to find she'd fallen asleep, her cheeks wet with tears and nose runny.Mahito dropped himself back against the pillow, closing his own eyes with a sigh of surrender. Only the thought of death keeping him company as he waited for her to wake.

Quiet. It was so quiet. And so dark.It seemed that Nanako and Mimiko had not yet come home for the day - though Dominic was starting to have doubts they would ever return after yesterday morning's events. His heart sank at the idea of never seeing them again. The sun had long since set. He supposed there was no point in assuming the worst, and if they did end up coming back, he'd want to have dinner ready for them. It was going to be difficult to explain that he wouldn't be staying to eat with them as he still had his ... meeting to attend. Nanako would likely have a snide remark up her sleeve for him. His lips twitched a bit, a smile trying to form but quickly dissipating as reality and denial dueled in his mind. Were they truly gone forever? Without a goodbye? Did they think he was dangerous? Cruel? Ah, he should get started on their dinner. If it were up to them, they'd be eating instant noodles and candy every night, he thought.And yet, he just stood there. In the unlit hall, hands at his sides, fingers bound tight around the sturdy handle of his briefcase. His head felt like static, thoughts buzzing so quickly they were difficult to make sense of.The day came back to him in fragments, as if he was peering through a kaleidoscope. He felt accomplished, albeit exhausted. The mission had gone surprisingly well, though a bit rocky at first. Kento had even bought him some treats from his favorite bakery to congratulate him on the success. He had assisted Nobara in taking steps to furthering her Jujutsu Sorcery career. He had managed to make it through an entire workday without having to deal with Satoru’s Gojoisms. How long had it been since he’d had a nice day?A voice cut through the silence, smooth like a hot knife through butter. It was as if she’d sensed his contentedness. "Congratulations. You did a good job today." A pause. "But then again, you've always been good at doing what you're told. What all did you really teach those kids anyway? They don't respect you. No one does."Visceral rage welled up inside him. It churned his stomach, sent goosebumps up his forearms. The sense of self-fulfillment was drained from him. He was worthless again, meaningless. Empty. With a swift and sudden movement, Dominic sent his attaché hurtling down the corridor. It hit the wall at the very end, one of the corners busting a hole in the cheap drywall before the case hit the floor with a clatter."Tsk tsk. You've always had such a temper. Your landlord's not gonna be happy about that. Better it patch it up quick."Dominic was rooted to where he stood, shaking hands rising to his head. He clutched bunches of his hair, closing his eyes and inhaling deep. He needed to keep a level head. The girls would be home any minute and the bruises and swelling on his face were only now beginning to fade."Are you crying again? You're so quick to throw your own pity party. What are you even crying about now?""I'm not crying!" he retorted, dropping his hands from his head but clenching them into tight and angry fists at his sides. One thing grew overwhelmingly present in his mind; the meeting with the higher-ups that morning had yielded plenty of new information, all of it equally horrifying but there was one thing that had been clinging to his spirit all day like a fabric pill to an old wool sweater. The words came up out of him like vomit. "What did you do to Satoru?! Tell me! Right now!""Oh, you've been thinking about this all day, haven't you?"Dominic ignored her question, pressing for answers of his own. "We both heard what the higher-ups said this morning. You need to tell me the truth, mother. Or I ... I'll ..." He was nearly hyperventilating, entire body shaking with emotion. His words formed a tangled web in his mouth."You'll what? Go on. What will you do?"Dominic swayed on his feet, hand pressing to the wall to keep himself steady. He took a moment to regain his composure. "Was Satoru your student?" he asked after a long silence. His voice was low again, restrained."Yes."With a disbelieving and disconnected nod, Dominic followed up with his next question. "Your absences from home ... You were off ... teaching him?" His tremoring had extended itself to his voice. An "absence" was a polite way of putting it. It was more like a reprieve. For him, at least. It seemed that a respite for him came at a steep cost for others."Are you jealous?"Dominic felt his skin crawl. "Answer my question!" he demanded."Yes. I was his mentor until the day you killed me.""Why hasn't he told me this?" The next words came in a rush, tripping over himself to get them out. "After all these years? Why has he never told me about you being his mentor?""That's something you should ask him. My question for you is-"Dominic cut her off, his distress rising with his voice. "He would have told me! Did you erase his memories of you? Of what you did?""I did not. You should know all of this. I don't understand why you don't. Maybe if you'd drop your whole 'beast of burden' act and put your power to good use, you'd have a clue of what was happening around you." Derailment. "You could have the world in the palm of your hands if you wanted, do you know that? Our family has been closely bonded to the Gojo clan for centuries. Do you know why that is?"Her words were barely registering in his head."I don't care.""Nevermind the Gojo clan. Nevermind Satoru." Deflection. She was starting to panic. "Why don't you remember any of this, Nicky? You knew. You should remember. You're worrying me."Dominic's eyes narrowed. She had to be lying. How could he have known if no one had told him? Had someone told him? Had he forgotten? Had she made him forget? "I don't care for this conversation anymore. I'm tired of this." A sharp pain spread through his head and he visibly winced. "Stop!" His hands rose to his temples, the ache in his head persistent."You-""I quit." Ah, those words again. Did he mean them this time like he did the first time he spoke them? Or would they be as meaningless as the countless other times that followed? "I'm turning in my resignation tomorrow morning and I'm exorcising you upon their request for me to turn you over. I'll return to the seminary and never have anything to do with you or this school again." Seminary? No, he'd cause them too much trouble. There would be only one true way out of this, but he was too afraid to voice it. Would anyone even care?Silence fell over the room and for once, he felt like he'd won. Was this what it felt like to be in control?"You'll abandon your duty? A second time?""I owe no one but myself allegiance. I've been playing this game ... for so long. It doesn't matter how I choose to play it, the only way to truly win is by stepping away from it all together." A second sharp pain shot through Dominic's head, as if a bullet ricocheted off the inside of his skull. His knees wobbled. "I've long since learned how to block your attacks. I've built a wall too tall for you to climb and too strong for you to break down." He rubbed at his eyes, trying to rid himself of the stars that filled his vision. "I'll never let you in." I'll never let anyone in."I haven't done anything." Redirection. "I asked you a question earlier, about the Gojo clan. I want you to answer it.""I said I don't care!""You will answer me.""I don't know. You know I don't. You're using that as leverage to condescend to me.""Do you know why you carry my name and not your father's?""No.""Why your father left us? Why the higher-ups detest you? Why they spared you after what you did to me? Why Satoru loves you? Why he hates you? Why you killed me? What purpose this seemingly pointless never-ending game has? Do you know anything, you stupid boy? Do you think anyone but me has the answers to these questions?!"Dominic sighed. It was drawn out and tired. He approached his briefcase, slow but steady. Crouching down beside it, he picked the case up by its handle. He stood it up before him, running his hand overtop it in a soothing motion. "You're afraid. I understand. The end is drawing near for you. I will take no joy in ending you. I have nothing but pity and resentment to feel for you." He brought the briefcase closer to him, cradling it in his arms, pressing it to his chest. "There are many questions I have that won't ever be answered and I must and will find closure without them.""Don't kill me, Nicky. Please."A low hum escaped Dominic, monotonous at first before wavering into the sweet melody of a lullaby. He closed his eyes, warm tears rolling down his cheeks. His fingers caressed the smooth leather exterior of his briefcase. His song of farewell was quiet, private, carrying with it both grief and enlightenment. He just needed to get through dinner tonight and tomorrow, it would all be over.

Content Warnings: body horror, minor gore, and canon typical violence.

An angry screech pierced the morning air. Clouds of dust and debris billowed around the massive Curse as it made way through the crumbling building. Its amorphous deep green yellow speckled body was slick with a thick putrid slime, leaving a trail on the ground as it used the bulking humanoid arms at the front of its body to drag itself across the pavement. It headed further up the car park, traveling surprisingly quick. The intruders seemed to be of no interest to the Vengeful Curse, instead its vivid yellow eyes rolled about in their sockets searching for something else."Everyone, stick together!" Dominic's order fell on deaf ears. He tried his best not to look exasperated as the teens split up, some taking cover while others searched for vantage points. He took cover behind a nearby beam as the Curse traveled past him, drooling and snorting as it aimlessly wandered up to the next level.Dominic's attention was divided when he felt a tug on the back of his shirt.Hibiki was hanging her head. "Please, don't hurt my daddy," she whispered. Though he could not see her face through her thick long bangs, he could hear the tears in her voice. "He doesn't mean it. He's just sad."Realization dawned that their assumption that she had been protecting them was in fact wrong. She was protecting him. "Of course," he reassured. "We're here to help. I need you to stay somewhere safe while we work though, okay?" He did his best to offer the young girl a comforting smile, though the reminder that he'd be doing this while looking after unexpectedly contrarian teenagers made it waver.The child lingered for a moment, shifting from foot to foot, looking hesitant; before she eventually nodded and vanished into the shadows."Yuji! Don't!"Megumi's cry stole back Dominic's focus. There was little time for observation and strategy. The priest sprinted forward upon spotting his unruly student leaping down towards the Vengeful Spirit from a loose overhead beam. A powerful blue surge of Cursed Energy formed at the knuckles of his clenched fist.The Curse turned suddenly with shocking speed and dexterity given its size, jaw unhinging as it moved to bite at him.Yuji resumed his attack regardless, face contorted with determination - however, he was successfully intercepted by his teacher, who tackled him around the waist and out of the way of the jagged toothed maw as it clamped shut. The two landed near the railing along the building's edge, Dominic using his own body to shield Yuji from the impact as they bounced and rolled."What was that for?!" The teen was quick to push away from his teacher, looking both confused and frustrated. "I thought we tamed the other one already? How're we supposed to tame this one when it's just a monster?" He rubbed at his head, wincing when his fingers grazed a tender spot. "You said before that some Curses can be tamed and others can't! How is this one that can be?""Mr. Weon! Yuji! Are you guys okay?!" Panda had run over to the two of them, Toge and Megumi on his heels.Dominic had sat up, winded from the landing. "I am pleading with you all to listen to me." Just what in the hell was Satoru teaching these kids? There was no cohesion. They acted impulsively and refused to follow instructions. They were bullheaded and rebellious. They were- Oh. He sighed loudly. "We are working together on this. Our goal is not to exorcise the Curse, but to tame it. If there are two, we will tame both. If one can not communicate, we will find a way. If we attack it, it will only escalate the situation which will in turn make the Curse more difficult to tame.""But-""This isn't up for debate! If you refuse to follow orders, I will send you down to wait with Mr. Ijichi!" Dominic didn't remember the last time he'd raised his voice towards a student. In fact, he didn't think there had ever been a time. But the situation was starting to get out of hand. He couldn't fail at this. He couldn't. Call him selfish but it was important to him that he didn't. "Please, Itadori. This will be an important lesson for you." He softened his voice now, brows furrowed as he pled.Yuji downcast his gaze, frowning deeply. His head perked back up when he felt Megumi's firm grasp on his shoulder. The two exchanged looks; one of reassurance, the other troubled. "I'm sorry," the blonde said after a while. "I'll listen."The ground shook suddenly, caused by the creature's trailing tail knocking over cement pillars as it vanished around the corner."It's not attacking any of us," Megumi recapped as he dropped his hand, simply observing the Curse as it left their line of sight. "It only seems to become violent when engaged first. It keeps ... sniffing? At least, I think it is. It might be looking for something."Dominic stood, dusting off his clothes and picking up his briefcase. "Let's follow it closely and observe. It's good that it's not hostile but, as Itadori pointed out, it not being able to speak presents us with some difficulty," he said. "However, that's never stopped us before." He nodded towards Toge, who widened his eyes in response."I can use my Shikigami to lure it somewhere where we can corner it and you can ..." Megumi's voice trailed. "talk to it? We know it can't speak but can it hear? It has eyes but can it even see? I never really considered a Curse's physiology before." He frowned a bit. "It doesn't seem to have any spatial awareness, the way it keeps bumping into walls and knocking things over. Either that or it doesn't care."Panda interrupted, "Since it engaged when Itadori attacked it, do you think it reacts when it senses Cursed Energy?""That would make sense considering when it first appeared was right after the Cursed Spirit girl used some of her Cursed Energy to try and get us to go away," Megumi replied, fingers drumming at his chin in thought. "If that's the case then I can definitely use my Shikigami to lure it somewhere. We would just need to think of how to tame it once we have it where we want it.""Leave that to me," Dominic nodded. "Try and lead it up to the roof. We'll have more space and visibility. Let's-""Hey, teach!" Maki called out from further up the parking garage ramp, awkwardly scratching at the back of her neck. She wore a look of vexation, her other hand gripping tightly the hilt of her sheathed katana.Dominic looked her way."Notice anyone missing?"

The pillars offered good enough cover. Well at least they did when the gross slimeball Curse wasn't knocking shit over. Nobara kept low, eyeing the creature as it pulled itself up the parking garage. Could it not sense her? With a roll of her eyes, she dismissed her own curiosity. Obviously not. It was a brainless monster. It was just set out to kill, to hurt, to destroy.Narrowing her eyes, Nobara moved to step out but a sudden grasp of her arm made her turn. She'd raised her hammer defensively but lowered it when she faced Jasper. "Don't sneak up on me, you idiot!" she hissed before yanking her arm out of their grasp. "And don't touch me!""I-I'm sorry!" Jasper squeaked, hands up in a show of surrender. "B-But I ... I think what you're doing is wrong!" Just speaking the words caused a wave of anxiety and nausea to overcome them. They had mulled over the confrontation the entire time they'd been following her, trying to work up the nerve to be honest. "Why choose to kill when you can have mercy?"Nobara grabbed at the front of their overalls, the fabric caught in her tight fist as she pulled them closer to her. "You don't have as much experiences with Curses as we do so I'll cut you some slack but you need to stay out of my damn way," she growled."No!" Jasper blurted, expression still stricken with terror. "I-I won't let you!" With a hard shove from their classmate, their back hit the cement pillar behind them. Though the show of aggression rattled them, it didn't stop them. "Please, Kugisaki! We can tame the Curse together! No one has to die!"Pointing a finger towards the beast, Nobara barked, "That thing isn't sentient! It's not like you or me! It doesn't have feelings or thoughts! It barely has a life! It only wants to hurt and kill people! People we care about! Are you gonna let it?!" She then jabbed her finger into Jasper's chest. "'cause if you are, you're in the wrong line of work!"Jasper's words were caught in their throat. They fiddled their fingers, eyes wide and misty. They could prattle on for an eternity in their attempts to reason with her but they'd be wasting their breath. It didn't matter if what they said made any sense, she didn't want to listen to them."Stay out of my way if you're not going to help," Nobara growled before turning to face the Curse again, tightening her grip on her hammer as she neared it. Her Cursed Energy filled her, bubbling up from the rage in her chest. The nails she clutched between her fingers dug into her palm from how tightly they were held.As her Cursed Energy grew, the Vengeful Spirit turned to face her. One of its hands rose, knuckles scraping against the ceiling above it, before crashing down towards her. Its limb broke through the level, sending a pall of rubble and debris up into the air.Jasper rose their arms to shield their face. "Kugisaki!" they cried. "Are you okay?!"There was no verbal response but Nobara's sudden re-emergence from the cloud of dust came as an answer. She readied her hammer to take a shot but a sideways swipe of the Curse's arm made her readjust her strategy. She ducked low to the ground, the wind from the power of the arm swinging so closely overhead sending her hair and uniform billowing."Kugisaki!""Shut up already!" Nobara was screaming at Jasper now, rolling to the side and regaining her footing in time to avoid a second attack.The Curse screeched, growing frustrated.At last, Jasper caved to their fallback. "I'm getting Mr. Weon!" They wiped tears from their cheeks onto the sleeves of their long-sleeved undershirt.Nobara looked bewildered. "Are you fucking ki-" She stopped herself. Her eyes widened upon seeing both the Curse's hulking arms coming down on her a second too late. Her knees buckled. Move! Idiot! What's wrong with you?! Her mind went blank.The last thing she remembered before everything went dark was a face full of slime and arms around her waist.It didn't last long. In the moment it took for someone to break through the surface of the ocean and take a breath, Nobara awakened. She blindly reached around her until she finally felt another form beside her. Her fingers brushed against neatly coiled twists and immediately recognized Jasper. She grabbed at their shirt again, giving them a hard shake. "What did you do!?" she yelled. They were unresponsive. She blinked hard, trying to get her eyes to work and when nothing changed, her anger turn to panic. Was she blind? Was Jasper dead? Were they both dead? Was this her fault?She couldn't sense the Cursed Spirit any longer. She wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing yet. She wrapped her arms around Jasper's waist and hoisted them up. "C'mon, let's get out of here," she mumbled as she wrapped their arm around her shoulder and grabbed tightly onto their waist."I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."Nobara stopped in her tracks, looking around her once again without success. The voice sounded farther away but it was growing closer. The apologies uttered growing more and more frantic. She reached to her holster, searching for her hammer but found it missing much to her aggravation. It seemed she would just have to figure another way out of this. "You should probably wake up now," she said to Jasper. Even if they were useless in a fight and although it might be pathetic to admit, she really didn't want to be alone right now. Wary about calling out for her teacher and classmates out of concern that it'd call forth whatever was roaming about crying and whining, Nobara kept her focus on finding an exit."I'm so sorry. Please, forgive me."The person the voice belonged to was definitely traveling, getting closer and closer to them, despite Nobara making an effort to move away from them. She was unsure that she'd be able to defend both herself and Jasper in the pitch dark if something attacked them, and that uncertainty was starting to eat away at her usually steely nerves.As she went on, she was starting to feel that no matter how much or how long she felt she walked, she was not making any progress. After what felt like an eternity of aimless staggering, she gave way into her trepidation. She clutched Jasper closer to her side. "Is this you? Did you do this?" she asked, not really expecting an answer. "Whenever something weird happens lately, it's got something to do with you." Talking helped a bit, even if the conversation was one-sided."Sorry," Jasper groaned, startling her. On instinct, she released them and they fell to the ground with a pained oof."You scared me! I thought you were dead!" Nobara yelled down at the spot where she presumed Jasper laid. Her angry tone hid her relief. "Where are we?!"Red. There was bright red suddenly, all around them, in the form of eyes. She winced, her own eyes having adjusted to the dark, but kept her wits about her. She looked all around them, feeling her skin crawl under the scrunity of a thousand gazes, before looking down, now able to make Jasper out in the dim glow. "Are you doing this?!""I don't know!" Jasper yelled, overwhelmed and disoriented. "Just ..." They shut their mouth but allowed themself to finish the thought in their head, be quiet. After a moment to gather their bearings, they pushed themself up onto their feet. "This is ... my thinking room." They didn't take a moment to take in their surroundings. This place was immediately familiar to them. A home."Thinking room?" Nobara asked, brows furrowing."I come here when I feel overwhelmed. I go to sleep in the real world and just stay in here and think," Jasper mumbled. Did other people not having thinking rooms? Or did they call it something else?"You're telling me that we're in some crazy alternate world in your weirdo brain and our bodies are asleep in the real world while there's a Curse running around destroying the place?""No," Jasper replied bluntly, too tired to emote."What, out of everything I said, was wrong?!"Jasper pointed across from them, where a body was knelt and curled into itself. It was hard to make out who it was, shadow cast over them. They certainly weren't wearing a school uniform, their day clothes tattered and stained with blood. Their mangled hands clutched at tufts of thinning hair. The apologies that had once been chasing Nobara around this strange prison had become a chant, a low rumble escaping their guest. "The Curse is here with us too," they mumbled."H-Huh?" Nobara turned, wide eyed. "But-"Jasper walked passed her, approaching the stranger."Where are you going?!" Nobara begrudgingly followed after her classmate."To talk to them," Jasper shrugged.Nobara wanted to shout, to call them dumb, to stamp her foot and demand that they cut all this shit out. But she didn't. Instead she stayed close to Jasper's side, crossing her arms to keep from fidgeting her fingers.As they drew closer, a man came into view. He seemed startled by them, raising his head with a gasp. One of his eyes dangled from its socket, his face swollen and bloody, skin split. His legs beneath him were mangled, bone and ligaments exposed. Tears leaked from his one functional eye. He rose his hands pleadingly towards them. "I'm so sorry! Please, understand!" He cried, speckles of blood flying from his lips."Why are you apologizing?" Jasper asked, maintaining a safe distance.The man's arms fell limp at his sides and he hung his head, a wave of shame and humiliation washing over him. "My daughter. My Hibiki. She's ..." His voice faded. "and I'm the reason for it. I'm a fool!" His voice grew louder, echoing all around them. "A murderer!"Jasper looked to Nobara, who's expression was difficult to read. Her lips had curled back into a judgmental sneer but her brows had furrowed. It was hard to decipher whether this was a look of compassion or disgust. She met Jasper's gaze before shrugging. It was obvious she was uncomfortable."It can't be helped. I'm a horrible father. As I was a horrible husband." The man's hands rose to his face, making more of a mess of the blood and tears on his cheeks. "Just end me. It's what I deserve."Jasper's eyes widened as they cried out, "Your daughter is still alive ... kind of." They nervously twiddled their fingers. "You have an opportunity to apologize to her yourself, to make things right.""I don't deserve such mercy," the man yelped. "I don't deserve anything but death!""Will you shut up?!" Nobara barked.Both the man and Jasper gaped at her, shocked."Listen, I know it's a lot easier for you to sit and cry about your mistakes instead of actually doing anything to fix them but you're being given a chance to make this right!" Nobara's hands had balled up into tight fists. "There are people out there who've done way less worse things than you and aren't given this same opportunity, and you're just gonna throw it away?! Because you feel sorry for yourself?!"The man didn't respond, only stared up at her.Jasper cut in, anxiously tugging and twisting at the straps of their overalls. "I know what it's like to feel shame after messing up ... I've been doing a lot of that myself lately ... but the least you can do is learn from it and be better." They lowered their head. "What's the point of punishing yourself for it for forever? The people who you hurt won't ever get their closure and you'll stay the same.""You're right ... I know you're right ..." The man recoiled into himself, hands clasping the sides of his head. "But what's the point of it all? What does it matter if I get better? Look at me ... My family is already broken. I'll never get it back!"Nobara's hands snapped to her hips and she leaned forward. "Your daughter is still out there! Yeah, you're all roughed up but you have a chance to fix things with her! A ..." She paused, face twisting up for a moment before she finished in a quieter tone. "A second chance at life.""Things won't be the same but they'll be better than they are now. We'll make sure of that," Jasper smiled. "We're here to help you, after all.""Help me ...?" The man echoed.Around them, eyes began to close one by one.Jasper's knees gave out beneath them but Nobara caught them before they hit the ground. "What's going on?" she asked. "Jasper?"A blinding light overcame them."Nobara!!"Relief came over her as the smell of the old decrepit parking garage filled her nose. The sound of her teacher and classmates calling for her and Jasper reached her ears. Comforting arms helped her sit up. "Ahh," she groaned as she opened her eyes. "Will you quit shouting?! I'm fine!"Itadori was clinging to her side, eyes wide and watery. "We couldn't find you or Jasper or the Curse anywhere!" he yelled, too riled up to mind her request for volume moderation. "And when we did find you, you were both knocked out! We were so worried!"Nobara didn't get a chance to reply."Jasper isn't responsive. You all return to the school immediately and take them to Ms. Ieiri," Dominic called. Beside him, Megumi was carrying their unconscious classmate on his back. The priest did well in masking his concern, keeping his stoic countenance. "I'll stay and find the Cursed Spirit.""Uh, teach! There's no need for that," Maki called further down the ways.All eyes went to her before shifting to Hibiki beside her. In her small hands was a palm-sized creature. A much smaller version of the Curse they had previously witnessed. Its small sluglike body was curled up in her palm, eyes blinking up at the group staring at it."Thank you for helping my daddy!" Hibiki beamed.Dominic blinked, looking rather puzzled, before looking at Nobara. "You tamed the Cursed Spirit?" he asked.Nobara puffed out her cheeks and rolled her eyes. "Well ... Jasper helped ..." she muttered. Her murderous look intensified when Dominic smiled at her. "It was no big deal! Whatever!" She swatted Itadori away from her when he moved to give her a congratulatory hug."Let's get you all back to the school. We can talk about what happened more in depth after we get you and Jasper checked in with Ms. Ieiri." Dominic resigned himself to postponing his curiosity.Nobara sighed, glancing around at her classmates as they all followed Dominic out towards the parking garage exit. She stood, dusting off the back of her skirt."Ms. Sorceror."Nobara's head perked up, quirking a brow at the young girl that stood before her."Thank you again!"With a grimace, Nobara awkwardly tucked her hair behind her ear. "It's ... fine. Just stay out of trouble and do what Mr. Weon tells you to do, alright?""We will! Promise!" Hibiki insisted before hurrying off to catch up with the others.A sudden hand on her shoulder made Nobara tense, but she quickly relaxed when she saw Maki at her side. "Hey," she mumbled, starting to feel exhaustion creep up on her."You did good," Maki smiled, snaking her arm around her shoulders and ushering her along over the shattered lot floor. "You feelin' alright?"Nobara's mind raced for an answer. Was she feeling alright? She was still shaking a little. Her nerves were in knots. She was still trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. Jasper's thinking room, the man behind the Vengeful Spirit, Hibiki's display of gratitude, talk of mercy, subjugation and violence. It was overwhelming, but there was no use in concerning anyone with the convoluted diatribe in her mind."Yeah," she answered. "Just tired."

Content Warnings: body horror, minor gore, and canon typical violence.

"Let's watch the scene again!" Roger sounded excited, voice tremoring with emotion. They were close to a big breakthrough - a grand evolution of power. "You've got the loud bit down but you're missing the most important thing." He turned away from his daughter and towards the large flat screen TV on the wall before them. With a press of the rewind button on the remote, still frames flashed on the screen as the disc returned them to an earlier point in the story; the gore and viscera was undone, the terror and fear had yet to come. Roger let the movie play for a few seconds, allowing for the protagonist to sense her attacker behind her. He paused just as she turned. "It needs to be real. You have to feel it. If you don't, it'll look rehearsed."Minerva took in the look of unmitigated horror on the woman's face. She practiced furrowing her brows like her, quirking her lips like her, squinting her eyes like her - before she stopped and turned her head towards Roger. "I don't understand," she muttered. "She knows she's filming a scene in a movie. How is her fear real?"With an urging point towards the TV, Roger persisted. "Don't you see it in her eyes? The vulnerability? The screaming is pointless, she knows that. It won't stop the knife coming down on her - but it's all she can do." He took hold of her shoulder. "She might not be scared of the killer or the knife because she knows that he's an actor and it's a prop - but she's pulling from real fears. It's not the killer or the knife, it's what they represent to her.""I still don't get it," Minerva sighed, growing agitated."What scares you, Minnie?" Roger crossed his arms. A half-smile dressed his lips.It took a few moments but eventually Minerva shrugged her shoulders and said, "Nothing, I think."Roger burst out laughing. "Oh, yeah? I remember a certain little girl climbing into her parent's bed in the middle of the night because she had a nightmare that a giant spider was trying to eat her.""I was five," Minerva bit out, nostrils flaring.Roger didn't answer, clutching his sides as they cramped up from his guffaws.Spiral-eyed gaze returning to the TV screen, Minerva contemplated. "Mom says fear is weakness," she mumbled. "Even if it is to gain some kind of advantage, wouldn't tapping into personal emotional vulnerability for the sake of sincerity leave you ... exposed? Won't opening yourself up to feelings like this weaken you?"Roger scratched at the back of his head. "Listen, everyone's got fears. Even me. Even your mom. Fears don't make you weak, they make you ... well, you." His eyes were narrowed in concentration, seemingly putting all his focus into his words. "Your mom can say all she wants that she has no fears, that's bullshit. It's just ..." He paused, pursing his lips."Just?" Minerva urged, eyes gleaming with interest.Roger laughed again, though this time it was more a gentle chuckle than his earlier roar of laughter. "I don't really know. I kinda forgot the point I was trying to make. Maybe I shouldn't've tried to sound smart." He rose the remote, pointing it towards his daughter. "Either way, I think you got some kinda idea in your head so let's try it again." He pressed play. "Action."The bunker was gone, replaced with the dim interior of the photobooth. The tranquility of her home was gone, replaced by upbeat chiptunes, children excitedly shouting over one another, the emulated sounds of gunfire, cars racing and spaceships taking flight. Roger was gone, replaced by another slimy but charming little bastard.Mahito had been staring at her, face twisted up with both impatience and confusion. "So, what's the plan?" He barely got through the sentence before Minerva started to shriek.It was a guttural bonechilling scream, enough to make one's blood turn to ice in their veins. She stumbled out from inside the photobooth, tearing the curtains from their rod on her way out. She was tripping over her own feet in her desperation to flee. "HELP ME! PLEASE!" Tears fell from her eyes, her hands trembled as they outstretched to those who would help her. Her saviors. "THAT THING IS GOING TO KILL ME!"Eyes immediately darted her way, patrons too shocked by the sudden display of distress to immediately investigate the cause of it. Neither fight or flight kicked in quite yet as the small crowd struggled to assess the situation. This gave Mahito the time he needed. His limbs began to expand, fingernails growing and sharpening and hardening. His skin stretched, yielding to the sudden bulging and contortion of his muscles. As he doubled and tripled in height, the photobooth gave in to the expanding mass within it and broke apart. He fell forward onto his palms, proceeding on all fours. His hair grew with him, falling over his face in matted and unkempt chaos. His face became feline in form, drool stringing from his maw as his mismatched eyes twitched in the direction of those around him. He inhaled deeply, the excitement festering in his stomach sending chills up his spine. He then lunged forward, eyes glowing with delight.The tremor of the ground with every leap forward he took helped fuel Minerva's performance. She couldn't help the glee that bubbled within her at the sight of the spectators scrambling over one another towards the exit. Using this chaos to their advantage, they'd certainly win. And yet, there was a budding seed of doubt in her mind. She was displaying fear, right? She sounded just like that woman in the movie, at least to her own ears, but was she feeling it? This couldn't be what fear felt like. This felt too good. Her targets stood in front of her, unmoving pillars of strength and confidence amidst the sea of terror and fear all around them. They didn't seem nearly as shaken as she hoped they'd be. She extended her hands towards the one front and center. Aoi Todo, wearing his concern on his face as plain as day. He took hold of her, only to quickly guide her behind him, moving surprisingly delicately. The others at his sides were forming a barrier around her. Success!"You'll be okay, miss," Aoi promised, turning to face Mahito as the Curse skidded to a halt right before them. "I'll make sure this beast won't hurt you.""It's not him you should be worried about," Minerva was beaming now, all prior feigned fear and panic gone from her. She had leapt up, arms wrapped tight around his neck. She propped her chin on her arm, legs cinched at his sides. "What's wrong? Cat got your tongue?"Try as he might, he could not follow his own demands to react, to throw her off, to run, to do anything but stand there and stare. He couldn't even speak. He had become a passenger of his own body. His Cursed Energy was a raging fire but hers was a thick quilt, smothering his flames to cinders.Mai was the first to move, drawing her gun. She would have succeeded in blowing a hole in the back of Minerva's head if a playful kitten hadn't intervened. Just as her finger curled around the trigger, Mahito's paw swiped at her, sending her crashing through the protective glass top of a pinball machine. The gun went off, the Cursed bullet blowing a hole in the arcade ceiling before the gun skidded off into the shadows of the now mostly empty arcade.It was as the Jujutsu students began to react that Minerva maneuvered Aoi out of the way, making him leap to his right towards Miwa and Mechamaru. She moved them just in time to dodge Noritoshi's Convergence, the beam of solidified red blood cratering the floor where Aoi once stood. Upon landing Minerva lost his balance, forcing him to roll forward and back onto his feet. She grunted under his weight as he rolled over her, repositioning herself on his back to keep herself from slipping.She didn't have much time to get comfortable. Mechamaru took a powerful swing towards Minerva's arms in an attempt to separate the two, but Aoi's hand caught him, stopping him right before he was able to make contact. The blades along the side of his mechanical arm sliced into his classmate's calloused palm.Minerva hid the pain reflected in her own palm well. Well enough to mock, "Whoops! You'll kill your classmate at this rate!" She caught a glance from Mechamaru over her shoulder, shifting Aoi suddenly so he turned at a 90 degree angle, just in time to catch the blade of Miwa's katana. The sharp edge nearly severed his thumb off.Fuck! Why did you catch it, idiot?! Minerva mentally castigated herself, biting down on her lips to keep from yelping at the stinging pain in her own finger. She stole a glance at her hand in a fruitless attempt to convince herself it wasn't real. 'Dodging needs to become an innate reaction for you. It doesn't make you a coward, it makes you smart.' Roger's advice echoed in her mind, making her heart fill with sorrow. He'd be so disappointed in her."Todo! I'm so sorry!" Miwa's shout snapped Minerva out of her thoughts. Terror filled the Jujutsu student's face upon realization of what she'd done. "I'm so-""Miwa!" Mechamaru shouted but it was too late.Using Aoi's vice grip on the sword, Minerva pulled Miwa close enough to her to get his usable fingers around the collar of her jacket. She swung her around, sending her slamming into Mechamaru which therein sent both of them flying back into the nearest arcade cabinet. The machine gave into their weight and momentum, collapsing into itself.Minerva looked towards Mahito, rolling her eyes at the sight of him dangling Mai upside down with her foot in his mouth. Wholly uninterested in the display, she turned away from the pathetic scene, instead searching for Momo and Noritoshi. Shit, where'd they go? To get help? Or hiding in the shadows waiting for us to drop our guards?"Lost track of them?" Aoi asked in a breathy laugh.Shit.Minerva silenced her thoughts. "Hm? Lost track of who?" she asked. She had been so enthusiastic about entertaining Mahito's violent cravings that an irritating downside to her technique had slipped her mind; which was to say just how deep the connection between her and her puppets went. Full access to her thoughts and emotions wasn't too much of a hassle for her, albeit uncomfortably invasive. However, the fact that Aoi was now able to talk was cause for concern. Him determining her attacks as she planned them and warning his classmates would prove itself a problem. How her Cursed Energy was this low so soon, she didn't know but in her attempts to keep him from overhearing her thoughts due to the link they presently shared, she forced herself to put off worrying about it. Or anything, for that matter."Your mind went so quiet all of a sudden. Your thoughts were racing just a moment ago. What happened? Don't want me to know you're panicking?" Aoi chuckled. "You're too distracted when you fight. You need to work on your focus.""Feeling cocky enough to give me pointers?" Minerva sniffed.The conversation was cut short when a hand grasped a fistful of her hair, jerking her head back in an attempt to yank her off of Aoi. Her arms tensed and kept their hold, though a painful crack resounded from her neck from the sudden strain. "Let go of my fucking hair!" she screamed before Mechamaru could get a word in. The sensation of the intrusive fingers gripping her curls and pulling made her skin crawl. "Don't touch me! Bastard!" One of her hands released Aoi and instead grasped Mechamaru's wrist, careful to avoid cutting her own fingers on his exposed blades. It was a stupid decision to halve her Energy into trying to control two puppets but she couldn't think of any other way to get Mechamaru to release her. Please, she thought. Please, work.Nothing.Fuck!Minerva refocused on Aoi, making him spin suddenly and reach for Mechamaru's head with his less seriously injured hand. She could feel the pinching of hair being plucked from her scalp at the sudden motion. Fingers clasped around the front of the robot's face."Your efforts are futile," Kokichi's voice came from the voicebox within the Cursed puppet's mouth. "You will lose.""Eat shit," Minerva growled, throwing Aoi's arm back and dislodging the faceplate from the robot's head. Wires tore, screws sprung loose. Mechamaru's hands blindly reached upwards, as if searching for its face. She made Aoi duck low, sweeping his leg under the other's and knocking him off balance. As soon as he was on the floor and before he had a second to react, she put Aoi's foot through his chest. The brightly colored tiled floor beneath them splintering from the force.Minerva didn't take a second to gather her thoughts, instead once again looking around her for any other attackers. A sudden burst of wind hit her, almost succeeding in peeling her off of Aoi's back. Her nails dug into his skin as she fought to hold on, grimacing as she in turn felt the clawing in her own chest."I get it now. The only reason you haven't drained all your Cursed Energy yet is because when you attack, you're using mine. Am I right?"Minerva didn't answer, bracing herself when she finally spotted Momo circling above them while perched on her broom. A second burst of air followed a whip of her broom, once again causing Minerva to cling onto Aoi with all she could."Oh, is that a birdy?" For once, Mahito's voice came as a relief. He leapt towards them, attention diverted from the unconscious teen he'd had in his clutches. His massive paws swiped at Momo, who was just barely managing to dodge each one. "Just the perfect treat for a kitty cat like me!"Momo snorted. "I don't think you've ever seen a cat before!" She took to flying in a fast and teasing circle around his head, occasionally sticking her tongue out. Her eyes, though, they'd wander towards Mai across the room. Worry shown in her eyes as she continued playing the role of mischief maker."Look out!" Minerva shouted just as, from his hiding spot behind some vending machines, Noritoshi sent out another dangerous beam of Convergence.A hole opened up in Mahito's head and at first Minerva had thought Noritoshi succeeded in hitting his mark but as the skin, muscle and bone all began to regrow she realized he had willed it to allow the attack to pass through. The blood beam, however, blew a hole through the wall by the front desk, where the attendant hid curled up behind said desk.With a scowl, Noritoshi sprinted out from his hiding spot, searching for another vantage point. As Minerva moved to follow, a strong grip on Aoi's ankle prevented her from doing so. She looked down to see Mechamaru, having dragged itself over to them, fingers clamped on Aoi's leg. Frustrated, she swung his leg back, giving Mechamaru's head a hard enough kick to dislodge it from its body, sending it spinning somewhere into the arcade."Stop fucking around, Mahito!" Minerva ordered before clapping Aoi's hands together.Now replacing her was a disoriented Noritoshi.Behind a row of arcade machines, Minerva took a moment to clear her head. Mahito could deal with Momo and Noritoshi in the meantime. It had become overly apparent that he wasn't even close to using his full strength. He could end this whenever he wanted to ... so why hadn't he? Was he having fun? Was she? Stopping her thoughts proved more difficult than anticipated. It was like trying to keep a tide from rising. Water slipping through her fingers, overwhelming her and washing her away. She closed her eyes, suddenly very aware of how much she was shaking."Scared? I can feel your heart racing against my back," Aoi broke the silence. "You know, I could've taken control back at several points this whole time. You get so preoccupied about everything going on that you get all jumbled up and forget about you." There was a pause. "Not in that you don't protect yourself. You've been doing pretty good on that end. You just forget about you, as a person. You lose control because you let yourself get distracted by and concerned about things that're irrelevant."

Minerva's expression grew cold. "Is this little critique meant to serve as a distraction then?" she asked. "If you could take control back, then you would but you haven't so you can't. There's no use in lying. For the time being, we are one in the same. In the same way you can feel my feelings and hear my thoughts, I can do the same with you." Her lips curled into a diabolical smile. "Did you really think you'd succeed in making me feel inferior to you? Afraid of you? You're not as strong as you think you are. If this is the strongest your school has then it's had a massive downgrade since the last generation of Sorcerors."Aoi's eyes narrowed. "Who are you? No, actually. What are you? You stink like a Curse but you're not one, are you?"Opening her mouth to respond, Minerva had no time to get a word out. A gunshot went off, making her flinch. She tried to make Aoi move but he didn't, at least not the way she wanted him to. He turned his head to look over his shoulder at her, grin spread wide on his lips.She stared at him, surprise apparent, before looking up towards the wall of arcade games in front of them. Mai stood over them, expression dark as she kept her gun aimed, finger still on the trigger.The pain came all at once. One of her arms fell limp at her side, the Cursed bullet having torn apart a chunk of her shoulder. The limb clung on by shattered bone and torn muscle. She didn't look at it, instead fixing her gaze on Mai. Her other hand clung pointlessly to Aoi. She had lost control of him and her Cursed Energy was now too weak for her to regain it. Was this fear? This helplessness stirring within her?Mai adjusted her aim, dead-on with the center of Minerva's forehead.A bitter smile crossed Minerva's lips. "Don't miss this time," she teased, keeping her gaze locked with the other girl's.Mai scowled."Mai!"Momo's shout came too late. Like a bull on a rampage, Mahito plowed headfirst into the arcade cabinets Mai was standing on, toppling them over onto Minerva and Aoi and sending Mai crashing into the metal holding bars of a dancing rhythm game.Things came in chaotic glimpses.A crushing weight over her, squeezing the breath out of her lungs. When she opened her eyes, all she could see was a screen full of distorted pixels dancing inches from her face. Her attempts to get the gaming machine off of her were futile, too exhausted to do anything other than gasp and groan in pain. She couldn't feel her legs.As soon as it'd come, it was gone. Air filled her lungs as she was freed from the weight, taking this moment to roll over onto her side and clutch at her injured shoulder. Her eyes shifted upwards, expecting Mahito, but confusion filled her when she saw Aoi looming over her, the large machine in his powerful grip. He was shouting something at her but the ringing in her ears drowned any noise out.As if being propelled with the grace of a toddler learning to walk, Mahito barreled into Aoi, sending him crashing through the drywall separating the bathrooms from the main room.Minerva extended a hand towards the Curse, too disoriented to feel much of anything. Her head was spinning, eyes unfocused, throat dry. She felt like crying. They'd lost. This sucked. Mahito's mouth enclosed around her waist, she felt him retract his fanged teeth into his gums to avoid piercing her. As he made his escape from the building with her still in his grasp, she managed one last look towards Aoi, who stood in the hole he'd made in the wall, staring coldly after them.

Content Warnings: mentions of a drunk driving accident resulting in death.

"You did exceptionally well, Mr. Weon."The disembodied entities that were his superiors surrounded him, represented by their respective shoji screens. He was here again, the call for him formed a boulder of anxiety at the pit of his stomach - but the air around him was different this time. These people, who only ever seemed to request his presence to belittle and break him, were genuinely pleased with his work for once. Still, a seed of doubt formed in his mind. Was it really his work they were satisfied with? Or was it his submission to them?Despite this, he allowed himself to bask in his sole moment of reprieve.Dominic's shoulders dropped, a breath he felt he'd been holding in for an eternity escaped him. "Thank you," he replied, trying not to allow the flurry of emotions churning in his stomach to show on his face. "Thank you very much." It was embarrassing just how desperately he craved their validation. Any validation."Are you looking forward to your fieldwork today?"Dominic nodded, "Yes." He opened his mouth to say something else but promptly shut it."Go on."There was a moment's hesitation before he relented. "Mr. Gojo had requested for me to take over on a mission with the students on Thursday but the mission never came to fruition for me due to the incident downtown. Kento Nanami went in my stead." He paused, hands clasping his briefcase in front of him tight. "I wanted to put in a request to take on fieldwork since but hadn't the time.""How delightful to hear. Mr. Ijichi has gone ahead and left all information regarding the mission on your desk. He will still be at the work site to ensure everything goes as planned. We're sure you will handle it with the same amount of responsibility and grace as you did your task yesterday."He could hardly believe the words he was hearing. He blinked hard, dispelling the mistiness in his eyes. Red filled his cheeks. "Thank you," he said, giving a quick and grateful bow of his head. "I will do my best." Why was he feeling like this? Was he clinging to any recognition he got in a desperate attempt to rid himself of the guilt that plagued his heart? That although he had turned his back on everything he believed in, at least someone had shown him the slightest bit of acknowledgement at the end of it all?"Your success with Shoko Ieiri and Kiyotaka Ijichi came as no surprise. But Masamichi Yaga and Satoru Gojo were both a very welcome shock to us all."Dominic downcast his gaze. What was he to say to that? That he was happy to betray the trust of his friends and colleagues for the sake of empty kind words? That this came easy to him? No. This hurt him. It hurt him deeply. Not just because of his strong conscience but because that was the penance that accompanied use of this power. Pain, inflicted upon you and those around you, leaving scars on your psyche that would never leave.This was fine, though. He chose the pain over the alternative. Acclimating oneself with this Technique wasn't in one's best interest. Once it stopped hurting, once this became easy to do - one would be too far gone. Unsalvageable."You show your mother's tenacity. You hold her same grace in taming the lion that is Satoru Gojo."At this, Dominic froze. There wasn't a single word just spoken that sat right with him. His eyes darted towards the briefcase in his hands. It remained silent, though he sensed something from it. Something familiarly wicked. "Excuse my forwardness but what did you mean by that?" An uncomfortable tightness filled his chest."We've no time to elaborate. The time for your mission is closing in and we still have another, more important matter to discuss. Perhaps a conversation with your mother is overdue."Heart pounding in his chest, Dominic scrambled for anything to say. He wanted to plead that they address it. If he didn't now, he would have to wait until later in the afternoon, after the mission to discuss it. Did he just hear a laugh leave his briefcase? No. He was just imagining things. He was being toyed with once again. "Okay." His voice was hoarse."We are certain you have many questions regarding the tasks assigned to you yesterday and while we typically aren't ones for clarification, we have decided to offer some enlightenment as you both will be working closely together from this point on."Dominic furrowed his brows. "Us both?""Heya, Dom!" From the darkness to his right stepped out Yuki Tsukumo, smiling cheerfully and hand up in an energetic wave. She didn't look nearly as surprised to see him as he did her.Dominic felt goosebumps rise on his arms, a cold sweat breaking out over him. He looked quickly away from her to the ground. "I don't understand," he muttered. His mind was racing. It now occurred to him that he had never felt the need to question the orders he had received to erase any memories of Yuki's presence at the clinic the other night. How sick. How pathetic.An arm wrapped around Dominic's torso. He tensed so much so quickly that he saw stars. Yuki cracked a grin, hugging him to her side. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder. "No need to be so shy! I know we haven't formally met yet but I think we'll make a great team." She gave him a squeeze. "Don't you?"No answer came from him."You must understand three truths, Mr. Weon, without contest."He didn't look up when the higher-ups spoke to him, feeling himself gradually grow more and more overwhelmed with frustration. Words were a near impossibility. His head was spinning. His throat felt tight. "Okay." His voice was so low he wasn't even sure if he was actually speaking."Tabitha Capricien is alive and well.""Okay.""Jasper is her child.""Okay.""Ms. Tsukumo is working as our double agent, keeping an eye on Ms. Capricien’s movements while fostering a false alliance with her and feeding us any and all information she can get from her regarding her plans."Oh God. Oh fuck. Did she know? Did she know about him and Roger? Did that mean the higher-ups knew about Suguru? About the other kids? He needed to warn Roger. He needed to skip town. Where was it Kento wanted to retire to? Malaysia? Sounded great. He'd buy the tickets that night. "Okay." He felt like he was going to be sick. "May I ask a question?"A pause. "Go ahead.""If you're certain that Tabitha Capricien is Jasper's mother, then why bother DNA testing them?""You will know when the time comes."Dominic smothered a sigh.Yuki uncoiled her arm from around him, giving him a hard pat on the back. "Good luck today!"Oh, right. The mission. "Thank you.""You've done well, Mr. Weon. Keep it up."

Hands dug through tissues, spare change, perfume samples and candies in search for keys. Desmond had snuck off as per his usual routine and Tabitha and Roger were busy entertaining their guests downstairs, leaving Minerva to her own devices. Since she was the only one that got any damn work done around the house these days, she figured she'd make use of this bit of downtime and take a trip to the grocery store."BOO!"Mahito did little to startle her, even as he lunged out of the coat closet with his arms in the air. He dropped them to his sides in disappointment when all she offered him was a curt look before going back to rifling through her purse."It might've worked if I couldn't pick up on your Cursed Energy from a mile away," she said. "Maybe next time.""I'm that strong, huh?" Mahito grinned from ear to ear. "You can pick up on my power from that far away?""It's a hyperbole, dummy," Minerva sighed dramatically. Her look of disdain was quickly replaced by one of victory when she finally fished her keys out of her purse.Mahito tilted his head to the side in a show of curiosity. "What's that?" he asked."Keys?" Minerva quirked a brow."Not that!" he shouted with a cross of his arms and a deep pout. "That other thing you said. A hyperwhatever."Minerva's lips curled into a tight and judgmental purse. "All that time spent hiding in closets and crawling around in the backyard could be better spent reading a book." She paused her chastizing to scrutinize Mahito's annoyed demeanor before going on to explain, "It means I was exaggerating when I said I could sense you a mile away. I didn't mean it literally.""Oh." Mahito didn't hide the disappointment on his face, visibly deflating. He didn't dwell on it, however, already moving onto the next thing. "Where are you going?""To do some shopping." Minerva answered. She opened the door, sunshine pouring into the hall. She smiled at the feel of the warmth on her skin. "Do you want to come with me?""I dunno. Maybe," Mahito said as he followed her out the door. He took his own turn in soaking up the sun, clasping his hands up over his head in a big stretch as he walked. "What're you buying?"As she made her way over to her car, she ran through the list of essentials in her mind quickly as if reconfirming with herself before she answered. "Mostly food. Cooking oil, manyòk, parsley, bell peppers ..." Her words were quickly interrupted by her own laughter as she broke out of the recitation just in time to see Mahito sitting in the driver's seat of her car. "Get to the other side! You're not driving!" she demanded amidst a fit of giggles.As he defeatedly clambered over the center console to get to the passenger seat, Mahito whined, "I bet I'd drive really good if you let me.""Too bad we'll never find out!" Minerva quipped, sliding into her rightful seat. With a turn of the keys in the ignition, the car roared to life and with it, the radio. A flurry of pop beats and high pitched shouts boomed from the speakers, bringing an ecstatic toothy smile to Mahito's face. With a flick of the wrist, the music volume doubled as the car sped off out of the driveway and onto the stretch of road heading downtown.The energetic music and beautiful Tokyo sights did plenty in keeping Mahito complacent. Sure, he was smudging her passenger window with his stupid face and hands and he refused to wear his seatbelt but at least he was quiet.The grocery store wasn't all too busy that morning, which diminished the number of odd looks Minerva got as she seemingly chatted to no one in particular. Not that she really minded the looks. It just meant people would stay at a preferred distance."Don't just touch things unless you're going to buy them. It's unsanitary," she scolded, wrestling a mango from Mahito's hand. She inspected it closely before putting it into her shopping basket with a shrug."This is so boring though!" Mahito yelled. He viciously eyed an elderly woman nearby perusing the cantaloupes. "I hate her. She sucks. This is lame. I could kill her right now and she wouldn't even see it coming. What a dumb old lady.""She hasn't done anything to you. Leave her alone," Minerva scolded, absentmindedly checking a pack of strawberries for visible soft spots through the plastic.The old woman tossed a nervous glance her way before picking up the nearest cantaloupe and hurriedly waddling to her shopping cart further down the aisle.Smirking smugly over the departure of his feeble opponent, Mahito turned his attention back to Minerva. "Can we do something else? Shopping isn't as fun as a thought it might be." He perked up at an idea. "I went to an arcade the other day! I didn't get to play any of the games, though. Can we do that?" He hit her with the saddest, bug-eyed kicked puppy look he could muster when she looked his way."Fine but not for long," Minerva relented, lips forming a genuine smile when Mahito hopped about in gleeful celebration.After entrusting a delivery man employed by the grocery store to deliver her purchases to her home to avoid anything spoiling away in her hot car, Minerva lead Mahito on foot to the arcade that popped up in a search on her phone's GPS for any near her. She kept one eye on Mahito and the other on her ebay search for kiddie leashes as they made their way.Upon spotting the familiar colorful blinking sign atop the building, Mahito couldn't control himself. "THERE IT IS!" He shouted. He burst into a sprint, slamming open the arcade's freshly replaced double doors much to the one employee at the front's shock and horror. He ran to the flashiest, loudest game in the entire venue, hopping up and down and pointing at it for Minerva to see. "This one! I wanna play this one! Are you listening to me?!"Minerva was not, instead exchanging some of her cash for tokens at the available machines near the entrance. Once she had a handful of them, she turned and looked around for her perpetually manic friend, who was both fortunately and unfortunately for her not very hard to find. "Remind me to never take you to a library ... or the movies ... or anywhere," she snorted as she fed the necessary number of tokens to the machine he occupied.He immediately got to playing, not even remotely entertaining her joke-veiled insult. His finger mashed at buttons, making his character kick and punch. He yanked the joystick left to right, making her lunge and dodge."She's my favorite character in this game," Minerva mused as she observed the other play. "Doesn't get as fleshed out as the others though. No surprise there, she's the only girl in the series.""I like her boobs," Mahito leered."What were you doing at an arcade anyway?"The question and sudden topic shift caught Mahito entirely off-guard. "Whatd'you mean?" he asked, still thumbing at buttons furiously."At the grocery store you told me you were at an arcade a few days ago but didn't get to play. Why weren't you able to?"It took a moment for Mahito to recall the conversation had. "I was busy," he answered aloofly, pretending as if he hadn't an ounce of focus to spare her.Minerva circled around him, taking the Player Two spot at the machine and adding the tokens needed for her to join the game. "What were you busy doing?" she asked, taking control of Mahito's opponent and quickly leveling the playing field.Face twisting up in frustration, Mahito's movements grew frantic. "Uhh ... The boss asked me to keep an eye out on ... your sibling. Whatever their name is," he answered, careful not to spill any of the truth of the events that unraveled that day. It wasn't entirely a lie. He had been sent out to spy on Jasper. Things had just gotten ... a bit out of hand. Geto had been very unhappy upon finding out about his behavior then and warned against telling anyone else, especially any members of the Capricien family. 'It would cause hostilities and we still need them,' he had said. Whatever that meant."Jasper?" Minerva looked alarmed, the momentary distraction allowing for Mahito to pull her character into a flurry combo of attacks. She broke out of it swiftly, returning the favor. "Jasper was at an arcade?""This arcade, I think. I'm pretty sure this is the same one," Mahito nodded. "They were here with ... Ummm ... I dunno. Some kids." His stomach leapt at the memory of Sukuna's vessel at this same game. He didn't hide the malevolent little smirk that formed on his lips, but Minerva was too focused on her sibling to notice the sinister expression. "They all were just playing games together. They looked like they were having a good time."Minerva's hands stopped moving altogether. They clasped over her chest and she shut her eyes tight, lower lip quivering.Once again taking advantage of the distraction, Mahito went for the KO. He put his hands up in celebration of his victory, cheering loudly before noticing his opponent frozen in her somber stance. "What's wrong with you? Cheer with me!" he demanded.With a deep exhale, a smile crept on Minerva's lips. "Sorry. I'm just ... really happy." She dropped her hands."Uhh ... You just lost so I dunno what you're so happy about.""Will you shut up?"Before the two could start to bicker, they both tensed. A surge of Cursed Energy overcame them both. It was a measured aura, one of warning, coming from someone who knew exactly what to do with it. A serious threat had entered the arcade and taking only a fraction of a second to weigh their odds, Minerva did the first thing that came to mind. She grabbed Mahito by the front of his shirt, yanking him into a nearby photobooth. He immediately tried scrambling out, excited by the Energy in contrast to Minerva's wariness."What're you doing?!" he hissed when she splayed out her arms to keep him boxed within the booth."Keeping you from doing something stupid!" Minerva snapped back."You scared?" Mahito wrapped his arms around her shoulders, giving her a taunting jeer. "Didn't take you for a wuss.""I'm not! If we attract attention like that to us, my mom'll be pissed."Mahito rolled his eyes. "Aren't you tired of doing what your mommy tells you to do? Don't you want to put all your training to use? What even is the point of all of that work?" He was speaking into her ear, winding a wisp of her curly hair around his finger. "Are we just supposed to hide in here like a couple of cowards until they decide to leave?"Minerva's face twisted up in a show of frustration. Slowly, she began to lean forward, cracking open the curtain to get a good look at the source of the earlier Energy. Mahito pressed his cheek to hers, peering through the crack as well."Aoi Todo, Mai Zenin, Noritoshi Kamo, Momo Nishimiya, Kokichi Muta, Kasumi Miwa." Minerva recited their names by heart, eyes wide. She ignored the strange look Mahito gave her and added, "Us two versus six of them. Noritoshi and Momo have long-range attacks. I don't know if our touch based techniques will have any effect on Kokichi's Mechamaru. They've probably already sensed the both of us.""You're overthinking things," Mahito grumbled. "Who's the strongest there?""Aoi Todo. The big guy," Minerva muttered, eyeing him with some skepticism."Leave him to me then!""No," Minerva once again took him by the shirt to keep him from springing out of the photobooth. "I'll deal with him and once I do, it should even things out in our favor. I have a plan so follow my lead."Mahito grinned.

The day was cooler than it had been lately. The recent rainstorms were to blame for that, not that Jasper was complaining. They'd never in their entire life been outdoors as often as they had been since joining Jujutsu Tech. It was definitely going to take some getting used to. The chillier weather was a welcome treat.As they took in the large abandoned parking garage before them, shivers shot through their body. There was an unnerving atmosphere spilling out from within the building out onto the street. It came in waves, crashing at their feet as if they stood at the shore of a stormy beach. They snuck glances at their classmates, noting their determined and confident expressions. Not wanting to be the odd one out, Jasper forced themself to don a brave face."Allow me to run the details of the mission by you all," Dominic called for attention, standing at the middle of the half-circle formed by the students. "Please, pay close attention." Kiyotaka stood beside him, switching between flipping through papers attached to his clipboard and thumbing at his phone.Before the rundown could begin, Yuji's hand shot up into the air. "I have a question!" he shouted."Can it wait until the end?"Yuji lowered his hand, bearing a hangdog look. "I guess so."With a sigh, Dominic resumed. "This parking garage belongs to our client. There have been complaints of a childlike apparition causing car accidents when people try to park, along with claims that the driving ramps become maze-like and disorienting." He reached out to Kiyotaka, taking a sheet of paper held out to him. He turned it so that the students could get a proper look at the printed newspaper article pinched between his fingers. "Now after some research, we've learned that four years ago, a father and his daughter were driving down this road. The father was intoxicated which lead to him crashing into the pay booth at the entrance of the garage. Both perished in the crash. We believe this resulted in a Vengeful Spirit." Dominic paused to gesture to himself. "Which is my specialty." He handed the paper back to Kiyotaka."Speciality?" Jasper shut their mouth as soon as the word escaped them. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt."Dominic nodded towards Jasper, doing his best to offer a reassuring look. "It's alright. I believe that in addition to you, Yuji and Nobara have also not learned of Specialty Sorcerery so I will explain briefly for the three of you." His expression grew warmer when Yuji flashed him a delighted grin. "There are four kinds of Sorcerers in Jujutsu Society. Eradicators, Tamers, Caretakers and Special Grade. Eradicators are Sorcerers like Mr. Nanami, who take on Cursed Spirits who stem from unnegotiable sources, typically phobias. Things that can't be reasoned with as they are formed from a part in the human mind lacking logic. Only primality.""So, they're like animals?" Nobara asked. "You just gotta put them down?"Dominic's expression twisted up into a look of discontent. "The higher-ups feel it is a waste of time and resources to find more humane ways to handle the situation, so yes." He downcast his gaze. "Tamers are Sorcerers like myself. We specialize in Vengeful Spirits, usually born out of a tragic and violent circumstance. We can use our techniques to communicate with the Spirits and assist them in reaching absolution.""Being an Eradicator sounds cooler and way less complicated," Nobara grumbled. Beside her, Itadori nodded in eager agreement. With a dismissive shrug, she added, "What's the point of the chit-chat? They're the ones causing trouble in the first place. None of the Curses we've come across yet have even given us a second to get a word in. How do you," She rose both hands to do air quotes, "'absolve' something that doesn't want absolution?""Empathy is an important trait to carry when working as a Sorcerer. Cursed Spirits, like us, didn't ask to be brought into this life. They deserve understanding. They are, at the end of the day, born from us." Dominic spoke lowly but firmly, brows knitted in a plea of understanding.Megumi, Nobara and Yuji all exchanged looks, missing the look of catharsis that crossed Jasper's face. They clutched at their shirt, right over their heart, feeling it pound against their knuckles. Their eyes locked with Dominic's for a mere second before they nervously forced their gaze away. They chewed on their lips, their teacher's words echoing in their mind."Something to keep in mind is that you can't become a Special Grade Sorcerer unless you master being an Eradicator and a Tamer!" Maki stepped forward now, pointing to Dominic. "Mr. Weon doesn't like eradicating so he can't. Mr. Nanami doesn't like absolving work, so he can't. Yuki Tsukumo and Satoru Gojo are two of twenty Special Grade Sorcerers, meaning only them and eighteen other people in the entire world mastered both!""What're you doing here anyway?" Megumi grumbled.Nobara gave him an intense look. "She can be wherever she wants!" she hissed."That's what I was gonna ask earlier!" Yuji yelled pointedly. He then added in a lighter tone of voice, "I thought us first years went on different missions than them."Inumaki held up his phone for the others to hear his text-to-speech app. Panda, as usual, stood at his side. "Mr. Weon is the only Tamer that doesn't work abroad and he wasn't accepting fieldwork until today. We've never seen a Tamer work so we don't want to miss this," the robotic voice read out, making Nobara and Yuji fawn."Is that true, Mr. Weon?!" The two shouted, nearly tripping over each other as they neared the man.Dominic blinked, looking just as surprised. "I-I suppose it is," he said, though he sounded unsure of himself. He glanced at Kiyotaka beside him, as if searching for confirmation.Kiyotaka mirrored his surprised. "Were you not made aware of this? After your mother's passing and your resignation to clerical work, there weren't any Sorcerers left here who could properly teach methods of Taming.""What about Sa- Mr. Gojo?" His cheeks reddened, not at his misnaming, but at the distressing real