Gifted Art by Ro

Gifted Art by Noor

Content Warnings:


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 child death mention.

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 realization that he had majorly let down the next generation of Jujutsu Sorcerers through his own fear of incompetence.Kiyotaka gave Dominic a look. "Mr. Gojo did Taming work when he was a student out of obligation but it's shocking to me that you didn't know he never accepts Taming missions."Dominic shut his eyes tight, inhaling deeply before turning back to face his students. He had known that Satoru didn't like the missions. Not that he wasn't doing them at all. And no one had a problem with this? No one had thought of bringing this up to him? They'd just allowed him to live in his bubble while the world fell apart? While the students learned only to hurt? "I don't want to waste any time. If there are no other questions, let's begin." Determination overflowed from within him, seeping through his pores. He was done being a coward. A failure. He'd do right from then on, and he'd do it his way.As the group entered the parking garage, Kiyotaka waved his goodbyes at them, staying by the empty pay booth. "Good luck! I'll be waiting for you all here!" he shouted.Yuji gleefully waved back, whining when Nobara yanked him by the shoulder of his jacket and forced him to face forward and focus on the task at hand."So are Vengeful Spirits like ghosts?" Yuji asked as they made their way up a crumbling staircase."I guess there are some similarities. Humans who meet abrupt or violent ends at times may leave spiritual residue that festers and becomes a Vengeful Spirit," Dominic explained, keeping his spot at the very front of the group. "They will attach themselves to places ... or even people.""Like Yuuta and Rika?" Maki asked, following closely behind him."Who's that?" Nobara asked, brows raising."Friends!" Panda added. "They-""Someone's here." Dominic interrupted, raising his hand in a request for silence.They all turned their attention towards the empty second level of the parking garage. Some debris from the abandoned building littered the floors but nothing they could see seemed to be present. However, they were all mindful of the restless Cursed Energy growing as they walked further across the lot. It was as they took a few steps further into the lot that Megumi spoke, "Look out over the railing outside. We're not on the second floor."Yuji and Nobara neared the railing, both taking in the shocking several levels of height between them and the ground. "Maybe this is what those people were talking about," Yuji mumbled as Maki and Panda joined them to taking a look themselves. "When they said they were getting disoriented."Jasper kept close to Dominic, half-tempted to cling to his shirt sleeve. They felt nervous. Their classmates carried themselves with so much confidence, they couldn't help but feel vastly inferior in terms of ability. If anything happened to any of them just now, what would they be able to do to protect them? "Guys, maybe you should stay away from the railing," they squeaked, figuring that at the very least they could make use of their paranoid fears to try and rein the others away from reckless behaviors.A childish giggle carried by a cool breeze made the students all quickly regather back by their teacher. It seemed to come from right before them, although nothing had visibly changed."Could it be the kid from the accident?" Nobara asked.Dominic didn't agree or disagree, keeping his eyes ahead. "This is why it is crucial for Tamers to know of any tragedies that may have occurred on the premises so they prepare for who to make contact with," he explained. "It's possible this is the child from the accident I mentioned earlier.""If it's a kid then there shouldn't be a problem exorcising them!" Nobara looked rather pleased at the prospect of another completed mission. However, she shrank a bit when Dominic gave her a cold look over his shoulder.Maki threw an arm around her girlfriend, bumping their heads together. "A true Tamer never aims to exorcise a Vengeful Spirit. Only seeks to rehabilitate it. That's why a lot of Tamers are Curse Users.""Rehabilitate it?" Nobara asked, looking skeptical."In my ideal world," Dominic spoke, making the teens glance his way. He was standing facing them, briefcase clutched in front of him. "we all coexist.""They're the ones trying to hurt people!" Nobara argued."Are they?" Dominic asked."Yes," Yuji jumped in, resolute. His expression had morphed into one of grief-stricken anger. Beside him, Jasper tensed. They didn't move, almost as if any slight gesture would draw the worst kind of attention their way. They downcast their gaze, hiding their own anguish."I see," Dominic mused. He turned suddenly, the sound of sandals clapping against the cement from behind him quickly growing louder as the one bearing them approached at an alarming speed. There was a flash of black in his peripheral as a small figure leapt towards him, a shrill and excited shout escaping her mouth."LET'S PLAY!" The young girl stopped herself in mid-air, her long black hair catching up. She sported it over her face, ensuring no one could get a proper look at her. At the lack of reaction from the group, she leapt back several feet and began to shyly twist the ends of her hair around her fingers."Hello," Dominic greeted, kneeling so that he was level with the young Spirit. "What's your name?"Sheepishly shifting from one foot to the other, the girl's finger fiddling only grew more frantic. "You're not scared?" she whined, sounding disappointed. "Why aren't you scared?""What is there to be afraid of?"A sudden shriek from the child startled the teens behind Dominic. "ME!" Her voice strained from the force she put into it, her Cursed Energy bursting forth from her tiny body and forming cracks on the garage floor. They spiderwebbed out towards the group, stopping right before Dominic. The teens all grew defensive, assuming fighting postures. However, they grew perplexed when their teacher didn't move from where he knelt.Extending a hand towards the Cursed Spirit, he spoke, "Why don't you tell me what's upsetting you? I can help you."Wind picked up, blowing towards them from over the Spirit's shoulders. Some debris flew up at the group, but the small rocks and dust did very little to deter any of them. She grew more upset at this. "No! Go away! If you don't want to play then leave me alone!" Her hands were balled into tight fists at her sides. "Go away! Go away!" The bursts of air grew more intense but still did little in thwarting the Sorcerers."Mr. Weon! This is a waste of time!" Nobara shouted. "Just exorcise her and be done with it! Any of us could do it! She's weak."Jasper felt words form, fall away and reform in their mouth. They wanted to beg for her sympathy. They wanted to get her to understand. But how? What could they say? Megumi beat them to it, "We're here to learn about Taming, Nobara. If you find this boring then pursue Eradicating, but you'll never become a Special Grade Sorcerer without mastering this.""But-""Be quiet and watch!" Maki cut in now, visibly annoyed. She clasped Nobara's shoulder tight, nodding ahead of them. "Even Yuji is paying attention for once."At this, Jasper turned their head to Yuji, who was standing close at Dominic's other side, eyebrows furrowed as he watched the interaction between Sorcerer and Spirit. They inhaled sharply, turning their head to the situation at hand just in time to catch a name in passing."Hibiki." The girl was practically twisting herself into a pretzel of diffidence. "That's my name.""That's a very pretty name," Dominic said. "You said you wanted to play, didn't you? What did you want to play?"Hibiki grew alarmed, extending her hands in a gesture that begged they stay back despite no one approaching. "NO! I don't want to play for real!" She gestured in a more frenzied manner back to the stairwell. "I was just sayin' that! Now go away!"Dominic frowned. "I see." His eyes never seemed to leave her. "Why is it you want us to leave?""Because! You're stupid! And ugly!" Hibiki shouted, voice echoing throughout the garage. She grasped handfuls of hair, yanking them downwards in a show of frustration. "Now, get out of here!""She's a brat!" Nobara barked, stamping her foot.Unexpected to everyone including himself, Dominic burst into laughter at the petty insults. He gathered himself quickly, wiping away a small tear at the corner of his eye with the knuckle on his index finger. "I suppose I am," he settled before bursting into a sprint straight towards the shocked young girl. The smile was gone from his face, a look of sheer intension taking dominion.Before Hibiki could react, he managed to catch her over his shoulder and narrowly avoid the tumbling ceiling above them. He set her down upon setting foot on stable ground but kept his arm extended to his side so that she stayed behind him. A beast towered between him and his students. It'd broken through the level above them, likely upon sensing intruders and now swiveled its head about in search of prey, back arched, mouth drooling and eye bloodshot. It sat on its haunches but barely kept balance, using its knuckles to steady itself. Its face was distorted as if someone had torn apart and rebuilt a human face several times over. Its watery eyes looked around it, finally settling its hungry gaze on the group of teens."She was-" Yuji started, only to be cut off by Megumi. "protecting us."

Content Warnings: emetophobia, suicide baiting, alcohol usage leading to inebriation, implied child abuse and unsuccessful sexual coercion.

The apartment was still. The only sound came from the cartoons playing on the television in the guest bedroom. Nanako and Mimiko, who'd at one point been entertained by the colorful animations on-screen, had long abandoned interest and took instead to perusing the nooks and crannies of the unembellished apartment.Dominic had returned from his work meeting far later than expected and had been in his room presumably sleeping since. The sisters had already eaten breakfast, washed up and spent a miserable amount of time playing games on their phones. There was nothing better to do, so why not snoop? Not that there was anything all that interesting to find in the priest's home. Everything was so bare in comparison to interior decor they'd seen on TV or in magazines. Not a picture frame or decorative object in sight. Nothing personable. It was clinical. Flipping through the bookshelf full of books on meditation and psychology and poking around underneath the couch cushions for lost change was boring but it was something to do.It was when Nanako crouched beside Dominic's briefcase that Mimiko broke the silence. "What are you doing?!" she whisper-hissed, eyes widening in shock. "Don't touch that!"Nanako looked over her shoulder at her sister. "Shh," she hushed before turning back to the briefcase. Her hands were placed over both the combination locks on either end along the top of it. The Cursed Energy surging from within made shivers race down her spine. Whatever was in there was strong, and she wanted to see what it was."He asked us to never touch his briefcase!" Mimiko pleaded, nervously glancing towards the closed door opposite theirs at the end of the hall. "If he catches us, he'll get upset!""He won't. Mr. Weon never gets angry." Nanako laughed at the idea. She made a face, mimicking Dominic's demeanor. "Young lady, I beg you don't go touching my belongings." She wagged her finger at her sister with every word. A cheeky grin followed.Mimiko wasn't at all entertained by the performance but she didn't want to argue. She stood at a distance from Nanako and the briefcase. Her arms tightened around her plush rabbit, growing more and more anxious as the other girl resumed fiddling with the locks."Well, aren't you two just precious?"Both teens jumped at the voice manifesting as if from thin air. The apartment was so quiet, it was impossible to confuse the sound for anything else. It was the voice of a woman, sickly sweet and warm. Something about it struck a chord within them, made them ache with longing. It made them feel small again. Mimiko ran to her sister's side, falling to her knees beside her and embracing her tightly. Their heads were swiveling on their necks, looking around for signs of anyone else in the home. Confusion and apprehension grew when no one seemed to be there."I'm right here, darlings."The girls snapped their heads towards the briefcase. Nothing about its outward appearance indicated change, still looking like a boring old beat-up work briefcase. Its levels of Cursed Energy had remained stagnant as well. They were unsure if the lack of change was concerning or reassuring."Where are your parents?"Nanako narrowed her eyes at the question, trembling hands still tightly clasping the briefcase. Her lips quivered, a response caught in her throat. Mimiko's grasp around her sister loosened and she lowered her head, looking stricken with grief. Neither girl answered."Oh, I see ... Poor things. Every child deserves to feel the loving touch of a mother."Silence."What are your names?""Mimiko," Mimiko squeaked, almost eager. "and Nanako.""Don't tell her anything!" Nanako scolded her sister before looking back at the mysterious case with suspicion in her eyes. "Who are you? Why are you in Mr. Weon's briefcase?""Oh, it's quite the long and boring tale ... but I suppose I could share it with you. Why don't you be a dear and let me out first? ... I'd love to see you both in person." There was a small laugh, friendly and charming. "I could tell you the story as I brush your hair ... We could go get lunch ... go shopping ... take a trip to the beach ... and then when it's all over, I could tuck you into bed at night." It was as if with every pause she was giving the girls a moment to picture this life of familial mundanity; the life of love and stability they'd dreamed of.It seemed Mimiko didn't need to hear much else. She was entranced at the invitation. She extended a hand towards one of the combination locks. Her other arm remained bound tight around her stuffed toy rabbit, her heart pounding against the plush material as she held it to her chest.Before she could press a finger to the dial, Nanako snatched her hand and squeezed tight. "I have a bad feeling about this," she whispered, tone dire. It wasn't as if she didn't also long for a mother. It wasn't as if the offers hadn't tempted her. But it was all too good to be true. She had been reckless in bringing her sister into this. "We should go back to the room.""You were the one that wanted to open it in the first place," Mimiko argued in a disappointed mutter. "Those things she said we could do sound real nice. It'd be like having a mom, a real one.""She's trapped in here for a reason!" Nanako argued."Lovely girls, I can clear everything up if you just let me out. It's so cramped and dark in here. I miss the sun."The internal conflict within Nanako was apparent on her face. She was still gripping her sister's hand tightly. Her heart told her to trust this creature but her mind called the very consideration of it absurd. Try as she might to think clearly, her brain felt scrambled and overwhelmed. All she could really envision was a life with her sister and this faceless woman. All of those things she mentioned they could do together, were they lies? Or was she being genuine? It would be just like the time before Mr. Geto ... Tears were filling her eyes, fogging her vision. After a long moment's deliberation, she at last released Mimiko and placed both her hands over the combination locks. "What's the lock code?" she asked the entity, tone betraying her nervousness."Zero ... One ... Seven ... Four."Nanako turned the dials accordingly, fingers quivering with anxiety at every click. She could feel Mimiko's hands clutching at the sleeve of her shirt. Both of them jumped as the latches flew open the moment the last digit of the unlock code spun into place. Nanako quickly pushed both her sister and herself back, the two tripping over themselves to scramble to their feet.The briefcase burst open with a loud clatter. The Cursed Energy pouring out from within was oppressive. It was dark, vile. Nothing like what they'd sensed from it just seconds ago. It rendered both teens immobile. They only clung to one another and gaped, rooted where they stood, realization dawning too late that their trust had been misplaced.The voice spoke again, devoid of all of its earlier charm. It resembled the venomous hiss of a serpent; the shriek of a mountain lion; the mocking call of a hyena. "You just wanted a mommy, didja?" A cruel laugh. "One that won't lock you up and beat you like the last did? That's so pathetic! I love it! You thought what you experienced back then was bad?" Two large, taloned hands burst from within the open case. The cracked, filthy claws bore holes into the hardwood floors. "Let me show you a mother's true love.""GIRLS!"It was as the creature made to lurch out of the briefcase that Dominic's voice rang out from behind Mimiko and Nanako. He sprinted down the hall and took a defensive stance in front of the teens, facing the creature in mid escape attempt. His eyes were wide, hand extended before him in a halting motion.Words left his mouth but they were impossible to decipher over the enraged screeching that emanated from within the briefcase. As if struck, both hands snapped back into the briefcase. It shut suddenly, the clasps snapping back into place. The dials spun on their own, eventually stopping - one six one seven.Nanako and Mimiko both rushed to Dominic's sides as the man collapsed to his knees. Blood dribbled from his nostrils and down his lips, staining the front of his shirt. His face was swelling as if he'd been struck, skin bruising deeply and spidery veins of red forming in his eyes. He didn't seem to be paying much attention to the girls as they clung and wept and apologized. His eyes were hazy, body aching. He was struggling to gather himself."Mr. Weon! Are you okay?!" Mimiko shouted in her panic. "We're so sorry! So so sorry!"The man didn't react much beyond a stern instruction. "Go to your room. Both of you." The words carried with them only exhaustion, no scorn or resentment. His voice was hoarse, as if he'd been up all night screaming. "We'll discuss this later."Nanako pried her sister away from the priest, tearfully tugging her down the hall towards the guest room at his request.At the close of the door, Dominic allowed himself to fall forward onto his hands, palms pressed to the cold wood floor. He drew in a desperate and deep breath, ragged and stinging against his aching throat. It was then that he grew aware of the taste of metal in his mouth, feeling his split skin along the inside of his lips with his tongue. Blood pooled on the floor as it continued to openly stream from his face."You always ruin my fun. I wasn't going to hurt them."Wearily looking towards his briefcase, he growled, "Shut up." He tried wiping the blood off his face with the back of his fist but only ended up making a bigger mess of it. "I'm sick of you. I'm sick of all this." Despite the rage he felt, he was too tired to project it. His words were lifeless, broken."You've brought this upon yourself.""I said shut up.""You could only placate both sides for so long. You never really were all that smart. What will you do when you get found out?""What does that have to do with this?""Because you're lashing out. Look at how you're treating me, how you treated the girls.""I didn't do anything wrong!""Are you scared you won't be good enough to fill my shoes? That you'll forever live in my shadow?""I don't want to be anything like you.""I can promise you that even after the day you decide to shed the burden of what you did to me and dispel this Curse, there will always be a piece of me inside you. And that piece will be the only bit of worth you'll ever bring to this world."Dominic's face grew red with ire, hands balled into tight fists. Tears fell from his eyes as he wailed, "You're wrong!""What are you gonna do? Kill yourself?"He was so tired."Oh, can I watch? How would you do it?"His gaze remained locked on the briefcase, hatred burning in his dark eyes."Oh, my little prince. Why are you looking at me like that?"Bile worked its way up Dominic's throat, forming a puddle on the floor before him. When was the last time he'd eaten? He couldn't remember. He felt lightheaded. His face was numb. The world around him was spinning. It was like being trapped on a merry-go-round."Are you done with your tantrum?"Dominic pushed himself off his hands, sitting back onto his folded legs. Drool and blood coated his mouth, tears still springing from his eyes. The occasional hiccup stifled his very low sobs. He said nothing. What could he say? What was left to say? He took a deep breath, it shook with feeling.It was then that his phone began to ring. It sounded as if it were miles away, though it was just in the other room on his nightstand. He couldn't move. His legs felt like jelly beneath him. He felt frightened and weak and vulnerable and hurt. He hugged his arms to his chest and shut his eyes, doing his very best to calm himself."Stand and clean yourself up. You have work to do."As if on instinct, he did as he was told. He was on his feet before he realized it. He pressed a hand to the wall to keep himself from losing his balance. The realization of the horrific mess of blood, drool, vomit and tears on himself and the floor came upon him when he accidentally left a red palmprint on the white hallway wall. He jerked his head around to look over his shoulder towards the guest bedroom, panic etched on his features. Were the girls alright?He was only just starting to gather his thoughts when her voice called to him again."Hey, Nicky."The nickname made goosebumps rise on his forearms."Never forget. Mommy loves you."

The sudden presence of someone at the doorway of her office did well in derailing Shoko's spiraling thoughts. She had given up smoking at her window, tired of having to walk back and forth between her desk and the sill every few minutes. Instead, she left it wedged open as she chainsmoked at her desk, using an old coffee mug as an ashtray and a fan to keep the smoke from wafting into the building. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end when she sensed eyes on her. She played off the panic and pretended not to notice the visitor, instead absentmindedly flipping through the paperwork at her desk. Her eyes were lidded with exhaustion, her only sleep in the last day having been an hour long nap at Iori's place after breakfast the day before.A knock on the open door. She barely reacted, unsure if it was her fatigue keeping her from moving or her fear. Had word reached Yuki about the higher-ups doubting her allegiance to the school? Had she found out it was her who'd planted said doubts? Would she be angry? What was there to be angry about? Unless she was, in fact, hiding something. But in that case, why wouldn't that make her her primary target? Though it would be noteworthy if something happened to her right when these suspicions arose, so maybe she'd be fine."Pardon me, Shoko," Dominic mumbled in his second attempt to garner her attention.Relief filled her at the sound of his voice. Finally, she turned her chair to face him, putting out her cigarette as she did. "What is it now?" Her expression quickly shifted from one of feigned annoyance to dismay. "Holy shit, Dom. You look horrible." The words escaped her like air out of a balloon.His face was still swollen and bruised. A myriad of blue and purple had bloomed across his mouth and nose. His eyes were bloodshot, nearly shut from the inflammation. His normally neatly combed hair was a messy mop on his head. His shirt untucked, shoelaces untied. Not knowing how to respond to her reaction, he simply stood there."What happened?""I'll be fine. I was wondering if you-""That's not what I asked you.""I just had an accident this morning."Shoko's eyes darted towards his briefcase. The hand clutching the handle was shaking. It tightened its grip at her dubious glance. She bit her lip, ruminating pushing the subject."Please, I don't want to talk about it." It was weird, asserting a boundary for once but he felt like Shoko was one of few people in his life that would respect that. "I'll be fine. I promise."After a drawn out sigh, she nodded and leaned back into her desk chair. "You were wondering if I?" she asked, segueing him in to finish making his earlier request instead."If you wanted to continue our session from Friday."Shaking her head, Shoko muttered, "Not really. I don't really even remember what we were talking about ... but I did want to talk you about something else. Entirely unrelated." She gestured towards the door. "This is secret. Shut the door." As he did, she added, "You can't tell anyone about this."Dominic's brows furrowed. He took a seat on one of the spare folding chairs, setting his briefcase down on the floor beside him. He didn't say anything, anxiety welling at the center of his belly. His fingers fiddled on his lap.Shoko wheeled her chair closer to him, so much so that their knees were interlocked. She leaned towards him, mumbling, "I haven't seen Yuki since the fire." Her brows rose in a show of audaciousness."I don't understand," Dominic replied."Isn't it weird that Yuki appears at the school the very same moment a fire breaks out in the ward? I caught her in Jasper's room. She said she just wanted to meet them but why in the dead of the night and not just the next day?" Shoko's eyes widened more and more with every word leaving her mouth. Both her hands clamped on Dominic's knees now, clutching them tight. "Just a pile of coincidences? Or?"Dominic frowned. "What does Ms. Tsukumo stand to gain from setting the ward ablaze?" he asked, not looking all that shocked and aghast at the implications. Was he too tired to feel anything? Or did he just not care? "And what would she do with Jasper? They're powerful, yes, but their ability is entirely out of control. They'd be useless to anyone who wanted to make use of them.""So there are some gaps in my thinking but it's not completely impossible, right?""What isn't?""That she has something to do with this! With the fire! With ... With Tabitha!"Dominic grimaced at mention of Tabitha, "How exactly does she of all people factor into this?""Look, just keep an eye on her," Shoko dodged the question. "and Jasper. Don't leave her alone with them. Please."Dominic lowered his gaze, still fumbling his fingers. Hesitation formed a storm in his heart. This conversation was getting out of hand. It was overwhelming. This wasn't what he had come for. His eyes darted towards his briefcase. The once so-talkative entity residing within it stone silent. She knew what had to be done, as did he. But could he live with it? This would only be the first step down a heinous and wicked path. Would there be forgiveness at the end of it? Would he be able to turn back?"Please. If I'm right about this, it could endanger the students." Shoko's plea brought him out of his thoughts, for better or worse.Swallowing his self-contempt, Dominic resolved himself. He took her hands in his, touch delicate - as if afraid of hurting her. "Forgive me." Their eyes locked.Shoko was unable to get a single word out. A frazzled expression took over her as she blinked her eyes and looked around her. She pulled her hands loose, running her hands through her hair in attempts to collect herself. "Sorry, I'm a little spaced out today. What were we talking about?" There was frustration in her voice, as if just barely remembering something right at the tip of her tongue.Dominic downcast his gaze again. "I asked if you wanted to continue our session from Friday."

"You seem out of sorts."Those words worked to ground him. The couch he sat on felt solid, the ground beneath his feet was firm, the air around him was cool. Dominic blinked, coming to the realization he'd been staring unmovingly at a wall for the last ... He looked at the time on the wall clock in the breakroom; thirty minutes. Time had felt insignificant for him then. He could have spent the entire day dissociating in the breakroom if uninterrupted. He turned his head to look towards Kento, who was leaning back against one of the worktables, tea mug in hand. He'd been so unpresent he never even heard the man enter the room. "I a-" He caught himself, clamped his mouth shut and smothered the words that would have been. He fell silent for a moment before relenting, "I suppose I am out of sorts.""Is everything okay?"With a nod, Dominic mumbled, "It's just been a very long week.""Not to sound insensitive but your face is ..." Kento's voice faded as he struggled to find a polite adjective. "Different.""I know. I just had an incident this morning." Dominic grew all too aware of the briefcase on the floor by his feet, his dark eyed gaze piercing holes into the scuffed leather exterior. "But that's all been settled now."Taking the hint, Kento changed the subject. "I've never seen you around here on Sundays. I always figured you were off doing something ... priestly." He snorted. "So stumbling upon you here at random was a shock. You're usually rather particular about sticking to your schedule.""I just came in to check on Shoko. We didn't have a chance to finish our session on Friday. Following that, I conversed with Principal Yaga regarding my meeting with the higher-ups yesterday. I've somehow found myself here after I was done with that. Not entirely sure how or why."A comfortable silence filled the room.Dominic could feel himself sinking into the couch cushions, eyelids heavy. Footsteps made him jerk back awake.Kento paused in his approach, raising a reassuring hand. "May I sit?" He used the same hand to gesture to the spot beside Dominic."Yes."The two nestled against one another wordlessly as soon as Kento settled into the seat. After snaking his free arm around Dominic's shoulders, he crossed his legs and took another deeper drink from his mug. He enjoyed the small view of the blossoming pavilion they had from the breakroom windows, the peaceful quiet that came over the room, the herbal scent of his hot drink, the warmth radiating from the man he held close - before he spoke again. "When's the last time you've gotten any rest?"Smothering a sarcastic laugh, Dominic did his best to answer. He had gotten some sleep the day before but it had only really been an hour or two of semi-lucidity. However, his head felt as if it would split right down the middle if he dwelled too long on a satisfactory response. With a defeated look, he replied, "I slept a couple of hours yesterday afternoon.""A couple of hours more than usual," Kento said in a bemused tone. He wasn't necessarily in the position to chastize. Sleep was a foreign concept to most Jujutsu Sorcerers. "Try not to overdo it."Shifting a bit, Dominic turned his head to look at the other man. A light shade of pink filled his high cheeks. "Kento," he breathed.Kento rose his head, met Dominic's gaze and gave him everything he needed.A sigh of relief escaped Dominic before he leaned in closer, pressing their foreheads together. "I-" He began to speak but his phone suddenly vibrating in his pocket cut him off. He retrieved it, looking down at the screen with disdain. It was an unknown number. His frown deepened. "Please, excuse me," he mumbled, disentangling himself from the other and rising. He made sure to take his briefcase with him, answering the call as he opened the door and stepped into the hall. He felt Kento's eyes follow him out."DOM! Are you okay?!" Roger's voice on the other end of the call made his heart leap. "I've been so worried about you! When are you coming to dinner? You promised you would!""W-What did I say about calling me?" All the tension that'd melted away from him moments ago built right back up. His shoulders grew as stiff as concrete, his hand shaking as he clutched his phone to his face.Roger whined, "Not to do it ... but I was super worried!" His tone was insistent, pleading, though very apparently relieved that he was able to get in contact with the priest. "Are you working today? I thought you had Sundays off."After a couple of calming breaths, Dominic muttered, "I just stopped by to do something quickly. I'll be leaving shortly." He paused, lips pursing. "As for dinner ... I don't-""No! You promised, remember? Come tomorrow! Minnie'll make your favorite! You can meet all the guys!"Dominic's reeling mind slammed to a halt - but a chaotic halt, like the kind you get when you slam your car brakes while driving through a rainstorm. "The guys?" he sputtered - and then he remembered Suguru. Well, "Suguru". Nanako and Mimiko had mentioned spotting him meeting with Tabitha. Just what had this meeting extended itself into? His heart was thundering in his chest."Yeah! It's a surprise!" Roger chirped, not catching the alarm in Dominic's tone. "You'll see when you get here.""I don't know.""Please!"Time left to consider and contemplate drew to a close as Kiyotaka turned into the very same hall, thumbs tapping away at his phone screen as he absentmindedly made his way towards the breakroom. Dominic felt ice in his veins. "U-Umm, I-I ... Umm," he tripped over his words, mind racing for an out."Dom, please."The words just came out. "Fine. Yes. Tomorrow at eight." He hung up."Mr. Weon," Kiyotaka greeted with a shaky smile. "I hope you're-" He stopped himself once he finally tore his eyes from his phone to look up at his colleague. "Oh! Are you alright?""It's just been a long week," Dominic answered tightly. There were plenty of delightful little details about his appearance that incited these reactions from his coworkers, but it was likely that the main shock was that due to his mostly doing clerical work, it wasn't often he was seen battered and bruised. The kinds of injuries he was sporting certainly didn't help. A Jujutsu Sorceror stumbling about with a missing limb or their intestines trailing at their feet was a common sight. He really didn't look like he'd been hurt on the job. It, in all honesty, looked like he'd just been mugged."Oh, I see," Kiyotaka mumbled. "Well, tomorrow is the start of a new week! Let's hope this one is better."Dominic didn't say anything right away, waiting until the other awkwardly started to turn back towards the breakroom door to speak. "Mr. Ijichi," he called, locking eyes when he turned his head to look back at them. "Regarding my mission tomorrow, could you please leave the paperwork with the details on my desk before you leave today?""Of course!""Did Principal Yaga mention Ms. Ieiri spotting Ms. Tsukumo in the clinic the night of the fire?"Kiyotaka opened his mouth and then promptly closed it, suddenly standing very straight and lowering his phone. "The ... " He started to speak but stopped himself, shaking his head as if internally arguing with himself over what it was he'd just been trying to say. "I'm sorry, Mr. Weon. I can't believe my inattentiveness. What did you just ask me?" He looked ashamed, having tucked his phone into his coat pocket as if blaming it for his negligence."I asked if you could please leave the paperwork with the details on my mission tomorrow on my desk."

The bar was rowdy. Well, rowdier than usual. People tripped over themselves to get to the counter, loudly yelling over one another about work, dating, hobbies, family or whatever else. A couple of tables were discussing the incident downtown from a few days ago, conspiracies and whatnot. Judging by the number of drinks littering tables and the service staff milling about, it must've been a rough week for everyone.Satoru sat in a far corner of the venue, toying with the little umbrella that came in his fruity drink. The music and chattering and the sports commentating on the overhead TVs was making his head spin. It could've also been the several cocktails he'd guzzled a mere few minutes into arriving. Who was he to not thoroughly enjoy the dedicated bartender's hard work? It'd be a disrespect to the craft. Also, he wasn't some lightweight. What were a few drinks, moderately paced? Between gulps, he would steal glances over the top of his round black-out glasses at the front door.Dominic was late. Or at least, it felt like he was. He hadn't checked the time in a long while and he worried he lacked the coordination to operate a small technological device at the moment. Would he even come? He always came. No matter what. It wasn't as if this had been their first argument.Unease kept Satoru from sitting still for a second too long. When he wasn't drumming his fingers on the table, he was bouncing his leg up and down. He was crossing and uncrossing his arms. He was running his fingers through his hair. So what if he didn't show? He was replaceable. Just like Tabitha and Suguru had been. Just like Kento would be.He didn't care. Why would he? Why should he? He was used to this by now.It was as he stood to go settle his tab that he felt a familiar energy fill him from his the top of his head to his toes. It was as if he'd been enveloped in a warm blanket. He shuddered, grasping the edge of the table to keep himself steady. His head was spinning. Okay, maybe he overdid it just a tiny bit on the drinks. He plopped back down onto the cushioned seat, hanging his head as he felt the wonderful, comforting energy thrumming through him. Cold sweat formed at the nape of his neck. The relief that pierced his aching heart was almost too much to process. He felt like crying.Strong hands grasped his shoulders. He looked up, a crooked grin on his lips. "Y'know, I thought you weren't gonna come," he mumbled. "I shoulda known better. I'm stupid for that.""You are." Dominic's grasp loosened enough so that he was just clutching the fabric of Satoru's shirt.Satoru was surprisingly quiet for once, but that had more to do with him struggling to make any sense of his jumbled thoughts than him genuinely not having anything to say. When he finally did speak, it was words so foreign to him, Dominic might've thought he misheard had they not been so close together. "I'm sorry." He swayed forward in his seat, the top of his head pressing to the other's chest. "I was being a piece of shit yesterday.""Are you drunk already?" Dominic's hands moved from Satoru's shoulders to his face, cradling his cheeks gently in his palms and guiding him to raise his head. He looked amused."Nah, I got high tolerance," Satoru shrugged smugly, his words slurring together in an incomprehensible mess. "Everything does feel kinda blurry, though. Y'think I'm coming down with something?"It was as Dominic was about to answer that Satoru snuck a glance at him. He reached up, pulling his glasses off as if to convince himself of what he'd seen. "Whadda fuck happened to your face?" He leaned forward, squinting his eyes as he scrutinized the injuries."Don't worry about it," Dominic reassured, moving his hands from Satoru's face to his shoulders to keep him from falling out of his chair. "I'll tell you about it another time, okay?"The sensory nightmare that was the bar around them worked in Dominic's favor, forcing Satoru to redon his glasses in addition to shutting his eyes. "Oh man, I really do think I'm coming down with something," he grumbled.Masking his relief with a look of skepticism, Dominic shook his head. "I doubt it," he replied. "It's unlike you to get sick." Cupping Satoru's face in his hands once again, he used the tips of his index fingers to push the legs of his glasses so that the lenses slipped down the bridge of his nose. "Let's give you a check-up, just in case. Look up at me, if you can."Though hesitant at first, the other did as requested of him. Brilliant blue eyes peered up at Dominic. He was almost afraid to meet them - but he did. He forced himself to. Goosebumps rose on his forearms. It felt, at that moment, as if they were the only two in that room. And maybe they were.He knows. Ah, that's right. He was there for a reason. He needed to focus. But of course he knows. Why would this come to a surprise as him? Shoko mentioned it countless times to the both of them. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest, he thought for a moment the world around him was tremoring. He couldn't waste another second. He was almost done. He just needed to drop the anchor. "There's no redness in your eyes." Then, he drew a deep breath. "Do you recall Ms. Ieiri mentioning seeing Ms. Tsukumo in Jasper's room in the clinic the night of the fire?"It was as if Satoru mentally glitched, something in his mind trying desperately to locate the memory that'd just vanished. There was a struggle, moreso than any of the others. It couldn't be the infinity, could it? Satoru's soft skin against his hands were indicative that it wasn't active then. Was Satoru just that much stronger than him? Maybe he was just drained after all the prior uses? Running on fumes? Part of him worried he was getting sloppier with every use of this warped technique, that Satoru would notice and strike him down right then and there, but he forced himself to remain level headed. Everything would be fine."Hah?" Satoru called, still managing to sway in his seat despite Dominic's firm grasp on his head. "What'dya say?"Words faltered Dominic for a moment. He swallowed down his rising anxiety, hoping the other wouldn't notice his trembling fingers. "I said there's no redness in your eyes." He cleared his throat, one of his hands shifting from Satoru's flushed cheek to his forehead. "Let's check your temperature." He waited a moment before dropping his hand and shaking his head. "No fever." His other hand now moved to the other's chin, thumb swiping across his bottom lip. "Open your mouth."Satoru dropped his chin and stuck out his tongue, struggling to keep from laughing when Dominic slouched and craned his neck to get a good look at his throat."Hmm, no swelling," Dominic noted before leaning closer to the other Sorceror. "You seem fine." He pressed their foreheads together. "I think you're just drunk.""You wanna head out?"The question paired with a lecherous stare made color fill Dominic's cheeks. He quickly regained his composure. "Are you in need of someone to tuck you in?" he quipped, lips twitching.Expression souring, Satoru yanked at the front of Dominic's shirt. "You know what I mean! I wanna f-mmph!"Dominic's hand clamped over the other's loud mouth, muffling the rest of his crude shout. Eyes had darted their way but quickly lost interest when all he had to offer them was a weary and apologetic look. Upon releasing Satoru, his eyes lost their helplessness. "You're in no state. Let's go get you into bed," he grumbled, starting to help him out of his chair."But-""I don't want to hear it." Dominic cut him off, not the slightest bit interested in engaging this dialogue. Pulling one of Satoru's arms around his shoulders and wrapping his own around Satoru's waist, Dominic managed (with just a bit of trouble) to pick up his briefcase with his free hand. "I can stay the night but we're heading straight to sleep."Satoru lost the fight in him surprisingly quickly. He fell silent as Dominic covered his tab and then lead him out onto the sidewalk, tugging him towards his apartment building a few blocks down the road. The sun had since gone, clouds hiding the moon from sight. Only the streetlights lit their way. As they left the shopping district and entered the residential area, the number of people on the sidewalk decreased until it was just the two of them.A few times, Dominic stopped to see if Satoru needed to throw up but he was dismissed every time.After about ten minutes of fumbling with his keys, Satoru managed to get the front door of his apartment open. He immediately yanked the both of them towards the bed, and though Dominic followed him up to it, he didn't allow himself to get dragged along onto the soft mattress. He stood firmly and pried the other's fingers from his clothes, sighing when Satoru flopped over with a whine and a bratty kick of his legs."C'mon! I wanna feel you!" Satoru groaned, propping himself onto his elbows. His glasses had fallen from his face at some point. White hair fell into his eyes, hints of the shimmering blue peeking out playfully between tufts. "It's been a whole week. Don't you wanna?"With a tired sigh, Dominic countered, "None of that matters. You shouldn't have had this much to drink in the first place." He hesitated in setting his briefcase down. Should he just leave? He didn't want another argument. He just wanted to sleep, or at least try to.Satoru lunged forward, arms tightly winding around the other's waist. Almost as if he'd read his mind, he shouted, "Don't go!" It was a pleading yelp."Your neighbors will call the police if you yell like that," Dominic warned. He was hardly surprised by the outburst. The calm and collected Satoru Gojo was a laughable myth. Their God, his God, was a scared little boy. Like him. So frustratingly human. Naive, selfish, moody little children. They'd never gotten the opportunity to grow up, never had the chance to be kids. He closed his eyes when Satoru didn't let him go. His head was pressed to Dominic's chest, listening to his heart beat.Dominic ran his hands through Satoru's hair, fingers entangling in the messy mop.This prompted Satoru's second attempt to keep him from leaving. "Don't go, okay? It's fine. We don't have to do anything." He began to cry, turning his head to hide his face in Dominic's chest. "Just lay down with me. I don't wanna be alone." His shoulders were shaking from the struggle of getting the words out. "I'm sorry. Are you still mad at me? I'm sorry. Don't go, okay?"It was so strange for Satoru to apologize, to take personal responsibility. It was oddly reassuring to hear him say he was sorry. It was a sign that he was growing, working on himself. He was doing better, not just for himself but for them. "Okay," Dominic breathed.Satoru rose his head, eyes wide and glossy with tears. "Promise?""Yes," Dominic reassured. He then set his hands over Satoru's shoulders, gently unraveling his arms from around his waist. "Let's go to sleep.""Ever?""Ever?" Dominic echoed in confusion. He furrowed his brows. "What do you mean?"Satoru at last succeeded in dragging Dominic into bed with him. The other man was careful not to land on him, instead using his hands to guide himself onto the spot beside him. "Promise you won't ever go." The words were still slurring into one another. "Promise. Say it before I fall asleep.""Satoru," Dominic started, feeling anxiety well up in his chest. "I-""I know. I know what it means for you to say it." Satoru was laying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. His eyes were lidded and hazy, cheeks still wet with tears. "Say it or leave now." He had lost all his earlier flurry of emotion. The storm had dwindled to a light rainfall.Dominic's face twisted up for a moment before he rose from the bed. "This is cruel," he muttered. "This is a cruel thing for you to do to me."Satoru snorted, a deeply cynical look taking over his face. "You're just upset I've beat you at your own game," he grumbled. He turned his head to look over at Dominic, who stood at the bedside."Game?" Dominic echoed. "Do you think this is a game to me?"With a roll of his eyes, Satoru fell back into his inebriated silence. "I dunno how to put it," he confessed before raising his hands to his head. He gripped fistfuls of his hair. "But it's like ... " He paused before letting out a breath of surrender. "I dunno."Blinking hard to disperse the tears now forming in his own eyes, Dominic reached up and began to fumble with the collar of his shirt.Satoru perked his head up, eyes widening when the other's fingers worked their way down the buttons down the front of his shirt. It was as Dominic moved to his belt that Satoru caught his hands. "What're you doing?!""I don't know how else to show you what I feel for you, how else to prove it. This is what you wanted, wasn't it?" Dominic tried to jerk his hands free but Satoru's grip on his wrists was shockingly ironclad. "I can't promise you I won't ever leave! What if you keep hurting me like this? Do you think I exist to be your pin cushion?" His tone and volume rose. He felt like he was losing his mind. "I don't know what you want from me! I don't know what anyone wants from me!""Stop. I'm sorry." The words felt rehearsed, and this was when it dawned on Dominic that it wasn't accountability Satoru had learned after all. It was far worse. "Let's just go to sleep, okay? I'll stop."Dominic couldn't even muster the energy to sigh. He nearly collapsed onto the bed and closed his eyes, falling asleep before either of them could get another word in. The last thing he remembered before slipping into his deep, dreamless slumber was the smile on Satoru's lips and the feeling of his arms binding tightly around him once more.

Content Warnings: minor canon typical body horror.

The scent of cooking food permeating through the cafe did very little to quell Satoru’s hunger. He busied himself with sucking his birthday cake flavored milkshake up through its straw, eyeballing the waitress over-top his sunglasses every time she walked by them with a tray full of food for another table.What had he ordered again? Oh yes, the pancakes. So sweet and fluffy. With vanilla cream and fresh strawberries overtop. He should have ordered something on the side. Maybe some sausage or bacon, something savory to compliment the sweet goodness of his tooth-rotting starter.“I think we need to talk about the meetings.” Shoko’s sudden words snapped Satoru out of his starvation-induced daydreaming. She was fumbling with her silverware, internally bemoaning whatever law prevented her from smoking indoors. Normally, she could ignore the urges – but they had just finished going through the worst work evaluations in the history of Human Resources, so this was a special case. “Just so we all know … everything. We should do it before Utahime and Kento get here.”“I think not,” Satoru argued. “I think we should all just have a nice breakfast and talk about anything but the meetings!”The two exchanged looks of disdain before both turning towards the third party at the table.Dominic had been entranced, staring over Satoru’s shoulder out the window beside their booth. His tea, untouched, cradled in his hands. It was raining heavily outside. The occasional rumble of thunder accompanied the dark clouds. People hurried past the front of the shop, hiding under their umbrellas or donning raincoats. He was lost in thought, not having paid any mind to his colleagues’ conversation.Satoru threw a curious look out the window. Upon finding nothing of interest, he turned back to Dominic and waved a hand in his face in an attempt to capture his attention. “Are you even listening to us?” he asked, sounding offended.Blinking himself out of his stupor, Dominic gave Satoru a stern look before trying to gather his thoughts. He took a deep drink from his beverage, mind chugging to life like a train engine. Eventually, he lowered the mug. His movements were slow, as if he were second guessing every little thing he did. “I apologize.” It came out in a mumble. The words didn’t even feel real to him anymore. “I’m a bit disoriented but I’ll do my best to pay attention now.”A suspicious look crossed Satoru’s face, both brows raising high on his forehead. “Okay, well … Tell us what you talked about in your meeting!” he demanded, ignoring the sudden antagonistic glare Shoko shot his way.“I thought you said you didn’t want to talk about it!” she argued.“I changed my mind!”Lost for words, Dominic did his best to remember. Simply trying to was enough for him to develop a migraine. “I think the first thing discussed was the students going missing last night. I told them we agreed to assign them extra work over the weekend as punishment and they seemed satisfied by that.”“Oh, I told them to fuck off when they brought it up,” Satoru snickered.Shoko snorted.With a disapproving look, Dominic continued, “They asked me about the incident downtown as well.”Satoru nodded, “Yeah, they kinda asked me too but we didn’t talk about it long.” He had started eating his milkshake with a spoon, taking a mouthful of the creamy sugary mixture before asking, “What else did you talk about? Did they mention me at all?" He grinned at the idea.Dominic tensed. Could he get away with a twist of the truth ... ? He really didn't want to talk about the meeting overall – but he knew Satoru would egg him on for more information later if he avoided discussing the matter now. One way or another, he’d get what he wanted. In this case, the truth was in no way malleable. “You came up,” he finally admitted in a mutter.With a curious quirk of his brow, Satoru dug deeper, "What'd they say?""That our relationship is unprofessional. That I have had a negative influence on you." Dominic had to put effort into keeping his tone as impassive as it usually was as he said this. The prospect was ludicrous. Enough to spark anger in him. He had been the one who'd kept Satoru's head above water after the loss of their friends - even when it resulted in his own drowning. Was loving their God to a fault a sin in their eyes? Likely so. Gods were to be feared, not loved, weren’t they?Satoru’s grin dropped.“What about me?” Shoko asked.“No,” Dominic said. "They didn't mention you at all."She leaned back into her cushioned seat, looking relieved. The expression didn’t last long as she recalled the higher-ups' incendiary comments about her own personal life. “Well, you weren’t the only two accused of having unprofessional relationships. These idiots basically called me and Utahime heretics.” She rolled her eyes.Satoru looked puzzled as he glanced between the two. It came as no surprise that this scrutiny hadn't reached him.There was a weird comfort for Dominic in knowing he hadn’t been alone in his romantic and sexual life being picked apart. The solace faded quickly. He frowned, distressed at the thought of this problem only growing worse down the line. “I see,” he mumbled.Satoru hadn’t seemed to find exactly what he was looking for yet in his pursuit of information, it seemed. “What else did you talk about? You were in there forever!” he leaned his chin on the palm of his hand, quirking his brows in a show of curiosity. Beneath his guise of oblivious coy gossip remained genuine, heartfelt suspicion.Dominic sighed shakily. The emotional exhaustion was beginning to get to him. Maybe he should have just gone home after the meeting ended. He was afraid of mentioning the higher-ups bringing up his and Jasper's races. Would his colleagues agree with what they had to say? Would they be indifferent about it? Or angry? “We discussed Jasper.” He’d keep it to himself, at least as best as he could.Shoko nodded her head in agreement. "They brought up Jasper with me too. They want that DNA test ..." She paused, turning her face to hide her grimace. "and they want me to perform a physical on them. Jasper declined when I first brought it up to them so ... I'm going to need you guys to help me convince them to agree to it. Just talking about it like this makes me feel weird, but I don't know what else to do."Dominic and Satoru began speaking over each other, the former outraged while the other casually agreed. They then both looked at one another."Shoko shouldn't be forced into this and neither should Jasper," Dominic argued.Satoru rolled his eyes. "It's just a physical. What’re you worried ab- Oh! Hey!" He stopped himself mid-sentence when he noticed Kento and Utahime at the entrance of the diner. He stood and waved both his arms over his head to catch their attention. He then motioned to the table in invitation for them to join. Once Kento made a gesture of acknowledgment, he sat back down. “Alright, let’s talk about something else now.”Dominic stared at the other, lips quivering. "I have no doubts that Shoko would be performing a standard, inoffensive medical examination but it's invasive and could be traumatic if undesired and I refuse to participate in the manipulation of a child to accomplish this." His hands were balled into fists on the table."The higher-ups aren’t gonna let up on this. Sometimes it’s best to just give them what they want. It's fine. Leave it to me if you don't want to do it," Satoru snickered. Was he being selfish? Yes. He didn’t give a shit about what the higher-ups wanted. This was about what he wanted. And he wanted to know more about Jasper. He made a dismissive wave to Shoko in an attempt to erase the look of concerned skepticism on her face. He tossed a side glance at Dominic, gaze icy. "I'm used to being the bad guy."The bad guy? Dominic’s heart began to thunder in his chest, matching the stormy weather outside. His hands were shaking, palms clammy. What a fucking cop out. He stood abruptly, stepping out from the booth just as Kento and Utahime approached. They stopped a couple of feet away from them, not entirely surprised by the spectacle. "The only thing you’re used to being is a fool." He pointed accusingly towards Satoru. "No one matters to you but you."Satoru blinked, words caught in his throat. His lips moved but no sound came out of his mouth – not even a sputter, not a choke. His face reddened, though his expression remained stony and unaffected."Dom-" Shoko tried to mediate but he made a face that humbled her."I'm tired of playing along with your games. Tired of enabling them. Maybe I have been a bad influence on you after all.""You-"Dominic was halfway out of the restaurant when he turned back towards the table again. "Oh, and I'm back to fieldwork starting Monday." The words were bitter, resentful. They formed a noose around Satoru's neck, tightening with every step Dominic took out of the diner.

The AC in the Jujutsu Tech common room was a God send, especially to the fatigued group of teens collapsed on the floor of it. The polished hardwood was nice and cold, functioning as an ice pack for their sore muscles. It had rained all morning, only for the sun to make its appearance at full blast and leave them to work on repairs around school grounds while surrounded by a veil a humidity thick enough one could cut through with a knife. They'd been given an hour long lunch break but they were now fifteen minutes in and not a single soul had moved an inch from their resting positions.Somehow, Yuji still summoned the energy to speak. "When Mr. Weon said we'd be doing extra work, I thought he meant Jujutsu work. Not this." He put his paint-covered splinter-filled hands up for emphasis.Nobara, draped across all three cushions of the communal sofa, chimed, "Don't they hire maintenance people to do this kind of stuff?"Sitting on the floor with her back against the same couch, Maki countered, "Did you see the state of the shit we had to fix up? The last time anyone did any clean up around here was probably the last time a student fucked up. Everyone else thinks they're too good to lower themselves to the work of laborers." She had her arms crossed, head resting back and sharing the cushion with Nobara's."The place must've been spotless when Gojo was a student then," Megumi snarked.Yuji's head perked off of Megumi's lap, joining the others in a good laugh.In a farther corner of the room, Toge at last broke focus away from the game he had been playing on his phone. He opened his text to speech app, typing furiously for a moment before pressing play, "Does anyone know what to do for lunch? Should we order in? We've only got 40 minutes of our break left." He gave the massive panda napping beside him a hard nudge to rouse him from his slumber."I'm up. I'm up." Panda grumbled, rolling up to a sitting position as his paws rubbed the sleep from his eyes."We can order in but no fast food!" Nobara whined suddenly, voice muffled slightly as she burrowed her face into the sofa cushion. "I'll break out if I keep eating that garbage!"Yuji, having mirrored Panda in sitting up, argued, "What'd you mean? You're already all broken out!" He pointed to the center of his forehead. "Right here." His hand moved to the tip of his nose. "And here."Megumi took hold of Yuji's hand to stop him just as Nobara propped herself onto her elbows and shot them both a heinous expression. "Stop. Focus." He said, now raising his phone for Yuji to peruse a food ordering app. He relaxed when the other took the mobile and began to merrily scroll through."I want pizza," Panda said, drumming his paws against his belly."No pizza!" Nobara howled, sitting up on the couch.Toge typed onto his phone, locking eyes with Nobara as the app's speaker read his words out loud, "Then order your own food.""I think we can all come to a compromise that makes us all happy," Nobara's tone changed as she crossed her legs and folded her hands over her knee. "We just need to be more diplomatic about it.""Or you can order your own food," was Toge's response.Nobara's face reddened. "Will you stop being so damn difficult, you little freak?!" she shouted, now jumping out of her seat. Beside her, Maki rose her head and glared tiredly between her two bickering fellow classmates. "I'm trying to make it easier for all of us! If we all order together, everything gets here at the same time so no one feels left out!"Lowering the phone that had so efficiently distracted him mere minutes ago, Yuji pointed out, "I think you're just trying to get out of paying your own lunch! Every time we all order in together, you always go to the bathroom and never come back right when we're splitting the cost after we're done eating!""W-What?! Why are you so focused on my bathroom habits?! Weirdo!" Nobara deflected, face flushing."He's right," Megumi added."I don't think you're getting outta this one," Maki mused dryly. She gave her girlfriend a half-heartedly sympathetic look. "You did kinda set yourself up."Toge just barely contained his laughter as the chaos he'd incited only seemed to grow. However, with his prior determination to get their lunch ordered in a timely manner now forgotten, he reopened the game he'd been playing on his phone and unpaused it."Um, excuse me."The arguing teens resumed their exchange, every other word increasing in both volume and hostility."Excuse me!"Maki reached a hand up, grabbing a fistful of the front of Nobara's jacket and yanking her down into her seat. Before Nobara could redirect her anger towards her, she gestured towards the fidgety figure that had entered the common rooms.She turned her head, the others following in suit.Jasper was holding a large pot in their hands by the handles, oven mitts protecting their hands from the heat of the metal container. "I made lunch," they said quietly. "for all of us." Their words were shaken by their nerves, cheeks glowing redder than a hot iron. "I-If you guys want to eat it, of course. You could just get something else if you'd rather." They dropped their gaze to the pot, growing increasingly anxious in the temporary spotlight."Of course we'd love to eat your food!" Yuji shouted as he stood. He hurried over to Jasper's side. "I'll go grab plates for everyone! Thanks, Jas!""Jas?" Jasper echoed as the blonde rushed off in search of dinnerware. "Wait! Bring bowls! Not plates! And spoons!" they shouted after him before turning on their heels to look at their other classmates, who'd began clearing space at the chabudai at the center of the room.Maki patted the center of the sturdy table. "Put the pot right over here. Is there anything else you need us to get for you?" she asked.Doing as she said, Jasper shook their head. "No, no. I'll just go grab one more thing and then we'll be ready to serve when Itadori comes back with the bowls," they insisted. They couldn't fumble their fingers due to the oven mitts so they ended up in an odd display of mittened hand-wringing."I told you to just call me Yuji!" Yuji shouted, making Jasper squeak in surprise, as he reentered the room with a stack of bowls in his hands."That was fast," Nobara cheered, already having reserved her spot at the table.As Yuji set the plates, Jasper left and returned with a plastic container to place beside the pot. Once everyone was seated and waiting, they knelt at a corner of the table between Maki and Yuji. They then unlidded both the pot and container and explained, "I made soup joumou along with some beef patties to either eat on the side or take with you so you could snack on the rest of the day." They sounded a little more firm in their words, practically ecstatic at the positive reception of their lunch. "I-If you pass me your bowls, I'll pour you your share. I hope you like it.""What's soup joumou?" Megumi asked, holding out his bowl for Jasper as they filled it with the pot's contents.Jasper thought for a moment before replying, "A soup that's got squash, carrots, cabbage, pasta, potatoes ... umm ... and some other stuff." They couldn't quite recall the entire ingredients list but that was more or less the gist of it."Who taught you to cook, Jasper?" Panda asked as Jasper served him his plate."I cook all the time with my sister," Jasper replied. They grimaced before correcting themself, "Used to.""You have a sister?" Maki asked as they now poured hers."And a brother," Jasper mumbled. "but we don't get along as well as me and my sister.""You must miss them!" Yuji mused, wincing when Megumi gave him a hard elbow to the ribs and gestured for him to shut up. He bit his tongue upon noticing Jasper's watering eyes. "Oh, Jas! I'm sorry. It's gotta be a sore subject." His brows knitted on his forehead in a show of genuine remorse. "I didn't mean to."Jasper quickly shook their head, at last pouring their own bowl and taking a seat. "It's okay!" They reached their fingers under their glasses to wipe at their waterline. "It's just complicated, I guess."A firm grasp on their shoulder made Jasper's head perk up. Their eyes followed the hand up to Maki's reassuring gaze. Their heart ached. They then glanced around the table at the others, who'd paused their eating to impart their own looks of affirmation. They looked back to Maki, lips quivering."We all got complicated family situations. We get it," she said.Jasper's lips formed an unsteady smile.Yuji bumped shoulders with them, making them now turn to look at him. "We've kind of got our own little family here in a way. So, at least there's some comfort in that, right?"Jasper nodded, too overwhelmed by emotion to speak."Alright! Enough with the waterworks!" Nobara shouted, banging one hand on the table and raising her bowl with the other. "Let's fuckin' eat!""Here, here!" Maki seconded, raising her own bowl.A chorus of "Thanks for the food!" rang out before everyone turned their attention to the meal before them. There was nothing else to be heard but the sound of birds chirping outside and the noisy slurping of hearty soup. Jasper found themself simply holding their bowl in both their hands, looking around at each individual at the table with them.A foreign sensation welled within their chest. Acceptance, at last. They took their spoon.

"What're you doing?"The sudden voice at the window would have startled Minerva had she not long since sensed the remnants of Mahito's Cursed Energy drawing nearer to her. It was very faint, akin to the smell of a room at night after someone had applied perfume in it that morning. So faint, she'd initially thought he was a low level Curse - but no. Something had happened to him that dragged him to this low. She couldn't be bothered to care what. The girl continued to peel potatoes in the sink, not looking up at the devious creature perched in her sill."Hellooo~" Mahito held one of his hands out towards Minerva's face and wiggled his fingers in further attempts to garner her attention, dropping them and cupping his face in a show of angst when she continued to ignore him. "Lame," he sulked. His playful smile was replaced with an exaggerated insincere pout. "You suck."Finally looking up, Minerva snapped, "Will you be quiet?!" The knife she'd been using to peel the starchy vegetables was pointed threateningly at the unwanted visitor. "Who even are you? One of that old man's lackeys? I didn't see you at the meeting.""I'm more like an ally of his. The others are the lackeys," Mahito insisted. He then extended his hand to her once again, this time for a handshake. "I'm Mahito. It's nice to meet you."Minerva eyed his hand for a moment, her eyes twitching with thought, before dropping the knife and clasping palms with him in a single abrupt motion.Mahito's friendly smile dropped as his body moved in accordance with her tugging him in through the window. Without intention or desire, he climbed in, using his feet to scale the brick exterior wall and free hand to grasp the counter and lever himself onto it. His mind was spinning, but not out of fear - out of excitement. His heart raced, eyes wide and grin returning to his lips, doubled in size.The moment she released his hand, he dropped off the counter and onto the floor, promptly sitting up and looking from his hands up to her with a charmed expression. "How'd you do that?" he asked."Don't think you can get one over on me," Minerva snorted. She was still on guard, knife back in hand. "I can tell you have a touch activated technique. You're weak, so even if you did manage to activate yours before I did mine, you wouldn't be able to do shit in the state you're in.""I'll have you know, I'm not at my usual level of strength right now," Mahito replied, pushing himself onto his feet so he towered over the girl. "Once I finish recovering, you won't be able to scramble up my brain and do that again."Minerva had since gone back to peeling potatoes, showing great disinterest in continuing this dialogue. "If you're not gonna help, then leave," she mumbled.Tilting his head, Mahito peered over Minerva's shoulder at the stack of peeled potatoes in a bowl on the counter. He then looked at the couple of potatoes unpeeled awaiting inside the sink. "What are you doing?" He drew nearer to the peeled potatoes, sniffing them and wrinkling his nose at the earthy scent."Making dinner," Minerva huffed. She took a second, larger knife out from a drawer and then held it out to Mahito handle-first. "Here, take it. Cut the ones I've peeled into cubes."Warily, Mahito took the knife. He inspected it for a moment before taking a potato from the top of the stack in the bowl. "Cubes? So, like little squares?""Yup."Mahito stared at the vegetable in his hand for a moment, setting it onto the counter after some contemplation. He slammed his hand onto it, fingers having reformed into what looked like the intersecting wiring on a tennis racket. He cut through the potato with great success, though his resulting shape was more rectangular than cubed. He rose his hand, inspecting his handiwork with a proud smirk, before looking towards Minerva. "Done."Minerva turned her head to snark but stopped herself when she realized he actually had completed the task .. somewhat. "It's not perfect but it'll do," she muttered. Her eyes observed the hand that'd completed the task, almost as if memorizing every detail about it, before pointing at the rest of the potatoes in the bowl with her knife. "What are you waiting for? Do them all."Grinning, Mahito picked up one after the other. The pile of cubed potatoes on the counter grew with every one. He cut them at different angles, different speeds, in awe at the different shapes he got. He cut the same potatoes several times over, marveling at the differently shaped, shrinking pieces he got every time. This was different from his usual routine. "This is fun!" he mused just as he finished with the last of the bunch. "I wanna do more! What's this for anyway?""I told you already," Minerva chided. She handed him the potato she'd just peeled. "It's for dinner.""What's dinner?" Mahito asked, taking his time working through the spud.Minerva peeled the last of her batch, working meticulously but quickly. "Humans usually eat three times a day. Breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon and dinner at night. It's night time so I'm making dinner for me and my family." She paused for a moment before adding, "You can join us if you want to."Mahito furrowed his brows, leaning his elbow on the counter and propping his chin onto his palm. "I don't need to eat," he pointed out. "Wouldn't it be a waste?""Neither do I," Minerva countered. "but I like spending time with my family." She looked like she wanted to say more but she instead started gathering and tossing out all the peels from inside the kitchen sink.Curiousity peaked, Mahito leaned closer to the girl. "What are you?" His gaze held scrutiny. "You're just like-" He caught himself. Mr. Geto had told him not to mention to anyone his activities the last few days. He played it off by redrawing focus to her. "Your energy feels off. You're definitely not a Curse but you're not just an average Sorceror, are you?" His cheek was pressed to the side of her upper arm. Her skin felt soft, like silk. He slowly rose his head, so the tip of his chin was resting on her shoulder. He peered up at her, mismatched eyes through snowy lashes.Minerva sneered down at her hindrance, eyes full of disdain. "You're such a little creep." She spoke through gritted teeth.Mahito's hand, now back to its usual shape, snapped up to his own neck, fingers tightening around his throat. His grin widened at this. "You're fast! I like you!" he laughed, growing more and more strained with every chuckle as his grip grew tighter. Veins bulged on his forearm. "I hope we get to play more together.""Gross. You're so weird.""There you are, Mahito."The Cursed Spirit was suddenly repelled from Minerva. Not with enough force to knock him to the ground, but he did stumble back a few feet. He didn't look towards the doorway, instead staring at his hand as he curled and uncurled his fingers."I apologize if he's made himself a nuisance to you, miss," Suguru gave a slight bow of his head with his apology. He then motioned for the Curse to join his side. "Mahito, come along. There are things we need to discuss."Minerva turned her body to fully face Suguru before Mahito could walk over to him, her back pressed against the counter. "Wont you all join us for dinner?" she asked. Her head tilted, expression unreadable. "I know your friends don't have to eat but you're a human, aren't you? You can tell us all the fun stories of what going to school with my mom and dad was like."Suguru didn't falter, giving the girl a firm nod. "Of course we will join you for dinner. How kind of you to invite us." He waved his hand in Mahito's direction. "I will give the fair warning that some of us aren't entirely housebroken."Mahito didn't understand with this meant, not that he was paying attention in the first place - now distracted with inspecting the decorative fruit in a nearby glass bowl."That's okay. Neither is my dad," Minerva shrugged. A bit more relaxed, she turned and reached up into the cabinets to withdraw a pot from within. She began filling it with water. As Suguru began to make to leave, she spoke again, "Hey, Mr. Geto. Why do you hate Mr. Gojo so much?" Though her voice was layered with an innocent naivety, something about it came off artificial enough for a marble of wariness to form in the pit of his stomach."I can't say I do," Suguru replied. "He's simply an obstacle to me."Minerva closed the tap, now moving the pot over to the stove. "And what are we to you?" She turned the knob, setting the burner to a medium heat and leaving the pot to boil.Mahito dropped the plastic banana in his hand back into the bowl, looking between the two with a look of curiosity."Steps, I suppose," Suguru responded. "Help in accomplishing my ambitions."Minerva turned to face Suguru once again. She didn't say anything, almost as if she was waiting for him to say more than he'd already said."What am I to you, miss?"Minerva seemed to take a moment to respond, scrutinizing every inch of Suguru with her gaze. She seemed to be committing him to memory. He began to wonder if that had something to do with her Jujutsu technique or was just a quirk. Something about the way she looked at him was so detached. He felt meaningless in her stare. Insignificant. At last, she spoke with a smile, "A man."With a chuckle, Suguru replied, "Quite the observation.""Quite," Minerva chirped. The pot behind her began to bubble. "I'll call you when dinner is ready."

Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, transphobia (dehumanizing degendering) and mention of miscarriage.

“We believe you understand why we called you here.”Ah man. Would she get chewed out if she lit herself a cigarette? Probably. The higher-ups were such sticklers about everything. She was surprised they hadn’t yet demanded she take her hands out of her pockets and stand up straight. With a grimace, Shoko muttered, “The fire? The kids running off? Me smoking in my office? I dunno.” The hand in her right pocket fiddled with her lighter nervously, thumb turning the wheel lightly enough not to cause a spark.“Let’s start with what’s of utmost importance. The fire. Any theories on who could have started it?”“Well it wasn’t Jasper if that’s what you guys are thinking,” Shoko said pointedly. “They have the other students as an alibi. I don’t really know who it could have been, however, but it’s obvious it’s someone on staff. All our currently enrolled students were at the river. Jujutsu Tech staff are the only others with the clearance to roam school grounds. So, unless someone managed to get through Tengen's barrier, I dunno who else it could be.” Her expression was thoughtful for a moment, recalling her encounter with Yuki that night. She was an oddball so it wasn’t as if her presence was entirely out of character but the coincidences of it all didn’t sit right with her. “The only other person I had seen in the clinic that night was Yuki Tsukumo.”“What was Ms. Tsukumo doing in the clinic?”After taking a moment to remember as much as she could of what Yuki had told her when she’d entered Jasper’s room in her sleepy haze, Shoko answered. “She told me she had heard rumors about Jasper and came to check them out herself.” She didn’t really know the other woman well enough to know what she was capable of but she wasn’t entirely comfortable pointing fingers either. Maybe she had done all of this and maybe she was just a Special Grade Sorcerer interested in learning more about a potential Special Grade Sorcerer. Frankly, that was none of her fucking business. The idea of getting on Yuki’s bad side made her anxious.“Do you believe Ms. Tsukumo was responsible for the fire?”Shoko quickly rose her hands and gestured for dismissal. “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just telling you what I saw.” Her tone had grown largely defensive, shaking her head and pursing her lips.“Always the fence sitting with you, Ms. Ieiri.”With a shrug of her shoulders, Shoko wryly replied, “It’s how I’ve gotten this far.”“Do you know where Ms. Tsukumo has gone since the fire?”Dropping her hands, she did her best to dig up any detailed recollections of the last hour. She had been so preoccupied with contacting Principal Yaga, Dominic and Satoru that she struggled to remember much or anything of Yuki. But after some straining of her burnt out braincells, her departure surfaced at last. “Something about a hotel.” Shoko recalled Yuki rambling about being tired from her trip and wanting to have a long hot bath and a good sleep before leaving to some ritzy hotel she had failed to catch the name of. “To be fair, it was about 4 AM by the time we managed to get into contact with the students.”“Noted.”Shoko waited.“Do you have a back-up of all the information on the computers that were destroyed in the fire?”Shoko nodded. “I do.”“Excellent. We’ve done well to leave the medical department in your hands.”Shoko’s lips quirked into a performative smile before dropping again. “Thanks.” Their compliments didn’t particularly mean anything to her. She’d rather a spike in her paycheck than the worthless little back pats.“We will start rebuilding the clinic this upcoming week, once the investigation of the area concludes. Thankfully the fire didn’t spread too much, though we have received confirmation that everything in the analysis lab is unrecoverable.”Once again, Shoko shrugged. “Oh well.” She wasn’t particularly attached to her workspace. Hell, part of her wished it would have spread to her office so that she could have had it entirely rebuilt and redecorated. Her mind filled with the spreads on those home renovation magazines she flipped through on her lunch breaks. Dreams of mahogany desks, warm lighting and ceiling-high filing cabinets haunted her. Speakers built into the wall so she could play ambient rain noises while she worked. A bumped-out window seat for her to take her smoke breaks at instead of having to balance on the sill. She was filled with yearning. Maybe she could at least get some rolling stools for the new analysis lab instead of those awful plastic folding chairs.“Would you know of anything in specific within the lab that this person could have been targeting?”The beautiful furniture she would have gotten in a better timeline faded into obscurity as she was brought back to the conversation. “Nope,” she said with a shake of her head. “Though it seems the computers were what were most charred to shit out of everything in the room. It’s apparent that that’s where the fire originated before it spread out to the rest of the room so maybe something on the computer was the target?”“But taking into consideration that back-ups of the information on the computers were a possibility, why go through the trouble of destroying them at all without also destroying the back-ups?”“Couldn’t tell you.” Shoko rolled her eyes. Was this meeting just going to be her standing around and answering stupid questions? Unless … Wait. Did they think she did this? Hey, as much as she wanted that workspace renovation, it wasn’t worth the trouble that’d go into sabotaging important DNA samples and Jujutsu family history. Well … Maybe … No! Wait! They absolutely weren’t! Her brows furrowed. But why would someone target the computers if the information on them could have easily been backed up? Her heart began to race.“Have you taken any DNA samples from Jasper?”Pulled from her thoughts, Shoko pondered the answer to the question before replying, “Yes.” She could already hear both Dominic and Satoru bemoaning her admission but the higher-ups were probably gonna request that she do it anyway. There was no point in keeping it quiet. “They were destroyed in the fire but I can take more tomorrow. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”"What are your opinions on Jasper joining Jujutsu Tech?”Was this a trick question? Her puzzlement was evident on her face. “Um, they seem fine.” She rose her shoulders awkwardly. “They’re a nice kid.” She scratched at the back of her head, wracking her mind for anything else to say. “I haven’t really spent much time with them. I feel pretty much the same way about them as I do any other student.”“Despite their questionable past?”“Don’t we all have questionable pasts?” Shoko asked lightheartedly, her laughs slowly dying off at the memories of making Satoru help her doctor her medical degree. “But anyway. Uhh, I don’t really think anything of that. Mr. Weon determined they’ve gone through some shady shit in the past so it’s not really a surprise that they’re kind of closed off and wary about interacting with strangers. Maybe having friends and adults looking out for them will get them to open up? Who knows. I’m not a psychologist.” Or a doctor, really, she added mentally.“Have you performed a physical examination on Jasper yet?”"No, they were very uncomfortable with the idea when presented with it so I didn't push.""We request that you perform one."Shoko felt uneasiness build in her stomach. "Why? No one else in the school has been forced into one before. Why is that changing now?""Because we need you to determine if this creature is in fact human or not.""Their initial bloodwork proved for a fact that they are human.""Are you going against orders, Ms. Ieiri? It's so unlike you.""I'll see what I can do. I'm not going to force them to do anything." Her tone was firm."Interesting."Shoko's gaze warily shifted around her."Perhaps someone else should take a look at Jasper then. What with your perversions and general disrespect for your superiors. You-"“Perversions?” Shoko blurted, eyes wide and face reddening in disbelief and anger."Yes. We are well aware of your relationship with Tabitha Capricien prior to her expulsion. Now spending your evenings with Utahime Iori, are you? Satoru Gojo and Suguru Geto were rather close back then, hmm? Quite the Romeo and Romeo story. And then there's Mr. Weon who just never could seem to make up his mind about where his sick interests were more satisfied. Going as far as to bring with him that mongrel of a Sorceror all those years ago. Good riddance. What was his name?"Shoko was quiet. What the fuck did any of this matter? They were just trying to hurt her. She wondered if this was brought up in their meetings with Dominic and Satoru. Picturing the latter telling the higher-ups to shove it made her feel a little better."Nevermind that. The point is that the twisted hedonism your little friend group has indulged themselves in is making these children confused. Look at what it's done to Megumi Fushiguro."Shoko snorted, "Life is making them confused, as it does with every teenager. It's got nothing to do with who I'm fucking in my free time.""Watch it, Ms. Ieiri."Shoko bit her tongue, still clearly agitated but trying to calm herself down for the sake of bringing this conversation to an end as soon as possible."Let us move on. Have you heard the rumors regarding the possibility of Jasper's relation to Tabitha Capricien?”These sharp turns in conversation topics were disorienting her. She downcast her gaze, unsure of what to do or say. “I guess I have?” she settled at last. She felt like throwing up. “I’m not sure what you want me to say about that.”“You do have Ms. Capricien’s DNA information, do you not?”Shoko nodded. She wobbled on her feet, starting to feel lightheaded.“So we should be able to reach a definitive answer to those rumors sometime soon, correct?”“Yes.” She gave up on nodding for the time being, thinking it might succeed in knocking her over. For whatever reason, she hadn’t really considered just how truly horrifying the results of this DNA test would be. What would happen to Jasper if their mother was confirmed to be Tabitha? What would happen to the school? It’d been insane enough to allow Sukuna’s vessel in, but at least in that case both Yuji and Satoru had some semblance of control over the situation. But if Jasper was here, that meant they were either acting as a spy for their mother or they had truly run away from her … and that meant … she’d be soon to follow.“How would you feel if Ms. Capricien was confirmed as Jasper’s mother? Given the pain she’s inflicted not only on the school, given her betrayal of our basic morals and ethics, but on you as well?”Was she hyperventilating? The idea of Tabitha making a sudden reappearance after all of these years made her feel like her body was about to collapse into itself. The last they had ever really heard of her was that she had escaped. Not alone, but with her little lapdog of a boyfriend. Roger. After nearly killing her, after nearly killing Dominic and after nearly killing Satoru. Every single night, as she dozed off in bed, she always wondered if she had let them all live on purpose. What was the point? Because she thrived off of their hatred of her? Because she got off to the fact that they would never forget her?“Ms. Ieiri?”“It’s unfair to force children to bear the weight of the crimes of their parents.” The words came out as a mumble. Maybe that’d be her own little way to avenge the trauma Tabitha had brought upon her. To assist in raising her child in a loving and stimulating environment. Getting them to love it there more than they did her. “Jasper wants to be a good person, that much I do know. That already puts them leagues above Tabitha Capricien.”“Fair enough. We'll start work on rebuilding the analysis lab as soon as possible. We look forward to the DNA results.”"Ok.”"Farewell, Ms. Ieiri."

"We believe you understand why we called you here."Dominic did his best not to let the apprehension show in his face but it wasn't every day the higher-ups called for a meeting, not just with him but with Shoko and Satoru as well. Not at the same time, however, much to his disappointment. Satoru could talk himself out of anything. Shoko could hold her own. Him, not so much on both accounts. Part of him suspected this was on purpose. A strategic choice to call the three in individually before they could preemptively plan what to say or not say."I'm afraid it could be for a variety of reasons." His response was honest. He kept his gaze centered on the gap of floor between his two shoes, too intimidated by the situation to raise his head and dare glance around him. "I'd rather you just told me than I guess.""Let's begin with our most newly presented issue."Dominic waited."You've lost sight of the students tonight. Explain this.""They've been found," he interjected. "and were immediately reprimanded but it wasn't anything outside of typical teenage misbehavior. Sneaking out and the like. It is a Friday night afterall. They're now in their rooms, sleeping, and will have to do extra Jujutsu work over the weekend as punishment.""Is misbehavior typical to you?"Dominic had to force himself not to roll his eyes. "That isn't what I meant. It's typical for teenagers in their age group to grow rebellious and do things like this but it's up to us, their mentors, to keep them from straying too far while also having the leniency to allow them to still experience the ... joys ... of adolescence.""Very well."A silent breath of relief escaped him."There are rumors that Jasper is the offspring of ex-student and enemy of Jujutsu Tech, Tabitha Capricien."His solace was short-lived. Just the mention of Tabitha was enough to make his hands start shaking. He clenched them at his sides to still them. "There are," he replied with a grimace. If he wasn't asked a question, he wasn't going to answer it.This clearly wasn't well received. "How do we know this isn't the Curse-hybrid she impregnated herself with 20 years ago, the cause of her expulsion?"A laugh of disbelief threatened to burst from inside him. Were they serious? They knew why this wasn't the same child. Granted, they didn't know he knew but it was still a stupid question regardless. "Firstly, we have no confirmation on Jasper's family history." He conveniently left out that Shoko was working on a paternal DNA test. "If we consider the likelihood that Mrs. Capricien is their mother, Jasper is a teenager well under 20 years old. It's impossible that this is the same child." Dominic continued. "Even under the assumption that Tabitha carried a Curse-hybrid fetus in her womb for five years," He bit back calling said assumptions what they were. Asinine. "I still don't see why that matters."Some laughter encircled him, low enough that it was apparent that the entities around him were making somewhat of an effort to stifle themselves but loud enough to demonstrate they didn't truly care to contain themselves. "You don't see the issue with us allowing the ... offspring of a deranged terrorist to join our institution?"Nostrils flaring, Dominic rushed to answer. "As I said, the rumors that Jasper is her child are unfounded." He reiterated, ignoring the 'deranged terrorist' comment. "And in the case that there is a relation, I don't see why this means the school should turn them away. We still took Megumi Fushiguro into the school despite the horrors committed by his father, did we not?""Do not compare a member of the Zenin family to a ..."Dominic's heart was in his throat."an outsider."He pressed on, doing his best to stay level-headed. He steadied his voice, speaking softly but with resolve. "Jasper does not appear to have any desire to return to their life before the school and their abilities are unlike anything I've witnessed before. They could prove to be a valuable asset to us.""Since you've brought up the topic of this creature's abilities, provide us a verbal report on your experiences downtown yesterday. We've heard Mr. Gojo's already but we'd like to hear yours. A formality, if you will."There was so much he wanted to say but it was all caught in his throat. It was unlike him to be so contrarian, especially with his superiors but was he just supposed to allow them to dehumanize Jasper? Either way, was discussing the events of the day before where they would try to trip them up? Would Satoru have told them that Jasper had managed to interfere with his Limitless? Or that they had tamed Sukuna? Fidgeting, Dominic wracked his mind for an answer. This was obviously all a tactic to scramble his mind up enough to get him to loosen up his tongue and say more than he intended to. He couldn't let them win."Whenever you're ready." The reassurance was anything but."Mr. Gojo teleported Mr. Ijichi and myself downtown upon news reaching him of the situation. Once we-""Which was?""Pardon?""What was the situation as far as you knew?""An entire city block is fucking gone!" Satoru's panicked shout echoed in his head. He cleared his throat nervously. "That we had lost visibility on an entire public city block. Once we arrived, we confirmed that a quarter of the downtown square had been enveloped in a dark mass - presumed to be Jasper's Domain, as Satoru recognized it from the incident at McDonald's. Its unprecedented interaction with its surroundings made it unrecognizable as a Domain until this second incident.""And what followed that?"Dominic internally rolled his eyes as he recalled Satoru launching an unwilling Ijichi into the Domain. "Mr. Gojo, Mr. Ijichi and I all entered the Domain at Mr. Gojo's request. He instructed us to keep our eyes closed and this prevented us from losing consciousness. It seems that the Domain's ability is only triggered when eye contact is made within it.""Eye contact with Jasper?""No.""Then who?""Well, Satoru explained the shadows that covered everything within the Domain were filled with red eyes but I haven't seen its interior myself for obvious reasons.""What followed?"This was going to get tricky. "The Domain fell while we were searching for the students and we found both Jasper and Sukuna, who was at the time in possession of Yuji, fighting." He paused for a second before correcting himself. "Well, more specifically, Sukuna was attacking Jasper while Jasper fled. He likely took control of Yuji when Jasper's Domain made him lose consciousness." Okay. He handled that well enough. Kind of."And then?""Sukuna lost control of Yuji, who proceeded to lose consciousness again." He danced around telling them of what occured with Satoru and Jasper. "Jasper also lost consciousness shortly after. We took them and the other two first years to the clinic, though Yuji, Nobara and Megumi were all cleared later that same evening.""How did Sukuna lose control of Yuji?""I don't know." Dominic's response was unfortunately both genuine and disingenuous, enough for him to squirm around telling the higher-ups the nature of Jasper's technique. He didn't feel confident in the information he did have and he wasn't comfortable with telling them. The thought of what the higher-ups would be willing to do to and with Jasper and their ability sent shivers down his spine.Silence. For minutes. Were they doubting his honesty? Unlikely. They knew his circumstances. They just didn't like the answer. Either that or they were using the tension to their benefit, trying to get him antsy enough to say more. Had Satoru told them? He wondered."Is it known what caused Jasper to activate their Domain?"Dominic shook his head. "Not yet but I will discuss it with them tomorrow before their detention work. I know full well it wasn't a malicious or antagonistic act. They wouldn't want to harm anyone.""You seem to have an immense amount of faith vested in this unstable ..." "Thing." A second of the higher-ups chimed. There were chuckles. "Are we sure it's human? Ms. Ieiri must have been mistaken."Dominic didn't answer right away, head spinning. He said all he could think to say. "I was once an unstable thing myself."Increased laughter made his breath hitch. They were mocking him. He tossed a nervous glance towards one of the doors nearest to him. What was he searching for? Compassion? Mercy? He dropped his gaze again."Pardon my forwardness but I feel I've proven myself useful to the school after all these years," he pressed. A million impulse thoughts came to mind but he swallowed them like a dry pill. He couldn't fuck this up for Jasper. Submit, submit, submit. Things will work out. "If we provide Jasper a healthy, educational and loving environment, they are sure to gain control of their ability and benefit not just the school but all of humanity as well.""How are we to trust your word? You might have biased interests."Dominic's brows furrowed, genuine puzzlement on his face. "Biased interest? I'm not sure I understand what you mean." Because they both came from troubled homes? Because they both had insane mothers? He racked his mind. Had he been giving Jasper more importance than the other alums? Surely not. Maybe a bit more attention but only because they were new and frankly, needed it. Had the other students felt neglected by him?"Well, you're both foreigners. You've always been rather insistent that Jujutsu Tech brought in stray Sorcerers from overseas." Another added snidely, "And look how well that worked out for us after Ms. Capricien's attack on the school.""A foreigner?" Dominic sputtered, raising his head and looking incredulous. "I was born in Japan. And I'm not one for assumptions but Jasper's grasp on the language indicates that they've lived here at least a majority of their life. While Tabitha did come from overseas, Suguru Geto turned his back to Jujutsu Tech soon after.""But you aren't Japanese."All of his words had fallen on deaf ears. Dominic felt his face redden, for once there was anger building within him. "I don't see what this has to do with anything. It's a rather ignorant observation to make. My mother was born here, as was I.""And your father?""What is that of any importance?" Dominic's voice was shaking. He could count on one hand what he knew of his biological father, so what did they know."No need for hysterics, Mr. Weon."Dominic's lips quivered in frustration. His nostrils flared. They'd succeeded in getting under his skin, and for what? They had asked all their questions. hadn't they? Were they just trying to hurt him?"Speaking of your mother,"Oh no. Dominic's empty right hand clenched, the handle of the briefcase that often accompanied him was not present. He'd preemptively left it in the office. "I'd rather we didn't." Their sentence hadn't yet found its end, but it had still somehow managed to drain the life from him. He'd become a mere ember, ground into non-existence by the heel of a shoe."Your demeanor is unseemly. Perhaps this unprofessional relationship you've developed with Satoru Gojo over the years has been a bad influence on you. Although ... knowing your past, you never really were much of a good person yourself, isn't that right?""I apologize.""It's not very becoming of a man of Faith and counsel, a man bearing the Curse of Perpetual Repetance, to be so difficult.""I apologize.""Seeing that the sole reason that you were allowed to join Jujutsu Tech in the first place in lieu of your original death sentence is because of your mother's monumental contributions to the school - we'd recommend you stop treating this place with so much familiarity and more like what it's supposed to be for you. A prison.""I apologize.""As if it wasn't bad enough that we had to admit the failure son of a talented Sorceror. You had the audacity to stuff away the Curse of your actions in a briefcase and sit behind a desk instead of attempting to fill her role. The one you took from us."Dominic broke at last, tears falling from his eyes. He kept his expression blank, mind buzzing. Was he going to faint? "I apologize." He felt like a broken record. "I will work to better satisfy your requests." No. No. He didn't want to. He didn't want to do it. After a brief pause, he choked out a feeble, "I only ask that you give Jasper an opportunity to grow."There was silence. Were they contemplating privately? He would have been nervous if he wasn't so tired. Too exhausted to feel. He just wanted to go home. What time was it anyway? It felt like he'd been there hours. He wanted to go home."We'll concede under one condition."Dominic said nothing."Starting tomorrow, you're back to fieldwork."

“We believe you understand why we called you here.”“Nope! Haven’t a clue!” Satoru shrugged his shoulders, rocking impatiently back and forth on his feet. “But if you could speed it up, I’d appreciate it! Got plans soon.” He slipped one of his hands from inside his jacket pocket, throwing a glance at the watch on his wrist. “Real soon.”The irony of him checking his watch with his blindfold on seemed lost on the higher-ups. Either that or they were just a bunch of sourpusses. He was willing to bet it was the latter. There was a tense silence before the superiors in title gave in. “The students went missing tonight. How do you explain this?”Satoru rolled his eyes. “We found them, didn’t we? What’s the problem?”“They shouldn’t have gone missing in the first place.”“Shit happens.” Satoru shrugged again. “It’s fine now and we’ll try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Of all the things that had him riled up these last few days, this meeting had been the least of his worries. It was more of a formality, really. He’d give them five minutes, just to be nice. He’d already set up his exit strategy, having lied about his plans. He figured that telling them the truth, which was that he didn’t think a back and forth with these useless geezers was a good use of his time, would only make this conference longer and more annoying than necessary. Not that it was necessary to start with.Oh crap, he’d forgotten to consider it was probably dawn right now. He supposed plans at 5 AM were totally plausible, right? Maybe he could go grab some breakfast with Dominic and Shoko once they were all done here.“Alright. Moving on.”Heh, this was gonna be a piece of cake.“What of admitting the offspring of ex-student and criminal, Tabitha Capricien, into our school?”Satoru tensed, brow raising high on his forehead. Were they trying to trick him? Did they truly know the identity of Jasper’s mother? Or were they trying to get him to give up what he knew by pulling a bluff? If that was their goal, he didn’t know how to politely tell them they were shit out of luck. He still had no hard evidence for Jasper’s lineage. Shoko had been working on a DNA test but her analysis lab had been burnt to a crisp. Not like he’d tell them the results anyway. “I brought in a kid that needed a home. A Sorcerer that needed a home. I don’t know about anything outside of that,” he said.“But you are aware of the suspicions regarding Jasper’s background, aren’t you?”Ah ha! They didn’t know shit. Satoru scoffed, “I’m too busy a guy to sit around and listen to gossip.”“We have it on record that most of your time at the school involves listening to gossip.”Satoru cracked a grin, “I’d like to take a peek at these records of yours and see what other pointless little character notes you keep about me in them.”“Careful, Mr. Gojo. We’re still due respect.” The speaking tone grew more authoritative. It seemed he’d hurt their feelings. This was devastating news.Satoru removed both his hands from his pockets and rose them in a show of surrender. “My bad, I’ll behave,” he insisted. He dropped his hands to his sides. “My point is that I really haven’t paid much attention to what people have been saying about Jasper. I’ve been more focused on learning more about them and investigating their technique instead.” This was a half lie because he absolutely had been clinging to every word said about the newly-admitted student spoken within earshot of him – but he usually didn’t want the higher-ups sticking their noses in his business, this situation even moreso than others past. If he acted like he was concerned about Jasper’s background, they’d just use this to try and fear-monger the rest of the staff into thinking they were a genuine threat. And although he wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t, he wanted to make that determination himself and before they were made a target and ended up ostracized over mere speculations.“Now that you mention their technique. Tell us more about it. We know you’ve had the opportunity to witness it firsthand twice.”With a sneer, he gave in and decided to be a little more generous than planned. He figured that if he dressed himself up as enough of a clown, he could get away with telling them just enough to get them off his back. He sure as fuck wasn’t telling them that Jasper managed to cancel out his Infinity. “Well, I didn’t pay too much attention. I was distracted making sure the general public was alright,” he smiled a helpless silly little smile. “I don’t know what Jasper’s base technique is but we do know they have the ability to activate their Domain, which is what we’ve experienced at both the McDonald’s and at the incident downtown.”“Explain Jasper’s Domain.”Groaning in a show of annoyance, Satoru acted as if he couldn’t be bothered. “It’s all dark, lots of glowy red eyes. If you look at ‘em, they put you down for a nap.” He stopped himself from gesturing to his blindfold, instead smoothly transitioning his hand up to his hair to casually brush some back. If they figured out on their own that this flimsy piece of cloth was what saved him from getting downed, then great, but he wasn’t gonna hand that information on over to them.“Those who have been affected by this Domain will need months of rehabilitation. Describing it as a simple nap seems like you’re downplaying their experiences.”With a dismissive bounce of his shoulders, Satoru iterated, “I’m sure anyone who gets caught in a Domain that isn’t a Sorceror would be in a similar situation. It’s an unfortunate event but Jasper’s here to keep that from happening again.”“Any information to share with us on why this has happened not once, but twice?”Had he ever asked Jasper what had upset them at the McDonald’s? He probably should have done that. Eh, he didn’t want to come off that incompetent. “We’re chalking it up to inexperience controlling their Cursed Energy and releasing it during high stress moments. We’re still investigating further into the situation downtown, however, as we have our suspicions they may have been attacked then. We haven’t yet had a chance to question them what with everything going on tonight.”“Returning to the topic of Domain Expansion. It requires both experience with and an immense amount of Cursed Energy. Do you believe Jasper may be feigning ignorance in Sorcery in order to infiltrate Jujutsu Tech?”Satoru froze at this, his heart pounding in his head. It was as if his own internal dialogue all week had been thrown in his face. But they didn’t get it. Jasper had enough energy to make their Domain several hundred feet in diameter but if any Sorcerer tossed a glance their way, they wouldn’t have the slightest clue just what they were capable of. There was no Cursed Energy coming from them, even his Six Eyes didn’t detect it. He could when it was in use but they were entirely devoid of it otherwise. As if they weren't a Sorcerer at all, just an average human trapped in a whirlpool of Cursed Energy. “The levels of Cursed Energy one has isn’t always something one earns with hard work and determination, though it’s entirely possible. Some of us are born powerful.” The corners of his lips quirked at this before he remembered he was talking about Jasper and not himself. “I don’t think they know they’re activating their Domain Expansion, or even what a Domain Expansion is. It’s become an instinct to them when in dangerous or stressful situations.”“Could it be you see yourself in this child, Mr. Gojo?”Tremors of anxiety tore through him. Now where did that come from? His introspective monologue the day before about confronting his fears and anxieties through helping Jasper; facing his own humanity, his mortality; bringing down that wall he’d built up around himself, it all came back to him. How brave of him then. Brave? Or naive? Stupid, more like. He crammed all that shit away into a tiny box at the back of his head and locked it. “No,” he bit out.“We’d hope you weren’t picking favorites. That’s not a very good approach to teaching.”Satoru furrowed his brows. Had he been picking favorites? He didn’t really think so. Despite all the insanity this last week, he hadn’t spent much time with Jasper at all. It was more or less the same amount he’d spent with the others anyway. This was just another one of their jabs. Another failed and pathetic attempt to get under his skin to add to the pile. “For once, I agree,” he snorted.“Answer us this, Mr. Gojo. Twenty years ago, Tabitha Capricien was expelled for subjecting herself to fecundation with the DNA of a Cursed Spirit. How do we know that this isn’t that same child from all those years ago?”Satoru’s face twisted up. “Jasper’s still a kid.” He didn’t want to speak the real truth. They knew why. They were the ones who’d given him the orders. Why were they playing stupid? The memories of that night made him feel lightheaded. He glanced down at his hands, feeling his skin crawl. For a moment, a flash of red bathed them. Sticky, shiny. He quickly buried them back into his pockets. It was just a trick of his mind. “So I’d probably check my math on that if I were you. The timeline doesn’t add up.”“We don’t have any information on what a pregnancy of the sort would entail or what kind of creature would come of it. Perhaps Jasper ages slower than a human? Or maybe the fetal development of a creature like it would take longer?”“Maybe if you hadn’t expelled her, we woulda found out.” His tone had lost all of its earlier lightness. He was cold, reserved, distant. “Oh well. Too late for that now.” He didn’t want to think about Tabitha. He didn’t want to think about that night. In fact, he was done with this. How long had it been? He was too scared to remove his hands from his pockets again, so tense he didn’t think moving would actually be possible.“Our point stands. How do we know this isn’t the same child?”Satoru pressed his lips together, refusing an answer.“Whenever you’re ready.”His hands formed tight fists.“Mr. Gojo?”His jaw clenched.“Didn’t you have plans soon? You’ll be running late if you don’t hurry.”They were angry because they hadn’t gotten the information they wanted about Jasper from him so they were taking it out on him. For a moment, he thought about Shoko and Dominic and wondered how they fared against these tactics.“I supposed we could just read the report given t-”“I terminated the pregnancy.” The words didn’t feel like they had left his mouth, but he knew he had spoken them out loud because the higher-up he’d cut off stopped speaking. “I put a hole right through her belly.” Why did he feel so numb? Did he not care about what he’d done? No, he did. He had nightmares about that night almost as often as he did the day he killed Suguru Geto. Was this what he was put on this planet for? To kill those he loved? “With my fist.”“Taking into consideration your reconfirmation of what occurred that night, we will dismiss all suspicions of a relation between Jasper and Tabitha Capricien for now.”Satoru nodded. Was he even paying attention to what they were telling him? His ears were ringing.“Ms. Ieiri will start in-depth work on analysis on Jasper’s DNA samples once the clinic is rebuilt. Thankfully, she had back-ups of most of the information lost in the fire.”Shit. Had Shoko told them about her testing Jasper’s DNA? Or had they requested it of her on their own? Whatever. He didn’t care to give it anymore thought or concern. “Okay.” They could talk it over pancakes and coffee once they were all done with their meetings that morning. “Cool.” His stomach growled.“Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Gojo. You’re dismissed and free to go on about your busy day.”

Content Warnings: arson, manipulative behavior, and threats of violence.

The halls outside the clinic's observation rooms were quiet and very dark, lit only by a couple of old dim wall lamps. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good for keeping a low profile, bad for people who relied on their vision to ... y'know, get around.Oh well. She'd manage somehow.There was only one door of the five with a clipboard in the holder mounted on the wall beside it, which confirmed her suspicions that Itadori, Kugisaki and Fushiguro had all received their final assessments and been discharged. It only made sense. The last she heard, they had all been in perfect physical health. She expected nothing less of Satoru Gojo's pupils. Dominic would likely be taking over to ensure the stabilization of their fragile mental states after their brief encounters with the curious little creature that was Jasper. This ultimately made her life so much easier.After a cautious glance over her shoulder and down the hall she'd come from, she snatched the clipboard from its spot and flipped through the pages attached.It took a bit of effort because of the low light, but she managed to read what little info was listed. Tsk, tsk. Jas. What are you getting yourself into? They're gonna make a guinea pig out of you. Most of the fancy medical jargon Shoko had spun on and on about for several pages was all a facade to hide the fact that she didn't know what the fuck the deal with this new kid was or how to even approach handling them and their situation. Normally, the medic would shrug it off and call it a day but the higher-ups were likely breathing down her neck for answers. This was the best she could do. It was cute.PENDING DNA PATERNITY TEST RESULTSOh no. Not cute anymore.Lowering the clipboard, she did her best to still her racing heart. That would be a problem. And a pretty big one at that. This could bring about chaos. War. It could end Jujutsu Tech itself. Obliterate Tokyo, destroy Japan, tear through Asia, splinter the planet. Nothing'd be left - Curse nor Human. Tabitha's wrath would stop at nothing. She did little to hide the excited grin that spread across her face. "Oh, Ms. Ieiri. You have quite the death wish, hmm?"After setting the clipboard back in place, she took a moment to think. Tabitha wouldn't be happy if she just left those samples behind, even if she did return with Jasper. But it'd be awfully suspicious if both Jasper and the samples went missing the same day she came back from her trip, wouldn't it? She supposed she could plant seeds that they'd run off on their own and taken the samples themself. It could work. If she went by entirely undetected that night, she could even stop by for a visit the next day and pretend she had arrived then instead. Ugh, what a pain. She was going to have to be fast.Her footsteps were silent as she hurried back down the way she'd come. She had to grab those samples first. Jasper was momentarily bumped down to second priority. Knowing them, they'd only be a nuisance if she brought them along to ransack the analysis lab.Speaking of which, where was the lab again? It'd been so long since she last visited these damn crypts ... No, wait. Navigating the halls fell to the responsibility of muscle memory as she turned this and that corner. Guess it hadn't been that long after all. Or maybe she'd just been up and around every corner of this school far too many times in all her years there ... No, no. Definitely just her expert and youthful memory coming in handy yet again.The analysis lab was unlocked which wasn't an uncommon thing. Shoko often lost her keys, and so this was an easier alternative. After all, the school was so well-protected, the likelihood of anyone with ill-intent entering and managing to cause any serious harm was down to 0%. Well, 0.00000001%.It's not that she wanted to cause any serious harm. It was just ... Well, it was complicated.She entered the room, stopping at the center of it. DNA samples are kept where exactly? Somewhere cold? She walked down the furniture lining the walls of the room, opening and closing cabinets and drawers until she came upon a stainless steel freezer stashed in a far corner."There you are."She opened the door with the tip of her boot before she crouched, rifling through the trays inside - thankfully, all labeled with the individual's names.Fishing out the tray of vials marked "JASPER", she promptly began to stuff the small plastic containers into the pockets of her cargo pants. Blood, buccal swabs, even hair. Man, was she being obnoxiously thorough. Just how many tests were you planning on running? She set the empty tray back inside the freezer and shut the door, letting out a tired sigh.Was that all though? Her eyes momentarily darted towards the fancy computer across the room from her ... Ugh, this was so annoying ... Would it be too much of a pain to trash the entire Jujutsu Tech DNA database? Yes. Yes, it would be. Would she be essentially destroying centuries worth of DNA information regarding every Jujutsu Sorcerer involved with the school? Also yes. But would she be willing to do it for Tabitha? ........... Fuck no. She was already risking enough as it was. This'd be a bit much. If Shoko kept a back-up of everything, her hard work would be for naught. Why even bother?Despite her dismissal of the idea just moments ago, she fell into a momentary pitfall of thought. She needed to do something. Allowing this information to fall into the hands of the higher-ups or staff at Jujutsu Tech could heavily interfere with her and Tabitha's end-goals. Manicured nails drummed rhythmically on the freezer door handle, the little hamster wheel in her head turning at mach speed.She noticed some conveniently stacked jugs of something in the far corner of the room, and committed at last. It was going to have to get done, and she would just have to make do. It was for the greater good, after all. Kind of. Probably.Practically giddy, she hurried over and grabbed hold of two of the large bottles. She uncapped them both and approached the computer like a vulture descending on it's prey. With a flick of her wrists, she dumped the contents of the containers out over the tech. A strong but familiar scent reached her nose. She glanced at the label on one of the bottles for confirmation. Ethanol.An even more devious plot hatched in her head.Ah, but she'd have to be quick. So quick. She needed to get herself and Jasper out of there before anyone noticed.After setting the emptied jugs down onto the desk, she reached into the front pocket of her jacket and withdrew a matchbox. The motion was so swift, it was almost entirely unnoticeable. Strike and flick. The flames went up instantly, lighting up the delighted grin on her face.Backtracing her steps, she found herself approaching Jasper's door once again. The smell of smoke and heat of fire hadn't yet reached the hall of the miniature inpatient ward, but that didn't mean she had time to traipse around at her leisure. There was no room for hesitation or distraction. She needed to snatch Jasper up and get them both the fuck outta dodge. She turned the door knob and entered the room, taking long strides over to the bedside and reaching out to shake the teen awake. Her heart sank upon realizing there was nothing but bedsheets and pillows to grab at."Jasper?"Her left hand blindly reached for the lamp on the nightstand, flicking the light on. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the brightness. All color drained from her face when she found the bed empty. Her mind raced. Did they get discharged sooner? Where were they? With the higher-ups? No, not at this time of night. With Shoko? What would she even be doing? Did they run away? Maybe they were back in their room? Something caught her eye. Claw marks on the mattress. What the fuck is this?"Yuki?"Turning suddenly, Yuki forced away her instinct to attack first and ask questions later. If she was too on the defensive, she'd look suspicious. A pleasant smile spread across her lips when her eyes met with the familiar drowsy pair belonging to Shoko Ieiri. Her hair was in disarray and she was rubbing at her eyes tiredly with her free hand while her other kept her crutch under her arm to keep her balance. She hadn't even had time to get her prosthetic on, it seemed. Just rolled out of bed and rushed over - but why?"Shoko!! Long time, no see!!" Yuki chirped, clasping her hands together and bringing them up to her face. "Swung by to check out that kid everyone's talking about but it seems I just missed them." She tilted her head in a show of curiosity as soon as she ended her sentence. "What're you doing up? Shouldn't you be at least two sleep cycles in?" Her tone was light, joking.Shoko's brows furrowed. "Everyone's talking about Jasper?" Her voice was groggy and words were slow, mind still trying to catch up with the exchange.With a dismissive wave of her hand and a laugh, Yuki assured, "Mostly just marveling at the newest addition to Jujutsu Tech!" She folded her arms over her chest. "Word travels pretty fast, y'know." She shrugged. "Did they get discharged early or something?" She threw a casual nod in the direction of the empty bed.Dark eyes followed the gesture. "No ... They weren't discharged ..." Shoko's voice was barely above a whisper. Her face sported a sickly shade as realization began to dawn. "Did they run away?! I need to-" She cut herself off, head turning towards the hall.Ah, shit. Was the fire already starting to travel?"Smoke. There's smoke!" Shoko's voice grew frantic. She didn't waste a single other moment. "We need to get out of here!" She began to hurry down the hall, heading towards the double doors leading to the main clinic. "We need to get help! The whole clinic'll burn!"Sighing, Yuki began to follow - stopping only for a second when she spotted a note that had been placed on the nightstand by the bed. She stepped backwards to it, snatching and giving it a quick once over before crumpling it and stuffing it into her pocket.She left.

RING. RING. RING."Hmmmmphh, why'dya got an alarm set so late, pretty boy??""I don't. Someone's calling me.""Who is?""Just keep quiet." Dominic tossed his comforter off him and onto Roger, muffling anything else he might have said. He moved over, now sitting at the edge of his bed, taking his phone from his nightstand and tensing at the sight of Shoko's name on the dimmed screen. His heart began to pound. It was 3 AM. Had something happened with Jasper? A painful knot formed in the pit of his stomach."Who is it?" Roger stuck his arms out from under the blankets, wrapping them around Dominic's waist and attempting to pull him away from the edge of the bed and closer to him. "Let's go back to sleep. It's so la-OW!"Dominic stood, apologizing for the elbow to Roger's eye despite how intentional it may have been. Only his outline was visible in the moonlight seeping in through the bedroom window. "Don't speak a word," he looked over his shoulder at the man in his bed, gaze smoldering.Roger nodded, knowing that if he misbehaved he'd end up spending the rest of the night sleeping on the porch steps."Shoko," Dominic answered. He was unable to say much else, immediately cut off by frantic shouting on the other line. "Is every-""THEY'RE GONE, DOMINIC! Jasper must have run away!! A-And the clinic is on fire! We checked the other students rooms and they are all missing! ALL OF THEM! I don't know what to do! Please, come to the school!"Though his heart was racing, Dominic steeled himself. "Panicking won't help the situation." It was so out of character for her, but this week had been hard on everyone. The re-emergence of a past long since buried had rattled everyone's nerves. It was a surprise they weren't all in hysterics at this point. "I'll be there as soon as possible, just remain calm until then. Have you contacted Principal Yaga?""Yes! He's the one that checked on the students. He's sent his dolls to search for them anywhere they could possibly be within school grounds before we expand search efforts.""Have you tried calling any of the students?" Dominic was dressing as he spoke, balancing the phone between his ear and shoulder."I have. No answer.""Okay. Understood. We'll figure something out when I get there. Have you called-""DOM!"Dominic's head perked up at the sudden all too recognizable voice shouting for him from somewhere in his apartment, blood turning to ice in his veins. His eyes widened before darting towards Roger, who had already dressed and was climbing out the window. His second thought was the girls, but immediately reassured himself that they could very well sleep through anything and wouldn't be bothered by the inconsiderate shouting.There were footsteps down the hall, growing louder. They stopped suddenly. Waiting on something? No. Lighter steps away from the door. What was going on? Dominic's attention turned to Roger one last time when he heard a whisper across the room, "Don't forget about dinner, pretty boy." He winked.Dominic grimaced."Are you still there?" Shoko called, still on the line.The doorknob to his room turned.The window closed."I'll see you at the school." He hung up.Why doesn't anyone knock?

Fingers entangled in hair, legs wrapped around bodies, chests rising and falling. Satoru clung to Kento as tight as one could, eyes shut in dreamy bliss. He'd been surprisingly quiet all night. So worked up. Disconnected. But he'd unwound now. They could almost just drift off to sleep as they were now."He just gets on my nerves sometimes!"Almost.It seemed the silence was only representative of an internal monologue that had worked Satoru up into an outburst. Kento kept his eyes closed, arm around his partner's shoulders. "Who does?" he mumbled, not exactly sounding all that interested."Dom," Satoru answered with a purse of his lips. "He acts like I'm some kind of monster. I might not be the greatest person in the world but I'm trying, at least!" The hand he'd been resting on Kento's chest balled into a fist, brows knitted in frustration on his forehead.With a shrug, Kento mused, "Dominic holds us to relatively realistic expectations. Could it be you're not behaving as kindly as you think you are but believing your actions are justified has blinded you to that?" His arm dropped so that his hand was at Satoru's back, fingers drawing invisible patterns across his skin.Satoru's eyes snapped open only to narrow. "What did I do that's oh-so villainous then? I offered the kid a place at the school, didn't I? I've been trying to teach them how to harness their Cursed Energy, haven't I?" He sat up abruptly, face twisted up into a furious pout. "Just bringing them in despite their questionable past and unknown intentions is pretty damn generous of me!""I wouldn't know about any of that, but despite what you have or haven't done - what exactly are you expecting out of Dominic to make you feel like less of a monster? Shouldn't you just feel satisfied with having helped?""I dunno! A 'Good Job' would be nice!""Are you serious?" Kento's eyes opened, the dark circles around them now more prominent. "Are you a toddler?""I have my reasons to be wary of Jasper, okay? That's all it is. Dom thinks me keeping my distance a little is like ... evil or whatever." Satoru made a sour expression, crossing his arms over his chest. "I think we're all allowed to be cautious around Jasper, especially after ..." Goosebumps rose on his skin. His heart hammered in his chest. A cold sweat broke out over him. He didn't let his anxiety show on his face, however - keeping his annoyed expression. He wanted to finish his sentence but the events from earlier that afternoon played over and over in his mind. His words caught in his throat."After this afternoon?" Kento asked. He sat up as well, leaning his back against the headboard of the bed. "Listen, Satoru. In the end, what happened today was unacceptable but it wasn't Jasper's fault. It was yours."Satoru's face fell, genuine shock in his eyes. "What?"Kento gestured towards him. "Dominic had left you in charge of the students and you neglected your duty. You let them all go off on their own, despite, as you said, not knowing Jasper's past and intentions." He shook his head, gaze disapproving. "You were at fault.""Of course it's my fault. Why not just blame me for everything then?" Satoru clambered off the bed in a huff, snatching his clothes from the floor. That's not even what I was talking about! he thought. He wanted to scream. "Junpei dying, Yuji becoming Sukuna's vessel, Tabitha and Suguru going batshit, Dom not going on missions, Shoko losing her leg! Just pile it on then!" He turned to Kento, gripping his clothes in both fists. "Anything else? Any personal grudges to get off your chest?"Kento rubbed at his eyes tiredly. "There's nothing you can do to take back past actions, all you can do is clean up the mess they've left in the present and do better next time." He began to ease himself back into bed again. "But if you want to indulge in your theatrics and self-pity, then feel free. I, unlike Dominic, won't entertain you."Satoru started to laugh, shoulders dropping. "You're no fun at all, you know that?" He sighed deeply, lowering his gaze. "We found out more about Jasper today, so I guess it wasn't all for nothing." His expression was dark as he started dressing."And what was it that you learned?" Kento was now under his blankets, head on his pillow and starting to doze.There was hesitation. Satoru clenched his blindfold in both hands, staring at it. The blue glow of Cursed Energy from his Infinity radiated from his fingers, small wisps permeating the air around him. Voicing it would only make it more fact than speculation, wouldn't it? He shouldn't bring it up. They didn't really even know for sure. This would be rumor mongering. Their secondary experiment had yielded the same results as the incident in town, however. What other proof did they need? His palms were sweating. "They can-"RING. RING. RING.Satoru's eyes darted towards his phone, set next to both his and Kento's usual pocket items - keys, wallets, and the like on the nightstand. Kento didn't move from where he laid, arm folded over his eyes.Approaching the table, Satoru felt anxiety flare in his stomach. His skin prickled.Why's Shoko calling me so late? What the fuck? What the fuc-"Are you going to answer or not?" Kento sounded annoyed.Satoru snatched the phone, answering at last before pressing it up to his ear. He said nothing and nothing needed to be said, as Shoko went ahead and started screaming without the usual prelude of formalities anyway.Something about a fire? Wait. Jasper was missing? No. All the kids were missing. Was he having a panic attack? He wasn't sure. His emotions were cycling so quickly, he was feeling lightheaded.Without thinking, Satoru tossed his phone towards Kento before vanishing from where he stood. As the room disappeared from around him, he fought away his dread. He felt like he was buffering, his mind struggling to process what he'd been told. Gone from their rooms? The clinic was burning down? Jasper was missing? Did they do this? Set fire to the school and escape, taking their classmates with them? With their ability, it'd be an easy enough task to render them all unconscious. Or did they all go willingly? Was this the plan all along? Was this an unfair assumption to make?He was on solid ground again but he wasn't back at Jujutsu Tech. Where was he? He really ought to pay more attention when he teleported. A sudden but familiar surge of Cursed Energy from behind him made him immediately realize just where his panicked mind had taken him."DOM!" he shouted, pulling his blindfold on.He started taking a step forward, towards Dominic's bedroom but instead backtracked over to by the door. He stopped right beside the briefcase placed beside Dominic's worn dress shoes. The energy he'd sensed a moment ago pulsated strongly from within the case. Why was she so agitated? Because she sensed him so near and Dominic so far? Should he reunite them? He slowly reached for the handle before recoiling. No, Dominic wouldn't like it if he did. Hell, she wouldn't like it if he did.Standing and sticking his hands into his pockets, Satoru snorted, "Mean old bitch." He gave the briefcase a nudge with the tip of his shoe before storming off down the hall, ignoring the case's sudden and violent rattling as it tremored furiously."Hey! Wake u- Oh. You're up." Satoru took in the space around him upon entering Dominic's bedroom. Something was off. Something was extremely off.Dominic stood at the center, half-dressed and looking alarmed. He seemed caught off-guard."Was someone else here?" Satoru asked, brows quirking beneath his blindfold.More sputtering, now tense and frantic. This time, however, he managed at least a few words, "Aren't there more important things to be worrying about?" They were harsh, aggravated. Great. He was still mad about earlier."Fine, whatever. None of my business," Satoru chided with an unseen roll of his eyes. "Let's go then."Dominic let out an annoyed huff before finishing buckling his belt. He stormed past Satoru on his way out of the room, yanking his hand away when the other tried to grab for it. "You should have gone on ahead to the school instead of here," he said, walking over to the front door to put his shoes on.Satoru's face twisted up, hands clenching in his pockets. "Why are you acting out? I didn't do anything to you!" he hissed, tone indicating hurt. He followed after the other, tempted to further snoop around the apartment."Nothing," Dominic stopped moving like an animatronic stopping mid gesture, one shoe on and hands pressed against the wall for balance. His head was hanging. "You didn't do anything. Sorry. It's misdirected anger." He sighed. "Let's just go. I'm worried about the students."Holding back the pleased expression that threatened to spread across his face at his successful emotional wearing down of the other, Satoru nodded. He waited for Dominic to put on his other shoe and grab his (now unmoving) briefcase before taking his hand, fingers laced, and vanishing them both from the apartment.

Sleep was usually difficult. Jasper always found themself too overwhelmed by the millions of fears and anxieties buzzing around in their head to doze off properly. On an average night, they'd shift and shift until their body would give out from exhaustion. But tonight. Tonight was different. There was something else keeping them wide awake, all hope for a wink of sleep gone.They were hyperaware of Yuji's arm slung around their waist; his head burrowed into the crook of their neck; his leg tossed over theirs - as if snuggling up to a teddy bear. They could hear his every breath. Slow, relaxed, not a care in the world. On occasion, he'd readjust, bringing himself closer against them. He'd fallen asleep somewhere into the 20-somethingth episode of Naruto and had been clinging to Jasper ever since. Any attempt they'd made to wiggle away was met with an aggravated groan and incoherent grumbling.It was hard for Jasper to think of reasons why this made them feel ... so weird. It wasn't an uncomfortable feeling, it was just something they'd never quite experienced before. They found themself daydreaming about holding hands with Yuji, holding him close ... Maybe even sharing a kiss. Just thinking about them all now made them want to melt into a puddle. And in the end, despite all of these foreign sensations and newly developing emotions, they didn't really want Yuji to move away. It was like getting on a scary ride at the amusement park or rolling down a hill. It was excitement they were living for once, and not fear.They had only ever shared a bed with their parents, on the many late nights they'd been woken by nightmares of the glowing red eyes they'd been burdened to coexist with. Even then, they would often just wedge themself between the two only to have their mother turn her back to them and their father accidentally give them a good elbow to the head.They glanced at Yuji, his face lit by the faint glow of their halo. Their cheeks ached."What're you looking at?"Jasper tensed.The small triangular markings on Yuji's cheekbones had split yet again, revealing two glowing red eyes. Yuji's lips had spread into a grin.Jasper said nothing, their terror keeping them frozen in place."Are you gonna answer my questions now?" At their lack of response, Sukuna resumed his pestering. "You afraid your little cuddle party's gonna come to an end if you speak? This dipshit's a pretty heavy sleeper so don't you worry about waking him.""N-No!" Jasper hissed, flustered by this sudden interrogation given their earlier thoughts. They sunk deeper into the firm mattress, acting as if they were preparing to sleep. "Will you just leave me alone? I don't like you very much." Their words were muffled as they brought their bedsheet up over their face.Sukuna laughed. "You're fuckin' rude, y'know? You should be a lot nicer, especially to me. You don't have the goods to back up the tough act. I'd crush you.""If I'm so weak, how'd you lose control of Itadori yesterday?" The words just came out, much to Jasper's shock and horror. Was it the exhaustion catching up to them? They couldn't remember the last time they'd actually slept. Maybe they were just tired of Sukuna being a generally unpleasant nuisance especially considering that their last encounter involved him shredding their face on asphalt. This wasn't good. Maybe they lucked out and he hadn't heard them through the bedsheet?The blankets were yanked from Jasper's grasp, a clawed hand grasping them around the throat and pinning them to the bed. They squirmed, fingers trying to pry the hand away.Or maybe not."Do it again then. Since you're so strong. Do it just one more time." Both of Itadori's eyes had opened but they glowed Sukuna's familiar deep bloody shade of red. Sensing their desperation made goosebumps rise on his skin. "You can't, can you? You have so much of this vile, corrupted energy flowing through you but you don't have a clue what to do with it all."Jasper's hands snapped up towards Sukuna's shoulders now, trying to push him away and alleviate the immense pressure on their neck. Their lips formed words but no sound came out. They kicked their legs out, desperate to free themself."What demented conception cooked up a creature like you? Did someone Frankenstein you to existence in a lab? Or did your harlot mother get tired of human c-"Sukuna's hold loosened as a wave of Cursed Energy burst from his target and left him disoriented."DON'T TALK ABOUT MY MOTHER!"Sukuna wavered for just long enough for Jasper to scramble out from beneath him. They practically leapt towards the foot end of the bed, heart thundering. They turned to face Sukuna, hugging their knees to their chest. Their eyes had lost their own gleaming red shade, now a solid pitch black. They trembled where they sat. Yuji's advice to flee when presented with the beast that possessed him gone from their mind.The demon knelt across the bed from them, hunched over. His hand dug into the spot where Jasper had once been. His claws tore through the plush material. His grin was spread ear to ear, eyes wide with excitement. "Is that all it takes?" he breathed. He moved closer towards the other, very slowly - like a predator stalking cornered prey. "Me mentioning your mommy?"Jasper inched back, dangerously close to the edge of the bed. Their breathing was labored, shaken by their terror. With a blink, tears fell from their eyes."I wonder just how much power is inside you," Sukuna extended a hand towards the teen. "I bet you could bring this shithole of a world to an end - but you're just an precious little baby, aren't you? You don't have a bad bone in your body. What wasted potential."Jasper couldn't move, closing their eyes tightly when they felt one of Sukuna's sharp claws graze their halo. To his surprise, it began to split as flesh would when presented with something sharp."I'll just have to make you bad.""Stop ... P-Please.""Um, hello?"The door to the room had cracked open, a pair of heads poking inside and peering at them. A small bright light poured into the room, bathing the room in light while simultaneously making it hard to make out exactly who was crowding the doorway.Jasper, who had turned their head to look towards the visitors, immediately turned away and shut their eyes when the harsh light made them sting."Oh, God! Gross! What are you weirdos doing?!" came Nobara's voice. Megumi opened the door further and lowered his phone. His companion had shielded her eyes, face scrunched up in disgust and aggravation.Jasper looked back towards the two again, and then to Sukuna to find him no longer there. Just a drowsy and confused Yuji, still on all fours and finger on their halo. The wound had healed. He moved his hand away and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, trying to gather his bearings."N-Nothing!" Jasper squeaked at last. It hurt to speak. Hell, it hurt to do anything. They still hadn't recovered from the day before. "I just- We- Uhhh-" They scrambled for an explanation. "Itadori was having a bad dream!""Oh," Nobara quirked a brow, eyeing the two. It was obvious she didn't believe them but didn't seem to care enough to pry."What're you guys doing here?" Yuji asked between yawns. It seemed he was finally starting to grow more awake and aware. He shifted off his knees so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed instead. "It's the middle of the night ... right?" He searched for his phone, lost somewhere in the sea of blankets to answer his own question.Megumi beat him to it, checking on his own phone. "It's 2 in the morning." He rose his gaze from the screen to look back at the two before him. "We're going swimming by the bridge with Toge, Maki and Panda. C'mon.""Awesome!" Yuji shouted, leaping from the bed and searching for his shoes.It was as he was tying them that the three all turned their heads to look at Jasper, making them tense. They hadn't moved from the bed, still hugging their knees go their chest and sitting precariously balanced on the edge of the mattress."Aren't you coming?" Yuji asked.Jasper floundered. "I-I didn't know I was invited," they admitted."Hey!" Nobara shouted from beside Megumi, making him flinch and give her a dirty look. "We've been over this! You're one of us now. Cut the humility charade and get your shoes on!""O-Okay!"

The night was dark, not a single star lighting the sky. The moon was hiding behind dense clouds. Only the flashlights on their cellphones lit their way as they climbed downhill towards their chosen spot by the river. A bridge located nearby, a passage for cars and pedestrians over the river, made a good diving spot as Maki and Nobara demonstrated within minutes of them donning their swimsuits. They needn't worry about anyone bothering them. The streets were dead, most people tucked away for the night at home."Do you know how to swim?"Jasper's head perked up, eyes shifting from the river to the teen crouching beside them. They'd sat by the shore and away from the others, feet dipping into the cool water, not wanting to be a bother to anyone trying to have fun. "Um ..." They glanced away from Yuji and towards their congregating classmates. "I-I've seen people do it." Their sister and father had always splashed around in the pool back home but they'd always been far too scared to join them, only ever daring to sit on the ledge and wet their feet. The two would always egg them on, insisting they join their fun and even splashing them at times - but it'd usually end with them crying and their mother scolding all three for annoying her."What kind of answer is that?!" Nobara shouted with a laugh, pulling Jasper from their thoughts. She was standing further down the riverbank with her own feet in the water, Maki at her side with her arms crossed and brows quirked.Yuji waved her off before reaching the same hand down to Jasper to help them stand. "Ignore her! I'll show you how!" he reassured.Taking it with some uncertainty, Jasper was on their feet before they could give the swimming lessons any second thoughts."You're gonna drown the poor kid," Maki laughed, her arms now around Nobara as she guided her into deeper water. "and I'm off lifeguard duty tonight!"Jasper's gaze lingered on Maki's hands, gingerly placed on Nobara's waist as the two girls kicked and splashed at the water the further into the river they delved. Their heart raced, glancing towards Yuji's hand - still holding theirs. Was this normal? Did friends normally touch like this? Ah! Was their hand sweaty? It felt sweaty. Oh no. Was worrying about whether their hand was sweaty making it sweatier?An unfamiliar voice from behind made Jasper turn, eyes widening at the sight of the massive panda towering over them."Don't you worry about a thing! Chief Executive Lifeguards Panda and Toge will make sure you're safe!" Panda had set his paws on his hips, lips curling back to shape a terrifying grin. Beside him was Toge, sporting a dead-eyed stare and an accompanying thumbs up."U-Umm ... Thanks," Jasper replied, glancing between the two."You're doomed!" Another shout from Maki, followed by a loud splash and laughter.As Panda himself charged into the water with Toge and Yuji at his heels, Jasper's gaze wandered towards Megumi. He sat on his own further up the hill.With a quick glance to make sure the others were distracted with their roughousing, Jasper broke away from the group and made their way up the knoll. They did their best to not to trip over any grassy patches or holes, relieved when the worst of the walk was just a small stumble. Nerves struck when Megumi shifted his focus from the waterscape to them, eyes narrowed."What?" He spoke as soon as Jasper was close enough to hear him without him having to shout. His tone was blunt.Jasper tensed, starting to fumble their fingers. "Y-You seemed lonely." They regretted the words, quickly correcting themself. "I-I mean, I just ... thought I'd come and say hello ... W-We haven't formally met, I don't think."Megumi rolled his eyes before looking back towards the river. "Well, now we have," he muttered."How come you're sitting here by yourself?""I'm watching our stuff." Megumi gestured to the blanket he was sitting on.Jasper's eyes dropped to the items scattered around the blanket. Backpacks, shoes with corresponding socks stuffed into them, phones. "Oh ... Well, if you wanna take a turn in the river, I can switch with you." Their hands shook at their sides. The tension was making a knot form in the pit of their stomach. Did Megumi hate them? Had he not forgiven them like the others had? Was he mad at them?"Take care of Yuji."Jasper's stomach twisted and turned. "What do you mean?" they asked, genuine confusion in their voice.Megumi hung his head, pursing his lips. "Yuji is a good person. He's gone through a lot ... and he has faith in you. Don't betray that faith." He looked back up at Jasper now, frowning. "It'll hurt him."Static overcame Jasper's mind, thoughts racing so quickly they couldn't make sense of them. Their face grew numb. They felt pins and needles in their hands and feet. Their heart sunk. "I wouldn't! I won't!" They fought away the anxiety that threatened to stifle their words. "I don't want to hurt anyone, not just Itadori!" Their hands rose to their eyes, itching them as tears began to form.Somewhat unprepared for such an emotional reaction, Megumi did his best to perform his damage control. "U-Um .. Just calm down ... It's fine! I just ... He gets into shit all the time because he cares too damn much about everyone." His hands rose to his head, pushing his hair out of his face and sighing loudly. "It's not that I don't trust you ..." He made a face. "Well, I don't but I want to."There was nothing but silence as the two stared at each other, the minutes crawling by."It's okay," Jasper said at last. "I can't lie and say that it doesn't hurt my feelings but I understand why you don't trust me ... All I can really say is that I'll work really hard to earn it back!"Relief glimmered in Megumi's eyes. His lips set into a gentle smile."Guys! What are you doing?!" Yuji had ran uphill towards the two. "Let's go get in the water already!"Megumi narrowed his eyes, once again motioning towards the items scattered around him. "I'm watching our stuff!" he argued.Yuji looked at the items and then back up to Megumi. "Who's gonna take it? There's no one around! Don't be lame! Let's all swim together!" He signaled for Megumi to stand, hands moving quickly to match the urgency in his voice."Fine." Megumi stood now, yanking his shirt over his head and dropping it onto the blanket. He wore a plain black binder underneath. It looked a little worn. "Let's go."Yuji brightened up, immediately dashing back off towards the river. Megumi took a step forward but stopped when he noticed Jasper hadn't moved to follow."You alright?"Jasper stood rooted to their spot, hugging their arms to their chest. "Um." They lowered their gaze. "Do I have to take off my shirt?" they asked.Megumi shook his head. "Nah, as long as you don't mind it getting wet." He thought for a moment before adding, "You can change into my shirt when we're done if you want to so you don't catch a cold."Visibly relaxing, Jasper smiled."You might wanna take your glasses off though. It's not gonna be fun looking for them at the bottom of the river, and they're brand new too, right?""Oh! Okay!" Jasper nodded, taking them off and crouching to set them onto the blanket. They stood back up, still not moving otherwise. Their head was turned towards the river but their eyes were blank, not registering anything. "Ah ..." Their face grew red with embarrassment.Megumi sighed loudly before nearing them, taking their hand in his in a huff and guiding them along the way. The two soon rejoined the others by the water, oblivious to their vibrating phones back uphill.

Content Warnings: suicide attempt and suicidal ideation.

"It's not much but we make do."Heels clicked against metal as Tabitha descended the staircase into the massive underground bunker below her home. The bright lights revealed a perfectly kept sparring area, a large swimming pool and state of the art exercise equipment. There were a few doors along the walls, implying separate rooms housing who-knew-what."You humble yourself," Suguru insisted, eyes soaking up the scenery. "What a curious little home you have here."Roger was walking closely behind him, annoyingly close. "I built this place for Tabi from the ground up. All by myself!" He made an expression akin to a child who had finished assembling their first Lego set. "Took me like ...""Six months." Tabitha finished the sentence for him, shooting a sour look over her shoulder. "It should have only been one but he kept having accidents."The betrayal was evident on Roger's face. He decried it with a drawn out and whiney, "Aw. Why'dya have to go and tell him that?"Minerva was quick to cut in, hopping down the steps after her father with her hands on his shoulders as if forming a conga line. "Didn't you nail your hand to a wooden beam? Also, you fell into a whole slab of wet cement and mom had to smash you free with a hammer! Also-""You weren't even alive for that ..." Roger grumbled in a glum tone. "Don't say it like you were there."As they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, the group dispersed. Roger raced Minerva over to the sparring grounds while Jogo and Hanami inspected the exercising equipment and Dagon shyly approached the swimming pool. Desmond remained at the top of the stairs, sitting on a step and entranced with his phone.Before Suguru could get too engrossed in his surroundings, Tabitha gestured for him to follow her, pulling him from the others and leading him towards one of the many doors lining the walls. He made a mental note to remember it was the third from the left. "We should discuss things more in depth, privately," she said. "Your friends are unpleasant to look at and though Roger's a doll, I could do without his interruptions." As the words left her, a burst of air paired with the loud sound of an explosive came from the training grounds. "Don't mind them. They get too into their matches."Suguru tried making out the father-daughter duo but the explosive had formed a big enough dust cloud to conceal everything but Minerva's loud and pitchy "NO FAIR! DO OVER!".'We shouldn't be here.''Ah, not you again. You already gave me enough grief at the door.''You're in way over your head with her.'The sound of a door opening brought Suguru's attention back to Tabitha. He cautiously followed her into the room, noticing her tuck the door key into the lacey breast of her dress. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dim lighting before taking in the luxuriously decorated office space around him. They were first met with an elaborately crafted painting of the woman of the house and her family which hung on the wall behind her hardwood desk. Smaller photographs, all perfectly posed and pristine hung in the space all around it. He found himself looking back to the oil painting, taking in each of the five members before pausing on Jasper.'You're sick.''How are my plans any worse than what you spent your living days doing? How are they any worse than your own when you still lived to dream of plans?'"Sit." Tabitha's demand snapped him out of his own mind.Suguru walked over to the leather chair facing the desk and took a seat. He didn't say anything, expecting Tabitha to step over to her desk and take her own seat facing him but tensing when she instead remained standing."I hope you don't mind, I've been sitting too much today," she smiled."Of course."The click of heels against hardwood floors marked slow steps, fingers gliding across the desk surface. He noted the nails on said fingers were all perfectly manicured and painted a dark red. Eyes trailed up her arm, soft skin but toned muscles housed within. He finally locked eyes with her, they were flames - burning viciously. "So, let's dish." Her tone was upbeat, almost oblivious, though the look she was giving him was smug and self-assured. Like a child ready to tell their younger sibling the true identity of Santa Claus."Dish?""Y'know, gossip.""About?""You.""What about me?""Who the fuck are you?"'I told you. She saw right through you.''Shut up.''I'll bet she's known the whole time and brought you somewhere she knew she'd have the upper hand before risking confronting you ... and you walked right into her trap. Idiot.'Suguru didnt answer Tabitha right away, hands folded in his lap and staring straight ahead. He projected calm. "I'm afraid I dont quite understand what you mean," he said."I thought I phrased it rather simply. Don't really know what's confusing you.""What gives you the impression that I'm not myself?""Oh, I believe you are yourself but I don't believe you are Suguru Geto.""I'm at a loss on how I could convince you otherwise."'You're so bad at this.'Tabitha circled around her desk now but still kept her distance from Suguru. She leaned back against the edge of the table, gesturing as she spoke. "I'm not mad about it, y'know? I'm just curious ... about who is pulling the strings on this tragic excuse for a puppet."Suguru eyed her, keeping a placid expression on his face. At the base of his neck, disappearing into the collar of his yukata, veins protruded - evidence of a fight, a struggle for dominance. His hands clenched in his lap."Or should I say, who is fighting to keep their grip on said strings?" Her smile widened. "I don't think I've ever had a man fight so fiercely to be in my presence." She set her hand on her desk and leaned into it. "You can tell me the truth. It'll make no difference either way. I don't really care what you've done with Suguru or his corpse. In fact, I'd get off on seeing the look on Satoru's face when he sees what you've made of his boy toy."The silence persisted.Tabitha pouted now, dramatically pressing the back of her hand to her forehead and leaning her head back. Her eyes shut as she pretended to choke back tears. "And here I thought we could be friends ..." She sat up suddenly, face sobering from the previously exaggerated grimace she wore. "Well, friends who had no trust or affection for each other." She smiled again, this time with a warmth that'd melt a candle. "But friends, regardless."Suguru cleared his throat, before finally breaking his silence. "You know, Mrs. Capricien ... You're very strange."With a shrug and a gleeful laugh came Tabitha's song of a reply, "Oh, you have no fucking clue!"

Keys jingled in Dominic's hand as he turned the lock on the door of his apartment. He pushed the door open, tossing a quick and paranoid glance over his shoulder before entering his home and shutting the door after him. He leaned against it, letting his briefcase drop to the ground by his feet.A deep sigh left him.What a nightmare. The higher-ups had yet to call either him or Satoru in to discuss what had happened earlier that day and while he greatly doubted that they were going to simply overlook this situation, it did come as a relief that he would be able to at least get a nap in before the inevitable dressing down. He tried to push his worries out of his mind, hoping he'd be able to quite literally leave his problems at the door. No Shoko, no Satoru ... Even his concerns regarding the children would have to wait. Just for tonight.Creak.Dominic stiffened, eyes darting towards the entryway leading to his kitchen. The light was on. He knew he hadn't left it on this morning. He wanted to call out but his throat tightened up, rendering him speechless. Should he just leave? Call the police? No! He was a damn Jujutsu Sorcerer. He could very well protect himself. Was it Satoru, trying to make up for his dickheadedness earlier? He doubted it. He always conveniently left making up for Saturdays, the day before their weekly rendezvous. So, maybe it was ... someone else ...The thought made anxiety bubble in his stomach.Forcing himself to finally take a step forward, Dominic braced for the worst. His eyes remained locked on the entryway. He tried to steel himself, fists clenched though heart indecisive."I told you not to come back here, Rog-""Mr. Weon! Where've you been? It's so late!"Feeling the muscles in his shoulders untense at the scolding welcome, Dominic almost felt like crying from relief. Instead, he blinked. Confused. "Oh ... What a pleasant surprise ..." His voice regained it's soothing and calming tone, no longer harboring it's prior antagonism."Well?? Where've you been??" Nanako was sitting at the kitchen table, snacking on some cookies she had certainly not found in his cupboard. It seemed the girls were making use of the weekly stipend he'd been giving them.Mimiko was standing by the kitchen counter, having just made some tea but pausing her pouring to turn and look at Dominic with kettle in hand."I've been getting home rather late this week. I apologize," he said quietly. "I would have planned better had I known you were coming by." He noticed the sour expressions on their faces and felt unease resettle in the pit of his stomach. "Is everything alright?"Now that he thought about it, the sisters hadn't come by at all this week, which was quite out of character for them. What could they have possibly been tied up doing? Maybe and hopefully finally considering the request he made of them at the end of their last conversation ... but something in his gut told him they hadn't given joining Jujutsu Tech a second thought since the day he brought it up. They were confused kittens who came by to leave a dead rat at his doorstep."That man who stole Mr. Geto's body ... He's been talking to a woman," Mimiko said with her back to Dominic again. She poured the tea out into three cups, adding an absurd amount of cream and sugar to two and leaving the third as is. "We don't know who she is, though. She's got dark skin and really curly hair ... Gold eyes ... She dresses fancy. Mr. Geto never told us about anyone like that before."Attempting to hide his lightheadedness from the head rush at the sudden mental image of Tabitha fucking Capricien, Dominic half-stumbled towards the kitchen table and leevered himself into the seat beside Nanako. He placed his hands on his lap, clasping them tightly in one another in hopes that it would hide their trembling. Could he even remember what Suguru and Tabitha's relationship had been like? He had worked so hard to bury his memories to dull the ache they carried with them. Now, he stood, shovel in quivering hand. Would he take the first dig?Everything was always a competition with Tabitha. If you didn't measure up, she'd cast you aside. You were less than trash, than a bug, dirt. You didn't exist. At least trash was tossed away. Bugs were crushed or swatted. Dirt, stepped on. There was love in that acknowledgement, as much as there was hatred. If you fell below her expectations, she simply saw right through you. If she saw a challenge in you, she'd make you a target.Suguru was someone who never entertained her mockery. While Satoru fed her fire, meeting her head-on with every whim, Suguru would fall back. Was it because he felt he lacked somewhere? Did he think it wasn't a confrontation worth pursuing? Did he even have anything to prove? He'd always just laugh it off. It annoyed her, of course, that she could never seem to get under his skin - but she did. Oh, she did."It's not at all surprising," Dominic said at last, expression tired. He realized immediately he should have kept his mouth shut, but by the time it dawned on him it was already too late. He didn't even have time to truly process the memories resurfacing, emotions bound tight to them.The girls immediately perked. Mimiko spilled some tea on the floor in her rush over to them. Nanako slammed her hands onto the table, chair legs screeching as she stood with a sudden jerk."You know who she is?!" they asked in unison.Shit. He needed to backtrack. But how? He kept calm. "I misspoke. Mr. Geto wouldn't talk about someone he didn't know, now would he?" It was a very close sidestep but it worked. Kind of?"You're a sucky liar," Nanako chided as Mimiko turned to clean up the tea she spilled.Dominic's lips twitched upwards in a show of mild amusement. "I'm afraid it's quite impossible for me to lie." His hands had finally stopped shaking so he casually reached for his tea cup and took a sip. "Thank you, Mimiko, for the tea. It's very good.""Stop tryna change the subject!" Nanako whined beside him, throwing herself back into her chair and crossing her arms over her chest in frustration. "How will we ever get Mr. Geto's body back if you won't help? You promised you would."Dominic took another drink from his cup, a deeper one as his mind raced for a response. But what was there to say? What could he say?"Mr. Weon! You promised ..." Mimiko echoed, the arm she had wrapped around her stuffed rabbit tightening its hold.After a moment, Dominic set the tea cup down and lowered his gaze. "Please, understand ..." he started but wasn't allowed to finish."No! You promised!" Nanako hands were balled into tight fists. "You just said you weren't a liar, right? So, you can't go back on your promise! Tell us! Who is that woman?"Mimiko, who so often acted as her reactionary sister's mediator, was staring at Dominic intensely. Passion burned in her eyes, lips set into a frown of determination.Raising his hands in a gesture that beckoned the two girls to calm, it took everything in him not to beg. "I have had a very exhausting few days. I did not lie to you when I told you I would help you lay Suguru Geto to rest. Not only because it will help you two receive peace but because of my own burdening attachments and sentimentalities regarding the man." He stood. "I can't talk to you about her and you ... under no circumstances are to approach her. You two ... get ready for bed ..." He swallowed dryly. "I'll speak to the woman. Okay?" He looked from one teen to the other and then back. "Okay?" His tone grew stern."Okay," Mimiko said, exchanging glances with her sister."Fine," Nanako relented with a roll of her eyes.With that, the two exited the kitchen and headed down the hall towards the apartment's spare bedroom, leaving Dominic with a quiet, "Goodnight, Mr. Weon" on their way out.Dominic leaned forward in his seat, setting his elbows on the tabletop and pressing his face into his hands. His mind raced. This was so stupid. He was so stupid. He'd dug himself a hole not even the all-mighty Satoru Gojo would be able to rescue him from ... not that he'd even want to after finding out about the circumstances under which said hole was dug. He wanted to cry, but he didn't. He rubbed the tears out of his eyes with his palms. He clenched his jaw to silence himself. There was no room for him to emote. It was unhealthy, yes - but he had people relying on him.If he crumbled, so would they."What's troubling you, pretty boy?" A pair of muscular arms wrapped themselves around his shoulders as the whispered words left lips pressed ever so tenderly against his ear. Goosebumps rose on his forearms. His heart began to pound away in his chest. A cold sweat washed over him. But he did nothing to fight away the embrace.In fact, he leaned back into it. "Everything," he mumbled, barely suppressing a tired laugh. "There isn't a single thing that isn't troubling me."Roger nuzzled the side of his head into Dominic's. His eyes were closed, relishing the contact. "I'll destroy it all then. I'll break it all apart and make it stop ... for you." He was mumbling, keeping quiet as to not be overheard by the girls in the other room."And how will you accomplish such an impossible task?" Dominic had closed his own eyes, feeling himself start to doze in the comfort the warmth that radiated from Roger provided.Roger circled around Dominic, now kneeling before him. He took the other's face into his hands firmly, peering up at him with a mistified expression. "You let me worry about that," he grinned before stealing a chaste kiss. He laughed upon parting, pressing their foreheads together. "I thought those kids were never gonna go. You should clear up some space in your pantry! I nearly wrecked everything in there tryna get in before they spotted me."Dominic leaned back now, slipping out of Roger's hold. "You shouldn't even be here." His tone had grown cold suddenly. He had pulled himself out of his momentary bliss, now grounded in reality.Roger frowned, hands resting on Dominic's lap. "Aww, what's wrong? What'd I do?" he asked, looking up at him with his signature kicked puppy visage.With a sharp glare, Dominic cut through his bullshit. "If anyone saw you, it could ..." He paused for a moment. "It could endanger those I care about.""And you! It could endanger you! I know! That's why I was suuuuper careful," Roger nodded. "You can't expect me to just stay away though! I love you!" He tried to reach up and clasp at Dominic's face again but his hands were promptly swatted away."What is Tabitha plotting with Suguru Geto?" He didn't want to quite give away that he knew Suguru wasn't at all himself. First, he wanted to gauge just how much information the other would be willing to give up at first press.Roger dropped his hands and pouted his lips. "Just tryna get Jas back home, tha'sall." He withstood Dominic's intense staredown and accompanied silence for a few seconds before he caved and added, "And they're gonna umm ..." He scratched at the top of his head. "put Satoru in an ant farm.""An ant farm? What do you mean?"Throwing his hands up in infantile annoyance, Roger shook his head and argued, "I don't wanna talk about this stuff!" He took firm hold of Dominic's shoulders, peering into his eyes and openly begging. "Tabi misses you, even though she won't say it. You should come over for dinner some time. It'll be fun. Minnie and Des have grown up so much since the last time you saw them!""Keep your voice down.""Dom, please!"With a deep sigh, Dominic relented, "Fine. I'll find time to stop by in my schedule. Just go home now. I'll call you tomorrow."Roger nodded his head, looking satisfied.As the other stood and began to make his way out, Dominic felt a static fill his mind. He clenched his fists in his lap, staring down at his paling knuckles. Each footstep towards the kitchen doorway that Roger took echoed within him."Want me to stay?""Yes.""Let's go to bed then.""... Okay."

Waking the first time was disorienting. It hurt. They felt a visceral desire to throw up and heave. A migraine tore through their head, rendering them temporarily sightless. Their bruised ribs made breathing painful. Their face was still swollen and aching. The only thing they could recall before losing consciousness again was a firm grip on their wrist and the words, "Oh, they woke up.""Mr ... Gojo ..." The mumble barely made it past swollen lips. They wanted to apologize, to tell him the truth of what had happened that day - but their exhaustion had too strong a hold on them. They slipped.The darkness was welcome. It was the only place they ever felt safe, whether it was a physical enclosure of shadow or the curtain of black within their own mind."I get it. I don't deserve a home but it doesn't mean I don't still long for one." Who were they even speaking to? "I'm ... human, aren't I? Aren't these human emotions? Human thoughts?"The all too familiar red eyes began to appear all around them one by one, unblinking. Was it them they were confessing to? "I just wanted a family. I wanted to fit in." They felt as if they were floating in this sea of nothingness. "I wanted friends. I wanted to be normal." They curled into themself, hugging their knees to their chest. "I wanted to be something ... to someone ... to anyone." Were they crying?"You’re with us now, right?""Kugisaki?" Jasper's head perked. They looked around them but no one was there. Just them and the spherical ocular prison around them."Gojo told us you were joining the school to get a better handle on your technique, so that makes you one of us.”Their head lowered again. "It doesn't! It doesn't make me one of you! You guys are different. You're stronger ... You're better than me. People like you. They trust you. I only ever hurt people ... hurt them and run away.""Let’s all try our best, alright?”"I don't know what to do, Itadori! I'm sorry! I hurt you! I hurt everyone! I ran from my family because I didn't want to hurt people but I've only hurt more than ever! I ... I've done bad things! I'm a horrible person! I don't deserve any more second chances! You'd all be better off without me."The eyes were relentless in their vacancy, merely watching the pitiful teen writhe and sob. Observing them as one would a parasite on the slide of a microscope.They knew what to do. They'd done it once before; a core activation of their technique. Last time, they'd slept so long their mother had to fit them with a nasogastric tube to prevent them from malnourishing or dehydrating themself to death. Would they survive this time? Hopefully not. This would be the end. All they needed to do was close their eyes."Just ... let me sleep. Forever.""AH!"A sudden very real grasp of both of their shoulders yanked them back into reality. Had it been them that shouted? No. It was-"Sorry! You scared me!" Yuji was laughing as he spoke, releasing Jasper's shoulders and plopping back into the chair he'd placed beside the bed. "You looked like you were having a nightmare so I figured I'd wake you up ... Are you okay?" His smile shrank a bit when he noticed the sickly expression on the other's face."I-I ..." It was hard to speak. A cold sweat had broken out all over them, making them shiver uncontrollably. Was this real? "I-I'm fine ... Just a bad dream."Yuji nodded, dropping his gaze towards his twiddling thumbs for a moment before saying, "Sorry for what happened before. I didn't know he'd take over and try to hurt you."The memory of the markings covering Yuji's face and the sudden drop in voice came back to them. Their eyes widened in confused realization before they shook their head. They wanted to tell Yuji that it was fine, that there was nothing to apologize for and not to worry about it but they couldn't find words to say. They were struggling to process their thoughts and emotions, so they settled for gripping their bed covers in tight fists and pouting.Noting the troubled look on Jasper's face, Yuji did his best to explain. "I have a demon living inside me ... His name is-""Sukuna."One of the strange little triangular markings below Yuji's eyes had parted suddenly. A red eye now resided within it, staring at the bedridden teen. Below it on Yuji's cheek a mouth had formed, grinning wide enough to expose sharp fangs. The logistics of how this worked was something to worry about another day."O-Oh," was all Jasper could manage."You remember me, don't you, freak?" Sukuna chuckled. "I still got some questions for you." Before he could open his silly little mouth to say another word, Yuji clamped his hand over top."Sorry, he's kind of a dick - but anyway, I brought it up because I think me losing consciousness let him take over yesterday ... I wanted you to know that wasn't me and that I'd never want to hurt you. If that ever happens again ... just run away from me as fast as you can.""O-Okay ..."Yuji dropped his hand. Both Sukuna's eye and mouth were gone. "It's kind of like ... Kurama.""What ... What's that?" Jasper's hands had released their blankets, fingers now fumbling between one another.With a slap to his forehead, Yuji recalled, "Oh, right! You haven't seen Naruto! Well," He stood, pulling his phone from his sweatpants pocket. "We can watch it on my phone! It's not like you're goin' anywhere any time soon. You got some healin' up to do!" He kicked off his shoes, starting to climb onto the bed. "Scooch over!"Face reddening, Jasper did as they were told. "I-But-Um!" They sputtered. "A-Are you allowed to be here? I-I ... I'm in trouble and all, aren't I?" Their heart pounded in their chest but not for any familiar reason. Why were they sweating so much? What was this itchy sensation in the pit of their stomach? Why did their cheeks ache? They wiped their damp palms on their bedsheets, staring at Yuji with a bewildered expression as he sprawled out onto the gap of mattress they'd freed up for him and excitedly searched for a site for them to watch the anime on once he was settled."I mean, I dunno if you're in trouble. The higher-ups are pretty mean but I'm sure Mr. Weon, Ms. Ieiri and Gojo are all vouching for you," Yuji shrugged, not looking away from the screen. "Either way, I'm not mad at you or anything so ..."Jasper downcast their gaze, brows furrowed. "But why ...? Why aren't you mad?"Yuji looked away from his phone at last, expression puzzled. "I dunno ... Ms. Ieiri told me it was all a big mistake, that you weren't trying to hurt anyone. I didn't really think much else of it after that." He pursed his lips."It was! It was a mistake!" Jasper blurted. Their eyes had widened, almost frantic. "Someone attacked me!" They furrowed their brows in thought now, trying to rifle through that day's foggy memories. "He ... never told me his name ..." They shook their head slowly. "but I remember he had ... stitches on his face," They pointed a finger towards their own face, gesturing towards where they remembered Mahito's stitching being located. "long silver hair and ..."Their voice faded to silence when they felt an unexpected and intense ire burst from beside them.Yuji had sat up suddenly, gripping his phone tightly in his shaking hand. His eyes wide in stunned disbelief. Mahito had been in just the other room from him and he hadn't had the slightest clue. Mahito had attacked yet another one of his friends and he was too busy playing stupid video games to notice. His ears were ringing, face numb with rage. He had been so stupid. So careless.This was all his fault."I'm sorry."Jasper's whisper brought Yuji back to reality. "Huh? Sorry for what?" he asked."I've made you cry.""Huh?" Yuji's hands sprang up to his face, feeling an unexpected wetness on his cheeks. He quickly wiped the tears away on the back of his jacket sleeve. "No! This isn't ... This isn't your fault! It was ... I just ... I think I know that person. His name's Mahito and he ..." Did he dare say it? Saying it just made it feel so much more real. Saying it hurt so fucking bad. "He ..."Jasper bravely extended a hand towards Yuji, placing it over the other's. Both were shaking, albeit for different reasons. "How about we watch that show you like instead?" Their voice was low, unsure and they were fighting back their own desire to cry - but they were doing their best to pull the other out from his mental spiral. "We can talk more about this stuff later."Yuji's face softened, a quivering smile formed on his lips. "Yeah ... Alright." He looked back down to his phone. His own cheeks reddened at the sight of Jasper's fingers gently resting against the back of his scarred knuckles.Jasper quickly retracted their hand, laying back and pulling their covers up to their face to avoid Yuji noticing just how flustered they were getting.Yuji's fingers grazed the spot where Jasper had just been touching on his hand, momentarily wondering how long it'd been since he'd been on the receiving end of an affectionate touch before pushing the thought out and laying beside the other teen.Holding the phone up for them both to watch, Yuji hesitated to press play for just a moment. "Hey, um ... Jasper?" He didn't look at them, nor did he really wait for a reply. "Thanks ... for ... y'know ... Yeah." He pressed play.

Content Warnings: canon typical violence, sensory meltdown, threats of violence, suicidal ideation, derealization and mentions of trauma.

Teleportation was simply not something Dominic would ever get used to. Of course, it would help if he had more than a second's notice before being subjected to it but that would be asking too much