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The Weight of Lies

Chapter Text

Just as the lonely reality between waking and sleep, there is nothing.

Above, there is only darkness. It reaches its claws into infinity, holding the horizon as its eternal hostage, and bleeds far below into a lifeless expanse of shadow. There are no stars above, nothing to guide one’s way through the emptiness, nothing to light the way and show what is ahead.

It is cold, like the early chill of a winter come too soon. Though there is no wind to howl in this empty place, no clouds to carry icy rain, the harsh bite cascades in rivulets over any who dare try to force their mortal selves over the chasm between worlds. It is as if nothing exists, and yet everything at once, in a way that is beyond comprehension.

It dredges feelings from a place that cannot be found, for a time that isn’t yet known. Something just out of reach, something yearned for, that which isn’t meant for the one wishing to find it. The void calls with its siren voice, promises of warmth and everything one could ever wish for; its shadows a swirling vortex, drawing in the gaze of its intruder and hoping to break his will.

He does not bend.

Nothing more than a mere speck of red upon the vast drop into eternity, his path forced where the void does not want it. With trembling hands, he places another stone, drawing his way into the forbidden land piece by piece. When he leans past to look below, his horns scrape against the path he has made, and he nearly startles himself into falling.

He would never return if he were to fall. It’s how the powerful deal with the unruly; stripped of that which he searches for, thrown into the unknown without regard and never to be seen again. The void consumes the damned, the brave, and the foolish.

Of the three, he isn’t sure which he is. He may be all of them.

But he won’t join the souls forever lost to wander in darkness. He places another stone, and drags his body another inch over the chasm. Time does not flow properly in this place, and for all he knows, he may have been here for years; with years yet to go, crawling over the greatest defence the higher beings could have. He will continue on for eternity, if he has to.

After all, at the end of nothing - that is where he will find everything.

 


 

 

When he is first invited, he is too nervous to accept. What if they take one look at him, and can see past the glamour? What if they see him for what he truly is beneath his stolen guise; something that doesn’t belong? He is too scared of backlash, to have stripped of him what he fought so hard to attain. He doesn’t accept.

But for whatever reason, the invitation arrives again. And the prospect of a possible home, of somewhere to belong, is hard to resist a second time. His anxiety isn’t enough to quell the interest, the rising hope. It may all go wrong, it may crumble beneath his feet and plummet him right again back to the depths of his own damnation; but until that happened, he would see the sky.

Grian accepts before he can talk himself out of it again, and before he knows it, he’s traveling to his new community. It’s all based on a lie, he knows; they’ve invited him thinking he’s an angel, awed by his builds and for once not seeing him only as a trickster demon. When they eventually find out the truth, he fears what they will do to him, his mind conjuring pictures of horror over and over of what his fate could be at the hands of those he will lie to. His nerves are frayed by the time he arrives, and stepping onto the grass with a dozen eyes turning to look at him is one of the scariest moments of his life.

It feels like the air is too thick, and he can’t breathe as the one that invited him - Xisuma, he thinks - approaches him. He’s terrified they can all see right past the glamour, that they are already plotting ways to be rid of him or turn him in for what he’s done. The wings folded on his back feel like a dead weight, burning against his skin with the heat of his crimes. He is an imposter; he does not belong.

Xisuma welcomes him. The others, those he has yet to know their names, chime in. They sound happy to see him, genuinely wanting him as a part of their group. They can’t see past the glamour, after all, and finally he can breathe. It might be fine. Maybe it will go well, maybe he can keep up the facade, and forge lasting friendships in a home he can call his own.

Finally feeling as if he can relax, he starts to become comfortable in his new environment. Xisuma introduces him to each of his new companions, hopefully soon to be friends; they’re an odd bunch, to be sure, but they seem to have a particular charm about them, and he can already pick out some of their personalities. Right in front of his eyes, he witnesses as Cub and Scar immediately pull out a map and begin discussing things he doesn’t quite grasp, plans too complex for him to do much more than blink in confusion. Behind them, Iskall and Stress start pulling faces, mocking them only to act completely innocent when the two with the map turn around.

Turning from that scene, Grian finds there are already more shenanigans to witness. Zedaph has run off into the woods yelling that he’s going to kill the dragon, while some of the others watch him go and ask each other if he’s serious. Grian fights off a tremor, remembering the dragon he fought alone; it wasn’t a task he’d wish on anyone, though Zedaph seems quite determined. The rest of the crowd begins to disperse, venturing out to find where they will set up  their new homes, and Xisuma hands him a map like the one Scar was holding before he, too, disappears in a random direction.

It seems it’s all gone well; he’s been welcomed, and already, he’s finding he really likes these strange people. That makes the prospect of being found out and losing it all that much scarier, but that’s a problem for future Grian, he decides. Taking a deep breath, he lets the tension fully melt from his shoulders.

“Hey, Grian, right?” A voice from behind him makes him tense all over again, something about it sounding familiar and sending an uncomfortable twitch through his wings. Slowly, he turns, afraid of what he’ll see. “I’m glad you’ve joined us.”

And afraid he should be; he’s met with the sight of a man in the most dapper suit he’s ever seen, who towers over him in height. His hand is extended for a friendly greeting, a smile on his face that Grian can’t tell is fake or not. That’s not what scares him, though. The thing that actually sends a rush of ice through his blood is the purple markings on the newcomer’s face - a telltale sign of an angel. Worse yet, there are no wings resting on this man’s back.

The weight of his lies rest ever heavier, and he can do nothing but timidly shake the hand offered to him. He feels another twitch at the contact; his stolen wings know exactly who their real master is.

This isn’t going to end well.

Chapter Text

When there is nothing around him but trees, he can finally breathe. Mumbo had seemed nice enough; his greeting was friendly, no tricks up his sleeve and nothing about his demeanor felt unsafe. But that was part of what got under Grian’s skin, he can’t tell at all if Mumbo genuinely didn’t know what Grian had done, or if he just didn’t care. He said nothing about it, not a word, and nothing in his face gave away whether he could see right through the glamour or not.

Could he? They were his wings. But he’d given no indication whatsoever, he’d looked at Grian as if he were the same as any of the others. And maybe it makes sense for him to approach, the disguised demon is the newcomer here after all, but at the same time what if he only approached because he knows and wanted to see how Grian would react? What if he’s playing the long game, waiting for just the right moment to upend it all, or maybe he’s waiting for Grian to slip up and dig his own grave?

This was all a big mistake. Coming here was a mistake, and now, Grian can’t get his hands to stop shaking. He didn’t know the exact person whose wings he stole happened to be one of the Hermits. Leaning against a tree, he takes a deep breath, and tries to force the ceaseless worrying from his mind. There’s no backing out now, he knows; leaving just as soon as he’s joined could be what sets the others on his trail. Or maybe it’s all a test, maybe Mumbo is seeing what he’ll do and if he just leaves, he’ll know to chase him down and kill him to take back what was stolen from him? What if that’s why they invited him, and that’s why they pushed again for him to join? What if they all already know?

Or maybe… what if Mumbo genuinely has no idea? Maybe the glamour works perfectly even on the angel it came from, and if Mumbo doesn’t know who stole his wings, then no one else would  have any idea either.

“Aaaargh!” Grian shouts, startling a sheep near him. Tangling his fingers in his hair and tugging out of frustration, he slides to the ground, wincing when feathers are harshly rubbed the wrong way against the tree. His nerves can’t take this, he isn’t sure what to do or if he’s already walking on eggshells. Staying silent could mean he fails their test, if they already know what he is and what he’s done; but coming clean right off the bat could just be shooting himself in the foot anyway if they actually have no idea at all.

He stays there, against the tree, for a long time. The sheep sidles back over after a while, staring at him, and he idly pets it. His mind won’t stop running in circles, torn between hope and dread. Though he left spawn far behind, and Mumbo went a different direction anyway, he almost feels as if there are eyes on him.

That might just be the sheep, though.

But the sun is sinking, and as much as he kind of just wants to sit around and wallow in his fear, he knows he needs to move. His legs feel stiff as he pulls himself up, realizing he’d gotten lost in his mind for far longer than he initially realized. Grian doesn’t know exactly where he’s going to set up his starter home yet, either; and pulling the map from his pack does little to tell him where he is. But moving anywhere, especially at night, is better than sitting here in a panic and waiting for a mob to stumble across him.

It’s that thought that finally gets him to walk out of the trees and onto a small hill overlooking the ocean. Well, nearly the ocean. There’s a tiny river below, flowing right in and out of the sea, and cut away from it by only a small island jutting high into the sky. He can see torchlight from a cave about halfway up, as well, and another look at the map and some scribbled notes tells him this must be where Biffa has set up. That in itself acts as a landmark, and along with the shape of the coast, he can sort of tell where the districts start and end.

He hadn’t considered where exactly to put his base, truth be told. But the nearest one, that he guessed may also be the most deserted considering its style, was the Futuristic district. Though it wasn’t his strong point as far as building styles went, he's tired, it was nearby, and less neighbors sounded far better for his situation.

With that thought in mind, he put the map away and shook out his wings. They didn’t like him, that much was for sure; back home in the Nether, they kept seizing up or moving in ways he didn’t expect, just in time to pitch him right into lava. His best guess was that they knew he wasn’t their rightful owner, and they were punishing him for taking them. Now that he’d met Mumbo face to face, as well, he was even more afraid of using them in case the encounter made them even more spiteful than before.

Regardless, Grian chose to chance it. Stretching them out and flapping a few times, they responded properly to his commands, and he felt a bit of confidence trickle in. Maybe the longer he had them, the more they’d begin to listen to him? With a nod, he went for it, pushing off from the hill and intending to fly along the river over the ocean.

Instead, his wings chose to ignore him completely, and let him smack directly into the wall of Biffa’s island. Dazed, he slides to a sitting position on a block, and looks down at his unfolded wings where they hang limp. Trying to move them results in absolutely nothing.

… Boat it was, then.

 


 

 

Finally, Grian found a place he was happy to set up at. Well, it was really sailing over the ravine of bubbles that threatened to take his boat that convinced him it was time to stop sailing, but nonetheless. Beside the ravine, at the bottom of the ocean, rested half of a sunken ship; they don’t exactly have boats or viable ocean in the Nether, so he feels more than satisfied to stop here and make a camp in an environment so different from what he’s used to. 

Already, he can see multicolored fish swimming around below his boat, and that alone is enough to fascinate him. They swim in groups, just meandering around below the surface, and he can’t help but wonder what their lives are like. Simpler than his, for sure; but he cuts that train of thought before it can take him right back to being an overthinking, panicking mess.

He’s choosing to ignore his problems as if they don’t exist, for now. He can’t get caught for being a fake and a thief if he just pretends none of that happened, right? Yes, exactly. And that’s why he’s not going to think about it. At all.

Leaning over the edge of the boat and peering down, Grian starts to find he’s almost afraid to go in. How long has it been since he’s been around water, again? It was so long ago, it’s hard to remember, and he partially wonders if he still knows how to swim. But the hesitation isn’t leading him anywhere, and he was never really known for his self control anyway, so he shrugs and dives over the edge.

It’s not hard to get to the bottom, though the sensation of holding his breath isn’t the most pleasant, and he’d forgotten that saltwater burns when you try to see in it. He adjusts soon enough, though, and is able to start setting down glass to begin his base. Grian is determined to experience the ocean for all it’s worth, especially now that it’s changed so much since he last saw it. The colorful fish, the shipwrecks, the bountiful plant life all along the ocean floor; it’s all new to him, and he wants to see it all.

After what feels like seconds, he needs air. The swim to the top is much harder than it was to come down, and he starts to panic, feeling the walls of water closing in on him and the surface seeming so far away. It feels like he’s being weighed down, but he breaks through and gasps for air before he can consider what the cause is.

Living underwater, as both a creature of the land and the underworld, may be harder than he initially considered.

The demon clambers into his boat, exhausted already from just one trip to the bottom. His clothes feel gross clinging to his body, an effect he’s long forgotten about, and his wings are even worse. Saturated fully with water, they’re so heavy he can barely lift them. Puffing up and shaking off like a dog does little to dry them, and Grian starts to realize the water is even worse now that he’s also a creature of the sky.

Grian is also stubborn, and refuses to give up now. He likes the shipwreck. It’s isolated, and has a pretty view. He’s committed; and so, dives again once he’s caught his breath to keep working.

He moves fast, and is nearly ready to make it inside the ship and begin removing water when the sun starts going down again. He doesn’t think much of it, and doesn’t think to resurface to a safe place for the night until he starts hearing an ominous gurgling from somewhere nearby. Scrambling for a sword, while trying desperately to swim upwards with his waterlogged wings, and also search for the source of danger, is a bigger endeavor than he’s ready for. Grian doesn’t have time to react or move at all before a searing pain tears through his chest, causing him to gasp and lose all his air. When he looks down, a trident lodged horrifically in his body is the last thing he sees before he falls flat on the grass back at spawn.

With phantom pain in his chest, and a stupidly long trip between him and his new base, there’s only one thought that goes through his mind as he lays there.

At least now his wings are dry.

Chapter Text

This is it. This is the end for him.

After all he’s gone through and done, there’s no escaping his fate anymore. There’s no more running from his sins, hiding behind the false guise of his stolen glamour; it’s all caught up to him now. Only for so long can one run from their crimes. Well and truly, he’s reached the end of his road, and this is where his grave will be.

He will vanish from time, forgotten by all as nothing more than a thief in the night, escaping with his freedom for only mere weeks. Mumbo’s wings will be returned to him, with no fanfare or strife about it; just returned as they were, as if nothing ever happened at all, as if Grian had never poked his nose where it did not belong. If the Hermits don’t know what he is yet, they never would.

This is the end. This is where Grian’s mischief has finally caught up to him, and will be his demise. He will die here on this beach, never to rise again, never to respawn or return to his pranks. And he’s completely okay with that.

They’re just… so unbearably cute.

Sprawled on his belly in the sand, Grian watches the tiniest creatures he’s ever seen in his life with unrestrained wonder as they break free of their eggshells right in front of his eyes. They’re so, so small, barely the size of the palm of his hand, and he absolutely cannot get over how cute they are.

It’s unlike anything he’s ever seen. They’re so pure, flapping about across the sand in a way he can only describe as waddling, and he swears he could stay here for the rest of time. The parents watch him from nearby, but they soon wander off, growing bored of his boundless fascination.

Slowly, Grian carefully raises one of his wings over his head, half expecting it to spitefully scare off the baby turtles. But it does exactly as he commands it to, and he’s able to dangle it just over the hatchlings’ heads. They look up and watch the feathers with just as much fascination as Grian has for them, and a stray one decides to chomp down when he gets a little too close.

It’s just the tip of a feather, so he can’t feel any pain; but the tiny turtle dangling from his wing by only its mouth, refusing to let go of its new catch, has him dying all over again. It’s just too cute. It’s too cute. He concedes defeat to the tiny creature and reaches out, plucking the feather from his wing and letting the turtle scarper off with it.

The feather is bigger than the turtle is, but it scrambles away with more determination than Grian has ever had for anything in his life. It seems proud, escaping with its prize and hiding under its parent from the other hatchlings that chase after it. He can’t handle this, he just can’t. Letting his face fall right into the loose sand, he screams into the ground where the noise is muffled.

But before he can raise his head to watch the turtles some more, he feels the faintest sensation on his head and freezes. Particularly brave and curious, one of the turtles sticks its head into his hair, flippers scrabbling about as it tries to climb up. Oh, goodness they’re too precious.

Grian lets it use him as a playground, and accepts his new home in the sand.

The others follow the first, as well. Soon enough he feels turtles climbing up his other wing, splayed in the sand as it is, and some manage to climb onto his back. This is it, this is his life now, the turtles own him.

He’s okay with it.

Soon the one on his head wanders off to join its siblings on his back, and he’s able to raise his head to look over his shoulder. He’s covered in a blanket of curious baby turtles, some fighting for a space on this new and interesting obstacle and almost looking like they’re playing a game about who can stay king of the Grian for the longest.

Really, he could die here. If he died here, his life would be complete, he’d have no complaints at all. Death by baby turtle swarm sounds fantastic, and if he had to choose how to die, he now knows what method he wants.

Another turtle chomps at the feathers on his other wing, the one splayed in the sand. It doesn’t hurt much, just a bit of a tug, though part of him secretly worries still that his stolen additions with a mind of their own may get upset at the abuse. But they don’t do anything he isn’t expecting; unmoving and complacent, he feels in control for once.

Though he has a sneaking suspicion it’s just for the turtles and not him, and if he were to try to fly, he’d go straight into another cliffside face first.

But really, who cares about temperamental stolen wings and flying when you have baby turtles?

Reaching out, and being as careful as possible to not disturb the turtles on him, Grian grabs for his pack he’d left on the ground. There’s a turtle or two inside already, having found the secret stash of kelp he’s looking for, and they look a bit too pleased with themselves. He’d never seen a turtle before today, much less a fat, happy baby turtle, and he decides he’s never going back to the Nether again in his life. They’re just too pure, too cute.

With a hand full of kelp, he carefully twists to offer it to the turtles that have claimed him as a new land of their own. They don’t hesitate to chomp at the food, but even though a few miss and bite down on his hand instead, they’re too small to actually hurt at all. Unless the way their harmlessness combined with overwhelming cuteness feels like it might actually be the end of him counts, in which case, they’re actually very deadly. Very, very deadly.

After what he knows is hours but feels like only seconds, the parent turtles sidle back over and the babies start to scramble off of him. It feels like far too soon, but the sun has already begun to sink and he knows they’re safest in the water anyway. It’s sad to see them go, but even so, Grian is content to stay and watch as each one disappears safely into the ocean. They leave behind a scattered mess of scutes as they’d grown bit by bit, and a heartwarmed, sand-covered demon.

He’d almost forgotten he was here for a turtle helmet in the first place, really. Breathing longer underwater is cool and all, but getting to play with baby turtles while waiting for them to shed is even better. But the sand is cooling as the sun sinks lower onto the horizon, and Grian knows he needs to leave before it gets dangerous.

There’s more sand caught in his wings and hair than he’d realized, and standing up is uncomfortable after being on the ground for so long. He’s careful to shake his feathers clean, though even now that the turtles are gone, he can’t help but notice that his wings aren’t trying to fight him. The idea crosses his mind for half a moment to try and fly now, while they’re listening to him; but he knows he still doesn’t have enough control over them even if they’re behaving right now.

It doesn’t stop him from trying a couple of hearty wing beats though, and they let him get a block or two in the air before freezing up and grounding him again. It’s clear progress, and it boosts his already good mood even more to think that he may be on the right path to actually being able to use the wings he worked so hard to get a hold of.

The ever decreasing light level is his sign to get going for real, though, and he makes quick work of collecting all the little pieces of green on the beach before hopping back in his boat. The open sea is peaceful and isolated, giving him the freedom to relax and think while traveling back to his base.

All in all, Grian is amazed at how well everything has gone. Whether the Hermits can see through his glamour or not, he still doesn’t know, but all signs are pointing toward them not being aware. No one reacted to him negatively that first day at spawn, and if Mumbo was aware, he was sure the redstoner wouldn’t have been able to hide some sort of reaction. If Grian were in his shoes, he knows he would have been shocked at the very least, but Mumbo showed no adverse reaction whatsoever.

As well, none of the other Hermits have come by thus far, leaving Grian in total peace. He knows he’ll have to interact with them at some point, and he does want to get to know them, but the fear of them seeing through his guise is still enough to make him wary. He’ll have to suck it up and try to interact normally when it does happen, or risk blowing his cover anyway, but for now he’s content to appreciate his isolation until then.

He just hopes it’ll last for awhile longer, for sure. Too afraid of someone dropping in unannounced, Grian hasn’t dropped the glamour to rest since the day he arrived almost two weeks ago, and he’s starting to feel the effects of using angel magic for too long. Even now, as he sails past Scar’s pirate island, he can feel the fatigue dragging at his limbs.

But though his bed is calling to him, the impressive terraforming Scar has done on the land catches his eye. It’s absolutely beautiful, and though Grian likes to think of himself as capable of terraforming nicely, Scar completely overshadows anything he could even hope to do.

And this is only the start, too. He can only imagine what it will look like once the Hermit is done with it.

The temptation to land his boat on the beach and explore Scar’s island and its progress is strong, so strong in fact that Grian doesn’t even try to resist it before he commits and heads straight there. He might encounter Scar in the process, but… well, it would probably be worth it even if he did. Besides, it might help his cover if he makes a show of coming to visit what his neighbors are up to, right?

It’s a sound thought, though it does little to quell his rising nerves as he steps onto the beach. His mind begins to do its favorite hobby of giving him scenario after scenario of what if everything goes horribly wrong, the most concerning being what if his fatigue catches up to him and his glamour falls right in front of Scar. He knows it’s foolish to have gone so long without resting, and now to risk seeing one of the Hermits in this shape; but he’s already landed, so he may as well at least take a look before scarpering off back to his underwater hiding place.

Even though the lack of light makes it harder to see quite what he’s done, Scar’s work still perfectly portrays its image in the dark. The sculpted land leads up a rounded hill, at the base of which flows into a cave toward the depths of the island. Nearby, there’s a dog napping in a boat, and Grian doesn’t have to second guess if Scar is actually here or not.

Part of him considers leaving now. He’s seen the most of it, that’s enough, it’s best to leave now while he’s ahead. But the other part of him wants to see inside that cave, too, and that’s the part that wins. The dog raises its head and snorts at him as he walks by, but it doesn’t bark at him and he’s appreciative that much seems to be going well for him. Just at the mouth of the cave, Grian barely has time to look inside and take in the terraforming Scar’s done before he spots Scar himself; the Hermit is engrossed in his work, his back turned to Grian, his head dunked under the water while he works.

Grian considers actually backing away and escaping without notice while he can, but for reasons he isn’t really sure of, he hesitates. Maybe it’s because he senses what is about to happen, or maybe he really wants to test the waters of how the Hermits treat him on their own and if they really are as friendly as they seemed; either way, he has a front row seat to witness as Scar forgets his surroundings entirely in his work, and drowns.

It’s startling, to say the least. One moment Scar is there, and the next his body has vanished in a puff of steam from the water. His items float to the surface, and in an instant the panic returns to Grian’s overactive imagination. If Scar has just respawned above, what if he thinks Grian killed him? What if he’s unhappy about Grian being on his unfinished island, uninvited?

But the footsteps and angry presence never arrive, and a peek outside of the cave shows no one at the top of the hill. Scar is nowhere to be seen, and his dog is staring intently off toward the horizon. Did he forget to set his spawn here on the island? It’ll take him ages to return, and his items will have vanished by the time he does.

At least, unless Grian helps. But the question is, should he? If he just leaves now, Scar will lose his items, but will never know Grian was here and can’t jump to conclusions. But it feels wrong to just leave him to his own devices, especially when he could help. As afraid as he is to interact with the others at all, or draw attention to his presence, Grian knows he would prefer if someone else chose to help him if the roles were reversed.

That’s how he finally comes to the conclusion to do what he can, and gathers up everything of Scar’s he can find in the water. But he knows he for sure doesn’t want to wait here to give it back and risk questioning, so he dumps it all in a chest and scampers away to his boat before morning can come and bring with it the other Hermit. He doesn’t leave a note.

Grian makes it back to his underwater base without any further interruption, and the ship in a bottle at the bottom of the sea is already a fond sight. The inside is dry and warm, and once he makes it there, the first thing he does is shake his wings free of excess water. It took far too much glass and trouble trying to breathe to build it, but the end result is beyond worth it, and he feels much safer within the confined space. He knows it’s relatively obvious, and draws interest, but he doubts any Hermits will actually venture down and try to find their way inside.

Besides, he’s too tired to care. He can’t hold the glamour forever, and trying has been an awful experience. He’s lost count of the amount of phantoms swirling overhead after him, and everything in his base is trying to double in his vision. It’s time to finally sleep; he’s napped here and there, but never rested deeply enough to lose the will over his disguise.

The worry wells up all over again as he hesitates to drop his glamour, but within the privacy of his shipwreck, there’s no better time to let his guard down and he’ll have to eventually regardless. So it’s here that he finally gives in and lets the cover go, letting all of the fake angel features bleed away. Nothing feels any different about it, since the glamour doesn’t actually change his physical shape, but the drain on his energy vanishes and he can finally breathe.

Grian can’t help but look down at his- at Mumbo’s- wings with some guilt. Without the glamour to hide it, the black feathers are a stark reminder of what he really is underneath all the layers of lies, and the effect he as a demon has had on them.

Shaking his head, Grian shoves the thoughts away and collapses into his bed.

Chapter Text

He wakes in a panic. Bed becomes floor and he’s scrambling, unsure of which direction is up and a feeling of pure terror overtaking him. The floor is hard and cold, the blankets from the bed a claustrophobic tangle around his legs. It takes several seconds for his brain to catch up and tell him what’s going on; confusion clouds his mind as he looks around, searching desperately for the source of what’s woken him.

It slowly begins to sink in that he’s in his shipwreck cabin, alone, but it isn’t silent as it should be. There’s a resounding thudding, and he realizes in an instant that it’s someone knocking on his door. Almost making the mistake of answering it on autopilot, Grian looks down at the last second and sees the tips of black wings, causing his panic to return tenfold. He jolts away from the door at first, then changes his mind and flattens himself to it before his visitor can try to open it.

“Grian? Are you in there?” It’s none other than Mumbo’s voice that comes through the wood, and Grian is sure if he gets any more panicked he’ll just straight up die and respawn. Actually, that isn’t an awful ideaif it could get him out of here… Shaking the thought off, he presses his weight more firmly against the door and tries to call upon his glamour. There’s an emptiness where the feeling of magic should be. “Grian? Surely he can’t be far…”

Should he pretend he isn’t here, or respond and hope he can disguise himself again in a short enough amount of time to avoid suspicion? He’s inclined to opt for the former and just hope Mumbo goes away; unfortunately for him, however, the angel on the other side of the door has other ideas.

“Hm, but it might be best to check on him, something might be wrong…” Mumbo says to himself, knocking again, and Grian has to take the chance while he has it before the angel tries to enter the cabin.

“I’m up, I’m up!” Grian shouts, and though there’s more of an edge of panic to his voice than would be normal, he doesn’t have to fake sounding like he’s just woken up, at least. Bracing himself, he hopes Mumbo doesn’t notice he sounds off.

“Oh! There you are! Are you alright, Grian? You sound stressed.” Of course he noticed. Trying to calm himself enough to sound somewhat normal, his best bet for now is to distract the other Hermit with conversation as best he can until his glamour decides to work. But he’s in a bad place, here; he’s never been able to summon it right upon waking up, and with the panic he’s in over the odds of getting found out, there’s no chance of him being able to use it at all until he calms down.

“I’m fine, just startled.” He lies through his teeth, forcing his voice to sound normal. “What brings you here?”

“Oh, well I was hoping we could have a conversation about some things. You know… not through a door, maybe?”

Time slows to a crawl, where the only sound Grian can hear is his own racing heartbeat. Does he know? Did he know from the start, and has he chosen to come confront him only now? Or has he just figured it out? It feels like the walls are too close and the darkened wings on his back feel as if they’re going to burn right through his skin, and Grian can’t keep himself from sliding to the floor as his legs go weak. It can’t all be over now, not yet, he can’t go back. It’s been such little time and he’s already come to love this world away from the Nether brick and lava sea, he doesn’t want it to end. It’s so bright here, so green, so lively and there’s so much more he has yet to see. He wants to see Scar’s island finished; he wants to see those baby turtles return as adults.

He just wants to stay.

“Grian?” Mumbo prompts him again after an extended silence, reminding him again that he has to interact with this situation. He wants to just go back to bed, curl under the covers and hide from his problems; but he can’t. Choking down his rising anxiety as best he can, Grian tries to sound normal and knows he fails completely.

“I’m here, I just-- could you give me a bit? I’m, uh, not a morning person.” He lies again, and there’s a pause. He’s convinced Mumbo hasn’t believed a word out of him today, and any moment, it’s all going to end.

But to his surprise, there’s a notable tone in the angel’s voice; something warm and sober, as if he understands completely. “Ah, I’ve caught you at a bad time it seems. I’ll return later, alright?” And Grian can only stutter out what he thinks is some vague noise of agreement. Thankfully Mumbo accepts that as a reply, and his footsteps draw away from the door.

Even once he hears the splash of Mumbo leaving through the neck of the bottle, Grian stays frozen in his place for an indeterminable amount of time. His wings stop burning as
Mumbo leaves, so he knows he’s gone; but he can’t get his hands to stop shaking. The room suddenly feels far too silent, and he feels as if the walls themselves are watching him, judging him.

For not the first time, he wonders if this was worth it. Grasping one hand in the other, he wills the shaking to stop, but it won’t. All he wanted was a chance to live in another world, to experience life as others do without their lives revolving around being in the Nether. He wanted to meet people, without immediately being turned away for what he was, he wanted a chance to be something else.

He wanted to know what it was like to fly. He wanted to know what it was like to be free. But is this freedom? Or is this a punishment, a prison of his own creation? It can’t truly be living, if every moment is spent is abject fear, waiting for the moment someone figures it out. And he’d never truly believed the stories, anyway; he was sure the End would go on forever, that he’d never reach the sacred land of the angels, he didn’t think he’d actually find someone’s wings. 

In all honesty, he never expected to leave that place alive.

But he did, and now he is here. His sins crawling on his back in the form of feathers that aren’t his, an unceasing tremor in his hands that won’t leave him in peace. It’s not until the moisture drips onto his hands, and he checks the ceiling for leaks only to find none, that he comes to notice the tears pouring over his cheeks.

When had that started? He doesn’t know.

The door is firm and unmoving when he lets his head thunk back against it, the dull ache that forms is a pitiful comparison to the twisting in his chest. Grian isn’t sure if any of this was really worth it; he never wanted to hurt anyone, never wanted to steal someone’s wings, but he had and now he is being punished for it. Though the overworld is lovely, with its forests and oceans and turtles, and he desperately wants the Hermits to be his friends, he knows it’s all just a hopeless dream. Keeping up the guise, hiding who he is, it’s all just been delaying the inevitable all along.

Mumbo must know. He has to, surely? No one else has approached him, no one has ventured into his isolated little base. They have no use for him, no interest when he hasn’t bothered to show any in them, and Mumbo has least reason of all to reach out to him when he’s been so avoidant of the angel from the very start. The only reason he would have to come by, to want to talk, must be about what he’s done.

When he leaves this room, he’s sure the weight of it all will be waiting for him. It’s all too much, and he doesn’t want to be here, but there’s nowhere else for him. Nowhere except the flaming pits of the underworld, the place where he’s cursed to be bound to. Maybe there’s a reason for that? Maybe he should just accept that he belongs down below, where the sinners go to be forgotten.

Curling his wings around himself, he tries to hide behind them like he has since he took them. They don’t act up against him like they have a tendency to; it almost makes him feel worse, the way they respond to him as if they were always a part of his body, as if they were actually his. Their true owner has just left, forced to swim up and take a boat away, grounded as he is because of what Grian did to him. Guilt rears its head and digs its claws into his heart, and he buries his face in his knees. The tears don’t stop.

He sits there for an amount of time he cannot judge. The silence of his shipwreck is stifling, heavy; it weighs down on him with as much volume as the water above, isolating him from the world in his tiny little bubble. It’s the same here as it always was back in the Nether, too quiet and too empty, with not a soul around. Loneliness was the thing that had always gotten to him most, the thoughts inside his own head too loud in the silence he had no choice but to be in.

But now is different. Though the stale air in here feels similar, the silence and the negative emotions swirling like a storm inside him, this isn’t the Nether. There’s no fire and brimstone, no distant cries of Ghasts or the constant red everywhere. Instead, there’s wood under him, the dripping of water, and if he looked out the door he’d see nothing but blue. And he doesn’t have to stay here, locked away in a silent cave alone for who knows how long. Mumbo is waiting on him; and he may be preparing the confrontation Grian has feared so much since even before his arrival, and he may send the demon straight back to where he belongs. In fact, he’s very sure that’s exactly what will happen.

But if that’s the case, then there’s no avoiding it any longer. He’s reached the end of his time here.

His legs feel weak as he forces himself to his feet, hand on the wall for support. The only sound is his own breathing as he forces it to level, the wet tracks down his cheeks itching as they dry. But as the moments pass, he feels stronger upright, and the distinct electric crackle of magic becomes a notable presence as his emotions equalize. There’s no hesitation as he pulls on it, desperately grabbing for some semblance of a safe mask to hide behind. It may all be over, he may be found out or maybe it was all obvious from the start; but he’s not going anywhere without his glamour.

He won’t let them see that side of him. If Mumbo sends him back, if the Hermits kick him out, even if they just kill him for good, at least he won’t look like the demon he is in their memories.

Grian lets out an audible sigh as the glamour coats over him, the black feathers washing away to white, and the purple marks appearing in the corners of his vision. It feels safer like this, better, even if it’s all for nothing.

As he reaches for the door to his cabin, he hesitates, still not wanting to face the end. He wants to stay and build, to create friendships and see what all comes to happen on this world, but it’s out of his control and he can’t experience those things by hiding in here anyway. And besides, if he’s going to be back in the Nether by this time tomorrow, or if he’s just going to be dead, then there’s still one thing he refuses to leave without having done. So he throws the hesitation to the side, and pushes the door open, a determined finality to his movements as he strides toward the exit.

His wings are drenched by the time he reaches the boat he’s left on the surface, but that’s okay. The sun is high in the sky, and there’s a warm wind coasting over the waves, drying out his feathers impressively quickly. Normally he’d be hesitant, worried about crashing into something and going through the unpleasant process of waking up in his bed with phantom pains from a death only moments before, but he doesn’t let those thoughts get to him now. He will fly this time.

Besides, it’s fitting to use the very wings he stole to take him to his fate, isn’t it?

The boat rocks as he flaps them, but his feet lift from it before he can lose his balance and tip back into the water. With the glamour in full effect, they catch the sun in brilliant, blinding white hues, and it feels as if the warm breeze is helping to lift him higher with such little effort. For the first time since he got them, his wings aren’t actively trying to sabotage him, aren’t trying to immediately pitch him to his death, and he can finally feel what it’s all about to really have them.

Grian can feel every feather as the wind flows through some and is caught by others, the way the breeze feels almost like a solid object as he pushes off of it. It’s unlike anything he’s ever experienced; sure, he’s gotten in the air with them before, but it’s always been a struggle to the point it’s impossible to just feel. And so he does, letting his fears drift away in the sky to be replaced by the feeling of weightlessness, of the freedom to rise above everything that scares him.

It’s going to be over as soon as he reaches Mumbo’s base, he knows. But until then, he’ll commit everything about this to memory.

They are neighbors, however, and it is far too soon that the little set of islands comes into sight. Mumbo’s built a huge frame of a sphere above one, so they’re impossible to miss, though Grian must admit he’s impressed. Circular shapes are not easy to achieve, especially without the ability to easily fly up and check if the dimensions are correct, so he really has to give props to Mumbo for managing to make something so nice. He could be a great builder if he dusted off the redstone for long enough, Grian thinks.

Speaking of him, he’s already there, nothing more than a tiny dark speck on the ground. The fact he’s just like a little ant would be funny, if the mere sight of him and knowing why he’s here didn’t send a pang of fear through Grian all over again. Although as he draws closer, he has to wonder why Mumbo would be waving and looking excited to see him if they’re about to have this discussion that he so wishes he could just avoid.

Maybe it’s because he’s distracted, and maybe it’s because his wings sense their actual owner nearby and remember they don’t like Grian. Either way, before he can realize how fast he’s going or how near the tree is, the demon crashes right through the canopy of leaves above Mumbo’s starter treehouse and collides with his floor.

“Oooh, that’s gotta hurt.” He hears, and groans loudly where his face is flat on the boards. There are leaves in his hair and feathers, he thinks, and he’s reminded with a pounding headache why he always hesitates to attempt flying. Through the floor, he can feel the vibration of approaching footsteps. “Are you alright?”

Grian only answers by groaning again, and trying to sit up. For some reason, Mumbo helps him. The angel’s hands on him feel extremely foreign, but it isn’t an unpleasant sensation. His touch is exceedingly gentle, which only serves to send waves of confusion through Grian’s aching head. Shouldn’t he be rough and short tempered with the person he knows stole his wings? But instead Mumbo is fussing over him, checking him over for injuries, and the next thing he knows his face is being held up while the other looks intently into his face. He can feel himself going red, confused and flustered.

Entirely unaware, Mumbo turns his head this way and that, and then pats over his hair gently. He only narrowly misses touching Grian’s disguised horns. “I think you’re okay.” He decides, nodding as if satisfied, and steps back.

“I… what.” Grian officially has no idea what’s going on. Didn’t he come here to get kicked off this world?

“Oh, right! I’m sorry.” Mumbo flails his hands a bit, and then rubs the back of his neck, embarrassed. “I didn’t ask first before getting all up in your space, did I?”

That’s what Mumbo thought he was talking about? With a creeping suspicion rising at the back of his slightly fuzzy head, Grian narrows his eyes, inspecting the other Hermit. Mumbo doesn’t look angry at all, or remotely confrontational; just a bit awkward, maybe, and honestly, he’s exuding friendliness. This really doesn’t feel like the end of the world Grian thought it would, and he’s careful to choose his words when he finally opens his mouth. “... You wanted to talk to me, Mumbo?”

“Oh! Yes! I forgot all about it with that entrance of yours.” Mumbo laughed, looking up at the new hole in his leaf ceiling. “I wanted to… well, you’re new, and we’re neighbors, so…”

“And..?” Grian was getting an increasingly noticeable feeling that he may, in fact, be an idiot.

“All the other Hermits are beginning to start small alliances, so, I wondered…” Mumbo held out a hand; there was a friendly smile on his face, but he was shaking just a bit. He was nervous. “... Would you like to start an alliance with me?”

Yep, Grian was, indeed, an idiot.

Chapter Text

Grian isn’t sure how this happened.

Well, he is. He knows exactly what happened. But he doesn’t know why. A week ago he woke up in a panic and smashed his face into the floor, before proceeding to overthink all of his life decisions and crashing face first again into a tree. Before that, his every waking moment was spent avoiding all of the Hermits out of pure terror, Mumbo in particular.

Today? Today he’s covering Mumbo’s base in chickens while he isn’t looking.

He considers it some kind of payback for the near heart attack the angel had given him that morning, even if Mumbo knows nothing about any of that. And part of him considers that maybe, just maybe, he should be thanking Mumbo. Since now he doesn’t have to spend his every moment on the precipice of panic, thinking that someone will discover his secrets or that they all already know and are judging his every move. Thanks to Mumbo, he’s learned he’s perfectly safe; the angel is nice, and has continued to give zero indication that he knows anything more than surface level at all.

Grian’s still going to cover everything he loves in chickens, though. Even if Mumbo doesn’t know it, he’s still a demon, and his favorite way of burning off stress is by pulling pranks. Furthermore, which Mumbo still doesn’t know, he’s going to become the target for a lot of pranks now that Grian isn’t afraid of him anymore.

“Alright, I’m back, now we can-- oh my word!” The laughter can be heard in Mumbo’s voice as he looks around, witnessing the chickenpocalypse Grian has created on his lawn. Grian isn’t remotely sorry, and doesn’t even bother to hide the eggs in his hands. “This is the third time this week!”

“Your base looked lonely.”

“Hardly!” The angel watches a freshly hatched chick prance across his foot and away, his head comically following it the entire way. “If this is lonely, I don’t want to see what crowded looks like.”

Grian smirks, bouncing the egg in his hand. “You sure? I’d be happy to demonstrate.”

“No, no, we don’t need any more chickens. Besides, my base can’t be lonely right now anyway.” Mumbo sent him a wide smile at those words, and Grian found himself tilting his head, confused.

“How so?”

“Well, you’re here right now.” Mumbo’s entire demeanor was friendly, delicate. Like he really meant it, like he really did appreciate Grian’s presence.

The demon finds his humor draining away, mild shock replacing it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because he’s learned this just seems to be how Mumbo is. He’s friendly and genuine, patiently tempered, and appreciative of anything Grian does for or with him. On that first day, when he’d offered an alliance and Grian’s nerves had been absolutely shot, he’d noticed the demon’s discomfort and offered that they just sit over tea and have a conversation before committing to an actual alliance.

And then, the first time Grian covered his base in chickens, he’d honestly expected the angel to get angry and back out of his offer. But he’d just laughed, and asked if Grian had an affinity for fellow winged creatures. That alone had almost made him think Mumbo was still onto him; but no, it seemed he really did have no idea, and the reaching out really just seemed to be… genuine, friendly interest.

That was the part Grian still couldn’t wrap his head around, really. Mumbo doesn’t have any ulterior motives, as far as he can tell. He just wants to make an effort to be friends because they’re neighbors and Grian is the new guy.

“I’m, uh…“ Grian looks away, unable to hold the angel’s welcoming expression. Something about it gets under his skin, making his sins crawl on his back. He’s far too aware of the feeling of wings that aren’t his. “I’m really glad you want me around.”

“Of course I do! The other Hermits are interested in getting to know you, too.” Mumbo points out, and Grian blinks. He’d thought they were mostly uninterested, since he hadn’t reached out to any of them in all this time. Grian was sure they’d just written him off as a bland addition they couldn’t befriend. “It’s okay, I know what you’re thinking, but everyone’s a bit antisocial at the start of a new land. We’ve all got to get ourselves settled in first, you know.”

Oh, that was another thing. Mumbo seemed to be able to read him far too well, guessing correctly most of the time what was getting to him. He wasn’t sure yet what that was coming from, whether Mumbo was really good at reading people, if Grian just didn’t have as good of a mask as he thought he did, or if there was something more to it that he didn’t know yet.

“That reminds me, no one’s been able to find you out and about to tell you, but everyone likes your ship in a bottle.” Mumbo continues on, completely unaware of the debate going on in Grian’s head. Maybe he really is just good at reading people socially? His words sink in after another moment, and Grian can’t help but gawk at him. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s a good build and you know it. Iskall came over here going on and on about it after he spotted it.”

Truth be told, Grian is increasingly unsure of how to handle this conversation. Interactions like this were what he’d wanted, weren’t they? The Hermits wanting him around and enjoying his work, feeling like a part of their community. He should be basking in the praise, he should feel content with the fact he’s seemingly starting to fit in now courtesy of Mumbo practically adopting him.

But that’s not how he feels at all. He feels awkward, uncomfortable and unable to stop thinking about his sins. He doesn’t belong here, and he doesn’t deserve this attention, least of all from Mumbo himself. More than anything, he feels kind of… dirty? Mumbo’s been so nice to him, reaching out and trying to build his confidence, when the wingless angel has no idea that Grian is the one that’s left him grounded. Only Grian knows the truth, and it’s ruffling his stolen feathers in a way that makes his stomach turn, guilt digging its claws into him more harshly than any of his previous fear of being found out.

When his silence stretches on too far, Mumbo places a gentle yet firm grip on his shoulder, drawing the demon out of his reverie with a flinch. Mumbo’s expression has sobered, a soft and understanding look on his features that reminds Grian of the way his voice had sounded outside his cabin that one morning. Looking at him like this, it almost feels as if he already knows everything; and for some reason, some small part of Grian hopes he does.

“It’s okay, Grian. Everything here is new, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. You can meet everyone at your own pace.” Mumbo smiles warmly, his mustache tilting up at the edges. “And don’t worry about figuring out how to sound appreciative, no one’s going to think you’re stuck up.”

He tries to stamp down the faint feeling of disappointment that small part of him feels over knowing Mumbo really has no idea. It’s such a strange difference from before, though he thinks it’s just the angel’s continual over the top kindness that Grian doesn’t remotely deserve that’s really getting to him and causing it. The static fear of being found out has been replaced by a small, gnawing guilt that increases with every nice thing Mumbo does or says, and he almost feels like the guilt is worse than the dread.

But he can deal with that. He’s a demon, he can brush off some guilt, he’ll be fine. He’s in a good position now; with Mumbo to help him get integrated into the community, so long as he doesn’t slip up and give his true identity away to anyone, he could theoretically stay here with them forever. Grian could build whatever he wants, play countless pranks on his potential friends, he could stay here in the overworld and never have to go back to that dark and flaming land he’s so sick of.

He could befriend them. He could have friends.

And he’d be lying to them the entire time.

“Thanks, Mumbo.” Grian shoves the thoughts from his head and plasters his best smile on his face, trying to give off the air of someone shy but appreciative. It seems to work, if the way Mumbo brightens up instantly says anything about it. “You’re right, it’s a little intimidating.”

“It’ll get better. Just do your own thing and the others will come along over time, they like to check out what the rest of us are up to periodically.”

“I can just do anything? Just… build whatever? Nobody will mind?” Grian finds himself asking, and at the question, Mumbo leans against his crafting table and taps his chin.

“Well, you have to stick to the themes of the districts, of course. But otherwise, sure. Everyone finds it exciting to come around and find a new project has cropped up, really.” Looking up, Mumbo seems to take in the sight of the framework of his own futuristic sphere as he continues on. “Since you’ve set up in the futuristic district, you’ll be restricted to a lot of the same expensive blocks I’m having to get. That just makes it cooler in the end, though.”

Following his gaze, Grian finds himself again appreciating what Mumbo has managed to build so far. “For someone who claims they aren’t a builder, your base is looking brilliant to me.”

“I’m sure yours will dwarf mine once you get around to it, though I promise I’ll outdo you on the technical side.” Mumbo glanced down at him and winked, and Grian wasn’t sure why it made his heart skip a beat. Looking back up again, the angel’s face took on a more pensive look. “There’s something off about it, though. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“It’s because you’re only looking at it from one angle. You can’t take in the entire thing from a distance and see what’s off about it.” His builder side took over and spoke for him, before Grian could really realize he may be creeping onto a sensitive topic, considering. “Er… sorry, I didn’t mean--”

“It’s okay.” Just as he’s come to expect from this ridiculously patient Hermit, Mumbo just offers him a friendly smile. The set of his shoulders is relaxed, clearly not bothered by the misstep. “It’s not every day you meet an angel that can’t fly. The others keep forgetting, too.”

This was a dangerous topic. Grian knew he should find something else to say, change the conversation, avoid this at all costs. Talking about it could reveal him, could get Mumbo onto his trail; and if they talk about it now, and Mumbo finds out Grian was the one at fault later, would he see the end of that patience? It’s a scary thought.

And yet, he’s speaking before he can stop himself, logic and caution thrown to the wind in favor of fleeting curiosity. His voice sounds foreign to his own ears as it escapes his mouth without his intent. “What happened?”

He knew what happened already. He was what happened, and Mumbo didn’t know that. This was cruel. But Mumbo takes it in stride, sitting his weight more fully against the table and looking out toward the sea.

“I’m not entirely sure, to be honest.” His voice is quieter than Grian’s ever heard it, and something in his chest constricts at the sound. “There are legends that say those who cross the void can find an angel’s wings, that they can claim them for their own. I never thought they were true, but I suppose, maybe I’ve learned firsthand that they are?”

That was something they’ve both learned firsthand, it seemed. Grian found himself looking away, unable to see the wistful acceptance on Mumbo’s face. It was as if Mumbo has already just casually accepted that his wings are gone, that there’s nothing he can do about it, and it makes the claws twisting their way into the demon’s heart that much sharper.

He’s speaking again, and he wishes he could stop himself. It’s as if his body is moving on its own, forcing out the words that will give him answers he doesn’t think he can handle.

“Are you okay?”

Mumbo chuckles, and Grian refuses to look up at him to see what the rest of his reaction is. “I suppose it’s a bit odd, to wake up one day without a part of yourself. But it’s such a rare occurrence, I don’t have any more info about it, and I don’t think there’s anything I could do even if I did. After all, it’s not like I’ll ever meet the person that did it, right?”

Grian feels like he’s back in the Nether, his sins burning hotter against his back than any fire ever could.

“I’ll never know what their reasons were, why they’d do such a thing. But I suppose that’s okay, too. There’s no point in dwelling on it and being upset about something I can’t change.”

He doesn’t know why he looks up again, but he does, and it’s a mistake. Mumbo is staring up toward his base, a longing look in his eyes as if he’s thinking of how he can never be up in the sky again. Grian gets the strongest feeling he’d taken his power of flight for granted, and is now realizing just how much he’s lost. He’s trying to put on a strong face, trying to pretend it doesn’t bother him; but the stretching silence and the way he’s gotten lost in his own thoughts give it away.

And Grian himself has never felt like more of a demon in his life.

Chapter Text

Starting his day with a yawn and mussed hair from a fitful sleep plagued with dreams laced with guilt, it takes Grian an almost embarrassing amount of time to notice the chest laid in the open on the platform of what will soon become his base. Though he isn’t fully aware yet, the Hermits have a habit of following in each others footsteps; and now that Mumbo has reached out to him, this is the start of what will end up being a very sociable day.

The majority of him is worried, creeping up on the chest like it’s going to bite him, or explode, or something. Though he knows the Hermits aren’t exactly out to get him, they have yet to earn his full trust, a lifetime of demons and backstabbing leaving him suspicious of everything. But it doesn’t move or do anything as he comes up on it, and though he braces himself as he opens it, the chest is innocent. Inside, there is a note, laid gently across the shining aqua surface of a trident.

He’s never had a trident before, and he can’t help the burst of excitement that rushes through him before he’s even read the note. Afraid of getting ahead of himself, though, Grian picks up the scrap of paper before daring to touch the trident.

“‘Thanks for saving my stuff! I got you a fork.’” Grian reads out loud, eyes scanning over the messy scrawl and catching on the name signed at the end. It’s from Scar, and for a split moment, confusion overtakes him; when had he helped Scar? But then it’s coming back, the day with the turtles, and he can’t decide whether to be afraid that Scar somehow figured out he was the one that did it, or grateful the unaware Hermit had appreciated it. He chooses to be grateful, pushing aside the slight fear.

After all, they don’t know what he is. They aren’t out to get him. He has to learn to trust them, and get used to being around them without acting like he has something to hide.

The trident is smooth and weighty in his hands, and he instantly takes a liking to it, just like everything else he’s seen from the ocean. Holding it up, it seems like it would be hard to aim well, but he thinks it can’t be harder to learn than flying has been. When he gently throws it, he doesn’t really intend for it to do much more than arc a couple blocks and bounce off the floor, but its weight gives it more force than he expects and it embeds itself solidly in his new concrete wall.

He’s instantly afraid more for its condition than the wall, the wall he can just fix, but a jolt of panic goes through him thinking he could have already damaged such a nice gift by accident and that Scar will be angry with him. But yanking it free of the wall shows it’s completely fine, and he can breathe a sigh of relief. He isn’t entirely sure why Scar would want to give him something as rare and coveted as a trident, since Mumbo had mentioned everyone wanting to get their hands on one, but the fact he did gives Grian a slightly warm feeling. It was just because Grian did him a favor, right? And he wanted to give something back in exchange for it? Still, it makes him feel more welcomed by his other neighbor, who he hasn’t even properly ever spoken to.

Maybe he should… eventually.

But that’s something for future Grian to worry about, while present Grian has a new toy to play with. He can’t resist scampering over to the edge of his base and peering into the ocean below, holding up his new trident and doing his best to aim at some of the fish wandering around below. They’re smaller targets than he’s ready for, though, and after the third time of having to dive below and drench his wings to retrieve it, he decides that maybe it would be better to play around with this thing on land instead.

So that’s what he does. Impatiently fluffing his wings dry and taking off with the feathers still damp, he’s sure he probably looks drunk as he zigzags through the air toward the shopping district, but the others are used to seeing that by now. Between Mumbo asking him for advice on his base from the sky, the realization that it would be abnormal for the others not to see him flying everywhere, and the jab of guilt he feels at the notion of having taken the poor angel’s wings for nothing, Grian has been trying to fly more and more often. It’s caused him a noticeable amount of deaths from kinetic energy, and he’s sure the others have seen and probably laughed at him for it, but it was better than the alternative.

Besides, he’s sick of boats.

For once though, the trip to the nearby district isn’t too painful, his wings mostly listening to him and not actually sending him careening off into the sign of Tango’s shop this time. He lands with relative ease and twirls his trident in his grip, looking around for any unfortunate creature he can use as a target.

The demon isn’t entirely sure who is at fault for it, but the shopping district has a tendency to spawn the odd creeper here and there, if the small patches of repair work on some of the shops tells him anything. Normally he’d avoid them like the plague, not remotely interested in being at fault for breaking someone’s shop, but this time he chases after them head on with his new danger fork. At some point, he passes by iTrade just as Impulse comes out of it, though Grian doesn’t notice the other Hermit’s presence until Impulse starts laughing at the sight of the fleeing creeper he’s pursuing.

“Get him!” Impulse shouts through his laughter, and Grian takes that as a cue to throw his trident. His aim is already getting better, especially considering he isn’t trying to use it to fish, and he manages a perfect shot that takes down the mob in that single strike. He can hear Impulse clap at his success, his chuckles continuing even as he carries on with his business back within the iTrade building.

As ridiculous as it is, Grian feels accomplished. Between getting a laugh out of Impulse, learning a new weapon that Scar was kind enough to give him, and not killing himself on Tango’s shop for the fifth time this week, the day is off to a brilliant start. It helps that he knows none of them know anything beyond what he’s told them, that they aren’t secretly judging him behind his back, and the increasing amount of small interactions with them make him a bit more comfortable each time.

It was all working out. The underlying guilt over Mumbo has become as familiar as his previous fears over being found out, but for now, he can stamp it down and pretend everything is fine and he’s innocent. If he hadn’t done what he did, he wouldn’t be here now, getting to chase creepers with a fork.

The trident becomes comfortable in his hand, his aim easier with each mob he removes, and it frees up more of his attention for his mind to wander. He really likes the shopping district, he’s decided; it’s a mishmash of styles, with the personality and humor of each person shining right through the faces of their shops. From a straight up flower pot, to the bookstore literally undercutting Impulse, to just things either named or covered in puns, the entire district is the culmination of a community working together in the most ridiculous way possible. It’s unlike anything he’s ever seen before, in fact this entire community is, but the shopping district in particular has something from everyone.

Everyone but him, at least. The thought hits him like running into a brick wall, and he blinks, looking around. As far as he can tell, it’s true; there are shops even from Hermits he hasn’t met yet, ones who are even more reclusive than he has been, yet they’ve still come here and participated in this massive community area.

Grian wants in on it.

He doesn’t really have a shop idea, or anything to even sell, honestly. But he still wants to join in, and with that thought, he’s looking around for an empty space. There are still plenty of spots he could take, depending on the size of whatever he builds, but it’s the little patch of grass at the base of the hill iTrade is on that catches his attention. Clustered between Zedaph’s shop with rhyming stock and Biffa’s undercutting bookstore, and just across the way from the little pond at the base of the industrial-looking ConCorp shop, it feels like a central enough location that it won’t be missed while still not being in the way of anyone else.

When he went from wanting no one to notice him, to wanting at least most of the Hermits to see the shop he chooses to build, he doesn’t know. But he doesn’t even think of that as he pulls out a shovel, hesitating for just a moment before remembering that Mumbo told him it was okay to just build whatever as long as the land wasn’t claimed. That’s enough to reassure him, and then he’s leveling ground, already picturing what he’s going to build and how to go about it.

He has to speed back to his base and grab a shulker box of supplies before he can actually start it, but he’s there and back so fast that anyone who might’ve witnessed him must have thought there was some emergency. He doesn’t even notice on the way, too focused on his build, but his wings don’t give him a single issue in the entire flight.

Materials in hand and a space cleared, Grian loses any and all sense of time and surroundings as he throws himself into his favorite hobby. Building the things in his head is like putting together a puzzle, finding the right pieces that will resemble what he’s picturing, and he finds himself humming a little tune as he builds. He’s only got the large wheels in place, experimenting with exactly how he wants them to look, when he realizes he isn’t alone.

Tango crosses into the corner of his sight, distinct red eyes darting up and down as he looks over Grian’s work in progress and apparently tries to assess what it’s going to be. Xisuma is right behind him, doing the same, though neither say anything for a moment and Grian isn’t sure if he should make it clear he noticed them at all.

“What’s this going to be?” Tango’s voice is purely curious, with an edge of excitement, and suddenly Grian understands what Mumbo meant about the Hermits being interested in new builds cropping up. He’s barely built any of it, and they’re already invested.

It’s a nice feeling, really. This is the first time he’s really encountered any of the Hermits reacting to his work in person, and the way Tango has plopped himself comfortably down on the ground, his head on his hands and his attention trained on every new block Grian places, it gives him a really good feeling to see the interest firsthand. Xisuma looks back and forth between the two, hesitating, and Grian chooses that moment to finally speak.

“I don’t mind an audience.” He quietly mentions to the two, looking down at the blocks in his hands to avoid too much eye contact. And it’s true, he’s more than happy to let them watch, even if part of him still worries about judgement. But the way they’re so clearly curious, wanting to see the progress as it happens, and the way Xisuma seems to be waiting for his permission, he honestly couldn’t send them away even if he wanted to. It’s with a slightly stronger voice and a smirk that he adds, “But I’m not going to tell you what it is yet.”

Tango grins and looks up at Xisuma, grabbing at his arm and tugging, encouraging him to sit on the ground too. “Come on, X! Let’s make it into a game. First one to guess it correctly gets, uh…”

Xisuma joins him on the ground, tilting his head back and thinking. “Access to the other’s farms for a week?”

“Hmm, we already share farms most of the time anyway.”

Grian mostly tunes them out as he continues working, intently focused on getting the look of the floor right, but the friendly banter drifts over him and creates a warm atmosphere. Though he’s not remotely used to having an audience, having his trial and error process watched from start to finish and all the mistakes included, he finds he doesn’t really mind. Xisuma and Tango watch, but mostly keep to themselves, not saying a single negative thing about anything he does with his build, and he grows more comfortable as time goes on. The most entertaining part is sometimes when he places a new block, Tango will exclaim with a new and totally off the wall guess, only for Grian to look back and shake his head, earning a laugh from Xisuma.

Somewhere along the way, Zedaph comes to restock his shop, and finds the lot of them there like that. Tango pulls him over similarly as he did with Xisuma, and from what Grian can glean from the conversation, the stakes of their game get higher with the addition of Zedaph joining in. He’s not sure what the stakes are, really, but it seems to have become less of a bet and more of a gambling situation.

Once he has the wheels and the floor done, messing around then with a back wall and poles on the front, he’s sure someone is going to guess correctly. But Tango just continues with such completely off the mark guesses that he isn’t sure he’s even being serious, and after some time, Zedaph joins in with more and more ridiculous guesses.

“Grian, I think these two are just trying to out-stupid each other on their guesses.” Xisuma finally says, having leaned away from the other two and fixed them with a knowing smirk and a raised eyebrow. “I hope you don’t think they actually think your traveling cart is a spaceship.”

Tango and Zedaph both gasp and go quiet at his veiled guess, waiting for Grian’s reaction. The disguised demon can’t stop himself from laughing, leaning against the cart with the wool for the tarp already in hand, and Xisuma’s self satisfied grin gives it away that he’s already fully aware he’s won. “X wins.” Grian finally gathers his breath and confirms, at which point Tango and Zedaph both start yelling.

“How did you know?!”

“How long did you know for?!”

Xisuma stands up, dusting himself off, and continues grinning at them. “From the start. The big wagon wheel made it rather obvious, don’t you think?”

While Tango claims Xisuma cheated, and Xisuma informs him the entire bet had been Tango’s idea in the first place, Grian just goes back to his build and tries to muffle his laughter.

These people are fantastic.

Chapter Text

The hours ticked by as Grian drew closer to finishing his build, block by block stitching together the image of what he’d had in his head. It’s the delayed sense of satisfaction, watching his work slowly piece together and show what he’d been thinking of from the start, that always reminds him why he loves building so much.

Tango and Zedaph wandered off not long after their bet was won, though they promised to drop by after it was finished and check out whatever he decided to sell. Xisuma stuck around, quietly sitting on a chair Grian ended up building for him after a while. Normally, he would have been stuck in his own head, silently panicking about hanging out one on one with the community’s leader, and over analyzing his every move in case he gave something away, but Grian’s mind is nowhere near those thoughts right now. His focus is well and fully on his build, putting everything where it needs to be and adding detail like he does best, stepping back and seeing what works or what doesn’t.

On top of that, Xisuma on his own is such a quiet and respectful audience, he doesn’t say a word or break Grian’s focus once. He just sits, patiently watching the demon do what he does best, in such an unobtrusive way that Grian almost forgets he’s there entirely. Only once he’s pretty much finished, adding chests and decorations to the inside, does Xisuma remind him of his presence.

“It looks great.” He plainly states, and Grian has to tell himself not to jump at the break in silence.

“Thank you.” Grian isn’t sure what else to say, really. He’s somewhere between extremely proud that Xisuma thought his work was good and had been interested enough to watch it come together from the start, and being worried about giving himself away. But he doesn’t want to say nothing, either, though he’s careful to choose his words. “Thanks for hanging out, too. I’m… not really used to others being around.”

“I had a feeling.” He almost panics as Xisuma stands up with that, thinking he’s figured something out, but he just draws closer and claps a hand on Grian’s shoulder. “You seemed pretty overwhelmed on the first day, but it’s good to see you coming out of your shell.”

With an imperceptible sigh of relief, the demon shoots him a wide smile, his anxiety trickling away. Though the Hermits and their opinions of him terrified him at first, the more of them he actually meets, the more Grian is realizing they’re probably the best people he’s ever met. “You guys have done a good job making me feel welcome.”

Xisuma laughs, looking away for a moment. “Well, we could have done better, but I was worried about pushing you too soon. Mumbo got impatient, though, but it seems to have worked out.”

Curiosity piqued, the thought crosses Grian’s mind that he could actually learn more about the angel whose wings he stole, without having to worry about being recognized by asking him himself. “Mumbo was impatient to meet me?”

“Yeah, he was all tied in knots over it. I kept telling him to give you time to adjust, but he didn’t want to risk waiting too long and lose the chance to befriend you at all.” Xisuma seemed to think back on it, while Grian started to feel the guilt tugging at the back of his mind. “He was beyond excited for you to join us, you know.”

“Why?”

“You’d have to ask him for that answer, but it has been a long time since we had someone new. Maybe that’s why?” He shrugged, and for a moment, the pair lapsed into silence. It was a silence Grian should have allowed; but his mouth was moving faster than his mind, and the words were tumbling out before he could stop them, fueled by curiosity to get more information from someone that wasn’t Mumbo.

“Xisuma, what happened to…”

“To his wings?” Xisuma looked over at him, pinning the disguised demon with a look that he can’t identify. It’s a piercing stare that makes Grian’s stolen feathers crawl, as if he’s seeing right through him. “Well, someone took them. There’s only two ways an angel can lose their wings, and I know for a fact it wasn’t the other way.”

Grian wonders what he means by that, and wants to ask, but he’s afraid to prod more with how Xisuma is looking at him. Then he continues right on, and the chance is lost.

“But don’t worry about him, and don’t worry about saying anything wrong. Mumbo isn’t particularly sensitive, and he can brush most things off pretty easily. I know him, and I know he’d be more upset for you to walk on eggshells around him than to accidentally say something off.” Xisuma’s voice turned reassuring, in that confident and guiding way that a leader should be. The Hermits are lucky to have him, Grian finds himself thinking, as the spike of fear dissipates. “He may seem bothered by it, but it’s mostly the convenience that he misses. Just talk to him like normal and don’t worry too much.”

Grian nods. “Thanks for the advice, X. I’ll try to keep it in mind.”

With another friendly pat on his shoulder, Xisuma begins stepping away to leave, his head turned away from Grian and his expression out of sight. “Keep doing like you are now, and you’ll find your place here in no time. Keep Mumbo close, though, he’s a good friend to have.”

Nodding again, though Xisuma can’t see it, Grian almost misses it as Xisuma says one more thing as he walks away. It’s half under his breath, and he can’t help but blink, wondering if he heard correctly.

“And don’t feel too bad.”

Then he’s gone, walked off into the rising darkness, and leaving behind a demon who isn’t sure if he should be afraid or not.

Chapter Text

With the moon rising higher in the sky and the long shadows around the shops dragging across the ground, what Grian should do is get himself to safety, hide away from the night and the monsters before letting his brain malfunction. He should get a hold of himself, shake off his bewilderment, and continue on with what he was doing. Part of him knows that, the rational part in the back of his mind, however small it may be.

That’s not what he’s doing.

Even after Xisuma’s footsteps have faded off into the shadows, leaving the demon alone in the near-silence of the night, he can’t bring himself the presence of mind to realize he needs to move. His thoughts are caught on those retreating words, thrown so casually and so quietly, he can’t be sure if he heard them at all. After all, if they’re as significant as they would be if Xisuma was talking about his secrets, then surely they’d be spoken with far more weight behind them? But it was just a passing comment, like a note about the weather, as if it wasn’t all that important. It was as simple as noticing the color of something, or the details of his newly finished build; but if what he heard was right, then it held the weight of his entire world in those few syllables.

And yet, the crushing dread doesn’t come. And that only serves to feed more into his confusion, after all, if Xisuma knew, then shouldn’t he be terrified? He’d spent all that time being terrified of someone knowing, of someone figuring it out, and now with the real probability of that being true, he can’t find it in himself to panic. Maybe it’s because of how passive and unassuming Xisuma was; Grian had done nothing in these past few hours but quietly keep to himself and build, so he can’t imagine the leader had figured it out just now. Instead, he’s sure that if he knew at all, he’d known prior to today, and if that was true then surely he would have acted already if he was going to.

Nothing in the other Hermit’s demeanor had shown any sort of distaste, anything to give away some locked away thoughts of discrimination. Just as perfectly friendly and level as on the first day Grian had arrived, Xisuma treated him like any other, from then all the way to now. So could it be true, then, that he knows and just doesn’t care? Or is Grian just looking too deeply into his words, trying to make a connection that isn’t there?

Because just as likely, maybe he was talking about something else entirely. Maybe he was talking about the fact that Grian is new, that he has wings, and maybe Xisuma is assuming he feels bad that he can fly while Mumbo can’t? And he wouldn’t be wrong, if that’s what he’s thinking; but maybe that’s as far as his knowledge goes.

After all, how in the world would Xisuma know what Grian had done? He wasn’t the victim, he wasn’t there, and they’ve never met before. If Mumbo has no idea, then there’s surely no way that Xisuma would be able to find out.

But neither of those answers feels satisfying. Either Xisuma somehow found out, and for some reason just doesn’t care, or he has no clue and just so happened to accidentally say exactly the right thing to send Grian’s mind on a confused spiral. Neither is entirely conclusive, and yet again, he feels himself torn without knowing what the others really think. Worse yet, he can’t find out for sure, since he is definitely not going to give himself away in the off chance that Xisuma really doesn’t know.

It’s the same as before, and Grian can’t say he missed this feeling. He’s not terrified, though. Maybe that’s an improvement?

There’s no more time to think about it, stuck inside his own head, however. With the night in full swing around him, and Grian’s distracted focus somewhere else entirely, he’s a prime target for that damned drowned that Doc put in a box. Sitting around like he is, he could have been snuck up on by anything, but yet again he finds himself seizing up in pain as a trident finds its way through him.

“Do you mind?” Grian manages to gasp out, to no one in particular since the drowned can’t hear him anyway, before collapsing on the ground. He vaguely notes that the lawn in front of his new cart is now covered in tridents, ones that just so happened to miss him while he was stuck in his thoughts before one finally hit its target. It would be funny if it wasn’t so stupid, the way he stood around for so long and didn’t notice once that he was getting death forks thrown at him for the past several minutes.

Dully, he thinks that he kind of wants to blame Xisuma for this, but he doesn’t really. He’s the one that needs to learn to pay more attention, and not let one off comment catch him so off guard. The thought fades away along with him, everything going dark and fuzzy for a few moments, the cool night grass disappearing for the sensation of his warm blankets instead. The pain dissolves away, into that phantom feeling he’s come to know so well, but it’s not the most unpleasant. His bed is warm and soft, and it’s late; after hours of careful building, not to mention how little he seems to sleep in general around here, a nap sounds great. A long rest, letting the night pass by, and forgetting about the increasingly twisted situation his lies continue to put him in, is hard to resist. But the closest he lets himself get is to collapse his face into the pillow, groaning, before pushing back to his feet.

After all, his stuff is still out there on the ground, and he refuses to lose that trident Scar gave him. Its existence feels like a light in the dark; something to hold onto, something that means more than it seems at first glance. It’s strange, he knows, but it’s physical proof that the Hermits want him around, and he’s going to cling to that with everything he has.

The flight back over to the shopping district is, yet again, suspiciously calm. Despite his lack of sleep, he doesn’t see any phantoms yet, and he’s able to glide undisturbed back over his cart without even his wings betraying him. Any thoughts about how they seem to be getting used to him is swept away by panic as he looks around, landing in a hurry on the rough path, and searching desperately for his things. But they’re nowhere in sight, even though he’s sure this is where he died, and it hasn’t been nearly long enough for his pack to have just disappeared.

“I’m guessing you’re the one that exploded here.” At first the voice is unfamiliar, and Grian tenses at the sound of it, but when he turns around it’s just Iskall, and he can breathe a sigh of relief. It crosses his mind that he hasn’t actually met Iskall personally, yet. His only impression of the Hermit so far is him along with Stress mocking the Convex behind their back, on that first day, and he’s honestly pretty sure they’ll get along from that alone. Not that he has anything against Cub and Scar, especially after being gifted a trident, but Grian highly appreciates the humor behind making faces at someone while they aren’t looking.

His spirits soar when he spots his pack in Iskall’s hand, held out for him to take, and he has zero hesitation to prance the last few steps forward to take it. “Oh, thank you!” He gushes, looking inside and fully relaxing once he sees Iskall found everything, including his trident. “Maybe I could have stayed in bed after all.”

Iskall laughs at that, a full and honest sound, like it’s genuinely the best joke he’s heard all day. “Maybe, but I start charging tax for my precious space after the first hour.” He teases right back, and Grian knows his initial assessment of this Hermit was by far the most correct he’s had so far. Maybe it’s because of how comfortable it was having Xisuma, Tango and Zedaph around yesterday, but he realizes this is the first time he hasn’t immediately assumed the worst and been afraid of someone upon their first real meeting.

Opening his mouth to reply again, and see how far their teasing snark can go, the demon is cut off by a screech from the sky. They both freeze, looking upward and scanning the deep blue for phantoms. “Are they mine or yours?” He asks Iskall, reaching for his trident without taking his eyes off the sky.

“I’m-- no, I’m running, I don’t really care.” Iskall stumbles over himself, scarpering away to the safe canopy of the large tree nearby, and Grian finds himself laughing at the hasty retreat. “I’m out.”

“You’re right.” Shoving his trident away again, especially after not seeing the source of the screech, Grian is quick to follow right after Iskall under the safety of the tree. He doesn’t like phantoms, especially not when he can’t see where they are actually coming from, and the other Hermit definitely has the right idea in just not remotely trying to face them at all. “I, well, I’ll be honest. I hadn’t considered just… going under a tree to get away from them.”

Laughing again, Iskall gives him a friendly shove. “You’re a fool, man. But that’s okay, at least that means the bigger fool here isn’t me.” He settles down against the tree, sitting in the grass with a weapon in hand and an eye on the darkness around them, and Grian is quick to copy him. Having his trident back in his grip is already reassuring, both in the ability to protect him from the mobs, and reminding him that this interaction thing isn’t so hard after all.

“Are we going to stay here until morning?” The demon finds himself asking, though he isn’t opposed to the idea. The grass is comfortable, and he’s already interested in finding out what sort of a conversation he could have with this Hermit. They’ve all been vastly different so far, from Mumbo’s excited but vaguely awkward demeanor, to Tango’s hyped up personality, to the way Xisuma seemed perpetually relaxed and levelheaded. He’s curious what the main personality trait Iskall portrays will be.

“That’s my plan. You can stay, or you can go, and I can laugh at you when the phantoms kill you.”

Well, that answers that. Iskall is unapologetically entertained by stupid decisions. He’s going to have a blast with Grian, in that case.

“I’ll stay here.”

“Good choice.” Iskall chuckles, and with one more cursory glance around the area, starts digging in his own pack. Grian is careful not to be nosy and look at what he has, but he can’t miss as Iskall finds some bread and breaks it in half, offering one side to him. He can only blink in confusion for a moment, genuinely surprised at the offer, before accepting and taking the bread held out to him. Iskall seems satisfied, and lounges back against the tree to take a bite of his half. “What had you out here in the middle of the night, anyway?”

Finding himself following the other’s lead again, and half wondering if this is going to become a habit, Grian turns his attention to his own half. Bread isn’t something they have down in the Nether; without any water to grow crops, it’s not something he’s had in a very long time, and he’s surprised at just how good it is. He takes note of it, and sets it aside for later, thinking he needs to make a wheat farm of his own so he can make more. “I was building that cart over there earlier.”

“I heard about that, but that was hours ago. Did you just like your new cart so much you had to stand and stare at it until you died?”

His voice is light and teasing, and Grian scoffs at him in an equally lighthearted way. “Listen, my builds are absolutely worth dying for, thank you. But, no, I just… had some stuff on my mind.”

“Anything you need help working through?” A few weeks ago, Grian would have stiffened at the offer, distrust and suspicion of ulterior motives overtaking him. But now, sitting here and eating together, it strikes him just how relaxed the air is. Despite the mobs hovering just out of sight, brought on by the darkness, their little place here under the tree is comfortable and friendly. Iskall’s offer is a genuine one, the tone in his voice making it clear he isn’t prying for information, but really just saying he’s here to listen if Grian wants to talk.

It’s a strange feeling. People in the Nether don’t just offer to help or listen, for no reason other than being around, but it’s kind of nice. Inclining his head, the demon debates what he should say; he’d been stuck in his head over whether Xisuma knew his secret or not, so how much can he realistically say without letting slip all of it?

“Xisuma stuck around to watch me build. Then he gave me some advice, and it was…”

“Ominous and or vague and mysterious?” Iskall finishes for him, in a knowing way. Grian looks at him, questioning.

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“That’s how Xisuma is. He’s got this whole ‘ooooh I’m a spooky mysterious man of doom’ vibe. Although,” His voice lowers to a conspiratorial whisper, “If you ask me, I think he keeps the mysterious part on purpose because it makes him seem cooler.”

“Hmm.” Grian can kind of see it, and part of him wonders if Iskall might be the type of person who can see right past masks to what someone is really like underneath. He has to tell himself not to start panicking over the thought, keeping his breath steady with the reminder that if Iskall had seen through him, they wouldn’t be sitting here together. “I thought you guys have all been together a long time, shouldn’t you know more about him?”

“Oh, we have. The group’s grown and changed over time, though, so some have been here longer than others. Xisuma started it, and brought the rest of us in, so none of us know where or who he was before he found us.”

“Interesting.” In all honesty, Grian has no idea what to do with this new information, but Xisuma seems to be becoming more and more of an interesting character with each new thing he learns. Maybe, just maybe… if he entertains the thought that Xisuma does know everything, then maybe it’s possible he hasn’t done or said anything because of his own secret past? It’s a curious thought, though the demon is sure he won’t get any sort of definitive answer anytime soon, if ever.

If nothing else, if it’s true, it might mean his secrets are indeed safe with the leader of the Hermits, if he does know about them.

“I don’t really think it matters, though.” Iskall continues on, unaware of Grian’s wild running thoughts, though his voice catches the demon’s attention. “I mean, here we’re all just Hermits. Who cares where we came from, if someone doesn’t want to talk about it, then I don’t think they have to.”

Grian wonders if he’d care more if he knew where the person sitting next to him had come from. But instead of going anywhere near voicing that thought out loud, he faults back to humor and teasing as a way to cover the tension trying to fight its way into his shoulders. “So what you’re saying is, you murdered somebody before you came here, and you don’t want anyone to know.”

Gasping dramatically, Iskall whirls on him with a bit too much fanfare, his eyes as large as plates. “Grian! How did you know my terrible secret history of doom?!”

“I’m psychic.”

“Oh please, don’t tell everyone about my awful background of pillaging and being a mercenary! I beg of you, Mr psychic man--” After a split second of hesitation, he adds, “--of doom.”

It’s the pause and then the addition of another doom title that finally has Grian falling into stitches, his laughter ringing out over the shopping district, and Iskall is soon to join him. While he hadn’t expected it at first, it seems relatively easy to befriend the Hermits; just go along with their jokes and join right in, and they treat him like he’s always been here. It’s probably just because they think he’s an angel, though, giving him a better starting chance than he’d ever have had as his actual self.

Their laughter dies out after a few moments, though the feeling of camaraderie stays firmly in place in the ensuing comfortable silence. The screeching of the phantoms above does little to dissuade their heightened spirits, the two separated from the dangerous world outside in their little leaf canopy. Grian finds himself looking out over the shopping district, taking in the sight of the shops in the dark, and his gaze catches on his traveling cart and the many tridents sticking out of its tarp. He makes an offended noise, earning a questioning glance from Iskall.

“You okay there?”

“That guy won’t stop putting tridents in my brand new cart.”

Following where he’s looking, it doesn’t take Iskall long at all to notice how Grian’s cart has become less of a merchant caravan and more of a sad porcupine. “Is that how you died? That totally looks like death.”

“Yeah, it was him.” Grian pouted in the general direction of Doc’s problematic pet, then down at his pack in his lap, his frown growing. “Actually, I lost all my levels because of him. I was going to enchant this trident Scar gave me.”

“Ouch.” Iskall is silent for a moment, while Grian considers if it would be worth Doc’s potential wrath to get back at the drowned for its abuse of his cart and making him lose his levels. He doesn’t even have to kill it, he could just… maybe he could turn it upside down? The other Hermit interrupts his thought process before he can debate it further, his voice raising in an excited outburst. “Oh! Grian, you can use my Guardian farm!”

“Hm?”

Turning to look at him, Grian watches as Iskall jabs a thumb into his own chest, puffing up proudly. “This guy just finished making a nice, easy Guardian farm. You can get back all your levels in no time!”

Similarly to when he’d held out the bread, Grian tilts his head, waiting for the catch. But Iskall doesn’t say anything else, waiting with a proud expression for the demon’s answer. “But… you’ll just, let me use it?” He finally asks, carefully, and Iskall’s beaming pride simmers down as he catches onto the hesitance in Grian’s voice.

“Of course, we’re friends, man. Friends help each other out. Besides, most of us share farms anyway. It’s not like the one who made the farm loses anything by letting the others use it.”

They’ve barely just met, and Iskall is already offering help and calling them friends. Grian isn’t sure how properly to react to the situation, feeling as if he’s still overstepping some sort of boundary by even considering accepting the offer. He doesn’t deserve this kindness, he knows; as much as it lifts his heart to see how quickly each Hermit he meets seems to warm up to him, he knows they don’t really know who they’re talking to, and Iskall here is going out of his way for him for nothing in return.

On top of that, he’s already saved his stuff tonight. Is it really okay to ask for his help more? When Grian continues to say nothing, getting stuck in his own conflicting thoughts, Iskall pulls himself to his feet. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Huh?” Is Grian’s very intelligent reply, and the next thing he knows, Iskall has grabbed his hands and pulled him up as well. “I didn’t, you don’t have to--”

“Hey, it’s okay.” Iskall squeezes his hands before letting go, giving the demon space, but he keeps him fixed with a kind but firm look. “You’re one of us now, it’s okay to act like it. It’s okay to accept things offered to you and work together.”

“Are you sure?” Wincing at how quiet and small his voice sounds, Grian tries not to think about how pitiful he must seem. Iskall just taps on his shoulder, getting him to look up again, and gesturing toward the cart.

“You came in here, and went right on building your shop, and what happened? Three of the Hermits came and hung out with you for it. You were participating, and they wanted to be a part of that, because they all wanted a chance to meet and get to know the new guy. That’s how it works around here. We invited you because we wanted you to join us, and that means in everything.”

Iskall’s words hit home, and Grian finds himself starting to relax despite his guilt. As bad as he feels for lying to them, for the fact they don’t really know him at all, the other Hermit is right too; they’ve all gone out of their way to make him feel welcome as soon as they can. The only one here still seeing him as an outcast is himself.

“You’re right.” He finally agrees, and Iskall’s face absolutely lights up, a wide smile splitting his features. It’s a strange thought, to consider that accepting the other’s offer of helping him for nothing in return would make Iskall so happy, but Grian likes it. A warm feeling settles in, seeing the happiness directed at him purely from something he’s said, and he finds that he wants to see more of the Hermits react to his words that way.

“Sweet! Let’s go!” In a split second, Iskall goes from standing around with a reassuring presence and kind words to dashing across the district into the darkness, his sword waving too wildly to be threatening toward anything that sees him. It’s such a ridiculous sight, especially when a little zombie comes out of nowhere and chases him off in another direction with a startled scream from the Hermit, that Grian forgets all about whatever was left of his hesitation.

 


 

 

The trip to the ice biome Iskall lives in is a surprisingly pleasant ride, considering they’re smushed into a boat together. But Iskall spends the entire way pointing out things under the water, ruins and monuments and ships, all dotted along the ocean floor like the forgotten wisps of history they are. Grian wants to check them out, dive under and investigate them personally, but the giant chunks of ice clinging to the surface are more than enough to discourage that idea. Iskall says it’s fine, he’s gotten used to the cold and hasn’t died to it yet, but Grian gets more waterlogged than he does, and he’d rather not spend the rest of the day a shivering wreck.

After what must be an hour or two of sailing, though, his gaze finally falls on a strange structure built over the water. “Is this the farm?” He asks, looking over his shoulder to see Iskall’s face just in time to see him nod.

“The one and only. Well, the only one of mine. I think there are like three others, but this one is mine.”

The boat bumps against the ice, and Iskall hops out like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Grian can see the way his feet slide on the surface at any movement, but he barely seems to notice, staying upright with a practiced confidence that makes it look easy. The demon is a bit more hesitant to follow him, between ice and a rocking boat, but Iskall takes his hands and steadies him as he climbs up. He doesn’t like the way the ice feels under him, the constant slipping making him feel like he’s going to fall face first into the frozen surface at any moment.

“How do you do this?!” Clinging to the steady arm Iskall had pulled him up with, Grian decides he’s not letting go anytime soon, though he’s thoroughly perplexed at how the other Hermit can even be a steady thing to hold onto when they’re both standing on this devil’s work of a floor. But Iskall just laughs, and a smooth push of his weight onto his other foot sends them both skating gently toward the entrance to the Guardian farm, while Grian resists the urge to squawk in panic.

“I set up camp in the ice when we got here. You stop smashing your face after a week or two.” He explains, continuing to stand firm as a stone as he helps the demon step into the water elevator. It’s a strange contraption, and with his feet off the terrible ice, Grian can actually take a moment to look it over and appreciate it. With a magma block on one side and soul sand on the other, he can feel the way the bubbles of one are pulling him to the bottom on one side, while he can see the bubbles rising next to him. It seems simple enough, and he files the idea away for his own base, because he’s stumbling out onto the floor underground in record time and that was way less effort than a ladder.

The first thing he looks at is the floor, to make sure it isn’t ice. It’s not, solid stone under his feet instead, and Grian can breathe a sigh of relief. Iskall pops out of the water elevator after him a second later, and gestures to the end of the hall.

“And here we have it.” He leads the demon down the way, Grian following along curiously and peering over his shoulder at the strange fish creatures falling in from the tube above. They’re greenish, spiky and only have one eye, which they each use to glare daggers at the demon. He glares back, trying to show the fish who’s boss. “Just stand here and kill them. You’ll have your levels back in no time, and you can keep whatever they drop.”

Grian looks back at Iskall in an instant, an argument on the tip of his tongue. “But--”

“Just this once.” The other Hermit interjects, already knowing what he’s trying to say. “I make everyone else leave the drops in the chest, but since you’re the new guy, you can keep them just for today.”

Somehow, that does make him feel better. It’s easier to not feel bad, knowing he’ll be put on the same playing field as everyone else and not given continual special treatment he doesn’t deserve, so it isn’t as hard as it would have been otherwise to nod and accept. With that agreement out of the way, Iskall turns to leave.

“I’ll be working on some stuff up top, just come get me if you need anything.” He throws over his shoulder, making it all the way to the water elevator before pausing, a funny look crossing his face as he turns back. “Oh, and uh… Don’t touch that lever.”

“What does the lever do?” Grian asks, instantly.

“Just don’t touch it.” And with that, Iskall steps into the elevator and disappears, leaving behind an unsupervised demon with a sense of curiosity too strong for his own good and absolutely no sense of impulse control whatsoever to combat it.

Grian looks at the lever, and...

Chapter Text

Arms crossed, with a pout trained on the floor like a child, Grian can’t decide what his primary emotion should be right now. He’s embarrassed, offended, and hurt all in one, and he just wants to melt into the quartz floor under him. If nothing else, maybe it would muffle the sound of Mumbo’s laughter as he digs through shulkers a little ways away.

“I didn’t come here for you to laugh at me.” Grian huffs, drawing himself into a tighter ball and wincing when it drives some thorns deeper into his skin. Mumbo, for what it’s worth, tries even harder to stifle his laughter.

“I’m sorry, I just--” He looks back, peering over the storage system at Grian, and starts giggling again. “You look ridiculous.

Realistically, Grian knows he’s right, and if it were anyone in this position but him, he’d laugh at them too. Especially knowing this is entirely his own fault, and he can only imagine how this looks from Mumbo’s perspective, he knows everything about it is funny. But he’s stubborn, and he’s still pouting, so he just fixes Mumbo with a comically overdrawn frown and waits for him to actually come help.

“Okay, okay, here we go.” The wingless angel hops over the shulker boxes he pulled out of his storage, coming back over to sit on the floor beside Grian. In his hands he has bandages and potions, one of which he hands to Grian. “Here, drink this one, it’ll help with the pain. I can’t imagine it’ll be particularly pleasant once I start pulling these out.”

Grimacing at the thought, Grian doesn’t hesitate to take the potion from him and down it. It’s only once he has an empty glass in his hand that he remembers his own personal rule of never accepting potions he didn’t brew himself, but in all honesty, he doesn’t really think he needs that rule here. Just as Mumbo said it would, it takes effect right away, making the numerous puncture wounds dull from a few dozen sharp pains to a throbbing ache.

He can’t stop himself from flinching somewhat when Mumbo reaches for him, even though he isn’t afraid for his safety, which earns him a hushed reassurance and a warm hand placed firmly on his uninjured shoulder. “I’ll try to be gentle, okay?”

“I know.” Grian can feel a tremor in his hands, his body unhappy with having another person around while he’s injured. It’s an instinctual thing, left over from the harsh Nether, but he knows it’s better this time to have someone else take care of him. While annoying, and vaguely itchy from poison, the thorns aren’t deadly; but he can’t reach them all on his own, leaving him no choice but to get help. “Just go for it, I’ll live.”

Mumbo nods, and as carefully as he can without dragging it on, takes hold of a bright orange spike and pulls it free. Grian winces, but it’s not as bad as he expected, and soon Mumbo is pressing a potion soaked bandage to the wound. “So, tell me… how did this happen?” He finally asks the question Grian knew would come sooner or later.

“I pulled the lever.”

He doesn’t say anything else, and Mumbo gives him a look. “What… what lever? What were you doing?”

With the soaked bandage pressed in place, Mumbo goes about wrapping it in a dry one before moving on to the next spike. This one hurts more as he yanks it out as gently as he can, though it makes sense. Considering just how dappled in thorns he is, Grian is sure some places are going to hurt more than others. The first one was just in his upper arm, but the one Mumbo just pulled was just under his collarbone and it sends an ache all the way down his chest. “Iskall was showing me his Guardian farm.”

He doesn’t really want to explain in any more detail. After all, getting washed away in a swarm of newly freed and extremely pointy, not to mention heavy, cyclops fish is not an experience he wants to relive just yet. It seems to be enough of an explanation, though, since Mumbo starts laughing again with a surprised splutter.

“You-- you freed the Guardians.” He chokes out words between laughs, and Grian halfheartedly smacks the hand pressing bandages onto him in retort. “I should have known, oh my word. Wasn’t Iskall around to help you, though? Why did you come all the way here in this condition?”

“I don’t really… I don’t know him that well.” Grian admits, letting down some of his guard. He likes Iskall, but old habits are hard to break, and he’s not going to let someone he’s just met that day take care of his injuries. He hopes Mumbo won’t pick up on the implication that, by the logic of Grian being here, he’s the Hermit he chose to trust. “Besides, I don’t think he could have stopped laughing long enough to do anything.”

“Well, I’m not going to say it, but…” Mumbo gives him a pointed, but amused, stare. Grian just huffs and looks away again.

“I know, I know. I deserved it.”

They lapse into silence then, both letting the conversation die off in favor of focus as Mumbo works. Grian doesn’t like letting control over to someone else, or being vulnerable, but the angel’s calm and caring demeanor is beginning to rub off on him and allowing him to relax some. He didn’t even really want to come here, to ask for Mumbo’s help to fix the consequences of his own ridiculous actions. It’s not that he thinks the angel minds, or that he’s bothered by helping; no, he’s quite sure Mumbo is thoroughly pleased to do anything with him, to help out where he can, because he just genuinely cares. But Grian doesn’t want to take him up on that, or take advantage of his kindness, especially not considering everything he’s done wrong to this poor Hermit already.

It feels like salt in the wound to come here and benefit from Mumbo’s help, his eagerness to be there and to be relied upon, when he has no idea Grian took his wings. What he sees is the innocent, shy new guy, who needs a friend to help him learn the way of the land, but that isn’t the case at all. He doesn’t know there’s a demon hiding under that glamoured and glorified exterior, his very own wings hidden from him in plain sight. Grian can only imagine the sense of betrayal he’d feel if he found out, knowing that all this time, he’d been so happy to help the one person to make the biggest negative impact in his life. Or the fact that the demon keeps coming here anyway, keeps allowing his olive branches of friendship to connect the distance between them, or the fact Mumbo is the first person he’s come straight to when he needs help.

It just feels wrong. And yet, Grian had no choice if he wants to properly recover without festering injuries. He should have just stuck around with Iskall and gotten his help, or maybe gone to Xisuma, but he doesn’t feel like he knows them as well and even though he liked them, a feeling of safety is strange and fleeting. He barely knows Mumbo any better, sure; he’s spent a sparse amount of time with the angel, and most of that was spent going in circles in his head about how guilty he feels, or hiding his shame behind amusement and chickens.

Beyond those things, he barely really knows Mumbo at all, but he still feels safer here than anywhere. Maybe the angel is really just that transparent, and Grian can see through him clearly enough to know he’d never mean any harm; or maybe it’s the stolen wings on his back, giving him the knowledge from their own personal origin that he’s trustworthy without an ounce of doubt. Either way, it’s stronger than his instinctive feeling of distrust, and he knows that no matter how much he rationalized that he needed help, he wouldn’t have been able to stop himself fleeing from anyone else in this state.

“Those things really did a number on you.” The pile of bloody thorns on the floor beside Mumbo is growing with each passing minute, and Grian feels a jab of guilt at the mess he’s caused on the angel’s lovely pristine base. He tries to push it away, knowing Mumbo is more concerned for his health than the state of the floor, but that only makes the jabbing pain of the guilt worse. The thorns feel like a pitiful scratch in comparison. “I’m glad you came here with it, in any case. Iskall can get a bit lost with medical stuff.”

“Oh, really?” Blinking, Grian focuses his attention back on the angel, hoping the conversation will drive away the emotions trying to bubble up and overtake him.

“Oh yes. With himself, he has a tendency to just slap a bandage on it and call it good, if that much. Then he’s surprised when he dies from the injuries at some point later.”

“That doesn’t sound like the best method.” Grian says back plainly, choosing to say nothing about the fact that he's the exact same way. Mumbo doesn’t need any further reason to worry about him, or think about him at all, really.

“Yeah, it’s an ongoing problem. He’s not as bad as some of the others can be, though.” Mumbo lets the topic die off as he ties the last bandage, giving Grian another once over to see if he’s gotten every thorn. “Does that feel like all of them?”

The angel disappears from his sight, double checking that he’s gotten the last of the thorns, before Grian nods. “It feels better. Thank you.” 

He tries to make his appreciation clear, hoping it will brush away some of the guilt he feels over making Mumbo help him like this. But the angel doesn’t say anything, still somewhere behind his back and eerily silent. A creeping feeling of dread chills through his bones at the extending silence, making his hands tremble as he slowly looks over his shoulder, fearing what could have caught the other Hermit’s attention so raptly. And it’s exactly as he feared, the angel’s gaze trained firmly on the wings folded on Grian’s back, his expression unreadable.

Grian doesn’t know if he has the ability to recognize them, if Mumbo has some sort of personal connection that would allow him to know his own wings from any others. But the possibility crosses his mind, and he can feel the panic rising in his throat.

He knew he shouldn’t have come here.

“Listen, Mumbo, I--” He starts to say in a rush, desperate to get the attention away. He doesn’t want to see betrayal sour the friendly angel’s face when he realizes the truth. Mumbo cuts him off before he can say too much, though, and his voice is as level and calm as ever.

“Grian, do you… excuse me if it’s out of line to ask, but,” Mumbo pauses, and Grian can see the way his eyes dart back and forth over his wings, seemingly somewhere between concerned and thoughtful. “Do you know how to groom your feathers?”

That’s… not what he was expecting. “I… what?”

“Your feathers.” Mumbo says again, as if that would answer the question, and then he shakes his head. “Okay, you know how each feather has fibers? They interlock together to catch air, but sometimes they get, uh… well, kind of like frizzy? And they basically have to be brushed back into alignment, otherwise you won’t be able to fly as well.”

Grian can only sit in silence, mulling this new information over in his head. It’s definitely not something he’d known about, he’d honestly just thought the wings were just kind of there and just took care of themselves. And it’s a foolish thought now, he realizes, the realization hitting him that it’s a dead giveaway that he’s new to having wings if he doesn’t actually know how to take care of them. It leaves him afraid to answer one way or the other; if he lets Mumbo explain things he doesn’t know, it’ll be easier to pretend he’s an actual angel, but then Mumbo would have more clues to put together into realizing the truth. But his only other option is to say he does know, and that he just chooses to not take care of himself, which could be even more insulting if Mumbo ever does find out these are actually his wings.

“Grian, I have to ask…” He pauses again, seemingly thinking carefully about what to say, and Grian hangs on the silence. Without being sure what Mumbo’s about to ask, his imagination can run wild, assuming the worst. He’s looked ahead again and squeezed his eyes shut, braced to be asked a question he’ll have no hope of evading, when Mumbo’s voice finally drifts to his ears again. “Did you perhaps grow up away from other angels? I can understand if you’ve never been taught some things, without others around…”

He truly must be kidding, surely? But Mumbo’s voice is entirely serious, and Grian suddenly can’t decide if he should be grateful he’s this lucky, or concerned at Mumbo’s complete and utter inability to see what’s really going on. Either way, though he has no idea, the angel has given him a perfect out to this dilemma and he clings to it. “You could say that, yeah. I’m, uh… a bit lost, to be honest.”

“Well, hm. Do you want, uh… would you like me to help? I could teach you whatever you don’t know about, I mean.”

Just the same way in most of the suggestions Mumbo makes, he sounds unsure and a bit awkward, probably worried about coming across as overbearing or out of line. But the sentiment is there, the veiled concern and a want to help just because he has the ability to, betrayed by the slightly higher pitched tilt in his voice that gives away that it’s actually an offer he really wants to fulfill. In fact, it’s possible it’s more than that; Grian wouldn’t be surprised at all if maybe Mumbo thinks he might feel better about his own loss if he gets to pass on what he knows to someone who can use the knowledge better than he can now, as a wingless angel.

The thought grips at his heart like the bloody thorns piled on the floor, sinking in deep alongside the guilt that was already there. Is it really fair to Mumbo to take advantage of his offer, just to disguise even better the fact that he’s the thief Mumbo wishes he could find? But yet, he can’t bring himself to say no, either, not when his voice is so delicately balanced on that line between being invested but not wanting to seem too interested for fear of swaying the other’s decision.

Imperceptibly, Grian takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, allowing it to gently loosen the crushing grip his sins have on his heart. Then he looks back, and the unsure and slightly timid expression on Mumbo’s face is all it takes to solidify his resolve. “Of course, Mumbo. I’d love to have your help.” He manages with his best mask, a wide, appreciative smile and genuine tone, not a muscle out of place to dare give away the secrets boiling just beneath the surface.

It’s worth it, just to see the way the angel’s face lights up. He looks relieved, the creases in his furrowed brow smoothing before excitement seeps in and overtakes his expression. It’s a good look for him, and gives Grian a feeling similar to the one he got when he made Iskall happy by accepting his offer as well. The difference, though, is that even though he knows he’s digging his lies ever deeper and making the fall that much more painful for when Mumbo does find out the truth, seeing the angel’s face light up because of him makes the crushing guilt loosen its hold just that little bit.

It feels like he can breathe ever so slightly easier than he could a few minutes ago, and he can fully appreciate the way the other Hermit sort of hesitates where he stands, apparently unsure of what step to take next. It brings a small smile to Grian’s face, and he decides to help steer the angel in some sort of direction. “How about you help me figure out the feathers thing?”

“Oh! Of course! Well, first of all...” He steps closer, his movements slow and obvious and giving Grian plenty of time to shoo the angel away if he chooses. But Grian finds he really doesn’t mind, oddly enough, and he has no qualms about allowing Mumbo to come sit behind him as if he’s going to do his hair. He’s used to refusing to let anyone out of his sight, much less so close behind him, but for the same reasons he came to Mumbo for his injuries in the first place his overactive caution is silent. “So, here’s how it works. You can’t reach your own feathers, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so usually we’ll all have another angel or someone we trust to preen them for us.”

Swallowing down his guilt, Grian tries not to think too hard about the way Mumbo still talks about himself as if he still has his wings. It makes sense, considering the angel probably still isn’t all that used to all the things in his life that would have changed because of it. But instead of dwelling on it, Grian turns his head just enough to pin Mumbo with a sideways glance, featuring that same perfect mask he’d used moments earlier. “Well, I can’t think of anyone better to help me than you.” His tone comes out softer than he’d intended, and he can see the way it makes the angel’s face tinge ever so pink behind his mustache. For a moment, Mumbo can’t seem to formulate words, and it manages to drag a quiet chuckle out of Grian.

“Well, in that case, uh… ahem.” Grian looks back ahead again, finding it hard to keep his mask together after flustering the other Hermit. He can sense Mumbo shifting awkwardly, clearly hesitating, before he becomes aware of his hands hovering just over his feathers. At first, he seems as afraid to make contact as Grian is; which he wasn’t even aware of at first, but as the moment draws on and on, the demon finds himself holding his breath for reasons he doesn’t understand. Then he hears a quiet exhale, and the angel sets his hands down gently on the feathers covering Grian’s wings.

His touch is delicate, and barely there at all in its lightness, but Grian has to bite back a startled noise as a shiver wracks through him. It isn’t until now that he realizes that he’s never had someone else touch his wings before, never letting anyone nearby enough nor having any of the Hermits dare to try before now. It’s a strange sensation, almost as strange as it was getting used to having wings in the first place, and it feels more vulnerable than even having his injuries tended to only minutes earlier.

Maybe it’s because wings are such fragile things, their concerningly thin and hollow bones feeling like glass under any touch. Or maybe the feeling is exacerbated by the fact he knows they’re actually Mumbo’s; here the angel is, diligently picking feather by feather and brushing each individual fiber back into pristine condition, without knowing they’re the same ones that were once on his own back.

Grian can’t decide how he should feel about that, really. There’s a lot of warring emotions going on, thick and hard to wade through to find what’s what. There’s the somehow comforting feeling rising from the steady and gentle tugging feather by feather, then the feeling of trust slowly growing from a vulnerable moment not being taken advantage of like Grian’s demon nature would expect from another, and over top of it all, there’s the feeling of the guilt. It’s stronger than the others, a twisting awareness of how cruel it is to flaunt what Mumbo had stolen from him, right here under his very own hands. He settles on that one, unable to really appreciate what would be a rather nice, relaxed bonding moment if not for the lies weighing like anvils over his head.

“Are you alright, Grian?” The concern in Mumbo’s voice, so full and immediately noticeable, does nothing but make the knife somewhere in Grian’s chest twist harder. “You’re very quiet.”

“I’m just--” He isn’t sure what to say. What can he say? He can’t tell the truth, even though it’s perched on the tip of his tongue, desperate to be free and release the weight of sin pulling him down. It’s a half truth that escapes instead, and though it’s more than he wants to tell, he can’t find it in himself to regret the words once they’re out. “I’m not used to people, I guess. I… where I came from, it’s not really safe to trust people.”

Mumbo’s hands pause, one feather held suspended in place in a quiet sort of shock. It makes his wing twitch involuntarily after a moment, and Mumbo brushes the feather back down, patting the spot apologetically. “Really? Dare I ask, why?”

Grian lets out a soft breath. There’s nothing wrong with telling him the truth, he thinks; at least this small part of it. He’s already said some, and whether it’s the vulnerability of the moment or just the exhaustion of it all, he can’t bring himself to weave another lie. Not to Mumbo, not today. He turns his head back, catching Mumbo’s gaze out of the corner of his eye. The angel has an expression of sympathy, as if he already has some idea of where this is going. “Where I’m from, everyone is out to get each other. It’s every man for himself, friends and allies will only drag you down. Trust is nothing but a weakness, something to be exploited and broken. If I’d let down my guard this much back then, you’d already have a sword through me.”

Grian has barely finished speaking before he has to gasp, taking in a stuttered breath along with the chills that run down his spine when Mumbo wraps his arms around him and hugs him close. The embrace is warm, soft, the angel’s arms pulling against his torso in a way that makes him feel secure. He can feel the faintest tickle of that trademark mustache on the face that presses  into his shoulder, and the warm gust of breath that cascades just under his collar as Mumbo sighs. With just a simple action, his limbs feel weak, and Grian is afraid to question why he can feel his heart beating faster than it should, somehow without the shackles of guilt digging into it.

“Thank you for telling me, Grian.” Mumbo murmurs against the fabric on his shoulder, and Grian has to force himself to breathe steadily. “I promise no one here will ever do that. We’re friends here, okay? We take care of each other, and it’s safe. We’re not going to turn on you, not ever.”

And though he wishes with everything in him that he could take Mumbo’s words as truth, that he could stay here and relax into this warmth, he knows he can’t. He knows that no matter what Mumbo says now, he’s a demon, and he doesn’t deserve a happy ending.

One way or another, the Hermits will eventually find out the truth. And when they do, he won’t be one of them anymore.

Chapter Text

It’s strange, watching the moon vanish beneath the horizon and be replaced by the sun, while he sits in Mumbo’s base. The sky seems so much closer way up here in the sphere, so far above the ocean, the bracing breezes of the sea cascading right through its open walls and bringing with them the scent of brine. Grian, of course, has high hopes for his own base; but until he really gets it closer to where he’s picturing it rather than where it sits now as a glorified blender, Mumbo’s is clearly superior. Even with his plans for his own, there’s something to be said for open walls and being so far from the ground that he can highly appreciate.

He greets the rising sun with a wide yawn, the kind that brings tears to his eyes and makes him wish for his bed. But he can’t risk sleeping, especially between his aching body giving him zero incentive to actually get up to go home and also the fact Mumbo wants to keep an eye on him for the time being, anyway.

Although, he doesn’t seem to be very good at that. The angel is nowhere to be seen, disappeared far below the surface of the ground to look for more of his beloved red dust, and trusting that Grian won’t get into any trouble while he’s away for an hour or two. That’s the part where Mumbo is, obviously, completely wrong.

The previous chickens Grian filled his base with were left far below on the grassy island at the ground, not a single one up here in the actual sphere itself, since it was built after the last time he chicken bombed it. It’s blessedly quiet, Mumbo’s redstone things even designed specially in such a way they won’t bother him with any tedious noise, and the demon can appreciate that it’s a lovely silence. Peaceful and serene, perfect for clear thinking and relaxing. The chickens are a long forgotten nuisance, too far away to hear at all.

And that’s exactly why Grian, of course, has to do something about it.

It’s not really that he wants to be as annoying as possible, or to torment Mumbo even more than he’s already been through on the demon’s behalf. But as a demon, especially one native to the Nether itself, it’s in his nature and there isn’t much he can do to resist. He enjoys the tricks and pranks, and there’s nothing quite like the joy it brings him to set up a lighthearted prank on someone else. He’d never liked the cruel ones, the deadly ones, that some other demons he knew would show a preference for over his ‘silly’ ones. The pranks the others would make fun of were the ones he felt better about; he could work out his instincts through stupid things like chickens where they shouldn’t be, or otherwise completely harmless things like renaming all of someone’s gear or covering all of their items in storage with sand. Though it had always made him an outcast among other demons, he is glad that’s where his affinity is now, for the sake of the Hermits.

Of course, he could hit any of them with his stupid pranks; and he will. But for now, Mumbo is nearby, and is an extremely fun target. He doesn’t complain or get angry, or even try to get back at Grian for the chickens in any way. The angel always just looks at the mess Grian has made, shakes his head, and laughs. It’s such a simple reaction, so mild, and somehow it makes him feel seen in a way that he actually likes. It doesn’t feel like he’s put on the spot, or given tons of positive attention he doesn’t remotely deserve; but it isn’t yelling and insults, or being ignored, either. It’s just a quiet acknowledgement of what he’s done, gentle laughter at his shenanigans, and nothing more. If he tries, he can almost convince himself that he fits in; that Mumbo knows what he is, and understands he can only ignore his jokester nature for so long, and doesn’t mind at all.

He knows that isn’t the case. But it’s fun to pretend.

Regardless, however, he’s still going to put more chickens everywhere. He tries to resist the idea, really, he does. But even though his body is still beyond sore from the plethora of wounds left behind by the Guardians, given away by the fact he’s currently bandaged up like a wannabe mummy, the idea of continuing his chicken-spewing endeavors is enough to pull him to his feet. He aches all over, and immediately misses the comfy ground of Mumbo’s terraformed artificial biomes, but at the very least his wings were left uninjured in his awful decision making. That makes it easy to hop off the edge of the sphere and glide down to the island below, grab an armful of chickens, and fly back on up again.

And for the first time in quite a while, he takes notice of how much they heed his commands. Wracking his brain, Grian has to go back at least several days in his memory to find the last time they purposely ignored what he tried to get them to do, and further back still to find the last time they’d pitched him directly into danger. Not to mention, too, it feels so much easier now to push off of the air itself and send himself soaring, Mumbo’s diligent grooming of his feathers making a clear difference. They get a bit twitchy while he’s thinking about them, but other than that, they still don’t cause him to plummet out of the sky or anything of the sort, and he really has to wonder if maybe he’s mastered his control of them. That’s a thought for another day, though, and with chickens and sandstone on hand, he sets to work building eggs full of chickens above Mumbo’s base.

It’s ridiculous, and he loves it. The eggs emit an annoying mess of garbled clucking, and they cast shadows onto the artificial biomes below, giving away their presence. He’s not sure if Mumbo will notice them quickly, if at all, but it’s only that much better if it takes him a while to notice and then can’t pin on when the demon actually put them there.

He’s just putting the last one together when he spots the angel back down below, emerging from the elevator within the center of his sphere, and Grian scatters. Mumbo is looking around for him, scanning the different biomes, and the demon tries to glide down as quietly as he can. If he can land silently and lounge in a random spot, it’ll look like he never moved or did anything; but luck isn’t particularly on his side, and he catches a foot on a tree, which plummets him right into Mumbo’s pond with a noticeable splash.

Sitting up and shaking the water out of his hair, he knows he’s been seen. Mumbo is standing at the edge of the pond, hands on his hips and an entertained smile on his face, looking only moments away from laughing. “And what were you up to, then?” He asks, a knowing edge to his voice, and Grian tries to give him an innocent look. It just makes Mumbo raise an eyebrow at him, unconvinced, so he doesn’t think he did a very good job.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just wanted to take a swim.”

Splashing his arms in the water for emphasis, Grian can’t really decide if he’s annoyed at the cloying feeling of his wet sweater and feathers, or if he actually enjoys the coolness of the water. On the shore, Mumbo just shakes his head, and after a moment of hesitation, steps into the water too. He doesn’t seem to care about his dress pants getting wet as he wades out to where Grian landed, and the demon finds himself blinking up in surprise at the hand outstretched towards him.

“Come on,” There’s that smile again, that kind one that Mumbo always seems to use. It’s as delicate as his calm voice, just barely above neutral, just like whenever he reacts to the chickens. Grian can’t help but be somewhat frozen in place, his movements slow in reaching up to take hold of the offered hand. “My pond is clean, but you’d be best off not getting your injuries wet.”

He’s right, Grian knows, and allows himself to be pulled to his feet. The angel doesn’t let go of his hand, instead turning and leading him back up to the shore, where Grian can puff up and shake off the excess water. If any of it lands on Mumbo, he doesn’t complain, instead waiting for him to fall still again before checking on the bandages. It’s almost strange how familiar they’ve both become already; Mumbo doesn’t hesitate at all to hold his arm still and loosen the bandage on it, and Grian is unbothered by the lingering touch.

“I think they’re alright for now.” He says, finding the one he looked at to be dry underneath, and ties it back taut again. Grian is a bit lost with the fawning, not remotely used to having someone else show concern over his dressings, and he isn’t sure what to say in reply or if he should say anything at all. But the angel steps back out of his personal space a moment later, seemingly remembering himself, and his voice ticks up a pitch. “Well! Now that’s sorted, I’ve brought back some materials from that little excursion. Let me just throw them in the item sorter and then we can find something to do to keep you out of trouble, how’s that sound?”

That’s enough to get his attention, Grian perking right up at the mention of Mumbo’s storage contraption and barely noticing the faint jab at his prankster tendencies. Redstone, and the things Mumbo somehow manages to do with it, fascinate him. He doesn’t understand how some pigmented dust can somehow create some kind of energy, to lead into things that read said energy, and then just do things. It seems like anything is possible, and it’s pure magic as far as Grian is concerned. He can feel his interest growing as Mumbo walks over to the neat rows of chests lining one of his pathways between the biomes, and Grian scampers along behind him like a puppy. Each chest has a redstone lamp beside it and long lines of redstone things running underneath it all, and joined up with it somehow, there’s a canal of water that he doesn’t understand the purpose of whatsoever. Just looking at it, he feels like he’s trying to read a different language entirely, and he can’t resist inching closer and squinting at the rows of red dust. Maybe if he stares at it long enough, it will start to make sense.

“So basically, the water lines here feed into the hoppers. The hoppers are programmed to filter out which items are which, and send them to the corresponding chest. Once they’re filled, the lamps beside them will light up.” Seemingly taking notice of his unbridled fascination, Mumbo launches into an explanation with the same kind of ease as if he was just talking about building a dirt box. He talks in a way that makes it sound like this pure sorcery is actually not that complex, and Grian is actually pretty sure he’s just messing with him, because this stuff isn’t simple at all. At his silence, Mumbo continues on, explaining some of the more technical bits about how it actually works, and it goes right in one ear and out the other without triggering any sort of understanding from the demon whatsoever. Naturally, he decides to just stick his head in the water system and peer down into the row of hoppers, instead of listening to Mumbo’s explanation. The only thing it accomplishes is getting his drying hair wet again. “--What in the world are you doing?”

“Trying to understand.” Grian just says back, sitting back up in defeat when the answers aren’t revealed just by looking closer. The lines of redstone, the redstone things with red torches in them, the hoppers all along the underneath… it’s definitely just magic. There’s no redstone in the Nether, and the stuff just seems like an alien concept entirely outside of his capability to grasp.

Laughing, Mumbo joins him beside the water canal, and holds out some of the ores he’d mined. “How about a demonstration, then? Here, watch.” He tosses the items in his hand into the water, and with a speed that has Grian’s head snapping sideways to follow them, they disappear into the hoppers. There’s no noise, no flashing of the lamps, nothing to show that anything had gone to the right places at all.

“Did it work?”

“Of course.” Mumbo steps over to one of the chests, though how he knows which one is which without labels, Grian isn’t sure. But he confidently opens it up and waves the demon over, and when Grian peers in, he can see Mumbo’s collection of metals and minerals. “Take note of how much there is of each thing, and wait here.”

With a sharp nod, Grian stares intently into the chest, memorizing its contents and waiting for a change. Mumbo steps away back to the water canal, and a few moments later, more iron makes its way into the chest from the hopper line. He has to shake his head and blink to make sure it’s really there, that it just… put itself there, and then he’s turning back toward the angel with an expression that gets him a laugh. “I refuse to believe this is real.”

“How did the iron get there, then?” Mumbo asks with a laughing smile, raising an eyebrow at Grian to give him an answer that makes more sense than redstone just working as it should.

“Magic.” Grian says back with zero hesitation. “It’s magic. You teleported it in there when I blinked.”

With a widening grin, and the faint tremble of his shoulders with barely suppressed laughter, Mumbo’s voice takes on a joking tone. “Ah, yes, you’re absolutely correct. After all, teleportation is simply moving something from one place to another without physically moving it yourself, right? In that case, yes, me throwing an item into the water and having it appear in the chest with no further action from me is, indeed, teleportation. And therefore, by your logic, magic. And magic does, of course, make more sense than actual scientific facts.”

“Listen, if it doesn’t make sense, it’s magic.” Grian defends himself, dramatically crossing his arms. “And blocks understanding each other in order to do what you want them to do on their own doesn’t make any sense at all. Blocks can’t think.”

“Of course it makes sense! It’s quite simple, really.” Mumbo raises a hand, a confident expression crossing his face while Grian just squints at him, silently daring him to make it simple. He launches into another tirade, though notably dumbed down from the last one that Grian didn’t actually listen to. “The redstone emanates a type of energy we call a signal. The blocks have two states, essentially, meaning they’re either on or off, and the signal from the redstone just makes them change which state they’re in. Using that to our advantage, we can use the redstone to change the state at just the right point so that the state of the block changes to suit our needs.”

Grian just stares at him. “Magic.” He corrects, fixing Mumbo’s still complicated explanation to an actually simple one, and earning a shrug from the angel.

“That works too.”

With Mumbo conceding the point, Grian turns back to his magic system with continued and uninterrupted wonder. Especially as Mumbo just starts dumping the contents of his pack right into the water, all of it being carried away like waves into the system to somehow be put exactly where they were meant to go. It’s so efficient, and fast, and Mumbo seems to know exactly what’s in all of his chests because they’re automatically organized how he wants them to be. Grian tries not to think about his storage back in his base. It definitely isn’t a gigantic pile of chests stacked against one wall that he throws everything in randomly and has to dig through later, no, definitely not. He’s perfectly organized all on his own, he doesn’t need a magic dust machine to do it for him.

… He really kinda wants one, though.

That, or maybe some other fancy thing of some kind. In all honesty, the demon isn’t sure what all can be accomplished with the stuff, and he has to assume it has pretty basic limits so it probably can’t do anything that fancy anyway. But he still wants something fancy and shiny and automatic in his base, doing whatever he wants at the press of a button. Maybe something that makes noise, or creates chickens, or cleans up his definitely nonexistent storage mess because he doesn’t have a storage mess because he knows how to clean. He does. He swears.

But that whole train of thought has to be halted at the realization that he can’t do any of it himself. Without understanding how any of it works, Grian can’t make these fancy magic contraptions of his own, which only leaves the option of asking someone else to do it for him. And that’s beyond out of the question; he thinks most of the Hermits know redstone pretty well, but he wouldn’t want to annoy them by asking for favors, and he definitely isn’t going to ask Mumbo for obvious reasons. Even though he’s sure the angel would probably love any excuse to design something new, seeing the way his eyes light up at any mention of redstone, Grian refuses to ask him for anything.

He’s already done too much, as it is. Grian can’t ask for more.

“Alright, back to the overworld, Grian.” his attention is wrenched back out of his thoughts by Mumbo clapping his hands in front of his face, and he blinks up blankly at the angel. “Don’t think about it too hard if it doesn’t make sense. Trust me-- I do that far too often.”

Shaking his head, the demon has almost forgotten what the conversation had been about, spiraled so deeply into his own mind as he was. “Yeah I’ll uh, not do that.” He says vaguely, hoping it makes sense in context.

It doesn’t seem to matter, though, considering Mumbo just looked up.

“Grian, what exactly are those?”

With the sun rising slowly overhead, just now beginning to eclipse behind the eggs Grian built, they’re left as stark black marks against the sky. The shadows they cast are far more noticeable than he’d expected, as well, dappling the ground all around them in smushed egg-shaped points of shade.

“No clue.” He says back innocently, and resisting the urge to laugh as Mumbo looks back down to fix him with a raised eyebrow and a stare that says he doesn’t believe it for a second. “I had absolutely nothing to do with those.”

Mumbo holds the stare for another few seconds, in which Grian continues to try and look as innocent as possible, even though he’s fully aware that Mumbo’s fully aware he is entirely at fault for the eggs above the base. Their standoff ends when Mumbo finally turns away, a strangled laugh escaping him despite his best efforts to hold the stern expression, and Grian can feel his innocent smile curve into a devilish smirk.

“Maybe you should go investigate them, and you can find out that it definitely wasn’t me.”

“Oh, alright.” The angel finally gives in with a faux exasperated sigh, and heads toward the elevator in the center of his base. Grian isn’t sure how it’s all laid out or if he can reach the top from that thing, but he chooses to assume he can, and flies up to the top to wait for him. And he has to admit, the eggs look even more ridiculous with the sun catching directly on them, and he’d already forgotten just how annoying the perpetual chicken noises coming from them are. He loves them.

The demon has picked an egg and casually sat on top of it by the time Mumbo joins him on the topmost framing of the sphere, and he has a front row seat to see the disbelief on the angel’s face. He turns around in circles, looking at all the clucking packages suspended over his home, before turning fully back toward Grian. “How did you manage all this? I wasn’t gone for that long! You’re injured! How?!” There’s a laugh in his voice, a breathy and bewildered noise backing each of his words in a way that has Grian chuckling to himself.

“I dunno.” Is what he chooses to say. His injuries aren’t that bad, after all, especially after Mumbo took the time to patch them up for him. And besides that, Mumbo was gone for longer than he thinks he was.

“So this is what you were up to.” The sigh that escapes the angel at his noncommittal reply is a fond one, though, and his complete and total bafflement seems to be forgotten as he looks up at Grian. “Are you okay, anyway? You didn’t reopen any of your wounds with all of your running around this morning, did you?”

There’s a spike of guilt that jabs into him at the concern, though he does his best to brush it off with a grimace that he twists back into a strained smile. “Don’t worry. Anyway,” He hops down in a rush, joining Mumbo on the slightly precarious curved platform with little grace, his wings the only thing keeping him from landing directly on his face. The angel reaches out for him momentarily, as if wanting to steady him, but he catches his balance himself before he can. Once he’s sure he isn’t going to fall after all, Grian looks up at the taller Hermit with a wide grin, pointedly glancing at the egg he’d just jumped from.

“I’m guessing you want me to crack this thing open?” Mumbo asks after a moment, following Grian’s gaze.

“Yes.”

Without another word, Mumbo pulls his pickaxe from his pack and holds it over his head. He’s tall enough that he can reach over the edge of the platform and bust the bottom block, allowing a condensed mass of chickens to gently float down in the most unimpressive way Grian’s ever seen.

“Wait, I wanted them to explode!” He huffs, leaning over the edge to watch them go. Indeed, instead of scattering everywhere, they just stick together in one big blob as they flutter toward the ground. Mumbo hardly seems to share in the disappointment, however; he’s laughing as he watches the gently descending chickens, filling the air around them with hearty chuckles.

“You have to hit them with something to make them scatter.” He wheezes out between laughs, and without missing a beat, Grian’s got his trident in hand and throws it right into the center of the mass. Somehow, it misses every single chicken, shaving right between them without any damage except for a few feathers and embedding itself in the floor below. It’s enough to spook them, though, and it’s with a loud set of startled and angry squawking that the chickens bust apart into a wide spray of floating birds.

That, of course, is enough to get Grian to join Mumbo’s infectious laughter. The way the birds catapult off of each other in a perfect circle, only to continue floating down just as delicately as before, has both Hermits leaning against each other for support as they fall into uncontrollable laughter. It’s the kind that has Grian’s chest burning, his ribs hurting from the exertion, and he has no presence of mind to be self conscious about the way he’s clutching onto Mumbo’s side at all. Mumbo is the one that ends up collapsing to the floor first, his laughs sounding breathless and wheezy, and by extension, Grian gets yanked right down with him with a squawk a bit too similar to the chickens. It’s a sound that sets the angel right off all over again, positively cackling even despite his lack of air, and though Grian wants to be offended, he can’t keep himself from finding it equally amusing when Mumbo is absolutely losing it.

They’re a mess of laughs that turn silent by the end without air, before they finally get a grip on themselves and remember to breathe. Heavy breaths are interspersed with the odd set of giggles that keep setting the other right off again, and though his lungs are burning and he feels dizzy from the fit, Grian can’t wipe the smile off his face. They’re a sprawled pile of limbs, Grian’s face pressed into Mumbo’s side, the angel’s arm held weakly onto his shoulders, and despite the quartz floor under them, it’s the most comfortable he’s ever been in his life. There’s a light feeling in his chest that he’s never experienced before, and it’s only heightened by the warmth he can feel through Mumbo’s suit, or the way their breaths seem to sync as they both struggle to return to a normal heart rate.

“They’re like… little chicken paratroopers.” Mumbo whispers after an extended silence, his voice breathless and amazed, and Grian loses it again. His chest hurts with the laughter, and he weakly slaps at the angel.

“Stop, stop I can’t breathe.” He manages, and Mumbo just lets him barely manage to get his giggles under control before he speaks again.

“... Tactical mercenary chickens. ‘Send em in boys.’”

Grian presses his face harder into Mumbo’s side, trying his best to muffle himself. It does little to actually stop his laughter, his shoulders still shaking from the force of it, and Mumbo’s arm tightens around him. “This is payback for putting these here, isn’t it?” He accuses, though his words are noticeably muffled.

“No, this is just funny.” Mumbo already sounds more recovered than Grian feels, his tone beginning to level out as he catches his breath properly, though it’s still lifted in a way that makes it clear how happy he is. “I think that was the most I’ve laughed since we came here.”

“I think that was the most I’ve ever laughed in my life.” Grian says, though he knows it definitely was. He can’t remember ever laughing much in the Nether, if at all, and definitely not enough to put him so far out of commission. He didn’t even know laughter could be so completely uncontrollable that it could put both of them on the floor, wheezing for air and forgetting anything else for a few minutes. His chest still hurts from it, but it’s a good ache, in a strange way. It doesn’t feel like the guilt or the fear that he’s used to tearing into him, or the physical burn of the wounds dotted across his body. It almost feels more worthwhile, like a fulfilling sort of sensation, a side effect from genuinely losing himself to the joy and safety this world seems to provide.

He feels light, comfortable. Grian isn’t entirely positive what it feels like to really be happy, but he’s pretty sure it must be like this. It’s the way he doesn’t want to move at all, perfectly comfortable to stay here clutched against Mumbo with his chest hurting from laughing over chickens. He feels warm and safe with the gentle grip on his shoulder, lulled by the steady rise and fall of the chest he has his face pressed against.

In all honesty, he could fall asleep here, like this. He’s so comfortable, a strange fondness taking hold of him, and he’s so tired he almost doesn’t care about anything else. It’s a distant thought that tells him not to fall asleep, not to let down his guard or lose the grip on his glamour, and he wishes for nothing more than to ignore it and melt into the warmth.

And really, he almost does.

He’s let his body go slack, relaxing against the other Hermit with his thoughts going continually fuzzier with the draw of sleep pulling at him. For once, the guilt is a far concept from his mind, its crushing hold on him forgotten in light of the moment. Maybe it’s the way the angel is holding onto him, choosing not to move or push him away, that allows Grian to convince himself everything is already out in the open and perfectly fine. With heavy eyelids and smooth fabric under his cheek, it doesn’t take much longer until he slips under, even if for just a moment.

It’s actually Mumbo that ends up saving Grian from outing himself. Just as he’s barely dozed off, a blip in his memory between his awareness trailing off and startling back up, Mumbo sits up ever so slightly and pulls the demon with him. “Hey, don’t fall asleep on me now.” His voice is low and kind, almost apologetic for not letting Grian doze off where he’d laid. It’s enough to jar the demon’s senses back into place, a split second of panic washing away any ounce of sleepiness and causing him to jolt upright and away from Mumbo. He looks straight to his wings, not even realizing how telling that may be at first, terrified that his glamour might have fallen even in just that small lapse.

But the feathers are as white as ever, and though he looks back up at the angel’s face with growing unease and wondering if he noticed, there’s no look of realization or suspicion in his expression whatsoever. He still just looks apologetic for waking Grian back up, his hands raised in a placating manner.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to spook you.” He says at Grian’s searching stare, and yet again, the demon has to wonder how Mumbo manages to come to any conclusion but the truth. “I figured you may not be comfortable falling asleep around someone else quite yet.”

And yet again, Grian takes the chance the angel is accidentally giving him, the perfect excuse for his behavior. This time, it adds to his guilt exponentially, and makes him regret going with the lie at all. “Yeah, not really. Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” With that, Mumbo pulls himself to his feet, and offers a hand for Grian to take. He hesitates for only a moment before accepting, allowing the angel to pull him up as well. “Come on, let’s get down from here.”

 


 

 

Despite questioning and a bit of concern from the angel over his lack of sleep, Grian finds himself not actually all that interested in going home yet. Mumbo says he needs to rest soon, especially to get his injuries to heal faster, but the thought of going back to his empty and silent base with nothing but his own thoughts to accompany him isn’t particularly the most attractive thought. In just a few hours, he’s honestly found that between the incessant clucking of the chickens and the comfortable presence of Mumbo nearby but doing his own thing, there’s some kind of inexplicable peacefulness about it.

He’s not quite sure what it is. But something about having the other Hermit just within sight, quietly working with his redstone and just a word away if he’s needed, is comforting. It’s an unfamiliar concept, to find comfort in another’s presence where normally Grian would be searching for any excuse or chance to escape and hide away alone where he knows it’s safe. But this time, even he can’t find any reason to be tense. Realistically he knows there’s plenty to be worried about, from Mumbo finding out everything to Grian overstaying his welcome, but even those aren’t really enough to scrape away the relaxed feeling that’s overtaken him.

Maybe it’s because he let Mumbo dress his wounds, and he didn’t take the chance to kill him. Maybe it’s because Mumbo groomed his wings, Grian fully defenseless with his back to the angel, and Mumbo didn’t kill him. Maybe it’s because, so far, Mumbo has been so far off the mark in any guesses he’s made about Grian’s origin, even he can’t be that worried about him suddenly figuring out the truth. Maybe it’s just that same feeling of growing trust that decided to stick to the angel in particular for some reason, getting stronger with every passing moment spent in his presence. He’s not sure what it is, but whatever the reason, it’s enough for him to feel safe.

That’s not to say the guilt is gone; but laying here now, lounging on a carefully sculpted rock in one of Mumbo’s artificial biomes and watching him work, it almost feels like a thought for another day. The angel just looks so happy, flitting back and forth with his strange redstone things and putting them together. His face morphs into a look of pure concentration, the world seemingly fading away around him while he tries to figure out how to get it to do what he wants it to do. Then when he gets it, the pigmented dust lighting up in a row and leading right into whatever he’s creating to get the perfect result, he looks absolutely overjoyed. His face splits into a wide smile and he does a little clap, excitedly hopping around his new machine and praising the fact that it now works as intended. The guilt festering in Grian’s chest goes silent at the sight of it all, unable to drag down the fond feeling that he can feel overtaking him the longer he watches, and he’s perfectly content to stay here on this sun-warmed rock and watch Mumbo get excited over redstone forever.

He can’t decide if he prefers the redstone, or when Mumbo moves on to working on his base itself, seemingly unhappy with something about it. Grian has a front row seat to watching the angel go back and forth, pulling up pathway blocks and sea lanterns and trying to redesign it in a way he likes better, only to end up staring at it with a look of complete and total loss that the demon never witnessed once in the entire time he was fiddling with that redstone. “You need a complementary color. Try something dark.” Is the advice Grian ends up giving him, not moving from his rock at all, and he gets to be witness to seeing Mumbo’s face light up with the idea all over again. He scarpers away to his chests and returns with a dark concrete, breaking up the quadrants of his sphere base with the dark color and adding just that pop it needed.

Just like before, he gets to lazily follow the angel with just his eyes as he goes back and forth in his vision, filling in the voids he’d left in the pathway and copying the small section he’s just created. When Mumbo steps back and looks at it from a distance, that same ecstatic expression crosses his face, and he turns to pin it directly on Grian. “This is fantastic! You just-- one tiny little change, and it’s so much better. You make building look easy, and you didn’t even move!” He praises fondly, and the demon finally has to look away, the tiniest bit of discomfort crossing him with the positive attention.

“You make redstone look easy.” Grian quips back after a moment to redirect the attention off of himself, turning back with a teasing smirk. “Even when you don’t know why it isn’t working.”

“That’s part of the fun! Figuring out how to make it work!” Just as he’d thought, Mumbo gets distracted by the mention of redstone all over again and doesn’t keep up with the praise. He turns with a flourish, marching over to his chests with a determined set to his shoulders. “Look, I’ll just build something simple, and explain-- oh. Hmm.”

“What’s the matter?” Grian finds himself sitting upright, concerned at the instant drop in Mumbo’s voice. He turns to face him with a shrug, though the disappointment is still clear on his face.

“It seems I’ve run out of quartz this time… again. Some redstone components need it in order to craft them.”

“You can’t get more?” Surely, it’s as simple as just going back down into his mines for more, just like with the redstone, so Grian isn’t sure why it’s a big deal.

“Well, I could, but quartz only comes from the Nether.” He explains, and at just the mention of the place he’d come from, Grian finds himself going tense. “I could go, but I’d hate to abandon you again. Plus, I don’t really want to fall in lava today.”

Looking around at the extent of Mumbo’s base, Grian can feel the gears in his head turning. The vast, pristine white floors, and the ridiculous amount of redstone things Mumbo has built, it’s all used quartz. He can’t even begin to imagine how many times the angel must have gone in to search for it for all of this, or the amount of times he must’ve died in the process, and the thought makes his stomach twist.

He knows there’s no real consequence to dying here, aside from just potentially losing whatever was in their packs at the time. But it’s still the Nether, the harsh place with all the fire and brimstone that haunts Grian’s nightmares, and here’s Mumbo, with no choice but to go in there for the primary material he needs. Not to mention he doesn’t have his wings to fall back on, to keep himself from falling into danger or to use to escape from anything that attacks him, which he’s probably used to actually being able to do. But he doesn’t have them, not anymore.

And it’s all Grian’s fault.

The guilt comes rushing back like a landslide, shoving away all of the comfort he’d had just moments earlier, and the demon scrambles off the rock. His wings feel twitchy, burning with the crushing regret constricting in his chest, and words are tumbling out of his mouth before he can stop them. “I’ll go with you.”

He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to at all. If Grian had his way, he’d never go back to the Nether or gaze upon the lava sea ever again, never return to the stifling heat and the danger around every turn. But he can’t justify just leaving Mumbo here to do it instead, on his own, without the one thing he as an angel is supposed to have to assure his own safety. It feels wrong, and for not the first time, he realizes just how much more of an extent his actions have affected Mumbo.

“Oh, you don’t have to.” Mumbo assures him, his voice warm and friendly as always. “It isn’t so bad. As long as I’m careful, I can usually make it back out fine.”

But the reassurance doesn’t lessen the remorse at all, and Grian firmly shakes his head, trying to plaster his fake smile on his face. “No, it’s safer to go in teams! I don’t mind joining you, besides, you’ve already done so much for me.” It’s true, the bandages dotting his body proof enough alone that Mumbo has already helped Grian, when what has he ever done for the angel? Advised him on some cosmetics on his base? Compared to how much trouble he’s caused him by taking his wings, that’s not even a speck in the universe of what the demon should be doing to even kind of make it up to him.

Not that he ever can actually make up for what he did, he knows. But at the very least, Mumbo doesn’t deserve to keep needlessly dying in the Nether just so Grian could leave it behind himself.

“Well, I suppose you’re right.” Mumbo finally gives in, nodding his head slightly. “If we work together, it’ll be overall much more productive. But you’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all!” Grian’s best mask always seems to work on him, his wide smile breaking down the last of Mumbo’s hesitance and earning him a friendly smile back from the angel. It makes his heart twist, and he honestly can’t tell if it’s the guilt digging in deeper or some other feeling he can’t identify in the tumult of emotions raging inside him. “Let’s go, where’s your portal?”

“Oh, just at the base of the island.” In a way that feels far too casual for Grian’s increasingly fraying nerves, Mumbo leads the way over to his water elevator. Grian is sure to stay right on his heels, ignoring the faint screaming of the rational part of his mind that doesn’t want to go anywhere near that accursed place ever again. He’s deathly silent on the way down to the ground below, even after he doesn’t have the excuse of the water to explain his lack of speech, but luckily Mumbo doesn’t seem to question it at all.

It’s when they step inside the small building the angel has built around the portal that what he’s gotten himself into really catches up with Grian, staring up at the hypnotizing purple and the ominous black of the obsidian. The sight of it makes his skin crawl, his feathers standing on edge until he’s puffed up to twice his size. It’s the whooshing sound it makes, the distorted sounds of the creatures on the other side, the heat radiating off of its entire being, everything about it; he hates it, and he can feel his hands shaking just by being in its very presence.

“Are you alright, Grian?” Mumbo’s brows are drawn together, squinting at him in concern and making him startle almost as if he’d been burned. His reaction is to plaster the mask firmly back in place in a reassuring manner, grab Mumbo’s hand, and dive into the portal before he can hesitate any further.

Chapter Text

At first glance, it isn’t as jarring as he’d expected. The Hermits have built a hub around the portals, all smooth quartz that reflects the lights around and makes the whole building glow. It’s beautiful work, just like everything they seem to do, and Grian has to wonder why they’d want to put it here. Quartz is so much trouble to get, and it takes so much to build anything substantial, he can’t imagine remotely wanting to both gather enough to use and also build with it all in this hellscape.

But even with the lovely build obstructing his view of the wilds outside, it’s still the Nether. He can feel the stifling heat pressing on his skin, and the smell of sulfur and smoke permeating the air. It sends him back to another time, back pressed to netherrack and barely daring to breathe as footsteps pass right by him, and he has to shake the memory away. Realistically, this form of the Nether is separate from the one he knew; it’s private, blocked from any entry by anyone but the Hermits themselves. There are no demons here, no one to watch over his shoulder for. It’s safer than what he remembers.

He knows that. But it isn’t enough to smooth down his puffed up feathers, or stop the shaking in his hands. Evidently, Mumbo can tell, if the way he tightens his grip where Grian had forgotten their hands were laced together says anything. He’s almost forgotten the angel was there with him at all, and he jumps slightly before turning to face him.

“You okay?” Mumbo asks, and Grian nods his head a bit too quickly.

“Of course. Where do we go from here?”

The demon is desperate to move on, to get this excursion started so the sooner they can leave, even though he’s even less inclined to go out into the actual wilds. Mumbo watches him for another few seconds, searching Grian’s face with thoughtful concern that makes the demon’s already frayed nerves catch on fire. This is an absolutely idiotic idea, coming here with Mumbo. Even if the angel keeps completely missing all of his slip ups, all of the tells of who he really is, it’ll be hard to brush off his reaction to this place.

But just the thought of throwing in the towel and leaving makes his emotions twist into tighter knots. It could be even more questionable if he chooses to back out now, after being the one to push coming here, but he’s more concerned about the angel than that. It’s not the same as his experience, without demons around to hunt him down and having the option to leave at any time, but he still doesn’t want Mumbo to have to come in here and dodge all of the danger alone like he always did. Just picturing the angel in here, alone, trying to constantly watch his own back without knowing whether his death was waiting just around the corner in the form of a loose floor or a cranky Ghast-- he can’t just let that happen. The Hermits are too kind for that life, they don’t deserve to be forced spending time in here and suffering.

The only other option is to somehow convince Mumbo to just let Grian get the resources for him, but he doubts the angel would agree and he doesn’t want to be alone in here himself, either. As bad as it is, hearing the distant cries of the Ghasts and the crackling of the fire all around that remind him of endless days spent in hiding, the fact he isn’t alone makes it notably more bearable than it would be on his own. He was comfortable with Mumbo in his base, he’s let down his guard and not died for it; being here in this awful place doesn’t change that, and even though he feels like he should, he can’t bring himself to separate their hands.

Even with the searching of his face, Mumbo doesn’t appear to find anything of particular concern. He just nods after a bit more hesitation, and leads Grian by their joined hands over to the exit to this little building filled with portals. “Just let me know as soon as you want to leave, okay? We don’t have to stay here.”

“It’s okay.” Grian forces himself to breathe, to push away the stifling panic trying to rise up from being here. Reminding himself that he knows his way around the Nether, how to get what he needs safely, along with the fact that this time he isn’t trapped here, is enough to make his heart rate level off to somewhere near normal. He doesn’t have to stay here, because he hasn’t been found out and exiled from the Hermits, and that alone is reason enough to not let this hellscape scare him into outing himself.

Besides, he figures, he’s here for Mumbo. It’s worth it to come here, to help the angel out, especially when it’s his own fault Mumbo is in more danger than he should be. The least he can do is try to keep his head on straight, and if nothing else, use what he knows to best protect him. Because, after all, who better to have as a guide than a native demon? Even if Mumbo doesn’t know that. Firmly nodding to himself, Grian forces his feathers to lay flat and steps out into the wilds of the Nether with Mumbo in tow, drowning his panic in artificial determination.

It’s almost like deja vu, seeing the place after so long spent in the overworld now. It’s not nostalgic in the least, he still hates it, but it’s familiar in a way nothing else could be. Stepping out of the Hermit built walls and seeing such an empty Nether with no demons to be afraid of, as well, is strange. It’s like a deserted version of what he’s used to, all red cliffs hanging precariously over the lava sea without a soul in sight. Even as Mumbo steps back ahead of him and leads the way across the path built by the other Hermits, it’s all Grian can do to look around in partial shock at just how empty it feels. He can’t decide if it’s better this way, or even more nerve wracking not seeing the Nether populated with people whose intentions could be anything. The anxious, overactive part of his mind can’t help but wonder if maybe, somehow, there are demons hiding in the shadows for just the right moment to strike; even though he knows that isn’t possible.

Just to make his thoughts settle down, Grian finds himself asking out loud, “There’s no one else in here, right?”

“Well, some of the other Hermits could be using the hub to travel, or also mining for resources.” Mumbo shrugs, and though he’s misinterpreted what Grian was actually asking, it makes him feel better just from the fact the angel doesn’t even consider anyone but the Hermits being here. That has to have some sort of weight, a pure giveaway to there being no chance of anyone unknown managing to slip in undetected. His own presence crosses his mind for a moment, but even that doesn’t really mean much, considering Xisuma had to invite him personally. “Maybe we’ll run into them at some point.”

Choosing not to say anything else, the demon focuses back on the terrain around them. It gets more wild the further they walk, the distance between them and the working area of whoever was building the Nether hub getting larger and larger, leaving the large swaths of leveled netherrack behind. It seems as if the path stretches on into forever, cutting across the barren landscape effortlessly, and Grian finds himself wondering again who chose to spend their time here, building it. Even as it stretches out over an open section of boiling ocean and Grian clings to the center of the path, trying desperately to push down memories of lava eating away at his skin and burning from his lungs outward, he’s almost fascinated by the thought and care put into making it a traversable area for all of the Hermits.

Before long, Mumbo strays from the path and hops down onto the next chunk of land they come to, on the other side of the lava sea, and Grian is relieved to be away from it. The ground curves around the shore and then under a cliff edge, leading away into a cave underneath partially obscured by some golden Nether vines, and the angel wanders down right toward it with little to no hesitation. Grian is less quick to follow, finally allowing Mumbo’s hand to slip from his grip, more intent on staring down the landscape around them for signs of life. He’s unnerved by the lack of anything , and finds himself glaring into every darkened nook and cranny for the telltale glint of demon eyes. There’s nothing up here, though, and he turns to follow Mumbo through the vines, albeit hesitantly and with an eye over his shoulder as he goes.

He just about jumps out of his skin when he almost runs face first into a form that is distinctly not Mumbo, obscured by the foliage, and he has to lean desperately away from the golden sword in its hand as it swings around to look at him. But it’s a creature he knows well, and upon taking in the sight of the pink skin and tattered clothing, the demon can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they’re still safe. Mumbo is a bit further into the cave, already mining away at a pocket of quartz, and Grian gives the Pigman a faint but friendly wave while his back is turned. It tilts its head at him, confusion crossing its features as it continues to stare at him.

“... Demon?” It grunts at him in that distinct Pigman voice, its eyes straying directly to his wings. With a desperate glance at Mumbo to make sure his attention is still elsewhere, Grian puts a finger to his lips.

“Shh,” He says back as quietly as he can, gesturing vaguely at the angel whose attention is so blessedly complete tunnel vision. The Pigman turns to look at Mumbo, then back at Grian, and tilts its head the other direction, not understanding in the slightest. Sighing, Grian can only shrug in further response. He actually likes these guys, but they’re not the best at taking subtle hints, and they’re curious to a fault. It’s not the first time he’s had to experience their complete and total enamour over his wings that don’t match his race, but it isn’t until now that he realizes just how suspicious that may be. It’s then that the angel finally turns, finished with mining out the pocket of quartz he found, and Grian sharply turns away and pretends he wasn’t just talking to the Pigman in the room.

“Okay! There’s a start. Shall we move on?” He asks, barely taking notice of Grian’s new friend as he hops down from his makeshift scaffolding.

“Absolutely.” Grian nods, and follows Mumbo’s lead, the pair stepping deeper into the cave. The Pigman follows along as well, staring intently at Grian as they go, and he can feel a spike of anxiety rising at the thought it could potentially give him away. He does have to admit that it’s kind of fun to see one of its kind again, though; they’re probably the only thing in the Nether he doesn’t hate, with their fair ways and affinity for their demon neighbors. And having the Pigman nearby brings back memories involving them, the only creatures Grian could ever consider anything near companions, drawing his thoughts away from the ways he’s died hundreds of fiery deaths instead. When he spots another pocket of quartz and directs Mumbo to it, he takes the opportunity to turn back to his new shadow, speaking barely above a whisper while leaning into its space. “He doesn’t know.”

But it just tilts its head again, letting out a hum that would sound more like a thoughtless grunt to anyone else, and Grian just lets out another sigh, wishing he had the time to explain everything to it. It reaches to attempt to prod at his wing, and he shuffles a step away to avoid the contact. Companionable or not, he’s not exactly inclined to let anyone touch his wings so casually. “Demon… demon-angel? Wing demon?” It continues asking, trying to understand.

“Wing demon.” Grian whispers back in confirmation, earning a nod. Then the Pigman tries to prod his wing again, still curious, and he has to take another sidestep.

“Grian, I think that Pigman likes you.” Mumbo’s voice startles him, and he looks back to see the angel looking at the two of them with an amused smile. “I’ve never seen one so fascinated by someone before. You wouldn’t happen to be carrying a food it likes, maybe?”

“I don’t have any golden carrots.” He replies back, instantly, and then resists the urge to clap his hands over his mouth when he realizes what he’s said. Mumbo’s face lifts in surprise at the answer, while Grian can hear himself screaming in the back of his own head.

“They like golden carrots?”

“I, uh… I mean, I’d assume so.” He backpedals, searching for an excuse. “I mean, pigs like carrots, right? And… and Pigmen like gold, and… uh. Yeah. I bet they like golden carrots.”

“Mmm… shiny carrot.” The Pigman comments with a pleased noise oh so helpfully, and Grian tries his best to keep a neutral expression on his face while hoping Mumbo can’t suddenly figure out Pigman-speak.

“I think he agrees, Grian.” The angel just laughs and turns back to his quartz, effectively dropping the topic, and Grian lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

He might’ve assumed the worst of this trip for the wrong reasons, he’s starting to realize.

They continue on like that in relative peace, with Mumbo wandering around and mining whatever he sees of interest, Grian watching his back, and the Pigman intently following Grian wherever he goes. Mumbo comments on it occasionally, laughing about how the creature has seemingly taken quite a liking to the disguised demon, and it’s all Grian can do to laugh it off in a way he hopes sounds less nervous than he feels. Aside from his suspicious shadow, though, the demon finds the Nether isn’t remotely as bad as the one he came from without other demons around; with just Mumbo and the Pigman to keep an eye on, and knowing there’s no one to sneak up on them, the only thing he has to watch out for is the wildcard Ghasts in the open spaces. His feathers still puff up at the distant cries, and he still finds himself scrambling for his trident when he misremembers where Mumbo last was and hears footsteps where he doesn’t expect them to be, and he still can’t quite brush off the habit of constantly looking over his shoulder, but no matter how much experience tells him these things should mean danger, none of it does.

Whenever Mumbo startles him, he just apologizes and gently brushes past the trident in his hands, while Grian’s brain tries to catch up on the fact he hasn’t ended up in a fight with someone for letting down his guard. And whenever he looks over his shoulder, he just gets a bright smile from the Pigman, followed by a new question each time. He actually feels bad for ignoring most of its questions and what it says to him, but there’s no real way he can talk to it without completely outing himself to Mumbo. Instead, he just settles for letting it follow them around, and tries not to think about how he’s the only Hermit it can actually talk to.

He can’t manage to allow himself to stop spinning at every noise, or reaching for his trident every other moment, but the fact it’s never anything other than his two companions does start to wear on his paranoia. With the logical side of his mind beginning to win out over the irrational side, he finds himself casually glancing around just in case, instead of whipping his head around to glare at what always ends up being nothing. With the more time that passes by, the more it becomes clear that there really is no one here.

There are Pigmen and Ghasts, and the occasional little Magma cube hopping around by the sea, but none of those things are enough to set off his nightmares. There are no demons cornering him in dead ends, no ominous laughter chasing him down as he’s hunted for the mistake of being seen, no hands grabbing at him or shoving him under the lava for their own enjoyment. Without his kind to populate it, the wilds of the Nether aren’t so wild; they’re just a barren landscape, populated only by the creatures he holds a mutual respect for.

He still doesn’t like it here, but without the one element that made it the complete and total hell he remembers, it’s not enough to send him into a panic. If the ground were to cave in, or if he fell toward the ocean, he might find himself falling into old habits just to scramble for an escape, but those are vastly less to fear than the intentional and cruel things other demons can do just for the sake of it.

The thought crosses his mind, then, that even the Nether here is better than where he came from. Maybe if he’s lucky, when they inevitably find out his secret, they’ll just banish him to here instead of sending him back there.

A demon can dream, right?

The ground is uneven as he climbs up, following Mumbo’s aimless wandering in search of quartz. He doesn’t like the way this outcropping the angel has gone up hangs over the ocean, or the wide open cavern over it with plenty of room for Ghasts to see them, but Mumbo doesn’t seem to take notice at all. He’s humming a cheery little tune as he walks over to the large vein of quartz in the wall, his pickaxe creating a steady thudding as he mines it out. Across from him, the outcropping is luckily a bit more concealed with a cluster of glowstone from the low-hanging ceiling, and Grian can turn his focus entirely to the side overlooking the ocean.

All the way on the distant side of the cavern, a Ghast is wandering about, minding its own business at first. It spots Grian after a moment, eyeing him with a look he knows means it’s debating whether it finds him worth the effort or not, and he pins it with a glare of his own. Just to his side, the Pigman seems to be going between asking him things, and trying to poke at his wing while he’s distracted, which the demon has to keep twitching out of reach.

“Wing demon… angel friend?” It asks, and Grian nods, still able to hear Mumbo’s pickaxe working away at the quartz behind them.

“Yes, angel is friend.” He whispers back without turning, unwilling to look away and feeling some of his feathers bristle as the Ghast begins to ease toward them. His grip is firm on his trident, its presence a smooth reassurance in any situation.

The ocean feels small when put in scale with the Ghast, breezing through the faint red smog and covering more ground in a few seconds than Grian could even on a good day. It’s glaring at him, staring him down in that intimidating way that they always try to use when pushing their luck with demons, and Grian glares back at it just as hard. It leaves them in a standoff with neither willing to back down, and in an attempt to gain the upper hand, Grian takes a step closer with his trident raised in a clear threat.

Though it doesn’t fully back down, it eases back some, and the demon holds his own ground even though standing this close to the edge makes him nervous. But it’s the sound of Mumbo mining away somewhere behind him, oblivious to the explosive threat hanging in the air, that finally sets the Ghast off. Seemingly spotting the unaware angel, its eyes spark, its mouth opening wide as it readies a charge. Grian’s reaction is to hop even closer to it, his feet teetering on the very edge of the cliff, though he’s too focused on his target to pay mind at how it makes his stomach lurch. With his trident raised over his shoulder, he hisses right back at it like he’s defending his territory, flinging his wings out to their full span to make himself look bigger than he is. Vaguely, he registers a tugging on one outstretched wing, and hopes the Pigman playing with the feathers won’t make him less intimidating.

Luckily, the Ghast doesn’t expect the little demon to puff up that much, and it startles backwards, letting its charge ease off as it stares at him with less fire and more contemplation. It’s reconsidering its choices now, starting to think he probably isn’t worth the effort to torment the angel behind him, and Grian glares down his nose at it in a way that makes it clear he’s fully prepared to actually fight it if it tries.

Something happens, then; and it isn’t what he’s expecting. With his eyes trained on the Ghast, the Pigman tugging curiously on his primary feathers, and Mumbo’s pickaxe filling the air with a steady sound from the wall, Grian is sure he has all his bases covered. He knows where his companions are, and he knows where the only potential threat is. This Nether is empty, not a demon in sight, no one to sneak up on them and drown the angel and demon duo in the lava sea. Grian feels in control for once, in this hellish place, especially with the Ghast backing down and turning away to retreat. He’s almost able to relax, his wings folding back in place as it sinks in that he’d won the stalemate.

But it all shatters right along with the glowstone behind them, the shrill sound ringing in Grian’s ears like an alarm. His whole body goes tense in an instant, knowing that neither of his companions are anywhere near that cluster of glowstone, and he’s spinning around and throwing his trident with deadly accuracy at the unexpected threat before he can think with anything more than his instincts.

The reality of the situation sinks in along with his trident, its sharpened tines embedding themselves in the soft netherrack wall nearly halfway up the handle. Between it and Grian, the person he had been so close to skewering straightens his head from where he’d tilted it just enough to be missed, giving not an ounce of a further reaction from the attack.

“Quite the violent reaction there, new guy.” Frozen in place, Grian can only watch in stunned and terrified silence as Doc yanks the trident out of the wall with what seems like no effort whatsoever. His footsteps ring heavy against the floor as he steps closer, the sound echoing in Grian’s head to the tune of his terrifying memories. The approaching Hermit is staring him down with a sharp gaze that feels like it can see right through him, especially when his trident is held out toward him with a gingerness that feels fake. As he watches, blood begins to ooze down from a cut on Doc’s cheek, left behind by the shot he so casually dodged as if he’d been expecting it. “You really should be more careful with your gifts, Grian.”

He talks slowly, in a deep and ominous voice that sets Grian on edge. It means more than Doc is saying, his words like double edged swords with a meaning he’s afraid to try and understand. The way he’s staring down at him, his expression hard as stone while his eyes seem to search Grian like he’s looking for something, makes the demon’s feathers stand straight on end. The air feels as thick as the lava below, making it difficult to breathe.

“Hm, your buddy here sure seems to like you.” Doc’s eyes finally stray from Grian to glance over the Pigman, breaking the feeling of paralyzation, and the demon is quick to snatch his trident away and clutch it against his chest. Doc doesn’t seem to care, and the demon begins to realize the Pigman is staring back at him. While it had taken to Grian right away and simply accepted Mumbo’s presence, it’s unmoving as it stares at Doc, everything in its demeanor telling Grian it isn’t sure what to think of him yet. It glances at Grian, then back at Doc, not letting the Hermit out of its sight while taking a step closer to Grian. “Pretty odd for someone to be so buddy-buddy with the Nether creatures, don’t you think, new guy?”

That’s when it sinks in, and Grian can feel his blood run cold. Everything about this, everything about Doc, it’s familiar in a way that sends a feeling of danger coursing through him. While his voice is masquerading as something friendly, his eyes are cold, betraying the calculating intent underneath. It’s a look he’s seen before; the cold and self assured gazes of the only thing more dangerous to him than demons, only moments before slaughtering the demons they’d tracked down. Leaving behind gruesome scenes of blood splattered netherrack, the laughter of the hunters fading away while Grian stays frozen in the shadows, staring helplessly at the shredded remains of what was once his own kind until he can find it in himself to run. He can still hear the sound of swords cutting flesh, the cries for mercy from the very demons he was afraid of as they’re flayed in the slowest way to drag out their deaths as long as possible.

Grian can feel himself trembling, his wings puffed up and twitching against his back, his heart hammering in a panic in his chest. The trident clutched in his hands brings him no comfort, the Hermit’s red gaze breaking down all of his defenses without moving at all. In an instant, with nothing more than the stare fixed on him to give it away, he’s convinced Doc knows, that Doc can see right through him and knows everything. He doesn’t know how, but he’s sure, and he knows he’s become the prey.

“Oh, hi Doc!” The stifling air is shattered by Mumbo, walking over with a friendly demeanor and entirely unaware of the tension between the two. Doc keeps his knowing stare pinned on Grian for a moment more, seemingly making sure Grian knows that he knows, before turning to greet Mumbo. The stone faced expression he’d carried morphs into a welcoming and friendly look so fast the demon finds himself even more afraid of the ease with which Doc pretends he wasn’t just purposely intimidating him.

“Mumbo, my man.” Doc’s voice loses all of its ominous edge, and Grian almost wants to back away, to disappear into the shadows where it’s safe while he isn’t looking. Almost as if he knows exactly what he’s thinking, Doc instantly turns and pins him with that stare again, although it’s masked behind a smile. “I see you’ve got our new friend with you.”

“Yeah! You weren’t there when he arrived, huh?” Mumbo taps his chin, no doubt thinking back to that first day, and reaches out to pull Grian to his side and away from the cliff edge the demon had completely forgotten about in Doc’s presence. He lets Mumbo pull him close without a fuss, though he can’t take any comfort in the action with Doc staring through him like that. “I can’t believe you haven’t met yet, you guys will get along great.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will.” Doc’s voice returns to that ominous tone, the double edged meaning to his words, and Grian shrinks into Mumbo’s grip. “I can’t wait to learn all about him. It’s not every day someone can stare down a Ghast and win, you know. You must be some kind of real unique angel, my man.”

A terrified shiver wracks through him, and even Mumbo can’t miss it with his arm around the demon. With the slightest glance down at Grian, practically trying to hide behind him, he tightens his grip. Though his voice stays casual, it gains the slightest edge directed at the other Hermit. “Well, we were just about to head back, I think I’ve got enough quartz for now and Grian’s had a pretty awful few days. Got beat up by Guardians and all, you understand. We’ll see you later, alright Doc?”

“Yeah man, I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of each other.” Doc doesn’t look away from Grian as he speaks. “I hope you’re enjoying your time here, new guy.”

Grian can clearly hear what he doesn’t say, his cold stare speaking for him. Enjoy it while it lasts, demon.

Mumbo turns them both away with a wave, and it’s all Grian can do to allow himself to be pulled along, all of his thoughts shutting down and being replaced by the sight of cold red eyes that see right through him.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” The angel is saying, though his voice is distant. “Doc likes to try and be scary, but it’s just an act, he’s really one of the most fun Hermits. You’ll get used to him, he’s harmless.”

He nods numbly, appeasing the angel. But inside, he knows Mumbo is wrong. Doc isn’t just pretending; he knows , and if he doesn’t, he’s suspicious. And whether or not he knows for sure or just suspects him, he knows Doc won’t be the type to hesitate when he gets a chance.

Chapter Text

It’s night by the time they return out of the portal, Grian barely aware of anything as he’s led along by Mumbo. He can’t stop thinking about Doc, the way the other Hermit seemed to stare right through him to everything he’s tried so hard to hide, or the way he barely reacted to nearly getting a trident through his head. Everything he’d said was so clearly a threat, or at the very least, a way of telling Grian he knew exactly what he was without giving it away to Mumbo.

Dully, his eyes stray up to the angel whose arms feel so sturdy as he leads him away from the portal. His face is creased in worry, his jaw set in a way that makes him look like he might be annoyed at something, and Grian feels like there are pieces here that he just can’t put together. Is Mumbo angry at Doc? Why wouldn’t Doc just come right out and say it, why would he continue to keep the angel in the dark if he just wants to come after Grian anyway?

Wouldn’t it be better to have Mumbo know, so they could both put Grian back where he belongs?

But staring at the angel isn’t going to give him those answers, and instead just draws the attention back to him as he realizes Mumbo has turned to meet his gaze. The tension seems to bleed away, and the angel gives him a soft look in its place.

“Are you okay, Grian?”

He really isn’t sure how to answer, so he doesn’t. The worry on Mumbo’s face deepens, and he feels bad about it, but he can’t find it in himself to say anything or find how to make any of this better. His thoughts keep straying back to Doc staring down at him, that knowing look in his eye, and everything else feels like an afterthought in comparison. He’s terrified, but there’s a hopeless feeling somewhere in there with it; he’s sure that even if he tried, he can’t avoid Doc, and he has the power to tell everyone else everything about the disguised demon at any point anyway.

There’s a weight in the pit of his stomach, and all he wants is to hide away from it all and pretend he’s still safe.

“I think you need sleep.” Mumbo finally says, after a long moment of watching him, and Grian supposes he’s right. He doesn’t currently have the capacity to sort through everything that’s just happened, about what it means for Doc to know, beyond just that his situation is spiraling ever more out of control. His head feels like it’s full of cotton, his emotions feel like they’ve been muted, and he honestly just wants to lay down and let the world end around him. Whether that’s the exhaustion of staying awake for days and days on end, or maybe Doc has finally pushed him over some kind of breaking point, he doesn’t know. Either way, he just knows he’s tired, and he doesn’t know what to do about the Hermit’s ominous voice he can still hear echoing in his head.

When he continues to say nothing, only staring flatly at the floor with his sluggish thoughts going nowhere fast, Mumbo just pats his shoulder gently. He can feel the angel continue to tug him along, though he doesn’t really pay it much thought until he finds his feet sinking into the sand of the beach and Mumbo’s guiding arm disappears from around him. Without the added support, it doesn’t take long for him to ease down until he’s just sitting on the ground, watching without really seeing as the angel pushes a boat into the water. “I don’t use boats anymore.” He mumbles, and he really isn’t sure why that’s the thing he’s choosing to comment on.

“No, but you’re in no shape to fly right now.” Mumbo’s voice is low, purposely comforting, explaining his actions without question even though they should be obvious. In fact, he isn’t questioning anything, and even though the most Grian can do right now is sit still in his thoughts as well as his body, he can’t help but dully wonder why. He feels like Mumbo should be questioning the interaction with Doc, or why it’s made him freeze up, even though he doesn’t have the answers even if he did ask. Maybe, though, he should appreciate the fact he doesn’t have to lie if Mumbo never asks in the first place; like this, he doesn’t even think he could, and then Doc wouldn’t be the source of his ultimate undoing. “Okay, come on, we’re gonna sail over to your base.”

He allows himself to be pulled back up and led over to the boat, Mumbo’s grip on him firm and steadying the entire way. While Grian is torn between the fog seeming to cloud everything, and the creeping fear bubbling just in the background from things which he doesn’t have the mental capacity to realize the full gravity of, yet, he’s more than happy to focus on the other’s presence. Nothing here is simple, or easy, not when he has to hide everything about who he is, but Mumbo sometimes makes it feel like it is. As the angel situates them both in the boat, Grian settled behind him, he honestly can’t care enough to stop himself from slouching forward and resting against his friend.

Even if he isn’t in the right space right now to figure out just how much danger he’s really in, with Doc knowing what he is, it’s still enough to give him a nagging sense of concern layered over everything else. But even that goes quiet when he rests his head against the shoulders in front of him, his attention bleeding away from any thoughts that aren’t related to the warmth he can feel through the fancy material. He can’t quite pick up on what Mumbo’s reaction is, if anything, but the angel doesn’t voice any complaints about it and Grian doesn’t want to move anyway.

Soon, all that registers in his mind is the warm fabric under his face, and the sound of sloshing waves. His thoughts are scattered and disjointed, and he doesn’t try to sort them for now. It’s all been too much, for too long, and he just wants to sit here now and forget everything else. Mumbo doesn’t try to talk to him, doesn’t try to bring him back to a more active state of mind, and he appreciates it. Idly, he presses a hand against his companion’s upper back where his wings would have once sat, and they flutter where they sit against Grian’s own.

It’s weird. Really weird, if he’s honest. He never thought he’d meet the person they came from, hell, he hadn’t ever considered they were even alive if he’d been able to take the very thing that made them an angel. And yet here Mumbo is, silently rowing the boat right along, without any clue that the person that did that exact thing to him is the one currently half delirious against his back where his wings used to be.

All he’d ever wanted was something like this. A place to exist where he could do whatever he wants, out in the open, without fear of being attacked or the things he creates destroyed. Somewhere with people he could befriend, spend time with, and most importantly of all, be able to trust. In what feels like just a blink of an eye to Grian, Mumbo has wiggled in and managed to hit all of those points and then some. He’s never known what it’s like to be able to trust another person, to be able to appreciate things from as simple as just mutually existing together to as deep as returning to the site of his nightmares for them, but Mumbo has gone and become that person.

And yet, he’s the one that should most want Grian to be as far away as possible, to burn eternally in lava or be thrown into the void for what he’s done. Mumbo is the one he hurt in a way that can’t be undone, a crime weighing forever over the demon’s head and just waiting for someone like Doc to come along and cut the rope suspending it. And he’ll deserve whatever comes after, the crushing betrayal and hurt, the distance Mumbo will immediately draw between them, the complete and total rejection of having him here.

Grian isn’t sure why it hurts as much as it does, now. Where there’d always been fear for the potential outcome this could all lead to, or guilt from meeting the person whose life he’s ruined, now there’s a sharp sadness to go with it and he doesn’t know why. With each passing moment, it cuts through the fog in his head with painful clarity, until he has expensive fabric gripped in his hand and what feels like words trying to choke him to escape.

“I’m sorry.”

It comes out strangled, quiet and torn. He can feel a slight shift under his hand and face when Mumbo moves, maybe turning to look at him, but he refuses to look up. His control over his own secrets is getting weaker, the words fighting harder with each passing day to escape him and bring everything to light now before Doc can, but he still isn’t ready to see the betrayal. But then Mumbo’s moving away, standing up and away from him without a word, and for one terrifying second his heart feels like it’s dropped off a cliff.

But no sooner does he glance up in a panic does it all freeze again, Mumbo’s face only inches from his own as he leans down toward the demon. With one foot on the white concrete of Grian’s base, and one in the boat to steady it, the angel makes it seem easy as he hooks his arms right under Grian and lifts him up. And it’s when Grian has ceased his momentary panic at feeling the ground lurch from under him, hands flying to Mumbo’s shoulders and leaving the two in quarters that might be closer than they should be, that the angel finally speaks.

“Don’t apologize, Grian.” Searching his face reveals nothing but a soft, caring smile and tinted cheeks. “I don’t-- I don’t know what’s gotten into your head, but I promise it’s okay. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

The honesty with which Mumbo speaks, the genuine fondness on his face, Grian wants nothing more than to wrap himself in it and block out everything else. As it stands, though, the only thought that crosses his mind with it is the realization that Mumbo wouldn’t be treating him like this if he knew. “Mumbo, no, I--”

“Shh.” Whatever was going to tumble out of his mouth unbidden is cut off entirely by the angel, his grip tightening gently around Grian as he leans forward to set their foreheads together. With the warmth of the gaze pinned on him and the way he’s being held as if he’s something important, he can’t find the ability to string words together properly at all, the argument or admission dying on his tongue. Even the feelings of pain aren’t able to break through, drowned out by his heart hammering in his own ears. “I don’t want to hear anything of the sort. You’re tired and overwhelmed. Everything feels like too much right now, and maybe you think you need to feel guilty for something or another, but you don’t.”

Wordless and in a state of flustered he isn’t remotely familiar with, Grian can only stare back at the angel in shock. He almost finds himself searching Mumbo’s face for something, anything that could mean it’s all an act or something fake, but he can find none. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of catch, like his mind would expect with this sort of closeness, but Mumbo’s face reveals nothing but fondness and some kind of faint concern.

He’s so intent on trying to piece together what exactly is going on that he barely even noticed they’d entered his base until Mumbo starts lowering him toward the floor, and he holds onto the angel’s shoulders tighter out of a sudden fear of being dropped. But his body gently meets his own bed, instead, and then Mumbo is gently disentangling the demon’s hands from his shoulders.

“I feel bad leaving you on your own, but I know you’re not going to sleep if I’m here.” He says after a moment, squeezing Grian’s hands before letting go. “And I suppose there’s someone I need to have a chat with, anyway.”

The last comment misses his attention completely, the demon’s mind still trying to catch up with everything. He isn’t sure what to make of the way he feels like he’s lost something, just from the fact Mumbo is no longer carrying him. Part of him almost wants Mumbo to stay, and he doesn’t understand why that thought is so hard to push away. Despite his best efforts, though, he grabs at Mumbo’s hands before he can move out of reach, earning a surprised and almost startled look from him.

“Grian?”

Looking away, he doesn’t know how to explain. He doesn’t know what to explain. He knows he can’t let Mumbo stay; he can’t let himself sleep, can’t let the glamour fall and have everything crumble beneath him. But he doesn’t want him to leave, either. Almost as if he can see the confusion bouncing around Grian’s head, Mumbo sits down on the bed beside him, the startled look falling from his face for one of understanding instead.

“Is it because of Doc?”

Grian has to pause, doing his best to sort through the muddled things he’s feeling. Is it? Doc scares him; Doc seems to know, and he didn’t seem too happy about the mishap with the trident, either. He has the power to end everything in an instant, just by telling the others, and then Grian will have no choice but to accept his fate. But that’s his own problem, and it doesn’t really involve Mumbo, at least not yet.

“I don’t know.” Is what he ends up saying, because it’s true. Mumbo just frowns, then, clearly unsure of what it is he can do to help. Looking down, Grian finds himself nervously fiddling with his hands, trying to piece together what it is that’s wrong. “I just… I don’t know.”

“Well, I can’t figure it out for you, but I am here for you.” Mumbo’s voice is gentle, his hand coming to rest on the fidgeting mess that is both of Grian’s and causing them to still. “If it’s Doc, I’ll deal with him. He can be intimidating, but he doesn’t actually mean any harm to anyone, and I promise he won’t do anything to hurt you.”

Grian wants to argue, wants to say that everything about that interaction spelled danger in every sense of the word. But he can’t explain fully why, can’t tell Mumbo exactly what Doc could do, without giving it all away anyway. He settles for a shrug and a sigh.

“If it isn’t Doc,” The angel continues, rubbing his thumb in comforting circles on the back of Grian’s hand as he talks. “Then, well, I’m not entirely sure. But maybe you’re just tired, or you’re stressed about so many different things at once, it’s all muddled together into a big mess you can’t quite figure out how to deal with.”

That part actually sounds plausible, with the way Doc seems to just have been the last straw in Grian’s capability to deal with everything. “You might be onto something there, Mumbo.” He admits, not daring to look up and see the angel’s reaction. Really, from Mumbo’s perspective, it shouldn’t look like Grian has that much to stress over at all, which makes this yet another point in the trail of suspicious clues he’s left in his wake.

“In that case, maybe it’s best to just try and handle one thing at a time. If you try to look at it all at once, it’s just one big mess and can be overwhelming.”

“What should I do?”

Mumbo smiles at him, in an almost amused sort of way that makes it seem like the answer is obvious. “I’d recommend starting with a nap.”

Nodding, Grian knows whatever irrational hesitance he has can only stand against Mumbo’s sound logic for so long. As it to emphasize the angel’s point, he breaks into a wide yawn. “Okay, yeah, you’re right.”

“You’ll feel better after some rest. Things are always easier to handle when you’ve actually had enough sleep to think properly.”

He goes to stand up from the side of the bed once he’s finished speaking, but for what Grian promises to himself is the last time for now, the demon reaches out to stop him. Mumbo starts to give him a questioning look, but it quickly disappears from sight as Grian pulls him close for a hug. For just a moment Mumbo is tense as a board, before completely melting into the embrace and returning it just as enthusiastically. With the angel’s arms wrapped around him tightly, albeit mindful of the wings, it makes him feel better. It makes the feeling of hesitation disappear, replaced with something warm when he buries his face into the other’s shoulder.

“Thank you.”

Mumbo doesn’t say anything as they pull apart, his face a mixture of emotions that Grian can’t fully identify. He seems happy, though for a few moments there’s some kind of tension accompanied by the angel hesitating, his gaze trained on the demon’s face with an intensity he doesn’t quite understand. Then he seems to shake it off, standing up in a hurry, and Grian is left with a feeling like he’s missed out on something. “Well! I should leave you to it. You stay here and rest, and do not go running around without sleep as soon as I turn my back.”

They both know he’s too exhausted to do anything of the sort, but Grian still manages to flash him a cheeky bastard grin, the faintest hint of personality showing through. “I’ll think about it.”

It earns him a barely suppressed laugh, and then Mumbo’s turning away, retreating back out to the ocean just outside. The ensuing silence seems to echo around the vast, single room of his base, especially once he can hear the splashing of the boat fade away, back toward the angel’s own. Grian listens for long after it’s gone, waiting like he’s perched on the edge of a cliff for what feels like ages to convince himself Mumbo won’t be returning anytime soon.

Once he’s sure, he’s up. A split second of vertigo takes hold of him and makes him sway in place, probably from pure exhaustion, but it doesn’t matter. Shaking off the dizziness, Grian forces himself to make it across to the other side of the base to the open entrance parallel to the one Mumbo left through. In the darkened night sky above, he can see the shadows of what must be a dozen phantoms backlit by the moon, an obvious representation of just how much he needs to sleep just like Mumbo said. Looking down, the water is too dark to see much, but he hopes the drowned have chosen to not come near his base tonight.

The water is colder than he expects when he dives into it, drenching his wings in seconds and pulling him down like a lead weight. It’s just as well, though; he reaches the entrance to his ship in a bottle under the sea that much faster, seawater only slightly sloshing in after him as he scrambles to his small garden within. The inside of the bottle gets splattered with stray drops as he violently fluffs his wings out, swaying again as he does so, though it does little to actually properly dry him and leaves him with more of a headache than anything.

In all honesty, he almost can’t be bothered to care at this point. Dragging his feet the rest of the way, Grian is more than ready to collapse in his real bed, the one still here in his supposedly ‘old’ base. More than likely, with the obvious structure now sitting above with a bed of its own, any Hermits that come looking for him will see it empty and assume he’s out. He wouldn’t dare to sleep in the open at all, but with that red herring to throw them off, maybe his space down here will be safer to let down his guard in.

The inside of his ship cabin is warmer than it was outside, even with his drenched clothing and wings. Even so, he only bothers to yank off his soaked sweater and fling it in the vague direction of a shelf somewhere, only kind of caring if it dries or not. Then he’s crawling into his bed, curling into a wing wrapped ball under the blankets, and letting the world disappear the second he closes his eyes.

But it’s all a mistake. The darkness behind his eyelids brings with it the burning sight of knowing red eyes, the silence as his sleeping mind tunes out the sounds of the ocean instead filled with laughter from a voice he’s only just met. Doc looms over him like a mountain, and though there are no weapons in his hands, he bares his sharpened teeth in a smug snarl like a demon would as the other Hermits creep in from the darkness. The blankets wrapped tightly around his shoulders become the vice-like grip of Hermits scorned, friends he’s made based on a foundation of pure lies, hurt and angry words echoing around from people who trusted him. They all tower over him, faces he’s come to know scrunched in anger as they glare down at him like a pest to be removed. There’s none of the wise understanding from Xisuma, or the friendly banter he’d liked so much with Iskall, only a crushing feeling of hatred that makes his sins crawl on his back like insects under their judgement.

Xisuma’s glare is icy as his mouth moves, his words sounding disjointed and hollow, though what he says sends more of a chill through Grian than his odd voice does. “We need to turn him over to the archangels.”

Panic shoots through him at the name, terrifying figures of shadows seeming to appear from nowhere and towering even over the Hermits themselves in their seemingly infinite power. When Mumbo steps through the crowd gathered around him, he almost wants to turn to the angel for help, terrified and on the verge of tears at the prospect of his fate. The slightest feeling of desperate hope flutters in his heart, thinking that maybe, just maybe, Mumbo will be the one to understand. That he’ll be the one to listen to Grian, to be patient and wait for answers, keep to his promises he’s made without knowing the truth, and not send him off to be snuffed out for his crimes. But the feeling is crushed the instant their eyes meet, the demon shrinking beneath the disappointed and cold, uncaring look that seems so out of place on the angel.

“See, Mumbo, I told you he was no good.” Doc’s intimidating voice echoes back around, a smug  tone to it as he grins with those sharp teeth and puts a hand on the angel’s shoulder. He’s the hunter, and his prey is cornered at his feet. “How unfortunate that a demon managed to sneak in here and trick us into trusting it. We should do like Xisuma said, after all, it’s only right.”

Mumbo’s gaze doesn’t change, doesn’t become any less cold as he stares down at Grian with complete and total indifference, and it makes his heart twist. “What a joke. I can’t believe I ever--”

Whatever he’s about to say, it’s cut off as Grian wrenches himself back into the waking world. He doesn’t want to hear it, whatever it is; he can’t handle hearing even Mumbo turn his back on him, after all of the kindness the angel has shown him. He doesn’t deserve any of it, not in the least, but he can’t bear to see them find out the truth even in his dreams and take it all away again. Even though he knows he won’t be able to avoid facing the consequences of his actions forever, the thought of seeing the only friends he’s ever made hate him for what he’s done, for his lies, is too much.

Whether he’s still just damp from the dive down, or drenched in sweat from terror, he can’t be sure. Either way, Grian lifts himself from his bed, leaning on the wall for support as his eyes try to adjust to the darkness inside the cabin. The edges of his vision are static, sparkling points of things he’s beyond being able to register, and his feathers start to puff up as he starts seeing things there. A flash of red, seemingly just to his side, or the flash of sharp teeth; when he turns, he almost falls to the ground when for just a split second, Doc’s face seems to loom out of the darkness at him.

None of it’s real, all just pictures drawn up by his sleep deprived mind in the wake of his fears, he knows that. But it doesn’t make it any less scary, feeling like he isn’t alone in the cabin. It’s like Doc himself really could waltz in at any moment and see him here without glamour, caught red handed as the proof of being a demon, and suddenly his little home under the ocean doesn’t even feel safe. Snatching the blankets from the bed, he turns in a rush and hurries down the steps into the cave he’s dug below, and then deeper still. Down and down he goes, a ragged mess with tangled hair and puffed black wings with a dragging pile of blankets in his arms, until he’s at the very bottom.

Surrounded in nothing but solid stone and tunnels leading off in all directions seemingly forever, he picks a random tunnel of his own and wanders into the maze. It’s quieter down here, without a soul anywhere nearby and miles of solid rock between him and anything sentient, even his irrational sense of terror begins to level off into a muted peace.

Doc can’t find him down here, no one can find him down here.

No one can see what he is.

No one can send him to them.

The tunnel stops at a dead end eventually, after what feels like a dozen twists and turns to hide him from view even if someone did happen to wander by. There’s a little nook in the stone where he must’ve dug out some sort of resource, and that’s where he throws his armful of blankets down, followed by himself. Cocooned into his own little hole in the wall, where no one can find him, he finally feels safe enough to curl back up to sleep.

It isn’t as comfortable or as warm as it was upstairs, but the secure feeling of being entirely isolated outweighs it completely, and the darkness behind his eyelids brings more peace this time.

Chapter Text

When he wakes, it’s to the feeling of cramped limbs and the faintest whispers of nightmares echoing away. The stone is hard under him, even through the layered blankets, and he can feel the soreness that’s going to punish him today for sleeping here. Though it’s blessedly warm in his little blanket cocoon, insulated as it is by his feathers, so it’s not all bad.

Idly, as he blinks into the darkness of his nest, he wonders if Mumbo gets colder without his wings. The thought makes him sad, absentmindedly tugging on a single black feather, his thoughts trailing to that open base and the stiff breezes of the ocean air at night.

Beyond that, his thoughts have yet to really fully register everything. Though the ache in his body tells him he’s been here for at least a decent amount of time, he can’t be sure how long he slept, and his eyes still feel sore enough that it clearly wasn’t all of the time that he really needs. And he could sleep more, technically; but shifting to his other side doesn’t make the ground any less uncomfortable, and for once he actually finds himself missing netherrack for that exact reason. Besides, the longer he lays here in the warmth of his blanket nest without dozing back off again, the more his mind begins to catch up with everything that happened yesterday. Soon enough, it’s all piling back into recent memory, leaving Grian unsure of where to even start with it all.

There’s the fact that Doc knows. That seems to be the most important thing, the thought that catches his attention, and he almost feels numb looking back on it. He wishes it was a dream, that Doc actually had no idea or they hadn’t met him yesterday at all, but he knows that isn’t true. He saw it all, or at least some part, of what was going on in the Nether when he arrived; Grian has no way of telling how long he was standing there before he made his presence known with that glowstone, but at the very least, he had to have seen the way the demon faced off with that Ghast. In fact, didn’t he mention it, actually? He wasn’t sure, the memory starting to fade into a terrified blur once Mumbo had pulled him away from the edge.

Worse yet was the fact Grian threw a trident at Doc’s head. Technically he could blame Doc for spooking someone with a weapon in their hand, but that doesn’t change the fact he still attacked another Hermit, and could have genuinely killed him if Doc hadn’t dodged the hit. Of course, it’s not like Doc wouldn’t have just respawned anyway, but that doesn’t make murder okay. Even if Doc knows what he is, or is out to expose his secret, it still makes his stomach twist with guilt to think of just how close he was to accidentally killing him. It feels like proof of what he is, nothing more than a wild demon set loose on a bunch of innocent people who have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.

It’s not a thought that makes him feel better whatsoever, and he grimaces, curling deeper into his wings.

Then there’s Mumbo. He relaxes slightly at the thought of the angel, the picture of a bright smile half obscured by that iconic mustache crossing his mind. He can remember kind words, the angel’s ever continual patience, the dragging feeling of overwhelmed guilt and the truth ready to just fall from his mouth before Mumbo stopped him. It’s almost scary, to think the only reason it’s not all already over is just because the angel didn’t want to hear anything more after what seemed like an unfounded apology in a broken state of mind. But then, it’s also equally almost… not scary, and he isn’t sure why. 

Something about the way he was so kind, without looking for anything in return, or the way he stuck by Grian’s side until he was sure he’d be fine on his own. The way he stayed, at nothing more than a pitiful tug, or the way he sat down and tried to work through things Grian couldn’t even articulate to him, just to make the demon feel better. Looking back on it, even through the inattentive fog that makes the memories fuzzy, it makes him feel conflicted. Mumbo was so instantly ready to just be there, for whatever he needed, and everything about it fully drives home the feeling that the angel genuinely cares about him. The thought gives him a feeling he isn’t sure how to recognize, something that makes him bury his face in his wings to ignore the fluttering of his heart. But he also has to wonder, if the roles were reversed, is he capable of matching that level of patience and care, or would he fall flat as nothing more than a demon anyway?

Maybe that’s why it almost doesn’t seem scary, to think of waking up this morning and have Mumbo know the truth. With the ever so caring way he’d just been there, with a comforting tone of voice, reassuring words, and gentle yet firm touches that reminded him he wasn’t alone; Grian could almost convince himself Mumbo wouldn’t have reacted at all if he had managed to say the truth. If the angel hadn’t stopped him at just the right time, if he’d said it out loud, laid it all out on the table and waited for the backlash. Part of him felt like that patient, fond expression wouldn’t have changed at all, that Mumbo still would have laid him in bed and told him to think about it in the morning.

And yet, he knows it’s just wishful thinking. His nightmare comes trickling in, bringing with it the expression of cold, callous disappointment, and he knows it isn’t realistic to hope for anything else. Disappointment, even, would still be better than hurt and betrayal. He doesn’t want to think of how Mumbo seems so fond of him, so eager to do anything at all with him, when he’s inevitably going to find out Grian’s been knowingly lying to him all this time. It feels so wrong, his skin crawling with the feeling of knowing he’s allowing the angel to care about him without knowing the truth. It’s that thought that trails into another realization, hitting him like a ton of bricks. 

Mumbo mentioned going to talk to Doc.

All at once, the quiet musing of his thoughts and worries turns into a storm all over again, the demon jolting upright and sending blankets and black feathers everywhere. The air of the cave is beyond chilling on his bare skin, but he barely feels it, eyes fixed on the stone wall as his mind runs through every possibility at once. Mumbo had noticed exactly what Doc did, exactly how much he’d been the thing to set Grian completely on edge, and he hadn’t been happy about it; the ever so carefully concealed signs of annoyance, clearly the angel thinking in the back of his mind how he was going to deal with the situation once Grian was resting. “No, no..” Grian mumbles to himself, hands going up to tangle in his hair with the rising stress.

If Mumbo went to talk to Doc, he could have told him everything .

His first instinct is to get up, to go straight to the angel and give him some excuse for why he shouldn’t confront Doc, but that thought has barely come and gone before it sinks in that it’s probably too late. It sounded like the angel had full intent to go and give the other Hermit a piece of his mind as soon as he left Grian’s base, and though he doesn’t know how long ago now that was, it’s almost sure that the angel has already gone and done exactly that.

What Doc would have said to him, Grian doesn’t know. It’s possible he kept quiet, saying nothing, considering the fact he didn’t out him right there on that ledge in the Nether. But he still doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t, when Doc has seemingly no reason to keep his secret a secret, unless-- unless Doc plans to blackmail him?

But even then, he isn’t sure what the Hermit could gain from him. They’re the ones who have given Grian everything, their acceptance and a place to live peacefully, and he knows there isn’t anything Doc could stand to get from him, so he can’t imagine it’s all that likely of a possibility.

Unfortunately, that leaves only one option left; that Doc did tell Mumbo everything, spilling details on what he’d figured out or seen when the angel would have tried to confront him for scaring the demon. If that’s what happened, then it could all be over now anyway, and maybe Grian just hasn’t found out because they haven’t found him yet.

He considers staying right here, in this cave, forever. He can’t see the hatred on their faces if they never find him.

But he knows that isn’t a plausible idea, even for him. As afraid as he is of finding out what happened while he’d been asleep, Grian has no choice but to free himself of his cave nest with the intent to head back upstairs. It’s with an almost eerie sense of calm that he pulls himself to his feet, gathering his blankets just as carefully as if they’re his thoughts, though he’s also hesitating in a way. He folds each one into a perfect square, stacks them in a perfect pile, and all the while thinks about what could be waiting for him up above.

Anything could happen, really. Anything from the Hermits waiting for him with disapproval on their faces and a smug Doc, or maybe only Mumbo, hurt written all across his expression only to ask if it’s true. The image makes his heart hurt, and Grian brushes away the thought with a shudder, turning on his heel and wandering vaguely back in the direction he thinks he came from last night. Maybe it’ll just be Doc, searching for him to place more threats, and suddenly he wonders if he’s only doing this out of some twisted sense of amusement. Maybe the other Hermit wants to see Grian struggle, to see the way his skin crawls at any knowing mention of what he’s been hiding? He honestly doesn’t know, and even as he finds his staircase and begins the long trek back up to his ship under the sea, the pieces still don’t fully make sense.

The way Doc dodged his trident as if it was easy, too, crosses his mind. It bothers him, the way the other Hermit had barely moved, barely reacted. It was as if he’d known full well Grian was going to react to a sound he wasn’t expecting that way, like he knew exactly what to expect the instant he made his presence known. With a shiver, he considers again the idea that Doc could be, or could once have been, a demon hunter; the authority with which he stood, looming over Grian with his head held high and not even a wince at the cut on his face, or the way he seemed to so clearly know exactly what Grian is just from their first ever meeting and not be remotely intimidated by that fact made the idea all that more likely. Normal people, regular humans, don’t just stare down someone they know is a demon without some kind of unease or fear, unless they know exactly what they’re doing.

Maybe he’s biding his time, waiting for the perfect chance to catch Grian in his lies. Or maybe… what if Doc is sitting back for now, making sure Grian knows full well that he knows in order to put him on edge, all while watching to see what he’ll do? Or is he just watching for now, trying to learn what he can from a demon who has managed to end up with wings and glamour?

Because surely, he can’t know everything. If Doc is a demon hunter and knows how to recognize demon behavior, then sure, that makes sense. But just like Xisuma, there’s no possible way he could find out that Grian’s wings are stolen, much less from a member of this community itself, so there’s also the potential he’s curious about exactly what’s going on here. But then that brings with it the stark realization that it is in fact possible for him to put the pieces together, after all; if Mumbo mysteriously woke up without wings one morning, and now, Doc has become aware their newest member isn’t an angel at all, but a demon in disguise…

There really is no good possible outcome from any of this, is there? No matter where he turns, Doc has the full ability to put it all together, to pick up all those little clues he’s been so afraid of Mumbo noticing all this time. And there’s nothing he can do about it, except sit back and hope the potential hunter decides to have mercy on him, as unlikely as that idea is.

He’s afraid to take the last step into his cabin, almost expecting someone to be waiting for him; but the room is as empty, and as messy, as he left it in his haste last night. His sweater is haphazardly thrown over a flower pot, the sheets from his bed are half dragged toward the basement, stretching toward him like they’d tried to chase after him. Whether it’s further hesitation or just a need to put the space back as it belongs, he sets the folded blankets on the bed and sets about cleaning the disaster. Retrieving his sweater from the flower pot first, with a whispered apology to the slightly rumpled and offended looking daisy inside, he’s lucky to find it at least dried over the course of the night. Although, he remembers it won’t matter once he swims back up to the surface anyway, and begins to wish he’d made a better way of reaching his new base from here.

When he’s fully dressed, he feels somewhat better, somewhat more ready to face whatever might be waiting for him outside. He still takes the time to gather up and fold the sheets, too, though he doesn’t bother to make the bed. Whether it’s from the fact he rarely sleeps as it is, or the creeping paranoia of what if that makes him think he may not be able to return to sleep anyway, he isn’t entirely sure.

It’s only once he’s just about to step out of the door that he remembers his glamour, and calls upon it to wash away black feathers and the truth of himself. It doesn’t make him feel any better, any safer. It only reminds him of just how much of a lie he is, here, pretending to be someone he isn’t.

He brushes the thought off. It’s necessary, right? He can’t be here if they know he’s a demon, no matter how much it might hurt to keep lying.

Outside the cabin, though he hesitates to open the door, there’s still nothing out of place. No angry Hermits, no Doc or Mumbo or anyone unhappily waiting to confront him. The ocean outside is peaceful, colorful fish swimming right past his face outside the glass, and he can’t help but wish he could be as carefree as they are. Then he’s out into the water, swimming up and up toward the surface, the rising sun nearly blinding him with its bleeding reflection on the surface once his head breaks through it. Blinking the spots out of his vision, he can look over and into his new base and find the same holds true here as it did below. There’s no one inside, not a soul in sight, and he breathes a sigh of hesitant relief.

Maybe Doc didn’t tell Mumbo after all?

It still seems strange, and it leaves a feeling of uneasiness in him as he clambers out of the water and onto his concrete floor. He’s sure that if the secret was out, there’d be at least one Hermit hanging out around here to find him, so the general community must still be in the dark. But that doesn’t tell him if Doc told Mumbo for sure or not, and for all he knows, the angel could be avoiding him and the truth. The thought of it makes his heart do that weird feeling again, and he’s pretty sure it’s some kind of jabbing sadness at the thought of the angel disliking him after finding out the truth.

Part of him wants to fly over, find Mumbo, and find out for sure.

The other part of him is louder, and it doesn’t want to see the expressions from his dream on his favorite Hermit’s face. Just the thought of flying over and landing on Mumbo’s base, only to find the angel either in a state of regret or anger makes his heart twist in a way that feels like it’s going to bring tears to his eyes, even though nothing has actually happened yet. It’s inevitable, he knows, especially with Doc loose with his secret, but the last thing he wants is for Mumbo to hate him. It’s a feeling he has to shake off before it turns into a panic, pressing his palms into his eyes and taking steps to pace off the agitated fear threatening to simmer.

In the process, he manages to trip over a chest and fall right over it, silencing all of his thoughts with confusion when he realizes it’s in the center of the room and not with his absurd mess of disorganization in the corner. Blinking, Grian can feel his agitation turn instantly into fear at its presence here, but he can feel his trident jabbing into his hip from where he fell onto his pack as a physical reminder that a surprise chest can be a good thing, too.

Sitting up onto his knees, he pushes the container open, everything else pushed to the back of his mind as he curiously peers in. There’s a note at the top, just like Scar had done with the trident, and he picks it up first. Underneath, he catches a glimpse of color before his focus turns to the words on the page. He reads over them once, twice, flips the paper to its back almost expecting the words on the front to be a joke, and then flips it back to read them again when the back is blank.

Don’t worry too much. Not everything is always as bad as it seems; just have faith in those who care about you. Everything always works out properly in the end, whether you believe it will or not.

Grian isn’t entirely sure at first what to think of it, staring blankly at the note, but somehow the carefully penned words say more than it seems at first glance. They’re drawn in a way that makes him sure the author spent time thinking of the best way to say what they were thinking as concisely as possible, the lines delicately scratched into the page with a fluidity that gives away it wasn’t just something hastily thrown together. On top of that, the letters are looped together in such a regal and practiced script, he can’t imagine anyone but Xisuma being the one to write it, even though it isn’t signed. A glance back into the chest reveals its contents; the bottom is lined with seeds of all colors, carefully arranged into little bowls so they won’t get lost, along with all other types of crops just waiting to be planted.

It’s then that it finally sinks in, that this is just a little gift most likely left by the leader of the Hermits, who also happens to be the only other person aside from Doc that may know more about Grian’s origin than he’s letting on. Staring down at the tiny little seeds in all their bright colors, and the carefully drawn kind words on the page, he starts to feel a little bit better. Doc is still a wildcard, and he still has yet to find out if Mumbo has learned the truth, but if he’s right about who left this chest, he may very well have someone on his side even when the truth inevitably comes out. Beyond that, as well, Xisuma seems like someone who won’t say something unless it’s true, and he has the strangest feeling the leader is talking specifically about exactly what’s going on right now. How he already knows about everything with Doc and Mumbo, and Grian’s fears surrounding both this morning, is a mystery to the demon. It makes some of the nagging worry settle down anyway, replaced with a sense of reassurance that lets him push away the fear for now.

There’s still the little voice in the back of his mind, the one that’s grown increasingly quiet the longer he’s come to know and like the Hermits, that warns him not to be so quick to trust Xisuma. He does seem to know the truth, after all, and he could genuinely be just that good at manipulating others that he can make himself seem completely trustworthy. But Grian pushes the thought away, physically shaking his head and willfully ignoring it.

Maybe it’s because of Doc; he’s so up front and terrifying, it makes it hard to find Xisuma scary anymore in comparison. He wants to trust Xisuma, wants to be able to believe that there’s someone here that knows the truth and still miraculously wants him here. And whether it turns out to be a mistake or not, he’s choosing to take the risk, just this once.

 


 

 

Xisuma, as it turns out, is a genius.

He’s not sure what it is about it. It seems so simple, something that should just be a chore more than anything, but there’s something about having an actual reason to play in the dirt and get to fill it with plants that just makes Grian forget about everything else. He doesn’t care that he’s turned half of the floor of his base into a crop field, or that he’s covered in dirt, or anything of the sort. All he cares about is the little seeds that seem so tiny and defenseless when he holds them in his hands, and how happy it makes him to tuck them into their own little spaces in the damp earth he’s made specifically for them. It reminds him of his nap in the cave last night, hiding far away from everything and everyone in his own isolated little safe space, and he relates more to them than he probably should.

When he steps back, everything Xisuma left in the chest for him now all nestled in their own little caves in his new garden, he feels accomplished. He doesn’t know or even understand the first thing about plants, really, but that’s part of what makes them so magical. With their water and cool, soft earth, the way they grow to the sun, or coat the landscape in greenery, it’s just as vastly different from the Nether as the ocean is. The rows he’s planted them in are obsessively perfect, careful attention taken to make sure he’s done it as well as he can despite his lack of knowledge on how to actually grow plants properly.

Another thought crosses his mind after a moment, and without an ounce of hesitation, he turns and jumps back out into the ocean. The dive down to the ship flashes by with barely any notice with his focus entirely elsewhere, and in what feels like seconds he’s back to the garden with his offended potted daisy in hand. It doesn’t matter that he’s drenched, or that the water didn’t even really wash off all of the dirt on him. Barely taking notice of any of it, he carefully tips the daisy and pulls the pot off of its roots, then just as carefully turns it back over and sets it in a hole right in the center of his garden. He finds himself smiling down at the little plant as he gently pats loose dirt around it, tucking it in to its new home. Already, Grian is sure it looks happier, freed from its constrictive space and the damp darkness of the ship cabin.

Delicately tracing a single finger over its petals and marveling at the texture, he wants to think it’s forgiven him for throwing his sweater at it.

With the daisy safely in its new home, and all of the seeds planted, Grian finds himself idling. There’s nothing else he can do for his plants right now, as much as he’d love to just continue doing more of this gardening thing forever. He ends up lying in a section of unplanted dirt, cheek pressed to the slightly damp soil and watching the daisy and the tiny sprouts of the carrots sway ever so slightly in the breeze. He never would have guessed in the slightest, but just lying on the cool earth seems to draw any and all tension right out of him. It’s so easy to relax into the soft surface, soothed by the sound of gentle ocean waves outside. If he just stayed right here, in this seemingly perfect border between soft earth, warm sunlight, and the sound of water for long enough, he’d probably doze right off.

That’s out of the question, of course; but he doesn’t mind. It’s still nice to roll over onto his back, staring up at the unfinished walls of his base with a well trained eye. From down here, his wings comfortably pressed into the cool soil and his gaze trailing across all the unfinished spaces, it’s easy to spot all the places he could add on whatever he wants. He can imagine each idea as they pass through his focus, visualizing what they would look like if he did try them out, and sorting through which ones he’s sure would look good or not. Maybe it’s from the gardening, maybe it’s just the calm that’s overtaken him as a result of it, but either way he can feel the inspiration rising like a flood.

Just as quickly as he’d plastered himself into the garden with his plants, he’s back up again, carefully hopping over the rows so as not to disturb any of the seeds. His storage system is just as much of a mess as ever, but he knows exactly where all of his concrete and glass is, and it’s no effort at all to dump it all into a shulker that he can heft up to the top of his base.

As it stands right now, it’s nothing more than what vaguely looks like a single layered, futuristic cake. Which is fine, but when he looks up, he can imagine a vast tower with high ceilings, glass walls, and floors he could fly through. He wants to build it, to see how it looks from a distance, to see what it’s like to finally complete something properly and without being limited by the Nether. Besides, Mumbo’s base is far ahead of his, and he’s supposed to be the builder out of the two of them.

Thinking of the angel reminds him again of his fear, and he glances over at the sphere with a sharp, stabbing feeling of anxiety. It’s still only just mid morning, the sun slowly climbing into the sky, so it’s not entirely out of the question to consider maybe Mumbo is still just in bed. Especially if it was as late as he thinks it was when they got here last night, plus whatever time he might’ve spent lecturing Doc, maybe Mumbo only got home a few hours ago. It’s a hard thought to convince himself of, but it’s better than the alternative, and he firmly turns back to looking at his base with concrete in hand than continue to think about it.

Mumbo will come see him when he’s ready, and then he’ll find out what happened either way.

Placing the blocks down calms his nerves, though, the smooth texture of the concrete grounding him as he fills in the second floor of his base. It’s what he likes most about building; the way he can just ignore everything else including his own overactive thoughts for awhile, focusing only on the pieces of the puzzle he’s simultaneously creating and putting together. He leaves the center of the second floor open, connecting the two levels with a circular hole he can drop right through to pass between them. Just with building it, he isn’t sure yet how well he’ll be able to fly between the levels, but he can test that later.

It’s then that he moves on to the walls, using the first section as a guide to get the shape right. The sound of concrete quietly falling into place, over and over, is like a perfect mantra to keep his thoughts from taking over at any point. He can work without thinking, just building up based on what he sees and where it looks like things need to be. It’s much the same when he’s able to switch to glass, the blue tint catching the sun in just the right way as he turns the material in his hands.

He’d considered using red, when he first started, just because it’s what he knew. That idea didn’t live long, not when he wanted to leave the Nether and all of its colors far behind him for as long as he could.

The blue looks better, anyway. It matches with the beautiful shining sea on all sides, and when he looks through the glass, it’s like the colors of the sky and the sea are so much more vibrant when they’re layered together through its surface. He forgets sometimes just how different things are here, with all of the blue seeming to lead on into infinity as it stretches forever off into the horizon. It’s fascinating just how colorful and diverse the overworld is, everything from the sky to the stone far below all coming in so many different colors that all still work together perfectly. It’s with the builder part of his mind that he wonders just how hard it would be to incorporate all of the colors of the overworld into a single build and look even somewhat as good as nature itself seems to do with ease, but he’s pretty sure that would be impossible.

Grian barely notices the passing of time as he continues to build, filling in the glass as the sun ticks higher and higher into the sky. The only thing he takes notice of is the way the heat increases with the crest of the day, the sun bearing down on him relentlessly, though it’s not enough to drive him away somewhere cooler. He just continues all the same, filling in all the glass of the walls and moving on to yet another concrete floor, all of his focus pinned entirely on his work.

Everything else is an afterthought at the back of his mind, drowned out by the much louder thoughts of whether something works, or where to put the next puzzle pieces. That’s not to say he’s not paying attention to the world around him, though, and he finds himself pausing when he can hear the placing of blocks that aren’t his own. The sound draws closer from somewhere below, getting slightly louder with the subtle thunk of each block, and he turns, peering around toward its source.

That’s when Mumbo’s head pops into sight from below the half-finished floor, and Grian freezes as he watches the angel look around until he catches sight of him. There’s a moment of tension when their eyes meet, neither daring to move, while Grian desperately searches Mumbo’s face for any indication of what he knows.

The fact he’s here must mean something, but whether it’s good or bad, he can’t be sure.

Then Mumbo grabs onto the floor, beginning to pull himself up, and Grian doesn’t have to know the answer to scramble over and help him. The last thing he wants is for the angel to fall, and not even his anxiety can stop him from helping his friend up. Maybe it’s a good sign too, the way Mumbo doesn’t reject the help, instead gladly allowing Grian to take his hands and pull him to solid ground. But the fact he hasn’t said a word also scares him, and that doesn’t change even once Mumbo is standing with him; the angel just looks down at him, a soft look on his face that Grian can’t even begin to decipher.

“Mumbo..?” He can’t keep the fear from creeping into his voice, as much as he wants to. It seems to jar the angel out of whatever is going on inside his head, and he shakes it off, shooting him a sheepish smile.

“Sorry!” Mumbo’s voice is a single note too high, and he scratches the back of his neck nervously. It causes a sense of confusion to take over the demon, staring at his friend and searching for answers for his slightly odd behavior, but he can find none. There’s none of the fear or uncertainty he would expect if the angel were to find out what he is, only a kind of tension he doesn’t quite understand. “I was a bit distracted there. You’ve been busy!”

He adds the last line while turning, gesturing at all of Grian’s progress on his base, and the demon finds himself blinking and looking around. It’s the first he’s really tuned back in properly with a mindset other than builder autopilot, and he hadn’t realized at all just how much he’s actually done. Something about the angel still seems slightly off, but the mention of his base gives him a chance to grasp onto that, feigning confidence and trying to find some way to make this interaction feel more familiar and less like they’re on some kind of tightrope. He grins at Mumbo, letting whatever pride he feels about his build shine through to back it up.

“Well, I have to catch up to your base sometime, don’t I? I can’t do redstone, so I have to be able to compete somehow.” He adds the last part with a wink, grasping for their usual banter, though he can’t miss the way it seems to make the tension wrap around his friend even tighter.

Thankfully, though, Mumbo follows his lead. “We’re competing now, are we? And here I thought we were just friendly neighbors.” Even despite the strange tension, or the way the angel is standing more stiffly than he normally seems to, his voice manages to stay light. It makes Grian feel better, even if he’s still a bit confused about what’s going on with him. Maybe it’s just an off day for him?

“Well, it’s hardly a competition right now. You have a big fancy sphere, and I have,” Grian looked around, taking in and appraising his work, before looking back. “A two tiered cake. Or a blender. Or, maybe a coffee mug…”

That earns him a laugh from the other, the angel looking around and laughing more as he realizes Grian is right. “Oh my word, I’m so sorry, but you’re absolutely correct. It does look like a futuristic mug.”

While Mumbo stares down at the glass walls, half giggling to himself, Grian finds himself thinking about his worries from earlier. The fact the angel has come here, and is talking to him normally, is a good sign. Laughing at his jokes, participating in their usual banter, he can almost feel like everything is normal. He’s sure that if Mumbo knew the truth, or at least had been told the possibility of it by Doc, he wouldn’t be acting this friendly anymore. There’s still something he can’t quite place his finger on, something off, but he’s afraid to ask just in case it does have to do with what he’s hiding.

“Actually, Grian,” He freezes, wondering if Mumbo is about to explain exactly that. “I was wondering if you’d like some help. I’m not really a builder, but an extra set of hands never hurts, and I imagine this is going to be quite the big project.”

It’s not what he’s expecting at all, and Grian has to take a moment to register what exactly the angel just said. During his silence, Mumbo seems even more nervous, fiddling with his thumbs while purposely looking anywhere but the demon. It just makes Grian stare at him longer, trying to place what it is that seems to be wrong here, but it gives him no more clues than he already has. The angel just seems nervous, drawn in to his own head, but just as friendly as always. “Well, if you don’t mind helping, I’d enjoy the company.” Is what he ends up saying, speaking slowly and carefully. Maybe if Mumbo hangs around long enough, he’ll be able to figure out what’s up with him.

Mumbo’s face lights up, and finally he looks back at Grian. “Wonderful! Just tell me what to put where.” He says, and Grian nods, handing over a stack of concrete. The strange, thick air seems to increase for that moment, along with Mumbo hesitating to take it, but then he does and it levels back off again.

In all honesty, Grian is completely confused.

But building is simple and easy, so he just directs Mumbo toward the half completed floor. “See the floor below? This one’s just a copy of the same design.” The demon explains, and Mumbo nods. He sets to work right away, setting blocks into place with a jittery kind of energy to him, and Grian watches him for a moment. It crosses his mind that this is almost what Mumbo is usually like, with the occasional nerves or awkward tension seeping through whenever he isn’t entirely focused on dealing with the consequences of Grian’s occasionally idiotic behavior, except turned up to the max. There’s nothing new, no hidden emotions of any kind that he’d expect from the angel finding out he’s been befriending a demon.

After a few moments Mumbo glances back, almost seeming startled by the fact Grian is still watching him. “Am I doing this right?” He asks, again avoiding eye contact while chuckling nervously, and Grian suddenly wonders if the angel might be overthinking everything he does or says, just like he has a tendency to do.

“Yeah, that’s good.” He assures him, and watches more carefully out of the corner of his eye while absently placing glass of his own. The angel seems to act less weird as soon as Grian’s attention is off of him, his jittery movements slowing down to something much more like his usual way of working. It’s strange, and though he finds himself worrying about what the cause might be, it just doesn’t seem like the right reaction to be able to blame Doc and the demon thing for it.

Shaking it off, Grian shoves the thoughts from his mind and does his best to just go back to building. But even so, whatever is up with Mumbo doesn’t become any less obvious the longer they build, the angel clearly trying to focus more attention on the blocks in his hands than anything else. He almost seems to be stuck in his own head, occasionally pausing for a few moments, and glancing at Grian when he thinks he isn’t watching. Grian is careful to make it seem like he’s engrossed in his glasswork, though his attention is barely on it at all, more than a little distracted with just how differently the angel is acting.

Soon, Mumbo has filled in the entire floor save for the hole in the center, and he peers down it for only a moment before looking back at Grian. He doesn’t say anything, and from the corner of his eye it’s hard to tell what expression he’s making as he watches the demon work. Grian lets several seconds pass, waiting to see if the angel will speak up to him at all, but he doesn’t. That’s when he finally decides to turn his full attention back on the other, intent on finding answers for whatever this static feeling of hesitation hanging over the both of them is.

“Mumbo, are you okay?” He asks, turning quickly enough that he can catch the angel’s expression before he can realize Grian is looking at him. To say it’s a surprise would be an understatement. Instead of some sort of questioning or calculating look, or even one of veiled suspicion or anything remotely of the sort; Mumbo has a look more akin to something adoring, something soft and caring, bordering on captivated. It’s gone in an instant, replaced with a flush and nervously averted eyes, that hand going to the back of his neck and betraying his nerves yet again.

“W-what? I’m fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mumbo laughs, a jittery kind of sound that shakes too much to be genuine, and Grian doesn’t believe it for a second. It clearly isn’t something particularly bad, so it can’t be that he’s found out anything Grian doesn’t want him to know, but something must have happened to cause him to react with such nerves to Grian’s mere presence.

He doesn’t understand what is up with his friend, and it bothers him. Just last night they were fine, to the point Mumbo practically babied him in the aftermath of freaking out about Doc, and now it’s completely different. The angel is usually so honest with him, at least as far as he can tell, and if it’s just something making him a little bit nervous then why wouldn’t he just talk about it? If it was something bad, Grian would understand. But Mumbo clearly doesn’t hate him, so what else could it be?

“Did Doc say something to you?” He finally asks, unsure of anything else that could have caused this. Mumbo seems to freeze up at the mention, and Grian knows he’s hit the nail on the head. Turning more fully to face the angel, he can’t miss the way Mumbo’s expression flickers almost like he’s been cornered, or the way he takes a step back. It almost makes him think of the way he’d expect him to react if he knew Grian was a demon; except it’s worse, because he doesn’t know what he’s done to make his friend back away from him.

“Oh, you know, it was nothing much really..” Mumbo takes another step back, his eyes averted toward the sky to avoid catching Grian’s. 

His words sink in after a moment, the demon staring at him as they do. So Doc did say something? “Mumbo, if something’s wrong, I need to know.” Grian pleads, suddenly more afraid of Mumbo putting distance between them regardless of what the cause might’ve been.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just--” He’s cut off in an instant with a startled yell, disappearing from sight a split second later. Grian almost isn’t sure what happened at first, but then it slams into him that Mumbo took another step back and fell through the floor .

The instant the realization hits, he’s moving, tearing off after Mumbo and jumping down head first before his thoughts can even catch up with what’s happened at all. Luckily enough, the angel is only a small distance below him, staring back up with startled panic, and Grian is able to catch his hand and pull him close just before they pass through the second floor. It still leaves the both of them falling, and the floor approaching more quickly than he can do anything about, but Grian does his best to slow their fall with his wings. He has to flap like a startled bird to kill as much of their momentum as he can, but it’s enough that they only hit the floor with only enough force to drive the wind from their lungs and not kill them. They land in a jumbled pile of limbs, neither daring to move as their minds catch up with what just happened for several long seconds.

Mumbo is the first to regain his senses, sitting up slightly, though he doesn’t make it far with Grian half plastered over him. “Grian! You just-- that was dangerous!” He sounds breathless, his voice laced with disbelief. It makes something flare in the demon, and before he can reconsider, he’s sitting up and shoving his face into Mumbo’s to glare at him.

“You’re telling me that was dangerous?! You’re the one that fell! Would you rather I just let you fall and die?” He demands with his voice cracking under the emotion, and just as quickly as it came, the anger is doused into nothing and replaced with delayed fear. It starts to sink in that he’s shaking like a leaf, hands in a white knuckled grip on the front of Mumbo’s suit, and the angel is staring at him with wide eyes. Guilt starts to seep in on top of it all, and he has to look away, shame burning in his chest from losing his temper and probably making everything that much worse. “I-- I’m sorry.”

“What? No!” From where he’d been practically frozen still throughout Grian’s outburst, Mumbo’s hands find his face and pull him to look the angel in the eyes again. Now he can see that Mumbo, too, seems to feel guilty; his brows draw together and a concerned frown marking his face, wide eyes darting back and forth as he looks up at the demon. It isn’t until he feels gentle thumbs swipe over his cheeks that Grian realizes there are tears rolling down them, brushed away as Mumbo stares at him in a kind of guilty concern. “No, Grian, I’m sorry. I was being stupid, you have a right to be angry. Whether we can respawn or not, I don’t like seeing my friends die, either.”

“I thought I’d upset you somehow.” Grian whispers through the tears after a moment. He has to keep telling himself they’re both fine, it’s fine, but it still stands out in his mind that Mumbo backed away from him at all. His grip on the angel’s lapels tightens, his hands hurting from the force of it. “Or that I’d done something, or-- or Doc said something to make you not like me anymore, or…”

But then Mumbo’s arms move to wrap around him, pulling him close in a grip that’s almost too tight and yet exactly what he needs. It makes some of the fear ebb away, and he can bury his face into the angel’s shoulder, trying to calm his raging emotions. “I’m sorry, Grian. It was something Doc said, but I promise you didn’t do anything.”

He’s afraid to ask what Doc could have said to make Mumbo react to him so strangely, though if the way the angel’s arms tighten around him even more means anything, he can tell. With a heavy sigh, Mumbo rests his chin against Grain’s messy hair, his hands rubbing up and down the demon’s tense back.

“You’ve done nothing wrong, okay? It was more just… Doc is good at knowing exactly what people are thinking about, he can tell what’s bothering them. And, well, sometimes he likes to stick his nose in and help, in his own aggressive, roundabout way.” Mumbo chuckles, then, a noise that’s half amusement and half weariness, but Grian is more focused on the way he can feel the angel’s voice as he talks. It’s soothing, in a way he wouldn’t have expected. “I went to go tell him not to scare you like that again, but then he sort of turned it on me.”

“What did he say?” Finally, Grian can’t stop himself from asking for sure, and he pulls away from the close embrace to see Mumbo’s reaction. At first, Mumbo looks away, but he seems to remember what caused this entire situation in the first place and looks back to meet the demon’s gaze.

“Well-- Grian, have you ever felt like the way you feel about someone else might be selfish?”

It’s not what he’s expecting, to say the least. His slight hysteria is draining away with each passing second, now replaced with confusion as he takes in the words and stares at the angel’s face. There’s nothing but honesty on Mumbo’s face, and something else he still can’t place; it feels like there’s something important to what Mumbo is saying, something full of details that are just barely out of his capability to grasp. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like, you start to overthink things. Wondering if the way you see something is right, or if it’s only right for you, and if it would be selfish to drag the other person into it just because it’s what you want.” Seemingly struggling for words, Mumbo talks slowly, though he doesn’t look away from Grian again. There’s a shadow of uncertainty cast over his face, though his expression is soft and peaceful, like he feels better just for saying as much as he is, even if the demon doesn’t entirely understand the context. What he does understand, though, is the feeling of selfishness Mumbo is describing. It’s a feeling that hits close to home, and he finds himself nodding in agreement. “I guess it was just that Doc made me, well, a lot more aware of it. He seems to think there’s nothing selfish about it, but he’s not the one living through it, you know?”

“I understand what it’s like. Well, to be selfish, anyway.” Grian looks away, feeling the weight of the guilt settle fully back in on him, his stolen wings trembling on his back. “I can’t say I understand exactly what your situation is like. But I can understand being selfish, and hurting someone else because I was so focused on myself.”

It feels like he’s said too much, but he can’t take it back now. He can feel the guilt burning like hot coals in his chest, and he keeps his gaze trained on the other side of the room, afraid to look at Mumbo in case he manages to put the pieces together right then and there. It wouldn’t actually surprise him if the angel did figure it out finally, and push Grian off of him to leave and never speak to him again.

He wouldn’t blame him, if that did happen.

But instead, he’s almost startled when Mumbo’s hand returns to his face, just as gently as earlier. Letting himself be guided, he turns back to face the angel, unable to stamp down the fear he feels at the prospect of potentially seeing that betrayal he’s so afraid of. But Mumbo’s expression is just as soft as it’s been this entire time, if not more so, and it’s with a touch as soft as a feather that he brushes away some of the dirt still on Grian’s face. It’s a gesture that feels so caring, he doesn’t feel like it should be directed toward him at all, though he can’t ignore the way it makes his heart flutter.

“We’re both a mess, aren’t we?” Mumbo finally asks, and Grian can only nod. “Completely stuck in our own heads, and overthinking everything we do.”

Somehow, it makes him feel a bit less alone to realize Mumbo is just as bad at figuring things out as he is. He knew that anyway, considering the angel seems to be incapable of putting together the obvious clues that he’s a demon, but it’s interesting to know that Mumbo doesn’t know how to handle emotions any better than he does. He can’t imagine what it is that Mumbo feels selfish about, either, though he has the strangest feeling it has something to do with him.

It’s not something he’s going to push, though. If it does have something to do with him, he knows Mumbo will tell him eventually, just like he knows he won’t be able to keep his own secret from the angel forever. Neither are things meant to happen today, though, so Grian shoves them from mind and lets his head fall back to Mumbo’s shoulder. He’s suddenly exhausted, between the adrenaline of their fall and his emotional outburst, and all he wants is to be able to enjoy his friend’s presence while he can.

“Grian?” Comes the almost startled question, and Grian only answers at first by wrapping his arms around the other. Hesitating for a moment, he wraps his wings around Mumbo, too, and he doesn’t miss the way it makes the angel take a stuttered breath.

“Thank you for talking to me.” Is what Grian finally ends up saying. It’s not the full truth, but he can’t tell Mumbo about how he knows this kind of interaction will never happen again once he knows the truth. Mumbo doesn’t seem to question it, though, relaxing in Grian’s grip and bringing his hands up to rest on his back again. After another moment, he starts brushing his fingers through the feathers at the base of his wings, and Grian wishes things could stay like this even once Mumbo finds out what he is, and what he did.

He knows that’s too much to ask for. But the thought of everything coming to light, and Mumbo hating him, refusing to have anything to do with him when right now they seem so close, hurts more than anything else. As he holds on tighter, and Mumbo just continues petting his feathers in an attempt to drive the tension away, he wishes he could have come here without stealing his wings at all.

Chapter Text

With the sun rising high in the sky, casting long lights and shadows alike through the brand new windows and shining onto his flourishing little garden, he takes his time to take it in. The entrances to his base are far, far above now, the floor dropped to meet the bottom of the ocean and allowing him to see into the water all around. There’s more space than he knows what to do with, and part of him wants to just fill it with even more plants; but that’s something to plan later.

For the moment, he stares straight up, gaze trained on the tiny patch of sky he can see all the way through every floor of his base. The wings on his back twitch and flex of their own accord, seeming to know exactly what he’s thinking, and he carefully stretches them to their full span and back again. He’s gotten used to the way they seem to have a mind of their own, even now that they appear to listen to him more often than not.

As large as his base is, it’s necessary, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to even consider flying inside of it. As it stands though, Grian is determined to be able to fly in and out of here, even if just to see if he can. He’s hesitating, still unsure of how much he can really trust them, and especially since he knows exactly how far that drop from the top of his base is if they decide to abandon him midway through. But a deep breath steadies his nerves, and he drops into a crouch, allowing his wings to raise up over his head.

He’s committed, staring straight up with the internal mantra that he can do this. That’s the feeling that finally drives him from the floor and into the air, sailing smoothly upward and right toward the circular cutout in the ceiling. Letting any thoughts subside in place of focus, he’s careful to time his wingbeats to pause as he passes between floors, pulling his wings in as he sails upward from the momentum. It’s far easier said than done, and he has to allow himself to fall back through to try again when he times it wrong and gets a bit too close to hitting the floor with them, but then he’s right back and trying again. He’s filled with satisfaction when he does manage it, hovering in place right there in the second floor.

It leads him to push for the next floor, and soon enough, he’s dodging through the spaces he’s left and into the increasingly small rooms with more and more confidence. The higher floors of his base feel cramped, but there’s still plenty of room to spread his wings in them and with a final push, he soars through the very top of his newly built tower and high into the sky above. With the help of the ocean wind, he’s lifted far above the tops of both his base and Mumbo’s. It’s the highest he’s ever gone, clouds seemingly just within reach before turning to wisps when he reaches for them, and there’s nothing to stop him from tucking his wings in and twirling into the breeze.

Up here, so far from the ground, he can lose or gain as much momentum as he wants and still be safe. The sun is warm on his back, the fresh ocean air cool between his feathers, and below, the stark white and blue of his brand new base stands tall and proud against the backdrop of the infinite horizon. Light shines through its large windows, reflecting off of the clean surface of its white towers, and he can’t decide whether it’s too bright to look at or if he’s unable to look away. Either way, it’s the first truly grand build he’s ever managed to accomplish all of the way through, and it’s a fantastic feeling to see it in place as if it belongs. And really, it does; though he’s afraid to say it belongs here when he himself does not, he can’t find it in himself to think it shouldn’t be here. It draws a balance over the ocean along with Mumbo’s base, filling a space and tying in perfectly with the other builds just over on the nearby shores.

Even as he glides further and further away, spinning over and looking back every now and then, there’s nothing about it that he can complain about. The longer he looks at the balance of round levels with the sharp and straight edges of supporting towers, the more he’s sure that this is something he can be proud for the others to see. Whether he belongs here or not, and whether he will inevitably be removed once they know the truth, at the very least he can know he left a mark of his own. It’s something the other Hermits seem to do without a second thought, their personalities shining through their own builds all around him. Mumbo’s is sleek and efficient, betraying the redstone genius within. The stock exchange built into the cliffside is unforgivingly sturdy, with sharp lines and a grandiose feeling of pride that matches perfectly with Doc’s scary confidence. And even the statue on the shore, built by Xisuma himself, shows a meticulous care in every bit of its details.

Now that he’s looking, too, Grian realizes there are far more things here than he’s noticed. Some may be new, some may have just passed his notice; but the shopping district is beautifully populated, looking like a city all its own despite the small number of people in this community he’s joined. There’s a building that looks like a jar of ink with a quill poking out of it, a shop made of blue coral and fully waterlogged on the inside, and even a giant tree stump right on the edge of the island. Everywhere he turns, there’s something built by a different person each time, each with varying styles that all still seem to magically come together to form a cohesive place.

Landing on top of the tree stump shop, he takes a moment to sit and look around. Maybe it’s because he’s finally finished his own proper base, maybe it’s because he’s finally properly looked around without being in a near state of panic, but whatever the cause, he’s now really noticing the work of the other Hermits. He doesn’t know who all made what, and for just a moment, there’s a nagging thought that he’d kind of like to find out and talk to them about their builds.

But that can come later, if he decides he’s brave enough to talk to the ones he still hasn’t met. Just as quickly as he landed, he takes off again, lifting back into the sky with only marginally more effort than it took with the support of the ocean air. The further he looks, there are more and more things to see, even as the shopping district ends and more strict styles come into use. Flying over the island and looking at it all feels like a dream, being here and seeing the result of so many skilled people working together at once, and he’s almost in disbelief that it’s possible.

A stray thought crosses his mind for a moment, and he finds himself mulling it over, considering. He still can’t quite decide on Xisuma, but entertaining the theory for a moment that he knows what Grian is, he finds it hard to imagine knowingly inviting a demon into a place like this. It seems like such a delicate balance, a place so full of everyone’s hard work and countless hours, he knows he wouldn’t have invited himself if he was Xisuma. Shaking it off, though, he turns his attention back to the builds around him.

Somehow, he’s made it all the way over to the pirate district, and he’s even more floored by the things here. From the little island he passed by what seemed so long ago, Scar has sculpted a full on volcano, and Grian can’t stop himself from gliding over and darting right in through the top. He has to fold his wings fully to his body to fit through safely, but then he’s circling around, taking in the sight of the inside of the hand-built structure as he glides down. It almost looks like an evil villain’s lair, something he’d expect to see back in the Nether; but at the same time, it has more charm. Not a single detail is out of place, everything put exactly in the right spot to give the idea that this is some kind of pirate hideaway, and he isn’t sure he’d be able to pull off an effect remotely this good.

Once he’s sure he’s seen the most of what the volcano has to offer, he takes his exit through a cave entrance right on the water. It leaves him with a clear view of the next thing to grab his attention, back on the main island. Though he doesn’t know who, someone has set up a full coastal town all along the corner of the shore, with massive ships floating out on the waters near it. His eyes are drawn fully to the multicolored sails of the ship, the cannons on board, and as he passes by he’s amazed by the scenes created on the deck of the ship with armor stands. With just something designed to display armor, whoever owns this ship has created something that feels much more alive than just an empty build, everything displayed in a way to give the idea of a real crew going about their pirate lives.

Circling along the water to the opposite side, the other ship comes into view from behind the first. It’s a clear copy of the first, but its surface is a patchwork of dark woods and stained glass, and he can only marvel at how brilliant of a way it is to create a ghost ship. Even the sail above denotes its allegiance as a pirate ship, and it feels as if the two could fall into a battle at any point. It’s so well made, he almost expects to fall through the floor when he lands, or for a crew of undead to come shuffling out at him from below deck. But like everything else, it’s something made for the visual appeal, fitting into its environment with a mastery he’s never been able to witness before.

Grian is unable to resist the urge to run his hand along the banister as he walks across the deck, his wings folding back into their proper place as he looks around in utter amazement. There’s a barrel of water that he nearly passes by, and he almost jumps a foot in the air when something within the barrel makes an angry noise at him. Regaining his composure and peering in tells him it’s just a pufferfish, though, the cute little thing glaring daggers at him from its tiny home. He gives it a friendly wave before backing away, intent on exploring the other direction and leaving the fish to its space.

The barrel is pushed up against a section in the middle of the deck that he isn’t sure the name of, but it seems to house a small room just inside, and his curiosity is too much to ignore. Maybe it’s just the way the ship is so vastly unique, or so well portrays what it’s meant to be, but he’s well and fully fascinated by it.

Maybe even more so once he enters the room and finds nothing, seemingly just an extremely small, empty room, with no apparent use. But the key on the wall catches his attention, and though he knows he probably shouldn’t mess with things he doesn’t understand, he’s too far invested in his exploration to consider the potential consequences of his actions. He reaches out for the key, fingers just barely brushing across its surface.

The floor disappears in an instant, and he feels his heart lurch into his throat as he falls into pitch darkness. The space is too small to catch himself with his wings, and before he can really understand what’s happened, he’s landed in a pit. It’s too dark to see much of anything but the walls around him, and at first he thinks that’s the extent of the scare; that maybe, since this is a ghost ship, whoever made it decided to make it startling as well. But the groaning of zombies fills the small space moments later, making his feathers stand on end, and he scrambles for his trident.

They’re on him before he can get a hold of it though, and being slammed against the corner of the room makes him drop his pack. In the low light, he can just barely make out the red eyes of the mob that cornered him, and it’s all he can do to hold its clawing hands away from him with both of his. His weapons are hopelessly out of reach, and his fear skyrockets when he realizes it’s not the zombie that has red eyes; it’s the mask it’s wearing. The mask purposefully put on it to denote exactly who put this here, exactly who built this trap in disguise.

It’s a mask of Doc’s face.

Once he’s seen it, it’s impossible to miss, and suddenly his nightmares and delirious hallucinations of Doc leering at him from the darkness are all too real. He’s surrounded in monsters, pinned to a corner and holding back jagged nails and gnashing teeth with all his strength while being stared down by the person he’s most afraid of. It’s not hard for his overactive imagination and paranoia to take over, convincing him that this is what he’s bound for when Doc does decide to tell the others. The groans and growls of the zombies are drowned out by screaming, and he doesn’t even realize it’s his own.

The space is far too small, and as much as he tries to lean further and further back to escape from the monster biting towards his face, the wall behind him doesn’t budge or give him any more breathing room. Not that he can breathe much as it is, anyway, with the zombie’s horrifically hot and rancid breath wheezing across his face and twisting his terror with a layer of nausea. At his sides, the other zombies in the room are trying desperately to reach him past the first one, blunted nails waving and grasping wildly from behind it and pushing it against his grip. It’s to his ever-increasing horror that he realizes he can feel his strength in holding them back waning, the small horde far too much combined to keep away for much longer. He can feel his arms shaking from the effort, the inches between those teeth and his face decreasing incrementally with each passing second.

It’s a hopeless attempt, trying to keep them away. This trap was meant to be deadly and he’s well aware of it, staring into the fake eyes of the mask of someone he’s sure wants him dead. His heart lurches again into his throat when he feels a grip on his ankle, and before he can do anything to ground himself, he’s being yanked down under the horde. It leaves him completely vulnerable, back on the floor and weapons somewhere by his feet, and they don’t miss the opportunity. They converge on him at once, and though he’s still holding the masked one away from him as best he can, there’s nothing he can do about the one that decides to sink its blunt teeth into his leg. If he hadn’t been screaming already, he would definitely be now.

The thought crosses his mind to let go of the first one and accept his fate, if only to get it over with sooner. But it’s just as he’s about to do just that, his grip loosening on the masked monster, that the room floods with light. He can only see it past the outline of the zombies over him, but it’s there, along with panicked voices and a sword that appears right in his vision through the chest of the zombie he’s been holding back. It stops barely before his own face, but he can’t bring himself to care as the mob goes slack, the others similarly doing the same before they all vanish into smoke.

It takes him longer than it probably should to realize it’s over, unable to bring himself to move or calm his ragged breathing. He’s staring up at the figure left before him without really seeing it, without recognizing it at all, and he nearly jumps out of his skin when they crouch down and reach for him. But it’s not a monster, not another member of the undead trying to kill him, and as his mind registers fully the pale hands held up in surrender before him he can finally hear the garbled voices turn to words he can understand.

“It’s okay, Grian. Just breathe. Picture yourself on a vast beach, with a breeze as warm as the love of your friends and a sun as bright as the future.”

The voice isn’t familiar, and their words only serve to add another layer of confusion on top of everything. A second voice yells down the pit, then, no more familiar than the first. 

“As much as I love your weirdness Joe, he doesn’t exactly need some abstract metaphor right now!” Glancing up past the person in front of him and trying to see the entrance to this godforsaken trap only shows him the outline of someone else, and as he watches, they climb down from the edge and drop into the pit alongside the first. It’s easier to see them now that they’re down here with him, and with his screaming instincts slowly going silent with the danger gone, he can finally start to guess who they might be. “Hey, are you okay?”

It takes him a second to find his voice, and it comes out ragged and scratchy when he does. “Y-yeah.” Grian manages to say, all while staring at his rescuers and trying to place them. His attention is drawn to the white feathers poking into sight from the back of the first, accompanied by the all too familiar mark of purple on his face, and Grian can feel a jab of panic cut into him as sharp as a knife. The other Hermit digs in her pack and produces a bottle of water, drawing his attention back to her when she hands it to him, though she almost has to shove it into his hands to completely get his focus away from the angel in the room. He forces himself to pay attention to the bottle, and he’s able to sit up a bit straighter against the wall, tension bleeding away marginally as he drinks it.

“How the hell did you end up down here?” Finally, it hits him that this must be Cleo, the distant memory of Xisuma explaining to him who all of the Hermits were and what they looked like in case he didn’t meet them all right away crossing his mind. She’s looking around the trap pit with an annoyed look on her face, a pissed off sort of air radiating off her as she takes it in, and he can’t help but think this area must be hers. “First they try to show me up on my own ship, then they trap it, and catch the new guy in it? Not cool, guys.”

She continues grumbling to herself, vague threats whispered under her breath at whoever is responsible for this being here, while Joe ignores her completely, looking Grian over with a concerned gaze. “You’re a bit torn up. Is it okay if I take a look at that bite?” He asks, gesturing at Grian’s bleeding leg, and the demon can only mutely nod his assent. He’s more than a little distracted by the mere knowledge of what Joe is, unable to keep himself from staring at the very much angel features with fear sinking more claws into him by the second. Xisuma hadn’t explained the races of any of the Hermits, and it’s only now that Grian is realizing Mumbo isn’t the only angel after all.

“Grian,” He almost jumps out of his skin again when Cleo appears at his side, apparently having worn out her tirade and focused back on the moment while he was distracted. “Do you know who did this?”

He’s not sure if it’s the best idea to go around spreading names, but the memory of red eyes is impossible to ignore. “One of them was wearing a mask that looked like Doc.”

“Ugh, of course it was Doc and Ren.”

Joe pipes up, then, before Grian can question how Ren ended up involved. “Cleo, this is why we don’t go around changing signs. People find out, and then they build a ghost ship to kill you with, and then the poor new guy gets the brunt of it instead.  This is the universe trying to appeal to your morality, Cleo.”

“Listen, I’m an agent of chaos. That sign was asking for it, and the universe is not going to make me feel bad. It’s not. I refuse.”

Looking back and forth between the two, Grian can feel his confusion increasing with each word. To say this isn’t how he expected his day to go would be an understatement by far; almost getting killed by a scary caricature of Doc, that he probably wouldn’t be so surprised by. But then getting saved by this strange duo, finding out there are more angels in this community than just Mumbo himself, and whatever it is they’re alluding to now, is a bit much. “What… what is going on?” Grian finally asks, unsure of where any of this is going. Joe is the one to answer him, instantly, cutting off Cleo as she opens her mouth.

“Iskall pranked False, Cleo changed the sign to blame Ren, and now it looks like Doc and Ren built this ship to get back at her for it.” He says, quick and to the point, without looking up from bandaging Grian’s leg. “There’s more to it, but good luck trying to make any more sense of it than that.”

It’s not what he would have expected to hear, but really, the idea that he just so happened to accidentally wander into something deadly made by Doc instead of actually being targeted by him does make his nerves settle a bit. Something about it still rubs him the wrong way, though, and he finds himself looking up at Cleo with concern. “Doc put this here to try and kill you? Just, just for changing a sign?”

But she just shrugs, seemingly unbothered. “Last I heard, whatever False did to Ren because of my sign got him killed, so it’s only fair.”

He wants to argue that that’s no better, that False and Doc have both made deadly traps over something that seems so inconsequential, but he can feel his paranoia twist into knots in his stomach. Though he’s safe here, now, as far as he can tell, there’s a creeping feeling of dread crawling up his back at all of this. It makes him squirm in place, and he doesn’t miss the way it seems to catch Joe’s eye; the angel turns ever so slightly, gaze trained on Grian’s face even though his hands are still tying off bandages, and it fully sinks in that this is yet another person who may have the knowledge of figuring everything out. Mumbo is oblivious, Doc seems to be keeping things under wraps for now for unknown reasons, and the same goes for Xisuma; but there’s the potential here that Joe could pay enough attention to put the pieces together, and not actually have enough of an ulterior motive to keep it a secret.

“I uh, I think I should get back to my base.”  Grian finally says in a rush, the feeling of dread mounting with each passing second, an increasing urge to escape everything about this moment taking him over. Joe and Cleo exchange a glance, one that his paranoia spikes over, though it just ends in Cleo shrugging and holding out his dropped and forgotten pack toward him.

“If you say so. But just so you know, you’re welcome to come around anytime. I promise next time I won’t let Doc almost kill you, okay?” She says, her voice kind, though Grian barely hears it as he nods and takes his stuff back. Joe holds out a hand to help him up, and though he hesitates to accept it with a fearful stare, he can find nothing in the angel’s face to betray any hidden thoughts and thus no excuse to turn down the friendly offer without looking suspicious. Once he’s on his feet, he escapes as quickly as he can, leaving behind nothing but a scattering of feathers as the other two watch him go.

The outside air doesn’t bring him any calm whatsoever, all of the builds and the characteristics of the day lost on him as he flies back nearly in a straight line toward his base. As kind as Cleo and Joe seem to be, the idea that there are more angels here than he realized at first makes him more afraid than ever that someone will soon have the presence of mind to figure it all out.

Combined with the fact False killed Ren over just a prank, and then Doc tried to kill Cleo for changing the sign in the first place, he can’t help but wonder what they’ll do to him when they find out the extent of his crimes.

Chapter Text

By the time he makes it back to his base, he’s almost calmed down. Not nearly to the point as he was before falling into that trap, not remotely close, but far better than he was in an enclosed space with people he didn’t know. The fresh air on the way back is enough to clear his head, the feeling of the wind easily holding him high above the ground making it feel like he’s miles away from any kind of danger. As cloying as the salty scent of the ocean can be, it’s starting to smell like home, and his tense muscles start to relax as he breathes it in.

Flying into the entrance to his base and gently gliding back down to the floor is a move he accomplishes with satisfying fluidity, his wings seemingly perfectly happy to leave it up to him. They fold back into place once his feet hit the floor, and the last of his tension washes away so quickly it almost leaves him sleepy. Somehow, completing his base has made it feel more like his own, his space to retreat back to, and it’s enough to ward off most of the leftover fear from falling into Doc’s trap. He’s still worried about everything; from how many angels may be here that he just hasn’t seen yet, to the thought that the Hermits may very well have some kind of extreme punishment waiting for him once they know everything, and everything in between. But looking around his base, at the multicolored fish of all shapes and sizes swimming leisurely past the glass, at the long rays of sun shining in with dancing dust motes revealed in their light, and especially the little garden with his plants, it all brings a steadying sense of calm.

His fears are still there, wiggling around in the back of his mind like a bad dream he can’t forget. But that’s all they are, thoughts that he can overlook for the moment, thoughts that don’t have to send him into a spiral of panic if he doesn’t let them. Something will happen one way or another, eventually, but he doesn’t have to overthink it right now, instead choosing to take a deep breath and wait to see what happens. Besides, there’s a throbbing pain in his leg that he’s becoming more and more aware of with each passing moment, especially as he tries to walk across his base. Putting weight on the injury makes him grit his teeth and hiss, searing pain shooting up his leg until he leans back onto the other one instead. He doesn’t doubt that Joe did his best with it, and for once, his mind doesn’t immediately jump to suspicion or distrust. No matter how much he may worry about being discovered, he’s sure the angel wouldn’t do anything to make it worse, and the pain can be attributed purely to the undead.

Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t do anything to change just how much it hurts now that he’s standing on it. It’s with no small amount of discomfort that Grian hops over to his garden, easing down onto the raised dirt bed and looking down at his bandages. He can see patches of red already beginning to seep through, and it’s clear it’s much worse than he initially expected, though he can’t really be surprised by that. There’s not much to do about it for now, not considering the fact he doesn’t really have much more to use on it than Joe did.

In all honesty, he probably needs to do something about that. Keeping a store of potions and general medical supplies would do him well, but all of that requires adventuring at the most and going back to the shopping district at the least, and either way he’s not exactly in the best shape for walking at this particular moment.

So instead, he just shrugs to the empty room, and lays back into the garden. The plants are getting tall enough that he can see them in the edges of his vision while lying between the rows, though they aren’t quite tall enough to bury him behind swaths of green yet. It’s still a magical progression to him, though; he can’t help but think of covering the little seeds in dirt, pouring water over them as gently as he could, and somehow now they’ve actually grown into something tangible because of him. Reaching out and rubbing one of the leaves between his fingers, he can only think that it’s similar to building, and yet so much different. Building is about taking the individual pieces and putting them together into something whole, but growing plants is about taking the pieces and giving them the care to do that all on their own. He loves building, but his builds aren’t alive; the plants remind him more of the fish swimming outside, or the baby turtles he fawned over so long ago, except these are his responsibility rather than just something to see existing without him. No, the plants are growing under his care in particular, and he can’t help the swell of affectionate pride he feels at that thought.

It’s a nice train of thought, but he’s fidgety from pain, and his mind trails back away from the plants. Soon he’s sitting back up again, distractedly shaking dirt from his feathers, and it’s with a half thought that he wonders how his wings haven’t started disliking him again with how often he gets them dirty in this garden. He’s sure that if he got stolen by some awful demon and then repeatedly rolled in the dirt at their discretion, he wouldn’t be very happy. But they just fully let him fluff up and shake the loose dust off, giving zero indication whatsoever of the previous attitude he’d come to expect from them.

Wincing when the movement disturbs his leg and sends another wave of pain up it, Grian turns his attention back to the injury, pressing his hands against it in an effort to stifle the feeling. He almost wonders if he should try to find Mumbo, disconcerted by the thought of rotting undead teeth buried in his flesh, but he doesn’t particularly feel up to standing again. No sooner has the thought crossed his mind does he hear footsteps, thudding faintly on the floor of his base toward him, and he feels a wave of amazement at the sheer luck of the angel’s timing. He’s quick to turn, a sheepish look crossing his face knowing the angel won’t be happy he’s managed to hurt himself again. “Hey, uh, Mumbo--”

But it’s not Mumbo.

Grian can only stare, frozen in horror, at the way Doc raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him. His stance is purposefully nonchalant, casually leaning half onto the trident in his hand like a cane, but Grian knows better. He can see the obscured tension to the other Hermit’s frame, muscles poised to move in an instant, and he doesn’t like it. It’s a predatory kind of tactic, one used to lull the prey into a false sense of security, to distract from the real intent hidden behind some kind of fake olive branch.

“Hey there, Grian.” Doc grins at him in a way he knows is supposed to look friendly, and it only serves to make him tense up all the more. He can feel his heart pounding, echoing so loudly in his ears he almost can’t hear Doc, and he’s so afraid of what he might say, he almost doesn’t even want to. “Fancy seeing you here.”

It couldn’t be more fake, and they both know it. Doc came here, specifically to Grian’s base, specifically to find Grian. He doesn’t know why, and he’s afraid to find out. Though, he realizes that on its own isn’t nearly as terrifying as the fact that he’s alone, trapped and injured in his own base with nowhere to escape from the potential demon hunter in front of him. There’s no one else around, no one anywhere remotely nearby, and especially no Mumbo to keep Doc away from him this time. Even if he were to make it past him to fly away, the trident in his grip is a notable threat, and he isn’t inclined to do anything that will make him throw it. He knows he’s completely cornered, and Doc knows it, too. When he says nothing, staring up at the intimidating Hermit with a defensive glare, all it earns him is a wider grin as he leans down.

“Not so chatty, are you?” Doc takes another step closer, and Grian’s eyes are drawn like a magnet to the trident in his hand as he flexes his grip on it. He tries to swallow the rising anxiety in his throat, and he can’t. “And here I was hoping we could have a little talk. You know, like with Mumbo.”

“I didn’t ask him to do that.” Grian says back, instantly, and he doesn’t like the way it makes Doc’s eyes flash with something when he looks back at him from the trident. He can’t tell what it is, but it can’t be good, and he can feel his feathers puffing up in response to the chill that rakes down his spine.

“No, of course you didn’t.” Leaning ever closer into the demon’s space, Doc seems to know exactly what he’s doing as Grian tries his hardest to shrink back, but there’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing he can do to recover the lost distance, to keep the other out of his personal space, and he can feel himself shaking as he starts to freeze up. All the while, Doc is just leering at him, with an expression of something between amusement and smug confidence. “Because you don’t want him to know, do you?”

With the hunter looming over him and clearly with the upper hand, Grian tries even harder to shrink away as best he can. He doesn’t care about the way his feathers get yanked the wrong way as he sinks to the floor against the edge of the garden, or the fact he’s even more vulnerable as a ball on the floor than if he’d stayed sitting upright, all he cares about is getting away. But he can’t, and the incremental amount of distance added from being on the floor isn’t enough. Everything about this is too much, he feels cornered and unsafe for the second time today, and he can feel whatever amount of composure he had rushing away to nothing. “I don’t, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He tries to say, though his voice comes out weak and cracked.

“You know, Grian,” Leaning down, Doc gets just close enough to whisper in his ear, all pretense of a casual demeanor vanished from his tone in place of something much more serious. “You really should be honest if you want to make real friends.”

His words sink in like a lead weight, dragging Grian right down with them. In an instant, searing pain blooms in his chest, and he’s sure Doc has stabbed him until he looks up and realizes the trident hasn’t moved. But his limbs feel cold, his hands shaking so hard they almost don’t listen to him when he desperately grasps at his chest in search of the wound he’s sure must be there, only to find none. Above him, Doc’s expression changes completely, the other Hermit leaning back out of his space like he’s been burned.

“Grian?” His voice is distant, sounding like he’s been washed underwater, and the words don’t match with the movement of his mouth. Around them, the rest of the base seems too far away and yet too close all at once, all of the details seeming to disappear into thin air while Grian curls in on himself even tighter.

He’s so sure he’s been hurt, the pain in his chest pulsing in tune with the blood rushing in his ears, but he can’t find anything. It hurts to breathe, the air feeling far too thin, and it’s all he can do to try and get enough of it to clear his head, but it only serves to make the world sway even more around him. Everything else disappears behind a fog, but the crushing phantom grip of the undead come flooding in with it. He can feel the unnaturally strong grasp leaving bruises on his skin, blunt nails just seconds away from cutting crescents into him, and any attempt to shake it off just makes it seem to come back worse than before.

With his wings shaking violently on his back, they almost feel even more cold and disconnected than everything else, only driving home Doc’s words even harder. He keeps hearing them, over and over, and he crushes his hands against his ears to drown out the hunter’s taunting; but it doesn’t make it stop, doesn’t make him stop hearing them, doesn’t make it stop being true. It hurts, everything hurts, and it crosses his panicked and garbled thoughts that this must be what it feels like to be tried for what he’s done. The voice of the void trickles back into his head, the saccharine call of eternal nothing, backed by the terrifying winged figures he knows will come for his head once they find out where he’s gone. It’s a ghostly whisper, the cries of the fallen, eternally begging for mercy from their fates and their crimes, and he knows he is slated to join them. It makes his blood feel cold, a heavy pit of dread where his stomach should be, weighing him down with the undeniable fact that everything he’s done has been a mistake.

The phantom grip feels so real, hands wrapped around his arms and preventing him from moving at all. Trying to pull against them does nothing, not even a shred of an inch given when he tries to wrench himself free. His hands are trembling so hard he feels like he could split into pieces, his face is cold, and he can’t feel the pain in his leg anymore. It’s all overshadowed with the burning in his chest, the cascading waves of everything he’s tried so hard to shut away and ignore coming back all at once with a vengeance. The stark certainty of everything he’s brought down upon himself, mixed in with layers upon layers of guilt, and he can’t even be sure where this waking nightmare ends and he begins.

But then something seems to change, though at first he can’t register what it is. But the grip on his arms disappears, replaced by the much more grounding sensation of arms gently wrapping around him. Something about it is familiar, a comforting warmth coming with it, and he clings to it with everything he has. He almost feels like he can hide in it, wrap himself in whatever it is to hide from the crushing weight of his sins and lies. Something touches his face, and though his instinct is to flinch away, it returns even more gently and brushes away tears he didn’t even know were there. Everything around him is nothing more than shapes and crushing silence, but as he tightens his grip on the grounding warmth somewhere behind what feels like fabric, sounds slowly start seeping back in. It’s distant and distorted, but he can hear the words somewhere in it.

“It’s okay. Everything is fine, Doc isn’t here.” The voice is warm and familiar, with a deep, comforting rumble from how low the words are spoken. It makes him cling closer, burying his face closer to the sound and feeling the vibration of the words as they continue. “No one else is here. You’re safe, no one is going to take you away.”

He matches the pace of his breathing to the puffs of air he can feel ghosting over his hair, and slowly, the world around him starts coming back into focus. His wings are pinned to his back with so much force they’re shaking, his grip on fabric so tight his nails hurt, but he can finally breathe without it feeling like it’s getting caught in his chest. The pain there is fading, ever so slowly drifting away into nothing, and it’s undeniable proof that he wasn’t stabbed after all. He isn’t dying, Doc didn’t come to finish him off, everything is fine. He doesn’t need to guess to know who’s holding him, arms wrapped around him and holding him steady against the torrent of emotions. Though knowing who it is makes him aware of the strange reaction in his wings, the way they’re pressed almost painfully against his sides of their own volition, resisting any attempt he makes at trying to move them. He can feel the fading panic spike back up the harder he tries, his wings frozen on his back like lead weights disconnected from him entirely.

“Your, my--” He tries, voice catching in his throat, and he has to try again to get the barest bit of volume to escape him. “--wings,”

He expects to have to explain better, to find more strength to put into words, but Mumbo just moves one hand to brush over the feathered limbs, smoothing down the ruffled and puffed up feathers with a calming touch. “They’re fine, don’t worry. It’s normal.”

Grian isn’t so sure about that at first, but as Mumbo continues to pet over his feathers, he can feel them start to ease up to match the way the rest of his body is slowly going slack. Every one of his muscles is sore from how tense he was, and now he can feel the stinging agony of his leg again alongside it all. But it’s not nearly as bad as the leftover images in his head, of things he’s tried so hard to repress, of the words Doc left in his head.

Mumbo is trying to bring him back around, to relax him back to a normal level, he knows. But nothing can ease the lies still burning in his chest, the threat of punishment for his continual deception hanging right at the edge of his imagination. He can already feel himself being held out over the void, cold voices commanding him to repent, the glint of weapons being brought ever closer to right the wrong he’s committed--

“Grian,” The angel’s hands move to his shoulders, pushing him away enough to look him in the eyes, and Grian finds himself almost mesmerized by the way Mumbo is looking at him. It’s not much different than previous times like this, but with just how raw Grian’s emotions already feel, the amount of soft affection combined with concern on the angel’s face is nearly too much to handle. Especially once one hand rises up from his shoulder to trace the edge of his face, a gentle thumb just barely brushing over the fake markings. He can feel tears spring back up in his eyes just from the attention, a sob threatening to catch in his throat. “You’re thinking too much. Don’t worry about anything, okay? Just relax, everything is fine.”

Except everything isn’t fine, and Grian knows it. He’s just piling the deception up further with each day, with each new Hermit he meets, with each lie he has to come up with to avoid letting everything slip. The hand on his face is so gentle, Mumbo’s expression nothing but pure calm fondness, and it makes a feeling of strangled remorse bubble up inside him. He swears he can almost feel the searing pain trying to return to his chest, Doc’s voice bouncing around his head.

None of this is real. All he’s doing is toying with Mumbo, getting him invested in someone he can’t trust. He can’t help but picture all of this from the angel’s perspective, of waking up without a part of himself, without an answer why. Of meeting someone new, someone timid and afraid and so clearly in need of a friend, and choosing to be the one to make the effort of bridging the gap. He can’t help but equate it to his plants; the soft little sprouts of green that he’s already so attached to, purely from his involvement in their growth, and suddenly it makes so much more sense. Mumbo is just as attached to him, invested in his progress and growing fond over time, and it’s all going to smack the angel in the face to know the truth. That it was all a lie from the very beginning, that it’s this exact person who is to blame for what he’s been through; and most of all, that Grian has never had the decency to come clean, despite how much Mumbo deserves to know the truth.

Grian is shaking like a leaf in Mumbo’s arms, trembling even more from the thoughts circulating around his head. It’s all wrong, and the guilt is stronger than ever, threatening to swallow him whole. And really, he almost wishes it would; at least then he wouldn’t have to face the truth. But Mumbo deserves the truth, he deserves to know.

“Grian, you need to breathe.” The angel speaks up again, his voice painfully comforting, and Grian can finally feel something snap. His grip tightens in the other’s suit, trembling under the weight of it all, and he can’t hold it back anymore.

“Mumbo, I’m not really a--!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He doesn’t manage to get the words out.

In an instant, before he can understand what has happened, everything stops. The world seems to freeze in place around them, time screeching to a halt, along with every single coherent thought or word that Grian had. It’s replaced with nothing but the erratic pounding of his heart booming in his ears, fluttering within his ribcage like a bird trying to escape. Every feeling, every overwhelming emotion, everything weighing down on him, they all freeze and vanish in an instant, to be forgotten until his rational mind returns. He’s left with a blank mind and a twitchy set of hands he isn’t sure what to do with, completely and utterly frozen in place where he sits.

And it’s all because of Mumbo.

It doesn’t feel real. It can’t be real. But somehow, he knows it is, even if his mind hasn’t remotely caught up with what’s just happened or the whiplash of going from total panic to this. The angel’s hands are ever so delicate where they hold Grian’s head gently in place, his grip so soft it’s clear that the demon can pull away if he so chooses, and the touch of his lips is no different. The sensation is feather light against his own, not daring to be any more assertive than that, but it’s still more than enough to completely wash every single cohesive thought out of the demon’s mind whatsoever. All he can do is take in a stuttered breath, eyes drifting closed as he finally remembers how to function slightly.

He’s just leaning forward, moving on more instinct than actual thought at all, when Mumbo pulls away before he can return the contact and leaves him with personal space that suddenly feels far too empty. Blinking open his eyes in a combination of confusion and the faintest feeling of irritation at how quickly the angel moved away, he’s able to see the way Mumbo is pointedly not looking at him, his gaze trained firmly on the ceiling with a bright red flush across nearly his entire face. “Mumbo--”

“I’m so sorry!” There’s a genuine look of pure guilt in the angel’s eyes when he looks back down, worry written all over him, and it tugs at Grian’s heart. He doesn’t like the way Mumbo looks like he’s done something wrong, especially not when he’s pretty sure he just wants the angel to do that again. “I’m, oh my word I’ve made an absolute mess of this now, haven’t I? Here I had it all under wraps, even with Doc trying to butt in, and now I’ve just gone and forced you into this without even finding out if you were at all okay with it first and I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you chose to never speak to me again--”

“Mumbo?” Grian interrupts, especially as the angel starts trying to move away further in his rambling panic. He freezes immediately, tense as a rock, not daring to move until Grian continues. “Shut up.”

It’s wrong. It’s wrong and he knows it. But his rational thoughts, his paranoia and panic and tendency to overthink everything, have yet to fully return to him. All he cares about is whatever this is, whatever Mumbo has just started, and he wants more of it before he remembers why this is a bad idea. He can feel rational thoughts fluttering faintly at the back of his mind, and they feel heavy; something unhappy, something he doesn’t want to go back to yet.

There’s no hesitation as he grabs the angel by the lapels of his suit and yanks him back into reach, and he has just enough time to see the way Mumbo’s face turns even brighter before returning his previous kiss with far more force than the angel had dared to use. Grian doesn’t know what it is, or why he can’t resist, but it’s almost like he’s been waiting for this. Though nothing remotely close to this moment has ever crossed his mind, he can’t shake off the feeling that it’s exactly what he’s been thinking without knowing it. The way the angel’s hands find their way to Grian’s sides, shaking as he holds on just as gently as always, and the way he presses into the kiss with the most delicate affection possible, it makes a feeling of fondness overtake him that only further serves to convince the demon that this is something he’s wanted without even realizing until it literally hit him in the face.

Nothing else matters, not when he can feel Mumbo’s mustache tickling his face or the way the angel shudders as Grian tangles his fingers into dark hair and pulls him closer. He’s not even sure if he’s ever touched the angel’s hair before, but he finds himself mesmerized by its softness. Everything about Mumbo is soft, really, from his words to his voice to even his lips, and Grian wants to appreciate it while he can. A thought or two of exactly how much he shouldn’t be doing this, of how he’s going to regret falling into something he can’t have crosses his mind, and he pushes them away harder than he’s ever shoved a thought from his mind before. Instead he focuses on the angel, tightening his grip gently on black locks and pulling himself up higher to press closer together.

He almost feels like the world dips from under him when it does something to the angel. Mumbo’s constant, meticulous gentleness ticks back a notch, replaced by a kind of heated desperation in the form of his grip tightening around Grian to match the demon’s own. His delicate kiss turns into something firm and needy, all manner of restraint forgotten as he swipes his tongue over the demon’s bottom lip, and Grian can’t hold back his gasp, a shiver running down his spine. He takes the chance to deepen the kiss, claiming his mouth for his own, and Grian can do nothing more than melt under Mumbo’s touch. The angel tastes so indescribably Mumbo, like a sweetness with a faintly bitter edge that he honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it was redstone, and he doesn’t need to think about it to know it’s going to haunt him in the best of ways.

But he can only ignore the increasing amount of panicked thoughts crowding back into his mind for so long, and finally, Grian pulls away. They’re both left gasping for breath, satisfyingly lightheaded, and he wants nothing more than to pull Mumbo right back in and ignore his logic and fear forever. He knows he can’t; and that’s when he lets it sink in what he’s just done, and exactly how much worse he’s made everything. The guilt comes rushing back tenfold, and he pulls free of Mumbo’s arms, completely ignoring the pain in his leg as he rises and backs away.

“Grian?”

He’s made everything so much worse. What was it he was just thinking, about how Mumbo deserves the truth? And yet, instead of telling him, he’s taken advantage of his feelings. Grian doesn’t know what it’s like to care for someone else the way Mumbo seems to care for him, and he can’t be sure if the fluttering of his heart is from the same thing or if it’s just another lie he’s convinced even himself of. He can’t be sure if he truly cares, or if he only kissed him back out of convenience, or delirium, or some kind of cruel manipulation, and that thought scares him more than anything else. He’s a demon, he stole Mumbo’s wings, and now, instead of coming clean, he’s taken the angel’s feelings and given him the cruelest thing of all.

Hope for something more. Hope for a happy ending that he knows Mumbo can’t have, not with him around.

“I-- I’m sorry, I can’t, I…” Backing away more, his leg is like a drop of water compared to the pain in his heart at the look that crosses Mumbo’s face. The angel looks so tragically hurt, such a stark difference to the absolute heated adoration of only moments before, and nothing he’s felt before can compare to how much it tears at him to see Mumbo with such an expression because of him. He can’t tell him, not now, he can’t add insult to injury and tell Mumbo it was all a lie from the very start. He can’t, not now that he knows he’s accidentally stolen his heart, too. It feels like he should say something else, as if there was even anything he could say to make any of this better, but he just turns on his heel and flings himself into the air with such force it creates a cloud of feathers in his wake.

“Grian, wait!” But he’s gone, bolted through the entrance and disappeared somewhere into the sky, running away from the truth just like he has since the very beginning.

Chapter Text

It’s all wrong. He should have seen it, should have figured out why the angel really seemed so inclined to always be around him, to help him and take care of him at every turn, but now it’s clear. Mumbo sees more in him than he ever should, far more than he deserves, and though Grian can’t remotely understand why, what could possibly make the angel notice him of all people, it makes everything else make so much more sense. Suddenly all of the moments where the air between them would turn tense with something unspoken, the occasional awkward demeanor Mumbo would display, or the way he almost seemed to catch himself from saying too much; it wasn’t just Grian, it wasn’t his imagination and it had nothing to do with him being a demon. It was just Mumbo, catching feelings for a demon without knowing at all.

His wingbeats are erratic, just as incapable of holding a steady altitude as he is of sorting through everything he feels, and he really doesn’t care about the way he’s jostling himself around the sky. There’s the undeniable feeling that he’s thoroughly messed up, coating everything else in a layer of dread and regret. He could have handled everything so much better than he did, he could have kept a hold of himself, he could have actually thought about things before acting. None of this would have happened if he’d just held his ground against Doc, or if he’d kept a hold on himself and not given in to… whatever it was he gave in to. It was so easy to lose himself, to forget everything else and focus only on Mumbo, but what does that mean?

The angel’s feelings are obvious, and though it’s currently swamped by the absolute mass of negativity circling endlessly inside his head like a storm, there’s some tiny part of him that feels a strange sort of excitement at the thought that Mumbo really does genuinely care about him. But it’s drowned out by the absolute uproar that is everything else, the way his blood feels like it’s run permanently cold with the awareness that he’s made a mistake he can’t fix. This isn’t like taking the wings of a faceless person he’ll never meet, or keeping secrets in an attempt to cling to a life he was never meant to have; this is something he’s actively caused, something he specifically knew not to do, and yet he did it anyway.

And for what? He doesn’t know. Does he care the same way, or is he just using Mumbo? He likes the Hermits, he knows they’re good people and he enjoys the company of the few he’s encountered on good terms, but is it all just for himself? It’s true that he only came here for his own gain, he only took Mumbo’s wings for his own gain; does that mean he’s also only now creating friendships with others for his own gain, whether he thinks he cares about them or not? It twists his stomach into knots, just imagining that he may not even be aware of exactly how deep his deceitful ways run, but there’s no other way to explain it. He’s never considered Mumbo in this light before, never even thought about anything beyond friendship, but the instant the angel showed him that vulnerability, he took it and used it.

Is it because he’s a demon, and that’s why he’s done all of this? Because he’s just one of the creatures of the underworld, the ones the rest of the races hate and fear for the things they do? Or is it just…

Is it him? Is the problem with Grian himself, and he can’t blame all of this on being a demon after all?

The thought is punctuated with a sob wracking through his body, and he drops several feet toward the rolling waves below. Where he’d once felt free and able to leave his problems away on the ground, these are thoughts he can’t escape. They’re stuck firmly in his head, chasing him no matter how far he goes, and not even when he flings himself higher and higher into the sky can he get away. In fact, the higher he goes, feathers breaking through clouds and the ocean changing color behind a thick fog below, the more he finds he is alone with only himself.

Being alone had always meant being safe. But when all he wants is to turn around and find some way to make it better, to find any way to undo the damage he’s just caused and fix his mistakes, being alone only makes him that much more of a target for his own fears. There’s nothing to distract from what he did, nothing to take his mind off of the expression on Mumbo’s face when he left, but part of him also can’t help but feel this is exactly as it should be. The fact Grian is out here now, alone and struggling with remorse, is entirely his own fault. The angel is probably in a much worse state than he is, and he doesn’t want to imagine what he’s feeling, though he does it anyway. He imagines Mumbo is just waiting back at his base, struggling to recover from the whiplash of what he just put him through, while coming to terms with being rejected.

Because that’s what it was, right? He gave Mumbo hope, pulled him close and gave him a taste of the impossible, and then immediately wrenched it away in the cruelest method he could have used. It isn’t what he wanted to do; but isn’t it better to cut himself away now, before he can give the angel even more hope that there’s something to be had with the person he doesn’t know is the very thief he’s been wronged by? He doesn’t know, but he’s sure of one thing; what he’s experiencing now, the rolling turmoil of confusion and regret and so much else, is worlds better than whatever Mumbo must be going through.

So far up here above the clouds, he has to take a much deeper breath to calm himself before he plummets out of the sky completely. It doesn’t work, of course, but choking on the thin air for a split second is at least a distraction for that moment. He doesn’t know what to do now, he doesn’t know if he should turn back and-- no, he can’t just go back like nothing happened. He can’t face the angel after hurting him so completely. Doc crosses his mind for a moment, and it hits Grian like a wall that maybe he knew about Mumbo’s infatuation all along and was trying to keep him from getting hurt. That maybe he was only threatening in an attempt to be a protective friend, to keep this person he didn’t know from hurting the angel, to keep him from going through exactly what just happened. Maybe Grian had been wrong about him all along, and had been terrified for all the wrong reasons.

But if he went back now, and Doc chose to come after him for what he’s done, he wouldn’t resist. Not now, not after this, not when he deserves whatever the other Hermit may decide to face him with.

It seems even worse that it’s only now that he’s decided it’s too far. He’s been lying from the very beginning, caused Mumbo trouble since before they ever even met and then actively hid everything from them all, but only now is when it becomes too much? Only now, overtaken with the heart wrenching feeling he’s caused to himself through his own actions, he’s decided it’s gone too far? Is it because Mumbo got too invested, caring too much for him and only making it that much worse when he does find out the whole truth, or is it just because now he feels worse for letting it get to that point? Is it because he cares about how the angel feels, or is it because he stands to lose the first person he’s ever gotten close to?

At what point do the lies end, and the truth begins? He doesn’t know.

The ocean seems to go on forever, stretching continually into the horizon now in all directions. There’s no land, no people to speak of for who knows how far, and it feels both too far and not far enough at the same time. Part of him hopes the ocean never ends, that he’ll never have an excuse to land and sit still with the thoughts crashing around inside his head like a whirlwind, or maybe just so he’ll never have to turn back. Though he also knows he can’t go on forever, or even for much longer with the way his body feels weak from everything he’s been through.

His head pounding from the absolute pandemonium that is his own mind, and the trembling exhaustion long since settled into his muscles from the neverending whiplash this day has been, there isn’t anything he could do about the way he starts drifting back down below the clouds even if he did consciously notice it happening. It’s a slow descent, his wingbeats just getting gradually less powerful than the last, seemingly in tune with the way his emotions are slowly melding together into one big mass of something he doesn’t know how to deal with. It’s all too much, a culmination of things he’s afraid of combined with the newfound feeling that maybe there’s just something wrong with him, and it’s all just turned into an echo chamber of some kind within his own head. Thoughts and fears so loud, so many bouncing back and forth seemingly in a way that makes the same regret multiply a dozen times over, it’s as if nothing else exists at all. He can’t hear the wind, or the waves getting ever closer; only the shrill and shattered echoes of the voice he knows is his own, reminding him endlessly of what he’s done, what he’s lost, and what he can never have.

The frigid seaspray is enough to snap him back to reality enough to jerk upward, away from the water and shivering from the dampness left behind from it. Grian can’t be sure of how far he’s gone, but the weather is slowly souring along with his mood, the clouds above turning dark while the waves below him grow choppy and anxious. A stiff ocean breeze blows right through his sweater, chilling him down to the bone, but he can’t really care that much about it. He’s the one that put himself out here, after all; maybe it’s only right that he get caught out in a storm after everything that happened today.

But though he’s ready to just keep going until exhaustion inevitably catches up with him, considering there’s not much else he can do this far from land, fate doesn’t seem to be ready to let him just get swallowed up by the sea for coming this far out in a panic. It nearly blends in with the angry, swirling blackish green of the snapping waves, but he doesn’t miss the jagged spikes of prismarine brick jutting out of the water. They hold the sea at bay around a deep, open tunnel leading far below, the clear mark of someone’s base and very nearly reminiscent of Scar’s volcano in its shape. Who would set up camp so far away from absolutely everyone and everything else, he’s not sure; but he’s turned toward it and started gliding toward the open entrance at the top before he can consider it much more.

If he’s lucky, no one will be home. Maybe no one even uses this place, and he can just sit still until the storm passes over. He knows he can’t just stay away forever, but for now, all he wants is to run until his problems can’t keep up with him anymore.

The prismarine spikes and shapes are much bigger up close than they looked from the sky, and he can’t help at least giving them a cursory glance. They’re clearly hand built, but in a way that feels oddly organic, and it’s the one clear thought in his agonized headspace that he wonders if he could replicate it. Unfortunately, he spends enough time looking at one and wondering how it’s done that he doesn’t pay attention to the clearance of his wingspan as he passes between the spikes. Catching his feathers on the bricks sends him completely off balance, and in a split second he’s gone from a gentle glide to a haphazard and careening half scramble toward the floor below. There’s enough room for him to attempt to reorient and catch himself, but with the seeping chill in his muscles, he’s not able to right himself enough to land at all gracefully.

The mockingly shiny, reflective glass floor rushes up to meet him hard enough to wind him, and he comes in at enough of an angle that he rolls several feet before coming to a stop with his face down on the floor. The impact is enough to silence his thoughts for several long, blessedly quiet moments though, and he’s appreciative despite it being one of his worst landings he’s had since getting these wings. He’s just glad no one was around to witness it, at least, the echoing silence in here cut only by the thunder from outside.

“Oh my. Now, I’ve heard of knocking, but I don’t think you’re supposed to do it on the floor with your face.”

Nevermind. It’s only fitting that someone be here after all, after everything that’s already happened. When he doesn’t answer, only staying where he landed without moving a muscle, he hears the distinct click of approaching boots on the glass.

“You’re a pretty sorry sight if ever I’ve seen one, right now, Grian.” The voice is familiar, but he doesn’t really have the mental capacity to sort through the Hermits he’s met in an attempt to place it quite yet, and he still doesn’t want to move. “What’s happened with you? Come now, I know you didn’t knock yourself out, and the fact you didn’t vanish shows you aren’t dead.”

Grian’s only answer is a faint groan, though whether it’s to answer the voice or to show his displeasure at the worries and regrets starting to speak up again inside his head, is anyone’s guess.

“Okay, okay, clearly something is up. I’m going to help you up, and then you’re going to sit down somewhere more comfortable than the middle of my floor in the open rain, okay?”

An attempt to nod only earns him a reminder that he can’t nod with his face in the floor, but evidently it’s enough to show he’s listening. Firm hands grasp onto his shoulders and turn him over, and it’s once he can sit up with as little effort as possible that he looks up at the person with him. It comes as no real surprise to see Xisuma’s face, partially hidden behind that helmet of his as always, though it does nothing to hide the concern written all across his expression. It hadn’t been clear in his relatively light, nearly joking tone, but he looks beyond worried, and it only increases the longer he stares down at the demon.

It just makes Grian feel worse, though. It’s not quite the same with Xisuma, but with the state he’s in, just having the renowned leader’s focus on him feels like he’s continuing to perpetuate a lie. He doesn’t deserve the caring look pinned on him at his current state.

“You’re… you haven’t had a good day. Okay.” Xisuma doesn’t say anything else, only pulling Grian’s arm over his shoulders and hoisting the demon up with far too much ease. He’s warm, though, and it’s only now with that fact in mind that Grian realizes just how hard he’s shivering from the biting chill clinging to him. His feathers are uncomfortably damp, his clothes even worse so, and now that he’s back on his feet he becomes more than aware of the stinging pain in his wounded leg. It makes him lean on Xisuma more than he would if he had a choice in the matter, the faintest nudging feeling of more guilt at how much the leader is having to hold him up, but it’s still far better than trying to walk on his own.

The open sky disappears from above as Xisuma guides him into the dug out rooms of the base, and Grian does his best to focus on the decor around them instead of the pain in his leg or worse, the bubbling regret only barely hidden behind his mask of exhaustion. It’s much, much darker in here than any other base he’s seen, or any base he’d dare to build; the long shadows in the corners and near the ceiling unnerve him with the threat of potential danger, his zombie bite twinging just from the memory of what those shadows can bring. But somehow, Xisuma’s base seems to be perfectly safe. Despite not being entirely flooded with light like his or Mumbo’s, the thought of the angel sending a pang of hurt through him, they seem to be the only two beings in the entire place.

Aside from the notable feature of the shadows, he finds himself staring into the glass floor in particular. With an intricate design built below its crystal surface, it gives the illusion that they’re walking on air itself, betrayed only by their own reflections mirrored back at them on its face. And it’s no wonder Xisuma seemed concerned the instant he got a good look at Grian, either, with the way his hair is sticking in odd directions and the defeated look on his face. Even he can admit he looks like a bedraggled chew toy, which, considering the zombie encounter this morning, isn’t all that far from the truth.

“Here we go.” Xisuma shifts his grip, carefully helping Grian to sit down on an Ender chest in his storage room, the only raised surface in sight. Everything else is recessed into the wall or floor, a dappled pattern of various colors of shulker boxes that resemble the creeping storage monster back at his own base a bit too much despite how meticulously arranged they are. It’s still far more organized than his, though, and in a split second Xisuma has opened one and returned with potions and bandages because he probably actually knew which shulker he keeps those in. “Alright, give me that leg, you’re bleeding through.” The leader settles comfortably down onto the floor without waiting for a response, probably knowing he won’t get one, and turns his full attention onto the red soaked bandages half coming loose. They pull free of the wound with just a gentle tug, falling easily into Xisuma’s waiting hands, while Grian winces at the sensation as they separate from what dried blood there is. It’s an odd angle to the demon himself, and he’s not particularly interested in leaning down just to watch the other Hermit work, so he can’t be sure how the injury is looking. Whatever state it’s in, though, is enough to earn a faint whistle from Xisuma. “Ooh, okay, well that’s not exactly pretty, though I suppose it explains all the blood. How’d this happen?”

“Zombies.” Grian surprises even himself when he answers, and Xisuma looks up at him instantly, looking more than a little relieved at finally getting a response. His voice is rough, crackling from the emotions wreaking havoc on him.

“Zombies, eh? How’d you get yourself into that one? The little ones are usually the ones to go for legs, but these are full sized bite marks. So unless you were trying to fight them standing on your head, it must’ve been quite the kerfuffle.”

Xisuma turns back to the demon’s leg while he chatters, and though it’s hidden behind just a friendly demeanor and joking words meant to fill the silence between them, Grian is sure the leader is also fishing for answers as gently as he can. He doesn’t sound like he’s hinging on a reply, but the interest is there, and it’s with an uncomfortable tension returning to the demon’s limbs that he realizes he probably won’t be able to keep the whole story away from him. The turmoil that is his emotions is still quietly raging on within the confines of Grian’s head, desperate to escape somehow.

It’s only made worse when Xisuma pushes up on his ankle, forcing Grian to lock his knee and bringing his injury into his own line of sight. It had actually looked better with all the blood pouring from it earlier, just before Joe obscured it from his sight by bandaging it, but now that the bleeding has ceased to more of a slow trickle there’s nothing to hide the ripped muscles. He has to look away with a shudder, and Xisuma makes a sympathetic noise. “Yeah, it’s not pretty. That’s okay though, I’ve got good potions that should at least help enough so you can walk.”

“It was Doc.”

The words escape Grian in a rush of air that sounds like a hiss as Xisuma pours said potion over the injury, the thick substance bubbling on the surface and somehow feeling both relieving and painful at once. Xisuma doesn’t turn his attention away from it, either, though another note of interest ticks onto his tone of voice. As well, Grian almost feels like he can hear some kind of unease along with it in the lilt of the other’s words, though it could just be his mind playing tricks on him. “Doc? What did Doc have to do with it?”

“He didn’t mean to. It was… a prank, I think.” Grian’s voice is barely above a whisper, shaking from the sensation of his wound forcibly stitching itself back together from the potion. It’s far more powerful than the one Mumbo had used on him back with the Guardians incident, and though it’s not really the most important thought on his mind right now, he can’t remember a recipe for any potions that should work this quickly.

Xisuma only hums back to show he’s listening, and it’s only once he feels the leader begin wrapping bandages around his leg that Grian turns back to look at him. He seems focused on what he’s doing, the chatter gone by the wayside now that he knows more about what happened. Grian just hopes that’ll be the end of it, that he’ll get to just up and leave once Xisuma is done with him, and he won’t have to admit everything else that happened. The physical pain has eased off substantially now from his help, but it only makes the emotional pain that much more noticeable, and he has to force himself not to think about it too much.

If he thinks about it too much, he knows he’ll end up right back in the state he started in before he got here. Right now, at least, he’s seemingly calm enough that he can just brush everything off as being from his injury, but he won’t be able to if he gets caught right back in his emotions again. So it’s with that incentive in mind that he tries to shove the negative thoughts to the back of his mind, tries to make himself appear to be feeling better even as regret burns through him like a flame when he thinks of Mumbo again. It’s a futile effort, really; everything comes rushing back with a vengeance the harder he tries to hold it back, emotions he can’t even identify at this point twisting his heart into knots. It’s all so wrong, and he just wishes this day had never happened, the cold dread weighing on him knowing there’s not going to be a good way out of his problems this time.

“Grian?” Xisuma’s voice is soft and concerned, drawing him back out of his thoughts as quickly as he fell in. With the medical supplies forgotten on the floor, the leader has sat up on his knees and taken hold of Grian’s shoulders with a firm, steadying grip. “It’s okay.”

Violently shaking his head, the demon can feel the dam breaking. “It isn’t. It isn’t okay at all. I--” He cuts himself off, burying his head in his hands and trying to will away the tears threatening to rise right back up again. He doesn’t want this, he doesn’t want Xisuma or any other Hermits to see him in this state and feel bad for him. Mumbo is the one they should be feeling bad for, the one they should be comforting and being there for, not him.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure it isn’t as bad as you think it is.” Xisuma tries to say, but Grian just shakes his head again. It’s easier to pretend he’s on his own with his face hidden behind his hands, but it doesn’t make the twisting, jabbing feeling in his chest any easier to deal with. Xisuma’s grip on his shoulders doesn’t leave, grounding him in place in a way that makes him feel less alone, and that only makes it hurt more because he should be alone.

“I messed up, X.”

It’s all he can manage to choke out, trying to pull away from the leader’s supportive hold on him. He thinks it worked, at first, when Xisuma lets go of him. But it’s just to pull his own hands away from his face and into an equally as reassuring grip as the one before, giving Grian no choice but to look at the patience on the other Hermit’s face with tears streaming down his own. “Tell me what happened.”

“It’s Mumbo. I didn’t mean to, I didn’t want to hurt him, I--”

Concern overtakes Xisuma’s expression like a landslide, but he doesn’t let go of Grian’s hands, doesn’t back away or look at him with any kind of hatred. It’s like he’s waiting, choosing to know every detail before he takes his support away. “How did you hurt Mumbo?”

“Doc was there and I just, I panicked, and then Mumbo was there and he was just so caring and he’s always caring and--” His words come out in a jumbled rush before his voice closes off, tears rolling down his face even heavier as the too-fresh memory plays out in his head. He has to fight through it to say more, his voice dropping to a strained whisper through the emotions digging into it. “And he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, and he deserves to know, and I-- I was going to tell him, I was, I swear,”

“And then why didn’t you?”

If Grian’s voice wasn’t already as quiet as it is, he’d have lowered it more, unsure of whether he’s hesitating from the shame or from some kind of shyness. He doesn’t know if he should be telling Xisuma about any of this, either, but whether it’s a good idea or not, that’s what he’s doing. “Because Mumbo kissed me. And I… I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell him, knowing he feels that way, knowing he cares, and it’s all based on a lie, and, and--”

“Grian, listen to me.” Xisuma’s grip on his hands tightens, drawing his attention firmly to the unwavering, serious expression on his face. He listens as best he can, interrupting Xisuma’s words only with sobs he can’t quiet. “Just because Mumbo doesn’t know everything, doesn’t mean it’s based on a lie. He cares about you for you , not for some image you try to portray yourself as.”

“But he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what he’s getting into, he doesn’t know I-- he’d feel differently if he knew what I’ve done.”

“Is that why you didn’t tell him?”

It gives Grian pause, an uncertainty seeping into everything he feels. Is that the reason why, after all? Did he back off from telling Mumbo the truth, not because he was afraid of hurting the angel more, but because he doesn’t want him to stop caring once he knows? Does it all just circle back around to him, again and again, and everything he’s done is just for himself? The thought makes Grian nearly freeze, his tears easing off some with a sense of numbness as he tries to understand his own intentions. “Am I using Mumbo?” He finally asks, barely any volume to his voice at all, almost afraid to look up at Xisuma.

A weighty sigh escapes the leader, then. It’s a world-weary sound, one that makes it sound like there’s just as much weighing down on his shoulders as there is on Grian’s. He lets go of the demon’s hands and for one terrifying moment, Grian thinks he’s done with this conversation, with him; but he just stands up, pulls a shulker out of the floor, and sets it down so that he can sit beside Grian.

“I don’t know all of the details, but I don’t think it’s quite the way you’re picturing. Why do you think you could be using him?”

“Because--” Grian stops himself, shuffling the wings on his back. He took Mumbo’s wings, hid his identity and used it all to come here at the angel’s expense. Xisuma seems to know all about it, or at least more than he’s letting on, but Grian is still hesitant to admit the truth to him in full in case he doesn’t actually know. Especially now, with the state he’s left Mumbo in, he’s hesitant to admit the full truth just in case the Hermit leader chose to send him away right now. He doesn’t want to face Mumbo, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to just disappear and leave everything as it is. “I, well. What if I just… what if I only want him around for my own gain? He helps me, he’s nice to me, I like it when he’s around. But how do I know if I really care about him, or if I just… think I do? Because of those things?”

An expression he doesn’t recognize crosses Xisuma’s face, increasing his worry tenfold. He’s afraid to hear some kind of confirmation, of words agreeing with his fears, and he looks down to avoid the look pinned on him.

“Grian, that’s called friendship. Appreciating Mumbo’s company doesn’t mean you’re using him. He’s just being nice and helping out of his own accord, isn’t he? He’s choosing to do those things, because he wants to be around you and he wants to lend a hand if he can. You’re not forcing him to, and I bet you’d do all the same for him, wouldn’t you?”

He doesn’t have to think twice to answer. “Of course I would.”

“Good. Now, is it because he showed his feelings to you that you’ve started worrying so much about this? Do you feel like you have to feel the same, or maybe you feel like you’re taking advantage of him if you don’t?”

The demon has to stare down at the floor for several moments, trying to piece together his answer. “I can’t.” Is what he finally goes with, torn between how much he likes being around the angel and the knowledge that Mumbo doesn’t know the whole story. It’s the only answer that makes sense, the only thing he can say as truth; he can’t, whether he cares the same or not, it’s not even an option, so it doesn’t matter.

“Why can’t you?”

“Because… he doesn’t know.” It’s the only answer Grian can really fall back on, the only thing he’s sure of. Mumbo cares about him, more than he’d expected, and there’s nothing he can do without hurting the angel because of it. He can’t tell him the truth, tell him it was all a lie from the start; but he can’t go with it, and just let the truth come out later anyway and make it even worse.

“Grian, it sounds like what you’re telling me isn’t necessarily that you don’t feel the same, but more that you think you can’t because he doesn’t know everything. That if you just let this progress and accepted his advances, you’d be in the wrong for purposely keeping him in the dark.” Xisuma readjusts himself on his improvised seat, resting the bottom edge of his helmet on his hand as he thinks. “You’ve gotten yourself into quite the little tangle, it seems. But whatever you do, whatever you feel, I think you should tell Mumbo the whole truth, and let him decide for himself whether to forgive you or not.”

But Grian is already shaking his head, burying his face back in his hands again. “I can’t. I wasn’t thinking, okay? I kissed him back. I kissed him back and then I told him I couldn’t do this and then I ran away.”

“Okay, maybe not the best course of action,” Xisuma concedes, and Grian just groans. He knows that much already. “But it’s not the worst, either. I think even Mumbo will understand how conflicted and confused you were feeling, he won’t fault you for giving mixed signals. But you need to talk to him.”

“I can’t. He’ll hate me. He’ll feel so betrayed, X, how could I even try to tell him now?” Again, Grian wishes this was all just a bad dream, that none of it had happened at all. “He’ll know how much I’ve hurt him, for my own gain, how much I’ve lied to keep it a secret. And now, he’ll know that I knew all of that, and I knew it would hurt him to give him hope, and then I did it anyway and then I just left--”

“Grian, enough.” Just as the endless guilt is trying its hardest to suffocate him, Xisuma reaches out, yanking him into a hug as firm as his voice. “ Enough. You’ve made a few mistakes, sure, and some of them may have affected others. But the important fact is that you’re remorseful, okay? You feel bad for what you’ve done, and you’re sitting here going on and on to me about how Mumbo feels. I think that alone is enough to prove you genuinely do care, whether you fully understand how much or in what way yet or not. You can assume the worst of yourself all you want, but all you’re proving to me now is that you care more about Mumbo’s wellbeing right now more than your own, and trust me, people who use others to fulfill their own greed don’t care like that.”

Xisuma’s tone leaves no room for argument, his arms wrapped firmly around Grian in a way that even the overly anxious demon can’t help but relax some, the pressure giving him a sense of security that makes the panic subside. Part of him wants to keep arguing anyway, but to what end? The Hermit leader seems to have a better understanding of, well, everything than Grian does, and deep down he knows he’s right.

“Everyone has a past, Grian. Every single one of the Hermits has come from something they’d rather leave behind, you’re not alone in wanting to be known for who you are now than who you were. Believe me when I say no one here, especially not Mumbo, will fault you for it when you do come clean about the things you haven’t told them.”

Sighing, Grian nods against Xisuma’s shoulder, and for the first time in what feels like hours, he finally feels some of the tension draining away. He’s still worried, there’s still the weighty feeling of guilt dragging at him from the heartbroken look on Mumbo’s face when he’d left, but Xisuma’s presence alone gives off an air of reassurance. It’s no wonder he’s the one the others look to for guidance, silencing their fears with logic and understanding.

“Give it time.” He continues, aware that he’s gotten through the thick cloud of uncertainty in Grian’s head. “Right now, you’re both going to be running high on emotions, and neither of you are going to say what you really mean if you go back now. Wait until you’ve calmed down, wait until Mumbo has calmed down, wait until you both really know what you’re thinking, and then go talk it out. Besides, I think you need more time to figure out how you really feel, too; and if that’s what you have to tell Mumbo, that’s okay, too. He’ll understand. I promise he’ll understand. I know him, he isn’t the kind of person that would blame you for any of this.”

“Thank you.” Grian breathes, taking his words to heart and feeling the way it makes the wrenching grip of fear loosen its hold on him. Then he pulls away, beginning to feel a new kind of anxiety at just how much he’s invaded Xisuma’s space by coming here out of the blue in a state like this, but the thought is just as quickly thrown out in a panic when the sound of something sharp on glass rings in his ear instead. He nearly jumps out of his seat, startling away from the noise, and it immediately dips into a feeling of dread at the sight of a faint scratch left on the edge of Xisuma’s helmet. The leader looks just as surprised behind the visor, one hand coming up to investigate the mark left behind by Grian’s disguised horns.

As if to prove the fact he knows more than he’s letting on, though, Xisuma just laughs. “Well then! I suppose that’s one way to lighten the mood. Occupational hazard, I suppose. But more importantly, how are you feeling?”

Blinking, Grian almost isn’t sure what to think of how quickly and easily he brushed it off, as if getting accidentally scratched by a disguised demon is something he does often. But it’s probably best not to draw more attention to it if Xisuma isn’t, so he just shrugs weakly, trying to find a way to describe the mostly muted, exhausted emotions put to rest for the moment. “Better?”

“Well, you’re not unresponsive and bleeding on my floor in the rain anymore, so I’d say that’s a start.” Xisuma’s voice has taken on the lighter tone from earlier again, and he stands from his seat on the shulker box, beginning to pick up the previously forgotten medical supplies all across the floor around them. Grian watches him go about it, the way he puts them all back in the same shulker they came from or how he meticulously puts potions stacked on one side and bandages stacked on the other, and wonders how in the world he has that kind of patience. It’s then that one of the things he said earlier crosses his mind, and as much as he’s sure it might not be the best idea to go poking into things, he’s curious.

“What did you mean about the other Hermits coming from things they want to leave behind?” He asks, carefully watching Xisuma for any sort of reaction. There is none; only the continued organizing of his things, and a faint hum as he thinks about his response.

“Well, everyone had to come from somewhere. All of us are from different places, different communities, and types of lives. Some Hermits would rather leave their pasts in the past, much like I have no doubt you do. But they wouldn’t be the same people they are today, if they didn’t have the histories they do.” He turns, then, just enough that Grian can see the amused look in his eye from behind the visor. “They’re not my stories to tell. Though I will say… I think you’ll find Doc’s to be ironic, once you hear about it. Some experiences are not so unique as you would expect.”

He’s not sure how to respond to that, or the way Xisuma seems to find the thought entertaining. The leader just continues on, putting the shulker he moved back into its proper place in the floor, humming quietly to himself. Grian feels like he could ask more, more details on the vague things he tends to say, but his thoughts are interrupted by the sound of wings flapping before he can put it into words. It’s a familiar sound, but not when separated from himself, and he finds his gaze snapping back to the main room as it grows closer. The only person he can picture is Joe, knowing he’s the only other still-winged angel Grian has met, but that isn’t who glides into view.

In a move that puts anything Grian even thinks he could do to shame, she flies in from the entrance in the main room and right through the doorway to this one, without ever catching on the floor or the walls around them with her grand wingspan. Water from the rain outside spills off of her drenched form when she lands, making a puddle on the floor that Xisuma makes a face at, though she completely ignores it in favor of wiping her goggles dry. “X, I have a message from-- oh. Hello.”

“Hi?” Grian tries, not remotely sure how to handle meeting another angel today, and she doesn’t look particularly comfortable with him there either. Xisuma looks between the two of them for a moment, no doubt catching onto the uncertain tension between them.

“Grian, this is False. She’s the resident messenger when we need other Hermits to know things more quickly. False, you know about Grian.”

“I do. I’m surprised we haven’t met before now.” She nods gently toward Grian, and after a moment of hesitation, reaches out to shake his hand. He’s quick to accept, afraid of offending her, especially once he realizes she would still be towering over him even if he were to stand up.

“Nice to meet you.” Grian says, quietly. Her grip is stronger than he’d have expected, and he’s genuinely glad she isn’t purposely being intimidating like Doc did. It’s almost a relief when she turns away, focusing firmly back on Xisuma, and handing him a note out of her pack. The paper is entirely dry, and Grian realizes her pack is too, the surface waxed to bead off water and protect the contents. The leader takes a moment to read over the note given to him, expression giving away nothing, though Grian doesn’t look very closely. Whatever it is, it’s none of his business.

“What’s that?” False asks after a moment of silence, and they both look at her in time to see her point at the scratch on Xisuma’s visor. Grian’s heart drops. “That’s a pretty good gouge, X.”

“Oh, nothing, just a bit of a misjudgement. Anyway, tell him I’ll be joining you soon. I’ll come through the Nether once the rain here stops.” Xisuma says with ease, casually tucking the note away, False nods, and Grian sighs in relief. She turns to leave without another word, though she gives a polite farewell wave to Grian as she goes. The demon finds himself watching her closely to see how she handles taking off, especially straight upwards into a thunderstorm, but she does it with such ease he feels like she’s gone in a blink.

He almost feels like he needs lessons from her, really. She makes flying look easy .

“Well then, looks like I’ll have to be going after the storm.” Xisuma shoots him a friendly smile, at least Grian thinks he does, though it’s hard to tell behind the helmet. Then he’s back to the wall, rifling through shulkers seemingly looking for something, and Grian spots him gathering sugarcane and eggs as he goes. “But until then, have you ever had cake?”

Chapter Text

He’s unsure of what to feel as he lights down onto the polished concrete of his own floor. Well, that isn’t entirely true; he feels so many things at once, he isn’t sure which is the strongest thing, or even what he should be feeling. What he does know is that there’s a strange feeling of adrenaline as he peers into his own base, gaze scanning the floor below desperately, though whether it’s out of fear or anticipation he can’t be entirely sure.

After all, Xisuma was right about the fact that he needs more time to think. There’s still a layer of guilt that permeates over everything else in his mind, and he doesn’t know yet what he’s actually going to do or say or what he even really wants, but that doesn’t mean he can just avoid Mumbo completely. The leader’s advice in saying he can even just tell the angel he doesn’t know yet, and to give him time to decide, is sound enough. With all of the extra things such as the fact he’s actually the thief behind Mumbo kinda not having wings anymore, or the fact he’s been a demon in disguise all this time, it’s not quite as simple as just that. It’s not really about whether he feels the same or not, but at the very least, giving him time to sort through everything and decide the best course of action with the least emotional damage would be the best thing he can do at this point.

Grian doesn’t know what sort of outcomes will be available, he’s honestly pretty sure it will just come down to him having to come clean and face the void waiting for him, because the only other option will be to keep everything a secret and go with whatever his feelings turn out to be. But that’s cruel, and selfish; he doesn’t want to just continue lying at every turn, hiding who he is and letting the other Hermits and Mumbo in particular grow close to someone they don’t really know, after it all. All he’s ever wanted was to be free of the Nether, but now that he is, now that he’s at least experienced some fraction of a life he was never meant to have, he’d much rather face the consequences of his sins than to become well and fully what he’s always hated.

Because, after all, he can’t undo the things he’s done. But maybe, at the very least, he could own up to it all, and let justice be served. Would that make up for it all? Would that be enough, then, to free him from the ever-present guilt? He doesn’t know. In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t; but maybe it would mean something if he did. Maybe Mumbo wouldn’t blame him so much, for all he’s done, if he chooses to do the right thing at the end.

It might be wishful thinking. But those are thoughts for another day, anyway, a day that is yet to come. Whatever he decides to do, he needs to find Mumbo first, and placate the poor angel’s nerves. It was beyond cruel to leave him in such a state, to play with his emotions with such whiplash effects, though there wasn’t much else he was capable of doing at the time and there’s nothing he can do to change any of it now. What he can do is at least talk to Mumbo, just like Xisuma said. For all his mystery and vague speech, the leader is right, and his advice isn’t something Grian is inclined to ignore.

Maybe it’s because he has a goal now, a checklist of things he needs to do, that he can avoid the fearful discomfort ever present in the back of his mind. The guilt and remorse aren’t quite as bad now that he’s out, the wise words of the Hermit leader echoing louder in his head than the insecurities of his own, and he’s searching for the one person he needs to make things right with. It’s easier with a clear line of sight, knowing that before anything, he needs to find Mumbo and talk to him. He needs to apologize. Then he can ask for time.

And then he can spend as much time as he wants, shoved in a corner with his endless conflicting thoughts, to decide whether he wants to continue being the demon under all their noses preying on their kindness, or come clean about it all.

But it’s easier said than done, it seems. His base is entirely empty, and he feels a strange sense of disappointment at that fact. There’s no Mumbo waiting around here, not patiently sitting right where he left him or even anywhere in sight, though he supposes that’s only fair. It’s been hours , the sun long since gone for the day, and he’s been on a full flight across the ocean and back again in that time. Mumbo wouldn’t have stayed that long, especially not knowing if the demon would be coming back at all after the way he left. In particular, considering what state the angel’s emotions must’ve been in, it might’ve hurt to see the empty base around him combined with what could only be described as a panicked rejection.

He’s pretty sure he understands exactly what that would feel like, looking around at the emptiness now. It’s all the space he so desperately tried to create in a panic earlier, and now, it isn’t what he wants at all. It brings a torn feeling of remorse back up to the surface, a rippling of anxiety at the sudden irrational fear that maybe he won’t see Mumbo again; that he’s well and fully messed something up here beyond repair, and the angel won’t want to face him at all, not after the way he left. It stings the longer he looks around at the tall, vast white walls, the echoing silence of nothing within them, and he has to turn away. There’s no doubt his base is empty, not a soul within sight, and his gaze trails up to the glass sphere Mumbo calls home.

It stands equally as tall and proud, backlit through the glass of its base by the moon rising in the sky, and he takes off into the air toward it. Maybe it’s his wings; maybe it’s the paranoia, or some kind of instinctive sense, but for reasons he can’t be sure of, he’s absolutely not expecting the angel to be at his own base at all. The entire area just feels completely empty, isolated, in a way that he could almost convince himself the entire world is deserted if he hadn’t just been with Xisuma recently. Even then, maybe somewhere during the trip over the ocean, he’s found himself in a world alone; that’s the feeling he can’t shake off as he delicately lands on the smooth quartz floor of the sphere, the shadows of the night too long as they drag from the objects within. Everything is coated in a sheen of silver moonlight, reflecting off of the pond and bleeding the color from the trees, and for the first time, the chill of the night air bites at his skin far harsher than it ever has before. Just like his own, it is silent, standing deserted and alone without its creator to be found. Grian feels his stomach twist as he takes it in, his nervous anxiety settling in place like a discomforting blanket cloying to his shoulders.

With a hopeless sense of curiosity, he finds his attention turning to his wings. They sit still and comfortable on his back, unmoving unless he tells them to, and curling them around to his front to stare at the feathers in the silver glow from above feels nearly as natural as moving limbs he’s had all his life. Though they’ve reacted to Mumbo’s presence before, they give no indication of him now, and he relents that it’s a foolish idea to think they’d be able to locate him anyway. He can’t be sure what comes over him, or why he does it, but he reaches out and plucks one of his own feathers before folding his wings back into their place. He barely feels the pain of it pulling free, and they don’t fight him, they don’t complain about the lost feather; but they don’t have to. His attention is well and fully focused on the white fibers, nearly glowing in the moonlight as he turns it over in his hand, unsure of why it has his attention so raptly.

But just like clockwork, as the moments pass on from the second he removed it from himself, the feather turns black in his hand.

With a stuttered breath, he lets go of it and turns in an instant. Mumbo’s base is empty, as is his own, and the only place left he can think to look is the shopping district. The ocean rushing to meet him as he carelessly steps off the side in his haste is a distant thought, wings flaring open to catch him while his mind is entirely elsewhere. He forces the feather from his mind, not in the right space to figure out why his glamour faded from it. It doesn’t matter right now, anyway, not when he’s feeling an increasing need to just find Mumbo and apologize as soon as he can. He doesn’t like this clinging feeling of emptiness, as if everyone else has disappeared in his absence, and he misses the angel’s company already even if he doesn’t deserve to think that way after putting himself in this position in the first place.

But flying out over the shopping district, scanning the paths between the dozens of shops, gives him nothing new. Just like Mumbo’s base, their colors are bled away by the moon, everything coated in a layer of silver that only makes everything feel that much more lonely. Though it’s notably less empty here, courtesy of the monsters of the night creeping around in the shadows and eyeing him as he passes overhead. It becomes increasingly clear that he won’t be spotting anyone from gliding overhead, not a living soul to be found on the streets between shops, driving him to land and begin looking into each one individually.

Paying no mind to the arrows regularly whizzing past his head, only absentmindedly carrying his trident in a white knuckled grip just in case, the feeling of wrongness only continues to build with each shop he ducks into. Again and again, he’s met with pristine shopfronts, signs and listings just as they should be and stock in place but with no one in any of them. Why he’d even begin to hope Mumbo would just happen to be out for a stroll, in the middle of the cold and monster infested night just to get some shopping in, he’s not sure. Maybe it’s because this is the last place he can check; he’s already been to both of their own bases, and he’s just come from Xisuma’s. The only place left that he knows to look is here, and it’s that desperation that makes him double back and check every single corner of every single shop.

Because if he doesn’t find Mumbo here, then what is he going to do? For all he knows, the angel could be hiding from him, avoiding him out of emotional turmoil worse than his own. All he wants is to make that better, but soon enough, he’s faced with the conclusion that he won’t be fixing anything tonight. The shopping district is as cold and empty as everywhere else, and he has no choice but to finally come to a stop on a random street as that realization sinks in.

The night is dangerous, the district littered with things edging toward him with intent, but he can’t be bothered. He doesn’t know what to do now, or where to go. Mumbo isn’t here, and he really has no choice now but to sit back and wait for the angel to find him instead, if he chooses to do so at all. The thought of going back to his base, even though the dozen phantoms swirling and screeching above are a clear indication he needs to sleep, only brings with it an uncomfortable feeling. Some part of him doesn’t want to go back, knowing he’ll just keep looking out his windows at the empty base beside his own and wondering where his friend has gone, wishing he’d had the presence of mind to make better choices earlier.

How long he stands there, refusing to go home and instead descending back into his own chaotic thoughts, he can’t be sure. But eventually he’s drawn out of his reverie with a start when a pair of red eyes appears directly in front of him, making him wrench backward out of instinct. It’s not a swath of green or even the looming, intimidating presence he’d expect from a creeper or Doc, though; the red is accompanied by a mop of blonde and a wide, blessedly friendly grin.

“Grian! Just the man I wanted to see.” Tango practically beams at him, his voice too loud and too sudden for the dreary loneliness of the shopping district only moments prior. It leaves Grian reeling, trying to catch up with the sudden change from being swamped in his own melancholic thoughts to being faced with Tango’s seemingly boundless energy. “You look like you need a distraction, and I need an accomplice. Come with me!”

“Wh--”  Before he can protest or even question exactly what’s going on, Tango takes his hand and begins dragging him over to the blonde’s rocket shop, out of the night air and away from the gaze of the creatures of the night. He can’t really bring himself to protest, anyway; Tango is the first person he’s seen since he left Xisuma’s place, and it’s a relief just to see he hasn’t suddenly found himself in a world entirely alone. As well, he’s more than a little bit curious about why the other Hermit has suddenly grabbed him and blockaded them both into the rocket shop, or why he seems to double check that no one is around before turning back to Grian again.

“Sorry, it’s safer in here. And I don’t want the other guys to overhear any plans.”

That only makes him more confused, though, and Grian squints at Tango as if that will make anything he’s said suddenly make sense. “‘Other guys’? What are you talking about?” He asks slowly, and Tango’s face lights up with realization.

“Oh, right! You’re kinda out of the loop, aren’t you?” Tango nods to himself for a second, looking away while making gestures with his hands that Grian realizes is counting to himself after a moment. Then he turns back with a flourish, shooting the demon a wide grin that he’s beginning to associate with Tango’s general existence. “So basically, there’s a… well, there’s a bit of a war breaking out.”

Grian blinks. Once,  twice, then attempts to voice his confusion. “I, what?” Because surely, Tango doesn’t mean an actual war. Not here, not with these people. War is something that happens back in the Nether, between the fortresses when someone says something the other doesn’t like, or someone steps on a bit of land somebody else doesn’t want them on. It’s not something that would happen here, with all these people who are friends, right? But then his mind drifts back to what Cleo said; that there had been misunderstandings and deadly pranks beyond the one he’d experienced, and his heart sinks.

“Yeah, I’m not sure where it started, but everyone keeps pranking each other in this crazy cascading effect and we’re starting to get teams forming from it all.” Tango explains briefly, and then sidles closer, the vibe of someone who’s trying to be coercive clinging to him. “Now, I hear you’ve gotten caught up in some of it… something about a zombie with Doc’s face, I hear? And we can’t just let that go unpunished, you know. Guys like us gotta stick together, so how about we--”

“Tango, I don’t want to get back at Doc.” Grian interrupts, shaking his head. The other Hermit looks at him like he’s crazy. “I don’t like deadly pranks. He might’ve caught me in one but that doesn’t mean I want to return the favor, that’s wrong.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’ve got it all wrong.” Tango grins again, waving a finger. “We’re not going to kill Doc-- we’re going to hit him where it really hurts, all without doing anything actually bad or with any lasting effects.”

“I’m really not sure that’s such a good idea.”

“Listen,” Throwing an arm around his shoulders and tugging him close, Tango makes an expression at him that can only be described as an I know what I’m doing look. Grian just raises an eyebrow at him from under his grip. “I like mischief. And I’ve heard about you; I’ve heard about the eggs, I can tell you like mischief too. And I can tell you’ve got a lot on your mind, huh? A lot of stressful stuff, things you can’t stop thinking about?”

Is he really that easy to read? “I… guess you’re right there.”

“See, so you do need a distraction. And trust me, mischief is the best distraction you could ask for, so instead of standing around here in the shopping district looking like a lost puppy, how about we go mess with Doc? No death. Nothing mean. Just, be complete and total nuisances for what he did to you. What do ya say?”

“Well…” To be entirely blatant, a distraction sounds great. He knows he’s only in the situation he is because of his own actions, but even he can only handle the back and forth overthinking in his head for so long. And really, it’s been so long since he’s gotten to pull a prank, especially anything more than just covering Mumbo’s base in chickens. Not to mention, Doc did nearly get him killed, and as long as they only annoy him… “Okay. Let’s prank Doc.”

He tried to resist. That’s his excuse, if anyone asks.

Immediately, Tango’s face lights up even more, if that’s even possible. He throws his hands in the air, now practically vibrating where he stands. “Yes! Oh this’ll be great, he won’t know what hit him.”

“What exactly do you have in mind?” It hits Grian that he probably should have asked that question before he agreed to get involved, but it’s too late now.

“Oh, we’re gonna rob the stock exchange.”

Yeah, he should’ve asked.

“Isn’t he, you know, extremely protective of that place?” Grian asks, more than a little unsure about the idea of trying to mess with something like that. Couldn’t they just hide chickens in his base? “I don’t want to steal from him. And he’d know it was us and I don’t really want him tracking me down to my base again.”

“Wrong again, my new friend! We’re not gonna steal anything, we’re just gonna put it just out of sight of where it belongs. And,” Pulling his pack off his shoulders, Tango sets it on the floor of the shop with a dull thud, and it’s only now that Grian realizes how full it looks. When he pulls the bag open and Grian peers in over his head, he sees it’s full of… clothing? Is that a wig? Tango looks up at him from the floor beside it, a sparkle in his eyes. “I have costumes.”

Okay. Grian likes costumes. He hesitates for only a moment longer before joining Tango on the floor, glancing between the other Hermit and his bag of disguises with newfound excitement. “I’m convinced. What have you got?”

“Well,” He reaches in, pulling out the wig Grian noticed along with a set of goggles. “My idea is that we’ll dress up as other Hermits, which will just make everyone else even more confused about what’s actually going on or who’s on what side. So I have a False disguise.”

“You’re going to dress up as False?” Unable to keep the amusement out of his voice as Tango struggles to fit the wig onto his head, seemingly having to tug it in odd directions to get it to sit on his head properly, Grian tries to picture him as the slightly intimidating angel woman he’d just met. It doesn’t quite fit, which only makes it more entertaining.

“Yeah! Listen, False is my neighbor, I think I know her well enough to do a good impression.” Tango claims, fighting with the bangs of the wig before giving up on them for the moment. “Plus, since we live in the same district, it’s less telling that I’d go back there after we leave. Which brings me to your disguise,”

Shuffling around in the bag some more, Tango’s voice turns vaguely tentative towards the end, as if he’s unsure of what Grian’s reaction will be. He understands why as soon as the other  Hermit pulls out a fake, recognizably familiar black mustache, one that immediately reminds the demon of why he’s out here in the shopping district in the first place. It makes him aware of the cold anxiety in the pit of his stomach, the regret still crawling under his skin, and he immediately shakes his head as firmly as he can. “I’m not going to pin blame on Mumbo.”

Thankfully, Tango just nods with understanding, putting it away again. “I thought you might say that. That’s why I also brought a back up, even though it’s not as good of a cover story as Mumbo is.” He digs around some more and pulls out a fake grey beard, one that Grian immediately takes because it looks soft. It is.

“Who’s this for?” He asks, putting it on and then reveling at the ability to pet his own face.

“That’s Cub. I’m not sure if you’ve met him, but he and False are friends, so he’s a probably okay backup plan even though you don’t live anywhere near him.” Tango explains, with the demon nodding in response. He hasn’t met Cub personally, but he does remember seeing him with Scar on his first day here. Stress and Iskall were making fun of them, if he remembers correctly. After a second, Tango pulls out a lab coat to go with the beard, and Grian is able to push the issue with Mumbo from his mind in favor of taking it. “So, ready to be disguised and cause mischief?”

Technically, Grian is already disguised if his glamour counts for anything, and he almost wishes he could make a joke about being double disguised. But he just nods, rising back to his feet so he can figure out what to do with his wings and a lab coat. He realizes after a second that Cub doesn’t have wings, anyway, so he just pulls it on over top of them. In the reflection of the rocket shop’s windows, he looks vaguely like he has pillows stuffed under the coat, with feathers sticking out from under the hem by his feet, but it’s probably fine.

When he turns his attention to Tango again, he’s already nearly finished putting his on as well, tugging on a pair of gloves while the goggles are partially askew on top of his wig. His outfit looks like he’s ready for a heist, the dress shirt and suspenders lending well to the idea of a bank robbery, even if he looks a bit rumpled with the fact his usual outfit is still on underneath. Grian, personally, is choosing to ignore the fact he has a red sweater showing from beneath the lab coat, making him no better.

Yeah, they’re definitely going to get caught.

“Okay Tango, give me your best False impression.” Grian asks, waiting expectantly. Tango pauses for a second, freezing in his hopeless attempt at fixing the wig’s bangs, before nodding and clearing his throat.

“Hello Grian, I’m False!” He tries, failing miserably as his voice cracks on every other syllable at the pitch he attempts to speak at. It sounds nothing like the angel he’s mimicking, and he hasn’t even finished speaking before Grian has to lean against a wall for support, laughing hard enough he forgets how to breathe for a moment. Tango joins in, laughing at his own inability to get anywhere near close, before speaking again in his normal voice. “Okay okay, your turn! Try to be Cub.”

Gasping for breath, Grian nods, forcing the giggles from his system. It takes a second to think of something considering he barely knows Cub, but after a moment, he stands up as straight as he can and puts a hand to his bearded chin. “Hello Tango, my name is Cub and I like making lots of diamonds through clever and possibly underhanded ways.”

Tango snorts trying to hold back a laugh, with chuckles interrupting his speech as he replies back with, “Better than my False, I’ll give you that.”

“So now what?” Grian asks, fidgeting his wings under the coat. It’s already rubbing at the feathers in a way that makes them itch, and that alone is incentive enough to get moving.

“Now,” Tango makes one last ditch effort to make his wig cooperate, the goggles on top only going further crooked from the attempt, before giving up and hoisting his pack back into its proper place on his shoulder. Then he removes the blockade from the door, letting in the cold night air. Even with the sweater and the coat, it’s almost enough to make Grian shiver. “Now we head to the stock exchange and pull a heist.”

He leads the way out into the night, Grian following quietly along behind. There are still mobs out and about, especially in the shadows off of the main pathways, which also happens to be the route Tango chooses to take. Zigzagging between buildings and mostly choosing to skirt along the outer edge of the district as the cliff rises up beside them, their weapons become practically glued to their hands as his path leads them right through probably every monster out tonight. And Grian doesn’t envy the mobs he sees Tango fight, or the way they only barely get to hiss at him before they’re disappearing into smoke around his heavily enchanted sword. Absently, he considers the fact he should probably get a sword too; but he likes his trident.

They cling to the wall of the cliff as they approach the stock exchange, Grian glancing repeatedly back out to the rest of the shopping district as they go, but it continues to be just as empty as it was before Tango arrived. If they’re lucky, it’ll stay that way, and no one will be witness to them skulking around or sneaking in like they are. Tango joins him in glancing around one last time before darting up to the white pillars and inside, Grian right on his tail.

Inside, the walls rise high to the ceiling and Grian can’t help but find himself looking up in awe, gaze traveling over every delicate and impressive bit of quartz craftsmanship in the building as it rises up in the form of carved pillars to support the ceiling. The floor is a wonderfully contrasting dark oak, only partially obscured by the rug leading the way down the hall, and he finds himself wanting to hang around and inspect it all more closely. He hadn’t ever considered that Doc may be a builder like himself, but looking around at what the man has accomplished with this building, they seem to have more in common than he’d thought. That probably wouldn’t make Doc like him any more than he does, which seems to be none, but at least if they ever got trapped in a pit together he’d have something to talk about? Yeah, that’s about as irrational of a thought as they get, he thinks.

He doesn’t notice when Tango pauses in front of him, too preoccupied staring at the quartz around them to pay attention to the fact he’s stopped walking, and Grian nearly runs right into him before following his gaze. They’ve come to a large door, or at least, it might be a door? He’s honestly not sure, it’s no kind of door he’d ever be able to create.

“This is the part where having an accomplice comes in handy.” Tango tells him, before wandering off to the left side of the door to some kind of mechanism. Glancing to the right tells Grian that there is another of the same kind of mechanism mirrored on the other side, and he follows the other Hermit’s lead, walking to it. “Doc and Ren have designed this door so they can only get in if they’re both here. We just have to spin these key things at the same time until we hear the door unlock. Ready?”

“Ready.” Grian nods, mostly to himself since Tango isn’t looking at him. When he hears the other start to count out loud, he follows his lead, spinning the mechanism at the same time as Tango’s verbal counting. How this opens the door, or how Doc managed to create it at all, is completely beyond the demon. Somehow it seems to work, though; on the seventh turn he hears a clicking noise from within the wall, though instinct tells him to back away to the center of the room just in case it explodes. From there, he’s able to watch as the door opens, almost magically disappearing into the walls around it and causing him to gawk at it in wonder.

“Never seen a piston door before, eh?” Tango chuckles at him, then grabs a handful of fabric from his lab coat and tugs him past the door in a bit of a hurry. It’s after a second and a bit of picking his jaw back up off of the floor that Grian realizes he’s probably in a rush to get to the other side before the door closes again on its own.

They’re then met with what seems like a dead end, but Tango nudges him into the corner and then presses a button, closing yet another door behind them and leaving them trapped in a tiny box. At first Grian pauses, looking around in confusion at where this could possibly lead, almost expecting the floor to drop out from under them and plunge them into a pit at any moment. But to his surprise, while the floor does move, it suddenly lurches upward instead of dropping from under them and the only thing that keeps Grian from losing his balance and falling face first into it is Tango. He seems to expect the demon’s bewilderment at all this redstone whatever-is-happening, laughing as he catches Grian by the shoulders.

“It’s just an elevator, don’t worry.” He laughs, especially as the floor lurches in an oddly unexpected way and Grian clutches to his arms in a panic. It’s followed by a cheery little tune playing from somewhere all around them, and the demon looks around, though he can’t find the source of it. “Ah, see, there’s elevator music too! This place is fancy.”

“This place is witchcraft.” Grian wheezes back, more than a little bit out of his comfort zone in this enclosed space that just so happens to move on its own. But Tango’s grip is grounding, and he’s nodding like he understands.

“It’s okay, the rate of failure of Doc’s redstone is… uh, well, that is to say, this piece is tested and finished, so it’s perfectly safe. Oh look and here we are!” He adds the end part in a rush as the ride ends, barreling out of the elevator and taking Grian right with him before the demon can question what he means by redstone failures.

They stumble into another long hall, and more than anything, Grian is just glad to be back on a solid floor. It’s the same up here as it was downstairs, as well, with tall carved pillars of quartz and the dark floor under their feet, and the walls are lined with lockboxes all the way to a vault door at the end of the hall. As soon as they’re steadied against the fact the ground under their feet isn’t moving of its own accord anymore, Tango lets go of him and walks straight for the vault, ignoring the lockboxes entirely. “So, what are we here for… exactly?” Grian finally asks, peering through the bars to one of the boxes while Tango fiddles with some kind of lock on the floor.

“Those boxes just have stocks, I think. We don’t care about those. We’re not here to take their paper.” He explains, tapping on the note blocks. They do nothing, and he taps them again, in a different order. It’s an action he ends up repeating over and over, forcing his way through every possible combination, while Grian curiously peers over his shoulder. “What we want is to get into the vault where the diamonds are. That’s how we’ll really get to Doc.”

“I thought you said we aren’t going to steal anything?” The demon finds himself asking, suddenly a bit worried about Tango’s actual intentions here. What did Tango have against Doc in the first place, anyway? From what he’d heard, he hasn’t actually gotten caught up in the pranks at all, personally. What motivation could he have for all of this? Before he can debate much about it, Tango finally gets the right combination, and the vault door opens much like the one on the first floor had. “Oh. Oh wow.”

His eyes are drawn to the shining surface of some kind of indoor pool, built entirely out of diamond blocks, and he’s immediately amazed at both the fact Doc and Ren were capable of building that, and that they actually did. Personally, he likes all of his diamonds kept safely away in chests among gigantic messes of sugarcane and gravel where nobody will bother to look, but this, while impressive, this is just ridiculous.

“What in the world is this for?” He asks, stepping inside the vault and investigating the diamond pool. It’s too small to swim in, and it doesn’t lead anywhere when he peers over the edge. From behind him, he can hear Tango laughing again.

“It’s a hot tub, dude. Look,” The other Hermit steps up beside Grian, and as if to prove the water is safe, sticks his hand in it. Grian follows his lead and almost jumps back when the water is hot enough to be a bath.

“Wh-- why? Why does this belong in a vault? And why is it made of diamonds?”  He’s unable to keep the high pitch of confusion out of his voice, squinting at the hot tub. Doc is weird, is what he’s learning today.

“I think you just answered your own question. It’s made of diamonds; so it goes in the vault.” Tango shrugs, laughing, and really, Grian can’t argue with that logic. Moving on, the other Hermit steps around the gaudy pool and taps another note block on the other side, making the walls around  them fall away to reveal the actual vault around them.

If Grian thought the hot tub was expensive, the vault itself is far beyond, with stacks of diamond blocks built far above his head and up to the ceiling. He can only gawk at them, his jaw back on the floor again as he stares around at it all. “How can anyone own this many diamonds?” He asks, reaching out to touch one of the blocks and almost expecting it to be an illusion of some kind. It’s not, instead being solid under his hand, and he isn’t sure how to react. Diamonds don’t even exist back in the Nether, and there are enough here to build a house out of.

And it would be a really ugly house.

“A few of the Hermits do, really. Cub is richer than these two are.” Tango explains again, and it’s only now that Grian notices him covering the floor in shulker boxes. “Anyway, once you’re done being shocked, we can put these away and hide them.”

“Hide them where?”

“Right in this room. Maybe underneath the hot tub? Either way, Doc will think he’s been robbed, when his fortune never actually leaves this room. It’s the perfect crime, and nobody gets hurt.” Tango sounds again like he’s trying to convince Grian, but he can’t really argue. He’s right; all they’re doing is inconveniencing Doc a bit, and once he finds out the diamonds were right under his nose all along, that’ll make it all the more entertaining. Even so, as he helps the other Hermit pack the vault’s contents away into the shulkers, he finds himself unable to keep from asking.

“What’s your stake in all this, really?”

“Psh, me? I just can’t resist creating some mischief.” He says at first, sounding more like he’s brushing off the question than anything. A few moments pass after in silence, with nothing but the sound of the diamonds clunking into place inside the shulkers, until he speaks up again. “Well, Cleo told me about what’s going on, and how you seemed pretty freaked out after getting caught up in Doc’s trap. And we-- well, we’ve all been the new guy at some point. So I say, why not cause some trouble with Doc and take your side at the same time, eh?”

He doesn’t know Tango well enough to tell if it’s the truth or not, but even so, Grian can feel a warmth spreading in his chest from Tango’s words. Cleo and Tango both barely know him, and yet, the fact Cleo apparently expressed concern of him to others and Tango’s response was to come get involved alongside him is a particularly welcoming feeling. He can overthink everything all he wants, and get caught up in struggles with himself, and sure, they’d all feel differently if they knew; but there’s no denying that they care even about someone they don’t really know. Just like everything else in this world, it’s a vast difference from the life and the people he came from.

“Thank you, Tango. I--” He’s not entirely sure how to express thankfulness just for the fact the other Hermits treat him as an equal person, at least not without sounding strange, but he feels like he needs to at least try. “I appreciate the support, really.”

Tango gives him a friendly smile from the other side of the shulker, and even the red of his eyes that Grian would find intimidating considering he’s so used to seeing that color on demons isn’t enough to take away from his friendly demeanor. Of course, it would be hard to be intimidated by Tango anyway, especially with a lopsided wig that doesn’t fit him at all. “Hey, you’re one of us now.” He reminds the demon, and Grian can only give a halfhearted smile in return. Is he, really? Mumbo crosses his mind for a moment at the thought, and he shakes it all away, shoving more diamonds into the shulkers with a bit more force than necessary.

In no time at all, they’ve cleared out the entire vault. Nothing remains but the shulkers along the floor, leaving behind only bare white walls that are sure to give Doc a moment of panic when he sees no diamonds in sight. And just as he said, Tango digs right through the floor, disappearing beneath the hot tub and cutting a space within the stone underneath to hide the shulkers in.

“Do you want me to pass them down to you?” Grian calls after him into the light shadow of the space. It’s a good few blocks down, enough that it’s not exactly easy for Tango to just come climbing in and out for the boxes.

“Yeah! That would be great.” He calls back up, and the demon turns right away, setting to work lifting the heavy boxes and lowering them as far into the hole as he can before dropping them into Tango’s waiting grasp. It goes better than he’d expect, really, and soon enough he’s pulling Tango right back up onto the floor without a diamond in sight. With a careful patch job to the floor where he’d dug through, there’s no tell whatsoever that anything had been misplaced at all, short of the lack of the entire vault’s contents. “Well, I guess that’s it.”

Nodding, Grian watches as he hits the note block again, setting the walls back in place and hiding the empty vault from sight. It’s going to be a surprise once Doc stumbles across it, that’s for sure; Grian just hopes he won’t figure out who did it right away, and especially hopes he won’t come after Tango for getting involved.

With their job done, the two are quick to leave, double checking that they leave everything just as they found it as they go. The vault doors close behind them, and soon enough, Grian has to suffer through another nerve-wracking ride down that awful elevator. Tango is there to keep a steadying hand on his shoulder, but feeling the floor dropping from under them as it returns back down to ground level is worse than it was going up, and it’s Grian that drags them both out into the main lobby in an attempt to escape it as quickly as possible once it gets there.

As well, he isn’t sure how long this all has taken, and the slightly lightening color of the sky through the stock exchange’s windows isn’t a good sign that they’ll be alone in here for much longer. Grian is ready to get out of here while they can, before either of the building’s owners can catch them here, but he’s stopped by a tug on his coat as he tries to leave. Turning around with a question on his tongue, he’s met with Tango pointing up above them, and looking up rewards him with the realization that there’s another ledge up there.

“I think that’s Doc’s office.” Tango says, looking back at Grian with a look. He doesn’t even need to ask to know what the other Hermit is thinking, not when his mind has gone in exactly the same direction. They’ve pranked the vault, sure, but… well, who could resist messing with a fancy office, too?

Without a word, Grian pulls the lab coat off, freeing his wings. With as distracted as he’d been he’d forgotten all about how annoying the coat had felt on them, but now that they’re free, he has to take a second to puff up and shake out his feathers to get the itching to reside. With that done, though, there’s enough room in this main hall to push himself off the floor and rise toward the office balcony hanging overhead. Tango doesn’t seem to mind being left behind, but considering they’ve come this far together, Grian takes the chance to grab him and pull him up as well. Part of him expects to be unable to lift another Hermit while flying, but it’s just a few feet until he’s able to set his accomplice on the second floor and land beside him.

“Okay, I’ll admit it, wings are cool.” Tango’s voice is filled with awe, watching as Grian folds his wings back into their resting position. “You guys can go anywhere with those things, no problem. I’m almost jealous.”

“It’s pretty handy.” Grian agrees quietly, and tries to ignore the jab of guilt he feels rising up behind the words. He pushes ahead past the office doors in a bit of a rush in an attempt to escape the feeling, with Tango close behind him. They open up into another grand room with a high ceiling and windows on all sides, giving a nearly full view of the ocean horizon outside, and Grian realizes with a start that his base in its entirety is included in that view. It’s behind the back of the desk chair, sure, but just the fact that Doc can turn around and see whatever he’s doing at any moment makes his anxiety spike through the roof.

“Grian, Grian look.” Tango calls him over, snapping him out of the momentary panic, and he files away this realization for later. In the corner, Tango has wandered over to a cute little plant, and Grian’s interest is instantly piqued. It’s just a small little tree bush thing in a large pot, in the perfect spot to get hit right with the rays of the rising sun, and Grian has to at least give it to Doc for taking good care of it. Reaching out, the leaves feel just as healthy and happy as his plants at home. “I think I heard someone mention this, Doc really likes this plant.”

“We’re not gonna hurt it.” Grian says back, instantly derailing any course of thought Tango could go with that idea. “But… that doesn’t mean we can’t use it to annoy him.”

Looking around, the room is mostly empty of anything he can use to his advantage. But there are various papers scattered about the large desk, falling out of stacks set in place to be looked  through later. And they look important; grabbing a few from the surface and looking between them, Grian is able to glean some sort of idea that they’re contracts and stock reports of some kind, clearly things that Doc actually needs to have.

“Here,” He hands one of the papers to Tango, earning a confused glance in return. But the other Hermit just watches him closely as he carefully folds the corners of the paper, over and over until he’s created some shape that vaguely resembles a flower, and pokes it into the leaves of the bush. “We’re not hurting the plant. And we’re not destroying any of his documents. He will, however, have to unfold each and every single one, and then try to put them back in order.”

Looking between Grian and the bush, a grin crosses Tango’s face. “Oh, I like this. This is evil.” He laughs, immediately turning his attention to his paper to mimic what Grian did. And he’s better at it, actually; his comes out looking more like an actual flower, and Grian almost thinks he should ask sometime how to do that, but for now they should probably hurry up and get out of here as soon as they can.

They hurry through folding as many paper flowers as they can, dotting them throughout the tree as they go until it looks like it’s blooming with garbage. Some of Grian’s turn out to be more of just balled up papers in his haste, but the effect at the end is the same, and the prettier looking ones Tango leaves are enough to give away what they’re all supposed to be. For good measure, they fold a few extras and scatter them throughout the surface of the plant pot, the desk chair, and even one of Tango’s nicest ones sitting innocently on top of the stack of important documents, betraying well enough where all of the paper came from.

“I think that’ll do.” Grian finally decides, stepping back to survey the damage. It’s an absolute mess of paper everywhere, and he’s sure he can already hear the frustrated groaning as Doc tries to unfold every paper when he finds this. Beside him, Tango nods, and glances out of the window at the sun that’s now almost fully above the horizon.

“We need to go.”

Heavily agreeing, they make their hasty retreat. Back out of the office and dropping down to the floor below, Grian retrieves his abandoned coat and slips it back on, and then they’re slipping out of the front doors before anyone can find them there. Outside, the courtyard is just faintly lit with the morning light that hasn’t made it over the cliff yet, giving them plenty of shadows to skulk away in. Just as he did at the start, Tango leads the way back to the rocket shop, while Grian glances around for sight of anyone else. But there’s no one, just as before, and they’re able to hide away inside.

“I can’t believe we just got away with that.” Tango breathes once they’re inside his shop, leaning against the wall with a sigh that betrays how tense he was. “Doc is going to pitch a fit once he finds out, it’s gonna be great.”

“Let’s just hope no one figures out it was us. I don’t really want to be on the pointy end of his trident.” Grian says back, fully removing his disguise. Why they really needed them with no one around, he’s not entirely sure, but it definitely made it more fun. Beside him, Tango pulls off the wig, now struggling just as hard to get it off as he did to put it on as it tries to cling to his head. “That thing really doesn’t like you.”

“No, it really doesn’t.”

With their costumes removed and shoved back in Tango’s pack, they’re officially done with their little prank, and Grian finds himself shifting his weight between his feet as he hesitates to leave. It was fun while it lasted, and a good distraction, but now he’s faced with the dilemma of not wanting to go home all over again. All of the heavy thoughts and feelings he’d managed to brush off during their excursion come creeping back, digging their claws into him and dragging down whatever happy feeling he’d had from all of this.

As if reading his mind, Tango’s hand appears on Grian’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll all get together again soon, right? We’ll figure out who’s all on our side, and then we can keep pranking the others together. It’ll be fun!”

He’s not entirely sure about that, if there will be pranks of questionable safety involved, but either way Grian nods. He likes the sound of doing more of this, hanging out with other Hermits he hasn’t gotten to know yet, even if the guilt of lying pulses stronger at the thought and the weight in his stomach pulls him down ever more with not knowing where Mumbo is.

“I’ll look forward to it.” He says back, trying to appease the concerned look on Tango’s face. It works, earning him another of those bright grins the other seems to take with him everywhere.

“Good! For now just go home and sleep, you look exhausted. That’s what I’m going to do, actually.” The other Hermit advises, his words being punctuated with a yawn. He’s already half out of the rocket shop, clearly longing for his bed, and Grian gives him a look, shooing him the rest of the way out. “Okay, okay, I’m going! You do the same. Have a good morning Grian, and don’t forget, we’re all friends here.”

With that, he turns on his heel and wanders away into the shopping district, disappearing behind buildings as he goes. Grian watches for a while, standing in place in the empty district alone long after he’s disappeared, before turning back toward the ocean. Tango’s words go in one ear and out the other, muted by the ever present anxiety that’s now louder in his head than ever.

… It couldn’t hurt to check if Mumbo’s home yet, could it?

Chapter Text

Everything around him has blurred into a mess of color, a lack of sound, and more than it all; an overwhelming, suffocating blanket of emotion. The white walls of his base are as cold as the floor under his back, the pressing feeling of uncertainty as heavy as the bags under his eyes. He’s so tired, the sunlight bouncing around the vast room burns in his vision and letting his eyelids droop closed is a pleasant relief; but only for a scarce few seconds before his mind conjures images of a betrayed angel, dragging from the deepest depths of his worry the form of the person he hasn’t seen in days.

Far, far above, the wind whistles as it blows through the top of his vast tower, and he barely hears it at all. The plants beside him are lush, vibrant, far more cared for than himself. He’s not even sure how long it’s been since he’s moved, but as long as the soil is damp, there’s no reason to. No matter what he does, or what he tries to occupy his mind with, nothing changes the fact the base neighboring his own is empty. There’s been no sign of Mumbo, not the slightest of shadows of him, and Grian has no way of knowing where he’s gone. There’s a pervading sense of thinly veiled terror coursing through his veins alongside an endless stream of worry and anxiety, and it’s not for himself. He can fear being found out or making mistakes all he wants, but over the course of hours upon hours spent in the silence of his white walls alone, the fear has shifted; now, he can’t stop his mind from going down irrationally dark paths, worst case scenarios brought on by his actions that he cannot undo.

At this point, he just wants to know Mumbo is okay. He just wants to know the angel is, at the very least, in better shape than he is. He doesn’t care about the details, or what any of it says for himself. Feelings are a strange thing to try and comprehend, these complex emotions that are so new to him in light of this world where he’s able to focus on them over survival, and he still isn’t sure what direction they point in; but he knows he just wants to see Mumbo, to wrap his arms around him and be assured that he’s okay, that he’s real and he’s still here and Grian hasn’t shoved him away for good in his fear. In the end, that’s selfish too, and he knows it. It’s selfish that he, after all of this, just wants to see him so that he can feel better about it all, and it’s selfish that he wants the other around now after pushing him away. After all, isn’t this what he was meant to do? He can’t let Mumbo have feelings for him, not when it’s all based on a lie and will only make what he’s done to him hurt the angel that much more when it all comes out. And yet, here he is, just wanting to see him and quiet the turmoil of his own emotions. Is there more to it? He doesn’t know, and really, it doesn’t matter anyway.

What matters is Mumbo, and whether he’s okay. It crosses his mind, again, for what must be the hundredth time, that he could go ask the other Hermits. Xisuma is nice to him, Tango is nice to him, Iskall shared bread with him that one time-- he’s sure they’d talk to him, reassure his fears, maybe they’d know something he doesn’t. But at the same time, he’s afraid to move at all. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be? Maybe Mumbo doesn’t want anything to do with him at this point, and trying to find out where he’s gone will only further push a boundary he can’t see, only further hurt the angel. Maybe, just maybe, he’s actually figured it all out, everything back to the very beginning with the theft of his wings, and that’s why he’s disappeared. Maybe now he knows, and combined with realizing the sad reality of falling for the person that wronged him, he’s chosen to vanish instead of facing the inevitable confrontation that would arise from that knowledge. Whatever the reason, he isn’t here; and Grian, in all honesty, doesn’t blame him at all.

So maybe, he’ll just stay here forever, with his back pressed against a cold floor and his stolen wings feeling like the lead weights of his sins attached to him. They aren’t moving at all; it’s as if whatever attitude they’d had is gone, as if they’ve been forcibly assimilated into being fully under his control, and he actually misses the bits of personality they had. It’s all gone now, erased or under lock he can’t be sure, but they’re as still as the rest of him and as responsive as if they’d been his since birth. It almost feels like a point of no return, and he genuinely finds himself wondering if even the archangels can’t fix what he’s done, if he were to turn himself in.

He’s so deep in his thoughts, his own slowly circling melancholy, he’s forgotten to pay attention to the world around him. It’s not like there’s much point; he spent the first several hours on edge, poised to jump up and stare out his windows at every little sound, the faintest fluttering of hope daring to spark in his heart. But now, he knows it’s nothing, and it won’t be what he wants. It won’t be who he wants, or even anyone for that matter. It’s been as isolated and lonely as before Mumbo ever reached out to him in the first place, and while he would have relished it all that time ago, it’s agony now. So he doesn’t pay attention, tuning out the sounds and stamping down the feeling of hope until it doesn’t dare to twist the knife further, and that’s how he misses out entirely on the moment it becomes a little bit less isolated.

Exhausted but unable to sleep, staring but unseeing, existing but not really living, is the state he’s in. He can’t even really be bothered to care about the way the ever-increasing chill of the world around him has seeped through the floor and into his bones, leaving an ache that he could almost believe is just his mental state affecting his physical one. It’s the state he’s found in, staring blankly with the tired gaze of someone who is functioning equally as well as the amount of sleep they’ve recently gotten, and suddenly his view of the sky far above is blocked by a looming shadow in the shape of a person.

“You almost look like you’re ready to just accept a new life career as phantom bait, and now I’m sure I should’ve come out here sooner.”

The heavy lilt to the accent makes it immediately clear it isn’t who he most wants it to be, and he doesn’t let the hope even consider trying to come back. Tilting his head up, he pins Joe with his tired stare, only now realizing he hadn’t heard or understood a word he’d said. “Huh?”

“How long has it been since you’ve slept? Wait, scratch that, I bet I know, you’ve probably been a mess ever since then. Okay, that’s not great, but we can fix that later, and for now,” Joe rambles on, flitting between topics and talking mostly to himself so quickly that Grian can’t even hope to properly register it. He walks around to the demon’s side, carefully avoiding his half folded wings on the floor, and then reaches down to grab Grian’s hands. Before he can protest, he’s being yanked to his feet by this angel who had seemingly come out of nowhere, and who was still rambling to himself. “I swear, everyone gets all distracted with this mess and forgets to actually check on the new guy.”

He’s exhausted, stiff, and chilled to the bone, all things Grian becomes extremely uncomfortably aware of as he’s pulled to his feet and his limbs don’t want to function. Joe’s face pulls with concern, his brows knitting together as he takes in the sight of the disguised demon, though he smooths it over into a neutral expression moments later.

“Do you know what would do you good, Grian? Most people get outside and maybe go for a run, or in our case a fly around the shopping district, when they feel like you do. But y’know what’s even better? War. I mean, war is bad, but not when it’s between friends who aren’t actually all that serious about it except for the ones that are, but then everyone’s involved and having fun so it’s fine anyway.” He goes on, physically dragging Grian over to the furnaces without any actual mention about Grian’s condition despite the fact he’s sure he must look awful. But Joe just sits him down in front of one, lights it, and then wanders a couple feet away to dig through his chests. The angel continues rambling on all the while, and in all honesty, Grian is kind of glad for it. His words wiggle their way into the demon’s head, kicking out all of his overthinking and worried thoughts as casually as Joe showed up in the first place. “Now, I have to say I didn’t agree with this whole war thing at first, and I definitely didn’t agree with Cleo going around and changing signs and causing it in the first place, because Cleo is my friend and I would like for a war breaking out to not be her fault… again. But considering nobody is actually upset about any of the pranks going on, and it’s gotten everyone together to join in on it, I think this is less of a war and more of a… well, maybe a really strange game of some kind, like when everyone goes out for trident golf together and start getting really competitive and someone gets stuck in a tree but at the end of the day everyone had fun.”

Grian isn’t entirely sure what Joe is going on about for part of that, and for the other part, he’d actually kind of forgotten there was a war going on at all or that he’s technically a part of it. But he’s reminded now of the heist Tango roped him into, and he finds himself wondering what Doc’s reaction to that little mess was. He isn’t sure whether he should be afraid or not, but for now, he’s just grateful for the warmth slowly starting to seep into his limbs from the lit furnace. Joe wanders back over from his chests with a spare blanket, drapes it over his shoulders, and hands him some of the baked potatoes from his own garden. For a moment, he considers handing them back, but Joe gives him a firm look and he doesn’t dare.

“Grian, you have to keep taking care of yourself even when you don’t feel like it. It’s okay to have things on your mind, as long as you don’t let them take over and put you in a bind. It’s like when you want to build something, but it’s raining, so you know you shouldn’t do it anyway unless you want to be smited down for your defiance of nature. Don’t defy nature, Grian.”

The potatoes don’t really taste like anything, still too caught up to really pay much attention to them, but Grian already feels a little bit better. The stiff feeling is bleeding away with the new warmth, and he really hadn’t realized how weak he felt until now that he can feel some of his energy returning. It’s not as good as if he’d just get a full night of rest, but it’s far better than he was, and with the return of mostly coherent thinking he’s able to appreciate Joe’s help. The angel didn’t have to come here, didn’t have to drag him off his floor and force him to take care of himself, but he did. The shock from realizing more of the Hermits are angels than just Mumbo has long since faded, especially with the realization that he should have expected more angels anyway, and it thankfully makes whatever anxiety he’d felt about meeting Joe before disappear. Now, he’s able to glance over at where the other is sitting, resting on one of Grian’s dozen chests with his wings hanging off the side to the floor, flipping through a book in his hands.

It hits the demon that he should probably thank Joe for his concern and help, a realization that comes with a side of discomfort at how all of the Hermits seem to keep having to help him. Not only is Joe here, now, forcing him to function for his own good, the guy willingly jumped into a pit of zombies for him, a fact that has escaped his attention before now. “Thank you for, uh…” He tries, unsure of how to put it.

“There’s no need. To be entirely frank with you, Grian, I’m really here on business. That is, if the business was a bunch of friends getting together to nuke their other friends in a friendly game of friendly war and destruction, and that business of one side of friends wanted their other friend to stop laying on his cold floor and join them.”

Blinking, Grian stares at Joe, still scribbling away in his book after he finished speaking. “I… what?”

“In other words, we’re all getting together to officially form teams in the prank war that’s going on, I’m sure you know the one. Everyone is going around inviting the friends they want on their side in some kind of recruitment drive based on friendship, and you can probably guess why I’m here based on that information.”

It’s an odd invitation, to say the least. Grian isn’t sure about the idea of actually joining in, especially if there’s going to be more deadly pranks or traps, but there’s also a part of him that’s extremely tempted to accept. On the one hand, the idea of facing off against Doc and also potentially creating enemies despite how friendly Joe claims it’s going to be scares him, along with the idea of actually dying to more traps. But on the other hand, he isn’t really doing anything; he’s only moved from his floor once until now, and that was only to water his plants. It sinks in how right Tango was about him needing a distraction, and messing with the stock exchange was far more fun than he would have expected. “Will it be like the heist me and Tango pulled?” He finds himself asking. If the war in general is much like that, then maybe it won’t be as scary as he’s inclined to think.

“I’m not blessed in the department of seeing into the future.” Joe warns, tapping his quill on his book in thought. “But knowing the Hermits, most likely. Considering you’ve already fallen into one of Doc’s scarier pranks, you probably think it’s going to be some vicious struggle where everyone murders each other in an endless bloodbath for the history books to go alongside all the other murder bloodbaths that have already happened in other history books, but that isn’t how it works here. I’ll make a bet right now that we’ll have more cows launched out of canons to moo at us on our roof than we’ll have actual murder.”

Grian isn’t entirely sure what cows have to do with anything, but somehow, he’s inclined to take Joe’s word for it. It could just be that the Hermits don’t find killing each other as much of a bad thing, but even if that were the case, the angel doesn’t sound like he thinks there will be much of it anyway. It crosses his mind for a moment that maybe he could just be lying, trying to drag him into something for whatever cruel reason, but by now he’s pretty sure that’s just his overactive fear talking. In all this time, none of the Hermits have actually done anything he’s been afraid of, and it’s hard to take the fear too seriously when it’s becoming more and more clear that it’s most likely unfounded. 

He isn’t sure how good of an idea this is, but after a moment, Grian finds himself nodding. “I’ll… I’ll give it a shot.”

Instantly, Joe snaps his book closed. “That’s great, Grian! You won’t regret joining in. The first step to improving upon yourself is by stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things. It’s like Xisuma once said, you can’t become your better self if you never leave the space that made you the way you are. Which, in most cases I think that means you need to either get out of your own head or just move out and maybe build a base of enlightenment, but in this case, it just means going to Iskall’s base. Are you good to fly now?”

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Joe is a bit harder to keep up with than Grian would have expected, the way he jumps between points with a mash of confusingly meaningful words in between. He wonders for a moment if it’s just how Joe is, or if he might be from the End and that’s why he seems to have such a different way of thinking than Grian does. Either way, he files away the thought for later, more focused on the way Joe has hopped up and held a hand out to him, and hesitantly takes it. Right away the angel pulls him to his feet, the blanket around his shoulders falling to the ground and reminding him of how chilly the air actually is. “What are we doing?”

“The others are meeting up now to go over the details of becoming a team, so we should probably go join them, otherwise we’ll end up as a team all our own of ‘the guys who didn’t make it onto the other team because they were late to the meeting.’” Joe explains, walking toward the more open section of Grian’s base, with the demon on his heels. “Although that could be fun in its own right, we could just annoy the other two teams with entirely harmless pranks calling to their vaguely meaningless scuffle. What do you think of building a stairway to heaven, Grian?”

Joe takes off first without waiting for an answer, rising into the air with a similar ease that False had portrayed, though not quite as fast or showy. Grian scrambles to follow, pushing off the floor and following him out of one of the open entrances and into the cold ocean air outside. They rise high above the water, and while Joe leisurely leads the way, Grian tries to understand what he said. “A.. a what?” He ends up calling out, earning a glance back from the angel before he dips back a bit to fly just underneath Grian.

“A stairway to heaven, you know. A stairway that leads to heaven.” Joe explains as unhelpfully as possible, and then adds, “A stairway set upon the earth, rising high into the sky above to reach the land of the angels, if some mortal soul is brave enough to climb it.”

“... The land of the angels is the End.” Grian replies, already feeling like his mind is slightly trying to melt with the idea that he, a demon, is saying this to an angel.

“Yes, that’s the point. We’d build a staircase that doesn’t actually lead anywhere important, so they spend all that time climbing it for nothing, and then they have to climb all the way back down again.”

On second thought, the deadly pranks might not be that bad.

 


 

 

Grian almost wants to regret his decision to come here when Joe lands on the frozen iceberg known as the top of Iskall’s base, reminding the demon of the last time he was near here. He’s hesitant to join Joe on the awful slippery surface, and combined with how cold it is, he’d rather go back to his concrete floor. But he doesn’t want to back out now, especially without at least seeing what’s going on here, so he stamps down that bit of hesitation and tries to land as gracefully as he can. Immediately, his feet try to slip out from under him, and Joe has to catch him by the arm to keep him from smashing his face into the ground. How all of the Hermits manage to stay upright on this damned stuff, he doesn’t know.

“So there might be one, teensy little downside to having this meeting in Iskall’s base. Y’see, Iskall is what we call ‘allergic to fresh air and sunlight’ and ‘likes the cold too much to be human’, so he lives in a cold damp cave under this frozen ocean here. Now, the rest of us, we like not freezing our wings off, but for some reason it was collectively decided to hold this meeting here.” Grian genuinely can’t tell if Joe’s tone was joking or not, though he’s leaning toward mostly not with the way Joe gestures around with a bit of a grimace. The demon is glad he isn’t the only one that hates the cold, though, or the slick ice under their feet. Carefully, Joe leads him over to the edge of the iceberg, and he hesitantly peers down under the surface. There’s a cave system below, though he can’t make out many details. “That down there is Iskall’s base. That down there is also where we’re meeting up with the others. And there’s no dry elevator.”

“You mean we have to swim?” Grian asks, beginning to really regret his decision. Joe just nods, his feathers slightly ruffled, clearly not wanting to go in any more than Grian does.

“That would be about right. I’d say we better get it over with, though.” The angel shrugs, carefully letting go of Grian’s arm and making sure he won’t fall over before diving straight into the icy water. Grian winces at the splash of freezing water that hits him, dreading following the other down, but he braces himself and jumps in before he can back out. He instantly feels like this is a mistake, the freezing temperature of the water digging into his limbs and making it hard to move. He can feel himself sinking like a rock, dragged down by the cold of the water, but then Joe grabs him and tugs him forward. All he can focus on for several seconds is how horrifically cold the water is and how his lungs are already burning, as well as the violent shivering as his feathers are drenched through to the delicate skin.

It only lasts for a few moments, though it feels like forever until Joe pulls him along into the range of the conduit floating a little ways away. As quickly as the cold hit them, it vanishes, almost like swimming through a solid wall where the temperature rises back to a livable level in an instant from its power. Along with it, Grian is able to gasp in a breath, though he can’t begin to wrap his mind around how. By all accounts it should be impossible, but as the conduit contently floats in place in its glowing little cage, the demon can breathe in the water around him. He’s almost afraid to, instinct telling him to continue holding his breath, but the seconds tick on and he continues to not drown.

Vaguely, he thinks he probably needs one of these things.

Protected as they are by the magical little ocean thing, Joe is able to let go of him and lead the way downward to the cave far below, and Grian has no trouble following. It’s actually quite pleasant to swim without having to hold his breath, and without the chill of the water touching him. The angel leads the way to the ocean floor, into what looks like an old flooded mine, and as they swim through it Grian is sure it must be hand sculpted. It’s impressive, to say the least; especially as they continue onward, through the flooded tunnel and into an entire ravine. Its various caves are all connected by wooden bridges, some of their supports covered in algae and half falling from their places, and Joe leads him down into one of the caves. It turns up right away, the water ending in the face of an air pocket within the cave, and as nice as the conduit made the trip he’s still grateful when his head breaks the surface and he’s able to breathe real air again. Ahead, the cave continues into the ravine wall like a normal tunnel without water, and deeper in he can see the rich brown of non-waterlogged wood floors.

That only holds his attention for a moment, though. As he pulls himself up onto the stone surrounding the water they just came from, Grian realizes he’s dry. He’s convinced at first that it’s his mind playing tricks on him, but patting down his sweater and then flaring out his wings to investigate his feathers proves much the same. There isn’t a drop of water to be found clinging to him, as if it all just drained away the instant he stepped out of it.

“That’s a conduit for you. They’re like dreamcatchers, except instead of catching your nightmares they catch all the water that wants to follow you until its inevitable evaporation that will finally separate you.” Joe explains, and though Grian has no idea what he’s talking about, the explanation that the conduit is to thank for him being dry is enough. He’s convinced; he needs one.

The demon takes another few seconds to stare in wonder at his dry clothes, before realizing Joe has walked ahead into the wood floored room he saw, and he dashes ahead to catch up. The room opens up into a relatively high ceiling, the walls supported with wooden beams, and a good portion of the wooden floor below is actually cut out and replaced with a map of the island. He can see his own base, a proud little circle out in the ocean, and its presence there fills him with a giddy sense of accomplishment. The feeling deflates a moment later, though, as he spots the other base in the ocean right beside it and reminded of its owner.

With a notably dampered mood, Grian looks back up again, glancing around the various faces in the room and almost hoping for one in particular. There’s several he knows; Joe has walked over to stand beside Cleo off to one side, while Iskall is on the other beside Scar. In the far corner is Tango, who’s waving excitedly at him, while Stress stands beside the only face he doesn’t immediately recognize in the last remaining corner of the room. There’s no such angel he’s been quietly looking around for in all this time, and he tries to bury the feeling of worried disappointment. They’ve all turned to look at him while he looked around, Iskall immediately voicing a greeting to him, but he barely hears it as he makes his way to the corner with Tango in an attempt to get everyone’s attention off of him. In true Tango fashion, the blonde Hermit looks beyond excited to have the demon join him, even going so far as to tug him into a split second one shouldered hug. “Hey there Grian! Glad to have you here.” He says quietly, or at least as quietly as Tango is capable of when he’s this excited. It warms Grian’s heart to be welcomed so enthusiastically, melting away the small bit of anxiety he felt over having everyone’s gazes on him and slightly warming over the icy jab of not seeing Mumbo here. Even in a room so full of people, three of which he’s never even met in person before, he feels far better to have someone he could at least consider a bit more than an acquaintance by his side, even if it’s technically his partner in a bank robbery.

“Hi Tango.” He whispers back, and upon turning back to the rest of the room, realizes this is a perfect opportunity to learn who the last member of this meeting is. “Who’s that in the corner?”

“Huh?” Tango questions before even looking over where Grian nods toward, and then he sees who the demon is talking about. “Oh! That’s Jevin. Yeah, you’ve probably never met him, huh? He lives over in the modern district, he’s pretty cool.”

The name clicks into place from when Xisuma told him about all of the Hermits, and he nods in understanding. He doesn’t know much about Jevin, nor has he heard much about him from the others so far, but it seems they’ll be teammates. There’s a small feeling of anxiety wiggling at the back of his mind, wondering about the odd chance that Jevin will be scary like Doc and seem to see right through him for what he is, but at the moment, the unacquainted Hermit just looks a little bit bored, if vaguely curious.

“Okay, everyone’s here.” Iskall clears his throat, addressing the room, and Grian can see every head turn to face him. Scar is watching him intently, as well, almost looking poised to say something himself. “I think everyone here has some idea or involvement in what’s been going on, so I probably don’t need to explain it all again.”

“They showed me up with a better ship than mine and tried to kill Grian.” Cleo shouts, immediately, and beside her Joe gives an almost imperceptible sigh. “All I did was change a sign, okay, I didn’t hurt anyone. Well I mean technically Ren died, but...”

“We robbed Doc’s stock exchange.” Tango raises his hand immediately after Cleo, before Iskall can say anything, and Grian wants to melt as he sees everyone turn to look at them. The closest he can get is inching away partially behind Tango, and the other Hermit doesn’t seem to notice or mind. “Not for any particular reason, well except for the fact they hurt Grian, I just wanted to cause mayhem.”

Scar is the one to interrupt before anyone else can add on, though Jevin looked like he was close to saying something. “Okay, let’s not get into all the many details of how this got started, all I know is Doc officially declared war because someone touched his bush, and I don’t know what that means nor do I want to ask. The reason we’re all here now is to get your team put together, and to lay down some ground rules for how this is going to go. I’m assuming I know the answer considering you’re all here, but let me start off with asking if everyone is sure they want to be on this side.”

Silence rings out after Scar finishes speaking, everyone in the room glancing around at each other. Grian still isn’t sure what to expect, but he’s sure he’d rather be on this side than the other side if Doc is there, though the idea of participating at all is scary considering he and Tango are the ones at fault for the stock exchange. He hopes Doc doesn’t figure out it was them, especially if he’s that upset about the paper in that little tree. No one speaks up, and after another moment, Scar continues.

“Okay. Moving on, let’s get one thing clear. We may be calling this a war, but there will be no attacking each other outside of the team bases or the designated battlefield. In fact, outside of base raids or planned battles, there will be no attacking members of the other team just for being around if they aren’t doing anything. You may use whatever force necessary to defend your base or yourself, but if someone starts retreating, let them go. If someone of the other team gets hurt and needs help, you will help them. You will not pretend to be hurt just to turn on them when they help you. This isn’t about being brutal, the point of this war is to get out everyone’s aggressions that caused all of the pranks that brought you here in the first place.”

As Scar talks, Grian can feel the tension he’d been holding about this entire idea all this time start to unwind. It sounds like deadly pranks will be allowed, but the reassurance in a rule disallowing anyone from just going entirely bloodthirsty under the excuse of the war is enough to remind him, again, that this place is not the Nether. Across the room, he catches Joe’s eye, and the angel gives him a nod as if knowing exactly what he’s thinking.

“Now, speaking of team bases, that’s our next rule. Each team will be building their own base to use for the war, and you will keep all war supplies in that base exclusively. Your base will be prone to raids, looting, and any destruction caused in that process, though completely blowing up the other team’s base just to do it is not allowed. All of this is to keep your own personal bases safe from any further pranks, since no one wants their hard work to go to waste, and that would just be mean.”

If the previous point made Grian relax, this one almost makes him excited. The idea of getting to build a base together, even if it’s just going to get slightly broken, more than involves his interests. He’s never built anything with someone else, and just from looking around the shopping district or even the room they’re currently in, is very nearly enough to make him giddy at the idea of getting to see the others’ ideas and processes up close and in progress. Beyond that, the way Scar specifically mentions their own personal builds being completely and fully off limits makes him feel better as well. Though he’d been thinking more about the deadly pranks, it hits him now that the fear of having all of his work so far being torn down like how he’s seen happen to everything else he’s ever built back in the Nether was weighing down on him as well, and knowing that won’t happen is almost too good to believe. He’s almost afraid to take it too closely to heart, just in case it happens anyway, but the look on Scar’s face almost makes him feel like the other Hermit would personally give at least a stern word to anyone who makes the mistake of breaking that rule.

“Now, the rules may change throughout the war as necessary, but that’s up to me and Cub, and will only happen if anything goes too far with the current guidelines. Remember, we don’t want anyone to get hurt, at least beyond a reasonable level to be expected of roughhousing with swords, and we don’t want anyone to have grudges by the end of this. The other team are still our friends, and beyond airing grievances, this is about having fun with a bit of controlled chaos. If at any point something goes wrong, any fighting stops. Are we clear?” Everyone in the room nods at his question, no one saying a single word of complaint about anything he’s put down so far, and Grian honestly tries not to show his surprise at the downright civility of it all. “Me and Cub are the referees of this entire ordeal. We’re here to keep an eye on everyone as an uninvolved third party to make sure nothing gets out of hand, so don’t be afraid to reach out to us. Right now, Cub is with the other team giving them the exact same speech. Everyone will be following all of the same rules, and if anyone purposely breaks them, the war is over. Now, if you have any last minute details to put together about your team, now is the time to handle that.”

“Well, for one,” Iskall starts in after Scar finishes speaking, and all eyes turn back to him again. “I don’t really think we should technically have a leader of the team, but I’ll be glad to handle any plans and delegate tasks between us.”

There are a few murmurs of agreement, with no one arguing that idea. After a moment, though, Jevin finally speaks.

“I’m good with all of this, but I have one requirement. We need a sweet team name.”

It’s not what Grian expected to hear out of him, but instantly, Tango is agreeing enthusiastically loudly. Across the room, he can see Iskall pause and then nod in agreement.

“Okay, who wants to choose your team name? Would you like to give suggestions and put it to a vote?” Scar steps in again, and Grian can’t help but think he seems to be pretty good at making this meeting go smoothly. It’s probably a result of being one half of the business overlord that is Concorp, though.

“I would like to suggest,” For the first time since they got here, Joe finally gets the attention turned his way. “The G Team.”

Confused silence follows his suggestion, in which the various Hermits in the room all glance around at each other, looking to see if anyone knows what he’s talking about or where that idea came from. Grian gets the feeling no one wants to say anything in case Joe is pausing for dramatic effect before explaining, but considering his experience with the angel so far, he’s pretty well convinced that’s not going to happen until someone asks.

“Joe did you-- did you forget how to spell your name? It’s a J, not a G.” Jevin teases the angel from across the room, and Joe ignores it completely.

“Okay, look at it this way. If you consider all of this with the idea that the other team have messed with our bases and killed our friends, and this story is from our perspective, that makes them the enemy. Which then makes us the good guys.” Joe explains, and with the emphasis on the word, a round of understanding noises circle around the room. “Of course, that’s not how things always work and just because we think we’re the good guys doesn’t mean the other team doesn’t have equally as much good, especially considering life is purely gray and no one is fully--”

“Okay, let’s go with that, we’re the G Team cause we’re the good guys, looks like we’re done here.” Iskall interrupts, talking in a rush to keep Joe from doing that thing he seems to do. Beside him, Scar nods.

“I guess with that, the meeting is adjourned. We’re not done yet though, we need to head over to the battleground me and Cub have marked out and meet up with the other team to agree on terms of the ceasefire, and get you all started on your base.” Scar steps over onto the glass covering the floor map as he speaks, pointing down at a spot in particular by the end. Inching forward and peering more closely, Grian can see he’s pointing at a large open field on the edge of the island, bordering between two districts. He can see why that spot was picked out, considering there aren’t too many builds all that close to there yet. “This is where we’re going. If everyone is ready, we can go now.”

In all actuality, Grian has no reason not to just keep going with this and seeing what happens, and it seems everyone else at least mostly shares that opinion. No one brings up any other obligations, prompting Iskall to make his way toward the stairs on the opposite side of the room from where Grian and Joe entered from. Stress joins right by his side right away, the two leading the way out of the map room as the others all fall into place on their heels. Grian does his best to stick close to Tango, but as they all shuffle through the winding halls and stairways up through the dry portion of Iskall’s icy base, he actually finds himself walking at the far back of the group behind him. He’s sure he’s kept a close enough watch of everyone else to know they’re all ahead of him, and nearly jumps out of his skin when a voice comes from his side.

“Hey Grian-- oh, sorry.” Scar puts his hands up in a placating gesture over startling Grian, and the demon lets out a breath. It’s just Scar; Scar, who he hasn’t actually ever spoken to before despite-- “Wait, is that the trident I gave you?”

Glancing at the other Hermit, and then following his gaze down to his own pack, he can see the handle of his beloved trident is sticking out of the bag and into view. A quick look back up again shows him the expression of combined surprise and happiness on Scar’s face. “Uh, yeah, this is the one you left me. I promise I’d meant to come thank you for it,”

“Oh, I don’t mind that at all.” Scar waves him off, beaming a bright smile his direction that reminds him of Tango. “I wasn’t sure if you’d liked it or kept it at all. But you still have it!”

He seems genuinely excited about the fact Grian is still carrying around the gift he left for him ages ago, and though the demon can’t really wrap his head around why, it starts to rub off on him. It’s his trident, after all; left by Scar as a physical reminder that the Hermits did want him here, even if they don’t know the whole truth. In truth, he realizes he really should’ve reached out to Scar to thank him for something so grounding to his overactive thoughts once he grew so attached to it. “Are you kidding? I’ll be honest Scar, I’ve never put this thing down since you left it. I haven’t even made a sword.”

“No, really?!” If possible, Scar’s face brightens even more, and Grian finds his own expression mimicking it. “That’s amazin’! I bet you’re a pretty good shot with it by now.”

His words bring to mind the memory of his too good accuracy, and the angry and intimidating Hermit he only barely missed. His smile falters. “Uh, yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Seemingly noticing Grian’s reaction, some of the energy bleeds out of the other Hermit in favor of a softer tone. “Y’know, maybe you should join me and Cub at our golf course sometime. It’s all about using tridents.”

Grian still doesn’t know what golf is, or why Scar and Joe both have mentioned it today, but the invitation brightens his spirits back up. Something about Scar’s voice makes it undeniable that it’s just a friendly passing idea, something he genuinely would enjoy including the demon in. It doesn’t seem to matter that they’ve never spoken before now, or that Grian has been a complete recluse for almost all of his time here, Scar is still quick to invite him anyway just based on the topic of tridents. Looking around at the other people further ahead in the hallway brings to mind much the same; more than half of the people on this team have made their kindness known, reaching out to him and calling him a friend or going out of their way to save or help him even when they don’t know him at all. It’s truly a strange concept, and yet, it’s starting to seem like something normal.

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer someday, Scar.” He says back, and doesn’t miss the way it seems to make Scar even happier that he agreed. As nice as it is, though, he can’t help but wonder exactly how differently they’d treat him if they knew. Would Scar have ignored him, would Tango have moved to another corner away from him? Would they have turned on him? Their conversation lapses back into silence as his pervading thoughts take over, twisting the distant and burning feeling of guilt he’s become so used to having. It’s the work of his overactive imagination, going down a rabbit hole of what will happen once they find out, tied in with the newfound worry about the only other Hermit he knows best. After a while, he mumbles entirely to himself under his breath, “If there even is a someday.”

 


 

 

He’d expected things to be warmer once they left Iskall’s base, but the cold seems to have taken root all over the island. Even as he lights down onto the soft, green grass of the aforementioned designated war area beside Joe, there’s a stiff cold breeze that cuts right through his sweater and chills him down to the bone, and there’s no sun overhead to warm him from it. Back down by the river, piling out of their boats and coming up to join the two of them on the hill, none of the other Hermits seem nearly as bothered by it as he is, and he hopes it won’t turn out to be temperature of all things that gives him away. Half folding his wings around the outside of his shoulders is enough to block most of the chill, at least, saving him from noticeable shivering for the time being.

“Oh, look! Cub’s already put up the ceasefire flag.” Scar points as soon as he’s crested the hill, and Grian turns to see it. He’s right; further along the open, undeveloped and grassy field they’re on the edge of, there’s a white flag billowing proudly in the center. At the base of it, he can just barely pick out the forms of people standing around, already waiting for them, and his anxiety skyrockets out of nowhere. Doc is over there; and after the last time they met, Grian genuinely has no idea what to expect. By all accounts, nothing should be any different, but there’s something about the way Doc completely disappeared when Grian panicked that he can’t quite figure out.

He’s almost morbidly curious about what’s going to happen, and in what could be a very bad idea, follows right on Scar’s heels as he leads the way over. He’s still conflicted about everything that’s happened recently, and in all honesty, he’s still unsure what he should feel about anything. He still has to decide what he’s going to do, if he’s going to keep everything the way it is and lying about it all, or if he’s going to come clean, and there’s still the extra detail of Mumbo and how he fits into it; and maybe that’s why he’s so curious to see what Doc does. Why he’s still here, approaching the one person who’s been the most worrisome in terms of figuring out who he really is, with nearly all of the other Hermits around to witness whatever goes down.

Maybe, just maybe, the choice won’t have to be his to make, and that’s why he’s doing this. At this point, he really doesn’t know.

As they approach, close enough to see the others’ expressions but not close enough to yet speak, Grian looks over the other team. Cub is standing off to the side, just as he’d expect from an unaffiliated overseer, his hands crossed behind his back as he waits. All of the others are grouped close together, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, which in and of itself should be incredibly strange and set off warning bells within his head. But what catches his attention more is the lineup of who’s on the other side; there’s Doc at the end, just as he’d expected, and who’s already pinned a stare with an unrecognizable expression at the disguised demon and making his feathers puff out in fear. Beside him is Impulse, then False, and then two people he hasn’t met before. Though he’d normally at least look them over to try and figure out who they are, his gaze is drawn directly to the last member beside them. At the far end from Doc is Xisuma, and Grian can feel a cold dread take hold at the sight of him.

He was beginning to trust Xisuma, but the Hermit leader being on the other team with Doc gives him a bad feeling he can’t quite place his finger on. After another moment, it sinks in that it must be because they’ve both shown signs of knowing who he is; if they both know, and they’re on the same team now, does that mean Xisuma has been playing him all this time? The thought makes his stomach wrench, and whatever comfort he’d felt in assuming most of the Hermits are friendly drains in an instant.

“Glad you could make it.”  Cub greets them once they reach the flag, and Scar breaks off from their group to take his place beside him away from either team.

“Here we thought you were going to chicken out.” Doc’s low voice taunts almost immediately after, his stare never leaving Grian, and the demon is sure he’s talking directly to him. Whatever happened last time seems to be gone, the same unwavering intimidation coming off of him in waves, and Grian finds himself inching closer to Cleo out of a rising fear.

“You wish. You were hoping we wouldn’t show up because you don’t want to deal with what you’ve started.” Iskall taunts right back, and Doc raises an eyebrow, finally glancing over at him and away from Grian.

“That I started? Oh, no. I don’t think so. I haven’t started anything, but I’m here to finish it.” His piercing stare turns back on Grian, sharper than before. “I just want everyone on the same page, you know. Get some things cleared up, that’s all.”

At the far end of their lineup, Grian just barely catches Xisuma giving Doc a warning look, and it only serves to twist his fears tighter. They have to both know. They have to be working together, it can’t just be coincidence.

“Enough.” Cub steps in, raising his hands. “Remember the rules, save the taunts for when the battle actually starts. Right now, you’re all supposed to be building, and you’re not allowed to attack or prank anyone until this flag comes down. Furthermore, you’re not allowed to try and freak out the other team just because you can’t fight yet.”

His words are punctuated with a firm look in Doc’s direction, which is finally enough to get him to shrug and look away from Grian, much to the demon’s relief. It’s for sure; he’s really glad Cub and Scar are here to mediate all of this.

“Now, we’ve explained all of the rules to both of you, and I expect they be followed to the letter. As for the ceasefire, that will last until both of your bases are finished and ready to go. Work together with your teammates, gather materials, build something you can defend; once you’re finished, the flag comes down, and the war will officially begin. Not a moment sooner, and not until we give the word.”

As if to emphasize what Cub has just said, a peal of thunder follows once he’s finished speaking, and Grian flinches. The sky above has turned a moody gray during their trek across the field, and the cold wind he felt before is now whipping at his feathers. Beside him, Cleo looks up at the sky, holding out a hand and grimacing when a drop of rain lands on it.

“Okay, let’s get this wrapped up before Doc gets any bright ideas involving lightning.” Cub says, catching Grian’s attention with it with a spike of horror. Doc can do what with lightning? The aforementioned Hermit is grinning, and for some reason, Impulse is now holding the trident that was previously on Doc’s back, keeping it out of his reach. “Does anyone have any questions? Ask em quick or else we’re all gonna end up in the rain.”

Beside him, Scar raises his hand. “Oh, I was wondering if we should be concerned about one team having more members than the other. Do you think that’s an unfair advantage?”

Cub’s expression turns confused for a moment, while at the same time Grian double checks both sides. It’s true; Doc’s team is one person less than theirs is, though he’s positive they don’t need any help being any more formidable than they already will be.

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Doc’s tone means more than he’s letting on, and if Grian felt a sense of dread before, it multiplies tenfold with the sound of it now. The intimidating Hermit breaks free of his teammates, disappearing behind them for a moment, and in one swift movement it becomes clear why they were standing so close together. “See, we’re perfectly equal, wouldn’t you say?”

Silent and staring directly at the ground, their last member says nothing as he is pulled into sight. He won’t look up, his shoulders slack where Doc is gripping them, and the sight of him makes Grian’s heart drop like a rock. He looks as ruffled as Grian does, with long shadows under his eyes, and he doesn’t acknowledge Grian’s presence or anyone else’s either for that matter. The entire world seems to sway under the demon’s feet, everything else melting away save for the sight of the angel who is clearly in just as bad of shape as he is, and the knowledge that it’s his fault.

Mumbo is on Doc’s side, and he doesn't look okay.

Chapter Text

There are more words exchanged, but Grian doesn’t hear them. They’re muffled voices that go in one ear and out the other, all while his attention is focused on the two Hermits across the line from him. All he can do is stare at them, stare at Mumbo, and try to put the pieces together. He doesn’t know why Mumbo is on the other side; does he know, after all, and has chosen to support Doc against him? Or maybe he doesn’t know, but Grian’s vanishing act has driven him away completely. But even that doesn’t feel like it explains everything, from the way Mumbo won’t look up, to how he looks like he hasn’t slept in just as long as Grian hasn’t, to the way he looks almost uncomfortable to be on the other side, or maybe even to be involved at all. Doc hasn’t… blackmailed him into joining, somehow, has he? What would he even have to use if he did? Unlike Grian, there’s nothing Doc could use against Mumbo, unless perhaps Grian himself. But if Mumbo doesn’t want anything to do with him now, that wouldn’t even work either. If Mumbo is hurt from the way Grian left before, if he still feels the same way he did after what happened, he can’t imagine why the angel would ever want to be on either team. It just doesn’t make sense for him to be there, at least not with the way he’s avoiding the demon’s gaze.

While the ground feels like it’s trying to fall out from under him and the possibilities with more questions than answers swirl around in his head, to his surprise, Grian hasn’t lost himself to a panic. His heart feels like it’s trying to twist into knots, but for the most part, he’s able to keep a coherent head to seeing the angel he’s been so worried about suddenly appearing on the other side. He wishes Mumbo would look up, would at least glance at him, and help give him some more idea of what exactly is going on, or if the angel possibly hates him now for running away when he did; but he doesn’t, only continuing to stare at the floor, and Grian desperately searches for any other details that could possibly tell him more.

Behind him, Grian finds his gaze trailing up to Doc, and… he’s frowning. With furrowed brows and his mouth set into a thin, disappointed line, he glances between the demon and the angel beside him, as if he’d been expecting something different. There’s a sour taste of fear at the back of Grian’s throat as he wonders if Doc was hoping to send him into another panic, or if he was wanting to see some kind of ‘entertaining’ reaction from this at all, and the demon’s relative composure has just left him disappointed. But after a moment, even that doesn’t feel right, either. His hands are only carefully set on the angel’s shoulders, not gripping hard like he’d expect if this was against Mumbo’s will, and for just a split few seconds, his glances toward Grian hold none of the intimidation he’s shown previously. It’s a look he’s seen before; and after another few moments, it hits him that Doc looks the same now as he did the last time he saw him, in his own base with terror dragging him away into panic, when the other Hermit left him be.

Almost as an afterthought, Grian snaps his stare over to Xisuma; but the leader’s face is unreadable, his expression as neutral as possible save for a furrowed brow in the direction of the same two that had just held the demon’s attention. That, too, doesn’t quite make sense either, and for one terrifying moment, Grian almost feels himself beginning to step forward. He wants to talk to Mumbo, even if Doc is looming right over his shoulder, and find out how the angel is really doing. But before he can commit and take a step, Grian’s attention is drawn by the feeling of a hand on his shoulder, and he looks away from the other team.

“Ready to go get started on our base, Grian?” Iskall flashes him a wide, friendly smile, and Grian does his best to mimic it. He can’t help but glance back across the line again, though, and sees the way Doc begins to guide Mumbo into turning away. Mumbo’s head jerks away suddenly, as if he’d finally looked up, and Grian had missed it. His heart twists, confusion settling in ever deeper. Iskall follows his gaze, and sees the retreating backs of the other two. “Don’t worry too much, Grian. Just because Mumbo’s on the other side doesn’t mean he’s stopped caring about you.”

“But—” Grian wants to argue, to spill his worries, though he isn’t sure what to say. How could he even begin to, when it all comes back around to him not telling the truth? Iskall just gently tugs him away from the line, leading him toward their side of the soon to be battlefield much the same way Doc seems to be doing with Mumbo, and Grian lets him.

“Trust me, just give it some time.” Iskall almost sounds as if he knows what’s going on, and Grian has to wonder exactly how obvious all of this really is to the other Hermits. At this point, he’s getting used to it. “You’ll get a chance to talk at some point, I promise.”

How Iskall can promise something that requires Mumbo actually speaking to him, he isn’t sure, but he lets his teammate’s words sink in to quell some of his anxiety. At this point, he has absolutely no idea what’s going on at all, why Mumbo is here or what the look on Doc’s face means, or why Xisuma is suddenly on the other team, or anything. But Iskall demands his attention in the best of ways, gesturing out in front of the two of them with his free hand as they walk.

“I’m glad you chose to join us despite everything, you know. See all this space here? We get to build whatever base we want. And, see, I’m a redstone guy, Grian. I’m not as big on all these fancy things you builder guys do, so…” They come to a stop on a hill by the river, the rest of their team dotted in various places around them, and Iskall turns to him with an almost questioning look. “...Work your magic, please?”

“Wait, me?” Grian has to pause, surprise taking over all of his other thoughts. Jevin is already placing down shulkers, which Cleo immediately snoops through, allowing Grian to see they’re full of building supplies and tools. He pictures the shopping district, and all of the fantastic builds within it, everything he’s admired time and time again. Though he doesn’t know who all built what, he’s sure at least a few of his teammates here are responsible for some of those, and he suddenly feels less than qualified for this. “I can’t— you guys are just as good at building as I am, if not better. Why me?”

“We all have to work together to get this thing going, so everyone needs different tasks to get it all done smoothly. You,” Iskall emphasizes, poking Grian in the chest. “Are good at building, so if you take charge of designing the base, that frees up the rest of us to do more of the labor. You’d be surprised how fast things go when you’ve got someone to direct and a bunch of others to follow their lead. If we all try to work on it separately with our own ideas, it’ll be a big mess.”

“But, but shouldn’t someone else be the one in charge of designing it?” Grian questions still, more than a little unsure about this placement. How would they feel if they knew they were putting a demon in charge of creating their base? What if they don’t like what he comes up with? What if they don’t want him telling them what to do or what to build? The uncertainties circle around inside his head like wildfire, mixing like ink into the water that is his already existing fears. “Besides, I’m just the new guy, right? I shouldn't be in charge of something this important.”

From a little ways behind him, there’s the distinct sound of papers being flipped through, right before a book is thrust into his field of vision. It’s followed by an arm, which is attached to a certain eccentric angel, and he finds himself blinking at the empty page at the back of Joe’s book. “You just answered your own question, Grian. We’ve all built tons of stuff, but you, you’re the new guy. It’s only fair you get to have a big hand in what we’re doing, otherwise you’ll never come out of hiding in your little introvert cave. Now, go on; try drawing a concept, and we’ll start building it.” The quill that went along with the book appeared beside it, Joe waving both in his face until he takes them, hesitantly. The angel smiles at him as he does, Iskall nodding approvingly behind him.

“Are you… sure?” Grian asks again, the book feeling strangely important in his hands. From the other side of the laid down shulkers, Jevin turns to him.

“Grian, the group is nominating you as designer, so if you don’t design it I’m gonna build us a single flag and that’s gonna be our base.” His words are firm, yet the amused smirk tugging at his expression makes it clear it’s a friendly threat. Just to drive the point home, Jevin starts building a flagpole, climbing high above their heads as he goes, his voice becoming distant. “Oh man, I can’t wait to have a single giant flag for a base.”

Even with the uncertainty and the fear swirling in his heart, seeing Jevin slowly ascend away while continuing his threats of a flag base genuinely hits Grian in just the right way, and he has to tighten his grip on Joe’s book with the quiet laughter that starts to shake his body. Maybe it’s because he expected something much more serious; for these Hermits on his team to jump together and make serious plans about defenses and routes of attack and the other team’s weaknesses, without any ounce of friendly banter or jokes, but instead, they’re asking him to make something pretty and Jevin is just making a big flag. The mood of their little hill here is decidedly friendly, a stark difference to the heavy emotions that hung over him at the line, and it makes some of the tension ease out of him. “Okay, okay. I’ll design a base.” He agrees quietly, sitting down into the grass with Joe’s book. It’s nice down here, actually; it’s warmer against the ground than standing up in the full wind, and he huddles more comfortably into his wings against its chill.

“He’s gonna do it.” Iskall calls up to Jevin, then, repeating Grian’s agreement up to the Hermit at the top of the new flagpole. How Jevin can stand being in that horrible cold wind, Grian doesn’t understand in the least. “You can come down now.”

“Too late, I’ve committed.” Comes Jevin’s distant voice, showing no intention of coming down whatsoever. “We’re getting a flag and a base.”

Stress steps forward to say something about how he’s going to catch a cold, but Grian is turning his attention down toward the book. Joe has it flipped to the very last pages, empty ones for him to draw on, and he’s curious for a moment what the rest of the book may hold. But it isn’t his, nor is it his business, leaving him to shove the temptation aside and focus on the task at hand. He’s never drawn a plan before, in fact, he’s never drawn anything, which shows clearly in the jagged and confusing little doodle he comes up with, but he hopes it’s enough to get some sort of an idea across. “Um,” He looks up, searching for the attention of at least one of his teammates. Iskall takes notice immediately.

“Something up? Other than Jevin, that is.”

“We’ll need to level this hill down, at least a bit, if we want to fit a base here. I can—” He doesn’t want to tell the others what to do, or say they have to dig the hill down, but Iskall turns to the rest of them and cuts him off before he can offer to just do it himself.

“Alright, everybody start digging, let’s get a flat foundation going here.” Iskall directs them with zero hesitation, and they listen. Cleo jumps up right away, shovel in hand from one of Jevin’s shulkers, and Tango isn’t far behind her. They shove their newfound tools into the ground near the center, leaning on the handles and staring at each other over top of them, a distinctly competitive look on both their faces. They’re too quiet for Grian to hear the terms of their competition, but he can guess it has something to do with whoever levels the most ground first wins, and a moment later they both jump into action. Nearby, Joe quietly joins in, shoveling away the material with a much calmer pace, clearly not interested in joining their contest.

Grian feels like he should get up and join in, if only to make himself more useful, but Stress appears by his side before he can consider it. He startles slightly at her sudden presence, but she only settles down onto the ground beside him, offering a sweet and notably amused smile his way.

“Let them duke it out, we can save our energy for the actual building once they’re done.” She says, her reassuring tone smoothing over the edge of anxiety he feels at not helping them. Then her gaze turns down to the drawing in his hands, curiosity pulling at her face. “Do you know what materials we want to use yet?”

“I was thinking… concrete? And glass? Like, like my base..?” His uncertainty shines through clearly in his words, unsure of whether those are a good choice of materials or not and subconsciously hoping for her approval of them. “I mean, we’re in the modern district, right? And I have a lot of it leftover, and...”

“I think that’ll work just fine, don’t worry.” She cuts in quietly, her tone level and warm, easing his worry. “Do you need any help?”

At first he isn’t sure how she could help, but she nods down at the drawing again and it clicks that she’s asking about the design. “Oh! Well, do you think this is balanced enough?” He lays the book out onto the grass, both of them leaning over it as he points out the shapes to her. Stress looks it over for a moment, humming, before pointing to another side of the drawing.

“I think we could use another section here. It’ll make it more grounded and sturdy looking, and we’ll have more room to work with.”

“You’re right.” The demon nods, using the quill to draw in a jagged example of what she’s suggesting. It does look better. “Do you think we should do an underground section? It would be safer for supplies if they can’t reach them as easily.”

“Definitely. But we can work on digging it out after we have everything else figured up, especially since then the other team won’t know we have a basement until they break in.”

Grian continues adding in lines here and there as she talks, drawing in a tower at the far back side of the base plan and a wider foundation of circles. It’s surprisingly calming to jot down the ideas already starting to form in his builder mind, and Stress’s presence as she watches over his shoulder is less disconcerting than he would’ve expected. The mention of the other team brings some of his worries back to the surface, but he’s able to shove them right back down again with the prospect of building. Ahead of them, he can still see Cleo and Tango rapidly digging out a foundation, self confident smiles on their faces as they shout good natured quips at each other.

Despite the amount of people around, and the fact he’s never spoken to Jevin or Stress before, he’s actually beginning to feel comfortable. Stress gives quiet little comments here and there on his plan, helping him see what it needs or doesn’t need, and nearby, he can hear Joe humming a song to himself as he digs. It’s a sound that carries on the chill wind, hovering over the lot of them as they each work together on their separate tasks.

They haven’t even started on the actual base yet, and already, Grian thinks he might like building with others.

 


 

If Grian thought the cold wind was bad from the ground, then up here on the ever-increasing height of the base walls it’s a full on nightmare. The heavy concrete in his hands keeps him weighted firmly on the edge, saving him from an unfortunate tumble, but that can’t keep the chill out of his bones. Up here, it buffets mercilessly into him, leaving his skin numb and blowing right through the knit of his sweater and between his feathers. Even with his wings wrapped tightly around him, as best they can be while he works, it’s not enough to keep him any level of warm. It’s a sign of changing seasons, he supposes; a phenomenon unique to the overworld, one he’s never been around long enough to witness before, and he’s wholly unprepared for it on every level.

But that’s a thought for another day, when he isn’t surrounded by people he needs to keep unaware of his unfamiliarity with it. No one else is complaining about the weather, and as best he can tell, none of them are shivering like he is. Stress has her hair tied up to keep it out of her face, but neither she nor Iskall show any sign of being bothered by the temperature despite being up here in the wind with him. It only serves to make him more worried they’ll figure out where he’s really from if he makes his lack of easy adjustment obvious to them, and he does his best to build as far away from them as possible to keep his shivering hidden.

The concrete blocks continue to fit into place with that same familiar noise he’s become so accustomed to while building his own base, the rhythmic sound of placing them filling his ears as he works. It’s not even too much trouble to heft them up and onto the wall, the weight another thing he’s used to by now, though he’d worried about the others joining in. But on the other two edges of the base perimeter, Stress seems well and completely unbothered by the heavy blocks, her pink sleeves rolled up as she places them down, and Iskall is much the same. And in all honesty, he’s glad. The progress of the base already, with just their help, is far beyond what he would have estimated considering how much he’s used to building by himself. The scale of this thing should have, in theory, taken weeks between gathering materials and actually putting each block in place.

That’s not the case here. In a short amount of time, they’ve already built far above the ground, and he can only guess it won’t be all that much longer before they reach the height of where the roof should be. Far down below, he can see the shapes of Cleo and Joe as they work on the floor, replacing the dirt for yet more concrete and already making it look like the beginnings of a base. Tango and Jevin are nowhere to be seen, but considering the now-empty shulkers are also gone, he can only guess they’ve left to gather more materials, removing that step from being something the builders have to worry about. It’s almost unreal how easy it is to make this base rise seemingly out of nowhere, just with the whole team of them to work on it at once, and he supposes Iskall was right about it being easier when everyone has their own tasks.

“Comin’ through, watch your head.” Stress’s voice reaches his ears and he glances over at its source. She’s reached the roof portion of her section of the build, now filling it in a bit above him, and he steps a bit more to the side just in case. At first, he isn’t sure how she managed to get so far ahead of him in progress, but considering his hands are numb from the cold and he keeps nearly dropping his own blocks, that probably explains it. “Oooh, looks like they’re busy over there, too.”

For a moment he doesn’t realize what she’s talking about, but she’s standing up on the edge of her roof and looking out over the battlefield, and he follows her gaze. In his building focus he’d almost managed to forget about the other team, and his conflicting emotions centered around half of the people on it, but he has to admit she’s right. Just as their base here has risen seemingly out of nowhere, the other team’s as well has appeared in a much more complete state than just one person would be able to accomplish on their own. From here, he can just barely see the distant shapes of those Hermits milling about as they work, building up their admittedly intimidating walls of solid stone brick. Distantly, he wonders which one Mumbo is, if he’s helping at all. It still doesn’t make sense for him to be involved, unless there’s something Grian is missing here, and he really just wishes he had a chance to ask.

“Is that all they’re going to do? It’s a pitiful short little thing, isn’t it?” Stress puts the concrete still in her hands into place before dropping to sit on the edge of the roof, her legs dangling over the side as she gazes out over the battlefield. Grian tries to force the shivering out of his jaw before he replies, doing his best to silence the chattering of his teeth.

“Maybe they’re going underground with it.” He shrugs, attempting to heft another block of his own into place. Unfortunately, trying to appear like he’s less cold than he is takes more attention away from trying to actually keep a good grip on the block with his numb hands, and it goes tumbling over the edge to the floor far below. Luckily Cleo and Joe are nowhere near it, but he winces as it lands with a shrill crash and all eyes turn to him.

“Are you okay?” Stress asks him right away, her expression pulling to concern as she looks at him a bit more closely. After just a moment, her eyes widen. “Oh, Grian, you must be freezing, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it sooner. Come now, we can’t be having that.”

Before he can protest, she hops down to his level and takes his arms into her hands, forcibly guiding him along the wall to the temporary staircase leading down. His anxiety spikes at her notice of his condition, but she doesn’t say anything about it, and in all honesty he’s glad for her support as she helps him down the precarious setup to the floor below. Even just moving out of that awful wind as they descend down into the cavernous single room of their base so far is a massive improvement, the cold air no longer cutting through his sweater.

Stress calls out to Cleo about halfway down, asking for her to start a fire, and it seems she doesn’t need to be asked twice. Even from up here he can see the downright enthusiastic way she gathers together whatever wood she has without question, a bit too happy about using a flint and steel on it while Joe watches with mild concern from behind her. Personally, Grian’s never started a fire before, but her enthusiasm about it makes him wonder if it’s any fun when it’s not an element he’s surrounded and threatened by.

He almost stumbles on the last step, but Stress keeps him on his feet, though she lets go of him once he’s caught his balance now that they’re back on the ground. By the time they’ve walked their way over to Cleo’s new fire that could put even bonfires to shame, she’s got it roaring, the flames reaching high enough he’s glad they don’t have any second floors yet. But it’s warm, warm enough that it’s actually heating up the entire interior of the half finished base shell relatively quickly, and he can’t find it in himself to worry as much now that he’s not freezing his feathers off. If he’s lucky, they’ll just think he isn’t good with the cold in general, not that he was raised in the sweltering heat of the Nether.

“It’s about time you came down, only those two should be able to stand that wind.” Joe pipes up casually, from where he’s already fashioned a comfortable seat on the other side of the fire from Grian. It derails his worries in an instant, replacing them with confusion that he knows is clear on his face by the way the angel replies to it. “Iskall and Stress, they both live in that ice biome. I’m thoroughly impressed you stayed out in the cold with them this long.”

“I don’t get what all the fuss is.” Cleo shrugs, throwing more wood into the fire. Not that it needed it, Grian is pretty sure she just wanted to. After a moment, she runs out of wood, and starts digging in her pack for other things she can throw into the blaze. “It doesn’t feel cold to me.”

“Nothing feels cold to you, Cleo.” Joe deadpans back at her, smoothly reaching over and taking the stack of torches out of her hand before she can throw all of them into the fire. It’s such a fluid movement, Grian wonders if this happens often. She looks like she wants to say something else, but Stress steps in front of Grian’s view of her, drawing his attention to her instead.

“I’ll head back up and keep working with Iskall to finish off the roof, you just stay here and warm up, okay Grian? You’ve been at it since we started anyway, you deserve a break.”

She pats his shoulder as she speaks, and though he wants to argue, feeling bad about leaving them to keep building without him, he doesn’t want to go back out into the wind either. So he just nods, and she walks off, back toward the stairs they’d just come from. It’s clearer from down here just how much they’d built, Stress’s form slowly shrinking with each step as she rises higher, until he can’t make out her expression anymore. Iskall walks around to meet her, carefully balanced far up there against the wind, and the gestures and pointing as they speak make it look like they must be planning out how to go about sectioning off the different levels of the roof.

As he watches, Iskall turns away, his arm held out as he seems to describe what he was working on at the other side of the building. Behind him, Stress inches closer, her arm reaching around to Iskall’s opposite shoulder and setting down what looks like a little black smudge from down here onto him. Grian can only guess it must be just a bit of wool she had on her, and as Stress steps an innocent distance away, he can guess exactly what she’s up to.

He just hopes Iskall doesn’t fall.

Like clockwork, he turns back around to face her, and she points a hand at his shoulder with the bit of wool. Though the demon can’t quite make out their faces, he can assume the level of confusion as Iskall slowly turns to look at what Stress is pointing to, only to jolt in place as he spots it. His arms flail wildly, trying to smack the spot off of himself as if he thinks it’s a spider, all while Stress laughs so loudly Grian can even hear it from down here. His amusement at the scene is dampened by the worry about Iskall falling in his panic, until he realizes Stress has reached out and taken a steady hold of his shirt, clearly ready to grab him fully if he slips. That’s enough to melt away his concern, a softer feeling taking hold as he watches the way Iskall deflates at the realization there isn’t a spider on him, and the way Stress hugs him close while she continues laughing at his expense. After a moment, he joins her, and it sinks in all at once that the scene in front of him feels achingly familiar and Grian knows exactly why. Just as quickly as his worry for Iskall faded at Stress’s control of her prank, a sharp and forlorn feeling settles in its place, tugging at the guilt buried just out of sight. He hadn’t realized before just how much he misses carefree moments like those, even if he’s only had so few.

“You can tell a lot about someone by how they look at others.” Joe’s voice cuts in suddenly, his tone almost reminiscent of Xisuma. Grian nearly jumps out of his skin, having completely forgotten he isn’t alone, and he jerks around to look at the angel again. Cleo has disappeared entirely, and Joe is partially obscured behind his book, regarding the demon over top of it with a contemplative look. “They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I think they’re more like doors. When they’re facing away, you can see through them to what’s really there, whereas windows just kinda reflect whatever’s in front of them. Sorta like mirrors, but a little bit clearer, except not as clear as doors.”

Blinking, Grian stares back at him. He has no idea what that could even begin to mean. Joe nods toward the two far above them, his gaze never leaving Grian’s.

“Don’t throw away your basket yet, Grian. Your chickens will come home when you let them, and when they do, it’ll be like they were never gone. But you have to leave your basket where they can find it, and in order to do that, you have to stop yourself from holing up in your base alone. Which is impressive considering the lack of doors, but even nonexistent doors can still keep you from finding your chickens, if they don’t think you want them back.” The angel finally looks down, turning a page in his book and beginning to scratch at the paper with his quill, leaving Grian in silence with nothing but a heavy layer of confusion.

“In words that people like us can actually understand,” Cleo appears out of nowhere, walking in through a hole in the wall behind Grian with a chest held above her head. “Joe is saying that maybe Mumbo is afraid to talk to you for the same reason you’re afraid to talk to him, and that you should reach out when you have a chance. I’m sure he’ll be open to talking to you.”

As she speaks, she sets the chest down, casually throwing it open to reveal all manner of plant material filling it to the brim, all of which she begins pitching into the fire and making it roar higher with each item. Grian turns away again, glancing back up at the soon to be roof where Iskall and Stress seem to be comfortably building together, the ease of their companionship reminding him of exactly what he’d messed up.

As the fire burns higher and higher behind him, followed by a shower of sparks as even the chest itself is thrown in, he wishes it was as simple as they seem to think. But combined with whatever nearly made him approach the other team earlier, he’s starting to believe maybe their advice is a good start.

Chapter Text

If Grian thought building and supplying an entire war base and bunker would be easy, especially with a team of people instead of just himself, then he had been… completely wrong. The fact is, a team of people simply makes what would be impossible on his own, possible; but that doesn’t make it easy, and though it goes far faster than he ever would have expected, that only means there’s more tasks shoved into less time. Within just a few days, there’s no room for any thoughts outside of the base, or the seemingly infinite checklist of things that need done. Everything from the basic structure of the building itself, to the redstone components within, to the various rooms and their functions, to the underground bunker beneath it, to the… eugh, the storage room.

He isn’t going to organize that.

As it stands, they’ve accomplished a fantastic amount of work, and the place is really shaping up into something that feels real. And surprisingly, he feels comfortable in this base; despite the war brewing on the horizon, the jumble of guilt and regret he carries with him everywhere looming only just outside with the cold, and the amount of people in this very base, he feels at home. Even now as he brushes through the rooms, feet carrying him swiftly past his various working teammates while his attention is drawn firmly to the list in his hand, their presences nearby don’t scare him at all. They’ve finished digging out and building the bunker, all of the cosmetic work seems to be nearly finished, Tango is doing something involving redstone up in the control room, he’s pretty sure at least someone is on fire charge duty… His gaze skims further down the paper, and there’s still a large amount that needs done before they can claim to the Convex that they’re ready.

They still need more defenses, and that’s at the top of his priorities for the moment. They’ve installed a fake front door, that much he knows, but Iskall was deep into the redstone for it last night when he last checked in. Considering that stuff is just witchcraft to him, he’d left his teammate to it and sent Cleo out to find a solution against weaponized creepers, but now, checking in on what state the door defences are in is next on his checklist.

He’s up and out of the bubblevators in what feels like a split second, the water peeling off of him and leaving him perfectly dry through the use of the conduit Jevin had so kindly installed somewhere in the base. Even his paper is fine, the water beading off of it as if it were waxed, not even a puddle pooling on the floor as a result of his emergence. Nearby, he can see the ground floor has been partially filled with horses, and for the moment he chooses not to question it, instead looking elsewhere for his teammate. Already he can see Iskall just around the corner, staring intently at something just out of sight and the muffled sound of his voice echoing around the room. As Grian approaches, he can begin to pick up on some of what he’s saying, though it only serves to further the demon’s curiosity at what he’s up to.

“Okay, now I know it’s taken us a… bit of an argument to come up with this arrangement, but I swear you’ll enjoy this job.” Iskall says to the corner still out of Grian’s sight, and on second glance, he looks a little bit like he got into a fight with something. “Just remember what we talked about, and anytime you see someone who shouldn’t be here, do your thing.”

“Iskall, who in the world are you--” Grian is cut off with a startled squawk as he rounds the corner, something vaguely pointy yet light colliding with his face. It’s startling enough that his survival instincts half kick in, sending him to the floor as his reflexes try to save him from the attack a few seconds too late. For a split second, the overly anxious part of his mind jumps to the conclusion that he’s just accidentally set off an arrow trap, but a few moments passing by without him dying are proof enough that’s not what happened. Luckily for him, the projectile that just assaulted him actually turns out to just be an innocent piece of paper folded into a plane, drifted innocently down onto his lap. Looking up from it, he’s met with the surprised face of Iskall, and beside him, a completely unapologetic looking witch. She leers at him, laughing at the demon on the floor. “Iskall, why do you have a witch in our base?!”

“Okay, don’t panic, she’s here to help.” Iskall holds his hands out in a calming gesture before Grian can reach for his trident, completely ignoring the way the witch folds another piece of paper and pitches it right at his head. It sticks in his hair and stays there. “Her name is Gertrude, and she’s here to tell any unwanted visitors to go away.”

Still not entirely understanding the point of the paper, or, even the witch in general really, the demon looks down at the paper in his lap against his better judgment. He’s not too keen on the idea of letting the witch out of his sight, but Iskall is right beside her, and he isn’t dead yet, so it’s probably mostly fine. The paper unfolds easily enough, and he isn’t sure whether to laugh or be even more confused as he registers the words ur a butt written on it. Glancing back up again shows him Iskall has unfolded his weaponized paper as well. “What’s yours say?”

“She called me a sad excuse for a door repairman.” Iskall shrugs, tossing his paper over his shoulder as he does. Gertrude laughs at them both, settling deeper into her chair that Grian only just noticed she has. It’s a small little space, though there’s nothing to actually keep her here if she decides to wander off. Just the fact she isn’t attacking them both with a barrage of potions is both interesting and confusing, though, much less the fact she doesn’t seem all that interested in leaving. Part of him wonders if Iskall somehow managed to take away all of her own potions, or if he actually managed to make a trustworthy deal with a witch.

“How did you get her to…” Grian begins as he slowly shuffles back onto his feet, unsure of how to word his thoughts without potentially offending her into aggression beyond insulting papers. The witch seems to know exactly what he’s thinking, if the way she pulls out a purple tinted splash potion and narrows her eyes at him says anything. At least that answers one of his questions, she’s definitely still armed, and he knows better than to say anything else.

“What, you’ve never made a deal with a witch before? They’re actually very agreeable people, you know.” Iskall beams at him, his smile just a bit too wide in that way people do if they’re trying to be convincing. As if to prove his point completely wrong, or just because she felt like it, Gertrude gives a hearty laugh at his words and then pitches the damage potion at Iskall. It hits him dead center in the shoulder, splattering out in a wave all around him that Grian instinctively jumps away from, and he doesn’t miss the way his teammate winces at the effects of the potion. “See? Perfectly friendly.”

He’s not so sure about that.

“Anyway,” Iskall continues, willfully getting on with his original point despite his pained wincing for the next few moments. He takes a few unsteady steps to the side, holding his twitching arms up and out toward their massive front door. “I’ve built a nice obvious doorbell into this thing. Nobody can resist pressing a nice obvious button, and when they do, Gertrude here will do what she does best, as she has so well demonstrated already.”

Gertrude made a noise that may have been an insult of some kind, and went back to writing her papers. For what it’s worth, she doesn’t seem to actually want to really hurt or kill either of them, beyond throwing the one potion at Iskall. And though Grian isn’t too sure about her presence, he’s able to turn away without too much worry, turning his attention fully to the door Iskall has made. His teammate’s mention of buttons has caught his attention, and suddenly, he wants to see how this odd security works and definitely not just as an excuse to press said button. “...Can I try it?”

Shaking off the last of the potion effects, his teammate beams at him, immediately walking over to a little access hole he’s left in the wall and seeing right through the demon’s charade. “Yes, Grian, you can press the button.”

With a sheepish shrug, Grian doesn’t argue, only following him out through the wall and into the crisp air outside. He’d almost forgotten how cold it is out here, and for a split second, the weight of everything he’s been ignoring inside of the G Team base presses as heavily as it ever has down onto him. It’s quite a distance away, but he can see the newly built tower of the other team’s base looming against the backdrop of the sky, and he genuinely wonders what could be going on over there. There’s an anxious feeling settling into his bones along with the piercing cold of the wind, though it’s strangely different from the usual fear that creeps into him at every opportunity. It’s almost a jittery feeling, as if he’s standing on the very edge of a cliff before diving off, and he isn’t quite sure why.

“Grian?” Iskall’s voice draws him back out of his thoughts and he spins around in an instant, smoothing his expression into what he hopes doesn’t betray the conflicting mess of emotions inside him. The other Hermit is standing by the door, an inviting hand held up toward the button. Just as quickly as the heavier feelings washed over him with the cold air, they’re muffled away under the rekindled excitement of getting to push the button Iskall has just shown him, and he wastes no time in prancing the last few steps over to do just that. 

It pushes into the wall with a satisfying little click. Nearly immediately after, a small section of the faux door recesses in and out of sight, revealing a little window that Gertrude’s face promptly appears from. Her brows are creased together into an exaggerated scowl, and in a motion that’s both scarily fast and terrifyingly accurate, she pitches another paper at Grian and another potion at Iskall off to the side. Both land dead center on their targets, the demon only slightly flinching at the paper while Iskall scrambles in place, his arms flailing wildly from the surprise attack.

“Gertrude! Not me!” He yells through the now-closed door, his body faintly glowing from the non lethal potion she’d thrown at him. Her cackles can be heard faintly muffled from the other side, completely unapologetic and highly entertained.

On second thought, maybe she’s not half bad. While Iskall grumbles faint curses under his breath, shaking his limbs in a futile attempt to shake the glowing potion effect from his skin, Grian slips back inside of the base. Gertrude is already back on her little chair in the corner, and she catches the demon’s eye as he walks back in. She’s watching him intently, the laughter gone from her face and replaced with a pensive sort of look that seems oddly fitting on a witch. Grian finds himself returning the look, staring back at her curiously, and even checking behind himself to make sure she isn’t just looking at Iskall. But his teammate is still outside, leaving Grian as the only possible person in the room for her to be staring at. When he looks back, a sly smile has crossed her face.

“...What?” He finds himself asking, despite the fact she’s said nothing so far. And she doesn’t break that trend, nothing but a faint chuckle escaping her as she finally turns her attention back down to the papers. Grian stares back at her for a few more moments, confusion bouncing around his head, but after a moment he shrugs to himself. He’s never met a witch that wasn’t actively just trying to kill him before, so maybe odd and slightly worryingly thoughtful looks aren’t uncommon for witches.

Either way he moves on, searching his person for his checklist. The security of the front door feels like it’s in perfectly capable hands, at least so long as Gertrude decides to pick on the other team the same way she picks on Iskall, and he only hesitates a little bit before crossing it off. He has to keep in mind that they can only ramp up the security so high, considering if Iskall put in anything more dangerous than a slightly disgruntled witch, Grian would probably pitch face first into it himself the instant it’s wired up. 

With that in mind, he isn’t sure why Iskall insisted on him being the one with the list and the job of making sure everything is done properly, considering he wouldn’t know functioning redstone from a literal rock in front of his face. But it gives him something to do now that the majority of the actual construction is done, so he’s far from complaining. Well, for the most part, anyway; he feels a little bad about how he’s completely procrastinating on the very first item on the list which just so happens to be organizing the storage room, but he’ll look into that later.

“Hey, Grian!” Startled by the slightly too-loud echo of his name ringing off of the high walls, the demon’s attention is wrenched from the paper and up to the half floor somewhere far above. There, leaning against the glass railing with a bit more of her weight than is probably safe, he can see Cleo’s stark hair standing out against the backdrop of the otherwise monochrome base in an instant. She’s waving excitedly down at him, clearly trying to get his attention. Before she can manage to fall over the edge to a gruesome accident, he flares open his wings and takes off toward the meeting room, the base’s open first floor more than enough to accommodate his wingspan.

Cleo backs away from the railing as he rises up and over the edge, joining her on the floor in one of the more fluid movements he’s managed in some time. He doesn’t have time to think about that, though, or the fact his wings still haven’t moved on their own, considering Cleo’s face appears so close to his that he can’t see anything but freckles the instant he’s solidly on the floor.

“Grian! Grian, look, look look. I’ve brought the one most important thing to this entire war.” She claims, leaving the demon’s mind to spin in search of what that could possibly be, while also trying to process how to react to his sudden lack of personal space. It only turns up with the mental image of eggs and redstone, up until she steps away and reveals the meeting room behind her.

Or, at least, what’s supposed to be the meeting room. The chairs and table are long since in place, by none other than Cleo’s hand, but she’s added something entirely new. Every possible surface in the room, from the seats, arms and backs of every chair, to even the majority of the table, is now covered in cats.

Cats, which Grian has never seen in person before. And they’re all orange.

“Oh my word.” He breathes, taking in the amount of cats now covering every inch of the meeting room. They’re all in various different states, some lounging with their limbs fully stretched out, while others are curled into a ball and fully asleep in the chairs. There’s swishing tails and flicking ears left and right, one cat even plastered so perfectly to the top of one chair that its body follows the shape like a piece of cloth. And while he’s busy staring around, with a beaming Cleo next to him, one of the cats jumps down from the table and approaches him. It bonks its head directly into his shin, followed immediately by its entire body flopping down onto his boots, trapping him completely in place as far as he’s concerned.

And, really, he isn’t concerned at all.

“Cleo,” He turns to her, a tentative sort of excitement beginning to rise in his chest. “Can I..”

Instead of answering his unspoken question, she just turns and grabs a different cat entirely, its demeanor completely unbothered as its body goes casually limp in her grip and lets her hold it. It doesn’t stay there for long, though; she turns again and shoves it right into Grian’s arms, and he scrambles to figure out how to support it comfortably.

And it’s… the softest thing he’s ever held in his life.

He’s afraid to move his arms once he has them solidly under the cat, leaving him unable to pet it, but he can still feel the soft fur escaping between the fingers of his inexperienced grip. He’s encountered lots of animals, before; but none of them are quite like the lithe little creature in his arms, its limbs just comfortably cascading in all directions in his grip like it doesn’t care at all. It just melts into place in his grip, instantly accepting him and not at all interested in escaping back to the floor. Despite being unable to properly pet it, he does his best to at least scratch gently through its fur, any and every other possible distraction or responsibility sailing away at the pure joy it gives him to see the way the cat somehow seems to relax even more. It brings him back to the baby turtles, that feeling of pure wonderment at everything about them, and all he wants to do is hug the cat for the rest of his days.

But as much as he’s enjoying holding the cat, his anxiety shoots right out of nowhere as the little animal starts vibrating in his grip, a strange rumbling noise escaping it, and he finds his gaze snapping back to Cleo in a panic. “Cleo I think I broke it.” He manages in a bare whisper, worry taking heavy root in his voice at the thought. He’s only just met the cats, and he already loves them, and part of him is terrified. Maybe cats can’t be around demons, and the rumbling noise is just the warning there’s something wrong with the cat, and nobody knew to not let him, a demon, hold the cat, and--

His spiraling worries are cut off by Cleo as she… doubles over, laughing so hard she can’t speak. All Grian can do is stare back at her in equal parts confusion and concern, especially as the cat in his grip starts grasping at his arm before letting go, over and over, still rumbling away. He wants to ask if that’s also a bad sign, but Cleo keeps laughing, to the point she gets quieter and quieter from the lack of air she’s actually taking in. Soon enough she’s leaning on a nearby chair for support, her shoulders shaking without sound. Another cat on top of the chair stares down at her, somehow managing a judgemental stare that’s also completely unbothered at the same time.

And Grian, Grian is just confused.

“Grian, it’s fine. It’s called purring.” Joe’s voice cuts through suddenly, drawing the demon’s attention over to the far wall. He hadn’t noticed at first, far more distracted by the literal herd of cats in the room, but Joe has an impromptu potions lab set up in the meeting room as well, for… some reason. He has brewing stand upon brewing stand all plastered across a notably out of place desk, several shulkers beside him no doubt filled with ingredients, along with several cauldrons nearby. He’s not safe from the horde either, though; there’s at least one cat laying across his active workspace, and another slapping at the water in a cauldron. “Cats purr to tell you they’re happy.”

That’s all Grian needs to hear, his worries deflating as quickly as they’d come and leaving behind just a feeling of stark relief that’s so strong it makes his body sag. The cat just keeps on purring, tilting its head back and hitting him in the shoulder, the claws still gently digging into his sleeve. It stares up at him through slits for eyes, and suddenly, he can see it. It looks happy, and he can’t resist carefully freeing one hand to stroke between its ears. The eyes close fully, the purring growing just that little bit louder, and he decides cats are his favorite animal.

“My ribs hurt,” Cleo wheezes from where she’s slid to the floor, another cat inviting itself right into her lap. “I’m sorry but your face, it starts purring and you just look like you dropped a baby I can’t--”

Several emotions bubble forth at once, and he doesn’t know how to make sense of any of them. Part of him feels almost embarrassed, heat rising to his ears over missing such a small detail that is apparently common knowledge on the overworld, the kind of sheepish feeling that hangs over one’s head after a silly mistake. The other part of him feels a spike of worry, that same kind of paranoid fear digging its claws into him at that very same fact of him missing something of common knowledge, something everyone should know; it’s a dead giveaway that he doesn’t belong here, that he’s just pretending. But there’s also a feeling of bated hope, his slight panic over his misstep carefully concealed as he watches Cleo’s face for any signs of realization or careful thought that could give away what she knows. Not to mention Joe, who’s been witness to this entire thing as well. They could both put two and two together, right here and now, just from him knowing nothing about cats.

For just a moment, it almost feels as if the room around him has gone still, the seconds stretching on forever before ticking away. Cleo, slid down onto the floor, her legs given up in the weight of her laughter and her face pulled in a wide and genuine smile. Joe, just on the other side of the table, his head turned back ever so slightly and showing the barely concealed smile he, too, has at the scene unfolding between them both. And then, the cat in Grian’s own arms; head pressed against his shoulder, chest rumbling against his arm, the barest of little pointy teeth showing as its whiskers tilt upwards.

And then it hits him. Chickens instead of cats, him on the floor wheezing instead of Cleo, and suddenly he gets it. Cleo isn’t laughing at him any more than he’s laughed at Mumbo’s reactions to chickens in his base, because that’s exactly what she’s doing. She’s laughing at-- at her teammate’s reaction to something she did, just for the fun of it, just like he always does. The anxiety begins burning off like evaporating water, slowly dissipating as it sinks in that there’s nothing remotely malicious about any of this. He doesn’t need to be worried for the sanctity of his closely guarded secrets, because the others aren’t looking for them. He doesn’t need to feel embarrassed, because this is just… friend banter? This is just something pure, something he’s undeniably a part of. Cleo’s excitement at getting him up here suddenly makes sense, the way she blocked his view of the cats at first, just to see his reaction to the meeting room being filled with them, and him freaking out over a totally normal behaviour was just the icing on top. If the roles were reversed, he knows he’d be laughing just as much as Cleo is.

He’s just been pranked, in one of the best and friendliest ways he could possibly imagine. Cleo isn’t thinking of what he is, that his lack of knowledge is an awfully clear hint to everything he’s hiding; all she sees is her teammate reacting to a cat, and she’s entertained, along with Joe. His anxiety can’t muffle the moment in front of him, with the feeling of inclusion that rises up so strongly in its place. She wouldn’t be laughing right now if he wasn’t here to cause this scene, if he wasn’t here for her to prank with cats.

And on top of that, she introduced him to cats. He has Cleo to thank for this wonderful purring creature in his arms.

The cat’s claws dig a little bit deeper into his arm, drawing him back out of his head. Cleo is now wiping tears from her eyes, faint chuckles escaping her as the fit wanes off, and another cat joins the first in her lap. Joe turns away again, his attention back on his miniature lab, but Grian doesn’t have to see his face to guess he’s probably still smiling. There’s also a cat on his shoulders, now.

“I’m sorry, that was beautiful.” Cleo finally breathes one full, deep sigh, no doubt a comfortable change to the lack of air she had earlier. She looks up at him, and the friendly, happy look on her face fully drives home everything he’s just realized. There’s no suspicion anywhere in her expression, only the same kind of open friendliness he’s been seeing from all of the other members of the G Team. “I’ve never seen anyone get so afraid for a cat purring before. You should’ve seen your face, Grian.”

For a moment, he has no words. But the cat in his arms just keeps on purring, its head drifting down into the crook of his elbow, and he can’t help a warmth coming over him in a feeling of what he can only describe as fitting in . He doesn’t hesitate to offer Cleo a hand after shifting it free of said cat, and pulling his teammate back to her feet with a smile to match her own that he doesn’t have to force. “No, you’re right. That was pretty good.” He admits, and it isn’t a lie. It’s incredibly small, it doesn’t change the weight of all of his worries hanging just out of sight, and the only two other Hermits in the room probably don’t realize at all what’s going through his head, but it means something to him. They’ve called him their friend before, but here at this exact moment, he can almost believe them.

Almost. A faint sliver of something melancholic cuts into his heart at the thought that, if they knew and they still acted like this with him, he’d be able to believe it. But the fact is that they don’t know, and there’s no way for him to tell if they’d still want to interact with him like this if they ever found out. They’re friendly now, but if they’d known, would Cleo have set up this little joke with the cats at all, or just shunned him? It hurts to think about, about how everything could change completely with just one secret getting out, and how he can’t be sure anything is genuine until it inevitably does. But at the same time, it makes him want to enjoy this feeling of fitting in for as long as he can, especially with the odds that he may lose it by the end.

And so he does. He lets whatever’s left of that spike of fear dissipate, focusing instead on how much he feels like he’s a wanted part of Cleo’s shenanigans.

“I have to admit, I didn’t expect an army of cats to be on the checklist today.” Grian tells Cleo, adjusting the cat in his arms again to scratch under its chin. He’s getting used to the rumbling now, and when he pays closer attention to it, it seems oddly soothing. It makes him more relaxed with each stroke of fur, and distantly, he considers maybe he should get a cat of his own. “This isn’t quite what I expected when I sent you out last night, but...”

“There’s method to my madness, you know.” She points both of her index fingers at him, before gesturing wildly to the blanket of cats over the room. “You ask for an anti creeper system, I present to you; ungodly numbers of cats. Surprising you with them and getting a laugh is just a bonus.”

As soon as she says it, he realizes how right she is. Cats do chase creepers off, don’t they? It’s something he’d heard of before, but considering he hadn’t met a cat until today, it wasn’t exactly something that had stuck in his memory. “Cleo, you’re a genius.” He offers back, though, truth be told he’s more excited at the prospect of having cats all over the base than the actual safety advantage they grant.

“I know. Ooooh, we should tell everyone else that the G Team is now fifty-eight members strong and see if the other team pulls out of the war. Then we win by default.”

There’s a splash from the bubblevator before Grian can reply, earning both his and Cleo’s attention to see who the newcomer is. And it’s just like the thought that crossed his mind earlier; Gertrude is the new face in the meeting room, wandered off from her post by the door and now staring around at the, as Cleo put it, ungodly amount of cats. Iskall doesn’t appear from behind her, and vaguely, the demon has to wonder if she snuck away or just knocked him out.

But then, she looks just as happy at the cats as Grian feels, so he can’t really blame her.

“Well, in terms of diversity,” Joe looks up from his potions, eyeing the witch without any real concern as she picks up a cat of her own. “I’d say we’re already winning, and the war hasn’t even started yet.”

He catches Gertrude’s attention, her brows raising toward her hat as she looks over the little lab Joe has going in the corner, inspecting it all closely with an incredulous look on her face. And she has a point; Grian knows the reason for the cats now, but Joe still has yet to give an explanation of what he’s doing, or why he’s chosen the meeting room specifically. “Joe, what are you up to over there, anyway? Iskall’s witch is giving you a funny look.” Gertrude looks straight back at the demon with a glare, and he narrowly misses another paper being pitched at his face. Either she didn’t like him pointing out her attention toward the potions, or she’s offended he didn’t use her name.

“That’s very simple, Grian.” Joe starts, and Grian braces himself for some kind of monologue to follow. He’s left waiting for nothing, though, when the angel just simply says, “I’m brewing potions.”

Somehow, the fact that Joe didn’t just go off on some kind of metaphor makes it more confusing than if he had, and the demon blinks back in his general direction. But Joe offers no further explanation, only continuing to sprinkle various odd ingredients into his bubbling concoctions. It’s true they still need potions for the war, Grian would know considering he’s the one carrying the list, but the fact he’s decided to volunteer for the task and hole up in the meeting room to do it is the odd part. Though, considering it’s Joe, maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. Grian is almost inclined to not question it any further, especially if Joe knows what he’s doing.

“Hey Joe,” Cleo sidles over to the angel, a curious and vaguely mischievous twinkle in her eye. “What are you makin’ there?”

“The key ingredient in sneaking into the other team’s base and turning all of their decorations upside down to make them think they’re on the wrong side of the world, which may then have the potential to get them to see the error of their ways, or at least cause them to move thinking they’re in the wrong place and letting us win the war completely peacefully when they accidentally don’t show up, of course.”

If possible, her face brightens up even more, while Grian is still trying to wrap his head around what the angel actually said. “Invisibility potions. Can I try one? Just one, I promise to only cause a little bit of chaos with it.” She practically begs, hands clasped together and giving Joe the best puppy face she can muster while leaning into the angel’s personal space. The cat on his shoulders makes a face at her, which, entertainingly enough, matches Joe’s own expression perfectly.

“Cleo, you know you can’t.” He deadpans with a stern look, or at least as stern as Joe is capable of, as if this is a conversation that has happened before. It doesn’t just sound like him refusing to let her play around with his hard work, though. There’s a bit more weight to his words, a slight edge that catches Grian’s attention.

“Oh! Oh, right. I keep forgetting all about that, don’t I?” Cleo deflates with a sigh, and then mumbles under her breath, “Damn, I really wanted to mess with Jevin.”

For a moment neither of them say anything, seemingly letting the topic slide, but Grian speaks up before his nerves can convince him not to. “Why can’t Cleo try your potions?”

“Well, Cleo--” Joe starts to answer, only to be cut off by Cleo herself as she turns to the demon.

“I’m uh, allergic to them, you see. All potions, really. I think it’s the, uh.. the Nether wart, you know. It makes me all…” She hesitates, grimacing. “...warty.”

All Grian can do is stare back at her, trying to process what she just said. An allergy to potions? To Nether wart? That’s the strangest, and probably the most inconvenient, thing he’s ever heard. It’s one of the few things that actually grows in the Nether, much less something edible, and having an allergy to it would make survival impossible. But that’s also just his perspective, he realizes; since humans aren’t raised in the Nether, they wouldn’t need to rely on certain Nether based things to survive and therefore such an allergy wouldn’t hinder their chances of surviving to adulthood like Cleo.

It makes another thought cross his mind, though. If humans can be allergic to things from the Nether, then what if it wasn’t just limited to the bright red mushrooms? He hopes that’s just a wild idea from his paranoia, but if any of the Hermits sneeze when he walks near, that is not the way he wants to be found out. It’s a ridiculous thought and he knows it, but still, it feels like one of those irrational worries he seems so prone to.

“That sounds awful.” He says, finally, realizing he should probably actually react before his silence becomes suspicious. Cleo just shrugs, looking longingly over at the nearly-clear liquid in the bottles Joe has already filled, and Grian almost wants to offer…  something? He almost feels like he should do something, maybe to offer his help with whatever it is she wants to do. So he does, the slightest of an awkward edge to his voice from the fact he doesn’t really know what he can do. “Maybe I could help..? I can use potions.”

He doesn’t miss the surprise that crosses Cleo’s face, like that was the last thing she expected to hear from him, before it morphs into a wide smile. Behind them, Gertrude starts laughing, startling Grian with the sudden reminder of the witch among them. Cleo just ignores her, seemingly unbothered by the cackling. “You’d do that? You don’t even know what I was planning, but…”

“It may be best to mention at this point in time,” Joe glances back over at the two of them, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. “I may or may not actually have any idea what I’m doing, and I will not be held liable for any unintended effects my potentially defective potions may or may not have.”

“Oooooh, right… ” Cleo breathes back with understanding, nodding slightly before turning back to Grian. “Yeah, I appreciate the offer, but maybe we should get potions from someone else. The last time Joe made potions and someone tried them, we couldn’t find Xisuma for a week because he floated away.”

“He was also invisible. And on fire.” Joe adds, much to Grian’s growing concern.

“So… Why are you making potions now?” He asks, trying to be as tactful as possible. Joe is great, but he’s not sure mystery potions are the best idea to stock a war base with.

The angel just shrugs. “Why does anyone do anything, Grian? To get better. We’re all continually improving on ourselves in all aspects of our lives, trying to work through our problems and get better at handling them. We’re all caterpillars, Grian, and my cocoon just so happens to be a potion bottle.”

He regrets asking.

With the mention of Xisuma, though, he’s reminded of the fact he still has a whole checklist of things to check in on before the war. And as much as he wants to just continue standing here and holding a purring cat, he knows he can’t, though he rationalizes to himself that there’s nothing stopping him from coming back and holding the cats later once everything is done. So it’s with only a slightly vast amount of hesitance that he gives the cat back to Cleo, holding up his checklist once she takes it.

“I should probably go check in on Tango now. And… maybe go find Iskall.” He explains, nodding toward Gertrude as a reason, considering he doesn’t know yet what she may or may not have done to him. Cleo looks at her, and then back at him, nodding her agreement.

“Yeah, you might want to make sure she didn’t turn him into a frog or something.” She looks back at the horde of cats. “And I’ll start putting these guys all around the base while you check on him.”

With a final nod to her, Grian turns away and steps back over the glass railing, dropping down to the floor below. Technically the bubblevators are there for a reason, but this is faster, and the rush of air through his feathers is refreshing after days spent working in here. Part of him is almost tempted to go outside and stretch his wings properly, but it’s cold out there, and he knows his overly active thoughts will start hounding him if he tries anyway.

Besides, he’ll probably be doing plenty of flying during the war.

He doesn’t see Iskall on the ground floor, and the hole in the wall to the front door outside has been patched up seamlessly. Gertrude’s seat has a stack of papers on it, no doubt all with prewritten insults now on them, and any of Iskall’s stray working shulkers that may have been scattered around are gone. But there is one thing to tell him where his witch-abused teammate has gone, and that’s Stress.

She’s standing in the impromptu horse pen on the other side of the room, reaching out to one of the horses with some carrots in her hands. It looks less than interested, eyeing her with the distrust he’d expect from a wild animal suddenly shoved into a weird modern war base, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping her from trying.

“Stress,” Grian calls out quietly, doing his best not to make her job any harder than it already seems to be. He succeeds in not spooking the horse, though Stress herself does jump a little bit before turning to glance at him. Her face softens when she sees it’s just him. “Do you know where Iskall went?”

“Oh, yes. He left to go help Tango up in the control room, after his witch turned herself invisible and shoved about two stacks of papers into his pack while he wasn’t looking.” She pauses, and then a sly grin crosses her face. “I didn’t tell him.”

Chuckling in response, Grian can perfectly imagine Stress choosing to let Iskall find out his pack has become a filing cabinet on his own instead of actually drawing his attention to it. She seems just the type, especially after the spider prank he witnessed on the roof, and it’s an amusing thought to consider Iskall may have more than he can handle now between Stress and Gertrude both. At his lack of a verbal reply, she turns back to the horse, carrots held out again as she attempts to ease closer to it, and Grian finds himself leaning on the fence to watch.

Though she’s doing everything right as best he can tell, her calm demeanor clear even from here and the careful movement of her steps, the horse is having none of it. It glares down its nose at her, backing away into a corner until it can go no further. The twitching of its legs makes him nervous for her safety if she gets too close, and he finds himself reaching out subconsciously, though she’s too far away to grab.

“Do you need help?” He murmurs instead, even though he doesn’t know anything more about horses than he does cats. Stress glances back at him all the same, seemingly rolling the offer around her head for a moment. Finally, she nods to him.

“Maybe a little. I don’t think this one likes me.” Giving up on her attempt to get closer to the horse, she backs away from it instead, joining Grian over by the fence and holding out a hand to help him over. “Do you want to try?”

Taking her hand, he doesn’t quite expect the strength with which she hauls him right over like it’s nothing. Though considering her help building the base in the first place, it isn’t that much of a surprise. Once his feet are solidly on the floor inside the pen, she firmly puts the carrots in his hand, and he can already see the horse glaring at them both now from the corner of his eye.

“Just don’t make any sudden movements. All you have to do is show him you aren’t a threat.” She tells him, and for the first time, Grian starts wondering what he’s actually doing. But he’s emboldened by the interaction with the cats, plus he doesn’t want Stress accidentally getting hurt, so he just nods back and starts taking slow steps across the pen. It can’t be that much different from trying to befriend a hostile pigman tribe, surely? It’s that practice that he reminds himself of as he approaches, waiting with a pause between each step to see the reaction. “Don’t forget your wings. You’ll spook him if you move them.”

“Okay.” The demon acknowledges, pulling his wings tighter against his body. The horse is glaring at him just like it did with Stress, but he can see the way it lifts its head in his direction, sniffing at the air in a way it didn’t do with her. As well, he doesn’t feel like the tension is quite as thick, the beast’s legs staying firmly in place instead of pawing at the ground like it had been before.

He feels more afraid than he should, knowing it’s more likely to react to him if he’s nervous, but he approaches anyway and hopes it doesn’t pick up on it quite as much. Luckily for him, the closer he gets, the more it seems to just be curious about him. It leans away from him when he’s close enough to reach out with the carrots, but after a moment of him not moving, it leans back in and sniffs at his hand. For a moment he’s sure it’s actually going to take them, especially with Stress’s whispered “You’re doing it!” from behind him.

To his surprise, though, it ignores the carrots completely. Suddenly he ends up with a giant horse nose right in his face, hot air blowing over his face and making him freeze in place as it sniffs him. This… isn’t particularly what he expected, and he isn’t sure what to do, especially as it swivels its head over to sniff at his wings where they rise up over his shoulders.

In hindsight, it makes sense, he realizes. If Nether mobs can smell the difference between demons and the other races, then overworld animals probably can, too. The question here, though, is whether the horse is going to panic once it figures out exactly what he is.

He’s not looking forward to if it does.

But finally, it looks like he’s in the clear, at least he thinks so. The horse loses interest in his wings and just headbutts its nose into his shoulder, nearly knocking him off balance, before stealing the carrots in his still-outstretched hand and wandering off before he can react. He’s left with ruffled feathers and a hand of horse slobber, attempting to process what sort of reaction that was supposed to be, while Stress laughs behind him.

“I think he likes you, Grian!” She manages between chuckles, and he grimaces, doing his best to wipe his hand off as he returns to her side. She’s still laughing when he makes it over, though she pats his shoulder in a sympathetic way. “On the bright side, maybe now he’ll be a bit friendlier. Thanks for your help.”

“Anytime, Stress.” The demon quietly offers, unsure of what exactly there is to thank him for when all he did was get a carrot stolen, but as long as she’s happy that’s probably all that matters. She waves after him as he hops the fence, returning back out to the rest of the base. At least now he’s not afraid to leave her to it, confident that she won’t be getting trampled by an angry horse once she’s alone, and he can continue on to the control room. 

It’s quiet on the way over, the thick concrete walls blocking out enough sound that he can’t hear anything but water once he’s left the room with the horses, and it gives him a bit of time to think while he’s temporarily alone. It’s only been a few days, but with how much they’ve had to do and with no choice but to work together on most things, even his anxiety has been relatively quiet. And he likes the G Team, a lot, is what he’s learned most in this short span of time. They barely know him, and for months he hasn’t bothered to reach out to nearly any of them for even just a friendly greeting. And yet, they’ve accepted him so well and fully into their dynamic that it’s impossible for even him to back away and isolate himself.

If it were up to him, he knows, he would’ve hid in a corner and quietly done his tasks on his own, but they don’t let him get away with being that disconnected. Maybe that’s why Iskall really gave him the checklist, putting him in charge of making sure everything gets finished, just to make sure he has to step out of his usual bubble. And maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe they didn’t intend to have the effect they have, but it’s happened regardless.

Realistically, he knows as soon as they step back out onto the battlefield he’s going to be hit all over again with everything he’s done, with the potential of members of the other team knowing the truth and where that may lead. He knows that whatever happens, he’ll have to decide what he wants to do, and he still needs to talk to Mumbo if nothing else. But for now, he can almost forget about all the extra things, forget about how he managed to be here in the first place or any of the events that led to this team forming in the first place, and pretend he belongs somewhere for awhile.

The first thing he becomes aware of once he stumbles out of the control room bubblevator is, of course, the excessively large control panel installed under the window. It’s covered in all manner of levers and buttons, a plethora of things that he has not the slightest idea of what any of them do. He knows better, though; he doesn’t know the slightest about redstone or what any of those buttons do, so as much as he wants to repeat the satisfaction of getting to press the doorbell button earlier, he’s going to stay far away from these.

Taking in the rest of the room, he finds Tango on the floor, only the lower half of his body sticking out from inside the console as he works on wiring it up. A little further toward the center of the room, Iskall is laying down maps into a recessed section of the floor, and when Grian steps closer he can see it’s of the battlefield in its entirety. Just the same as he’d done with the previous map in Iskall’s base, the demon finds himself looking down at the two bases, inspecting them from the admittedly not so telling view. Theirs is about what he’d expect, a little rounded shape of concrete by the river, but the other team’s base is a formidable set of grey structures even from such an overhead angle. The fact they built two separate structures is curious, if a bit concerning, since they don’t know what either of them may hold yet.

Looking up from the map, Iskall hasn’t noticed him, more intent on lining up the edges of all his small maps into one. “Did Gertrude scare you off?” Is how Grian announces his presence, eyeing the pack slung over his teammate’s shoulder. It’s puffed out, papers sticking out from inside, and it doesn’t look like Iskall has figured out he’s become a walking filing cabinet of insults yet.

“...No,” Iskall lies, his voice concealing nothing. “I just wanted to, uh, hang out with Tango. He’s much prettier company than Gertrude is.”

“Well I would hope so!” Tango’s voice is muffled from under the console, followed by a thud and a pained yell as he no doubt tried to sit up and banged his head on the inside. A moment later he manages to extricate himself from inside the maintenance panel, looking over at the two of them and rubbing his face. “Although that may stop being true if I keep doing that.”

“Don’t let Gertrude hear you.” Grian warns, glancing back at the bubblevator. He doesn’t entirely expect her to leave the cats or the potential opportunity to steal Joe’s popup potions lab, but he also wouldn’t put it past her to suddenly appear anytime Iskall gives her any sort of reason to throw more potions at him.

“I’m not afraid of her.” Tango holds up his head as dramatically as he can, the absolute image of confidence. “...Mostly.”

“You should be afraid of her. You should be.” Iskall tells him, without an ounce of hesitation. Then he shifts his pack, leftover maps in hand, and Grian gets to witness the exact moment he sees the dozens of papers in it. His expression goes completely blank, the maps suspended in his hand while he holds the bag open with the other, staring down at Gertrude’s papers for several long seconds. Finally, he looks back up at Tango, his expression completely neutral. “You definitely should be afraid of her.”

Tango just laughs at him, turning his attention over to Grian while Iskall tries to figure out what to do with the murdered forest in his pack. “Hey Grian, wanna see all the fancy defenses I’ve wired up?” He asks, gesturing to the console behind him.

To say the demon wasn’t curious would be a lie. He is a bit unsure of the idea of having traps or doomsday buttons with weapons attached to them all over the place, but he also supposes there’s little to no getting around it. Scar has already made it clear they’re not allowed to go overboard, and now that he’s been around the G Team for the time he has, he can’t really see them being aggressive for no real reason, anyway. With a nod, he joins Tango over by the console, looking over the myriad of buttons over the entire thing.

“Okay, we’re basically going for a lot of ‘get off our lawn’ kinda stuff here.” Tango explains, gesturing out toward the section of battlefield directly in front of their base through the window. “So we’re setting the lawn on fire.”

He says it so naturally, like it’s the obvious course of action when someone won’t get off their lawn. But considering this is Tango, he’s not remotely surprised by that logic, either. “Is that safe?” Grian asks instead, the feeling of burns coming to mind.

“I checked with Cub first. He decided it’s fine, so long as the other team are warned to have fire resistance if they try to come near us.” He reassures the demon, looking proud of himself for considering his defenses from all angles. And he does have a point; even setting the lawn on fire, while still being a deterrent, won’t cause any actual harm if the other team have fire resistance. It makes Grian breathe a sigh of relief. “Do you wanna try it?”

Considering it for a moment, the demon nods. What other chance is he going to get to press the fire lawn button, after all? It earns a wide grin from Tango, who then points at a specific button.

“It’s this one right here. Go for it.” Just as he’s come to expect from him, the other Hermit is unapologetically excited, practically bouncing in place while he waits for Grian to press the button. And so he does; it presses down with just as much of a satisfying click as the doorbell did, and a few moments later, it seems someone did gather up all the fire charges they needed after all. He can’t see where they’re coming from at this angle, but his best guess is from somewhere in the base walls. The fire charges fly out over the nearest sections of the battlefield, smashing into the grass and creating dozens of tiny fires, just like Tango said it would. “My first thought was arrows, but fire charges are actually safer. They’re dull and round and don’t really make that much fire, whereas arrows are pointy and less fun.”

The flaming field is more reminiscent of the Nether than he’d prefer, but not as bad as he’d expected, and the continual consideration of the safety of the other team is something he’s more than happy with. The war still hasn’t started yet, but with each passing day, it’s looking less and less like the terrifying thing he was expecting it to be when the others described it as a war. So long as the other team is being equally as careful with the non-deadliness of their defences, then he could believe that this really is just a bit of a squabble between friends, after all.

With another press of the button, the fire charges cease raining down over the battlefield. The fires themselves don’t last much longer either, probably blown out by those cold winds that seem to just cling to this area. While it’s good for keeping the fire from getting out of hand, he hopes the wind will die down by the time Cub calls off the ceasefire, because he really doesn’t want to stand out in the cold or try to fight with anyone in it.

Tango starts labeling his buttons for what each one does, and Grian remembers to get back to his list. It’s pretty much nearly all completed, especially now that he crosses out Tango’s control room defences and Cleo’s creeper defences. He hesitates over the potions, and decides to just put a bunch of question marks around it instead. The only downside is it leaves him with pretty much nothing else to do but the storage, finally. He has no good excuses to stay up here with Iskall and Tango, considering he can’t exactly offer to help with any redstone.

“I guess I should go finish this.” Grian waves the paper, stepping away toward the bubblevator. Tango just waves and goes back to writing overly dramatic names for each of his fire-setting weapons, while Iskall looks up from the mountain of papers he seems to be distracted reading through.

“Good work so far, Grian. We’ll be done in no time at this rate.” He says before the demon can disappear into the water, and it gives Grian a feeling he isn’t sure what to do with. It feels nice to be praised for what he’s been doing, but at the same time, he knows the others have done far more than he has. He’s just been double checking everything, nothing really noteworthy. But all the same, he knows better than to try and argue that fact, and nods to his teammate.

“Thank you, Iskall.”

And then he’s into the water and speeding back down to the floors below. Even when he reaches the ground floor, he just steps into another bubblevator, the walls zooming past him as he’s pulled all the way down to the basement far below. It’s a beautiful basement, too; he comes right down through the large aquarium decorating the center and hiding the bubblevators, the staircases leading to the partial second floor of said basement wrapping around that center column. It’s arguably the best part of the base, carved in its entirety out of the ground below the structure and hiding the more important things like their supplies. And speaking of said supplies, he turns away from the main room and heads in that direction, admiring the designs cut into the walls as he goes.

He’s met with a large pile of shulkers brought in and scattered both throughout the barracks room and the intended storage room, all of which he’s already not looking forward to. But the storage is already built and labeled, meaning all he has to do is sit down and sift through everything. It’s hardly anything he’d do if he didn’t have to, but he does want to help wherever he can.

Quietly sitting down on one shulker and opening another, he gets started, pulling its contents out and into neat little piles beside him. He makes it through about two of them before the boredom really starts sticking to him, cleaning not remotely his forte, but he keeps at it regardless, committed to his task.

“If you keep scowling at those shulkers, your face will stick that way.” Grian jumps at the unexpected voice, glancing up in a momentary panic to see who snuck up on him. But it’s just Jevin, leaning on the doorway and watching him with a raised eyebrow.

“... It will?”

Jevin just chuckles under his breath, and doesn’t answer Grian’s quiet question. Instead he walks closer, pulls another shulker from the pile, and joins the demon. “You look like you could use some company.” He explains at Grian’s questioning look, and starts adding to the piles he’s already made. The demon didn’t ask for the other Hermit to join him, or even expect anyone to, really; but here Jevin is, joining him without question for no other reason than to just help him get it done faster. It brings back the warm feeling of inclusion he had earlier, feeling more and more like he’s a proper member of the team that the others really do want around, despite everything in his head saying otherwise.

With a smile and a little bit more motivation than before, Grian grabs another shulker.

Chapter Text

Whatever sense of calm that had pervaded his mind for the past however many days is nowhere to be seen, now. It’s almost as if time had slowed within the G Team base, locking away all of his overactive worries and fears to the cold outside and leaving him with just the mild comfort of feeling accepted inside, a cloying sense of safe silence following him around within these concrete walls. It was easy to forget the position he was in, to forget everything he had caused and forget how he’d potentially completely pushed away the first person to reach out to him like this and then some, about how he still doesn’t know what Doc is up to and what sort of fate may really be waiting for him.

But now, just as with the chaos erupting in the basement below the base, each member of the team flitting around him in various directions all at once, he sits in the middle and tries to sort through the renewed weight of everything he’s ignored. There’s a heightened feeling of chaotic energy surging through the air, pinging off of every other person here as their excitement mixed with streaks of apprehension bleed into his own anxiety. They’re all dashing around, making last minute adjustments, carrying armloads of potions, trying to finish sets of armor for the entire team; all while Grian sits here on the stairs, equally unsure how to help as if he even could, with the way his hands are shaking.

He knows nothing has changed, not really; they’ve been building up to this day since Scar brought them all over here, since Joe dragged him off of the cold floor of his own base, he’s been waiting for it just like they all have. But he’d been enjoying the comfortable companionship of the rest of his team, all with a common goal in mind as they worked together, something he’s never experienced before. He’s worked with Mumbo before, of course, but to see so many people working together as a unit without tearing into each other is starting to turn upside down everything he thought he knew about others. That’s all done with now, though, at least in the way of getting to hide away while they prepare. Now, the flag is coming down, and he doesn’t think he’s ready for whatever that means.

He’s so tied up into his own thoughts, he barely takes notice of the presence that appears beside him until their voice reaches him. “We’ll be leaving soon, don’t let all this last minute panic get to you.” Turning, he’s met with the soft and reassuring expression on Stress’s face, followed a moment later by her hand on his shoulder.

“I know, I’m just…” He’s both anticipating and fearing how this will go, mildly hoping Mumbo will actually look at him this time but also with the realistic part of his mind arguing that he shouldn’t be hopeful just in case, as well as the fact he shouldn’t entertain the thought anyway considering everything he’s hidden from the other. There’s also the distant worry of dying to this war, no matter how much Concorp and the G Team have made him feel like this really is just a game they’ve made as safe as they can.

“I understand.” Stress fills in after a moment as his thoughts trail away, her grip on his shoulder tightening. It’s a grounding feeling, something firm, and he lets out a breath he didn’t quite realize he was holding. “You still don’t really know everyone, and you don’t know what to expect. It’s okay to be nervous.”

He nods, looking back down at his feet. She’s right, and he knows it, but it’s hard to get the tension to ease away when there’s so many variables. It was easier when it was just him, trying to stay low and undetected, but now he’s met nearly all of the Hermits at one point or another, and he’s even on a team with a good number of them. He’s invested in them, now; they seem to consider him a friend, and he doesn’t want to betray that, doesn’t want to see their reactions to his lies any more than Mumbo’s. Doc has to know the truth, along with Xisuma, and he has no idea what to expect from either of them. Not when Doc has acted so threatening since the start, and Xisuma has been the polar opposite, and both have said nothing outright or told the others as far as he knows, yet Doc is still clearly trying to accomplish something and Xisuma has to be on the other team for a reason. And then there’s Mumbo, who he still wants to talk to, to fix the mistake he made, even though he can’t really fix anything considering the fact the angel’s wings are on his own back and that’s not something he can ever undo. 

Realistically, he knows all he can do is just continue on and see what happens, whether they all find out the truth or not, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t hoping for all of this to get a bit better, regardless of how much his instincts tell him not to ever get his hopes up. But this is a war, no matter how safe and fair Cub and Scar are trying to make it, and for all he knows his secret will be out by the end. And now, there’s more riding on that than there was; it’s not just Mumbo whose betrayal and hurt he’ll have to witness, though he knows it’ll be the worst, but now the rest of the members of his team as well. All of these people, all of whom have been so kind to him and accepted him as one of them without hesitation, will have to discover he’s lied about everything eventually.

What bothers him most of all is how that doesn’t scare him as much as it should.

“Okay, come with me.” Stress’s voice cuts in again, decisively, her hands grabbing for his before he can question her actions. He doesn’t mind letting her drag him away, though, away from his swirling thoughts and the chaos in the main room. She takes him down the rest of the stairs and then up through the fish tank to the base above, leaving the rest of their team behind to continue putting together the last odds and ends before it’s time to leave.

“Where are we going?”

“Right here,” She stops at a shulker near her horses, opening it up and digging through the contents with a vengeance. The demon can see what looks like a whole collection of wool inside over her shoulder, which makes sense when she stands up and turns to him a moment later, victorious. “Here we go!”

With her arms held up and a proud smile on her face, he has to take a moment to take in the fact she’s holding a thick red sweater. It’s densely knitted, with thick knots and swirls in the design, and his first thought is how good it looks. “Did you make this?” He asks, resisting the urge to reach out and touch it without her permission. It looks soft.

“You know it!” She’s practically glowing as she holds it toward him. After a moment, she turns it around to face herself, and holds it right up against his chest. “Now, would you look at that. A perfect fit, if I do say so myself.”

Staring down at it blankly for one long second, vaguely registering that she’s right with the way it matches against his form perfectly, it sinks in in a delayed instant what she just said. He can only glance back up at her, confused shock layering heavily over everything else he’s feeling, along with the faintest twinge of fear. “Wait, did you… make this for me?” The demon asks, doubt coloring his voice, hesitant to believe she really did make it for him, and worried about the fact that means she definitely took more than a passing notice of his inability to handle the cold. But she just scoffs, planting her hands on his shoulders with the sweater still in them and staring him firmly in the eye.

“Of course I did. You think I’m going to let you back out onto that windy battlefield just to freeze again? Absolutely not.” Her tone and expression leave no room for any doubt, purposely trying to get it through his head that she did it just to be kind, and he can’t see a single ounce of suspicion in her gaze. Grian nods, feeling like his head is in the clouds as the fear evaporates. She made him a sweater… just because he was cold, and she wanted to help? It makes sense, realistically; every time it comes up, the Hermits seem to just do things for each other without prompting, without any real reason and without personal gain, but it’s still hard to wrap his head around the idea that such selfless people could exist. Slowly, still almost expecting her to change her mind, he reaches up and takes the sweater from her, far more gently than is necessary. And it is soft, the fibers smoothing between his fingers and feeling more like a cloud than a sweater. “Mixed with the armor on top, the cold shouldn’t bother you with that.”

He’s again reminded of his trident. It’s not with him, not now, stored safely in a chest downstairs at the foot of the bed that’s meant to be his even though he won’t be using it. But it’s another of those things, something someone else gave him for no real reason other than that they could, although Scar had used the excuse of paying him back for saving his stuff. This, this is almost entirely different, because Stress had absolutely nothing to make her feel like she needed to do something for him and she did anyway. She could have just sat back and done nothing, and he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but instead she did.

Granted, she knows him better now than Scar did when he left the trident, so maybe that played into it. But it sinks in again all the same, how the Hermits seem to take care of their own without question, and they clearly see him as one of them. For just a moment, it crosses his mind again that maybe they wouldn’t if they knew the truth, but the thought is fleeting. It vanishes without a trace, his hesitation and shock lifting away to make room for a bubbling gratefulness and an almost overwhelming emotional warmth that leaves him unable to resist the urge to pull Stress into a hug.

“Thank you,” He mumbles against her shoulder, and feels her wrap her arms around him in return. Her grip is firm, further chasing away the mounting anxiety that had taken hold of him back in the bunker and burying it solidly away.

“Anytime, Grian.” Stress says back, quietly. She’s lost the edge of pride, replaced with a warm tone that makes it clear beyond all doubt that she’s genuinely happy with his reaction. After another moment he pulls himself together, stepping back out of her personal space, and he’s met with a glowing smile from her when he looks back at her face. Then she brightens further with excitement, glancing between him and the sweater. “Now, are you going to try it on or not? I want to see how it looks!”

He nods, handing the new sweater back to her in order to pull off his old one. It gets caught on a few feathers in the process that she has to help untangle from the loose knit to keep from yanking them out, a process that leaves him nervous considering how the glamour treats his feathers once shed, but in no time at all and no plucked feathers, he’s able to pull the new sweater over his head. It’s much easier to put on than he’s come to expect, knitted with his wings in mind toward its construction. And instantly, it’s notably thicker and fits his form much more closely than the other, the springy and soft fibers blocking out what little cold air there is in the base easily. Stress whistles at him once it’s on.

“Is it too late to change this war to a fashion show?” She jokes, circling around him and smoothing out a wrinkle or two at his shoulders, almost making him feel like a child being doted on. “Nobody on the other team could compete with you now.”

“There you two are.” Iskall’s voice cuts into their conversation, saving Grian from having to figure out how to smoothly accept that compliment. He’s appeared from the bubblevators, a shulker in his hands. “It’s time to choose your armor so we can get going.”

The reminder of the war they’re about to walk out to isn’t enough to bring his wild anxiety back, not with the tentative warmth from Stress’s care for his well being, leaving the demon with nothing but an antsy sort of anticipation as Iskall sets the shulker in front of them both. Stress doesn’t hesitate to open it right up, revealing several sets of iron and leather armor both. Glancing between the two, Grian mulls over the upsides and downsides of each, while Stress grabs the iron right away.

“No one’s going to be trying to kill you, so you don’t have to worry as much about the protectiveness of each type unless you’re going to be on the front lines.” Iskall offers after a moment of watching Grian look back and forth, undecided. “You’ll be more protected but slower in iron, and less protected but sneakier in leather. Also, you can’t fly in iron, so keep that in mind.”

Behind him, their other teammates begin to appear from the bubblevators. Joe is of course in leather as the only ‘other’ angel on the team, though curiously enough Tango has chosen the same. With Iskall now pulling on an iron helmet, it’s clear that more than half of the G Team has chosen the more protective option. Grian isn’t particularly keen on being any squishier than he has to be, but between being able to fly away from danger and not being able to do that, he doesn’t need anything else to cement his decision on grabbing leather. There is the faint worry in the back of his mind of what if , the fear of getting cornered by someone with no intention of following the Convex’s rules, a survival instinct ingrained so deeply into him that he can’t quite believe everyone will play nice. But with a deep breath, he shoves the worry away and pulls on his armor, choosing to take that risk in the chance his fears are wrong.

Once everyone is armored up, Iskall turns, leading the group toward the hidden exit. They pass by Gertrude as they go, bundled up in mittens and a blanket with a cat in her lap where she sits beside the massive iron front door, and Grian supposes it must not be the warmest place in the building. She doesn’t seem to mind, though, the demon taking her vague gesture as a wave as they round the corner and out of her sight. He’s almost dreading going back out into the cold as Iskall opens the secret hidden entrance to the base, but he’s fallen into step between Stress and Tango and the reaffirming glance the former sends his way reminds him he’s much better suited against the weather now.

There is a rush of cold wind the instant they step outside, and he hates it, buffeting against his feathers and pushing them the wrong way just to send a chill into the skin underneath. But all it takes is turning his body until the direction of his feathers lines up with the wind, and suddenly, the cold isn’t all that bad. He can still feel it on his face and hands, but the sweater is thick and dense underneath the leather armor, insulating him completely. He’s able to focus on the terrain around them, on the nicely made landscaping up around their base, without being distracted by being half frozen. Stress smirks at him when he doesn’t start shivering.

“See, the cold isn’t so bad now, is it?” She asks, giving him a gentle nudge, and he smiles right back at her, hoping his appreciation shows. Thanks to her, he can now be both more comfortable and not have to worry about giving himself away by shivering at the slightest cold breeze.

The trek across the battlefield feels shorter than it did the first time, probably due to both Grian’s increased comfort and the fact they’re coming from their base now instead of all the way from Iskall’s. The other team’s base looms larger and higher the closer they get, the intimidating structure of solid stone standing proud and ready opposite their own, and he has to admit the details look impressive once they reach the flag. There’s something about the tower that bothers him though, some sort of instinct telling him not to take his eyes off of the wide open windows at the top, despite the fact he can see nothing out of place about it from here. Chalking it up to his overzealous anxiety, the demon does his best to brush it off, forcibly pinning his attention on his teammates ahead of him until they come to a stop.

At first, he can’t see the other team or if they’re even here yet due to being stuck behind Iskall and Jevin, and his gaze wanders elsewhere for a moment. Rising up over to the right of them is a new structure all its own, a high platform built up above with a spectator’s view of the battlefield, and he can only guess that’s there for Cub and Scar to watch everything at once. From this angle he can’t quite see onto the top, though he’s pretty sure he can see two figures sitting up there and supposes the Convex haven’t come down to meet the teams yet.

That is until Jevin moves to the side, the entire G Team shuffling into a clear lineup opposite the other team, and he realizes Cub and Scar are standing right to the side between them both. There’s also a pillager by their sides, a bored look on his scarred face and a crossbow clearly hanging from his belt, but the demon is more distracted by the figures he’s sure he saw than him. Staring at the three of them for a moment and making sure they’re really here, Grian’s gaze snaps back up to the platform, but there’s no one there anymore. It adds onto the unease his instinct is giving him from the other team’s tower, something in the back of his head screaming that there’s something he’s not seeing, but the rational part of his mind argues it might have also been a trick of the light.

“Good of you to show up.” Doc’s voice cuts through his thoughts, drawing his attention back away from the platform and to the other team. Unlike last time, he’s expecting everyone he sees there, and it’s not jarring to take in the sight of them. Doc has that same smug, knowing confidence he seems to carry everywhere, seemingly eyeing Grian in particular. It’s almost enough to get under his skin, and no doubt would be if it continued, but Xisuma jabs Doc in the ribs after a moment and shoots Grian an innocent smile.

Tuning out the trash talk Iskall sends their way in response, Grian looks over the other team. Again, he recognizes Impulse and False, the latter of whom is giving Xisuma a look for jabbing Doc. Then there’s the two members he didn’t recognize or even really notice last time, someone in a red shirt on the other side of Doc and standing notably close to him, and someone else in full, fancy looking iron armor he’s not entirely convinced wasn’t made specifically for a knight. It makes the rest of the team’s armor look sad in comparison, which also brings him to notice False is the only one in leather. It means the other team is leaning heavily on defense, just like their sturdy stone base, but as long as he doesn’t have to fight any of them he hopes it won’t matter.

And of course, though hesitant as he is to look at him just to see him looking away, at the far end and standing a few steps away from all the others is Mumbo. It’s with a jolt that Grian realizes he’s looking directly back at him, an almost surprised look on his face and a dusting of red on his cheeks as he seemingly takes in the demon’s appearance with wide eyes. It’s decidedly not the reaction he was expecting, quietly preparing himself to be avoided again instead, and he doesn’t know what to think about the way it makes his heart do a flip in his chest. Beside him, Stress snickers under her breath.

“Remember what I said about the fashion show? Looks like someone agrees.”

He isn’t sure whether to feel supported or mildly betrayed, partially entertaining the idea that she knew his new sweater would catch Mumbo’s attention, though he’s sure Stress is trying to help in a way. He ends up settling somewhere between confused, grateful and more than a little flustered at the entire situation, that faint little feeling of hope burning ever the slightest bit brighter. Mumbo spends another moment or two staring, before seemingly catching himself and realizing Grian has noticed him. The angel’s gaze snaps up to the sky in an instant, the color on his face making it clear he’s trying to pretend he wasn’t just caught staring, and it sinks in all at once that surely he can’t hate Grian if that’s his reaction.

Grian shouldn’t feel relieved that Mumbo seems to still like him, not when he should create distance for the angel’s own good in the long run, but he does, half of the weight on his shoulders falling away with the answer to that burning question. He still needs to hear what Mumbo really thinks, what he’s really feeling, but that’s a conversation they still can’t have right now and he doesn’t know when they will. All the same, just the fact the other is looking at him again makes him feel better, makes him feel like maybe he hasn’t messed up quite as badly as he thought.

“Okay, let’s actually get this going before Iskall and Doc just throw insults all day.” Cub interjects, reminding Grian the two were still trash talking while he was distracted. The two named Hermits shut their mouths in an instant, silence following for Cub to fill in. “That’s better. First off, I’d like to draw your attention to this beacon here behind me,”

He turns, gesturing vaguely toward the viewing stand Grian is still sure he saw someone on earlier. Now that he looks more closely past it, though, he can see the distinct beam of a beacon shining from just behind it.

“There’s another behind each of your bases, which should cover the whole battlefield. They’re all set to regeneration effects and if any of you touch the settings, I will personally throw you into the ravager pit.” Cub’s words are said with such an upbeat attitude that Grian nearly misses the threat heavily laced into them, and it earns a bark of laughter from Tango and Impulse both, who then theatrically glare at each other. Ignoring them, he turns to Scar, who proceeds to hand him a set of what looks like iron swords with streaks of color in the blades. “Now, I’m sure you’re all aware none of you have weapons. You’ll be using these and only these. If you hit someone of the other team, it’ll leave them with a slash of your team’s color on their armor, and we can see who would win based on who would theoretically be dead. Scarface, you can hand these out now.”

The raider Grian noticed between the Convex earlier steps toward them at Cub’s prompting, an entire set of said swords in his arms. The demon almost isn’t sure how to react, wary of the angry looking grayed villager with an ungodly amount of scars on his face approaching him with an armful of swords, but he doesn’t have a particularly threatening attitude despite being a pillager. He passes them out to the members of the G Team closest to him first, including Cleo, who immediately and without hesitation turns and whacks Tango with hers.

“Ooooh, I like it.” She croons, holding the weapon up while Tango wheezes from the attack, and Cub sighs, rubbing his face. Scarface, apparently, ignores them both and continues on. Vaguely, Grian wonders if that ever gets confusing, to have both Scarface and Scar around.

When Grian is handed his own sword, he immediately finds himself inspecting it. There’s no sharp edge to the blade; it’s entirely unsharpened, just a smooth, round edge that would do little to nothing even through leather armor. Clearly it’s enough to wind Tango from where Cleo hit him unexpectedly in the chest, but he can’t really see anyone dying to one. The color is set into a channel carved out along the flat of the blade and, upon running his hand over it and coming back with a streak of blue on his skin, is clearly filled with set powdered dye.

“So what you’re saying is,” Xisuma pipes up, testing his own new sword in the air a few times, a smirk on his face that seems to have the other members of the other team staring at him suspiciously. “That we won’t die, but we might dye?”

There’s a collective groan between a few members of both teams, including Grian himself, while Iskall loses it laughing beside him. Almost instantly, both False and Impulse at once pull a Cleo and whack Xisuma with their new swords, leaving him laughing between coughs and with a fittingly placed X shape of powdered green dye on his chest.

“Apparently the biggest danger here is your own teammates playing with their new weapons.” Cub shrugs, clearly questioning his choice of setting both teams loose with colorful weapons that are safe to use on anyone in armor. 

Grian appreciates the scene around him, though; whatever tension there was between the teams has been broken, leaving a far more comfortable air between them all that he never would have expected. It’s a stark contrast to the last time they met up, worry of the unknown and the anxious tension weighing over the battlefield and the teams alike, and he’s starting to think all this time spent apart building their respective bases has given the Hermits more time to relax and forget about the pranks that started this, not just himself. Even despite the things he keeps noticing here and there, from the way he keeps feeling his eyes drawn to the other team’s tower, to the figures up on the viewing stand and even the unexpected presence of a seemingly friendly pillager standing with the Convex like he’s one of them, the slight unease from noticing those things isn’t stronger than the surprisingly comfortable air hanging over the flag.

“Now that you seem to be done abusing your teammates, let’s move on.” Cub clears his throat, staring pointedly at both teams, and Grian doesn’t miss the way Cleo holds her weapon toward Jevin like she’s trying to prove him wrong. Cub ignores her, while Jevin steps around Grian to his other side, leaving the demon beside Cleo with a mild worry of getting whacked for emphasis next. “This is going to be the first battle, so we’ll see how it goes and make any necessary adjustments afterwards. Both teams have fire charges in their base defences, so any of you that go out on the front lines better be sure to have fire protection unless you want to end up a little bit crispy.”

“For anyone out in the actual fighting,” Scar joins in, looking around at them all as he speaks. “What sort of hit you take to your armor shows whether you’re still in the battle or not. One hit to your helmet and you’re out, two to the torso and you’re out. By that logic, Tango would still be able to fight, and X would have to stand down. Arms and legs aren’t fatal, so you can keep fighting if you get hit there.”

“Anyone is allowed to call for the fighting to stop at any point for any reason, or just to back out until it’s over if they need to. This battle will last until either all the members of one team have been defeated, or until both sides choose to retreat. Any questions?”

Joe raises his hand.

“Yes, Joe?”

“Can we call the other team the Bad Guys? Because we’re the good guys and I still don’t know what they’ve decided to name themselves, so if they haven’t come up with a name yet then it’s only right that we, the charitable Good team, donate a name to them out of the kindness of our hearts.”

On the other side, Grian can see False hiding a laugh behind her hand, while Doc glares back at Joe.

“We don’t need you to name us, thank you very much. We already have a name.” He shoots back, crossing his arms. “We’re the Star Team and you’d do well to remember that. Besides, who says you get to be the good guys? Last I checked, our team doesn’t have any lia--”

Before he can finish whatever he meant to say with his stare pinned on Grian, Xisuma also pulls a Cleo and casually whacks Doc with his sword with seemingly little effort, though hard enough that a cloud of green dye powder puffs up from the impact. Doc mostly doesn’t react, keeping his cool, but the way he’s been driven completely silent betrays how much it winded him. Xisuma just smiles innocently back at the rest of them, ignoring him. “Yes, we’re the Star Team. Sorry we didn’t get around to telling you that sooner, we decided on it just last night because no one could agree.”

Grian doesn’t need any extra hints to know Doc was about to make some kind of jab at him, some thinly veiled reference to what he knows or at least suspects, if not an outright accusation here in front of everyone. It makes his skin crawl to realize just how easily this exact moment could have turned into something very, very different, if not for Xisuma’s intervention. Instantly, the demon finds his attention turning back to Mumbo, needing to see whether he caught that or not. But he just looks concerned, and when Grian’s gaze meets his, the look softens into something reassuring despite the line between them. It takes him straight back to that first night they ever met Doc in the Nether, the way Mumbo removed them both from the encounter and took him home without question.

In all the chaos, and his worries about whether the angel hated him after the last time they saw each other, Grian had completely forgotten that Mumbo knows just how much Doc intimidates him, even if he doesn’t really know why. Between Xisuma cutting him off before he could say anything incriminating, and Mumbo trying to silently sooth the fear he must be sure Grian is feeling even from a distance, he almost wonders… it couldn’t be that they both joined the Star Team to keep an eye on Doc, did they? It almost seems impossible, he can’t remotely bring himself to believe anyone would make such an effort just to keep someone from scaring him, much less two people, and yet… it makes more sense than nearly any other thought he’s had.

He doesn’t understand why they’d bother, especially after he fled from Mumbo and hurt him the way he did, but he’s pretty sure the angel doesn’t hate him at least, and that Xisuma hasn’t turned on him after all either. It scared him to see them both on the opposite side after running like he did, his mind jumping instantly to betrayal as he’d expect as the norm back in the Nether, but they wouldn’t have both reacted to Doc in the way they did just now if that was the case. It leaves him able to breathe a sigh of relief, whatever fears Doc had intended to drive into him vanishing before they can even manifest. Further proving his thought is the way Xisuma seems to be giving him an approving look, looking almost satisfied at the way the demon has kept his calm though he isn’t sure how the leader would know.

“Anything else?” Cub asks after a few more moments, only to be answered with silence and a few shaken heads. He digs around in his coat pocket before continuing, pulling out a button and holding it out with a flourish. Jevin and Cleo tense up on either side of Grian, and he isn’t sure why. It’s just a button, right? “In that case, I’d say we’re pretty ready to get this fight started.”

“Just say the word, man. I’ve been waiting too long to get my hands on whoever touched my bush.” Doc practically growls with a confident smirk, and Grian resists the urge to look at Tango for support. Oops. “Even if I only get to do it by turning them into bad art.”

“Come anywhere near our base and I’ll be the one making you see colors, Doc.” Iskall shoots right back again, twirling his sword in hand with an amount of skill Grian couldn’t hope to match if he tried. It makes the demon glad, seeing he has teammates that seem to have both confidence in going up against Doc and the skill to back it up, potentially.

“In that case, you all might want to run.” Cub declares with a bit too much enthusiasm to be trustworthy, and Grian realizes Scar and Scarface have already disappeared to behind the other side of the viewing stand. The demon has just enough time to curiously watch him place the button in his hand down on the ground before Cleo grabs him by the back of his armor, wrenching him away from the flag along with the rest of the G Team as they hurl themselves away from it. Cub lets them make it a good few feet away before he presses the button and darts away himself, and Grian has a bit of an idea of why considering how quickly everyone has fled from beneath the flag at his warning without question.

He’s not surprised at all when the flag explodes from the ground up, leaving absolutely no doubt about whether the war has started or not.

Chapter Text

“Well, looks like we’re at war.” Iskall casually shrugs from his seat near the window, a cheeky grin on his face that betrays how invested he actually is. The look sobers into something a bit more serious after a moment, the determined set of someone taking charge bleeding over his attitude. “We don’t know when the other team will attack or how, so we need to be ready. Does everyone know their assigned roles?”

“I have horses and I’m not afraid to use them.” Stress pipes up first, weighing her new sword in her hand. Grian doesn’t envy whoever decides to cross her first, and he wouldn’t be surprised to see a few dented chestplates by the end of the fight knowing her. Across the meeting room table, Joe holds up a few potions, though Grian can’t quite decide what kind they are. The tint is a little bit… questionable.

“I’m still sticking to my plan of turning all their paintings upside down. And before you ask ‘Joe, how do you know there will be paintings?’, let me remind you they built a castle, and castles need paintings, and Wels knows that. There will be paintings.”

As the meeting room falls into relative silence, broken only by the cat in the corner meowing at them, it starts to sink in that Grian doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to do. The building was easy, gathering materials is easy, putting together their supplies and defences; but now that the actual war has started, what is he supposed to do? All of the Hermits seem to have taken roles best suited to their strengths, but the only thing he knows how to do is build and run away, neither of which will help the others in a battle. Tentatively, he raises a hand, causing every head in the room to turn to him.

“What should I do?”

He’s not sure whether he should be afraid of the almost devilish grin that splits across Iskall’s face, almost like that’s exactly what he’d wanted Grian to ask. It smooths over into a deceptively innocent look a moment later. “Ah, Grian, I have the perfect role for you--”

Iskall’s voice, which sounds a bit too excited and leaves the demon squinting at him in suspicion of what he has planned, is cut off by the sound of an explosion that rocks the room they’re sitting in. It makes Grian’s feathers puff out to full size in an instant, instincts telling him to expect a ghast when he whips around to look at the wall that was hit, though there’s nothing out there. Around him, half of his teammates have stood from their chairs, looking poised and ready to defend at a moment’s notice.

“Remember when you said we don’t know when or how they’ll choose to attack?” Cleo asks, her voice completely deadpan. “I think we just found out.”

“Tango, control room. Cleo and Jevin, keep an eye around our perimeter for intruders.” Iskall’s voice goes back to being serious, directing the others without hesitation. Tango doesn’t need any further instruction, nodding and disappearing into the hall leading that direction, while Stress and Joe disappear into the bubblevator without prompting, their roles already clear. “Grian, come with me.”

Nodding and scrambling the rest of the way out of his chair, the demon follows the G Team’s unofficial leader over to the bubblevator, though Iskall’s body shoots upwards towards the roof instead of going down to a lower level like he expected. He’s mildly nervous about heading onto the roof without knowing the source of whatever the other team just hit their base with, but he heads into the water anyway, following with little question and trusting Iskall probably won’t get the both of them blown up. As always, that blessed conduit saves Grian from being drenched and freezing once he pops out of the water and onto the roof, though the wind has also died down some by now.

It’s the first time he’s been up on the roof since construction started, and it’s an impressive view, especially now with the other team’s base and the Concorp viewing stand to rival it. His attention is drawn to both momentarily, noting the fire charges appearing from seemingly empty darkness within the Star Team’s tower, and it makes his skin prickle at how similar it seems to that of a ghast. Their fire charges are larger than the ones Tango was playing with, though he supposes maybe they’ve just figured out how to make them that way without causing them to be unstable. It makes more sense than there somehow being an actual ghast involved, anyway.

To the right, there’s nothing abnormal about the viewing stand. It’s a ways off, but he’s pretty sure he can pick out the white and brown of Cub and Scar’s clothes, the two of them standing tall in their safe sidelines and watching the destruction beginning to unfold on behalf of the other team. He really must have just imagined whatever he saw earlier, after all.

“Okay, so I have a… bit of an under the table sort of plan, and you’re the best person here to follow it.” Iskall starts, interrupting Grian’s survey of the battlefield and earning the demon’s attention. He’s got that too-wide smirk again, like he’s more than a little excited about this plan he’s come up with. Considering the last plan of Iskall’s that Grian followed ended in him getting assaulted by pointy fish, he gives the other Hermit a pointedly wary look. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, it’ll work out perfectly. Trust me.”

“What do you want me to do?” Grian asks, the tone of his voice betraying his uncertainty. Iskall, if possible, seems to perk up even more at the tentative agreement.

“Nothing major, you just have to be a bit of a messenger.” Pulling Grian to his side with an arm around his shoulders and gesturing over the battlefield in front of them both, Iskall starts mapping out a route across the land for him to see. “All you have to do is sneak along the edge of the battlefield here, and you can use the trees right behind Concorp there for cover if you need to. There’s a little cave you need to get to, just inside the hill there.”

The place he’s pointing to is uncomfortably close to the other team’s moat, well on their side of the terrain, though at least the tree cover seems to be relatively dense. And granted, he is outfitted to sneak around, as well as having wings to escape with if things get really dicey… with the first part of Iskall’s explanation sinking in, Grian turns to glance at him. “Wait, why? What do you mean by messenger?”

“Well you see, Grian, the sides aren’t as clear cut as you may think.” There’s a hidden weight to his words, a look in his eye that he’s saying something important. It disappears as he continues, replaced again by the general excited energy he has about this entire idea. “Basically, we have a mole on the other team, and they’re going to tell us all the Star Team’s defences and how we can best fight them. And you, you’re going to meet up with that mole and bring back all this info they’ve got for us.”

He says the last bit while poking Grian in the chest, all while the demon tries to process the idea of there being a member of the other team on their side. His thoughts jump instantly to a triple agent, that he’ll just run into Doc himself if he goes there; but then Mumbo and Xisuma cross his mind and he doesn’t doubt that Iskall is right. He could believe it being either of them, perfectly able to imagine either one waiting in the cave to share their underground knowledge. The question remains which one will it be; and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t hoping for one in particular.

“Who is it?”

“I can’t tell you that just in case you get captured on the way there.” Iskall shrugs, far too casually for such a potential outcome, though Grian hopes he’s just exaggerating. “Besides, you’ll find out when you get there anyway.”

He’s leery about the idea of crossing the battlefield on his own, of heading nearly all the way to the other team’s base with the potential of encountering any one of them, but a glance down at the unsharpened blade in his hand reminds him that maybe it’s not such a big deal even if he does. Cub and Scar are keeping a watchful eye on them all, and even Doc seemingly agreed to not be any more aggressive than absolutely necessary. On top of that, he wants to help his team, wants to do what he can especially with how all of his teammates already seem to be doing their best. It’s the first time he’s seen so many people work together so smoothly, and he doesn’t want to be the one piece that doesn’t quite fit.

“Okay, I’ll do it.” Grian agrees, silently hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a poor decision, but even that line of thinking fades away as Iskall’s face instantly lights up. With a wide smile he claps his hands onto the demon’s shoulders, beaming at him.

“You won’t regret accepting this mission, Grian.” He says dramatically, his enthusiasm almost enough to rub off on Grian. It’s hard not to feel even the slightest bit excited to join in and participate when faced with his level of hype, even with the demon’s usual inclination to be worried. “You’re the perfect Hermit for the job. Now get out there and bring us an easy win! No, really, you should probably get going now before they start storming us.”

Another explosion hitting the base emphasises his point, making the roof shake under their feet hard enough that Grian definitely would’ve fallen if Iskall hadn’t already been holding onto him. A glance out at the battlefield shows that some members of both teams are already out fighting, the most notable being Stress speeding around on a horse, though she appears to be on her own.

“You should go help Stress.” Grian finds himself advising, despite Iskall being the one to have been issuing orders so far. He’s almost afraid the other Hermit will find his suggestion offensive because of that exact reason, but Iskall just nods dutifully and steps back toward the bubblevator without question.

“Good luck, Grian.”

And then he’s gone, disappeared into the water and leaving Grian alone on the roof with nothing but the responsibility he’s just agreed to. Already he can feel his fears trying to wiggle into the forefront of his mind, the what ifs and maybes of what could happen like that earlier worry of going to the meetup spot only to find Doc there; but he shoves them away, determinedly shaking out his feathers and staring down at the battlefield with the faintest feeling of purpose. He wants to help his team, and Iskall gave him a task to do. If something goes wrong, he’ll deal with that when it happens, and he doesn’t doubt his team would be there if it did.

With the fire charges flying over the battlefield, he knows it isn’t a great idea to try and fly himself. They have too much range and it’ll make him too much of a target, and he’s not too inclined to see if his feathers are still as flammable as they were in the Nether. Instead, he drops down onto the pathway between the two separate portions of the G Team base, passing the window of the control room as he goes. He can see Tango inside, darting back and forth across his console and pressing all sorts of buttons like he’s having the time of his life, and he doesn’t seem to notice the disguised demon as he jumps down past the window. Grian just hopes he’s not so distracted that he won’t notice intruders if the Star Team happen to make it in there with him, but the thought is fleeting as he glides down to the ground below and turns his focus to the trek ahead.

The thought of crossing the river and officially entering into the fighting territory gives him pause for a moment, but Grian shakes off his hesitation before it can take hold, jumping over the water with a little help from his wings. Part of him expects to be tackled the instant he lands, but for the time being, there’s no one nearby, allowing him to begin making his way across the distance ahead without conflict. He’s careful to fold his wings tightly against his back, crouching low to the ground and sticking to the cover of tall grass as much as he can. There aren’t many trees up until the base of the viewing stand, so for the moment he has to hope no one happens to come around right about now.

But it’s more cover than he’s used to having considering the Nether has pretty much no vegetation, even if he did blend in better there. Plus, he’s hardly the most notable point of interest to be seen; as he crests over the first small hill, he’s met with the sight of Stress fighting with one of the Star Team members from horseback, her laughter ringing back to him as she parries every strike they try to hit her with. The added height also adds to her advantage, leaving her torso mostly out of the relatively short Hermit’s reach as he tries to take her down and fails.

“Should’ve gotten horses, Ren!” She taunts, pulling on the reins and tugging her mount away from the next attack, dodging Ren’s attempted strike perfectly. “Maybe then you’d be tall enough to hit me!”

“Now that’s a low blow,” Ren gasps with mock hurt, a dramatic hand on his chest like he’s just been terribly offended. “And here I thought we were height buddies.”

“All’s fair in war, you know.” Stress’s voice is honey sweet, masking her otherwise very intimidating upper hand in their scuffle.

“I’m pretty sure the line is about love too--”

He’s cut off by Stress gently bopping the top of his head with her sword while he’s distracted, effectively leaving a streak of blue on his helmet and removing him from the battle in a split instant. It seems to take him a moment to catch up with what just happened, while she laughs and tugs her horse in another direction to find someone else to take down.

From his place in the grass, Grian decides she probably doesn’t need Iskall’s help after all. She’s fine.

With Ren out of the game, he’s not too afraid of being spotted by him in particular, but Grian still does his best to skirt around where they were fighting. He’s getting closer to the stand, the halfway mark between the bases and a clear sign he doesn’t have too much further to go, but the ground cover is much less dense up here. Combined with the fact it’s the highest point of the battlefield, he’s hesitant to make the dash between here and the trees on the other side. It’s tempting to stick as far to the right as he can, to at least keep the hill between him and the Star Team’s tower; that way, he can at least avoid the fire charges and probably the majority of the other team.

That plan flies out of his head without hesitation when he turns and only makes it a few creeping steps in that direction before he sees the glint of iron armor shining just within the trees. They’re in the shade, moving slowly toward his own base, but they’re taking the exact route he just plotted out in his head. Flattening himself to the ground, Grian is afraid to move as he recognizes Doc passing between the trees toward him, with a much more concealed False right on his heels. They don’t seem to have noticed him yet, though, and he makes the decision to take the opposite direction before they do. It’ll lead him out over the top of the hill in front of the stand, with no grass or tree cover to hide him until he reaches the other side, but it’s better than running headfirst into Doc and trying to fight him and False both.

He darts away before they can see him, bolting from the grass and around to a part of the hill that obscures him from their sight, and though it leaves him partly in view from one side, he’s pretty sure the only person who can see him from this angle for the moment is Tango. He can’t see into the control room from this far down, but he assumes he’s right with the way the base defences have ceased their own fire while he’s here. Hoping Tango is watching him, he gestures toward where he saw Doc and False, just in the off chance he’ll have some warning of their approach. Then he flattens himself against the hill, takes a deep breath, and steels himself to jump out in the open. The adrenaline coursing through him, the wary attention to his surroundings, isn’t quite as terrifying as he’d imagined now that he takes a moment to pay attention to it. His heart is hammering in his chest, accompanied by a faint, harmless sort of anxiety about getting caught, but there’s no real fear.

With that thought in mind, it’s with almost reckless determination that he pulls himself up the small ledge and into plain sight of the other team’s base. From here he has a full view of the battlefield all around, including Iskall in a one on one fight with someone too far away to identify, and Stress as she dodges fire charges, hopefully drawing the attention of whoever is controlling the tower for now. He doesn’t like that he can’t see Doc and False, not knowing where they’ve gone or if they know he’s here, but for the moment he chooses to focus on heading toward the trees on the other side of the hill. There’s no cover here, leaving him no choice but to just dash for it and hope nobody notices him.

Unfortunately, whoever is responsible for those fire charges has a wider attention span than he gave them credit for. The faint crackling of the burning fireball hurtling through the air is his only warning to move, and he does without questioning the instinct telling him to dodge, throwing his momentum into a roll to avoid the explosion that burns the grass where he was. It sinks in all at once that he forgot to grab fire resistance potions before he left, and he knows he’d be a little warmer than comfortable if not for the practice he already has with dodging fireballs. And that’s exactly what they are; on the ground where he’s landed, the smell of sulfur from the impact is unmistakably from a ghast fireball and not a fire charge, not to mention the small bit of damage done to the ground where it landed. He needs to move on and make it to the trees before someone finds him, he knows, but the thought of the other team having an actual, live ghast under their control and the question of how in the world they managed to do such a thing leaves him frozen.

He couldn’t tame a ghast even if he tried, not that he’s foolish enough to. It’s more than a little bit impressive if they did, though the idea that someone on their team is capable of taming the wild flying beasts of the Nether is also a terrifying one for a demon. It had to have been Doc, he’s sure.

“Little close for comfort there, buddy?” 

His mildly dazed and rambling thoughts are cut off by a voice he doesn’t recognize, someone he hadn’t noticed approaching, and Grian’s attention whips around from the crater to the source with a startled ping of fear. It’s exactly what he was trying to avoid, getting noticed and caught out here by someone on the other team; the last Star Team member he doesn’t yet know is now standing over him, green sword held loosely in his armored hand. The fancy helmet on his head obscures most of his features, leaving him nearly impossible to read, and Grian is sure he can’t scramble to his feet in time to escape without an attack. It makes the small feeling of fear spike, knowing he’s been caught and backed into a metaphorical corner. He can’t help flinching away from the new presence, already expecting to be taken out.

“Hey, don’t panic. We’ve got rules, remember?” This new Hermit holds up a hand reassuringly, before using it to pull off his helmet and hold it under the arm his sword is in, the plume of red feathers on top bobbing as he does. It reveals the kind-looking face underneath, complete with a friendly smile, and he holds his free hand out toward the grounded demon despite the battle waging on around them. “You remember what the Convex said, and I’m not going to fight a downed man even if they didn’t.”

More than anything, Grian is distracted by the newly revealed purple marks scattered across his cheeks, and he’s slow and hesitant to take the angel’s hand. The other Hermit doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it, though, his grip firm and notably strong as he pulls Grian to his feet. Once they’re at eye level though, his confusion just pitches ever deeper as it sinks in that he can’t see any wings poking out from behind the other’s back.

“We haven’t met before, sorry it had to be in the middle of a literal war. I’m Wels.” He seems to take Grian’s scrutiny as uncertainty of who he is, though the demon hadn’t figured that out yet either. It makes sense though, considering he’s heard the name around here and there, and he should’ve guessed the last person he hadn’t seen besides Ren must have been Wels. Mutely, Grian nods, trying to figure out what a proper response would be to being helped up by a mysterious angel without wings on the other team after an overworld ghast attack in the middle of a war.

“Thanks for uh, not killing me?” He ends up with, too distracted by the lack of wings to form a coherent response, and awkwardly shrugs. It earns a laugh from the angel, though it’s a friendly sound and not something poking at his awkwardness.

“I wouldn’t dream of it. We’re here for fun and a chance to practice our swordplay, not to be mean to our friends.” Wels beams at him, seemingly in just as bright of a mood as Iskall was earlier, and Grian wonders if he’s always this friendly. “Speaking of, we are on opposite teams and I have an obligation to at least try and stop you from whatever you’re trying to do, but that’s only if I’m still in the battle. What do you say to having a bit of a duel? Winner gets to keep skulking around while the loser gets to sit back and watch with the Convex.”

“I’m… not good with swords?” Grian answers before his mind can catch up, and winces at the realization he’s just told a member of the other team his weakness. It’s true, though, and he’s not too keen on the idea of having a duel with someone in full knight gear with a weapon he barely knows. He already misses his trident.

But Wels just brightens even more, his shoulders squared confidently and giving no hint at all of a plan to take advantage of that weakness. “Then you’ve run into the right person! The best way to learn is by doing, with example. That means we can accomplish two goals at once, by teaching you a bit of swordwork and continuing this little war scuffle. You’ll need it, especially if you ever end up facing off against Doc or False.”

He can’t really argue with that.

“You want to teach me how to use a sword?” Grian asks, unsure. “You realize I’m your enemy, right?”

Wels scoffs. “You’re no enemy of mine! Don’t let all the fanfare get to you, Grian, at the end of the day this is just a game. Besides, it’s no fun fighting someone who can’t give you an equal match, now is it?”

With no prior experience in this whole recreational fighting thing, Grian can only shrug, still not quite grasping the appeal just yet, but it doesn’t dissuade the outgoing angel in front of him. Wels turns away for a moment, picking something up off of the ground, and it’s not until he offers it to Grian that he realizes it’s his own blue sword. He must’ve dropped it when the fireball hit, and it sinks in that he was even more defenseless than he’d realized, making him even more lucky it wasn’t Doc that found him.

“Here, give it a try. And I promise you’re safe from the ghast cannon while I’m here, Impulse won’t try to shoo you away unless you’re alone.” So Impulse is the one in the tower; the only two members left of the Star Team that he hasn’t seen yet are Mumbo and Xisuma, still giving him no further clue on which one he’ll meet if he can get there. He hopes they won’t be upset about waiting on him, or if he never manages to show up in the likely case Wels defeats him. He’ll have to just wait and see what happens, it seems, tentatively taking his offered weapon out of the angel’s grip.

Once the sword is in his hand, Wels pauses for a moment, staring at him. Then he slowly reaches out and adjusts the way Grian is holding it, fixing his grip to a more natural one, before quickly stepping back out of his space and giving him another look.

“First of all, you need to remember to loosen up a bit. You won’t be winning any fights with a sword glued to a wooden arm, you need your movements to be fluid.” He explains, waving his own sword a bit for emphasis in a similarly twirly way that Iskall had done at the ceasefire flag. Nodding, Grian does his best to mimic him, and though it’s nowhere near as smooth as either of the other two’s movements, it feels far more natural than just wildly attempting to flail his sword at things like he may or may not have a habit of doing. “See, you can do it! Now just try to hold your balance centered, you’re leaning too much and leaving yourself open for a topple. Here, stand like this…”

It’s surprising just how quickly the apprehension ticks down, the fear of being caught or attacked, but it becomes more and more clear to him with each passing second that Wels really does have nothing in the way of bad intentions. It would be easier and faster to just smack Grian a couple of times and remove him from the battle, but he doesn’t, instead giving him the admittedly basic instructions and making sure he knows how to follow them. It brings to mind the silly back and forth between Ren and Stress earlier, the good natured taunting and the way Ren calmly accepted his defeat, all despite being on separate teams.

In just a few minutes, he feels far more comfortable with the weapon in his hands, and by extension, a bit safer out on the battlefield. Wels steps back after showing him one or two ways to attack with his weapon, and how to block with it, a satisfied smile on his face and a challenge in his eyes.

“Now how about that duel, Grian?”

He could be afraid about the prospect of actually fighting Wels, especially when he seems to know so much. The Star Team angel is an undeniable adversary, probably equal to his scarier teammates, but something tells Grian he won’t be the slightest bit unfair. It gives him a little bit of confidence, only somewhat hesitant to nod and try to fall back into the stance Wels showed him. It earns him another bright smile before Wels does the same, taking half a moment to tug his helmet back on and then holding his weapon at the ready.

Grian only has a moment to think about how the full knight armor is somewhere between impressive and terrifying before Wels lunges at him, surprisingly light on his feet despite the iron. For a split second he isn’t sure whether to dodge or block, and ends up scrambling somewhere between, ending up on one knee in the grass and only barely catching the angel’s blade on the crossguard of his own. “Don’t overthink your reactions.” Wels adds on, his voice muffled through his helmet, before jumping back and out of reach. He stays there, showing no sign of lunging again, and giving Grian a chance to pull himself back to his feet.

Even once he’s steady and more prepared this time, Wels just shakes his head and makes a motion for Grian to attack him first. It’s a bit of a nerve wracking suggestion, but he takes a deep breath and does as told, shoving his hesitance down and lunges for the angel. Wels almost seems to flinch when Grian appears in his space faster than expected, his sword coming up a second too late to block the demon from getting a single hit in on his armored chest.

It feels like something neither of them expected, Grian staring wide eyed at the new slash of blue standing out very clearly against the shining metal of Wels’s chestplate, though the angel recovers from the shock before Grian does. Just was quickly as he lunged in, he’s shoved back into his own space, still trying to comprehend the fact he just got a noteworthy hit in on one of the other team’s better fighters.

“That was great, Grian! You’re faster than I expected. Though, you may want to use that speed to escape back to a safe distance next time you reach behind someone’s block.” Wels says, while pointing down at Grian’s own torso. Glancing down reveals exactly what he’s talking about, a faint slash of green along his ribs that he hadn’t felt while being shoved away. It puts them both back on equal ground just as quickly as Grian gained a leg up, but the fact he managed to hit Wels at all sends a surge of new confidence through him. They’re now both definitely just one hit away from being out, but if he can surprise the angel again, he may be able to come out on top. It’s not a thought he would’ve considered possible when he first left the G Team base, but he’s hopeful for it now, and he almost feels excited to try again.

There’s a notable increase in tension as Wels stretches before dropping back into his fighting stance, a sign Grian thinks may be the angel taking him more seriously than he had at first. It almost makes him nervous, knowing it’ll be harder to catch him by surprise again, but that also makes him more determined to accomplish it somehow. While he’s thinking, Wels slowly begins stepping to the side, cautiously edging around him in a circle that Grian immediately chooses to match in order to keep him at his front. It leaves both of them creeping around each other, neither quite daring to attack just yet, looking for an opening to do so while Grian prepares to dodge at any point.

Wels moves first, changing what looks like it’s going to be another step to the side into a jump forward instead and trying to catch Grian off guard. But since he was already on edge for an attack, the demon just wrenches his weight backward, taking to his advantage the way Wels was aiming where he’d be stepping to next and narrowly avoiding the hit. It leaves the angel open for just a moment, though he spins around and blocks Grian’s sword as he attempts to take it. Then Wels twists his blade, wrenching Grian’s arm down and getting a single smack in on his upper arm before jumping away again, almost like a warning.

Since the first one was nothing more than a graze of his armor, he actually feels that one, wincing at what he knows will be a bruise later. But it only makes him want to win all the more, and he chases after the angel before he can get too comfortable, swords clashing again with each step backward Wels takes. There’s a split second where he stumbles, the angel’s sword slightly off center as he attempts to shield his chest with it and Grian aims right for it, bringing his weapon back in an upswing. Wels is faster, righting himself and blocking the hit perfectly.

And without thinking, Grian twists, flicking his wrist and arcing right over the block to hit Wels perfectly in the center of the helmet.

The resounding noise of metal on metal makes him freeze, staring in both surprise and a mild twinge of fear at the stark blue streak now solidly imprinted across the face of the angel’s helmet. Wels doesn’t move for a solid second, until he slowly reaches up and rubs a leather portion of one gauntlet over the powdered dye, bringing it back to see if he really did get hit. When the leather comes back with a smudge of blue from his own face, he laughs, dispelling Grian’s fears of him being offended in an instant.

“I can’t believe you just did that!” Wels exclaims, a smile clear in his voice even before he takes his helmet off again. Which he does, setting his sword down and pulling the helmet off to inspect the streak of blue directly on its face, while Grian tries to hold back his own laughter at the state of the angel’s own face. “What?”

“You, uh…” The demon tries, pointing at the perfectly stenciled blue powder on his face in the exact shape of the face opening of his helmet. “You’ve got a little, you’re a bit blue.”

This time he rubs the gauntlet on his own face, smudging the blue into a bigger mess onto his cheek and transferring some of it to the glove again. It just makes him laugh more, amused by his own ridiculous state. “I don’t think Cub intended for us to get dyed directly, just wait until he sees me.”

“Sorry about that.” Grian offers after a moment. He’s sure the angel didn’t actually expect to lose to him. But Wels just beams at him, again, his bright and friendly expression somehow made even more so by the stenciled blue all along his nose.

“No, that was great! You totally got me, fair and square. I didn’t see that coming at all. You should be proud!” The angel claps him on the shoulder, looking more proud of him than Grian could possibly feel himself, though he does feel accomplished and excited over managing to win at something he knows nothing about. Returning his smile is easy, the fear he’d felt just a while earlier far from his mind in light of how fun this was. “Speaking of, we had an agreement. You won, so I will now step away and not question whatever sneaky skulking around you may or may not be doing.”

“Are you sure Doc won’t mind that?”

Wels makes a noise, somewhere between a laugh and a scoff, as he gathers his sword and steps away. “Hey, I’m blue, I’m out of the battle. Can’t stop you if I’m ‘dead.’” He points out, shrugging with a sort of carefree air Grian wishes he could copy. But it’s the way he’s turning away, clearly intent on heading to join up with the Convex for the rest of the battle and turning his back on Grian, that reminds the demon yet again of the first thing he really noticed about this angel.

“Hey, Wels?” He asks, before he can convince himself not to. The angel pauses and turns, shooting him a curious look. He’s hesitant to continue, to voice his question, but the friendly rivalry between them from the angel’s advice and their little scuffle gives him just the bit of confidence he needs to try. “I was wondering, and I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

There’s a pause, of Wels contemplating him and Grian trying to find a way to word it, before the angel turns back to him fully with a knowing look. “You’re curious about my wings, right?”

Caught, Grian just nods, torn between his curiosity and the hesitance to pry. But Wels doesn’t seem to be upset about it, the friendly expression never falling from his face.

“It’s a perfectly understandable thing to be curious about, but I do have wings. You can’t see them, but they’re there.” He turns again, gesturing to his back. Upon closer examination, the back of his armor does look a bit bulky for someone of Wels’s frame, but not nearly enough to fit a set of wings proportionate to his body. “They’re not like yours. They’re… not quite right, as the archangels would say.”

Grian has to bite his tongue to keep from blurting out that’s what they’d say about me, too . He’s never met an angel that wasn’t fitting of their standards before, of the perfection angels are meant to be, but he’s heard they’re possible; angels born with wings that aren’t like they should be, small and sometimes malformed, angels rejected by their rulers for being bad omens. Simultaneously, it makes him feel a strange sense of kinship with the other, while also bringing back to the surface his perpetual feeling of guilt. Wels seems, for the most part, to have accepted he is the way he is; but he’s another angel that can’t fly, just like Mumbo, both of whom deserve it more than Grian does as a demon.

“Don’t feel bad. Some of us like it better on the ground.” Wels says after another moment of silence, his voice taking on a comforting edge. “And besides, we shouldn’t feel bad about the things we can’t change. I don’t have to be what they said I should be; instead of a perfect angel, I can be a knight, and that’s all I could ask for.”

The demon almost wants to argue, but at the same time, he doesn’t. There’s not an ounce of resentment or disappointment of any kind in the angel’s voice or face, just a confident sort of acceptance of how he is, and Grian wonders how he’s managed to be so unbothered by it. He can hardly say the same, though granted he’s a completely different situation. But it’s still similar, in an odd way, even with how he never thought he’d be relating to an angel so much. A bad omen angel would be rejected by everyone nearly the same way a demon would, shunned from most societies just because of how they were born, and he can’t help but wonder where Wels got so much confidence from when Grian has gone the other direction entirely. He almost seems proud of who he is, while Grian would do anything to be something else.

“What taught you to be okay with it? To not… blame yourself, for being-- wrong?” He winces, knowing it’s the wrong word to use but not knowing how else to explain it. But again, Wels doesn’t seem to mind at all. He just looks the demon over with a soft, almost unreadable look, as if he can see Grian’s really asking for advice.

“Realizing there’s no such thing as a wrong existence. We’re all ourselves, and we can’t change where we start. What matters most is who we choose to be.”

Quietly nodding, Grian tries to hide the rising uncertainty and guilt the angel’s words bring to light. If that’s how it is, then he’s already failed on choosing to be someone better. Choosing to be better than what he started as would be not stealing an angel’s wings and then hiding who he is, but here they are, with him twisted so deeply into a web of lies he wouldn’t know where to even begin unraveling them if he tried. Wels cuts off his thoughts before they can go too far into the hurtful side of his mind, putting a firm and reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through or what it’s like, but just take it day by day. No one can tell you you’re wrong just for being who you are, and we’re all right here if you ever need to reach out about it. If you’re feeling bad about some kind of mistake, too, remember that everyone makes them.” His voice is kind and grounding, and though Grian knows he doesn’t have a clue of the full story, his words still sink in with a more comforting weight than he would've expected.

“Thank you, Wels.” Grian manages to say back, wondering how so many of the Hermits manage to always be so kind even when they know nothing about him.

“I’m always happy to help, even if you are from the other team. Now go on, go do your suspicious sneaking around and spying before Impulse gets tired of shooting at Stress.”

He waves the demon off with a shooing motion, urging him to move on and continue what he came for. And he’s right; Grian has already left the Hermit waiting for him long enough, whoever they are, so it’s with a firm nod that he turns toward the woods before his thoughts can start running wild. There’s not much further to go yet, and without Wels to chase after him, there’s no one to notice or follow him as he makes his way into the underbrush.

It’s a little bit harder to get back into the stealth mission sort of mindset he had before that fireball came along, his thoughts staying slightly on the consideration of there being an angel like Wels here. It changes nothing about his own situation, but it brings to mind the thought that maybe the Hermits really are as good as they seem. That Xisuma meant it, when he said the others have pasts they want to leave behind. It almost makes him brave enough to hope for better, that maybe they would be understanding of him, too; but he’s a different case entirely. He isn’t an angel cursed with a bad start, someone with circumstances out of their control, he’s just a demon with a crime under his belt.

The cave looms up in his vision as his thoughts continue to echo slowly around his head, debating back and forth between hope and guilt. But he shakes them off as best he can, reminding himself that he has a task from Iskall to accomplish here, and steps into the darkness. He’s far less afraid of it now, the confidence of defeating Wels backing his steps into the shadows.

“Who’s there?” A voice calls from around the corner, and he follows it, soon being met with the edge of the warm glow of torchlight. It illuminates the figure resting beneath it, sitting on a block near the wall, and he can’t help the way his heart flips in a way he can’t tell is fear or hope. He’s almost afraid to reveal himself, to step within its radius, that small voice in the back of his mind telling him to avoid everything just like always. But he ignores it, mentally silencing the voice as he steps into the light.

“It’s me.” Grian announces himself after a moment, resisting the urge to back away into the dark again as Mumbo scrambles to his feet. He almost looks like he isn’t sure what to do, his hands suspended halfway into the air.

“It’s you! I mean, yes. It’s you. Hi.” The angel awkwardly stumbles over his words, clearing his throat halfway through and looking away, his voice making it sound like Grian was the last person he expected. His hands are still held up in the air, almost like he wants to reach out but doesn’t dare, and it sinks in that he doesn’t know what ground they stand on any more than Grian does. Grian was the one that ran from him, and this is the first time they’ve really met since then. For all he knows, the demon will bolt again if he reaches out, if he tries to find the comfortable dynamic they’d had not all that long ago. Grian had been so afraid of Mumbo hating him, of not speaking to him once they did meet up again, that he hadn’t really expected being met with this; with the sight of the angel that so clearly wants to reach out to him, to forget all of the past weeks of not speaking ever happened. “Are you oka-- are, uh, how are you doing?”

He can see it now. The way the angel looks at him in a fond sort of way none of the others do, despite how nice they all are to him, this is different. Even mixed with uncertainty as it is, there’s no doubt that it’s there, and he can’t help the way it makes something in his own chest feel warm. It shouldn’t, and he shouldn’t let it; but damn it, he’s missed Mumbo far more than he’d realized, and his feet are moving before the rational part of his mind can catch up.

“Listen, I’m s--”

Mumbo is cut off as Grian darts close and pulls him into a desperate hug, all of the worried voices in his head going silent at the way the angel instantly returns the embrace. He’d expected the worst, expected to be shunned and hated for the way he panicked and left without any sort of explanation, but the hold around his shoulders is just as desperate as his own. It removes any and all traces of remaining doubt from his mind, leaving behind nothing but the strongest feeling of relief. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left like I did.” He mumbles into the other’s shoulder, feeling the way Mumbo’s grip tightens just a little bit as he does.

“I kinda, sprung a lot on you, after that whole thing with Doc.” The reply is muffled into the top of his head, luckily missing his disguised horns, not that he particularly cares about that at the moment. “I’m sorry for doing that to you.”

Grian shakes his head without bothering to pull away, some small part of him feeling afraid that he’ll wake up back at his base without any of this being real if he does. “I overreacted.”

“Grian, let me apologize. It was the wrong time regardless, much less I didn’t even check if you were okay with it, and you deserve better than that.” Mumbo’s voice is surprisingly firm, leaving no room for arguing. Even if the thoughts inside Grian’s head do, anyway, commenting that he definitely doesn’t. “But as long as you’re okay, that’s all I care about. And… as long as you aren’t too upset with me.”

“I thought you were upset with me.” The demon admits, finally pulling away to see the other’s face. “You weren’t at either of our bases when I came back, and then I didn’t see you for ages. I thought you’d left.”

But he just shakes his head, an apologetic look on his face. “I thought you’d want space, I didn’t want to be too close by in case you were uncomfortable, I didn’t want to keep you from your base. I stayed with Doc for awhile, that was all. And uh, that’s how he roped me into being on this team.”

“You stayed with Doc?” For a split second, he’s afraid, knowing Doc could full well have used that opportunity to tell him everything. But if that was the case, he’s sure Mumbo would’ve mentioned it by now, or reacted differently to him in some way.

“Well, he said something about being partially responsible for it and dragged me over.”

That answers that much. But there’s still one thing that bothers him, thinking back on it.

“What was up with… that first meeting, with the teams? It almost felt like they were hiding you, and then Doc dragged you out and stared at me, and…”

“Yeah, uh. Well. That was because I asked them to.” Mumbo looks away again, shame clear on his face. “I wasn’t thinking about how you might be feeling, just that I wasn’t ready to face you after scaring you off like that. Doc demanded I needed to get out and ‘stop moping’ as he put it, but he didn’t tell me you’d be there, and then I was afraid you’d be upset about me being there, and…”

Grian doesn’t expect the amount of relief he feels, just in knowing that was what was actually going on there. That Mumbo was just as afraid to face him as he was, both of them fearing a negative reaction from the other.

“...And then Doc dragged you out to try and get us to talk.” The demon fills in after a moment. He’s not too sure he believes it, but Mumbo sure seems to.

“That, that would be correct, yes. But then I was still worried, and I… I made everything worse, didn’t I?” The angel’s shoulders droop, then, heavy with the guilt Grian can see written all over his face. It seems he’s not the only one around here that deals with that, a realization that makes something in his chest twist. Mumbo shouldn’t have to feel that much guilt, not if it’s anything like what he tends to feel. “I wanted to avoid dealing with it because I didn’t want to make it worse, or risk driving you away even more, but then I suppose that also didn’t help at all.”

“It’s okay. It’s all fine now, isn’t it? We both messed up a bit, but I don’t blame you for any of it.” He isn’t good at knowing what to say, at comforting others, but he tries to think of what Iskall or Joe would say. Wait, definitely not Joe. Stress, she knows how to say comforting things, that’ll do. “I was just afraid of you hating me for hurting you.”

There’s a tense silence after he says that, one that echoes around the cave for several moments. He’s almost afraid it was the wrong thing to say, that maybe Mumbo does feel upset at him for hurting him, but the look on the angel’s face is purely contemplative. Finally, he speaks slowly, his voice low as his gaze darts back and forth over Grian’s expression for a reaction.

“Grian, you don’t really think I would hate you, do you?” His voice carries a depth of emotion Grian isn’t sure he’s ever heard from another person, like he’s hanging for a response to something he thinks is completely impossible. It’s so genuine, like that entire idea is so far from anything Mumbo would ever consider, that it makes him that much more afraid to see the day the angel finally finds out the truth.

He doesn’t know how to respond, silence choking out anything he could possibly say. There’s no good way to answer, and he doesn’t know what the right way would be, but his silence is just as much of an answer as well. “I…” He tries, but nothing else comes out of his mouth.

“Oh, Grian…” Mumbo sighs, his voice sounding heavy, and he hesitantly reaches out to tug the demon back into his arms. Grian lets him, melting into the warm embrace despite the uncertain fear burning in his heart. “You don’t have to believe it, but I swear, nothing could make me hate you. Absolutely nothing.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do.” The angel argues back in an instant, the conviction in his voice unwavering. It’s so strong, not an ounce of doubt, that he could believe it if Mumbo actually knew just how much more there was to this. But he wants to cling to it, wants to be able to believe it even for just a moment.

“Even if Doc was right? Even if I… even if I was a liar? Even if I, if…” He can’t bring himself to say the truth, can’t quite make himself come clean about it all. But it’s something, the slightest of an admission of guilt, and he braces for the moment he’ll be pushed away.

“Even then. You can’t surprise me, Grian. Whatever lies you hold, I promise it won’t make me hate you, whether you choose to ever tell me what it was or not. You can tell me someday, if you feel comfortable. And if you don’t, that’s okay too.” His voice is warm and soothing in the demon’s ears, chasing away the fears even if just for the moment. “Sometimes people have to lie, and sometimes they regret it. We all have. It doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”

Grian can’t find any words, his voice dying in his throat as the emotions swell over him. He can’t believe it, he can’t, can’t even begin to hope that the angel’s words might be true. He can’t let himself hope that Mumbo could keep his word, that he wouldn’t be upset with Grian once he finds out the truth, or else the day it happens and turns out to be the one thing Mumbo can’t forgive would break him completely. He can’t let himself believe it.

But in the dark, faint warmth of the cave below the battlefield, held in the angel’s arms like he’s something important, Grian lets himself hope just this once that maybe it could be true.

Chapter Text

If the inside of the G Team base leading up to the war was peaceful, then he doesn’t have a word to describe the cave beneath the battlefield right now. With the warm, orange light of the torch flickering against the walls in tune with its crackling sounds of fire, the cool stone against his back, and Mumbo sitting opposite him only a few feet away, he’d be hard pressed to remember a time he’s been more comfortable. It’s surprising, knowing just how much there is he could still be worrying about; about the war, or his secrets, or the guilt or any number of things. But it all seems distant and far away, kept at bay by the warm tones of the angel’s voice as it reverberates off the walls around them, and he’s nearly entirely forgotten he has any other obligations outside of it.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about this at first. This idea about everyone fighting, or when I found out they got you involved. It’s not really the best impression, is it?” He was saying, hands held loosely in the air and his gaze on the ceiling as he let his thoughts flow. And Grian was content to listen; to hear the angel’s perspective on everything since they’d last spoken. “I was worried, especially with… well, you know. Doc being Doc. But it feels like it’s actually done far more good than anything; we call ourselves Hermits for a reason, we tend to forget to get out of our own bubbles and socialize with the others sometimes. This has given everyone something to get excited about and work together for, a reason to hang out together like we tend to forget to do.”

Grian nods, quietly. He wouldn’t have agreed at the start, but after building a base with the G Team and even having a perfectly friendly duel with Wels, even he can’t argue with the proof of what the war has really turned out to be. It makes it even clearer how much of a unique place this is, that the Hermits can apparently not speak for long periods of time only to turn around, have a war, and then continue to be perfectly friendly throughout. “I was afraid it was going to be vicious. Like… violent, just for the sake of it. The angry kind, like…” His mind conjures forth the memories of demon hunters, again, the basis of everything he’d genuinely been expecting from any sort of conflict. Especially with Doc involved; he doesn’t have any proof for whether the other team’s terrifying leader is a hunter himself or not, but his actions have been similar enough that Grian couldn’t help but imagine the war turning out like nothing but a bloody coliseum sort of event. Even still, the slightest bit of anxiety remains, the feeling that it may all take a sharp turn the instant he meets him out on the battlefield. He’s still convinced those ghasts had to be Doc’s work; that he’s pushing the lines as much as he can, or flaunting his power over the creatures of the Nether. He can’t imagine any normal human being able to tame the predators of his home realm.

He doesn’t realize he trailed off into thought until Mumbo turns, pinning his gaze on the demon from its previous place on the ceiling. “I know. I… I’ve seen enough of your reactions to some things to know you’ve seen the worst of what people can be. Hearing about your new home breaking out into a supposed war, especially after… well. You know. I was afraid it would scare you into leaving completely, if you thought none of this was working out.” There’s something deeper to his voice, the edge of an endless pit of emotion that Grian has no idea how to identify. It’s like he’s only speaking the very surface of what he really feared, like there’s more to it that he doesn’t dare say out loud. When he looks closer, he can see it in the angel’s eyes; behind the flickering flame of the torch’s reflection, the shadowed worry that matches the kind in his voice. Was he really that afraid of Grian choosing to leave, or is there more to it?

“I never considered leaving.” The demon chooses to say instead, afraid to press the issue of Mumbo’s apparent fear so soon after meeting again, and letting the opportunity to question it pass. The deep worry fades from the angel’s face, replaced by a deep sigh that betrays just how relieved he is from hearing Grian’s words. “After talking to X, I was just thinking about trying to talk to you about, uh, what happened. I like it here, I… I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to do anything that would-- that would make that necessary.”

He has to cut himself off and reroute his sentence halfway through, realizing he very nearly admitted his expectation of someday being handed over to the archangels. But Mumbo doesn’t seem to notice it, taking his sharp cut in words to be more of an emotional stammer than a backpedal, and only turning a warm look on him. “That’s good. I’m sure several of us have said it before, but we want you here. I hope that’s easier to believe, now that you’ve spent more time with your team? Those lot have a pretty… undeniable way of proving they care.” His tone is hopeful and amused, clashing with the way Grian instantly almost expects some kind of jealousy. After all, it had only really been the two of them ever since Mumbo first reached out to him, but now he’s spent the past weeks exclusively with the G Team after running from him, and he almost feels like it would be taken as some kind of betrayal. But there’s nothing of the sort; Mumbo looks genuinely interested, a light and caring air radiating off of him as he waits for a response. Grian nods again, slowly, trying to piece together his thoughts.

“I was afraid of them at first, and… being around so many people I didn’t know at once.” He admits, shifting in place and adjusting his wings against the stone. “But you’re definitely right about that. I think Stress is trying to adopt me.”

Gesturing to his sweater for emphasis earns him a laugh, a light and cheerful sound that instantly reminds him of just how much he’s missed this angel. It takes him right back to warm mornings spent in the multiple faux biomes of Mumbo’s base, the angel laughing at the plethora of chickens he’d caused to end up covered in stray redstone dust. And it only further drives home his point; between all the time with Mumbo that he’d secretly missed so much, and the now more recent time with his team, even Grian’s fears can’t manage to be louder than these Hermits that seem to go out of their way to be kind to him at every opportunity. He can’t understand why they would, but it makes his chest feel warm at how much they’ve all tried to make him feel welcome.

“Yes, she has a tendency to be that way. You should’ve seen her when Tango, Impulse, and Zedaph first joined. We were making bets on which one would accidentally call her ‘mom’ first, considering she was doting on them for at least a week straight.” Mumbo looks back up to the ceiling again as he speaks, his eyes growing distant with memory before he turns back to Grian with a sideways glance. “It was Tango.”

“Was she offended?”

“No, I think she accepted it as a title after that.” Mumbo shrugs, looking back to the ceiling, his voice going a bit more somber. “We all have different reasons for coming here, and we all really only have each other. I think Tango proved to Stress that some may need the support more than you’d think at first.”

It’s just the faintest shift in mood, but Grian doesn’t miss it. If Xisuma is anyone to go by, Mumbo probably isn’t going to give him any more details about any of the other Hermits’ pasts, but it almost sounds like Tango wasn’t always the easily excitable mischief maker Grian knows now. He supposes it makes sense; the leader had told him some of the Hermits would prefer to leave their pasts in the past, though he can’t help the curiosity bubbling within him about what those pasts may have been.

There’s one he can ask about, though.

“What about you?”

That gets the angel’s attention again, Mumbo turning back to him with mild surprise. They stare at each other for a few long seconds, Grian resisting the urge to rescind his question while Mumbo seems to mull it over in his head. But then he just shrugs, expression breaking into a small smile.

“There’s not much to tell, really. I was… well, I was invited alongside Doc, actually.”

Now it’s Grian’s turn to react with surprise, staring back at the angel with his jaw trying to fall open. “You knew Doc before you came here?” He asks, disbelief clearly coloring his tone. Maybe that’s what Doc’s motivation has been all along? If the two have known each other since before they joined, he would have more incentive to try and protect Mumbo from Grian, especially if he had any sort of past in being a hunter.

For a split second, a terrifying thought crosses his mind; what if Mumbo was a hunter? He doesn’t act like one, not in the least, but… Grian shakes the thought out of his head before it can distract him, focusing firmly on the angel’s words as he begins to speak.

“It wasn’t for very long. It was, well-- it’s probably too long of a story to tell at this moment, since we’re technically supposed to be fighting right now and not talking in a cave.” Mumbo points out, at the sound of a distant explosion somewhere over their heads. Grian can only blink back at him, completely having forgotten there was currently a battle going on above them at all. “But I’ll tell you, he’s not like he seems. There’s no one you’d rather have on your side, once you get to know him.”

“Mumbo,” Grian raises a hand. “I’m on the team against him.”

“... Okay, good point.” The angel concedes, his voice taking on a nearly sheepish tone. But then he’s continuing, a note of certainty to his words. “Try not to be too afraid, though. He has no intention of breaking any rules, even if he likes being scary.”

Grian stares back at him incredulously, before pointing a hand in the vague general direction of the Star Team tower. “Mumbo he captured a ghast. That’s reason enough to be afraid.”

It’s more than he was planning to admit, his suspicion that Doc is responsible for the creatures of the Nether on the other team’s side, and he can’t help the wince at the questioning he knows is going to follow. And it does; Mumbo’s eyebrows raise almost comically high on his face, confusion and surprise taking over his expression entirely. “What are you talking about? Doc didn’t have anything to do with the ghast canons, what gave you that idea?”

Blinking back, the demon’s own surprise overcasts his caution, his words escaping before he can really consider that he shouldn’t let them be heard. “But… but shouldn’t only demon hunters be able to tame ghasts?” He asks, his confusion probably matching Mumbo’s entirely. It’s when the angel narrows his eyes just the smallest bit, brows furrowing, that it sinks in along with the cold dread that he may just be able to realize everything from this. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible, Grian stamps down his urge to freeze or flee, gritting his teeth against any further incriminating speech.

To his continued surprise, though, Mumbo doesn’t question him like he expects. “Grian, Doc isn’t a demon hunter. He never has been, never would be. Though I suppose I should’ve expected you might think that with his attitude, now that you mention it…” He trails off, a hand on his chin in thought, and completely missing the entire implication of Grian only assuming as much because he’s a demon. Grian can only stare back at him, beginning to wonder just how the angel manages to find a non-demon related answer for every clue he accidentally drops.

But then the idea that Doc isn’t a hunter becomes more prevalent in his mind, leaving him in an ever more twisted tangle of confusion than he started as. It was one of the only explanations that made sense for the terrifying Hermit’s behavior, even without any solid proof; surely it can’t be entirely untrue? “But, I… most communities have at least one hunter.” He almost wants to say more, that Doc’s behavior toward him couldn’t possibly be attributed to anything else, but he knows that tells more about him than it does about Doc.

“Well, I suppose we technically do.” Mumbo says quietly, almost as an afterthought, though it still serves to send chills down the demon’s spine. If they have a hunter, and it isn’t Doc… then who is it? “Or, maybe ‘did’ would be a better way to put it. Everything about that profession is awful, I don’t think we’d want someone here if they hadn’t turned their back on it.”

Grian isn’t sure which part of the angel’s weighty words to focus on first, only able to stare back without any kind of response as he tries to filter through the amount of information given in such a short sentence. There’s the implication that there is a hunter somewhere among the Hermits, or at least someone who used to be one; and then… then there’s the realization that Mumbo doesn’t agree with demon hunters. That he doesn’t think demons deserve to die.

“Don’t… don’t you hate demons?” The demon finds himself asking, shuffling his wings when he feels them shaking. He can’t bring himself to look at the angel’s face, too afraid of what he might see in the expression there and falsely convincing himself that his own won’t give anything away if he keeps his gaze pinned on the ground. “Don’t you think hunters are-- that they’re necessary? To keep everyone else safe?”

“Why? Is that what you believe, Grian?” Mumbo asks, his voice going quiet and yet firm. “That it’s safer to have people around who think they’re above someone else just because of what they were born as? People who take some kind of enjoyment in the suffering of the demons they hunt, all in some misguided idea of heroism?”

“I…” There’s nothing he can say, nothing that feels right. Mumbo sounds so sure; it’s like he believes every word, without an ounce of doubt, willing to put his foot down about defending demons. Grian almost feels like it should make him feel safer, this idea that Mumbo doesn’t hate demons like everyone else does, but it doesn’t. It only makes him more aware of his own guilt; it feels tragic, the way he’s saying demons don’t deserve to be hunted, and yet he’s saying it to the very demon that took his own wings.

And he has no idea.

Would he change his mind, then, if he did? Would he be less quick to jump to their defence, knowing what Grian did to him? Knowing there’s a criminal demon right here, right now, the very person he’d once said he wanted answers from? Knowing how much he’s been lied to?

“Grian, do you hate demons?” The angel’s voice loses some of its firm edge, softening into a low whisper. There’s no judgement of any kind, only a quiet curiosity. Grian doesn’t know how to answer; his mind is filled with his memories of the void, the stolen wings on his own back trembling, and the guilt that’s been stabbed into his chest since he got here. Or back in the Nether, the terror of trying to navigate his way around without knowing what or who could be behind any corner; demons, just like him, taking their frustrations toward their shared damnation out on him as an easy victim, someone too low in the hierarchy to fight back. The hunters may target demons, but demons target demons, too. Hunters never managed to catch him, never knew which nooks and crannies of netherrack to find him in, but demons sure as hell did.

Hunters may have a misguided sense of heroism, but all of the demons Grian has ever met only wanted to put someone else down in the same way the angels put down all of them. They never tried to be anything better, anything remotely close to the good Mumbo is believing them capable of.

And Grian is just as bad as they are, stealing an angel’s wings and letting that same angel talk to him about how demons should get a chance. About how the hunters are wrong. About how he is wrong, about his own kind.

If only he knew.

“Demons are horrible people.” Is what he finally ends up mumbling, drawing his wings around his shoulders and pressing them hard against his body to stop the shaking. “I don’t know any that aren’t exactly what the archangels say w-- they are.”

“Well, I hope you’ll get to know some that aren’t.” Mumbo’s voice is quiet, soft, and when Grian risks a glance at him, he’s idly tugging at a root sticking out of the floor. He doesn’t seem upset, only contemplative and hopeful, and doesn’t seem to have noticed Grian’s slip up. “I’ve met good demons, and so have the other Hermits. Our hunters turned on their past jobs for a reason; maybe they could help you see demons differently.”

“Who are they?”

Mumbo glances at him. “I… you should ask Iskall about it. He can tell you more than I can.” He says after a moment, seemingly hesitant about his words, as if he doesn’t want to give too much away that isn’t his to say. It makes Grian suspect that Iskall may very well be one of said hunters; but it doesn’t fit the image of the unofficial G Team leader in the demon’s mind. Iskall is friendly and cooperative, he laughs loud enough to echo through their base, he gets startled by little bits of black wool and argues with a witch. He couldn’t possibly have ever been a demon hunter, couldn’t have been one of the people to chase down and torture the same kind of demons he remembers being drowned in lava by.

For a moment, Grian almost wonders if this means the Hermits may not turn on him quite as harshly as he’s expected from the start. If all of the others share Mumbo’s opinion, and don’t see demons as something as bad as he would expect them to. But there’s still the fact that he isn’t only a demon, he’s a demon that stole a Hermit’s wings and lied to them all, and he’s positive there’s only so much even they can look past. It doesn’t make him any less afraid of them finding out.

Especially if Doc’s attitude toward him is anything to go by. But it’s all a thought for another day, he thinks, brushing it aside to deal with later like he’s done with everything else lately. In the ensuing silence after Mumbo’s last words, the angel seeming either unwilling or unsure about continuing to speak, it becomes notably clear that the battlefield above them has gone dead silent. There are no more distant explosions, no more fireballs causing faint echoes through the earth, and it reminds him there is still a world outside of this cave after all.

“So who did capture the ghasts?” He decides to ask, both out of his own nagging curiosity and with the added excuse that it’s info about the other team, and he was technically here with a task anyway.

“Oh, that was False.” Mumbo replies instantly, easily, and it’s not a name Grian expects to hear. False is an angel, angels don’t go around messing with things from the Nether. He’d never even seen an angel in the Nether until he went with Mumbo. “The entire design is Impulse’s, but False volunteered to help him catch them since she can fly. I hear it went surprisingly smoothly.”

At first, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. He can’t imagine any angel willingly dealing with ghasts, or managing to get them to cooperate in the least; but then, the memory of meeting False in Xisuma’s base crosses his mind. It wasn’t clear then, but if she’s managed to make ghasts bend to her will, then suddenly it makes a bit more sense why her presence seemed just barely shy of intimidating to him.

And it makes him all the more glad he was able to avoid Doc and False both on the battlefield earlier. If she can win out over ghasts of all things, he doesn’t want to find out what she could do to a demon, even if she doesn’t know he is one. With that realization, though, seeing the two skulking around together makes him even more concerned with the possibility of Doc telling anyone at any time.

“Oh, that’s right, Iskall sent you here for… insider knowledge. Right. I’d, I’d forgotten about that.” Grian blinks, drawing back out of his thoughts in time to see Mumbo nervously rubbing the back of his neck, as if he’s embarrassed. The demon can’t really blame him; after all this time apart, it’s easy to get lost just talking again. “Well, I can’t tell you much. I think Doc already suspects I’m going to sneak off to join your team at any time, which, I suppose he’s not entirely wrong about that since we’re here in the first place…”

“He doesn’t trust you?” Grian asks, unsure whether he should be surprised or not. If Doc is supposedly so invested in them, regardless of what his intentions are, wouldn’t he care more about that than the war? But it sounds like he does care about the war, enough to purposely keep Mumbo in the dark about the team he forced him to join.

It seems with each new detail, Doc only becomes more and more confusing.

“I wouldn’t really call it that, more like… well, he believes I’d rather be on the G Team with you, and that I might-- okay he doesn’t trust me, at least not as a Star Team member, but that’s fine.” Mumbo gives him a sheepish look. “I think he can tell I’m not particularly fussed about the teams or who wins.”

“Why be a mole, then?” Grian asks, watching for his reaction. He can’t find it in himself to be surprised when the angel struggles to think of an answer, looking back up to the ceiling with a splash of color on his face. It would be heartwarming, if it didn’t remind him of the fact he can’t let Mumbo get too close to him for his own good.

“I… well. I did hope Iskall would send you, when he suggested the idea to me.” The angel admits quietly, meeting Grian’s gaze. “I didn’t want to end up never speaking again.”

There’s nothing but a quiet, caring tone to his voice, a light and unassuming feeling radiating off of him. It’s clear that he doesn’t expect anything, that he doesn’t even seem to be hoping Grian returns the feelings that became so very clear last time they met; he hasn’t asked, or remotely hinted at the topic beyond acknowledging it being the cause of the distance between them since. It’s almost surprising, the demon realizing he was expecting some sort of demand for answers when they did talk again, but there’s been nothing of the sort. It really seems like Mumbo has no intention of pushing the topic, no intention of reminding Grian of how he feels, and it sinks in after a moment that maybe that’s because the angel really cares about him. That he doesn’t care only about having answers or his feelings returned; that he cares most about Grian in general, whether it’s returned or not. It’s starkly clear that he didn’t just do this, hoping Grian would be sent to meet him, for anything beyond wanting to repair their friendship.

And really, he doesn’t know why he ever expected anything different. Mumbo has been nothing but kind and understanding of him since the very start, and the fact he continues to despite everything only tells more about the kind of person he is. It’s impressive, really. Grian is sure he wouldn’t be able to keep up the same level of calm understanding Mumbo does, the kind that has him quietly watching the demon for a reply without an ounce of entitlement.

Xisuma calmed him down by telling him to just tell Mumbo he can’t give him an answer until he figures out what it is for himself, but the angel doesn’t seem to need one. He already understands. He has already stepped far away from the boundary they’d accidentally crossed together, and nothing about him shows any intention of going anywhere near it again unless Grian chooses to himself.

Truth be told, it just makes Grian wish he could do exactly that. In a perfect world, one where he wasn’t chained by his own lies, he knows he would. But this isn’t a perfect world, and there’s nothing he can do to escape everything he’s already done.

It’s a shame the amount of care Mumbo has is wasted on him.

“Well,” Grian shakes his head suddenly, pushing his thoughts far to the back of his mind where he doesn’t have to keep thinking about them. It’s best this way; if Mumbo won’t push it, he won’t be tempted to give in, and he can at least keep from roping the angel into yet another layer of betrayal. He chooses not to talk about it, either. “What does Doc let you know?”

“Hmm, well the ghast canons don’t function if False is around, though I doubt you’ll be able to use that to your advantage. And I’m not allowed within the main underground portion of the Star fort, but… I can hear phantoms in there, so I wouldn’t recommend going inside. Oh, and there’s Guardians in the moat, so maybe try to avoid falling in.” Mumbo lists things off on his fingers without hesitation, not questioning Grian’s sudden jump back in topic, and pausing as he seemingly tries to think of more. “I think that’s all I know beyond just, obvious things you could figure out just by looking at the base. Oh! I can tell you that Doc isn’t actually angry about his bush-- whatever that means.”

Grian snorts despite himself, just barely unable to hold back a laugh. It’s not what he expected to hear about on the tail end of the Star Team defences, and though he’s been nervous about Doc finding out who did it, the reminder of the paper covered tree is a good mental image.

“I’m assuming you had something to do with that.” Mumbo says slowly, pinning Grian with a bit of a knowing smirk. “You had a bigger hand in getting involved with this war yourself than I realized, didn’t you?”

“I dont know what you’re talking about.” Challenging the angel’s look with the most innocent expression he can muster, he can feel the same easy, carefree banter they used to have coming back as if it had never left. “I heard that was False and Cub who went around hiding diamonds and filling trees with paper, definitely not me and Tango in costumes. Definitely.”

“I suppose in that case, it’s False and Cub that Doc isn’t upset with.” Mumbo says back in the same theatrical tone Grian is using, both clearly on the same page. “And the paper flower he kept on his desk must definitely have been made by False and neither of you had anything to do with it.”

“He kept one?” The demon finds himself asking, all manner of sarcastic joking falling from his voice with his surprise. Mumbo did say he wasn’t angry; but not being that upset about what they did to his stock exchange, and actually being good humored enough to keep one of Tango’s flowers, is something else entirely.

“He appreciated that you didn’t hurt his plant, I think.” Mumbo matches him again, his tone changing to something much more level and making it clear he isn’t joking. “That’s the thing with Doc. He appreciates integrity, and doing the right thing, I suppose.”

And suddenly it clicks. Is that… is that what Doc’s issue with him is? If he knows, and isn’t a hunter out for Grian’s skin, then would it make sense that he really just wants Grian to do what he knows is right? It fits with the way he’s seemed to make it clear that he knows, that he is fully capable of revealing the demon’s secrets himself, and the way he keeps bringing up honesty and lies. The way he pointed out Grian’s fight with the ghast back when they first met, the way he’s just barely seemed to dance around the secrets he’s hiding without ever saying too much.

The way he backed off that time in Grian’s base. The way he wanted Grian and Mumbo to talk again at the flag.

It can’t just be that simple, can it? That he just wants Grian to admit everything? But he’s known Mumbo since before they came here, and apparently values honesty, and seems to know that Grian is secretly a demon; so maybe, all along, he’s just wanted him to admit it himself?

But the question is why? Why would he care, why wouldn’t he just tell the others himself instead of trying to get Grian to admit it if he’s so bothered by his lies? What reason could he possibly have for keeping it a secret as well? What could he possibly be looking to accomplish? If he knows that Grian stole Mumbo’s wings, he couldn’t possibly be wanting them to be together, but if he really wanted to keep Mumbo safe from him then he could just tell everyone what he’s hiding.

Letting his head thunk back against the wall, Grian resists the urge to groan. It almost made sense and then it didn’t. Mumbo seems to notice regardless, his concerned voice echoing through the cave and almost startling the demon. “Are you okay, Grian? Actually, wait, we’ve been here quite some time, you probably need rest.” He points out, eyeing Grian with a look that reminds him Mumbo knows exactly how much he tends to avoid sleep.

“Maybe a bit.” He agrees, hesitantly. Part of him doesn’t want to leave, but at the same time, the battlefield above has been silent for a concerning amount of time and he already doesn’t want Mumbo to get caught. “I hope they haven’t noticed how long we’ve been gone.”

The angel stands up first, halfheartedly dusting off the bits of his suit uncovered by his armor while also holding a hand out to Grian. He hesitates to take it for only a moment, eyes trailing over the wingless angel in iron armor, before reaching out and letting the far taller Hermit pull him to his feet.

“I’m sure I can come up with something. Trust me, Doc would believe me if I told him I got stuck somewhere.” Mumbo jokes, though Grian has a sneaking suspicion he’s serious about that excuse.

“Have you done that before?”

An embarrassed shade of pink blooms on the angel’s face, at the same he turns away, beginning to step toward the exit of the cave as a reason to hide it. “I… there may have been a time. Or two. Or… listen usually it involves redstone and being distracted but there may have been an incident with a door and a rogue ender pearl once.”

Trying and failing to stifle his quiet laughter, Grian follows the angel out of the cave without a reply. Even without details, he can perfectly imagine the angel managing to get himself stuck in a door, and he’s suddenly far less concerned about Doc finding out where he’s been. It’s a good thing, too; it becomes clear as they emerge from the cave that far more time has passed than he expected, if the dark sky above and the empty battlefield around them is any indication.

“... Have you ever gotten stuck in a door until night time before?”

“... No.”

“You might want to get back as soon as you can, then.” Grian urges, though he can already feel the faintest tug of not wanting to part ways just yet. He does his best to ignore it, stamping the feeling down with a vengeance, though Mumbo is no better if the way he hesitates is any indication. The angel stands around for a moment, shifting his feet, and Grian can’t stop the soft smile that crosses his face at it. Reaching out similarly to how he did when he first met the angel in the cave, Mumbo doesn’t need any further invitation to pull him into a firm hug.

“I’m glad we could talk.” He murmurs, sounding genuinely relieved, as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Grian wonders if it was that guilt he witnessed earlier, the way the angel seemed to blame himself for their disconnect. “I’ve-- I’ve missed you. It’s too quiet without hordes of chickens clucking from inside my redstone at night.”

“I promise to cover your base in twice as many chickens after the war, if that helps.” Grian quips back, already imagining poor Mumbo’s base blanketed in a dense layer of birds, and it earns him a faint chuckle from the angel.

“I’ll look forward to it.”

With that, he tightens his hug around the angel for just a moment, letting his own emotion bleed into the action and making sure Mumbo knows he missed him, too. Then he pulls away before he can hesitate any more, reminding himself that he’ll see the angel again soon enough anyway. It isn’t like it was the last time he left; something that becomes more clear as he steps away and takes off into the air, leaving behind a smiling and waving angel instead of a heartbroken one.

He just hopes it’ll stay this way.

Chapter Text

The night air is crisp and cold, fogging his breath in front of his face as he rises up into the cloudless sky above. Where the sky was previously overcast now glitters with deep swaths of stars, their small points of light surrounding the full moon seemingly hanging so close. It bathes the battlefield far below in silver light, contrasting with the craters here and there still burning with an orange glow. Both team bases are silent; still and unmoving, a stark change to the ceaseless storm of fire flying from both just a few hours ago.

Grian can feel the chill between his feathers as another beat of his wings sends him up and over the side of the Concorp viewing stand, touching down onto its surface just a moment later. He can’t help but glance back toward where he came from, picking out the shape of faintly glowing iron armor as its owner disappears somewhere behind the Star Team’s base. It’s a distance Mumbo should have already covered by now, leaving Grian to wonder how long the angel must have stayed standing beside the cave, watching the demon with his wings ascend into the night sky. It’s a thought that leaves a strange mixture of feelings in his chest, though they swirl quietly in place and don’t surge into a wave of something overwhelming like he’s come to expect.

He needs to go back to his own base, to meet up with his team and give Iskall the information he asked for, he knows; but for the moment, he can’t even quite grasp what said information even was, his heart still somewhere in the cave below the ground with the presence of an angel who’s too kind to him. It’s that muted, leftover feeling of pause that causes him to sit down where he’s perched on the wood, shuffling his legs to dangle over the edge. Around him, the world is quiet; peaceful.

It’s the first time he’s sat down alone, with nothing else happening, in what feels like forever. The stand is deserted behind him, four empty chairs facing the open sky between the bases, without a hint of the Convex anywhere in sight. Considering how empty and quiet the battlefield is, he supposes it’s to be expected; somewhere during his time below ground, the fighting quieted down. The self proclaimed referees must have long since gone home, trusting the two teams to be good during the night, and leaving not a soul out here now that he’s emerged. It’s somehow nicer than he would’ve expected, sitting out here in the chill night air and letting his thoughts fall together. He’s gotten so used to being around the others at all times, keeping watch on his every move as best he can, that it almost seems strange to be alone without eyes on him again. At the same time, he’s even more surprised at how quiet his own thoughts are; he would’ve expected that when all the energy died down, he’d be left with nothing but his own ceaseless fears and worries invading his every waking thought, but there’s no such turmoil to be found.

With a deep sigh, the demon lets himself lean back until he’s just laying on the edge of the stand, watching the starry sky above. Somehow, it’s effortless to let the tension bleed out of his limbs and relax, and he can only guess it’s with the weight lifted of having finally seen and spoken to Mumbo again. The knowledge that everything with the angel really is fine, that after both his frantic escape and Mumbo’s ensuing emotional turmoil and the time spent apart, nothing was really irreparable with the angel he’s come to like so much. It doesn’t fix his original problem, the fact that everything he’s built is on a foundation of lies, but it’s still a nagging fear he’d gotten so used to that he didn’t realize how much relief he’d feel with it gone.

It makes him happy that Mumbo doesn’t hate him, at least not yet. That even with as big of a mistake as he made, as much trouble that he put the other through, he doesn’t hold it against him. It’s such a foreign concept, to make a mistake and be so immediately forgiven, that he’s still not entirely sure what he’s allowed to feel about it. There’s also the idea that Mumbo, and maybe even the other Hermits, don’t actually have anything against demons; but it’s late, and he refuses to even try to sort out how he feels about that or the possibly unfounded hope it may bring if he does, so he brushes the thought aside for now. All the same, he almost feels safe, the faintest glimmer of hope springing to life somewhere in him despite his intent to ignore it.

Laying here, staring up at the sky with a suspiciously calm feeling of peace, he can feel the weight on his eyelids. The tug of sleep, the urge to lay here for the entire night and let the morning come as it may. He can’t; but it’s tempting, the peacefulness of the night air around him trying its best to lull him to rest. There’s a bit of a phantom ache in his muscles from sneaking around the battlefield, skills he hasn’t had to use since he left the Nether, but it also leaves him with a strange satisfied feeling as if he’d accomplished something. He didn’t really make it to the cave without being caught, but it was only Wels and not the entire other team, and he was still able to defeat the angel and be allowed to complete his task. Everyone has been saying all along that the war is really just a game, something for fun, and doesn’t entirely matter; but he still feels the faintest bit of pride at managing to make it across the battlefield without being defeated. In a strange way, it makes him almost giddy for tomorrow, to see what will happen next, to see how else the war may progress, and how he may get to be involved in it.

And if he’s honest, he’s already wondering if Iskall will send him to meet with Mumbo again. For a moment, he almost wishes the angel was on the G Team with him, though he has to shake his head and forcefully drive that thought away, knowing it wouldn’t do either of them any good to be around each other that much when there’s still so much Mumbo doesn’t know. The others are having fun with the war, this back and forth of leaving each other with splashes of color and flaming holes in the sides of buildings, and the last thing he wants is to let something slip in the middle and ruin their fun.

In the silence of the night, his ears pick up on the faintest noise that he would have otherwise missed entirely, derailing his thoughts completely. It’s a very faint scratching, the sound of claws on wood coming from just beneath the deck, and it sends the slightest chill of uncertain fear down his spine. It’s concerningly reminiscent of something predatory, the sounds of something skulking around in the night, and he finds himself cautiously sitting up and listening closer in an attempt to identify it. Leaning over the edge and trying to look underneath shows him nothing, and after a few moments of the sound growing closer, it seemingly stops completely. He’s almost willing to chalk it up to tiredness, to his mind playing tricks on him for the need for sleep, and lay back down again when he gets an answer as to what it was. Quick as lightning, appearing out of the inky blackness below, a soft white and gray blur seemingly materializes out of nowhere onto the deck beside him, nearly startling him off of the edge.

“Mrrp.” Reflective green eyes stare up at him almost expectantly, wide and unblinking above a set of twitching whiskers, and any caution he might’ve felt vanishes in an instant at the realization that it's just a cat. His exhaustion and contemplative thoughts are completely forgotten, replaced with eager excitement as Grian sits up straighter in the presence of his new companion. He forces himself to resist the urge to immediately pet the cat for fear of scaring it off just as quickly as it arrived, though he can already feel a stir of affection in his chest for the precious round face staring up at him. A tabby striped tail swishes back and forth impatiently, those green eyes following his hand as he reaches toward it as slowly as he can. Before he can reach it, the cat just butts its head directly into his hand, purring. A tag hanging from its collar jingles at the action, the moonlight reflecting off of the letters inscribed there.

It’s clear this isn’t just any random cat, although he knows it isn’t one of his team’s cats, either. The fur under his hand is soft and pristinely groomed, giving him the mental image of some mystery Hermit brushing it frequently, if the collar and tag alone weren’t enough of clue. He’s torn between being curious about where the cat came from, or whose it is, and just paying attention to how much he already adores it. Almost as if making the choice for him, the cat pushes harder against his hand as it pads forward, climbing onto his lap and making itself comfortable without an ounce of hesitation. Grian, meanwhile, tries to figure out how he survived the turtles and if he can manage to do the same here, already feeling a high pitched noise rising in the back of his throat at everything about this moment and the little paws jabbing into his leg.

The cat kneads on the leg of his armor, though even without it he can see it’s not using claws, as gentle as it is friendly. With the purring loud enough to be audible in the night air around them, he has to wonder who would have such a friendly and affectionate cat, and he foregoes the petting for a moment to investigate the tag after all.

In bold, cursive lettering carefully and clearly hand-scribed into the metal, the name Jellie stands stark against the shining metal tag. Somehow, glancing back at the moonlit mound of white fluff purring on his legs, the name seems fitting. It’s with an almost afterthought that Grian thinks to turn the tag over, looking to see if there’s anything on the back, and he’s glad he did when it reveals none other than Scar’s name. It’s inscribed in a far less careful and fancy way than Jellie’s own name, more just a unique signature, making it very clear exactly who made it and who they find most important.

“What are you doing here without Scar?” Grian wonders out loud, though he knows Jellie can’t answer him. She tries her best all the same, rolling over and bonking her head into him again, accompanied with another mrrp sound, and he’s pretty sure that sound will be the end of him. There’s no way to describe the contented feeling he gets just from holding this warm, purring bundle of fluff, or the way she just came right to him of her own volition. With the way his mind is always so inclined to jump straight to fear, the surprise of the noise just being Jellie here is a welcome one. After another moment of purring and staring, chest puffing as she pointedly sniffs at him, Jellie lurches up to stare at the side of his head like she’s just seen something to chase there.

He has half a mind to question her, even if he’d look like he’s lost his mind just talking to a cat in the middle of the night. But then Jellie just continues sniffing at the side of his head, before suddenly rubbing her face against the glamoured horn she finds there. It’s with enough force and little enough warning that he can’t stop his head from getting wrenched to the side, along with a notable feeling of startled confusion that only gets stronger when she does it again. The demon isn’t sure how she managed to notice his horns at all, and after the way the horses were so unsure of him, he’s surprised to find her so instantly unbothered by him. But she just seems more interested in using him to scratch an itch under her jaw, purring loudly while he tries to figure out if this is normal cat behavior or not. His fear for her safety around pointy edges wins out over his confusion, though, leading him to pick her up around the middle and hold her away from him and the potentially dangerous chin scratcher she found him to be. She just dangles there, content and still purring, staring at him through partially closed slits of green.

It suddenly crosses his mind that he isn’t sure what to do with her. He needs to go back to his team’s base and not keep them waiting any longer, but at the same time, he’s hesitant to leave Jellie alone out here. There’s no sign of where Scar is, or if he has any idea his cat is out here in the middle of the night without him. Is that something to worry about? Is it normal for cats to wander off and make friends with demons in the middle of the night during a war?

After finding out about the purring, he wouldn’t be surprised, but at the same time he doesn’t know. Maybe it’s not normal and Scar is worried sick about her, searching high and low for his clearly very loved companion, and it makes him more than a little hesitant to just leave. In fact, he has half a mind to just take her right back to him, and he would if he knew where the Convex were right now. But with the war going on, he isn’t sure they’d be going all the way back to their bases, and he doesn’t want to fly all that way just to find that’s not the case after all.

Obviously the only option is to just bring her with him, and find Scar tomorrow.

Jellie gives no complaint as he pulls her to his chest and holds her firmly, her little furry body fully secure in his grip. She just continues purring, uncaring even as he rises to his feet and the wide open ground below looms out beside them in the darkness, nor does she react as he unfurls his wings. It catches her attention, some; bright green eyes watching intensely as feathers slide apart and unfold, and he wonders if she’s more interested in trying to chase and catch his wings than she is about the ground far below. Even as he steps gently off the ledge, the cat in his arms stays relaxed and purring, unbothered entirely by the rushing wind or the tug of gravity as he glides down to the ground below. He’s not brave enough to find out what her reaction to anything more than gliding would be, knowing how jarring the push of his wingbeats may be; and so he lights down onto the grass instead, the battlefield surprisingly lacking of danger even this late into the night.

An odd thought crosses his mind as he walks past bits of burnt grass, leaving him to wonder if maybe the chaos of the battle might’ve scared off the usual threats that like to loom out of the darkness on any other night. There’s not a single growl or hiss to spook him, not a single shadowed form lurching around in the shadows, only Jellie’s purring and the faint crackling of dying flames to accompany him on the path back to his base. For somewhere so dark, lit only by moonlight though bright as that is, he’d expect far more monsters shuffling about and waiting for an easy target.

Partially, he has to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the Hermits know their fighting has an effect on the mobs that usually hunt them all. If maybe another reason they’re so quick to jump into a war is to remind their very own predators why they aren’t ones to be messed with. Somehow, it’s a reassuring thought, in the strangest of ways.

In no time at all, the sound of his footsteps becomes much louder as he steps onto the concrete bridge connecting the G Team’s front door to the battlefield. He knows this one is meant to be a ruse, that ringing it will only bring forth a disgruntled Gertrude with insults and potions, but he doesn’t want to trek all the way to the secret entrance behind the base with his arms full of cat. If he’s lucky, she’ll let him in, if for no reason other than the fact he is holding a cat and maybe also because he isn’t Iskall.

The doorbell echoes inside the base, just barely audible through the walls and thick iron door, and for a moment there’s no reaction. The demon just shifts his grip on Jellie while he waits, giving Gertrude time to make it over from wherever she is, and it’s worth it when the little window slides open with a slam for the witch’s face to pop out at him. She looks just as disgruntled as he’d imagined, though her expression lightens up notably when she realizes it’s him, and even more so when she looks down and sees the purring mass of white and gray fluff in his arms.

“Lost and found, can I come in?” Grian tries, giving Gertrude a sheepish smile. He’s barely finished speaking before the secret entrance beside her opens right up, as if she’d slammed the button with zero hesitation. It’s only once he’s stepped inside and the door slams shut behind him that he gets hit with the expected sensation of a paper plane colliding with his head, and he admits he probably deserved at least that much for bothering her. All the same, she shuffles over to him and starts petting Jellie, though she doesn’t try to take her from him and he’s appreciative of that fact.

“Hey, would you look at that! See, I told you he’d be fine.” Iskall’s voice is the first thing he hears from further in the base, and looking up shows him Jellie isn’t the only visitor they have tonight. “And look, she even went to go find him so you can go home.”

Scar’s hands are on his face, his expression lit up into pure emotional adoration, not appearing to hear a word out of Iskall’s mouth. “Jellie made a friend! Oh Grian, you have no idea how finicky she can be with new people, I’m amazed. Look at how happy she is!” The Concorp referee gushes, his voice matching his expression perfectly as he sidles closer. He has a point, to be fair; Jellie looks like she’s ready to just sleep where she is, held in Grian’s arms and being petted behind the ears by Gertrude.

It takes a moment for his words to sink in from the high pitch they’re spoken at, but Grian can’t help the warm feeling of acceptance at the thought that Scar’s cat may not always be so quick to like people. Yet here she is, perfectly content being toted around by him, even fully aware that he isn’t human like her owner is. It’s ridiculous and he knows it, but somehow, it adds onto the already leveling out feeling of his emotions.

“Did you fly here with her?” Scar asks, his voice dropping to a more reasonable level at the same time he steps close enough for Grian to hand Jellie back over to him. She almost seems a little annoyed at being moved from her comfortable spot, though Scar unhooks her claws with practiced ease from where she tries to catch them in Grian’s sweater to stay where she was. Almost immediately after, she just twists around, curling back into a ball in Scar’s grip and going back to sleep. “She’s never flown before, she must really like you if she allowed that.”

“Oh, not really. Just, just down from your viewing stand.” Grian reassures him, waving a hand in denial. “I didn’t want to freak her out.”

The look Scar pins him with is a genuine one, something happy and appreciative. “Thank you for being careful with her, she can be sensitive sometimes. Like right now, we missed her bedtime and she’s all cranky and I thought she went home without me, and…”

Iskall’s hand appears on Scar’s shoulder, interrupting his rambling before it can really get started and earning his attention. “Then you should get going so you can both sleep, right? Go on, Grian’s here now, the G Team is all here and accounted for. I’m sure Cub’s way ahead of you.”

Scar nods, first at Iskall and then at Grian. “You’re right. Good to see you back safe and sound Grian, I’ll see you all again tomorrow.”

With that, he turns for the secret door and disappears into the night upon Gertrude letting him out, Jellie still sprawled across his arms and purring away just like she did with Grian. It leaves the three of them alone there by the front door, and as soon as the entrance closes itself again, the demon finds himself face to face with a very attentive Iskall. “So what happened?” He asks, his voice doing nothing to conceal the eager interest he clearly has for Grian’s response.

“Uh.” Is all the demon can manage for a moment, startled by the focus turned on him so quickly, his mind immediately filling with nothing but the warm feeling of the torch lit cave and Mumbo’s voice over any useful details.

“I mean, you were gone for quite awhile there, Grian. I was starting to think our undercover agents had just gone and eloped together.” Iskall’s voice is light and teasing, his arm slinging around the demon’s shoulders and casually guiding them both deeper into the base. His words take a second to sink in, and Grian prays to whatever deities there are that his face isn’t flushing. He hopes the smirk on Iskall’s face isn’t proof of exactly that. “But really, what happened? Any, uh… interesting details to share?”

Forcing his thoughts together, he’s able to string everything actually relevant to what Iskall sent him after in the first place into a response. “Well, Mumbo says they have ghasts in that tower, and they have Guardians in the moat, and phantoms--” The demon lists off, much like Mumbo had while telling him, though he doesn’t get to explain much more beyond that before Iskall starts nodding exaggeratedly.

“Ah yes, mhm, good info. I’ll make sure the others are aware and we can uh, make plans around those things.” Iskall reassures, almost sounding rushed, before moving on to say, “Anything else interesting? I mean, it has been awhile since you two spoke…”

He almost looks like he’s expecting something else, though once Grian pins a suspicious look on him his expression morphs into pure innocence. It’s a wide, friendly smile; one that makes it look like he’s doing his best to learn every detail of the demon’s little mission without pushing too far. Grian can only wonder what’s got him so interested, whether it’s something team based or for a particular reason he isn’t sure of, though he ends up settling on the thought that he did specifically choose Grian to meet up with Mumbo. The other Hermit’s expression gives away nothing even as he scrutinizes his features more closely, and he comes to the conclusion Iskall is more interested in knowing the state of the two’s relationship than he is about the actual mole info.

Partially, he wonders if that was his intent in sending Grian all along.

“Well,” Grian starts, going over the past few hours in his head. With Mumbo leaning against the wall, quietly and comfortably filling the silence with his side of recent events, all the way up to the hesitance to part ways. “It was good. I think-- I think I was worrying over nothing? It was kind of like nothing happened, not really. Like we're… still friends?”

That earns him a softer, warm smile from the other, Iskall’s face melting into something sympathetic. “That’s how these things work, Grian. There are very few things in this world that can’t be fixed by time and talking, and even fewer people here that wouldn’t forgive some mistakes. That's part of caring about each other.”

They reach the bubblevators before Iskall can continue, forcing them both into silence as they step into the water. The supportive, caring vibe radiating off of the team leader doesn’t dissipate though, following firmly into the basement far below. It brings a thought to mind; the way Iskall seems so happy not with the information about the other team, but about the knowledge that the other two are on good terms again after all, it seems like such a mundane thing that an outside party wouldn’t care about. Something small, and boring, the interpersonal drama nobody except those involved care about; or at least, that’s what Grian thought people usually feel about it. But even as they step out onto the dry floor, Iskall just beams at him all over again, almost looking like a faint worry of his own has disappeared.

There’s no way the person in front of him used to be a hunter. Hunters wouldn’t care about things like this, or look so happy to hear it went well, demon or not. It almost makes him tempted to ask, curious about how Iskall could possibly know more about them like Mumbo said, but he parts the curtain separating the team’s barracks from the rest of the base before Grian can find the words.

Inside, Iskall puts a finger to his own lips to imply they should be quiet, though the demon can already see the rest of their teammates sleeping away in their bunks. Cleo and Joe are wedged together into one bunk, both out cold despite looking like some sort of jigsaw puzzle that can’t possibly be comfortable, while the bunk above them just has a leg dangling out of it that suspiciously looks like a Tango. Further along, there are more bunks; he can only guess Jevin and Stress are the two unidentified lumps in two others, while another two sit empty.

Grian tries to conceal the nerves he can already feel rising, the thought that Iskall will know something’s off if he refuses to sleep here. Almost as if he can already tell, the other Hermit begins digging around in a spare chest and produces another blanket from it a moment later, and it becomes clear why as soon as he starts tucking it into the top bunk to hang over and conceal the one under it.

“I know you’ve gone home to your own base a couple times to sleep while we were building, Grian.” Iskall whispers to him while making sure the blanket is wedged firmly in place and won’t fall. He turns to wiggle a finger at the demon for a moment before continuing, a firm look on his face. "Not nearly enough, by the way. I get it, it’s hard to let down your guard around others. But I promise it’s safe here and no one will invade your privacy, so maybe get some proper sleep?”

The fact Iskall noticed he hadn’t stayed here except for all-nighters even when the others had moved into the barracks makes him wince, knowing he’s caught. He’s not sure how to turn him down when it’s clear the other Hermit is concerned, the care clear on his face as he holds the new blanket-curtain open in this attempt to make him comfortable. Genuinely, Grian doesn’t even want to turn him down, the blanket turning it into even more of an inviting little dark cubby than it was in the first place and making him wish for nothing more than to be able to curl up inside for a decent rest.

But he can’t say no without drawing even more attention to himself, and it’s with a slight nod that Grian relents. Iskall holds the blanket open long enough for him to climb into the bed, before letting it fall closed behind him and plunging the small space into darkness. And it’s nice; it’s dark and cozy, and the feeling of not being alone is somehow actually comforting as he hears Iskall climb into the bunk above him and the steady breaths of the others not so far away. It might be the exhaustion pulling at him, somehow seemingly twice as heavy now as it was earlier on the stand before he found Jellie, but the presence of the others does nothing to set off his usual fears and help prevent him from sleeping.

It makes him wish, all over again, that he could just give in and sleep. But even though Iskall put the blanket in place, promising privacy, the demon knows that doesn’t change the chance of his teammates needing to wake him or the other team invading and finding them here. He’d have no chance to hide what he is then, no chance to bring back his glamour before he’s seen if he lets his guard down that much, no matter how comfortable this space feels at the moment.

“Goodnight, Grian.” Iskall’s voice is thick with sleep from above him, faint and only barely cutting through the relative silence of the room. It tugs at something in the demon’s chest, and it takes him a moment to realize it’s the feeling of knowing the others trust him enough to sleep around him, to let down their guard completely in the way he can’t. He knows they'd long since accepted him as one of their own, but this solidifies it without doubt and to an extent he never would have thought of.

“Goodnight,” He says back just as quietly, and he doesn’t hear another response. Soon Iskall’s snores join with Cleo’s, and Grian is sure he’s the only one still awake. It leaves him free to silently climb back out of bed, and another survey of the room shows him no one has moved from where they were previously, other than an arm now having joined the hanging Tango leg. His entire team is definitely all out, every single one of them exhausted from the day behind them, though he can see content expressions on the few that aren’t burrowed into their bedsheets. For a moment, he wonders what the battle looked like from their perspectives, what the day held for each of them.

And then he turns, leaving the barracks in peace to sleep away the night without him. He’ll have to find something to occupy his attention until morning, and then claim he woke up first; but it’s better than having to explain why he can’t sleep here, despite how much he wants to.

He'll be fine. He can rest another time.

Chapter Text

Grian has never really been one for the tedious jobs, the slow things where his mind can wander and time seems to drag by. The closest he gets is building, but that takes thought and attention, and before he knows it the sun has always set long before he’s finished. But right now, with the near-silence of his team’s base broken only by Cleo’s distant snoring, and the loud call of the bunk Iskall made for him tugging at his willpower, he doesn’t mind the tedious things so much. Sorting through the storage room, checking which supplies are low after their first battle and making a list of what they’ll need, leaves him surprisingly content in his tired state. It gives him something to focus on, something relatively easy, and it passes by the few hours until dawn with little effort.

And on top of that, it’s something that will help his team, easing the faint remorse he feels about not being able to join them in the barracks. It feels strange to be the only one awake, to be sitting alone in the storage room working despite Iskall’s clear request for him to sleep, but he’s glad to at least be getting some things done in the process. It’ll make the morning easier for the others once they wake up and join him, or at least he hopes as much. He continues to work away, taking note of what they need more of and crafting up whatever other supplies he can, though it’s mostly just fire charges.

He doesn’t know how much time has passed when Gertrude finds him, her warty face appearing in his vision suddenly enough that he jumps. The storage room around him is pristine, the sets of armor from each of the team’s members put away onto their stands from the messy abandoned pile he’d found them in, and he can see her glancing around at it after startling him.

“Good morning?” Grian asks her, seeing the way she stares down at the shulker of freshly made fire charges at his feet or the half finished one in his hands. He’s unsure of whether it’s morning by now or not, the night seeming to drag on forever, but he guesses she had to have slept and woken up if she’s here now. She just fixes him with a stern look, a disapproving stare, and he assumes she’s figured out that he didn’t sleep. “It’s fine, I’ll rest later.”

She just rolls her eyes at him, grumbling something under her breath he can’t understand, and takes the fire charge out of his hands to place it with the others. The demon has half a mind to question what she’s up to, but before he can even think of the words she reaches for him and for the second time tonight, he feels his head being wrenched by the grip on one of his horns as he’s forcibly dragged from the room like a petulant child by the ear. He has no choice but to follow after her hurried, seemingly annoyed pace, the various corridors and fish tanks of the base passing by in his sideways vision and leaving him mostly unsure of where they’re going.

“Um, Gertrude?” Grian tries again, but it just earns him another grumble rather than an answer. Fortunately for him, they seem to arrive wherever she’s dragging him to after another minute or so, and she lets go to leave him slightly dazed and very confused in the doorway. Rubbing at his head, the demon looks around and it clicks that she’s just dragged him to the base’s kitchen, or at least what functions as one with its limited supplies. Already, the witch is off digging through a chest and setting things like bowls and eggs onto the table near it, completely ignoring him and leaving him to wonder if he’s here to help or just be an audience to whatever witch cooking show is about to unfold. “What are we doing here?”

He understands the answer is mostly self explanatory, but he’s confused about why she’d drag him here so suddenly. The question earns him an incredulous stare as the witch pops her head out of the chest long enough to point firmly at one of the seats at the table, before going right back to rummaging for ingredients. It still doesn’t really explain why he’s here, but he’s not particularly inclined to argue with the resident snarky witch and takes a seat as instructed. In record time, Gertrude lays out an impressive selection of vegetables and eggs across the table, followed by a slab of wood slammed down directly in front of him and a knife held out to his face. Handle first, thankfully.

It looks like he’s here to help her out, after all, though it almost feels like she’s trying to burn holes through him with her stare. Trying to take the knife from her doesn’t work, either, the witch not letting him have it until she’s pointedly stared him down with a look that feels like she’s trying to say he better be careful with it or else. He supposes it’s only fair, considering she knows he hasn’t slept, and he nods. She lets him take it then.

The downside here being he’s never cooked before, much less done whatever it is she wants done with these vegetables, and he’s almost afraid to ask. Gertrude seems to notice his hesitation, a potato in one hand and a knife in the other, and she takes both from him for a moment to demonstrate how to peel the skin. Then she points at the beets and repeats the peeling motion, followed by a gesture at the carrots with a chopping motion, and looks at him expectantly.

“I can do that.” The demon assures her, hoping he understood her explanation well enough. It’s enough for her to hand the two items back to him, and he does his best to copy the peeling thing as carefully as possible. She made it look far easier than it is, though he manages to mostly get the hang of it after a few minutes.

While Gertrude continues to put things together, lighting furnaces and whatever else it is she’s doing, Grian mostly feels glad he isn’t alone. The base feels less strange with someone else around, the room somehow less pressingly silent even though Gertrude doesn’t speak, and her being here is hopefully a sign the others will join them soon enough as well and he’ll have more to keep him awake. As well, it doesn’t look as strange for him to be awake already if Gertrude is too, and he hopes Iskall won’t question it.

Once he’s finished with the vegetables, it’s almost magical to see what Gertrude does with them to make them into something better than they’d be on their own. The room is filled with the sizzling sound of eggs and potatoes frying away under her watchful care, along with a bubbling pot of soup right beside it, and it doesn’t take long for both to start smelling better than anything he’s ever tried to make. Granted, he only knows how to throw things in a furnace and hope it works, if that, but it’s still impressive.

“I don’t know what that is but I want it.” Almost as if summoned by said smell, the gruff and groggy voice matches the disheveled bedhead Iskall has as he flops into the seat beside Grian with a yawn. It makes Grian yawn too, which earns them both a threatening wave of a red-covered soup spoon from Gertrude trying to ward off the contagiousness of the action. Ignoring her threats completely, Iskall looks over at Grian, seeming too sleepy to be that afraid of her or to question Grian being here. “She didn’t poison it, did she?”

Considering Gertrude doesn’t seem to have any paper on her, Grian isn’t surprised when she throws a spare carrot at his head.

“Point taken.”

Gertrude huffs at the new addition to their table, glaring at him, before turning back to her soup. The demon has a sneaking suspicion she’s just as amused as he is, though he isn’t sure she’d ever admit it. With their usual antics out of the way, Grian finds himself turning to the groggy Hermit beside him and feeling like he should probably greet him himself. “Good morning, Iskall. Did you sleep well?” He asks as casually as possible, turning just in time to see Iskall eyeing the carrot thrown at his head and then taking a bite out of it. He looks back at the demon, crunching, and the clearer look on his face shows he’s starting to wake up properly.

“I slept about as well as you could after fighting with Xisuma all day.” He jokes, rolling his shoulder with a bit of a wince. “Dude packs a punch, that’s for sure. But did you sleep?”

“Uh,” Grian hesitates, a spike of slight panic rising as Iskall narrows his eyes. “A bit! Just a bit. Not much, but more than none. Yes.”

He tries to give Iskall his best innocent smile, hoping he’s still tired enough to believe him, though the way Gertrude snorts at his half lie doesn’t really help his case. Luckily enough for Grian, the team leader has no further chance to question it as Tango stumbles into the room with them, drawing Iskall’s piercing attention back off of the topic. He mumbles an incoherent greeting to both of them, his hair in even worse condition than Iskall’s, and sprawls into the next seat down.

“You alive there, Tango?” Iskall asks him, though he only gets another unintelligible murmur in response as Tango seems to go right back to sleep with his face on the table. Grian has to agree, really, resisting the urge to yawn.

One by one, the G Team all trickle into the room, no doubt beckoned by the sound and smell of breakfast. The only ones that look properly awake are Stress and Jevin, of which one of them looks happy to be a morning person and the other does not. They sit across the table from Grian, while Cleo appears in the spot beside him with the texture of carpet imprinted onto one side of her face. “Cleo, what happened to--” Grian starts, curiosity and concern bubbling together before he can second guess asking.

“Cleo is not exactly what we’d call a ‘sound sleeper,’” Joe explains for her, while Cleo nods and rubs the sleep from her eyes. “If she hasn’t migrated at least halfway onto the floor by morning, assume she’s dead.”

She lets out a bark of laughter at that, now rubbing at the fading carpet print on her skin.

As if on cue to the entire team now being at the table, Gertrude appears between Stress and Jevin and starts setting plates down in front of the Hermits, which seems to snap them each a bit more awake than they were. Grian can feel it too, the way even his tired sluggishness fades some as a plate is set in front of him, and he’s almost ridiculously excited to find out what a proper recipe tastes like if just plain bread was something he liked so much before. On top of that, he realizes Gertrude has arranged a little smiling face out of his eggs and potatoes, which is a comical comparison to when he looks up and sees her completely deadpan witch face glaring at Tango as she tries to balance his plate on his sleeping head. Nobody stops her.

“What’s on the agenda for today, O mighty leader?” Joe pipes up and asks, though Grian can’t imagine why he’d choose to do that over eating his food. It’s almost a shame to mess up the cute smiling arrangement in front of him, but with just one bite the demon is pretty sure Gertrude sold her soul to make these potatoes and he’s absolutely not going to let them get cold. If he thought they smelled amazing, then he doesn’t even know what word to use for the taste, and he decides the more he can shove in his mouth at once the better.

He also hadn’t really realized how hungry he was until now, either, scarfing down potatoes at a pace nearly matching Cleo beside him while the others make the questionable decision to talk over their amazing breakfasts instead.

“Well, we’ll have to meet up with the Convex and the other team later and see what they’ve planned as a next step. I get the feeling yesterday was mostly a trial run to see if we’d all kill each other or not.” Iskall answers, sounding fully awake now. Grian listens while poking gently at one of his eggs, trying to keep up with the conversation for important details though still feeling curious at the oddly jiggly texture. “So today they’ll probably really set us loose. We should make sure we have all the potions we need, and uh... have someone else make them this time.”

Cleo nudges Grian in the shoulder, purposely getting his attention. Once he turns to look at her questioningly, she gestures back at her plate and jabs at her own eggs, breaking the yolk in the center and making a mixed up mess of her plate. “Modern art.” She whispers conspiratorially, giggling at her own joke. In response, Grian just shoves one of his eggs into his mouth whole and as theatrically as possible, which earns him a barely suppressed laugh as he struggles to chew it.

“I’ll have you know my potions worked perfectly fine, if the definition of perfectly fine is like moss growing on the side of a cactus in the middle of the desert during a drought. Or rather, if perfectly fine is like having a paper boat race in the Nether, or maybe trying to sunbathe in the snow. It's all relative really." Joe confidently informs him, and Grian doesn’t question it much. Whatever he just said means he did his job well, right? “Besides, what matters is that the Star Team’s paintings are all upside down, not that I caught fire while standing right in front of Impulse.”

“Sounds like your potions got you caught to me.”

“My potions caused me to make Impulse think he’s being haunted by invisible fire people, it’s fine. I’m sure they’ll be too distracted wondering how a flaming ghost managed to turn all their paintings upside down without burning them to realize it was me.”

Cleo dissolves into cackling halfway through Joe’s second sentence, along with Jevin’s grumpy early morning expression being replaced by a halfhearted attempt to obscure his own laughter. Grian, meanwhile, is just confused.

“You’re the least flaming person here, Joe.” Iskall points out, while Joe shrugs and goes back to the soup Gertrude gave him.

“Exactly.” The angel says over his bowl, earning another laugh from Cleo. Grian isn’t sure what any of this means, but considering that’s a common theme with Joe, he shrugs and goes back to the last egg on his plate.

“Anyway, I guess we’ll need to sort through our supplies and see what we need to get more of before Scar calls us for a meeting later. And we need to clean up the armory… I get that we were all exhausted, but maybe next time let’s not leave the armor as a mess for tomorrow-us to deal with.” The sigh in Iskall’s voice is obvious, clearly not looking forward to their chores of the morning, and the sentiment is echoed from a few others around the table. It makes Grian perk up in his seat, forgetting about his eggs for a moment to give the team leader what he hopes is a reassuring look.

“Actually,” The demon starts, unbothered even as the majority of the table turns to look at him. Minus Tango, of course, who’s passed out cold and drooling into his side of it. Maybe it’s from knowing his teammates weren’t looking forward to cleaning up this morning, or maybe from the newfound energy after breakfast, but he’s actually excited to tell them about the state of the storage room. “I already handled that. The armor is all put away and I made a list of what we’re low on, and I was making fire charges when Gertrude dragged me in here--”

“Grian,” He’s cut off by Iskall reaching out, a hand on his shoulder along with a serious tone and downturned head that makes his heart pause. For a split second he wonders if there was something wrong with doing that, though Stress hissing something about being dramatic across the table mutes the worry before it can really manifest. Then the other Hermit looks up, meeting the demon’s eyes with a look of pure gratitude. “You are a blessing. No ifs, ands or buts, nothing about it, you are a blessing and our storage room thanks you. And me. You’ve saved me from cleaning doom, Grian.”

“Oh, come now! It’s not like a little cleaning is going to kill you, Iskall.” Stress barks at him, a firm edge to her voice and an intimidating smile on her face. Behind her, Grian can already see Gertrude looming with another threatening vegetable, and part of him wonders just how much Iskall should be afraid of the two of them together.

“It definitely would have. Besides, you’re not going to complain about me appreciating Grian.” Iskall shoots back with a bit more bravery than the demon thinks he should with the women looking at him like that, though he’s also guessing that’s exactly why Iskall pulls him close with one arm around his shoulders. They can’t throw vegetables at him if Grian is within range.

Stress sighs, rolling her eyes at the team leader’s antics. Her expression is fond, though, and it turns even softer once she turns to look at Grian specifically. “What do we need, then? The rest of us can work on gathering supplies while you sit back here and take a break. It’s only fair.” She adds the last part with a pointed look.

“Well, mostly potions and the things to make them, I think.” Grian answers back after a moment of hesitation, hoping he’s remembering his list properly. “I wasn’t sure which potions we needed most, though.”

Finally speaking up from his own breakfast, Jevin waves a stabbed potato slice as emphasis with his words. “Fire resistance, for absolute sure. I like eating fried things, not being fried.”

“Regeneration would be good to have on hand, too, just in case.” Iskall adds, letting go of Grian and letting the demon return to his own space. He only narrowly misses getting conked by Cleo as she throws her arms in the air on the other side of him, an excited expression breaking across her face.

“Nether run!” She practically cheers, with a level of excitement Grian can only stare at. “I volunteer, can I go? You can count on me and I definitely won’t bring back any fire resistant pets. Probably.”

“Cleo, I would much prefer if you didn’t go running off headfirst into that place like a bat into hell again. You know how bad the Nether is at keeping you alive.” Joe’s voice is purposely light, but Grian can see deep lines of concern on his face that the angel is trying to conceal, and it makes him wince. The Nether is too dangerous, and combined with Cleo’s excitement over it for some reason, he wouldn’t be surprised if she has a tendency to accidentally run straight into danger or fall in lava. There’s probably a good reason for the amount of worry the angel is showing for her.

“That’s not true and you know it.” She sits up and leans into Joe’s space, innocently batting her eyelashes at him. “You could always join me for an adventure if you’re worried. Be my voice of reason with weird analogies to keep me from doing stupid things, eh? Eeeeh?”

The hesitation is clear on Joe’s face, the angel obviously torn between wanting to go with Cleo and keep her out of trouble, and not wanting to go into the Nether. Grian can’t blame him in the least, knowing full well why someone wouldn’t want to go there. It’s one of the most normal things he’s ever seen from Joe, really. “Cleo, I don’t really..”

“I’ll go with you.”

Both of their gazes snap around to look at Grian, almost like they’d forgotten there were others around at all. He’s almost just as surprised as they are, not realizing he’d spoken at all at first, but with the way Joe’s face morphs into instant and overwhelming relief leaves him without regret for a single word. From over Joe’s shoulder by the supply chests, he can see Gertrude looking at him, a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Are you sure?” Stress cuts in, frowning when he glances over at her. “You’ve already helped a lot, one of the rest of us could go.”

She pointedly glances at Tango as she speaks, drawing attention to the fact he’s still asleep. But Grian shakes his head, brushing the offer away. He’s already offered, and it’s not like he hasn’t gone to the Nether of this world before anyway. It may be an awful place, nor is it somewhere he’d choose to go on his own, and it makes some of his instinctive fears rear up in his head just at the thought of going back. But if there’s one thing he knows how to do, it’s surviving the Nether; and the worry on Joe’s face makes him want to lend that to Cleo as much as he can.

“Let’s go!” Cleo’s excitement is unmatched, just like with anything else involving fire. In an instant she’s hopped out of her seat and is seemingly barely holding herself back from just dragging Grian with her just like Gertrude, leaving him to scramble after her before she can with only a little bit of hesitation. He doesn’t even know if their base has a Nether portal, but she sure seems to have one in mind already.

“Good luck, be safe!” Stress calls after them, along with an amused wave from Iskall, as Cleo’s patience runs out and she does pull Grian along by the hand out of the room after all. Joe’s soft and tranquil smile is the last one he can see before the other Hermits disappear from sight, Cleo pulling him down corridor after corridor. He’s equal parts afraid and amused, both by her antics and the idea of trying to keep her safe with them, and the sinking realization of what he’s gotten himself into yet again. But his mind keeps going back to the look of unrestrained relief on Joe’s face, like the angel genuinely trusts him to protect the other Hermit he seems to care so much about, and his ever-present anxiety can do nothing to overtake that.

Even as the portal looms in front of them, its twisting purple surface shifting with nearly metallic hues and the muffled, distorted sounds of the realm beyond invading his senses, he can’t quite let it get into his head. Cleo’s grip on his hand is firm and unwavering, feeling strangely representative of his own resolve, even as the portal swallows him and the world falls away.