Whenever Hunter was younger, his previous parental figure was always invited to extravagant events, ones that were very obviously a display of popularity and wealth. Hunter, being the heir to the corporation that his great-great-uncle had molded with his own two hands, would accompany him to each one.
The practice of poise was established in Hunter’s head ever since he could speak. He had to be proper, charming, and gentlemanly. He had to bow to his elders and kiss the hands of the powerful. He had to ask young eligible bachelors and bachelorettes to dance and capture their hearts before the end of the day for the sake of the company. He had to smile, but not too wide or else they’d see his teeth and his scar would wrinkle.
He had to be everything that his uncle wanted him to be, the company had big plans for him.
Leaving that mansion behind after his uncle’s death when he was fifteen was the best day of his life, even if it was followed by horrible back to back legal cases. Even though he’s taken care of himself for the most part nearly all throughout his life, he was still a child in the eyes of the law and had to be treated like one. He wasn’t old enough to inherit the estate, even though his uncle had written him into the will before his passing, and the closest living relatives he had were too distant on one of his great(s) grandmother's side. He didn't even know they existed until the government was trying to put him somewhere. It was just Hunter and him. It had always been.
Having decided that the Clawthornes were not a proper fit for him, Hunter had been placed in foster home after foster home for the next year before he landed with the Noceda’s. A kind and gentle mother with twin daughters that were around his age. Usually, the foster system wouldn’t allow a teenage boy to settle in a home with two teenage girls so easily; but after a lifetime of abuse and a year of practical couch hopping, Hunter had a special set of requirements that only Camila had come up to bat for. And, boy, was he glad she did.
He had never known a home like this, where it felt real and irreplaceable. Camila was wonderful with him, it’s like she always knew what to say and when to say it. As if he was always her son, and not just some random kid who popped up on her doorstep one day. Luz and Vee took to having an older brother well, almost too well. Hunter finally realized why most television sitcoms wrote little siblings as the most annoying things in the world, but affectionately. Every time Hunter had to get Luz out of a mess she put herself in, or help Vee with her lines for whatever play she’s working on, he did feel like a big brother.
The fact that it was all temporary always prevented him from wishful thinking or future planning. He did have his uncle's estate, after all. Even after death, the company had big plans. That was, until his seventeenth birthday. Camila had gifted him the best present in the world, and no one will ever be able to compete with it.
“I know you’ll be eighteen next year, mijo, so this probably doesn’t even matter,” She had said as he opened the envelope that she had given him, “but whenever the girls and I think of our future, we always see you in it. We hope that you feel the same way.”
He had sobbed and nearly ruined the adoption documents in front of him. He was officially Hunter Noceda, and he didn’t want to be anyone else.
Until maybe right now, when he realized that Hunter Noceda and Hunter Wittebane still shared similar traits, like how they were both uncomfortable in crowded places.
“Hunter, buddy, you gotta get those long legs a’movin’! Shake those tail feathers and come on before the line gets too long!”
He guesses that Luz’s voice didn't register with him a little too long because she and Amity, her long term girlfriend, were currently dragging him into the hotel and past so many people in costumes and large props. They each had one of Hunter’s hands in theirs, their other hands occupied by at least two bags. Hunter’s own arms had large duffle bags hanging from the crease of his elbows, and all three of them had their own backpack strapped to their backs. It wasn’t until they were standing in front of the check in desk that Hunter finally caught a grip and removed his hands from theirs.
“Reservation for Blight, please. It should be two queens,” Amity slipped her rewards and credit card towards the clerk, who took them with recognition in his eyes.
“Ah, Blight. Are you sure you don’t want to upgrade? We have a lovely rooftop suit with direct access to the pool. The three of you wouldn’t have to share a room, either.” The clerk said. Hunter squinted at his nametag, but he highly doubted someone named Tibbles would actually exist.
“I’m sure,” Amity turned it down, much to Luz’s silent dismay.
Tibbles swiped the cards and printed out a receipt for Amity to sign. A bellhop came quickly after and Hunter helped him load the tall golden cart with their bags. He motioned for the three young adults to follow him, and they all departed for their assigned room.
“Babe,” Luz looked at Amity while they walked, a frown on her face, “why didn’t you upgrade? You do not want to listen to this one -” she jabbed a thumb at Hunter, who tried to retaliate but it just came out as a stutter, “ - snoring all night. Trust me, I can hear it all the way from the basement. I haven’t had a good night's sleep in years.”
“I’d be careful with your pillows, Amity,” Hunter finally found his voice and glared at his sister, “she might eat them.”
“I told you I was asleep!” Luz argued, pointing a finger at Hunter, “And I bought you a new one!”
“I still had to skip out on the date I had to take you to the hospital! Do you know how fake I sounded? Oh, sorry, we’ll have to reschedule. I have to take my sister to the emergencyroom because she ate my pillow,” Hunter twisted his wrists, waving his hands in the air for dramatics, “I never got a text back, you know!”
“Oh, you were looking for a reason to cancel and you know it!”
“Guys,” Amity got in between them, pushing them away from each other by the shoulder. The bellhop had just unlocked their room door, trying to ignore the sibling quarrel happening behind him, “I didn’t upgrade because my mom used all the points when she decided to go on that stupid divorce-rsary trip last year, I didn’t want to pay out of pocket for a room that we’d barely be in.”
Hunter scoffed, crossing his arms as he watched Luz tip the bellhop (Derwin, his nametag said). He figured the lack of space would be because of Odalia, especially right after Amity’s dad, Alador, announced his engagement to Darius.
(Darius, actually happened to be one of the officials that was around during Hunter’s youth. Small world, right? One would think seeing someone from such a damaging time would be triggering for him, but Hunter likes Darius quite a bit. He tended to Hunter’s wounds a lot when he was young and dumb, and even taught him how to mend his own clothes. Darius wasn’t nice, not in the slightest, but he had a certain level of tenderness when it came to Hunter.
He doesn’t exactly know why that is, but the blond knew it had something to do with his biological father, Jasper, who died just before Hunter was born. He had overheard Darius talking to Camila one night when everyone thought he was asleep about how Jasper was Darius’ mentor and business partner. His death was the last straw that tipped the camel over for the Wittebanes, including everyone involved with them. Hunter’s biological mother died shortly after from the same illness, just barely managing to birth him. That’s when Phillip, the last living member of the Wittebane family besides Hunter and founder of The Belos Empire, took the newborn under his wing and raised him like his own.
Hunter does remember Darius being around all his life, but he doesn’t remember exactly what he did for The Belos Empire. Or, actually, what he's currently doing with it either, as Hunter had signed over the estate to him when he turned nineteen.)
Without another argument, Hunter made his way into the room and immediately started to unpack one of his duffle bags. His large array of sewing instruments and cosplay necessities scattered his claimed bed in a matter of minutes. He turned towards the women, waving them off with a hand, “What are you two still standing around for? The con starts in two hours, I need to make sure your outfits are as flawless as possible before you go down there.”
Learning how to mend his own clothes turned into patchwork, which turned into making his own outfits from scratch, which turned into costume making. Thanks to Luz’s rather popular internet persona, OfficialLuzara, Hunter had made quite a name for himself in the cosplay community as a costume maker. He intended to keep his online name in good graces with Luz and Amity’s first cosplay of the weekend, Azara and Hecate from their favorite book series.
“Good idea,” Luz gathered her costume in her hands and walked towards the bathroom, “we’ll need to hurry, though. Amity still has to set up her booth and meet up with her friend!”
Amity unzipped one of her duffle bags to make sure that the many copies of her printed work of fanfiction were undamaged during travel. She checked her phone and typed a few words out that Hunter couldn’t see before gathering her own costume, “Willow just texted me, actually,” she announced to the room, “she and her friend are in the line right now. So, we’ve got some time before they find us. She should know where the booth is, the map’s online.”
Ah, right, the mysterious Willow Park that Hunter had heard so much about. All throughout their drive to the convention, Amity talked about her rekindled friendship with a girl who used to, apparently, be her best friend. He didn’t ask details on why they decided to stop being friends in the first place, but Luz seemed pretty supportive of a seemingly touchy subject so Hunter figured it wasn’t his business.
While catching up with each other, Amity mentioned to her that she’d be in the same town that Willow just so happened to live in for the con. That caused the women to plan to meet up, Willow having never been to a con and curious about it while her own friend was all into the idea. Hunter, himself, didn’t understand the need for an excuse to meet up with an old friend if they wanted to see each other. But, perhaps that was what his therapist was referring to whenever they talked about his lack of social skills
After thirty minutes, Hunter had approved them to travel downstairs to register and set up the booth. He spent the next hour and a half scrolling on his phone, hyping himself up in the mirror, and brushing his teeth twice before pulling on his own costume (Hunter doesn't want to talk about the time spent trying to properly apply eyeliner. The online tutorials were not helpful at all).
Hunter didn’t agree to come to the convention just to be Luz and Amity’s personal costume repair crew, he also came because of the panel listing. After over ten years of silence, the author of his favorite book series, Cosmic Frontier, was doing a Q&A along with a signing session that he had to attend or else he was absolutely positive that he would die. His discomfort for crowds wasn’t as strong as his love for the cosmos, and Hunter was willing to overcome any fear he had if it meant he could shake the hand of the beautiful bastard who wrote Chief Engineer O’Bailey’s heartfelt, tear jerking, Oscar worthy final speech at the end of the books.
Man, just thinking about how O’Bailey sacrificed himself for the greater good was enough to make Hunter’s eyes watery, he had to dab the corners of them to make her his meticulously placed eyeliner didn't smudge. He hoped the author liked his hand made costume, along with his 3D printed eyewear. Luckily, Hunter was already blond and had brown eyes, just like how the books described O’Bailey. He doesn’t know if he’d be able to survive even ten minutes with a wig and eye contacts, as even the thought of the objects on his body made him cringe and snap his neck to the side in an attempt to fight the thoughts away.
It was time to stop procrastinating. The panel doesn’t start for another three hours, but he figured he could at least walk around the artist gallery to see what’s available and visit Amity at her booth. Maybe he’ll run into other Cosmic Frontier fans! That’d be awesome. Hunter stuffed his belt pouches with small costume necessities, wrapped a camera strap around his body for potential pictures, purposefully left his phone behind (it wouldn't fit in his pockets and he refused to have it awkwardly stick out and potentially ruin the vibe of his cosplay. It's not like he's going to regret not having his phone for a few hours, right?) and made his way out the door.
Today was nerve wracking for Willow.
Normally, she wouldn’t have agreed to meet an old friend turned bully turned stranger turned friend again (?) so soon, but Gus had convinced her that it might be a good opportunity. Something about healing a part of her past that prevented her from being her best present, or whatever cryptic horoscope message he had read that day. If it were any other time, Willow would have waved her hand at the notion with a smile, breathing out an “I’m fine, really.” and continue on with her day after declining Amity’s suggestion to meet up at some point during the weekend.
But, of course, Gus had to investigate what kind of con this was. And he had to have seen the panel for Cosmic Frontier. And he had to go or else he’d die Willow!
Willow loved Gus very much. He was her best friend, her most loyal companion, her platonic soulmate. When she had to get her wisdom teeth removed, he was there to wipe up her drool. When she bombed her math exam, he was there to tutor her and get her grades back up. When she finally stood up to her dads about her absolute disdain for the science camp they tried to get her to do every year, and told them that she wanted to join the gardening club at school instead, Gus was the one who held her hand while her dads questioned her. Gus would do anything for her, and vice versa.
But, oh boy, did she want to swallow that declaration when Gus pulled his famous puppy dog eyes at her, “Willow, we have to go!” He had said, and Willow was positive that literal vibrations came from his body, “They could be announcing a spin off series, or even a new book. Shake Amity’s hand, talk to her for, like, ten minutes, then we can bounce, I promise!”
It was easily said in theory, and the more Willow thought about it the more she was able to convince herself that it wasn’t a bad idea. Amity had explained to her that she would be running a booth, so she might not have time to talk for hours on end with Willow anyway. The idea of their reunion being short, brief, and sweet was more convincing with that knowledge, and it was easier to say yes to Gus about coming to the convention.
She was his best friend, after all; and, to be honest, he might be right about the whole past preventing the present fortune cookie riddle shtick. She already had reliable evidence that moving on from the past was an efficient way to guarantee a better future, at least.
If someone were to look at Willow Park and point out something obvious about her, they might talk about her visibly strong love for plants. If they were to look a little harder, maybe they would have noticed that she works out regularly. If they were to squint even harder, they probably would notice that she’s a bit of a self proclaimed photographer. If that someone was a friend of hers, say Gus or Skara or Viney, they’d just pinpoint aspects of her personality. She’s kind, she’s fearless, she’s loyal, she’s sweet, she’s generous, blah, blah, blah. But, Willow wasn’t always these things.
When she was younger, she had been a common victim of bullying. Bosche, the it girl of their school growing up, had targeted her from day one and didn’t back away from it all the way until graduation. The name calling ranged from curse words to not so clever insults to her character, the most popular being half-a-wit Willow.
Willow’s dads have always been major science nerds. Gilbert and Harvey were inventors. They weren’t as obsessed or successful with robotics as Amity’s dad (though, Harvey did work with him many times thanks to being in the same department at their job), but they still take pride in the little trinkets that they collaborated on. Because of this, they raised Willow to like science too, and pushed her to be just as into it as they were.
Try as she may, Willow could never wrap her head around science. She wasn’t sure if she hated it because she wasn’t good at it, or if she wasn’t good at it because she hated it. Both of these options seemed to work for her, though, as every single time she tried to throw her all into a project, it blew up in her face. Literally.
The day that half-a-wit Willow was created was the same day that the entire hall of classrooms had to evacuate due to a chemical explosion that cracked Willow’s glasses and burnt off part of her right eyebrow (it grew back weird, and even to this day she has to maintain it to look somewhat similar to her left one). The entire hall of students pointed and laughed at her, Boscha taking the reins and inventing the nickname that would last for a full decade afterwards. It was the first time Amity turned away from her in her time of need.
Apparently, Odalia had expressed her dislike of Amity being friends with Willow because of her lack of skill in science, which also led to her hypothetically spitting in Gilbert and Harvey’s direction. She wanted nothing to do with the Parks, that included terminating the partnership between Alador and her dads as well as Amity and Willow’s literal lifelong friendship.
Amity was young and dumb, Willow knew that. She was that, at one point, too. Amity just wanted the approval of her parents, and she did that by acting the way she did. Not only did she call Willow foolish while tarnishing their friendship, but she also turned around and got acquainted with the very person who made Willow’s school life a living Hell.
Willow lived in anger and regret for a long time after that. But, then she met Gus, who bonded with her over not fitting in. He helped her out of her shell, which caused her to befriend Viney. Skara was almost right after that, which was Willow’s first big step in forgiving others.
(Skara had been friends with Boscha during the bullying fiasco, but had left her group because she was tired of being mean to everyone. Not only did she make herself a target by totally putting Boscha in her place when she left, but she also profusely apologized to everyone she had hurt, including Willow.
Willow had forgiven her vocally immediately, but didn’t forgive her emotionally until a few weeks later when Skara asked if she could join her newly formed roller derby team. Skara was actually very sweet, and charismatic, but also pretty headstrong and silly. Willow was glad to call her a friend now.)
During high school years, Willow gained a bit more confidence. Especially when Amity left in the middle of sophomore year, moving away somewhere that Willow didn’t care enough to keep track of. The source of her emotional insecurities was gone, and thanks to her newfound strong willed personality (after switching from science to plant life, which did absolute wonders on her mental stability), Willow was able to flourish.
It went uphill from there. She got great grades, got into teenage shenanigans with her friends, and even stood up to Boscha a few times. No one knew her as half-a-wit anymore.
Well, no one except Amity, who had directly messaged her out of nowhere one random Tuesday evening.
That domino effect led her to this current situation, in the middle of a convention in her hometown, crouching against the wall with Gus on the floor holding his prop in his hands. His knees were pulled up against his chest while his cheek rested on one of them in an attempt to soothe himself.
“It’ll be okay, Gus,” Willow placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder, a frown on her face as the tears threatened to escape the corners of his eyes, “I’m sure whoever did this feels really sorry about it, or will get karma’ed in the face later.”
The pair of best friends weren’t even thirty feet from the front door when someone rudely bumped into Gus. Being a bit on the skinny side, it didn’t take much for him to fall over when he was caught off guard, causing the headpiece of his costume to fall and snap in half against the floor. Willow helped her friend up before she turned around to accuse someone of the devastating crime, but the perpetrator had vanished before they could even get a look at them.
“This sucks, Willow,” Gus said with a wet voice, making Willow’s heart break. He blew out a forceful breath through his lips and strengthened his legs out, the black tips of his shoes knocking together, “how are people going to know I’m supposed to be Captain Avery, now? I’m going to look stupid next to you.”
Willow looked down at her own costume, a green version of the one Gus wore but with a mid thigh length skirt instead of pants. How she was supposed to be an alien fighting badass who was always ready for battle in a skirt and calf high heel boots was beyond her, but Gus wasn’t lying when he insinuated that she looked good. Now wasn’t the time to flip her own hair about it, though. Her best friend was having a crisis.
“I still think you look like Avery without the headphones, Gus.”
“Transmitter,” Gus corrected, looking up at his friend with puppy dog eyes. Willow pressed her lips together as she tightened her hold on his shoulder, “everyone’s going to think I’m Avery’s evil twin brother without it. The Lynn Rottonberry is here, and he cannot see me like this.”
Willow signed, not knowing exactly how to help her friend. She didn’t bring anything to help mend it back together, after all. She wasn’t really into costumes too much, so the thought of them needing anything didn’t really occur to her. Their best course of action would be to look around for anyone who has spare tape, or maybe even some glue, “They have a gallery area, remember? That’s where people sell things, right? Someone’s bound to have something there that can help you out. I’ll even buy you a new piece if I have to.”
With a sweet smile, Willow offered a hand to Gus, who took it. He held his headpiece up and closed his eyes, Willow following suit with a bow of her head. They gave the broken prop a moment of silence, remembering it’s time fondly and thanking it for its service. Afterwards, they made their way towards the direction of the signs and bright arrows, guiding them towards the gallery.
Being such a huge convention with many different types of fans, Willow sure didn’t recognize a lot. She was never really the fandom type, anyway, only dressing up for Gus’ sake. But, still, she thought maybe she might be able to see some pop culture. In all honesty, the more she looked around, the more she realized that the most interesting thing around here to her was the pieces of art that people sold. It amazed her that average joes like herself were so talented in something like this, and how they utilized their skills to make other people happy. They drew what they liked, and they sold it to people who liked it. How freakin’ pure was that thought?!
Willow noticed a lot of photographers around, taking pictures of the cosplayers or booths. It made her kind of wish she brought her own camera. Some of these outfits were amazing, she couldn’t even tell some of the store bought ones from the handmade ones. It seemed that everyone here was pretty passionate about their craft, and it really showed by the look of joy in a lot of the surrounding faces.
“Whoa, look at that guy!”
Gus pointed towards a rather tall blond man, standing with his arms crossed and head turned to the side as if he was looking at something specific. He wasn’t posing for any pictures, but he still looked like he was purposefully trying to look as stoic as possible. Maybe he was trying to embody the character he was cosplaying.
He was wearing a similar outfit to Gus and hers, except it was yellow and… different , from theirs. It wasn’t bad, it was actually really good. The yellow was vibrant and the seams looked perfect from Willow’s position. He must have made it himself. The only thing that seemed out of place was the professional looking collapsed camera that was wrapped around his body, resting on his hip.
“He’s dressed as Chief Engineer O’Bailey! His outfit looks sick,” Gus fawned, looking at Willow with stars in his eyes, “I have to say hi!”
Willow wondered if this was how mothers felt when they allowed their children into the candy store. All she could do was giggle at Gus, just happy that he no longer looked like he wanted to cry, “Sure, maybe he knows where to find a replacement for your transmitter.”
As if Gus needed any more reason to be excited, he practically bounced as he took his first step towards the man. Willow followed after, folding her hands behind her back after she attempted to sooth the invisible wrinkles from her skirt.
“Stand over there and wait for me,” Luz had said, shoving the camera in his hands as she pointed towards a wall close by the booth that she and Amity were currently occupying, “I want to stay here and help out a bit longer, when Willow comes I’ll come catch you for that badass photoshoot!”
Despite his attempts to discourage the idea of having him man the camera, he did exactly as she asked and leaned against the wall that she had all but forced him on. Hunter should have stayed in the hotel room until the panel started, then he wouldn’t be forced to take pictures of Luz for her dumb social media accounts. The only reason he was even inclined to agree to it was because she was wearing his talent on her body. If she were to credit him like she said she would, his decently sized side business of costume orders might bump a bit in the right direction.
A little extra cash wouldn’t hurt, especially since he’s about to graduate from his woodworking apprenticeship. His mentor, a kind older man named Dell, was set to retire soon and he had given Hunter sweet promises of enlisting him with the gradually given responsibilities of the shop that he and his family had owned for generations. Hunter’s side hustle of selling clothes online was enough to sustain extra expenses dedicated to his chosen career while said career fully funded his personal bills and recreational hobbies.
It was a nice set up that almost seemed to fall into his lap suddenly, so much so that Hunter was suspicious of everyone’s intentions when they encouraged him to pick up the wood carving knife for the first time. But over time, he had grown to love it. He actually still had his first carving displayed on his workbench, affectionately named after an unofficial pet cardinal that would often visit him while he lived with his uncle; Flapjack.
He missed that bird a lot.
Hunter was snapped back into reality when a shorter man in red and black stepped into his field of vision with the shiniest smile he’d ever seen. Seriously, the size of this grin could challenge Luz’s, and that’s a competition that Hunter would have to wear sunglasses for. He strengthened his poster instinctively, blinking at the sudden appearance. The man wasn’t alone, a woman walked up next to him with the same kind expression, but a lot softer in delivery.
“Hey, dude,” the man said, then gestured towards Hunter’s outfit, “that’s an awesome O’Bailey cosplay, did you make it yourself?”
The blond realized just then that the pair were also dressed in costumes from Cosmic Frontier. The man was dressed as the main character, Captain Avery, the woman next to him was a phytologist named Ivy. Well, not really a phytologist, more like the phytologist. Hunter looked them both up and down before averting his eyes towards himself, feeling a bit flustered at the random compliment from a total stranger. Still, it rubbed his ego a bit.
“Thanks,” he said, holding his wrists out to make the cuffs of his sleeves visible. Captain Avery gasped as both of them looked at the embroidered sigils of hyperspace, a specific reference to one scene in the books about O’Bailey’s character, “I did. Took a couple of tries, but I think it turned out cool, too.”
“No kidding,” Captain Avery practically oozed with excitement. He grabbed the arm of Ivy and shook her slightly, “we just got ours online, nothing special.”
Ivy looked troubled with something as she started to speak, “Which is probably why his transmitter broke literally two seconds into the con.”
Avery held up his split in half prop in his nearly forgotten other hand. His smile immediately vanished and was replaced with a cartoonish looking pout, “Why’d you have to remind me of that?”
“Oh, wow,” Hunter started to fiddle with his belt, going through the deep pouches, “hang on, I think I can fix that.”
Like a hero from one of those kid shows Luz always watches, Hunter pulled out a tube of clear super glue and the smallest bottle of deglosser he could find. For special occasions like this, of course. He gestured towards Avery’s transmitter as he unscrewed the cap of the glue and, once the pieces were a part, covered them generously. Avery pushed the pieces together hard, trying to get the prop to stick together. Once that was done, he slapped some deglosser on there to prevent the glue from looking too obvious and offered the fellow fan a crooked smile as he put his items back in his pouch.
“Guess it’s lucky I decided to bring an emergency kit down here with me,” Hunter said as Avery blew on his newly mended prop before sticking it on his head.
“Wow, that was awfully nice of you, stranger,” Ivy's smile grew to show teeth, making Hunter show his in return.
“He isn’t a stranger,” Avery said dramatically, the stars in his eyes giving him flair. Hunter wondered if this guy was in a community theater somewhere, “he’s Chief Engineer O’Bailey, the man that everyone goes to for problems to be solved and for butts to be kicked.”
Ivy laughed a bit, “Hey, I thought I was the one people went to for butts to be kicked.”
Hunter joined in on the banter, feeling like if he didn’t he would be easily forgotten, “Ivy could totally kick O’Bailey’s butt if that makes you feel better.”
The blond assumed that Ivy had never actually read the books, judging how she was the only one who didn’t laugh at Hunter’s reference to Ivy, the real one, and O’Bailey’s first meeting. Ivy had used her supernatural alien ability over plantlife to catch O’Bailey straight from the sky, yanked him back to the planet he had tried to escape from and held him down with the greenery in front of her to interrogate him. Despite how fans thought that interaction was going to go, including Hunter himself when he read it for the first time, she was only trying to recruit him for the ship crew that she and Avery were a part of.
This Ivy didn’t seem to mind that she was out of the loop for the joke, she just smiled away while Hunter and this Avery giggled to each other. Hunter managed to calm down a bit and reached up to scratch the scar on his cheek absentmindedly, the wide smile he just displayed making it slightly itchy, “I’m Hunter, by the way,” he fully introduced himself, sticking out a hand for the pair to shake individually, “will you guys be going to the panel later?”
“Gus,” Avery shook his hand first, “I am, it’s all I’ve been able to think about all day.”
Ivy took his hand next, her grip firm. Hunter was slightly taken back, not expecting it at all, “I’m Willow,” she started, and Hunter internally snorted at the irony of her having a nature based name while cosplaying a botanist, “I might. I’m not really a fan of Cosmic Frontier, but I didn’t want to feel left out. I’m actually supposed to meet someone here, so it just depends.”
Having the memory of an elephant meant that Hunter could recall anything pretty easily. He was always pretty good in school because of this, and he also basically was a bucket of random facts about literally everything. Whenever his family and friends wanted to play something relating to trivia together, they always fought to be on Hunter’s team, which always made him feel validated in his otherwise dorky hobby of reading wikipedia until three in the morning most nights.
This also meant that the moment Willow mentioned her reason for being here, Hunter thought of Amity and how she had talked non stop about a certain Willow Park and how she was going to see her again after so long. Leaning on the wall with his arms crossed again, Hunter raised an eyebrow at the freshly introduced woman, “Okay, I promise I’m not weird, but do you happen to be Willow Park?” he asked boldly, watching the color change on her face and the smile drop on Gus’.
Before she could answer, a pair of arms wrapped around Hunter’s neck. They forced him down, almost causing him to fall completely over, and a really uncool squeak left his lips. When his mind caught up with his body, he realized that Luz had shoved him down into a headlock, resting her cheek on the top of his head, “Awe, Hunter! You made friends? That never happens!”
Hunter spattered, not being able to decide on how to tell Luz off so it all came out as a series of frustrated noises that couldn’t string together to pass as words. Luz laughed in response, “Hi! I’m Luz! Sorry if my brooding brother was being all dark and mysterious, the doctor says he’s just angsty.”
The oldest sibling shoved Luz off of him, who stumbled but laughed anyway. He removed his ear wear to fix his now messed up hair, “Can’t you approach me normally for once in your life?”
“Nope!” Luz answered quickly, “Sorry to take you away from your new friends, mano, but Amity doesn’t need me anymore and I want some pictures done before you go to your nerd thing.” Immediately, she looked towards Willow and Gus with an apologetic smile, “Oh, sorry, I guess I shouldn’t say that around you guys, huh?”
Gus waved her off with a grin, “No, it’s totally a nerd thing and you should say it.”
“Wait, Amity Blight?” Willow asked, trying to get back on topic. Hunter turned to her and noticed the quick flash of alarm in her eyes. He tilted his head curiously, furrowing his eyebrows at such a subtle reaction.
Luz, like always, didn’t notice anything wrong, “Do you know Amity?”
The smile was back on Willow’s face, except it looked a bit strained compared to the one she flashed Hunter and Gus earlier. The blond wondered if there was more to this Willow and Amity story than Amity made it seem, “I guess that explains how you knew who I was,” she said, eyes shifting towards Hunter.
He nervously rubbed the back of his neck, as if he was caught red handed. The feeling he had was similar to the one he felt when Camila walked in on him with his hand literally in the cookie jar when he was younger. It was an offense that he tried not to repeat, in fear of spoiling his dinner again and the wrath of Camila's disappointed eyes, “Yeah, turns out we have mutual friends.”
“Oh, my God,” Luz waved her hands, trying to get their attention on her again, “first, I can’t believe you just said Amity was your friend, Vee owes me ten bucks now,” Hunter couldn’t even ask her elaborate on that before she moved on to her next point, “second, you must be Willow!”
She took Willow’s hands within her own, clasping over them like they had been friends for years. Willow didn’t seem like she minded that much, which genuinely surprised Hunter. A lot of people were usually pretty put off by Luz’s ability to invade the personal space of strangers, it wasn’t very common to see someone who was so casually able to withstand it. Hell, Hunter was her brother and even he hated it sometimes.
“Come on, let me lead you to her, she’s going to be so stoked to see you!”
“Thank you for stopping by,” Amity smiled towards the costume wearing pair of girls as they giggled away from her, one of them holding a copy of her merchandise in her hands. That had been her first sold copy, which was a lot more than she was expecting if she were being honest. People don’t normally come to cons to buy books, even if it was entirely a fanfiction. Not to mention that The Good Witch Azura wasn’t as popular as she or Luz would have liked.
Still, writing fanfiction was fun for her. It also helped that her online commissions funded her more fully formed hobby of self publishing. Being a new and upcoming author was hard, especially when all of the publishing companies didn’t want her first novel. After three years of constant rejections, she had almost given up. Being a full time librarian wasn’t too bad, what’s a little abandonment of her hopes and dreams going to do other than make her sad for a bit?
Well, it actually did a whole lot. Writing was all she had after her parents finally divorced (could she even call what they had a marriage to begin with?), especially when Alador took her and her twin siblings to Connecticut to start a new life away from the fame of Odalia. They landed in a little town called Gravesfield, a place where Blight Industries hadn’t touched yet. It was nice to only be known as the new girl in town and nothing else.
Without the influence of Odalia, though, Amity wasn’t sure how to make friends. Alador, the poor sucker, tried his best as he learned how to be a proper father to his children, but it was a little too late when it came to some things. The twins were nearing their seventeenth birthday, and Amity wasn’t too far behind at fifteen. Even at their young ages, they were already pretty well adjusted to not needing parental figures in their lives. Emira, the eldest twin, actually adapted to a motherly role for her younger siblings.
It hurt Alador’s feelings a lot when he realized that his children were past the point of needing him, but the kids knew that he needed them. With several family therapy sessions under their belt, Amity could comfortably say at age twenty-one that she felt comfortable with their family dynamic. Communication goes a long way for them, and even if her father has a horrible time trying to articulate what he wants to say, he tries his best with them. They do with him, as well.
(Alador, actually, was against family therapy at first. But Edric, the younger twin, convinced him that it would be a great bonding experience. The first session had resulted in Amity and Alador both receiving recommendations for autism screening, while Emira had cried on the way home from the sudden introduction to her attachment issues given to her by their mother and Edric… Well, the therapist hadn’t been able to crack him at that point yet, but everyone’s pretty sure he experiences middle child syndrome and copes with his negative emotions with a million unfinished projects and humor.)
Writing was something that Amity indulged a lot of her time in growing up, going as far as joining the creative writing club in her new high school after two years of being a wallflower. That’s actually where she met Luz.
She was obnoxious and loud, obviously only in the club to unleash her crazy imagination and plot twists within plot twists. When they did group sharing, she was always the first to volunteer and she would always take the longest. Her long winded paragraphs of depth description over the simplest of things was deafening, and everyone often tuned her out while she read in dramatic and cartoony voices.
Everyone, except Amity, of course.
There was something about the way she bounced while starting a new line of dialogue, and how she always remembered what voice she gave to which character. It was as if Luz practiced in the mirror before each reading. She treated everything she did with tender loving flair, and it enticed Amity so much that she started to put a bit of drama in her readings.
Her stories, of course, weren’t as dramatic or romantic as Luz’s, but they were much more enjoyable when she did it the Luz Noceda way.
Luz was also incredibly friendly. It had annoyed Amity at first, she had even accused her of being a stalker at one point. But over time, she grew to expect the random “Hey, Amity!” s in the school hallways, and even found it to be routine. She felt out of place if Luz took a different route for whatever reason and they didn’t pass by each other at least once.
It took the absence of Luz’s greeting three days in a row for Amity to actively look for her during lunch period and deliver the first ever “hey, Luz” . One thing led to another after that; next thing she knew, she was looking at her long term girlfriend.
Amity doesn’t know what she would have done or accomplished if Luz hadn’t been around. If it weren’t for her constantly encouraging Amity, she might have really been a librarian full time and not be standing here, meeting fans of her social medias in real life and talking about her newest creation. If Amity had even an ounce of Luz’s romanticism, she would have proudly established that Luz was the sun to her moon. But it was easier to show her girlfriend affection through actions than words.
Speak of the devil and she shall call out a love dripping “Batata!”, or however the saying goes. Amity looked towards the direction she heard Luz come from, though her skin immediately chilled when she saw who’s hand she was holding.
Willow Park, grown and wearing something that Amity recognized from Hunter’s books, offered a strained smile and stopped in front of her with Luz at her side. Luz dropped her hand and reached across the table to give Amity a peck on the top of her head, “Guess who we found!” She exclaimed, very much not a question. Amity looked from Willow to Luz, then back to Willow.
“Willow,” Amity stood up from her seat and walked around the table. What should she do? Should she hug her? Taking a step forward only resulted in Willow taking one back, her hands the only part of her tensing as she visibly tried to control how her body reacted. Okay, so hugging was off the table. Amity didn't have the right to feel disappointed, it’s not like this reunion was supposed to start off sweetly.
Another benefit to experiencing a family therapist was the accessibility to find individual ones. After her family ceased their sessions, Amity started seeking her own. Her therapist was sweet, and gave her a new outlook on some of the things that she did in the past and why she might feel bad about them now as an adult. One of things was how she treated Willow.
Her therapist had tried for many weeks to get Amity to reach out to Willow and properly apologize for how things ended with them. Even if Amity felt like it wasn’t her fault and she was just following blind orders, she realized now that the way she talked to Willow about it was wrong. She hadn’t considered her feelings, and that was enough to warrant an apology. After a particularly gruesome session and, again, encouragement from Luz, Amity was able to face the music and send Willow the first message.
Why she messaged back, Amity still has no clue. But she was thankful that she did, and she was even more thankful that she agreed to come here and meet her. It might have been an inconvenience for her, but she still came. That meant that there was still hope for them yet, right?
“Hey,” Amity said, choosing to cross her arms over her chest as a way to hide as much of herself as she could. Her hands gripped the sides of her costume, effectively wrinkling Hunter’s hard work. If he were here, he’d probably slap her hands and spray her down with whatever anti wrinkle bullshit he had on him.
He always had the most random, yet sometimes useful, stuff in his pockets.
Willow tucked a loose baby hair curl behind her ear, careful of her large green hooped earrings, “Hey,” she said with a wave, “your costume looks cool. Did Hunter make it, too?”
“Thanks,” Amity looked down at herself as if she hadn't looked in the mirror a billion times already. Something about Willow pointing it out made her entirely forget what she was wearing, “and, actually, yes? How did you know?”
Willow shrugged before pointing at the stitching, “It looks like his costume. We met, like, briefly.”
“He’s actually the one who found her,” Luz explained, sensing that Amity was still slightly confused, “which reminds me, a certain brother of mine owes me a photoshoot. I’ll see you ladies later!” She kissed Amity on the cheek one last time before offering a smile to Willow, “It was nice to meet you!”
Without waiting for a goodbye, Luz disappeared into the crowd again. Amity almost wanted to convince her to stay for a bit, maybe wait until after Hunter comes back from the panel for the photos. But she already knew how that conversation was going to go, so she stopped herself.
“You and I both know Hunter’s going to be a snotty mess after the panel, especially if it’s good news,” Luz had explained previously when Amity had vocalized this concern a few days ago, “it’ll be okay, babe.”
With determination, Amity looked back at Willow with air in her chest and knees locked, “You look different.”
Willow laughed, and Amity couldn’t tell if it sounded forced or not, “Well, I hope so. We’re older now, after all,” she said before pointing at her hair, which was perfectly curled melodramatically and tied into a tight ponytail. It flowed from the crown of her head all the way over her shoulders. The only thing escaping the hairstyle was a few natural baby hairs, “don’t let the hair fool you, though. They're totally extensions.”
When Amity squinted, she did notice a bit of an unnatural gloss to the bottom of her long curls. Willow probably wasn’t that big into cosplay, so of course she didn’t know the routine to get rid of new wig shine, “It really seems like you went all out.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess,” Willow nodded her head and rested her hands behind her back. Amity noticed that her stance was as strong as it was when she first arrived, as if she wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Was it just her, then? “I don’t know if you remember Augustus Porter, but he and I are still best friends. He’s obsessed with Cosmic Frontier and really wanted to come because of that panel going on, I’m sure you know about it.”
Amity nodded, knowing a little too much about it thanks to Hunter infodumping about everything he’s interested in or excited about, “I told him I’d dress like someone from it so we could be a dynamic duo,” Willow continued, “this Ivy girl and I have similar qualities, apparently. But, hey, you have a booth but you never told me what you were selling.”
Willow crossed Amity to look at the books on the table, smiling at the cover art, “Wow, that’s neat. Did you draw this, too?”
Amity wanted to cry. Willow was being so nice, but why? She hadn’t mentioned anything about how Amtiy used to treat her. She hadn’t even lost her smile since she got here. Why were they even talking about costumes or the books when they should be mending a relationship that Amity had spent countless nights missing? It was almost like Willow had already decided there was nothing to forgive.
But that’s not fair. Where’s the closure in forgiving and forgetting so easily? Amity watched as Willow flipped through the pages of the display book, grinning wider with each illustration she came across. She pointed out something she liked about each of them, and even read a few lines aloud. This isn’t fair. This isn’t fair!
“Luz, actually,” Amity said, as if her heart didn’t just leap from her chest and ran away too fast to catch it, “she’s a pretty amazing artist. And, we both like the same series. Obviously.” She gestured to herself, hoping that when Willow looked at her she wouldn’t notice how Amity was now heartless.
Amity thought she was successful at first. Willow looked, eyes curious. The longer she stared, the more Amity felt like she was breaking. There was a twitch in Willow’s face, the tiniest drop in the corner of her mouth. Amity probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if it weren’t for the split second change in Willow’s dimple formation.
Even the tiniest of clouds could turn into destructive rainstorms. Amity looked away when she felt her eyes burn from staring too long.
“So, we both came here for loved ones, huh?” Willow asked, her voice breaking through the clouds.
Amity reached for it.
“I hope so.”
Despite dreading the photoshoot that Luz forced him to do, she doesn’t think that Hunter actually had a bad time. On the contrary, she’s positive that her nasty brother made a new friend during the process.
Deciding to give Willow and Amity some privacy for a bit, Luz had offered Gus an invitation to walk around with her and Hunter before the panel started. Gus seemed a bit pensive about the notion at first, but was easily swayed by the fact that he could actually geek out about Cosmic Frontier with someone who could rightfully return the same energy.
The entire photoshoot was spent theorizing and swapping inside jokes, especially after they established that both of them had read the entire series at least three times (five times, in Gus’ case. But he decided not to count the times he fell asleep to the audiobook or used it to fill silence when he was doing mundane tasks).
Luz had to snap Hunter back into focus a couple of times, but the photos she got at the end of the session were still good enough that she decided not to care about the lack of attention her brother was giving her during the entire process. Honestly, she’d happily give up a chance for pictures if it meant that Hunter actually came out of his shell and socialized with someone new.
It’s hard to imagine that the Hunter in front of her was the same Hunter that all but crashed at her house, sixteen and spiritually broken. Luz had never experienced someone so emotionally distant, so detached and uncaring of what happened to him. To this day, she doesn’t know what he went through before being put into foster care, or what happened while he was house hopping. Camila would always clam up when she asked, so she eventually stopped asking. Honestly, judging by the many scars on Hunter’s body (including his face of all places), the malnutrition, and the heavy eye bags, Luz didn’t think she wanted to actually know.
He was pretty closed off when he arrived, wanting to keep to himself all the time and refusing to eat with the family when meals were prepared. Camila would try to take his meals to him, but most of the time she had to leave a plate and drink by the door. He had a hard time with communicating, so his solution was just to not do it at all.
Whenever Camila did make a breakthrough, as rare as they were, she’d talk to Luz and Vee privately about how devastating it was that Hunter had yet to unpack his trash bag of clothes, even after being there for a little over two months. It was as if he was ready to leave at any given moment. Luz was pretty sure that every time someone opened the basement door (which is where he preferred to stay and felt the most comfortable in, despite Camila’s initial fight on it. Luz had always wondered if it was because he wanted them to forget he was even there), Hunter had thought that the person walking down the stairs would be a social worker.
It wasn’t just Camila trying her best; Luz and Vee were also known to try and get along with Hunter on the rare occasion when they saw him. Sometimes they’d catch him in the hall when he just came out for a bathroom. Sometimes he’d walk in on them in the kitchen in the middle of the night when he thought everyone else was asleep.
The most memorable time, which actually served as the turning point for Hunter’s behavior in the house, was four months into being his foster family. Luz and Vee were watching a documentary on wolves in the living room and Hunter had creeped out of the basement for his turn in the shower.
Hunter had always been someone to follow through with every action he took like it was a mission. Luz imagined that someone with his type of past and experience didn’t leave much room for hesitation or uncertainty, and Hunter definitely helped that notion with how he displayed himself. So when he stopped mid step as the wolf howled on screen, Luz and Vee nearly called their mom right then and there. He had turned to watch the television, and stood behind the couch. His thin arms hugged his towel and the change of clothes he had tightly to his chest. Luz will never forget the look on his face.
Progress was being made at long last, even if it was just small. Hunter ended up just standing there throughout the entire documentary. He didn’t add to commentary led by Luz and Vee. He didn’t move to sit down. He didn’t even shift from one foot to the other. It was as if he were a statue, or a soldier that waited for his next order. When the documentary ended, Hunter blinked, then continued on with his journey to the bathroom.
Luz and Vee quickly tried to find another wolf documentary for when he returned, which they successfully did. Just like before, only now freshly bathed with water dripping from that weird cowlick on his hairline, Hunter stood behind the couch and watched the documentary.
With the status report sent to Camila, the ladies made it their mission to find any type of wolf specific documentary whenever Hunter decided to come out of the basement. They experimented with other types of educational content as well, discovering that Hunter was actually really interested in 'how things were made' shows and a lot of other different nature based channels. His silence became less so over time, almost like the Noceda’s were peeling him like a banana.
It started off with little hums behind the couch, then it turned into fascinating gasps, until eventually he was claiming a seat as his own with shining eyes. That’s when Luz found out about his many quirks and habits.
He picked at the skin on his lips when he dissociated. He chewed on his thumb nail when focused. He bounced his knee when he got excited. He’d scoff when he disagreed with something. He’d pull out the phone he received from the foster care system to fact check what the documentaries said regularly. If they were right, he’d be astonished enough to give a quiet “Whoa”, but if they were wrong he’d make sure that everyone in the room knew about it.
Hunter was actually quite the character.
At that point, Hunter and the Noceda’s had finally found common ground. He was more lively, but there was still something that prevented him from letting them love him like he deserved, and Luz didn’t know how to fix it. She had nearly given up, determining that not everyone can be cured by the full amount of love in each of the Noceda ladies’ hearts. That was, until one night where Luz was awoken by a sudden dryness in her throat.
She just wanted to get a glass of water and go back to bed, but when she walked down the stairs she realized that the usually dark house was lit by a blue hazed light source and distant sounds of soft whimpers filled her ears. Luz turned into the living room to see Hunter wrapped up in one of the throw blankets, knees to his chest and arms around his legs with half of his face covered by the crocheted pattern.
The whimpering and light source came from the television, which showcased a wolf pup. It was alone, scared looking. Even if Luz couldn’t see all of Hunter’s face, she could tell he was tearing up at the sight.
Deciding that this was worth her time more than water, Luz stepped into the living room to sit next to him on the couch silently. She saw him look at her in surprise, but she didn’t return the notion. Luz had learned that sudden movements scared him away easily, so she needed to control her reactions as much as possible.
“I think I’ve seen this one,” Luz had commented as she learned back on the couch, her arms crossed. Her head lazily rested on the back of the seat as she peered at the tv through hooded eyes. She watched the pup limp around alone, whining all the while. It was actually really sad. Luz wanted to look away from such a heartbreaking sight, but she had pressed on.
Hunter finally gazed back at the tv when the narrator started speaking again, “With his now established abandonment issues by his pack leaving him, this pup is at risk of either dying alone young, or growing into a lone wolf. Both are not ideal circumstances, as being a lone wolf would make him an easy target for hunters, other wolves, or diseases. It forces the pup to decide at an early stage of his life which would be worth more; living, or dying.”
“Like me,” Luz had heard Hunter mumble through the loops of the blanket. If the pup hadn’t already broken her heart, then his comparison sure would have.
“The pup lays down, it looks like he decided on death. Not every wolf has a strong will to live, especially when they are alone in the world with no pack to rely on.”
Luz watched as the pup’s breathing slowed, and their shivering stopped. What is this, why was this shown so late at night?! To help people cry themselves to sleep?! She accidently let out a sniffle, but she tried to be as discreet as possible as she tapped the corner of her eye with a thumb. Hunter hadn't seemed to notice.
“But wait,” from the corner of Luz’s eye, she saw Hunter lean forward in his seat when an adult wolf appeared on screen, “just in the nick of time, a mother arrives and stops to sniff the dying pup. One of two things could happen here. The mother could accept the pup as her own and introduce him to her pack, or she could completely reject him and carry on with her hunt. Let’s see what happens.”
The mother wolf sniffed the pup, going from the tip of his head down to the bottom of his tail. Luz felt her heart beat in her chest like drums, wanting nothing more than for the pup to be accepted. Judging by how the blanket around Hunter appeared to have tightened, he had wanted the same thing. After a few moments of sniffing, the mother licked some of the wounds of the pup and grabbed him with her mouth to carry him away. The sigh of relief from both the watchers was heavy.
“It seems like she accepted him, it looks like our pup is about to start a new life with a new family. Mother wolves are caring creatures, after all. Now with a new pack, the previous worries of this pup’s future can be put to rest. The pup will grow with the mother and even some siblings, have a pinnacle role in his new pack, and live a long, happy life.”
Luz looked at Hunter, who stared at the screen with widened eyes and an open mouth. He had come out of his blanket a bit, his hair now visible. It looked like he hadn’t brushed it in a while. He gripped onto the front of his sleep shirt, right over his heart, and Luz wondered if he was trying to touch it for some reason.
“Like you,” she had said softly. She had finally broken him.
His reaction was immediate, maybe a bit unexpected. He whipped his head towards her, the gloss in his eyes very obvious by the light of the television. Luz had come too far to back down, then. He mumbled something she hadn’t understood at the time, not because it was low but because it was incoherent.
“Oh. I - huh,” Hunter breathed out, eyes darting away from Luz. Luz had always noticed how he couldn’t handle eye contact very well, even to this present day. He sucked in some air as he flashed his profile to her once again, “heh.”
It was a small heh, not at all heartfelt or genuine. It sounded more like a hiccup, now that Luz was remembering it. Whatever it was, it was overfilled with emotion. That small heh turned into many hehs, which turned into a gasp of air and a muffled sob. He attempted to save face by wiping the first fat tear that managed to roll down his chin before he could catch it, but his hands were shaking too hard to stop the others. He pulled his legs closer to himself, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his face into the blanket. He tried to hide from Luz, but the holes in the crocheted project prevented him from running.
Not this time, Luz had thought.
As gently as she could manage at the time, Luz moved closer to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. She felt him tense, but he didn’t pull away. That was the most progress anyone’s ever made in the house with him, and she should have counted her blessings and left it at that. But, Luz had always been an overachiever, and she had always put her whole heart into everything she did.
“Gotta make sure you live a happy life too, Hunter. You’re family now.”
Hunter cried for a long time that night, and Luz hadn't said anything else. She had known that she didn't need to.
The Noceda’s saw a lot of him after that. He did chores, went out on errands with Camila, helped with the twins' homework, and even invited himself into the shared living space. It was a long and sensitive journey, but when Hunter finally opened up at home he realized he was happy, and he had realized that he loved them in return. It's unknown how the subject ofbecoming one of them was brought up, but next thing Luz knew she was looking at the adoption papers over Hunter's shoulder on his seventeen birthday.
You’re family now.
Luz will never regret saying that to him. Even when he eats the last baked good or uses the last of her shampoo (“You don’t even have curly hair, Hunter! This stuff is expensive!” “I like the way it fluffs up my new haircut!” ).
Hunter’s laughter and conversation with Gus seemed to have gone in slow motion, stretching out just a few minutes into hours of time. Luz found herself smiling as she looked at her brother and his new friend. She’s glad that he came with her.
“Hey,” She interrupted whatever it was Hunter was saying as she reached for the camera in his hands, wrapping the strap around her own body, “doesn’t that panel you want to go to start in a little bit?”
Honey-like eyes traveled towards the large clock in the center of the courtyard. He cursed under his breath, something he had always done since he found cursing out loud to be rude (Luz has tried several times to get him to curse louder, even going as far as using the element of surprise by hitting him. Hunter’s got some crazy self control). He basically hopped from foot to foot as he looked back at Luz, “Gotta run,” was all he said before turning to Gus, who looked just as excited as him, “you-”
“Let’s go, dude!” Gus didn’t let him finish as he took the lead with a jolt, Hunter traveling behind him closely.
Just as Hunter used his longer legs to his advantage and passed Gus, Luz yelled out, “No running! You’ll get kicked out!”
The boys immediately ceased the sprint and instead adopted a speed walk, their arms moving with their body just as furiously as before to make a pretty silly scene. Luz laughed and watched them until she couldn’t anymore. She hopes they have fun.
Now, off to see how her sweet potato was doing.
Luz had, at some point, returned back to Amity and Willow while they were in the middle of catching up. Willow was about to get up from her seat, mentioning that she should probably go catch up with Gus since the panel was about to start, but Luz sat her back down before taking her own spot on the other side of Amity.
“Nah, Hunter’s with him. I think they’re a little too into each other to get in between them right now. Let the boys have fun, you can stay here!”
Though Willow was curious on how, exactly, into each other Gus and Hunter were, she decided that she could interrogate Gus about it later. He couldn’t possibly be into Hunter in any way other than platonically, considering Gus’ complicated relationship with a certain greasy roller rink associate (every time Willow says his name, Gus gets heated. It’s best to avoid that unless Gus acts first), but Willow still wanted to know everything about it just in case Gus has found a new potential friendship.
“Let me tell ya, those two are peas in a space themed pod,” Luz laughed, draping an arm around the back of Amity’s chair. Amity, seemingly instinctive, leaned closer to her in return, “which is great!”
Amity smiled, chiming into the conversation, “Maybe they can exchange numbers and Hunter will have more than just your mom to talk about Cosmic Frontier with.”
Willow doesn’t doubt that Gus will ask for Hunter’s contact information by the end of the day, especially if what Luz was saying is true. Gus was always bold in that sense.
“Maybe that means Gus will stop talking to me about it, too,” Willow joked, even though she actually really didn’t mind when her friend did so. Nonetheless, Luz and Amity still laughed as if they could relate to the notion. Maybe they actually could.
“You want to put the camera away, batata?” Amity asked, pointing at the device.
Luz unwrapped it from her body and placed it on the table before returning to her lounged position, “Nah, Hunter was too distracted to take all the shots I wanted. So I’m going to force him to take some more when he's done fanboying. Also, I’m pretty sure Hunter’s going to want pictures of his cosplay too, especially since we managed to befriend an Avery and an Ivy.”
Willow didn’t know a lot about Cosmic Frontier, or her character’s relationships with others, but she did know that Avery and O’Bailey were supposedly best friends (even though they fought an awful lot. It was based in the 90s, so masculinity was often shown rather brutally). If she knew Gus, she’d also wager that he’d want a few photos posing with his new friend. But with her, too?
“I’ve actually never read Cosmic Frontier,” she admitted, flipping her hair extensions over her shoulder before it could get stuck in her lip gloss (again), “I don’t really know what I’d be doing in pictures.”
Luz flicked her wrist and puffed air through her lips in Willow’s direction. Three people approached the stand and Amity stood to greet them, leaving the two alone together. Luz leaned into the now empty seat, smiling wide at Willow, “Hunter would never ask you to participate cause he’s a bit old fashioned and also can’t talk to girls to save his life, but Ivy is actually O’Bailey’s love interest. I’m pretty sure they got, like, married or soul bonded or whatever the alien equivalent is at the end.”
Willow’s eyebrow rose as her smile grew. That was cute, she wondered if Hunter or Gus made that correlation when they first met. Judging by the fact that Hunter didn’t say anything about it, though, made Willow believe that he was the type of guy to know the difference between fiction and reality. That was comforting to know, especially given the horror stories she’s read online about people being obnoxiously hit on or even attacked based solely on the fact that they were cosplaying as a certain character.
She would be lying if she said that the thought that it might also happen to her didn’t occur to her. But Willow had to admit that she was pretty strong, so she could take anyone who wanted to throw themselves at her. Plus, she knew Gus had her back; he was pretty scrappy and could fight dirty.
“He probably saw you and was like ooohh, pretty girl, me like,” Luz gave her best caveman impression, equipped with a deep frown. She used her fingers to make a ‘V’ shape where her eyebrows were, making her look cartoonishly angry, “me ask if she do O’Baivy with me.”
Willow snorted, covering her mouth with her fingers as her eyes creased. Luz joined her afterwards, “Hey, whoa, actually!” Luz winked at Willow and elbowed her slightly, “I’ll give you five bucks if you ask him for an O’Baivy picture! He draws them, like, all the time. He won’t admit it but I know it’s his favorite ship.”
Willow tapped her chin in thought, thinking about the deal. Doing a shipping picture doesn’t have to be romantic, they could just pose together. For Hunter’s sake, anyway. Willow doesn’t really care about holding hands with or kissing strangers, it’s not like it means anything. Willow also thought that Hunter was kind of cute (as cute as someone can be when they're in a costume), and he seemed nice, so that was a plus.
“Well, I could use five dollars,” Willow giggled, not at all doing it for the money, “sure, should be fun.”
“Yes!” Luz pumped her fist in the air and laughed to herself. Amity chose now to sit back down, forcing Luz to move back fully in her chair, “Amity, I totally just hooked Hunter up.”
“What?” Amity asked before her eyes widened and a frown formed on her face, “Did you drag Willow into something?”
Willow snorted again when Luz pouted at her girlfriend. Wow, Luz was pretty funny. Willow is starting to like her a lot. She’s glad that Amity found someone like her to be with, “Don’t worry about it Amity, she just wants us to take a picture together because of who we’re dressed like.”
They’re conversations moved around aimlessly after that. Willow laughed more and more as Amity and Luz quarreled and played off of each other. Even Luz alone was enough to put Willow in stitches whenever Amity had to leave to greet a customer. She realized that she could sit here all day and rekindle friendships as well as make new ones, and she probably could have if the body that slumped against her didn’t interrupt the story she was in the middle of telling.
She looked over to see Gus’ head against her shoulder, dried tear marks down his face. His eyes were wide, and his face felt hot against her clothing. It was as if he had just experienced something intense.
Willow didn’t have time to express her worry; Luz had already jumped from her seat and rushed to Hunter, who was standing next to Gus in equal silence, “Oh my God, Hunter! Are you okay?!”
Luz had her hands on Hunter’s shoulders when Willow realized that he had a look similar to Gus’, only his tear marks were more obvious with how pale he was and his eyeliner smudges. Luz remained still until Hunter moved first, grabbing her arms and looking into her eyes as seriously as he could, “I need to call mama right now. Give me your phone.”
“Where’s your phone?! Do we need to leave?!” Luz didn’t hesitate to dig her phone from her pocket. Willow wasn't sure when Amity had rushed over, but she had apparently heard the commotion. Willow wrapped an arm around Gus to comfort him.
Gus turned to her, the kicked puppy look was completely gone and replaced with a wide smile. Willow’s heart sank from her throat and she felt herself relax. Hunter maneuvered Luz’s touchscreen as fast as he could and typed in their mother’s number from memory, pressing the phone against his face when he was done. After a few beats of silence, he spoke again.
“Mama,” he greeted, looking at Gus with a wide blown smile and crows feet at the corner of his eyes, which caused Willow’s heart to raise in her throat again, “you’re never going to believe it. They’re making another series for Cosmic Frontier. It’s going to be called Cosmic Frontier: The Next Generation.”
Hunter pulled the phone away from his ear and Willow heard a woman yelling from the other end. It sounded like the book series truly was a family interest.
“I just sent it,” Gus confirmed, showing Hunter his screen. The picture of Hunter with the author of Cosmic Frontier displayed in text form, and it looked like Gus had already gone through the trouble of saving Hunter’s number. That made the blond smile, knowing for certain that he’s made at least one new friend today, “I still can’t believe it, dude. A new series, and a movie adaptation?! Do you think it’ll be one of those popular trilogies?”
“It better be!” Hunter threw his hands in the air. Amity slapped his arm, as she had almost poked him in the eye due to his excitement. He settled down again and let her finish fixing his eyeliner, “There needs to be a movie about each of the books so that we get the full experience, I hope they don’t cut anything important out.”
“Hunter, I swear to God, if you keep talking I’m going to make you do this yourself.” Amity threatened, blowing in Hunter’s face as a warning. He blinked several times in response, muttering a small sorry to her. He’d rather not do it himself again, he had poked his eyes way too many times this morning.
Gus did not take the threat as his own punishment, though, and continued talking as he paced (he had let Hunter have the chair he was originally sitting on for the sake of Amity, since he was just a few inches too tall for her to help while standing up. Willow had scooted over so that Amity could sit next to Hunter to be as close and accurate as possible), “Oh man, what do you think The Next Generation is going to be about? Another crew? A dystopian future?”
Willow joined in, “I think the title kind of insinuates that it might be about their kids.”
Gus visibly thought about it before shaking his head, “There’s only room for one woman in Avery’s heart, and her name is the galaxy. I guess I could imagine the others having kids. I think.”
“What about Ivy and O’Bailey?” Willow pointed out, making Gus stare at her, “Aren’t they together?”
Amity pulled away from Hunter, finally finished. Hunter leaned back against the chair and raised Luz’s phone to look at her handiwork, nodding in approvement. Amity smiled, slipped the now capped eyeliner in her bag, then used Hunter’s shoulder to help herself off the chair. She stood next to Luz at the table, leaving the three new friends on their own.
“How do you know that?” Gus asked, genuinely. Hunter looked from him to her as well, a bit surprised that Gus hadn’t told her before he dressed her up.
Willow shrugged, “Luz told me.”
Hunter rolled his eyes, “Of course she did, all she talks about is shipping ,” he laughed, though it felt more mocking than humorous. It still made Willow giggle in return. He thought about their conversation for a few seconds, bringing the tip of his thumb to his lips absentmindedly before shrugging, “I hope it’s not about anyone’s kids. When a series gives everyone kids, it can be easily ruined. I’m hoping that the term the next generation just means that it’s supposed to appeal to a literal whole new generation of fans. I’d love to see everyone still in action after, like, ten or twenty years.”
“Hey, we should celebrate!” Gus suggested, practically bouncing as he pointed towards the camera that remained on the table, “Let’s take some pictures! My dad has to see our outfits in action.”
Hunter grew excited at the idea, immediately standing up and nodding, “That’d be awesome! Avery and O’Bailey are best companions, and Ivy and Avery have this unspoken understanding of each other. Hey, maybe we’ll get more of them together in the next series?”
Willow stood as well, reflecting his smile, “We can do a shot of Ivy and O’Bailey too, if that’s cool?”
Hunter blinked at her, eyes bouncing all over her face and waited for the punchline or the social cue that what she said was a joke. Either she didn’t give one, or his years of masking were unfruitful. The laugh he pushed out was nervous, utterly embarrassing really, and he felt the tips of his ears start to burn with the idea of taking O’Baivy pictures with someone, especially someone who was basically the picture perfect version of Ivy to his rather personally claimed accurate O’Bailey.
Hunter wasn’t insane. He acknowledged that Willow was very pretty the moment he saw her. He’s always been a personality type of guy, though, when it came to any type of relationships. That’s why dating or making friends was so hard for him. That doesn’t mean that Hunter was invincible to someone attractive, though, and it definitely doesn't mean that he lacked a type.
Luz liked to joke that Hunter and Amity were very similar. He doesn’t really understand it, but he does understand that they have similar reactions when a cute girl is involved.
“Sure,” he said, trying not to leave Willow hanging. He felt like a ghost possessed him when he shot her finger guns (Why are you doing that? You’ve never done that! Put your damn hands down, Hunter!) , “I’m down to clown.”
Down to clown?! Hunter wanted to bury himself in the courtyard of the convention. The memory of Camila saying that to him once had been pushed to the back of his memory until this very moment. He hoped Luz wasn’t around to hear that.
But, of course, just like all the other times he wished she wasn’t around, she was. It was like she had a sixth sense for whenever Hunter was actively embarrassing himself. She was a witch, he swore with his whole heart, and the only thing that could satisfy her hunger was his sweat-inducing nerves. Hunter already knew, without even looking at her, that she was staring at him like a cat. Eyes shaped like crescent moons and eyebrows raised all the way to her hairline. Her mouth was even probably curled into a very classic ‘w’ shape (how she’s able to do that, he still doesn’t know).
Just as he was praying to whatever higher being that was currently listening to strike him dead to avoid his sister’s teasing gaze, Willow laughed. It wasn’t huge, it was more like a light giggle, but it was enough to cut through Hunter’s hammering heart in his ear drums. It pushed down the lump in his throat with incredible speed and it completely bombed the pit of his stomach, exploding his insides like an aggressive splatter painting.
“Let’s go paint the town red!”
Hunter remembered when Vee had first met her partner, Masha. Him and Luz were there, talking to the receptionist of this weird little historical museum, dedicated to the witch hunting days in early Gravesfield. Vee had approached with a question of her own, which had caused Masha to lean forward and squint at Vee with focus all over their face.
“Say, have we met? Something about you seems familiar.”
Vee, ever the shy one, blushed and covered her cheeks to avoid being recognized by someone she later admittedly met in passing at a summer camp years prior, “Um, no, I don’t think so. I just have one of those faces!”
Masha looked suspicious, but they took the excuse anyway with a bright smile and, even Hunter had to admit, cute little laugh, “What a coincidence, me too! If you want someone to tour you around the exhibits, hit me up!”
They handed her a pamphlet with a small wink. Vee robotically took it, but her eyes were wide with dilated pupils and dropped jaw. The blush on her face never fell, if anything it got bigger and brighter. She looked so taken back, so swayed with Masha’s words, so smitten with the idea of meeting them once again.
Hunter wondered, as Luz instructed the group to follow her as she wrapped the camera around her body, if he looked the same at that very moment.
They got some good shots, it was a lot more fun than Hunter had originally thought it was going to be. Gus and Willow took their posing very seriously, much to his enjoyment. They reenacted famous scenes that involved the three of them, indulged in some memes, and even took a video on Gus’ phone of Hunter and him reciting one of the most popular lines of dialogue exchanged between the two of them in Cosmic Frontier history. Hunter had nearly forgotten the notion of O’Baivy until Luz lowered the camera and gave him an all too malicious smirk.
He physically gulped.
“Okay!” She waved at them, getting Gus’ and Willow’s attention away from the fountain that they were currently looking way too far in for comfort, “Are there any classic O’Baivy scenes you want to do? Like, maybe their confession?”
Hunter tensed at the thought of facing the girl next to him with such an idea. The confession scene was the most romantic chapter in the book, complete with a literal field of flowers and maze of shrubbery. All of which happened to be available at the cons location and just on the other side of the building. But, no, no. He couldn’t do that with Willow. It felt too intimate, even if it was just pretend.
He’d have to hold her at the hips while she laid her hands on his chest. They’d have to stare at each other with just a few hairs in between them. The book made it a point to mention that they’d have to feel each other’s breath, what if Hunter’s breath stank right now? Or worse, what if his hands slip and he accidentally touches something far more inappropriatethan her hips. That thought alone was enough to almost put him into cardiac arrest, face burning. He wonders if he could blame it on the heat of the sun.
“Awe! Hunter, you already got O’Bailey’s blush down!” Luz teased, not showing him any mercy.
Hunter hoped she could read minds as he glared at her. You better hide your toothbrush from me tonight, you hag.
“Oh, I can’t blush on command, would that ruin the photo?” Willow asked. Hunter wondered if she really believed his face was red on purpose or if she was attempting to save him.
“Accuracy is key,” Gus nodded, “I’m posting these bad boys, I can’t have that on my Instagram.”
It was at this moment that Hunter decided that these people, these wonderful, amazing people, are his new best friends in the entire world. He felt his body cool down in temperature as he crossed his arms, looking up at the sky.
Gus was the first to think of something, “Maybe you guys could do the rescue mission?”
Hunter knew exactly what he meant. He snapped his head towards him, nerves in his voice again, “The first one or the second one?”
“The second one!” Luz voted.
Gus hummed and looked Hunter up and down, as if sizing him up. For some reason, Hunter felt like he needed to stand taller and broaden out his stance in retaliation. The rescue mission scenes were pretty iconic when it came to the ship, and it happened to be one of the beginning moments of O’Baivy history as well as one of the ending moments.
The first rescue was Ivy to O’Bailey. He was falling to his death during a mission and Ivy had caught him in mid air over her shoulder using her plant powers. Not necessarily romantic, but it still sparked a debate as the author had specifically written O’Bailey to blush at the notion and dedicate a lot of detail to the otherwise blink and you miss it action.
The second rescue was much more romantic. It was O’Bailey’s turn to catch Ivy in mid air from being knocked over by an enemy. He held her bridal style and landed on the ground with enough fierceness to battle an army. When they looked at each other, the detail put into their gazes and expressions were far too much for some fans to bear.
Either option, someone was getting lifted. Either option, Hunter’s heart was going to hammer.
“I think Willow could take you.” Gus said suddenly, looking at said girl for confirmation.
Hunter looked at her too, only to see her shrug and nod in agreement, “Yeah, probably.”
“Lift him up! Lift him up!” Luz chanted, running towards them and jumping on the side of the fountain, “Oh, but do it up here! I can get a cool action shot and make it look like you’re in the air!”
With legs similar to soft butter, Hunter followed Luz’s instructions and stood on the ledge of the fountain. He offered Willow a hand out of habit, which she took graciously and pulled herself up. He wondered if she could feel his sweaty palms or if it was just in his head.
“Okay,” Hunter accidentally whistled through his front teeth as he let out a breath with his jaw clenched, immediately regretting the action. He fidgeted, clapping a hand over a closed fist in front of him, “so, how do you want support -”
Hunter’s sentence ended in a squeak as Willow grabbed him without warning and heaved him over her shoulder. She bounced him a bit to get him in a comfortable spot before looking at him over her other shoulder with a smile. Hunter was thoroughly impressed with the fact that she didn’t look like she was struggling to hold his weight at all.
“Fallin’ for me, O’Bailey?” She joked with the same giggle that went straight to Hunter’s stomach like the last time.
Hunter was a simple man. He had simple interests, simple habits, even simple dreams. He enjoyed feeling simple and unremarkable, but the emotions that were swirling in his chest right now were anything but. The idea of being thrown over a pretty girl’s shoulder was not a strange or unwelcoming thought in his head; Hunter had always been more physically attracted to people who were hefter than him. However, the idea of the notion was very different from the actual happenings of it.
Hunter was glad he was being lifted from the ground at this exact moment, because he’s pretty sure that his knees would have given out and he would have fallen right into the water. Amity would have been so pissed if she had to do his eyeliner a second time.
“Got it!” Luz announced, standing from her position and looking at the screen to see the many pictures of the pose she had somehow already taken. Wasn’t he only on her shoulder for a couple of seconds?
Apparently not. Willow lowered his feet to the ground with a sigh, rolling her arm a bit to stretch out the muscles. Hunter began to mutter an apology, but Willow was quick to shake her head, as if she was expecting it, “Don’t worry about it, I lift double your weight on a daily basis.”
That did absolutely nothing to water the desert in Hunter’s mouth.
His inability to form words was interrupted by Gus’ ooh’s and ahh’s. Hunter looked at him, who was peering at the camera in Luz’s hands over her shoulder, “These turned out awesome!” He admitted, pointing at the device. Hunter and Willow stepped off the fountain (Willow offered a hand to him this time, which he thought was kind of funny but also terrifying. He took it anyway because the smile on her face felt genuine and he thought that his legs were still at risk of giving out at any moment) and took position behind Luz as well, Willow struggling a bit more because of her lack of height compared to everyone else.
Luz handed her the camera, noticing the dilemma. Hunter and Gus switched to gazing over Willow’s shoulder in response as she flipped through each picture, “Wow, these are great!” Willow agreed, the smile on her face growing more and more with each picture she passed.
Hunter caught himself looking at the backside of her face instead of the camera at multiple points, blinking himself back to focus each time. It was like she was a giant magnet for his attention, what’s going on? He heard Luz clear her throat, causing him to look at her. She wiggled her eyebrows at him and he frowned.
“Hunter, do you have Instagram? Can I post some of these and tag you when I get some copies?” Gus asked. Hunter was pretty sure he saw actual comets in his eyes as he bounced with excitement.
“Oh, me too!” Willow joined in, turning around now so that the pair of them could give Hunter the exact same look.
He switched his gaze from one friend to the other, “Oh, uh, yeah, sure,” he nodded, “I can post some, too. It’d be nice to tag you guys.” For the third time today so far, he regretted leaving his phone in the hotel room. Maybe he should have brought it down. Seeing the motion, Gus and Willow took out their phones and prepared to type in Hunter’s user name. He waited a moment before he started to spell it out.
Halfway through, Gus lowered his phone with a confused frown, “Dude,” he started, causing Willow to look at him, then Hunter as well, “are you Rulers Reach fan?”
Hunter only nodded, but it caused such a violent reaction from Gus. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped, as if a leaf blower was pointed directly at his face, “No, way!” Gus looked down at his phone before showing it to Hunter, “Dude! I didn’t know I was talking to a Cosmic Frontier legend! I already follow you, see?”
The blond squinted at the tiny screen, seeing that Gus was, in fact, one of his many thousands of fans, “You never post pictures of your face,” he continued, “I had no idea! Wait!” Gus turned towards Luz, who waved at him, “You’re official Luzara! Why didn’t I realize this sooner!”
Luz looked cocky, “Ah, a man of culture, I see.”
Gus pushed out a disbelieving laugh, “Oh, my gosh. This is the best day of my life. My favorite series is getting another generation, I cosplayed with my best friend, and I hung out with not one, but two Instagram legends all day. Willow,” he dramatically leaned into Willow, who just smiled at him. She didn’t seem at all starstruck like Gus was, “is it my birthday? Please tell me it’s my birthday.”
“It’s not your birthday, Gus,” Willow laughed. Hunter and Luz did, too.
After a moment of geeking out, Gus unfollowed Hunter and then refollowed him so that he was at the top of Hunter’s notification list. Willow followed him (for the first time), too. Hunter promised them that when he gets back to the hotel room, he’ll add them back, as well as send the photos over when they were transferred from the camera to his phone.
Hunter wanted to keep hanging out with them. He wanted to get to know them more. He wanted to talk more about Cosmic Frontier, or literally anything else that would get them to stay. But Willow had answered a phone call from her dad, which led to her having to leave. Which meant that Gus also had to leave, since she was apparently his ride.
“I told my dads I’d be home by now,” She said with a frown, as if she was sad to part ways so soon, “so we made lunch plans. I’m sorry, guys, but I haven’t seen them in a while, so…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Luz said, standing next to Hunter with a smile on her face. She offered a hug to Willow and Gus, who accepted it gladly, “it was nice meeting you guys. Maybe we should do this again sometime soon?”
“Definitely,” Gus answered, and Willow nodded, and Hunter took that definitely as the final nail in the hopeful coffin that his heart decided to lie in.
He couldn’t hug them like Luz, not because he didn’t want to but because it felt strange to. So, he just offered a wave towards them with the biggest smile he could muster, which wasn’t as big as he wished considering the bitter sweetness of seeing the people he’s gotten along with so well all day leave. Willow and Gus, in sync as always, pulled him into a group hug.
Hunter hugged them back with hesitant movements, patting each of their backs three times before they pulled away from him. The four said their goodbyes once more, and Hunter and Luz waved at them until they were completely out of sight. Hunter let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding in.
Only to suck it back into his throat when he turned towards Luz to see the sheer evil on her face. Hunter knew that whenever he saw that look, there were only two things he could do. Run, or prepare for battle.
“You were so into Willow.”
It looks like, today, he was running.