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TEEN: From the Vast

Interlude III: Discharge


Interlude III: Discharge



“~One, two, up!~”

I lift the steel cabinet on the count of three. Built to withstand anything, awfully heavy; enough so to require three human men to carry safely, even when emptied.

Three human men, or one me.

“~Aight, same spot as before, Geiger.~”

All I can manage is a rough grunt as I slowly inch by towards the workshop’s entrance, hoping I don’t inadvertently bump into anything. With how empty this place is by now, though, that’s hardly a concern anymore.

The steps of thick boots on metal echo through the facility as I push on, the ambience eerily quiet. Without the reactor’s hum, without the whirl of the turbines, it’s reduced to little more than lost, confused stragglers stumbling blindly around a massive building of steel and concrete; once the largest power plant on this side of Unova. Once, my home.

Technically, it still is. I just don’t know for how long it’ll remain so.

We got the news about immediate decommissioning a couple weeks ago; most everyone left taken aback, often with curses. That group didn’t include me only by the technicality of my mouth being really unsuited to vocalizing the chorus of ‘fuck’s, ‘bastard’s, ‘motherfucker’s, and a myriad of other, more intense swears.

Electivire are good at many things, but that list doesn’t extend to knowing how to enunciate our ‘k’s.

It didn’t take long after that for the guys to realize that decommissioning had much more severe implications for some of us than for others. I couldn’t ask directly, but I thought about writing my questions out and presenting them to the boss. I didn’t even need to do so; the guys asked for me plenty of times.

Boss only answered with silence.

I try not to think about it all. Trying and succeeding are two vastly different things, and I know that fact well. I wish I could say I’m succeeding at not thinking about it. I’m hardly unused to being left in the dark about everything, to things happening about me without my knowledge, but... guys here got better about this over the years. Substantially so. Much better than I thought some of them would ever be, growing up.

Guess even the crankiest of bastards start seeing you as a person if you bring them coffee enough times, ha.

Before I know it, I’m behind the building; standing idly in place with the piece of furniture still in my arms. The truck driver stares at me uncertainly, his expression one I’ve seen again and again. Confusion and intimidation in equal measure, the kind that leaves one’s head blooming with questions without being able to vocalize any of them.

I just sigh to myself and put the cabinet down. I’ll deal with it later.

Used to keep boss company most lunch breaks when he went out for a smoke, and returning to the building’s comfort was always the best part of it. The air doesn’t get any warmer as I step in, the familiar industrial warmth absent. Expected, really.

Carcasses aren’t known for being too warm.

Shaking the thought aside, I lumber over back into the workshop, eying out the next cabinet to haul out. Before I get more than a couple of steps in, though, a voice catches my attention, “~Geiger, boss wants to—to speak with you.~”

I’ve known this man for twenty years and never have I heard his voice crack like this. My breath wavers as I turn towards him and nod, his gaze jumping back to me in concern a few times as he walks off to help with carrying furniture out. Guess my fate is decided.

My steps are slow as I climb the stairs up to the boss’s office, the rugged metal croaking underneath me with every step. There’s some comfort in the promise of finality, that no matter what, this will finally be it. Some. The rest is even more fear, fear I’ve grown increasingly unfamiliar with. A fire, a criticality incident, a wildling attack, even a terrorist operation—these are threats, these are scenarios, these are things one can prepare for and practice. And practice we did, again and again, the drills boring as grime but no less necessary as a result, and treated no less seriously.

There are no drills for this.

At last, I stand before the door to the boss’s office, gaze level with the metal name plate. Boss has a name, everyone does, even me; but his doesn’t matter. He’s been ‘boss’ for as long as I remember him, and ‘boss’ he’ll remain until the day either of us kicks the bucket. He speaks up before I can even get my second knock in, “~Come in, Geiger.~”

My body only barely fits through the door frame, tails wrapped around my upper arms to avoid incidentally scorching anything they brush by. Boss is busy doing the unthinkable—sitting at his desk, the office chair looking pristine. In front of him, more papers out at once than I’ve seen him handle in the span of a week.

He doesn’t look at me initially, eyes shuffling from one document to the next. Eventually, he sighs and stands up, the silver of his sizable beard the only hair remaining on his head. “~I’m... I’m sorry, Geiger.~”

I raise my eyebrow with a quiet grumble, unsure what he means. The situation is a mess, but, to the best of my knowledge, it blindsided him as much as everyone else here.

“~I know you’ve been curious about what’s gonna happen to you now, and the answers haven’t exactly been... forthcoming. And that’s on me. I’ve been... looking into things and gotten jack shit for it,~” he elaborates. It makes some sense but hardly tons, and he knows it. Guy taught me half the swears I know and there he is, lost at words, grumbling into his hand and stroking his beard. “~Let me be straight with you, Geiger. According to the procedure the higher-ups sent, I’m supposed to stuff you back into your ball, lock it tight, and ship you over to the new place you’d be working at. A plant on the other end of Unova, near Undella. Entirely different staff, it’d be all strangers. I... was absent last week because I flew over to talk to them in person.~”

One hand grips the edge of his desk, sunken eyes barely avoid narrowing.

“~They’re... fine men. Nothing wrong with them as workers from what I gathered. I brought up the subject of you, tried to... get a feel for how they are,~” he mutters. His gaze finally focuses on me, a tense expression conveying the truth before he even opens his mouth, “~It ain’t pretty. Could be just a bad first impression, but... reminds me of how we were when you were assigned to us way back when.~”

His attention slides down onto the floor again, the web of wrinkles twisting in regret. I’m of half a mind to come over and pat his shoulder, but hold myself back—he ain’t done yet, and hates being interrupted.

“~I’d rather spare you all that again. I... asked around. Everyone I could get my hands on. Whether there’s anything else that could happen to you, some other... outcome. Tried bringing other assignments, not in the field, maybe some other place that I could try to scout out, hell I even brought up taking you in myself for retirement—nothing. Course nothing... fucking, ‘company property’, say that to his fucking face you suited up cocksuckers...~”

The frustrated grumbles are more so boss’ style, as is the impotent bang on the metal desk that follows. As much as the option of him just out and adopting me took me aback, I don’t have too long to linger on it before he turns around and walks over to one of the drawers. He finds what he’s looking for instantly, but takes a while actually pulling it out, other hand clenching into a fist.

Outer shell made of stainless steel instead of the usual plastic, painted with red and white stripes, standard innards. Last time I’ve seen it was a few months ago for the annual health checkup; otherwise, he keeps it hidden behind piles of loathed paperwork. Alas, not anymore.

“~I’m... I’m sorry, Geiger. I wish there was another way.~”

I close my eyes and bow my head, bracing for the briefest instant of warm tingles before the device contains me. There’s no point in fighting it, I’m well aware. Either I get hurt, or the men in here get hurt; there just ain’t any other forward. Not in this world—

tap tap

My eyes snap open at feeling metal bump my forearm, then shoot wide at seeing just what it is. Boss’s arm is outstretched towards me; the ball rests on top of his palm. Ready to be grasped.

“~These fucking bastards may think they own you, but hell no, they don’t. Not if I have anything to say,~” he mutters. I stare, dumbstruck, gaze jumping back and forth between the ball and his expression, smirking and serious in equal measure. He nods at me as I eye the offering, all the implications surging through my head. “~The least I can do to make up for how we used to treat you, Geiger.~”

I can only weakly nod at that remark, the shock of it all still taking its time to finish spinning all the gears in my mind. The offer is too outlandish to respond to, especially once I consider all the consequences. Consequences which the boss has also thought about, some of his smile deflating as he speaks up again, “~I... I know it’s not exactly an easy decision. No matter how nasty the other guys would be towards you, it’d still be three hots and a cot, as opposed to whatever the wilds throw at you if you were to leave on your own terms. It’s up to you in the end, Geiger. In either case, I understand. Freedom’s call is beautiful and all that jazz, but most choose stability for a dang good reason. And they’re not the ones having to stare down at being out there in the wild by themselves.~”

He slowly retracts his arm as he speaks, eyes sticking to the floor again. I try to give it some thought, though before I can get too deep in, he speaks up again, “~I went to the library last night to look at one of those dexes—you fucking know it’s important if it makes me go to the fucking library, ha!~”

The moment of levity comes out of nowhere but is even more appreciated as a result; our combined laughter echoes through the increasingly decrepit building, relieving some of the pent up tension. I catch boss’ eyes being wet by the end, though whether he’s on the brink of tears of amusement or sadness I can’t tell. “~But, yeah. Looked up stuff about Electivire, and wild mons that live nearby. Couldn’t find anything that would pose much of a threat to you—you’re fucking strong and you know it, Geiger. You’ll be fine out there, I’m sure of it, though of course it’s gonna pale comfort wise. Again, It’s up to you in the end.~”

As I consider it, an unnerving detail comes to mind, one finger straightening out to point straight at him.

“~Me? Oh, they’ll absolutely come down on my ass for ‘losing’ you. And you know what? Fucking let them. Didn’t spend twelve fucking years being a tool in the army and thirty more being a tool here to not at least try to do some actual fucking good for once in my life. I’ll be fine, Geiger. I’m the last fucking person you should be worrying about.~”

I raise my eyebrow at that last remark, taking him aback a bit. Of course I’m gonna worry about him; he’s the closest thing I’ve had to a parent in here, even if it took him most of the decade to really start filling those shoes in.

“~I mean it, Geiger. I’ll get disciplined, get the book thrown at me, maybe sued for damages in the worst case—I don’t give a shit; I retire next year. I’m willing to tolerate a bit of discomfort if it means you’ll find some actual happiness in your one life, Geiger,~” he pauses and rolls his shoulders, before reaching out the ball towards me again. “~You deserve it.~”

The offer is nigh impossible to fully think through its implications. This place is all I’ve ever known, a cage gilded with oil, cigs and an occasional bit of booze. Not freedom, nowhere near to it, even after thirty years of people growing to think of me as their equal. I’m not, never could be, never will be. Not while remaining in this system.

Who is to say that I’ll find any joy on my own? Any safety? Strength is one thing, but it only accounts for so much, especially with my outdoorsman skills so lacking. Though... suppose the worst-case scenario, I can just ‘turn myself in’, and eventually end up back where I would’ve already been. Or not. Maybe they’d think me too dangerous to be let loose by then. There’s just... no way to know, is there?

There are no drills for life.

And yet, once it comes knocking, we gotta act all the same.

With a shaky hand, I grab the painted-over ball, the trinket near weightless in my grasp. Just metal, plastic, and some electronics. Tiny thing, nearly weightless, but still powerful beyond words, beyond anything moral.

I look up at the boss. He’s smiling at me, tension leaving his weathered face with each breath.

“~It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Geiger. I hope that, no matter what, you’ll find happiness somewhere in this cruel fucking world. Alright, let me sneak into storage, grab you some rations and whichever other gear, and lead you out—~” he pauses as I shake my head, usually narrowed eyes widening in confusion. The look only intensifies as I walk forward a step and place the ball down at his desk, his mouth open and about ready to speak, before I point one finger at the clock mounted on the wall. He asks, “~What? Yeah, the clock will go down too, but—~”

An idea strikes him and he breaks out into old, croaky laughter, growing in strength until he can’t resist slapping his thigh and pointing at me in an accusatory way. His gesture buckles under his amusement soon after and he continues, “~I see, I fucking see. Shift’s not over yet, eh? Aight then!~”

He turns around and grabs a printout on his desk; his pencil whizzing across the page as the items are checked off the list.

“~Done, done, done, secure the standard issue industrial Poke Ball with yadda yadda shut the fuck up. There, ‘item lost’. What next... right, gotta dismantle all the utilities in the canteen. Ready for that, Geiger?~”

I nod and grin, rolling my shoulders as I turn around and head for the door.

“~That’s what I wanna see. Let’s get a move on—there’s work to be done, after all.~”



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 16: Pretense


Chapter 16: Pretense



woof, woof woof?

“^Sigh... yes, you can stay and play with Bell,^” Marco answered.

Anne blinked a few times in confusion at the incomprehensible exchange as her brain played catchup. The Riolu suddenly showing up had startled everyone in the room, and she didn’t know what the pup’s words were, but the context let her infer enough to giggle along. Especially once the lil’ Ralts got to excitedly scrambling towards the edge of the bed.

“Yay, play!” Bell squeaked.

Yay indeed Bell, yay indeed.

Anne shyly observed the antics that followed, the two kids wasting no time before pulling each other in a big hug. The Riolu seemed to be approximately the Ralts’s age, and, of course, just as eager to play as he was. It only took them moments to go from hugging to roughhousing, Bell persevering valiantly despite his acute size disadvantage.

‘Physical play with a Fighting-type’ sounded more like a messed-up dare as opposed to an everyday fun activity for Anne. But, if everyone else’s reactions were any sign, it was at best unremarkable here. Enough so to where nobody but the pair of adults cared much anymore after just a few moments. And, once she got over Reya’s sudden appearance and the awkwardness of the group’s previous topic, Anne could join them in not caring, too.

Not being the immediate subject of a newcomer’s interest for once was very appreciated.

The loose leaves of paper being shuffled in front of her brought Anne’s attention back to the here and now. Cadence’s nudge would’ve almost looked accidental to the human girl... if not for it ever so coincidentally revealing the hidden work-in-progress drawing of the Kirlia herself.

The human girl giggled, making the Kirlia blush brightly. “~Okay, okay, I-I can continue on your sketch, Cadence, teehee.~”

Cadence was already flustered at her little gesture having been seen through; Anne’s comment only added more fuel for the fire of her embarrassment. The fairy looked away in embarrassment after scuttling closer to her new large friend. Once Elric had connected the dots himself, he chittered out loud, “What’s wrong, Cadenceeee~?”

“^Sh-shush, E-Elric...^”

Both the Gligar and the human laughed quietly at the flustered response. The latter put a pencil down and instead wrapped her good arm around the Kirlia, holding her close. She was of half a mind to chime in, but... nah. Cadence didn’t need any more embarrassment right now~.

As amusing as the situation was for everyone in the room who could spare the attention towards it, eventually some hearts began to melt, and the ones Anne expected the least at that. Elric rolled his eyes and scrambled over to his friend, making sure not to disturb anything as his chitin body embraced his denmate, classmate, and, most importantly, good friend.

No words were needed, only the gentle reassurance that despite all the amusement at her expense, nobody thought the Kirlia any less for the situation. And especially not the guest she looked up to. Much too easy for well spirited fun to end up in unpleasant territory by accident, and even the ability to read stray thoughts doesn’t prevent outcomes like that.

It’s only a small leap from “They’re just saying it to be nice” to “they’re just thinking it around me to be nice”, after all.

Once Cadence relaxed some, Anne let her go with one last hair ruffle; Elric taking it as a signal to get into position for observing the art about to happen. Marco and Cypress alike had to split their attention between the antics of older and younger bunches of kids. And, in the ghost’s case, also between keeping an eye for any unpleasant presences that could be approaching, and his own sheer exhaustion.

Even if the non-deathborn ghosts didn’t have the same habit of sleep as the deathborn ones, they still needed their rest. That was for him to take care of later, though. Here and now, he had the second class view of one particular human girl’s artistic efforts; the glide of colored sticks on a white, thin canvas producing very pleasant results. Even if he wouldn’t have normally thought of the Kirlia as particularly... colorful in appearance, Anne still used plenty of green tones as she colored in the hair and legs of the sketch, occasionally exaggerating for artistic impact.

Cypress might have been curious, but Cadence was enthralled.

She kept leaning forward, only barely avoiding obscuring Anne’s view of the underlying drawing. She couldn’t help it, really; this was amazing to watch. The most she’d ever seen herself depicted before was with a very simplistic outline on a couple communal structures, sometimes with a handprint, and once with a simple straw doll when she was still a Ralts. Those were neat, sure, but they paled when compared to being drawn by someone talented, and with so much detail.

It made her feel special.

She leaned her head on Anne’s side as the human worked on the drawing. The backdrop of combined Ralts and Riolu laughter off to the side left the atmosphere equal parts serene and exciting. The little she overheard of Anne’s thoughts was very technical—thinking of which shade to use and where, how hard to press, whether she should sharpen the colored sticks. As vague as that latter tangent was, the actual execution of that idea was much more curious.

Cadence had seen plenty of adults sharpen objects from time to time, be it with their fangs, claws, or a well applied Psycho Cut. But never with a small, brightly colored... trinket. Its exact method of work remained a mystery even as Anne used it, inserting the stick’s tip into it and giving it a few spins. A couple of shavings later, Anne pulled the now very sharp stick out of it, catching Cypress’ attention in particular. Wonder if something like that could be scaled up.

Before anyone could either ask Anne what she’d done or... about anything else, the human got back to work; older kids and adults keeping quiet for the time being. Nobody wanted to be the one to interrupt an artist, after all.

Anne took her time with the detail as their half of the room was plunged into a quiet, focused mood. At least, initially—once she had moved on from coloring Cadence’s hair to shading her horns, other, less technical thoughts began to creep into her mind.

The Kirlia found them more amusing than anything else—at least, initially. She often giggled inwardly at just how little some of her friends really understood what it meant to be a psychic, and much the same was true in Anne’s case. The over exaggeration of how much she could manipulate people mixed in with underestimation of everything else she could do, even without being particularly naturally gifted in anything but sensing emotions.

It was very hard not to feel Anne’s emotions this close to her. Any other psychic in her position would’ve been able to sense what the human felt almost as acutely, though.

These kinds of thoughts had a nasty habit of veering into... less pleasant topics, sooner or later, and it was also the case here. Anne might not have been as outright scared of their family as she once was, but her thoughts about being attacked were still unnerving. Even Bell could likely hurt her plenty; Cadence would’ve had no difficulty killing her there and then on a whim.

It was deeply chilling to think about, for both girls. The latter felt a small pang of discomfort at being thought of like that, at being imagined as a potential murderer... and she wasn’t the only one. Right after her mind had stumbled upon that unpleasant topic, Anne immediately shifted to feeling very self conscious about it. About having even theoretically accused the innocent, cuddly fairy beside her of ever doing something as abhorrent as that. The anxiety that followed was much more noticeable than even the unsavory thoughts; Anne’s hand shook as she tried to keep on coloring, second guessing her every move and thought.

The previous focused expression had soured into one of concealed distress; all the practice at keeping that emotion hidden made it almost unnoticeable to an outside observer. Unless one just noticed her eyes going wide. Or her racing heartbeat. Or the sludge rolling around inside her head. The human was at least somewhat aware of the latter, trying to force herself to stop feeling bad and focus on the drawing again. Predictably, it only barely worked. Maybe enough to keep it from being too noticeable to the two toddlers, but definitely not to the Kirlia.

And she wanted to do something about it.

What exactly, she didn’t know, and wished she had any ideas she was confident in. Maybe a friendly chat wouldn’t hurt? “^Anne?^”

Cadence’s voice startled the human; the trail of the reddish pencil almost escaping the confines of the linework. Despite that reaction, Anne seemed to ignore her, attempting to cover up her anxiety by focusing even harder at the task at hand, almost to the point of obsession. Cadence was no stranger to that state of hyperfocus, but this wasn’t it.

It was only about as effective of a disguise as trying to paint over a missing brick in the wall.

Still, startling Anne like that made Cadence feel rather bad, and she had no idea what to do now. Should she just try again? The constant guidance of her mom to never Calm Mind anyone without their consent rang loud and clear in the fairy’s head. But… at the same time, so did wanting to do just that, anyway. It really felt like Anne needed it, and with this instance revolving around what the Kirlia was and could do, she doubted her previous approach would work anywhere near as well the second time around.

All that was left was to try again, “^Anne? I-is everything okay?^”

Once more, the human paused at hearing that, weakly hidden discomfort threatening to spill onto her face. Didn’t help one bit with feeling self conscious, that’s for sure. Hopefully Cadence could help keep it all under wraps, if not from her uncle, then from others. “^Anne, nobody else can hear me right now. Just think about what you want to say, I-I’ll pick it up. A-are you okay?^”

As straightforward as her instructions felt like, Cadence knew from experience they were occasionally tricky for non-psychics to follow. For once, that wouldn’t be the case here; Anne’s coloring pace slowing to a crawl as she tried to gather her thoughts, “^I-it’s fine, Cadence...^”

“^But it’s not! I can feel that! What’s wrong, Anne?^”

More self-consciousness, a slight grimace creeping onto Anne’s expression. “^N-nothing, p-promise, everything’s alright...^”

As much as Cadence didn’t want to be blunt about it, it seemed like this was the only possible way forward. “^You don’t have to feel bad about thinking of me hurting you, I promise Anne...^”

Just like earlier with the torn door, Anne froze in place, and Cadence responded immediately with a tight, warm hug. She didn’t want to drag anyone else into a topic this unpleasant, but still wanted to help make the big friend feel better.

“^...I-I’m sorry,^” Anne whimpered, making the Kirlia redouble her efforts as determination burned bright inside her.

“^But you don’t have to be! You really did nothing wrong, Anne! I-I’m not gonna hold that against you...^”

As the fairy kept a close watch over Anne’s emotions, something else became apparent, souring some of Cadence’s enthusiasm. The fearful imagination that had ignited the runaway wildfire of anxiety was all but gone by now, but the realization of just how much her mind was being read in the moment had slithered in to replace it. It was... a weird thing to think about, scary even, not helping in this entire mess one bit.

And the worst part was that Cadence didn’t know how to respond to that. It’s not like she was trying to snoop on Anne’s thoughts... much. Of course she could sense things like that, especially from this close! But, yet again, what was normal to her, quite a few found disturbing.

What she was, quite a few found disturbing.

It was a hard lesson to learn, again and again; anxiety threatening to send her into the same mental pit as Anne had fallen into. But she couldn’t. She had a friend to help, and she was gonna help her, gosh darnit! “^Anne, I... I’m sorry for—for reading your thoughts like that. It’s really... unintentional most of the time, especially when we’re this close.^”

For once, her words wouldn’t have the human lock up even more. The older girl snuck a glance down at her before relaxing at the apology; the pencil resuming its glide on the page as Anne thought up a response, “^I-it’s a b-bit uncomfortable to th-think about...^”

“^I... I know. It’s uncomfortable for most; I’m... I’m well aware. I wish I knew what to say. It’s like... like hearing a quiet voice nearby. It catches your attention, you can’t not hear it unless you’re deliberately trying to ignore it. I-I can try to do that, if you want...^”

It was a rather depressing idea to consider. Cadence wanted people to like her, and she especially wanted Anne to like her. If it were to take having to pretend to not be psychic in her presence... then she was willing to try, as deeply uncomfortable as that idea felt.

Anne may not have been a psychic, but it wasn’t exactly difficult to pick up on how unpleasant that option was for the Kirlia and why. As weird as it was to think about, this... was normal for her. She trusted Cadence to not be acting with any malice here, that she wasn’t trying to excuse anything more nefarious, but... still.

Others hearing her thoughts felt eerie, her imagination providing her with a mental image of a transparent skullcap, everything inside visible. Every hope, every doubt, every displeasure, about herself or others. Every fear.

In a place like this, the latter felt especially scary to consider, as both girls were finding out. As far as Anne went, people already had plenty of good reasons to despise her, and realizing that she was afraid of them for no reason was just a Cheri on top. Who in the world would accept, let alone like her, knowing what kinds of prejudiced thoughts could swirl around in her head—

“^I would!^” Cadence interrupted, suddenly so much louder and eager than before. The human glanced at the Kirlia in surprise as the latter continued, “^I mean it Anne, it’s really alright! You’re... you’re not the only person who has these thoughts, f-far from it. They... they don’t feel nice, but I really don’t hold them against people, and especially not against you. I can only imagine how scary this must be, this... powerlessness. A-and that’s after all the pain you’ve been through, a-and mean parents, and...^”

The Kirlia had no more words in the moment, expressing what she wanted to convey in a much more acute way. Her hug was as tight and as big as her tiny body could manage. Anne let go of the pencil to return it, finally dropping all pretense that things were alright. Thankfully for them both, Elric was too confused to speak up right away. Even once he’d found the words, though, seeing a few tears threatening to roll down the girls’ cheeks discouraged him further.

The two held each other for a while, fears and insecurities yearning for and being soothed by each other’s comfort. As different as they were, as their worries were... maybe they had more in common than either of them could’ve guessed. And, for once, it was Anne that spoke up, one part of Cadence’s words catching her attention in particular, “^I-I’m sorry p-people are afraid of you, Cadence. They shouldn’t be, you’re really nice, a-and cool.^”

“^So are you, Anne!^” the Kirlia insisted, “^I-I wish I could draw anything like you do; it’s so pretty and awesome and—^”

“^B-but it’s nothing special, plenty others c-can draw like this and even much, much better. You’re special, and can do all these cool things, l-like—I would’ve fallen a-and gotten hurt if you hadn’t saved me!^”

“^But that isn’t special, either. Any Psychic c-could’ve done that...^”

“^Anyone half decent at drawing could’ve d-drawn this sketch.^”

“^I—I don’t care, you were the one who drew it!^”

“^A-and you were the one who helped me out earlier.^”

For a few moments, the two remained at an impasse, equally flustered as they held each other tight, sniffling any budding tears away. After a few long moments, Anne whispered, “^You’re really cool, Cadence.^”.

“^And so are you, Anne.^”

The tweens continued their mutual embrace, veiled discomfort giving way to much more noticeable reassurance and relief, together with a few stray tears. As weird and scary, or as pathetic and off-putting as they might have thought they were, the other’s unconditional awe and interest overcame these feelings, bit by bit.

And this time, everyone noticed, even those without any psychic gifts.

“...are they alright...?” Cypress whispered as quietly as he was capable of. Marco answered with a wordless nod, attention split between watching over the little ones as they called a temporary ceasefire,

And being so, so proud of his niece.

“Cadence! Are you okay?” Bell squeaked.

His sister squirmed while Anne broke into giggles, holding the little psychic closer as she answered, “~W-we’re okay now, I-I think. We both felt... rather bad earlier, but it’s alright now.~”

The Ralts accepted Anne’s response, about ready to return to his antics... but Reya had a different reaction. Suddenly, this odd, tall person she’d noticed in her peripheral vision was much more noticeable now, and apparently felt bad. The situation called for her intervention, and it was an intervention she was more than eager to provide every time.

Hugs.

Right as Anne began to let go of the Kirlia, she held her tight out of reflex at her entire body being suddenly lifted. The change in perspective made her freeze with a gasp, the briefest instant of cold anxiety going through her before the rest of her mind chimed in with what it was feeling. Namely, a pair of small paws wrapped around her midriff by which she was being currently held.

And then, shortly after, also by telekinesis here and there, Marco’s intervention helping make Reya’s introduction more pleasant.

“Hiiiiiiii!” a very young, very girly voice greeted. It wasn’t exactly difficult to connect it to the Riolu that had lifted her entire body a foot into the air, the sudden motion rolling a hefty bit of her t-shirt up. The voice couldn’t have sounded older than five, putting it in the same approximate age and cuteness bracket as Bell.

Thoughts about how strong the lil’ pup was while Anne’s soft, squishy body was being held by her didn’t help, though.

Thankfully, the elevated hug wouldn’t last much longer. The area that Reya had held her by felt sore as the human released a breath she wasn’t even aware she was holding. Cadence wasted no time before intervening to help with the soreness, following what her grandma had taught her while Anne finally responded, “~H-hello! Y-you must be Reya, right?~”

Excited nods and tail wagging so fast it was little more than a blur behind the Riolu—yep, dead on.

“~I-I’m Anne, it’s nice to meet you!~”

The human was of half a mind to reach out to the mighty pup with her good hand for a handshake, but eventually reconsidered. Instead, she opted for something that would hopefully be received just as well. And indeed, it turned out Reya did like her pets, her tail somehow wagging even faster in response.

Anne was so amused she didn’t even notice Bell having made his way back onto the bed with his uncle’s help. Predictably, the Ralts loved to see his friends becoming friends, expressing his satisfaction with a loud squeak—at least, before something amusing caught his attention.

Right as Anne was winding down her pets, she felt an unexpected touch on her front, doubling over out of reflex. Nope, no immediate danger to her vulnerable, soft stomach this time. Just a toddler that had stuck his hand into her belly button.

“Hehe, funny!”

Who could’ve known that the funny bone was in the navel.

Anne giggled at Bell’s amusement over her very unimpressive body. She was grateful that he didn’t continue it for any longer, lest it became uncomfortable. Right as she was about to smooth out her ruffled shirt and cover her stomach once more, Elric spoke up, catching her attention, “What’s that?”

“~What?~”

Anne had no idea what the bat was referring to, looking over her arms just in case. Alas, they wouldn’t be where the strangeness was located after all. A pink pincer soon tapped the soft skin near her belly button, the odd texture sending shivers down her body. She remained none the wiser, squinting at her stomach and trying to find what she expected to be a stain of some sort, but no such a thing was present.

Nope, the answer was much more banal, and yet veered into much weirder territory.

“^This... hole? I-is that a wound?^” Cadence asked, concerned, her own pointing hand finally making Anne realize what all this was about. The ‘wound’ possibility caught everyone else’s attention, Marco’s gaze narrowing as he imagined just what brutal injury could’ve left a scar like that.

Good riddance to her worthless excuse of a human family.

As correct as that thought and general hunch were, they didn’t quite extend to this specific anatomical curiosity. The realization clicked together in Anne’s mind almost audibly, followed by an explanation in a raised voice, “~OH! No no, it’s not a wound, it’s j-just my belly button.~” The second part of her explanation clarified absolutely nothing, and the human knew that. Her mind searched for the right words before coming up with something hopefully reasonable. “~I-it’s normal for humans. It comes from—~”

It was at this exact moment when Anne realized just how much ground she’d have to cover to make sense of her words, the reminder that mons didn’t give live births batting that whole attempted lecture out of her mind with enough force to end up with a home run. If she wanted to explain something as silly as belly buttons, she’d need to go through both the pregnancy, and the little of the queasy anatomy involved that she really understood.

One icky sex-ed class convincing her to never have biological children of her own was enough, thanks. She’d rather not inflict that kind of knowledge on anyone else.

“~U-Umm... it’s normal,~” she repeated. Cadence and Marco didn’t need to know about the relevant concepts to pick up on how uncomfortable explaining this would’ve been for Anne; both of them were more than satisfied with this explanation if it meant avoiding discomfort.

Elric, however, wasn’t privy to that fact, “But it looks so weird! Is it like a—”

“^NO, EWWWWW!^” the Kirlia squealed, catching onto her friend’s idea before he’d even vocalized it, making him giggle at her squicked out reaction.

“~I-it’s just an... indentation. It doesn’t do anything,~” Anne explained, hoping it would prevent any more infantile wondering.

“Ya sure? It really looks like a—shlmsdlfkjsdfSLSKDFJSDL!”

Anne stared, stunned, as Cadence Psychic’d Elric’s mouth shut mid-sentence; the incoherent mumbling that followed sending the little ones into a laughing fit. Part of the human really wanted to know just what his idea was and just how bad must it have been for the Kirlia to react like that. But only a part, most of her content avoiding accursed knowledge.

“^Come on, you two,^” Marco chided.

“^Okay, uncle...^” / “Okay, Mr. Marco...”

The Gallade sighed at having to diffuse the childish situation. Deep down, he was grateful towards Cadence for intervening when she did, but he had to maintain pretend impartiality. A small, vestigial bump in the stomach wasn’t all that there was to be seen, though, Anne’s rolled-up shirt letting him notice something else, something more... concerning.

“^Are those... ribs?^” he asked, catching Anne’s attention and making her glance down at her exposed torso. And indeed, a couple of lower ribs were visible, poking through the skin, but thankfully only them.

“~Umm... yeah,~” Anne confirmed, confused about the confusion in the Gallade’s voice. From what she’d remembered learning about, many mons shared the approximate human skeleton, ribs included, so they shouldn’t have been surprising—

“^Should they be poking out like that?^”

Oh.

Marco words had drawn the rest of the room’s attention over to the area in question, though its significance was lost on the kids. At least, aside from Anne, the girl looking away as she got the implication, “~P-probably not. I’m just... really thin. Probably too thin...~”

Marco’s worry was confirmed. He looked at the human with concern as Elric spoke up again, “Sounds like you need to visit Holly some more, hehe! Time for a second lunch?”

“~I-I don’t think I’ve had the first one. Or breakfast...~”

The room immediately went quiet at that, Elric taken aback by that in particular. It was well after noon already! “Whaaaat!? But it’s already so late in the day! I would’ve been screaming in hunger by then!”

All the while, Cypress kicked himself at not noticing that in time; the very simple truism of ‘living beings need food’ somehow slipping by unnoticed in the mess of Anne’s situation. Though, Elric’s remark brought up a good, if odd point. “Why didn’t you say anything, dear Anne...?”

Anne squirmed at all the surrounding concern. The answer to Cypress’ question was awkward and unpleasant, forcing her to package it in… softer language. “~I-I’m just used to not eating much.~”

“This isn’t just ‘not eating much’, my dear...”

“~...o-or going days without eating,~” she admitted.

“But why? Aren’t you hungry?” Elric asked.

“~I’m—I’m used to hunger. I-I don’t r-really notice it anymore...~”

It didn’t exactly take a mastermind to piece the details together. Marco felt the same vindictiveness towards her family as before, but now with a dash of wanting to comfort Anne some more, somehow. He might not have been in the right position to act on that, but Cadence was. She only needed to glimpse her uncle’s feelings to realize what was up for herself too, her embrace redoubling in strength.

Didn’t take a mastermind, but some needed to have the truth spelled out to them.

“But how? Did your human family not feed you or something?” the bat continued.

Before anyone could chide him for continuing further into what was clearly an unpleasant topic, Anne replied first, “~P-pretty much, yeah...~”

For once in his life, the Gligar was left speechless, not expecting such an absurdly cruel possibility to ring true. Even if he wasn’t too familiar with the feeling of shame, he sure felt it now, it and affection; scrambling over to Anne’s free side and contributing with his own hug.

“Sounds like a meal is in order...” Cypress murmured.

“^Indeed. Let me go and grab something—^”

“^Oh, can I go too, uncle!?^” Cadence chimed in.

Marco wasn’t sure how to react to his niece’s eagerness, even if he applauded her wanting to help her friend. He could more than likely haul the entirety of Holly’s pantry in here with his bare arms, if needed. Help wasn’t really necessary... but why not. Let’s let her help and feel good about it. “^Hmmmm, sure. Come Cadence, let’s grab us all a nice, big meal, especially Anne.^”

“^YAY! We’ll be back soon Anne, hopefully the hunger won’t be too bad until then!^”

The human herself was a bit taken aback at the sudden intervention, but... couldn’t deny that it all felt nice. To be cared for like that and to get to fill her tummy a bit. She still didn’t handle excess attention being placed on her well, but as long as it remained this caring, she wouldn’t mind anywhere near as much as she usually did.

With how much Cadence adored her little drawing, it was probably best to wait until she was back before continuing with it, heh. That wasn’t an issue, plenty of other things to do, and kids to chat with, after all! Who knows, maybe Reya would enjoy a sketch too?

“~R-Reya, want me to draw you?~”

woof, woof?

Oh.

That... was an issue. Being left without Cadence or Marco for a moment wasn’t the end of the world, but being left without a translation... was a different matter. Anne had already been in this spot before; she knew nothing bad would happen. Still... there was something unnerving about being left with superpowered children and no way to communicate with them, or to convey asking them to stop if needed.

Guess screams will work for that too, but it might be too late at that point.

woof?

Before that vicious train of thought could threaten to swallow Anne whole, Reya’s bark caught her attention, the Riolu now on her lap. To the best of the human’s ability to tell, she was concerned, which... aww. “~I-I’m okay Reya, just... feels a bit scary with nobody understanding me anymore.~”

Even if that was the case, speaking like she normally did proved to be rather soothing in itself. It really helped, even if it was just playing pretend, and so did Reya’s adorable head tilt in response. A smile broke through Anne’s prior nervousness as she reached to pet the pup. And once she’d done that, the Ralts wanted in on that too, scrambling in on her lap beside his friend, and even Elric wouldn’t say no to some human affection.

Hugpiles, an ever effective antidote to anxiety.

The Gligar’s chittered comment soon kicked off an entire conversation between himself and the pair of younger kids. It was amusing to hear Bell speak like this, his high-pitched boyish voice becoming little more than squeaks and an occasional baby gargle, the Ralts getting an extra portion of affection each time he spoke. Which only made him squeal each time, teeny body splatting on Anne’s front and hugging her as much as it could. Wonderful, each and every time.

Yeah, suppose she could just rest like this for a while.

In time, Anne had even gathered enough courage to close her eyes for a moment. She almost took off her glasses too, if not for the Riolu’s accidental burst of strength being liable to turn the entire trinket into a pile of shattered glass and metal shavings.

Sorry Reya, you’re a wonderful lil’ pup, but the ability to see is more important.

As Anne chuckled at her unspoken joke, having long since tuned out the incomprehensible conversation, a movement against her side caught her attention. Reya was shuffling weirdly, as if trying to peek around her. It was quite cute. A couple pets towards the puppy had her squirm, but her focus remained where it was previously aimed at.

Was there something odd behind her? Might as well take a—

Ember was moving.

A switch audibly toggled in Anne’s head as that singular realization took over the entirety of her mind. Her good arm immediately started to gently, yet firmly, push the other kids off her lap and clear some more space on the bed. The Braixen was shaking softly in her shawl, and whether it was in fear, hunger, or pain, Anne could not tell.

Couldn’t tell, but wanted to help.

Within moments, Anne had shifted over to her best friend, laying down beside her and sneaking her good arm underneath the Braixen’s body to hold her close. She heard quiet whines and mumbles, together with an occasional strained breath, the sounds conveying both that her beloved vixen was probably awake, and that she was not feeling good in the slightest.

“~I-I’m here Ember, I’m here...~” she whispered. The shaking fox first froze, and then shuffled towards her at hearing that, turning around with slow, staggered motions.

With every little slide, more of Ember’s snout came into view. And, with it, so did the clearly visible pain, winces and grumbles constantly streaking across her face. As much as the firefox hurt, it absolutely paled compared to finally seeing her human awake and beside her once more. She yelped, the sound one Anne remembered well despite all the time that had passed. Before the human girl knew it, she was being held tight with very warm, very shaky arms. Ember’s intermittent winces had turned into quiet growls and woofs, some sort of speech she couldn’t understand but which had reached deep inside her, regardless. Tears ran down their faces as Anne’s brown eyes met Ember’s singular red one, the resulting embrace as tight as both battered girls could manage.

“~I-I love you Ember, I’m here...~”

Some of the fox’s vocalizations were clearly words, but the rest equally clearly conveyed pain. Anne knew just what to do, hand reaching up to stroke the fox between her ears; hoping that despite their suffering, she could help somehow. Just like she used to do, again and again.

For a few moments, the two just held each other, words simultaneously incomprehensible and conveying everything in the world; the sheer outpouring of love and comfort especially clear to the toddlers. Anne wasn’t considering letting go of Ember for the next, preferably forever, but her discomfort was obvious and very worrying. She wouldn’t wake up for so long earlier, and now she was in pain, the thoughts of what it all could mean scaring Anne.

She wouldn’t have to wait long for help, thankfully.

Cypress’s whispered, drawn out voice caught both girls off guard. The inseparable pair looked up at the ghost through teary eyes; the Mismagius’s yellow eyes focused firmly on the Braixen. From the little that Anne could make out, he’d just asked her a question of some sort—and if Ember’s shaky nodding was any sign, she’d just agreed.

A familiar, ethereal chant followed as Cypress rested one of his tentacles on Ember’s forehead and the other on his side. For a few moments, nothing happened, the piercing tune continuing until, at last, the Braixen’s Pain was Split. Both she and the Mismagius jumped at the sensation, the latter immediately reaching towards his head as his entire body shriveled up, yellow eyes wide and mouth left slightly agape. Whether he even needed to breathe, Anne didn’t know, but it looked like he was doing just that, and heavily while at it. He’d only forced out a couple of short words before floating away towards the entrance to the room, outside of either girl’s field of view, and then out of it.

Before the two girls knew it, they were left on their own again, with only each other to look at. But now, with Ember in the condition to do more than whine quietly and cry in pain. Anne had no idea what just happened, but deep down she didn’t care, redoubling her hugging efforts and bringing her head to the smaller vixen’s shoulder, her comforting whispers continuing.

“~I-I’m so glad to see you feeling better, Ember... I-I love you, I’m sorry f-for leaving you at that shelter, I know it was scary but—~” she apologized before the vixen’s quiet growl cut her off.

The Fire-type finally had the strength to hold her best friend closer; to return all the physical affection she’d been provided over the years, at last. Anne kept sniffling all the while, relief, comfort, and apology all welling up within her. An uncountable number of words she wanted to say, what she’d been wanting to say for as long as they’d known each other. It was so much Anne almost didn’t notice Ember’s warm paw sneaking its way up the back of her head, the pleasant warmth combining with soft fur making her squirm. “~H-hehe, t-tickles...~”

Did she want to return the pets after all these years now that she finally could? That’s so sweet of her, goodness—ow.

Anne didn’t expect the blissful touch to suddenly be cut off by a stinging sensation where Ember had touched her; a harsh wince interrupting her train of thought. It wasn’t even a burn or anything; maybe she’d caught something in here? Hopefully not. Ember’s headache looked so terrible—

“^Anne?^”​

...

The voice she’d heard was a bit gruffer than her own, slightly huskier, but, at the same time, unmistakably girly and her age. Anne reeled back, staring wide eyed at the vixen’s face, shock turning into joy at seeing the same happen on Ember’s end.

“~E-Ember?~”​

A slow, firm nod from the vixen.

“~EMBER!~”​

Anne’s eyes teared up as her heart sang in joy. Her embrace immediately redoubled in strength, getting absolutely everything the battered human still had in her. And, moments later, her effort was returned in kind; Ember’s squeal turning into a quiet but excited ‘awoooo’ at her telepathy working out despite her utter exhaustion.

“~E-Ember, I-I’m so happy to h-hear you, I—~” Anne whispered. There weren’t enough words in Unovan to describe even a fraction of the turmoil she had been through without her best friend by her side—but it didn’t matter anymore, not now, not ever again. They had each other once more. Ember was back with her. She was back with Ember. Everything would be okay. “~I-I love you, Ember...~”

“^I love you too, A-Anne! I-it’s been so long, a-and you’ve grown so much!^”

“~I think you grew up a lot m-more,~” Anne giggled.

Ember was much too tired to even pretend to not have found the joke funny. Her barked laughter filled the clinic’s room before Anne’s joined it soon after, the duet as sudden for onlookers as it was deeply, profoundly relieving for the participants. Even after it had eventually calmed down, the girls kept giggling from time to time, the mix of emotional high and physical exhaustion clear to see for all.

And nobody minded, mostly because they had found something else to occupy themselves with. The girls neither noticed nor cared about that, though. Their hug continued as Anne’s thoughts ventured towards her earlier whispered apology; several tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “~I-I’m so sorry for leaving you a-at that shelter...~”

“^It’s okay Anne, I-I promise! Y-you wanted to save me, a-and... you did,^” Ember reassured. She could only faintly remember her own distress, the fresher, complete perspective replacing it all in her mind.

It was such a weird sensation, to suddenly remember so much more than just what she did or thought. If anything, it only made it obvious just how much her human had loved her. The awareness that she used to not remember Anne was present somewhere in her head, but again, it paled in importance to everything else going on at the moment. It was probably just stress and despair, anyway.

She couldn’t wait to tell her mom; finally introduce Anne to her.

“~I-I’m glad you found a home here, y-you really deserve to be happy—~”

“^A-and so do you, Anne! Oh, maybe you could stay with me and my mom a-after you get better?^” Ember asked, eyes lighting up with excitement. After all, of course Anne would stay for good. The only real question as far as Ember was concerned was ‘where’.

Anne was not opposed to that idea in the slightest; sharing a home with Ember again was one of her closest held dreams ever since they had to separate. Though... ‘mom’? “~I-I’d love to, Ember. D-did you find your mom here?~”

“^No no, she adopted me, she’s n-not my biological mom. She’s a Delphox, a-and has been helping me with learning my moves, a-and telepathy and letting me talk to you now, a-and so much more, and—^” Ember paused, but she knew full well she could go on for much longer than that. Her mom meant so much to her; she loved her almost as much as she loved Anne. She might not have liked humans much, but there was no way she’d say no to Anne, not after everything they’ve been through, right? “^I-I love her a lot, and I love you.^”

Anne’s smile grew as she listened in, a one-armed hug tightening at hearing all the good things that her friend had experienced in the meantime. Ember deserved them all, deserved everything in the world. “~I-I love you too, Ember. I missed you so much...~”

The Braixen’s embrace tightened for a moment before loosening just enough to let the two lean back and look each other in the eyes. Tears, exhaustion, fluster and smiles all combined into a soggy, blissful mess. Two soggy messes meant for each other—

Woof.

The bark was very similar to Reya’s at a glance, but much, much lower in pitch, making Anne jump. No way it could’ve been Reya making that kind of noise. Wonder who was—

A Lucario stood by the entrance to the room, Cypress hovering next to them. Their call might have chiefly caught Reya’s attention, but their own focus was unmistakably on Anne; narrow red eyes staring at her. Through her, freezing her to the very core. Reya clearly noticed the sensation too, glancing over at her before another rough bark made her resume her descent from the bedding, followed by a dash over to what was presumably her parent.

For once, Anne really wished she was a psychic, just so that she could figure out whether that Lucario only looked furious, or whether they were actually angry at her. And, if it was the latter, what she’d done wrong this time to have caused it.

She must’ve botched something, right? Something small but offensive, no doubt. M-maybe she wasn’t meant to pet Reya like that and it was really insulting in hindsight? Probably something to do with some sort of etiquette. She should’ve sat up or stood up and bowed when she saw them, and not doing that was unknowingly a great offense. Something like that—no matter what, though, she messed it up; she made them angry at her, she’d caused it, she deserved it, she—

A sudden, tight hug from behind. Ember’s warmth shook her out of her spiraling anxiety, letting her finally see that the Lucario and Reya had left at some point. “^Shhhh, shhhh, i-it’s okay Anne, it’s okay, you didn’t do anything wrong, I-I promise.^”

Ember’s reassurance had the human curl up a bit, the fright still coursing through her veins. The Braixen kept trying to help with yet another hug, yet more pets, desperate attempts to comfort her best friend—just like she herself had been comforted so many times.

“~Wh-why did he look a-at me like that...~” Anne mumbled, terrified.

“^Th-that was Mr. Lariat; he’s always gruff like that. Y-You did nothing wrong, I promise Anne...^”

Even Ember’s warmth and explanations took their time melting through the utterly freezing glare that still lingered in Anne’s mind, but gradually, second by second, they slowly managed. Once Anne no longer felt like she’d been immobilized with a Mean Look, she shakily turned back towards her best friend, letting the vixen administer all the warm affection she was capable of. A whole heaping lot of it; learned over the many, many years of being held and pet by the very same human she was now trying to comfort.

“^It’s okay Anne, it’s okay. N-nobody will hurt you here,^” Ember reassured. Anne nodded shakily, her breath finally beginning to even out as Ember dispensed her love, soft fluff feeling softer still by the moment. “^I-I won’t let anything happen to you, Anne, I promise...^”

I promise...

The words finally broke through the last of Anne’s anxiety-induced paralysis; the one good arm holding the Braixen tight enough to knock the breath out of her for a moment. “~Th-thank you, Ember—~”

squeak!

Anne might have not understood what Bell just shouted about, but Ember sure did. The louder noise was followed by a back and forth between the Ralts and the Gligar. Each bit was just as incoherent to the human as the last one, while Braixen looked like she was only barely succeeding at holding in laughter—and eventually, failed at that; her soft barks music to her friend’s ears.

She couldn’t remember ever hearing Ember laugh like that, and now she wanted to never forget that sound.

It took the vixen a moment or two to realize that her friend had no idea what was going on. The thought of how dumbfounding all of this must’ve been to an onlooker sent another wave of amusement through her. Instead of trying to answer that confusion, though, she helped Anne see for herself, slowly sitting up together with her before pointing a shaky paw towards the nearby antics.

Elric was busy exploring his more creative side, picking Bell to inspire his first ever creation. Unfortunately for the bespoke Ralts, said creation involved him having been drawn with a bowl cut large enough to cover almost his entire body, only his feet visible from underneath all the hair.

Pfft.

Moment by moment, Anne joined in on the group’s giggles. Her hiccupy, kettle-like laughter was much more pleasant to the ear, and just different enough from the rest to catch Bell’s attention. As loudly as he’d squeaked in protest at the caricature of himself, he now realized that there was an actual artist in the room, someone who wouldn’t draw him this wrong—his hair wasn’t this big!

Bell wasted no time scrambling over to the human and squeaking out his request to exactly zero comprehension; teeny arms lightly patting Anne’s thighs for emphasis. The contrast between the apparent seriousness of his words and the adorableness of everything else about him added further fuel to the fire of the girl’s laughs, especially once Ember provided the well needed translation, “^He’s asking you to draw him, but nice, not l-like Elric, hahaha.^”

She had another drawing to finish first, but sure wasn’t opposed to that idea. Right as she was about to ask the Braixen to translate her words back, she realized it wouldn’t be needed.

The room had smelled the pair’s return before they saw them.

The Gallade was carrying several large bowls of roasted, spiced berries and what looked like the most delicious mashed potatoes Anne had seen in her life. Cadence, on the other hand, was levitating a bag with a small mountain of pastries, sweet and savory alike from what the rest of the room could make out.

Anne wasn’t used to neither this quantity nor quality of food; her school lunches anemic and only technically edible. This smelled like something out of a restaurant, like something a small army of chiefs had spent hours on each. “~I-is that all f-for us?~”

“^Indeed, Anne. Good afternoon Ember!^” Marco greeted.

“^Uncle Marco had to stop Holly from making even more! When he’d told her that your family didn’t feed you well, she started cooking so fast and so much she almost had a fire in her kitchen! Oh oh, hi Ember!^”

“^If only it was just one fire...^” the Gallade grumbled.

Most of the room laughed at that clarification as Anne stared dumbstruck at all the food, latent hunger suddenly growing much, much harder to ignore. The firefox beside her huddled closer beside her as she waved at the pair of returning psychics, gathering the words to respond to the greetings up before the lil’ Ralts went through with his request first, “Anneeeee, can you draw me nice?”

His repeated question snapped the human out of her daze. Anne was about to respond before the Gallade in the room cut her off, “^Bell, how about we all eat something and then Anne can go back to drawing you all?^”

The Ralts gave that option ten seconds of the most intense thought in his teeny life before expressing his agreement with a loud, happy squeak; his attention immediately redirected over towards the freshly brought foodstuffs.

Yeah, that sounded nice.

That sounded very nice.



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Chapter 17: Uncertainty


Chapter 17: Uncertainty



It took Aria a good while to speak up again after her unintentional faux pas.

Inviting wildlings to rest and maybe even stay in their safe haven was one thing, one that not a single sensible soul in the village would ever object to. Doing so with one of them hating and the other fearing humans, with Anne around, was another.

She didn’t want anything to happen to Anne, but the pair of ghosts clearly needed help, too. If she just kept the truth hidden and hoped things would work out, they’d probably freak out upon realizing that there was indeed a human around, and perilously close at that. Best case, they’d just leave there and then, and the worst case...

Despite Safeguard’s protection, a dreadful chill went through Aria’s horns at the thought. She supposed there really was no way out of this conundrum but forward. “^There is something I need to confess to, regarding the settlement we’re heading towards.^”

Aria kept staring straight on as the group made slow progress through the near-uniform snow-covered woods. Yaksha knew better than to pause just because of something being brought up and marched on. The same couldn’t be said for Sage; the girl left scrambling to catch up after her brief stop.

“And that would be?” the Banette asked.

Time for the big revelation, and hope that they wouldn’t take off into nothingness there and then. “^There is currently a human staying there. One.^”

Out of her view, the Banette’s gaze narrowed as the Phantump let out a small, terrified squeak, immediately leaning into her guardian. Aria might not have seen it, but she most definitely sensed it, a deep-seated part of her wanting to drop everything else and comfort the scared girl, just as it did with Anne. They felt so similar.

And yet, were so crucially different.

“That’s an important detail to hide from us.” Yaksha grumbled, his accusatory tone neither missed nor unearned.

The Gardevoir slowly nodded before continuing, “^I know. I was uncertain how to best bring her up.^” Aria felt Sage noticeably relax at that mention, but didn’t have the time to delve deeper into that observation. The hauntling’s guardian still expected answers, and yet again, the truth was the only answer the Gardevoir had. “^She’s a young girl, far from an adult. Ended up under our care after running away from an abusive home and getting grievously injured, and may stay there for good, should things work out.^”

Putting it in the most direct way thankfully worked to break through Yaksha’s immediate scepticism. Or, at least, some of it. Noticeably less suspicion in his mind, though still a fair amount of doubt and cold calculation. Unfortunately, even with that caveat, the Banette’s response was what Aria hoped to avoid, “You’re making a mistake. Sage, let’s head out of—”

“B-but Mr. Yaksha!” Sage cried.

“What?”

“Y-you’re still hurt!”

“Better me than you, kid.”

“I-I’ll be okay, I promise!” she pleaded, finally making a dent in her guardian.

Yaksha was of half a mind to keep up the argument, to try keeping Sage safe from her fear despite her best efforts. One human child without their wretched balls wouldn’t be a threat to even her, let alone them both; he knew that well. Even beyond that, though, he still wanted to keep going. He had already been slowly falling apart before this accident. His state was the very last thing either of them should care about.

She deserved better than humanity, and he was determined to deliver, even if it killed what remained of him.

But... it felt different this time. There was a steadfastness to her words, her posture. She kept affirming her decision with firm, full body nods even after he’d turned to look at her. Suppose he could stop by to get patched up, especially if he’d be there beside her to protect her should that human dare show up...

“You don’t have to do this, Sage,” he remided.

“But I’ll be okay! I-I’ll have you!”

The Banette chuckled, the sound mixing with metallic clings of unraveling zipper teeth. He found her conviction adorable in the most condescending way, going through all the ways that decision could go so very wrong in his mind. All the ways she could get overwhelmed and panic like she’d done so many times in the past.

All the ways in which she’d be left withdrawn in her stump, too afraid to move, reliving her death again.

Suppose there was only so much he could do to dissuade her in the end. He was her guardian, no matter what. With the expected safety of a place like the settlement in question, even if the worst came to pass and she got terrified and required help, he’d be there to help her once more. They’d be fine, and she’d know better going forward.

...

He hated thinking of it that way.

She’s been through arguably even more than him. She didn’t need to ‘know better’, she just needed to be safe. And if he couldn’t do that, then what good was he even for? Why else would he keep shambling on with little more than spite in his mind and a gaping hole in his memories—

“M-Mr. Yaksha?” the Phantump asked, worried.

Despite the Banette’s best efforts, the zipped grimace revealed more than he would’ve ever wanted to. “I’m fine. Alright. Let’s try a day or two. If anything happens, we leave there and then. How does that sound, Sage?”

The Phantump shook a bit at being asked a direct question like that, her own small mind no less certain than her guardian’s. In her case, though, her thoughts veered in the other direction, of not wanting her fear, however much or little of it there was in the moment, to keep them on the move. She wanted to speak up, to ask why only a day or two, to ask about as something as self-explanatory as staying there until the Banette was healthy again.

But she didn’t know what to say. And instead, just nodded and hovered over to him, stubby arms trying to pull his side into a hug.

Aria’s smile at the scene mirrored Yaksha’s, the latter strained by exhaustion, injury, and slight annoyance at the ghost once more keeping something from him. Either way, at least they’ve agreed on a plan they were both happy enough with. A rarer occasion than it should’ve been.

“I suppose that’s settled, then,” Yaksha sighed. “A couple of days, whichever rest we can get, then we head out. Won’t be staying any more than that.”

It wasn’t the Gardevoir’s place to argue, and she knew that well. Who knows, maybe they’d reconsider once they were there? Maybe they’d stay for longer, anyway? Maybe Pearl or Autumn or someone else could help Sage process some of her fear? It remained to be seen. For now, though, the resolution was as good as either side could’ve hoped for.

As they got moving again, Aria’s thoughts returned to the hauntling; the little Phantump was seemingly at more ease than before. To meet such a traumatic end at the hands of humanity, and so young at that. She’d glimpsed a few more of those little ghosts many years ago, always in the corner of her vision, always disappearing shortly after. Cypress’ words corroborated what the teachings she’d first heard growing up spoke of once she’d asked him about them.

Almost all the Phantump were deathborn, and all of them lost children who had died alone.

A hatchling Pidove who woke up to an empty nest and was eventually spotted by a predator. An overeager Rattata straying too far from their nest, dismembered at the hands of a human trap. A Venipede too malnourished to hibernate over the winter and evolve, left starving to death in their own burrow, so close to and yet so far from everyone they had ever known.

Her heart broke when first listening to the Mismagius’ recollection; she could hardly bear thinking of them even now. The pain, the loneliness, the fear; the all-encompassing fear they all must’ve felt. That Sage must’ve felt. Aria only barely held her tears in, but there was no way in hell she would hold herself back from giving the girl some well-deserved affection.

A gentle application of telekinesis forwarded the sensations of her slowly petting hand over to the hauntling’s wooden shell. The psychic touch gave Sage a pause as she stopped, wide-eyed. It didn’t take long for the Phantump to connect the dots, taking her aback. She looked up at the nearby Gardevoir with an unspoken question, only to have it be cut through with a single, wordless nod.

Sage responded in the most natural way in the world for her.

The entire group had to briefly pause as the tiny ghost hugged Aria’s leg. Their emotions were split between wanting to comfort, being comforted, and full-body confusion at what had just happened behind his back. The latter knew to stay quiet though, his grumpiness gradually fading as he watched the little one under his care visibly relax; her tiny body no longer shaking as much.

“Th-thank you, M-m-Mrs. Aria...” the Phantump smiled shyly at Aria’s beaming expression.

She didn’t waste an opportunity to give the haunting another hug once she’d crouched, either; the psychically transmitted sensations matched only by the real deal. “^You’re welcome sweetie. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay at our village.^”

Aria felt Sage’s thoughts bounce around several topics at her words. Excitement at visiting a town, uncertainty at it being full of stranger mons, tinge of muted fear at the stray human, worry about whether Yaksha would be alright in the end. Eventually, that very first emotion came out on top, especially when bolstered by some more of the Gardevoir’s affection.

“M-mhm!” Sage squeaked.

“You make it sound like you’re leaving us.”

With a couple last pats on Sage’s back, Aria stood up and nodded again; Yaksha’s pink eyes narrowing. “^I have my scouting duty, alas. If you maintain this direction, you will eventually reach our village, worry not.^”

The Gardevoir pointed to stress her words, leaving the Banette to focus on maintaining their heading.

“Fair enough,” he admitted.

“Th-thank you for letting us stay, Mrs. Aria!”

“Yes...”

“^You’re both very welcome. Once you get there, be on a lookout for a large tent with a red symbol above the red entrance. That’s our clinic.^”

“I see.”

“Mhm! W-we’ll ask someone for directions i-if we can’t find it, r-right Mr. Yaksha?” Sage asked.

“We’ll try, yes.”

The language barrier inherent to that approach didn’t cross either of the three’s minds as the pair of ghosts separated from the tall psychic. Aria paused and ensured the other two were heading in the right direction before turning around and mentally resetting herself.

A whole day of scouting ahead, and fingers crossed it won’t feature any more surprises.


Much to the relief of Aria’s increasingly fraying mental state, that hope indeed held true. The sky eventually shifted from its muted whites and blues into ever darkening oranges, making for an excellent sign to turn tail and sprint back home.

It was weird to acknowledge how freeing a good run like that could feel.

Aria didn’t consider herself physically strong. Barring any psychic assistance, subconscious or overt, she doubted she’d even be capable of lifting both of her children up into her arms—or even walking, for that matter. If nothing else, it didn’t feel like she had to help herself during the warmer months. When the winter came, though, levitation still reigned as her preferred mode of transportation. All the practice had brought it into not feeling much more draining than just walking would, so doing it all day wasn’t even that much of a hassle anymore.

Getting somewhere fast was a different matter entirely.

Jovan probably had a nice, smart word for this exact purpose, but teleportation grew immensely draining as its length increased. Zipping from one end of the room to the other took surprisingly little effort, but even just doubling that tiny distance suddenly made the task way more than twice as difficult, and that relation only continued. Teleporting across the village was possible and enough to leave her gasping for breath; double that and she’d be left borderline catatonic once she arrived.

It made for a terrible method of long-distance locomotion, unless done in short bursts. And at that point, considering the downtime between each blink, the end result wasn’t that much faster than just a brisk jog. And nowhere near as fast as Aria’s current Agility-enhanced sprint.

Using her legs this much felt weird, but... not at all bad.

She’d remembered Marco swearing by the virtues of purely physical exercise and exertion from time to time, and the more she used this way of getting back and forth to her scouting route, the more she agreed with him. Maybe she could show it off to Cadence sometime and have her give it a shot too? Wouldn’t hurt to try. Bell would probably run around the nearest person or building really fast and just give himself vertigo, teehee.

It was an amusing mental image, one Aria appreciated as she gradually slowed down. These sorts of idle thoughts were hardly the most productive, but they made for a pleasant and well-needed distraction, especially here. Especially now.

As her Agility gradually wore out and the number of familiar auras tingling her brain grew, Aria’s thoughts shifted back to the most important, and sadly most controversial, subject. She’d need to check up on Anne for sure, but hardly just her. There was Autumn, too. She’d need to see how her mother-in-law had progressed in winning the village’s opinion. She’d also need to catch up on the Cinder situation, whether anyone had seen her. And, if not, ask someone to watch over the girl for another night. Cypress had to have been to be exhausted by now, assuming he was even still awake.

The only other real option was Sprout, and there the same worries returned. Suppose if there was anyone who could figure out how to scan for threats while remaining undetected, it was the Decidueye, she’d figure it out somehow. Aria trusted her; she’d been working with her for dozens upon dozens of seasons by now. But there was still that possibility that something would go wrong. That Cinder would outsmart them all.

That she would hurt Anne even more than she’d hurt Ember and Marco.

Aria was no stranger to that kind of fear, for better or worse. Just like on all the past occasions, though, there was only one right answer to it. Keep going forward. Acknowledge it, measure it, do what you can to mitigate it. But when the time comes to it, keep moving forward, no matter what.

The moment of mental clarity caught Aria right as the very last of her earlier speed boost had worn off, leaving her walking into the quickly building glow of the village as the sun set around her. So many things to do, but there was one good jumping off point for tackling them one at a time, and getting a drink of something pleasant to go with it.

Vivian’s tea shop always got crammed around this time of day, right as everyone was finishing their duties. And much the same was true today, with virtually every seat and a decent bit of the standing space occupied by someone enjoying themselves. Be it tea, the results of the Goodra’s experiments with fermenting and distilling wine, or just socializing, the little space had something for everyone. In Aria’s case, it was several people she needed to chat with, and tea.

Let’s get the latter dealt with first.

“Evening, Aria.” the sweater-clad Goodra greeted.

She answered them with a firm nod; eyes focused on nothing as she approached the counter. “^Good evening, Vivian.^”

“A lot on your mind, isn’t there?”

Once more, she nodded absentmindedly, sighing before finally looking up at the dragon. “^More than I’d like, but nothing I can’t handle.^”

“I didn’t doubt that for a moment~. Now, just tea or something stronger?”

“^Just tea, I’ll need all the clarity I can get my hands on.^”

“Anytime.”

As the dragon glanced around their shoulder to double check whether the next kettleful of the sweet drink was brewing, Aria used the downtime to bring up some things right away. Plenty of people passed through their little shop, almost as many as Holly’s—they knew a thing or two. “^Have you heard anything about Cinder today?^”

The direct question drew the dragon’s focus directly to her, mind changing gears from just nicety to something more... gossipy. “Plenty, but I imagine you’d be most interested in her location?”

In any other circumstances, Aria would’ve followed that plainly presented bait, asked how come they knew about that. Not today, though. “^Yes, yes exactly.^”

“Alas, nothing about that specific topic, I have to say. All I’ve heard is about what she’d done to Marco yesterday. Seems she’s still missing.”

The worst possible response short of her having stormed in earlier and burned the entire village to the ground. Not like Aria could argue with it either; eyes focusing on nothing as she accepted a cup of tea and started absentmindedly blowing on the freshly boiled drink. It was hardly inconspicuous, but that wasn’t a problem by itself, as long as nobody had spilled any more beans.

“She’ll be brought to justice for her assault as soon as she shows up here, no? I can’t imagine her being willing to leave Ember alone instead of going through whatever punishment the Elders devise for her.”

If only it was just that.

“^No, that’s not all of it, it’s... so much worse,^” Aria muttered.

“That bad?”

“^I’d rather not elaborate any more.^”

Finally, Aria got to slowly sipping on her cup. She continued to use her breath and the few applicable psychic tricks to cool the tea down. Her mind refocused on everything that could’ve happened to, or including Cinder in the meantime—

“I assume it’s about what she’d done to Ember, no?”

In a split second, Gardevoir was focused entirely on the Goodra; the sudden motion combined with her eyes narrowing took the barkeeper aback. “^Who told you that!?^”

Her voice was somehow simultaneously weaker on account of the communication now being truly private and much harsher because of the gravity of that fact getting leaked to everyone. Once they’d finished feeling back from Aria’s sudden shift, Vivian continued with a soft chuckle, “Nobody, but I appreciate the confirmation~.”

Their clear amusement, combined with their words, had Aria’s mind threatening to freeze. What the hell did they mean? How did they figure it out? “^How did you—^”

“Cinder mysteriously left yesterday after assaulting Marco. There were all the whispers about Marco collapsing in the human’s room at the clinic next to Ember. Then, today I heard all about how Ember and the human used to be old friends but Ember just somehow forgot about all that until now... the pieces aren’t exactly difficult to put together, if you get what I mean.”

That much Aria could agree with.

Simultaneously, she realized that the final contributing piece of information must’ve been leaked by someone, anxiety only growing inside her at the possibility of everyone putting it all together on their own. ‘Ember and Anne used to be friends but Ember forgot’ sounded like a piece of fake rumors; nobody would’ve believed it unless the Braixen herself had confirmed it in person. And if there’s someone Aria wasn’t expecting to go out to the entire village and admit to something this unexpected, it was definitely Ember.

“^I... alright. Who told you about Ember, then?^”

“I heard it from Sol,” Vivian admitted.

“^Sol... alright. Need to get over there and track down who told him that—^”

“^That would be me~.^” a well familiar mental voice giggled.

Aria’s nervous expression jumped over, meeting Autumn’s relaxed, slightly inebriated one, right as the Indeedee had put away her mug on the counter to be refilled. The Gardevoir briefly froze at that realization, the accumulated stresses of the day leaving her dumbfounded before she caught her breath and tried to tackle it again. One step at a time, as with everything. “^Mom? But—why?^”

“^Well, you had asked me to help make the place more amenable, and hiccup I figured that wouldn’t be a bad way to do it,^” Autumn explained

“^But it sounds unbelievable!^”

“^But it’s true, isn’t it?^”

“^Yes, it is, but... nobody’s gonna believe it!^” Aria pleaded.

“I sure believe it after seeing your reaction to me bringing it up~.” Vivian interjected, making Autumn chuckle under her breath as Aria churned through their words.

Eventually, she felt forced to admit the defeat. She supposed this approach would work, even if she wasn’t sold on it one bit, and even if it could cause problems later.

“Really, if Ember goes out to confirm the rumors herself, then I don’t see why anyone would remain doubtful about it,” the dragon continued.

“^They’d probably just think either me or Autumn had hypnotized the poor girl into saying it,^” Aria muttered.

“I imagine there are quite a few ways to dispel that kind of Hypnosis and really make sure then?”

“^Plenty.^”

“What’s the issue, then?”

“^It still sounds unbelievable. I doubt some will buy into that even with supposed evidence.^”

“Would they ever?” Vivian asked, raising their eyebrow.

Aria looked up from her cup at the dragon, sighing as her exhausted eyes narrowed. “^I’m too tired to probe what you’re implying here.^”

“Ha! All I meant is the fundamental fact that you won’t sway everyone, even if the truth is entirely on your side. Even with all the proof, even with the most basic of claims, someone won’t believe them. Spite, prejudice, confirmation bias, name your poison and there will be someone afflicted by it. Can’t convince everyone.”

The Goodra leaned towards the fairy, their mellow expression brightening into a modest, but confident smile. “But you can convince most, and I’d say you two are doing a decent job at that.”

“^That’s reassuring to hear,^” Autumn smiled. Her older, croakier voice contrasted Aria’s silence as the Gardevoir slowly chewed through Vivian’s words.

A decent job was indeed good to hear, but would it be enough? Would anything they did be enough? What if those to whom the decision would ultimately fall were a part of that incorrigible minority? The fear was strong, the possibility gripping her lithe body with a frigid grasp. At the same time... it wasn’t all that likely either. She wasn’t good with numbers, she’d have to ask Jovan sometime, but the odds that everyone undecided in the upcoming vote would think the rumor to be fake couldn’t have been too big.

And in either case, they were already doing everything in their power to convince as many heads as they could. Would need to ask Ember to confirm it personally, be it today or tomorrow morning. Early enough so that everyone could hear it in time. That’d help even more, and tremendously so.

Acknowledge it, measure it, mitigate it.

Keep moving forward.

“^Thanks, Vivian,^” Aria sighed.

“Anytime.”

The dragon nodded at her words before getting pulled to the side by someone else, eager to get their evening brew. A glance to the side revealed Autumn to be gone, too. Thankfully, Aria only needed a quick glance around to find her; the Indeedee’s company was as unusual as it was welcome. She sure didn’t expect to go from getting taught by the Electivire to having him woo her mom, but if they were both making it work, then why not?

The Magnemite affixed to Geiger’s arm was another matter entirely, the sight familiar in the most unnerving way. She’d have to ask about it sometime. In the present, though, her attention shifted over to someone else in the room, and someone she was much more eager to chat with. “^Sprout!^”

Aria’s mental shout caught the Decidueye right as she was about to leave the building with a steaming cup in her feathered hand, prompting her to twist her neck to look directly behind herself before the rest of the body joined in. Aria had seen Blossom do that a couple times when playing with Cadence, and probably shouldn’t have been as surprised at the sight as she ended up being.

“Good evening Aria! yawn How was your shift?” Sprout asked. Her voice clearly hadn’t finished waking up quite yet; the obvious realization further underlined by the owl stretching her elongated body and wings shortly after.

“^Fine enough, had an odd encounter, but that’s not the time for it either way.^”

The phrasing caught the Decidueye’s attention, head immediately thinking through its implications as she took a large sip of the hot drink. Sugary or not, a couple drops of Salac juice did wonders at waking her up, a fact that Sprout was eager to rediscover every single day. “Are you in a rush, Aria?”

“^Not quite. I meant to ask you for something.^”

“Always interested in helping. Do tell, dear.”

“^Well... Cypress watched over Anne last night and possibly over the day too. I imagine he’s exhausted. Would it be alright for you to keep watch for Cinder tonight?^”

“Would it be alright? Ha, Aria dear, I’d love to! Any way I can help the girl and get an excuse to sink a quill or three into Cinder’s back is appreciated!” Sprout beamed.

Aria was torn between approving of her enthusiasm and being opposed to the jokes of that caliber on behalf of Ember. Ultimately, she kept herself to a small eye roll, ignoring the comment either way. “^Thank you, Sprout. I hope the security concerns won’t be too bad overnight...^”

“Oh, I highly doubt. Been weeks since I had to do more than sit, fly and stare. Frankly, by looking over Anne, I’ll already be focusing on possibly preventing the most likely threat out there!”

Ignoring might’ve been what Aria settled on the first time, but this time she decided to intervene, hoping to establish a soft limit, “^Sprout, please. I know you’re mad at her, so am I. Regardless of what she’d done, she’s still a part of our village—^”

“Frankly, I hope that won’t remain the case for long.”

“^Please let me finish. She’s a part of our village, and more importantly, she’s Ember’s mother. The poor girl had been through plenty as is. She doesn’t need to go through the heartbreak at realizing that someone she loved is gone again.^”

The follow-up was enough to shut Sprout up, at least for a moment. She took her time gathering her words afterwards; downing a large gulp of the sweet drink as her mind churned through a mental equivalent of grumbling under one’s breath. “That almost sounds like you want to hide what Cinder had done to her from her, Aria.”

“^I—I absolutely don’t. She deserves to know. It’s...^” Aria paused, needing a moment and a half to compose herself as she refined some all too familiar emotions into something more measured. “^Ember deserves to know, and she will be heartbroken. I’m aware of that. But that won’t erase everything else she feels about Cinder. She considers her a mother; she loves her. These emotions don’t just go away when she learns of her having done something terrible. Love and hate can coexist and it takes a while for one’s mind to resolve them. It’s...^” the Gardevoir blinked a few times to banish the moisture in her eyes, to no avail. “^Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it never quite ends. No matter what, though, Ember deserves to be allowed to process it all on her own, in her own time, with someone she loves, or used to love around.^”

Aria’s personal experience wasn’t overlooked; the psychic blinking at suddenly feeling herself pulled into a tight, feathery hug. She didn’t fight it, body steadily relaxing into Sprout’s warmth. “You okay there, dear?”

“^I’m—I’m fine, don’t worry.^”

“Oh, I will worry about any friend of mine; don’t you ever doubt that,” the Decidueye insisted.

Aria failed to hold a tired, guttural chuckle at that, only leaning further on the owl. “^Thanks, Sprout.^”

“You’re welcome~. And... yeah, I s’pose I see your point. Still won’t make the quills itch any less when she shows up, that’s for sure.”

“^Can’t ask them not to, either. Just... keep Ember in mind, alright?^”

“I will. When do you want me to start my lookout?”

The change of subject plucked Aria out of a more pensive mood and towards a more analytical, planning one. Suppose she’d be heading out soon, then get into the clinic, spend a while or two checking up on everyone, making sure Anne has her needs met, then they’d head out... “^In an hour, hour and a half? I’ll wait at the clinic for you to show up either way.^”

“Fine by me! That everything you wanted to go over, Aria dear?”

That was everything Aria had initially meant to bring up, but... the more she thought, the more one particular subject begged for more attention. “^Do you... have much experience with Phantump, by any chance?^”

“Wood orphans, huh? Heartbreaking each time... I assume you’ve run into one, Aria?”

“^With a Banette looking after her, yes,^” the Gardevoir clarified.

“Huh,” Sprout muttered, clearly taken aback. She dwelt on it for a moment or two, before shaking it aside.

“^Something wrong with that?^”

“No, hardly, just... curious.”

Aria almost pushed through to ask why there and then, before discarding that tangent. She didn’t really care deep down about how Sage and Yaksha ran into each other, only about how she could help them, the former especially. “^Anyway. They headed over here earlier today. The Banette, Yaksha, had a bad run in with a human’s Murkrow and needed help. I suggested they stay for good, but... it seems the Phantump, Sage, had her life taken away by humans.^”

The dots weren’t hard to connect for Sprout either; a very familiar maternal pulse going through her mind at the elaboration. It was accompanied by the closest thing her beak could do to cringing, the messiness of the situation not missed on her. “That’s... awful. Does Sage know what she used to be?”

The Gardevoir shook her head, sighing at the deeply unpleasant subject. “^I was thinking some of our caretakers could help her with figuring it out and processing her fear of humans. But... no, she doesn’t know. She could’ve been anything.^”

“Even a human herself, ha.”

Aria found the idea rather distasteful considering the girl’s fate. “^I doubt it, not with her being so scared of them. And humans murdered her, too, and I haven’t heard of them ever doing something this heinous to a child.^”

“That’s... yeah, fair. My bad.”

“^It’s alright, just... it’s been a long day,^” Aria sighed.

“You’ve earned yourself an entire month of rest once all this is over, Aria dear. You’ve been stretching yourself way too thin over the past couple of days.”

“^And it’s nowhere near over yet. Even beside the actual vote, something tells me the worst is yet to come and... I’m scared for her, Sprout.^”

“Anyone in your position would be too, Aria. I know you’re doing your best to help her out. Give yourself grace from time to time.”

“^I am. It’s a recurring fear. I’ve been acknowledging it, measuring it, mitigating it, everything Geiger taught us all those years back. And... sometimes it just doesn’t feel enough. There’s never that certainty, and I know that especially in this case there won’t be that kind of certainty, but it’s just...^” Aria’s train of thought stalled out, the words she was looking for stubbornly refusing to manifest. All the tangled stresses and anxieties, and no obvious way forward out of them.

Sprout didn’t have that kind of answer, either—but what she did have was reassurance and affection. And that by itself helped more than either scout could’ve hoped for. “I believe in ya, and so does Anne. You got this.”

“^I hope I do.^”

“I don’t have to hope, I know it~.”

Aria rolled her eyes before letting go of Sprout, the Decidueye using the opportunity to empty her cup and leave it beside Vivian. The Gardevoir continued, “^Alright, don’t let me hold you back any longer. Take care out there, and I hope nothing happens overnight.^”

“Thanks, Aria. You take care of yourself too, alright? There’s only one of you, you gotta take care of that one~.”

With one last nod and one last pat on the shoulder in response, the owl finally headed out. Aria was left churning through it all for a while, gradual exhaustion not helping any. Suppose she could grab a treat for herself when heading back home. Just something small to help her through the mess of the past couple days, and the mess that awaited tomorrow—

creak, creak

The quiet, squeaky noise was far from unfamiliar, and it was that familiarity that sent an icy chill through Aria’s horns. She turned around to see Elder Celia slowly departing the scene; the squeaking of wheels of the makeshift cart that carried the aquatic part of her body was a sound that she could recognize anywhere.

And she most definitely didn’t want to recognize it here and now, of all places.

She’d clearly been eavesdropping on them, without Aria even noticing. An embarrassment in its own right, but the Gardevoir was much more concerned about what the Primarina was going to do with that information. She’d already asked for Anne to be present at the vote that would spell her doom, an act so overtly cruel it contrasted incredibly heavily with everything else she knew of the marine Elder.

This entire situation was bringing the worst out of everyone.

Depressing as that realization might’ve been, Aria didn’t stop there; the earlier thought creeping back. Was Celia going to argue that Anne was a threat to their security, and that’s why they couldn’t let her stay? That in asking multiple scouts to look after the girl specifically, Aria was overstepping her bounds and should be demoted?

None of those matched what the Gardevoir knew of the Primarina. It was all second-hand, but she’d only heard her be described as compassionate, if very withdrawn. Her accusations didn’t match that description, but neither did the Elder’s actions. And it’s not like she could ask either, not if she really wanted to get anything more than an evasive non-answer.

Aria was ready to protect Anne from the rest of the village all at once in case of any overt hostility, but it was this unknown, this uncertainty that ground at her so much more than any act of outright aggression. Mentally probing was an option, but one that, with an Elder, was itself punishment-worthy should she ever get caught. She couldn’t risk that.

The Gardevoir tried playing back all the reassurances she’d heard so far. From Autumn, from Sprout, from Marco, from Garret, hell even from Anne, even if the latter were mostly unspoken. They believed in her, she couldn’t fail them. She wouldn’t fail them, no matter what it took—

“Ariaaaaa!”

This was the one time that a distraction was most definitely appreciated, even if it carried a risk of something exploding nearby at any point.

“^Yes, Mikiri?^”

Mawile’s gaze back at her was rather unfocused; her red eyes shaking as she chugged her second cup of Vivian’s cobbled-together brandy. Despite her being Steel-type, the Fairy deep in there was still vulnerable to booze, even if it took more than usual to really poison her. Much, much more, to Vivian’s occasional despair.

“Got a question!”

The ice bag affixed to Mikiri’s front head might’ve been gone, but that didn’t extend to the bandage that held it there, the stained fabric hanging loosely across her forehead.

“^What is it? Are you feeling better?^”

“Ya ya ya I’m fine, concussion got NOTHING on me. Anyhooooow. Heard you wanna house the human, keep her safe and content and keep her from escaping and fend off all the humans and all that other shit you taunted me with a couple of days ago,” Mikiri mumbled.

“^It’s not—^”

“Not done yet! Anyhow if you’re stashing her here, mind asking her to explain some human junk to me? Can’t crack the function of some parts of that bloody two-wheel and it’s driving me mad.”

Aria’s expression went from unnerved to the absolute flattest it was possible for it to get in record time. “^No, not now. We’re still not sure if she’ll be staying for good. Even if she will, she’ll need time to acclimatize to the village and the other way around. I’d rather not instantly overwhelm her by putting her beside you.^”

The small, jumpy, presently drunk, and occasionally very hyperactive creature with a massive and very mobile jaw full of razor-sharp metal teeth attached to the back of her head rolled her eyes at being described as overwhelming. “Fine, whatever, uuuugh.”

The Gardevoir had no idea whether that final sound was a groan or a sign of nausea. In all honesty, she’d rather not find that one out, ever.

“Almost cracked everything about it anyway, fixed up a replacement, testing it tomorroooooooow,” Mikiri droned, trying her hardest to maintain her balance. “Got it working this time, I’m bloody sure, jus wanted the last few kinks ironed out but can’t cuz can’t get the hands on the human and just have to test it out tomorrow and grumble grumble grumble.”

Mikiri’s gradual descent from a coherent sentence to a string of guttural noises was impressively smooth and somewhat worrying simultaneously. “^Mikiri?^” Aria asked, concerned.

Grumble grumble?”

“^Are you okay?^”

Grumble, grumble grumble.”

“^Sounds like you should call it a night here.^”

Grumble grumble...”

This time, all Aria needed was a knowing, smug look to make the smaller fairy cave in. Mikiri rolled her eyes so hard she almost lost her balance completely, “Fine fine whatever grumble grumble.”

“^See you tomorrow~.^”

Thankfully, the Mawile took the clue. She shambled over to the countertop’s lowest level and just barely reached on top of it with the half-emptied cup, almost falling over there and then. Without any further ado, she burped and shakily made her way out the nearest exit while occasionally having to consciously lift her maw off the snowy ground.

Her cup had somehow been emptied in the half-minute or so between her leaving her there and Vivian giving it a wash to reuse it, and there just so happened to be a suitable suspect floating right beside where the Mawile had left it. One that, considering the recent circumstances, Aria figured she could at least keep in the loop about any further newcomers showing up.

“^Good evening, Liz.^”

The hovering Vespiquen looked to her side at the Gardevoir; the white pinpricks of her eyes narrowing briefly before relaxing again as she downed another swig of her extra-punch tea.

“Evening,” the Vespiquen buzzed, her clicky voice even more grumbly than usual. Aria didn’t want to presume the reason—but then again, she was about to add to her annoyance, so she’d find out about the original issue sooner or later.

“^We have a couple temporary newcomers who are gonna be staying at the clinic for the next few days or so,^” Aria explained.

Aria watched Liz‘s expression, the little of it she had, shift in real time as she spoke. She sensed her almost palpable note taking and calculating at the mention of newcomers, a drawn out grunt at hearing the mention of the clinic, and finally, a modest sigh of relief at their stay being temporary. “How hurt are they?”

“^There’s a Banette with modest injuries and a few larger tears, and an unharmed Phantump.^”

Liz sighed, relieved about them being ghosts. If nothing else, it removed food and freshwater consumption from the list of resources they’d need, making at least that part easier to handle. She continued to hold her cup with one hand as the other dragged its sharp fingers along the front of her horns, using the thin lines carved into her own chitin for counting. “Good. Running low on dressings.”

“^Suppose Anne took up a decent bit?^”

The unfamiliar name had the insect quartermaster’s eyes go wide, fully expecting to hear about yet another recent addition to the village she hadn’t been made aware of and which she’d also need to manage their supplies for. “An-akh-agn—”

“^Anne, the human at the clinic.^”

Crisis averted, Liz‘s sigh of relief sounding like a drawn out, droning buzz. “Yes. Human, Marco, Mikiri, other accidents. Running low. Need to ask Lavender and Sol for more tomorrow.”

Another deep swig of the spiked tea, another light shudder going through her weathered yellow and black body.

“^That’s a good idea,^” Aria admitted.

The Vespiquen grumbled and chugged again; one hand continuing to count as she responded, downbeat. “Not enough. Need more backlog, but also more. Can’t have them be the only sources. Need to ask others for help. Look out for local plants we can spin thread out of. Something will happen to Sol, eventually. We need to be ready.”

The ominous nature of Liz‘s comment about the Whimsicott was softened by Aria picking up that she was referring to it in a very long-term way. Something will happen to him one day, even if it’s death of old age in several decades. Gotta be ready by then, and preferably by yesterday.

The chaos following the Orion‘s premature death firmly settled that need for backup plans in everyone’s heads.

“^I hope you and the Elders will figure something out then.^”

“Same. All that while keeping track. Nothing I can’t do,” Liz said, not hoping as much as she was just admitting.

“^I imagine it’d be easier if you could write those problems down somewhere, wouldn’t it?^” Aria teased.

The Vespiquen gave her another side look, one unusually uncertain for her. “Already keep tallies in clay at my nest.”

“^I mean more than that. I’ve heard that humans can write down much more abstract things than just counts, and read them back later from their symbols.^”

Liz’s gaze remained fixed on the psychic as the quartermaster went through a swig of tea. And then another, and a third; both halves of her mind left busy imagining the uses for such a tool. “Would help greatly.”

It might’ve still only been a low, buzzing grumble, but Aria could tell there was an unspoken question for follow-up in there. One she would not mind providing in the slightest. “^If Anne ends up staying, I don’t see why she couldn’t teach their writing to you.^”

The clarification that the human staying would indeed include them passing on their knowledge took the Vespiquen aback a bit. She considered herself too calculated to be swayed by something as basic as someone’s kin, especially if they were useful, but... as she also was acutely aware of, reality loved to disagree with her tallies and calculations, always to her utmost annoyance. “Count me interested.”

And rather nervous, but Aria wasn’t surprised by the latter one bit. “^Sure thing, Liz. We—we should know for sure in two days.^”

“Good.”

A cold shock went down Aria’s body at the thought of the approaching decision. She might’ve said two days, but it was closer to one full night and day cycle. A single full day separating the innocent child at the clinic from either salvation or damnation. Time never stops, and neither could she.

“^I’ll let you know as soon as it’s settled.^”

The Vespiquen acknowledged the words while staring into the wall right ahead. With a large swig, she finished her cup and put it down, the second hand reaching up to do some head-carved arithmetic; any remaining attention placed on the Gardevoir evaporated within moments.

High time for her to head out.


By the time Aria left Vivian’s tea place, the sky had long since turned inky black. A handful of stars winked down at their little outpost in the woods from on high; their dim light largely occluded by the handful of Will-o’-Wisps strewn around the place to provide a dim night-time lighting. She remembered being so mesmerized by them when she first showed up here all those years ago.

There was something to be pondered on and said about experience dulling wonder, but Aria’s mind had little spare room in it to focus on either concept. To little surprise, the inside of the clinic was almost completely dark, most of its temporary occupants either asleep or in the process of dozing off. Far from all, though, especially if the wisps of reddish light and muffled laughter peeking from underneath the door to what had become Anne’s room were any sign, but most for sure.

That group included only the older half of the ghostly newcomer duo.

Yaksha was huddled up on a small bed in the main chamber’s corner. A couple of bandages peeked from underneath the raggedy blanket he’d covered himself with. Much the same was true for the uncertain expression on his face, one that constantly looked up at the Phantump beside him. Sage wasn’t even trying to fall asleep, her focus affixed to the nearby canvas wall. The piece of fabric was all that separated her from the gruesome and terrible human, and yet... she wasn’t anywhere near as scared as earlier.

The implicit safety of such a place no doubt helped, as did Yaksha’s presence beside her.

C’mere Sage,” the Banette asked, “I’m sorry you have to deal with that, but we’re not gonna be staying here long. Hop under the blanket, it’ll muffle some of the sound.

Sage was about to speak up in response before catching a motion in the corner of her vision. Her red eyes turned to pinpricks as she focused on the figure in the dark, then went wide as she realized just who it was. A small, shaky smile crept onto her wooden face as she waved at the Gardevoir, “G-good evening, M-Mrs. Aria!”

“Shhhhhhhh!” the Blissey hushed from the back of the chamber.

“...sorry,” Sage squeaked out.

Aria chuckled at the exchange before her—the hush was all Esther, even if it took the Gardevoir a while to make her out in the dark. She spotted her just in time to catch her nodding in response to Sage’s apology. At least Yaksha was more mindful of the attempt at silence. With the annoyance in his mind and his pink eyes narrowing at making Aria out in the dark, though, that wasn’t much of a relief.

Did you intentionally forget to tell us we’d be sharing a wall with that damned human?” Yaksha asked, leering at her.

The Gardevoir felt a pang of anger at having someone refer to Anne this way, but she reined it in shortly after. “^No, it slipped my mind. She’s out of sight and will not be interacting with either of you. I don’t see what the issue is.^”

The issue is we can hear it, that’s what. Sage, c’mere.

Despite what the Phantump herself might or might not have been feeling, she followed the Banette’s request, huddling up to him and trying to fall asleep.

Sorry for all this, kid. If I knew how close we’d be to that human, I would’ve reconsidered.

Sage shook under the covers, clinging closer to her guardian while Aria rolled her eyes.

Can’t even understand anyone here either, ugh,” the Banette complained.

“^That’s just expected. We have our own language, and any newcomers have to learn it if they plan to stay.^”

Fortunately, we won’t.

“^You still ended up receiving healing and a bed, didn’t you?^” she quipped at him. Her comment hit true; Yaksha’s eyes narrowing at her as she continued, “^I hope you’ll sleep well, both of you.^”

Won’t be easy.

“G-goodnight, Mrs. Aria...” Sage whispered, defusing some of Aria’s tension as she turned around, heading for Anne’s room. The few seconds offered little time to reset mentally, but Aria tried her hardest all the same, not wanting to bring the mood down. With how sky high it was, though, she doubted that even her coming in tearful would’ve accomplished it.

The room was being lit by a pair of small Will-o’-Wisps hovering safely away from either walls or any of the room’s occupants; their red and purple coloration combining into an unreal, magical atmosphere. Magical, and happy all around.

The kids, including the now awake Ember, were huddled on the bed around something Aria had to focus to even make out. A checkered pattern of empty and filled in squares drawn on a large piece of paper, on top of which many tiny paper scraps were being moved around. Some of them were again empty, some of them were colored, and they always only moved diagonally, occasionally taking another piece with themselves. The game’s rules might’ve been beyond Aria’s comprehension, but the giddiness that accompanied them wasn’t.

Especially once Cadence had noticed her. “^Hi mom!^”

The entire bedful of kids turned to excitedly wave and squee at her; the Gardevoir left thankful for the Safeguard muffling the little gathering. Bell, in particular, was incorrigible, scrambling over towards her for an eagerly granted hug. “Mooooom!”

“^Yes, Bell?^”

The lil’ Ralts undertook a few seconds of the most intense thought in his entire brief life yet. His white hand tapped against his chin for a couple of moments before he finally settled on the right course of action—and hugged his mom. “I love you, mom!”

Giggles, laughter, or soft awwws from all around the room.

“^Love you too, sweetie. How have you all been doing?^”

“I’m happy!” Bell squeaked.

“It’s been a lotta fun!” Elric cheered.

“^Eeeee, Anne drew me and Bell, then she showed us some of the human games and taught us how to draw a bit and Ember woke up!^” Cadence squeed.

The last fact was the most noticeable change in the room, especially in how it’d affected Anne. The shift from her nervous self earlier to her current tranquility was one Aria wasn’t expecting to see for... ever. It made her smile even wider as the two exhausted girls held each other tight, Ember in particular only barely staying awake as she huddled up on her human friend’s lap.

Aria acknowledged the younger trio’s responses with a smile before sitting down at the edge of the bed and giving Anne and Ember each a gentle pet. The human responded with a tired, quiet giggle that then broke into a yawn, and the Braixen by snuggling in further into said human’s one-armed embrace.

“^How was your day?^” Aria asked, keeping her voice down.

“~I-it was fun. I-I was a bit nervous earlier, but w-we figured it out with Cadence’s help,~” Anne answered, trying her hardest not to yawn.

The glowing recommendation made the Gardevoir look at her daughter with a prideful smile, the lil’ Kirlia blushing brightly in response. “^I-it’s no big deal—^”

“^Sure feels like it is, to both you and Anne~,^” her mom teased.

The rest of the room giggled at Cadence’s expense. The psychic tween responded to her mom in the only way someone her age could—namely, by scrambling over to her mom for a big hug, with her younger brother joining her soon after.

“^How are you feeling, Ember?^”

“I-I’m tired, but... happy,” the vixen woofed.

No more needed to be said for those in the know. The vixen’s ears twitched and laid to her sides as first her human, and then the Gardevoir administered more pets. Everyone was full, enjoying themselves, and tired to a lesser or greater extent. They also knew what Aria finally showing up meant, Elric intervening first, “Mrs. Ariaaaaa, can we stay for a while longer?”

“^Yes mom, please!^” Cadence pleaded.

The Gardevoir’s laughter wasn’t any less tired than everyone else’s in the room.

Her affirmation immediately rekindled the kids’ energy, even if some were much more quiet about it than others. Silent or not, they all got a pet before Aria let them be and enjoy the rest of what their bodies could dish out before they finally collapsed for the day.

And in the meantime, she checked in with the adults. “^How are you holding up, Cypress?^”

Barely...” the Mismagius croaked.

Yep, that was not an aura of a ghost who was eager to stay awake for even a second longer. “^I’ve arranged for Sprout to look out for Cinder tonight and will wait here until she shows up. Rest easy, Cypress.^”

Thank the gods...

“^Apologies for not handling this sooner—^”

It is all alright, dear Aria. I greatly enjoyed my stay in either case...

“^I’m glad to hear. And again, thank you so much for all this, and especially on such a short notice.^”

Anytime. Rest yourself as well, dear Aria. Pass my wishes of fruitful rest to your children, Elric, and Ember too...

The Mismagius didn’t wait for even a moment after his words were acknowledged to phase through the nearest wall and out of sight. His exhaustion might’ve been the most noticeable one around, but was far from the only one. “^How’s being a nanny working out?^”

Marco rolled his eyes at his sister’s tease. He found it amusing, though, looking up with a soft smile at all the kids on the bed before shifting his seat on the clinic’s floor over closer to them. “^I think I did fine. Anne was a bit intimidated at the start, but... I told her I wasn’t too good at this, and a hug helped resolve the tension before it could build up any more. Afterwards it was all watching over just in case it’d get any tense, which it didn’t. Cadence did great.^”

“^I’m so proud of her,^” Aria smiled.

“^Me too.^”

Despite their best efforts in keeping it on the down low, the Kirlia in question noticed her mom’s and uncle’s thoughts being aimed at her, looking over her shoulder. The pair of beaming smiles made her look right back with her blush rekindled, leaving the adults to chuckle among themselves—

...

...

Marco blinked in surprise at seeing his sister’s expression go from soft, tired chuckle to narrowed focus in an instant. It didn’t take long for the dots to connect in his head either, eyes widening to check that Cadence hadn’t noticed the shift. Thankfully, she hadn’t. The Gallade looked up at his sister again before they both nodded at each other, trying to maintain calmness no matter what.

Aria’s expression was little more than a frozen mask as she walked through the healer tent, rolling her shoulders and stretching her joints. Her focus narrowed with every step. Her heartbeat first sped up before being forcibly slowed down. She felt her aura concentrate as she recalled her rusty combat training and counted every tool she had at her disposal.

She knew full well that should it come down to blows; she stood little chance.

With a final step, the Gardevoir emerged from behind the clinic’s front entrance. Her eyes narrowed further as she stared straight ahead, breath growing even more shallow. Every single fiber of her body tensed up in anticipation, preparing for anything, but especially for the worst.

“^Cinder.^”​



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Chapter 18: Cowardice


Chapter 18: Cowardice



“^Cinder.^”​

The vixen stood on the opposite side of the dirt street, red eyes glowing dimly in the dark. Every single part of her body was tensed up, muscles twitching as if about to act. Her left paw gripped her wand, the flame on its tip roaring in intensity once Aria had joined the scene. It gradually melted the surrounding snow as it lit up the fox, and everything that marred her.

Her fur was charred in a handful of places; the sheer inferno required for that took Aria aback as she tried to imagine it. Dried mud covered much of her skirt and arms, adding to her demented appearance. Especially when combined with her narrow, unflinching expression.

The expression of someone preparing to fight, befitting her impenetrable mind.

Aria was no stranger to focusing on one’s psyche to make it unreachable for other psychics. What she felt here couldn’t be further from simply wanting to stop Cadence from eavesdropping on her conversation, though. There was not a single thought she could spot, only sheer tense anxiety and immense focus. No thoughts, no fears. Just Cinder wielding her wand and being poised to unleash it at any point.

And with the vixen preparing to fight, the fairy could only do the same.

She couldn’t sense Cinder even trying to probe her mind, but that didn’t mean she could leave it exposed. Aria’s body grew tenser by the moment, winding herself up. Her mind was torn between recalling defensive techniques to protect the wounded and children inside the healer tent, and getting ready to use the few offensive moves she knew to incapacitate the Fire-type.

That first possibility made the Gardevoir almost lose her composure. Not even Cinder would hurt or kill so many innocents just to take her revenge on Anne; Aria was sure of that. As sure as she used to be that Cinder would never assault her brother out of sheer, misguided wrath.

Nowhere near as sure as she wished she could be.

Aria felt her hand clench subconsciously. The innermost part of her had to be forcibly dragged away from immediately springing to action with a Shadow Ball. Every passing moment of silence ratcheted the tension even further, heating the atmosphere from frozen to dangerously flammable, liable to go off with as little as a single spark. A spark that the Gardevoir had to increasingly focus on not letting loose there and then.

Protecting them all came first, but what if, in order to do that, she’d need to be the one to land the first blow? What if Cinder was just waiting for her to falter before going for a swift execution? Aria didn’t know, couldn’t know. A myriad of increasingly horrible possibilities wormed their way into her mind with each passing moment. Their cacophony only ever grew in intensity. The tension demanded an outlet.

Demanded bloodshed.

Instead, came a soft swoosh.

The quiet sound forced Aria to finally look at what was physically happening in front of her. To see Cinder’s wand laying in snow beside her. Extinguished, powerless. The Delphox’s facade was shattered, stone-like expression cracked and revealing one of steadily building despair. Before Aria could even speak up, the vixen followed her wand; the thud of a pair of fur-clad knees collapsing onto the snowy dirt, taking the Gardevoir aback half a step.

And with it came quiet, heartbroken words. “I’m... I’m sorry.”

Aria didn’t react, didn’t dare do anything in response, mind much too wound up to even immediately recognize the shift in the situation. The somber silence following Cinder’s muttered words gradually cooled them both down. As the Delphox’s body language shrunk, expression focusing on the muddied snow before her, the Gardevoir’s remained focused.

Even if this all wouldn’t result in bloodshed, the replacement would not be any less painful. Before long, Aria felt something else, something that finally unwound her, too. Inch by inch, the impenetrable barrier of Cinder’s mind crumbled; each moment revealed more of the seething, murky mass inside of it. The painful, stabbing regret. The harrowing, freezing fear.

The burning, maternal worry, especially for Ember.

The Gardevoir still wasn’t about to start trusting Cinder, not even slightly. She probed deeper and deeper, not finding even a single obstacle in the other psychic’s mind as she tried to piece the situation. The shock of yesterday’s revelation once she’d caught wind of it. Her utter terror about what might happen to her afterwards now that her secret was out. Unending anguish, made even more intense with each step away from their village, eventually culminating in that most harrowing, most irreversible of actions.

Fortunately, unsuccessful.

Aria couldn’t muffle her empathy. It was as much an unchangeable part of her as her flame was of Cinder. What she could do instead was to look past it, focus on the acts the adoptive mother before her had done, and press her about them—and that was what she did. “^I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.^”

Her telepathic voice was little more than a grim, seething whisper, forced through mental teeth. The Delphox reeled as if struck, her posture shrinking further as she nodded. She dared not move for a few moments afterwards, her eventual response meek. “^I-I know. I-I do not want to interrupt th-them—^”

“^What sort of pitiful excuse is that!?^”

Cinder flinched again, shrinking as if she was a stupid child being scolded by her superior. Whether that was the case, Aria didn’t care for one bit, not with the enormity of the vixen’s actual crimes at hand. After her initial reaction, the Gardevoir sensed an actual response steadily building up inside of the Delphox. She opted to remain quiet after putting up a Barrier behind herself, just in case she was about to be caught off guard.

Both Aria and Cinder knew that such protection wouldn’t withstand more than a moment, but a moment was better than instant obliteration at the hands of a grudgeful fox.

“^I-I don’t want to hurt her,^” Cinder finally muttered, “^I don’t want her to be in pain, I-I never did...^”

The Gardevoir felt herself unwind just a notch at the vixen’s words. Her mind or expression didn’t show any of it, though, the former locked down and the latter stone-like. “^And so, instead, you lied to her. Lied and utterly violated her memories, took away the only source of hope she’d ever have, because you couldn’t deal with her pain!?^”

Aria felt her anger grow with each word, but that emotion soon became overshadowed by a very different one. Still anger, still disbelief, but one uncaring of the miserable vixen in front of her. One focused on herself, on her own choices. Before it could dig much into her mind, though, she heard Cinder respond, her voice much louder and pointed, “^What else should I have done!? How could I have ever justified our choice to not rescue the human girl from her family!? How could I have painted our village as anything but utterly cruel for choosing to not save her!?^”

Moments passed with no response from the Gardevoir. Aria hardly cared for quickly intensifying emotions on Cinder’s side, on the confused despair burning into anger by the moment. She was no more prepared for these questions now than Cinder was all those months ago; the unexplainable cruelty hit her hard. Still, she had to come up with something, with a reason.

Even if just to convince herself that she wouldn’t have done the same, deep down.

“^M-many ways. You could’ve brought up safety—^” she began, before Cinder’s mirthless chuckle cut her off mid-word.

“^We both know it’s a lie, and so would Ember,^” the vixen began, “^A stray, harmless human, a traumatized child. Devoid of risk on her own, and her family was loathsome enough to be freely hypnotize into moving somewhere far instead, leaving them as the only culprits once other humans realized the girl’s absence. We easily could’ve done that if we really wanted. And yet we didn’t.^”

The Gardevoir was ever grateful for her unemotional mask holding, despite how much her own thoughts and emotions raged underneath. A quick glance left her staring directly into the Delphox’s gaze. The sheer tension between the two pairs of dimly glowing red eyes was almost enough to start a wildfire on its own.

And with Cinder returning to their usual intensity, Aria worried about that possibility being all too literal. “^We couldn’t have just reached out and manipulated them—^”

“^Of course we could! Don’t play stupid, Aria. Would hardly be the first time manipulating someone like that, except into letting go of their abused child instead of into forgetting they saw too much. What’s the separating line between these two actions? Why did we permit one but not the other?^” Cinder demanded an answer.

“^Again, safety. One protected our village, the other would’ve brought even more risk upon it.^”

“^What is the limit then!? What amount of avoidable cruelty we know of are we willing to ignore, to enable, just to keep ourselves safe!?^”

As harsh and snarled as Cinder’s words gradually grew, Aria could tell that anger wasn’t their only emotion. It was merely the most apparent, a mask of dimly burning righteous fury that concealed honest confusion and loss. Shouted as an argument or not, the vixen’s question was ultimately not merely appropriate, but asked in the most genuine way possible.

It was also one Aria had no response for.

What response could have there been, even? The mere thought of drawing an arbitrary limit of permissible cruelty was one that stabbed the Gardevoir right in her heart. An utter mockery of everything she stood for, sending her blood boiling again. There wasn’t an answer to that question that wasn’t monstrous. Regardless of if Aria liked it, though, the village as a collective entity has answered it many, many times in the past through their actions.

Instead, the Gardevoir chose a different response. It was weak enough for Aria to not see it as much more than an excuse, and she only hoped that the same wouldn’t be the case with the Delphox. “^Everyone in our village has to deal with these questions, sooner or later. As Ember’s guardian, as her mother, it was your responsibility to help her navigate through them, and not violate her into pretending they don’t exist.^”

For once, Aria’s words hit true, even if just for a moment. Cinder took her time gathering a response, ferocity quickly draining from her snout as more despair crept in to replace it. “^No soul can deal with that kind of anguish, you know it Aria! If I hadn’t done that, the knowledge of her human suffering day in and out would’ve tortured Ember forever! What did you want me to do instead, to sentence her for that living hell while offering worthless emotional support!?^”

The Gardevoir paused at the direct question, its pointed nature making her features narrow once more. Despite her initial thoughts, the truth from earlier held all the same, if veiled in futile, despairing anger. The question was as genuine as could be, and all the more difficult to answer because of it.

Aria remained silent for a few long minutes as her subconscious tried to put itself in Cinder’s position from all these months ago. To think through what the vixen could’ve done, what the fairy would’ve done. To consider the options that the Delphox had available to her. Words she could say, actions she could take, plans she could devise. Moment by moment, the Gardevoir’s mind grew ever more turbulent as she thought through the hellish quagmire, her terrified mind gradually inching closer to the most terrifying realization of all. One it wanted to avoid at all costs. One as banal as it would’ve been damning.

That she was not as different from the vixen as she hoped she was.

That, when pressed, she would’ve done the same.

The Gardevoir felt emotions swirl around inside the Delphox’s mind as she thought through it all. Second by second, the fiery facade of a heated discussion cooled off and gradually cracked, revealing the various thoughts crawling underneath. Horrific and understandable alike. An unspoken plea for Aria to come up with an answer. To make her sentencing her daughter to something this horrible a clearly incorrect choice in hindsight. A selfish hope that she had indeed chosen the lesser evil in the end.

Cruel mockery of the other psychic’s efforts, that feeling dismissed the soonest. Reigned in at all costs despite whatever else Cinder would’ve done in any other situation. Despite how little she thought of Aria.

None of that mattered in the moment; none of it could. Every single part of the vixen was focused on the same underlying request, the same command, the same plea, each corner of her mind approaching it from a different angle.

A sentence spoken in a dozen voices, by a dozen Cinders, each with a different tone, but the exact same words,

“Prove me wrong.”

As the moments passed without a response, without a refutation, without an assurance, both women’s spirits began to recede into despair. The vixen’s mind was a tar pit of loathing, of mocking laughter, of deeply stabbing pain, and Aria was scarcely better. She had to prove Cinder wrong, for both herself and the vixen for the village’s little ones.

But how? Was there anything at all she could’ve done in Cinder’s position—

...

...

...

There was.

“^No,^” Aria responded, breathless, mind too taken aback by exploring this new pathway of thought to maintain its unflinching expression any further. The single word was enough to focus the entirety of Cinder’s attention onto herself as relief, anger and confusion brewed inside the Delphox. She wanted Aria to go on, she needed Aria to go on.

And the Gardevoir would deliver. “^You should’ve acted. You should’ve pleaded with the elders to let Anne stay—^”

“^But that wasn’t an option,^” the vixen argued.

“^And we both know that is a lie too, Cinder. It was merely what Ana had told you, not the absolute truth.^”

“^Do you expect me to have gone against an Elder’s words—^”

“^YES!^” Aria shouted. ^”You weren’t doing this for that senile tortoise, you were doing it for Ember. You should’ve been her biggest supporter, kept battering at the Elder’s excuses, went against their words, because your daughter needed you to. Because Anne needed you to.^”

Cinder was staring at Aria in shock, taken wholly aback for the first time in the conversation as the Gardevoir’s words rocked her body and soul alike. “^They wouldn’t have ever let me do something as outlandish as that—^”

“^Then you should’ve kept trying harder. Rounded up the scouts, reached out to even just me or Marco, explained what was going on. Do you think we wouldn’t have helped with an innocent child on the line?^”

“^With a human? Doubtful.^”

As much as Aria wished she could’ve pointed that one out and prove to Cinder how wrong she was... she couldn’t. Not in earnest. The Gardevoir hoped that, should a situation like that have happened, she would’ve been easily swayed to support the Delphox’s cause to rescue a harmless child from her living hell.

But she didn’t know for sure. She was no deity; she could not glimpse into different timelines, explore what else could’ve been.

It didn’t matter either way. “^You don’t know that, Cinder. You didn’t even try.^”

The words struck true, and the Delphox wasted no time before her counter-attack, eyes steadily glowing damper with each passing line. “^All that would’ve accomplished would be giving Ember false hope. That wouldn’t have ever worked, definitely not then!^”

“^That’s not a prophesied truth, Cinder. Again, you don’t know that, not now, not then. But...^”

Cinder’s eyes narrowed through her increasingly shaky emotions as Aria gave her follow-up time to settle in. She was about to stand up and shout, to demand an answer, before the Gardevoir continued, striking her with the truth, “^You wanted that to be true.^”

The truth the vixen had spent so long running away from, only to be struck by it like an arrow through her back.

“^You hoped it was true. Because that would’ve meant you wouldn’t have had to wrestle with taking in a human as your de facto child. That you wouldn’t have had to face your own hatred of them, give it any more introspection beyond sticking with it and swaddling it in impotence.^”

The Delphox was now firmly reeling; her eyes wide as they stared into Aria, though Aria. Her mind was already scrambling to come up with something, anything in response—but the Gardevoir wasn’t done yet. “^You valued your comfort in not having to deal with a human over Ember’s wellbeing, over Anne’s safety.^”

For a split second, Aria saw Cinder’s snout twist into a furious expression of barred teeth. She saw the Delphox grasping her wand with telekinesis; she saw her lashing out against her and against everyone around her, burning the clinic’s tent to the ground and half the village with it—

And then, a blink later, everything was as it had been.

The night scene remained silent, the wand still laying where it had been. Cinder was staring straight down at the muddied, quickly melting snow, her whole body shaking like a ravaged leaf that had somehow survived the winter cold until now. The vixen was mentally laid out, and Aria was well aware of that. The miserable, weeping sight in front of her was an impossibly distant far cry from her usual, proud self.

But there was still more to be said.

“^And you knew that, didn’t you?^” Aria whispered.

Cinder’s eyes snapped open as the vixen stared in aghast disbelief at the fairy before her. Her mouth opened as if to argue the opposite, not lasting long before it closed as thoughts kept ravaging the Delphox’s mind. Panicking thoughts, spiteful thoughts, disagreeing thoughts. All intense, all accusatory. All occluding the truth that, despite her subconscious’ best efforts, Cinder was finally beginning to face.

Aria was right.

Conscious reminders of the evil of humanity, affirmations of just what the vixen would do to Ember’s tormentors if she’d ever faced them. There were so many of them in the days, weeks, months that followed her horrific act. And, one by one, Aria’s revelation began painting them in an even uglier light, even more despicable.

None of them ever showed her own devotion. They were meant for herself, and herself only. A constant affirmation that what she did was ultimately right despite the evil methods. The cacophony of self-affirmation, of hindsight justifications for her actions, all of them with a singular purpose.

To not give herself even a moment to breathe or reconsider just what she’d done.

Because, if she’d done that, then the harrowing possibility of having chosen wrong wouldn’t have been far behind. And with so much on the line, with the baneful impact of her memory alteration, with the ever deepening fear of humanity that it all left Ember with, there were only two possibilities in the end. Either she’d done the right thing, or she’d profoundly hurt her daughter in a despicable way. Despicable, cruel,

Unforgivable.

It was that final thought in particular that made the last of Cinder’s composure burst; her drawn out whine pathetic in all the meaning of the word. Hot, bitter tears flowed down her cheeks and dripped onto her dirtied body. Tears of regret, of guilt, of the all-consuming fear that she’d irreversibly hurt Ember. That, once Ember had learned of the truth, she would never forgive her.

And what’s worse, she would’ve been entirely right to never forgive her. Cinder knew that.

She knew that all too well.

The sight was miserable, but not at all unearned. Despite the seriousness of the situation, despite everything wicked she’d done... Aria’s heart gradually found itself hurting for Cinder. She might’ve brought all this upon herself, but even that didn’t make her pain any less heart wrenching to sense. The Gardevoir might’ve been used to looking past her empathy when needed, but it would always remind her of its existence.

Including here and now.

Aria’s body and mind unwound at the pathetic display in front of her. Emotion crept onto her expression for the first time in what felt like ages, sadness replacing the earlier frozen glare. Anger was still somewhere in there, especially at what Cinder had done to Marco, but at the moment, Aria couldn’t focus on it. Her conscious part didn’t want to walk over, to give the loathsome Delphox any affection, but... her innermost part did. The Gardevoir in her did.

Despite everything Cinder had done, Aria didn’t have it in her to truly label it all as beyond redemption.

Whether Ember would agree... it remained to be seen.

The emotions took their time chilling; the bitter outside cold only helped little. In a few silent minutes, the seething despair inside of Cinder had burned out into ashen sorrow and freezing fear; neither of them anything she could do a thing about at the moment. Aria stood guard all the while, ever ready to protect the clinic, protect Anne, protect Ember should the need arise. She hoped she wouldn’t have to.

But she didn’t know yet.

Eventually, the pathetic Delphox had finally found it in her to look up from the mud in front of her, the glow of her eyes so much dimmer than before. It all tugged at Aria’s heartstrings, but she wasn’t done. There was another matter that affected the Gardevoir’s soul much, much more. “^Why did you attack Marco?^”

Another flinch, but smaller this time, much less piercing. Still sorrow, still grief, a lot more confusion. Why did she do that, indeed? Did she even know anymore? “^I’m—I’m n-not sure—^”

“^That’s not an answer, Cinder. Did you know it was Ember’s friend when Marco brought up Anne’s name!?^”

“^I wasn’t sure, but... I-I realized it could’ve been.^”

“^Then why did you do what you did? Why didn’t you help Ember remember with the only reason for her to be kept in the dark gone!?^” Aria demanded

The questions pierced right through Cinder’s skin with each syllable. Her heart bled, her mind wept, but she had no answers. No good answers. No answers that were in any way justifiable to anyone but herself. No answers either Aria, Ember, Marco, or anyone else would’ve found anything but utterly repugnant. But they were the truth, in the end. Ugly, loathsome, unjustifiable, and no less true because of it.

Aria didn’t even need to read Cinder’s mind to know them, too, but wasn’t about to let the vixen off the hook to any degree. “^B-because that anger was real,^” the vixen argued. “^Felt real. I-I really thought I wasprotecting her from something evil—^”

“^Because you kept winding yourself up into hating humans just to avoid having to reconsider your actions.^”

A harsh, full body wince.

“^Because you didn’t want to think about what you’ve done.^”

An intense stagger, the vixen’s expression grimacing in pain.

“^Because you were afraid that the entire pretense you set up would come crashing down.^”

A vicious blow, Cinder’s body doubling over as if punched.

“^Because you put yourself above your daughter, again.^”

“^P-please stop!^” Cinder begged.

The selfishness of the request made Aria’s hand clench. A part of her didn’t want to; she wanted to double down and keep going, up to and including forcing every single bit of pain Ember and Anne had been through because of the Delphox’s inaction right into the fox’s mind. Wanted to make her suffer like she deserved to.

But she didn’t.

The Delphox’s mind was already taking care of torturing itself.

“^You’re a coward, Cinder.^”

The fox wept, for she knew the fairy was right.

Tears, anger, sorrow, all of them flowed freely down that tiny dirt alley. Two hearts spilled open in misery, be it despair or wrath. An image of pity, one that deserved to either be held or be spit upon, and neither of the psychics knew which. But it wasn’t the end. It couldn’t have been the end, and they both knew that.

“^What are you going to—^”

rustle, rustle

The sound of canvas being pulled aside snapped both women out of their immense emotion, the accompanying aura startling them both, if for very different reasons. Cinder was suffering, Cinder deserved to suffer, and she was certain of that. But it was only her that ought to suffer, and nobody else.

Especially not the Braixen that stepped out of the healer tent soon after.

“M-mom, mom, Anne is here, Anne—m-mom?”

Ember’s voice wavered in uncertainty as she watched Cinder’s distraught state. She had no idea what was happening or even what her adoptive mother had done, but none of that mattered to her.

Her mom was hurting, and she wanted to comfort her.

The Braixen half jogged, half limped over to the kneeling Delphox. Her one visible eye went wide at spotting the wetness on her mom’s cheeks in the faint light of the scattered Will-o’-Wisps. She pulled as much of her mom into a feeble, shaky hug as she could, the older fox still reeling from everything her soul had been subjected to so recently. They were both weak, both emotional, something much more unexpected coming from the fox’s mother as opposed to herself.

Her mom was strong, but everyone had their difficult moments after all, and Ember wanted to help her mom through hers. “Mom, wh-what happened? Why are you crying?”

Cinder felt every single emotion that underlined her daughter’s words, each its own blade stabbing her soul. The desire for her to feel good, love, worry that something bad had happened to her, even wanting to protect her should the need arise. All pure, all wonderful, all bright and comforting. All feeling undeserved, and turned agonizing because of that. “I-I’ve had a—a long day, sweetie. B-but... I’ll be alright.”

“A-are you sure, mom? Maybe we should speak to the h-healers—”

“No, no. That won’t be needed, Ember. It’s, it’s not that kind of pain,” Cinder explained.

The Braixen was taken aback slightly, her one good eye looking over her mom’s pathetic appearance with concern. “You really feel and look hurt, mom...”

“I...”

The thick silence put them all on edge as Ember and Aria alike awaited Cinder’s follow up. Both of them wanted the same thing despite their wildly different grasp of what these words would imply—the truth, and only the truth.

Ember couldn’t have known how vile it was, but even if she did, she wouldn’t have cared. It was her mom she was concerned about. She could wait. Aria and Cinder alike sensed that desire; the unalloyed wish to know what was going on, no matter how hard the truth would be to hear. No matter what her mom was going through, the Braixen could push through it. She knew that!

She was wrong, and both adults knew.

“I’ll tell you later, sweetie,” Cinder whispered. “It’s... it’s a lot. But I’ll be fine.”

Aria’s glare burned through the older vixen as Ember looked at her with uncertainty, left unsure how to interpret that assertion. “A-are you sure, mom? You can tell me anything!”

Cinder had only barely held the piercing pain at hearing her girl say that with such confidence. She meant it; she was certain of it. They both wanted it to be right. But it wasn’t. “I know, sweetie. Th-that’s why I-I’ll tell you, j-just some time later. I’d rather not sour your fun with your friends.”

Ember wasn’t satisfied with that, not one bit, but supposed it made some sense. Seeing her mom be so sad and kneeling on the snow was fun-souring enough to where the younger firefox wanted to keep pushing on—after all, what could be worse than this? She ultimately relented, though, trusting her mom to tell her later. This felt important to her; of course she’d tell her when a better time came.

Of course her mom wouldn’t have lied to her.

“A-alright. D-do you want to come say hi to Anne, mom? She’s my best friend from before I ended up here! She’s looked after me f-for so long, and protected me, and c-cared for me, and—” the Braixen explained, words giving way to sniffling as she clung to her mom. Even this tiny, woefully incomplete recollection was enough to make her break into tears again as it brought all the emotions of their reunion back to the forefront of her mind.

Cinder felt filthy, unworthy, felt like an abuser of the lowest sort. But no matter what she’d done, she was still Ember’s mother, and didn’t want to waste an opportunity to comfort her, no matter how hypocritical it was. Ember needed a mom, and the Delphox could only hope, deep down, that she would ever be worthy of that title again. “Shhh, shhh. I-I’m so glad you found your friend again, sweetie. I think it’s best I come say hi tomorrow instead. Wouldn’t want her first impression of me to be in this state, don’t you think?”

The tiny bit of humor required Cinder’s utmost focus to maintain, to make Ember think things were alright after all. As disappointed as the Braixen was about the two most important people in her life not meeting there and then, she saw the logic to her mom’s words, nodding, “Awwwwh. Okay, mom. B-but you’ll come tomorrow, right?”

“Y-yes sweetie, I will. I... I promise.”

It was a promise Cinder intended to keep, which only made it all the more painful to consider.

“O-okay. Would it be alright if I stayed with Anne for a bit longer today? I-I really missed her...” Ember pleaded.

The Delphox closed her eyes to avoid showing off all the pain they held inside as she pet her daughter on the back. “Of course, sweetie. I-I hope you’re having fun with Anne.”

“Y-yeah, I do, she’s amazing! I-I know you don’t like humans, mom, but I promise you’ll really like her!”

It took every single ounce of self-control Cinder could muster to not wail there and then. “I hope I do, yeah. See you back at our den, sweetie.”

“I-I love you, mom!” Ember woofed, stressing her parting words with another tight hug. Before Cinder could break down, her daughter scurried back into the comfort of the healers’ tent. Still worried, but no longer panicking.

No matter what it was, her mom would tell her, and everything would be alright afterwards.

Cinder’s mind screamed at her that nothing would ever be alright again, that she wasted her one chance at making a lost child’s life better through first inaction and then a horrific hurt. She wished she knew whether Ember would forgive her, to at least be able to prepare for the outpouring of pain and betrayal that was sure to follow. But there was no guarantee either way. She didn’t deserve a guarantee like that, especially after how she’d trashed her guarantee to Ember that she’d always look after her.

The back alley stayed at an impasse as the Delphox slowly picked herself up off the ground, her posture shaky and hunched. Her wand remained buried in the snow where she’d dropped it, but as far as Aria was concerned, it was little consolation. “^I’ll approach the Elders for my punishment tomorrow,^” Cinder whispered.

Aria’s eyes narrowed immediately at the vixen’s words, at their utter callousness. “^How can I trust you to do that, after all that? How can I trust you to not run away with Ember overnight, or even hurt her outright!?^”

Sullen as Cinder might’ve been, these words were finally enough to make her mind burn with emotion, the brief glimpse of fury clear to sense. The Delphox wanted to lash out at the Gardevoir for even suggesting she’d ever hurt her daughter like that, only for the frigid reality of her having already done so to cool her back down into hushed shame once more. “^I won’t dare do that.^”

The sudden crunching noise nearby nearly made Aria jump there and then. A glance downward at its source revealed one peculiar stick to have gotten flung into the snow right beside the fairy; the underlying gesture was as clear as it was meaningless. “^That’s no guarantee,^” Aria leered.

“^I—I know.^”

“^How am I supposed to trust you if you weren’t even honest with your own daughter!?^”

“^I just wanted to keep her happy!^” Cinder pleaded.

“^By lying!?^”

“^She doesn’t need to face the horror of it all here and now. She deserves to spend time with her friend without me immediately barging in and exposing the truth of how horrible her own mother is to her. She...^” Cinder paused, gathering her words. Her eventual response stabbed deeper into Aria than she could’ve ever prepared herself for, “^She deserves a day of happiness. Just one day without it being ruined by my crimes and guilt. I don’t want to deny her that.^”

The Gardevoir’s eyes shot as wide as they got, despite her best attempts to rein in her immediate response. Cinder’s excuse was flimsy, and they both knew it. All it’d do would be to make the eventual revelation hurt even more, break Ember’s trust even further because of her mom not telling her the truth when she had the opportunity to. It was a terrible, selfish idea, whose only real purpose was avoiding having to deal with the Braixen’s justified and heart-wrenching pain in the moment. It wasn’t justifiable, not really.

But what it was, however, was familiar.

Aria’s mind was balancing on the edge of its own abyss, but knew it couldn’t fall into it just yet. At the very least, not before the immediate threat before her was dealt with. “^I do not trust you, Cinder. How am I to be sure that you’ll tell Ember the truth?^”

“^I’m an open book Aria, look in. Probe all you want; I have nothing more to hide.”

The Gardevoir leered at the Delphox as she followed her taunt, reaching into the depths of her thoughts and subconscious like. And then; she stopped moments after she’d began, realizing how pointless this search was, how she’d already scoured everything she could reach in pursuit of any ulterior motives. Despite that, the fairy wasn’t satisfied with that, not one bit. A small, scared part of her kept shouting to dig into Cinder’s mind, shouting that there must’ve been something evil in there. To keep drilling, to keep questioning.

Anything if it meant avoiding looking in the mirror.

The painful realization stung fiercely. Aria’s expression cracked for the briefest of instants before she forcibly straightened it. As much as it all hurt, the Gardevoir had herself under control throughout, preventing her thoughts from going down that murky path. Yet. “^We and the Elders will decide on Anne’s fate tomorrow,^” she explained. “^If you want to even slightly undo the pain you’ve caused, talk to any scouts or Elders you can and give them your point of view. Help sway their opinion, help convince them to let her stay. Understood?^”

Cinder slowly nodded her head, the rest of her body shaking. “^U-understood.^” She then turned around with shaky steps, about to start her pitiful march back to her den before giving her parting words, “^I’m sorry.^”

Aria watched the Fire-type shamble away, maintaining her utmost focus on the miserable sight until she’d turned the nearest corner. Cinder was heading for her den just like she’d promised, and the thought of running away hadn’t as much as crossed her mind to whatever extent the Gardevoir could tell from a distance. A few unending minutes later, Cinder had finally stopped, letting Aria stop focusing on her.

And switch tracks to the other person she ought to be angry at.

Whatever had maintained of her facade fell apart by the moment as her emotions crept closer and closer to a boil. No matter how much she didn’t want it to be the case, the similarities between her and Cinder were undeniable, up to and including the most loathsome sort. She might not have outright tempered with Anne’s mind yet, but she’d considered it, and would have her hand forced into it should the vote decree to not let her stay.

Would she have had enough courage then to stand for what’s right? To oppose the elders so actively, up to and including bringing exile upon herself, to put her family at risk just to protect a single child she didn’t know that well in the end? She didn’t know, of course she didn’t know. These aren’t the questions anyone can answer until life inevitably forces them to. She hoped that she’d do the right thing, but had no idea what ‘right’ even was anymore.

And that’s not even going over the most blatant comparison, one that made the Gardevoir want to scream the more she thought about it—they really weren’t all that different in the end.

They were both perfectly willing to lie to those that depended on them, those they were watching over, just to ‘keep them happy’. Just to avoid having to guide them through that horrific pain, be it of the village refusing to help a human in need, of them all considering disposing of them just because keeping them safe was ‘difficult’, or of their parent having done a horrible deed in pursuit of ‘keeping them happy’.

If it had been her with Ember all those months ago, would she have acted any different in the end? She didn’t know, and the more she dwelt on it, the more despicable the answer became. After all, they had both lied through their teeth just this very day—

“Honey?”

The word was little more than a growl in the dead of night, the being that spoke it all but invisible in the darkness. All that Aria could see on him were the glints of light shining on his fangs and eyes, the combined appearance terrifying for most.

For her, it was just what she needed.

“Hey, sweetie,” she answered, exhausted.

The Gardevoir closed the distance between herself and her husband with a bit of shaky levitation. Garret wasted no time before holding her tight, applying a well-practiced level of strength. Just barely enough to not be actively painful, the immense closeness of every single strand of hair pulling his wife closer to him more than welcome to them both. “I-is something wrong, honey? You looked aghast.”

Aria breathed deeply as she mulled over her words. There was only one truthful answer, but it was an answer she really didn’t have it in her to elaborate on at the very moment. “If I’m honest, yes, yes it is. Many things that are just wrong.”

Garret knew she couldn’t hold his love any closer without it being hurtful, but what he could do was carefully move her to have her head rest close to his heart, its steady beats ever-soothing. “Do you want to talk about them?”

The Gardevoir thought about the question for all of two seconds before arriving at an answer; her chalk-white face shook gently amidst the pitch black fur. “Not at the moment. I have to sort through my own thoughts first, if that’s alright.”

“Of course it is, Aria. Take all the time you need. I’m here for you.”

They might’ve been obvious reassurances, but that didn’t make Garret’s words any less soothing. The Gardevoir squirmed in his hairy embrace, shaking arms reaching around her husband to return the little of it she could. “I know. I love you so much, Garret.”

The demon in question reached to gently stroke along his wife’s cheek and spikes. It felt squirmy, downright ticklish, and it made her feel like the most special Gardevoir in the whole darn world.

“Love you too, honey. You’ve really been hard at work looking after... um... w-was it Angela?”

Garret’s forgetfulness made Aria laugh for the first time in way too long. The tired sound released more tension than the Gardevoir could’ve ever hoped for, relaxing by the moment. She needed this; she needed it so badly, especially from the one person she trusted the most in the world. Still, forgetting such an important detail earned him the gentlest of flicks on his pointed nose; the gesture soon returned to her almost invisible one.

“Ouch!”

“Ow. It’s Anne,” she explained. “And yes, a lot of today has been about her, directly or not, but... not all, either. Some of it I want to go through with you, but...”

“Not right now?”

“Yes. Maybe tonight, after the kids have gone to bed and it’s just us two?”

“Ha, spending our alone time on something serious this time~?” Garret chuckled.

Aria rolled her eyes at the phrasing, but not without a wide, silly smile accompanying it. The Grimmsnarl’s laughter at her expression warmed her heart even more afterwards; the simple affection and silliness made so much more special by the grave seriousness of the past few days. “Exactly~. I suppose if we have the time we can think of something more, but... I doubt we will.”

“That much to go through?”

The Gardevoir nodded wordlessly, another portion of gentle pets dissolving even more of her tension.

“Many nights ahead of us, after all~. Before then, are we gonna be heading home?” Garret asked.

“Yes, yes, I was thinking we’d do so soon... though…” Aria began, her husband not expecting a follow-up. His eyes widened as a small, cheeky smile sprouted on his wife’s face, “This could be a great opportunity to introduce you to Anne now that I think about it~.”

The Grimmsnarl’s loud gulp reverberated through his and Aria’s entire body, the Gardevoir’s embrace immediately tightening. “A-are you sure, honey?”

“Remember what I told you yesterday—brush aside the top coat and you’re as sweet as can be.”

“E-even if—”

“I know she’ll take time getting used to you if she ends up staying with us, sweetie. Little we can do about it except to introduce you early and work through that immediate reaction bit by bit,” Aria reassured.

“H-how can you b-be sure that she’ll get over that?”

“Because...” Aria paused, shivering as she recalled the frightful scene. Even the memories of Anne’s sheer panic were almost enough to make her lose her composure. “She was terrified of me too, when she first realized I was a Gardevoir. I felt it, it hurt, but... eventually, she trusted me. I can tell she’s still a little intimidated from time to time, by me, by Marco, even by Cadence, but exposure will help with that.”

“I-I can’t imagine anyone being scared of you, sweetie.”

Aria rolled her eyes, “It’s so much different when you’re as... powerless as she is, though. She didn’t see me in that moment; she saw a wild Gardevoir, mighty enough to do unspeakable things to her while she couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

“That’s... I suppose understandable,” Garret sighed. “Wouldn’t that also be how humans feel about all the other mons?”

“I—I think it is, to one extent or another. Their local folklore paints Gardevoir in an awful light, but the underlying powerlessness is there everywhere else, too.” Aria chuckled at the thought that followed; the cold, mirthless sound enough to make her husband hold her that bit closer to the thin body beneath all the hair. “Guess if it comes down to powerlessness versus control, it’s little surprise that humans would choose the latter.”

“It doesn’t make it any more right,” Garret argued.

“Of course it doesn’t. It’s not about being right, it’s about me understanding them just that bit more, I think.”

“Sounds helpful if you wanna take Amelia into our burrow~.”

The Gardevoir slowly shifted her attention back to her husband’s expression, her own as flat as can be. She saw the corners of his mouth twitch in that well familiar way. Her reaction was swift and utterly merciless.

flick

flick


“Ouch!”

“Ow.”

The couple erupted into laughter nearly instantly as Garret lowered his wife back onto solid ground. Even when she was standing upright unassisted, though, she didn’t want to leave her husband’s warmth even for a moment. “So, feeling down for meeting Anne?” she asked.

“As down as I’ll ever get, I think.”

“Let me introduce you, then~. It’s gonna be alright sweetie, I promise.”

“I know, honey. You’re the one doing it, after all~.”

As cheesy as Garret’s reassurance might’ve been, it was no less effective as a result, or less successful at bringing a soft, tired smile to Aria’s face. A few long moments later, she finally let go of his warm, black fluff, before taking a breath to reset mentally and heading back into the room currently occupied by almost the entire rest of her family.

Predictably, little has changed since the last time she’d been here, aside from everyone’s exhaustion. There wasn’t a single person around who wasn’t at least tired by now, and for some, their sleepiness had already claimed them. Elric was sprawled on half the bed while Bell had been moved over to Anne’s lap at some point. Bumpy as the Ralts’s bedding might’ve been, he was sleeping no less soundly because of that.

Anne carefully stroking his cheek helped a lot with that, too.

Cadence was using all the focus she had left in her to not join her denmates there and then. Ember’s warmth sure didn’t make that any easier, though. The human and her best friend were the only two outright awake souls left in the room, and even they were one cup of warm, sweet tea from snoozing there and then. Marco was in a similar boat as his niece, in that he only kept himself awake through the power of sheer effort, but at least he was trying harder at that.

Anne’s gentle wave took Aria out of inspecting her surroundings; the gesture returned shortly after. The Gardevoir asked, “^How are you feeling, Anne?^”

“~I-I’m feeling good, was just chatting with Ember. Wh-where did you go, Mrs. Aria?~”

The question didn’t hit the Gardevoir any less despite having been whispered out. Fortunately, for once, the Braixen was eager to give her an out, even if it was one that brought a lot of follow-up questions.“^Sh-she was talking with my mom, Anne.^”

Thankfully, the human girl was much too tired to come up with any of the said questions, acknowledging the reply with an idle, sleepy nod. “~Oh, I see. A-are they gonna sleep here tonight?~” she asked, looking at the kids sprawled around the bed.

Cadence might’ve had enough awareness left in her to realize she was included in ‘they’, but that didn’t extend to being able to produce any response besides a quiet yawn into the human’s side.

“^No, no,^” Aria reassured, “^we’re gonna be heading home soon, don’t worry, Anne. Before then, though, I had something to ask you.^”

“~O-oh? About what, Mrs. Aria?~”

“^Well~, would you want to meet my husband, Anne?^”

The human girl was too tired to even be much taken aback anymore, her firm nods conveying her enthusiasm clearly. “~Y-yeah. What is he like?~”

“^Mr. Garret is really s-sweet, hehe,^” Ember chimed in, netting herself a gentle pet as Aria and Marco chuckled in response.

The latter was busy attempting to shake just a bit more consciousness out of himself as the former continued, “^He really is, yes. Though, there’s something I have to tell you about him first, Anne.^”

Anne was left a bit surprised, but not suspicious. She answered in a nod, trying to focus on what the Gardevoir was about to say.

“^He’s a Grimmsnarl, which... many find frightening in appearance.^”

“^But he’s not scary, dad is so nice and gentle and mumble mumble...^” Cadence muttered.

Her attempt to contribute to the discussion was no less funny to the two adults than Ember’s, though Anne was too preoccupied to notice. She faintly recalled that species name from one of her binges through the dexes at Mrs. Graham’s library, and she usually remembered images well. Grimmsnarl, Grimmsnarl, large and with black fur and... big fangs, and...

The more the recollection came into view, the more Anne reminded herself of the many warnings about the species’ danger she remembered reading. Strength of a Fighting-type, ruthlessness of a Dark-type, cunning of a Fairy-type. Highly aggressive, prone to fits of rage. One of those species that, by the time you see one in person, it’s already too late.

For a moment, Aria considered helping Anne out, going over all the parts of her recollection that just weren’t true and putting the others in a more amenable, gentler light. She didn’t want the girl to be terrified of her husband, after all.

Before she could come up with what to say, though, Anne got to working through it herself. She remembered how deathly terrified she was of the very Gardevoir she was now speaking with, and how little of that was justified in the end. Even if the books say he’s scary, Anne knew she wouldn’t have anything to fear here, be it from Aria or anyone else.

If Aria said that things would be alright, then of course they would be. Anne trusted her, more than she had trusted almost anyone in her life. The Gardevoir wished that trust was fully justified.

“O-okay. I-I think I’ll be alright, I still wanna meet him,” Anne mumbled.

Whatever mistakes she might’ve made and had yet to resolve, though, she wouldn’t stop working towards ensuring Anne’s safety, be it in large or small ways. “^I’m glad. I’m gonna grab him, then~.^”

She would need to come clear to her, eventually, but it didn’t have to happen here and now.

...

Maybe she, too, was a coward in the end.



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Interlude IV: Nameless


Interlude IV: Nameless



click, click, click

There we go.


The old man took a deep breath through his freshly lit cigarette, the reeking smoke calming his nerves. Moments later, a drawn out exhale; the light gray plume immediately destroyed by the constant downpour. He shouldn’t be doing this—not anymore, at least.

He knew that well, but the habit always got the better of him when he had to visit the city. The people, the smells, the noises, the fucking noises. He was supposed to take some pills to keep him from going bonkers in here. They kept making him lethargic, unable to function. After nearly pancaking a pedestrian and ending up only totaling his car, he chose the easier option of moving out of Mistralton.

Wasn’t a problem all those years ago when he left the army, was even less so nowadays. Guess that whole ‘internet’ thing that cost him an arm and a leg to get installed was good for something, after all. Dealing with paperwork nonsense remotely was just his favorite kind of efficiency. Can’t handle everything like that, though—especially not what he was in there for right now.

It was more than worth it. He knew that well, too.

But fucking hell if it wasn’t nerve-wracking.

Even more than the city, the man was deeply unused to having to stress about anything. Stress was something reserved for people who didn’t plan enough. Something to be dealt with through drills, practice, lists, charts. Criticality incident, do this. Feral mon attack, do that. Hell, they even had a step-by-step plan in the event of a terrorist operation. None of these possibilities phased him in the slightest, but what he was here for today did.

Because of just how badly he could hurt someone if he messed it up.

Because there weren’t drills for this.

Because there couldn’t have been drills for this.

The last of the cig was gone with a shaky inhale; the butt joined the six others before it and was swiftly crushed under his work boot. He’d stalled enough; he’d have to get moving soon. And yet, he wavered, arms and breaths alike shaking like twigs. Maybe one more?

...

Fuck’s sake, that was the last one.

The bus ride back home was going to be hellish, but that was then. And now, it was time to repay for all the hurt he’d caused. To pass the little good he could forward.

With the shakiest breath of his life, the man corrected the cap on his bald head and stepped out from underneath the grocery store’s awning. The frigid rain immediately hit him with all its intensity, almost making him buckle there and then. But he had to keep going. One glance to the side, another; the steady beat of thick boots splashed in the water as they crossed the street. Straight to his destination, in all its colorful, friendly intimidation.

HEART STAMP POKÉMON SHELTER

The melodic chime took him off guard as he walked in, almost as much as the rain did. A couple moments later, the din of rain finally faded with a click of a door. At least, a moment to soothe his nerves and prepare for what was about to happen next.

...or just stand there like a dunce.

All the pastels on the walls and floors contrasted greatly with the mon in the corner. Their mostly black body stood out like a sore thumb, and the white, bow-like... growths on their front didn’t help with that impression either. Name was ‘Goth-something, something’, he didn’t remember how it ended. Plans might’ve been his thing, but he was never good with names, including his own.

As spooked as most passersby would’ve been by the psychic, the old man’s attention was squarely on the young woman behind a nearby desk. Her expression wasn’t any less confused at his sudden entrance than that of the Gothitelle beside her, but it was easier to recognize as such.

Especially when accompanied by words, “~...can I help you, mister?~”

The words were enough to snap him back to a semblance of composure. A part of him wanted to chuckle at the question, absurd and justified at the same time. He sure as hell didn’t look like someone who’d decided to just visit a shelter focusing on psychics; he knew that well. More like a person who’d be protesting the construction of a facility on the news, shouting slurs every other word. And yet, here he was.

“~Goodcough—good afternoon. I’m... I’m looking to adopt.~”

The clerk and the psychic beside her looked at each other for a brief, confused moment before the latter nodded first. It was all the reassurance the human needed, immediately getting to clacking away at the keyboard as she replied, “Sure! Your name, mister?”

A faint noise was her only answer. She glanced away from the bulky monitor to see his ID on the countertop, nodding wordlessly as she typed the name in. He didn’t care about names, especially not his government one. If anything, he cared about it the least out of all the other ones he’s had. ‘Hyde’ in grade school after a character from a book they had to read. ‘Razor’ in his platoon after a particularly traumatizing incident.

Then, for the past thirty-odd years, just ‘boss’.

And now... nothing. There wasn’t anyone left to grace him with a name that would be truly his own.

“~Alright, that’s all done. Would you want me to give you a tour around the place, mister?~”

The man nodded thoughtlessly as he swiped the plastic card back into his pocket, eyes continuing to glance around the shelter’s lobby. He only paid enough attention to not make even more of a fool out of himself than he already was. Brief rundown of psychics in general, and of species they were housing here in specific. He knew all that already. Those were the parts that he could prepare for, make mental plans, and research further. So many things that sounded outright absurd when stated outright, but which he jotted down as true all the same.

He’d dealt with enough absurd yet true things in his life to know better. Freaky military tech, the stupid complexity of a nuclear power plant. Growing to think of what initially was a tool to use in case of emergency as a son. Realizing that Geiger’s presence finally made his own life worth living.

“~If it’s alright for me to ask, mister—why psychics in particular?~” the woman asked. Her question was less disbelief than it was suspicion, and not an unearned sort, either. Those with ulterior motives gravitated to psychics for many reasons, but one stood tall above the rest.

One that the old man coincidentally shared, too. “~I heard something about them having the hardest time getting adopted.~”

Very easy to wrap a vulnerable being around one’s finger simply by being their only source of affirmation.

The piece of trivia stung the woman in its truth; a weak nod was her only response. A couple more obvious instructions later, they finally took off into the nearby corridor. Clerk ahead of him, the Gothitelle behind.

Flanked as if seeing prisoners.

The truth was more gilded than that, but only just. His eyes examined every room they walked past as his attention remained withdrawn, the anxiety of having to make a choice getting to him again. He remembered checking the news a few times a day just to see a report of a wild Electivire getting caught by the League for weeks afterwards, but not even the worry of that came close to this.

It was much easier to be confident in Geiger than in himself.

The hubbub of the higher-ups’ response to him reporting the Electivire as missing was little more than a murky memory by now. Pointed letters, shouts, threats. He didn’t care, never could, not this close to retirement. Couldn’t nail him with anything in particular. Eventually, the League got involved, sent a snotty kid, and found nothing. Guess a stray, untrained Electivire wasn’t worth the effort beyond putting out a wanted letter just in case someone runs into them—

“^That’s a pretty beard,^” a boyish voice spoke, breaking through the surrounding murmurs. Hearing voices on their own didn’t phase the man; he was already long used to them. Someone being interested in him, even if for the most banal of reasons, was a different matter, though.

He hadn’t run into this specific species in his research, but it didn’t matter. They were a person first and foremost, and as far as the old man was concerned, anything beyond that was trivia. Their top half being almost an exact match for Geiger’s shade of yellow was appreciated, though. “~Thanks.~”

“^What’s that hat?^”

The man’s damp, bald head shone faintly as he took the white cap off and crouched beside the short fence that blocked his access to the small room. The Drowzee on its other side scooted over, sleepy eyes going wide with curiosity as they followed the unremarkable headgear, the man explaining, “~Just a cap from a place I used to work at.~”

Before he could finish passing it over, the cap was surrounded in a faint, yellow glow and immediately lowered onto the psychic’s head. Only for them to let out a sudden, nasal squeak and fling the item away, its wet cold catching them off guard.

The old man had no idea if he should laugh at that, but opted for the safer option, limiting himself to a held-in chuckle. Even if he didn’t express it with outward laughter, he still found it funny, and the Drowzee could tell. And so, the cold, wet hat was lightly flicked over back onto his face, splatting against it.

The startle made him fall backwards onto his rear, old joints not appreciating it one bit. He couldn’t care less about his body’s complaints, though—not when he was laughing this hard. “~Hah, you got spunk, kid!~”

Soon enough, both of them were laughing, be it at the absurdity of the exchange or at the old man acting silly. “~What’s your name?~” the man asked.

The change in the atmosphere was almost palpable. It even took the man aback, his brain trying to figure out what had just happened. He could tell the psychic in front of him was left uncomfortable by the question, their body language shrinking and eyes shifting to look down at the floor.

Right as he was about to ask what was wrong, he felt a sensation as if someone was pushing his attention towards one specific spot, the small plaque beside the doorframe. The one that would’ve normally had the names of all the occupants written on it. Blank.

“~No name, eh?~” the man chuckled, “~I don’t have one, either.~”

The admission snapped the Drowzee out of their encroaching funk; sadness suddenly replaced with confusion. “^Really?^”

“~Yep.~”

“^But I thought humans had names.^”

“~I don’t, haven’t had one for a while,~” the man explained. He watched the revelation unfold in the lil’ psychic’s mind, his own following shortly after. A terrifying one that almost sank his heart, the earlier anxieties creeping back in force. The way forward lacked the certainty he was so used to, the certainty he thought he required for the longest time.

But, as he discovered with every passing day, life only really began with that certainty gone.

“~We could come up with names for each other, if you’d like.~”

So he best got used to dealing with its absence.

“^Y-yeah!^”

He had a life to make worth living, after all.



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 19: Retreat


Chapter 19: Retreat



Despite her own and Aria’s reassurances, Anne couldn’t say she was as confident about meeting the Gardevoir’s husband as she wished she could. Both because meeting new people never came easy to her, and because of the presumed looks of this particular person, as bad as that reason felt to admit that to herself.

As worried as the human girl was, though, the Braixen was there for her—and that was enough to make even the hardest struggles feel manageable. “^D-don’t worry Anne, Mr. Garret is really nice!^”

The taller girl nodded subconsciously at the reassurance; a weak shake went through her body as she leaned further into the fox. “~I-I know. I’m... I-I’m worried about how I’ll react, too...~”

“^I’m sure Mr. Garret will u-understand i-if you’re a bit taken aback,^” Ember reassured.

“~I-I guess...~” Anne muttered, wishing the exchange had made her feel more confident. What words had failed at, though, a gentle, warm hug was doing a wonderful job of making up for.

The muffled sounds coming from behind the room’s entrance made Anne grab her bearings and try to steady her breath. Her shaky hand held Ember’s paw close as Aria slid the canvas flap off to the side. First the Gardevoir, and then... the guest of honor.

With how terrible the lighting was in the room, it was hard to make out more than a handful of details. White fangs, bits of not-black skin on the face, ears, and angled eyes. Beyond them, a bipedal-shaped darkness that actively sucked the surrounding light in, sticking out from the dark brown canvas behind.

And then the darkness spoke, its voice a harsh, demonic snarl—with a stutter. “G-good evening, Anne.”

The whiplash between the intimidation of Garret’s voice and the utter meekness of the meaning it conveyed slapped Anne across the face. Parables of deceiving looks were a mainstay in the books she’d read, be it for class or on her own, but this example was so much more stark than anything else she’d ever seen. And really affable while at it. “~G-good evening, Mr. Garret.~”

“Oh, no need for titles, sweetie. I’ve heard you’ve had a fun day with the kids!” the Dark-type growled from the dark, voice fierce enough to stop Leo in its track, and yet genuinely curious.

The kind of curious that made Anne fluster a bit. “~Y-yeah. I’ve had a lot of fun, I-I’m really glad they came over.~”

By then, there was no more risk of Cadence perking up to interject with the Kirlia having finally called it quits for the night, leaning on the vixen’s other side. The sight of both his biological kids and the Gligar under his care snoozing after a long day of playing around brought a wide smile to the Grimmsnarl’s face.

Unfortunately, what those closest to him saw as a ‘wide smile’ most others just thought of as ‘baring fangs’, and elaboration to convey his happiness was in order. “That’s wonderful~! I see quite a few drawings strewn around, too. Did you guys draw each other?”

“~M-mostly it was me drawing others...~”

“^And really really nicely too!^” Ember chimed in, her telepathic comment conveyed to Garret through his wife. It helped little with Anne’s fluster—but what it was very effective at, though, was diffusing even more tension in the room through the form of amused chuckles by anyone but the embarrassed and the asleep.

“~I-I like to think so...~”

“I’m sure they’re great, Anne! Mind if I take a look?” Garret asked.

A direct request spurred the girl to action; the ‘nice’ part of her responded before any of the fears clouding the rest of her could catch up. Within moments, she was sweeping assorted items away from a large patch of the bed immediately beside her to free up space. It was only once she had to say the accompanying line out loud that she realized what she was in for—but by then, her self-consciousness had declared it to be too late. “~Sure, p-please take a seat...~”

Garret was taken no less off guard by that than Anne, leaving him at an impasse about what to do next. He wasn’t in the position to be asking, but his wife was, thankfully, speaking up directly to Anne with a telepathic whisper, “^Are you sure, Anne? You don’t have to if you feel uncomfortable, he’ll understand.^”

Was it a good idea to rush it, even with the demon turning out to be incomparably nicer than his looks showed? Probably not. Did Anne feel capable of it?

By then... yeah.

Ember was beside her; Mrs. Aria was here; Marco was here; Cadence, Bell, and even Elric were here too, if asleep. Not all of those factors were equally relevant in the moment, but they all helped the human girl with keeping her cool. A couple deeper breaths later, she nodded, squeezing Ember’s paw.

The Grimmsnarl only barely convinced himself to try, either. He wanted to avoid a bad first impression more than anything else in the world, and rushing was how one ran into those face-first. But... he, too, was willing to give it a shot. His wife was there, and Anne clearly trusted her. Things would be alright. “Okay, Anne. Right here?” he asked.

“~Mmhm.~”

Anne had no idea how all the other kids remained asleep after Garret sent ripples through the bed by sitting down, but she wasn’t complaining. Neither was she complaining about the bulky, hairy demon respecting her space, even when sitting beside her. He was making a clear effort to avoid any unwanted touch despite all the hair, managing to swoop the nearest stack of paper with unexpected dexterity.

All the while, the human girl took Garret’s towering appearance in. His fur was matte black, looking more like a uniform void than individual strands. It was impossible to overstate how massive he was, too, sitting beside her with a broad build and a full head of height on her.

Before Anne could focus on any more unnerving appearance details, though, he brought the first drawing in front of her, “Oh goodness, that’s lovely! Cadence must’ve liked it a lot!”

Despite the tension she was trying her hardest to work through, Anne couldn’t help but chuckle out loud. Chuckle, and nod, and sneak a brief glimpse at the sleeping fairy, the action making the latter squirm in her sleep a bit. “~You’ve n-no idea, M... Garret.~”

In any other situation, the Grimmsnarl wouldn’t have wasted his time before patting the uncertain person on the back and reassuring them. Considering just who this particular person was, though, a more reserved approach was in order. “It’s all okay, sweetie. If you feel more comfortable with a title, use it. I don’t mind either way.”

Right.

It was only by the power of utmost self-control that Anne stopped herself from saying ‘sorry’ there and then.

“^I can i-imagine how giddy she was to see it, hehe...^” Ember chuckled, scanning the page with her one eye, smiling no less than the Dark-type demon did at the sight.

Anne couldn’t disagree, chuckling with a faint nod, “~Yeah, she r-really was.~”

As nice as the ongoing discussion was, Anne knew that if it remained on this course, it would eventually steer towards her. A distraction was in order—one that Garret didn’t even need to be asked to provide.

He reached over further into the bed to pull his kids onto his lap, holding them close with his arm and hair alike. The scene was more adorable than it had any right to be, especially once Bell mumbled in his sleep at having the spot between his horns scritched.

It also raised some questions by proxy, though, ones that Anne hoped wouldn’t be over the line or anything. “~I-if it’s okay for me to ask... how did you and M-Mrs. Aria meet?~”

The question perked both halves of the couple up as Marco chuckled. Aria sighed, “^Goodness, it’s been a long time now, hasn’t it?^”

“It really has, honey. And I enjoyed all of it~.”

Garret’s flattery had his wife roll her eyes as the two awake girls exchanged quiet giggles and awwws.

“As to how it began...” the demon continued, “it must be well over ten years ago by now, doesn’t it?”

“^Let me think—^”

Before Aria could piece the number together, her brother cut her off, “Thirteen.”

As glad as she was about being saved from having to count individual years, the somber, low tone with which the Gallade had said it didn’t go unnoticed. Neither was it a surprise, considering just what exactly had led them to join the fledgling village.

“Thirteen it is then~! I’ve been living here with Autumn for many years by that point,” Garret chuckled.

“^Oh oh, wh-what did you do then, M-Mr. Garret?^”

“Same as today, Ember—helped with construction and repair. Gotta put all the strength to a good use after all~! But but but, we’re getting off track. I remember watching Rose escort them both into the village, and I just couldn’t get my eyes off them.”

Anne was unaware of the name, but followed intently along all the same as the Dark-type continued, “Course, wasn’t about to jump over in the middle of putting up a wall, but I kept looking around. Then, one day, after gathering my courage for a while, I approached Marco and asked if he’d like to have a drink at Viv’s, after he figured out how to link to me.”

“Wait, you did?” Marco asked, surprised.

The Gallade’s genuine confusion dispelled some of his earlier gloom as Garret had to focus on keeping his roaring laughter in to not wake the rest of the clinic up. Or, at least, hold as much of it in as he could. “Yes I did, Marco! Do you really not remember?”

“I...” Marco started, cut off by a pang of grief. He banished it soon after with a deep inhale, switching to telepathy to maintain composure. “^I don’t recall much from that time. What’d I say?^”

Garret chuckled, “Well~ you were entirely oblivious and said you didn’t have the time.”

Another, more controlled wave of laugher, the Gallade left rolling his eyes as he sat on the floor.

“^Romance just slides off you, it seems,^” Aria joked.

Marco couldn’t disagree with his sister’s comment. He didn’t agree with it either; the words plunging him into much more thought than was intended. The resulting silence left the rest of the room uncertain as Aria walked over to him, just in case. Movement this close up finally stirred him out of his confusion, leaving him sighing as he slowly picked himself up onto his feet. “^You’re... not wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever felt these sorts of emotions, towards anyone. I’ve no idea how they even feel like, really.^”

Before the Gallade could elaborate any further, he found himself pulled into a tight hug by his sister. As awkward as their spacing was by necessity, with their horns ending up pressed to the side of the other’s torsos, it didn’t make the result any less genuine—or appreciated by the recipient. “^Nothing wrong with that, bro.^”

Marco reassured, “^I know, I know, I know, it’s... guess I just really never thought of it like that before.^”

“I hope putting it that way helps then, Marco,” Garret smiled.

“^It...^” As the Gallade quickly went through his memories for more fodder towards the building realization, one very recent event stuck out to him. One that sounded like a repeat of what Garret had described. It even involved a fairy, too. Something to ponder on later, in any case. “^...it really does. Thanks, Aria.^”

“^Anytime, Marco.^”

“Anyway~! I can’t say I wasn’t discouraged after that, but I tried not to let it get to me. I remember walking through the streets, looking for the other recent arrival, worrying about how I’d come off. And then, I finally spotted Aria. I believe you were talking with Holly when it happened, honey?”

“^Sounds about right.^”

“So~! I gathered my bearings, took a deep breath, put on a bit of Swagger—”

“^So that’s why you tripped on thin air!^” Aria giggled.

“Honey!”

Laughter once more, Anne in particular had to keep her tired noises from growing too loud at the mental image. Something that Ember failed at, holding her friend tighter with each raspy, howly sound. Despite being put on the spot, Garret took it in stride, joining in on the amusement. “Yes, yes, I tripped and fell in front of you two and made a scene, ha. You helped me up, Holly brought us some drinks, we got to chatting. And the rest is history.”

The last sentence was quieter and warmer; accompanied by the demon dad holding his kids closer to him, tiny tendrils of hair stroking their cheeks. As sweet as the situation was, the accompanying peace making Anne slump in her spot more and more, there remained some unexplained parts. Ones that Ember in particular wanted a further glimpse of. “^Awwww. Oh, Mrs. Aria, wh-where did you and Mr. M-Marco come from?^”

Despite the innocence of the question, the psychic vixen felt the air in the room grow colder at her words. Not directly at her, not by a long shot. Instead, at the unspoken part of the story being brought to light, one that not even Garret knew more than an outline of. Ember was of half a mind to speak up again just to reassure the siblings that they didn’t have to go into it, but by then, Aria answered, “^We... we were raised in a tiny commune, rather far from here. It was our and a couple other psychic families sharing a burrow, and not much beyond that.^”

The answer accounted for ‘where’, but not for the much more important ‘why’. Aria was well aware of that, holding the Gallade closer as she fought to figure out how much of the truth to convey. And, ever more importantly, how much of it her brother wanted to convey. Ultimately, the course of action was obvious—just let Marco explain as much as he’s comfortable with.

“^As to why we left…^” he sighed. “^Our—our parents were... rather strict. They...^”

Not a single sound filled the small room as the Gallade gathered his words. His eyelids were trying their hardest to get rid of any building moisture, succeeding only partially.

“^They loved us in their own way. They had a very... specific idea for what we should do and be in our lives. Regardless of what we actually wanted. And if we disagreed...^” he looked at his arm, at how differently it looked from that of his sister. “^They would force their vision upon us anyway.^”

“^Most of it was tiny things,^” Aria explained. “^Until, one night, they went too far, much too far. When Marco realized what they’d done in the morning, I grabbed provisions and left with him on the spot. Our journey was long and very difficult at times, but eventually, we made our way here.^”

The trek itself was little more than a traumatic blur in both siblings’ minds. Struggle for survival, wrestling with a new body, having no idea if there even was safety at the end of their invisible path. A kind of hell neither of them would ever wish on anyone else.

The vagueness of their description left a part of Ember curious to ask more. The rest of the vixen, though, knew better than to investigate into such a clearly loaded topic, leaning to hold Anne closer instead. And realizing that the human girl was already halfway asleep, and had been resting against the Grimmsnarl for an unspecified amount of time.

As heavy as the siblings’ recollection was, the unexpected sight of the skittish girl leaning on the massive Dark-type was no less appreciated as the result, triply so once the psychics had noticed it. Aria and Marco alike had to hold in chuckles at the sight as the former approached with a smile on her face. Garret didn’t dare move throughout, simultaneously amused and taken aback, worrying about startling the human once she realized her position.

Aria whispered, “^Anne?^”

“~Mmmmmmhhhhhmmm...~” Anne mumbled, slowly prying her eyes open—only for them to snap all the way there once she’d realized what she was resting again. She had no idea how to respond, stiffening as she leaned on the Grimmsnarl, hoping futilely that he hadn’t noticed her.

Nothing that Aria’s gentle pet on the cheek couldn’t fix, especially when accompanied by another psychic whisper, “^Don’t worry sweetie, Garret doesn’t mind~. Are you okay?^”

Anne whispered, “~I... I’m really tired, I think...~” as her body slowly unclenched. She truly hoped she hadn’t made the Grimmsnarl uncomfortable. In part because goodness did this feel nice. She expected the demon’s fur to be oily and unpleasant to the touch. Instead, it was dry, well kept, and not even that rough, though still a far cry from how soft Ember was. It felt right; it felt safe; it felt... like a dad should feel.

As insightful and yet scary as that thought was, neither Aria nor Anne had the time to think about it more—especially with the night security showing up. “Gooooood evening there, darlings. How’s everyone holding up?” Sprout whistled, glancing around the room. Lovely sights all around, just as she’d expected, especially with all the sleeping and only-barely-not-sleeping kids.

“^Very, very ready to get some rest,^” Aria mumbled.

“Ha, that much I can tell, hun. How’s Anne doing?”

“~I’m sleepy.~”

The Decidueye didn’t expect to hear the girl’s voice—it was the most enjoyable of surprises, though. Her beak twisted into the closest thing to a smile it was capable of as she scooted over towards the human girl, even giving her a small wave with it. “Hello, Anne dear! I’m Sprout, and I’ll be watching over you tonight, just in case. It’s lovely to meet you, sweetie!”

Anne took a hot minute to figure out what she was supposed to do with Sprout’s outstretched wing. Exhaustion didn’t help, and neither did the apprehension accompanied by having a Decidueye watch over her. As lovely as Blossom had been earlier, the jump in both size and lethality from a Dartrix to a Decidueye was... immense. She knew she shouldn’t have been thinking about things like these, not with how kind the mons all around were, but her tired mind had other ideas.

Sprout was no psychic, but her hearing was good enough to make up for that fact—at least, to an extent. In most contexts, someone’s heart rate going up had too many possible reasons to ascribe a concrete one to it. Here, though... it wasn’t exactly difficult to piece together the connection between Anne spotting her and exhibiting all the different aspects of a stress response. Especially with the owl’s body being attuned to sensing them. Whether the owl herself wanted it to or not.

Anne wasn’t about to not try harder herself, though. Her breath shook as she sat up straight and gave Sprout a small wave. Pushing through the fog of tiredness took effort she could only barely muster, but someone being nice enough to look after her deserved it. “~H-hello, Mrs. Sprout. Th-th-thank you for looking after me...~”

As hard as she tried to hold her composure, she wasn’t exactly doing a good job at it. She supposed it only made sense to apologize for that, “~I-I’m sorry—~”

“Shhhhhhhh,” the Decidueye shushed, accompanying the half-whistled sound with the world’s swiftest hug. Anne hadn’t even realized what had happened until she blinked, only to find her face pressing itself into the owl’s leafy shoulder, with the rest of her body surrounded by the softest plumage she’d ever felt.

She was too tired to even get startled, auto-piloting to an exhausted nod.

“It’s all good, sweetie,” Sprout comforted. “Blossom had mentioned you gettin’ a tad scared when she flew in, sorry for giving you another scare. I promise I’m not as scary as I look, ha!”

The owl’s frankness helped melt through much of Anne’s worries as her bed was being emptied around her. By the time the Decidueye had let go, the human girl had found herself alone on the bedding. All the assorted drawings and drawing tools had been moved to the nightstand; Elric had joined the rest of his denmates in Garret’s arms; and the lil’ fiery vixen was standing beside Aria, waving over at her best friend.

Aria smiled, “^It’s high time for us to head home, Anne. I’ll come to check up on you tomorrow.^”

“^M-me too! I’ll come over a-as early as I can, I promise!^” Ember woofed.

Despite the chaos of the past couple of days, despite all the unknowns that persisted... Anne felt safe. So much safer than she thought she ever would. “~G-good night!~”

The feeling persisted even once everyone but the Decidueye had left. Sprout extinguished the last of the Will-o’-Wisps with an offhand wing gesture, the message very clear. A smile remained glued on Anne’s face as she laid down and got comfortable under the rough covers. Preparing to rest in a village full of feral mons, so far away from what used to be her home.

The two red pinpricks she saw in the room’s corner didn’t help at first. Once they’d hopped over and carefully pet her forehead with a couple of very soft, mobile feathers, though, Anne suddenly found it much harder to be genuinely afraid of them. She was safe; she was cared for. Aria was looking after her.

Nothing would ever go wrong again.


Ember quickly split up to head to her mom’s den following the group’s departure, leaving just the three awake adults to make their way through the village’s mostly asleep streets. The occasional Dark and Ghost-types passed their greetings now and again. For the most part, though, their journey was uneventful and in almost complete silence, the adults no less immune to the ever creeping exhaustion than the human girl they’d just left.

It was only after a good few minutes that the first words were finally exchanged—or rather, bodily sounds, specifically those of Aria’s stomach rumbling. “Really hope we have something to eat at home,” she commented.

“When I left, mom was preparing something for us to have once we get back,” Garret reassured.

“Oh good. Today was a lot, and the last thing I need is to go to bed hungry...”

Before Aria’s words could linger in the air for too long, the Gardevoir found herself getting swept off the ground and held close in her husband’s arm, adding to his tally of all the other smaller creatures he was carrying. “You’ve been doing great, honey. I believe in you, and so does Anne~.”

“I know, I know. Just—”

“Marcoooo~!” the squeaky, floaty voice stopped the tired band mid-step as they all turned to face its source. Neither of them were expecting to see the Wigglytuff so late into the evening, and especially not with clear signs of inebriation, but Jovan was hopping over towards them all the same.

Aria greeted him, dumbstruck, “Good evening, Jovan.”

“Hello, hello Aria, Garret~. Care for a chat, Marcooo~?”

The Fairy-type’s voice was somehow even flirtier than usual, the significance lost upon its intended recipient. Again. The Gallade might’ve overlooked the tone, but following his internal realization earlier at the clinic, he was starting to suspect the purpose of Jovan’s occasional chats.

And as unpleasant as it all would inevitably be, he knew he should come clear about how he felt. “I—s-sure, Jovan. Did something happen?”

“Oh, hardly~. I was just thinking about whether you’d want to swing by Viv’s place tomorrow? Together~?”

The Gallade had lost count of all the times the Wigglytuff had asked him a question in that vein. If what he was suspecting was true, if Jovan’s questions weren’t for the purpose of just looking for platonic company... then a clarification was long overdue. He spoke, “J-Jovan, I... I have to come clear with something—”

“You’re straight~?”

“What—no, no, of course not. It’s—it’s more like I’m... neither. I didn’t even realize you were trying to ask me out in that way...”

Aria was about to roll her eyes at her brother, not noticing it for so long... but at the same time, it’s not like Jovan’s thoughts were straightforward, either. They kept shifting around in a confusing, hard to follow way, almost like the fairy was making it deliberately difficult to pick up on his motives. What went under his brain might’ve been trickier to piece together than it should’ve been, but how he felt about Marco’s confession was very clear to sense. Utter, immense,

Relief.

“Oh, thank goodness~! I was so worried you’d been playing hard to get all along and that I was just messing everything up~!”

Garret chuckled, “And here I am, taking a clue after my first case of cold shoulder...”

His wife giggling as his brother-in-law rolled his eyes. Jovan, however, immediately tried to explain himself. “He wasn’t saying ‘no’ or anything! Neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, hardly a sign either way with such an obvious approach. I thought I just had to try harder!”

“And then you just... kept going?” Marco asked, stopping the Wigglytuff in his tracks.

The blush that sprouted on his lavender cheeks might not have been visible in the dark, but his embarrassment was clear to hear all the same. “...you look good, you know~?”

On a cue, the fluster ball was passed from the balloon to the knight, the latter left just as stunned as the former was moments prior. “Um, I—”

‘Good’ was the absolute last word Marco would’ve ever used to describe his appearance. ‘Misshapen’ and ‘incorrect’, sure, but definitely not ‘good’. The sheer mismatch between that perception and how he felt about his looks inside was a bountiful pile of fuel for self-loathing, ready to be ignited to take its carrier down with it.

Thankfully, Marco was too exhausted to be playing with mental matches, skipping straight to the most banal of answers, “Thanks, Jovan.”

“You’re welcome, Marco~. Seems I’ll have to look around some more. Well, suppose with that over, we’d all rather get some snooze time than stand out in the cold for any longer. Sleep well, you all~. And especially you, Marco!”

“Worst case, you can always try tripping in front of someone to catch their attention!”

Jovan didn’t get the reference in Garret’s joke, but laughed together with the rest of the group all the same.

“Sounds painful~. Guess it’s just what one has to do to get a date nowadays, ha! In any case, goodnight~,” the Wigglytuff waved as he bounced off into the distance.

“Goodnight, Jovan,” Aria sighed.

“Good luck on your search!”

“T-take care, Jovan.”

With the fairy hopping away, the amused mood could spread throughout the gathering, sending them into brief bursts of giggling from time to time. At imagining Jovan’s past antics, at imagining Marco’s stone faced responses, and in the Gallade’s case, at not piecing it all together sooner, both about the Wigglytuff and himself. Guess having a hard time even conceptualizing oneself without all sorts of mental sludge creeping up would do that to him, but it was still amusing to think about.

It’d help going forward, that’s for sure.

By the time the last of the trio had finished chuckling to themselves, the group was already home, making their way down the burrow’s stairs to a company of nourishing aromas and oh-so-welcome warmth.

“There you all are! I was of half a mind to march over there myself,” Autumn greeted, her voice only avoiding the exhaustion that had claimed everyone else by the virtue of having other things to be giddy about. Her dating life was a distant second thought in the moment, though, doubly so with her family cold and hungry.

As Garret and Aria laid their kids and Elric to bed, Marco helped his mom-in-law with pouring hearty portions of stew for the entire family. It was too late and too cold outside to be worrying about setting up a table, especially since a large, shared blanket for them all to huddle under would work just as well, if not even better.

Moments later, they were all seated and making their way through their portion. The warmth sure didn’t help any with tiredness, but now that the family finally had a moment to get each other up to speed about what was happening to and around Anne, rest was the last thing on their mind.

“^How’d explaining humans to the little ones go, mom?^” Aria asked.

The Indeedee stretched in her seat as she went through the events of the day in her head. Some of them were much more pleasant than others, but those weren’t the most important ones. Those came much earlier. Not perfectly good, but hardly bad, either. “Overall? Quite well. I risked a bit with dragging Geiger in to help, but thankfully, he knew exactly what to say. Stressed about how humans aren’t different from us individually and many are good people, even if their world at large remains dangerous.”

Garret asked, surprised. “And all the little ones went along with it?”

His mom shook her head and elaborated, “I wish. I’d say most of them were ambivalent. After all, Anne would just be another kid joining them in the end. As good of an attitude as I can expect from most. There were quite a few kids eager to help and curious, thankfully.”

“^Like Blossom?^”

“She too, but also Zephyr, Grace, Mint, even Lyn, some others. There were one or two kids that were rather openly antagonistic too, sadly, Hawthorne the worst of them.”

Considering the abuse the Espurr’s parent had endured from humanity, it really was no surprise to see her opposing Anne this vocally. It wasn’t like Hawthorne’s hostility made no sense, but at the same time... her parent didn’t act like this. He was the one who had actually suffered, and yet, Autumn couldn’t ever remember the Meowstic remarking about humans at all, in a hostile way or not.

Despite the cruelty they had inflicted upon him being very clear to see.

“^That makes sense. Aiming to convince everyone is no less foolish amongst the kids than it is among the adults. Though,^” the Gardevoir paused mid sentence, not liking the difficulty of the task she was thinking of in the slightest. “^Someone talking with Max about all of this would be a good idea. Just so that once the vote comes, he won’t be the immediate example for those opposing Anne staying here to point to—^”

“Vote?” Garret asked, confused, sending an agonized wince through the rest of the family. It was inarguably the right choice to take a moment and make sure everyone’s on the same page, but sadly, it also meant recounting the cruelty of those who should’ve known better.

Again.

“^That’s... one of the topics I meant when I mentioned things being wrong. The Elders had decided to put Anne’s ultimate fate to a vote amongst the scouts.^”

A glance over at the Grimmsnarl revealed his aghast expression at the news. He almost dropped his bowl as he stared at his wife, her solemn nod acting as all the confirmation he could ever need. “How could they!?” he asked.

“^I-I wish I knew, Garret...^”

The sadness in Aria’s voice petered out any anger in the Dark-type before it could build upon itself; the tension released with a weary sigh. Whether he liked it or not, and he most definitely hated it, this was what they had to deal with. And with that in mind, it only made sense to catch up on how the vote was looking in the present. “I-I see. How do you think it’s looking, honey?”

“^It’s very up in the air. Thirteen votes in total, we need seven. Me, Marco, Rose, Sprout, and Cypress are certain to vote in Anne’s favor. At the same time, Winnie is absolutely voting against, and so is Lumi. I haven’t had a chance to talk about this with Lucere, but I’m suspecting a similar attitude. Same with Ana. Bloody, senile Torkoal...^”

Aria caught herself before she could wind herself up any further. She took a deep breath, another spoonful of stew, and continued, “^It leaves Celia, Lariat, Ori, and Ruby. The last time I spoke with the latter two was before we talked to the Elders. I remember Ori feeling very hesitant about it all, but not hostile or anything. Ruby spoke up with myself and Sprout at our meeting, but that’s hardly a confirmation of intent, either. Celia... I have no idea. She’s the one who’d delayed the vote, which makes me think she’ll be against, too.^”

“^Terribly hypocritical of her if that’s the case...^” Autumn grumbled, only barely keeping her anger contained. She was there when the Primarina had joined their village, in circumstances not too different from Anne’s. To think she’d turn around and spit in an innocent’s face like that...

As angry as the Indeedee was getting about it, though, the sheer nonsensicalness of it all cut her short. It would’ve been so unlike Celia to act this way; this made no sense. Then again, no earlier situation had ever concerned a human. And if there was anyone in the village with a very good reason to loathe every single part of humanity with all her heart, it was also the Primarina.

This mess was making demons of them all.

“^I know, but it’s true.^” Aria sighed. “^That just leaves Lariat. Haven’t spoken with him either.^”

“^I have, and... it really, really wasn’t pretty. It felt like I couldn’t get to him at all about Anne’s situation being so much more similar to ours than of any other human. He’ll almost certainly vote against,^” Autumn explained.

“^That makes six.^” Aria summed up, her words grim in their implications. Her arms shook as she tried to continue calming herself down with a meal, to no avail. Why were people she knew and respected deciding to be this cruel to someone so defenseless? “^I’ll get up early and speak with Ruby in the morning. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay for long enough to discuss this with Ori.^”

Autumn reassured, “^Don’t worry Aria, Geiger assured me he’ll talk to Ori and Lumi tomorrow.^”

As feasible as it felt for the Scizor to be swayed, the Luxray was a whole separate matter. At this point, probably not even whichever deities were watching high above them could get through to the lion’s skull. Why would another Electric-type do any better?

“^Th-that’s good, the Ori part. Talking to Lumi is a waste of time, but Geiger knows him better.^”

“And so do I. I can’t do much, still, but I can at least try to chat with him,” Marco chimed in, catching the attention of the rest of the family, his portion long finished.

Aria responded, “^I’d say trying to talk to Ana and Celia would be a better use of your time, but I’m unsure how much you’ve talked to them in the past.^”

“With Celia? Not at all, only a few words with Ana. I don’t know, sis, I feel like I’ll have more luck with Lumi.”

“^Y-yeah, I suppose. It’s just—^”

Garret’s hug cut Aria off before she could finish her sentence. The sudden, full body warmth was soothing beyond words, especially once further enhanced by the most intricate massage in the world. “You’re trying your best, honey. We can do this together. I’m sure of it.”

“^I wish I was.^”

“Me too honey, me too.”

The Gardevoir chuckled at the impromptu exchange. Her mind was a maelstrom of everything that could go wrong, everyone they had to talk to and try to convince not to murder an innocent by proxy. She wasn’t alone, she knew it at a rational level, but... a part of her still felt hopelessness creeping in, moment by moment.

“On my end, I can visit Max and discuss it with him. I will have the time tomorrow,” Garret suggested. “Aside from that, I’ll be on the lookout for any passing Elders to go over it all with them.”

“^Garret, you’re wonderful, but I doubt any force could ever sway Winnie, even your looks and charm.^”

“If not him, then Ana and Celia, ha!”

The Breloom was out of consideration for being convinced, and everyone gathered knew that. The Primarina had her own master plan of some sort, and the Torkoal... wouldn’t let her opinion show, not even when talking to a psychic.

“^Won’t hurt to try. Thanks, honey.^”

“^No lessons tomorrow, and if I have the time, I’ll bring it all to Celia and see what she thinks. If need be, I’ll stay with Anne, though. It’d help a lot if you could watch over Anne again, Marco,^” Autumn suggested.

The Gallade sighed at the reasonable request. Out of the two of them, his mom-in-law was both much better at talking and knew much more about most faces around the village, especially the older ones. It only made sense for him to be delegated to the least difficult duty considering his current state, but… sigh. This was not the time for him to be moping, not with Anne’s wellbeing on the line. “Will do, mom.”

As the Indeedee patted her son-in-law on the back, Aria churned through everything she could do to help tomorrow. Ruby, Ori, maybe Lucere too. The Weavile was most likely to agree; it would just take catching her in the early morning and going through it all. She was many things, but honest and direct were chief among them. The Scizor was a tricky case, and Geiger was probably the one better suited to actually changing him. Still, she’d be remiss not to at least probe what his current thoughts were.

The Altaria... would take some getting used to.

Most of what Aria knew of her revolved around what she’d heard whispered about where she came from, about how her own flock had banished her over an innate difference of some sort. She’d have to work out more of the specifics to see if she could use that to appeal to her judgment. Aside from that tidbit, the few times Aria had listened to what Lucere had said about humans, distrust was chief amongst what she felt.

Whether it was the deeper, unyielding sort was something for her to figure out tomorrow.

“^All that aside, Aria, any news regarding what happened to Cinder—^”

knock-knock-knockknockknock!

The chaotic, uneven banging at the front door cut the Indeedee off as it plunged the burrow into silence. The three psychics quickly realized just who it was standing outside in utter despair, but only one of them knew the probable reason. Without saying another word and to the tune of the constant barrage of bangs and knocks, Aria got up and turned towards the stairs.

Her body shook with each step, but she pushed on; she had to push on. The implications her mind was all too happily feeding her were plunging her soul into despair, but that could wait until later. Right now,

croak!

Ember needed her help.

“H-h-how could she have d-done that to me!?” the vixen howled, weeping into Aria’s front. The Gardevoir held her tight even as her entire body shook, “I-I just wanted Anne to be safe and—”

Ember couldn’t even finish her sentence before her piercing sobs filled the burrow. Autumn took care of the noise with a Safeguard, but it was up to Aria to help the despairing fox, green arms holding her close. She wished she knew what to do in response, how to soothe someone carrying so much justified pain. She had no answers, but what she had was comfort.

“Sh-she took my memories a-a-and she took Anne and—sob” the Braixen continued, the gentle psychic embrace helping her, if only slightly. Without saying a word, Aria gently led her down the stairs, until she was sitting beside the rest of her family in front of the calm fireplace. “I-I thought she loved me a-and she doesn’t and she did that to me—”

“^Shhhhhhhhhhh.^”

Aria’s quiet, gentle hush was paired with her physical hand stroking Ember’s head, adding to the warmth even further. There wasn’t a spell for this kind of pain, not one that wouldn’t merely delay it until its discovery. There was only the slow way forward, one of comfort, reassurance, and, most importantly, listening.

Ember’s wails continued for a few minutes afterwards as Autumn scrambled over to her other side, joining in with her own affection. She was no less frightened at the fox’s state than the rest of the family, but with Aria being ready to talk through it all with the fox, her trying to chime in would only make things worse. Eventually, the worst of her painful howls ended, leaving only sobs, sorrow, and betrayal.

A few minutes later, the same words, but now meant as a question and not an outlet of pain, “Wh-why did she do that to me...?”

Aria thought back to her stern discussion with the Delphox. Despite how thorough it was, it was ultimately useless for the painful fox beside her. What was she to say, that the fox’s mom was a coward? Even if true, it wouldn’t help in the slightest, and was only part of the picture by itself. Aria loathed to excuse Cinder’s behavior, but what she could do was contextualize it enough to let Ember come to her own conclusion. “^Because you were hurting, and she didn’t know what to do. She hurt you because she didn’t want you to suffer. What she did was horrible and wrong, but it was not without a reason to it.^”

Ember’s body shook as she chewed through the Gardevoir’s words. The storm inside her head kept shifting between pain, uncertainty, and anger; neither end strong enough to overpower the other two. “B-but I love Anne, a-and I loved her then too. I-I just wanted her to be safe!”

“^Back then, Cinder thought it impossible to convince the Elders that it was possible for Anne to stay, and wanted to spare you from suffering at living without her. What she did was horrific and violating, but it was in the name of love, if misguided and harmful.^”

The Braixen sniffed and sobbed as she chewed through Aria’s words. She wanted them to be true; she didn’t want her mom to have been hating her all along; she still loved her mom. But it all hurt, it all hurt so much, thinking about all the days she spent without the hope that Anne had represented in her life. All the fears, all the loneliness. All the pain that her best friend had gone through while she wasn’t even aware of her existence. “D-does she hate Anne?”

Aria winced at Ember’s words, at her own uncertainty about their answer. What she’d sensed earlier today was one thing, but it wouldn’t remain so for long. Ultimately, the Gardevoir didn’t know—and it was only right of her to admit to that.

“^I don’t know, sweetie. Even if she did, even if she does... I think with how clear your love for Anne is, your mom can change. Despite what she’d done, Cinder loves you, I’m sure of that. That doesn’t mean you have to go back to her, or even forgive her, but it’s important to keep in mind.^”

“I-I-I love her too, b-but,” Ember began, before her words gave way to weeping once more. Aria and Autumn held her close, letting her get all the despair out of her system. It didn’t take nearly as long this time, thankfully; sobbing wails soon returned to sniffing, tearful breaths.

“^I’m sorry, Ember,^” Aria whispered. “^I wish all this hadn’t happened to you and Anne. Nobody but your mom and Elder Ana knew.^”

Ember nodded weakly, trying and largely failing to steady her breathing. “W-will she hate me?”

“^No, no, she won’t, sweetie. She knows she had done something evil, and will turn herself in for the Elders to decide on her punishment tomorrow.^”

“I-I don’t want her t-to be hurt! I-I just want Anne to b-be safe, a-and mom to like Anne too...”

“^I doubt they’ll hurt her. It’s Cinder herself that wants to see consequences for what she’d done.^”

“I-I... I just want her to, to—” Ember whined, reeling at a desire words couldn’t hope to express in full. ‘Apologize’ didn’t go far enough; that word was for accidents and petty grudges, not for what her mom had done. Something larger than mere apology, something to soothe the wound left in both her own soul and indirectly in Anne’s. Something that the vixen had no idea how to name, but needed all the same.

Something that would let the three of them eventually move on. Swaddled in words or not, the desire was perfectly clear to the Gardevoir. Whether it was attainable was another question, one Aria again didn’t have an answer to there and then. “^I think it will happen with time, sweetie. Until then, feel free to stay here, at our burrow, for as long as you need.^”

Ember muttered, exhausted, “Th-thank you, Mrs. Aria...” Right as she had begun to get over the worst of her despair, though, a different concern struck her, “Wh-what about Anne? I-is she really safe?”

Deep breaths Aria, deep breaths.

“^Safe with certainty... sadly no. Us scouts and the Elders will hold a vote on what will happen to her tomorrow evening.^”

The danger loomed over her best friend rekindled Ember’s pain. Her frail, exhausted body clung to Aria’s as hard as it could as hot tears wetted more and more of her fur. “B-but she h-hadn’t done anything wrong! I-I just want her to be safe! I-I don’t want her to leave, I don’t want to leave, I-I—”

Aria redoubled her embrace and psychic affection. She breathed as deeply as she could, holding the vixen close until their breaths synchronized. “^Everyone here and plenty of others in the village are doing all we can to make sure that Anne will get to stay. I don’t have certainty, but we’re trying as hard as possible and have rather good hopes.^”

The honest answer helped Ember avoid falling into further hopelessness as her trust refocused on Aria. Amidst all the chaos, amidst her own mom having hurt her in such an unspeakable way, the Gardevoir felt like someone she could still trust and find reassurance in. Moment by moment, the worst of her despair finally began to subside out as her tears eased out, immense exhaustion creeping in to replace them both.

Ember hurt.

Her mom had hurt her, the village had hurt her, both of them had hurt Anne, too. But... she still loved the former. She trusted the former to still love her. It’d take a while for her to really forgive her mom, but it no longer felt impossible, now that she knew why. And with Anne’s situation, she believed Aria’s reassurance; her hope of being able to live with Anne together forever blooming again after being nearly extinguished entirely. “Th-thank you, Mrs. A-Ariayaaaaawn

“^You’re welcome, sweetie.^”

“^Would you mind sleeping next to me, darling? Just to make sure Bell and Cadence won’t wake up,^” Autumn suggested. The Braixen didn’t have to be asked twice, nodding right away at her words. She took a long, shaky while standing back up afterwards, the Indeedee holding her close as she guided her to a small bedding. Soon enough, the last of Ember’s energy soon gave out; the fox left utterly drained by all the triumph and despair of the day.

The rest of the burrow soon followed.

The dinner was finished in silence, the fireplace extinguished, and everyone nestled in for the night. The uncertainty of Anne’s situation, combined with the gloom of what Ember had been through, hung heavy over them all. They needed sleep more than ever, and that alone made it all the harder to obtain.

The Gardevoir took by far the longest to finally give into rest, mind in constant overdrive. The list of tasks for tomorrow had gained another horrifying bullet point. One she feared the most about being able to accomplish.

Cinder had admitted to her lies.

Now, it was Aria’s turn.​



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Chapter 20: Misery


Chapter 20: Misery



CONTENT WARNING: Gore, Graphic Depictions of Violence

“Ayyy, morning Aria! How’d the night treat ya?” Sprout chirped. Her voice filled the dimly lit clinic room as its only other occupant perked up at the sound.

“^It went... splendid,^” the Gardevoir answered, staring straight at the Decidueye.

“~Good morning Mrs. Aria!~” Anne smiled as she discarded the notebook full of scribbles, one functional arm waving as well as it could.

“^Anne.^”

The single word sent an icy dread down the girl’s body, sounding completely unlike what she’d known of the Gardevoir. Before she could speak up and ask about what was wrong, she saw Aria slowly turn her head towards her.

Her empty eye sockets were enveloped in a fierce crimson glow.

Anne’s breath was choked out of her lungs as a psychic force she couldn’t comprehend, let alone fight, pinned her to the bed. She wanted to scream as her joints were being forcefully pushed way outside of their range; each crack and excruciating jolt from inside her body forcefully silenced.

“^I’ve humored you for far too long. Fortunately, I don’t have to do so anymore. Soon enough, you’ll be out of here, and everything will go back to how it was before.^”

The words hurt even more intensely than her mangled body, every single dagger of a word stabbing deep inside her mind.

“^Did you seriously think you were safe here? That you could ever be safe here? You’re a filthy nuisance, Anne, and us granting you as much mercy as we have is a mistake on our part.^”

Sprout watched idly from the corner, a forced smile splitting her head wide open.

“^Nobody here ever cared for you. Not me, not Marco, not any of my children. Cadence hates you and would love to do every single thing you were afraid of her doing, and Elric...^” Aria continued, bloody expression twisting into a mockery of a smile. “^If he sees you again, he won’t hesitate using that stinger of his, again and again.^”

Bones snapped with a squelching sound, Anne only conscious through the sheer force of Aria’s will as her mind was being violated and cleaved apart, every single source of happiness surgically removed.

“^Ember never loved you. She will forget about you, and she’ll be so much happier for it.^”

Crimson light flooded the room, filling it up to the Gardevoir’s ankles.

“^But no need to worry, you loathsome thing. After all...^” Aria’s face cleaved open into thirteen maws of razor-sharp teeth, what remained of her flesh hanging limply underneath them.

“^YOU’LL DIE FOR THE GREATER GOOD, AND YOU SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR THAT.^”


A tight embrace snapped Aria out of her screams, the hellish vision dissolving immediately.

Her throat was raw, her body wracked with tremors. She had no idea what had just happened or how, her consciousness full of images of nigh-incomprehensible suffering she just watched herself inflict without being able to stop it. With each passing moment, though, another sensation took up more and more of the space left behind by her nightmare, one so much more familiar. So much more comforting.

“Aria, honey, what happened!?” Garret asked, more alarmed than she’d ever heard him be. She knew how he sounded when he shook in uncertainty or anxiety, but this wasn’t like either of those. This was terror, the kind still clinging to the wrinkles of her mind despite her attempts to shake them off.

“G-Garret, I—”

Taking in a breath after what felt like ages let Aria realize her entire body was being surrounded in her husband’s fur, the sensation even more needed than usual. She was the village’s protector, but he was her protector. And here, beside him, the Gardevoir finally felt capable of processing what the hell she had just seen.

And she could only weep.

It wasn’t a reassuring sight, not in the slightest. Still, Garret had a decent enough idea of what to do in this worst-case situation. As gently as he could, he sat up while holding his wife close to him the entire time; the individual hairs shifted her around until she was on his lap, leaning into him. Trembling like she never did. “I’m here, honey, I’m here. Take your time.”

And her time Aria most definitely took.

The vicious gore she’d seen would’ve already cost her hours, if not days, of sleep on its own—being forced to watch her own body inflict all of it made the nightmare incomparably more harrowing. Despite being firmly awake now, she wanted to scream; she wanted to vomit, run, thrash, anything but to not have to be stuck with it any longer.

An attempt to reach in and cauterize the site of the vision in her own mind was doomed to fail, if not worse. Calm Mind was an option, the right option for being capable of getting up and being productive, but... not yet. Not now. She knew all too well that it wasn’t just a cheap fright, the kinds of which the kids’ minds would often set upon them. This came from somewhere deeper, much deeper, and was ever more potent because of that.

Every single gory detail was infeasible, of course, but the rough strokes? Her being forced to incapacitate Anne in order to steal her memory of this place and sentence her to a hellish, uncertain life back in the human world with nobody to care for her? Having to separate her and Ember again, to the latter’s indescribable anguish? All that was real. Could be real.

And Aria felt powerless to stop it.

“Honey?” Garret growled quietly, nudging Aria out of her quickly panicking train of thought and back into his arms; a shake of her head acknowledged his voice. “Do you need more time or to talk to me about something?”

The former wouldn’t help, the latter... could. The Gardevoir was still immensely unsure, both about sharing what she’d seen and talking about the underlying concerns. Of the two, though, airing all the roiling uncertainty would do her much more good. “I-I think I do, yes. It’s... it’s about Anne.”

“O-oh? Did something happen to her—”

“No, no... not yet, at least,” she explained, breathless. The Grimmsnarl didn’t respond, the obvious hole where words should’ve been conveying his confusion. Aria continued, “Remember when I mentioned the council voting on her fate?”

“Yes, yes I do. Dreadful matter all in all, but I believe in you—”

“It’s not even about the outcome, it’s... about me having lied to Anne.”

Aria felt herself shift in Garret’s embrace, her head tilted upwards to look him in the eyes. Or at least, the very little that was visible of them. He asked, “Lied about what? I don’t remember anything like that while we were chatting with her yesterday.”

“It’s from earlier, about her being safe here. Safe and sound, with a certainty that she’d be staying here for good.”

The dilemma took a few moments to click together in Garret’s head. In an instant, his expression faltered into one of dread, eyes going as wide as it was anatomically possible for them to. “While in reality that’s nowhere near decided?”

Aria flinched, huddling up tighter as she held her husband tight, as if she’d been scolded. “Y-yes. Anne thinks she’s safe for good and forever, and I have no idea what to say. She doesn’t deserve to have to deal with the dreadful possibility of her getting forced out because of something she can’t control; to feel like her and Ember’s safety is down to a bunch of coots and out of touch, paranoid fools...”

“But that’s just the truth, deep down?”

The Gardevoir let her head drop as she nodded weakly, having to put in her utmost focus not to break down again. “It is.”

Garret could only hold his wife in silence for a few long moments; their minds busy churning through the dilemma in near complete darkness. “Do you plan to tell her?”

Aria flinched again, the crux of the issue showing itself in its full ugliness. “I... don’t know. I feel like I should; she deserves to know the truth. But at the same time, I don’t want to terrify her, or for her to lose trust in me...”

“Why would she lose trust in you? It’s a rather white lie in the end, and only so that she remains happy—”

“That is the exact excuse Cinder had used for what she’d done to Ember,” Aria explained, shuddering.

Regardless of how incomparably different these two incidents felt like to the Grimmsnarl, he knew that trying to argue about that difference was way beside the point. “I doubt that’s the same situation as here, but... you do have a point, honey, yes. Well, I...”

The more Garret thought, the more he realized he had no idea, either. Both options felt awful for their own reasons, the kind of awful that he’d be content staying away from for as long as he lived. Unfortunately, someone had to make these decisions in the end, and his wife had that burden of responsibility on her, on top of everything else.

He had no answer, but he was still proud of Aria for tackling it all, even when she didn’t truly need to. “Honey, I wish I had an answer for you.”

Aria’s acknowledgment was delivered through a couple of thoughtless nods. She wasn’t expecting a revelation, because why would there be one? There wasn’t a hidden third option that would make everyone happy; she and Garret had already gone through everything. Still, just the fact that he’d tried to help mattered a lot to the Gardevoir.

He had no answer, but she was still immensely grateful to him for being here and letting her air it all out. “It’s... it’s okay, Garret. I’ll figure it out—”

“Why not ask for help?” he suggested.

The interjection left Aria stumped; her expression slowly shifting into confusion was noticed by her husband. “What do you mean?” she asked. “From who?”

“Other scouts, the Elders. Someone who’s caught up on it all and could offer an informed opinion.”

Aria wasn’t exactly eager at the idea.

At least, not with most of her fellow scouts. She knew full well that all the Elders would offer her was either a silent treatment or a scoffed dismissal mixed with chiding because of her having revealed the truth about this place to Anne. Most of the other scouts weren’t too much better, but... some were. Finding someone who she could rely on to not be primarily driven by hatred of Anne would be a lot of help, as tricky as it sounded.

Still beat wallowing in silence, she supposed. “I… can try that.”

“Going out and getting some fresh air sure beats meditating on it in pitch black silence and getting nowhere, eh?”

Aria rolled her eyes and flicked her husband’s nose; the counterattack delivered mercilessly just moments later.

“Ouch!”

“Ow.”

Never failed to get at least a chuckle out of her. She sighed, “Yeah, that sounds right. Okay, I just need to grab my bearings and I think I’ll be ready to head out. The morning is just an hour or so away, anyway.”

Garret giggled, “Awwwh, and here I wanted to ask whether you’d like to snooze a bit longer together—”

knock, knock

The couple’s combined gaze swooped upon the door to their room; any confusion answered by one tired, confused voice speaking up in the darkness shortly after. “^Mom, are you okay?^” Cadence mumbled, worried.

Her parents sure didn’t expect her to show up, but couldn’t say that the Kirlia’s presence didn’t help in relieving the tension further. Aria responded, “^Yes, yes sweetie, I’m alright now. C’mere—^”

Before the lil’ fairy knew it, she was suspended in Aria’s gentle telepathy as the door was pushed open before her. Within a single, drawn-out yawn, she’d gone from knocking at her parents’ door to sitting drowsy on her mom’s lap, not even blinking as she immediately leaned on her afterwards. “^Are you sure, mom? You were so scared there for a moment—yawn^”

Aria couldn’t hold her yawn in response, not this time. “^Yawn Yes, yes I was, but... it was just a nightmare, like the ones you have sometimes.^”

The creeping exhaustion didn’t make it any easier for Cadence to follow along with every word. Once her mom had wrapped up her sentence, though, the Kirlia knew exactly what to do at hearing the news. With no hesitation, she repeated the magical move taught to her by the very Gardevoir sitting beside her—and hugged her as tight as she could while almost asleep. “^Oh... I hope you feel better soon, mom.^”

Cadence’s embrace might’ve been modest, but that absolutely didn’t extend to the ones her parents had showered upon her afterwards.

“^I think I’m already a bit better with you here,^” Aria beamed.

It took the entire reserve of the Kirlia’s awareness to parse through what her mom had meant; the response manifesting as a small smile that plunged the lil’ fairy firmly back into unconsciousness. A handful of quiet chuckles were exchanged, a bit more affection. In no time, Aria carefully laid Cadence down beside her brother and friend before turning around towards the burrow’s exit, not forgetting to put on her Safeguard this time.

Ready or not, she had a duty to do.


Unfortunately, despite the Gardevoir’s determination, her body didn’t exactly... agree in full.

It certainly wanted to, as it always did, but this recent stretch was really beginning to show Aria her own bodily limits, exhaustion among them. The Gardevoir wouldn’t have thought that just three days of waking up early in a row would be enough to send her into such a tiresome hole, but here she was—really wishing she was asleep.

While also being perfectly aware of how packed and extensive the schedule was for her today. She wouldn’t be getting any rest until well after Anne’s sentencing at the hands of their council. Assuming it ended in a good way, it would probably be the best night of sleep in her entire life. In the other case—

No, no, there was no point in thinking about that.

With a forceful shake of her head, Aria was back in the world around her, pushing straight ahead through the near darkness of such an early morning. Dark and Ghost-types aplenty ventured the street, their voices and footsteps quiet enough to not break above the background din.

As much as the Gardevoir wanted to hit up Holly’s stall, she was early enough for Holly to not have even fully opened her pantry, somehow. A remarkable feat, with the Azumarill’s usual daily cycle having what felt like two hours of sleep—and that was the high end estimate.

Guess she was just this excited to cook stuff for people, which as much of an excuse as it would feel like for most... really fit Holly in particular. The same part of her personality that made the fairy cook a joy when it came to preparing food for others, though, also made her a rather terrible match for how rattled Aria’s mind was in the moment.

She needed someone less… overbearing. Plus, as much as Holly’s cooking appealed to Aria’s sweet tooth, Vivian offered more than just sweets. What exactly the dragon’s energy-infusing magic was, Aria didn’t know, but she sure liked how its effects sounded.

Especially on this dark, foggy morning.

The silly tangent helped the Gardevoir in making her way across the less than pleasant early morning. Both in giving her something to distract herself with, and in being funny enough for her occasional chuckles to only bolster her meager wakefulness further. In not too long, she was already at her destination.

Or rather, what would become her destination in just a few drawn out moments.

“...Aria?” Vivian asked, their soft voice shaking the Gardevoir from her semi-conscious stupor. The sudden snap to awareness had Aria standing in the middle of the street, blankly staring at the Goodra as they went through their usual routine of preparing their little corner for another busy, winter day. “Is everything alright? Awfully early for you.”

Focus, focus.

“^Yes, yes, that’s... half the reason I’m here, actually. I woke up and won’t be falling asleep again. The rest tonight wasn’t all that great, and I was thinking if you had something that could help with exhaustion on hand.^”

Hardly the answer Vivian expected, but one they had just the thing for all the same. “Aaahh~. Well... I should have a thing or two, if you don’t mind more than a bit of Salac.”

Cadence and half the other kids’ favorite, heh. All the sweetness, all the energy, all the speed one could ever want, all in a single bite of its juicy, cloying flesh. And… Aria might have liked it, too. “^I’ll be alright, don’t worry Vivian. Thanks a lot, it’s—^”

“No need to go into it, Aria~. I take its some important scout stuff, and frankly that’s all I need to hear. Just lemme know how I can help, and I’ll try my best~.” the Goodra reassured, taking the Gardevoir aback as they finished opening their bar again. A small patch of modest fire underneath the teapot didn’t do an amazing job at lighting up an entire room, but it far beat nothing—triply so with all the sweet scents that began filling the air afterwards.

“^Still... much appreciated,^” she answered. “^Past couple days have been rough.^”

“I can only imagine~. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you up this early, especially not this many days in a row. The mess with the human not letting anyone rest?”

A part of Aria wanted to just scoff at the question; scoff and mumble angrily under her mouth. She could only guess how well those who were trying their hardest to oppose Anne’s stay were sleeping, and something told her that their rest was in nowhere near as much jeopardy as hers. It’d help her vent, she was sure of that, but it would be a... doubtful way of gathering sympathy, be it for herself or Anne. “^I know I can barely sleep, that’s for sure.^”

Her answer was acknowledged with a bouncy nod as the large, rugged tea pot filled the air with its ever familiar whistle. Within moments, Vivian was already pouring the hot water to several nearby cups, be they a part of Aria’s request, for the dragon themself, or some generically sweet tea for anyone that stepped in and needed a pick-me-up.

“Alriiiight! Salac juice, dried Custap, a bit of sugar, a bit of spice, mix aaaand there we go.”

The contents of the mug placed down before Aria were... syrupy. Something to do with Salac juice and how it acted as a thickener, something more with how sweet the overall concoction was. The details were both beyond the Gardevoir’s knowledge, and beyond her care. All she needed was one good gulp to feel energy indiscriminately fill her body.

Her nervously tapping feet grew more energetic, and fidgeting hands turned into little more than a blur. Her busy thoughts were pushed into an overdrive, one Aria had no idea whether it was even more helpful than her previous exhaustion. She sure wasn’t gonna be falling asleep like this.

Not in a million years.

“How is it~?” the dragon asked.

Aria’s attention jumped towards Vivian in response to their question. And then to the stove beside them, the kettle on top of it, each individual mug next to them, one at a time, and then onto the other tiny items she could barely make out.

“^That—that’s one hell of a kick. Makes me feel jumpy.^”

“If I dare hazard a guess, you were already jumpy before and just too tired for that to show much~.”

The Gardevoir tried rolling her eyes at the remark, but her gaze leaped to something else halfway through; unable to keep itself composed through the entirety of such an involved gesture. “^I guess.^”

Vivian giggled, “Want me to take a stab at something to help soothe your nerves?”

“^Doubt whether that’ll help much—^”

“Aria?” a keening voice asked, the most surprised the Gardevoir had ever heard it. A glance over at the entrance to Viv’s bar revealed the accompanying Weavile’s expression be a perfect match for her voice; wide eyes blinking in utter confusion.

“^I—^Uh, good morning, Ruby,” Aria answered, switching to her physical voice halfway through.

“Isn’t it unholy early for you?”

“It... is.”

The Weavile’s eyes narrowed at the response. A part of her was keen to pry at the very confusing situation in front of her more, but she kept it contained for now. Instead, she just took her usual seat as the dragon served her usual request; the room-temperature tea struck the perfect temperature for warm drinks as far as the Ice-type was concerned.

For a few moments, the two drank their respective teas in silence as several other late-night regulars started pouring in from around the village. Early-rising diurnals or by-now-tired nocturnals, everyone wanted in on some of that goodness. Ruby might’ve been a fixture this early in the day, but Aria certainly wasn’t. Most patrons just raised their eyebrows for a moment or two before moving on, thankfully.

Plenty of reasons for the Gardevoir to have been there, and it sure wasn’t their business to pry at which of them was the case in particular. That was the approach of most of those who came by—but not all.

“Aria, darlin’!?” Rose asked, startled. Her eyes were as wide as they got in their sunken-ness, her fur was slightly frizzled. She didn’t waste a moment leaning on a seat beside Aria’s and trying to establish eye contact with her, every passing second bringing more and more concern to her features.

“Good morning, Rose,” the Gardevoir greeted.

“Mornin’?” the Skuntank followed, rising her voice. “Hon, this ain’t anywhere close to morning! What’s wrong?”

Everything. “Nothing.”

“That’s a pretty hollow lie...” Ruby muttered.

Aria blinked as her gaze shifted onto the Weavile, currently in the middle of another deep swig as her sharpened claws tapped the countertop. “What makes you say that, Ruby?”

It was Ruby’s turn to roll her eyes as she set her cup down, her eventual admission delivered in a hesitant, almost annoyed tone. “I can hear your heartbeat, you know. It’s been hammering like mad, even beside your drink’s effects. Don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but... don’t lie to us, Aria.”

As white and inconsequential as the lie was, Aria reeled as if struck at being called out like that. It was enough to make the two dark types grow further concerned at just what was going on with her. Suppose ultimately, there was no right way forward but to spill her dilemma to them and ask for their thoughts at the same time. Exactly what Garret had suggested earlier, but... it still felt rough to think about, let alone do.

No way through but forwards, though.

“It’s... about Anne,” Aria admitted.

As she prepared to lay out what had been eating her up to the other two scouts, she looked over her shoulder, spotting an empty spot in the back of the bar. Not that separating themselves from the others would make much difference with the hearing of almost everyone here being notably better than hers, but... she still wanted that bit of privacy, even if it was an obvious placebo.

A tilt of her head was all that was needed to convey her intent. The trio soon half sat, half huddled together on the cold bench in the corner, either mulling over or bracing themselves for Aria’s words. The resulting telepathy was tricky to establish despite the two Dark-types knowing to lower their guards around their coworker; nerves making the already tricky psychic maneuver even harder.

“^I... lied to her. Yesterday morning, before we had our first hearing, I told her that her staying here was a done deal, and that she’s safe here. I did it to make her happy, to let have at least one day of peaceful happiness here after everything she’s been through. B-but now, I’m... doubting. I don’t know whether I should tell her the truth.^”

Aria was grateful beyond words for neither of the two interjecting immediately and giving her the time to air her struggle in full, silly as it might have come off to one of them.

“Not sure I see the point in that,” Ruby shrugged. “Comes off as just exposing her to more needless fear.”

“^How so?^” Aria asked. She might not have been fully following Ruby’s train of thought, but was very glad that she had someone to bounce the discussion about all this off.

“Think of it like this. If the vote goes against her and she has to leave, then there’s no point in letting her know since she’d have to forget it all, anyway. All it’d do is make her panic and be terrified for no reason. If she stays, then it will all blow over with time without her knowing. You’ll just tell her one day once she’s more equipped to deal with it.”

The Gardevoir liked exactly none of what she’d heard.

Even so, that was half of the point. Each idea she took as unsavory was one she’d have to find some reasoning against, eventually. The friendly atmosphere helped a lot, as did further affection from Rose once she’d been quiet for quite a while, mulling through it all.

As Aria thought about it, though, there was one ‘objective’ fact that further went against Ruby’s idea. And as anxiety inducing as it was in the abstract, Aria sure appreciated it here as a rhetorical argument. “^I doubt that’ll work even on a practical level. Celia asked for Anne to be physically present at the vote after all. Even if she won’t know what’s going on exactly, she’ll still be terrified and unsure about why she’s there in the first place.^”

That... was quite a hitch for her idea, the Weavile had to admit that. Still, just a hitch, and if there was anyone well equipped to handle that exact hitch, it was the Gardevoir beside her. “Point taken. Even then, I don’t doubt that a psychic as skilled as yourself could come up with some way of fooling her about where she is and what’s going on, if needed.”

Ruby’s remark had Aria think back to the previous time she’d complimented her skill, all the way at the very beginning of Anne’s stay here. It was made all the more disgusting in hindsight, just as the idea of deceiving Anne was sickening in the present. Justified or not, a web of lies was a web of lies—one that would unravel sooner or later.

“Yeah, naaaah, I really doubt that’s the right way on, Ruby. Aria, hun, how much does Annie already trust ya?” Rose asked, raising her eyebrow at her fellow Dark-type.

Aria tried her best at making the resulting exhale be as inconspicuous as possible. Ruby still heard it perfectly fine, rolling her eyes out of sight as the Gardevoir responded. “^She... I think she completely trusts me by now.^”

The realization felt equal parts soothing and hurtful. To earn that amount of trust from someone so vulnerable, and to toss it aside afterwards in a spur-of-the-moment lie; an ever-growing debt to the truth that had accumulated immense interest over just one day.

“Ain’t that sweet to hear,” Rose smiled. “Why haven’t ya told her already?”

An innocent question, another flinch going through Aria’s body. Why oh why, that’s the question indeed.

“^I... I wanted her to be happy. Happy and safe. It felt like if I had told her, she’d be terrified in her every waking moment with the possibility of her being tossed out looming over the horizon. She doesn’t deserve that kind of hell, nobody does.^”

Just like Ember didn’t deserve the hell of knowing that her best friend was still suffering so close to her home, eh?

Her friends’ questions stung, but her self-conscious comparing her to Cinder felt like a lightning fast gut punch, making the Gardevoir physically double over.

“Aria, what’s wrong?” Ruby asked matter-of-factly. She scanned for threats immediately after, but alas, nothing even her senses could spot.

Nothing outside the confines of the Gardevoir’s skull.

“^Nothing, nothing, it’s just... it’s so hard. That’s the exact same reasoning that Cinder used for doing what she did, I—^”

pat pat

The sensation of the soft fur and blunted claws patting her shoulder snapped Aria out of any further loathing. Rose immediately followed up her display of affection with a nuzzle to the psychic’s exposed side before speaking up; her voice understanding if low, “Yeah, I’d be lyin’ if I said there ain’t no similarities. But, but, but—your mistake is one day old, and not with a birthday under its belt. Hell, I’d say it’s more understandable in the end, even if just as wrong.”

“But what does coming clean with all this do except scare Anne further?” Ruby asked. The keenness her voice made it difficult to spot, but there was some genuine curiosity in there, too.

“Th’ way I see it, two things. One, tells her yer honest, and two, lets her know ya can admit to mistakes. Everyone makes them, even ones we love and trust, but how ya handle them is the sticker,” the Skuntank explained.

“I’m unsure how much honesty is good for if it only results in misery.”

“Plenty!” Rose hollered, “‘Cause things suck from time to time, no matter what ya do. Ya either let the ones you’re protectin’ know about that, letting them brace themselves for it, or ya don’t, and end up prayin’ the entire time they won’t figure it out by themselves.”

“I doubt the latter is an option with the girl not knowing our language,” Ruby argued—at least before Rose’s undignified laughter cut her off.

Chittered noises echoed through the small bar and spilled out onto the surrounding streets to the backdrop of the brightening sky, inadvertently waking at least a couple of people up. The Weavile was less offended at the response than she was dumbstruck, having genuinely no idea what about what she’d said was so funny.

Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to wait too long for the Skuntank to explain, “Ruby, Ruby hun, can I tell with utter certainty you don’t have any kids, ha!”

Jovial as the reply was, it unintentionally stung a bit, the other Dark-type’s gaze sliding away. “I know. Me and wife are open to take someone in if need arises, but... haven’t had that happen yet. Not that it’d be a good thing if it happened, don’t want fate to come up with an orphan just so that I can feel like a mother.”

Blunt as Rose was, even she noticed that one.

Aria was blocking physical access to the Weavile, but it didn’t take long for a quick coordinated intervention to correct that. In a single swift motion, Aria slid in her seat while pulling Ruby along with her, while Rose climbed up onto the spot the Weavile occupied moments earlier, pushing through the extra frosty seat to give her some complimentary nuzzles.

“Sorry, hun.”

Ruby was of half a mind to dismiss all this out of hand, but... didn’t. Being comforted felt nice even for a former apex predator, who could’ve known. “It’s... thanks, you two. Don’t worry Rose, I’m not holding it against you or anything, it just... stung.”

“I get that, Ruby, doncha worry. Hope something works out for ya two. But, back to my point—kids are bloody smart. All kids, even the tiny tykes, even the ones that can’t talk or walk yet. They can piece stuff together way more than we give them credit for. Hell, I figured out quite a few things about the human world despite only ever being a nuisance for them and not knowing a lick about their language. Even if nobody tells Anne overtly, she’ll figure it out one day.”

Rose paused to catch her breath before turning to Aria directly, voice growing serious, “T’way I see it, Anne either learns it on your terms, or on hers.”

It was hard to disagree with that framing, unnerving the Gardevoir even further. She had increasingly less doubt left in her that confessing right away was the best way to go, but... “^What if it’s already too late? What if me having made that lie in the first place is enough for her to never trust me again?^”

There weren’t any truly correct answers to that question, and that fact alone almost sent Aria spiraling there and then.

“Even if so, what would withholding the truth any longer do?” the Weavile asked. Her being the one to raise that point as opposed to the Skuntank raised the eyebrows of the other two. Ruby acknowledged the extra attention with an eye roll before elaborating, gesturing with a clawed paw as she spoke, “Can’t say I fully agree, but I see the reasoning. With it all granted, there’s hardly a reason for you to delay any longer than needed, if it’s going to result in the eventual revelation hurting her trust in you even more.”

There weren’t any holes Aria could see in Ruby’s argument, which her mind appreciated. Her soul, though, didn’t, not one bit. Even the best course of action of immediately confessing to Anne as soon as she was awake still bore the risk of her trust being betrayed forever, and not without a reason. No matter how remote the possibility was, the Gardevoir couldn’t look away, not with how overwhelmingly terrible that outcome felt like.

In the end, it was unavoidable. Merely yet another consequence of her actions, for better or worse. She could either face it there and then, like an adult, or she could be Cinder. Again.

The comparison hurt once more, but this time, Aria had braced herself for it and pushed through, the invisible battle inside only barely noticed by her friends. “^Right. I was just... worried that it’s too late. That no matter what I do, her trust is lost forever.^”

“Naaaaah.” Rose denied, flicking her paw. “You’ve been doing so much for her, hun, and she definitely sees it. I’ve no doubt in my mind she’ll forgive ya sooner rather than later. I can’t promise promise ya that, but what I can promise is that honesty will work out the best for ya.”

It was all the confidence Aria was ever going to get. Not much in objective terms, but that’s just what she had to work with, whether she liked it or not. “^R-right. I can’t thank you two enough for hearing me out about this. It’s been a great help.^”

“Anytime, hun!”

“You’re welcome, Aria.”

Right as Aria was about to get up and out of the bar, though, one nagging uncertainty at the back of her mind caught her attention, shifting it back towards the Weavile. “^Ruby?^” The Dark-type wordlessly snapped her gaze over at the fairy, raising her eyebrow as the Gardevoir continued, “^What do you think about Anne on the whole? For the upcoming vote?^”

Aria expected many answers to that question, myriads of comforting and distressing ones alike—what she didn’t expect was a shrug. On its own, the sight was firmly towards the negative side of the emotional spectrum, but the elaboration that followed helped right away. “She’s a kid, right?”

A dumbfounded nod from the Gardevoir.

“We take stray kids in. Prey, predator, insect, quadruped. Mon, human. Kid’s a kid, why wouldn’t we take her in. Hate that this is even something we have to argue about.”

This time, Aria didn’t even try to hide her expression of relief as a shaky smile crept onto her face. It was exactly what she wanted to hear, thanking the two Dark-types one more time before heading out into the slowly dying night. That made six certain for, and six certain against. The only remaining wildcard was Ori, and between Geiger’s and Marco’s intervention, Aria had reasons to hope that things would turn out alright.

Maybe, just maybe, she would make right on her promise to Anne, after all.


As helpful as Vivian’s drink was with getting her back on her feet, Aria’s stomach wasted no time complaining about the lack of any actual nutrients beyond the equivalent of seventeen teaspoons of sugar. Holly’s was already long since open, and grabbing something larger to start an arduous day off with was a no brainer. For once, she even overcame her sweet tooth and went with an actually healthy meal.

She was far from the only one eating in the vicinity, though. “Aria? A word if you could.”

Using the utmost willpower, Aria resisted cringing at hearing the Torkoal’s low, slow voice break the surrounding quiet. She wouldn’t enjoy this, but she would at least manage to push through. “^Yes, Elder Ana?^”

As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, Winnie was there too, soon emerging from behind the nearest corner to join the fiery tortoise. A tiny part of Aria worried that the old coots had just cracked either her plan or how she’d handled the human librarian. Thankfully, that concern too was for naught, with something much more benign following instead.

“What’s the situation with the human?” Ana asked, not even attempting to maintain any facade of secrecy anymore, not with all the rumors about the girl in their midst having circumvented their village ten times over before she even got out of her den.

“^Anne is doing well. Autumn and my kids spent a lot of time with her yesterday, and they enjoyed each other’s presence. Ember had woken up since, and the two are almost inseparable when together.^”

The Torkoal chewed on all the information, her expression maintaining its usual focus. That is, until one addition in particular led her to narrow her gaze even further than usual, the question that followed accusatory. “Why bring your children along?”

Despite all the effort Aria could muster, namely none, she couldn’t keep a smug smirk off her face. “^If Anne is to stay at our village for good, in my den, then it’s best she gets to know her denmates as soon as possible, no?^”

“‘Stay at our village’, preposterous,” Winnie whined, disgusted.

Aria breathed deeply, trying to main composure. To her surprise, though, it wasn’t just her who had a reaction to the Breloom’s words; Ana sighed in disappointment as she muttered a response, “If that’s what today’s vote settles on, then that’s what will happen.”

The Breloom rolled his eyes, “I suppose then I’ll finally have my proof that everyone’s gone mad!”

“That is a grievous oversimplification and you should know it, Winnie.”

“Oversimplification!? Hmph. Orion wouldn’t have allowed any of this madness—”

Right as the Gardevoir was bracing herself for another of Winnie’s bigoted rants, a very unfamiliar sound reached her ears. Rhythmic and scraping, crackling of flame mixing with stone grinding on stone. Inanimate and lively alike, as if someone forced a fossil to laugh.

Describing Ana as a ‘fossil’ wasn’t particularly nice, but it was hardly inaccurate, either.

Both Aria and Winnie had to take a moment to process seeing the Torkoal openly laughing. Especially when they realized she was doing so right in the Breloom’s face. “Orion was the exact person who would’ve been going through with all this madness.” She muttered, voice doing the closest thing to mockery it was capable of. “With every day, I’m believing more and more that excess spores are eroding at your brain, Winnie.”

As the Gardevoir was putting her utmost effort into not letting her amusement show, the Breloom continued with his offended schtick. “Even he was so much more grounded than this—”

“No he wasn’t, you fool. We almost had to keep him tied to a tree at all times, else his head would drag the rest of him into the clouds. Did you already forget why he liked you in the first place?” Ana asked. Winnie was too taken aback by a fellow Elder acting out against him to respond, making the Torkoal follow soon after, “You were his anchor. Night to his day. The polar opposite that kept him grounded and made sure there always was a dissenting perspective on hand.”

Winnie grumbled, “You have to be misremembering, Ana, for there is no way someone so fooling as what you’re describing would ever create a place like this—”

“And that’s exactly what happened. He dreamed this place into existence. All we ever did was occasionally help him out and maintain it after...” Ana started, voice petering out into a long, painful pause. Even Winnie took the cue to shut up as everyone reminisced about what they remembered of the Zoroark.

Much to her regret, Aria never got to interact much with him.

She’d arrived with Marco just months before he’d passed away. Even back then, so close to his end, she remembered him being so... busy, engrossed in the village’s everyday life, far from just an abstract founder and leader. Someone who had never met a person he didn’t want to help if there was any way he could.

The most vivid memory she had of him was only a few days after they wound up in this place. Back when she was only steadily growing used to interacting with Dark-types; actively pushed through all the lies about them that her family had instilled in her. She would end up getting lost in search of... somewhere, her memory didn’t quite catch where it was that she couldn’t find her way around to.

Eventually, she ran into him, clearly lost.

There wasn’t even a shred of hesitation in Orion’s gestures as he started doing charades with her; the wordless play made much more effective with illusions of the places she could be heading towards. It all must’ve dragged on for way over half an hour, an unreasonable amount of time to waste on someone when one could just point them towards a nearby non-Dark type. And yet, he went through it all, neither his smile nor determination faltering at any point. His presence made the village so much brighter.

“If Orion was still around, we would’ve all needed to drag him away from housing the human in his den there and then, concerns about security be damned,” the Torkoal grumbled, snapping the gathering back to awareness.

All the Breloom could do was roll his eyes at the obviously accurate observation, but the Gardevoir... saw an opportunity to press further. “^Well, how does Anne’s presence raise any security concerns?^”

Winnie’s scoff was expected to an extent, but not the mocking laughter that followed. Despite Aria’s best efforts, she felt her composure be strained at the sound. She didn’t expect to ever think that out loud, but goodness was she glad that Ana spoke up with her usual scaremongering stuff shortly after, silencing her fellow Elder. “In the obvious way. A missing human means that someone will look for her, bringing further attention upon us.”

“^If that was still the case, we would expect further human presence than just the two half-hearted incidents from a couple of days ago. I’ve talked to one of the few humans Anne trusted about this. Almost nobody cared about her back in their town, and that won’t change just because she’s gone. If anything, that’s a further reason for us to care about her, to undo all the neglect on the hands of humanity over the years.^”

Neither of the two women were expecting the Breloom to say anything insightful. And, predictably, he didn’t. “Mere pity doesn’t make this entire madness any less unspeakable.”

“Even if it’s the minimum of attention, it still contributes towards us being more likely to be discovered,” Ana followed, her point much harder to dismiss than Winnie’s rambles. It wasn’t a good point, but at least she was making an actual argument.

One, Aria soon realized, that didn’t apply to just humans. “^You could raise that exact concern about any of us, Elder Ana.^”

The Torkoal’s gaze leaped up all the way to the fairy’s face; pursed eyelids parted for the first time in what had to be months. The immediate impact filled the Gardevoir with confidence, prompting her to double down on her point, “^Whether we like it or not, we’re very close to their settlements. Each new head here increases the risk that someone will be spotted by a human and thought of as suspicious, without our knowledge. Each new building we raise makes us more visible despite our attempts to hide. More likely to be found by someone or something, potentially a human contraption that we can’t just intimidate or brainwash away. That’s always a risk.^”

As confident as Aria was in her point, she soon realized it was potentially too effective. As she finished her lecture, she sensed the Torkoal go from entirely composed to outright panicking; the outside appearance showing very little of it beyond nervous shaking and shallow breaths. Despite any animosity she might’ve had towards the Elder, the Gardevoir was on the brink of calling for help, unsure what was going on and not wanting to dig into her thoughts.

“I strongly doubt mere humans have anything she can’t easily hide from. They would’ve already found us if that was the case!” Winnie boasted, words falling on deaf ears as Aria looked down at Ana in concern.

Soon after, her gaze was returned, the sight of the Gardevoir finally forcing the Torkoal to regain some of her composure and try to at least vocalize what was wrong, “Y-you don’t know that, Winnie. Aria—Aria is right. The risk keeps growing and—and we aren’t doing enough about it.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for Aria’s hysterical exaggeration, Ana—OW!”

Despite Aria managing to stop herself from doing something she would’ve regretted, for once it was Ana who didn’t have that restraint. The Breloom hopped in place as his extendable arms held his burned leg, bearing a fresh burn in the shape of Ana’s paw print.

Immensely gratifying as the sight was, the Gardevoir couldn’t care much about it at the moment, her attention shifting to the Torkoal’s admission instead. “^Why not, then? Did you not consider that risk before—^”

“Of course I have, we have. Orion has. I remember his plans. Underground shelters, even an idea to make as much of our village underground as possible, nigh invisible from the air. Plans about digging escape tunnels all the way over to the human ruin you’re scouting towards, just in case. He had his ideas of managing risk, even brought up the possibility of relocating us all to a less risky area now that we know that this location isn’t sustainable, but...” Ana trembled as her head sank towards the snowy floor; a drawn-out sigh forcing the most pitiful of smoke clouds out of her hump. “Time spares none.”

Through the supernatural power of having any restraint whatsoever and the scorch marks on his foot, Winnie stopped himself from adding another unwanted comment.

“Maybe... maybe if he had told us about the sickness eating his body earlier, we would’ve been able to settle on a long-term plan before he left us,” Ana wondered. “^But he didn’t. And we have to live with that, unable to even come close to his insights.”

“That’s far from true, Ana! You’ve been the best leader any of us could ever hope for—”

“Spare me the flattery, you moldy fusspot. I know my weaknesses well, and especially now, they feel crippling. Orion... had ideas. Dreams. Desires. The way our village was there and then was always only a work in progress for him, just a slice of the unending vision that gave birth to this place. I... don’t have them. Don’t know how to have them. I don’t know what he saw. Even if I did, I doubt I’d be able to push on where needed. He dared to risk in everything he did, made wild changes that left us all for the better, and I—” the Torkoal paused, her body language shrinking. “I can’t put myself in that mindset. All I can do is maintain things as they are, managing risk in the most passive way. I’m not suited to be the leader, never was.”

“Of course you are!” the Breloom argued.

“How?”

“Despite everything, you maintain objectivity! You don’t just let anyone overly emotional rock the boat with us all in it, your neutrality is admirable—”

“MY NEUTRALITY IS WORTHLESS,” the Torkoal snapped back; the loudest she had ever been. It’s as if her voice had turned from one burning rock shuffling along the ground, to two burning rocks shuffling along the ground. “It’s hardly a virtue, just a way of avoiding any commitment. Something to help keep me from going insane from the weight being placed on my back. Dispassionateness breeds stagnation, and I’m the proof of that.”

As much as the Gardevoir appreciated the frankness, it helped little on its own. Much like she and Cinder alike were repeatedly learning, admitting to one’s mistakes is just the very first step. By far the easiest and most meaningless.

Still, so much more than she ever expected in this specific case, though. “^It sounds like you’ve acknowledged that we can’t continue to exist exactly like this forever.^”

Another deep inhale, another puff of off-white smoke filling the earliest of dawn. “Rationally, yes. Emotionally... I’m not the right person to oversee change, never was. Neither are Winnie nor Celia.”

“That’s—”

“If things were up to you, time would flow backwards. And Celia... ideas are only any good if communicated with others. Not something I, or anyone else, can force her to do.”

“^Then it sounds like you need a new perspective,^” Aria suggested, trying her hardest to keep any smugness from leaking into her voice.

Ana remained quiet at the allusion of their current leadership not being cut for the job. She very much agreed with the underlying claim, but... pride was still pride. It was difficult to elevate external critique to the same level as internal self-loathing. She at least tried, though.

“Are you threatening us with a coup!?” Winnie cried, earning himself adrawn out, unamused look from everyone gathered before the two women focused on each other again.

Aria continued, “^Someone with a vision. Someone who deeply knows humans, and can advise much better on how to avoid them going forward.^”

It wasn’t exactly difficult to piece the leads together, Ana’s mind shifting gears from sadness to pensiveness. “Geiger.”

“Oh, don’t mock this position, Ana! What next, choosing that humanling as an Elder!?”

“As far as I’m concerned, she would be a marked improvement over you, especially right now.”

Despite being plenty used to being the butt of most comparisons, this one actually got to Winnie. Petty insults were one thing; to be negatively compared to a human was another, a much more acutely hitting slight. For a few moments, the Breloom could only shake in anger before storming off with a loud “HMPH!”.

Neither of the two dwelt on his departure for more than a moment before Aria continued once more, “^If there’s anything I’ve learned about humanity over the past few days, it’s that we have no chance if we don’t know everything we can about them. What their technology can do, how they behave, how they live and so on. Geiger obviously knows a lot about that. And...^” Aria paused considering her words. If there was even a chance it would work out, though, she was eager to go all in. “^...Anne’s perspective could help a lot. About the sorts of everyday human things even Geiger would know little about.^”

For once, the Torkoal remained completely silent; mind sunken into deep thought. A stray beam of sunshine broke Aria’s focus as she waited for a response; a glance upward revealed most of the sky to have shifted from reds and pinks to ever brightening blues. The sun was here, and Anne would likely be awake before long, assuming she already wasn’t.

“^I should be going now.^”

The Torkoal nodded deeply without speaking up right away. It was only after the Gardevoir got moving towards the clinic and walked around the tortoise, did the weak, croaked words leave Ana’s mouth, as somber as they were genuine—

“Thank you. May the winds hasten you, Aria.”



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Interlude V: Hope


Interlude V: Hope



“Orion, where you go now.”

The buzz of the surrounding drizzle muffled Ana’s tired, heavy words. This weather was much too ugly for her to be left on her own again. Doubly so with her rest last night having been... strenuous. She rationally knew that one day she’d stop getting woken up by single raindrops impacting her shell, but that day sure hadn’t come yet. Ugly as the mountains from which she hailed from might’ve been, at least they weren’t as permanently soggy as this place has been lately.

The Torkoal wasn’t about to chase the Zoroark into the thick of the rain. Instead, she sighed out a plume of smoke as she inched herself further away from the nasty wetness, waiting for either him or Winnie to return. Speaking of.

“He go somewhere again!?” the Breloom whined, carrying the spoils in his arms.

“Yes.”

At least the food had arrived.

Ana looked up just in time to see the small berry be placed in front of her, immediately reaching to bite into it as Winnie sat beside her. “Orion like, see pretty leaf, and chase chase chase, hmph,” he grumbled.

“At least he happy,” she sighed.

As eccentric as Orion was, he had a charm to him, one the Breloom lacked so acutely that she wondered what did the Zoroark even see in him. On the other paw, she knew perfectly that her current crankiness wasn’t helping either. Once life saw fit to finally give them all a break, they’d probably warm up to each other a decent bit. Or, at least, so she hoped.

“He not happy ever!? He always smile, what world wrong he with!?”

The Torkoal was somewhat confident about what the Breloom had just said, but nowhere near as much as she wished she was. It would take time, much more than just the couple of moons they had all known each other for. Orion’s weird, artificial language may have been awkward, but Ana knew that the significance of what it made possible was so much more important than her personal gripes.

Stilted as it was, it had still allowed her to find community and friendship outside the confines of her tribe’s bigotry. Even if they all were to never amount to anything more than what they’ve already been through, she still had the Zoroark to thank for saving her from being forcibly assigned a mate or another.

And for that alone, she was more than willing to put up with any of his quirks.

She droned, “If choice always annoyance and always cheer, I know what I choose—”

awwwwoooOOOOO!

The howl hit them both like a Brick Break to the face; the brief confusion soon turned into a worried resolve. Neither of them had known him for long enough to truly know whether it was unlike Orion, but what they knew was that it worried them. Then again, disguising and getting away was the easiest thing in the world for him, and that sure didn’t sound like a distress call—

Before Ana could give it all any more thought, though, she found herself suddenly lifted and carried right into the rain. “WINNIE, WHAT ARE—”

“HE CALL FOR HELP!”

“NO, HE N—”

“WE COME NOW, ORION!”

The Torkoal’s world had turned into a blur of browns and greens as hundreds of freezing stings barraged her body. Each of the Breloom’s leaping steps had her wince, the sheer vertigo threatening to either make her erupt, throw up, or both. Right as she was about to lose the last of her composure, though, everything came to a stop, followed by her being clumsily placed on a soaked patch of grass.

If Winnie had the decency to look down at her at that moment, Ana probably could’ve seared him with her glare alone. “Orion, Orion where you!?” the Breloom shouted.

“Hey, guys!” the giddy words cut the Torkoal off before she could speak up, mouth closing as she and Winnie looked up the nearby hill. It stood out greatly from the clearing before it, and much the same was true of the oak that sprouted from its very top.

And even more so of the Zoroark taking the scenery in from one of its lower branches.

Pretty as the sights were, his friends were more important. Without skipping a beat, he leaped from branch to branch, digging into the bark when needed, and reaching solid ground just moments later—only to immediately slip on the wet, leaf-covered ground, before sliding down the hill on his rear, to the tune of his own laughter. “Ahahaha! Hey, guys, whattcha do here?”

Orion didn’t even bother getting up, taking a moment to get comfortable on the ground instead and checking up on his friends. “You good, Ana?”

“I—”

“Orion, what happen!?” Winnie yelled, confused. “Someone attack you!?”

“What?” the Zoroark blurted, dumbfounded, uncertain where that idea even came from. “I look at view!”

“…and howl?”

“Why no, Ana? Here beautiful! Right what I look for!”

Both Ana and Winnie sighed at the remark, though for different reasons. The former was about to speak up about everything they’d need to check before even considering settling down, but ultimately held back, knowing the latter would cut her off, anyway. “Orion, human village dream again!?”

“Winnie, dear, here all good!”

The Breloom argued back, “Not talk place! Why talk humans, again again!? We make great by us, no humans!”

“Because—”

“^Excuse me?^”

Despite Orion not having heard the voice, spotting the surprise on the faces of his friends got him to stop too, stop and glance over at what had caught their attention. An Indeedee was eying them out, the uncertain expression on her face flip-flopping between concern and curiosity. Some other creature, tiny and pink, was trying to peek out from behind her, shying away the moment any of the three had looked their way.

As hesitant as the other two got, the Zoroark was downright ecstatic. The opportunity to see for himself whether it was actually possible for a Psychic-type to link up with him didn’t come often, and this one was perfect. Trying to keep himself as small as he could, he turned towards the stranger. The Indeedee’s eyes narrowed slightly as she took a couple steps back, only to then raise an eyebrow as the Dark-type... waved at her.

And just sat there.

“He wants you to link with him,” Ana explained. As much as she appreciated the immense ease of communication that telepathy brought with itself, she wasn’t sure how much her elaboration would help. Especially with the inherent absurdity of a psychic even trying to speak telepathically with a Dark-type. It was one of these obvious things that nobody questioned, for there was no reason to question it, and for Orion to insist that it was indeed possible was... entirely like him.

As were his wild ideas turning out to be correct.

Miraculously, the Indeedee didn’t react with utter confusion at the explanation. A bit of focus and three pinches of effort later, Orion felt something jolt in his mind after he’d deliberately lowered his mental guard, adding a heaping pile of fuel to the flame of excitement.

“^Hel—^”

“Greetings, ma’am! It’s wonderful to meet you here; my name is Orion!”

After getting over the sudden voice’s impact, the short psychic finally found it in her to respond. “^Hello there! Is everything alright? I’m quite sure I heard you howl just now.^”

“More than alright, I’d say!” Orion beamed. “We’ve just stumbled upon this beautiful clearing, perfect for a settlement!”

“^A settlement? How so?^”

It was the exact question the Zoroark was waiting for.

He got onto his feet with a wide smile, gesturing towards the clearing as Winnie grumbled into his hand. A reddish sheen covered his paws and eyes as mirages of dozens of wooden huts and human-like houses alike manifested out of thin air. The Indeedee gasped at the illusory sights, too stunned to do more than stand and gawk as the Dark-type explained, “Just like humans do! There’s almost nothing in their towns that we can’t replicate in some way!”

“Or we could keep living as ourselves and not descend to the level of humanity!” the Breloom shouted.

“Oh Winnie, Winnie, don’t be like thaaaat~. I’ve lived with them for a good while; they’re far from all terrible, you know thaaat~.”

The Indeedee gasped, “^You lived with humans?^”

Orion’s smile didn’t even have the time to finish shifting into a smirk before a human manifested from the thin air where he once stood. Light brown skin, long gray hair, an all black outfit. Nobody gathered knew how good of a disguise it actually was, but it sure looked human to them.

“On and off for a few years! Even though they had no idea who I was and I couldn’t talk, they would still help me out all the time! There were places where I could get food, no questions asked, kitchens for use by everyone, and so much empty housing for the taking! There’s nothing there that we can’t band together and recreate ourselves!”

“If it was so easy, some other mons would’ve already tried it!”

“How do you know they haven’t, dear Winnie~?”

Despite the pointedness of the question, the Breloom had plenty of answers to it, all of them wrong. For once, though, it was the Torkoal that got the word in first, “As we’ve discussed, Orion, there are many considerations before we can even start planning such an undertaking.”

“Doncha worry, Ana! That’s what we’ve got our friend here for; she’ll know best. Any reasons this wouldn’t be a good place, Ma’am...?”

“^Autumn. Hmm... none I can think of. There is a human town several hours away, but I’ve never seen anyone from there come here. Haven’t had any encounters with any large predators either, but…. that is a massive undertaking, if I’m understanding it right.^”

“Something for us to spend our lives on, and for our children to relish in the safety of. A place free from either humanity’s cruelty, or the bigotry of insular tribes, a place we can all call home,” Orion beamed. His rousing speech affected some listeners more than others; Autumn’s expression softened into a sad smile as she looked over her shoulder, only for her eyes to go wide.

“If there’s anything we should put our strength and will to, it’s a place like that. And this serendipitous clearing is just about the most beautiful one yet! See, see, even the weather’s clearing up, the Gods are clearly encouraging us to proceed—OH GOODNESS LOOK AT THAT RAINBOW, IT’S GORGEOUS!”

As much as she begrudged Orion getting this emotional sometimes, Ana couldn’t deny that this kind of hope was infectious. There were still so many details they’d need to discuss and agree on, so many risks to be weighed. Those could all be dealt with down the line. But there and now, having something to strive towards was worth more than anything—

“OW! WHAT’S—GET IT OFF ME!” Winnie screeched, snapping Ana out of her pensive mood. A glance upward revealed the Breloom to be thrashing in place with something pink clinging to the back of his head, the Zoroark to be laughing his lungs out about it, and the newly met Indeedee to be trying her best to do something about it.

“^Garret, please get down!^”

“I already like this place.”



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Chapter 21: Promise


Chapter 21: Promise



yaaaaaaaaawwwwn

The quiet, high-pitched sound filled the clinic’s main chamber as a tiny tree stump stretched beside the sleeping ghost. Sage reached out more and more of her spectral body from its wooden shell as she came to, looking around the dim space. Despite how dark it still was, she already felt more awake than not. And, as her cursory sweep of the room showed, she was probably the only one.

Her and Yaksha’s was the last of a row of beds spanning the entire clinic, with a second one mirroring it in front of the opposite wall. Thankfully, only a few of them were occupied, and said occupants all looked firmly asleep. The thought still scared her a bit, but... it probably wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look at them, right?

With as deep of a breath as her lung-less body could manage and Yaksha’s protective presence on her mind, the Phantump slowly hovered towards the nearest occupied bed. It was tricky to make out most of its occupant from underneath the large blanket, but the striped tail with a red bulb at the end was a giveaway on its own. A giveaway Sage didn’t remember enough to identify, making her fly closer to the yellow-black extremity to see if she could—

zz-zap!

The tiny discharge of static had the ghost dash behind the nearest bed for protection. It didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as she thought it would; she couldn’t even feel it after just a few moments. Even despite that, if she still had a heart, it would’ve been absolutely hammering in fear at the jolt and the dangers it could’ve implied.

At least they didn’t wake up.

While Sage floated away from the Ampharos, she kept fighting with herself to turn around and go back to Yaksha’s bed, to return to his dry, but earnest protection. She knew nothing bad would come to her there, not the sorts of things that could happen to her if she accidentally annoyed one of the sleeping patients, but... but...

There was always the chance that she’d find out what she once was. Or, at least, remind herself of something important. Anything but this anxiety-inducing unknown—anything but this tattered recollection that inevitably ended in trauma.

With that tear-inducing reassurance, the Phantump kept going. She steadied her breathing once more while she hovered over to the next bed, its occupant much more visible. Yellow beak, presently wrapped in bandages, a bunch of white feathers covering its front and face, and reddish down elsewhere. She remembered seeing so many of them, always in very happy situations. Yeah. Though her mom kept telling her not to get too close, Sage had no idea why, especially since they brought berries or gifts every time—

The Delibird’s frigid exhale answered the ghost’s dilemma before she could even think through it any further. It felt like her face was burning; the frost covering its bottom rim stung; it all hurt so much. She immediately dashed back to her guardian ghost with a squeak of pain, avoiding holding him as tight as possible through the sheer force of will.

Instead, she tried lying down on the barebones mattress, hoping that whatever heat remained in it would help warm her face up. She froze as she heard shuffling from further in the room, flinching with every step coming her way. Eventually, a concerned-sounding question came her way, delivered in birdsong. It didn’t sound angry—the opposite, if anything—but Sage remained too afraid to look up at them even as the worst of the pain finally subsided.

It didn’t hurt that bad in hindsight, but... it still hurt. And she didn’t want to hurt.

After the most tensely awkward half-minute or so of Sage’s afterlife, the Delibird eventually took her lack of response as an answer. Unseen, they slowly backed off into their bed. Once she heard the thud of them lying back down, she kept checking if they were asleep every few moments, only daring to move again once they had been completely still for a while. This was all so scary—so much more so than she would’ve thought. Especially with how homely this little settlement was otherwise.

Scary or not, Yaksha was there.

With all the frost gone from her wooden face, Sage could finally try huddling up to him closer, to ask for sorely needed reassurance. Right as she was about to do that, though, she heard some sounds from the room on the nearby wall’s other side.

One of the voices she remembered hearing yesterday. It could even have been that scary human that Yaksha was so angry about. A part of her was still scared of that idea, but... far, far from all of her. With the Banette asleep and nobody else around being awake anymore to see her do it, the Phantump slowly floated up and closer to the thick sheet of canvas separating the rooms.

Float all the way over, take a deep breath, one, two, three, lean in—

The slightly warmer air tingled Sage’s face and helped melt through what remained of the frost. The pleasant sensations were nowhere near what the rest of the ghost was focused on, the sight of a human almost enough to make her withdraw back there and then—but only almost.

She still didn’t dare move further forward, content to snoop on the sleeping stranger from her near-ceiling vantage point. Everything she’d heard about them from Yaksha and even many things she had experienced told her she should’ve been terrified at that moment, but... she wasn’t. Apprehensive, a bit intimidated, sure, but only that. In fact, with how that human kept shifting and tossing around, Sage felt rather sorry for them.

Doubly so with the cast on their arm.

Seeing what the Phantump assumed to be a part of the shadows in the room’s corner suddenly move startled her out of any further compassionate thoughts. Nigh-imperceptible darkness coalesced into the shape of a tall owl, further chilling her thoughts. The ghost girl maintained any semblance of composure only at the realization that the Decidueye didn’t see her. Instead, they walked over to the human and laid the tip of their wing on her head before gently stroking her hair.

As comforting as the gesture was, it also had the unavoidable effect of waking said human up, with a light startle, no less. The sight made the owl coo something towards her, something the human clearly didn’t understand any more than Sage herself did.

Instead of answering right away, the human reached over to grab her glasses from the nightstand, blinking through her remaining sleepiness as she put them on.

And immediately noticed Sage.

The Phantump withdrew right back into the clinic’s main chamber with a panicky squeak, mind racing and only capable of thinking about returning to Yaksha’s protective presence. Which wasn’t an option right away, either.

She remembered seeing the Blissey tend to the Banette yesterday, and a part of her was very glad to see her guardian getting more aid. The rest of her ended up even more skittish instead, especially with them likely noticing the frost burn on her face if they were to look up—

They looked up.

The Blissey’s immediate response was a drawn-out exhale, followed up by the loudest whisper Sage had ever heard in her life, aimed further into the clinic. On cue, one of the other healers, the Leavanny, peeked out from another side chamber further into the tent; their expression split equally between relief and exasperation.

“S-sorry...” Sage muttered. She didn’t expect the Normal-type to chuckle at her words, taking her aback as the mantis approached, holding a small bowl. To the Phantump, it looked like just some yellowish paste, its purpose entirely unknown.

And then, moments later, blissful relief from the leftover stinging as said paste was smeared around her frost burn. It felt so tingly, so… nice. She finally floated back onto the mattress right as the Blissey wrapped up her checkup on the still-asleep Yaksha. The combined kindness they were treated to made her feel even warmer. “Th-thank you so much!” she squeaked.

A smile and a deep nod from the Blissey, moderate confusion from Leavanny, first at Sage and then at their coworker. Before the Normal-type could explain something to their coworker, the shuffle of the front entrance caught everyone’s attention instead.

The Phantump squeaked at seeing the familiar Gardevoir step in, “Hi!”

Aria answered with a curt wave, a small smile briefly replacing her concern. She didn’t stay long though, first stopping before the entrance of the human’s room, then taking a deep breath, and finally walking in with as much confidence as she could muster.

Sage hoped she wasn’t afraid of the human, too.


Anne was much less scared of the Phantump than she was surprised by it.

The sight still made her jump, no doubt about that, but it didn’t leave any lingering dread behind itself. If anything, she found them and their skittishness funny in hindsight, especially with them sticking out right beneath the ceiling. The amusement didn’t last, though, not once she remembered where Phantump were supposed to come from.

Dead little baby mons.

The realization made her feel guilty for laughing, instead hoping that whoever they were, they didn’t get badly injured or anything. And that, of course, they felt just as safe here as Anne did. Despite the gregarious Decidueye in her room.

...

In part, because of said Decidueye in her room, even.

Anne knew little about Sprout beyond her name, but what she’d seen of her only painted her in a positive light. More smiles than the girl thought possible with a beak, frequent physical affection, much of it feeling surprisingly nice, and a constant effort to not appear intimidating. She didn’t know if the two were actually related, but if they were, it made sense where Blossom’s niceness had come from.

Hopefully, the Dartrix would visit her again soon.

rustle, rustle

The sound of someone stepping into the room had Anne’s happy thoughts be replaced with even happier ones. A large smile crept to her face as she waved at the Gardevoir, “~G-good morning, Mrs. Aria!~”

“^Good morning, Anne, Sprout. How are you doing?^” Aria’s response wasn’t as enthusiastic as Anne thought it’d be, but entirely positive all the same.

“Mighty fine, Aria dear! Anne finally got some decent sleep in, didn’t ya, Anne?” Sprout teased.

The human nodded eagerly at the Decidueye’s question, bringing a strained smile to the Gardevoir’s face.

“^I’m very glad to hear. Still feeling awake, Sprout?^”

“Yeah, I got an hour more or so in me. Thinking of leavin’ us alone again?”

“^No, no... the opposite, if anything. I want to talk with Anne about something, and it’s... best kept private,^” Aria explained.

Anne blinked in surprise, entirely lost about what could the Gardevoir be referring to.

“Somethin’ private, eh?” Sprout chuckled. “No worries. Have a good day you two~! Gonna be a long one!”

Oh, that it most certainly would be.

Aria had to put in her utmost willpower to maintain the smile after Sprout’s parting words. At last, it was just her and the innocent, powerless human she swore to protect, entirely ignorant of what would await her later today—

“~I saw a Phantump peek through the wall earlier. Do they live here?~” Anne asked.

The girl’s question took Aria aback, providing a very needed, if equally fleeting, distraction. “^No, no. Her name is Sage. I ran into her and her guardian when on my patrol yesterday. I don’t know if they intend to stay here.^”

The answer was sufficient, if not particularly deep. It wasn’t the part Anne was concerned about the most, though. Aria sounded so unlike herself, her usual calm voice so clearly strained. The human had no idea what had caused it and if she even could help, but she would still try all the same. “~Is something wrong, Mrs. Aria?~”

This time, the smile didn’t quite endure the strain the Gardevoir’s mind put it under. She was worried that the sight alone would be enough to freak Anne out with its possible implications, but thankfully, it wasn’t. Instead, the girl shuffled over to the bed’s edge before sitting down on it and... patted a spot beside herself. It was undoubtedly a sweet gesture, one that would even come in handy with what she wanted to talk about.

Assuming Anne wouldn’t want to run as far away from her as possible once she learned of her lies and the village’s cruelty.

The possibility chilled her to the core; the mental image of Anne being as afraid of her as she was on the very first day here, but for much more justified reasons, was a deeply disconcerting one. At the same time, the girl grew more worried with every passing second of tense silence, pushing her guardian to finally act. And so; she sat down beside Anne, the human almost embracing her there and then. Aria wanted this; Aria didn’t deserve this. It could backfire so badly, but if it also could bring her some comfort in what was to come... “^G-go right ahead, Anne.^”

Unsurprisingly, the reassurance only did so much to stem the quickly intensifying tension on both sides. Not unearned for either party, but entirely liable to make it all even worse than it already would be.

Aria wasn’t ready at all, but she had to tackle it there and then. “^Anne... I have to tell you something.^”

The girl’s embrace was tight and shaky, her bony body warm to the touch. Aria saw the plain desire for her one-armed hug to be returned right in Anne’s expression, but... couldn’t bring herself to do it. Not now, not then, not with something so deeply evil still unstated.

The girl asked, distraught, “~Wh-wh-what is it, Mrs. Aria?~”

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. It was time to come clean. Inhale, exhale. Inhale—“^There... there will be a vote about letting you stay later today.^”

The fact took its sweet time worming its way into Anne’s mind; simple words and their consequences made it all the more difficult to process in the morning’s mental fog. Once they did, though, they brought with them a building avalanche of fear, the harrowing implications sparking a dozen more in an instant. “~D-do you mean that if they vote a-against me, I won’t be able to stay h-here?~”

All Aria could do was confirm Anne’s suspicions with a somber nod, adding more fuel to the quickly growing fire of terror.

“~W-wait, but where—where would I even go? Would I have to go b-back to my house a-and—No no no, please don’t, please don’t make me go back, anything but that, I-I—why are they v-voting against me!?~”

Anne was hyperventilating by now; Aria left paralyzed about what to do to help without inadvertently making it any worse.

“^Some—some have objections to you staying here,^” the Gardevoir explained. Anne’s burning follow-up question was clear to sense, even as her throat was struggling too much with words to vocalize it. “^Because... you are a human.^”

Anne was panicking far too hard by that point to even speak, her entire body shaking as her mind tortured itself with the implications. Of course, nobody wanted her to stay here. She was just a monster to them, of the very species that made their life hell. Her presence here was clearly making so many uncomfortable and she’s been completely overlooking that for her own selfish sake.

Everyone here must’ve gone through so much pain because of humanity, and here she was, pushing the envelope and begging for them to protect her from her own evil species. Of course she didn’t deserve it. Why would she deserve it; why would she be any different deep down from all the trainers, all the poachers, all the breeders? She wasn’t, she so obviously wasn’t, she deserved to be thrown out.

Anne didn’t want it, but she deserved it.

Aria’s arm hovered just above the girl’s other side, afraid to lower itself lest it would make her panic even harder. All this was the her fault, be it through her present words or past inaction, and she felt entirely powerless about how to stop it. Anything she did could’ve, likely would’ve, made it all even worse. Especially once Anne realized she’d lied to her about that very vote earlier. It was all her fault—

Before the combined despair in the room could bring Aria to a panic attack of her own, Anne’s tight embrace snapped her right out of that perilous mental thread. The girl was clinging to her for her life, clinging to her for any and all protection she could get in this nightmarish situation, clinging to her with all the trust in the world, none of it feeling deserved by its recipient.

Deserved or not, it was there all the same, and the least Aria could do was use it for reassurance. “^I... I don’t want to lie to you and can’t say it with certainty, but... me, Autumn, and others are doing all we can to make sure it won’t happen. I will be a part of the vote, as will Marco. We’ve been talking to others about it, asking those who would vote against to reconsider, and... I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be voted out.^”

Aria’s calculated words didn’t have all the impact the Gardevoir hoped they would have, but that didn’t mean they were pointless either. Anne was still justifiably terrified; her body still shook against the psychic’s side, but... the worst of the fear began to wane. Aria gave the girl all the time she needed to process it all, finally returning her embrace in full. The faint tingling of her psychic skin was relaxing in its familiarity, even without a Calm Mind.

Moment by moment, the terror waned into ‘just’ fear as Anne gathered words to speak again, trying her hardest to not break down once more. “~Wh-what will h-happen to me if I have to go? Where will I go—oh gods, what—what will happen to Ember? I-I don’t want her to suffer with me, but I don’t want to be alone either, it—it feels like I’ll die and—~”

Despite her best efforts, Anne’s voice frayed once more, turning into a drawn out whine as she pressed her crying, suffering self into Aria’s side. Her life depended on it; she would die if she ended up being kicked out. Between her father, homelessness, and just being alone, she would die, she would die, she would die...

“^I-I don’t know. I’m sorry, Anne,^” Aria whimpered. “^You don’t deserve any of this. I wish I had an answer; I wish I could say anything with certainty, but... I can’t. I already lied to you about this, and I apologize for that. I... understand if you won’t trust me again because of that, no matter what happens afterwards.^”

The Gardevoir slowly raised her embracing arm away from Anne, not wanting her to feel trapped if she tried to hide from her again. Her terror was just like when she first realized just what Aria was, that she was a feral Gardevoir and not a healer human. But now, it was made so much more powerful by the vice of it being utterly justified and caused, in part, by Aria’s own inaction.

Regardless of how pitiful Aria’s words were, they still knocked Anne’s despairing mind out of the worst of her panic. She was suffering, but so was Aria, and her words...

The girl held her guardian even tighter in response, tears streaming down her face and Aria’s side alike. The Gardevoir was too surprised to even register the sensation of the glasses digging into her skin. Slowly, she lowered her hand once more, still avoiding touching the girl, lest it’d startle her. Moment by moment, the worst of her panic subsided again as she mumbled out, “~Wh-why wouldn’t I, M-Mrs. Aria?~”

It was entirely unlike what the Gardevoir expected to hear, doubly so with her having just explained the very reason moments earlier. “^Because I lied to you. I told you that you’d be staying here for good, that everything would be alright, that,^” Aria flinched as she confronted the lie at the root of it all, the admission going so deeply against her innermost nature despite its piercing accuracy, “^that you were safe here. I’m sorry, Anne.^”

The untruths hurt, but so did Aria’s own pain. The latter in particular gave Anne a surge of motivation to gather her composure, to provide at least a bit of reassurance to her guardian, even if she needed it, too. Her panic gave way to sadness as her shaking waned just enough for her to speak, “~sniff My-my grandma also lied to me like that. That I’d be staying with her for good, that everything would be alright, that—that I was safe now, and that I wouldn’t be hurt again. I-I get it. She just wanted me to be happy, j-just like you, and I still love her so much. It’s okay, I-I promise...~”

The words burst a dam deep inside Aria’s mind, her pathetic self-pity overpowered by her innermost protective impulse. Anne was psychiced onto her lap in an instant as the Gardevoir embraced her tightly, as tightly as her weak physical body could muster, her own bitter tears running down her cheeks.

“^I-I’m so sorry Anne. I’m sorry you had to lose that certainty, and I wish so much I could provide it like you deserve, like everyone deserves. I wish I could promise you that the vote will go well, that nothing bad will happen again, that you’re truly safe here, but—I don’t want to lie to you again...^”

The two held each other in a tight, teary mess as they fought with their own and the others’ despair, its sheer volume enough to make Aria feel weak. Despite it, though, despite her own guilt in this, despite her own weaknesses... Aria wanted to be there for Anne. To be someone she could have utter trust in, someone she could rely on to protect her, to shelter her, to—to love her.

“~I-I don’t blame you for l-lying, Mrs. Aria. I wanna believe that everything is g-going to be alright, but... I’m so scared. I don’t want to die...~” Anne whimpered.

“^I-I know sweetie, and I wish I could say with certainty that nothing will happen to you. I’ll do absolutely everything in my power to make sure it won’t come to that, that much I can promise.^”

Words alone mattered for so very little, and Aria was well aware of that fact. Despite that, they seemed to be enough for now, enough to at least let the human shake her fear of death off in the immediate moment. Enough for her to gradually calm down, breath by breath, to focus on something else than that absolute worst-case scenario. She was still scared, so scared now that the safety was no longer the guarantee Aria had previously portrayed it was, but... she would manage.

Or at least, so she hoped.

Their mutual embrace gradually loosened up with the absolute worst of their fear being behind them, letting Aria grab her bearings and Anne distract herself with something else in the room. With how sparsely it was decorated, there wasn’t all that much to focus on instead of her ever grim fears, the girl’s attention inadvertently ending up with the bags—bags with Mrs. Graham’s coat and her items in it of unknown origin. Anne spoke up, “~M-Mrs. Aria?~”

The Gardevoir’s soft, tingly hand moved from stroking the side of Anne’s head to her cheek as she tried and failed to force the weakest of smiles onto her face. “^Yes, sweetie?^”

“~I-I forgot to ask, wh-where did these bags come from? I think that’s Mrs. Graham’s c-coat...~”

With a quick mental sweep of the nearby area to make sure there wasn’t any other non-Dark type scout in the vicinity, Aria took a deep breath. That one would be a mess to explain, but now more than ever, Anne deserved the entire truth. “^Do you remember when we first talked, and a Luxray ran into the room?^”

“~Mhm. Th-they were really scary...~”

“^Lumi’s a bit of a prick, yeah. He alerted me, because a human looking for you was making their way in our direction and we needed to stop them. That human turned out to be Olive, or I suppose, ‘Mrs. Graham’ as you know her.^”

Anne gasped in surprise at the revelation, not expecting the elderly librarian of all people to undertake such a journey. “~W-was she alright!? She’s so old and...~”

“^Yes, she was; Leo and Luxie made sure of it. We stopped her and ended up talking with her. She talked about you, about everything that had happened to you, and how she wanted to help. Lumi and I took her up on that offer, and she brought us to your house to take the items you had left behind.^”

“~Th-that’s so kind of her...~”

“^It really is.^” Aria smiled weakly, thinking back to their encounter with the old woman. “^She helped us tremendously with all the human things we didn’t understand. It was going well, but... eventually someone showed up. Your father.^”

“~W-were you all alright—~”

“^Yes we were, don’t worry, sweetie. He was an evil person and I’m so, so sorry that he had hurt you so much over the years.^”

Anne nodded her way through the reassurance, breathing deeply into Aria’s front before a detail caught her attention, one she was unsure how to interpret. “~...was?~”

Here we go.

“^Yes, was. He attacked us, and I incapacitated him. Then, at some point later, when Olive was helping us by grabbing books for you... your house caught on fire. I don’t know how and if it had something to do with us, but... your father was still inside it when it happened. The entire building is gone now.^”

Aria remained quiet afterwards, merely waiting for Anne’s reaction. The immediate shock was obvious and expected, but the Gardevoir could only hope that it wouldn’t become a seed for even further despair—

“~Th-that’s... good. E-even if I end up on the streets, it means that I won’t have to go back there.~”

The Gardevoir stared wide-eyed at Anne’s cold calculation of the situation. It was unlike the emotional girl, to an almost unsettling degree. For someone so obviously sensitive to others’ pain to act so detached when told someone burned to death, implied a lot about just how deeply evil said person was.

Anne’s mind was gripped with cold, calculating focus, but Aria couldn’t say the same after the realization hit her. She didn’t comment out loud on it, merely holding the girl that much more tenderly and applying a weak, full-body telekinetic embrace just to make her feel that much safer here. Neither of them said much for a while as the human kept processing it all, eventually returning to her previous headspace with a shudder.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t where the recollection of the excursion into the human village ended. Aria continued, “^After Olive was done helping us, I... I did something I agreed on previously, when me and others were discussing what to do with Olive. They wanted me to wipe her memories of us, to maintain our secrecy. I pretended to do it, and asked her and her friends to promise us they wouldn’t tell anyone of us, or of you being under our protection.^”

As relieving as the last remark was, the topic the response had brought up immediately threw all the more fuel into the flames of Anne’s fear. She hadn’t even considered her memories might’ve been manipulated, and now that the subject had been breached, it was all she could think about. How could she even know if it had happened to her—

“^Nobody has tampered with your memories Anne, I promise.^”

The Gardevoir wanted to say more, say so much more. To reassure the girl that as long as she stood, she wouldn’t let anything like that ever come to her, that she wouldn’t ever hurt her the way Cinder had hurt Ember, but... could she even make that promise? What if it would truly come down to the worst possibility, what if the vote failed and her nightmare came true, what if she really had to violate her mind and surgically remove the only happiness the girl had known in so long just for their own selfish protection?

Aria didn’t know, and it terrified her. She tried to explain, “^After what had happened to Ember, I doubt anyone else would be eager—^”

The psychic’s sudden pause had startled Anne almost as much as the implication of something terrible having happened to Ember. Despite all the fear still writhing in her head, she had to know what Aria meant there, opening her mouth to speak—just in time for the vixen in question to shamble into the room, glistening tears flowing down her cheeks.

“~E-Ember!~” Anne gasped.

The Braixen dashed over to the pair before Anne could even slide off Aria’s lap, holding them both tight as soon as she could. The human wasted no time in shuffling on Aria’s lap so that her best friend could join her there and embrace her as tight as she could, which Ember immediately did. Aria kept watch of what was happening inside the fox’s mind, trying to figure out whether more horrible acts had happened overnight.

And instead, only found the betrayal of yesterday, still hurting so intensely.

In no time, the two girls were holding each other as tight as possible with the Gardevoir embracing them both, deeply wanting to protect them from any further harm. She rationally knew she was, but... would it ever be enough?

Anne asked, distraught, “~E-Ember, wh-what happened?~”

Aria might have already known the horrors the fox had experienced, but the human didn’t. Ember didn’t feel capable of answering either; telepathic and physical words alike failing to manifest, not with how tired and worn she was. As harrowing as it was, Anne deserved to know. And so, the Gardevoir asked, “^Would you want me to explain, Ember?^”

The fox whimpered at Aria’s soft-spoken question, the realization of having been left out in something big until now unnerving Anne further. The Gardevoir couldn’t blame her either, just hoping that her explanation would prove sufficient and not inspire further despair—even if she knew the latter was almost entirely wishful thinking by now.

After a few more attempts at telepathy that broke down within seconds, Ember finally gave up and leaned on Anne even harder, acknowledging Aria’s question with a single weak nod.

Here goes nothing.

“^Let me go over what happened to Ember during your absence, Anne. In short, Cinder, Ember’s adoptive mother, had erased her memories of you. It was only a couple of days ago that through Marco’s and Autumn’s intervention, did she restore them and remember you again. Yesterday evening, after you had gone to sleep, Cinder finally confessed to Ember about what she’d done.^”

As much as Anne’s focus laid with comforting her friend to the fullest extent possible, the actions described still terrified her. Aria’s description of what had almost happened to Mrs. Graham was already scary, to hear that her best friend, someone she’d spent half her life with and loved more than anyone else on the planet, just didn’t remember her was...

It was too much to imagine.

The last of Anne’s restraints was broken, plunging her into full-blown weeping as she clung to Ember and Aria alike. She was so sorry for Ember; she wanted to comfort her so much, but deep down, she was terrified. Indescribably terrified of that possibility, of being made to forget her best friend, of having nobody to live for, of being left alone with no memory of this place, of Ember, maybe even of her grandma. She just wanted to live and be safe; why were people so mean, human and mon alike? She had done nothing to earn all that pain, and neither had her friend!

Aria’s arms shook as she inadvertently eavesdropped on Anne’s pain and terror, feeling more powerless than ever. Regardless of how truthful she was, regardless of how hard she’d tried to protect her and ensure that the horrors she was imagining wouldn’t come to pass... there still was a chance they would, after all. That despite all her efforts, two innocent children would still be inflicted with unspeakable pain because of others’ paranoia.

By her hand, no less.

Would she ever be able to live with herself if that came to pass? With the knowledge that she was the executioner of two lives that had already experienced so much suffering? Aria didn’t know, and the more she thought about it, the more uncertain she was about that most harrowing of outcomes. Another nightmare, one without the blissful escape of waking up.

If that worst-case scenario came to pass, if she refused to fight for their safety beyond the confines and rules of the council vote, if she yielded to hurt and injustice because to do otherwise would be to invite more trouble for herself…

Would she really be any better than Cinder?​

The thought snapped something deep inside Aria.

Her innermost nature, the drive to protect others, the part of herself that made her a Gardevoir, it had enough. It reached out from the root of her brain and grasped her head, subsuming all other thoughts with a grip of freezing clarity. Incomparably more effective than any Calm Mind, especially as it arrived at the obvious solution to all their terror, and held the two scared girls tighter.

“^I will not let that happen again.^”

Something she could promise, something she had to promise, something Anne and Ember alike deserved from her. A gambit that was likely to backfire in so many ways, but simultaneously her only real option. She continued, “^When we first spoke, Anne, I promised you that this would be your home until you had somewhere to go. And I’m intending to keep that promise for both of you, no matter what the council says.^”

The sudden, unflinching conviction in the Gardevoir’s words took Anne aback, startling her out the worst of her loathing, especially with what they implied. She was used to promises that would eventually falter. They were only normal, but Aria clearly meant hers in a very deep way, her telepathy having gained an imposing, downright commanding tone. Ember was similarly surprised; the girls’ focus squarely on the Gardevoir as they chewed through what Aria’s words really meant.

They wanted them to be true, but... “~W-wouldn’t you get in trouble?~” Anne asked, worried. “~I-if everyone w-wants me gone, then they won’t like you keeping me anyway...~”

“^Then they’ll have to take you over my dead body.^”

“~N-no! I-I don’t want you to get hurt like that. E-especially not for me, you shouldn’t, I-I’ll toughen it out, I—~”

“^Anne.^”

Aria’s calm, yet imposing voice stopped the human’s panicking train of thought dead in its tracks, the entirety of her attention drawn up to the Gardevoir. “^I can do it. You were terrified of my strength when we first properly met, and what’s a better reason to use it than to protect someone?^”

“~I... I just don’t want you getting hurt because of me. I don’t want others having to h-help me again because of my fault—~”

“^But this is not your fault. You have done nothing wrong, Anne.^”

“^Y-y-yeah!^” Ember woofed, her affirmation only redoubling Anne’s shaking embrace as worries continued to bubble inside her head.

“^If the absolute worst comes to pass, if this village and its people would rather sentence you to death and Ember to further suffering, to where they’d rather set out to harm me than let you live, then I’ll know with certainty that this is no longer the village I settled in all those years ago. That it has been deeply rotten since then, that it has overgrown with the same injustice it seemed to escape from. I will be glad to leave it.^”

“~B-but what about y-your family?~” Anne whimpered.

Now that was a harder question to answer. Harder, but not impossible.

“^They will understand. We’ve all been trying to help you however we can, and none of us will sit by idly while the council tries to leave you out to die. If it takes uprooting ourselves to keep you two safe, then that’ll simply be what it takes.^”

The unflinching conviction in Aria’s words and tone didn’t leave Anne much room to argue. An ironclad shield of cold certainty, contrasting her usual warm shroud of comfort. Something the girls needed so much more in the moment, something still worrisome to consider despite that.

Both of them wanted it to be true. Both of them wanted that utter conviction that things will be alright no matter what, something that life already took from Anne once and from Ember twice; their souls hungered for it, and yet... “~A-are you sure, M-Mrs. Aria? I-I’m just some stranger human, we haven’t even talked that much...~”

“^Isn’t that what anyone with a shred of heart would do? An injured child out in the cold, about to bleed and freeze to death. Why wouldn’t I do what I can to save you?^”

As opposed to the last time Anne heard these words, her mind didn’t reach towards judging their truthfulness. Everything she’d heard and felt from the Gardevoir made her unable to doubt the utmost certainty in her plan, scary as it was. No, instead, her worries reached inward. Was she even worthy of so many people having to do so much just to protect her miserable, unimportant self—

“^Y-you’re n-not unimportant!^” Ember’s shaky telepathy cut in, melting through Anne’s self-doubt as the vixen held her tighter. Held, and wept, “^I-I want you to be happy Anne, a-and so does Mrs. Aria! I know it’s a lot, b-but... could you do it f-for me?^”

It took Anne’s entire composure to not break down there and then again as she looked the vixen in the eye, her tearful, pleading expression hitting her even harder than the mental words. Aria wasn’t any more willing to mess with the girl’s mind now than she was in the past, but... she had an idea that could help.

The Gardevoir let go of the Braixen as she reached an arm around them both, leaving her hand facing up beside them.

Ready to be grasped.

The intent was obvious, as was the patience in Aria’s expression. Bit by bit, she felt the icy grip from earlier wane. The certainty it brought remained, but not without warmth this time.

Anne kept struggling with her emotions, simultaneously wanting the utter safety Aria promised and finding herself unworthy of its price. She had no idea what to do, feeling paralyzed in a struggle with her own doubt and loathing.

This time, however, she wasn’t alone. Ember’s warm paw grasping the side of her hand took Anne out of her mute conflict, glasses-clad eyes refocusing on the fox’s expression. Still tearful, still pleading, but now with a much clearer intent and a weak smile, framed by tears.

“^D-do you trust me, Anne?^” Ember asked, her mental voice barely a whisper and utterly eclipsing everything in the human’s mind simultaneously.

Despite how much she struggled with what she should think about herself... what she thought about Ember, and her love for her, was very clear. “~Y-yes, I do, Ember.~”

The vixen nodded, her shaky smile growing larger. Her paw slowly dragged Anne’s hand towards Aria’s waiting hand. A part of Anne wanted to withdraw it, to reject this insanity, to accept what a part of her felt like she deserved—but the part of her that knew what she desired held the reins for just long enough for her hand to touch the Gardevoir’s.

Silken smooth, almost electric to the touch. Feeling like it could protect her against the entire world. Emanating an odd, emotional warmth. Safety. Refuge.

Love.

“^It’s okay Anne, you’re safe. Take as much time as you need.^”

Even without the Gardevoir’s more explicit aid, Anne felt her body and mind alike gradually calm down with each passing moment. The fear, the panic, the utter despair of her life being on the line, all of those faded away, bit by bit. She didn’t have to fear; she didn’t have to panic, her life wasn’t on the line.

She felt safe again.

By then, Aria had returned to normal, holding both girls’ hands as she chewed through just what she’d promised. The more she thought, the more she worried that the pressure of it all would make her buckle, that she’d shatter under the possibility of it all... the more confident she felt. She searched her mind far and wide for any doubt, for any hesitancy, for any selfish desires that would overpower her wish for Anne’s safety should the worst come to pass, and found none.

Doubly so with how unrealistic that absolute worst-case scenario was.

She’d known the rest of the council for years, and none of them felt like the sort that would put their own life at risk and fight her just for needless bloodshed. Granted, if this entire mess had shown anything, it was that many of said group were willing to dispose of any morals when it came to dealing with humans, but… she still hoped that seeing the living person they would sentence as opposed to an abstract human out there at the clinic would sway them.

Her conviction made sure she wouldn’t have to rely on hope, but having some of it on hand wouldn’t hurt, either. “^How are you feeling, Anne?^” she asked, her mental voice back to normal.

The weary girl perked up at that welcome change, her answer as simple as it was truthful, “~I’m... I-I think I’m okay. I... th-thank you, Aria.~”

“^You’re very welcome, sweetie.^”

Aria’s steadily growing smile was soon matched by a weaker, but just as genuine one on Anne’s face. Even despite all the reassurance and promise, though, the Gardevoir seemed it fit to put the whole situation in its proper context again. “^And, again, all what I’ve described is the very worst-case scenario. One that I’m rather sure won’t come to pass.^”

The two girls nodded in unison at the affirmation, the calmness letting them absorb that reassurance much more effectively. “~Wh-when will that vote happen?~” Anne asked.

“^In the evening, after sundown. I... forgot to mention something important about it earlier, I apologize.^”

Anne blinked as she leaned closer on the Gardevoir, more curious than worried. “~Oh?~”

“^One elder requested that you be present for it. You’d be with me the entire time. I don’t know why she asked for you to be there, and I don’t like it either. Don’t feel forced to agree, I can figure something out if you’d rather—^”

“~I-I can go.~”

There was a bit of uncertainty in Anne’s voice, one she was trying her hardest to fight through. Yes, she was uncertain; yes, she didn’t like it; yes, she’d rather not, but—she would be there with Aria. And nothing bad would happen with Aria watching over her.

The Gardevoir only barely held her tears in at sensing that thought, deeply hoping it would be earned this time. “^Th-thank you, Anne. No matter what she’s planning, I imagine that your presence there will help in other ways. One would hope it’ll be harder for them to vote for someone’s exile if they have to see that someone.^”

“~Y-yeah, heh...~” Anne chuckled, cementing her truly feeling better in Aria’s mind. The Gardevoir closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths; tried to process through all that just happened—

Only for the girl to let go of her hand and hug her as tight as she could once more, Ember following in tow. This time, with no more fear, no more doubt, only gratitude, confidence, and...

Love.

“~Thank you for wanting to protect me, Aria,~” Anne whispered.

Aria joined in on the group embrace, gently stroking both girls’ backs as the trio gathered their bearings. “^Thank you for giving me another chance, Anne.^”

Despite everything, despite all the pain, despite all the fear, for once even Aria could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Should the worst come to pass, being forced to leave their village wouldn’t be a happy outcome, but would be incomparably better than having to be the enforcer of its cruelty. Plenty terrifying in its own way, but... they would all figure it out, no matter what.

Aria was sure of it.



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 22: Solace


Chapter 22: Solace



Autumn had no idea how her daughter-in-law was managing while having to carry so much weight on her shoulders.

The Indeedee sighed under her breath, pondering in silence with only her shawl and a freshly grabbed breakfast to accompany her. Yesterday was intense despite her not having anywhere near as much of a role in all this as Aria, intense enough to lead her to take today off from her usual duties. The little ones would get taught in time; one session of practicing Protects under her watch wouldn’t doom anyone. Which—

bang!

The muffled, distant sound jolted Autumn upright, briefly snapping her out of her previous thoughts. She could’ve sworn she heard a familiar grunt accompanying it shortly afterwards, worrying her a fair bit. If nothing else, it was a good idea to check up on just what had happened there before resuming her original plan.

Now, where was she at?

One day without her watch wouldn’t doom the village’s little ones, but the same couldn’t really be said for Anne, especially if Aria really came clean with all her white lies. None of which Autumn could blame her for, none of which she hoped Anne would blame her for in the long run either, but still damaging once they were forcibly revealed.

Or even before then, if what Garret had described of the Gardevoir’s sudden awakening and the following discussion was any sign. No matter how Anne would react to Aria’s honesty, she would need someone there with her afterwards more than ever, and Autumn was more than willing to provide all the comfort needed. And then some.

Ember’s whereabouts were much more of an enigma. By the time the elderly psychic woke up, the lil’ fox was gone despite spending most of the preceding night huddling tight next to her. Hardly easy to sleep beside such an intense, emotional warmth, but Autumn made it work, mostly by tossing the entirety of her usual array of blankets into the far corner.

The Indeedee just hoped the Braixen had run over to Anne once she woke up. Their bond, the little of it Autumn got to sense for herself directly, felt as unbreakable as the one between herself and Garret. Of course they would be each other’s greatest comfort. It was by far the most logical place for the fox to have ended up at. But at the same time, with what had happened with Cinder still fresh in her memory... the entire topic sent shivers down her body.

Shivers that she then used to shake the whole unpleasant strand of thought well off. Her fretting like this wouldn’t do anyone any good; if Ember really was already with Anne at the clinic, then she’d be seeing both of them in not too long, anyway. There, a much better subject to focus on instead.

Autumn knew it wouldn’t be easy to find something to relax or at least distract Anne from the upcoming vote with all the stress and fears likely to be going through her body, but there were still options. She could tell stories, be it with young Garret or even from her own childhood; she could curiously ask about the parts of the human world that were unlikely to tie into the girl’s traumatic past; she could just provide a ton of physical comfort. Anything to ease this terrible load—the kind that nobody ever ought to have to struggle with.

And especially not a child.

The Indeedee was in equal parts split between wanting and very much not wanting to run into either of the three elders on her way to the clinic. Calling them out on what they were doing was earned and justified, and she doubted she would’ve been able to stop herself from giving Ana and especially Celia a piece of her mind if they crossed paths, but it sure wouldn’t help with the upcoming vote.

This wasn’t like them, this shouldn’t have been like them. They both used to be so caring of those who couldn’t care for themselves back when Orion was still around, and now...

The bitter realization stung even more than Autumn thought it would, forcing her to stop in her tracks and wrap herself tighter. So much has changed since that shocking news broke out of nowhere, and Autumn wished she could say it was mostly for the better.

sigh

No matter what, this was where they were at now. Regardless of how much the people she used to look up to had changed, for bad or worse, her and her family’s goal remained the same. They could do it, Autumn was sure of it.

Just as she was sure she could piece together what had happened on the scene she’d just walked into.

Mikiri’s latest attempt at replicating the human two-wheel laid in front of the wall of Holly’s kitchen, its front wheel somewhere between heavily bent and outright split in half. The ‘T’-shaped part above it also appeared damaged, but Autumn didn’t know the original device well enough to diagnose what exactly had happened to it.

There was an odd-looking, black smudge on the wall, at around the wheel’s height. Above it, a rather sizable crack spanning several bricks.

And in front of it, Ori was busy wrapping a second bandage around Mikiri’s forehead, on top of the now blood soaked first one.

“I don’t get this weird contraption!” the Mawile ranted, “I tweaked the pedals, moved the handle within reach, reinforced all the parts I could weld more metal onto and it worked for a while!”

“What about braking?”

“Yeah, that’s the thing, Ori! I’ve been fumbling with every part of this thing and there’s just nothing that helps you stop!”

The Mawile expressed her annoyance at the inanimate object with spirited gestures, while her co-tinkerer made sure she wouldn’t bleed out in the middle of a rant. A slightly closer look let Autumn spot a pair of long wooden blocks attached to the parts where human feet would’ve presumably rested at, as well as what largely appeared as assorted clumps of metal welded onto the frame at what looked like random.

And right as she took one more step, she finally spotted someone else beside the Steel-type duo.

“Whiiiich is why I asked Ori to fetch ya, Geiger. Thanks for swinging along!” Mikiri greeted.

Geiger tipped his head at the Fairy-type as he responded in kind, “Howdy, Mikiri. This, uh... doesn’t look pretty.”

“I grabbed bandages first,” Ori added, voice even flatter than normal.

“Dunno why; I was fine. Anywho anywho Geiger—do you have any idea how this dumb thing comes to a stop? You used to hang around a lotta humans, right?”

The elderly Electivire stroked his cheek as both he and the Magnemite attached to his arm inspected what could be very generously described as a heavily modified bike. His memories were hardly the most helpful on the spot. “Yes, I have, and I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Never at the moment to see how they came to a stop, though. Or I suppose even if I had, I must’ve forgotten about it since. Out of everyone working at the facility, only a few guys used these bikes, most stuck to cars—”

“What’s a car?” Mikiri perked up at the unfamiliar term. Her maw parted slightly in excitement at there being more human-made locomotion machines out there, and the Scizor beside her groaned at some of his freshly applied bandage slipping off the Mawile’s head because of her sudden movements.

“Oh, that’s its own kind of contraption! The size of a small hut, moves around on four or more wheels, all metal and with room inside for at least five humans or so. Though I’ve seen many be even larger than that.”

As if a switch had flicked, Mikiri’s new tinkering wish was changed in an instant from ‘another undamaged two-wheel that she could actually take apart bit by bit’ to ‘the mysterious car’. “Are they just out there? How many of these ‘cars’ are around? How do they move? Do you also pedal them like these two-wheels or is it the same glowy stuff you’ve described in the past—”

“Mikiri,” the Scizor interrupted.

“What?”

“Focus please, I ought to be going soon.”

“Oh right right, that ‘scouting’ thing you also do sometimes.”

The Scizor rolled his eyes at that framing, lifting his pincers up to bury his face into them at the thought of all the mess that today would entail. Instead, though, he found his arm being yanked off to the side, sticking over to the magnet with a grating ‘clunk’, much to Geiger’s immediate laughter. “Seems you’ve made a friend, eh, Ori?”

Geiger’s words made the Mawile finally look up from the freshly created mess and structural damage of her own creation, and up at the expert she’d called over shortly prior. Mikiri wasn’t ever the best at remembering specific details about people, but she could’ve sworn that the Electivire didn’t use to have someone else with him there. Which meant that they had to come from somewhere.

“Geiger! Where’s the magnet from?”

Mikiri’s chipper question caught the Electric-type’s attention right as he was finishing prying Ori and the lil’ magnet apart the hard way, leaving Ori reeling backwards once his accidental bond finally came undone. “This lil’ fella? Nobody’s all too sure, but we think it was likely that nearby human pit of a town—” he paused, realizing why the Fairy-type was asking about that. Much to the little one’s sanity, he shut her off before she could start badgering them with questions, “—but they’re too young to talk, anyway. I doubt they’ve seen much of anything that could’ve been of interest to you.”

The Mawile went from opening her mouth to speak to folding her arms with a grumpy expression in a split second, left grumbling to herself afterwards. With no further leads, there really wasn’t much she could do but to drag this pile of junk back to her burrow, fix whatever she could, and keep drilling holes in the recent human’s two-wheel with her intense staring, hoping to crack its mysteries.

Or... there was another thing she could do. The realization brought a crooked smile to Geiger’s face as the impromptu gathering prepared to all start leaving, his remark catching the entirety of attention of both Steel-types, “Well, this one doesn’t know, but Anne likely has an idea about how you’re supposed to stop these things.”

Even from her distant vantage point, Autumn felt the resulting shift of emotion extremely clearly. Disappointment turned into excitement, and annoyed relief became a veritable wallop of uncomfortable stress, both at right around the same instant.

“Good call. Ya think I could go and get that dealt with right away? Heard about her being awake now or something,” Mikiri perked up.

“I’d advise against that with the human’s uncertain state.”

“Whaddya mean by ‘uncertain’? Gah fine, whatever, just let me know when she’s done finally being settled so I can go and pick her brain all about this and everything else—do you have any idea how much junk I’ve got piling around that I just have no idea what it does and have passed using it for some good scrap because of it!?”

Ori blinked, bewildered. “‘Settled’?”

The two Steel-types stared at each other in total disconnect, their shared confusion intense enough for neither to notice a small drop of rusty blood that snuck out from underneath Mikiri’s bandages and flowed down her nose. “Yea, settled. Y’know, didn’t Aria say she was gonna be keeping her or something in that burrow of theirs? Figured they’re all busy doing that right now. Maybe I could go and knock on their door to bother them about it. Can’t be hoarding all that secret human knowledge to themselves, ha!”

“...yer bleeding, Mikiri,” Geiger chimed in.

“Still!? Oh gimme that!”

Without waiting for Ori’s response, the Mawile hopped in place just barely high enough to grab the rest of the bandages in his grasp. Her technique wasn’t any more skilled or effective than the Scizor’s patented ‘looks fine enough’ style, but at least it was faster. “Ya tongue rusted, Ori?” she teased.

“The human isn’t in the process of being settled,” the Scizor explained.

“Why not? Don’t tell me they’re keeping her in that stuffy clinic room forever. Having to spend one night there was already much too long.”

“That hasn’t been settled yet. Today’s scout council meeting will seek to decide on the human’s fate.”

“Oh, fuckin’ come on,” Mikiri whined. The mild profanity was accompanied by a couple more grunts and the most undignified bandage bow to have ever existed, tied awkwardly on top of her front head. “Whatdya mean, ‘not decided’!? Imagine how helpful with all the human tech she could be! We’ve both heard all the rumors about the things their contraptions can do—Geiger there was that thing with having fresh water and electricity everywhere, right?”

“In almost every single one of their buildings, correct.”

“And all the control over electricity they have, and how they make light from it and use it in their devices! OH and that way to weld metal without Fire Fanging! C’mon, I know you’d LOVE that Oriiii!”

The Scizor was now firmly in the territory of ‘very uncomfortable’, anxiously looking all over the scene except at the very fairy presently grilling him. Some of these would indeed be very helpful, especially the more precise tools they’ve heard rumors about humanity having access to.

However, it’s not like there weren’t any concerns and counterarguments to be raised. “I find it difficult to imagine a simple child knowing much about most of these.”

“Even just a little guidance helps! Just somewhere to point us to and get us started, and let us figure stuff out afterwards! C’mon, you’d love it!” she pleaded.

“Mikiri has a point, Ori~.”

The Electivire didn’t need to say much to have the discussion work out heavily in his favor all the same, merely teasing the Scizor as needed. The Mawile knew the metal bug better than anyone else, and the Electric-type thanked whoever was watching for the oftentimes chaotic tinkerer bringing help towards Anne’s cause.

Still, Ori insisted, “That is a very nearsighted way of thinking, Mikiri. The security risks because of the human’s presence here cannot be ignored.”

“Oh, give me a break—if it was really this bad they all would’ve already tossed her over to other humans to deal with and all of y’all would be patrolling our perimeter every single walking minute. And you sure as hell wouldn’t be able to just stand there being a wet rag.”

“I-I told you I should be going.”

“If it was that serious you’d be running already and not waiting for this conversation to die down first either~.”

Ori’s drawn-out, metallic sigh was his only answer, the Scizor unable to come up with any convincing response to his co-tinkerer’s words.

“Get real, Ori,” Mikiri chuckled. “You want more help with figuring out all the human tech, don’t you?”

“...perhaps.”

Now we’re talkin’.”

“Make sure your actions later today reflect that, Ori,” Geiger minded.

Despite some points of the discussion slipping into one ear and out the other, Autumn found it remarkably uplifting overall. Especially when considering Aria’s previous tension about the Steel-type scout. If Mikiri and Geiger really just managed to get Ori on board, that meant they had the seven votes needed to ensure Anne’s safety.

Of course, the Indeedee knew all too well that this was only the absolute minimum of reassurance. That they ought to and would keep on pushing harder, trying to sway people’s opinion, anything to make her safety not just likely, but certain. Still, even this little helped so much, relieving a lot of painful pressure in her shoulders, making her immediately feel several years younger.

Geiger wasn’t done talking yet, however. “Now that we’re done with that... I actually had a question for you two.”

The uncertain tone had Autumn stop mid step, curious enough to hear him out before continuing her march.

“Do... either of you have any thoughts about romantic relations?” he asked. The Indeedee went from interested to momentarily stunned, listening in as closely as she could with her psychics and ears alike as he elaborated, “By which I mean, any ideas about how to discern genuine interest from simple infatuation? I used to think none of this sort of stuff was for me, nowhere near, and now I’m... you could say I’m reconsidering. Just wanting a second opinion on a subject I’m unfamiliar with, is all.”

Despite threatening to catch on fire from all the blush on her cheeks, Autumn kept listening on all her senses. The initial response, to the best of her ability to tell, was... a profoundly confused silence, from both Steel-types. Not the sort of confusion that came from not understanding the words being spoken, but a much deeper, more thorough kind.

“...What?” Mikiri squeaked.

The words made sense, but didn’t translate into anything either of the two were even remotely familiar with.

“Uh, nevermind. Hope your duties go well today.”

Geiger’s departure made the Indeedee leave for real, fluster mixing with barely held in giggling at the tinkerers’ reaction. Hardly the best crowd to be asking for romantic advice, and she knew the Electivire knew that too, but she sure didn’t expect them to just be completely unable to respond. Could be they’ve never loved anyone romantically; could be they never would. There wasn’t anything wrong with that, but it still amused her greatly.

She really needed a chuckle like that.

The elderly psychic finished cooling off after all that, just in time for her to run into some more close faces, each bringing a smile to her face. Sure, Marco was too busy in his chatting to respond with anything beyond a simple wave, but it only made sense considering who he was talking to. He’d mentioned last night that he’d be trying to talk to Lumi the next day, and based on Aria’s experiences, Autumn couldn’t imagine that being a pleasant ordeal in the slightest.

Or that it’d leave both of them as nervous as they were.

However much concern that sight might’ve inspired in her, it was swiftly washed off in just a moment after she turned another corner. “Good morning, Garret!”

She neither had to ask, nor was she opposed in the slightest to her son lifting her up and sitting her on his shoulder for a while as they chatted, the silly antics always making them both laugh. “Hi mom! The kids were still waking up the last I saw them, and figured that I could leave them safely after blowing the fire out.”

“Mhm~! Did you wait until the stew was done boiling?”

“Yes, yes I did, mom...”

The exasperation had the Indeedee giggle as she leaned over closer to her son, around his pointy ear. “Good! Any plans for today?”

“I brought up trying to talk to Max yesterday, and I’m still planning to go through with that.”

Undoubtedly a good idea, and Autumn was sure of that. But... a part of her doubted how much good could actually come from doing that. She couldn’t recall seeing the Meowstic around ever since the news of Anne being in their village spread out on a second thought, the realization chilling her deeply. Of course she couldn’t; why would he do that considering his history with humanity?

That still didn’t make throwing Anne away just to keep one person comfortable an ethical idea, of course.

Talking to likely the most traumatized one by all this would need to happen, eventually. However, the Indeedee doubted whether Garret was the best candidate for that. He was gregarious and friendly, sure, but she worried that any such attempt to chat would only come off as trying to pressure him to support the human whose arrival sparked all this. Which... yeah, it kinda was.

sigh

The things they all had to do to ensure her safety. “I hope it goes well, Garret, though I am a bit... worried.”

“I get it, mom, but I think I know how to approach it all!”

Just had to trust her son, and that much she could do. “I hope so, sweetie.”

With one last embrace, followed by being lowered back onto the ground, Autumn was on her way once more. The clinic was just right ahead, forcing the Indeedee to pause and properly clear her head before proceeding further. Worries or not, Anne needed comfort most of all, and not someone who was as concerned as she herself likely was—

“Auuuutumn!” Lavender’s old, creaky voice caught her attention, signaling a perfect opportunity to cleanse her mind just like that.

She knew much better than to wait for the Grass-type to slowly amble her way over, scooting up to her instead and speaking up right away. “Good morning, Lavender! Got some good news?”

“Pleeeenty. The huuuuman’s shawl is gooooing well! Ready eeeeeven tomorrow!”

As incredibly fast as that was in a vacuum, a bit of Autumn’s heart stung at the realization that even that pace could end up being too slow in the end. “That’s wonderful; thank you so much.”

“Aaaaanytime! Soool finally sloooowed down and left some fluff! Once I’m done with the huuuman’s, then I’ll fix Embeeeeer’s! I remember it being wooorn out in places, and I want to chaaaange it to match with huuuuman’s better!”

Autumn only listened to the news with one ear, the rest of her constantly trying to calm herself down ahead of seeing Anne again. “Sounds like you got a good plan, then.”

“I’ve beeeeen wondering wheeere she is. I knooooocked on her den today, and sheeeee wasn’t home!”

The remark brought another unnerving thought to Autumn’s mind, one arguably much more likely than her earlier fretting. “D-did anyone answer?”

“Yeeeees! Ciiiinder looked awful and diiiidn’t tell me much, but sheeeee answered! Since when do Fiiiiire-types cryyyy?”

The Indeedee sighed in relief at the confirmation of the fox having not run away again, though what followed left a foul taste in her mouth. As much as the elderly Lilligant slowly chuckled to herself at her own joke, Autumn didn’t really like it, especially at what she saw of Ember the day she and Anne reunited.

“I think they always could cry, really. I have to be going now, unfortunately.”

“Nooooo worries! Soon both girls will be all nicely warm and swaddled, I tell yaaaa!”

With the attempted distraction tactic proving unsuccessful, it forced Autumn to go about it the most manual, hard way as she stepped into the clinic’s main chamber. One deep breath, another, then a third still. Things would be alright eventually, and the most she could do for Anne right now was to be a source of comfort for her after all that she’s been through. They’d figure out everything else in time, she was sure of it—

eeeeeeeeeee!

The elated squeak coming from her right barely caught Autumn’s attention at first, though that changed the instant she realized it was aimed very specifically at her. Its source was obvious, hovering above the bed next to the far wall, their eyes gleaming with excitement at seeing her poor ol’ self. She knew very little about Phantump in general, and that went triple for this little one in particular.

It was their first time running into each other; she didn’t even know their name, and yet... her presence made them oddly happy. They must’ve just liked Indeedee, she supposed? Weird, but preferences like these were hardly unusual in the grand scheme of things—for better or worse.

Odd as it was, she waved back, especially since they were clearly a child. Even more excited glee wasn’t what she expected to see or feel in response, but hardly surprising considering their sheer adoration for her. Their waving was... clumsy; arms flailed as if unused to being this small. The Banette sharing a hospital bed with them was just as surprised at all this as Autumn. Their eventual grumble finally made the Phantump float down beside them and ease out into giddy squirming instead.

Autumn sure didn’t expect to see any of this, but couldn’t deny that it made her feel much better. Just what she needed right now.

With one last breath, she stepped into Anne’s room, the sight considerably better than what she feared. Aria sat on the bed’s edge, with both Anne and Ember on her lap in a warm, tight hug. The Indeedee didn’t want to interrupt the moment by speaking, but her arrival alone was enough to make the cuddly bundle separate after several minutes of silence.

Aria was the first to break up the silence, “^Good morning, mom.^”

“^Hello there sweeties. Are you all alright?^”

‘Alright’ was a very tricky term, especially with all three having clearly cried just recently and Anne in particular looking like she was still on the edge of tearing up again.

“~H-hello Mrs. Autumn. I think I’m okay,~” Anne answered, her voice quiet and tired, immediately prompting another embrace from the fox sitting beside her once Aria had finished moving them both off her lap. The warm hug, and the resulting chuckles, did wonders for everyone present, especially as the girl tried her hardest to return the affection afterwards.

And in the meantime... the Gardevoir had a confession to make, in private. “^Mom, I... I promised her she’d be safe with us, no matter what the vote decides.^”

“^Yeah, of course.^”

Autumn’s nonchalant response had Aria raise her eyebrow way high. Her mother-in-law clearly wasn’t getting the full implications of such a promise. “^Even if it requires us to uproot ourselves and leave this village to keep her safe.^”

“^Well... I doubt it’ll come to that even in the worst case, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes,^” the Indeedee responded, shrugging.

Aria didn’t respond for a few moments, busy sorting through thoughts in her mind and trying not to laugh out loud at such a ridiculous, and yet entirely correct, answer. “^I didn’t expect you to take it so lightly, mom.^”

“^Why wouldn’t I? If that’s the only way to ensure her safety, then that’s that.^”

“^What about Cadence and Bell? What about Marco?^”

“^Me and Garret survived on our own long before this village’s existence. We’ll sure as hell make it in an entire group like that.^”

“^I-I meant—wouldn’t that be cruel to them?^”

“^Sure, but it’s not us inflicting that cruelty on them. If your dumb council’s vote forces us to decide between Anne’s safety and your kids’ friends and stability, then that’s their fault. Besides, I sure doubt that Cadence in particular would take well the realization of her comfort having been prioritized above Anne’s entire life...^”

That last idea sent a freezing chill through Aria’s horns, as well as really making her want to hold her biological daughter close. Alas, no time for that until way later in the day, if not until after all the nightmare had been decided. Nothing the Gardevoir couldn’t deal with, of course, but... goodness could she use some of that right now. Would help with her arms shaking as much as they already did.

“^I really hope that after all this is over you’ll take some time off for yourself, sweetie,^” Autumn sighed, concerned.

“^If I get a chance—^”

“^Nah, just do it. Your scout bunch can manage on their own without your presence there, I’m sure of it. If all this works out, if Anne ends up safe, promise me you’ll give yourself the time you need to recover, Aria. Both for her, and much more importantly, for yourself. You can’t keep going with so much stress in you forever, sweetie.^”

Aria wasn’t exactly confident about agreeing, but went ahead and limply nodded her head, anyway. “^I’ll try.^”

“^Good, good. Now, have a good day Aria, and please keep yourself grounded until the vote, alright?^”

“^I-I’ll try mom, promise.^”

“^Love ya, Aria.^”

“^Love you too, mom.^”

With one last telepathic hug, the Gardevoir was finally on her way, leaving Autumn alone in the room with the pair of weary, tired girls. One of which had already lost her fight against her exhaustion, resting on her friend in a gentle, one-armed embrace.

“^Holding up well, Anne?^” the Indeedee asked, upbeat mental voice piercing the gloomy atmosphere. She lifted herself onto the bed with her green psychics, sitting down beside Anne.

The girl answered, “~I think so, M—Autumn.~”

“^Heheh, if you’d really prefer using ‘Mrs.’ every time, then sure, go ahead. I just told you that you didn’t have to.^”

“~I-I know, it’s just... h-how I’m used to when talking to adults. I’ve always had to use either ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ with everyone, and it just... comes naturally to me,~” Anne explained.

“^Nobody else you could talk with in a more natural way?^”

“~Not since my grandma, n-no...~”

All the Indeedee could offer was comfort, and that’s what she did shortly after. Her shorter stature made it hard to hold too much of the girl’s body, especially with her holding from her left side, but nothing a bit of telekinesis couldn’t help with. “^I’m so sorry to hear. Well, whether it’s ‘Mrs. Autumn’ or just ‘Autumn’, I’m here for you both, and will be watching over you today.^”

Anne took the news with a soft smile, leaning in closer. “~Thank you, Mrs. Autumn. I... don’t really know what to do now. I doubt I’m in the right mood for drawing after what we talked about with Aria, and I don’t want to bore you by taking a nap—~”

“^Don’t you worry about me, sweetie~. If you’re tired, then feel free to snooze, you’ve got a lot on your plate tonight.^”

“~I d-don’t think I am, that’s the—~”

rustle, rustle, rustle

Both the psychic and the human looked up at the entrance to their room, expecting to see either a healer wanting to check up on Anne, or Cadence & co. to keep her company.

They turned out to be neither.

So was the second person who ran in, then the third, and the fourth; Anne left reeling back in an equal mix of surprise and uncertainty. All the while, Autumn’s expression grew ever flatter with each of the unexpected guests. And then; they all finally noticed her.

“M-Mrs. Autumn!?” Zephyr squeaked, breaking out of the group’s stupor at having ran away from class to see the oh-so-mysterious human, only to run into their teacher sitting there with them. Lacking any words, the Stunky turned to the rest of the group, who didn’t fare much better.

Blossom wasn’t as shocked as the others, but still doubted all this would reflect well on her in the slightest. The Dartrix shook in worry as she looked anywhere but at her teacher. Mint’s startle was palpable to the senses in more than one way, prompting Autumn to quickly put up a Safeguard bubble around the Gloom, doing her best to make it let sound through without doing the same with scent.

“What are you doing here, Mrs. Autumn?” Grace asked, the only one to lack the clear worry that filled the rest of the group, replaced almost entirely with modest confusion. Whether it was caused by the Zangoose being blissfully unaware of the mistake they had made, or just not caring about it, Autumn wasn’t sure.

Still, it was a fair question, and deserved a fair answer. “^I’m looking after Anne here for today. Guessing you all finally got curious enough to want to visit her in person?^”

As sudden as the kiddo’s entrance was, ultimately it was both harmless, and potentially even helpful for acclimatizing the village to the human’s presence further. Of course, that depended on what did said human have to say about it, still processing the group’s appearance one member at a time. Blossom was a familiar and very welcomed sight, of course, but the rest... well... they probably would be all nice too, when it came down to it.

Without a clear idea of what to do now, Anne simply greeted them all with as confident of a wave as she could force out of herself. Which meant ‘barely at all’, but it still beat doing nothing, especially when combined with equally shaky words. “~H-hello.~”

“Hi, Anne!” Blossom chirped, wasting no time before flying right up and onto the nearest surface that she could stand on.

Namely, Anne’s knee.

Despite all the scary, sharp looking talons, it proved to not be painful at all, leaving Anne’s reactions at just a startle, which then thawed into an amused giggle moments later. With Ember still firmly asleep, Anne slid her arm from around the foxie and reached it out beside the Dartrix.

Said owl interpreting the gesture as an excuse to nestle into her front wasn’t expected, but it sure wasn’t unwelcome. “~Hey, B-Blossom!~”

The rest of the newcomer group wasn’t certain how to react to such a sudden display of affection. Most of them just took the sights in for now, everything about how one of the scary and strange humans looked like. Autumn’s lesson proved accurate in the end—sheer height aside, Anne really didn’t look even slightly threatening, sure not with how lanky her build was.

Mrs. Aria at least had an excuse of being a powerful psychic to make up for that.

Some needed more time to really notice Anne’s full appearance than others, though. “...how are you so tall?” the Gloom asked, sounding as surprised as someone speaking this slowly was capable of. His question left others uncertain about how to respond, since... yeah, Anne was tall. Really tall if her telepathically translated voice, sounding just as young as the group that had just visited her, was anything to go by.

However, this wasn’t the sort of question there really existed an answer to, forcing Anne to come up with an equally silly response. “~...how are you so short?~”

At least the other kids found it funny, if their held-in chuckles were any sign.

“^Now now, let’s not ask these kinds of questions to each other,^” Autumn chided. “^Humans just are rather tall, and Gloom just are rather short, it’s as simple as that.^”

Both Anne and Mint mumbled out something that vaguely translated to ‘sorry’ as they looked away from each other, forcing someone else to pick up the topic—and someone else did. “Oh oh, Anne, can I show them that nice drawing you made of me?” Blossom asked, taking the human out of any funk she might’ve started falling into before it could get too bad.

An affirmative answer made the Dartrix fly over to the clearly human bag with glee in her voice as she tried spotting where Anne had left it. Even despite her eyesight being magnitudes better than everyone else’s in the room combined, the ‘notebook’ was nowhere to be seen, leaving Anne to speak up eventually—

“~Oh, it’s not in the bags, it’s...~”

The human opted to show rather than try to describe. After carefully laying down Ember on her back, Anne scooted over to the other side of the bed and started digging underneath the fluffy, mattress-like bedding, reaching her hand all the way to her elbow before finally finding what she was looking for and pulling it out.

For once, not even Autumn had any idea about why Anne had done that. Most gathered didn’t dwell on that confusing display for too long, especially not the owl most giddy to show off Anne’s artistry to others, but... most didn’t mean ‘all’.

“Why did you keep it buried like that?” the Stunky asked. His voice was boyish, slightly younger than Anne’s, and had a perplexing mix of confident delivery and a slight wobble to their voice all the same. That wasn’t even what Anne really focused on, though, only now realizing how unusual what she’d just shown was and putting her in a somewhat awkward situation.

Not even something she did consciously, but... oh well. “~I, uh, f-force of habit.~”

“But why?” Zephyr continued, realizing how little Anne’s response really explained.

“~U-umm—~”

“^Zephyr, it’s not nice to be digging into people’s behavior like that,^” Autumn reminded.

Her words helped, but Anne wasn’t satisfied with that diversion. The question was valid, even if the answer to it wasn’t... pretty. “~N-no, it’s fine, I’m... I’m used to my pa—people breaking or taking my stuff if I leave it in the open like this...~”

This answer too clarified little, but its implications were at least much clearer to sense this time. As were the obvious follow-up questions of ‘who’ and ‘why’. For all his prior brashness, Zephyr seemed to know better than to keep prying. Instead, he got up from his precious spot and... laid down beside Anne’s legs once she’d returned to her previous position, as if to look after her.

Aww.

Blossom wasn’t far behind, either. Even before she was done flipping the pages over to the one with her likeness, she hopped over and roosted beside the weary human. Her nuzzled affection wasn’t as soft or as warm as Ember’s, but it was appreciated all the same.

“~I’ll be alright, d-don’t worry...~” Anne tried to reassure.

“I’m sorry others messed with your things, Anne,” the Dartrix comforted. Her concern was well-intended, but somewhat misplaced. Oh, if only it had been as quaint as ‘others’ messing up with just her ‘things’.

If only.

“It won’t happen again under my watch!” Zephyr chimed in, leaving her unsure how to respond. As nice as it felt knowing that someone here downright wanted to look after her like that, it really wasn’t her immediate concern. And that’s beside the point that a skilled psychic was much better suited for that task than a Stunky whose perspective was around one foot off the ground.

Still, the gesture was appreciated all the same, making Anne hold the owlet closer and smile down at the lil’ Dark-type in absence of any way of returning his concern beyond... petting him with her foot. She had no idea how well that’d be received here, but preferred not to risk it all the same. “~Thanks, heh.~”

“Anytime!”

Silly as it might’ve been, Zephyr’s conviction still made Anne feel quite nice.

“D-do you still want me to show off your drawings?” Blossom asked.

Anne answered with a light chuckle and a firm nod of her glasses-clad face. Blossom wasted no time scrambling herself out of the affection and showing off the nicest depiction of herself anyone had ever made once she found the right page. She flew around the room, trying to hover in front of all her friends with the notebook in her talons, letting them all get a good look.

The reactions ranged from being solidly impressed, to being uncertain of how much they should be impressed, to a lack of any response whatsoever because of their attention having been captured by something else.

“What’s that on your face?” the Zangoose asked, the question delivered in a flat, creaky, and yet feminine voice.

It took both Anne and Blossom out of left field somewhat. The human girl guessed some would find glasses to be much more interesting than some mediocre sketches made by a wannabe ‘artist’ with no actual knowledge or practice...

Trying to shake back that source of self-loathing before it could germinate further, Anne slid her glasses off and showed them off, “~Th-these are my glasses. They help me see, and I’m almost blind without them.~”

Anne looked around the room to emphasize her explanation. An all-consuming blob of various shades of brown, and several vaguely defined colorful smudges strewn across it. Just enough to see where everyone was, but if not for Anne already knowing their species, she would have little idea what she was looking at. The lack of focus soon made her eyes tear up and forced her to put her glasses back on.

“How bad is your sight?” Grace continued. Her question was blunt, sure, but that didn’t bother Anne as much as her being unsure how to answer it. ‘-7.5 diopters’ was as helpful an answer in an optometrist’s office, as it was utterly useless here.

And that was assuming it was still accurate. It’s been a couple years since she’d gone to get her prescription with her grandma, who knew if her eyes hadn’t gotten any worse since then. Even the very glasses she wore were long past their prime, and she had to occasionally ‘tweak’ them with pliers to keep them fitting on her head as she grew.

Thankfully, neither the Zangoose nor anyone else here really cared about any precise measurement, letting Anne answer appropriately vaguely once she’d realized that. “~Really, really bad. Bad enough t-to make you look like a white and reddish blob without them on.~”

The Zangoose tilted her head. “Do all humans see this badly?”

“It would be much easier to keep ourselves h-hidden if they did!” Zephyr chuckled, helping Anne avoid responding to such a silly question herself, the resulting amusement releasing a fair bit of tension around the room. Guess as opposed as she was to it previously, she still could give petting him with a foot a try.

Coordinating the body part in question was tricky, but surprisingly doable. She started just behind the Stunky’s ears, petting across his entire back. Well-worn socks didn’t make for the nicest material to be delivering affection through, but—much to her relief—the Stunky really didn’t care about such trivialities.

What mattered is that it felt really nice.

“How do these help you see?” Blossom asked. Her question was nowhere near as rude as Grace’s, but it wasn’t any easier to answer, unfortunately. Anne thought through how she’d even explain her specs’ functionality to the assorted kids, especially with her previous attempt at doing so ending up accomplishing nothing more than bringing further confusion to Aria and Autumn.

She supposed a different way of describing it could work, a more inaccurate but more evocative one? Hopefully. “~They fix your sight if it’s already bad, but if it’s good, they make it worse.~”

The rest of the group took the explanation in without many complaints—though not the Dartrix herself. “But hoooooow?”

“~They... sigh, th-they curve light.~”

“Wow... how do they—”

“Can I look through them?” Grace cut in.

Anne was immensely unsure how to respond—she wasn’t opposed to others looking through them in principle, but... probably not when it involved the only thing that let her see being handled by paws with claws the size of knives. If only there was a way—

“^I’ll help sweetie, don’t worry,^” Autumn reassured.

The human nodded as the Indeedee carefully hovered her specs around, taking a couple of attempts each time to orient them the right way before letting each of the kids take a peek through them. Most of them went as expected—brief headaches, expressions of disbelief, confusion about how something that they can’t see through at all can help anyone regain their sight at all.

Exactly the same step-by-step list that happened each time she showed them off to human audiences in the past. Guess humans and mons really weren’t that different, heh—

“...ooooh. I see more of you now, I think,” the Gloom mumbled.

...

Everyone gathered looked stunned at Mint, though only Anne really knew what his admission meant. “~O-oh. Seems you’re n-nearsighted too?~”

“...near-what?”

“~You see f-far away things much worse than close things.~”

“...oh. Yeah.”

The nonchalance with which the Gloom had acknowledged Anne’s impromptu diagnosis took the girl aback a bit. Definitely not how she had reacted to her first glasses... probably. She was too young to remember when that had happened. “~Looks like you c-could use a pair of glasses y-yourself, heheh...~”

“...why? I’m doing okay,” Mint responded, puzzled.

His words were even more confusing than his previous tone, leaving the two kids at somewhat of an awkward impasse. Anne eventually muttered, “~But—wouldn’t you wanna see better?~”

“...maybe. Everyone helps me when I can’t see something. It’s not a problem.”

“~Y-yeah, that wouldn’t work in h-human world... really hard t-to get around if you see as bad as I normally do.~”

“Isn’t seeing close things better than far away things normal?”

Zephyr’s question was appreciated for the change in topic it brought with itself. Diagnosis of visual issues wasn’t usually a fun subject, but it sure beat thinking about how the world from which she hailed from could only accommodate her if she ‘fixed’ herself to be in line with regular people.

“~Yes, b-but it’s really bad for me. I-I had my sight tested—~”

“How do you even test sight?” Grace asked, tilting her head.

“~Oh, many ways!~” Anne perked up. “~There’s the test where you have to read smaller and smaller symbols and at s-some point they’re too small to make out. O-or in my case I had them tested with a laser!~”

The Indeedee asked, “^What is a ‘laser’, Anne?^”

“~It’s, umm—it’s like a lot of light packed into a very narrow beam.~”

“...is it like Flash Cannon?” Mint asked.

“~Wh-what?~”

The term rang some distant bell in Anne’s mind, but not much beyond that. It sure sounded like a name someone would give to a move, and she probably overheard it from one of father’s league binges once or twice, but she had absolutely no idea what it looked like or what it did. Considering it was a move, though, the answer to the question of ‘what it did’ almost always ended up being ‘mayhem’. “~N-no, no, not a move. If I had my eyes t-tested with it, it probably would’ve t-taken my entire head with it, h-heh...~”

To Anne’s immediate concern, either nobody got her joke, or nobody found it funny, since the expressions around the room were much more shocked than amused.

Thankfully, Mint was there to help change the subject once more, “...so it’s Electric-type then?”

Hardly a question the girl could answer, either. She supposed that thinking of everything in terms of types made much more sense for a mon than it does for a human, but it wasn’t a mindset she knew how to get into, especially when already feeling put on the spot. She supposed it was only fair to admit that, then. “~I don’t know. M-most things in the human world don’t really fit into neat ‘types’ l-like that.~”

“...doesn’t everything have a type?”

“~I was t-taught that humans don’t have any types and that we aren’t even Normal-type. L-like, what type is something a-as simple as the sun, for example?~”

“Psychic.” / “...Fire.” / “Fairy?” / “E-electric!”

Four voices arriving at four entirely different conclusions immediately shifted the mood from mild shock at Anne’s claim about humans being typeless, to all the kids looking at each other with surprise and confusion. The human couldn’t even get a word in edge-wise before an argument broke out, the sort that she had absolutely no way, or desire, to contribute to.

Grace argued, “Can’t be Electric, doesn’t glow like a lightning bolt.”

“...no way it’s Fairy, or it’d hurt all the Dark-types!” Mint insisted.

“If it was Psychic, all the psychics would feel it every single day!” Zephyr pointed out.

“How c-could it be Fire?” Blossom asked. “It’s glowing and not burning!”

The disagreement quickly devolved into an all-out, no holds barred shouting match between the four. Thankfully, Blossom at least hopped off the bed before joining the rest of her friends in their deep, philosophical discussion. Anne, meanwhile, was somewhere between stunned and wanting to collapse underground at accidentally sparking it all.

Autumn was laughing her lungs out.

All the combined chaos was loud enough to stir Ember out of her exhaustion nap and straight into Anne’s good arm. The vixen was taken aback at seeing so many of her classmates here all of a sudden, but wasn’t any more eager to get into such a pointless discussion than her human. What she did do, though, was join in on Autumn’s continued giggling. Anne laughed along once she’d gotten over her embarrassment, the two girls leaning on each other as any remaining tension quickly evaporated.

The evening would be scary and who knew what would happen, but for now, they had each oth—

Right as Anne was about to finish calming down, though, everyone gathered heard yet another laughter join them. Whispering, rustling, very girlish and coming from right behind them. It made the laughing trio stop and look around in confusion, their combined gaze soon stumbling onto the Phantump from the next room over, floating a couple of feet above Autumn.

They said something upbeat and amused when noticed, but almost nobody understood them. Instead, all the laughter suddenly ending made the rambling quartet call a ceasefire in their argument in case something bad had happened; their shared focus was soon also drawn to the stray ghost.

Way too much of way too sudden attention for the little one. They let out a frightful squeak, and dove behind the Indeedee, using her to hide from the other kids. She chuckled, “^Teehee, someone’s got a few too many eyes on herself, hasn’t she? Here, let me just link you up and—Anne?^”

Just beside Autumn, Anne stared at the Phantump so close to her, aghast. Before anyone could ask her what was wrong,

She spoke.

“~How are you speaking Unovan?~”​



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Chapter 23: Trauma


Chapter 23: Trauma



CONTENT WARNING: Death, Hate Speech, Mild Gore

The silence filling the clinic room lingered for a while as everyone either processed, or tried to process the implications of Anne’s realization. Autumn’s eyes went wide after just a moment as it all clicked for her, but others were much less successful—and that included Sage.

“~Huh?~” the Phantump muttered. As astonished as this human was at something, she couldn’t quite piece together what it was exactly. She recognized the last word the girl had said from somewhere, but not what it meant, leading her to tilt her head a bit. “~Wh-what do you mean?~”

Anne didn’t expect that reaction in the slightest. It made her doubt her own observation for a moment before she shook it aside. Regardless of whether they understood her, they still clearly spoke Unovan, and almost certainly used to be a human—used to.

Maybe they just didn’t remember what ‘Unovan’ meant? Not a word most used often in their daily lives, very few people spoke anything other than it after all, at least outside of large cities. Ultimately, though, none of that truly mattered. What mattered is that Anne felt both concerned and sorry for the ghost child in front of her, and wanted to help them somehow.

And that required them to meet each other first. “~Umm... nevermind. Hi, m-my name is Anne! What’s yours?~”

Thankfully, the human’s meeting had the desired result. Her understandable voice, unknowingly made even more so with Autumn’s help, was friendly and warm, something Sage couldn’t get enough of. After shaking some of her previous shock, she hovered over closer and spoke up again, her words much more upbeat this time, “~I’m Sage! Nice to meet you, Anne!~”

The ghost’s greeting clarified two things in Anne’s mind, one much more harrowing than the other. They were obviously a girl, and clearly a young one at that, younger than even her. The slight distortion when Sage spoke made it difficult to estimate exactly how old she sounded, but she couldn’t have been older than seven or eight years old.

“Hello, Sage!” Ember woofed, taking the hauntling aback—but only for a moment.

In no time, Sage had hovered over to the firefox and introduced herself to her too—and then the rest of the room. Each of her greetings was warmer and more energetic than the last, all the pleasant interactions only making her more eager towards having more and more of them. She was rather skittish when talking to Grace in particular, though, which Anne... couldn’t blame her for.

A nice—if slightly blunt—Zangoose was still a Zangoose after all, and even the older girl would need a lot more exposure before she could finish reclassifying the sight from ‘run away NOW’ to ‘person’. She knew full well that broad categorizations like that helped nobody, but they lingered in her mind, whether she liked that fact or not. She might as well take them head-on and work through them instead of pretending they aren’t a thing.

Autumn ended up being the last person to meet the ghostie, still rather stunned. Enough so to make Sage speak up and ask if there was something wrong, making the Indeedee lightly shake her head and offer the lil’ one a hug. One gladly taken—surprisingly so, considering Sage’s previous skittishness. The most welcome kind of ‘surprisingly’.

As the situation in the room calmed down enough for the visiting kids to gradually drift back towards chattering among themselves and for Anne to come to terms with this Phantump some two feet away from her being a dead girl, the human heard a familiar voice in her head. It was clearly Autumn’s, but... slightly muffled, its contents quickly clarifying why that was. “^Anne, do you... have any ideas about how we could help Sage? Oh—just focus on words in your mind and I’ll pick them up, no need to speak out loud.^”

It was an excellent question, which Anne had barely any idea how to answer.

She half-heartedly nodded as she tried to really think through the implications of her revelation, their combined tragedy soon boring a pit in her stomach. This was just a little girl, someone’s child, and now she was dead and presumably very, very far from home. The underlying surprise of a Phantump being a former human was there, but it was hardly important enough to merit anything more than an off-handed acknowledgement.

The past few days have made it very clear that mons weren’t anywhere near as different from pe—humans as everything in Anne’s life had tried to teach her. Why would they and humans be any different when it came to coming back as ghosts? Why would humanity be spared from that horror?

As Anne kept thinking, further unpleasant realizations followed, with some of them aimed at nobody but herself. She was right, Sage was just a little girl, someone’s child, and so far away from her family. And all that would’ve been just as true even if she’d been a Pidove, or a Patrat, or any other species in her past life, too.

She had enough grip on herself in that moment to not let herself be dragged into the pit of self-loathing, not this time, but the self-awareness still stung. She eventually thought, “^How could we help her? I’m... I’m not sure. I suppose knowing what had happened to her would be helpful, but I can’t imagine that being comfortable for her to think about, and I don’t know if our curiosity will do her any good.^”

Autumn acknowledged Anne’s words with a light nod as she blankly stared into the nearby wall, her paws thoughtlessly petting Sage’s wooden shell. The Indeedee was too distracted by her own thoughts to notice the unpleasantness swirling around Anne’s mind, but Ember didn’t have that obstacle. No matter what exactly had soured her best friend’s mind, she still wanted to swat it out.

And there were few better antidotes to Anne’s anguish than the firefox’s soft warmth filling her lap and pressing itself into her front.

As Ember dispensed affection, Autumn responded, “^I think it could help a lot, though. Even if there’s only so much we could do with that knowledge, we might find out how to comfort her more, or whether there’s some dangerous predator nearby some of our scouts could deal with. Of course, all that only if Sage wants to talk about it. I’d loathe to put her through even more pain than she’d already been through.^”

The Indeedee’s response had Anne shudder slightly as she petted Ember’s back with her one functional hand; the thought of the younger girl having been hunted down deeply terrifying. Unsurprising—this was the wilderness after all, and every single human kid has had it drilled into them that venturing into the woods was very dangerous—but still terrifying.

Suppose this rationalization made sense, especially if it could lead to the village becoming safer overall. This was all miserable, and her eyes were rather damp even just from thinking about it, but they could figure something out for the lil’ ghostie—they had to.

A further downturn in the mood earned Anne even more warm affection from the Braixen, slowly melting through the worst of her worries. Ember wasn’t entirely sure about the specifics of what Anne and Autumn were talking about, but she agreed with their drive wholeheartedly. “M-mhm!”

The Braixen’s woofed affirmation had Sage look over at her confused, much to the fox’s amusement. Unsure how to respond verbally, she recalled a cute human gesture Anne used to show to her, trying her hardest to curl her fingers into a rough shape of a heart. Scuffed as her attempt at conveying the symbol was, it was nonetheless understood by the recipient, lighting up the Phantump’s expression and prompting her to try returning it.

To no success, but fortunately, that didn’t demotivate her too much—especially with someone else stepping up in curiosity. “Th-that’s a cool name, Sage!” Blossom chirped.

Her greeting wasn’t the most well thought out in the world, but it succeeded at catching the ghostly girl’s attention all the same. And then, startling her at the realization that the Dartrix was standing some four inches away from her and had flown over entirely silently. Which then startled the owlet, not expecting such a drastic reaction; the two left unsure how to respond.

Zephyr caught just enough of the exchange to break into chittering giggling, almost making Blossom speak up at him in a mix of slight fluster and equally mild annoyance—only to be cut off by someone else stepping into the room.

“Alright everyone, you’ll have to get out for a moment to give the human some space. It’s time to change their bandages,” the unfamiliar voice explained; simultaneously a brief burst of buzzing with several clicking noises interspersed in it and a middle-aged lady mustering out all the patience she had available.

Anne perked up at the sight—she had seen the Leavanny that had just walked in a couple more times by now, but never heard her speak with a provided translation. And as important as having her bandages and cast changed was, the thought that everyone would have to get out of the room because of her was an unpleasant one. Then again, forcing them to sit through what almost certainly was a gory sight didn’t sit right with her, either.

Maybe the nurse could just lower the curtain around the bed again and shield them from having to see it that way. “~U-um—no no, you don’t have to leave,~” Anne responded. Her words stunned the Leavanny, both because of being translated for the first time, and for defying her guidance in such a blatant way. Before the bushbug’s surprise could turn to annoyance—or worse, anger—Anne continued, hoping to clarify, “~W-would it be possible for the curtains to get lowered again s-so that those who want to stay can just hop on the bed?~”

Now that was a much more understandable idea, if still rather silly. Though, if the patient was comfortable with it, then the Leavanny supposed she could let it slide. “Sure. Alright everyone, you best get over there or get ready to see some blood. And you... u-um...”

“~’Anne’?~”

“Yes, Anne. Sorry. Lay down here. You’ll have to move, Autumn.”

The room erupted into a fair bit of chaos as the mantis nurse got ready and prepared everything needed to reapply a fresh cast. Anne’s still-aching body appreciated getting to lie down again; most shifted further away from Anne’s injured arm to avoid the gruesome sight—but surprisingly, not everyone. Of her guests, only Blossom did, leaving the other three behind to watch what was underneath all the thick bandages in a mix of morbid curiosity and... regular curiosity.

“First, I’ll need to numb the arm again,” the Leavanny explained. “Can you—”

Anne was familiar enough with the procedure to know what to do now, pulling back what remained of her sleeve to expose as much of her shoulder as she could, and stuck it out for better access. The eagerness of the gesture took the Leavanny aback, but not for long, especially as the surprise turned into appreciation for cooperating. “Thank you, Anne. This will sting a bit. Hopefully, it hasn’t been too painful for you in the past.”

“~No, not at all!~”

Even despite her knowing exactly what would happen, the touch of the nurse’s leafy limbs on her bare skin took Anne aback. She didn’t have the time to react further before it was followed by a quick, barely noticeable sting, and then... blissful nothingness. The muted aching in her left arm wasn’t bad enough to leave Anne agonized, but having it be suddenly removed still brought a wave of immense relief. “~Ohhh... th-thank you, umm... nurse.~”

“Name’s Maple. And... you’re very welcome, dear. I’m really glad you’ve been cooperative.”

Whatever hesitation there might’ve been once Anne had first spoken up was now entirely gone. Maple’s words were as confident as they got, and that extended to her actions. Bit by bit, she peeled the cast off, making the girl shudder despite the lack of any associated pain. Nothing but a slight cold chill, and the unpleasant, wet sounds every once in a while.

She was so, so glad she didn’t have to see all the gory details—something the ones that elected to stay behind the curtain couldn’t say.

“...ohh, ewww. Wh-why’s there so much blood...” the Gloom mumbled.

Anne didn’t like the implications of these words one bit.

“Pfffft, most of us are full of blood, Mint,” Maple chuckled. “It’s really only us Grasses, Steel-types, and Ghosts that are the exception to that—and some rocks, too, I suppose. In almost everyone else, there’s a lot of this stuff when taken together.”

The nurse’s answer was helpful in explaining the Gloom’s surface-level confusion, but did little to help with the underlying disgust. As Maple continued to take the cast apart, the Poison-type’s obvious discomfort got louder and louder, culminating in a dry heave, soft steps toward the room’s entrance, and the rustle of the canvas flap being violently pulled aside.

“Gnarly,” the Zangoose commented. She sounded more bored than the human would’ve ever suspected anyone to react to the presumed sight. A few moments later, she continued, genuine surprise filling her voice for the first time today, “Wait, where’d he—Mint! Where’d you go?” And then, the noises of her leaving the room.

Over on the other side of the curtain, Anne was managing rather well. Ember had snuggled up to her almost immediately after she laid down. Fortunately for everyone involved, Sage didn’t try looking through the flimsy barrier separating her from a sight nobody her age should ever witness. Instead, she slowly gathered the courage to join the very comfy Braixen before Zephyr spoke up, making her jump, “Wow, I... I’m really glad I don’t have to see this in the wild.”

Everyone in the room, aside from Anne and Sage, agreed strongly with that observation, even without seeing the bloody mess being referenced. The Phantump didn’t quite figure out what they meant, but the human did, shuddering at the thought of anyone present here having to hunt other living beings for survival.

Only the most natural thing in the world, only absolutely horrific.

“Indeed, Zephyr, indeed. So... Anne. I think I remember you using your arms a lot,” Maple chimed in, snapping Anne out of any growing warmth-induced drowsiness.

The girl first nodded, and then clarified once she remembered that Maple couldn’t see her, “~Y-yes, I use them all the time.~”

“It’s gonna be a long while until your arm is all well again, sadly,” the Leavanny sighed. “We can Heal Pulse all we want, but grave injuries like this still take a while to mend. And then I’m unsure how much you’ll be able to use it even after it’s done recovering. I think I remember seeing some nerves being damaged too...”

The thought of her injury being potentially permanent sent a pang of fear through Anne’s body. It stirred Autumn out of her thoughtful mood enough to scramble along to the human and try to join in on the comfort as the girl responded, “~I-I see. Th-thankfully my other hand is the dominant one, I’ll live...~”

Maple asked, confused, “‘Dominant’?”

The question took Anne aback—and behind the human’s line of sight, Autumn, too. She supposed it was just a human thing, one she’d be glad to explain in that case. “~It’s uh, it’s when you’re much b-better at using one hand than the other. L-like, I can draw and write with my right hand, but have no idea how I would do it with the other one.~”

“^Really?^” the Indeedee lifted her eyebrow. “^I would’ve thought these sorts of skills would work with both arms.^”

“~No, they don’t, n-not for me at least.~”

“I can’t imagine b-being better at using one wing than the other, heheh...” Blossom giggled.

Her comment was amusing, but it also got Anne thinking. That made sense, with birds having one wing be stronger than the other would make it impossible for them to fly straight, and much the same was probably true for quadrupeds. Which left bipeds—and even then, only some of them, judging by Autumn’s confusion.

“Is that a human thing?” Maple asked.

“~I-I think so, Mrs. Maple.~”

“No, it’s not!” Ember woofed in, taking everyone else aback—especially with the topic in question sounding so human. “I h-have that too! I only use my left hand for my wand.”

“~Are you left-handed?~” Sage asked. The Braixen first paused as she double checked whether that word meant what she thought it did, before eagerly agreeing, lighting the hauntling’s spirits. “~Ooooo, that’s cool! I’m right-handed.~”

The Phantump waved both her arms for emphasis, without a visible difference in how well she could move them. Could be that ‘dominant’ hand thing didn’t show up when waving, could be that she just wasn’t ‘right-handed’ anymore. A neat, and somehow-not-entirely-human fact in either case.

The Leavanny continued, “Well, at least I’m glad that this won’t impact you as much as it would if it was the other arm. There’s something else I’ve been curious about, if you don’t mind.”

“~S-sure.~”

Anne felt her shoulder getting lightly pulled all around and exactly nothing below it, but the steadily decreasing coldness implied that Maple was applying the new cast. It wasn’t anything uncomfortable, but the sooner she could move freely again, the better.

“When you first got here, I saw a few of these small, round burn scars on your arms and had no idea what to make of them. All I could figure out was that they must’ve been here even before your accident. What had caused them?”

Well-meaning as the question was, it immediately sent a shudder through the girl’s body and the minds of the two nearby psychics. The answer was straightforward and horrible in equal measure, and exactly nobody wanted Anne to have to push herself through putting words to a disgusting, horrifying truth. Still, the girl tried, “~I-it’s f-from... f-from—~”

“^Her human parents inflicted these onto her, and it won’t happen again,^” Autumn asked for her, voice steadfast and not permitting even the slightest consideration of pursuing this topic any further.

It was rather unlike her, taking the Leavanny aback, but she wasn’t about to argue with something this clearly unpleasant. “I see. I’m... very sorry to hear, Anne. Alright, I think I’m done here. I will pull up the curtain now.”

The mix of Braixen warmth and a gentle psychic hug embracing much of her body helped Anne brace herself for the sight that awaited her—a thankfully tame sight. Her arms were wrapped in layers upon layers of reinforced silk, some of it still fresh enough to glisten. No blood on either her shoulder or on the couple fingertips that stuck out of the cast, but... the scene wasn’t without its gory parts, with Maple taking her time before carrying what remained on the previous cast out. So, so red on the inside...

It was nauseating, and not just for Anne. “S-sorry Anne I have to go-umph—”

Before the girl could even finish turning her head, Blossom was gone through the magically safeguarded window, leaving everyone still present hoping Dartrix hadn’t gotten too sick. Ember fared better, and Sage was thankfully too distracted by staring at the stick in the fox’s tail to notice, needing a long while to realize that both the owlet and the mantis were now gone.

Wanting to drag herself away from all that unpleasantness, Anne wasted no time before sitting back up and turning towards Sage. Anything to get her own condition out of her mind, and there was no better way to do that than to contribute to something genuinely helpful. “~Hey, Sage?~”

The hauntling’s “~Hmm?~” had her looking all around the room, confusion creeping onto her wooden face at the surroundings yet again having shifted. So much more change here than in the uniform mix of white snow and black trees outside...

Anne continued, “~S-so... me and Autumn were curious about where you came from, a-and if you remember it.~” Contrary to the worst of her fears, Sage didn’t immediately break into tears. In fact, she took the request very calmly; one spectral hand gently patted the bottom of her shell as she tried to think back.

Which sadly didn’t mean her introspective efforts would amount to much, however. “~I... d-don’t remember. I’ve only been walking through the forest with Mr. Yaksha and sometimes sleeping.~”

The unfamiliar name caught everyone’s attention, Anne continuing shortly, “~’Mr. Yaksha’? Who is he?~”

“~He’s a friend! He found me when I was all alone and has been protecting me! He’s a bit angry sometimes, but really nice!~”

As glad as everyone gathered was to hear that the little one didn’t have to brave the wilderness alone, the latter remark caught the attention of Anne and Autumn in particular, neither of them liking it. The human asked, “~Did he ever... d-do anything to you?~”

“~Nooooo! I said he’s nice, he’s just... uh... often not happy and talks little and sometimes gets angry, but never at me!~”

“^Hmm... ‘rough’?^” Autumn chimed in.

“~Y-yeah! He’s my friend, and I wish he was happy.~”

“~I-I hope he will be when he sees you having fun with us! What species is he?~”

“~Oh?~”

Once more, a term Sage was unfamiliar with, forcing Anne to restate her question. “~Wh-what does he look like?~”

“~He’s this big, and gray all around, and has these silly teeth that open.~”

The mental image of ‘teeth that open’ brought varying levels of discomfort to everyone gathered, but the human had a hunch about what it meant. “~D-do they open from the side and are golden?~”

“~Golden?~”

“~Yellow.~”

“~Yeah!~”

“~So he’s a Banette?~”

While Autumn realized she’d seen one of these earlier right beside Sage, the Phantump herself got... a bit confused. She didn’t remember knowing that word, but the more she thought about it, the more something came back to her recollection, eventually culminating in a shaky nod. “~Y-yeah, I think so.~”

The confirmation left Anne uneasy, in turn. All she’d ever heard associated with that species was immense cruelty and pure hatred, and to hear of one that had been apparently looking after this little ghost girl was... unexpected. Still, clearly yet another bigoted human myth, she was well aware—

“^Wouldn’t have thought one of them would ever make for a protector,^” Autumn commented.

...or not just human this time.

Anne chuckled to herself, relieving some of the steadily building tension. As casual as their chat had been so far, Anne was almost certain it wouldn’t remain so for much longer. One deep breath, another, time to continue. “~I’m glad to hear he’s been looking a-after you. Do you remember what happened... before that?~”

As predicted, Sage’s body language grew more uncomfortable almost immediately. Anne didn’t know what to do, but Ember’s wordless affection was eagerly accepted and appreciated. It was the most pleasant thing the Phantump had ever experienced, making her only bury herself further into the fluff. It didn’t look like she’d be giving an answer to this particular question. Anne and Autumn alike mulled through where to take this chat next—

But then; Sage clumsily turned around, and responded, “~I... I d-don’t remember much. I know I-I used to be something else, b-but... I don’t know what. All I remember is laughter and my head hurting so, so much and it always makes me scared and I want to know what happened and—~”

Anne’s hug wasn’t anywhere near as comforting as that of the Braixen, but it was just as well received, especially with the human pulling in both the ghostie and the fox she was snuggling into in one fell swoop. Autumn wasn’t far behind either, focusing more on the situation around her now that they’ve both figured out a lead, and made sure that the lil’ ghost was interested in being helped.

As the part Grass-type slowly calmed down, others listened in to the commotion happening beside them. Stunky weren’t particularly well suited to climbing anything even close to vertical, but that didn’t mean Zephyr wouldn’t give it his best effort. Eventually, he’d made enough holes in the bedding to pull himself up onto it, and approached the cuddle pile. “I-I’m sorry it happened to you, but I’ll protect you, Sage! I won’t let it happen again!” he reassured.

His posturing was silly at best, but that didn’t make the gesture any less heartfelt, bringing smiles to the room—aside from Sage. “~B-but Mr. Yaksha is already protecting me.~”

The clarification brought on a few moments of awkward silence during which nobody really knew what to say, the Stunky most of all. Thankfully, Autumn was familiar enough with kid-induced awkwardness to think of a way out, audibly clearing her throat before telepathically chiming in.

“^That’s still a wonderful gesture Zephyr, thank you. Now, Sage... would you want me to help you remember what happened?^”

Focus being brought back over onto the Indeedee made the Phantump’s expression light up once more. She wasted no time before huddling closer to Autumn’s front and firmly nodding; her sheer affection towards the psychic was no less confusing than it was earlier.

“^Alrighty, we can try to figure it out together! Now, Anne? Would you mind coming along with us to help me make sense of any human things I might see?^”

The human had absolutely zero idea what ‘coming along’ could’ve meant there, but it didn’t matter. As long as she could help the undead girl out, she was down. “~Yeah!~”

“^Are you sure? I can’t imagine it’ll be anything... pretty,^” Autumn warned.

“~I’m—I’m used to not pretty things. I’ll be alright.~”

To the Indeedee’s utmost regret, Anne was very right about that. “^Okay. Ember, could you give us space? Sage, could you sit on Anne’s lap for this?^”

The hauntling took her time letting go of the chubby psychic, but ultimately did as asked, and so did the Braixen. Anne’s one-armed hug wasn’t anything warm like Ember’s or padded like Autumn’s, but it felt... nice in a more familiar way, at least.

“^Thank you both! Now...^” the Indeedee started, taking the deepest breath of her life before sitting down beside the human and the once-human. She laid a paw on Anne’s forearm and grabbed Sage’s hand with the other one. She felt immense dread fill her as she prepared to descend in a much more controlled way than a couple of days ago. No matter how nervous it made her, Sage deserved to know what had happened.

And both she and Anne wanted to help with all their hearts.

“^...let’s do this.^”

A wave of static rushed through Anne’s brain as her body suddenly grew weak, slumping forward together with the other two. In just a few seconds, all three of them were completely out, somewhere between asleep and fainted, as Autumn reached into Sage’s memories.

To the very beginning.

To her very end.​


crunch

crunch


Slow, careful steps filled the small clearing.

The point of view the three were forced into was almost entirely focused on the surrounding forest floor. The occasional glances up at the nearby trees showed off the beautiful fall colors filling the scene, be they still feebly holding onto the branches or laying dried on the ground. It was the latter that Sage was specifically interested in, though, their colorful sneakers constantly looking around in search of the biggest pile of leaves to crunch through.

They liked that sound.

Despite the focused point of view, most of Sage’s outfit was visible. A bright yellow, puffy jacket, sneakers spanning half the rainbow, a loose pair of stretchy jeans. And, on top of the latter, a clearly oversized skirt, one dark-skinned hand constantly having to hold it in place around their waist.

It felt nice to wear. How it looked and especially how it moved when they tried to twirl. It was so, so pretty, just like when their older sister wore it.

Sage hoped she wouldn’t notice it missing for a moment. They didn’t remember her wearing this one in a while, and if they just put it back like it was before, it would be fine, right? Their sister would probably be so angry about them taking it without her knowledge, and looking weird in it, if she ever found out. A part of them knew they weren’t supposed to be wearing it. After all, skirts were for girls, and not for—

“~Guys, look! Sage’s wearing a dress!~”

Suddenly, the focus snapped over onto the small hill surrounding the clearing. On top of it, a trio of older boys.

Faces distorted beyond comprehension.

Sage could only stand there in panic as they watched them approach, one arm still clutching their sister’s skirt to their side. The boys’ cruel laughter grew with every step, especially as they continued to mock them in their low voices, “~Guess he’s really just a sissy, ahahaha!~”

“~No kidding! What, were you too fed up with just being a crybaby, Sage, and just had to grab a dress to go along with it~!?~”

The point of view shifted slightly backwards as Sage tried to hold them back with a raised hand. Eventually, a boyish, shaky voice responded, right as the three walked up to them. Sage’s voice. “~L-l-leave me alone—~”

“~Or what? You’re gonna cry harder?~”

The three’s roaring laughter reduced Sage to shaking again as they were surrounded. Each of the boys had a solid foot on them, the sheer distortion around their heads only conveying a cruel smile.

And then; the first shove came.

The world turned into a blur as Sage tried to remain standing, forced to let go of the skirt to regain their balance. It was of little help though, especially as they then tripped on it, sending them down onto their knees, to the trio’s monstrous amusement. They were too afraid to leave the skirt behind, grabbing it again before trying to run—

“~Oh man, everyone’s gonna love this!~”

As scared as Sage already was, it was nothing compared to the sheer terror that the taunt stirred in them, bringing them to tears. “~P-p-please don’t tell—~”

“~Or what, huh~? What are you gonna do, you fucking crybaby, piss your pants!?~”

Yet more laughter, paralyzing Sage further. The world turned into a blur as they were shoved again and again, stumbling over their feet with every painful push.

“~Figures you dressed up like a girl with how whiny you are!~”

“~A fucking baby is what he is, a little baby girl that needs his bottle badly!~”

Sage closed their eyes as they tried to endure it all. Their inner ear screamed at being constantly shoved around, their body cried at the shoves turning into punches, into kicks, into more and more painful bruises.

“~And don’t you even fucking try telling anyone about this—~”

The whirlwind of pain abruptly stopped as they got grabbed by their shoulders with a grip strong enough to send them screaming if they had any voice left.

“~—‘cuz if you do, we’ll tell everyone what a fucking FAGGOT you are!~”

An instant later, the most forceful shove yet, sending Sage falling backwards. They pried their eyes open, looking up at the sky, at the beautiful fall around them, at the trio of popular, well-off bullies, at their smug, self-satisfied grins. Their laughter burned itself into their mind as they fell, fell, fell—

And then, darkness and unimaginable pain from the back of their head.

They tried to move; they tried to do anything, but their body wouldn’t listen. There was only burning, radiating suffering that intensified by the moment, and freezing numbness enveloping them from all around. Sage felt their warmth be drained through the back of their head, felt something wet there, and could do nothing but lay there.

And listen.

Laughter.

Shouts.

Screams.

Steps racing away from her, crunching through the fallen leaves.

And eventually, nothing more, for an eternity.

Freezing cold, oppressive darkness, suffocating silence. Without reprieve, without end, without mercy.

Untold infinities later, a blink back to the recollection.

A silent, unmoving gaze staring down at a lifeless body. Dark-skinned, bloated, covered in dirt and debris, with a few parts already taken by wildlife. Around its head, a brown, dried-out blot. Surrounded by decomposing leaves and almost entirely barren trees.

Alone.

The scene continued in perfect stillness for an unknown amount of time. Not a single thought, not a single motion, only the oppressive, unending sight of a carcass that used to be a person.

And then, a distant voice. Followed by another, and another still. One of them low, very low, just like she’d heard before—

Before—

She had to run.

At last, Sage turned and levitated away as fast as she could, the most distant voices suddenly eclipsed by her own panicking breathing. Everything shook; the world was once more a blur of white and brown and gray and black—

In the distance, a heartbroken shriek behind her. A wail of a family shattered, of a child lost, of an unspeakable tragedy.

Further and further away.

Soon enough, it was gone, as was everything else. There were only the trees around her, the frost and decomposing leaves underneath her, and the silver, clouded skies above her.

A cruel world in all its vastness.


All the trio knew was that they’d been crying for hours.

They remained motionless even as they returned to awareness, only capable of shaking as tears continued to flow.

Anne kept the little girl close and held her tight, so very tight. She was afraid to let go of her even for a moment, afraid of unthinkable horrors happening to her again, of her being hurt so cruelly again. Autumn’s angle didn’t let her do much physically, but she more than made up for that with her psychics, keeping Sage in as warm of an embrace as she could manage, as if to protect her from the deathly cold.

Sage hurt more than words could describe.

The Indeedee felt everything going on around her. Felt their grief, their loss, their pain, Sage’s overwhelming fear. She wanted to do something, anything, to help in the moment, but there was nothing any of them could do. Nothing that could make up for what the Phantump had gone through.

All they could do was be there for her, no matter what.

As Autumn regained her bearings, she tried to push herself to at least check up on her surroundings. Ember held Anne as tight as she could, terrified at what was going on and feeling unable to stop it. Zephyr kept anxiously standing guard, constantly glancing over at them with uncertainty. The tiniest bit of relief filled his expression as he noticed his teacher beginning to come to again, but he didn’t dare speak up about it.

On the ground beside the bed, a wrapped bundle of a now-cold pastry, left behind by presumably Holly. Nobody else around them.

Bit by bit, the Indeedee began calming down, pushing through the trauma of what she’d just seen. No matter how much she needed comfort in the moment, the two girls beside her needed it more, and she had to be there for them both. Even as she tried to get rid of the last of them, tears kept coming in the most annoying way.

Once Autumn felt confident about not immediately breaking down again should anything happen, she finally dared move. One paw stroking Anne’s arm, the other Sage’s hand. She couldn’t do much, but she could do that—

And then, the Phantump recoiled slightly, withdrawing partially into her shell as she tried to press herself into Anne even further. “~I-I-I wanna go home...~”

The Indeedee wanted to weep, but persevered. “^Shhhhh... shhhhhh....^”

Quiet as they were, the shushes still helped. Just a gentle reminder of Autumn’s soothing presence, gradually seeping into the two traumatized girls’ minds and helping pull them out from the worst of it. Another attempt at physically comforting Sage went much better. The Phantump clutched her soft paw tight, clinging to it with all her strength, the little of it she had left after everything she just had to go through again.

Autumn knew she couldn’t say much beyond that, for there was nothing she could say. Nothing but the most banal response to a tragedy like that, the most obvious one. And yet, the Indeedee still said it, because it needed to be said. Because Sage needed to hear it. “^I’m so sorry, sweetie. We’re here for you, no matter what.^”

Pained as she still was, the words had reached the lil’ Phantump, making her slightly loosen her grip on the psychic’s paw. They helped, even if they couldn’t fully mend it all, even if they couldn’t answer the most harrowing of questions at the root of it all. “~Wh-why did they do that to m-me...~”

The Indeedee continued her affection as she wondered how to respond to a question like that. There wasn’t much directly in the terrible vision that would explain why these specific humans had set their abusive sights on specifically Sage, but it didn’t matter.

Because ultimately, the answer was the same. “^Some people are awful, and want to hurt others no matter what, Sage. We could debate for days about why that is, but... in the end, that’s just how things are.^”

The Indeedee’s response was as satisfying as an answer to that entire moral conundrum would ever get—which was to say, not in the slightest. Still, there was one more thing she realized she hadn’t clarified, something easy to overlook, and yet, the most important sentence she could say. A philosophical answer wasn’t the point, wasn’t ever the point.

“^It’s not your fault, Sage. I promise.^”

What mattered was reassurance.

However trite it was, it too helped, especially when accompanied by all the time in the world for Sage to calm down. Minutes upon minutes of silence, of gentle touch, physical and psychic alike, of the chubby psychic’s warm, ever comforting presence. The most important message repeated over and over again when needed, anything to help it all hurt less.

Anne took even longer to come to after everything she’d witnessed. As harrowing as the recollection was for Autumn, it seemed to have hit Anne particularly hard, to where the Indeedee had to pry the Phantump out of the human’s embrace just to let her move freely again. With time, she too regained her bearings, especially once everyone around had joined in to comfort her—including Sage. Because as much as she hurt, Anne hurt too and was a friend. Why wouldn’t she help her?

“~Th-thank you all...~” the human whispered.

With her words signaling the return of the final member of the memory-diving trio, Ember immediately set upon vocalizing her concerns, “A-Anne! What happened!? You all were crying s-so much, and even afterwards, and you were s-so sad, and...”

The human didn’t know how to answer. Ember deserved so much better than to have something as cruel as what they had all just seen be meticulously explained to her, insult by insult and strike by strike. Especially with Sage able to understand her as well. “~J-just something really sad, Ember. I-I’m okay now, I think.~”

It was a lie, but one that couldn’t be avoided unless they all wished to spend the rest of the day wallowing in the misery of it all. It wouldn’t have even been a wholly unthinkable thing to do, not with how terrifying it all was, but they all had to move on. Sage didn’t want to keep hurting by thinking about it, Autumn wanted to focus on actually helping the two girls out, and Anne...

Had to make sure of something first.

The human doubted whether Autumn had grasped all the implications of the scene now burned into her memories forever. Hell, she suspected she hadn’t done so either, but there was one detail that stood out clear to her, something she knew existed but never really got to interact with before. Not consciously, at least. And she wanted to help, however little she could do. Help this lost child, this little girl feel safe, be her friend, and—if what she’d noticed was right... help her be a girl, too.

“~Sage?~”

Everyone sat so close together that the matter of sliding over from Autumn’s affection to Anne’s was a matter of hovering just a couple of inches over.

“~Y-yes, Anne?~”

“~Could I ask you something... p-personal?~”

Autumn looked at the human uncertainly. She wasn’t sure where all this was going, but a part of her doubted it would do anything but bring more tears. Still, Anne clearly had a plan of sorts; she was doing this for a reason, and the psychic let her keep going for now.

“~L-like what?”~ Sage asked, confused.

Anne took a deep breath as she tried to mull through the ‘right’ words for this. She wished so, so much she was more familiar with any sort of proper terminology for this, anything that would let her avoid potentially insulting this hurt child beside her, but... she didn’t. All she could do was ask what she had on her mind as earnestly as possible, and hope it wouldn’t be taken the wrong way.

Eventually, she asked, “~You’re a girl, right?~”

Everyone else was rather confused at hearing such an odd question, be it because of how from the left it was, or—in Autumn’s case—by having no idea what did that matter for what they had all just seen. To Zephyr in particular, it came off almost like a setup for an exceptionally ill-timed joke, but no laughs came. Just an expecting human, and an uncertain hauntling, suddenly plunged into deep thought.

It wasn’t a topic Sage spent a lot of time reflecting on, especially after ending up like this. Being a girl felt natural to her, but after what she’d just seen, she couldn’t help but wonder whether she hadn’t accidentally done something wrong. Maybe she shouldn’t have been thinking that. Maybe it was bad of her to do so.

She didn’t know, and the more she tried to mull it through, the more worried she became. It was only after Anne’s fingers brushed against her wooden shell did Sage snap back to awareness, stuttering out the best answer she could think of, hoping it was the right one, “~I-I think so... I’m a girl, right?~”

An instant later, as close of a hug as Anne’s one arm could provide.

“~Yes, of course you are!~”

Anne’s audible determination, appearing to have come entirely out of nowhere, was perhaps even more surprising than the pointless question that came before it. Not unwelcome in the slightest, though, lifting everyone’s spirits, especially when paired with her slightly teary, but resolute, smile. Sage didn’t expect an answer like that, but what surprised her the most was… her own reaction. Just how nice it felt to hear that. She didn’t even know why, but it just did.

Sadly, it wasn’t the only question Anne had on her mind. She was well aware of just how much more unpleasant this second one could be, how many awful memories it could dredge up, but she had to know. They all had to know, so that they wouldn’t inadvertently bring more pain upon her. Anne continued, “~I also wanted to ask... would your parents have been angry if they knew?~”

Despite how dumbfounding her question was for everyone else, Sage knew exactly what she meant by it. She might’ve taken her time gathering her thoughts for this previous one, but this time it was she who answered with all the confidence her tiny body could muster out, “~No! They w-wouldn’t, they never did anything bad to me, they would never hurt me!~”

Neither the tone nor the response Anne expected, but they were both reassuring in their own right. And resulted in an immediate follow-up, one that she feared would sting even more, “~Did you tell them?~”

Unfortunately, Anne’s hunch was right.

Sage’s tiny body shook as she recalled her own thoughts about doing just that, from an eternity ago. All the doubts she had, all the times she took her big sister’s clothing just for a moment to feel nice, all the times she felt like she didn’t fit with the boys at all. Dozens of chances to speak up and talk to her parents about this, ask if she was doing something wrong—all of them squandered. “~N-no... I d-didn’t know what was going on, a-and it was so scary and I didn’t want to make them scared a-and—~”

Time time, everyone scrambled in.

Even if only Anne truly knew what they all just discussed, Sage’s distress was clear to see, and they all wanted to provide whichever attention they could. Touch, psychics, warmth, even just soft fur. All of them were noted, all of them helped.

Anne felt guilty about pushing the conversation on like this, especially about something she neither had experience with nor didn’t strictly need to know. After everything she’d been through, she just wanted to be as sure as possible that this current hell wasn’t indirectly caused by Sage’s parents being similarly abusive or otherwise not accepting of her, but... it didn’t seem to be. Which, if anything, only made it even more tragic.

Because it all could’ve been avoided, and wasn’t.

It stung and hurt, especially with the ghost’s sadness soaking through her flimsy t-shirt. Anne wanted to help make up for all this. Make up, however ineffectually, for everything Sage had been through, but wasn’t sure how. Was there even anything she could do?

While the human churned through that question, Autumn was torn between concern for Sage because of the sudden emotional downturn, and alert at sensing something, someone, behind her. Pink, glowing eyes, golden zipper for a mouth, peeking in through the nearby wall.

Staring at them all in anger.

The Indeedee had no idea how to respond, focusing on putting up a Protect if needed while continuing to act as if she hadn’t spotted them. If this really was the ‘Yaksha’ that Sage had mentioned, then they shouldn’t have been a threat to them, but... their fury made Autumn think otherwise. Why would they be so angry if they really were the Phantump’s guardian? Who were they really

As if in response to Autumn’s thoughts, she felt the ghost’s emotions behind her shift. As intense as their anger was, it quickly gave way to first reassurance and relief, and then, even more worryingly, to distress and shame. It left the Indeedee stunned as she sensed Yaksha withdraw from their room—and then seemingly from the entire clinic, too.

Something was off about all this, and she needed to find out what. “^Anne?^” she spoke up, her calm, no-nonsense tone perking the human right away.

“~Yes, M-Mrs. Autumn?~”

“^I... need to leave for a moment. Are you gonna be okay with just the others here until I’m back?^”

The thought made Anne shudder a bit, at least initially. She didn’t feel in danger here even with her future being uncertain, and between Sage understanding her and Ember knowing enough telepathy to talk to her, Autumn’s assistance wasn’t strictly needed, but... she still made the girl feel safer. Cared for.

Then again, Autumn definitely wouldn’t have asked that without a good reason, so... “~S-sure. A-are you gonna be back soon, Mrs. Autumn?~”

“^I hope so! Alright everyone, I need to take care of something and won’t be gone for long. Please take care of each other in my absence, okay?^”

Autumn’s parting words prompted the predictable chorus of reassurances, bringing a weak smile to her face as she slid off the bed and headed out. She expected nothing else, but it still brought well-needed confidence. Once she’d left, the Stunky wasted no time before jumping off the bed and... coming to a stop beside the door. Anne expected him to eventually move or at least vocalize something, but he just stood there, completely still.

As if… standing guard.

“~Thank you, Zephyr.~”

He didn’t even react, and not like Anne could blame him. Especially since her words were likely little more than gibberish to him—

...

...

She figured it out.

Without wasting another moment, Anne immediately slid over to the edge of the bed that all the bags laid beside, and dug in. Several items she needed to get, a few more she hoped to find—assuming that Mrs. Graham had taken what Anne thought she had—and the last few would just make the entire process easier.

Ember helped a bit, though mostly by pulling everything needed up onto the bed with her psychics. At some point during the process, an array of noises that came from the direction of the door snagged the Braixen’s attention. Squeaks, woofs, mewls and oinks, some familiar but many not. A part of Anne’s mind begged for her to look over her shoulder and see what in the world was going on, but it was just this one thing left; she could get it done first—yes, there it was!

Pulling a plain, all-black, and very well-worn t-shirt from underneath a dozen pounds of cargo turned out to be harder than expected, especially with Anne’s ability to get leverage being... limited. Still, she managed it, tossing it onto the small pile beside herself before assessing her spoils.

Freshly dragged out shirt, the knife she took from her house, a smaller pencil case with a few assorted items. Some glue, some needles, rusty scissors. Beside all these, a few markers and a mess of dark fabric that used to be a pair of trousers some three years and five sizes ago.

She had everything she needed.

With the supplies taken stock of, Anne finally turned around to find out who had joined them all in the meantime. Bell was an appreciated presence—something Sage could attest to right away—Reya looked cute as she chatted with Ember; the Shinx roughhousing with Zephyr was charming, and the Grumpig watching over them all... was there, too.

“~Sage?~” she asked, catching the Phantump’s attention once more. “~Did you ever want to have long hair?~”



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 24: Scars


Chapter 24: Scars



Garret had a plan.

Despite the seriousness of the task ahead, he marched on with a smile, confident in his ability to discuss it all in the right way. His plan wasn’t the most detailed out there, and if there was anyone who knew that sometimes not even familiarity trumped the impact someone’s looks might have, it was him—but he wouldn’t let that get him down.

His role in keeping Anne safe wasn’t as crucial as that of his wife or mom—at least, not yet—but he didn’t take it any less seriously because of that. The human girl’s future was uncertain, and if a closer chat with one of his coworkers would help her chances even a little, then that was all the motivation he needed to give it his all.

‘Coworkers’ as a term was... stretched, in this specific context.

Both of their roles around the village were very fluid. They weren’t expanding fast enough for someone to be constantly tasked with working on new construction, but his mix of raw strength and decent dexterity never had to look far for a problem he could help with. Putting new buildings up or expanding existing ones was his most common task, though, and the Meowstic he was heading towards was often busy carving decorations and furniture for said buildings.

They knew each other just enough to be relatively friendly, but not to have ever spilled their hearts to each other, which... they probably wouldn’t be able to avoid this time.

Garret tightened his fur’s grasp on his thin limbs as he pushed on, some of the winter cold piercing through, regardless. No matter how hard he tried to keep his spirits up, this was going to be difficult, and doubts were never too far behind. Doubly so, with nobody having seen Max for the past couple of days. Thankfully, Hawthorne wasn’t bringing any worries about her dad up, which meant that whatever reason he had for keeping himself in his burrow, it wasn’t anything tragic.

The Grimmsnarl hoped so, at least.

Even without tragedy, his seclusion still had unnerving implications. The Meowstic was never the most courageous person out there, but he gave off the impression of being calm and composed, unlike what his present absence would’ve implied. Then again, considering what humans had done to him, it could just be the case of a fear intense enough to erode any composure.

It would make Garret’s task here much more difficult if so—and even more necessary. He could do this; he could help his wife and the little girl out—

“Garret,” a buzzing voice spoke, making him look off to the side—and stare the Vespiquen in the eye. Hardly the person he expected to just chat him up, leaving him with a blank, yet still intimidating expression as she continued, “What is the human’s status?”

“Plenty good, Liz!” he answered, cheerful. “She was recovering mighty well last I saw her yesterday!”

This time, it was he who was the receiver of a blank stare, growing blanker still as the exhausted Vespiquen slouched slightly. “I didn’t mean personal status. Are they staying or not?”

A much drier, more matter-of-fact question that Garret had absolutely no answer for. He really, really wished he did, be it so that they could either start celebrating or figure out what to do to keep Anne safe, but ultimately it remained to be seen where the elders’ whims would go. “I—I don’t know, Liz. It’s still undecided.”

A low, droning buzz, not letting the bee settle many of her calculations. Barring any personal like or dislike, she had to know whether they would end up with another mouth to feed or not, and the sooner she had an exact number to work off of, the sooner she could start redirecting the village’s efforts around. ‘I don’t know’ was perhaps the worst non-answer imaginable.

She needed numbers, even if just bullshit, made up numbers.

“That doesn’t help,” she droned out. “What is the probability of them staying?”

The Grimmsnarl was much better with arithmetic than the bulk of the village on behalf of constantly having to calculate stuff for construction, but he only drew blanks here. It was an enigma that depended on way too many factors, many of which he wasn’t even consciously aware of, to estimate. He couldn’t come up with a concrete answer—and so, an off-the-cuff throwaway value it was. “I’m not sure—seven in ten, maybe?”

“Naaaah, more than that,” Mikiri butted in, yanking Garret’s attention away. She was passing by them, dragging what remained of the human two-wheel behind herself through the snow.

Liz immediately got to crunching more numbers upon hearing his estimate; not noticing the Mawile’s addendum. Whether her obliviousness was accidental or intentional, only she knew. “Seven in ten.”

“I’m tellin’ ya, it’s more!” the metal fairy hollered.

The Vespiquen continued, unbothered, “Seven in ten isn’t enough for certainty. Very unideal probability. Please let me know once you’re more confident.”

“Just round it up to a ten in ten, c’mon.”

To Mikiri’s continued annoyance, the Bug-type kept not acknowledging her existence. She hovered away shortly after, without sparing the metal fairy as much as a glance. For her efforts, she earned herself two tongues being stuck out at her before the tinkerer resumed her own trek, leaving Garret to follow in her tracks.

Seven in ten was a very unideal probability indeed.

Even that felt like high balling it a substantial amount, too. It felt higher than even odds for sure, but exactly how much higher was anyone’s guess, and Garret didn’t feel confident about his in the slightest. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter.—he’d still keep trying, even if it was zero.

The thought gave him a well-needed burst of confidence as he marched on, something he really wished he could share with his wife. He really hoped Aria was okay.

A different kind of concerned thought provided just enough distraction to let him return to his full pace. Worries swirled under his head with every step; his wife’s terrified shriek still burned into his recent memory. So unlike her for her dreams to hit her, so unlike her to ever get so scared or tear up so inconsolably—and yet, here they were. As difficult as this situation was for them all, Aria was taking on much more stress than everyone else, and it really, really showed.

Once all was said and done later today, Garret was dead set on holding her tight for the entire night, no matter what the verdict would be. Be it comfort for her accomplishment of saving Anne, or reassurance should everything they’ve been doing to amount to nothing, she would need him more than ever.

And he would be glad to provide.

The mental image of the former outcome warmed his soul up as he came to a stop in front of a small shack. Max’s dwelling was rather barebones even by the standards of the village, but they made do—at least enough so to never complain about any issues that needed to be fixed. Whether that actually meant they were doing perfectly fine... depended, and there have been a few instances of recent arrivals who didn’t dare speak up about their problems because of worrying about coming off as either weak or demanding.

He trusted Max not to fall into that trap, but ultimately, it remained to be seen. After a few more moments of hesitation than he would’ve liked, Garret knocked on the door with as much gentleness as he could muster. Less than he wished for sometimes, but hopefully just enough for the task.

For a few moments, the dwelling only answered with silence, providing plenty of kindling for the flames of worry. What if something bad did indeed happen to him and Hawthorne was too afraid to tell anyone? What if he was too terrified to respond to someone knocking on the door? What if—

creeeeeeak

“G-Garret?” the familiar voice asked, soothing the Grimmsnarl’s mind as he tossed out his worries and replaced them with relief.

Max’s gamut of expressions was almost as stilted as Garret’s, but even then the fairy could clearly pick up on him not doing too well, besides just looking plain ill. Puffy, half-lidded eyes, slightly matted fur, an occasional shiver rocking his entire small body. Still, he was here, and that’s all that mattered.

“Good morning Max!” Garret greeted. “Are you doing alright?”

All the Grimmsnarl got in return was a squinting, confused expression, not helping any. Suppose he needed to just speak up louder and enunciate better—easier said than done. “Are you doing alright, Max?”

Even despite Garret doing his best to be understood, it still wasn’t enough. Not a comfortable situation for either of them, but at least the Meowstic knew what to do next. “sigh, come on—achoo!—come on in Garret, need to put my ears on for this.”

Without waiting for a response, Max turned around and ventured into his humble home, and Garret followed. It was as plain on the inside as it was on the outside—a few pieces of furniture, a large group cot, a handful of assorted clay jars, and potted plants along the walls. Even despite the hearth burning brightly, the building remained oddly cold. There had to have been some insulation issue somewhere, and once he was done with the actual purpose of his visit, he wouldn’t mind staying longer to fix his coworker’s place.

But before that, came a chat that the Meowstic needed to prepare himself for. With much more focus than such a simple act should require, he levitated two oblong objects into his physical grasp, and strapped them onto what remained of his ears.

Garret didn’t know how a Meowstic ought to look. Really, almost nobody in their village did. Their sample size for many of the more uncommon species inhabiting the village was 1, leaving them assuming that every person of the said species looked exactly like the person they knew. It was very hard to recognize someone looking different without a reference point. At least, most times.

The two scars at the tips of his single-segment ‘ears’, combined with his daughter’s appearance, clued most others about something being wrong. And while normally asking a question as blunt as ‘who cut your ears in half’ was never a good idea, it thankfully wasn’t even needed here.

Because the answer, as with many bad things, was ‘humans’.

Once Max was done putting the unwieldy prosthetics on, he turned to Garret again and beckoned him over to his spot beside the hearth, “There we go. Mind going over what you—achoo!—what you said there, Garret?”

The rough imitations of what the top part of his ears would’ve looked like—folded over and almost reaching his eyes—didn’t help with psychics any, but it at least let him recover some hearing.

“Ah, I just wanted to check up on you, Max. You’ve been gone for quite a while now; got everyone worrying!” Garret answered. His jovial tone was a bit forced, but thankfully no less received because of that.

It brought some well-needed relief to the room, followed up by the Meowstic putting a kettle full of ice-cold water over the small, but roaring fire. “Caught something nasty a couple of days ago, dunno from where. Makes me ache all over. I doubt I’d be much help for anything in this state.”

His words were self-evidently true, especially after a salvo of sneezes that followed. As glad as Garret was that his coworker’s absence was just a result of an illness, a check-up was only a partial reason for his presence here.

And to his surprise, Max was aware of that, too. “Don’t worry—achoo!—it doesn’t have... too much to do with the h-human...”

Garret was simultaneously taken aback by Max’s words and concerned about the tone change near the end. It was as if confidence evaporated from him with each word until all that remained was a pretense that neither of them believed in. In all this, though, one part stuck out to him the most. “I didn’t bring up Anne at all.”

Despite his uncertainty, Max couldn’t help but smirk at the Grimmsnarl, “Hawthorne complained to us yesterday about Autumn having taught her and everyone else about humans—I guessed that she, and likely you too, are quite involved in the entire human ordeal. And, given that you know her name, it seems—achoo!—it seems I was right.”

Garret might’ve wished to shrivel at being seen through so easily, but he tried not to let that get to him. Especially since, to the best of his ability to tell, Max didn’t sound offended about that. “Well... yes, you’re right. I also wanted to talk about her, if that’s alright.”

“Oh, it is, it is. Though, I figured I wouldn’t have to go over all this again.”

...

“A-again? What do you mean, Max?”

“Oh? Elder Celia visited us yesterday evening to discuss just this topic. I would’ve thought that you knew.”

Nope, and Garret most definitely didn’t enjoy thinking about the implications of that. He’s never had any negative interactions with the Primarina Elder, but with how concerned his wife and mom were about her, him being so as well felt warranted. “Nope, first time hearing about it. Sorry for that, can’t imagine it was one bit pleasant.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the Meowstic reassured, “I—achoo!—I figured that the discussion would eventually reach me considering... yeah.”

Even though the thought of spying on an Elder’s actions made the Grimmsnarl feel queasy, he couldn’t resist asking, “Out of curiosity... was she angry or anything?”

“Hardly—I don’t even really know how she was. She just showed up, asked a few questions, hid her face behind that flipper the whole time and left before I could get her a drink. Nothing accusatory, just all flat and matter-of-fact about the human situation. Kinda like what I’m imagining you wanted to ask me, too.”

That description didn’t feel the Fairy-type with even the slightest bit of confidence. “Well, I suppose there’s gonna be some overlap—”

“You wanted to ask me what was my opinion about the human possibly staying here considering my past, r-right?” Max asked, matter-of-factly. Garret’s taken-aback look told him everything, and so did the Meowstic’s amused chuckle tell the Grimmsnarl in return as he continued, “It’s alright. To sum up what I told Celia... absent any context, I wouldn’t want the human to stay, no.”

Dense silence filled the room as the demon processed the response, eyes growing wider. Before he could ask for an elaboration, or even plead his case, the water in the kettle finally announced its readiness, distracting Max away from the tense discussion.

Garret wouldn’t have ever guessed that there’d be a situation where a cup of warm tea couldn’t help in calming down—and yet, here he was. Fortunately for him and his task, though, Max wasn’t done, “However... I’ve gathered from a few rumors and what Hawthorne had overheard that this isn’t just a random human. Hell, I sincerely doubt anyone would be seriously arguing for them to stay unless there was a damn good reason for it, and that alone makes me reconsider it. It’s...”

Max had to pause and dig his mind for words, his confidence waning by the moment.

“It’s not that I hate them specifically, even hate humans as a whole or anything, it’s... it’s just scary. The thought of seeing a human scares me. I—achoo!—I have a nightmare sometimes, of a human silhouette barging through my front door and hurting everyone I know. No matter how hard I try not to think about it, that—that association doesn’t go away, and I don’t know how many nigh-sleepless nights it’ll take for it to leave me alone.”

He took a deep breath, followed by as large of a sip of the hot tea as he could, having to lift the heavy wooden cup with both paws. “And if what I’ve gathered overall is true, that it’s really a choice between that human staying here or possibly death... then their wellbeing trumps my silly, irrational discomfort.”

As relieved as Garret was, there was a part of that response he wanted to home in on, “It’s not irrational, Max. You’ve got good reasons to be spooked, I get it.”

“I don’t recall ever going over it all with you specifically, hah,” the Meowstic chuckled.

“Well... yes, you never have, but with a fear as intense as that, there has to be something that caused it.”

“You’re not wrong, don’t worry.”

With a moment of downtime, both men could enjoy a good sip of tea as they gathered their thoughts. Garret calmed down at the thrust of his visit turning out successful. It really was a life-or-death situation, and Max expressed clearly that, in that case, Anne’s life was more important than his discomfort. It felt a bit... rushed, though, and didn’t really match up with what he’d heard about Hawthorne, piquing his curiosity further.

“Thank you for a thoughtful answer, Max. Makes ya wonder where’d Hawthorne get her attitude from...” the Grimmsnarl muttered, wincing at the drawn out, regretful exhale that immediately followed.

Regardless of if the Meowstic was hiding something from him, the point about his daughter struck true. Garret wasn’t expecting to catch his coworker on a lie, and so didn’t act suspicious—merely really, really curious about what Hawthorne’s deal was. Soon, Max responded, “It does, I’m aware. Me and my wife should’ve been more forceful in getting these attitudes out of her when we first heard them. By now they’ve all festered and I worry it’s too late to change anything.”

“I wouldn’t say that, Max. Kids are smart, especially ones as old as Hawthorne.”

“I know, I know, but—achoo!—it’s still difficult to convey a more nuanced attitude. No matter if I’m afraid of humans or not, they’re no more universally evil than we’re universally good, and I don’t even think humanity as a whole is some malignant force. I’ve no idea how to tell her that in a way that doesn’t sound like me backtracking on what I said.”

The Grimmsnarl pondered on that question for all of fifteen seconds before coming up with an answer, of which ten were spent downing a good sip of the tea. “Why not backtrack on what you said? If you told her something that’s just outright wrong, then correcting her isn’t a bad idea. She’s old enough to know that her parents aren’t always right.”

“I meant it in the sense that anything I say will sound fake. As if I’m being overly polite because that’s what others want to hear, whereas a harsher, more intolerant attitude is my ‘real’ one. Not true in the slightest, but I have no idea how to prove it to her—believe me, I’ve tried, it just doesn’t stick.”

Now that was a much tougher question.

Correcting oneself was one thing, but doing so to someone who didn’t interpret anything beyond your original words as genuine was... challenging, bordering on impossible. Garret didn’t have any magical advice. He hoped under his breath that he wouldn’t ever end up in a situation like this with any of his children, especially when it concerned something important.

Garret discarded the simple suggestions such as saying it from the heart or being as genuine as can be. If he could think them up in a minute, then most definitely so could Max, and they just didn’t end up working for one reason or another. Though... he had one more idea. “It sounds like you need to show it to her, not just say it.”

Just as with Garret’s other ideas, Max had thought about this one a bunch of times in the past, before inevitably discarding it because of it just being impossible. No way to dissuade his daughter’s hatred of humans without having a human to interact with. Even now that it was more possible, all the Meowstic could think of was just how much he didn’t want to do that. No matter how nuanced his abstract opinion of them was, he was entirely content to never see another human ever again.

But if it was the only way to get his daughter to stop being so virulently hateful, it looked like he’d have to. “I... I guess. It—achoo!—it’s terrifying to think about, but you’re right. Either way, not something I can do here and now, and likely not until the human ends up staying for good,” the Meowstic sighed. “Just... wished I had more restraint so that things never got this bad to begin with.”

Max’s words snapped Garret’s attention back over to him, their implication worryingly uncertain. Was he blaming himself for just Hawthorne, or for the entirety of his present state? “What—whatcha mean, Max?”

“I—I told her too much at too young of an age, I think. She was curious about what happened to my ears, so I told her. Asked me about humans, so I told her that too. I wasn’t keeping any secrets from her, even though now I think I really should have, in hindsight. Well—not ‘secrets’ secrets, but things that she was just too young for, things that she shouldn’t have had to hear when so little. It was too much detail for her, I could tell, but I just couldn’t stop. I,” the Meowstic shuddered, his entire small self huddling closer to his mug, “I worry I’ve scarred her with what I’ve told her. She just got scared and angry; so much of the nuance went over her head, but it was enough for the worst of it to just burn itself into her mind forever.”

Garret took a larger sip as he chewed through Max’s words. His situation was messed up and perfectly understandable simultaneously, and he’d be lying if he said that it didn’t leave him a bit conflicted about his coworker’s character. Then again, he hadn’t endured as much trauma as the Meowstic clearly has; he was in no place to judge.

...

Judge too harshly, at least. “If you don’t mind, Max... what did you tell her?”

The Meowstic let out a dry chuckle, the accompanying smile painfully fake. This discussion obviously wasn’t getting anywhere further without him going over just what he’d told his daughter—and by extension, telling the tale of his past once more. “Figure going through what I’ve been through will help to explain it, yes...”

Garret lifted an eyebrow at his question being warped right in front of him. Before he could speak up in protest about it, Max explained himself, “I—kachow!—I know that’s not what you asked for, Garret, but the two are one and the same, pretty much. A recollection of the same awful events either way.”

The Grimmsnarl wasn’t entirely convinced, but went along with it. Max obviously knew better, and this didn’t sound like any sort of malicious, intentionally construed lie. He nodded, “Alrighty. I hope it’s not too much to go over all that, then.”

“No, no, not anymore. For better or worse, I’ve mostly grown numb to it by now,” the Meowstic sighed. Once he’d gathered his thoughts, he began his recollection proper, “I don’t remember a lot from the earliest parts of my life. To the best of my knowledge, I was with my human from the moment I hatched. She lived in a small house with only me, and since she left for a human job early each day, I spent a lot of time alone.”

That sounded... unpleasant. “Huh. You were left alone for hours as a hatchling?”

“Not quite hatchling, but... yes. I didn’t mind a whole lot, since it was warm and she left me plenty of food and water. Or, at least, I don’t remember minding at that point. One day, though... I had a slip-up.”

Garret nodded and took a big sip of the tea, still following along.

“I don’t recall what caused it, really. I probably just got scared by a loud sound, but the next thing I remember was staring at a shattered table and half of a wardrobe, together with other damage around it.”

“Did... you do that?” Garret asked.

“Oh yes, yes. Espurr are… surprisingly powerful. Disastrously so, occasionally, and without the right ways of managing stress, that kind of power can sometimes just... slip out. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I had been raised by other Meowstic, maybe it still would and they would’ve been able to handle that much better; I—achoo!—I don’t know.”

“How did... ‘your human’ react?”

“She was terrified,” Max shuddered. “Not that I can blame her, but it didn’t help either of us. I felt her get scared, so then I got scared, and I remembered us both panicking for a good while after. I didn’t want that to happen again, didn’t want to accidentally hurt her, and we both feared that I would do that by accident. The next thing I really remember, probably a few weeks later, was waking up one morning, a-and—” he cut himself off as his voice wavered. Instead, he pointed up at where the scars on his ears were, the implication obvious. “Just... one day I woke up, and suddenly had almost none of my psychics remaining, and was partially deaf.”

“I’m so sorry, Max, that’s terrible...”

“Really, I thought I’d gotten over the worst of it by now, but seems not. Guess something like that never really just leaves us alone, no matter how much we think we may have it under control at the moment. I’ll—I’ll get over it, don’t worry, it just hit me hard there.”

The Meowstic took his time taking deep breaths as his coworker stared at him in concern before continuing, “A-alright, I think I’m okay now. So, one day I wake up, and the tops of my ears are gone. For Espurr and Meowstic, it’s where a good chunk of our psychics are stored, so without them, it’s so much harder to do anything. And it scared me. It felt like the entire world had suddenly gone so, so quiet, and I didn’t understand why. What was left of my ears hurt a lot; I couldn’t keep my balance; I kept bumping into things, and—and it all just hurt. But... that wasn’t even the worst part.”

Garret lifted an eyebrow, a small shudder accompanying the gesture.

“You know, before then, I felt her caring for me. She wasn’t home as often as I wished she would be, and tended to be very busy, but... I could feel her affection for me. Even when she was stressed and didn’t have time to play with me or whatever, I could still just lay down near her and feel better. But after that, I... I couldn’t sense that anymore, I just didn’t have any way to. It’s as if all that warmth had just disappeared. That was even scarier than losing all my psychics.”

The Dark-type couldn’t relate exactly, but his imagination provided him with plenty of fuel for his empathy, anyway. His kids couldn’t sense his love for them directly, of course, but they still saw it clearly every day. His words, his affection, his pride, being there for them when they felt down, or like they didn’t fit, or for any of a dozen other reasons. And to imagine them losing not just that, but also what amounted to both of their arms all at once, without even being able to ask for an explanation, was...

It was Garret that needed a moment to recover this time, the awfulness of the mental image almost making him cry there and then. As soon as had the chance later today, he would go there and hug his kids tight and there wasn’t an earthly force that could stop him. Just had to find out where ‘there’ was, but that was a footnote. “Good gods, that’s—I don’t have words, Max.”

“I... yeah. It was awful. Afterwards, I was even more scared, but didn’t have a way of expressing it anymore. No telepathy, and without telekinesis, I could barely do anything by myself. And since my fear wasn’t as noticeable now, she just couldn’t spot it, either. She’d spend even less time with me, got even busier, and all I could do was run in circles around a house that was barely twice or thrice the size of this one.”

This time, instead of further sorrow, Garret saw his paw clench to his side, a flat expression turning into a scowl.

“And she stopped taking me places. Before then, I have faint memories of seeing the outside world, plenty of other humans, some grass and trees, fresh air—but that also was just gone after whatever happened to my ears. For a while, I thought that I really deserved it all. That I had done something terrible by breaking that table by accident, and that this was my punishment. After I evolved, even without my ears, I could just barely make out her thoughts sometimes, so I would just... sneak up on her. Try to sense all I could, figure out the why of it all, get an answer, any answer, and—” the Meowstic paused, trying to keep his rage from pouring out even further. Instead, a couple of tears slipped out from underneath his eyelids as he continued, “She thought she was doing me a favor.”

Out of all the possible answers, this was the one the Dark-type expected the least of all; staring at his friend, aghast. “H-how could she have thought that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe—maybe some twisted idea that if I couldn’t do my psychics, then I wouldn’t have had to worry about accidentally damaging anything else anymore, which...”

Another pause to catch his breath, another opportunity for his anger to condense into sadness.

“I was already resentful of it all by that point. Being stuck in that tiny house, unable to do anything, unable to even figure out any human items. The couple of ‘toys’ she brought me for entertainment got either broken or I was too sick of them to even look at them anymore. I felt imprisoned; I felt angry, and I couldn’t keep it in any longer. My claws were quite grown out by then, so I just started scratching things. Anything, everything, just to show her, show how furious I was—all I got for it was a trimming session that I eventually gave up fighting against. She had won, and I had lost.”

“It beggars belief how that human could’ve thought she was doing anything but being abusive towards you...” Garred muttered, taken aback.

“It does, doesn’t it? Though... I think she knew, but she just had no idea what to do with me.”

“Even putting just letting you go aside, couldn’t she have handed you off to a safer human house?”

“You’d think, but... I don’t think she could have, actually. For all the awful things they do, I think my—my ears having been cut off was still against human rules. At least, I think that was the case because of what happened some time later.”

Max had Garret’s entire focus, expressed through an intense nod.

“One day, she accidentally left a window unlocked, and I took the opportunity to get out. I climbed out, escaped, and just... ran around the area for a while. I barely recognized some of these places, but each time I did it made me happy, and oh goodness, there was so much greenness out there. She only kept a single plant in a clay pot in her house, and I forgot just how much grass and trees there were outside!”

The second-hand euphoria at breaking out was marred by how disturbing it was to hear something as omnipresent as trees be described that way.

“But then, I—I kept running into humans. And they feared me. Whether it was because I was a Meowstic, or because of the missing ears, I don’t know. But it just happened almost every time. I’d keep walking away, but then some of them would start using their ‘phone’ things that my human used at home, and I got just the worst fear that something bad would happen to me if I stayed there. I couldn’t have been out for more than a couple hours, but I was terrified by the end, at that overwhelming fear coming my way. I—I managed to get back home, and hid in the darkest corner until my human came back.”

By now, Max was shaking fearfully in place, barely maintaining his composure.

“These random humans were scared of me, then once my human came back home she was scared of me too, and I was scared of them all. B-but then, in the evening of that day, some more humans showed up, with scary blue uniforms. I saw them talking to my human; they spotted me and got alarmed while my human got scared, and I hid again. Squeezed myself into a tiny nook behind some furniture while they were still talking to my human, and didn’t dare to move. Then they kept searching for me, and they just wouldn’t stop for hours and I stood in place and it hurt and I was afraid I got myself stuck and I wouldn’t have been able to escape on my own and—”

pat-pat

The Meowstic flinched at the unexpected sensation, eyes shooting open to see a dark-haired hand patting his shoulders. More startling than comfortable, but he appreciated the gesture. Garret spoke up, “Apologies if that was too much, felt you going down that dark path and wanted to help.”

“Suppose distraction helps with that, too. Th-thank you, Garret. Anyway—they kept searching for me for hours, almost found me a couple of times, but eventually left. I waited for a while longer afterwards, then managed to force my way out of that spot, all wet with tears. It was all dark, there was a thunderstorm outside, my human was gone, I had no idea what had happened, but I knew I needed to get out before they came back. The windows were closed, and I scratched and pounded at them for ages, trying to break through. I didn’t know how to use any moves; I just kept bashing my body against it and prayed it would shatter.”

“What happened then?”

“I looked around the house for anything that could help, and found a small hammer. It finally started making cracks, so I kept hitting it, put all my strength and all the psychics I had into it, and eventually it just exploded into a rain of glass. I didn’t wait any longer and just jumped through. I felt the pieces scratch me from all around and the cold rain drench me, but I knew I couldn’t stop. Took off toward where I remembered all the trees being and ran. And ran, and ran, and ran, until I couldn’t run anymore.”

By the time Max had finished his tale, his breathing was little more than anxious gasps. He stared unfocused at the floor as the recollection finished washing over him. He had no idea how long it’d take for him to truly calm down again after all that, but that was a problem for later.

“Then, the next thing I know, I was here. Sprout had spotted me when scouting, and brought me over. And then... just an even larger, much more relieved blur.”

“I’m—I’m really glad you found safety here in the end, Max. All that sounds like an utter nightmare.”

The Meowstic took a while catching his breath and focusing back on the world around him. Then, once he’d calmed himself down somewhat, he continued, “Oh, it... it was, at times. Most of the time it was just—just a boring torture. I thought it wouldn’t get to me as much this time, but I suppose I was wrong. I-it got me thinking too, because I liked some things from when I lived there, you know. I had no idea what a godsend running water was until I had to make do without it here. And indoor heating, gods I’d spend so much time sleeping beside the radiators in the winter.”

That was an entire tangent that Garret didn’t expect in the slightest, leaving him really curious to see where it’d go.

“I just wonder why they have to be the way they are. These things I mentioned are tiny compared to many others. The sheer standard of living there is so much higher than here, but that doesn’t matter if they keep all that to themselves. And now I’m thinking why. Why do they treat us the way they do; why do we have to hide from them; why do their ‘trainers’ enslave us, and...”

The flimsiest deep breath the Grimmsnarl had ever seen, only barely interrupting Max’s revelation.

“And I think it’s all borne of fear. As much as I fear them, as much as we all fear them and what they can do to us if they band together—I think they’re just as afraid of us, if not more. In a one-on-one, almost any mon could kill almost any unarmed human and it wouldn’t even be close. I think that’s why they want to contain us so much. It’s not hatred—not just hatred, and whatever hatred there is has to come from that fear. And you know what the worst thing is?”

Garret was too busy processing Max’s revelation to respond, but that didn’t stop him.

“I have no idea how it could ever change. Even if all humans just gave up a-and said to the entire world that they wouldn’t try catching us ever again... there’d be many, many mons that would use that as an opportunity for revenge—even a good few in this very village. And the other way, if mons as a whole tried to lower their guard, we’d all end up getting contained and exploited. Are we just stuck like this? Forced to hide from humanity forever? Will—will anything ever get better?”

There weren’t answers to these questions, and both men knew that fact very well. But while Garret might’ve seen the obvious implication of that fact and looked away, Max didn’t, and was being increasingly sucked into a vortex of despair—

pat-pat!

Nothing a bit of percussive maintenance couldn’t help with, though.

If nothing else, it startled the Meowstic out of his train of thought, leaving him blinking at his coworker. Garret didn’t consider himself a particularly intelligent person, not like Jovan, or Ana, or even his wife was. Still, he liked to think he got a couple of things figured out, and this area was one of them. “Y’know, thinking about this kinda stuff helps nobody. If we can improve the world, we should, but if we can’t, fretting about it won’t do us any good. It’ll just make us all the more miserable—at least that’s how I see it. Whattcha think?”

The swerve away from the previous topic came from the left field, but Max couldn’t say he didn’t appreciate it. It felt boorish to admit it, but Garret had a point. The last thing the Meowstic needed was to be sucked further into despair, especially with so much happening.

“I—I think I agree. Thank you, Garret. For that—achoo!—and for giving me an opportunity to chew through all this. I may have gone through it all over a dozen times now, but... something clicked this time that didn’t before. I promise not to get too depressed about it, but goodness, I’ll need some time alone to finish processing it all.”

“Well, you’re very welcome, Max! Thank you plenty for having me. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll be heading out in not too long—just noticed one thing when I stepped in.” The Meowstic raised a single eyebrow as the Grimmsnarl explained, “It’s weirdly cold in here. There’s a hole in your wall somewhere.”

Max groaned as if half his soul had left him, topped off with the weakest nod Garret had ever seen.

“I miss concrete...”


A few hundred meters away from her son, Autumn was taking the winter head on.

Granted, that might’ve been because she forgot to take her shawl with her in her haste and had to resort to focusing much harder than usual on her Safeguard, but she was doing it anyway. She had little spare brainpower to focus on her bodily sensations, though, not with the trouble she was likely getting herself into.

That Banette felt suspicious the moment she saw him. And with his reaction to Sage’s group hug, it felt like her concerns about him had been justified. She knew full well that him leaving could’ve meant many things, some much more innocuous than others—but it had to mean something, and considering the graveness of Sage’s past, Autumn didn’t want to stop until she knew just what was the older ghost’s deal.

She would’ve really preferred if she wasn’t being led out of the village in pursuit of him.

Even if she was safe against whichever Ghost-type moves he could use on her, the other types were still fair game. No matter how much of an expert at Protects and other defensive moves she was, she knew as well as anyone that with no offense of her own, all pure defense would accomplish was forcing the attacker to be more patient.

Of course, all that presumed that it’d come to blows. A possibility that Autumn was reasonably confident wouldn’t happen, but her fears disagreed. And now, it was time to see whether they would be proven right.

Out of everything she expected Yaksha to be doing once she’d finally caught up to him, Shadow Clawing away at a random, snow-covered tree wasn’t it. Each strike was accompanied by a grunt of equal parts rage and regret; each grew ever more potent. None of them physically damaged the tree, but they still eroded it, draining it of whichever passive, motionless life it held—until it couldn’t take any more.

After one last strike, the brittle wood finally shattered under its own weight, sending the log falling toward them both. And while the Banette was either too paralyzed or too unwilling to move out of the way, the Indeedee didn’t have that limitation.

Autumn shrieked as her eyes were overcome with a green flare, her aura enveloping the entire tree. It only lasted a second or so, but even that was enough to redirect it away from them, if at the cost of a pounding headache and draining the elderly Normal-type of much of her remaining strength.

Leaving her defenseless before the grief-stricken ghost.

“~What the hell are you doing here!?~” Yaksha asked; ethereal voice overflowing with fury as his pink eyes drilled into the Indeedee’s very soul.

A part of her wanted to turn and run, but the rest wanted—no, demanded answers. “I can ask—pant—I can ask you the same question. Why did you run, do you have something to do with what happened to Sage—”

“~How DARE you claim that!?~”

Their stare-down had turned into a powder keg in an instant. No matter how righteous in her indignation the Indeedee felt, a more restrained part of her knew nothing good would happen if she pushed the envelope further. She still didn’t trust him one bit, but figured she could take a half step back, even if she didn’t mean it. “I-I’m not, and I apologize for the insinuation. Still, I need to know for Sage’s sake—why did you run?”

Hearing an apology was more effective than Autumn could’ve ever imagined. Instead of calming the Banette down, it outright stunned him; much of his ever intensifying fury evaporated in an instant. It took a while before he found the composure to respond, tone having switched from aggression to... discomfort. “~That’s—that’s none of your business.~”

“Maybe, but as her guardian, it’s definitely Sage’s business. We both want the best for her, don’t we?”

Yaksha had a hard time disagreeing with that logic, much to his unease. He despised having to be introspective like that, only pushing through that dislike because of the ghostly girl. Any other time he’d tried descending that route, he only found a bottomless lake of hateful tears.

“~It’s... I failed her. I’ve been protecting her for weeks now, but couldn’t make her anywhere near as happy as your entire bunch did in the time it took me to nap. I fucked up the only thing that gave this entire existence any purpose, the only thing I had left.~”

The admission took Autumn aback, unexpected in its clarity. It didn’t answer everything, it barely even answered anything, but it made for a great jumping off point. “What do you mean by ‘the only thing you had left’?”

The question made the Banette grow more distressed. For a moment, the Indeedee worried about that emotion reverting to anger, but thankfully, it turned towards despair instead. “~I don’t have anything else. It’s been years, decades since I woke up in this body, and I remember nothing from before I met Sage, and nothing before I first died. Watching over her is the only thing I have, that I ever remember having. If I can’t do that, if I can’t even do this one fucking thing...~”

To Autumn’s fear, his fury made a swift return, aimed at the entire world.

“~THEN WHY AM I STILL HERE?~”​

She watched his body go limp as he turned his face to the sky and unzipped his mouth all the way, letting the pink tendrils of whichever spectral energy that controlled him lash out at the nearby air. It didn’t last more than half a second, but it left the Indeedee slowly reeling backwards. And then; she stopped.

He might not have felt like he had a purpose anymore, but she did. “I—I don’t know. But what I do know is that no matter what mistakes you’ve made previously, you can still fix them. Nothing stops you from being someone who makes Sage happy, nothing stops you from treating her and others more kindly. Or from staying here for good, if that makes her the happiest.” Emboldened, she approached closer; elderly body shaking in the cold as she continued, “You can change, Yaksha. We all can. Do you want to change?”

“~Yes, of course I do! Why the hell wouldn’t I!?~”

“Good. Then I’ll try to help however I can, especially if you two will stay here for longer.”

She sensed the tiniest seed of gratitude within him, before the addition at the end turned it right back into mockery. “~Here? With a human?~”

“Why not? Sage is a human ghost—”

“~YOU’RE LYING—GAH!~”

His momentary outburst ended as soon as it had begun, stunning the Indeedee as the Banette gripped his head. It hurt, all of this hurt; it was as if an invisible knife was stabbing his mind. Agony beyond description, making him fear he was about to finally fade away. And then, it eased out, bit by bit, the wounds of unknown origin gradually mending.

He was still certain this random mon must’ve been lying, but it clearly wasn’t worth getting this angry over either way.

“~I... nevermind. I think I’m—I’m better now.~”

Especially since no matter what their pasts were...

“~Could you... guide me back?~”

...he wanted to be there for Sage until his very end.



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 25: Hell


Chapter 25: Hell



CONTENT WARNING
: Torture, Self-Harm

“~C'mon, keep up!~”

The schoolgirl stared over her shoulder with a flat expression, foot tapping on the underbrush as she waited for her classmate to catch up with her.

Despite her determination, though, he wasn’t anywhere near as eager for their entire plan, especially as it hit him just how bad this entire trip could go. “~S-Susie, maybe we really should t-turn back—~”

“~Joeeeeey, I told you nothing bad’s gonna happen!~”

“~B-but it’s still a wild Mismagius!~”

“~It’s our Mismagius, it won’t hurt us!~”

The boy was well aware of the bespoke local attraction of a ghost not having hurt anyone in recorded history, but that fact filled him with much less confidence than he hoped it would. Nice or not, it was still a wild mon, a powerful wild mon, a powerful wild mon that really enjoyed scaring the nearby kids. Encountering it in person was all but a codified rite of passage at their shoddy little school—enough so to make the headmaster put up larger and larger fences in the backyard to stop them from doing just that—but that didn’t make it any less terrifying.

He would never forget all the examples his personal safety classes gave of just how much wild mons could hurt them. “~C-can’t you do it on your own then? I’ll be back—~”

Before he could even finish turning around, Joey found himself being dragged backwards by the collar of his shirt.

“~You promised it’d be both of us!~” His friend reminded. “~Nothing bad is gonna happen to us, come ooooon!~”

“~T-the headmaster is gonna be so upset...~”

“~She’s upset at everyone; we’ll be fine. Sigh...~”

After having to waddle in reverse for the past few moments to keep his balance, the boy suddenly could stand up straight again. Susie pleaded, distraught, “~Don’t you wanna meet it, Joey? Not every hole in the ground has their own friendly ghost, you know.~”

That particular line of persuasion was much more effective, giving the boy a pause. It was true, ’their’ Mismagius sure looked to be much friendlier than almost all other wild mons—and definitely more so than other wild ghosts—but it still left doubts. What if one moment it would just... stop being friendly? What if they suddenly went from an undead prankster landmark to an active threat that the League would have to send someone in to deal with?

He’s had this kind of chat many times in the past, both with Susie and his other classmates. They were right in that nothing stopped a human with a gun from also turning on their friends on a whim and killing them in moments, but it never quite sat right with him. The distinction between man and mon was still there, right?

Wild mons loved to fight, after all. That was supposed to be the one trait they all shared, the love of fighting that was then fulfilled in league battles. Obviously, ’their’ Mismagius would’ve been battling plenty in its ‘spare’ time and getting their fill that way, but what if it just didn’t? What if it had to make do with using them as targets for its practice? It was dumb; it didn’t sound all too plausible even for him, but it was still possible, right?

And if it happened, there would be absolutely nothing they could do to save themselves.

“~Joey?~” his friend asked.

The body shuddered, “~S-sorry, it’s... it’s scary.~”

“~A bit, but it’s gonna be alright! Worst case happens you can use me as a meat shield, ha!~”

Susie’s joking tone sent a shiver down Joey’s back as he begrudgingly continued. No matter how much he wanted to turn back, he knew he’d be kicking himself down for not taking the chance, even without taking others’ goading into account. Plus, there were a couple of trainers in Lillywood right now, right? They’d keep them all safe.

That’s what they were here for, after all.

“~Okay, I think we’re there!~” the girl squeed as her friend took the area in. All that distinguished this particular stretch of snowy woodland from any other one was its thick, suffocating silence.

Already their companion before then; it had grown more intense in here, even getting to Susie. She asked, “~Can you see it anywhere?~”

The boy looked over his shoulder before completing a full spin, not making out any purple amidst the hibernating trees. “~N-no—~”

crack!

The sound of a snapping stick had both schoolkids dash over to the nearest tree, trying to peek from behind it. Their hearts hammered, their eyes dashed to the sides, their ears desperately tried to hear something, anything. Again and again, only them, only the wintry forest, only silence.

“~Do you think that was it?~” Susie whispered, making Joey shake harder as he grew close to hyperventilating. Knowing about the infamous ghost was one thing; feeling like he was now completely at its mercy was worse, much worse.

His feet felt rooted to the dirt and his hands to the rough, dark bark; mind bounced between ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ like a pinball machine. “~I-I hope not, please t-turn back...~”

“~Come—come on, it has to be near—~”

“What are you two looking for...?”

The sequence of actions played out just like dozens of others Cypress had seen and caused in the past, letting her savor the scares around her as her prediction was fulfilled yet again. A pair of screams, some shrieked words, then two sets of steps racing away, nourishing and amusing her in equal measure—

...

Oh...?

A louder thud ended one set of crunching steps, breaking the routine. The associated fearful emotions seemed to have stopped in place too—and only kept growing stronger. Unusual, but hardly something she couldn’t handle. Though she would likely need a more... gentle approach here. Cheap scares were one thing, but the kind of terror going through this kid’s head was downright dangerous, if not resolved quickly.

Taking a deep breath, Cypress opened her eyes and looked around, the sight confirming her other senses. One of the kids had indeed tripped, and now was attempting to play dead. Badly. A silly course of action when dealing with ghosts in its own right, though ultimately understandable. Especially when born of a genuine, itself-haunting fear of death.

Something Cypress could help with, at least.

After floating over to the curled up child—whistling a cheerful tune the entire time to let them know where she was—the Mismagius got to work with her chants. This one she hadn’t had to use too often, the incident with Anne a couple of days ago notwithstanding. She was really glad it worked then, and was reasonably confident it would do so now, too.

Ethereal sounds wove themselves into an eldritch chant, its impact perceptible right away. The child’s hammering heart eased out by the moment, as did the powerful shaking that gripped them. Word by word, Cypress devoured their terror, sating herself while leaving only a cool calmness behind. Hardly the most nourishing of treats, especially when this intense, but between the undead equivalent to a heartburn and this innocent kid possibly developing a traumatic disorder, Cypress knew which one she preferred.

By the time she was done, the lil’ human had gone from being certain they were about to die, to observing her floating horizontally above them with curiosity. Not the most subtle of shifts, but that didn’t make it any less appreciated.

There we go. Now let’s get you up...” the Mismagius whispered, reaching over to grasp the child’s hand with her tendrils. Even after she began to pull, it took them a while to piece together what she was doing; muted calmness turning to slight embarrassment as they picked themselves up. By the time they were on their feet, their friend had finally emerged from behind the nearby tree and dared to get closer again.

Not wanting to waste a good spooking opportunity, Cypress had hovered right in front of their friend’s face in the time it took them to take a step. It sent them scrambling backwards with enough suddenness to make their hat fall off, unleashing more long hair than the ghost expected to see. The first kid found it funny, letting the Mismagius laugh at the second one’s expense guilt-free.

She was glad that she could help her friends and people in this silly way.

Once the second child was up again, the two humans exchanged some words for a while, contents unknown beyond a general feeling of excitement. Hardly unearned, making her feel a bit proud for turning this nigh-accident around. Both the kids were fine now; they each got their thrills—and now, it was time for them to leave.

The Scary Face that followed was as gentle as the Mismagius could manage. Enough to send them scrambling with some fright, but not to elicit the same ‘I’m going to die’ reaction as earlier. Hell, it was weak enough for the two kids to even break out into laughter in the distance; the ghost not hesitating to join them once she’d heard the telltale sound.

Cypress sometimes felt bad that her particular role as a scout was so amusing, whereas everyone else’s... wasn’t.

They had all reassured her they didn’t mind, and even the Elders had stressed that being a living distraction was immensely helpful, but the doubts kept creeping back up, anyway. Could be Anne’s messy situation, could be her pushing this one kid way too hard earlier, could be her forgetting to bring Anne breakfast and leaving the poor kid starving for half of yesterday.

Having to use her own advice wasn’t ever pleasant, but sometimes she needed it.

Her people trust her, and it’s only right for her to extend that grace to herself.

Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t reflect and think about where she’d gone wrong. Her usual whispered jumpscare tended to work just fine for kids the age of these two, slightly older than Anne. She hadn’t had anyone react too intensely to one of those in a while, and wondered how much of that was her versus any preexisting fear.

...

Yeah, it was likely the latter. Little she could do but try to rein it back next time. It was a bit worrisome considering Anne’s situation, though, and Cypress hoped that their oversized reaction had nothing to do with the other human’s disappearance. Sure didn’t feel like it did, at least.

And now; it was time to wait for the next group of thrill-seeking kids.

Over the past few years, she’d come up with a pretty simple mental flowchart on how to scare the different age groups coming her way. Younger kids needed forewarning, even something as underwhelming as her just slowly floating at them from a distance was plenty scary. Many of the oldest kids, though, needed more to really get them rattled, up to and including a weak Hex to confuse them combined with an Astonish.

Some didn’t care about any of that either way, and just... hung out in the vicinity sometimes. Cypress liked to think she remembered all the ‘regulars’ by now, enough to skip on any frights in the future—except for the adrenaline junkies that came over specifically to get absolutely spooked. Definitely a couple of repeat offenders like that, the thought making the Mismagius chuckle, echoing through the cold woods.

Hmm.

Oh dear, she’d spent so much time thinking that she hadn’t even noticed more humans approach. Focusing on them, she clearly recognized the two kids from earlier, paired with a third, slightly older aura. One of the older kids came to escort them back here? She supposed that deserved another of her typical openings—

Suddenly, a movement in her peripheral vision, something flying at her,

And darkness.














What is…

you will be safe you are safe it will be okay it will be okay there is nothing to fear it will be okay

Is this a dream...

a better life awaits you you are loved you are loved i love you you will love it you are loved a better life awaits you i love you no more worries a better life awaits you i won't hurt you

No, this isn't real, where am I...

you belong here i love you your past was hell give in this is your purpose you belong here i won't hurt you i will save you this is your purpose give in you are lost on your own give in your past was hell no more pain your past was hell the wilderness hurts you will love it

No, it wasn't, I have friends, I have family...

it will be okay it will be okay give in you have no choice you have no choice you love this feeling you have no choice i love you give in i love you you will die on your own you have no choice you will die on your own you want this this is your purpose you need this you will die on your own you have no choice you want this i love you it will be okay this or death you need this you love this feeling

This is a lie, let go of me…

i love you struggling is pointless i love you don't fight this you want this let it happen i love you let it happen you love this feeling i will save you i love you you are mine struggling is pointless i love you you love this feeling you are mine don't fight this you need this you want this you are mine struggling is pointless don't fight this you want this give in let it happen you are mine

LET GO OF ME!

you are mine you have no choice you are mine it will be okay I LOVE YOU you love this feeling I LOVE YOU you love this feeling i will save you you have no choice i will save you you have no choice I LOVE YOU it will be okay it will be okay i will save you I LOVE YOU submit struggling is pointless you love this feeling give in submit it will be okay it will be okay let it happen don't fight this it will be okay submit it will be okay don't fight this you have no choice you love this feeling submit let it happen YOU WANT THIS

I

i will save you give in you can't resist give up give in i will save you i will save you i will save you I LOVE YOU YOU NEED THIS submit YOU NEED THIS YOU NEED THIS give in you can't resist give up give in you can't resist submit I LOVE YOU give up i will save you give in submit i will save you i will save you i will save you I LOVE YOU YOU NEED THIS give in i will save you YOU NEED THIS YOU NEED THIS submit I LOVE YOU i will save you I LOVE YOU let it happen give up i will save you give in give up i will save you

ALREADY

GIVE IN YOU LOVE THIS you can't resist submit LET IT HAPPEN give up submit YOU LOVE THIS submit you can't resist GIVE IN YOU NEED THIS SURRENDER YOU NEED THIS SURRENDER submit YOU LOVE THIS SURRENDER SURRENDER submit SURRENDER SURRENDER YOU NEED THIS I LOVE YOU GIVE IN give up YOU LOVE THIS LET IT HAPPEN you can't resist YOU NEED THIS I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU YOU NEED THIS SURRENDER give up GIVE IN give up YOU NEED THIS give up GIVE IN YOU NEED THIS YOU LOVE THIS I LOVE YOU YOU LOVE THIS I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU YOU NEED THIS submit give up SURRENDER submit give up I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU YOU NEED THIS YOU NEED THIS give up

HAVE

GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN GIVE IN

A HOME!


An instant later, the world had returned.

And everything hurt.

Her soul was crushed, her mind was torn. She had been shoved out of the warmest, most blissful sensation of her existence into the frigid nothing. It wasn’t real, but it blinded her all the same; tormented her through its disappearance.

A part of her begged for that warmth to return no matter how large a price—she needed it, it would keep her safe, it would keep her loved! She resisted the call, but knew that no earthly joy could replicate the lie that had almost crushed her mind in its grasp.

Her eyes looked, but could barely see.

On the snow beneath her, scraps of metal, of white, of black, of yellow. In the distance, the two children from before near the third human, older and wearier. The Snubbull beside the latter reeled back at her reappearance, catching the humans’ attention. She saw the trainer turn to her in shock, backing a couple of paces.

Her ears heard, but could barely listen.

The kids’ angry shouts at the trainer turned into gasps at their ghostly friend escaping the ball, and then into cheers. Ecstatic, relieved, all but unnoticed as the Mismagius’ focus remained on the older human. Aghast whispers, soon accompanied by their mon’s high-pitched growls.

And then, the trainer reached for another of their cursed balls, and something snapped deep inside Cypress.

The little ones returned to shouting, going as far as trying to tackle the older human and pry the ball out of their hands. The Mismagius couldn’t see, couldn’t notice any of that. There was no warmth left in her, no joy, none that could compare to the blinding lies she barely clawed herself away from. Nothing but the freezing coldness of regular existence, nobody but the monster of a human before her.

It angered her, and with no love to counterbalance them, the flames of her fury consumed her.

Cypress’s body thrashed as a fierce flare took over her eyes and searing rage over her mind. She only felt the emotions of the trainer turn fearful and the children—surprised. She glared at them, through them, her gaze’s intensity freezing the humans in place as her worst impulses soared, unopposed.

They deserved to suffer.

She lifted a tentacle, brought it to her neck—

“CURSE UPON YOU.”

—and slashed across it.

The trainer shrieked as their hands reached for their neck. They needed to tear at it, their skin was too tight, they had to claw it open now now NOW NOW NOW—

The kids backed off in terror at seeing this stranger forcibly hurting themselves. They turned to the Mismagius, pleading for help in panic, but she only stared, her crooked grin turning even wider. This worthless trainer bled, and Cypress’ burning anger roared in glee. Their pet watched in horror, growls turning to pitiful yelps.

Terrified as they were, the Snubbull knew they had to do something.

The Fairy-type leaped at her, snapping Cypress out of her immediate shock as her Curse continued. She saw the pitch-black energy gather around the other mon’s maw an instant before it would’ve clamped down on her, Shadow Sneaking away just in time. They were guilty; they were a part of this; they deserved to suffer too.

Cypress’ eyes glowed with a red flare as tentacles slashed the air. Each of their slices tore through reality, unleashing erratic, purple Hexes that honed in on the Snubbull. With a well-practiced motion, the Fairy-type dodged sideways at the last moment, following up with another attempted Bite.

Leaving themselves open for another Ghost-type barrage.

The Mismagius floated backwards, leaving more Hexes in her wake, striking true with their target airborne. They should’ve been left reeling, barely alive—if even that. Instead, they only flinched for a second after landing, before attacking yet again.

Cypress stared wide-eyed before retreating into another Shadow Sneak, the sight not making any sense. They were just a pre-evolved juvenile, and yet they kept on fighting after taking the brunt of her move, something she doubted even many of her fellow scouts would’ve managed. Didn’t matter.

The rage-consumed Mismagius focused her strength in one spot this time, coalescing her power into a Shadow Ball. She launched it with a shriek, honing it on the constantly moving Snubbull. They stood their ground this time, a flare of a Protect surrounding their body as they headbutted the spectral projectile, deflecting it downwards, the resulting explosion sending a cloud of snowy mist into the air.

And dashed again, not letting Cypress rest even for a moment. She had to stop them.

With a backwards dodge, she came to a stop, focusing on the twitchy Fairy-type and letting them approach. The instant they’d dash in front of her, she’d lock them down with a Mean Look and dispatch with another Shadow Ball—

Unfortunately for Cypress, her opponent had the bare minimum of combat experience and saw the most obvious bait in the world for what it was. The Snubbull’s ear-wrenching shriek only threw further kindling onto the flames of Cypress’ fury, shattering any strategic restraint she might’ve forced upon herself. Taunted, she immediately tried striking back, focusing for another Shadow Ball.

And then, burning pain shot through her entire side, knocking her out of her hateful fever. She got a glimpse of the Snubbull with the piece of her in their maw before retreating again as sudden clarity hit her. The past few minutes felt like she’d been a prisoner in her own body, only able to watch as it spread its suffering and dispensed what it considered justice.

To her relief, the trainer was still alive, constantly thrashing against their Curse as the two kids forcibly kept their blood-stained hands away from their throat. She’d done this; she’d scarred them for life, and there was nothing she could do to undo this. Her single whisper undid the human’s compulsion, making them cry out in pain.

Another dodge had the Mismagius hovering away from the horror of her own creation, mind torn between loathing at what she’d just done and evading the Snubbull. Guilt could come later; now she had to get out of there.

Her opponent wouldn’t let her. Each time she tried to Shadow Sneak, or even just dodge, they’d be waiting for her, pushing her back towards her sins with each attempted Bite. Even once she attacked them again, it amounted to nothing; the few Hexes that hit only barely slowed them down.

Everyone, please help me!

Even if her fellow scouts heard her cry, it’d take time she didn’t have until they’d arrive. All the while, the gaping wound in her spectral flesh barraged her with pain, each dodge coming harder and harder. In desperation, she attempted another Shadow Ball from up close, hoping they wouldn’t manage to Protect themselves in time—

And indeed, they didn’t.

The shadowy projectile went right through where the Snubbull was, dispelling the Double Team illusion before careening towards the small band of humans. The kids froze in the middle of dragging the trainer away from the battle, paralyzed in fear as it approached too fast to react to. With her utmost effort, Cypress steered the bolt away from them at the last moment, the nearby bang making them shriek in fear.

And left herself exposed.

Another Bite left her barely standing, leaving glowing teeth marks in its wake. They struck again before she could even finish reeling. She only made it halfway through her Shadow Sneak before having to stop, the last of her strength waning fast. In desperation, she tried hovering into the trunk of a nearby tree right after a dodge, hoping her opponent would lose track of her.

Instead, a Crunch ripped the tree in half just an inch below where she hid, a grazing Bite finishing her before she got over her own shock. She went from hiding to splayed out on the snow in a matter of seconds, barely clinging to her afterlife.

A pitiful way to go, but hardly undeserved.

Cypress could only watch the trained mon approach as she laid incapacitated, pain gripping her body in a vise. Whether they were about to tear her spectral throat out or merely let their human have another go at her with their demonic balls, she was as good as dead.

She’d only barely resisted that hell the first time; she wouldn’t last an instant now.

Cypress closed her eyes and waited as the Snubbull approached, their growls terrifying despite their whininess. For a split second, she tried concentrating on a Pain Split, just needing them to come just that bit closer—

And only earned herself yet another Taunt, forcing the weakest of whines out of her, and nothing else. She couldn’t move as she watched the trainer slowly pick themselves back up in the distance; couldn’t act as they approached, pressing a scarf to their throat. The human kids weren’t far behind, gasping at seeing ‘their’ ghost in her current state, shouting something at the older human.

Right as she was about to give up entirely, the trainer’s confused, aghast words echoing in her mind, the Mismagius felt a familiar aura approach fast. With a quiet wail, she reached out a tentacle, attempting to drag herself away as a distraction. The Fairy behind her growled louder, preparing for another strike to put her in her place.

Only for a Bullet Punch to send them rocketing back towards their trainer.

Before Cypress knew it, Lariat stood before her. His usual dispassionate focus had turned intense and ferocious, bangles raised as he predicted the Fairy-type’s next move. Despite taking a Steel-type move, the Snubbull barely looked worse for the wear, effortlessly pushing through the painful bruise on their side.

The trainer gasped at the Fighting-type’s sudden appearance, shouting something at their mon. They reached for another ball attached to their belt, but by then, their Snubbull was already on the move, paw glowing as they prepared for a Brick Break—

Lariat’s Iron Head knocked them out mid-swing.

The Fairy’s pink body smashed into a small pile of snow, twitching as they desperately tried to keep fighting. A glowing red beam stopped them in their tracks before they disappeared, leaving just the two scouts, the two onlooker children, and a trainer paralyzed in pain and fear.

“Cypress—” the Lucario shouted.

We need to get away, now...

As much as Lariat wanted to enact justice on the humans for daring to hurt his friend, he knew that avoiding further fighting was the correct choice, deep inside. Inching backwards, he picked Cypress’ damaged body up. She clung onto him with whatever strength she had left, peeking over his shoulder as they backed off.

The trainer collapsed whether they stood, shaking as they reached out for another of those balls. It made Lariat stop and brace himself, fists raised at the potential threat. The human didn’t even notice, pressing a button on the device’s side. An instant later, a Servine stood before them, dazedly taking their surroundings in, growing more terrified by the moment.

Cypress looked at the two human kids she was friendly with just moments ago, and saw the same lethal fear as one of them had earlier.

And this time, to her horror, it was justified.


The Mismagius barely paid any attention to where Lariat was taking her; barely capable of thinking about anything but her guilt. Even the pain of her body screaming at all the blows it took paled compared to the awareness of just what she had done in her burst of rage. Even if they were an actual trainer, the kind that wished only to contain them and use them for battling, she still almost murdered them with their own hands.

If not for ‘their’ mon snapping her out of her fury, she would’ve succeeded, the thought making her nauseous.

Was it even truly her doing it? That Snubbull striking her felt like it had forced her out of her furious thoughts, like everything before then was her psyche’s violent reaction to what the trainer’s ball had inflicted upon her. Was that the case? Was her mind just making it up to absolve her conscience of guilt? Did any of it even matter in the light of her almost having taken a life?

If she had enough strength left in her to cry, she would’ve.

A distant shuddering sensation made Cypress look up to see her coworker Teleport in and run over, aghast. Before the Gardevoir could even say anything, a bird cry coming from above marked the arrival of another scout; Lucere no less distraught at the scene than Aria was.

“^Cypress, Lariat, what happened?^” the Gardevoir gasped, stepping closer to tend to the ghost’s injuries without waiting for a response.

She wasn’t a healer, but even an unskilled Heal Pulse beat no Heal Pulse, making her focus on applying whichever healing she could as the Lucario spoke up, “After I heard their alarm, I ran over to Cypress’ position. They were being attacked by a trainer’s Snubbull, whom I then incapacitated. We then made our way out without further fighting.”

“Trainer attack ya, Cypress?” Lucere asked, her chirped out question making the Mismagius flinch. The answer was simultaneously dead simple—yes, they have—and made messier by their mon’s actions being entirely reasonable considering what she then did.

She wasn’t looking forward to explaining it one bit, but knew she had to. “There’s… pant more to it than that...

Aria appreciated the confirmation, but the unspoken implication left her even more worried than before. “^What do you mean, Cypress?^”

They—they hit me with one of their balls...

The frigid hilltop grew dead silent at the Mismagius’ revelation. All of her coworkers were wrestling with a mix of ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘how did you survive that’, and ‘what was it like’ in their minds, but it would be the Gardevoir that gave the voice to these questions first, “^Was it that ball that hurt you this badly?^”

Hardly... it doesn’t hurt the body, merely the mind...” the Mismagius whispered. Her explanation didn’t make a lick of sense, and she was well aware.

“^What did you see?^”

Aria didn’t want to rush her, giving her all the time she needed to process what she’d seen and describe it, if possible. The sounds, the sights, they escaped description, refusing to even let themselves be remembered. All Cypress could do was go over how it felt, itself a nigh impossible task because of the sheer magnitudes involved. “Heaven. Love so intense, I almost believed in it. Hell.

Neither Aria nor Lariat put words to their subsequent confusion. They didn’t need to, the brief glimpses they saw of the Mismagius’ recollection harrowing enough to answer for the ghost plenty. Lucere didn’t have access to that, though, leaving her tilting her head in bewilderment. “That doesn’t say much.”

Words fail to even come close to describing it…

The Gardevoir was unsure how to respond, torn between offering the ghost comfort and giving her time and space after having to recall something so overwhelming. Eventually, she settled on the latter; the choice appreciated by the Mismagius in question. After she’d gotten a grip on herself again, the Mismagius continued, “After I broke out, my mind felt broken. I felt an intense rage at the trainer, and couldn’t stop, or even control it. It was as if it took over me, and I attacked them...

As harrowing as the previous admission was, this one was even more dire for their village as a whole. Cypress wasn’t blind to that fact, clarifying soon after, “My Curse didn’t kill them, but it came close. Their Snubbull attacked to defend them, understandably so...

The elaboration provided relief, but only so much. The other scouts were still concerned about the ramifications of one of them having attacked a human, even if they were a ‘trainer’. For a moment, Aria wondered whether dashing in there and trying to erase that entire incident from their memories could’ve been an option, but discarded it soon after.

She’d seen memory meddling cause enough pain already; there was no way to use it here without raising further alarm. “^The trainer is still alive, right?^”

“They were when we left, yes,” Lariat confirmed.

I don’t think they lost enough blood to be at risk of death...

‘Think’ was the load-bearing word of that sense, and everyone gathered was well aware.

“Sounds like ya need another role then, Cy!” Lucere chirped. “If that one there got so infamous you got a trainer on ya tail, who knows if all this won’t happen again.”

The thought about abandoning her current post hurt Cypress even harder than the Bite that tore a part of her body off. She didn’t disagree with the Altaria’s observation—she couldn’t go back there, not after subjecting these poor kids to all that. They wouldn’t ever think of her as anything but a bloodthirsty, terrifying beast ever again—and considering what had happened today, they were entirely justified in that.

It didn’t make any of it hurt any less.

I concur... An ordinary sort of patrol route, or-or another location to haunt a-and draw attention to...

All three scouts could tell something was very wrong, be it by sensing the ghost’s emotions or by focusing on her wavering voice. With Lariat and Lucere alike playing their expectant focus on Aria, the Gardevoir sighed and asked again, more softly this time, “^Cypress, did something else happen?^”

The Gardevoir offered the ghost a hand, eagerly accepted and held as firmly as the Mismagius could manage. This was almost entirely unlike the Cypress they knew, leaving the trio concerned for their coworker. The Lucario didn’t know how to express that emotion at all, and all the Altaria did was perch beside the ghost and try to pat her back with her wing, but it was appreciated all the same.

A part of the ghost didn’t want to bring it up at all, not with her current company. And if she’d been any less worn down, that part might’ve even come out on top—but not this time. “I have crossed a line. I had grown closer and closer to these little humans that would visit me, but now can never go back. I’ll only ever be a monster to them now...

Lariat kept his eye roll under his eyelids while Aria held the ghost’s tentacle tighter. She might not have had any particular platitudes or advice for a situation like this, but the Gardevoir still hoped she’d be able to make all this at least slightly less terrible for her friend.

Lucere, unfortunately, didn’t keep her response in her throat. “Sigh, as if that wasn’t already the case. They’d never think of us as people.”

The audacity of these words snapped the Mismagius out of her loathing spiral in an instant; her red eyes narrowed on the Altaria. What followed might not have been a magical incantation, but was just as spirited. “No, it was not. They never thought of me as someone that would bring them harm. Scare them for fun, indeed, but never beyond that. Never, ever hurt them...”

No matter how forceful Cypress was in her delivery, her point kept flying over its recipient’s blue head. A part of her wanted to snap at them for continuing their affection despite the terrible things they were saying, but couldn’t find the strength for it.

The Altaria continued, “I’ve no idea why ya keep insistin’ that, Cy! That’s what all humans see us as, lesser things to be scorned or hated that are gonna hurt them, and nothin’ more!”

Despite not feeling like she had the strength for anything but levitating anymore—and even that was only thanks to Aria’s help—the Mismagius felt a nigh-irresistible urge to Shadow Ball the bird.

You know nothing about what these kids thought of me. I have seen human little ones run to me for protection from their older peers, one I granted them each time. I have seen children so profoundly sad they felt mere meters away from the brink. I couldn’t talk with them about it, I couldn’t chant away that kind of sadness—but I could be there for them. Keep them company as they wept, as they screamed, as they processed their pain...

Cypress’s point of view didn’t let her see the reaction on Lucere’s face. She saw Aria’s, though, one of equal parts surprise, gratitude, and awe—and it was enough to keep her going.

At no point did they think of me as a ‘lesser thing to be scorned’. As someone different, yes, but they treated me with kindness, regardless. Even if they couldn’t understand me, even if I couldn’t understand them, I was still someone they could turn to beyond just a cheap scare. I was just as much a person to them as they were to me…

Even if the Mismagius kept her anger in check much better here than she did with the human, she knew full well it wasn’t any more productive. It was a deeply personal topic to her, and she hoped this pointed explanation was enough to get Lucere to respect her experiences, even if not necessarily agree—

“Pleeease, even our kin can’t get over the smallest of differences! Why would humans be any better?”

Cypress had enough. “What ‘our kin’, Lucere? Are you implying that our village is near as virulently hateful as how you are, or imagine all humans to be...?

At last, she’d hit where it hurt. The Altaria wasted no time flying around to look the ghost in the eye, her anger quickly matching Cypress’. “I’m not hateful! The frickin’ humans are! I’m just sayin’—”

Just saying what, that you’re more eager to paint all humans as equal monsters than to believe my own experiences with them? To project your own bigotry onto an entire kin!?

“How—how could you call me bigoted!? Don’t you know what I’ve been—”

I can because I do know. Not everyone is as cruel as your flock was, Lucere. Certainly not everyone of a kin. And...” A part of Cypress wanted to stop there and then, to convey her point without going directly for the jugular. She said ‘fuck it’ to that concern, though—Lucere has had it coming for a while. “And if you keep up your bigotry against untold myriads of people just because they look different to you, then you’re no better than your flock exiling you because of what’s between your bloody legs…

The staring contest that followed almost turned hot despite only lasting seconds.

Cypress felt Lucere’s visceral rage and pain at being compared to her own oppressors, felt the subconscious thrashes of darker emotions that had almost persuaded her to pay her back for such an insult. Underneath those—sadness, grief, and guilt—constantly attempted to be covered up with anger. She had struck deep, and hoped it’d be enough to get through to someone who used to look up to her as a mentor.

The Altaria’s knee-jerk fury wouldn’t last for long, not with the emotional injury it disguised being so painful. The other two scouts were too stunned to butt in beyond focusing on being able to put up a Protect should the situation grow even worse. Eventually, Lucere’s pain finally breached her eyes and flew down her cheeks, making her take off without a word.

And then; there were three.

With the Altaria gone, Cypress clung even tighter to Lariat, left drained after the spat. Next to her, Aria chewed through what to do now. Changing the Mismagius’ patrolling route was an obvious next step, but the specifics were the kind of thing they’d ideally consult the Elders about. Her previous spot was perfect, drawing a lot of attention from the surrounding humans—including those that would otherwise go deeper into the woods and possibly stumble upon their village.

The Gardevoir had no idea if there was any other location nearby that would be as effective at pulling the humans’ attention towards itself as Cypress’ spot was—

...

But there was someone who could know.

The thought redirected her attention over to the Lucario beside her, the awkward situation from earlier leaving him standing idly, uncertain of what he was supposed to do now. Helping his coworker back to safety was the obvious next step, but it felt like the current discussion wasn’t over, either. Lariat focused on Aria at sensing her thinking about him, making her finally speak up.

“^I’m wondering where else could Cypress go to keep on drawing attention once they recover.^”

A telepathic whisper sent the Mismagius’ way let her know to remain quiet. Persuading Lucere to a less bigoted position went... about as well as it could realistically have, but Aria had higher hopes for the Lucario. Whether they’d be justified, it remained to be seen.

Fingers crossed.

After a solid minute of agonizing silence, Lariat finally picked up the conversation, just so that someone would. “What were you considering, Aria?”

“^Not a whole lot myself, sadly. I don’t know what the nearby humans consider landmarks, and figure that Cypress focusing her efforts on one of them would work out the best for us. Though... there is someone who does know that, much more so than I do.^”

The most obvious rhetorical trap has been laid, now to see whether it would end up catching—

“The human in our village?”

That was easy.

“^Indeed! Anne is a local. She surely knows of a better place for Cypress to haunt.^”

To Aria’s consternation, she couldn’t see a single iota of reaction leave Lariat’s ironclad head at that observation. It was understood perfectly well, and yet it somehow did not bring any thought to him. As if he just... sincerely didn’t care one bit about that. Cypress might not have been able to pick up on his emotions with as much clarity as the Gardevoir, but a lack of spoken response let her figure that too.

And, as opposed to Aria, she had a better idea about where to steer the discussion instead. “I can’t believe she just spat at my words...

The underlying emotions were as genuine as they got, helping in catching the Lucario’s attention as the ghost continued, “I meant all I said in my recollection. These kids really thought of me as a person, as one of them, even...

Aria and Lariat alike paid close focus, curious to see where the ghost would take that insight.

We had no way of talking, no way of understanding. And yet, they all knew I wasn’t all that different. Certainly scary, but not evil...

Cypress feared that the last point wouldn’t remain true for long, but this wasn’t the time to fret about it.

If our dear Anne is any indication, these kids knew enough about my kin to ought to be terrified. But they weren’t. They thought of me as one of them, even without communication, even if we couldn’t do much together...

As the Mismagius thought on, she lost the battle against her own tears, clenching her eyes soon after.

It makes me imagine what could’ve been. If we spoke a shared language, if we understood each other as equals. If they could talk with me about what ails them, if I could be more than a spectral head to lean on. Infeasible now with my specific situation, yes, but...

She didn’t have to finish the sentence to sense Lucario’s thoughts having gone where she wanted them to. This topic elicited much more thought than the previous one—in that it elicited any thought at all—bringing quiet reassurance to Cypress and Aria alike. Whether it would end up amounting to anything, they would see in a few hours.

Until then, though, one ghost in particular needed medical attention post haste.

“^Cypress, take it easy today,^” Aria reassured. “^Don’t worry about your scouting; we’ll pick up the slack until you get better. There’s a lil’ deathborn ghost at the clinic. She might appreciate you showing her some ropes once you get there~.^”

With the main reason behind the Mismagius being eager for her scouting gone, Aria’s reassurances fell flat. She wasn’t worrying about her duty, but instead about the dozens upon dozens of human kids that might end up traumatized by proxy at hearing what she’d done.

The remark about the ghost at the clinic, however, caught her attention right back. It wouldn’t be the same, she knew that well, but she sure as hell wouldn’t oppose helping a lil’ kid feel better. “Curious... Well, dear Aria, you have caught my interest...

“^In which case, let’s not waste any more time here~.^”

Lariat didn’t have to be implied at twice, making sure Cypress was holding onto him well before taking off into another Extreme Speed. In a blink, Aria was left alone once more. All that remained was to turn back around towards her patrol route, head out,

And keep hoping that the nervous thoughts she kept having about Marco were just her overactive anxiety.



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Interlude VI: Opportunity


Interlude VI: Opportunity



CONTENT WARNING
: Mentions of Suicide

“Now stopping at: ROSEBURN CRESCENT.”

The ailing headphones’ tinny tune left the announcer’s call only barely audible. Their music was one of her few remaining comforts left—the very last, if her plan ended up not working out. Emma shook at the thought, but didn’t let it take over her mind. She would need all the clarity and focus for what she was about to do she could get her hands on.

Her gesture to stash the earbuds back into her jacket pocket caught the attention of her companion, making them hop off their seat and onto the floor of the bus. It netted them a profoundly exhausted chuckle. Which, in turn, drew their attention back over to their human.

“Not yet Spots, not yet.”

With their overeager response diffused, the Snubbull hopped back onto the seat, turning to look at their human in concern. She hasn’t been doing well for... a while now. Her mood only got worse each time the Fairy-type had lost on the battlefield. Affirmations weren’t far behind when that happened, neither were reassurances that Spots wasn’t the problem—or Noodles, for that matter. Not... inherently so, at least.

Without any distractions, Emma’s thoughts inevitably steered back to money. So dumb, so anxiety-inducing, so necessary.

So sorely lacking.

She’d done and re-done the math again and again, only ever arriving at the same result each time. Between the monthly League stipends, the pittance she got her parents to send her when she reminded them she was—in fact—still underage, and the expenses of food, Pokecenter visits, having somewhere to sleep at, and other supplies, she needed to be winning around three battles a month for the League-issued prize money to keep her afloat.

The last time her team had won was almost half a year ago.

Week by week, her upbeat attitude about it all wavered. With each loss, her battle record turned from a streak of bad luck to a scathing indictment of her as a trainer. Reserved strategies, hyper-offense, even playing as defensive as possible while trying to abuse Noodles’ Leech Seed.

Nothing worked, nothing kept working. Each time, her optimism only lasted until the first barrage of blows was exchanged, until the loathed truth shoved itself into her face yet again—Spots and Noodles just weren’t strong enough.

Emma had tried the same training regimen as everyone else, but just couldn’t keep going. It hurt her friends so, so much, leaving them almost fainted every time. She refused to settle on that being the only way forward. There was no way that everyone who’d climbed further had only managed to do so through misery. She remained resolute that her team could keep moving on and keep growing stronger without it, without subjecting them to that kind of hell.

And then; they didn’t.

That’s not what any of this should’ve been about.

Sure, rigorous training was a part of their journey, but it wasn’t supposed to be the only one! The dreams of it being all about friendship and bonds were childish oversimplification—she knew that well—but a part of her kept hoping they weren’t all bunk. That, deep inside, there really was a kernel of truth to them all, and that a no-name upstart like her could make it did if she just kept trying.

Because the alternative... there wasn’t one.

“Now stopping at: SATOSHI STREET.”

whi-whine?

Spots’ audible concern snapped her human out of her anxious thoughts, making her hold the Snubbull closer. None of this was her fault, none of this should’ve been her fault. Neither she nor Noodles deserved to be forced to suffer just to keep their human afloat. Emma had promised herself that she’d rather take her own life than stain those of her companions with constant, agonizing training.

She wasn’t dim enough as to not plan for this exact outcome, though. The mere presence of the sturdy, winter-proof tent inside her large camping backpack was a cruel joke she herself and the world alike had played on her. Snap-purchased in an anxious mental breakdown a few months ago, constantly laughed about for weeks afterwards.

Looming ever taller over her as losses piled up.

If the push came to shove, Emma was confident that she’d be able to endure for a good while out in the wilderness. She wasn’t sure how exactly, but Noodles should’ve had some way of coaxing wintering berry bushes into producing more fruit. If that failed too, petty theft. Going back wasn’t an option, leaving only ‘through’,

Or ‘out’.

She hated even considering becoming a statistic, but couldn’t deny having grown... distressingly comfortable thinking about it. Her friends would be alright with or without her. They’d grown stronger than most wild mons by now, enough so where she couldn’t even imagine them ever getting into legitimate danger. Her fate wasn’t their responsibility.

And, if survival at every cost was really what she was after, she could just lie through her teeth once she inevitably circled back to her family’s doorstep. She could say that he’d failed his journey, kowtow before his parents, and beg for forgiveness. Then, once they got their fill of expressing their anger—verbally or not—they’d magnanimously let him stay at their house while he rushed through catchup classes for failed trainers, together with hundreds of others.

And many, many years later, if she just kept grinding, kept lying through her teeth, one day she’d finally carve out a safe space for herself in this world. She sure wouldn’t ever have one at ‘home’. Not with people that already barely tolerated her before her journey—only agreed to because it’d get him out of the house—and the... personal revelations she had over its course.

...

Murder on her mind, again.

It was a theoretical that was as intoxicating to fantasize about as it was harrowing to consider the implications of. Not for herself—she didn’t fancy a life sentence, making a murder-suicide an obvious choice—but for her friends. If they were found to have had a part in it, they’d be hunted to the ends of the earth and put down. If not...

Emma doubted their prospects would be much better, anyway.

“Now stopping at: WHITE PLAZA.”

yank-yank!

She’d stopped petting Spots again, hasn’t she?

The trainer chuckled to herself as her friend tugged on her hand, before lifting the Snubbull into her arms. Spots was right. Thinking about this wasn’t doing her any good—especially with her current plan.

She might’ve only come to this backwater town to look for inexperienced trainers to battle with, but the piece of local folklore she’d overheard yesterday might’ve very well been her ticket out of this pit. There was a Mismagius haunting the woods behind the local school. Been at it for a while, from what these two annoying punks told her before giving her the finger. Not a species she usually associated with battling, but that hardly mattered.

If they could get another win, if they could gather some momentum, then it’d all get so much easier.

She would’ve been able to splurge on something better than the barely edible kind of mon chow; she would’ve been able to get Noodles properly looked at. He got hit bad in a fight a few months ago, and there’s been something wrong with his leg ever since. Pokecenter did its thing and wouldn’t take a second look at him afterwards, leaving only a private consultation, which... ha.

She couldn’t even afford hormones anymore.

Even the Ultra Ball in her backpack’s pocket was acquired through... less than legal means at the local Trainer’s Mart. Their fault for having such shoddy security, as far as Emma was concerned. Normally, she wouldn’t have tried something so ballsy. The last time she’d been in anything resembling ‘normal’ circumstances, though, was over half a year ago.

The awkwardness of capturing a piece of local folklore didn’t go by unacknowledged—in that she acknowledged it, and went on with her life. Yes, it sucked for this town; it was really rude to just stroll in and catch their ghost like that, but that was her only remaining idea. Besides, since apparently nobody had seen that ghost battle, it had to be so good at it that nothing dared challenge it anymore. Must’ve been bored to hell in there.

It’d probably be thankful to her in the long run for giving it some actual battling challenge. If her lessons at the trainer school were anything to go by, battling was the one thing almost all mons desired deep down, and what they all did in the wild. Really, she’d just be doing it a favor. Spots was thankful to her right after she’d caught her, after all.

...

Emma wasn’t dim enough to buy that explanation wholesale.

The more time she’d spent beside Spots and Noodles on their own, outside of the context of battling or training... the less she believed in that all-present ‘battling nature’. It had to have been true at least somewhat; there’s no way the League just made something so basic up whole cloth and kept peddling it straight-faced.

They were scumbags that drew kids in with a promise of a heroic journey only to subject them and their mons to misery, but there was no way they’d keep bullshitting about something this obvious. Someone would’ve called them out on it sooner or later.

Right?

woof-woof!

“Yeah, you’re right, Spots. Our stop’s coming up.”

growl-woof?

“Fine, fine, you can stay in my arms for a bit longer~.”

The Snubbull huddled in while her trainer picked herself up, her oversized backpack following in tow. Just like with her mulling earlier, there was no point in pondering this topic too deeply—there lied madness and quackery. No matter what insight she’d arrive at, it didn’t change the fact that this was her last opportunity to turn things around. Her last opportunity to ensure her safety in a world that hated her—

“Now stopping at: ALDER AVARETTI PUBLIC SCHOOL.”

—and she was not going to waste it.



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Chapter 26: Traitor


Chapter 26: Traitor



Marco’s heart hammered in his chest as he jogged through the snowy woods.

On any other day, he would’ve considered his current pace to be sluggish—to put it kindly—but at the moment, it felt like he was rushing headfirst into something someone would regret. Whether it would be him, his sister, the human girl with whom they had grown closer than either of them would admit to, or their entire village, he didn’t know.

And it agonized him.

It’d be many more days until he fully recovered from everything that had happened with Cinder. And likely even more until all warmth would stop carrying with itself the all too familiar aching. It was the time he wanted to take for himself, time he knew he should be taking for himself, time Aria had stressed he deserved, but... the obvious loomed above him, above them all.

The task he’d decided on last evening ended up being an abject failure by any metric. Worse than that—he didn’t just make no progress; he made negative progress. Because now, he too doubted his sister’s actions.

Marco trusted Aria; he trusted her more than anyone else in the world, and yet... distrust lingered. He felt the blatant uncertainty in her voice and aura when she’d relayed to them she’d wiped the memories of that human—the telltale sting of a badly kept lie—but deliberately overlooked it until now.

But now, with the light having been shone upon it in such a stark way, he couldn’t look away.

He couldn’t think of a motive that wasn’t malice, and didn’t have it in him to imagine his sister as a traitor, but... why would she lie about this? If he’d felt it right, if it was so blatant that even a non-psychic had noticed it, then the only question remaining was ‘why?’.

He had no answer. As far as he was concerned, there was only one way to sort this harrowing enigma out—checking up on that human in person.

It was far from his first time sneaking into the human backwater, though he hadn’t ventured further than the end of their path in years. What was once an expression of frivolous curiosity had turned so much more dire the more he learned about humanity, so much riskier.

He didn’t need to do this; he doubted he even should be here. Even if his sister had kept that human’s memories and lied to them about it, he couldn’t accept that it was for any truly malicious reasons. Aria had to have had a plan for this; she was much too intelligent to knowingly expose their village to so much risk without gaining something from it.

But what if she had misjudged? What if she had acted in the best of intentions and ended up bringing on their home’s eventual demise?

...

What if he had misjudged, too?

The movement in the Gallade’s peripheral vision made him jerk into a combat-ready stance before easing out. Just a white sheet, much like the ones he saw Anne draw on. It fluttered in the freezing wind, attached to the sign at the end of their path. On it, a depiction of the girl’s face, and an incomprehensible soup of blacks and whites, of meaningless symbols humanity comprehended all the same.

It might’ve only been a day, he might’ve only spent a few hours in Anne’s company, but... he already felt close to her, closer than he probably should have. It was hard not to feel for her. The girl had bonded with Cadence further in a day than almost all the other children around in the six years she’d been alive, and that bond was mutual.

For crying out loud, he experienced so much more of their mutual memories than he’d ever wished to—enough to still see occasional flashes of them as he daydreamed or fell asleep. He didn’t know the names of the two humans branded into his mind, knew nothing about them beyond them being Anne’s biological parents and that Aria had apparently had a hand in the death of one of them. And yet, he hated them more than almost anyone else in the world.

He wished only the best for the girl; his heart yearned for her wellbeing to a degree he would’ve found embarrassing if he’d given it closer thought. But what if her and their village’s safety were truly incompatible? Or the much more harrowing possibility—

What if investigating this would doom Anne?

Marco didn’t know—he couldn’t know. All he had any certainty about was that his sister lying about something this important had hurt him, and that he wanted to know why. Whether to help her or to stop her, he had to know.

Too late to turn back now.

The snowy shrubs and deciduous trees bordering the black stone path provided just enough cover for him to scout out of. He was unsure how Aria had managed to get through this place unnoticed, and if it was by actively keeping herself from being spotted, then he’d have to come up with something else.

His relative inexperience in psychic arts compared to her might’ve only bugged him in the abstract most of the time, but here it was a very practical problem. One he’d either have to push through, however feebly, or sidestep. And the latter... just might work.

He remembered enough of their standoff against the human and her posse to tell her aura apart in a crowd, and if he just got further into the town, he’d pick her up, eventually. What would happen afterwards was an unknown that refused to be shoved into the back of his head, but which could just barely be delayed until it became relevant.

The main street was too busy, which left sneaking around the perimeter. From his exploration many years earlier, he knew that this place was shaped by the road at its center. Almost all the buildings stood next to it, with so few side paths he could count them on his fingers. Just had to stalk the town’s edge, and something would come up, eventually. Hopefully. Not the most encouraging outlook, but a far better one than sprinting through it and sending this entire place into a panic.

The opposite side of the black path held the bulk of the buildings, making it the obvious starting point. Right as he was about to focus on a Teleport, Marco spotted something large and blackened not too far, so unlike the gray, snow-covered blob of human—oh.

Aria had described that Anne’s home had burned down, but seeing it for himself was something else altogether. Less of a pile of charred wood, and more of a scorched carcass of what was once a home, what was once a family, and which ultimately fell to its own cruelty. It made him feel so, so very cold.

In a split second, he was crouched on the other side of the road, catching his breath. Even Cadence could’ve likely managed this one without too much difficulty, and yet here he was, gasping for air.

He was doing his best to keep down the self-conscious feelings. Aria’s words were still recent, but this time, he didn’t have the reassurance of doing a good thing. He might’ve very well been in the middle of something that would turn his family against him, something that would turn him into a traitor of Anne’s safety. No way to know but to keep going, no luxury of being able to choose until he was on the same page with his sister.

The building he first passed by was by far the largest in their entire town. On its own, it could’ve easily housed all of their village, but its intended usage was... uncertain. Inside it, many, many children of various ages, with several older humans sprinkled among them. If it was a school, then was a rather space-inefficient one.

Before the Anne affair, he would’ve added some jab at humanity being wasteful as a whole at the end there, but couldn’t force that out of himself anymore. It was hard to do that after interacting with the girl, after gaining an awareness—much of it through literally unforgettable memories—that humans were just like them. In all their good, in all their evil.

In all their lost, confused selves.

For a while, he thought that one of the little humans had spotted him through the large, clear windows. He could sense shock, but didn’t have the time to investigate further, or to even make sure if that shock was caused by him. No endurance for the slow deliberation. He had to get this over with before he’d grow even sloppier. The massive courtyard, delimited by a fence woven from metal wire, was more of a challenge.

Or at least would’ve been, if there was anyone present there. He had no idea why was nobody using such a vast space for anything, even just meditation, but wasn’t about to look the blessing in the—

rr-ring-ri-RING-RING!

A panicked Teleport at the sudden, shrieking ringing wasn’t the best idea in hindsight, but at least it got him out of there. For the next few buildings, he just had to be mindful of the windows with almost all humans being inside, slowly crouch along, and occasionally climb onto the roof.

All that was augmented by much the same tricks his sister had used, just on a far smaller scale. Much easier to deceive one human as opposed to a baker’s dozen. Even if it was slow, and required a lot of climbing and acrobatics, this combined approach was getting him further and further into—there she is.

Three auras, just like the ones he’d remembered. One of them was muffled too, as if asleep, only helping him further. Unfortunately, they weren’t alone—two... no, three? Three others with them, likely human. No... the third aura felt so weak; maybe he was just miscounting, and it was really two?

Didn’t matter, he just had to find a safe spot to blink to.

The cold, snow-covered roof froze his body as he leaned in and focused all he could muster out; the tendrils of his aura scoped out the inside wall by wall. One large room with way more internal walls than was reasonable, but which formed a natural cranny that—to the best of his ability to tell—nobody was looking at. Now all he needed was a distraction, accomplished by flipping over a pair of freestanding metal cylinders filled with trash on the opposite site on the street, aaand—

Oh goodness, this place was warm.

The unexpected sensation almost robbed Marco of his entire focus before he scanned his surroundings. A cranny indeed, with nobody in a direct line of sight. To his right, a wall composed of hundreds upon hundreds of colorful rectangles of varying sizes, difficult enough to make any sense of that he didn’t even try. On its other side, the five... six... five souls in here, three of which were chatting in human.

“~W-what just happened? Wait, did these just fall over?~” the human with what felt like another soul inside them asked.

“~Sure seems so. Must be the wind,~” the one Marco was after answered.

“~Woooo, what if it’s that ghost everyone is talking about!?~” the third squealed.

“~Liam, please don’t joke about that, it’s—it’s not even a real ghost. It’s... goodness, I still have no idea what any of it could mean. Are you really sure it has nothing to do with the Anne situation, Mrs. Graham?~”

“~I don’t see why it would, Julie. Sure, there are fairy tales of ‘Ghost Brides’ kidnapping children, but no actual evidence of that having ever taken place, to my knowledge.~”

Wait a minute...

Marco had to keep himself from jumping in there and then at hearing the very human he was looking after mention a Gardevoir. Once he took a moment to parse through what was being said, both this worry and confusion only grew. He had to know more as soon as possible.

Blocking four awake minds from perceiving him wasn’t easy, but with their attention not being aimed anywhere near him, it was just about manageable. With that done, a peek around the colorful wall clarified the scene. The human he was after—‘Olive’, if his memory served—and two others, all of them sitting at a table. One grown up, one obviously a child. The child was looking at pictures on that white ‘paper’ stuff; how they got there exactly was not something Marco had the time to think about. Beside him, the Ribombee, sitting on his shoulder and enjoying the pictures along with him. Quaint, even if it explained little.

“~Well, I can imagine there b-being few reported cases, of course the League would want th-that stuff covered up. Otherwise it’d have to do something and be more proactive with their interventions...~”

“~I really don’t think that’s the case, Julie. I get it, it’s scary, but we should avoid jumping to conclusions.~”

“~Then what else should I do? What if that Ghost Bride had hurt someone? What if it really was the one that set fire to Martins’ house—~”

“~Julie, that was a gas leak,~” the older human reassured.

“~But what if it had caused that gas leak!?~”

“~With that logic, you could blame every single event that happens on them. Bad weather; must be the wild mons. Rotted crops; must be the wild mons. My child is disabled; must be the wild mons. At that point, you’re no better than the first-century peasants I remember you snickering about in class.~”

The snarky, ribbing response interrupted the other adult human enough to get her to think for a moment. Mrs. Graham was right, but she wished it helped with her and so many others’ anxiety as much as it ought to have.

As the concerning discussion took place around him, Marco reached into Olive’s memories to get a direct confirmation of his sister’s actions—and Aria, along with Lumi and him, were still there, starker than anything else in the last few years.

A cold dread shot through him and Olive simultaneously at that find. Her sensation of being watched was almost nothing compared to his heart dropping, but it sure didn’t help any. Aria had really done it; she had lied to him; she had lied to them all. All the Elders would immediately brand her as a traitor if they ever found out, the thought deeply terrifying.

As was the adjacent thought of him being a traitor to Anne’s cause if his presence here would blow Aria’s plan for keeping Anne safe wide open. Hell, even without that, even if he just went back and reported this to everyone else come voting time, they would all turn on not just Aria, but the girl as well. He wished his fellow scouts were better than conflating Anne’s safety with Aria’s potential mistakes, but he didn’t trust them all to be. If he did that, he’d be just as much of a traitor, but to Anne instead—

“~I FOUND IT!~” the human boy cried, startling everyone in the building—Marco included.

Peeking around the wall again, the Gallade watched the little human carry a large picture over to his mom, showing it off to her with beaming joy. All the while, Olive grew concerned, and not-Olive... almost fainted there and then.

“~Breathe Julie, breathe. It’s okay, it’s—~”

“~That’s the one I saw, mom! The big white and green! I saw it here, oooo lemme read it! ‘Ga-ra-da-vora’!~”

“~Wh-what do you mean you saw it here, Liam...~” not-Olive muttered.

“~Behind the bookshelves there! It was there, mom, I told you, but you didn’t believe me! Do you believe me now?~”

The boy’s mother did believe him, but not for any reasons he or Olive would’ve wanted. Attention being brought towards Marco’s hiding spot had him backing off, ducking behind the not-wall.

“~M-Mrs. Graham, a-are you sure that the Ghost Bride d-didn’t make its way in here that day...~”

“~Of course not, Julie. There was nothing to suggest it got here in the end.~”

“~B-but the footage got corrupted, a-and—~”

“~Happens all the time,~” the older human explained, “~these cameras are old, cheap garbage. Besides, I doubt a wild mon could manipulate technology to that level—it got caught on camera after all.~”

The application of logic to the stressful situation was only barely more effective than it sounded. It kept the not-Olive from freaking out immediately, but she still teetered on the edge of a mental breakdown.

“~But I saw it here, mom!~” the boy reminded.

“~Are you really sure, Liam? I don’t see why it would end up here, of all places. I think all the mania might’ve gotten to you, too~.~”

“~Nooooo! Mrs. Graham, I saw it, believe me, I’m not lying!~”

“~I’m not saying you’re lying, sweetie. All the buzz around something stressful can get to us all, even if we try our best to avoid it. And between the entire Mylock losing their marbles about this, and the news of that scary Gardevoir in Hoenn or whatever, it’s not impossible for our brains to get confused, you know.~”

“~But I didn’t! I saw ittttt, Mrs. Graham!~”

“~L-Liam, please...~” not-Olive pleaded. Even if she wasn’t about to collapse anymore, her state still wasn’t the best.

Olive was very aware, leaning in over towards her and putting on the most motherly voice she could manage, “~Julie, sweetie, I think you should lie down right now. Past few days have really been a lot for us all, and you especially. Just rest your head and cool off, no need to keep panicking about this.~”

In her unstable anxiety, the other human nodded her head along with Olive’s recommendation. Shaking, she slowly got up, giving Marco a better view of the massive, bulging stomach. The sight took Marco aback, but he didn’t have the time to focus on it much longer—she was probably gonna lay her egg soon, is all. Worthy of congratulations, but he wouldn’t be the one giving them to her.

“~L-Liam, please c-clean up—~”

“~Don’t worry Julie, I’ll take care of it,~” Olive reassured.

“~B-but, Mrs.—~”

“~I mean it, Julie. Get yourself home and rest. I can sort around a few books on my own, no problem.~”

“~Moooommm, can I take out—~”

“~Not today Liam, I’m sorry,~” the librarian gently asserted. “~Your mom is feeling terrible right now, and should get back home soon. How about this—I’ll let you take out twice as many books out on Monday instead, how’s that sound?~”

“~Awwwhhhh... okay...~”

It took a couple minutes for the not-Olive to get herself together and head out, Olive helping along as much as she could. The little human wanted to keep on talking afterwards, but they got the clue it wasn’t the best time for that. Quite a rarity for them, if the adults’ unspoken reactions were any sign.

With a few parting words and double checking if the not-Olive could make it back home on her own, they left; the door chiming quietly as it opened and much louder as it closed. It left just Olive and her two mons, one of them slowly waking up. Now that the situation had calmed down, it was the perfect time to come up with an escape plan. Blinking back up onto the roof and retracing his steps sounded like the best course of action, though he’d also need to put in effort towards masking his footprints in—

woof-woof-arf-BARK-BARK!

In Marco’s focus, he didn’t pay attention to the Arcanine in the other room waking up from their nap—but they most definitely noticed him. With a couple of tentative sniffs and a shocked realization, the Fire-type sprang into action and turned the corner, barking out loud at smelling someone very familiar around before switching to low growls.

“~Leo, what’s going on?~” Olive asked, startled. She and the Ribombee followed the Arcanine right after, looking around the bookshelf only to see nothing. For a moment, Marco thought about teleporting away anyway and hoping that all this would just get overlooked, but... he couldn’t; of course he couldn’t. Not with her knowing so much, not with him knowing so little.

He needed answers, and she better had them.

In a split second, a Gallade materialized where once there were only bookshelves. The sight startled everyone present, Olive especially, shock immediately giving way to terror. Luxie fared better, more curious than anything else, and the Leosimilarly calmed down a bit. An intruder, sure, but one he’d already seen before and which didn’t hurt his human in the end.

Marco’s attention, however, rested entirely on the human, and vice versa.

“~Guess I should’ve expected your people coming over to finish the job...~” Olive muttered, furrowing her brows.

The words took Marco aback—he couldn’t disagree with the thrust, but needed to know more about the specifics. “^What do you mean by ‘your people’?^”

“~Aria told me she was supposed to remove all memories of us having met, but she didn’t. Seems I can’t run away from my mind getting violated in the end, can I.~”

The phrasing took Marco aback as he paid closer attention to everything going on in Olive’s mind. Fear, indignity, outrage, acceptance. All of them just about expected, and he’d have to respond sooner or later. He had no idea just how he should respond, earlier doubts returning in force. This was madness, but he trusted Aria to have a reason for any madness, this included.

But first, he needed to know more. “^I... I need to know what happened. With Aria, with... everything that you and these other humans were talking about. I didn’t come here to wipe your memories, I came here to figure out what my sister had done.^”

His admission was as honest as it got, but it wasn’t enough for it to be perceived as such. The thread of suspicion was still there in Olive’s thoughts, and it was hardly unearned. Before the human would speak up, Marco felt the Ribombee’s desire to speak, linking the entire group together right before she said, “Ooohh, you’re her brother! Uh—please don’t take our memories away! We just want to help Anne. We promise!”

Good gods, did Marco want to believe that as wholeheartedly as the little fairy did. He was too preoccupied by all the mess in his mind to notice the happy, barely held in gasp Olive let out at hearing the Ribombee’s voice again. He continued, “^I-I can gather, I-I just... what’s going on? Aria lied to us about what had happened, and I’m unsure how to react to all this. I want to help Anne out too.^”

The Gallade’s uncertainties were brought to light and scoured under a microscope. Going against someone who was clearly on Anne’s side hurt; the worries that he might turn Olive against their village through his actions hurt. The human’s fear hurt—that perception of him as an executioner against whom she could only beg for mercy.

He couldn’t even claim it to be incorrect, either.

Olive shuddered, “~I... I suppose I can see it. Alright... what do you want to know, ...?~”

“^Marco. And... everything, really. You mentioned a Gardevoir earlier while talking with that other human, and it sounded like you were referring to Aria but trying to hide it.^”

“~Ah, right. Well... the gist is that Aria was spotted while I guided her through Mylock, on my way here.~”

Marco’s eyes went wide, his breathing sped up. That was bad, that was very bad—but if anyone had really seen her then, they would’ve reacted, right? Humans were afraid of them as the one that just left showed; his sister would’ve sensed that if it had really happened! “^How come the person who spotted her didn’t react? She—she would’ve noticed that!^”

“Not a person, a camera! Oh oh and I’m Luxie!”

The Ribombee’s clarification explained precious nothing, and Olive could tell. Sighing in relief, she thought about how to explain that to the Gallade as she glanced towards the front door. Still marked as open, had to fix that.

“~Think of a ‘camera’ as a... mechanical eye,~” she began. “~It sees things, and everything it sees can then be seen by others later if they want. Whatever magic your sister had used to remain unseen, it doesn’t work on cameras, and she got spotted when passing in front of the grocery store. Not very clearly—it’s only for half a second and the image quality is so bad there’s a lot of plausible deniability, but she’s there all the same. And that... sigh, got people panicking.~”

“^Wait—what do you mean it didn’t work with that ‘camera’?^”

“~Well, you’re the one with psychic abilities between us two, you would probably know much more about it than I. Though... if I had to guess, whatever trick Aria employed only works to confuse people, and not mindless, soulless machinery.~”

Marco’s shock only grew at Olive’s explanation, the contraption she’d just described terrifying in its implications. If it was just some metal with those unthinkable properties and not a person, it meant there was no way for them to detect it, no way to fool it. Destroy it, most likely, but not work around it unnoticed. “^Is-is that object only in—^”

The librarian shot his hopes down, “~Hardly.~”

“They’re everywhere! Look look, we even have one in the corner up there!”

Luxie’s call redirected Marco’s attention to the middle of the opposing wall, up where it met the ceiling. Indeed, he could spot something in there, angular and shiny. Way, way too small to notice normally.

“~This one was a headache for me. I went over the footage when the panic started, and sure enough Aria was there, plainly visible, even when I couldn’t see her at all. Goodness, your psychic tricks are scary to think about sometimes. I went and tinkered with the recordings, breaking them so that they couldn’t be seen, and blamed it on the camera being damaged. Didn’t help with everyone losing their marbles one bit, lemme tell you that much.~”

Before the existential horror of a contraption not even the size of his hand countering psychic-based stealth could hit Marco in full, the implication in Olive’s words caught his attention right back.

“^You lied to them about this, then.^”

“~Yes, of course I did!~” Olive yelled. “~Even with Aria’s... e-even with her threat, awful as it was, I still want to keep Anne safe; I almost went behind bars because of what Aria had done!~”

“^W-what?^”

The anger in Olive’s voice wasn’t unearned either, but what it conveyed was... confusing. With a couple of deeper breaths, Olive closed the front door and rolled the window blinds back down, granting them privacy as she continued, “~You can come out of that corner now. And yes. I got interrogated yesterday. Cops took me in and asked me questions about what had happened with Anne’s house. I didn’t mention Aria at all, framed it as myself looking for Anne in her disappearance, or any clues about her whereabouts when her father attacked me. Of course, without Aria in the picture, it just looks like I walked into her house with a Fire-type by my side, there was a bang, and then the whole place went up in flames.~”

“Not that it didn’t deserve that...” Leo commented, his gravely voice taking Olive aback with a quiet chuckle.

“^Wh-what happened then?^”

“~I argued my case. I said I went in to have a look around, and then got attacked by Anne’s father. Both are true. I brought up that the building only caught fire a good while afterwards, and since it was a gas fire, if Leo really lit it up, it would’ve been visible right away. I doubt that’ll be the end of it all, sadly, but I know how to argue that all I did was trespassing at worst, and that Tom tried shooting at me, but had his bullet ricochet to hit him back, giving me time to escape. They won’t have anything except a bit of circumstantial evidence.~”

Even as Olive went through everything in her mind and that she wasn’t too likely to be deemed guilty of setting fire to Anne’s house, uncertainty remained. “~And... if Aria did what she was meant to do, if I didn’t remember how it all went, then... I don’t know what might’ve happened. To me, to you all, once the authorities figured out my memories had been meddled with. I...~”

Soon enough, though, an emotion Marco wasn’t expecting joined her uncertainty—anger.

“~I helped her all I could, gave her everything that would help Anne even slightly; I’m putting my freedom on the line for her, lying left and right to cover for her, and this is how I’m repaid? By being doubted enough for someone to come over and either wipe me again or threaten me into submission!?~” she shouted, incensed.

“^I—I apologize, I really do, but this is a life-or-death situation for us all! If the rest of the humans learn of us, we’ll be doomed!^”

“~But I knew nothing of the rest of you. All I’ve seen of ‘you all’ was you, Aria, and that Luxray. I had no idea where you came from, how to track you, or what your motives even are! All I knew—hell, all I know even right now—was that Anne is with you, and that I wanted to help you out because of that reason alone. And for you to claim secrecy as the reason, while I could find your hiding place in two minutes on the map anyway, is—~”

“^WHAT!?^” Marco shouted, the telepathic sound startling everyone. He was only barely keeping himself from intervening in Olive’s memories there and then. “^What do you mean!? How did you find us!?^”

The force and barely veiled fear behind the questions intimidated and shocked Olive in equal measure. She knew she had to answer, but it was something she didn’t expect to have to explain. Her previous interactions with Aria and Lumi painted a picture of mons who had stumbled out of the stone age, sure, but at least one of them had to have picked up on humans having flying vehicles, right?

They had to know they were visible from above, right?

Each moment of silence only made the psychic’s panic grow, and Olive could tell. In desperation, she made the ‘hold on’ gesture as she gathered her thoughts. “~What I mean is that it’s possible to tell where your hidden... village is with information humans already have. We take pictures of the land from way above, and you can see a few unmarked buildings in the middle of the woods on those pictures if you know where to look. They’re not too suspicious by themselves, but with you three running into us near there, it becomes obvious.~”

The elaboration did little more than amplify the shock in his mind. Was—was everything the scouts were doing for naught? Had humans already won and were now just waiting to deal the finishing blow? Have their days been counted since long before Anne ran away from her house?

“^I-I... that’s...^”

“~You really didn’t know, did you?~” Olive whispered, stunned. The clarification didn’t justify how she’d been treated; but at least it made it make sense. She figured if these wild mons were unaware of the power of aerial photography, they would fixate on anyone who knew of or saw them personally. A very limited perspective, but an understandable one.

It didn’t make Olive forgive everything there and then, but... it helped shift her gears from anger to a desire to help them out further. No matter how Aria and Marco had treated her, as long as they were treating Anne better than humanity ever would—a trivial task—they had her support. After all, even the Gardevoir had stressed how invaluable her knowledge had been for the wildlings, and this was just more of that.

And with everything she’d heard about League’s efforts to ‘disperse’ overly large ‘groups’ of wild mons in the past, she could only feel bad for them, really. “~I can show you how it looks like, if you want.~”

Marco could barely force the words out, his sheer terror nigh-paralyzing. The very worst-case scenario had already come to pass many, many years ago, and they didn’t even know. “^I... y-yes, please.^”

“~Come over to the desk. I’ll get some tea going in the meantime.~”

The Gallade did as instructed, walking over to the smaller table in the library’s corner, housing several pieces of difficult to describe human machinery. Yellowish, rectangular... block, on top of which sat a much larger, much bulkier, much more angular object. It was opaque from all sides but the one facing the chair behind the desk, glowing from just that direction.

“^Wh-what is this, anyway.^”

“Computer!” the Ribombee innocently explained. “Olive does all kinds of stuff on it, mostly checks books in and out!”

“~Oh that’s just a fraction of what computers can do, Luxie. But yes, this one’s a pile of junk that only barely works; I use it for the library. Here, let me show you what I saw.~”

Olive pulled another flat, rectangular object over to their impromptu group. The many bumps on its surface turned out to all be buttons one could press—and which she was pressing tons of, without even looking at them. As she did, the glow on the upper contraption changed. It remained mostly white with many smaller symbols for a while, but eventually turned almost entirely green.

“~This is the map. Think of it... think of it as seeing the terrain from a bird’s-eye view, looking straight down. This long strip is all Mylock, this black line is the road, and all the greens are the woods. Following so far?~”

The answer, to Marco’s annoyance, was ‘barely’. Even a concept as simple as ‘terrain as seen from straight above’ was difficult to grasp, especially with anxiety’s bind over his mind as firm as it was. After a few more tries, he just nodded along—they didn’t have the time to be doing an in-depth lesson about this.

Olive was unconvinced, but went along anyway. “~Now, let me zoom in so you can see more detail. This is the entrance to the path between Mylock and Lillywood, the one Anne took before she crashed. And now, let me move the view over along it and a fair bit off to the side, and you might spot it...~”

The spatial transformations involved went so far above the Gallade’s head they threatened to crash into an overhead satellite. If nothing else, though, he could still play the game of ‘one of these pieces of green is not like the others’. One of the easier ones he’d ever played; concluded with him reaching to uncertainly point at a scattering of several brown and gray spots, as well as smaller, colorful ones. “^Is this what you mean?^”

“~Indeed! Let me zoom in, it’ll get a bit blurry but hopefully you’ll pick up on it—~”

“^That—that’s it, I-I see it now. Holly’s pantry, our tree, I think I-I can even make out the clinic. I-I—is it really just visible to every human like this?^”

“~That’s what I meant earlier, yes,~” Olive sighed.

“^D-does anyone else know!?^”

“~Well, I don’t know for sure, but from my attempts to find out, it seems not. I’ve only found any discussion about it on a single website from several years ago. They didn’t know what it was, but guessed it was either some sort of ongoing construction effort, or a black site for training army mons. Nobody mentioned the possibility of it being a village of wild mons, no.~”

“^But that won’t remain the case forever...^” Marco whispered.

“~Quite likely, yes. Especially now that there’s more attention on this area because of what had happened to Anne. All it takes is one popular person looking at the map of these backwoods, pointing this weird spot out, and suddenly you’ll have many, many people knocking on your door.~”

The exact thing they all tried to avoid happening with their scouting efforts. Everything Geiger had drilled in them about information spreading through humanity like a wildfire; all of it to prevent this exact scenario from happening. And yet, it could just… happen no matter what they did. Just like in person, all it took was a single human spotting it, and they’d be doomed.

But with these ‘maps’, they were entirely defenseless. At least, that’s how Olive made it sound.

“^Is-is there anything we can do about it? There has to be something we can do to make sure nobody sees it, r-right!?^”

“~I don’t know, Marco. I’ll try to see if there are any options, but I doubt it. It’s all done automatically at this point; there’s only minimum human oversight. Besides, erasing just that little spot will draw more attention to it than if it just remains as it is.~”

The revelation of ‘cameras’ had put a dampener on his spirits, but this... almost broke Marco entirely. How was he to respond to this? If there was nothing Olive could do, if there was nothing they could do but pray that they wouldn’t be noticed either... what now!? They were at the mercy of fate, the very thing they had their procedures to avoid—they were doomed!

Humanity had won without even being consciously aware of their existence. They would know eventually, but didn’t yet.

...

Aside from Olive.

As the librarian went to a side room to finish making tea, Marco’s mind threatened to tear itself in half. He was afraid; he was fucking terrified, and at that moment, there was a large part of him fueled entirely by that emotion. All it wanted to do was finish the task that Aria couldn’t, to wipe the memories of the only human that could rat them out whenever she so desired. Hell, nothing stopped her from using that knowledge as a bargaining chip, demanding gods-know-what from them in exchange for dooming them—

Nothing but basic decency and having a soul, of course.

Which was what kept him from going forward with this kneejerk of an idea as well. Fear screamed for him to act, to ensure that bit more safety, but that pesky brain kept reminding him how wiping Olive’s memories wouldn’t just be abhorrent—it’d be unhelpful. If not for her input, they would have remained entirely unaware of the sheer extent of humanity’s knowledge of their every move, of being in their sights, of many of their psychic tricks amounting to nothing.

These wouldn’t stop being true just because he didn’t want to think about them. He could either run away from all this, or face just how enormous the implications were. The latter, of course, implied action. What action; he had no idea beyond it being massive in scope and likely to splinter their village. That’s what the Elders’ guidance ought to have been for, and yet...

The screeches of primal fear and careful consideration fought a savage battle in Gallade’s mind, only interrupted by the soft thud of a teacup being placed in front of him. Different aroma from what he remembered, much fruitier—but not at all bad. “^Th-thank you, Olive.^”

“~Bitte schön, Marco. I suspect nobody else in your... village knows about this either?~”

“^N-no, not to my knowledge. I feel like anyone would’ve spoken up if they knew. This—this could end us at any point...^”

“~The uncertainty of life, indeed. If nothing else, now you know how little you know. If this was this much of a shock, I can imagine your knowledge of humanity overall, even when combined, is... low,~” Olive summed up.

It wasn’t meant as an insult, and Marco was well-aware, but it still stung a bit. “^Y-yeah. I can’t disagree with that. Even those of us who used to live with humans or be trainer mons only know so much.^”

“~Hah... I’m guessing that Anne breaks several m—people’s minds every day just be existing?~”

“^Not quite, she’s—she’s really not too different from us. That’s the biggest thing I realized after watching over her for a while.^”

“~I can say the same after my run-in with Aria and... Lumi, was it?~”

“^Yes, Lumi.^”

“~Being a bitter, short-sighted grump truly transcends species.~”

Marco had to use his entire willpower to not spit half a cup’s worth of tea at hearing that said so casually. He couldn’t disagree with that in the slightest, but he sure didn’t expect Olive to be so... direct about it.

“~How has Anne been doing, by the way?~” she asked.

A swerve towards a pleasant topic melted through much of the apprehension gripping Marco’s mind. It was hard not to smile after thinking back to the previous day, and its affection between the small bundle of children. The knowledge of just how fleeing that happiness was, and that it was gone now that Aria had hopefully come clean about the upcoming vote to Anne, undid much of the comfort an instant later. Still, the Gallade tried not to let that get to him as he answered, “^Really well! My niece and nephew—Aria’s children—have really taken a liking to her. And now that Ember is with her again, she’s been feeling even—^”

“~Ember!?~” / “EMBER!?” / “...Ember?”

The trio native to the town shouted in unison at hearing the Braixen’s name, the implications immediately exploding within their minds.

Luxie screamed, “OH MY GOODNESS IS EMBER ALRIGHT DID ANNE FIND HER HOW DID SHE GET—”

“^Yes, yes, Ember is doing well! She—she ended up in our village a year ago, and has lived there since. A-and once she’d heard that Anne ended up there as well, they became inseparable.^”

As much as the aftermath of Cinder’s involvement still stung his skin and pride alike, Marco felt it was best not brought up here.

“YAY YAY EEEEEEEEE I’M SO HAPPY TO HEAR THAT! I WAS AFRAID WE’D NEVER HEAR FROM EMBER AGAIN AND NOW SHE’S SAFE AND SHE’S WITH ANNE AND THINGS ARE GONNA BE ALRIGHT, EEEEEEEEEE!”

“~That’s... good heavens, I’m so glad. They deserved to find each other again, oh my goodness...~”

“Good for her and Anne.”

The group’s overjoyed reactions only made Marco feel even warmer. With so much fear surging through his and Aria’s minds alike lately, he really appreciated having pleasant feelings to bask in.

“~Goodness, guess it’s time to retire that plushie I gave her,~” Olive chuckled, breathless.

“^P-plushie?^”

“~Oh. After—after she parted ways with Ember, I wanted to get her something to help with her sadness. I knew I could only do so much to help, but figured that even if a lil’ Fennekin doll wouldn’t be anywhere close to a replacement, it’d still bring her some comfort. Heh... I still remember roughing and dirtying it up a bit, cutting off the tag and all, before dropping it to the side of the path Anne took back home. She must’ve taken it with herself as well, didn’t see it at her house.~”

The parts of the story Marco understood were sweet as all get out, though there was one detail that didn’t sit with him well. “^Why did you ‘drop’ it like that?^”

The librarian looked up at him from her drink, her wrinkled face sighing at the unpleasant question. “~Well... I knew she wouldn’t take a direct gift well. Hell, she felt self-conscious even over the cheap tea I gave her every time she visited. I hope that she’ll slowly get over that now that she won’t live with living pieces of shit...~”

Marco concurred with a nod as he finished sipping on his cup. Of course, there was one detail that hadn’t been mentioned yet, one he was deeply unsure how to even bring up. After everything he had seen from her so far, he had a hard time imagining Olive doing anything that might bring Anne harm, but... what if Anne had suddenly left the picture?

What if they ended up voting for exile, got rid of Anne, and Olive caught wind of that? She’d have no reason to play nice with them anymore, and all the motivation to destroy their village. He’d been wrong earlier, the reality of the situation now clear to him. Olive wouldn’t use that information for any personal benefit, no, but as blackmail to force them to keep Anne no matter what the vote settled on? That he could easily imagine.

Speaking of, the sun was setting outside. It was time to go.

“^Thank you for talking with me, Olive. I-I should be going now.^”

“~Well, I’m glad I could help, Marco. As-as long as you won’t try backstabbing me now,~” she chuckled.

Her words were said in jest, but there was an undercurrent of genuine fear to them, one Marco couldn’t dispute. Even now, after all this, fear and consideration in his mind fought on, leaving him woefully unsure what to do. Should he let anyone but Aria know about this? And if so, how much?

Knowledge of just how unprotected their village was; having someone that could guide them through the vastness of the now-known unknown of humanity’s technological sophistication; awareness of their ability to see through their disguises.

The revelation of Aria having gone against her orders; of her being a traitor to the village; of this human wielding leverage over them.

Was the former worth the latter in how it would impact Anne’s chances once the vote came?

His sister made her choice that day, but he couldn’t; its consequences were too vast for him to comprehend. Whichever doubts she had had, she’d overpowered them, and yet he was left thrashing against fear, both his own and of how other scouts might react.

At a rational level, he knew that none of the newfound knowledge about humanity should convince anyone to vote against the girl, but... he could still hear that dark, fearful voice inside him. The terrified one, the one that would ideally forget everything it had learned today, the one that didn’t want to permit any risk, no matter how large an accompanying reward. He couldn’t dismiss that voice either, especially in how it pertained to the librarian herself.

What if others reacted with mindless fear? What if they were left wanting nothing more than to get rid of anything human around, toss out Anne, wipe Olive’s mind, just to not have to think about just how deep of a shit they were in? Hell, he wasn’t even sure if he’d truly conquered that fear in himself. It was there; it tugged on his worst impulses; it begged for him to stand up now and do what was needed—

“~M-M-Marco?~”

...

Ultimately, however, Marco knew there was only one right course of action here.

And all he could do was hope he would be forgiven for taking it.​



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Interlude VII: Gifts


Interlude VII: Gifts



“Alright everyone, now pair up and practice your Protects!”

c’mere Grace

hey where’d he go


The Serperior’s instruction had the band of kids shuffle around the snowy clearing. Most of them immediately dashed to their best friends—or at least the peers they perceived as such. Cadence tried to spot one of the few faces she usually did these exercises with. Ember wasn’t around, hardly a surprise; neither were Blossom nor Zephyr, much more unusual; Elric... had just paired up with someone else.

is she just gonna stand there like that

can she not find anyone?


In just a few moments, the task of finding a sparring partner had turned from searching for her favorites, to trying to spot the other unpaired person—or shuffling over to their teacher should she not find any. Not this time, thankfully. The fairy got spared that embarrassment, eagerly waving towards the similarly confused Gloom, taking them out of idly looking around the scene.

...suppose I can do it with her

The ambient thoughts surrounding her felt so much starker than usual. It was unpleasant, and Cadence could only speculate about why they were so noticeable today. Could it be nerves from yesterday? Both about meeting Anne and then from chatting with her about their insecurities? Could it be her cruddy sleep tonight—or not just hers, judging by her mom having woken up so early it stirred her out of her sleep too? Could be the brief flashes of something morbid she saw in her dreams before waking—

...is she gonna do anything or just stare at the snow

Right.

With a deep breath, Cadence looked up at her classmate before firmly nodding to signal her readiness. She had to focus. The fairy’s eyes lit up dimly as the air shimmered around her horns. Singular Razor Leaves were hardly dangerous, but they would still hurt if she slipped up.

This was easy; she could do this; bring it on!

why does she always look so weird when doing this

wonder if she’s digging into someone’s thoughts


None of these phased her anymore; she was stronger than this. Mom had told her many times she would hear unwanted thoughts like that as her senses keened over the years, and that a part of growing up as a psychic was learning to filter them out. She was strong; she didn’t need everyone to like her; others’ uninformed opinions were their problem and not hers.

...hope she notices this one, haha

None of these should’ve been phasing her anymore, at least

With a whip-like motion, Mint sent just a couple of bright green leaves flying, slower than they’d ever be in any actual exchange of blows. Cadence didn’t need that handicap, forming the shimmering barrier a good few seconds before the projectiles connected and shattered. And then a second time, a few moments later. And again, and again, the move so ingrained she barely had to think to use it anymore.

she looks cool like this

man this is boring

...I wanna do attacks


Cadence didn’t know the exact reason for Mrs. Cinder having been absent these past couple of days, beyond it having something to do with Ember and Anne. She didn’t want to speculate—that would’ve been rude—settling on just being glad that her other teacher was taking her break. There was nothing pleasant about practicing attacks, and even though mom had told her many times that defense was toothless without offense, the tidbit had a hard time really sticking in her mind.

Anticipating opposing moves—as quarter-hearted as they were—was one thing, but having to let loose with something that could hurt someone else if they neither Protected nor dodged? She just wanted people to like her, and attacking anyone just went against that, even if it was just for practice.

...geez when is my turn

It took her a good couple of years to get over that mental barrier.

With a light startle, she waved towards the Gloom to signal for him to stop, before pointing at herself. Sluggish nod, slightly straightened gesture, and more waiting. For her to get her bearings, for her to finally do her part of the exercise and attack. The unpleasant whispers made the necessary focus harder, but not infeasible. Another thing to get some practice in at the same time—not just ignoring the others’ thoughts, but also her own.

I swear she’s just daydreaming over there

How did mom manage that; she had no idea.

...come onnnnnn

Cadence’s eyes filled up with a multicolored light before unleashing the piddly Psybeam; the move so inaccurate the Gloom had to shuffle a couple of steps towards it or else it would’ve missed entirely. He didn’t comment on it, only moving a bit as needed as Cadence fired a beam after another.

...oh come on can’t you hit me

Not audibly.

…I swear she’s barely putting any effort

wonder if that’s why she has to practice with the same two people


The many little mantras mom had given her were losing their effectiveness fast as every overheard comment eroded her grip on her composure. She knew she should’ve focused on tuning them out the moment they started bothering her, but couldn’t, not today. Why was it so hard for people to just not think nasty things like that!?

Cadence’s anger made her try to hit the Gloom much harder, but hampered her accuracy even further. After the third attempted attack in a row that resulted only in some fluffed up snow, the Kirlia had to force herself to stop lest her frustration only grew further. Deep breaths, withdraw all senses, imagine a small, floating leaf. Inhale, exhale—

where’d I drop my scarf off...

As hard as she tried to focus on calming down, overhearing someone’s concerns unfortunately caught her attention. She could step in here, she could do something nice and be helpful and get people to like her, right? She had to at least try.

Without even looking back in the Gloom’s direction, she swept the clearing with her gaze, squinting at something small and red poking out from the whiteness in the middle distance. There it was, half-buried under a snow mound, tricky to spot. Just had to levitate it over into her hands, run up, aaaand—“Here!”

Startled by suddenly hearing her voice, confusion in their mind as they turned to her. Wide eyes of first surprise, then relief, then veiled disgust as they tried not to show it on the rest of their face. “Thanks...”

did she read my thoughts? weirdo...

It shouldn’t have hit her anywhere near as hard as it did.

Cadence watched them scoot off to another end of the clearing as she desperately tried to hold her tears in. She just wanted to help them out; why were they so mean to her all of a sudden!? Yes, they didn’t say they were looking for their scarf out loud, but they were still looking for it, right? Why was this such a problem—

sheesh, that human mess is hitting Cadence too, no idea why did that birdbrain ever try defending that thing...

The Kirlia had to use all that remained of her composure to not shout at Hawthorne for that thought. A stifled growl had to suffice, followed by her turning to head away from the class. This wasn’t good; she was getting so angry for no reason; she didn’t want to feel this way; she had to get out of here...

where is she going?

is she alright?

haha she’s just skipping class in the open!

...oh come on what is it now

why is she crying?

oh dear

what a crybaby


Each thought about her made her run faster, the little body soon breaking out into the swiftest sprint it could manage—only to get cut off by the Serperior watching over their group. The briefest glimpse of a stern expression didn’t help her panic any, despite it immediately turning into concern after seeing her rough state. “Cadence? Cadence, issss everything alright?”

The Kirlia definitely wasn’t alright, the only question was just how bad her headspace had gotten. Random bouts of crying at their practice weren’t too rare after all—though most of the time, they were caused by failing a Protect and getting hit head on, catching a stray projectile, or occasionally from general sadness at the state of the world after a particularly touching lecture. This was neither of these as far as he could tell, which was even more concerning. “Talk to me ssssweetie, it’sssss okay. Did sssomething happen?”

Nothing did, nothing tangible to anyone but herself. She was as sure of hearing it all as everyone else was skeptical, and going into detail wasn’t ever a good idea. Besides, what could anyone do about it? Tell the kids to not think bad things? It was a stupid idea that wouldn’t have ever led anywhere good. Thoughts were supposed to be a private space, somewhere where anything went, and—

“Cadence?”

Hearing her teacher’s voice from much close up snapped her to awareness, bringing her face to face with one particularly concerned Serperior. Tears kept flowing, no matter how much she’d tried to keep them under control, and words were just so hard to cobble together right now, be they verbal or telepathic. She still wanted to run, she didn’t want to explain herself, she—

“Hey Cadeeeeence, where ya runnin’—” Elric giggled from a nearby tree, all the laughter in his voice evaporating the moment he’d spotted the tears on his best friend’s face. Even he knew this was no time for jokes—the fairy needed something else. And as much as he really didn’t want to leave the comfortably dry tree he was clinging onto, this took priority.

After letting out an audible wince once he’d landed on the snow, the Gligar scuttled towards the Kirlia and wrapped his arms tight around her. “Feelin’ rough, Cadence?”

“^Y-y-yeah...^”

“About yourself, or...?”

“^Myself...^”

“But you’re great and cool!”

“^I-I wish—^”

“Ya wish came true then, dummy!” the Gligar chuckled. “You are cool, and so’s all the stuff you can do! Ya even mentioned Anne thought so, too!” His teases were much more effective at breaking through her apprehension than anything that came before, replacing many of the tears with an embarrassed blush as he continued, “And ya know it, too! Anyone who thinks otherwise is dumb.”

“I’d advisssse not to use that sssssort of language, Elric...”

“Sorry, Mr. Oliver!”

“...but it issss broadly true, indeed. We are all much richer for having you in our livessss, Cadence,” the Serperior smiled.

The combined reassurance finally punched through the murk roiling in the Kirlia’s mind, leaving her clinging to her denmate as she got her breathing under control again. Inhale, exhale, inhale. Mom was right, dad was right, grandma was right, uncle was right, Elric was right,

Anne was right.

She was great like she was, and the more she let that fact get to her, the better. Easier said than done, much easier, and something she was already consciously aware of beforehand, but sometimes it was hard to remember when her thoughts were at their most unpleasant. Sometimes she needed a reminder—a reminder that everyone was more than glad to give. “^Th-thank you...^”

“There ya go! Feelin’ better, Cadence?” the Gligar asked.

“^A-a bit...^”

“Seeemsss taking today’ssss practice off would sssstill be for the besssst. All I asssk is you remain ssssafe and look after yourssself, then~.”

Cadence’s eyes went wide at her being allowed to leave early, making her redirect her affection over to her teacher. The Serperior wasn’t expecting it, flinching once the thin arms wrapped themselves around him, but ultimately didn’t mind, returning the favor with his vines shortly after.

“^Thank you, M-Mr. Oliver...^”

“Of courssse! No point practicing in a misssserable ssstate.”

With the hug wrapped up, and waves exchanged between herself and Elric, Cadence took her leave. It took many more deep breaths and much more skipping through the snow, but by the time she’d arrived at her destination, she’d shaken much of her funk off. Just in time—Anne seemed to be really happy about something; she would’ve hated to ruin the good mood with her sadness—

Wait, was that Mr. Lariat and Mr. Cypress in the distance?



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Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 27: Mending


Chapter 27: Mending



Sage wasn’t sure what Anne meant by ‘long hair’, but with how busy the rest of the room had suddenly gotten, she was down to find out.

It was filled with people she didn’t recognize. The Braixen looking over the little ones—the Shinx, the Ralts, and the Riolu—was nice and very warm, which Sage couldn’t guarantee about the latter three. The Stunky beside the door was also nice to her, but looked more drowsy than anything, and the Grumpig... was there, too, off in the corner. Neither she nor Anne knew who that was, and the limited background knowledge about that entire species they both had made it clear that they didn’t necessarily want to know.

Anne was old enough to recognize that thought as rather bigoted, especially in her current situation, but going against it could wait. Once the Phantump had hovered her way, she said, “~So, my idea was that I-I could wrap the shirt’s torso around the top of your head, a-and have it hang back behind it! Kinda like long hair!~”

As enthusiastic as Anne’s delivery was, her words did little to clear up the mental image in the other girl’s head. No better way to demonstrate it than to just do what she had in mind and let Sage see the results for herself.

“~I can have long hair?~” Sage asked, confused.

Her words took Anne aback a bit, but the older girl clarified right after, “~Well, I hope so! Oh, I mean like a wig, not like actual hair if that’s—~”

“~Aaaahhhh!~”

Wigs were cool, though Sage never thought she’d be wearing one made from a shirt. Having a concrete idea of just what was happening made her pay much more attention to her older peer’s actions, especially as she started cutting the shirt in half. It wasn’t going well, not with her limited leverage and strength, but nothing they couldn’t accomplish together. The Phantump asked, giddy, “~Can I help, can I help?~”

As self-conscious as Anne would’ve been at that question coming from anyone else, having it be said by an excited child as opposed to a slightly condescending adult made all the difference in the world. “~S-sure! Can you hold that other end and then pull on it?~”

With the Phantump’s help, Anne’s little craftswoman project went from ‘just about impossible’ to only ‘difficult’. A bruised thigh pinned one end of the shirt to the mattress, Sage pulled on the other one, and her one good hand slowly cut through it just below where the sleeves joined the rest of the fabric. It wasn’t easy—not with a knife so dull its only remaining use as a weapon was as a bludgeon—but it was going.

The fabric kindly tearing apart the rest of the way through once they were around halfway done helped, too.

Wrapping the cylinder of the world’s most scuffed wig around the top of the Phantump’s head wasn’t hard, but that couldn’t be said for letting her see the results of her labor. It took a few minutes and much more exhaustion than Anne expected for her to fish out the tiny, scratched pocket mirror out of the depths of her bag. Once she did, though, Sage could finally see her little gift—and... have mixed opinions on it. “~Ooooooo! I like it, it’s so long! It looks kinda wrong, though.~”

The mishmash of euphoria and complaints took Anne aback as Sage tried to see herself from every angle, but she couldn’t hold it against the ghostie and how young she was. At the same time, it brought back memories of when she was that age, making her much more self-conscious about how she must’ve behaved under her grandma’s watch. She’d never been shouted at by her or anything, but there were quite a few disappointed looks and words, especially when she and Ember started running around the place. Again.

“~Wrong in what way, Sage?~” Anne asked. “~Too long, or—~”

“~Smooth!~”

The one-word answer had the human slowly look over at her own hair to see if she had forgotten about something obvious. Smooth, right, hair was smooth—ohhhhh. Not all hair, Sage’s must’ve been much curlier. That explained some of it, but clarified little about what specific kind of hairdo she was supposed to portray with her limited resources.

...

She could try sketching it, though. “~Ahh... could you help me draw what kinda hair you’d like, then?~”

After a couple of nods so eager they tossed the black fabric cylinder over from her head onto one of her horns, the younger girl floated over and started drawing before Anne even got everything ready. Wouldn’t need any colors with her immediately beelining for the black pencil, at least.

The sketching process took a fair bit of back and forth to arrive at anything. For how eager Sage was to show off what she meant, her visual clarity was... not there, at least at the start. The explanations that accompanied it didn’t help, either. “~The long... uhh, l-long and curvy! Oh, and there and there too, down to shoulders!~”

With her sketch soon turning into a largely incoherent black blob, Anne was left trying to mimic her individual strokes as opposed to just looking at the end result. Multiple stripes coming from the top of the misshapen circle, in every direction. If she meant streaks, they wouldn’t be possible unless she cut up plenty more shirts for materials—something she only felt comfortable doing up to a point... Hang on.

As the Phantump sketched in excitement, her friend got to filling the page beside hers, taking a stab in the dark about what Sage might’ve meant. Hair was never her strong suit, and she hadn’t ever woven actual braids, but it was as good an idea as she had in the moment.

“~Yes, like these!~” Sage squeed. “~I just drew them for you, Anne!~”

“~I know, I know, I just wanted to make sure, hehe.~”

The tiny bit of childish indignation was amusing more than anything else, with the confirmation that accompanied it helping a lot more. Actual braids weren’t happening, but having a wig that sort of resembled them... maybe. They’d have to be simplified a lot to get down to something they could feasibly assemble with their limited skills and even scarcer supplies.

A handful of thin, black stripes hanging from what was essentially a cap was so scuffed it made Anne cringe to imagine, but it was also her best option at the moment. “~I think I know how to do that. Can you hold this for me again?~”

Cutting the fabric wasn’t any easier the second time around, not with even less strength on Anne’s end. What she was doing was more than worth it and she knew, but she could still really use some help—

“^Are you two doing alright~?^”

Anne thanked the stars that the unfamiliar voice had waited until she’d put the knife down before jutting in.

To little surprise, the telepathic words seemed to have come from the Grumpig, leaning on the bedding with their arms resting on top of it. Their eyes jumped back and forth between the two in a rhythm Anne could tell was there, but couldn’t follow. As she gathered her words, Sage responded first, emboldened by her progress in communicating her idea to Anne, “~Yeah! We’re making a wig!~”

It was a perfectly accurate explanation that was simultaneously almost as unhelpful as it was possible for it to get. “^A wig, huh?^” the Grumpig asked. “^For...?^”

The Psychic looked up at Anne, trying to recall the name she was sure she’d overheard at some point. As she did, she snapped her fingers to the same rhythm as earlier; the quiet sounds unusually distracting. Enough so for the source of the Grumpig’s confusion to space out listening to them, before realizing it was her that the question was about.

“~Anne, I-I’m Anne. And no, it’s not for me, it’s for—for Sage here.~”

Not what the stranger expected to hear, but it made sense. “^Ahh~! A neat decoration of sorts? Or something to help with the cold, orrrr...?^”

“~Um, neither, it’s...~” Anne trailed off. Even if she knew of the right terminology to describe any of this, it would’ve helped little. She had to explain it the hard way, and hoped she wouldn’t get any crucial parts of it terribly wrong. “~Kind of decoration? It’s—it’s something for her to look more girly.~”

Sage hadn’t thought of that framing before, either. It was accurate; she couldn’t deny that, but it still made her just a bit uncomfortable to think about consciously, her posture slouching as she hovered closer to her friend.

The Grumpig asked, “^More girly? Curious, curious, never heard of there being differences like that in Phantump!^”

“~B-but I’m not...~” Sage tried to correct the stranger, words petering out after just a few words, quietened by the deep-seated discomfort brought by thinking about how she looked as opposed to how she should look.

Anne didn’t know of that underlying reason, immediately holding the younger girl closer as the Grumpig leaned in, her expression softening a lot. “^Hey, hey there sweetie,^” she smiled. “^Everything’s alright Sage, you’ve not done a thing, love. My name’s Pearl.^”

The Psychic’s outstretched paw wasn’t taken; the lil’ ghost too preoccupied by all the murk rolling around in her mind. Pearl didn’t mind, thankfully, withdrawing it after a few moments without letting her smile falter even slightly. “^Well, if you wanna go into more detail, that’d be a lotta help, but even if not, all’s well loves. Could I help anyhow? Ember’s doing a great job looking after everyone as is.^”

Anne didn’t want to overstep her boundaries, but more help was always appreciated when it came to something as messy as this. Granted, she wouldn’t be getting started any time soon anyway, with her one good hand wrapped around the Phantump, giving her some more time to explain it all.

No way through but to give it her best shot, and hope that Sage wouldn’t mind. “~It’s alright Sage, it’s alright. A-as to more detail, um... okay. So, everyone used to think of Sage as a boy back when... when she was human, but now we know she’s not, and I wanna help her look more like a girl—~”

“^Ahhhhh, yeah I getcha! Oh, I sure know all about that struggle, used to deal with it too.^”

Sage was too spaced out to notice Pearl’s offhand remark, but Anne most definitely wasn’t. “~W-wait, really?~”

“^Yup! Ages ago, though I’m guessin’ much of what I had gone through wasn’t nowhere near as bad as it must be for her, poor thing. Didn’t have turning into something else altogether on my plate, I knew what was goin’ on, and others gave me my space. Well, now I gotta help her even more, bah! Alright, what’d you need help with for that wig of hers? You looked like ya was straining a fair bit with that knife.^”

“~Yeah, it’s—it’s hard like this—~”

“^Don’t say another word Anne, just tell me what ta do!^”

Anne wasn’t expecting help this enthusiastic, but between the younger girl needing her support, and her creeping tiredness, she could only reply one way, “~Th-thank you, Mrs. Pearl.~”

“^Anytime! Making kiddos happy’s why I’m here, anyway.^”

The assembly that followed was no less scuffed than the girls’ typical methods, but it was incomparably faster. Anne doubted she would’ve been able to beat the speed at which Pearl’s telekinesis was tearing stripes off what remained of the shirt even with both functional arms and a razor-sharp knife. With much of what once was her shirt torn into short strips, gluing the resulting mess together became the main bottleneck.

If she had a needle and some thread, or a little more time, she might’ve been able to make do without glue, but... that was a luxury she had no guarantee she’d ever get again.

Frigid thoughts about what awaited her stopped Anne in her tracks each time they crept up on her, and each time her attempts to distract herself away from them by refocusing on her current project became less and less effective. She had no idea what would happen or even how much time she had, and despite Aria’s promise that things would be alright no matter what, the human was still terrified.

She hadn’t encountered anyone who felt like they really hated her, aside from that one mean-looking Lucario. Maybe they were the exception; maybe everyone else was the exception, and the rest of this place only kept themselves from jumping in here and tearing her throat out because she would be voted out soon, anyway. If not for wrestling with old, barely functional glue occupying a fair chunk of her headspace, she might’ve ended up panicking there and then once more.

With Ember’s presence, wanting to be there for Sage, and Aria’s promise, she didn’t, not yet. She hoped she’d at least be able to maintain her composure until the lil’ ghost left the room. Sage was the one to be sorry about, not her.

Thankfully, the ongoing efforts eventually snagged the hauntling’s attention, pulling her mind out of the dark, unpleasant pit it had fallen into. Every glued-on strip of fabric brought the makeshift headgear closer to what they both had in mind, closer to a hairdo as opposed to the result of critically failing taking a shirt off.

Enough so that Anne and Pearl had to remind Sage a few times they weren’t quite done yet, and to be patient. Slightly annoying, sure, but much, much better than the lil’ ghost clinging to her friend in a catatonic silence. All three of them focused intensely at the very last piece of fabric as it was glued on, letting out sighs of relief and squeals of excitement.

“~Can I can I can I can I?~”

“~Give the glue a few moments to stick, Sage. It’s not going anywhere, hehe.~”

“~Pleeeeease?~”

Anne needed this laughter.

Not even the brief concern at the ghostie taking it the wrong way could take it away from her, not after Pearl had snagged the younger girl’s attention away shortly after. This was silly, Sage was silly, and Anne needed it so, so much, even if it was technically amusement at someone’s expense. That realization on its own didn’t fully end it there and then, but it gradually cooled it down.

And while the glue finished curing... the human got another idea.

With the mon and now-mon chatting between themselves, she placed the wig down and reached into her pencil case once more. Glue has had its moment to shine; pencils were a mainstay, but there was one more thing she always brought with herself, but which she struggled to ever find a use for—until now.

The familiar chemical scent pulled Sage’s attention over to Anne at hearing the faint pop of a marker cap coming off. Markers were fun, but her parents never let her touch theirs, which left her very, very curious about what would the older girl do with this one. Anne waved at her, “~Sage? Could you... lay down on your back and be very still for a while? I-I have an idea.~”

The lil’ Phantump followed instructions right away, but their caretaker needed much more persuasion. “^What... is that thing, Anne?^” the Grumpig asked.

“~J-just a marker, I... okay, lemme explain. Have—have you ever had makeup, Sage?~”

It was the question with the most obvious answer in the world, but Anne still waited for the younger girl to explain so that she knew she’d caught her attention. “~No.~”

“~Me neither. But what I thought I-I could do was draw you eyelashes. I know Phantump don’t have eyelashes, I-I don’t even know if they have actual eyeballs, but—~”

“~Eyelashes?~” Sage asked, tilting her head.

Anne didn’t have a good way to verbally explain what she meant—which is why she didn’t. Instead, she pulled her notebook over, grabbed a pen, and started sketching. A simplified depiction of a Phantump’s head in the corner, much more elaborate than anything the younger girl could accomplish despite taking around fifteen seconds. “~Yep, I was thinking of adding them like this—~”

The three lines radiating outwards above both eye holes looked... cartoony and a bit silly even when drawn like this, but it didn’t matter. The only opinion that actually mattered for this idea was Sage’s, and once the connection between this drawn face and herself finally clicked for her, she perked up with a “~gasp! Can I have it?~”

“~That’s what I was asking,~” Anne giggled.

“~I want it...~”

“~Then lay down and lemme draw them on!~”

This time, Sage was resting on the bedding before Anne could even finish her sentence, trying her hardest to keep herself from shaking too much. As Anne brought the tip of the black marker closer to the rough bark, the Grumpig levitated the sketch over to her to figure out what was going on as well. “^That’s a curious marking. Do, uh... human females draw it on themselves?^”

Pearl’s phrasing almost completely derailed Anne’s train of thought, the very idea of it silly beyond words. And yet, perfectly reasonable considering how little anyone here really knew about humanity. The human didn’t know how to answer—hardly a unique occurrence—but this time it was less so because of being unfamiliar or awkward about it, and more so because of not knowing how to simplify it enough.

‘An overused element of visual design’ was a succinct explanation that would’ve taken a few very much not-succinct hours to explain the full intricacy of, especially in how it related to Sage’s case. Hell, in any other circumstance, all Anne did when spotting it in the public was roll her eyes and bemoan the laziness—hardly something appropriate here.

Suppose she could try a... more vague way of phrasing it. “~It’s associated with femininity. Anything with big eyelashes looks feminine, i-is what I was thinking.~”

Sage wasn’t getting the discussion, but she very much liked the idea of looking more feminine.

Before the Grumpig could probe deeper, Anne’s bootleg tattoo session had started. Neither she nor Sage could gather all the focus needed for their body and hand, respectively, to keep still, but that was where their caretaker stepped in, unnoticed beyond a bit of tingling in the back of the girls’ heads. Drawing on an uneven bark was annoyingly difficult, as was covering it enough to not leave any brown spots poking through, but eventually she got it done.

She had no idea Sage’s spectral body could lean away from the edge of her wooden face, but it sure came in handy here.

“~How does it look, how does it look?~” the lil’ ghost asked. Instead of an answer, she instead got the now-finished wig, squealing out loud as she put it on with Pearl’s help. ‘Makeup’ eyelashes—check, braided wig—check, now to see the results—

...

...

“~Eeeeeeee!~”

The spectral wail had blood drain from Anne’s face, terrified that she’d screwed it up and it only made Sage feel worse. Before that idea could get any more fuel, it was dispelled by the half-Tackle, half-hug coming from the ghostly girl, her tiny arms clinging to her side as much as they could. “~Thank you thank you! Eeeeeee, I look like mom! I need to show it to Mr. Yaksha, eeeeeee!~”

As she regained her bearings, a large smile crept onto Anne’s face, together with a bit of dampness. Oh yes, it had definitely worked out. Sage’s comparison to her mom made the older girl feel simultaneously elated and saddened. She still remembered some of the Phantump’s memories, and the howling wail she’d heard inside them wouldn’t leave her mind for a very, very long time.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Anne knew full well that even if a miracle had happened and the two ever ran into each other again, the younger girl’s mom would just think of her as a terrifying omen of the woods—assuming her daughter would even recognize her. Sad to think about, but it didn’t matter for the time being, not with how energetic the lil’ ghostie was. Everyone got a good look—Ember, Zephyr, the littlest ones, many of whom were just about dozing off by then, even Mr. Yaksha—pomf

Oops.

Not quite that last one, as it turned out. Not because of anything about him, but because the Phantump had left her wig behind when phasing through the wall’s tent, leaving it falling straight onto the now-confused Shinx immediately below.

“Aaaa, what is? Can’t see!” the electric kitten mewled. As he tried pawing at his face, Ember whisked the offending item of clothing before his confusion could give way to trying to tear the item apart.

She got there just in time—no damage to the wig, phew. “D-don’t worry Lyn, it was just something on your face, th-there you go!”

The Shinx blinked at being able to see again, only to get distracted by the nondescript mass of black fabric, now in the Fire-type’s grasp. It had some bits dangling from it, right in front of him, just had to pounce and—

“No, Lyn!” the Braixen raised her voice. “This isn’t a toy.”

The orange shimmer that had surrounded his body went unnoticed for a good few moments as the kitten kept trying—and failing—to make his leap, oblivious to anything going on around him. “Why not jump!?”

His mews were already difficult to interpret as words from inexperience, and this wasn’t helping one bit. Pearl was in the middle of turning over to help the vixen with one of the trickiest kids they watched over, but Ember had just enough experience to know what to do on her own—just had to catch his attention.

pat pat

“Lyyynnn~,” the Braixen whispered. The drawn-out sound, combined with her pleasant warmth, finally made the Shinx look up at her. “This isn’t a toy, sweetie. It’s Sage’s—”

“~Wh-where is Mr. Yaksha!?~” The Phantump cried out, scared, as she phased back into the room. Her emotions took another downturn at the realization that she’d dropped her wig.

Nobody gathered had any idea of what had just happened to the Phantump, but with Ember already in the right headspace and right beside her, she picked up the mantle. “Wh-what’s wrong, Sage? Did Mr. Yaksha say—”

“~I-I can’t find him! H-He was on our bed there, b-but now he’s gone!~”

As scared about her guardian as the hauntling was, the two caretakers had been in these situations enough times to calm her down. Ember reassured, “He has probably just left for a moment, sweetie. He’ll b-be right back any time now!”

“~B-b-but he n-never leaves me! He’s always there, d-did something happen to him?~”

The Grumpig softly shook her head, “^I doubt love. Cmere, we can all wait together for him, how’s that sound? I’m sure he’ll show up any moment now.^”

Sage went along with the Grumpig’s idea, though mostly for lack of any alternatives. She might’ve only known her guardian for a few weeks, but she could tell that this was really unlike him. Nothing should’ve happened to him since he was there but, but... what if something did anyway?

Anne wasn’t privy to the fears in her younger friend’s mind, but what she had access to was a distraction. A somewhat... awkward distraction, especially with the person it used to fill for sitting just a few meters away, but a distraction, nonetheless. It brought her out of the worst of her funk many times. Maybe it could help the younger girl, too? “~Hey, Sage?~”

The undead girl’s shaky expression focused immediately once Anne revealed the figurative ace up her sleeve. A Fennekin plush, about the size of Sage’s head, ready for the taking. It was cute and good-looking enough for the inner child inside Phantump to hover towards it without thinking and hug it tight. It didn’t hurt that she wasn’t that much larger than the doll, making her try hopping onto its back as if it were a mount.

Her unpleasant realization that she didn’t have legs anymore brought an end to that idea, but its soft, polyester fur shielded her from feeling even worse because of that.

As Sage took in every detail of the little plush, the actual fiery vixen in the room stared at it curiously, before looking over at Anne. She didn’t say anything out loud, or even telepathically, but her question was no less obvious because of it.

The human chuckled nervously, “~H-heh... I-I found it on the side of the road not long a-after I, I...~”

Ember knew all too well how that recollection went, wasting no time before climbing on the bed beside her human and holding her as tight as her arms could manage. Both of them held their tears in, if only just, as Anne continued, “~It’s been a-a lot of comfort for me in your absence, y-you know. Reminded me of you, a-and of-of course it wasn’t like you, n-nothing could—~”

“Shhhhh, I-I get it Anne, I promise.”

An even tighter hug from the vixen, many more pets from the human. A bunch more wetness from them both as they tried their hardest to hold themselves together. Emotional as she was, though, a realization soon hit her now that she had consciously acknowledged the… convenient timing of when she’d found the doll.

Guess there was a reason Mrs. Graham didn’t act all that surprised when she’d shown it to her…

The thought drew more tears from the girl, but only the happiest ones. She really hoped she’d be able to thank the librarian for everything she’d done sometime. With the most tearful smile of her life, Anne then reached to unzip the hidden pocket on the plush’s tummy. From it, she pulled out a single, slightly bent photo. One they’ve both seen so many times, one they could both remember taking even. Anne’s sixth birthday, only a few weeks after they met.

Already inseparable by then.

“You’re so cute in this one, Anne,” Ember smiled.

“~A-and you aren’t? Y-you used to be so, so tiny, hehehe...~”

With a small grumble, the firefox held her human even tighter. As Anne was about to slide the photo back into hiding, the lil’ hauntling chimed in as well, curious about a different aspect of the photograph. “~Oooo, where did you take it?~”

If Pearl wasn’t busy looking after the once-again-rowdy kids with Ember leaving her post, she would’ve scrambled over there and taken a close look at just what in the world these three were talking about, there and then.

“~A-at my old home, Sage,~” Anne explained. “~We used to live with my grandma, many years ago.~”

Before any sadness could seep into either girl’s minds at the necessity of the past tense in that explanation, the Phantump provided her own source of that emotion, “~I wanna go back to my old home too—~”

creak, step step, rattle rattle

The noise from immediately outside their room startled everyone before Sage’s words could seep in, putting them on varying levels of confusion and edge. There was a lot more going on in the rest of the clinic all of a sudden, many more noises and words, too muffled to make out clearly.

“^Gah damn, something musta happened in there,^” Pearl muttered.

Before anyone could ask about what was going on out there, the room’s doors parted open, cutting everyone’s train of thought in half immediately—for better and worse reasons. The better reason scrambled onto the bed the moment she saw Anne and Ember there, her eyes still a bit damp but mind deadset on making sure the Braixen was doing alright after the rough night she must’ve had.

The worse reason leaned in to pick his daughter up and looked towards Anne. She expected the Lucario’s gaze to once more drill straight through her very soul, but... it didn’t, not this time. It only lingered on her for a split-second before the Fighting-type turned around and left right after.

“Wha-uh—what just happened? Did someone attack?” the Skunky asked, half-asleep. The yawn that followed released much of the room’s tension, though the situation outside remained unexplained.

Not for long if Cadence had anything to say, though. “^Something bad happened to Mr. Cypress, they—they got attacked by a human trainer...^” she explained, her sad tone noticed by most gathered and acted on by the bed’s affection being squarely redirected towards her, even as everyone processed the harrowing news.

Everyone but Bell, the Ralts only able to sense his sister not doing good—and with his best friend gone and another friend napping, he wanted to help her! He loved his sister.

“A-are they okay?” Ember asked.

“^I-I hope so! They could talk to me and told me not to worry, but were hurt all over and Mr. Lariat carried them. I really hope the healers help them out. They were hurting a lot even if they didn’t say anything about it...^”

A bunch of reassurance and explanation, much appreciated by everyone. Nobody was under any pretense that Cadence would know more about what had happened, with Ember redirecting the topic once she realized the Kirlia wasn’t doing the best, either. “Our healers are great, they’ll feel better in no time! B-but what about you, C-Cadence?”

“^I-I—^” the Kirlia tried to answer, her self-consciousness immediately smothered by Ember’s hug. Then by Anne’s, then by Bell’s—paired with a short squeak that had tried and failed to be reassuring words—and finally, by... by...

“~D-did something happen, Cadence?~” Anne asked. “~You’re really tense.~”

Couldn’t even hide it from non-psychics, could she. “^I-I’ll be okay Anne, I promise! I just felt bad earlier, a-about myself—^”

On cue, another salvo of affection, with the older girls sparing no pets as the human reassured, “~B-but you’re great, Cadence! I’m—I’m so glad I got to meet you, you’re really cool.~”

Ember cut herself off from following up on her best friend’s words because there was nothing more that needed to be said. Anne had gotten it all right, and all Cadence could do was squirm and let the affection sink in as her cheeks threatened to catch on fire and psychics pulled everyone around her. “^Eeeeee, th-thank you Anne, you’re really cool too!^”

“~Yeah!~” the stranger squeaked, her unfamiliar voice catching the Kirlia’s attention. She’d heard of Phantump before, but not about any that looked like this. The lines above their eyes were a bit weird, but the hair was really pretty! It took her a few moments to realize it was some sort of wig, but that didn’t detract from how cool it came out at all.

A part of her wanted to touch it and see what it was made of, but something told her it’d be a bad idea. “^Oh! Hi, I’m Cadence; what’s your name? That’s a really cool wig!^”

Meeting someone new helped with much of her funk as well, especially someone both so interesting and younger than her. Their reeling reaction concerned her for a moment, but it faded as soon as she mentioned their hairdo, immediately replaced with excited elation. “~Eeeeeee, really!? It’s cool!?~”

Without skipping a beat, Cadence nodded with her entire body—and had one decorated Phantump tacklehug her moments later. “~Thank you! I’m—I’m happy it looks cool, it’s j-just like my mom!~”

Each reassurance only brought more warmth to Sage’s small body, warmth she had neither words nor an explanation for but which she acutely felt all the same. Cadence returned the gesture an instant later, even standing up and twirling on the spot to express the sudden burst of joy in the room. “^That’s so cool! Your mom must look cool too!^”

More joy, at least for a moment.

As happy as the younger girl was to hear her mom being described as cool, it also made her want to see her again even more, something she knew others would probably not receive too well. Her sudden drop in the mood was plain to sense for everyone else, with Bell waddling over just to see what was wrong. Nobody had the time to put words to their worry before the entrance to the room parted again, though.

Two faces they were all glad to see this time. As happy as Sage was to see one of them, immediately responding to it with another elated squeak, the other one gathered much more attention—and concern—from everyone else.

“^Mr. Cypress, are you okay!?^” Cadence asked, scared.

The plentiful bandages covering their purple body answered for the Mismagius. Their sides, their ‘hat’, even their throat, all wrapped in layers of off-white bandage, with some excess salves spilling out from underneath them. Healing Pulses could only do so much for their incorporeal body, but the healers spared no effort on that front, either.

Cypress wouldn’t have described their situation as ‘okay’ under any other circumstances, but saw it fit to get by with a white lie here. “I cannot deny hurting, but... I will turn out okay, dear Cadence, I have no doubt...

“^Our healers know what to do, sweetie~. Honestly, I was more surprised you wanted to join us the moment Esther wrapped the last bandage around you, Cy,^” Autumn chuckled, her tense, yet warm smile sweeping over the rest of the room. Anne was alright, Ember was alright, Sage was a bit sad but had clearly played a fair bit with Anne, Cadence was mostly alright, Bell was Bell.

Zephyr and Lyn were asleep, hardly something she could’ve blamed them for.

The Mismagius responded, “Well~, dear Aria had mentioned the arrival of someone special, and I was immensely curious...

Said special person let go of Cadence for her hug before focusing on the source of the much more ethereal voice, unsure who the discussion was about or what to say. Something told her she was supposed to be afraid of the purple ghost, but... she didn’t know why, leaving her just tilting her wigged head at them and giving them a timid wave. One eagerly returned.

Oh, how curious. I had intended to ask about whether anyone had helped her remember who she once was, but it appears that I’m the one way behind for once...” Cypress laughed, the sound cut short by their side injury flaring up, making them flinch.

The movement drew others’ attention to that part of their body as well, leaving them staring in terrified concern as they internally mulled over what could’ve just taken a bite out of such an experienced scout.

Fear that the scout themselves was very aware of, and was keen to calm down as soon as they could. “I am injured, yes, but my situation will only improve. Your attention is best spent not fearing for me~...

“What happened, M-Mr. Cypress? Did you r-r-really get attacked b-by a ‘trainer’?” Ember asked. Her shaking answered what she thought about that possibility for her, quickly soothed by her friends’ affection.

The Ghost-type didn’t even pretend they had a way out of this without going into detail, and felt it best to just dive into it so that they could switch topics to something more pleasant sooner. “Indeed, dear Ember. They had snuck on me during my patrol, and attempted t-to cap—capture me...

Cypress might have covered the emotions surrounding the traumatic situation well enough to not make either of the gathered psychics panic, but that didn’t extend to their speech. They wordlessly cursed themselves for their own words betraying them, but everyone else was too aghast at what they said to dig into how they said it.

Besides, after an experience like that, ‘traumatized’ was the usual assumed outcome, anyway.

That’s where most others’ pondering would’ve stopped, but... Cadence was curious. Too curious for her own good, likely, but after hearing so many horror stories about these and other human inventions, she couldn’t resist asking the most obvious question, “^What was it like, Mr. Cypress?^”

As well as the Mismagius had covered their previous emotional response to that thought, they didn’t quite manage to repeat that feat. Fear, fury, agony—the Kirlia had never associated the ghost with any strong emotions, good or bad, but could blatantly sense this situation involving many of these most intense of feelings. She knew she’d made a mistake asking long before the scout had responded; they didn’t need to heap more onto her plate.

Might as well answer to the best of their ability. “The most blissful nightmare I can imagine...

Nobody knew how to interpret their response. In all likelihood, nobody who hadn’t experienced what they did would ever really understand it. For the best, as far as Cypress was concerned. “Following that, and my successful escape, a fight broke out between me, them, and their... combatant...

This time, no questions were needed—the aftermath of that was plain to see.

Regrettably, I... attacked said trainer, as well. Cruelly, nigh unspeakably. I have no excuse for that act, naught but an indescribable fury that flowed through me at that instant...

“~D-did they survive?~” Anne asked, afraid—but not of the Mismagius. Their actions were entirely understandable considering their situation—and it was that situation that sounded like a nightmare come to life for everyone involved.

Yes, I... I presume so.” Cypress answered. “They were hurt, but standing by the time dear Lariat rescued me...

The human in the room aside, most others felt... differently about a trainer being attacked, and some needed a while to fully grasp all the implications of such an act.

“B-but they attacked you first, Mr. Cypress. Y-you were just defending yourself.”

Cypress flinched at hearing apologia for their own actions, no matter how well-intentioned. “I assure you, dear Ember, that the form and extent of my response to their act was disproportionate. Their actions were cruel, but so were mine. Equal revenge does not enact justice; it merely propagates suffering. I could have run, I should have run...

The calm explanation had left the Braixen much more uncomfortable about her earlier attitude than any chiding could have ever accomplished. Even beyond moral objections to the ghostly scout’s actions, though, there were plenty others, the realization making Autumn mumble out loud, “This will draw so much attention—gasp!”

The room’s eyes went wide at that obvious-in-hindsight observation, chilling the air immensely. Pearl might’ve left soon after Autumn had returned, passing over the translation burden to the other psychic, but everyone else awake had felt the immediate shift in the room, even if its two youngest members didn’t really know why it happened.

Before the resulting terror could grow any further, though, the one person who knew the most about what would happen spoke up, asking for details, “~D-did you say that they tried to catch you, a-and then you attacked them after you broke out?~”

Anne was unusually focused on the topic at hand, the fear in the room crystallizing into something actionable. She wasn’t deluding herself to think a situation like that couldn’t result in some nasty consequences, but knew enough of how things actually worked on the human side of the equation to know that it wasn’t as simple as guaranteed doom, either.

Cypress answered, “Correct, dear Anne. I presume you’re familiar with this topic, judging by your thoughtfulness...?

“~I-I wouldn’t say familiar, it’s—I had to study i-it for my self-defense class a couple months ago. I-I still remember a lot, and we had to memorize so many b-boring documents for the test...~”

While what Anne was referencing was clearly similar to the classes every little one in their village was encouraged to attend, the differences were immense and very apparent. The only rote memorization most little ones of the village ever did was getting a good grasp on how other types affected them, and vice versa. The word ‘test’ was particularly difficult to translate into something anyone around understood in any sort of intuitive way, sending a mild headache Autumn’s way before she settled on a rough approximation of ‘knowledge check’.

“~I think I g-got it now,~” the girl continued. “~Section four hundred... something, article three, ratified in 526. An intervention on the hand of a federally approved League trainer in response to an offense by a wild pokemon against a human shall be authorized if and only if the pokemon in question had engaged in an unprovoked assault on a civilian without an active League trainer license within three miles of the legal border of a township, or had committed a murder.~”

Anne took a while to rub her temples at having to dig so deep into her memories, with everyone else mostly just taken aback at the sudden wave of jargon and humanese. “~Th-that hurt to recall. B-but in short, since that was a trainer a-and not a civilian, as long as they didn’t die, nothing should come of it as far as the League is concerned. I-I don’t think there’s any specific regional law for this either, th-the teacher had mentioned nothing like that.~”

The clarification helped explain the ‘what’, but not the ‘why’. Other kids swallowed it without questions, but the adults were rather perplexed why human law would treat their ‘trainers’ differently in what appeared to be an entirely negative way.

I see...” Cypress whispered, “that is a curious distinction, dear Anne. Why would these ‘trainers’ be given less protection? That makes little sense, personally...

“~I-I don’t know, but... I-I think it’s like, they’re expected to be strong, right? O-or their mons are expected to be strong. And if a civilian does get hurt, trainers are the ones that get called in to investigate. If they and their mons are so weak they can’t even protect themselves from wild mons, then they won’t be able to ‘protect’ anyone from them, and that’s supposed to be their duty.~”

Autumn had almost blurted out that one of those sure needed protecting from the other, but not that way around, but... held herself back, in the end. By now, they probably did, with how much wild mons must’ve hated them on the whole. Before she could despair more on what felt like a conflict with no possible resolution, Cypress summed it up differently, “I can imagine that approach breeding further hostility towards wildlings in these... ‘trainers’. Unfortunate all around...

‘Unfortunate’ was an intentionally mild choice of words, but the gathered kids were mostly unfamiliar with enough swear words to really phrase it in a way that accurately represented reality. An unfortunate topic, though Ember soon latched onto another curious thing she’d spotted in her friend’s words, “Anne? Wh-what did you mean by ‘526’ there? That’s a... year?”

Not something the human expected to arouse curiosity, but she was glad to explain all the same.

“~Oh yes, that’s... I suppose that’s the number of that year, yes. You could s-say that each year gets a number that shows h-how many years it’s been since the Kanto Reunification, and right now it’s year 549.~” Anne explained the mystery, only to immediately replace it with seven more.

Or, in Sage’s case, to start reminding her of something she could still remember. Before she could fully excavate those memories, though, Autumn chimed back in, “^That ‘Kanto Reunification’ event sounds important... what’s ‘Kanto’, anyway? Is it a place?^”

While many companies would’ve despaired at anyone, even a pokemon, remaining unaware of the most important place in the whole wide world, Anne had no such attachment to that distant land. If anything, she shared the same mild distaste for it most others had—even if much of their culture still clung to exports from that country. “~I-it’s a land very far away, yes. It used to be broken into many tiny peoples that constantly warred against each other, and when they conquered each other enough to unify again, that’s when the years started being counted from.~”

As straightforward as the explanation was at its core, it still relied on many terms that were just absent from the vocabulary of most denizens of the village.

‘War’ was a very difficult concept to translate for people without a standing army, whose only enemy was a force so unfathomably large they couldn’t even conceive of it in full, let alone imagine fighting it. ‘Conquest’ was similarly tricky, though there at least allusions could be made to the expected treatment of them by the humans if they ever ended up being discovered.

That’s an... oddly peculiar choice of event to base such a count on...” Cypress commented, curious.

Anne couldn’t disagree one bit—and neither could any other kid in her class. The explanation took a good few years to really stick, and only the eventual history class really provided enough context for the event’s significance to sink. “~It is, yeah. I-it’s not our choice, Kanto is thousands of miles away. But around... two, three hundred years ago, they went on a conquest around the world, because they were the first ones that—that made pokeballs.~”

While Cadence and Ember just mentally reclassified the aforementioned region from ‘distant place’ to ‘evil distant place’, Autumn had a very different reaction to Anne’s remark. She might’ve overlooked the significance of the ‘year number’ earlier, but couldn’t this time, asking, “^Two, three hundred years ago? That is some ancient, ancient history, how does anyone remember that?^”

“~It’s not even ancient, that’s early modernity, I-I think. Ancient is thousands of years ago, b-but I think we still have many recordings from then...~” Anne explained, only adding to Autumn’s confusion.

The small tribe from which the Indeedee had originated only held memories from two, maybe three, generations ago, before they were invariably lost by one major upheaval or another. She’d heard of the power of codified oral traditions from others, notably Celia, but this had to have been something else entirely—

“~Oh oh, I remember!~” Sage squeaked, excited, snatching the room’s attention.

Anne snapped out of the resulting mass stun first, “~What—what do you remember, Sage?~”

“~Five hundred and forty-one! October, and... uh... five? Or fifteen!~”

The string of words would’ve been utter gibberish even to most humans, but the logic behind it clicked for Anne the moment she tried visualizing it all. “~Fifteenth October, 541—~”

“~Yeah!~”

“~Is that your date of birth?~”

“~...yeah?~”

Sage was much less confident in her answer than she wished she had been. She knew this date was important and recalled being taught it again and again by her parents and teachers alike, but was woefully uncertain of what it actually meant. The realization of just how little she remembered deflated her somewhat, making her older friend intervene.

And then, all the other kids.

It helped, but wasn’t enough. Slowly remembering more and more of her past life, more of her family, all of that was so good and appreciated—but it also brought despair of knowing more about a treasure she could never have. Every unearthed facet of her mom was yet another happy memory that would never be replicated, no matter how much she wanted to.

The crushing reality of her fate ground into her more and more with each thought, and Sage wanted it to stop. To escape all this, to escape to the place that had always been safe. It should’ve been possible, right? To make those memories not just memories again?

To return?

“~I wanna go home...~” Sage whimpered.

Nobody could resist the profound sadness that statement brought with itself—nobody but Sage herself, seemingly. It hurt so much, but she knew she’d need to remember her home first to find it. She remembered more and more of her family with each passing moment, her older sister and younger brother, her mom and dad and grandpa, and soon the recollection extended to her once-home, too.

Maybe it was possible.

Cadence let out a startled squeal as the Phantump phased straight through her, leaving only freezing cold and her wig in her wake. It made them all look over to where she’d hovered, only for everyone awake but Cypress to jump in their seats at realizing that one particular Banette had been sitting on the other corner of the bedding in silence for an unknown amount of time, away from the small gathering. The steadily creeping darkness didn’t help, held at bay soon after by a couple of fresh Will-o’-Wisps.

“~M-Mr. Yaksha?~” the Phantump asked. “~C-can I go back home to my parents?~”

Despite having known Sage for much longer, the Banette didn’t know how to respond any more than anyone else around. He’s had enough time to let the realization that she was a human once finish hitting him, as profoundly uncomfortable as it was. With that in mind, her going back to other humans sounded like a nice thing to have happen, putting aside the inherent human awfulness, but... how feasible was it, really?

“~Sage... do you even remember where—~”

“~Yes! It was in Lillywood!~”

“~L-Lillywood is a large town, Sage. There are thousands and thousands of people in there, d-do you remember anything else?~” Anne asked.

Her question, as necessary as it was, didn’t do the younger girl’s spirits much good. “~Yeah, I-I do! It had a green roof, a-and was large, and... a-and...~”

Yaksha wasn’t any better suited to comforting others than he was to running a human fanclub, but this little child needed him, goddammit. His expression softened as he hovered closer to the ghostie, opening his arms wide. “~Sage, come here. You’re safe now.~”

As much as she wanted to withdraw into her stump and hide from the world again, Sage persevered and disagreed with her guardian, tears streaking down her mask as she shook it from side to side. “~I don’t want to be safe, I-sniff-I wanna go home!~”

Her composure didn’t last much longer, but by the time it broke completely, the Banette was already holding her tight. He didn’t have anyone to blame for this outburst. It wasn’t like anyone here had planted such an impossible idea into her head—he hoped, at least. He couldn’t empathize, any and all memories of what or who he once was long forgotten, but his sympathy was still there. He was still there.

Putting aside the logistics of finding dear Sage’s past home, I am uncertain how other scouts would react to her wish...” Cypress commented.

Their words had Autumn turn to face them in unnerved shock, unsure what they were implying. “^Do you think she shouldn’t get to rejoin her family, Cypress?^”

Of course not, dear Autumn. Our village is not, can not be, a cage for her. To keep such a clearly human soul away from the family she wishes to reunite with is pure cruelty. And yet... I fear not all will see it this way, particularly when the risk of our village being revealed is concerned...

“^Well, what other bloody way is there then!? Can that council of yours just not get enough cruelty, and would trap a child away from her family because it’s inconvenient for us!?^”

Dear Autumn, I wish to remind you I am on your side. No, that would never be an adequate justification, no. I merely wonder what others will do once they learn of this. I can only imagine further paranoia, and I am not enjoying that image in the slightest...

“~If any of yours even bloody thinks they’ll force her to stay here, then they have another thing coming!~” Yaksha shouted.

Before the children could grow even more uncomfortable at the ever-growing hostility in the air, the exchange abruptly stopped. Both Cypress and Autumn stared into the middle distance for a while, before focusing on each other, the realization clear on both their faces.

Cadence asked, “^Grandma?^” Before she would get a response, though, the two adults turned and left the room, coming to a stop right in front of the healer tent. The shift in mood was scary enough for nobody to be eager to investigate what was going on—not physically, at least.

Cadence felt Anne hold her tighter as she probed the rest of the tent with her aura, trying to spot what had chilled the air so much—only for Ember’s gasp to answer that question an instant before she found out by herself.

The fairy had no idea why Mrs. Cinder’s appearance would be so shocking to everyone, or why would it make Ember of all people so scared, but she wasn’t liking it one bit. In no time, both she and Ember were clinging to the blissfully unaware human and the other, littler fairy, the sheer tension in the room the only thing still keeping the latter awake.

Bell asked, confused, “Why is everyone scared?”

“~I-I wish I knew, Bell—~”

On cue, the two psychic teens in the room sensed movement in the tent once more, this time heading back towards them. And to their chagrin and confusion alike, the two familiar auras were accompanied by the third they had walked out of the tent to meet, with all three of them clearly feeling some combination of anxiety, sorrow, and anger.

Thankfully for everyone around, Cinder only showed the former two.

Cadence had never seen her be this shaken, by anything. Always proud, ever imposing, unwavering in her instructions, in her demonstrations, in her personality. And yet, there she was, a shattered mess with matted fur all over, a slouched posture, ears pulled back, and regret dripping from every single strand of fur. Her expression, entirely unfocused.

At least, until she finally dared moving her gaze from the carpeted floor to the little gathering on the bed, the sight sending fear through Ember and Anne alike. They knew what she had done, and there was nothing she could do to undo it. She couldn’t change the past, but the future was within her grasp, even if only some of it. And even if it wouldn’t amount to anything, even if she would rightfully never be forgiven, even if she’d truly wasted her one chance at life,

She had to try.

The room flinched as the Delphox dropped onto her knees in the middle of it, shrinking even further as she bowed towards her daughter. Before she could speak up, at last, the Braixen cut her off, “M-m-mom, Anne is my friend, she—she’d never hurt me! She-she just wants me to be happy, p-PLEASE DON’T HURT HER!”

The fear and urgency in Ember’s voice drove a claw through her mother’s heart, making her bleed tears. She remained slouched over as she visibly shook, expression scrunching in the agony of her own making, before finally responding, “^I-I won’t hurt you two ever again, Ember. I-I apologize, to you, t-t-to Anne. I’ve violated your memories, hurt her through inaction, I took away the hope the—the other provided, I... I’m sorry.^”

The Braixen had lost her fight against her tears at the same time as her mom. This hurt, even just being aware of what the Delphox before her had done hurt, how much pain she’d caused her, how much fear, how many panic attacks at having to relive her darkest memories without the human-shaped flame of home holding her at that very moment. Some of her wanted to shout, to shriek at the older vixen to leave and never come back, to yell about how evil she was—but she couldn’t.

Because she loved her.

She didn’t want to shout at her, or shriek, or yell, or run, or cry.

She just wanted her and Anne to be safe.

Quiet sobbing gave way to a piercing wail as Ember scrambled out of her friend’s embrace and staggered over to Cinder, thin arms clinging to her with all the strength they still had in them as their tears mixed. The Delphox could feel it all, she was too close not to feel that battle inside her daughter. And as much as she felt like she deserved the very worst, to be told to go through with what she’d unsuccessfully attempted and reduce her body to her namesake, that wasn’t for her to decide.

It was for Ember, and Ember wanted her mom. “I-I love you m-mom... b-but it hurts... it all hurts...”

And her mom wanted Ember, too. “^I love you too, Ember. I won’t—won’t hurt you again, I won’t...^”

With the single most strained action of her life, Cinder forced herself to look up at the bedding, forced herself to look the injured human sitting there in the eye. To take in the image of this harmless, spurned child and face just how much harm she’d done, how much vitriol she’d spewed in the name of hatred towards her. Not the people who had actually hurt her daughter, not the system that denied them safety, but another innocent victim.

She wouldn’t let herself forget until she died. And until then...

“^...I won’t let anyone hurt you, Anne, ever again.^”

...she knew what she had to do to make up for what she’d done.



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Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Chapter 28: Nightfall


Chapter 28: Nightfall



The rest of Aria’s scouting shift was uneventful. As far as she was concerned, it was the only blessing she’d be receiving today.

Tension gripped her body like a vise as she approached the village she called home, much of its tranquility undone by the anxious murk roiling around in her mind. It was the one place she felt truly safe in the entire world—it used to be that place, at least. Now, it felt just that bit more alien, just that bit more unwelcoming.

None of that was aimed at her, but that didn’t make it any better.

As difficult as it was, as much as a part of her wanted to kidnap Anne from her bed and run away from it all in a doomed, erratic impulse to keep her safe, she knew she had to push on. Push on, talk with her, escort her over to the Elders’ meeting,

And do her best to argue that Anne’s inherent worth as a living being outweighed any security risks, real or imagined.

Her feet hovered half an inch above the snow as she glided through the increasingly vacant streets. In her mind, a constant refrain to keep breathing. Such a basic, downright trivial thing, and it still helped. Whether it would help enough remained to be seen. The village being almost completely dark made it all even worse.

Too late for many day dwellers to still be around, too early for most of their nocturnal inhabitants to be awake. A limbo of dark silence and scattered lights peeking out of the closed burrows and huts. Would they extend their comfort to the little human that needed them the most? Only one way to find out.

“Evening, Aria,” a familiar voice greeted. The Gardevoir felt her body jolt as it turned to face it before she could even think; the faint glow around her eyes soon dispelled at realizing who it was as they chuckled, “Good gods, you’re stressed, eh?”

“I... yes, yes I am, Geiger.”

His smile wasn’t a sight many were privy to, but his students, be they current or former, always got that privilege. As tense as the situation was, he didn’t hesitate waving her over to the tea corner’s doorway, the alluring scents coming from the inside encouraging her further.

The Magnemite she’d seen yesterday was still attached to his arm, asleep.

“I-I don’t know if I have the time,” Aria whispered.

“One of those old coots is gonna be late anyway; don’t worry about it Aria. Besides—you look like you’d use a heartwarming drink much more than any value anyone else might get out of getting it all wrapped up a few minutes sooner. Sounds like that whole vote is gonna go well into the night either way.”

She didn’t necessarily disagree with the Electivire, but it still felt... disrespectful. Then again, considering that several of the people she’d once respected felt it appropriate to disrespect Anne’s personhood, she could repay them in kind, at least a bit. “...Alright.”

“There ya go!”

With his once-student agreeing to a detour, Geiger thought it best to bring a drink to her instead of having her do it herself. Beyond his snark, she was right—the sooner she got there, the better. She wasn’t gonna do any good in this anxious of a state, though, and a warm, sweet tea was one way he could help with that.

After finding her hands too shaky to hold the cup upright, the Gardevoir switched to telekinesis instead. Even her all-too-familiar white glow wasn’t as stable as she wished it was, but it was thankfully enough to keep any tea from spilling.

“So... how’s it all looking?” the Electivire asked.

With her mouth busy sipping at the hot drink, Aria switched back to telepathy, “^I wish I could say ‘well’, but I’m really unsure. None of the Elders look encouraging, I have no idea if anyone against her staying is even open to any arguments to the contrary... and to make it all worse, Cypress got attacked by a human trainer earlier.^”

That last remark in particular caught the Electivire’s attention, making him glance over at her mid-sip. “Unfortunate. Just an attack of aggression, an attempt at catching her, or something else?”

“^I think they were trying to catch her, but Cypress’ recollection of it all was limited.^”

“Does it make you worry she’ll be so soured by that experience she’ll argue against the girl getting to stay here?”

Aria flinched at the pointed question, especially with her answer being so ugly. “^I-I wish I could say that I don’t, but... I can’t. She’s been wonderful and a great help looking after Anne, but the way she described that ‘ball’ she was in, and with the trainer’s mon hurting her so badly... I don’t know. I trust her, I want to trust her, b-but—^”

“I get it, don’t worry.”

The reassurance only did so much to wash the worst of her fear out of Aria’s mind, but it was better than nothing.

“^I know I shouldn’t be—^”

“No, I really get it, Aria. I don’t blame you one bit. Fear makes monsters of us all, including in our imaginations. All I can hope for is that after all is said and done, you’ll be able to look back at those fears and see them for the absurdities that they are.”

She nodded flatly in response, feeling just that bit colder on the inside.

“Not like any threat I used to teach you about, eh?”

The remark sparked the most pitiful of smiles on her face, fueled further by another sip of the sweet tea. Indeed, nothing like anything else the Electivire had taught her. Nothing like anything he could have ever taught her. “^It’s so much worse.^”

“Sounds like it.”

“^B-because it’s not just some distant shapeless humanity or wild predators, it’s... us. We’re the ones doing it to someone; we’re the ones hurting someone much weaker than ourselves because of misplaced fear and prejudice. How do you even fight that?^”

Uncertain silence surrounded them for a few seconds as Geiger finished his swig, stretching slightly afterwards. “As far as I’m concerned, same as always. That’s something I drilled into you all a ton—”

“^Yes, yes... acknowledge it, measure it, mitigate it.^”

“I’ve been pedantic to hell about these for a reason—because they work. Worked for me back in my old life, works here too.”

“^I know, I know. I’ve been doing these as much as I can, trying to reach people that are likely to vote against her, but what if it’s just not enough? What if I do everything I possibly could to keep her safe, to sway others, and they still decree that she should be left behind?^”

Despite all the worst-case scenario plans she’d been trying to set for herself, despite all the promises, that fateful question did not get any less harrowing to consider. And while Geiger wasn’t aware of anything the Gardevoir had done to prepare herself for that scenario... he still suspected it. “Something tells me you already have something in mind for it—mitigated it at least somewhat.”

No immediate response beyond further pensiveness. He wasn’t ever the biggest one for physical affection, but if there was any opportunity to use it for good, it was here. Keeping himself as restrained as he could, Geiger patted Aria’s shoulder a few times, startling her out of staring at the tea leaves at the bottom of her cup and almost toppling her over. “Ahaha, my bad,” he chuckled. “I meant it, though. I know you have a plan Aria, you’re too smart not to.”

The compliment worked a bit better, forcing a weak smile and a deep breath as the Gardevoir tried to mentally reset herself. He was right; she had a plan—but it was a woefully vague plan. “^Right. I talked with Anne this morning, confessed to everything that’s going on. I... I made a promise to her. A promise that no matter what happens, she’ll be safe. Even if it takes my entire family having to leave to ensure so.^”

A firm nod from the Electivire—continue.

“^It’s something, but... I haven’t even told Garret or Marco. What if it really comes to pass? What if we have to risk running into the wilderness again just to keep her safe from the village? It’s one thing to claim that, another thing to mean it—and I do mean it—but what if brings danger to the rest of my family?^”

It was a question without an answer, and both of them were well aware. There was a place for acknowledging, measuring, and mitigating, but when it came to running for someone’s life, the time to carefully plan out one’s next step was a luxury rarely afforded.

Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as the Gardevoir feared it would be, either.

“If it really comes to it, if you have to run to keep her safe... then I can guarantee you won’t be the only one leaving,” Geiger reassured. The implications were clear and yet no less shocking; Aria’s eyes went wide as she stared at the Electric-type, making him chuckle, “Hah, what’s so surprisin’? I stayed here for a reason, after all. I know my strength, I know that if it came to it, I would be entirely alright on my own in these woods, if forced to resort to predation.”

He wasn’t done yet, still holding the psychic’s attention despite the morbid tangent.

“Back all those years ago, when I first stumbled here, when I first spoke with Orion... I saw a spark in him. A vision to really make this place something so much larger than the sum of its parts, so much greater than what any of us could do alone. And if it turns out said vision has now entirely rotted into the same kind of cruelty-by-committee that humanity is so fond of, I don’t want to be a part of it any longer.”

The frank admission took a while to finish worming itself into Aria’s mind. Once it did, though, it made her feel a bit lighter. There was still the inherent horror of so many people being indirectly forced to abandon their homes because of someone else’s cruelty, one she loathed to inflict on anyone else, or even rhetorically nudge in that direction.

When it came entirely from them, it was almost bearable.

“^That’s... incredibly kind of you, Geiger,^” she whispered.

“No, it’s not.”

A lifted eyebrow above a worried expression conveyed the Gardevoir’s concerns wordlessly, and the Electric-type didn’t hesitate to elaborate, “It’s mighty kind of you, Aria. You’re the one putting your family on the line, first and foremost. I’ve been here for a while, but I have little in the way of earthly attachments. I could get up, run behind the horizon, and only a few people would ever really notice I left. Don’t thank me, take pride in yourself for taking a stand.”

She didn’t know what to say in response. In a way, she supposed her actions were admirable—but they were also thoughtless, sticking with her most basic impulses come hell or high water. Just because they were basic, it didn’t mean they weren’t correct, though. “^I suppose. It just feels incredibly rash—^”

“Justice being rash doesn’t make it any less just.”

“^Right. Well, thank...^” Aria trailed off. As she chewed through their exchange, a memory from yesterday evening crept back into her mind, providing some much-needed levity in the tense situation. She teased, “^I think there is someone who would notice you’re gone. And that same someone would just so happen to leave with me if needed to protect Anne.^”

Guess Electivire can blush; who could’ve thought.

“I’ve no idea what... sigh, yeah, you got me. But that doesn’t take away from my thrust!”

It took Aria her entire supply of willpower to keep herself from twisting the word ‘thrust’ into a different meaning in her mind. “^Right, right~.^”

“Hah. Jokes aside, I do mean it. Yes, my reasons might be less than pure, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be alone in taking a stand by following you out if need be. Hell, Holly’s so eager about pushing the girl’s safety into everyone’s face you would’ve thought she’s her bodyguard. I can only imagine how she’d react to being told that some old coots voted to toss her out—and if she goes, you know full well she’s dragging Jovan with herself. Won’t let the little brother stay in such a rotten place, ha!”

That... yeah. He had a point.

“^I see. Well, thank you for the chat, Geiger,^” Aria sighed, feeling that bit lighter.

“Anytime, Aria~. Lemme grab that cup from you. I can only imagine how bloody terrifying all this is for you, but... I believe in ya, girl. And I’m sure so does Anne. And who knows—maybe once she ends up staying, I’ll get to ask her what in the world does my name mean, ha! Now, off you go—you’ve got a life to save, after all.”

If only Aria believed in herself, too.

With one last exchange of waves and thanks, the Gardevoir took her leave, mind spinning even faster at everything it had learned. On one hand, the reassurance that she wasn’t alone helped immensely, but on the other, it only added an even larger weight onto her back. It wasn’t just Anne she was fighting for—it was her children; it was her husband; it was Geiger; it was Holly.

It was the integrity of her entire village. She had a hard time thinking of a more worthy thing to fight for, but good gods, if it didn’t help with all the pressure. Despite it all, she breathed just that bit easier afterwards.

During her chat, the little commune had plunged even deeper into darkness—now counterbalanced by the wisps of light illuminating the streets. It’d still be some time until the night life really began—but by then, she hoped to already be at the Elders’ tent with Anne.

A detour wouldn’t help with that goal, but considering who it was she’d just run into up ahead... she might as well try. To her surprise, she didn’t even have to be the one initiating, the all-too-familiar rough voice grating her ears that bit more than it used to, “Aria, did you hear about that Phantump?”

It was acutely hard for her not to have heard about them. “^Yes I have, Lumi. Did something happen to her?^”

A non-human topic of discussion had the Luxray more chipper than he’d been for the past few days, but it didn’t take long for Aria’s anxiety to rub itself off on him. Thankfully, the sleeping Shinx on his back was too desensitized to any shocks to notice anything afoul, squirming further into his dad’s fur as the Luxray explained, “Dunno if anything happened, but sure sounds like something ain’t right with her. Cypress said she used to be a human or something—load of nonsense as far as I’m concerned. There’s no way a human could even turn into one of us. It just doesn’t work like that.”

Aria was only paying half attention to Lumi’s diatribe, too focused on making sure she was gathering the right words. The mention of Sage being a human was a very worrisome one, but she didn’t have the spare brainpower to fully investigate the implications of it at the moment. “^I think I’d rather trust Cypress about that as opposed to your gut...^”

“You’d think, but c’mon. She’s just a normal Phantump. Wearing something silly on her head, but still a Phantump—no way a human soul would end up as one. It’d have to be something bloody monstrous.”

It was neither helpful nor time-efficient to chew Lumi out for what he was implying there, but Aria still only barely stopped herself from doing so—she had something very different in mind for the Luxray. “^Lumi?^” she asked, sullen tone snagging his attention as his piercing, yellow-red eyes looked at her uncertainly. “^Can I ask you, as a friend, to not hurt Ember with your vote?^”

The phrasing made him flinch and open his maw as if about to speak—but no words came. No words could, she imagined. She felt his emotions shrink from proud bravado and yapping about things he didn’t understand, to being almost... chided. Whether it would last—or amount to anything, it remained to be seen.

It was also enough to make him scurry away without saying another word. Once again, Aria was left alone, with only snow and dark to keep her company.

And purpose burning in her soul.


The large tent of their clinic was filled only with occasional strained breaths and shuffling of bodies on linen.

As yesterday, a faint light peeked out from underneath the entrance to what had become Anne’s room, but it’d be a moment until Aria investigated it. True, she could feel the one aura she certainly didn’t expect or want to sense in there, but since both the Delphox and everyone around her were doing alright—beyond being stressed—they could wait a minute.

The Phantump was already asleep by the time she got there, the Banette watching closely over her. His pink eyes narrowed at seeing someone approach, but relaxed not long after once they realized just who exactly it was in the darkness.

Not someone he liked, but someone he could at least trust. “~Good evening.~”

“^Greeting, Yaksha. I’ve heard that Sage—^”

“~Yes, she used to be a human,~” the Banette grumbled out. The words were strained, but genuine, and as conflicted as he clearly was over that fact, he was putting said conflict aside for the sake of tending to the hauntling under his watch, and that’s all Aria could’ve ever expected from him. And then some.

As the Gardevoir squinted at the asleep ghost, she could just barely make out something large and dark covering her head. A misfolded blanket, maybe? Whatever it was, it would have to wait, wait until tomorrow. Until forever, potentially. “^I see. Did that realization help her feel better?^”

Hardly a single, definite answer to a question like that. The Banette grumbled, slowly shaking his head in uncertainty, before settling on the world’s weakest nod.

“~In a way. It let her remember who she was, and I’m—I’m glad she does. But it uncovered a lot of grief, too, and wanting to go back to her human family. I don’t want to deny her that, or anything, but it feels like she’s setting herself up for more pain.~”

Aria shuddered at the image of a little sad ghost weeping at being torn away from her family once more—this time deliberately. “^I can only imagine how painful it’d be for her.^”

The ‘wants to leave village to return to humanity’ part of Sage’s wish had a hard time settling in Aria’s mind, already so full of worrying for everything else. She didn’t want to be the one trying to convince everyone that the Phantump deserved to be able to leave them—she agreed with that, of course she did, but she could only imagine that entire topic lowering Anne’s chances even more.

Something for another day, hopefully.

“~I’m glad that Anne girl at least got her this,~” the Banette sighed. “Makes her feel a lot better. Can’t remember her sleeping this soundly in a while.~”

Yaksha’s spectral hand gently stroked over the unidentified black mass at the top of Sage’s head, making the little one shift in her dreams. The mention of Anne took Aria aback, especially as it clicked in her head just what the injured and equally scared human girl had done.

It made her feel so warm, on par with hearing about Cadence or Bell having helped someone. “^I’m glad to hear. Is it a... head covering?^”

“~Seems like a wig. Maybe it’s how she kept her hair back in her human life, I’m unsure.~”

Curious, but not a topic to get into there and then. “^I see. I hope the night passes calmly for you two.^”

“~So do I. Something’s heavy in the air, I can feel it.~”

You don’t know the half of it.

With the weakest nod of her life, Aria turned around and approached the entrance to Anne’s room. The emotions she felt from inside were the opposite of reassuring—anxiety from everyone, though very unequal in intensity. Arguably, the rational response to what would happen in just a couple of hours.

The flaps parting caught the attention of all the awake occupants, providing relief to most of them. Cinder was the one exception, staring down at the floor as the sleeping Ember sat on her lap.

Anne held the younger vixen’s paw from a distance, not daring to touch the Delphox as others present congregated around her. Cadence held her side, Autumn patted her shoulder, Bell squirmed uncomfortably on her lap, too tense to sleep and only barely keeping himself from crying.

Everyone else, already gone.

“^Mom, what—what’s going on? Anne is so scared, and she doesn’t want to tell us and it makes us scared too and we just want to help, and—^” Cadence asked, her telepathic whisper soon interrupted by the feeling of her mom’s psychic embrace. The warmth undid some of the tension, at least temporarily.

Aria didn’t want to tell her—not now, not ever—she didn’t want to ruin the image of their village as a safe place in the Kirlia’s mind. She would have to anyway if things went awry, but that was then. And now; she just wanted her children to feel safe, “^I will tell you later, sweetie. I know how stressful this is, and I really wish it wasn’t like that. Me and—and other scouts are doing what we can to help Anne, and we’ll figure it out soon.^”

The Kirlia wasn’t convinced, holding the injured human even firmer. “^B-but she’s so scared, a-and I’m so scared—and you’re scared too, I can feel it! Is someone gonna hurt us?^”

If only it was as easy as someone out there wanting to hurt us. “^I can’t talk about it right now, Cadence. It’s—it’s scout stuff, I’m sorry to say.^”

She felt the sorrow seep deeper into her daughter’s soul, but there was nothing she could do to help. Autumn was keen on helping however she could, though, holding the Kirlia tight from behind. Anne had no idea about the exchange that had just taken place, and her pose didn’t let her contribute much, but one shaking, petting hand was better than nothing.

It was time to address them all. Aria spoke with her physical voice, “Hey. I need you all to leave me and Anne alone for now. Autumn, could you—”

“^Sure thing, Aria,^” Indeedee answered. The resolve in her voice was a welcome departure from the surrounding stress, but even it was clearly strained.

As tired as Ember clearly was, her mom getting up to carry her away stirred her out of her sleep, making her look around the room in groggy confusion. “Wh-what’s going on? Mom, why are we leaving?”

Cinder almost only barely forced herself to look into Aria’s eyes; it was almost too painful to imagine. And yet, she pushed through, wordlessly asking if her daughter already knew. Unfortunately, she did, making her mother explain, “^Ember, the vote about what will happen to Anne is coming up, and I’ll need to take her there.^”

Aria expected the Braixen to get paralyzed with fear at hearing that, that she’d become so inconsolable Cinder would have to carry her out. Instead, the lil’ fox nodded as firmly as she could, shaking her eyepatch around, before dashing over to her best friend one more time, and pulling her into one last hug.

“N-no matter what happens, I’ll always be with you, A-Anne. I-I promise.”

The Gardevoir didn’t know how she even managed to maintain her composure at these words, only that eventually it was just her and Anne in the room. Terrified, anxious, hopeful, that last emotion in particular trying to persevere as hard as it could despite the circumstances.

Neither of them knew what to say, but they knew what they longed for in that dreadful moment. Without another word, Aria sat down beside Anne on the rough bedding and pulled her into the tightest side hug her feeble physical arms could manage—immediately returned. As hard as the little one tried to keep her emotions in check around other kids, it couldn’t last forever.

And if there was anywhere in the world she felt secure enough to let them out, it was in the Gardevoir’s arms. “~I-I d-don’t wanna d-die...~”

Aria wanted to scream at the injustices in the world, be they made by humanity or them, that had forced the child in her arms to say these words out loud. Maybe, in time, she would have the opportunity to shout at least three of them down—but that time wasn’t now. ‘Now’ deserved something else. “^I won’t let that happen, no matter what.^”

The psychic forced herself to give off the same tingling, emotional warmth she did when they first embraced; her inner light snuffed in all the anxiety. It was nowhere near as intense as then, but it still helped the girl relax, if slightly, making her lean into the touch even further as she asked, “~Wh-what will happen to Ember?~”

Another part of this cruel mystery, almost equally uncertain. Only almost, however, and if what Aria saw was any sign, things were better on that front than she thought. “^I don’t know for certain, but I doubt Cinder will let her be hurt again, be it directly or not.^”

Anne nodded weakly into the psychic’s side, mulling through what she’d seen of her this evening. “~I-I think she m-means well. Now, at least. She was still really, really scary, but it really f-felt like she wanted the best for Ember, a-and I hope she really does.~”

“^So do I. What’s best for her is what’s best for you as well—remaining here, together, in a family you’re loved in.^”

Aria didn’t realize all the implications of her telepathic words until after she had sent them, making her flinch. On the other hand... it’s not like she disagreed with any of them. More than that, she felt that yearning in her grow stronger by the moment. This wasn’t the time nor the place to dig too deeply into it, though.

Whether she would ever get the time for that... remained to be seen.

Because the little one in her arms was doing just that, only shaking harder as a result. She didn’t put words to any of her thoughts, and neither did Aria. What could they even say that wouldn’t make what they were about to go through even harder for them both? The Gardevoir didn’t know, but there was something she could do that would make it just that bit easier.

Deep breaths helped with the raging flames of panic, but were all but useless when dealing with the freezing grasp of a lingering fear. Nothing but true safety could get rid of the latter. But if they could at least rid themselves of as much of the former as they could, it would help a lot, too.

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. The subconscious impulse soon synchronized between them, ending up at a pace the Gardevoir found sluggish, and the human just slow enough to feel calm. Anne was here; hope wasn’t yet lost. Aria was here; things would be alright.

It was time.

“^We should be going,^” the Gardevoir whispered. “^Can you can stand up on your own, Anne?^”

A moment of thought, a resigned headshake, “~I-I don’t know...~”

“^I’ll help you, don’t worry. Will you need anything to leave?^”

“~Sh-shoes. M-Maybe socks too, but we d-don’t have time for those.~”

A part of Aria wanted to object, to reassure the girl that they had the time, but settled on following Anne’s best judgment. The mental image of ‘shoes’ was simultaneously decently close to the foot wraps that a fair few in their village used, and much, much sturdier.

And—once the psychic had pulled them out of the rough pile of Anne’s clothes—stained with caked mud and a few droplets of dried blood. Miserable, but they didn’t have the time for anything better.

As the girl slid her bare feet into them, wincing at how uncomfortable they felt without socks in the way, Aria psychiced the blanket into the air, and gently wrapped it around her. Safeguard did wonders for keeping the worst of the winter cold away, but she didn’t want Anne to be spared of just the absolute worst—she wanted her to feel comfortable and warm and loved and to flourish and—

...

The sooner they departed, the better.

Aria’s constant assistance provided Anne’s legs with enough strength to walk. Between aching, limping, and needing to get used to the motions again, that process remained slow—but it didn’t matter. Step by step, aided by a blanket and Safeguard, until they reached the end.

Once they left the girl’s room and caught the attention of one of the injured that hadn’t fallen asleep yet, the Gardevoir added one more layer, one much more draining for her but necessary for the human. Thankfully, the onlookers only reacted to the wrapped biped beside Aria suddenly being erased from their perception with momentary confusion, and didn’t try digging deeper than that.

Onward, into the oh-so-familiar darkness.

After stepping out of the tent, Anne stopped to look around in awe, and Aria followed. She had no doubts that she really had spent the last few days in a village of mons by that point, but seeing it for herself was something entirely different. Much scarier than she thought it’d be, too.

Almost all buildings had turned dark by then, which, combined with their primitiveness and the unceasing snowfall, only made them look decrepit. Beloved huts turned into harrowing ruins, if not to Anne’s conscious mind, then to her subconscious fear. In the distance, animalistic noises—speech to Aria, but only a source of more fear for the little one beside her. Unknown in meaning, unknown in source. Unknown in whether their owners would hurt her if they could.

The thought made her shake much harder than the surrounding snow ever could. It wouldn’t let go either, forcing quickly freezing tears and psychically obscured sobs as it rattled around in her mind. She just wanted to be safe; why was that so impossible? Why did so many hate her enough to where they would rather toss her out to die? She had done nothing to hurt them!

Others like her have, the planet-spanning abomination of law and steel and bigotry and conquest had, but not her! She was just a child! Such an important distinction, but... would it matter? To anyone?

Aria could only watch, at a loss for words. She heard the questions crying out from the girl’s mind, but had no matter—how could she? It didn’t help, not her, not Anne. Very little could—but not nothing.

“Honey?” the demonic voice grunted, making Anne yelp as Aria looked over her shoulder at her husband, barely making out the uncertain concern on his face.

She beckoned him over with a nod of her head as she whispered over to the girl, wanting to take at least some of the choking fear away, “^It’s Garret, sweetie. You don’t have to talk with him if you don’t want to.^”

The girl didn’t immediately react to the telepathic words, focusing instead on the Grimmsnarl as he caught up to them and gave her a timid wave. Aria would need a different way of disguising things if she ever wanted to cover anything from him, something closer to Orion’s innate gifts—and so she didn’t even try. “Hey, sweetie. I’m—I’m heading over to the council hearing with Anne.”

The Gardevoir’s physical voice was so dry it was almost croaking. Nothing that could be helped at the moment, alas. Still, her husband noticed it clearly, leaning in to wrap his arms around her without disturbing the already unnerved human beside her. “Best of luck to you, honey. I talked with Max earlier today, if you’d wanna hear about that before you get there.”

Aria was unsure how to respond without potentially exposing Anne to even more fear of never being accepted here. Considering how unbothered her husband was, it couldn’t be too bad... right? “How did it go?” she asked.

“Quite well, if I may! He did bring up the discomfort, but was clear that it didn’t matter if it came down to the choice between personal feelings or Anne’s safety.”

At least they had that reprieve. She sighed, “That’s—that’s good.”

“Something to keep your hopes up! He mentioned Celia had visited him earlier that day to talk about this as well, and with how uncertain you felt about her, I thought I’d mention it.”

If the Gardevoir had any idea how to feel about that knowledge, she would’ve reacted in a more lively way than the flattest nod of her life. Just another onto the massive pile of vague concerns in her mind. She’d find out what the Primarina Elder was planning soon enough, anyway.

“How about you, Anne? How are you feeling?” the Grimmsnarl asked.

Aria cursed herself for not making it clear to her husband that the little one would need some space—only to then sigh in relief at the girl responding normally, “~I-I’m scared...~”

“I can only imagine. I know it’s really scary, but Aria’s got your back, and we’re all hoping for the best. Things are gonna be alright,” Garret reassured. He wasn’t the best at motivational speeches, but he made up for that in spades with physical affection. The likes of which were rather limited for Anne at the moment, but which she still wanted, even if silently.

And after his wife covertly passed that detail over to him, he only saw it fit to do his best.

Him crouching before Anne and opening his arms wide took her aback a bit, but not enough to not take him up on that offer moments later, walking into his front. Even at his gentlest, the affection was still rather firm—for the best, considering the situation. For a few moments, Anne leaned on Garret as he silently held her and pet her back. Words were difficult, especially at the moment, but he still deserved her gratitude. “~Th-thank you, M-Mr. Garret.~”

“Of course, Anne.”

The girl took her time backing up to her guardian once the Dark-type let go of her, wanting to feel that warmth for just a bit longer. Alas, it was the time they didn’t have, and she knew that full well, too. After catching her balance, Anne looked up and nodded at Aria, the latter getting the message to continue.

“Take care, you two! I believe in you both!” the Grimmsnarl cheered.

Before they got out of mindshot, though, the Gardevoir had one more thing to say to her husband. “^Garret, I... made a promise to her. That, if the worst comes to pass, we’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe, even if it means uprooting ourselves and leaving altogether.^”

Aria couldn’t feel the uncertainty in the Grimmsnarl’s mind, but she saw it. A tiny flinch, a moment of fear on his expression, hesitation before he spoke again. Nothing she could blame him for, nothing she could’ve blamed anyone for. “I... I hope you know what you’re doing, Aria.”

And so did she.

With Garret out of sight, the two could speed up again. As little as it was, and as lively as worry remained inside both of their minds, the briefest of chats with the demonic Fairy-type was still enough to get them going faster than before. The tiniest of embers of hope in their hearts, given a few flakes of kindling to keep it burning for just a few minutes, hours longer.

The rest of their slow trek wasn’t anywhere near as interesting, thankfully. As more nocturnal inhabitants woke up and left their dens to stretch their limbs, they tried greeting the oddly walking Gardevoir—and only received silent nods in response.

Even if they couldn’t see the being obviously walking beside her, they could still spot the tracks in the snow they left behind, psychically sense or even smell their fear. It wasn’t too difficult to put two and two together for most, and the rest were discouraged by her gloomy disposition.

Something Aria desperately hoped would happen with Mikiri too after the tinkerer spotted them, only to be positively surprised.

In all likelihood, the Mawile hadn’t even consciously noticed the sun having set, not with so much of her focus still on the two-wheeled contraption. Each time the Gardevoir got a glimpse, it had more and more clearly unrelated parts welded onto it, which included something poking through the spokes of the wheel this time.

Mikiri’s mind was on the highest gear, but whether it was devoted to solving yet another mechanical obstacle or trying to come up with an idea of how to climb down from the raised seat without faceplanting in the snow, Aria didn’t know or care. For a moment, it looked like she was about to be forcibly pulled into the former once the Steel-type noticed her, making her brace herself for the worst.

Instead, the Mawile had spotted the tracks beside her too, and cracked that little puzzle immediately. A rare moment of genuine surprise, an even rarer show of consideration—and at last, a replacement for bothering the psychic. Two thumbs up, support and affirmation. Copied straight from Orion.

Thanks, Mikiri.

As they neared the Elders’ tent, Aria felt the attention being placed on her intensify, making it harder and harder to keep Anne hidden. More and more onlookers, most of them aware of what was about to take place. Many uncertain, some friendly, some less so. A few little ones way past their bedtimes, eager to see what would happen.

The auras of Blossom and Ember, trying to keep as inconspicuous as possible, had the psychic sigh, but not acknowledge them any further than that. There was no point to that, or time to waste.

One last turn, the massive conical tent finally came into view. The many woven and carved decorations that adorned it were little more than visual noise in the dark, proud symbols that stood for nothing without sunlight to set them straight. Anne shuddered into Aria’s side at realizing that it was where they were headed, but didn’t comment on it beyond that.

The sights spoke for themselves.

Once the two were face to face with the entrance, a single step from the hall of judgements and rulings, they stopped. Aria wanted to turn and run, to not subject the girl beside her to a hearing that felt more and more doomed by the moment, to spare her that painful middle step between fleeting comfort and having to escape along with the Gardevoir’s family.

Anne just wanted to be safe.

After one more embrace, quick and wordless, they stepped in.


Reassuringly, they weren’t the last to have made it there, either.

The sunken firepit in the center provided some sorely needed light as it lit the gathered figures in the harshest way possible. Away from the entrance, the three Elders sat in a row, their gazes immediately leaping onto the Gardevoir.

Blatant displeasure of the Breloom.

Unchanging flatness of the Torkoal.

Obscured attentiveness of the Primarina.

Anne’s attention was focused almost entirely on the latter, unfamiliar to her creature. Reminded her of some sketches she’d seen in fantasy novels, but nothing even close to what she remembered seeing in a dex. Whether they were a village secret, or simply a mundane species from far away, the girl didn’t know—all she knew was that they were hurt.

The scars on their face and arms, the lost fingers on their flipper. Torn pieces of the translucent fin at the top of their head, missing patches of beautiful, azure hair. It felt like some further things were missing, too, but Anne didn’t know enough about how the stranger ‘ought’ to have looked like to tell.

Expression hidden behind their left flipper.

“Finally!” Winnie shouted. “Celia asked you to bring it with you; where is—”

Before Winnie could finish his complaint, Aria undid the spell that kept Anne hidden, startling everyone present to a various extent. The Breloom sneered at the girl; the Torkoal leaned her head in, and the Primarina... closed her eyes.

“Very well. Please seat her beside yourself, Aria,” Ana instructed.

The Gardevoir did just that, finally letting go of her constant support of the girl’s body. By the time Anne finished sitting down, she looked less like a human and more like a pile of cloth with a head sticking out of it—an exhausted head, worn by the strains of the day, by the cold, by fear. By what still awaited them all.

“Aria? I have a request, if I may,” Celia asked. Hearing her silken voice was a rare enough occurrence that it caught the attention of everyone gathered, even the human for whom it was little more than a vaguely feminine, pretty noise.

A shudder went through Aria’s horns, but she had no choice but to respond, “Yes, Elder Celia?”

“I wish for Anne to remove her eye coverings for the duration of the proceedings.”

There was no ambiguity for the Gardevoir to wriggle in—only a serious order for the girl to be left blind throughout it all, beyond what she would be already subject to. It was blatant cruelty that had no practical use to it.

And based on the words that followed soon after, something told Aria that Celia was well aware. “It is—it is for the purpose of keeping sensitive information away from her.”

For a split second, the stone mask from behind which the Primarina observed the world cracked into doubt, before correcting itself once more. Aria wanted to scream, but it would’ve been for naught. “^Anne?^” she whispered. “^An Elder is asking you to take your glasses off.^”

The human girl was no less confused about the purpose of that, but could tell from her guardian’s tone that there was nothing either of them could do about it. Her little body shook even harder after the world had returned to an indistinct blur, the unknown not even her eyes could reveal growing that much more terrifying.

“Thank you,” the Primarina said.

Without any further words being exchanged, Anne could only try to make out the already present scouts, half-blind, and watch as the rest of them showed up, one by one.

Magenta and violet of a ghost scarred by humanity.

Metallic red of an unnerved tinkerer.

White and blue of a once-exile.

Blue and black of a scornful watcher.

Brown and green of a cheerful mother.

Metal blue and black of a protector of his ingroup.

Purple and tan of a once-battler.

Black and red of a kin-blind shadow of the woods.

White and green of a devoted guardian.

White and green of a...

Aria stared at her brother as he stepped in, hoping to see confidence and reassurance. Instead, there was only quiet thoughtfulness, one that refused to show its hand, and guilt that only barely let him look his sister in the eyes.

Once Marco sat down, the Gardevoir turned to the girl beside her one last time, passing her a simple, telepathic question, “^Do you want me to translate what’s being said?^”

Anne chewed through the offer, already withdrawn and spaced out from all the dangerous-feeling strangers in the room. She knew she should’ve been brave enough for this, to face what was going on around her, to at least have the courage to hear what understandable objections some present might have had to her being here,

But she couldn’t.

It was just too terrifying a thought.

“~N-n-no...~” she whimpered.

“^Of course, sweetie. It’s all good, I’m here for you.^”

The Gardevoir held the girl as close as she could, stroking her hair as she watched the Torkoal slowly pick herself up into a standing position and take a step forward. Then another, and third still, squinting eyes glancing around the room for the final count. And then; she spoke, voice heavy as a mountain,

“Let us begin.”​



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Chapter 29: Thirteen


Chapter 29: Thirteen



“Let us begin.”​

The three words echoed through the tent, forcing all that had heard them to let go of any external distractions for however long all this was going to take. No matter how derisive anyone here was of either the human or the need for this entire procedure, they knew how important this discussion would be.

Because of the precedent.

Because of the impact it would have on their future.

Because of an innocent life being on the line.

“Let me restate the purpose we are gathered here for: to discuss what we should do with Anne, the human in our midst, and vote on a specific plan of action. Does everyone present agree with that purpose,” Ana spoke in her flat, grinding voice, delivering more words nobody could deny, but which most flinched at. One after the other, all thirteen participants nodded, silently or otherwise. No room or reason to delay.

“Perfect,” the Torkoal continued. “In that case, I ask for the events that led us here to be restated, so that everyone may have access to the same information.”

Aria lifted her hand before the Torkoal was even done—the only one to do so. Her eyes swept around the room as she gathered words, trying to get a feel of how others felt about it. Many of them avoided looking at her, or at the injured child beside her.

Don’t look away from the consequences, you cowards.

“Proceed, Aria.”

The Gardevoir’s arm shook as it caressed Anne’s side, the sudden silence only making her huddle closer to her guardian. Unfortunately, she had to stop that affection for just a moment as she slid forward to speak up, reaching to hold the girl’s hand instead, poking out of the blanket. With a deep breath, she recounted, “^Three days ago, Anne attempted to escape from her human family, after having been abused by them for years. It resulted in her suffering an accident in the nearby woods, and afterwards she was found, grievously injured, in the ravine east of our village. Afterwards, Sprout had rescued her, and moved her over to our clinic.^”

A motion in the corner of Aria’s eye caught her attention. Celia looking not at her, not at Anne, but away and at the floor, still obscuring her mouth.

“Sprout, can you vouch for Aria’s words?” the Torkoal asked.

“Yep I can, Elder Ana.”

“Proceed as you were.”

“^After she woke up, I and others talked to her for the next few days. She is approximately the same mental age as Cadence, withdrawn, and enjoys drawing. Most crucially for our proceedings, however, she has no human family to come back to—none she would be safe with. In addition, she used to be long-time friends with Ember, but thanks to Cinder’s involvement, Ember didn’t remember that until Marco and Autumn helped her uncover her memories.^”

Aria’s free hand shook, clenched into a fist, as she tried her hardest to maintain flat neutrality during her recollection.

“Marco, can you vouch for Aria’s words?”

An uncomfortably long moment of silence before the Gallade caught onto the words being said, eyes darting as if snapped out of deep thought. Then; he finally answered, “Yes, I can, Elder Ana.”

“Proceed as you were.”

“^I believe that was everything that needed to be said about Anne’s past for the time being, Elder Ana.^”

A brief look from the Torkoal, discarded right away as she continued, “Very well. Let us proceed into the discussion of what should be done—”

Immediately, several limbs raised up to offer their perspectives. Sprout, Lucere, Winnie, Ruby—Aria’s too, snapped upwards so quickly she didn’t even consciously realize it until afterwards. One sweep around the gathered scouts, another, Ana made her choice. “Proceed, Ruby.”

The Weavile took a deep breath as she stepped forward, speaking up in a tense, but confident tone, “As far as I’m concerned, the answer is simple. We do the same thing we’d do with any other creature in that situation, and give her shelter.”

It took only seconds for someone to speak out-of-order afterwards.

“But we can’t!” Lucere cried. “Humans sure as hell aren’t like us; we wouldn’t be hiding from them if they were! Come on, why are we even arguing about any of this!? Humans have never ever accepted us as equals, and never will!”

The Altaria underlined her thrust by pointing her cloudy wing in Anne’s general direction, the girl thankfully too blind to notice. Unfortunately, she still heard the spirited chirping that others perceived as speech, and could tell it was being said at her. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no choice but to shrink and look down at the floor like a scolded pet.

It took Aria a lot of self control to not snap back at that, especially with how much of Lucere’s mind wasn’t even focused on anything going on here. Images of long past trauma, her own exile, the faces of the ones she once called family shifting into monstrous caricatures of Anne’s face. Unfortunate, but no less loathsome in the current situation.

“Lucere, wait in li—”

“And on what bloody authority do you claim that, Lucere?” Rose asked, cutting Ana’s scolding off with her own as her eyes glared at and through the Altaria.

The Dragon-type recognized a challenge when she heard one, not even thinking about backing down. “Just look at what they did to Cypress! Both that awful ball thing and how much their brainwashed pets had hurt them! They’re shaking even now for frickin’ crying out loud; how could you think they’re anything but this monstrous—”

Enough...

“—thing that will hurt us the first chance they get!? That’s just the most naïve thing I’ve ever heard! What Rose, are you gonna claim that this pet human here would ever have more empathy for—”

Enough...

“—one of ours, something they all only try to control, than one of their own that our Cypress had messed up in self-defense—”

ENOUGH.”​

The ghastly outburst echoed through the tent as the Altaria suddenly stared the Mismagius in the eye. Their Astonish was effective, but the ghost was well aware they had to speak or else she’d just continue rambling forever.

“Cypress—”

Yes, my experience was mortifying,” the ghost continued, cutting Ana off. “Earlier today, a human trainer had attempted to capture me with one of their spherical contraptions. Afterwards, once I broke out, I attacked them, and their trained mon fought back in their name...

Everyone else being caught up to speed made them gasp at what they assumed to have been a far more innocuous accident on their scouting duty. Shock, concern, worry, all justified—none of those useful in the moment as long as they remained aimed at the Mismagius.

It left scars in my mind and my physical presence that I am unsure will ever fully heal. It made me fear the power the human contraptions possess at their worst…” Cypress kept going, floating back to their spot as the emotions in their voice waned by the word, revealing only more pain. “But the evil humanity is capable of, on the whole, is far from any singular human’s actions. None of us are defined by our kin. And for anyone here to imply that dear Anne should be judged under the criteria that they would find loathsome when aimed at them, is a peak of hypocrisy...

After getting their rebuke out, the Mismagius shrunk a bit in their seat. They tried to avoid wincing as their recent injury acted up—wincing too loudly, at least. Aria felt no less sorry for them than everyone else, but another emotion took up much of her mind instead—gratitude. She looked at the ghost as they finished recoiling from their pain, offering them a weak smile and an even weaker nod.

Hopefully, she would feel similarly stupid for ever doubting others here.

In addition,” Cypress continued, “I would prefer ‘Mr.’ Cypress for the rest of this—

“This is insanity! These human spheres are tools of subjugation and mind control! How can we be sure Cypress’s and Rose’s memories are even believable? Why, this foul human’s presence is no doubt bringing back their influence over them! How are we to know that this thing being here isn’t making them both give in to their conditioning!?” Winnie ranted, his words mostly received with eye rolls and held-in groans, but... there was a kernel of truth to them.

Indeed, they didn’t really know about how these human things worked, and whether they didn’t have a lingering component to them that was affecting the Mismagius in particular. It was immensely foolish to outright accuse them of that, but... what if?

Regardless of how much their experiences had conditioned them, the two scouts that had been called into question sure weren’t happy about it. Cypress shook in place in a way that Anne would’ve recognized as a seizure if she could make it out.

Rose, however, was one snap impulse from making everyone present—and the Breloom in particular—regret having a sense of smell. Before she could get wound up further, though, the Decidueye beside her stepped in, “At that point, why not doubt everyone, eh!? For fuck’s sake, why not doubt YOU, you old bastard!? How do YOU know you aren’t under some ancient psychic influence that will turn you against us all the moment something happens you disagree with!?”

As opposed to Rose’s theoretical loss of temper, Sprout’s would at least only result in one person’s suffering. Regardless of whether he was unaware of how much he was tempting fate or considered himself above any consequences, Winnie cared little for the Grass-type’s words. “That’s preposterous!!! Why, if Orion heard all this, of his most trusted aide being accused of acting on ulterior motives, he would be outraged, just as outraged as he would be at the sight of this human in our midst! My thoughts are only for the best of our village and our people, ONLY!!!”

As much as she preferred being a passive listener to the increasingly spirited exchange, Aria couldn’t let that one slide. Her head snapped towards the Breloom; the motion combined with her fierce expression taking Anne aback as the Gardevoir spoke, “^And theirs aren’t!? Need I remind you, Elder Winnie, that this is a home to us all, and all of us are trying to act in its best interest?^”

The Gardevoir’s mental whisper only barely avoided escalating into full-on shouting, something that couldn’t be said for the Elder’s reply. “Bah! Obviously not, if you are willing to keep this affront to our safety here!?”

That’s it, Aria’s heard enough; this deserved a rant of her own. The Torkoal obviously thought so as well, her head craned towards her fellow Elder as she was about to chide him—

Ahem.”​

In an instant, Celia’s Disarming Voice had tempered everyone’s not-unearned desire to throw hands into mere disappointment, while drawing their attention back to her. The sudden wave of mental coolness it had brought with itself also shook Cypress out of the flashback his mind was siccing on him, letting him focus on the matter at hand.

It only lasted a moment, but Aria still noticed the flash of emotion on the Primarina’s face. For just a split-second, her azure eyes drilled into Winnie’s side, the tiniest amount of mute fury leaking from behind her mask-like flipper—and then, an instant later, she was back to how she was before, waiting for Ana to continue.

Before the Torkoal could do so, though, Aria heard another voice from much closer up, one much more scared at the sudden shift she had just felt, “~W-what just happened?~”

As quiet as she had tried to be, many of the keen-eared scouts still heard the human girl clearly, making them look at her in unison. She couldn’t see many details, but she definitely saw that. It made her withdraw further; stare anywhere but at the many eyes judging her, silently hoping they would spare her in time. Whether they would do so; remained to be seen.

“^One of the Elders calmed everyone down with Disarming Voice, sweetie,^” Aria explained with a telepathic whisper.

It was appreciated, but Anne had no time to process it before more untranslated noises had reached her, slow and grinding, “I would advise everyone here to not make accusations of anyone else having been compromised.

Ana’s tone might’ve been only slightly more forced than normal, but that still represented a significant shift the ones present were well aware of. The Torkoal had nothing even resembling a ‘casual’ voice, but she sure had a ‘super serious’ voice, and it was what she had just used. “That aside, let me put a new point forward. The two extremes of flatly letting or not letting her stay are insufficient, considering the delicacy of this situation.”

The Gardevoir might’ve rolled her eyes at the attempted watering down of Anne’s right to safety, but it still grabbed the interest of many others—much to her dismay.

“Aria, you have mentioned she does not have a family to return to,” Ana continued. “That is highly unfortunate, but does not, by itself, preclude her being reintroduced to human society. Many of our little ones have been adopted over the years, and I assume that humanity has a social construct analogous to that. With that in mind, I find it hard to imagine there not being a way to return her to the human world through that alternative, adoption based method.”

Ana had to pause for breath afterwards, deeply unused to speaking this much all at once. As she did, everyone else thought through her words, many with interest. Regrettably, Aria didn’t remember enough of her chat with Olive to say it with certainty. She was rather sure, though, that the old woman had raised—and dismissed—that exact point.

Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to be the one to poke holes into Ana’s fence-sitting idea.

“And what would that method be?” the Skuntank asked, cutting through to the root of the problem with just a few words. She stared deep into the Fire-type’s squinting eyes as she spoke, slicing through the veneer of neutrality and objectivity. It made Ana shiver, about to speak up before faltering.

Because, indeed, the Torkoal had no answer—nobody did. It required the knowledge about human society that no mon present had, and which Anne likely didn’t have either. And even if she did, Ana wasn’t deluding herself about her giving them all the information which would replace her safety here with anything less.

Aria flinched at seeing Lumi’s maw open. He was ready to butt right in with something she doubted anyone else wanted to hear—but then; he stopped himself. Instead, he looked over at the Gardevoir, at the human beside her, and laid down on the floor, eyes narrowed.

Before the Torkoal could find her grounding again, Rose continued, “Are you gonna keep theorizin’ and fumblin’ your way through the human society, all that effort, just to come up with a way of tossing her?” The accusation in her words was clear, and if not for the rest of the discussion having already loosened Ana’s grip on the situation, she would’ve spoken up with a warning at least. For now, she had to let it slide.

That didn’t mean that nobody else would end up picking up her rhetorical mantle, though.

“What else are we to do, then?” Lariat asked. “Even if they’re not all evil, humans are still unlike us. She will never be one of us.”

The Lucario’s words were delivered without Lucere’s or Winnie’s venom, earning everyone’s benefit of the doubt. And, without the bigotry of the aforementioned two, a point did remain. A dreadful point, a point that Aria dismissed entirely... but which deserved to be dismissed out loud. It wasn’t easy to keep her emotions in check after hearing that the innocent child beside her would never be thought of on equal terms with others. Still, she managed it—it was obviously true.

It was time to use her hard-earned calmness for good. The Gardevoir spoke, “^I have spent much time with her, Lariat. For how vicious humanity is, and while us hiding from them is justified, humans as people aren’t as unlike us as they might appear.^” She underlined her point by applying some gentle psychic affection on top of Anne’s head. The magical touch could only do so much, but it still helped the little one remain calm at the growls echoing through the room as the psychic continued, “^They look different, they act different in their society, but to me it’s clear that these are differences of nurture, not nature, many of them skin-deep. Humans desire everything we do—security, love, comfort, kinship. There is nothing inherent to the human psyche that would make them incompatible with us as people.^”

The Lucario wasn’t quite convinced. And with every vote mattering here, she kept going; kept comforting the girl beside her. “^I will not deny that she is unfamiliar with a lot of what we are and are capable of. She did express surprise when me and Autumn first spoke to her. I felt her shock at realizing we were people just like her, and that the same was true of others. She was wrong about these, but it wasn’t caused by hate, merely ignorance.^”

Aria paused, briefly doubting whether it was a good idea to bring up the tangent she was about to—before going for it, anyway. It wouldn’t make her look good, but it was an unmistakable fact, and she knew it applied to others here besides just her. “^I know I can only speak for myself, but the experience of realizing other living beings beyond just my kin are people too isn’t alien to me. I imagine it’s not alien to anyone who grew up in an insular environment. For as large as it is, humanity is insular in a very similar way, especially in how it treats mons. But it’s not something we can’t act against.^”

After letting go of Anne’s hand, Aria wrapped her entire arm around the girl, holding her tight.

“^Tolerance isn’t an inherent goodness. We already have to teach it to many newcomers, be it bluntly or in more covert ways. If anything, Anne is ahead of the curve in that regard. She acknowledges her ignorance, and wants to learn more about us, about how to coexist here.^”

The Gardevoir had no delusions that her explanation would only reach those that were already open to being persuaded. All she hoped for was that the said group was large enough to guarantee Anne’s safety once the vote came—both now, and for the rest of her life afterwards.

As her words settled into gathered minds, a red pincer shot upright beside her. Aria was quite sure Ori hadn’t spoken up at all yet, making her nod towards him that much more hesitant. Worst-case scenario, she’d at least gauge the room some more, but that wasn’t much of a reprieve.

“There is one difference between us and humans that goes much deeper than tolerance or its absence. We have access to moves, whereas they do not,” the Scizor brought up.

“And that matters for what exactly?” Ruby snapped back, staring the Bug-type down. He wasn’t intimidated, already gathering words—only for the Weavile to continue. “If not having moves was a deal-breaker, we would’ve thrown our newly hatched out to die, and we’re obviously not doing that.”

Ori rolled his eyes. “That is clearly a fallacious idea, Ruby.”

“Sure doesn’t feel like it with how you’ve phrased it, Ori. But alright then—what about Max? What about others that, for whatever reason, can’t use their moves anymore, be it because of disability or age? Nobody cares about something trivial like that—nobody should, at least.”

While the Weavile’s first point wasn’t taken seriously, the second one did get its hooks in people. Aria was glad that she wasn’t the one that would have to bring the Meowstic up, sliding her hand down for Anne to hold.

“~Is that Weavile angry at me?~” Anne whispered, drawing more unwelcome attention to herself.

This time at least, the onlookers caught onto Aria’s terse glare that awaited their overly curious eyes, pushing their gazes away. “^No, no she’s not, sweetie,^” the Gardevoir explained. “^She’s arguing in your favor right now.^”

Anne’s relief at someone here standing up for her was palpable—as was the inward jab that shook her mind soon after. At having cast doubt on a mon because of their species, again. The Gardevoir’s affection pushed the girl away from that self-inflicted stress.

In the meantime, Sprout picked up the discussion. “All that aside—she’s a defenseless child! Even if she was different from us, why’d it matter, eh!? Because, guess what, all of us are different, both from each other and from what many think of as ‘fine’.”

The looks of uncertainty from around the room weren’t difficult to pick up on, including from Aria. Sprout’s wording wasn’t very clear—the elaboration that followed, though, was. “Lemme be as blunt as I have to be then, ha! Some of us, both in the village and in this very tent, are profoundly fucked up from our pasts. We aren’t all ‘fine’, we aren’t all ‘normal’; a difference like that makes a much larger impact than how someone looks. And yet, we don’t turn people away. Even if they have so much trauma in them it bleeds from their mouths.”

Almost everyone present felt targeted, to some extent, by her words. It was a direct, arguably underhanded jab, enough to earn her more than a single glare from others. And yet, befitting her kin, it hit true, making them all think.

Even if some still disagreed with it. “This is different, though,” the Luxray argued. “Our pasts or not, our kin or not, these differences don’t add up to larger than being a human. Come on, Sprout. Keeping a human here would be unlike anyone—anything earlier!”

The Decidueye wasn’t convinced.

“Yes Lumi, it would be different. Just how, before I got here, keeping a Decidueye here would’ve been unlike anyone that came before. New people join all tha time, some of them of kin so wild none of us here have heard of them!”

Sprout might not have been pointing at the Primarina, but she very much thought about her.

“These are obviously not the same!” the Luxray argued.

“How, Lumi, pray tell?”

“WE ARE GOING IN CIRCLES.”

Ana’s raised voice cut the Luxray off before he could come up with another non-answer. Neither Lumi nor Sprout agreed with that claim, but knew better than to keep pushing a tangent like that—especially with more important topics looming on the horizon.

“If anyone has a more salient point to raise, please do so,” Ana continued. An array of arms shot up at her call—Marco’s first of all. The Gallade had remained almost entirely quiet until now, uncharacteristic of him enough to draw the Fire-type’s attention. Not even his sister had noticed that, making her check up on how he felt.

And gasping under her breath.

“Go ahead, Marco.”

After being prompted, the Fighting-type stood up and rolled his shoulders. His exhaustion was clear to see despite his best attempts to obscure it—could only do so much with most of his front still burned. It slowed him down, but only for a moment. Soon after, he began, “^As some of you may know, two days ago, a human from their nearby town ventured over in search of Anne.^”

An uneven response. The Elders were well aware, as were a few of his fellow scouts, but far from all. The latter group leaned in further, eyes narrowed as the Gallade continued, “^Myself, Aria, and Lumi apprehended her before she, or her mon companions, could get too close to our village.^”

“Do you vouch for that, Aria? Lumi?”

The Gardevoir was unsure where her brother was taking that entire tangent, but didn’t like his pensive state one bit. Still, that much having happened was inarguable.

“^Yes.^” / “Aye.”

“Proceed as you were.”

“^After interrogating her for a while, the human's group accompanied Lumi and Aria to the human town. There, they, with her help, acquired many items that either once belonged to Anne, or which would prove invaluable to her in case she stayed here. Once they were done, Aria erased the human’s and their companions’ memories of the incident.^”

Lucere only barely kept herself from raising her voice at the insanity she just heard described, and Lariat was no better. It was only that final clarification that calmed them—and Winnie—back down, preventing any more outbursts.

Aria remained silent, but increasingly tense as the fear of the worst-case scenario surged in her mind.

“~I-is that Marco?~” Anne whispered. Her guardian was too focused to even respond to her words, only holding her hand even firmer. Same was true of most others.

As absurd as the actions described already were, the Gallade clearly wasn’t done yet. “P-proceed, Marco,” Ana urged, not immune to the anxiety gripping the room.

“^It appears that, because of the emotional intensity of their encounter, the memory removal wasn’t entirely effective. I investigated the situation just in case, and found the human, Olive, still remembering the events.^”

Aria’s heart skipped a beat after another as she stared at her brother. Thankfully, her shock came off as being horrified at having failed in her duties, and not of her little secret having been revealed to an audience that would tear her to shreds for it.

Aside from her, there was only one being in the room who realized the Gallade was lying. Before the Luxray would speak up, though, the Torkoal cut him off, her voice an inch away from fainting, “Did you erase their memories, then?”

“^No, I did not.^”

The gasps that went through the tent were well audible even outside of it. Eleven pairs of eyes stared at the upright psychic in shock, one in relief, and one in scared confusion.

Marco knew it wouldn’t be long before that first group demanded answers, and so he continued before anyone could shout him down, “^I… considered it, for a moment. But, after having interacted with her, I am confident it is in our best interest she remains aware of us.^” He angled his body towards Rose, vaguely gesturing in her direction, “^I have no doubt of her dedication to keep the knowledge of us secret from humanity at large. She cares about Anne more than anything else, and if it takes helping a village of mons to give the girl a loving home, then that’s what she’ll do.^”

Snarls from the Elders and scouts alike, disregarded for now.

“^The human world had already cast a doubt on Olive because of what happened when Aria and Lumi accompanied her. She’s already had an opportunity to betray us all to save herself from consequences—and she hasn’t. I’ve talked to her. She’s hurt about us having tried to wipe her memory—and deservedly so. Even despite that, she remained dedicated to helping Anne, and us, out. I strongly believe her help will be vital. Even those of us who have extensively interacted with humanity remain very ignorant about many of its aspects. The talk I’ve had with her was very illuminating in that regard—and terrifying.^”

Not even the Skuntank knew what he meant—once he continued, though, it became obvious. “^Let me elaborate. We’re all aware of the human contraptions, but they go far further than any of us, even Rose or Geiger, knew about. During Aria’s and Lumi’s excursion, the former was spotted despite her psychic disguise. Not by a human, but by one of their machines, a metal eye that can see through disguises and which our psychics can’t see.^”

Not even his sister could resist gasping in shock at her disguise failing, especially in such a fashion. Her immediate thoughts mirrored those of her brother when this shocking reality was first revealed to him—how come nobody acted shocked? How did she not sense it? How many of her past interventions have been compromised by one of these ‘cameras’ seeing her even though the human using them didn’t?

Just a few meters away, two of the Elders thought back, way back, to Orion’s many tales. He’d used very different words to describe it, but they were nigh-certain he was talking about the same contraption as Marco. It unnerved him enough to birth ideas of moving their village underground, just to avoid its stray gaze.

“That is an immense breach of security, Marco. How do—”

“^I’m not finished yet, Elder Ana.^”

It was about to get so much worse.

“Proceed, then,” the Torkoal muttered, aghast.

“^You are correct, that is a breach of security, and if one of their cameras were to unknowingly see our village, it might end up spelling doom for us all,^” the Gallade reiterated. And then, he took the deepest breath of his life, and dropped the hammer, “^And it has already happened. Their flying contraptions we sometimes see overhead, they’ve been scanning the world with their ‘cameras’. They have spotted us among the trees from high in the clouds. We are visible there, on their maps, Olive showed it to me. And we have been for years.^”

Panic.

“This—THIS IS TREASON!” Winnie screeched, by far the loudest and the easiest to ignore in the room.

“How come neither Geiger nor Rose have told us about this?” Lariat question, calm tone cracking into immense suspicion as his crimson eyes stared into the Skuntank—and she stared back, not appreciating it any.

“We need to evacuate as soon as we can, to a location where we can avoid that threat,” Ana began, before being cut off—

“Where!?” Rose shouted, cutting the Torkoal off once more as her reasonable-sounding point was challenged. Once more, Ana couldn’t answer, soon yielding under the Poison-type’s glare as the latter spoke up, no less unnerved by this development, “I wasn’t aware of none of that, Lariat. I s’pose it only makes sense with how fast their technology keeps growing. Did any of ya think humans remained as they are while we grew in ‘ere? We ain’t static, neither are they.”

It was a sobering reminder for those that needed to hear it.

A reminder of their existential threat not being some narrow force dedicated to bringing them down, but a massive, living thing in its own right. Ever-growing because of a combined ingenuity of billions. The realization made the Primarina’s eyes shoot wide open as they stared at the central firepit, unusually unfocused.

“But if we panic and run without having a proper plan, how’ll we know that somethin’ like this won’t happen all over again!?” Rose argued. “They’ll keep changing, they’ll keep growin’, and even if Annie here stays with us, it won’t be for no good with her being separated from the rest of humanity. We can’t fight against something we don’t know nothing about, we can’t even hide. We need to know what’s goin’ on in the human world—and an informant we can trust, like that Olive, might just save our hides.”

The Skuntank’s rant had reached a few of the gathered minds, though many more were still too choked by fear to think about anything but their immediate future.

“She doesn’t even matter! If our village is compromised, we have to get out of here fast! We have to leave the girl behind, maybe with Ember so that they can stay together, leave that wanna-be human with them too—and get going, we don’t have any time to waste!” Lumi screeched, his panicking parody of a plan drawing uncertainty and anger alike from around the room—the latter from both of the psychic siblings.

The mention of a ‘wanna-be human’ raised a few eyebrows, but it was lost in the noise.

Anne whimpered at the Luxray gesturing in her general direction, catching half the room’s attention. She had no idea just how much of it was out of either sympathy or feeling sorry for her.

Lumi, if you sincerely think that plan to be sound, I would love to observe you trying to convince Cinder of its validity...” Cypress snickered.

The Electric-type dismissed that point soon after, sweeping the Delphox into his panicking plan. “She can stay then if that’s what she wants so much!”

“^I’m not leaving Anne alone, either,^” Aria muttered, stressing her grim words by holding the girl close to her side, the sudden motion startling Anne a bit. The Gardevoir tried making up for it with some psychic affection, but it could only do so much with how heavy the fear hung over her. Over them all.

“^And neither am I.^” Marco followed, earning himself a sideways glance from his sister, unsure if he really meant what she thought he did. And then, a flashed smile and a nod later, it all became clear.

“^Nor the rest of our family,^” Aria continued. “^I’ve talked with Geiger about this earlier—if we’re all spineless enough to leave Anne to die, then he’s leaving with us. And he definitely won’t be the only one to do so.^”

“Damn right he won’t.” Sprout muttered, her affirmation lighting a fire in the Gardevoir’s soul. It made hope feel so much easier, even if fleetingly.

Winnie tried screeching once more, “That’s blatant INTIMIDAT—”

“At that point, everyone left behind will be a larger security hazard than a stray human aware of us...” Ruby muttered.

Her point flew over a few heads—as shown, soon after, by the Altaria. “What do you mean, of course they won’t be! They wouldn’t betray us!”

“No, Ruby is right,” Ana shuddered. “It is not about overt betrayal, it is about those left being either spotted by accident, or captured and interrogated by human forces.” Her voice was shallow, accompanied by what passed for her as hyperventilation.

Before she even knew it, this entire session had turned from deciding a fate of a child, to steering the direction of their village as a whole. Something neither she, nor the other Elders, had ever felt equipped to handle.

“What do you mean about it not being about betrayal, Elder Ana?” The Lucario asked, the grasp on the discussion having slipped from him.

The Torkoal didn’t care for having to spell something so obvious to her out loud, but thought it appropriate if it would get everyone present on the same page—even those who usually only thought in terms of loyalty and close-knit kinship groups, and just extrapolated that thinking to their entire village. “None of this was ever about betrayal. I doubt even Anne would’ve ever betrayed us. The risk of letting her stay, in letting her go, isn’t about betrayal. It’s about us being compromised by accident, or out of hastiness.”

And for those so concerned with loyalty, seeing three of their coworkers stand firmly in the human’s defense made an impact, too.

As if Lumi’s idea hadn’t been discredited enough, Aria soon had another realization that only doomed it even further. “^Besides, removing Anne’s memories wouldn’t give us any more safety in that case than letting her keep them. Even if we all up and left tomorrow, we’d still leave many signs of our habitation here unless we tore it all into dust.^”

The sheer paranoia gripping many of the gathered didn’t let them see a problem in that approach. Even they saw the obvious issue pointed right after, though, grimacing at the thought as the Gardevoir continued, “^Hundreds of living beings all heading in the same direction all at once would leave an obvious trail, too. But even if we made a clear getaway—can you imagine how disturbed the humans would be to find a ‘lost’ child after several days, with no idea what had happened despite having received medical help? Even a pitiful psychic would realize there was memory manipulation involved. And that's without even mentioning Ember suddenly resurfacing with her.^”

Fine details of altering memories weren’t something anyone but Aria could argue about, leaving even those that really, really wanted her to shut up without verbal fuel.

“^All that is the point I’ve been trying to get across,^” Marco spoke up again. “^If we panic and thoughtlessly run away from those dangers, we’ll only crash into new ones, sooner or later. Keeping Olive as our informant is a risk, yes, but it’s a risk that could save us from many, many more down the line if we take a measured approach.^”

The Gallade summary once more left the room quiet; thought clear on the faces of many gathered. There wasn’t much difference between Ana’s eyes being closed and open, but those that knew her could tell they were the former. Ori turned similarly thoughtful, chewing through the uncomfortable dilemma.

“If those... ‘cameras’ are really such a problem, can we not hide behind something?” Lariat proposed.

“That’s right, we’ll just have to learn to hide better! I remember someone saying we could move underground; wouldn’t that help?” Lucere followed.

Marco tried to maintain as much composure as could at their responses, only keeping himself from burying his face into his palm by the sheer force of will. Meanwhile, the Luxray continued, “That ‘small risk’ isn’t worth it. It’s still allying with humans; it’s a start of a slippery slope that is gonna end us all.”

“He didn’t say to ally with all the humans, Lumi,” the Weavile sneered. “Just one human, whom we have good reason to already trust. Though... yes, it’s still a difficult thing to consider.”

It certainly does sound difficult, dear Ruby. There is the important distinction of it being a risk we can control, as opposed to a passive one we are on the whims of...

Winnie screeched, “ANY human interaction is an unacceptable risk, for Orion’s sake! By the gods, would he weep if he saw what all of you were doing with his legacy!”

“Sure doubt that, you moldy thing. That aside—yeah, we need to know more about humans, all of us. Need I remind some of you that four of y’all couldn’t even open a single darn human bag on your own?” Sprout reminded, her callout downright quaint compared to the tension suffocating the air, forcing the weakest chuckle out of the Gardevoir.

And then, soon after, a point of her own. “^We couldn’t even keep deceiving Anne for more than a few hours, despite her being as blind as she is right now. We know precariously little, it’s a miracle we’ve survived for as long as we have.^”

With blood having returned to her still-pale face, Aria dared to offer Anne her hand again. She knew full well her confidence wouldn’t last, but appreciated its sudden burst all the same.

“Damn right it is, hun. If anythin’, it’s also a testament to even that new camera risk not being as dire as we’re all frettin’—if they been knowing about us for years and still haven’t done anything, then it sure don’t sound like we have to act here and now. Get a plan, sure, but keep sane about it, too,” Rose reminded.

Once she was done, the tent fell into tense silence once more. A low, grinding hum came from inside the Torkoal, letting everyone know she was about to speak again, and to not interrupt her. Or, at least, it let those aware of what it meant know that.

“~What was everyone talking about...?~” Anne asked, her whispers more confused than they were scared for once, especially at Marco’s substantial presence in the discussion that had just happened.

Aria shuddered as she tried to come up with words, ultimately settling on just being blunt, “^We talked about Olive, and how she could help us out.^”

The almost-blind girl nodded weakly at the telepathic words; hard to process because of exhaustion and tension. It took a while for her to do so, but she eventually did—and gasped; everyone’s hearts skipping a beat at the sound, “~M-Mrs. Graham!?~”

Anne didn’t have to see to know everyone was staring at her at the sudden noise. She shifted her gaze to the ground before her, avoiding even coming close to looking anyone in the eye.

Once both she and the onlookers had calmed down, the Torkoal spoke once more, voice sunken, “Even if we were to thoroughly plan it out, having to relocate would cause an immense upheaval that could spell our doom.”

Her words were true—as were the ones that followed.

“^Upheaval, yes. One that could very well save our lives in the long term.^”

With his closing statement provided, Marco finally sat down, failing to keep his winces in. The day had already been profoundly exhausting, physically and mentally. He wasn’t sure how much discussion he had left in himself. Feeling his sister’s radiant pride helped a lot in keeping him going, though.

With the silence filling the room, the Torkoal called out again, “If anyone has another topic to raise, please do so.”

This time, her call had no immediate results, the entire tent shrouded in uncertain fear over Marco’s revelation. As good as Aria felt moments earlier, her good spirits didn’t last when confronted with so much doubt, aimed every which way. At Marco, at her, at the friendly human that had alerted them to their ongoing demise. At the innocent child beside her.

Thinking grew difficult, and she hoped the end was in sight. And so did Celia, quietly shuffling her cart-bound body forward as she prepared to speak up—only for Cypress’ raised tentacle to cut her off.

“Yes, Cypress?”

The ghost’s body hurt as he gathered words, not enjoying the tension in the room any more than anyone else. It was nourishment, yes, but it was a putrid sort of fear, enough of it to make him grow nauseous. He didn’t even need to be putting himself out here like this. It wasn’t directly related to Anne’s case, but... it still had implications for her, for them all.

And who knew—maybe it would help convince someone, too.

My point does not concern dear Anne directly. I wish to draw our attention over to the dear Phantump presently staying at our clinic, Sage. Dear Anne here, along with others, were instrumental in letting dear Sage remember her past—and that she was once a human. Once she had rediscovered that fact, she expressed an interest in returning to her human home...

“Oh poor, poor dear! Does she know where to go?” Sprout asked, worried.

As warm as her words were towards the lost Phantump, most others were much more concerned with the idea’s obvious risk. “I doubt that her being allowed to rejoin humanity, after having stayed here, is desirable,” the Scizor spelled out. “It poses a substantial security risk—”

“Everythin’ we do does, Ori! Each soul that joins us here makes us a bigger, clearer target if you ain’t aware of that! We live in a world that doesn’t want us to; the worst of humanity would have our pelts for amusement if it ever got their hands on us! Are ya gonna use ‘risk’ as an excuse to keep a child here against her will for our benefit!?”

The Decidueye’s outburst stirred a mix of emotions in the listeners. Obviously, nobody wanted to do such harm to someone they all saw as a child, and not as a threat.

“That’s all nonsense—there’s no way a human would ever come back as a mon! I’m sure someone, maybe even this Anne girl, filled her mind with some confused fantasies!” Lumi roared. His point was blatantly incorrect, infuriatingly so.

The Decidueye’s eye twitched as the Mismagius shook in place, his usually crooked smile almost entirely straightened into a scowl. The Luxray wasn’t just wrong; he was offensively wrong. And yet, his words paled compared to what the Breloom said soon after, “If that is truly the case, and a human infiltrated our village that way, that makes that ghost a spy!”

Without skipping a beat, Sprout screeched, “SHE’S A DEAD CHILD FOR FUCK’S SAKE!”

Anne slunk to hide behind Aria, as everyone else stared, stunned. They didn’t need to be psychic to know acutely that if Winnie were to say a word more, the owl would do something they would both regret. And then she’d do it as many more times as she had quills in her wings.

For once, that group included the Breloom too, making him stay quiet despite how much he wanted to shriek about intimidation. Knowing Sprout though, all she’d have responded to that claim with would’ve been ‘Good.’.

As the room reeled after that unexpected and yet not-unearned burst, the Skuntank stepped forward once more. “Somethin’ I wanna stress—both the Sage girl and Anne here are humans, ain’t they? I know Sage no longer looks like one, sorry to hear, but now that she remembers her past she’s pretty much a human in a dif’rent body, right Cypress?”

The Mismagius chewed on that idea for a moment or two, expression shifting in uncertainty. “Not exactly, but... the more human memories she regains, the closer she’ll be in personality to how she acted as a human, yes...

“Right. She don’t look like a human, but deep down she’s still a human, and keenly wants to go back to humanity, right? Can’t blame her, she’s a child with a family. Whereas Annie here doesn’t want that, even if she could come back to humans, her soul is here, right Aria?”

Aria nodded weakly, too occupied by worry to go any further into it.

“Right! T’me, where one’s mind and soul are matters hella more than how they look. Sage’s ain’t here, Anne’s is, ain’t that all that oughta matter?”

It was a rather abstract point that many gathered either didn’t get, or didn’t want to get. Despite that, the Gardevoir still felt a few minds thinking through it once Rose scooted back in line, especially Ori and Lariat. She doubted it’d really settle in, but... she could still hope. All that she had left, really.

“That is a point of consideration, Rose, but one which still leaves unanswered security concerns,” Ana argued. “Nobody else who leaves us does so with such a direct intent of joining humanity. Even absent any malice, I imagine her family to want to know what happened while she was away. We ought to act to ensure she does not compromise our safety.”

The Torkoal had to catch her breath after barreling out so many words in a row, all of them sounding like a variation on a theme of rocks scraping against one another. Her even considering allowing something like that came as a surprise to some—but not all, especially not the scouts with children. The Fire-type being fond of little ones was such a badly kept secret many present would’ve been surprised to know she still vehemently denied it.

Malice is certainly absent from her... from what I sensed, she hasn’t felt comfortable in our midst unless interacting with our dear Anne. I doubt she’ll cling to our village in her memories...” Cypress reassured.

“But the risk remains,” Torkoal summed up.

That it does...

“Excising the memories of her stay here sounds like a preferred option, then.”

Aria hated the sound of that. Even beyond memory manipulation at this scale having grown disgusting for her over the past few days, doing so with someone so young brought its own risks. Fortunately, she wasn’t alone in disagreeing, Cypress soon continuing, “Alas, not. It was here where she remembered her past. To wipe her mind of what she had seen here would wrest those memories out of her grasp once more, would it not...?

The Gardevoir had no idea, and that by itself was enough to make it too risky to consider. “^I don’t know, and I’d rather not find out the hard way.^”

Aria wasn’t as worried about the Phantump accidentally spilling something, especially with whoever she’d tell being unlikely to believe her, but... she couldn’t dismiss it entirely.

Thankfully, there were more options beyond nothing and the unthinkable. “^If I may, I have an idea that might be well suited for Sage’s specific circumstances. Instead of removing the memories from her mind entirely, we could put a minor compulsion on her to discourage her from bringing them up. She would still remember them, but would find them boring, and she wouldn’t think about them often.^”

Aria hoped her brother wouldn’t call her out on her bluff. What she’d just described was possible, but it wasn’t something she had any practice doing. It was more so her old clan’s forte, often deployed against any humans living nearby. Fortunately, the Gallade just nodded along, not thinking much of his sister’s doubts.

“But she would still remember, there would still be a risk—” Ori argued.

Before he could finish rehashing his earlier point, though, a flash of Sprout’s glare stopped him in his tracks as Marco reminded, “^We can’t avoid all risk short of burying ourselves in a pit and rotting away.^”

Marco’s point drew glares, accurate as it was. Not the thing anyone here enjoyed thinking about, but it was their fate. They didn’t have the blessing of safety and certainty many humans did, and yet they had to keep going. Step by step, into the agonizing unknown of tomorrow.

As Aria dwelled on her earlier thoughts, more non-emotional arguments against dabbling in memory manipulation kept coming to her, making her follow up on her brother’s words, “^Not even cutting those memories whole would’ve granted us that kind of safety, either. Just think about what had happened with Ember. Cinder had tried her absolute hardest to erase only very specific parts of her memories, it appeared like it worked... but after an entire year, we still managed to uncover them.^”

The Scizor shuddered at the many flaws of a tool they had staked so much of their safety on being pointed out. It was easy to thoughtlessly point to the psychics when it came time to handle something dangerous or clean up after an incident. What was much harder, though, was coming up with an alternative.

“^Taking away Sage’s or Anne’s memories wouldn’t just be cruel, it would almost certainly backfire,^” Aria explained. “^They’d know something had happened, they’d quickly figure out there’s a hole in their recollection they can’t retrieve anything out of. There wouldn’t even be any distraction, or deterrent of the tampered memories being traumatic, as in Ember’s case.^”

Marco picked up from where his sister had left off, “^It’s hard to overstate just how stressful a realization like that is, too. Ember had only clued into something being wrong with her memory, and it immediately reduced her to a nervous wreck that could barely speak. I can only imagine how much worse it’d be in case of Sage or Anne, when it’s everything from a few, very important days.^”

“^And even on a purely pragmatic level, their reactions would only draw attention to their memories having been tampered with. And as I’ve said earlier, any Psychic will able to figure that one out,^” Aria shuddered. Anne felt a sensation of a warm blanket being wrapped around her body, pulling her closer to the Gardevoir as she continued, “^The reason we’ve been using memory manipulation in the past is that it’s very effective with short, recent events. It’s very easy to make someone un-see something they glimpsed but weren’t meant to, and send them on their way. The more you have to remove, the more difficult and messier it gets. Past a certain point, all you’re doing is inflicting needless harm.^”

The gentle, petting touch along the girl’s head made her body relax even as her mind remained on high alert and as Aria continued, “^We’re far past that point with both Anne and Sage, and I refuse to enact that kind of suffering.^”

“^And so do I.^”

There wasn’t a shred of doubt in the telepathic voices of either sibling.

Aria still doubted whether it’d be enough, though. After all, not having access to a ‘merciful’ solution might’ve only encouraged the particularly paranoid to instead consider maintaining it with the blood of the innocents.

Winnie wanted to shout at this blatant insubordination—he was the authority; how dare the scouts just disobey them like that? His eyes drilled into Aria’s, into Marco’s, but he kept himself from screeching for now—after all, he was still confident the rest of his council would back him up should it come down to it.

And Aria worried about much the same.

Before either their temper or their fear would bloom into something more drastic, though, one last voice interrupted the quiet, “I have one more point, regarding dear Anne...

The Torkoal blinked, snapping herself out of her daze before letting the ghost continue.

I worry about staying here posing a risk. Not to us, but to her. With how many of us think humans on the whole to be evil without redemption, great harm may come to her should anyone act on those thoughts...

Aria’s psychic embrace grew even tighter, making it downright hard to move for the girl. Cypress wasn’t wrong; it was a terrifying possibility which they’d never be able to eliminate, short of talking with every single villager one-on-one.

She wasn’t the only one that felt a chill at the Mismagius’ words, only adding to her fear. Yes, there was a risk, but it paled compared to the certainty of further suffering should Anne return to the human world. A risk they’ve been fighting against for a while now, and which they wouldn’t stop trying to manage—but would it be enough to sway those that saw the alternative as guaranteed safety?

Her breaths grew shallow as she tried to keep a grasp on herself, the tent falling into deep silence around her. For the first time in hours, nobody had anything left to add, finally passing the discussion back to the Elders.

And there was one Elder in particular that wanted to put her plan into action. “If nobody wishes to broach a new subject, I would want to lead, and translate, a conversation between Anne and the Elders directly, on our own,” Celia explained, bringing confusion to those not present at the previous hearing, and uncertainty to the rest. Nobody, not even the other Elders, had any idea what she was planning.

Aria was this close to refusing entirely, to snapping back against the cruel order and not letting the human girl leave her side. It was a doomed idea, and she was well aware, but... she could at least ask. “^What will the purpose of that discussion be?^”

“That is for us Elders to know, not you—” Winnie began, before the Primarina cut him off.

“Its purpose is for us three to ask Anne some personal questions. Nothing more, nothing less,” Celia explained, unflinching even as she stared straight into the Gardevoir. Her eyes were thoughtful, but Aria couldn’t sense any lies within them. No lies, no malice. Either the Primarina was even better at hiding her true intentions than they all thought, or she was speaking the truth.

Something told Aria it was the former, but a hunch was all she had.

“If there are no further questions, I want to ask you all to leave,” the Water-type continued. “It will not take long.”

Anne flinched at seeing the blurs corresponding to the mons stand up and heading for the tent’s entrance, one after another. Was this it, was it all done? It couldn’t have been, right? “~Wh-what’s happening?~” she asked, nervous.

“^The—the Elders want to talk to you directly, Anne, with nobody else present. I’ll be right outside, but I won’t let them hurt you.^”

The possibility of being hurt didn’t calm the human down any. She remembered the Gardevoir telling her about this earlier, but that didn’t help with how scary it sounded. “~O-okay... What do they want from me?~”

Aria shuddered as she stood up to leave, the last one to do so. Without her fellow scouts, the tent looked hungry, terrifying even for her. “^I don’t know,^” she whispered, exiting the tent soon after.

As the Gardevoir made her leave, a gust of icy wind snuck its way in from the outside. It made Anne shudder, but it wasn’t all that big–certainly not big enough to have blown out the central firepit. She saw the white-blue blur—the one corresponding to the unknown ‘Elder’—do something right before the fire went out, but they probably just moved to get comfortable.

Because what reasons would they have to just blow the fire out like that?

Regardless of what exactly had happened, the tent was now shrouded in almost complete darkness. Anne kept anxiously touching her glasses just in case as she tried to discern anything around her. Nothing but smoldering cinders, nothing but the dim glow emanating from the holes in the Torkoal’s shell. Just barely enough to make out the silhouettes of the three mons in here with her.

Three mons, each more than capable of killing her before she could react, and one her, blind and defenseless.

Anne wanted to hide, she wanted to get out of here, to do all the pathetic things she did when Aria first revealed herself to her—anything but face the threats before her. But she knew she couldn’t. There wouldn’t be anyone that swooped in and suddenly brought her refuge, not this time.

She only barely had the courage to keep looking in the Elders’ direction as the tent grew colder, so much colder. Without the mons, without the fire, without Aria’s intervention, whatever meager heat that had built up was draining through the walls fast, and the blanket she was wrapped up in could only do so much.

Before she knew it, she was shaking in her seat as nothing kept happening. No words; no actions; no motion. Only her, the strangers, and the silent, freezing dark.

And then, at last, a low, grinding sound. It came from the direction of the mons, but sounded so inanimate Anne didn’t believe it could be speech. Moments later, the Torkoal picked themselves up, and slowly approached her, glowing spots moving along with them.

Anne remained frozen in fear as the mon drew near, bringing warmth with themselves. Not leaning into it was hard, but doing so was even scarier. Was she about to be scorched alive—

“~She say, ‘come warm yourself’, Anne,~” a smooth, feminine voice spoke. It was awkward, accented so heavily she had a hard time making some words out—but it was clearly speaking in Unovan. Even with it, Anne didn’t dare move, the words making barely any sense.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to. The Torkoal set themselves down beside her as the stranger continued, “~Can now put glass on, Anne.~”

As pleasant as the voice was to the ear, it remained entirely flat as it spoke. Its instructions took a while to click. Anne’s hand shook as it lifted the damaged, slightly dirty specs to her eyes, transforming a featureless blur into physical space.

One with a Torkoal laying down right beside her, exhaling tiny puffs of smoke with each breath, and two other mons in the distance—a cross Breloom, and the unknown, injured one. As the words kept coming, Anne realized that the latter mon was their source. “~My name, Celia. One next you, Ana. One next me, Winnie. We want question ask you.~”

The names came in one ear and out the other; the girl’s mind focused entirely on what came afterwards. It matched what Aria had told her earlier, but... it couldn’t have been really it, right? Even if it wasn’t, though, the girl doubted she would’ve gained anything out of not cooperating. “~O-okay. Wh-what kind of question?~”

Once Celia acknowledged her words, she spoke again, this time in what sounded like animal voices mixed with gibberish. Smooth, pleasant gibberish, but still entirely unknown in content—

Any thoughts about what she’d just heard were cut off by another voice speaking up. She had no more of an idea what it meant, but it terrified her, especially with the Breloom it came from breaking out into a rant. Their stretchy arms moved every which way as they stared at her, fierce anger dripping from every gesture. One almost certainly aimed at her too, making it even harder to do anything but sit and stare in frozen horror.

The Torkoal shifting themselves to put their body between the Grass-type and her helped a bit, though.

Eventually, the deluge of angry sounds was finally cut off by the Fire-type muttering a short sentence in their grinding voice. What happened; Anne had no idea, and hoped that Celia would explain to her. “~No worth speak. ...Almost no. Question, one.~”

Anne’s fate was in her own hands, and she could barely feel them.

“~How we know you no run away, no tell other human, if stay?~”

...

The girl squinted as she made sense of the words, unsure what the point of being asked that was. She had a decent grip on what the question was, but not why that one as opposed to any other. Still, her role here was to answer them, not to wonder on whether they made any sense—and the answer here was simple.

“~Wh-why would I run away? I-if I stayed here, I wouldn’t have a-any other home. And if I told anyone, bad things would happen to this place, and I don’t want that, I don’t want to hurt Aria and Ember and everyone else...~”

Thankfully, she wasn’t asked for an elaboration. The aquatic-looking mon simply nodded, and passed her words on, staring straight at the Torkoal as she spoke. The Breloom—Winnie?—grumbled something at hearing them, not helping Anne’s courage any, but nobody else reacted to it.

“~Thank, Anne. Now, my question,~” Celia continued.

Anne gave her a timid nod, taking as deep a breath as her young lungs were capable of.

“~Know you how human world hurt here many?~”

Far from everything about it, but... she did. The thought brought both sadness and further worry with it; the latter about being held accountable for how other humans have hurt the villagers. It wasn’t her fault, but... it was her kin’s sin.

“~I-I do. I’ve heard of the League getting rid o-of places like these where—where many mons lived. I don’t want that to happen here, b-but I know it has in other places. M-my father used to watch League. I saw how badly the mons got hurt in it, I heard how awful he talked about mons, I-I know how many other people talked about mons, the bad things they said. I-I—~” Anne’s voice trailed off as she desperately tried to maintain a grip on her own emotions. She hesitated to keep going, to reveal that blemish on herself, but hoped, deep inside, that her honesty wouldn’t be punished. “~I used to believe in some of them, t-too. I don’t, I can’t anymore, n-not after knowing everyone here, but I did. A-and I’m really sorry for that.~”

The girl was afraid to look at the rest of the tent as her answer was passed on. Predictably, more rambling from the Breloom, but nothing from the Torkoal. She expected to hear some emotion in Celia’s voice, anything, but... it remained entirely flat. No relief, no admonishment. Just choking, obscuring neutrality. “~Thank, Anne.~”

A few moments of silence followed as the marine mon stared intently at the Fire-type, with Anne joining her soon after. Guess it was time for the question from her impromptu personal heater. Their sluggish, scraping words took a while to come together, and even once they did, they seemed to have taken their translator aback, if only for a second.

“~Now, Ana question.~”

Once more, an overlong moment of silence, Anne’s anxiety growing by the second—

“~What Aria is to you?~”

...

Anne blinked as she chewed through the simple, and yet so complex question. There were so many ways it could’ve been interpreted in, and there was no indication at all which of them she was supposed to take. Maybe she was just supposed to say them all?

“~She...~”

Even then, it was... difficult. So incredibly difficult, especially with the crushing weight of knowing that she had no idea how much more time she had left with the Gardevoir. The details would’ve been beyond the ability of something as simple as words to convey even on a good day, but...

The gist of it was clear even now.

“~She’s someone that cares for me. Someone that—that makes me feel safe. L-like nobody has ever since my g-grandma passed away. S-someone...~”

Even if it remained so, so painful for her to admit to herself.

“~...that I-I wish could be my mom.~”

There was no stopping the tears that followed. All Anne could do was delay them until she’d finished speaking, but they took their toll all the same. She could tell Celia took her time to translate her response, and that her flat voice hitched a few times as she did so, but that aside, there was no reaction from the trio of mons.

Fortunately, in the case of the Breloom, but for the other two... she didn’t know.

And then, the marine Elder spoke in Unovan one last time, “~Thank, Anne. That is all.~”

The girl flinched at the sudden light in her peripheral vision as she got a grip on herself. It was just the firepit getting lit once more. The Torkoal took one more moment admiring their handiwork, before heading back to the other two.

Guess these really were just questions.

“Thank you all for your cooperation. You may now return.”

Before Celia could even finish her sentence, Aria was already back inside the tent, kneeling beside Anne. She didn’t even try to maintain her composure, eyes clenched shut as she held the girl tight just to the side of her chest horn. She heard it all; it was impossible not to have heard it all.

She didn’t know what to say, and so she said nothing, comforting the girl as her tears returned as well. One by one, the other scouts made their way back into the tent, all of them having no choice but to pass by the tearful Gardevoir holding the human tight. Some wanted to offer their own comfort. Some could only look away.

“Does anyone wish to say anything before we proceed to the vote?” Ana asked, voice even more somber than before.

One ‘no’ after another called back in response to her words—until only one remained. The Torkoal waited for the Gardevoir to get the cue; wanted to let her process her emotions without being rushed along, but it soon became apparent that some prodding would be necessary. These weren’t the thoughts that could just be processed and squared away, and yet it was precisely what the procedure demanded.

“Aria?” the Torkoal prodded.

The Gardevoir couldn’t toss them, she didn’t want to toss them, but she had to at least delay them for just that bit longer. In the best-case scenario, for just a few more minutes. In the worst...

“^N-n-no,^” she muttered, “^p-please, proceed.^”

Letting go of Anne was the most excruciating thing Aria had done in her life, and yet she had to. Her psychic embrace held the girl tight, but she knew it might have faltered soon. “^I-it’s time for the vote, Anne.^”

As the crying child nodded in affirmation, the Torkoal continued with the procedure, “Following our discussion, I believe it prudent for there to be three separate, independent votes.^”

Twelve pairs of eyes drilled into the Torkoal, some in fear, some through tears.

“The first vote would concern letting Anne remain with us indefinitely. The second vote would concern her ultimate fate should she be allowed to remain here, between fully joining the village and being expected to return to humanity one day. The third... would concern what is to be done with the ‘Olive’ human whom Marco allowed to keep her memories. If anyone has objections or different ideas, please raise them now.”

Aria’s fist clenched at the thought of Anne’s safety being handled in such a piecemeal way, only barely keeping her words in her head before a different way to look at it hit her. If the tides of her fellow scouts would decree she be allowed to stay here indefinitely, they’d be able to argue against any future cruelty another day, and she’ll be safe for now at least—

If.​

Aria swept the room with her mind and eyes alike, and saw, felt, only uncertainty and fear. Even those she had trusted to do the right thing were suddenly much less sure than they once were. She was terrified.

“No objections, then. Winnie, proceed.”

The Gardevoir stared straight ahead with unfocused eyes as the Breloom reached into a small basket behind himself and pulled out a fistful of shriveled pieces of something pink. She already hated this part of the voting process, and the present circumstances made it even worse. Orion’s own idea, one of the few she never agreed with.

“^A-Anne, close your eyes and hold them closed, o-okay? Th-this smoke stings bad,^” she instructed.

Before the girl could ask what her guardian meant, Winnie dropped the dried Payapa into the hole at the top of the Torkoal’s shell. In moments, the fruit had turned into a cloud of bright, biting smoke, forcing almost everyone’s eyes closed as it cut off the siblings’ psychic auras. There were few sensations more uncomfortable than the suffocating claustrophobia of having one’s psychics be forced entirely back into their head, but that was the point.

The Zoroark had stressed the point of anonymity with votes like these, and cutting off everyone’s sight and psychics was one way of easily enforcing it with him gone. Or rather, almost everyone’s. Someone had to count the votes, be that impartial observer, after all.

A weak, high-pitched cough interrupted the misty silence, making Aria blindly feel around before holding the girl closer. “~I-it-cough-it hurts to breathe...~”

Even telepathy felt almost impossible, forced to be channeled entirely through the Gardevoir’s limbs. Anne’s words hurt, for there was nothing her guardian could do to help—they all just had to endure it. “^Breathe through the blanket sweetie, it won’t be long, I promise.^”

The makeshift filter helped a little, but it was just barely enough to let Anne stabilize her breathing—the end was in sight.

“May we proceed.”

“Y-yes-cough, Elder Ana.”

The Gardevoir wasn’t any better at dealing with the biting smoke than the human, but she was more used to it. Her arms shook with stress and body in exhaustion as the Fire-type stepped forward, speaking up as loudly as she could, “The first vote, then. Should Anne, the human in our midst, be permitted to remain in our village indefinitely, until, at the very least, returning her to the human world in a safe way becomes possible.”

Tears streaked Aria’s hand as it shot up, signaling a ‘for’ vote. Another of Orion’s ideas, taken in some unclear extent from humanity. Up meant ‘for’, touching the ground meant ‘against’, keeping the limb pulled back meant abstaining from answering.

The tent remained in perfect silence as Ana gathered the votes, one after another. No words were permitted, no words were spoken. Muttered gasps, shaking, barely veiled anger—but no words. Until, at last, the vote was done.

“Thank you.”

Aria dragged her hand back, the limb aching at being held for so long. No answers, no reprieve until all votes were done to not skew the results. Another of oh-so-many elements of forced procedure the Zoroark had tried to put together in the latter years of his life, to put form and structure into what was obviously just a personally appointed clique.

“The second vote. Should Anne, the human in our midst, be permitted to join our village as a regular citizen, with all rights and privileges that entails. If not, she will be expected to return to the human world once that becomes a safe possibility.”

Once more, Aria’s arm shot up, and once more, barely any sound came from the rest of the tent. Many tiny rustles of fur shuffling against itself, of creaking joints, all familiar but not enough to match them to any gesture in particular. Turned so utterly terrifying.

“Thank you.”

Aria forgot how awful this cursed smoke made her feel every time, her balance growing weak. No voting sessions were ever this long in this tense and worn down a state. It didn’t feel like justice; it felt like an experiment in cruelty established without enough foresight, one of the many snap ideas that didn’t work out.

“The third vote. Should Olive, the human living at the nearby human settlement, be allowed to keep her memories and awareness of Aria’s and Lumi’s intervention, and of our village, with an understanding that she would then help us by providing human-specific knowledge.”

As perilous as the first two votes already felt, Aria had a hard time gathering even a shred of hope for the last one. It made logical sense—Marco had shown that clearly—but none of this was about rational argumentation. Of course it wasn’t, it could never be—it didn’t just concern Olive; it concerned them all.

To ally with a human, to take their knowledge in, was both something much of the village considered unthinkable, but which would also force them all to act. Whether or not they wanted to, everyone present was now acutely aware of how much danger their home was in, the kind they could neither fight against nor hide from.

To answer ‘yes’; was to admit that they couldn’t persist in spite of humanity through their sheer ingenuity forever. To answer ‘yes’; was to admit they had to leave this little space they had managed to carve out—not today, not tomorrow, but eventually. To answer ‘yes’; was to permit a human to indirectly steer their fate by helping them maneuver what to do next.

To answer ‘yes’; was to admit defeat.

To answer ‘no’; was to look away, to close one’s eyes, to pretend nothing was wrong. To blindly hope the threat would never manifest.

Aria kept her hand up, and she was nigh-certain there weren’t more than a couple of others doing so with her. Of course this vote wouldn’t pass; the little hope she had wouldn’t let her believe that, and yet, she remained defiant, until the very end.

For that was the only right thing to do.

“Thank you.”

Her hand fell down to her lap as she tried not to weep. She was doing the right thing; she knew that. She would fight for Anne, for Ember, for Sage, for Olive forever. If need be, she would wake her family, take everything they had with themselves, and leave this very night. If she had to, she would protect Olive personally, but—

It hurt; it was so much, too much. She didn’t want to do any of that, to put herself in harm’s way. She just wanted to be safe. She just wanted them all to be safe. Her posture shriveled as she held the girl close; tense silence and the return of warmth having only sped up her exhaustion.

Seconds passed as her mind wound itself up tighter. Her heart threatened to burst through her ribs and spill its contents onto everyone present, screech and strike at them for ever daring to consider taking Anne’s safety away—

And then; at last, came the sentencing.

“The results of the first vote. Nine votes ‘for’, one vote ‘against’, three votes abstaining. Vote passes.”​

...

Wait...

“The results of the second vote. Six votes ‘for’, two votes ‘against’, five votes abstaining. Vote passes.”​

...

...

Is it...

“The results of the third vote... S-seven votes ‘for’, six votes ‘against’. Vote passes. I hope you all know what you’re doing.”​

And then; it was over.

A cold gust went through the tent as the Torkoal pulled aside the smaller flap at the back. Within moments, the white smoke began to thin, making it easier and easier to breathe and see as the results hit everyone gathered, one after another.

They were defeated, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t forge a new fate.

Anne was safe.

Anne was safe.

Anne was safe.

ANNE WAS SAFE.

A howling cry left Aria as she pulled the child beside her into her arms. Unconscious, asleep, the vote had drained the girl of any ounce of strength she had left after everything she’d been subjected to today. But she didn’t have to be strong anymore. Aria didn’t have to be strong anymore.

Anne was safe.

The Gardevoir didn’t react as she felt her brother’s hand on her back, and then her friend’s wing. Tears and cries of release kept coming; her utterly exhausted mind kept letting out all the fear that had accumulated in it over the past few days.

Anne was safe.

No more fear, no more uncertainty, only a drained, brilliant love—

“This is an OUTRAGE!” Winnie screeched, drawing glares of fury and shock alike. The Breloom was too drunk on his own anger to notice as he continued, “Ana, this has to be a mistake! Are you certain of the—”

ARE YOU CALLING MY OBJECTIVITY INTO QUESTION,” the Torkoal did the closest thing she could to shouting.

“Yours and everyone else’s! This THING may have driven you all mad, but I won’t fall for its foul curse! Orion be my witness, I shall do what is right to keep us all safe, I SHALL—”

BWOOOOOM!

In an instant, Winnie was launched through the tent’s wall, tearing it in half. He tumbled once he’d landed on the snowy ground, sliding until hitting the brick wall of Holly’s pantry. Untold eyes drilled into him as he twitched; tried to spit out more words through his bruised, bleeding grimace,

Before finally fainting; alive if broken.

Once the dust cleared, everyone’s gaze bounced back the other way, silent and aghast—and only found the Primarina, still glaring at the spot her fellow Elder had just been Moonblasted out of.

A moment passed in silence, another. Celia shuddered and blinked, before returning to her previous spot, not sparing the hole in the tent she’d just tore open even a fleeting glance. Instead, her gaze swept over everyone else, attentive as always, while her lips mouthed words for nobody to hear.

Nobody knew how to react, but it was safe enough to say that the council proceedings were over.

One by one, onlookers approached the aftermath, shock giving way to murmurs about what the hell just happened, both with Winnie, and for the Primarina to have done that. Among all the built-up curiosity outside, though, there was one fox in particular that wanted to know something else.

Ember’s white shawl stood out among the crowd as she pushed through it, stumbling into the damaged tent with Anne’s name in her maw. Scouts moved aside for her, letting her stumble towards her friend before dropping onto her knees in exhaustion and joining Aria’s embrace. “I-i-is Anne s-safe?” she woofed, afraid and exhausted.

The Gardevoir had no strength left for words, physical or mental alike, nodding in silence as she wept. It was all the Braixen needed for tearful joy to grip her too, make her huddle even closer to her human, hold her even tighter.

Anne was safe, and they could all rest.

As Ember dozed off beside her friend, on the very edge of unconsciousness, she felt them both be picked up and moved somewhere. Time lost all meaning as they were gently carried, and only when she was finally laid down on something soft did she pry her eyes open one more time.

She saw her mom tucking her in, Anne beside her, and Mrs. Aria in a bed next to theirs,

And fell asleep, safe at last.



If you want to discuss the story, I've set up a Discord server for it! (and my other writings)

Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
 
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Long review post incoming. Sorry.

Chapter 4
Alright, so it's been a while since I have read any of this fic, so after a quick refresher of what had happened so far, I have to say the opening was pretty much in line with what had previously happened. Anne’s pain being of great concern to the group does seem to create the divide between the Pokémon and the humans, which had been alluded to previously.

There is a lot going on regarding the dialogue and thoughts and psychic dialogue, and I am glad this gets clarified officially at the start of the chapter. That is the one thing about having psychic beings: things can get a little messy. Aria’s bond with Anne continues to shine through in the chapter. It has already been built up previously that Anne only really has trust to Aria as far as I could understand, and Anne’s attempts at communication to Aria seem to be on par with how I would assume someone frightened would act. Once again Lumi comes through to show his willingness to help his friends out. Although, he does appear to be in a much more minor role this chapter. I hope we get to see him and Anne getting to know each other at some point (and no I am totally not bias towards Luxray [one of my all-time favourite Pokémon]).

Moving to the more stylistic side of things, the writing flows pretty well. The pacing is more consistent in this chapter than that of the more action-packed third instalment, giving a much-needed rest. That being said, the chapter is pretty long. Grammatically, the chapter had very few mistakes in, which is great. The plot points connect throughout, once again bringing up how the opening connects back to the previous chapter in such a way that the concern for Anne is well constructed. Hopefully things continue smoothly in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5
Okay, so let’s talk about psychic types and memory wipes. What a way to start the chapter. I am stunned. This topic is a significant ethical discussion in pokémon fiction and often gets overlooked. I am so glad that it is being talked about this early on in fiction surrounding this narrative of potential abuse, cross-contamination, or leak of humans into the world of wild pokémon. Would you effectively steal someone’s memories away from them if it stops that person from hurting? Would that person always have questions? Would you replace those memories with something else? Such an important topic is being addressed, adding so much to the chapter.

This brings us to the relationship forming between Anne and Aria. Anne has been through a lot and is very young, so how much of what is happening does she fully understand? Her question to Aria is also portrayed well, as it is indeed important. “Why did you save me?” On its own, saving a stranger is essential. However, there is, in addition to this, the knowledge we already know about humans and these wild Pokémon. They are not friendly with one another. Early on in this chapter, a lot of the weight seems centred intentionally or not around this concept. It is portrayed beautifully.

Structurally, the chapter seems fine. The flow and pacing are on point, as always. One small thing I have noticed is when there is a fair amount of dialogue, it isn’t always attributed. On occasion, this has led me to re-read the section to make sense of who is speaking, although I am often able to figure it out. Honestly, though, that is the major grammatical thing I have noticed; the rest seems perfectly fine. Additionally, Anne’s nervousness in speaking to Aria is portrayed very well through her stutter. The description is well-placed and adds to the world and characters. Also, I am glad we get to see Lumi again, even if it is more towards the end of the chapter.

Chapter 6
Chapter 6 starts seemingly different to the chapters before it. It introduces some characters who I don’t recall being mentioned before. These character’s goals and ambitions seem unknown with the exception of them seeking someone – Anne. This definitely adds to the ominous atmosphere which was absent in the previous chapter, which acted as more of a respite. I assume the other characters they met or have come into contact with are human. The comparison between the two locations seems pretty significant and maybe it will come into play a little later as it has been highlighted in the chapter as pretty important.

The dialogue is pretty solid in this chapter, and the character’s relationships and emotions aren’t fully on display it seems. The chapter definitely gives off a more cautious vibe. The frustration and hostility echoes later in the chapter through the use of language and dialogue. The emotions we do see in this chapter are more hostile, and advances the plot of the story nicely.

Chapter 7

The beginning of the chapter opens with a significant reinforcement to the story. Anne’s reaction to being touched is very consistent with what we already know about her past. You clearly knows how to make connections and build upon characters and their history. In contrast, the ending creates a strong sense of unease. The events individually aren’t too horrific, such as Blossom’s panic attack and a tea-shaking attack. However, the combination created by you raises the stakes well. Anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows how awful it feels, and how your senses get all messed up. The difficulty to deal with other things going on while having one is represented well in this chapter.

In regards to the writing style, the chapter’s flow seems alright. The ending taking a sudden turn is interesting and does throw the flow off a little bit, but the intention of it works out well. I did notice a typo with what I assume to be Rowlet missing the “R” toward the end of the chapter, although it could be referring to an owl instead as owls are mentioned in the chapter. There is nothing major there; it happens. For the most part, however, the chapter’s grammar and spelling is consistently on point throughout the chapter.

Lastly, looking into the characters themselves, it is nice to see Anne bonding with other characters. The introduction of the Decidueye family, being Dartrix and Rowlet is great. I have also noticed the inclusion of real-life animals in the chapter, in particular an owl. Therefore, in this would, do normal animals co-exist with pokémon? Holly seems a nice addition and the potential bonds she will create with would be great, if this continues later on. The dialogue in the chapter is well-written and the character’s personalities come out in droves.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8 shows the combination between real-world animals and pokémon, which was alluded to in Chapter 7, with owls peering through the window. In Chapter 8, there are mentions of dogs, which are connected to the human village and a vital part of the plot so far – Anne and her escape from the human village. The two sides of the story and the plot are depicted very well by the missing poster, which Olive and Lumi find. It is interesting how these two are witnessing the human world, which is significant. While it feels like more of a side story, it is interesting compared to Anne’s side and the focus on her. Their connection to the humans, especially Lumi’s reaction and interactions with the human boy, is sweet, and it is nice to see a kinder side of the humans compared to what we have seen and assumed about them.

Later in the chapter, Anne’s house’s explosion is decisive and well-constructed as an all-or-nothing situation. There is no going back, only going forward. Ending the chapter with Lumi leading the charge as it were back out into the human world opens up the fiction to some extent. As previously most chapters have ended in a more contained manner, this is far more dangerous. The characters are more exposed to the threats out there. Hopefully, they will find a way to make life better for Anne and get justice for her once and for all.

Chapter 9

This chapter seems to introduce us to some potential allies. I feel like the introduction of Gallade and Goodra to the story is the most important element of the chapter. I am getting some detective or poké-police vibes from them, especially the “trying to figure out” part of Gallade’s dialogue. The concerns regarding Anne being a potential young trainer are interesting as they open up another conversation about whether all humans would be treated the same if they needed help from the pokémon.

The reappearance of Holly as the energetic light, almost like the character who asks some questions or puts herself in situations which lead to world-building, is very welcomed. Her character is very well-written, and her kindness shines through. Her care for Anne and others around her is an excellent trait. Although there is a small section in which Holly is talking to another pokémon, due to the missing tags, I am not quite sure whom; I assume it is Marco. I think if these tags were added, it would improve the flow of this section of dialogue. All in all, though, the description and additions to the plot are great. The description of what these pokémon feel meeting a human, one of the biggest potential threats these wild pokémon could come across, is very well constructed.

Chapter 10

The mysterious magnemite watching all. Did it see what Aria had done? I love how ominous this little guy’s presence is. I really hope magnemite’s witnessing comes back to haunt the group as a little plot twist at some point. With the house of horrors gone and Aria not feeling any guilt for her potential involvement, I hope this will allow you to add to the relationship between Anne and Aria. Will Anne be okay with her former home being destroyed? Lots of questions have been opened up.

I also love the wrap-around back to the debate, I believe, in chapter 5 and the ability to remove or alter memories. This callback is great as it is such an important ethical debate. Ember, having had their mind wiped, yet being an important part of Anne’s life, makes me wonder if Anne and Ember had seen something they maybe weren’t supposed to. Lumi’s relationship with Autumn is an interesting one; while most relationships appear to be upbeat and friendly, the impression I got here is they aren’t really friends, and they are very different personality-wise, which is a fresh dynamic.

Grammatically and structurally, the chapter is written well. Although, some dialogue was a little confusing at times due to the lack of tags or the same speaker being given a new line of speech. Other than that, though, it was consistent and had no major issues.

The plot has moved significantly in this chapter, and I like that. Cinder, from what I gather, has done something awful. The memory wipe. The group’s caution around confronting Cinder I think, is rightly warranted with the explanations and justifications as to why confronting Cinder isn’t a good idea just yet is well thought out. Just from how the dialogue is constructed around confronting Cinder, I get the impression that Cinder isn’t the kind of pokémon to play fair in a fight – especially through the lines by Autumn about it turning into a throwing match being way too late. I am going to end by saying the final line is a strong one. You have made it very clear that Aria is dedicated to solving the problems created by the humans and pokémon who have hurt Anne. Seeing as Aria may have been responsible for the house going to pieces and had no regrets earlier on, we know she will stop at nothing for Anne.

Chapter 11

Chapter 11’s start is amazingly powerful. The strength and stress on the words is very memorable. The fear that Anne must be feeling as this force is coming and there is little she can do about it must be intensely terrifying. Her reaction to being around Ember again is beautifully written and one can tell how much their relationship must have mattered. This chapter definitely weighs in more with the description and I like that a lot. Even the chapter’s title, “Guilt” is clear at depicting what is going on.

The plot moves well in this chapter, opening up Anne’s world in such a way that had been very dotted before. Almost like a new door and new pathway is opening up for her. Aria’s guilt definitely does appear in small segments in how she acts in the latter half of the chapter, particularly how she is unable to smile after lying. I think the topic of lying is dealt with in a manner which suits all here. I personally believe that lies aren’t inherently bad. It is what one does with a lie and how one uses the ability to lie which could be good or bad. I do feel like her lie here is justified.

Lastly, I want to address the section about Cinder. Cinder’s darker side seems to become softened or almost excused in a way by others. She has been painted by you as someone who is very powerful, but the characters depict her as an overprotective mother. Does the truth lie somewhere between being an overprotective mother and having some sinister goals? I hope we delve deeper into the life of Cinder and explore more about her background and her motivations in the next few chapters.

Chapter 12

Firstly, I’d like to point out how nice it is to see new characters being introduced in this chapter. A wider cast can lead to more chaos, conflict or a much wider range of emotions. The little Riolu is a perfect example of this. Reya seems to be written pretty young and full of energy, which contrasts with the mood set by the adult pokémon as of late. The mood is explained by you as them being drowsy, which makes sense given everything going on in their lives right now. Regarding the dialogue, what is said works for who is saying it, and for the most part, it runs together in a smooth manner. However, the missing tags explaining who is saying what has led to me having to re-read certain sections of it. Despite my reservations surrounding the missing dialogue tags, the grammar throughout the non-dialogue sections is great and the description where used works well.

I think later in the chapter comes another very important debate. The discussion on feral pokémon and, to a further extent, what pokémon consider to be humans, feral. Now, I think this topic is handled well by you, as the debate is turned on its head when the discussion of the extreme alternative is brought up. It seems to create a nice bit of tension as well as show how deep the divide in the world is between the humans and the pokémon. Lastly, I think ending the chapter surrounding the line, “now as for humans as living beings” is very ominous. It appears almost as if Geigar is looking down on them. For example, if it was to be said about dogs, “now as for dogs as living beings” from a human’s perspective, it seems like the humans are classifying the dogs as human beings, rather than acknowledging them as sentient beings. I am not sure where Geigar is going to go with this. I suppose we will find out.