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TEEN: From the Vast

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.

Thank you so much for the review! To address a few points:

  • (General) - Yeah, I possibly underuse dialogue tags--I try to add them when they're essential to figuring out who is speaking, but it's clear that what is otherwise self-explanatory for me isn't so for everyone else. I find that overusing them can slog the writing down, especially when they serve no further role beyond "x said this".
  • Chapter 4 - The writing may also flow better because I'm in the middle of an editing sweep of Vast's early chapters, haha. I've gotten better at this since when I first wrote it, and I reccently edited / rewrote the early chapters to get rid of some of the run-ons + point at important characters earlier.
  • Chapter 7 - The relationship of the canon pokemon setting to IRL animals is... weird. They used to exist, but after the first three gens or so, the canon shifted towards there not being any non-Pokemon animals anymore (despite the pokedex entries still using IRL animal terms). The way I use IRL animal terms is in the same way that Pokedex entries use them, as descriptive categories as opposed to indication of IRL animals existing in the setting.
  • Chapter 11 - I didn't mean to imply further sinister goals, as much as her having done what she had done being sinister in itself. There will be further in-story discussion about it, about just why it is so terrible beyond just violating Ember's will, but that in itself is awful even if for "good" motivation on the face of it.
  • Chapter 12 - I didn't intend the "now for humans as living beings" line to be ominous, haha. If anyone has had good experiences with humanity, it's Geiger as shown by his willingness in this chapter to make the portrayal of them much more nuanced than what everyone else in the village is doing. The "humans as living beings" line is meant to steer discussion towards that--the discussion of humans on a biological / anatomical level, since until then, they've been discussed as this almost existential threat and not as living beings.
Interlude VIII: Echoes

Interlude VIII: Echoes


A brackish puddle, barely shallow enough to breathe in, rests in golden sand. In all directions, only desert and scouring sun, forever. Echoes reverberate through the infinity, becoming just noise, sound—nothing.

Too much of nothing.

In the pond, filling it up, a captured soul. Torn from her people, her gods, her element. Above, a dark thing that is and isn’t her, a presence no younger than her and yet rediscovered every single day.

they will hurt you

“~C’mon, work at it you thing!~”


Another mistake, another fell strike of the ringleader’s whip.

The Brionne let out a shrill cry as the cut joined the untold others on her arm. Simple fucking instruction, just had to make a spectacle with these bubbles for a while and everything would go smoothly, and yet the dumb thing just didn’t.

A deep breath, a moment of focus, another go. She didn’t pay attention to the trickle of blood on her shoulder, devoting her entire self to her only remaining purpose. She shouldn’t have had as much control over them as she already had. It was a gift meant to only be granted by the Lady of Waves after her final evolution—and yet; she managed to replicate it from the few memories of her family singing in choir.

Was this an offense? Was that why she was here, sentenced to a hell of someone else’s creation for stepping out of order—

“~No slacking, again!~”


What encouragement the biped couldn’t provide, the blue-yellow Electric-type beside them would make up for in abundance if she didn’t step up. Another attempt, even better. And again, and again, until the masters of these lands were satisfied with her efforts. She tried staring into their eyes many times.

The almost-hairless bipeds offered her confusion, pity, disgust, scorn. She expected other beings to show something else, be something else, but they didn’t. Not like the tall ones, but not like her, either. They had someones, they were granted the bare minimum of protection from the system, they weren’t just a ‘thing’.

At least it wasn’t them.

won’t you learn

The puddle grows deeper, making it even harder to breathe. Louder, louder still, distant voices double up on themselves until they become deafening. Carried by an absence of air, an absence of wind, an absence of any relief.

For there is only her, the suffocating mass above her, and the inescapable sun roasting her insides.

nobody will ever understand you

“Sheesh, if I knew it was gonna be this bad, I woulda added a suspension to ease the bumps, or smaller wheels or something. Why’d she not say anything?” the Mawile asked, around the corner, as well-intentioned as ever despite the frustration clear in her words.

It’d be one thing if she’d just botched her attempt at a cart or it broke, risking the safety of someone older than herself, but to have its recipient silently suffer while using it until she just dropped in the middle of the camp without saying a peep? How was anyone supposed to figure out what was wrong?

“I do not know, Mikiri,” Ana answered. “I will ask once she comes to again.”

The Mawile didn’t have a whole ton of scrap to tinker with quite yet, but she wasn’t keen on waiting until the Torkoal could force an explanation out of the beached Water-type. There were a few things she could try in the meantime, though—lowering the bedding and shrinking the wheels was her immediate idea.

Just a few feet away from them, unseen, the Primarina tried not to scream from the latent pain in her back. The Blissey could easily take another look at her, she was well aware, but making a sound, any sound, felt impossible.

It hurt. But she knew, deep inside, that for her to ever show it, to let anyone know, would only bring them more pain.

you won’t ever be one of them

The black thing looms over her, binding her with its presence. The lost child shakes in the puddle under its glaring eye, splashes the precious water around, but there’s nothing she can do. All this will happen again and again, and they both know it.

It is for the best.

just stop

Faster, faster!

The Popplio ran through the tall grass as swiftly as her flippers could carry her, but it would never be fast enough.

She heard rustling and steps right behind her, too slow and too heavy to be anyone but these big things. Each motion made her little body scream in soreness, begging for her to stop. She hadn’t pushed herself like that in years; wasn’t allowed to push herself like that since that fateful day; didn’t have the space to.

And yet, she had no other choice. It didn’t end up mattering—of course it didn’t.

A few more steps, another bellowing shout, a whizzing sound—and the world around her disappeared in an instant. The next thing she remembered was being pushed even harder for days on end without any breaks, without food. Tall ones were even louder, even angrier, even more indiscriminate in their lashes.

She didn’t understand.

They had all broken out together by striking the flimsy metal thing that kept their shared cage shut at the same time. The big ones were away, asleep. They should’ve been able to get away into the night and never get found again—


The Water-type looked over the other two beings that had taken part in her escape, now separated into their own, even tinier cages. In the one right beside hers, a bipedal mass of blue vines shook in place, their gaze fixed on something neither of them could see. She thought about reaching out to them, trying to catch their attention, but knew there was no point to that. They weren’t listening; they couldn’t understand her; all she’d achieve was annoying the tall ones further.

Further away, a green Electric-type was devouring their portion without a care in the world. They took their time, licked their snout after they were done, and caught her staring in the distance. She begged for a wordless answer about whether they had done anything—and if so, what.

They gave in moments later, and laid down where they stood, facing away from her.

She knew.

you are alone

Another blink, back to the debilitating echoes, the deafening silence. The black thing is there with her, beside her, outside of her, filling up all the space in between her contorted body.

The voices come together into sounds, words, some even familiar. She knows them, but she doesn’t understand. With every strained breath, the dry ocean above her grows louder, busier, closer, even more violently incoherent.

As she deserves.

you are nothing

One moment, she raced through the currents, along with dozens of the blue-white fish that filled the seas surrounding their islands.

The next, metal wire dug into her skin as it dragged them all through the chaotic waters.

She flailed as hard as her body could manage; tried to cut through the reinforced net with the few techniques her elders had already passed to her. The wire didn’t move at her Pounds, ignored her Aqua Jets, and before any of the mightier denizens of the ocean could try striking against it, they saw brilliant sparks jump from loop to loop, leaving only painful numbing where they touched.

A moment later, they coalesced into a Thunder Wave, paralyzing their bodies and snuffing their consciousness.

The Popplio could barely breathe as the world shifted underneath her, so familiar and so wrong. Her gaze was stuck, staring through a wire net, through rusted bars, through miles of sea air—at the place she called home, fading further away by the moment. Around her, wet splashes, thudding of hard rubber on brine-corroded metal. Grunts of exertion, cries of pain, the latter thinning out with each crackling, zapping sound that signaled another soul being captured.

Until only she remained.

“~Cap’n! Ta hell’s that one—these mermaids you mention’d?~”

“~Sure is! Bring out one of the black balls for it, and have Dolly give it another good shock before you toss it.~”

“~What about the islands?~”

“~What bloody about them? If they lived, they would’ve acted long bloody ago. Nobody’s watching, fecking insanity that ours haven’t gone in and taken it yet.~”

Nothing but uneasy mumbling for a few moments after that, mumbling and whining of metal underneath the cowards’ footsteps.

“~Bloody morons, you lot. It’s a fecking payday for us all, and if none of you can get it in your thick, hollow skulls, then I will. Dolly, let loose on this thing!~”

The Thunder Shock made her writhe on the boat’s deck, body gripped by a paralyzing, red-hot pain it only barely remained awake in the face of.

By the time the blissful release of her prison came, she could only beg for it to never end.

this is your fate

She breathes, and the darkness reaches for her throat. Its touch is slimy, wet, ever familiar. It’s her own flippers, scars and all, caressing her shoulders and cradling her neck. They paralyze where they touch, making it impossible to resist, impossible to fight back.

The thing that is and isn’t her screeches and holds as tight as it can. She thrashes in the silted, murky brine as her breath is strangled out of her, to the tune of her own voice.











And yet, she has to fight.

Her arms are so numb, so weak, but they strike back where they can. She shrieks at the tar-like smoke; it shrieks back. Each blind swing hurts herself even more, hurts it. Their struggle turns into one of endless attrition.


“Y-you’re wrong.”​

Why her?

The Primarina thought idly to herself as she watched the bustle of their village through the entrance to the Elders’ tent. It was a position she doubted the utility of in general, but never in a thousand Moons would she have ever imagined that Orion would select her for that role. She’d arrived more recently than many others, her contributions were limited with so few words, and yet... the Zoroark chose her.

From an outsider not just to their village but to this land as a whole, to this. Orion’s trust wasn’t isolated, but no matter how many compliments for her smarts she’d gotten, they never quite clicked right. Ultimately, she knew what she thought about her own inability didn’t matter.

They trusted her, and she wouldn’t betray their trust.

In a way, her destiny mirrored that of this entire camp. A ragtag, aimless band of three people who barely knew each other, stumbling upon a native and her son. Only a few years later, dozens of people living and thriving together, pooling their strengths and knowledge to accomplish what no soul could ever hope on its own.

From barren dirt and wild grass, to burrows, tents and huts, to fields and bushes of nourishing bounty, to the vulnerable ones being cared for and the sick tended to.

The oh-so-familiar, woofing voice interrupted her pondering, “Oh dear, is something wrong?”

The Fairy-type shook her head and lifted herself up a bit. Her cart was just out of reach, but it could wait for a while longer. “There is not. Worry not, Orion.”

“Oh, I’m gonna keep worrying about a friend, ha!” the Zoroark chuckled. “Is the title too much all of a sudden? Maybe I should scale back—”

“No need to. I... appreciate your trust in me, Orion.”

“Why wouldn’t I trust in one of my closest friends?”

Tried as she could, the smile that followed refused to bulge even slightly. Still, she asked soon after, “I do wonder about one aspect of it, though.”

“Go righty ahead! I mean it, I really hope we can work all the kinks out; it’ll be awesome!” Orion squealed.

“Why Winnie?”

The Zoroark blinked at her, stunned. His confusion lasted only for a moment before breaking into chipper, woofed laughter, not even trying to conceal his mawful of sharp teeth with a paw. It diffused the tension greatly, which was appreciated, but she couldn’t deny it feeling a bit... dismissive, too. “Oh, I know, I know, won’t deny he’s... a little rough around the edges right now, but I really mean it when I say that I can change him. He caught my eyes for... hehe, reasons after all! I really believe in him; he’s already improved a fair bit!”

It took the Primarina her entire willpower to limit her reaction to only a modest roll of her eyes. If the Breloom really had changed, she hadn’t noticed it, despite knowing him for several years now. Out of everyone living in the village with them, she had a hard time coming up with someone less appropriate for such an important position. Who knew; maybe Orion really did see something in him that nobody else has.

She wasn’t convinced. “It sounds risky to stake him being fit for this role on him changing.”

“Mayyyyybe, but isn’t that what we’re all already doing, anyway?” the Zoroark smiled. “None of this would be here, none of us, if not for change and the willingness to embrace it. The only reason we’re here is because of the hope we’ll be able to grow it even further, to ensure the safety of even more, to be this beautiful gemstone of this land. And who knows, maybe if the world changes one day, if we won’t have to hide anymore... then maybe we could even have humans join in to help make it even bigger!”

“That sounds... unlikely.”

“Well, considering I’d turned from a runt that was more likely to starve than to ever bear offspring to this, I’ll stick with believing in change,” he teased. The Fairy-type kept her unamused look, only making him laugh even harder, “Oh come onnnnn~, you’re acting just like Ana! Yes, it’ll be harder, but I believe in it. In a way, we’re all striving to turn this cruel world into beauty, right? Well, you could say that’s just my way of doing it!”

There was no arguing with him about that; she was well aware. Especially since she wasn’t sure how she’d even feasibly argue—he was entirely right; that was what they were fighting for. What they’ve already been succeeding at for years. Change was never easy,

But it was always possible.


A hateful shriek strikes her head like a rock, drawing blood and cracking bone. She grasps the nothingness shaped just like her and pushes herself off of the puddle’s bottom, toppling them both over. Underneath her is only more of herself, dark and loathing and hurting and afraid. It bites what remains of her right flipper, but she presses down on it.


“You’re wrong.”​


After swiping the loose leaves that had covered the sacred spot, the Primarina placed the tiny, makeshift candle on the patch of dirt and backed off a couple of paces. Nowhere near the splendor of the pearl-sanded beaches she remembered, but that didn’t matter.

All she needed was a little light under the moonlight, a bit of the diligent ceremony, and faith.

For a long while after she’d broken out of that place, she feared that her Lords and Ladies would never forgive her for abandoning her prayers. She never stopped trying to perform them, stilted and imperfect, but was doubtful they ever reached their destination. And that was just one of many fears, one of dozens of little harrowing thoughts that drilled into her how much of a mistake her entire existence was—

With each passing year, with every new soul in this tiny commune, more and more of these fears gave up, one after the other. She had more support, more community, more love than they had durability, and that thought brought her solace.

Moonlight mixed with the fading, orange glow as she drew small signs in the sand. The holy names of The Four, only meant to be seen by those who knew of their significance. She’d swipe them away as soon as she was done praying, but until then, they would be the tiny, constant reminders that her Lords and Ladies were there with her, no matter how far away from home she was.

Words came soon after, little more than barely audible whispers. Nothing remained of her memories of the language she once spoke, forcing her to use Orion’s artificial one. That discrepancy, too, used to bring her grief—but just like others, it couldn’t withstand closer scrutiny. Prayer was prayer, after all, no matter how it was performed. The Four Themselves didn’t use the islands’ tongue either, it was but a mortal tool for communication.

And in this different land, she just had to make do with a different tool.

“Lord of Storms, let your courage inspire ours.”

“Lady of Flowers, may we bask in your ever-shining joy.”

“Lord of Trees, bless this village and its people to keep growing.”

“Lady of Waves, be thine wisdom ours.”

These weren’t Their lands, but she still felt Their love, and hoped her actions would only spread Their glory further.


The brackish water covers the darkness’ head as it stares at the Primarina with star-like eyes. They drill into her, singe her skin; it hurts like hell—a hell she is familiar with. All this has come many times, and all this will come again, and she knows exactly how the rest of this spar will go.

With all the effort it can muster, the thing tries to topple her over, only knocking them both into the muddy pool. It follows up with another attack, teeth bared and trying to rend her into pieces.


You’re wrong.”​

Another show went by without a hitch, granting the Brionne the mercy of rest. A short, painful rest—but rest all the same. A bowl sat in the corner of her cage, licked clean after she’d gone through her usual portion—just enough to not starve. Above, the pale white eye of the Lords and Ladies, watching over their errant daughter.

She remembered, years back, how she’d just go from one day to the next in the time it took her to blink. Not always, but... it used to happen, whereas it didn’t anymore.

Maybe she’d just misremembered a few days as much longer than that. Her memories weren’t the best from that time, too muddled when it came to everything that wasn’t her rehearsed routine. Just one performance after another, practiced well enough for everyone to act their parts perfectly.

With no time in between, no rest, no meals.

She remembered knowing someone who didn’t exist anymore.

Shaking that thought aside, the Water-type glanced over at the being approaching from the distant corner of their camp. Just a human like all the others, but... this one felt different. Spoke without harm, looked at her without hatred. They were together with all the other ones; they should’ve been hurting her, but… they weren’t.

In the folds of their clothes, a few more pieces of fruit; left inconspicuously just inside the cage. They backed off right after, before squatting a few feet away. Every night for the past two Moons, without fail. “~Gonna eat it?~” they asked.

Prompted by the voice, she picked up the treat into her scarred flippers, one missing most of its fingers. Manners and diligence were only the faintest memories by now; the meal devoured faster than she could swallow. She knew the Lord of Trees was staring at her with disappointment, maybe even anger at disrespecting nourishment to such an extent. Deep inside, the Primarina wanted to excuse herself, to bring up the obvious justifications for her miserable state, but... yhey didn’t matter.

She was of the chosen people, even this far away from home. She should’ve represented their Lords and Ladies with pride, and not acted as entertainment for those savage, monstrous—no. Not all.

“~Phoned the cops at Mistralton to give them a heads up. Maybe this time someone will come and investigate you, heh...~” the human chuckled painfully to themselves before sighing in defeat, “~I know nothing’ll come of it, but gotta keep trying, huh. Couldn’t find you in a dex, no way in hell these people just found you somewhere. Though... should that matter?~”

They stared at their hands, illuminated only by the distant campfire and the brilliant moonlight above. Looked clean, didn’t feel so. Just a cleaning job for a circus; none of this should’ve been this hard, and yet… “~Lemme see if I can get you a blanket or something once we settle in a larger town. Doubt the fat fuck will appreciate it, but... have to try anyway, eh?~”

Nothing was ever as clear as she once believed.


The nobody that is also her wails on her, pulling her further down into the mud, into the soil, into the earth. Into death. She cries out in a song of her Lords and Ladies, in the words of the tongue of her new people, amidst the land of the alien people, in their love and hate. Each memory turns into its own bubble, brilliant and mighty, dissolving the black mist where they strike.


“You’re wrong!”

Another round of shows over—onto the road once more.

The blizzard drained whatever life remained in the nondescript woodland surrounding the convoy. It also made it a serious pain in the ass to keep driving, especially with the truck’s tires being little more than shreds of rubber draped on rusted metal frames by now.

This place was lacking in signage—though even if it hadn’t been, they sure as hell wouldn’t be finding any good places to stop in the middle of these backwoods. Just had to keep going until they made it to the interstate, then find the exit for Lillywood.

Boss’ had scoped that place out a while back, should be just barely enough people to eke out a profit. Everyone else remained unconvinced, but whatever. Their circus of a circus, they got to decide. The moment this entire thing went tits-up, nobody had any delusions about getting the hell out as soon as possible—


The brakes shrieked, but the vehicle didn’t obey. One instant, a tighter turn on a slippery surface sent the truck balancing on just one side of its wheels, startling the driver into full awareness.

The next, it was too late.


Trees dismembered the metal chassis and spilled the gasoline onto the frozen dirt. The impact sent the box flying and the cages inside bashing against one another, before the latch holding them contained was sheared off. Seconds later, fire exploded around the wreckage as a second truck crashed into it, only adding to the mayhem.

Whoever was still awake and alive knew they had to run.

The Primarina could barely feel her back after the impact, but her voice hasn’t left her. It pierced the dark, overpowering the rusted padlock. She heard human shouts in the distance, calling after her—but they were much too late now. Everyone for themselves, were they to run for their own lives,

Or finally use the opportunity to take another’s.

She didn’t care, she couldn’t care. Reduced to a crawl, she crept with all the strength her body still had, pushed towards freedom through more pain than she thought possible. Through the cold, through the snow, through the thorny, dead shrubbery. Through the distant shouts, through the close howls, she didn’t stop, couldn’t stop, even with the certainty that only death awaited ahead.

A gracious gift from the Lady of Waves.

Soon enough, the cold drained the last of her sensations, leaving her body pushing on in pitch blackness through muscle memory alone. It would only get her a few miles more, at most, but her mind had no room left for that consideration. Her finest hour, the ultimate defiance of her captors, the ultimate sacrifice to the Lord of Storms. She expected a godless beast to do her in—but not the terrain.

Before she knew it, the incline had her crashing, rolling forward with not even the Moon to show her what was happening. The darkness kept striking with sharpened stones and mighty boulders, opening cuts and dotting her with bruises. She had no control left of her body anymore; only begged for her demise to come soon.

The ravine ahead answered.

A drop, a grazing hit against rugged roots, and a crash. It cracked something inside her, forced her to shriek despite her weakness, left her alive and ripe for the wilderness to feast on. Immobile, defenseless, half-dead.

The darkness didn’t move as she wept, as she shook, as the freezing silence slowly put her to her eternal slumber.

Until, finally, came a low growl.

Two teal pinpricks stared at her from the dark, sealing her fate. They grew louder as they approached, making her want to beg for mercy one last time,

Instead, came only darkness.

An eternity later, warmth. Comfort. Movement. Pain, muffled to all the extent possible.


She barely had the strength to open her eyes, to take in the afterlife decreed for her. Too hazy to make out beyond swatches of color—black-red, gray-white. More growls, more squeaks, more words. They alternated, back and forth, before the higher-pitched one stopped, and the smaller, lighter blur moved towards her. “^Thank goodness, you’re awake!^”

The weakest flinch of her life; noticed all the same. The black and red mass approached instead, their voice rougher and softer simultaneously, “Hey, hey, doncha worry. We got you, friend.” A furred, clawed hand cupped her cheek, stroking it gently as the voice continued, “Name’s Orion—feel free to wait with yours until you’ve recovered some, haha! Really glad I found you, you looked like a goner.”

Her eyes demanded to be closed as she laid still in an overwhelmed, exhausted stillness. She had no idea what was going on, and yet...

“Yes, yes, rest now. I’m glad you’re here. You’re finally safe, friend.”

She did not doubt these words. Not then.

Not ever.


Distant echoes turn into words of so many people—oh so familiar. Too much, much too much, both her and not-her-yet-still-her want to writhe and hide, want it to stop, but she knows she can’t. Each excess sound hurts her, but it hurts the black thing even more; love and respect melt through it.

It tries to blot them all out, blot out the voices as it keeps drowning her in mud. With one last, fevered shriek, it wails at her from every direction, bruising her with its sheer malice—








The Primarina thrashes before suddenly stopping; and staring straight up into the blackness. They stare at each other, and the latter soon flails at the realization of what is coming. What has come every time, what will come every time. It fights it with the very core of its being.

And each time, it loses.

She leaps forward, pulling it into as tight an embrace as she is capable of. It shrieks, dissolving from outside in. Black smoke fades until white skin, azure scales, and teal hair reappear once more. Bruised, bleeding, hurting so much it can barely think.

She can barely think.

Beside her, a dark-furred, red-clawed paw cuts in through where the black fog once was, ready to be grasped. The other her thrashes at the sight, tries to squirm away, escape this help, but she doesn’t let go. She reaches out for the outstretched limb,

You’re wrong, but I love you.”​

And grasps it.


Celia gasped as she came to, blinking the last of her dream away. It should’ve been more familiar to her by now, and yet it never quite became so. Maybe it never would, maybe the same battle in her subconscious would return every single night for her to conquer yet again.

Even if so, she didn’t fear—the Lord of Storms was on her side. Each time she got stronger and it weaker, each time she knew what to say to herself, shout at it, just that bit better.

But that was a concern for the next night.

After maneuvering half her body onto the cart, the Water-type crawled over to the entrance of her personal section of the Elders’ shared dwelling. She pushed the flap of the door aside, gave the Torkoal a bow, and started making her way past her and the piece of wavy scrap metal that served as her alarm bell.

The Fire-type didn’t move, still staring into her room. Celia didn’t notice; today would be far too busy and important for any distractions. Even before the vote, she had to see how Max felt about all this, and get a feel for several other people—

“What are you planning, Celia,” Ana spoke, not even looking over her shoulder, right as her fellow Elder was about to leave their shared tent. It froze the Primarina in place, facing the parted exit and all the light that spilled in through it, and away from the Torkoal.

One moment passed, another. The impasse continued and threatened to never end, with the two Elders not even daring to glance at each other over their shoulders.

And then, at last, Celia answered—

“To do the right thing.”​

—and left, into the ever beloved, ever changing, ever vast world outside.

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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Review of Chapter 13

You make it very clear that Anne has had a horrific childhood when the first thing she does after an accident is immediately apologising, even though she could have been badly hurt. Furthermore, I love how innocent Bell is, talking about how Candece could take Anne in. You always make the characters likable in each chapter.

The grammar in the chapter is pretty solid. I think as time has gone on, the grammar in the chapters has become clearer, and since the clarification a few chapters ago regarding the difference between psychic talk, and speech the clarity has improved.

I was a little surprised to not see my favourite character in this story in this chapter, Lumi, but I noticed he has a bigger role in the next chapter, so I am pretty psyched to see that. That being said, I am glad this chapter focuses more on the relationships with Candece, Bell, Embers and Anne, and it gives them a chance to be fleshed out some more.

The change of focus at the end to Cypress and Marco is nice, as it introduces these characters in a different light. It is clear Marco knows Bell very well, and how the little Ralts feels about the world around her. It also potentially gives a further insight into how Bell would act if threatened. Would Bell act on her own and be independent of adults trying to help her?
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Review of Chapter 13

You make it very clear that Anne has had a horrific childhood when the first thing she does after an accident is immediately apologising, even though she could have been badly hurt. Furthermore, I love how innocent Bell is, talking about how Candece could take Anne in. You always make the characters likable in each chapter.

The grammar in the chapter is pretty solid. I think as time has gone on, the grammar in the chapters has become clearer, and since the clarification a few chapters ago regarding the difference between psychic talk, and speech the clarity has improved.

I was a little surprised to not see my favourite character in this story in this chapter, Lumi, but I noticed he has a bigger role in the next chapter, so I am pretty psyched to see that. That being said, I am glad this chapter focuses more on the relationships with Candece, Bell, Embers and Anne, and it gives them a chance to be fleshed out some more.

The change of focus at the end to Cypress and Marco is nice, as it introduces these characters in a different light. It is clear Marco knows Bell very well, and how the little Riolu feels about the world around her. It also potentially gives a further insight into how Bell would act if threatened. Would Bell act on her own and be independent of adults trying to help her?

Thank you for the feedback! As a bit of clarification, the Riolu at the end of the chapter isn't Bell--Bell is the lil' Ralts. Riolu's name is Reya, you might remember her from chapter 12.
Chapter 30: Sunrise

Chapter 30: Sunrise

The first thing Anne heard was steps.

Distant, muffled through layers upon layers of linen, Safeguard, and fluff. On dirt, on snow, on carpet which increasingly became more of the former two by mass with each passing day.

Eventually, other sounds began to join in as well. Shuffling, clanks, thuds of wood against wood and flesh against flesh. Squeaks, growls, rattling of rock against itself in a way that most only perceived as intimidating noise but which was only meant as the warmest, most sincere greetings.


She had no idea for how long she laid there, or even if she’d truly heard any of it. It was too vague to make much out of; could’ve been her mind playing tricks on her in hindsight. Ultimately, it didn’t matter either way—she was here, on something soft, surrounded by blissful warmth, and so, incredibly, exhausted. The more her consciousness returned, the more she wanted to recede further under the thin blanket, to stem the unwelcome tide of awareness that refused to let her rest in peace.

It only worked for a few moments, and even that was an overly generous description. Eventually, her tired self had no choice but to finally give in, to face the new day and its—




Anne came to with a gasp, eyes snapping open before immediately clenching shut at all the light that assaulted them for daring to do that. Removed from the numbing fog of unconsciousness, her mind soon snapped back to action, resuming from the last thing it remembered.

The thirteen voices, loving and cruel and everything in between, debating on her fate.

Was it over? Had she just dreamt up the vote, and it was still yet to happen? Was everyone preparing to toss her out of this sanctuary to fend for herself? Was she—was she safe? Even as Anne’s heart jumped to full intensity in response to these thoughts, her mind found itself unable to dive deeper into them right away.

Not with the sight that awaited her once she’d finally paid attention to what she was looking at.

A second bed, awkwardly placed a few feet from hers, at an angle. On it, Aria, asleep and disheveled. Anne didn’t think the Gardevoir hairdo would always remain as well composed as it was in the textbooks, but this was something else, something messier. Unkempt, shinier than before, shaking. Her expression was tense and narrowed, her breaths as rapid and anxious as Anne’s were just moments earlier. She was still asleep, and yet looked like she was panicking—

“^She is exhausted, and struggling with a bad dream right now,^” a dry voice spoke, taking Anne aback; her gasp only barely kept in her throat. Before adrenaline could even finish grasping her body, she was already scanning around the room for the source of the sound. She could’ve sworn she’d heard it before, but who... oh.

Despite having her glasses on, Anne couldn’t make out all the details of the Delphox sitting in the shaded corner. They looked... calm, as far as she could tell, but that in itself clarified woefully little. The more she stared at them, the more her recollection tingled, taking its sweet time pushing through the quickly solidifying concrete slab of traumatizing memories of the vote and the discussion that preceded it.

Guess Ember’s mom sitting here and looking after her made some sense with what she’d said yesterday.

Both because of her promise to look after her, and—as her senses soon pointed out to the girl—because of Ember being here, too. Anne could feel her shuffling behind her, slowly following her towards awareness. The Delphox being here made sense, but wasn’t any less unnerving because of that. And Cinder was well aware, leaning back against the wall to give the human as much space as she could.

“~Y-you meant that about Mrs. Aria, r-right?~” Anne asked, prompting a slow nod in return, followed by a drawn-out sigh.

The tension lingered in the air for a while longer; neither of the conscious minds were sure what to ask or tell the other. Thankfully, time was the one resource they both had in abundance, especially with the sun taking its time crawling from behind the horizon.

Anne remained quiet, administering Ember some more affection to calm her—and herself—down. As serious and composed as the older vixen tried to remain throughout her duty, not even she could resist cracking the tiniest, most diligently hidden smile at seeing her daughter be treated with all the love she deserved.

It would be a long while until she’d have anywhere near as much fondness for the little human as Ember had. All the good will in the world could only do so much to undo years of self-inflicted conditioning to hate Anne’s entire species, for reasons equally understandable and yet incorrect.

Cinder wasn’t deluding herself about that, but knew she didn’t have to.

Right now, all she had to do was keep the human safe, and liking her would, hopefully, come with time. And until then, some explanation wouldn’t hurt, “^I am here to look after you while you, and everyone else, settle in. Just in case someone... unhappy with the decision thinks about expressing that violently.^”

That made sense, yes, as much as the very idea of a villager lashing out at her terrified her. With that bit of self-inflicted nightmare fuel, though, came a realization, one that made Anne’s eyes go wide. She asked, “~W-wait, does that mean that—that I’m safe here?~”

A very firm, very exaggerated nod. “^The vote concerning your permanent stay here has indeed passed, yes. Winnie was none too happy with that decision, but now he’s left licking his wounds in a house arrest. It remains to be seen what will happen to him...^” Cinder explained. As she droned on, recounting the events that would remain burned into her memory forever, she noticed Anne grow increasingly unsure of what she was even talking about. Must’ve either dozed off before that entire embarrassment, or her memories had spared her from it all.

“^Either way, not something for you to worry about, Anne,^” the vixen continued. ^”You’re safe, you’re set to remain here for good, and many here will do their best to ensure your safety, myself included.^”

As shameful as needing to ‘ensure safety’ of an innocent child was, thinking about that wouldn’t do anyone any good. A fact that Anne’s mind was, unfortunately, unaware of.

Worries refused to let go of her as she acknowledged the vixen’s words before looking at her guardian. As she took in the miserable sight once more, the one functional hand scritching Ember between her ears, she felt the fox stir behind her. She asked, unnerved, “~Wh-why is Mrs. Aria here?~”

Cinder just sighed, her head slumping. “^We asked her to go home and get some proper rest once the vote was over, but... she refused. She clung to you, didn’t want to let go even after all the dust settled and the ceremony was over. We brought a bed here so that she could stay the night, thought it might just be some residual stress... but she kept waking up and checking on you, heart racing each time. Exhaustion finally knocked her out good just a couple hours ago, and she’s been like this since.^”

Anne’s eyes grew wider with every word, the image being painted only providing further fuel for the flames of worry. “~I-i-is she gonna be alright?~”

“Of course she—yaaaaawn—she will, Anne, mumble mumble...” the translated woofs muttered into Anne’s side. The sound finally snagged her attention away from her guardian and back to her friend, right arm immediately pulling her into the tightest hug the girl could manage as the fox continued, “Everything will be alright now, mumble mumble...

As much as Anne wanted to believe that assertion, she couldn’t.

Despite Ember’s warm, loving comfort, despite Cinder’s cold, rational reassurance... she just couldn’t. Nothing was ever as simple as that, no problem as all-encompassing and anxiety inducing as what she and Aria and so many others had just been through ever got solved so easily or so definitively. If they even could get solved at all, that is.

Something more still would happen, right? It had to; her mind refused to even consider an alternative option. No way this was over, no way she was actually safe, there was still more pain ahead of her, there must’ve been, there was no way there couldn’t be!

Ember was too drowsy to make out anything concrete from the muck in her friend’s mind, and Cinder had woefully little idea of how to address it. Of course sating Anne’s worries would require more than this, but it wasn’t something she knew how to help with beyond what she’d already done—

Before she could even try anything, though, the room’s entrance sliding open cut her off mid-thought.

Anne had glimpsed the Blissey that had just walked into the room a few times, and already had much to thank her for. Such as for her current shirt being... modified to allow her cast arm to slip through the sleeve. In a destructive way, sure, but it was much better than nothing. Now that she thought about it, they—or someone else—would most likely have to do something similar with at least a couple of other shirts. This one was growing due for a wash, as was the human that wore it on the whole.

Something to tackle later. Hopefully Ember and her better sense of smell doesn’t mind...

“Your arm, please,” the Blissey requested. Anne complied right away, the healer glancing at Cinder with a brief, appreciative nod.

As the human and the Braixen beside her looked away from the unsightly mess underneath the cast, the Normal-type thought to herself, arms working on autopilot. Rather hesitantly at that, a fact not missed by the girl, even as she tried her hardest not to pay attention.

She was being healed, and that’s all that mattered. Couldn’t expect everyone to like her, after all. Both because of course not everyone would, and because of course some people would dislike her in particular...

Unaware of the self-consciousness lashing out against its host beside her, the Blissey kept working—and paused with a sigh. No matter what her past experiences have been, the human would be staying here for the foreseeable future. Might as well take a moment to sort herself out while she had the opportunity. “So... you’re staying for good, is what I’ve heard being whispered around?” she asked.

The elderly voice made Anne blink her mental murk away as she replayed the words in her head, nodding as firmly as she could without disturbing her injured limb. “Good, good,” the healer responded. “Hopefully, your arm will make a full recovery in not too long, but of course you never know with injuries this severe.”

Not very reassuring, but neither was life. Still, Anne wanted to thank the... healer for her efforts, “~Y-yeah. Th-thank you for helping me out, M-Mrs... B-Blissey.~” She was nigh-certain she’d heard their name at some point during her stay so far, but couldn’t recall it for the life of her.

“It’s ‘Esther’, and... you’re very welcome, Anne. I’m glad you’re staying; you’ve been nothing but sweet so far,” Esther corrected, the tiniest hint of a smile creeping onto her slightly wrinkled face as she redoubled her efforts. “Have to admit, wasn’t too... eager at the start when Sprout first brought you here. More than a bit of sorry history with humans on my end, used to work in one of their hospitals not too far from here.”

Anne blinked at the Blissey’s words, unsure how to respond as the Normal-type continued, “Left me quite soured about you all over the years, was so glad to escape once I figured out a way to sneak out of that place. Though, in hindsight... sigh, the more I think about it, the more I realize it was just a couple doctors and nurses that made it all a pain. Two interactions a day with pieces of shit get dwarfed by dozens upon hundreds of pleasant ones with everyone else. Or I suppose, as pleasant as can be while being considered a mindless animal. Either way, it’s the former that really linger in the mind, and the latter you never reminisce about.”

The Blissey chuckled to herself, giving the entire injury one last look before wrapping it in dressings and bandages again. “Suppose, if nothing else, a reminder to keep proportions like these in mind. For every awful day, there are plenty more fine ones, and the more we remember that, the more sane we’ll remain, eh?”

While Cinder slumped in her seat with each passing word, Anne remained just as stunned as she’d been one moral lesson earlier. She was simultaneously glad that the Blissey got better, and very... confused about why it was her that the healer came clean to about all this. Guess her not hating humans anymore was good news, just the sort that probably would’ve been best kept inside her head... “~U-uh... yeah. That—that sounds... wise,~” Anne stammered, staring at the floor.

Esther didn’t have to receive another intense dose of mild discomfort to realize her faux pas, pausing as she hurriedly tried to figure out what to do next. Apologizing was an option, but one that would’ve probably just made it all even more awkward—guess a change of topic would work? Yeah, let’s try that. “Yeah. Uhh... something I’ve been curious about for a while actually, if you could help me out with it... d-dear.” Esther changed the topic, her swerve neither subtle nor missed by Anne.

Still, the human appreciated it, as did the Delphox in the corner. “~O-oh? How can I help, Mrs. Esther?~”

After taking a while to mull through the best way of asking it, the Blissey went with the most direct question, speeding up her motions, “Would you know what day it is today?”

Now that was something Anne didn’t expect to be asked; the wrench the question threw into her thoughts was very appreciated. It required a bit of thinking to figure out—she’d ran away and crashed on the night of twenty-ninth, before waking up an unknown amount of time later. She’d gone through traumatic events A, B, and C, with X days of coma in between A and B. How long did it all last? Just had to solve for X.

“~How long did I sleep for b-before I first woke up here—i-if you’d know, Mrs. Esther...~” she whimpered.

The Blissey tapped her foot on the carpeted floor as she thought back; the variable in Anne’s equation soon clarified. “Well, Sprout found you before sunrise a few days ago, then you slept that entire day, and woke up screaming the next morning if memory serves.”

One day then, alright. Anne nodded at the clarification, crunching numbers in her mind before Ember chimed in, disheartened at what she’d just heard, “A-Anne woke up screaming? Oh no, w-was she scared?”

“No sweetie, it wasn’t that. Her arm got roughed up something proper, and it needed more numbing than we expected, so it hurt like mad and woke her up,” the Blissey explained as she wrapped up her handiwork. The injured limb in question was now a bit less achy, a bit less dirty, and—hopefully—a bit closer to regaining full function.

“O-oh, oh no... Anne, does it hurt a lot?” Ember asked as she slid up to her human; ears flat against her head. She finally dared to take another look at Anne’s left side, now that the healer was done with her unsightly task. “D-do you want me to not touch it?”

“~Thirty, one, first—oh? Oh, d-don’t worry Ember, it actually doesn’t hurt l-like this. I don’t know how bad it’ll be if someone touches it, but it should be alright,~” Anne reassured. She wasn’t anywhere near as certain about her claim as she wished she was, but tried to not let that show. At least it wasn’t her dominant arm, thankfully. As she provided her friend with some more affection, she went back to finish her thought from earlier, finally arriving at a concrete date, “I-if I got it right, it should be February 2nd, 549 today, Mrs. Esther.”

In truth, the girl didn’t know if the Blissey would even understand the date—but considering she explicitly asked about it, Anne hoped she would. As the healer stared wide-eyed at nothing in particular, finally realizing just how long it’d been since she first arrived here, the human had her own revelation. The date lit up a small lightbulb inside her mind—cloudy, weak, but still present despite the world’s best efforts to the contrary.

Her birthday was just eight days away.

The day meant little to her anymore, never did. Even back at her grandma’s place, they weren’t exactly swimming in money, so her birthdays were far from extravagant. Still, they always included at least one gift—most often a toy she’d spotted on one of the three channels their old TV could tune to and wouldn’t stop talking about—a small cake with her name on it, delivered all the way over from Mistralton, and a hearty snack for Ember. Nobody knew when the Fennekin’s birthday was, so her grandma figured she might as well make it one day of celebration for them both.

Not much, but lovely enough to sting her eyes a bit as she thought back to it.

And then once... once grandma Lisa was gone, and she was back with her parents, the day almost stopped having any meaning whatsoever. Not even Anne herself really acknowledged it anymore. It was only Mrs. Graham that ever made an effort to celebrate the day, gifting her some fancier art supplies than spare notebook pages and store-brand pencils.

Would she let anyone know about this? A part of her wanted to, the inward impulse of wanting that happiness, that celebration, these—these gifts too, as selfish as that was to admit. But… the people here had already done so much for her. Patched her up, looked after her, and argued for her safety despite her not belonging here.

Another glance at Aria. Still squirming in her sleep, still anxious.

They had saved her life! The last thing she wanted to do was to keep asking for more, to be even more of a burden to everyone here. To force everyone here to do even more for her—squeeze!

The tight, blissfully warm embrace made it difficult to focus—as intended. “^B-but we’d all love to help you out Anne, a-and get you something for your birthday!^” Ember squealed, her excited, telepathic words only making Anne wince.

It was a sweet gesture, but utterly mismatched compared to the human’s sour, dour mental state, eager to use the fox’s goodwill to bash itself for all kinds of perceived slights. The fact wasn’t lost on the vixen, making her hold her friend even tighter, even firmer.

As the two girls fought the sludge sloshing inside Anne’s skull, Esther continued, blissfully oblivious to everything going beside her, “Hmmm. How old are you again, Anne?”

A lifeboat away from the mental storm, a merciful distraction. “~U-uh... I-I’m ten, almost eleven.~”

“Huh! Well, considering your history, I suppose it makes sense for you to be smaller than I expected. Thought you were about nine or so. Malnourishment doesn’t help either. Eat well, and hopefully you’ll regain the missing height as you grow—”

The loud steps approaching from the room beside theirs caught Cinder’s attention. They almost made her get up to apprehend whoever was about to walk in on them—before she sighed and leaned against the wall once more. Even if she wanted to stop the approaching force of nature, she sincerely doubted she’d been able to.


“GOOD MORNING, SUNSHINES!” Holly shouted, waking all the souls still trying to get some rest in the healers’ tent. “Gotta celebrate the news in some proper way! There ya go, girls, enjoy your meals!”

It took both Anne and Ember a while to act, even after the bundle of delicious-smelling food was offered to them. The buttery, sweet scent that the Azumarill had brought with herself helped in melting through the deadlock their minds were stuck in, though. Taking care not to tilt it too much, Anne grabbed her portion, setting it on the bedding beside herself. “~Thank you, M-Mrs. Holly—~”

“Doncha fret it, Annie! Now that I know I got you here in walking range for good, doncha doubt I’ll do all I can to get something more than skin on those bones of yours! Can’t have ya starving under my watch, haha!” Holly giggled. As Anne smiled to herself at the gesture, she spotted Aria anxiously looking around the room, startled into a sitting position by Holly’s arrival. The Azumarill didn’t notice, though, continuing, “Aaaaaand, if ya got any of your fancy-schmancy human recipes in that noggin of yours, I hope ya gonna share! I’ve already improved a bunch of them, been itching to get my paws on more!”

A lack of response, or even any attention, finally clued Holly to what was going on, the scene that awaited behind her making her chuckle, “Good grief Aria, you look like you could use a pick-me-up too! Maybe I need to grab some of that juice I made for Annie here a couple days back and pour you a portion or seven, eh?”

Despite Holly’s best efforts, the Gardevoir didn’t respond, the dazed exhaustion clear on her features. The Azumarill wasn’t the one to give up on cheering someone up, but was well aware that her efforts would be better spent elsewhere—such as on making due on her offer while Aria came to. “Don’t have to not tell me twice!” Holly chuckled. “Hopefully won’t take too long to get everythin’ ready. Take care, y’all!”

“Th-thank you, Mrs. Holly!” Anne added, wanting to give the Azumarill her courtesy, no matter how worried she was. Her timid wave returned right away as the cook took her leave. With the cook gone, Anne’s gaze swept around the room once more, finding the Blissey healer absent as well, to her surprise. Must’ve left when everyone was distracted by Holly. She thought little of it, though, not with the entirety of her focus now placed on the Gardevoir. “~M-Mrs. Aria?~”

The Gardevoir’s small gasp startled the two girls, their surprise at such a reaction soon turning into further concern. Thankfully, it was enough to snap the psychic back to reality with a few confused blinks, dazzled shock soon giving way to relief at seeing Anne here with her. Safe, at last.

“^G-good morning, Anne. How—how are you feeling, sweetie?^” Aria asked, giving the human girl the most confident smile she could muster—pitiful enough to worry Anne and Ember even further—before slowly sitting down beside Anne, shaking arms weakly wrapping around her.

The gesture was as magical and pleasant as she’d grown to expect from the Gardevoir, but... there was something missing. It’s as if much of her warmth was gone, replaced with a pretense of one, a fake comfort that couldn’t even sustain itself, let alone the fearful girl beside her. Anne responded, concerned, “~I-I’m doing okay, Mrs. Aria. A-are you okay, though? You look tired.~”

“^No no, I’m—I’m doing fine. B-but are you sure you are, Anne? R-really alright?^” Aria’s voice wavered in a way Anne—or Ember for that matter—hadn’t ever heard from her before, the sound putting them on edge.

The human girl was especially unsure of what to do. She’d just answered her; both of them knew on a logical level that she was safe now with the vote being over. “~Yeah! Still need to calm down a-a bit, but I’m really alright. The vote passed, right?~”

“^Yes, it did,^” Cinder confirmed, her words firm and immediate. They provided some well-needed reassurance to Anne while startling Aria even further. The human girl almost gasped at how tight she was held in response to the Delphox’s voice. How shakily.

The Gardevoir insisted, “^B-but is it really over? N-no way it is, we—we have to still be on the lookout...^” Her words didn’t even feel like they were aimed at anyone but herself, muttered and disjointed. It was all as confusing as it was disheartening for Anne—it felt like Aria couldn’t hear her, like something just wasn’t clicking, so unlike her.

Before her worries could grow further, two voices spoke up—one concerned, “M-Mrs. Aria, are you really alright?” and one much more to the point. “^Aria. Please, you’re not doing well right now. You need to take some time off from all this—^”

The moment the Delphox stood up, there was an immediate shift in the room’s atmosphere. Anne might’ve only wished she was psychic, but even she noticed the air turning from uneasy to being an inch from violently exploding from all the tension—and much of it was coming from the Gardevoir she was so worried about. She had no idea what to say; she wasn’t sure she even wanted Aria to be here with her, not like this.

With a deep breath, Cinder realized what was going on and backed off, sitting back down. Not something she knew how to handle, especially not in a situation like this, with children in the room.

Before the pressure could grow even further, though, everyone’s eyes snapped over to the entrance at the sound of linen being slid aside.

“Honey?” Garret asked, his words welcomed by everyone—especially their intended recipient. Anne felt the Gardevoir’s embrace loosen just a bit as the Grimmsnarl approached, eyes going wider and expression slacking a bit more. “Honey, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

As he came to a stop beside the two beds, the calm taps of much shorter steps soon followed, before speeding up at sensing the emotional mess everyone was stewing in. Autumn walked in moments after and levitated herself onto the bed Aria had slept on minutes earlier and taking a seat along its edge. “Aria, are you here with me?” she asked, her voice raised.

Being surrounded by faces she knew she could trust helped a lot, but, to Aria’s dismay, solved nothing by itself. Her heart still pounded, her mind still raced with thoughts it was barely cognizant of. She usually held a much better grip on herself than this, but right now, it all felt... uncontrollable. “^It—it feels like something’s gonna happen again. Like—like it’s still not over, like I’m still back in that tent. I-it just won’t go away. I don’t know h-how to make it stop.^”

The realization of just how much of a mess her mind was didn’t help the Gardevoir much in remaining calm, but at least it let her loved ones know what to do to help her.

Autumn wasted no time before catching her attention with a bit of applied psychics and speaking up, “I get it, sweetie. You put so much of yourself into this entire ordeal, into dealing with the Elders, into keeping us all, and especially Anne, safe. I can only imagine how hard it is to leave that headspace afterwards. It’s really over though, I promise. You deserve the biggest break in the world from having to worry about it all, about Anne.”

As the human in question kept looking at Aria in concern, the Indeedee’s words only brought the Gardevoir more fear. Her hold re-tightened immediately, as she mumbled, “^Wh-what if s-someone steps out of line? What if—what if the Elders come up with something else, and—^”

Before the Gardevoir could wind herself up any further, her words and embrace alike were swiftly cut off by her husband leaning in to pull her into the firmest hug his furry body could manage, individual hairs deftly prying his wife away from the little human. “Shhhhhh... It’s really over honey, please, listen to us...”

Cinder waited until Aria stopped shaking in her husband’s embrace before chiming in once more, “^I’ll be Anne’s ward for the next while. It will be both in your and in her best interest if you take the time to clear your head after everything you’ve been through, Aria. She will be alright.^”

Anne was still overwhelmed at everything going on around her, but realized this was her time to speak up and help her guardian out, to make up for all the care she’d been given. “~Yeah! I-I’ll be alright, Mrs. Aria, promise!~” she reassured, voice as confident as she could manage.

Even all the words combined couldn’t do miracles, but combined with the affection from her husband, they were just about sufficient to break through much of the Gardevoir’s present wound-up anxiety. With each passing moment, her shaking waned before culminating in a weak nod. Less at any single claim in specific, and more so at the overall intent of everyone gathered.

“Let’s get you some more rest, honey. I love you,” the Grimmsnarl whispered, as somber as it was possible for sounds being snarled and growled out to be.

And his wife noticed. As he made his way around the second bed and towards the room’s entrance, Aria’s arms finally reached around him, returning his affection with her own utterly exhausted embrace. “^L-love you too...^”

The room took a collective sigh of relief as Aria and Garret made their way out, shared concern mellowing out as the Gardevoir received the support she so clearly needed. It had all been a nightmare they were only now waking up from; the kind of trauma that left scars despite ending without any casualties.

“Unfortunate. Nobody should have to deal with what you two have gone through—but it’s over now. How are you doing, Anne?” Autumn asked, trying to keep her voice as chipper as she could despite the dourness they had all just witnessed, smiling at the human girl as she sat down beside her. As much as both her words and presence were appreciated by the little human, though, the elderly psychic soon realized that her job here wasn’t yet done.

Anne shook as thoughts she had no control over filled her mind again, her anxiety not unlike Aria’s if so much more vicious in the mental images it slipped to her. As much as she wanted it to be over, it felt like it wasn’t, like it couldn’t be, the precise fear too muddled to really hone in on, but no less potent as a result. It stewed under the girl’s skullcap, each passing moment distilling it further until all Anne could do was shake and try to stave the creeping hyperventilation off.

“A-Anne!? Anne, c-can you hear me? Wh-what’s going on?” Ember asked, panicked, close to freaking out at her friend’s state. She wanted to help, she needed to help, but again and again found herself woefully unable to do anything but watch as her friend got worse.

Even with Aria gone, the atmosphere in the room kept growing tenser by the moment—but the two women present wanted to do everything in their power to ensure it wouldn’t get any worse. Cinder quickly made her way over and sat down on the edge of the bed, away from Anne, holding her daughter close. She wished Ember would be as comfortable in her embrace, in her presence, as she once was. The slight, but perceptible unease in her daughter’s body language was the Delphox’s fault, and she knew she had nobody to blame for herself.

She didn’t know how to help the human out, but she didn’t have to—Autumn was here.


It was the quietest, most gentle clapping sound imaginable, catching Anne’s attention for just long enough to look down at the smaller psychic beside her. As she did, Autumn leaned in and grasped Anne’s hands—or at least her index fingers—in her paws, the sensation as warmly tingly as she’d come to expect with psychics.

Cadence might’ve been taught that manipulating other people’s emotions to forcibly calm them down and make them not afraid was mean, but Autumn knew the actual truth of the matter. It wasn’t mean; it was foolish.

It was the most temporary of band-aids—one that not only lasted for much less than many attempting it hoped for; but also one which then immediately decayed, infecting the emotional wound it was meant to shield and making it incomparably worse.

Which was why Autumn didn’t do it.

Directly interfering in emotions was a fool’s errand, but using one’s mind’s eye to find their source and try addressing that most certainly wasn’t. Having the girl’s attention helped, physical contact helped even more. As she dug into Anne’s panicking mind, the Indeedee slowly rocked her body from side to side, and the girl subconsciously followed. The simplest way there was to carve out some more calmness for oneself, and yet no less effective because of that.

In no time, Anne was just that bit more grounded, and Autumn had a decent idea of what she was dealing with. Ultimately, the girl’s case wasn’t too different from the Gardevoir’s, if more focused on the individual stimuli from the discussion preceding the vote. The growls, hisses, and cries, intimidating in themselves and turned incomparably monstrous by knowing there was malice behind them, malice that wished to take her life for having been born the wrong way.

It might’ve only been behind some of them, but it didn’t even matter—it’d just take one dissatisfied person to take Anne’s life, and the girl was acutely aware of that.

Which was exactly why they were so focused on keeping her safe.

“^Anne?^” Autumn whispered, the telepathic sound worming itself straight into the girl’s mind. “^I know you’re scared, sweetie. I don’t blame you, I can only imagine how terrifying all this undue horror must’ve been for you. But, I want to say, from the very bottom of my life, that you’re safe. Both in your stay here, and from anyone trying to attack you.^”

The girl was so incredibly glad Autumn wasn’t saying these words out loud for everyone to hear. Sure, she doubted that either Ember or Cinder would mind her being afraid of the other denizens of this village, especially after she’d been through, but... a part of her still felt awful for doing so. After all, Autumn was right, she was safe, and here she was, suspecting random innocent mons of wanting to hurt her just because they were mons.

Of course, reality was more nuanced than that, something that the Indeedee didn’t hesitate to clarify, “^Oh Anne, Anne. We both know that fear ain’t all bigotry—and with what you’ve been through, I doubt there’s that much of it in there to begin with. Because, yes, some in our village do harbor ill will towards you. But it’s a much smaller group than you fear,^” she continued. Her words were true, but insufficient—which was why she wasn’t done yet.

“^You’re right, even a single person could hurt you badly, but at that point they’d be signing their own death wish. Cinder will be with you, watching over you, I’ll be here with you, and if anyone lifts even a finger your way, we’ll make sure they’ll never feel it right ever again.^” The description stirred the weakest of giggles in Anne’s mind, the sound as mumbly as it was sorely needed. “^I know my words can only do so much,^” the Indeedee continued, “^there’s no magical solution for what you’re going through—but I’ve learned from experience that these kinds of reassurances add up.^”

There isn’t a cure to a traumatized mind, there never will be.

There isn’t a cure to a broken arm, there never will be.

Manage their symptoms, take care of any occasional flare-ups, and keep them secure from further harm, though, and they’ll slowly heal over time. They will probably never feel exactly the same as they were before, but they’ll be enough to live with.

It was all a lesson Autumn had to learn the hard way over the years, but which she was more than glad to use to help anyone she could. Patience and being willing to manage individual spikes, be they of pain or panic, again and again, was everything, and the Indeedee was immensely relieved to see that she’d assisted Anne in processing this first one after yesterday’s anxious torment.

Bit by bit, the girl’s body unwound; helped greatly by Autumn’s deep breathing, which Anne then involuntarily mirrored. And in; and out.

And in; and out.

You’re safe.

I’m safe.

The gradual shift was palpable to more than just the Indeedee. Once the human girl had cooled off enough, Cinder let her daughter rejoin in by letting go of her, the Braixen picking up on the gesture immediately. And, for once, Anne returned her hug right away, savoring her warmth as she whispered, “~T-thank you, M-Mrs. Autumn...~”

“Anytime, sweetie. Now, better get to all the goodies Holly brought over before they go cold!” the Indeedee giggled, motivated equally by a genuine desire for such wonderfully smelling treats to be enjoyed as much as they could be, and by wanting Anne to further distract herself from all the terrifying thoughts with a tasty meal.

Mostly the former.

The contents of the little bags Holly had left behind looked just as good as they smelled. Two halves of a small, creamy cake, toppled with a few Pecha pieces and more sugar than either girl ate, even back when they still lived with their grandma. For a while, the only sounds filling the room of the healer tent were vigorous chewing and occasional gulps, Anne especially too hungry to even think about stopping her unexpected feast.

Autumn and Cinder never quite saw eye to eye, even before Anne’s arrival and the latter’s cruelty that it had uncovered, but they could at least unite in being happy over both girls doing well. A part of the Indeedee considered the responsibility of looking after Anne for the first few months to be much, much too light a ‘punishment’ for the Delphox considering all that she’d done… but her opinion didn’t matter as long as Ember was happy with the outcome.

And few things made Ember happier than the thought of her best friend being looked after.

The cake each girl was eating a half of might’ve been on the smaller side, but the same was true for the girls themselves—relative to their species, that is. Tried as she might, Ember couldn’t even finish her portion, and Anne only barely managed to finish stuffing herself with hers, before cleaning up everything left after the Braixen.

She was so used to the sensation of hunger she barely even consciously recognized it anymore, but maybe this would be enough to stave it off until sunset, hehe—


As the best friends snuggled into one another in their shared food coma, the shrill, ethereal sound coming from behind them made them scramble to verify if it came from who they thought it did. Indeed, it had.

Sage was shyly observing Autumn from behind her spectral hands, trying to contain her excitement with a timid wave. The Indeedee still had no idea just why did her presence make the little ghost so happy, but it didn’t matter—she was glad to see her, anyway. Without saying a word, she opened her arms for a hug facing Sage; the gesture immediately understood. One uncertain look later—answered with a reassuring nod and a telepathic comment—the Phantump hovered right over, the rough bark of her head pressing itself into the chubby psychic’s fur.

“~G-good morning, Sage!~” Anne joined in with a wave of her own, followed up on by Ember soon after.

It took the younger girl a while to notice, but when she did, she floated over to Anne, waving with both arms as she squealed, “~Hiiiii Anne! You look happy!~”

Inconceivable considering the last twenty-four hours, the thought making Anne giggle a bit, but true all the same. “~Y-yeah! I’ll be staying here for good!~”

Sage took the words in eagerly—before tilting her head, clearly confused. “~I thought you were already gonna stay.~”

Cinder might’ve limited herself to exhaling some hot air through her nose, but others expressed their amusement much more loudly. Anne’s arm outstretched for a hug let Sage know everyone wasn’t laughing at her, but with her.

“~No, no, we—we didn’t know that until yesterday,~” Anne clarified.

Her words were much appreciated, letting the ghostly girl sort her confusion out before presenting something she was happy about, “~Oooooo! Me and Mr. Yaksha will be going today!~”

Sage wasn’t expecting all the amusement to suddenly falter at her saying these words, with nobody present sure what she meant, and all of them worried to various extents. Clearly, she must’ve said something wrong; the thought bringing a fair bit of worry. Before it could grow too much, though, Autumn tried to clear the air, “Oh? Where will you be going, sweetie?”

“~Home! That’s what Mr. Yaksha told me. Mr. Yaksha!~” the Phantump called. Without waiting for a response, she hovered through the nearby wall once more before dragging the Banette with herself, taken aback by it all. She then realized she’d left her wig behind, gasping at the oversight and phasing once more to retrieve it before, at the last moment, remembering re-enter the room through the physical entrance. “~Mr. Yaksha, are we going home today?~”

The follow-up brought some well-needed clarification, letting the Banette go from uncomfortable confusion to slightly-less-uncomfortable ‘having to correct another of many misunderstandings with Sage’. Still far from something he enjoyed, making him stifle a groan before he spoke up, “~I didn’t say we’re going home today, Sage. I just said we’d need to talk more about it today.~

While Sage groaned at her hopes being delayed, Anne realized something else. Sure, either Autumn or Cinder must’ve been providing translation right now, but... her ears were picking up the Banette’s words too. They weren’t just whispers and ghostly wails, and while he was much harder to understand than Sage, both because of the distortion over his voice and the older vocabulary, he was clearly speaking Unovan.

She probably should’ve expected that considering these two had arrived together and could communicate before they got here, but it still took her aback a bit.

“Well... I’m not any more opposed to you two trying to return Sage to her home today than I was yesterday, but the logistic woes remain, don’t they?” Autumn asked. As the lil’ haunting floated back over to her, she continued, “Only a vague direction, no way of asking for directions...”

Off to the side, Cinder was trying her absolute hardest to piece the context of the discussion together from the little she’d just overheard. Obviously something was going on that she wasn’t privy about, the mentions of a nearby ‘home’ that the Phantump wanted to go back to. Was she a human-owned mon that got lost in the woods and was looking for a way back—


Oh, gods.

As unfortunate as Sage’s fate was, Cinder wasn’t any better at sympathizing with dead humans than she was with living ones. Thankfully, she could provide help in other ways, immediately thinking through the situation she was quickly piecing together—and arriving at one immediate conclusion. “^No matter what you settle on, it would likely be best if you put your plan into action today. With Anne’s situation already judged, I imagine you’d want to get out of here before Elders get you in their sights...^”

The Delphox kept her gaze pinned on the entrance to the room, away from the group—only for everyone present to turn towards her in unison at her words. Not something anyone was expecting her to say for multiple reasons, and she wasn’t feeling like justifying herself in depth, settling on a barebones excuse, “^I assume you already know about the risks something like that will pose. Me restating them would bring no help.^”

She only barely managed to force these words through the sheer discomfort that the thought of someone with the knowledge of their village permanently living amongst humans brought her, but the self-inflicted Calm Mind did a good job of keeping it under wraps.

“That is a good point, yes,” the Indeedee acknowledged. “We ought to figure it out as soon as we can... someone that could help figure out the way would be ideal, either by being able to see their whole town from above or by asking humans for help, either a flier or a psychic—I’ve got an idea!” she gasped, turning to Sage as a light switch flipped in her head, “I’ll need to ask Marco about this, I hope he’ll be willing to help.”

Ember nodded as eagerly as she could, leaning around her friend to chime in. “Y-yes! I-I know Mr. Marco will wanna help us! He helped me remember Anne; he’s great!”

As Anne used the opportunity to pull the vixen into a one-armed hug—the gesture immediately returned—Cinder raised a question, “^To... to the best of my knowledge, he’s still recovering after I… attacked him a few days ago. If Sage here needs a psychic to help her out, why not you, Autumn, or myself if someone can look after Anne in the meantime?^”

The Delphox tried to keep herself from reeling under the Anne’s shocked look at hearing that, and managed—if barely. She focused on what Autumn’s response would be; the Indeedee chewing through both other options. Unfortunately, both of them suffered from the same issue. “I imagine it’d be much easier for Marco to look like another human for when he has to talk to them for directions. I’m too small, and you’re too... fluffy.”

“^Considering we’ll need to either obscure or fully disguise ourselves for this task, I don’t see size making much difference,^” Cinder argued, raising a single eyebrow at the Indeedee.

Only for it to fall back down as the smaller psychic clarified, “That’s the thing, maybe we won’t have to!” Autumn grinned, walking around the bed towards the Delphox. “I know Marco hasn’t fully recovered, but with his human shape, I’m thinking that we could use some of the human clothes Aria and Lumi brought over so that we can cover most of him, and then he’d only have to disguise his face and hands, and maybe feet. Much easier than keeping himself fully obscured, ain’t it?”

Not something Cinder could deny, nodding slowly as she brought up another point, “^Though that would leave him visible, and able to be spotted if his disguise slips.^”

“Truuuue, but I imagine that the cover of dark will make it harder for humans to spot any slip-ups. Besides, with Sage and Yaksha beside him, it’ll probably be best if he is visible, just so that other humans think they are ‘his’ mons and not wild ones.”

Yaksha grumbled under his breath at being referred to as someone’s mon, even if for the sake of illustration. That aside, Autumn was making sense, and now the ball was back in the tall Fire-type’s court to refute—which she couldn’t. “^Hmm. That sounds like a good idea, yes. It will be a perilous undertaking even then, I reckon,^” Cinder sighed, shuddering at the thought of everything that could go wrong.

“Not gonna disagree,” Autumn admitted, “but, after all, certainty is a luxury rarely granted. He’s gonna be alright.”

Before she could get into any more pondering, one obvious hitch presented itself—one they could all take care of there and then. “But but but, I’m going off here talking about him like he’s gonna follow along without questions. Have to bring this up to him, and hope he won’t rebuff us at the idea. Which meansssss~”

Autumn turned away from Cinder and back towards the human of the group, skipping before her and asking with all the eagerness and excitement she could muster out of her elderly voice,

“Do you feel like going for a walk with us, Anne?”

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Chapter 31: Curiosity

Chapter 31: Curiosity

The idea of heading outside was as exciting as it was worrisome.

Even putting the purely logistical issues aside—Anne felt a bit better than yesterday evening, but doubted she was strong enough to walk unassisted—she was still unsure about some things. Her brief walk alongside Aria was more terrifying than either of them could’ve predicted, for many reasons. Some of them obvious, some… much less so.

Would she still be so terrified of the passersby in the daylight? Would the self-consciousness about being seen to be afraid of them without a good reason immediately start pummeling her? Would she make an embarrassing spectacle of herself because of difficulties walking?

Neither Anne nor anyone else had any answers to these questions.

Either way, she lived here now, and would have to go outside, eventually. Her current company was the best she could’ve asked for in these uncertain conditions. It was just a matter of gathering the courage, pushing through these worries, and daring to venture into the vast unknown beyond these four-ish walls she’d spent the past few days in.

Said action took about fifteen seconds of consideration, but they were some of the more intense fifteen seconds in Anne’s life.

With that settled, Anne began her slow routine of preparing to brave the outside, a more awkward one than she’d expected it to be. Sure, Autumn had her shawl, but that was a matter of moments as opposed to the minutes it took the human girl to slide into everything needed.

Especially without help, which would’ve made it all ten times more uncomfortable.

Thin, but still-holeless socks, muddied shoes, reasonably thick jeans, an old sweater she got from grandma Lisa and stretched so much over the years she still fit it. A jacket would’ve been a good idea too, but her current one had the double issue of being stashed somewhere else in the village, and being soaked in blood.

They’d all have to learn how to clean Anne’s array of clothes eventually, ha.

But that was then, and now the sweater was perfectly sufficient—especially when combined with Ember refusing to let go of her and Autumn’s Safeguard. Finally, after some of the most self-conscious few minutes of her life, Anne was ready to head out.

And the village hidden in the Unovan woods greeted her with snow and interesting architecture.

She wasn’t ever the one to pay a lot of attention to buildings, but it was hard not to notice the sheer diversity of shapes and materials on display here. Canvas, logs, thick planks reinforced with tar, stones, fired bricks—even dirt and mud; the snow capping the diligently kept mounds left them hard to spot at a glance.

Almost all of them were quite a bit smaller than any houses in Mylock, but she supposed it made sense—they had to hide from humanity, after all.


And they probably didn’t have that much stuff that needed to be stored...

The thought stung, snapping Anne back to her surroundings as Ember held her good arm that bit tighter. No matter how much she wanted to, she couldn’t run from the reality of the villagers’ opinion of her forever. Grabbing the Braixen’s paw, the human took a deep breath as their group turned around the corner, ready to face the leers and snarls ahead—

And finding... curiosity.

Granted, she wasn’t a body language expert even for humans, let alone for the over dozen species in eyeshot, but she couldn’t spot anything that felt threatening. There were some wary looks, sure. A few passersby looked away from her; a couple glared at her for a split second before noticing her company—but nothing more than that.

Which didn’t help as much as Anne hoped it would.

The awareness of not knowing what a threat display would even look like refused to be shaken off, undermining any relief trying to form in her mind. A part of her clung to it with all its strength, not wanting to let go of it, of the familiar fear tied to it. Not now, not ever. Alas, she didn’t have the privilege of being able to spend her life without ever facing her fears.

The realization sparked just enough courage for her to up her pace a bit, and the rest of the group followed suit. Whether this confidence was a pretense that would fizzle the moment it was needed, not even she knew.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Anne that had to be reassured the most.

The quiet whimpers coming from her left clued her to Sage’s uncertainty—as did the ghostie retreating into the well-worn fabric of her sweater. With her broken arm kept underneath that topmost layer, she couldn’t physically comfort the younger girl—aside from talking to her, that is. “~Are you okay, Sage?~” she asked.

The Phantump jumped at the sound before redoubling her cuddling efforts, her voice wavering, “~Y-yeah...~”

“~You sound quite scared.~”

While Sage didn’t react to Anne acknowledging the obvious, Yaksha did. Without waiting for elaboration, the Banette caught up with the two girls and checked up on the lil’ ghost, before sighing in relief at her being unharmed. As he gathered words, Anne glanced over her shoulder—and spotted nobody following them. Hadn’t Cinder left together with them all?

~Sage, did something happen?~” the Banette asked intently, trying and failing to pry his ward away from the human’s comforting presence.

The ghostie tried to shake her head with as much confidence as she was capable of, only for each motion to grow more and more hesitant, anyway. “~It’s scary here,~” she whimpered. “~When can we go home, Mr. Yaksha?~”

The pleading in her squeaky, ethereal voice was both hard to miss and even harder to respond to in a way that wouldn’t upset her more. “~I told you, Sage, we’re planning to do that later today. As... Autumn said, we will need help, and we’re walking to ask a local for said help,~” Yaksha explained. Despite his best effort to keep his exasperation under control, some of it still spilled out to his chagrin.

“Yeah! Don’t worry Sage, Mr. Marco will help you both out very soon!” Ember cheered, excited.

While her words wouldn’t have helped much by itself, the vixen accompanied them with pulling Sage into a small hug, her warmth calming the young girl down. Once she felt a bit better, Sage squeaked out, “~O-okay. Thank you...~”

As the Phantump warmed up and the Banette stifled his bitter murmurs at being unable to help the girl yet again, Anne brought up an obvious-in-hindsight question. Sure, she didn’t know what the villagers thought of her, but someone else did—someone walking just a few feet ahead of them, even. “~Mrs. Autumn?~”

The girl swore she saw the Psychic-type’s horns perk up a bit as she caught her attention. She didn’t have the time to consider the implications of that observation as the Indeedee turned around and responded with a smile, “^Yes, Anne? Doing alright, sweetie?^”

Either binary answer would’ve been at least a partial lie. And so; Anne dodged the question, instead asking, “~I-I wanted to ask. How did everyone... r-react to me staying? I know it was quite late last evening when that whole discussion happened...~”

Every word drained the girl of more and more confidence she kept trying to stuff herself with. Before the earlier worries could strike back, though, Autumn reassured her, “^Rather well from what I picked up on this morning. Sure, there were some disgruntled voices, but we could find a wellspring of honey and wine and there would still be complainers. Nothing that hasn’t happened before, don’t you worry Anne.^”

It was right about the response Anne’s rational part expected, and having it be spoken by someone else helped keep her nerves from getting the better of her again. Much to her surprise, though, Autumn wasn’t done yet. “^Though in all truth, most people’s thoughts seemed and still seem more focused on what Marco brought up at the vote, about us having to relocate eventually.^”

The sudden swerve in the discussion took Anne and Ember aback, especially with such a heavy and worrisome topic. The Braixen didn’t remember hearing about it yesterday. Then again, the only thing her tired mind could focus on last evening was keeping tabs on her human’s wellbeing. She asked, confused, “Wh-why would we have to move, Autumn? A-aren’t we safe here? A-and there’s a lot of food...”

The Indeedee gave the Braixen a small smile as she tried to reason with the very uncomfortable reality. For once, it was her turn to cling to her human instead of the other way around as the Indeedee responded, her words shocking both girls, “^It’s not because of that sweetie, it’s because the humans are making maps from the sky, and those maps have already seen us.^”

Autumn wasn’t entirely sure about her explanation, most of it lifted straight from Marco who himself only had a partial understanding of it at best. As Ember struggled to make any sense of it, the Indeedee looked to Anne, hoping that her knowledge of human stuff would help translate that abstract description into something more concrete for them all.

Which... it didn’t, not initially. Anne struggled with parsing the explanation more than either she or the Indeedee expected. They both knew that if anyone of their group could understand what Marco was referring to, it was her. And yet it just wasn’t—



Maps from the sky.

Photos from the sky.

Oh shit.

The human girl’s timidness only made the inward expletive hit harder for the psychic. It confirmed at least one part of this worrisome enigma—Marco wasn’t exaggerating; this was serious.

“~I-I think I know what that means, and if it is what—what I think it is, then that is scary, yes.~”

Anne couldn’t identify with the village enough to grow as subconsciously mortified at that knowledge as others—not yet. That didn’t make it any less scary at a purely intellectual level, though. Her confirmation made the Braixen beside her shake even harder and cling to her human.

“^Don’t you worry, Ember,^” Autumn chimed. “^We’re already slowly planning our move; we’ll do everything we can to remain safe. I won’t deny, it’ll be a difficult time for us all, but better to migrate voluntarily while we still can than be forced to run when we least expect it.^”

The Indeedee’s smile did wonders in melting the vixen’s worries, her shaking easing as her one-eyed gaze alternated between the fellow psychic and her best friend. Once she felt a bit calmer, she responded, “O-okay, thank you, Autumn... wh-when will we have to leave?”

Even with the immediate terror gone, nerves remained, the kind only time could ever help with. And for better or worse, time was something they still had plenty of. Autumn explained, “^Oh, nowhere soon sweetie. Last I heard, even just planning it all will be a multi-Moon undertaking. The last thing we wanna do is to leave only to run face-first into more danger, after all. Either way, not something for you two to fret about. We can handle it, alright?^”

It was much easier for Ember to settle her worries about that topic than for Anne, and even the vixen couldn’t help but fret. Ultimately, Autumn was right—the Braixen trusted her fellow villagers, especially the adults, to keep them all safe.

Something Anne had immense difficulties with. Little she could do about it at the moment though, trying to distract herself away from the unpleasant topic. Once more, she dared to look around, this time deliberately skipping faces or anything else that might inspire further doubt.

They were looking for Marco, might as well try to play the game of “Spot the Gallade”.

The next few minutes were spent in silence as everyone’s nerves cooled off at varying speeds. Whereas the melodic, almost singing-like noises they heard in the distance made Ember relax—the Braixen even trying to hum along with them for a moment—they only brought further discomfort to Sage by being so loud and so very inhuman, and provided more fuel for thought for Anne.

She hadn’t made any serious attempts to listen to the village’s language yet, immediately discarding that entire idea as infeasible. And yet, she’d have to learn it eventually anyway—it or another way of communicating with the villagers. How she would do that, she had no idea—but again, maybe Autumn did?

“^Yes I do, sweetie~,^” the Indeedee giggled. “^Well, as far as just our, or I guess more accurately Orion’s language goes, it’s focused much more on tones and cadence than it is on the actual sounds being made. Not everyone knows how to trill, but almost everyone can make something similar to it, for example. Add the changes in pitch, space it out the right way, and voilà—completely different species can suddenly talk! After a few months of learning and many years of practice, of course, but it’s so much better than not having that, believe me.^”

Anne wasn’t sure which took her aback more—Autumn chiming in so abruptly, or her brief linguistic explanation. It didn’t make anywhere near as much sense as the girl wished it had, but the gist was straightforward. They were all using the same language, and there was a way for her to learn it.

And if it was generous enough with pronunciation to allow both Torkoal and Decidueye to speak it, then her getting the hang of it was only a matter of time. She hoped. She really, really hoped.

“Doncha worry, sweetie. Once you settle in, you’ll probably be attending the nursery together with Bell for a while—Jovan and Pearl will get you talking in no time!” Autumn reassured. Her switch away from telepathy and to ‘just’ telepathically translated speech took Anne aback for a moment, but she appreciated it all the same.

Even if she was much too overstimulated to try breaking the squeaked, hummed, and growled utterances down into their individual components.

The Indeedee wasn’t done yet, giggling, “Oh goodness, just the mental image... all the little ones listening in and then you beside them, taller than even their teachers, teehee...” Any attempts at keeping her composure soon faded as one burst of giggles gave way to another, until the chubby psychic had to cover her mouth with her paw.

Ember wasn’t far behind in that regard—and for once, neither was Anne. There was some anxiety about sticking out from a group like that and earning undue attention as a result, but hopefully, the height difference would shrink a lot once she sat down. And besides, her chat with Pearl the previous evening was nothing if not pleasant. It would be alright—


The harsh sound echoed from around the corner, hitting the entire party differently. Autumn and Ember barely acknowledged it, only coming to a stop once they noticed Anne had frozen mid-step. Sage fared a little better than the living girl, dashing to hide behind her older friend.

A moment later, Yaksha stood in front of the group, shadowy hands clenching in anticipation of having to put himself on the line for the Phantump. Before Autumn could have a chuckle at his expense for overreacting, the hauntling aired the question that was on half the group’s mind, “~What was that?~”

“I have a good guess—yep, it’s these two.”

Autumn’s mid-sentence shift made everyone look toward where the sound came from—though the sight of a Scizor walking from around the corner and dragging a massive, half-broken metal contraption would’ve done the same even without her nudge. Another Steel-type followed him moments later; the Mawile making up for their much smaller stature through constant, audible grumbling. Their frustration was obvious despite the language barrier—but that didn’t extend to the sounds they made once they glanced at Anne.

Before anyone could react, the bleeding knee-high fairy made a beeline for the human; Anne’s mind only avoided jumping to the ‘flight’ option because of being was stuck on ‘freeze’. A few moments later, more of Mawile’s noises—growls, clicks, even whistles, but with no meaning to back any of it up. Thankfully, the Indeedee soon noticed she’d forgotten to link the tinkerer menace to their group—and understanding soon followed.

Or at least, as much understanding as anyone could’ve ever extracted out of Mikiri. “Human! How is that thing supposed to stop?”

Anne’s terrified brain took a moment to realize she’d actually heard coherent words this time, and even longer to parse them. Not a threat, just a question. A question about ‘that thing’, whatever it was—wait, the bike? “~U-uh... d-do you mean the bike?~” Anne asked, daring to relax her body a bit as she eyed over the... peculiar-looking bicycle a few meters away, the Scizor carrying it wordlessly observing the entire exchange from a distance.

The Mawile answered, “Yes, the two-wheel! How is it supposed to stop?” The steady trickle of rust-colored blood down her face wasn’t as terrifying with their intentions not having anything to do with her, but the sight remained unnerving.

Not a question Anne ever expected to be asked, especially not in a place like this—but one she, for once, knew an answer to. “~O-oh, there’s supposed to be—~” she began, only for her attempted explanation to becut off by the bloodied Mawile turning around and dragging the damaged contraption in question over, making valiant progress despite her underwhelming stature.

And letting the human girl notice all the parts that had been attached to it through more or less scuffed means. Certain parts were wrapped with wire, a few rust-covered pieces of metal were welded to the steering column, and an assortment of junk was tangled in the spokes of the front wheel in ways that felt at best too intelligent for her feeble mind to understand, and at worst, like the machinations of a meth head.

Anne had a very hard time deciding which of these two groups the Mawile before her reminded her more of.

“Where? Where’s the thing that’s supposed to stop it!?” The Fairy-type asked, her gaze jumping all over before she spotted Anne’s good hand. It was pointing towards the front of the vehicle while trying its absolute hardest to not come closer to the Mawile than it absolutely had to. “This?”

The entire once-bicycle creaking like it was about to fall apart after the little two-faced creature shook it by the steering handle sure didn’t inspire much confidence in Anne. “~No, there’s the small lever to the side—~”

Before she could even finish, the tinkerer before her had spotted the mechanical part in question and pressed on it. After that accomplished nothing, they then repeated that with one hand while trying to spin the front wheel with the other one—which it did freely.

Anne gulped at the realization, once more having to fight an impulse to back off. Shoot, shoot, shoot, why did that not work? The brakes must’ve been broken, but that’s not what the girl was worried about. She’d just given them advice, and it didn’t work at all. Didn’t matter that she wasn’t knowingly lying; the Mawile wouldn’t appreciate her words turning out false—

“Okay, so this is the broken part, then. There’s this cable that goes down down down and some of it is dangling from this bit beside the wheel, but they’re not connected and should be. Gotta untie all that and take a better look at what goes on in there...” the Mawile muttered. For a few long moments, the entire world, aside from the roughly bike-shaped pile of assorted junk, ceased to exist for her. It was only Autumn’s mental nudge that brought her back to awareness of her immediate surroundings—a scared human, an unamused Indeedee, an even more unamused Scizor, a curious Phantump, a disgruntled Banette, and a confused Braixen.

Oh right, that first one was still there—and would be staying here; that’s what the entire hubbub yesterday was about. Mikiri figured it’d be appropriate to say something, then, “Iiiiii will take a closer look at that in my workshop. And you...” she turned to face the human beside her, their eyes growing that bit wider, “...thanks. Glad that you’re staying, knew the Elders were just making a show of nothing. Anywho, there’s a bunch of your stuff still at my burrow if you want it back—OH!”

After the Mawile had changed the subject three separate times in thirty seconds, Anne was left too stunned to do anything but stand and stare, hoping she hadn’t unknowingly made a gaffe. Thankfully for her, the words that followed weren’t about anything like that.

Unfortunately, they weren’t about anything she was comfortable answering, either. “That two-wheel of yours is also at my burrow, fixed the wheel if you’ll be needing it—willyoubeneedingit?” the Mawile asked with a glint in her eye, the final few words smeared together to the point of nigh-incomprehension despite Autumn’s help. Just what kind of glint it was, though, Anne had no idea nor any desire to find out.

There also remained... another issue. “~Th-thank you! B-but, that’s not my bike, I... took it when running away—~” Anne stammered, worrying about being judged for what was technically grand theft—only for the metal fairy to neither notice nor care about that.

“But will you be needing it?”

Off to the side, Autumn and Ori facepalmed in perfect sync, the clunk of the latter echoing throughout the small intersection.

“~I-I don’t think so—~”

“Perfect! Thanks again! Time to get a move on Ori, got the brakes to fix! There’s this small metal wire inside this black stretchy casing on both ends; I’m wondering if just welding it the normal way will work or will we—thump

Before the Mawile could get further than about four steps toward her burrow, she fell face-first into the snow without as much as another word. For a few moments, everyone waited for her to pull off yet more wild antics, most onlookers backing off just in case. And yet, Mikiri remained immobile for once in her life.

Once Autumn checked what was going on with her other senses... yeah, it wasn’t hard to see why. “She fainted.”

The Indeedee had to use utmost willpower to not chuckle as she said these words. Even then, she didn’t manage to maintain her seriousness for much longer, especially once Ori dashed over to pick up his partner in crime and rush her to the healers’ tent, leaving the mockery of a bicycle where it lay and letting it gather even more rust.

Hers was hardly a unique reaction, laughter of all sorts filling the scene soon after. That didn’t extend to Sage and especially not Anne, the latter much more worried than amused. “~Wh-what happened to her?~”

“If I had to guess, blood loss. Doubt there’s a ton of it in her to begin with, and this is hardly the only time in the past few days she got herself messed up without resting nearly as much as she should’ve. Won’t say that she deserved it or anything of that sort, but... she kinda brought it on herself,” the Indeedee chuckled, tilting her head for the group to resume its trek.

“~She looked like she needed a doctor.~”

Neither Autumn nor Anne could resist smiling at the Phantump’s wording. The former explained, “Oh, she does, Sage, for so many reasons. But when the bits of genius within her crawl out of... everything else inside her, it’s something else alright.”

The older girl was especially glad that Sage still had that innocence to her, despite having gone through so much pain. And with them getting going and the ghostie on her mind, her thoughts veered back to the undertaking discussed back at the healers’ tent.

“~E-excited about going back to your home, Sage?~” Anne asked, maintaining the upbeat tone for exactly long enough to finish saying that sentence out loud, and not an instant longer—not at what her mind had to say to the idea of a reunion like that.

She wasn’t the only one with concerns about it all, but the ones Sage had in mind weren’t... the same as Anne’s. “~Yeah! I really wanna see my mom again, and say sorry for scaring her like this...~”

Without taking another step, Autumn dropped everything she was thinking about and turned to comfort the undead girl, with Anne and Ember following soon after. Sage wasn’t feeling bad enough to warrant that, leaving her a bit confused. But hugs were hugs, and she liked hugs! So all was well.

“None of what happened was your fault, Sage, I promise,” Autumn sad, looking the Phantump straight in the eyes. This was a worry nobody ought to ever have to deal with, especially not a child this young and innocent.

Anne wanted to chime in, too.

Sage deserved all the reassurance in the world, to be comforted about the worry she’d raised. No, her mom wouldn’t be mad at her for scaring her, obviously not. Anne wanted to go further, to reassure the girl that her mom wouldn’t mind her daughter for looking like this now either, but... she couldn’t.

The thought felt like her mind had been bitten by a poisonous mon, worry and doubt spreading through her brain with each heartbeat. She wished that Sage’s parents would accept their daughter with all their hearts, but she didn’t have that confidence. If anything, she had its exact opposite—she had a hard time imagining a human in the situation of Sage’s parents not growing furious or horrified at some random ghost claiming to be their dead child.

Anne hadn’t ever heard anything about humans coming back as ghosts.

Other mons sure—but all her biology classes always excluded humans specifically. She now knew that it wasn’t true, and that humans weren’t special in that regard, but most people didn’t. Hell, even if the Phantump’s parents did know that, trying to imagine their reaction to a ghost approaching them with what sounded like the world’s most cruel taunt made Anne shudder.

It was too terrifying to think about, and she had no idea what to say.

She couldn’t have been the only one struggling with these doubts, right? And yet, nobody else had mentioned anything about them—not Autumn, not Yaksha, not Cinder. She wanted to bring them up, but didn’t know when. Ideally when Sage wasn’t paying attention—but, then again, wasn’t that the worst possible time for a truth bomb like that? Didn’t Sage deserve to know what she was getting into?

The uncomfortable, harrowing thoughts churned inside Anne’s mind as the group marched on, trying their hardest to find a way out and yet being unable to. She was sure that if she thought about Autumn intensely enough, she’d have picked up on it, but she didn’t want the Phantump to notice—at least not now.

What an awful mess.

The muck inside her head made it hard to pay attention to anything outside her head, leaving Anne to just walk on autopilot. Her eyes took in the imposing brick building of Holly’s pantry, the large open tent that quite a few children were sleeping under, but the imagery didn’t sink into her mind; too busy spinning in place.

She wasn’t sure when they had all changed their course to another of the closed tents, but the sweet herbal scents emanating from it were pleasant enough to snag at least some of Anne’s attention—especially when combined with what sounded like Marco’s voice coming from the inside.

Once they all stepped in, Autumn and Ember exchanged a few waves with the assorted mons sitting on the benches as the Gallade turned to face them all, surprised at the impromptu visit. Beside Marco sat an oddly purplish Wigglytuff—and it was he who spoke first, “Good morning everyone! It is a joy to see you all doing well, especially you, An... Anna—”

“^Anne,^” the Gallade added telepathically, his physical mouth sipping on hot tea.

“Yes, Anne, my apologies! I hope you’ll attend my and Pearl’s classes sooner rather than later. We already put in some thought about how to make sure you’d be able to learn with the others without any incidents.” The green-eyed Normal-type stressed his words with a polite bow, missed on behalf of Anne’s mind having gotten stuck on imagining the implications of the word ‘incident’.

With the human girl preoccupied, Autumn responded for her, “Yep, I’m sure she’ll be speaking our language in no time! That’s not why I hunted you both down, though~.” The appreciation in Autumn’s voice gave way to focus as she shifted her gaze from her coworker to her son-in-law.

Marco’s eyebrow lifted at the sudden change as he asked, “^What’s the matter?^”

With one deep breath to gather her words, and another one to keep the harrowing emotions associated with Sage’s flashback at bay, the Indeedee explained, “Marco, meet Sage. Sage, meet Marco.” She lifted a paw toward the lil’ hauntling, catching her attention and prompting her to wave at the tall psychic.

“~Hello Mr. Marco!~” the Phantump squeaked, glad to meet another non-scary person. Even more so if said person would help her get back home.

The Gallade wasn’t as eager, not with how oblique his mother-in-law was being, but he figured that saying hi to a little girl wouldn’t hurt. “^Good morning, Sage. It’s nice to meet you.^”

Neither of the two expected the lil’ ghost to reel back at hearing his voice, especially when accompanied by the very clear sensation of fear. It wasn’t that intense and only lasted for as long as Marco spoke, but it was still there, and it was still enough to discourage both of them from directly talking to each other any further.

As much as Autumn wanted to interrupt her own discussion plan and delve into figuring out what was wrong, she knew this was more important. “Anyway—Sage here is... was a human. I’ll spare her the exact recollection, but she is the ghost of a human.”

Even when trying to be as clinical as possible, she was well aware that this direct description was more than harrowing enough to upset the little ghost again, making the Indeedee glance over at her to see if she needed that extra support. The answer was yes—but Anne and Ember were already on top of it, smothering the wooden ghost in as much comfort and warmth as they were capable of.

Jovan gasped, “I am so terribly sorry to hear.” He covered his mouth with a paw, trying his best to hold back tears. Some of them still leaked at the thought of the little undead girl having friends to look after her as she processed her unfortunate fate.

Best the Indeedee could do was get it all over with sooner. “Yes, it is a sad situation. I mentioned all this because Sage wishes to eventually return to humanity, and with Aria not doing well today, I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to help her out, Marco.”

Autumn stared at the Gallade with all the seriousness and composure she was capable of, the attitude so unlike her it left the other psychic somewhat unnerved. Thankfully, it was one of those inquiries with a very simple answer—

“That is quite a curious difference between you two,” Jovan commented, derailing the trains of thought of everyone gathered and drawing enough attention to him to melt Anne instantly were it aimed at her. Attention that the Wigglytuff cherished, smiling at having raised what he hoped to be an interesting tangent as he continued, “Little Sage here—Phantump in body, yet human in spirit, and yearns for others like her. And Anne, an inversion—human to the eye, yet desired to stay with us, almost as opposite from living with humans as can be.”

The impromptu tangent left the onlookers more stunned than impressed, eroding Jovan’s confidence in his point by the moment. Alas, it was the inevitable outcome of many a philosophizing, and he wasn’t a stranger to making a joke of himself either. “Of course, that’s just a single, surface-level observation. I can only extrapolate so much out of your circumstances. Either way, it is best I go back to the nursery. The little ones will be waking up from their naps anytime now, and I don’t want to leave Pearl taking care of them all!”

With an undeservedly jovial chuckle, the Wigglytuff hopped off his seat and started floating his way toward the exit of the tea shop. Right before he left, though, he turned around one more time to say his goodbyes, “Hope to see you all soon! Especially you, Anne. I’m very curious to hear how our language will sound being spoken by a human.”

Probably like gibberish, but as long as others could understand it, Anne didn’t mind. “~Th-thank you, Mr. Jovan,~” she said—only for the Fairy-type to stop in his tracks at her boilerplate response.

She leaned away a bit as Jovan processed what he’d heard—before eventually responding with the most elated voice many gathered have ever heard him use, “Oh, you will make for a beautiful singing voice! If you desire that, of course! Now, now, off I go before I get distracted again, ha!”

As most of the group blinked the unexpected tangent away and Autumn rubbed her temples at the Wigglytuff’s... insensitive remark, Anne felt dread shoot through her at the mere mention of singing. Hell, even speaking didn’t come easy to her. The thought of making an entire spectacle out of herself and deliberately catching everyone’s attention with her voice was nothing short of nightmare fuel—nightmare fuel that Ember’s warmth burned through in an instant.

“So~, how does that sound, Marco?” Autumn asked, snapping the group’s focus back to the discussion at hand.

The Gallade’s answer hadn’t gotten any more complex in the few minutes after he was cut off—if anything, the delay had only made him even more confident. “^Yes, of course I will. What would you have in mind, Autumn?^” He asked, pushing his unfinished cup to the side as he leaned in, keen on discussing the details.

A part of him knew he shouldn’t have been so eager to jump into Autumn’s plan right away, especially not while recovering from injury and an entire strenuous day yesterday. All that could wait, though. He could help. He wanted to help, help in more ways than just accidentally stumbling on some important information while being distrustful of his sister.

Autumn beckoned Yaksha closer from the back of the group as she walked up to Marco’s bench, leaving the trio of kids standing off to the side. The specifics of her plan were... messy and uncertain, and best kept for telepathy. “^What we had in mind was you escorting Sage and Yaksha into the human town on the other side of the forest, where Sage’s family lives. They’ll need someone who can ask for directions from the humans, and you look much closer to a human than either myself or Cinder.^”

That... was more involved than what Marco thought it’d be. He didn’t respond immediately, instead chewing through the situation and how it was likely to play out. Concern after concern arose, none of them too difficult to notice, even from a cursory thought.

Fortunately, they were just the worries that Autumn had already gone through earlier, and she was keen to get Marco up to speed. She spoke up again before he could put audible thoughts to the inaudible ones, “^Yes, having ghosts walking in their town will draw attention and unrest—that’s why we want you to disguise yourself as a human so that other humans think they’re ‘your’ mons. Among the clothes Aria brought from that friend of Anne a few days back is a large outer garment that should obscure most of you, which ought to be enough if you go out at night and stick to less-used paths. There are risks of you becoming spotted, but since it’s not the town where Anne escaped from, it shouldn’t cause any issues even in that worst case.^”

Autumn felt a bit guilty as she watched Marco’s expression flatten with her every word, uncertain what was causing it.

For a while, he worried the Indeedee had already come up with every single concern he had in mind—but there just so happened to be one still unaccounted for, reassuring him about not being as dim as he feared he was. He asked, “^How do you envision I ‘ask for directions’? Wouldn’t that be suspicious by itself?^”

“~Hardly. Just pose as a tourist and nobody will be any wiser,~” Yaksha commented offhandedly, most of his attention still focused on watching over Sage.

While Autumn and Marco decoded what ‘tourist’ meant from the Banette’s thoughts, Anne took it upon herself to try broaching the unpleasant topic she had thought about earlier. The adults were already talking quietly amongst themselves; she’d just have to pull Sage away so that she wouldn’t overhear. Which...

“~Ember?~” Anne shook her friend’s shoulder as she spoke, her uncertain yet focused expression eliciting much the same one from the Braixen. “~Could you distract Sage for a while? I-I wanna talk to the rest about something... serious.~”

The firefox listened intently before nodding as firmly as she could manage. Opportunities to help her best friend had always been few and far between, and she wouldn’t waste this one, no matter how minor it was. “Of course!” she woofed. “J-just out of earshot?”

Before the human girl could even respond, the Braixen was already ushering the Phantump over to the tea corner’s counter, telepathically talking to her about something Anne couldn’t pick up on. With a muttered ‘thank you’, she turned back to the rest of the group and approached, her expression interrupting their mostly silent exchange before she even spoke up.

“^What’s wrong, Anne?^” Autumn asked, trying to give the girl the largest and warmest smile she could muster—only for it to immediately falter upon hearing what she had to say.

“~A-are you sure Sage’s parents will take her back in?~”​

The trio’s expressions were all shocked, to wildly varying extents. Autumn was taken aback somewhat, chewing through what she thought on and hoped about all this, the mental efforts culminating with a sigh. Marco stared at Anne wide-eyed, cursing himself for not bringing up this straightforward yet crucial question earlier.

Yaksha... lowered his head and closed his eyes.

“^Well, obviously we can’t be certain, Anne, but... I was quite hopeful with how convinced Sage and Yaksha were about it, though now the more I think about it...^” the Indeedee whispered, shuddering as she imagined first the worst possible outcome, and then the most likely one—and feared at how similar they were.

Beside her, Marco remained silent, not having anything to add for himself but unspoken self-loathing, overlooked in the tense discussion.

After a few tense moments, Yaksha let out a quiet groan and stared up at Anne—before wincing and directing his increasingly furious glare downwards, as if trying to sear through the dirt beneath them. “~She deserves closure. Humans are,~” he cut himself off, angling his body even further away from Anne as he continued, “~most humans are wretches. Of course, they won’t take their child back in after a change like that, I’m not pretending they will.~

Anne raised her voice as she asked, expression narrowing, “~Then why lead Sage on?~”

“~So that she’ll stop thinking about it. Once she sees it for herself, sees that there’s no coming back, she’ll finally let go of that idea. And then... we might stay here if she wants. Or somewhere else...~” Yaksha muttered. As snarled as his words were, there was a hesitation in them that Anne wasn’t sure how to interpret. Was this something he genuinely thought, or something he came up with on the spot to mask him not having considered that before?

Ultimately, it didn’t matter—it was reprehensible either way.

Against her better judgment, Anne took half a step closer to the ghost, anger flashing on her face as she spoke, “~Why don’t you just tell her that!?~”

“~She won’t listen, she never has!~” The Banette raised his voice at the overt disapproval of his actions, the gaze of his pink eyes piercing straight through the human. As wound up as the girl had gotten on this topic, she didn’t have nearly the mental fortitude to endure that, looking away in fear moments later.

Marco knew he couldn’t help much, but he at least could chime in with a distraction. “^It is best we all take a breath. This is a tense subject, yes, but I see Yaksha’s point. Sage will need to see the truth, as scary and disappointing as it might be. I... I get the allure of wanting to run from something as terrifying as that. I really do. I was in a similar situation yesterday, and so much of me wanted to not face the harrowing truth and instead do horrible actions I would’ve regretted just to be spared that fear. I only pushed through and overcame that barrier at the last moment.^”

The Gallade looked down at the makeshift table before him, his entire body shaking as he thought back to his confrontation with Olive and continued, “^The awareness that any other day I might’ve done a horrible thing is... haunting. I did the right thing in the end, I’m sure of that, and I hope that we’ll get the most out of the knowledge I brought with me when it comes to finding a safer location to live.^”

As good as it felt to get baggage this heavy out of his chest, Anne’s expression remained confused, making him paraphrase it. “^We all have to face the truth and not run from it Anne, even when it hurts.^”

Now that was something Anne could acknowledge—and then turn around, right back at the trio of adults. “~B-But isn’t goading Sage on and not being upfront with her about her family not taking her back exactly this kind of running from the truth?~” she asked, leaning in, heart hammering at the tense discussion. She didn’t want to be arguing about any of this; she wanted to live in a fairytale world where those insane dreams could come true and where the unfortunate ghost girl could rejoin her family as if nothing had happened—but she didn’t.

None of them did.

“^But is that the truth?^” Autumn chimed in after a few moments of pondering, deflating Anne.

The girl didn’t have the strength to argue, not with her words repeatedly falling on what felt like deaf ears. There was no point in continuing this conversation, not with the other side so oblivious—willingly or not—to her main point. Whether it was them being obstinate or her just not getting something, she didn’t know. It sure felt like the former, though.

With a weak nod, she turned around and headed over to Ember and Sage. Autumn’s and Marco’s worried gazes lingered on her for a while before the trio returned to their mostly silent conversation, getting another dejected sigh out of the human.

It felt like the adults were lying to them ‘for their happiness’ again.

Trying to shake off that ugly thought, Anne tried to pay attention to what was going on at the counter. Ember was drinking tea, and... watching something their friend couldn’t quite make out from behind the Braixen’s fluffy, hairy ears.

Before she could take another step, though, she felt something dragging her by the sleeve straight ahead, looking up to see Sage at the most energetic she had seen her be yet. “~Anne Anne look, they’re knitting!~” the ghost squeaked. “~And they gave us this tea and it’s so sweet and tasty come!~”

Anne stumbled on as she was half guided, half dragged over to the front of the tea corner, a freshly made cup already waiting for her—


Was this Goodra always there?

Regardless of the answer, seeing Anne be so taken aback at noticing them made the Dragon-type let out a soft, deep laughter that faded into a wide, warm smile. Once they were done laughing, they spoke toward Ember, their sounds a mix of croaks, squeaks, and... very, very wet growls.

“Vivian says hi, Anne!” Ember giggled, the hiccupy sound quickly melting through Anne’s insecurities. Suppose the least the human could do was return the greeting, smiling as she gave the dragon the biggest wave her good arm could dish out before reaching for her cup of tea.

To her surprise, Vivian responded to her gesture, Ember paying close attention before translating them to her friend, “They’re saying they’d normally be the one showing you around, but seems it’s not needed with having us all to keep you company, hehe.”

Not something Anne was sure how to respond to, settling on a warm, only partially forced smile. To her relief, the Goodra got the message and didn’t continue the conversation further, instead picking the knitting needles back up and resuming their current project, a sleeve of sorts. Guess that made sense; the ones on their sweater were quite mismatched—and looked burned in places.

As interested as Sage was in watching them continue, the older human could only sigh and keep wrestling with the unpleasant topic roiling in her head. A part of her really wanted to tell the truth to the younger girl, to rip the bandaid off while she still was safe and among friends, as opposed to being at her most emotionally vulnerable.

She didn’t have the strength to do it, and doubted whether either of the three adults did either. Maybe that was the real reason behind them going through this entire pretense. “~I-I hope your mom will be nice to you, Sage...~” she mumbled, distraught.

The ghostly girl perked up at Anne’s words, hovering right before her with as wide a smile as she could give. “~Of course she will; she’s my mom! She loves me!~”

Anne envied that confidence. That ability to have this much utter, genuine trust in a family member. Having a mom kind enough for her daughter to be so certain of her acceptance. Anne’s own mother barely accepted her existence—already more than she could say for her father, and even that was only when sober.



Would Aria even want to be called that?

Anne didn’t know, but she could hope. A wild, unlikely hope, something that wouldn’t do her any good to ponder on—all it’d bring was eventual disappointment. It hurt to think about. Maybe she’d gather the courage to ask those stupid words one day, maybe not. In either case, until then...

This was some really good tea.

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Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
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Chapter 32: Anticipation

Chapter 32: Anticipation

Who knew there was so much to discuss with such a vague plan?

Anne’s thirst might’ve only lasted two cups of Vivian’s tea, but the adults’ desire to discuss everything they could in advance lasted way longer. Despite being kept in the loop about what they were talking about, Anne paid less and less attention over time, except for the few occasions where one of the three sent a concrete question her way.

She barely knew anything more than them about Lillywood specifically, but the much more ineffable experience of just being human sure came in handy, too. Mostly through the simple, vague advice—as long as you look like you know where you’re going, most people won’t bother you too much. Wear Mrs. Graham’s coat to cover yourself with, and maybe a hat to either obscure the crest or disguise it as an accessory.

The few articles of clothing or accessories she’d seen that were based on the Ralts line were mostly fake Gardevoir masks or wigs, but wearing a fake Gallade crest wasn’t inconceivable, either.

Stick to the sides of the sidewalks, and only use sidewalks. The easiest way to get singled out as a weirdo or someone who doesn’t belong is to walk on the asphalt—that was just for cars. The associated question of ‘could a Gallade survive a car collision with their strength’ remained unspoken, and—hopefully—undetected. Further tips: street crossings, red and green lights, keeping Sage and Yaksha close to Marco to sell the idea of them being ‘his’ mons.

The combined advice ought to be enough to get Marco through this without causing a scene. Sure, people would stare at him and the ghosts beside him, but ultimately he’d just come off as a weirdo trainer—a cross-section of the two groups that accounted for at least a third of the latter—but nothing more sinister than that.

And if need be, Sage could probably advise something on the fly, too.

With the trio further into the tea corner getting all the advice Anne could think of, the girl withdrew further into her thoughts as her friend chatted with the gooey dragon. As much as she appreciated the idea of the mission to try reuniting the ghost girl with her family, the refusal to consider the most likely outcome of a worst-case scenario kept digging into her conscience.

She tried hinting at the topic a few times as the adults chatted amongst themselves, her whispers towards the lil’ Phantump accomplishing exactly jack. Sure, she never stated it overtly, but she hoped that her questions about whether her mom would be happy to see her would’ve made something click in Sage’s head. Alas, nothing.

Nothing but an unerring faith in her parents, the kind that life just cannot resist shattering with all the violence imaginable.

Anne wished she didn’t have to be the one trying to pick at the younger girl’s hopes, that one of the adults around her acted the part and confronted her about this, but... nobody did. Suppose if the worst comes to pass she’ll hurt a lot, yes, but then she’ll have them all back at the village to recover after that. It was a hope that was equal parts comforting and infuriating; the latter forcing the human to forcibly switch tracks of her train of thought lest it’d explode into the world’s most impotent desk slam.

She had to go through that; Ember had to go through that—why Sage? She didn’t deserve this; Ember didn’t deserve this. Anne had only managed to extend that thought to herself very few times, but with the anger providing her all the distraction she’d need, today was exactly one such occasion.

None of them deserved this!

It was much too late for her and Ember, but it wasn’t for Sage; the girl still had time to be spared from it, but nobody would help her! Maybe nobody could. Maybe nobody was strong enough to plunge that scarring blade deep into the girl’s psyche with the knowledge of how much pain they’d be inflicting. Less than Sage finding out the hard way—much less—but still an immense amount.

Maybe Yaksha was right.

Maybe it couldn’t be helped.

Anne didn’t want to think about this.

Especially not now, with the several cups of tea only leaving her sleepier than she’d been before. She stretched with her one good arm as she tried to shake off the murky, freezing topic and replace it with something nicer and warmer—such as the firefox beside her. Was that selfish, too?

Shut the hell up, brain.

Fortunately for her, the fleshy sponge between her ears was keen to try doing exactly that—if at the price of her dozing off into a full-blown nap. It’s been so many years since she’d had one of those. Way back at her grandma’s place at least, and she grew out of them rather quickly even then. It’d be quite childish, yeah, but she doubted anyone else would mind—

The heavy, gruff voice came from much closer than she’d expected, flipping over the table all her tired thoughts were being laid out on.

After Anne’s heart was done calming down from its palpitations, the girl turned to see the source of the intimidating sound for herself, together with her friends. Or, at least, with Ember, Sage having dipped to hide behind her the moment she heard the stranger.

They had no business walking in as stealthily as they had with their sheer size.

The Electrivire towered above everything and everyone inside, except for the Goodra behind the counter. And even then, it was a much closer matchup than Anne had expected.

“Hello, M-Mr. Geiger!” Ember greeted the newcomer, pushing past any residual startle. It calmed her friend by proxy even if it did little to explain who the massive Electric-type was. Before the firefox could answer, though, someone else had decided to greet them first.

With a blink, Anne found herself staring four eyes to one with a Magnemite from just a few inches away. If not for Sage behind her, she would’ve reeled so hard she fell off the chair, instead limiting herself to ‘just’ gawking at the floating magnet.

Had they flown any closer to her, they would’ve likely snagged her glasses off her face with their passive magnetism alone.

As Anne grabbed her bearings, she saw the Electivire go from curiously watching to laughing with his entire body, the sound so much more imposing than she’d have ever expected. Not threatening, not this time, just... loud and clear, the interspersed old man coughs in it included. As he recovered, he tried to speak up again; the almost-human-but-not-quite sounds tingling her brain.

She’d heard of—and had fallen face-first into a few times—the uncanny valley effect with drawings, but wouldn’t have expected it to also happen with sounds.

Thankfully, her confusion wouldn’t last for much longer.

“^There ya go, Anne! My bad Geiger, didn’t spot you stepping in,^” Autumn beamed at the Electivire, Despite the tension in the air, it was hard to not notice the relaxation in her mental voice compared to just a couple hours ago, though Anne had no idea what might’ve caused it. “^How has your morning been~?^”

The Electric-type nodded deeply at the Indeedee’s words, letting Anne spot the... cap on his head. There was no way it wasn’t human-made, only sparking further questions. Before she could put words to them, though, the freshly introduced Geiger spoke first, “No worries, Autumn~. But—I’ve heard the rumors around the place about Anne being out on a walk and thought I’d check in after yesterday’s... let’s be generous and call it ‘proceedings’.”

If there had been any more contempt in his voice, it would’ve been oozing down his body.

“^Hard to deny them being a waste of time, but what’s done is done,^” Autumn concurred, her posture deflating before she straightened herself back up. Sure, it had been a traumatizing nightmare for most involved, but it was over now. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t help anyone right now.

“At least there’s that. Anyway, hello there, Anne. I’ve heard a fair bit about you, and have been wanting to chat with you for a while now—you alright?” Geiger added the last part after seeing the human’s wide-eyed stare at him and the Magnemite beside him. He didn’t want to presume it was anything more than shock, and thankfully, it turned out to be just that—at least if the girl then slowly calming down was any indication.

“~G-good morning, Mr.—Mr. Geiger.~” Some of the shock in Anne’s voice was still there, despite her best effort to calm down.

Must’ve been quite a nervous kid, not that the Electivire could blame her.

“No need to worry, Anne, I don’t bite. Much.”

Geiger let out the tiniest sigh of relief as his joke had the desired effect, sending waves of giggles through the two girls and most other patrons. It was enough for the Phantump he’d spotted hiding behind Anne to poke their head out a bit, though he still had no idea who that was or why they were hiding there.

Even the Magnemite appreciated it with Autumn’s translation, though ‘laughter’ in their case manifested as high-frequency beeping. Not the most noticeable sound in the world, but unique enough to snag the attention of most gathered, sending the little Steel-type hovering back to their safe spot—attached to Geiger’s arm.

“^Oh, that’s just a little one Aria ran into a while back, Geiger is looking after them. I don’t think they have a name yet, but—^”

“I’m happy to say that they do now!” Geiger's smile inched that bit wider as he cut Autumn off and brought them the good news, the Indeedee especially curious about the little magnet. Seeing her interest, the Electivire followed up immediately, “Say hello to Sievert, everyone.”

The name was almost as nonsensical for Anne as it was for everyone else, barring the one time she maybe overheard that word in class. As she tilted her head and tried to figure out what it meant, though, others just shrugged and nodded along. Geiger’s name already made no sense to anyone, they figured he’d only want to give the little one something just as... unique.

“H-hello Si-Sye-Seevert?” Despite Ember not quite getting the name right, she refused to let that get to her, waving eagerly at the shy magnet.

Geiger chuckled at the mispronunciation but didn’t comment on it—should’ve seen it coming. Anne and him aside, it’s not like anyone else here knew the human pronunciation of that, anyway.

As her friend tried to wrangle her maw to get the human sounds just right, Anne was taken aback more and more as she squinted at Geiger’s headgear.

Her eyes hadn’t deceived her; it was a human cap, one with writing on it no less. The exact shade of white fabric and blue text made it tricky to read from a distance, but it only took one moment of Geiger standing still for her to be confident that she’d read the text right.

And a lot longer than that for her to gather the courage to speak up afterward.

“~I-is that a cap from the Amity Cove Power Plant?~”

It was as if a switch had flipped inside Geiger the very instant she said these words.

The Electric-type giant went quiet and stared at her with a mix of surprise, admiration, and excitement as he reached up to grab the headgear. It’s been decades since he’d last heard that name, and someone other than his aging mind evoking it sprung a veritable wellspring of memories. Phone calls, briefings, the unending schematics and memos on the wall—but nothing in the past twenty-something years.

Until now.

“Indeed, Anne. Do you... do you recognize that place?” Geiger shuddered as he held out the hat for the girl to inspect, a foul idea chilling his mind. The facility had been closed for years now, and both this village and the nearby human towns were miles upon miles away from it...

Could it have been that she was a child of one of his former coworkers? A grandchild, perhaps—

“~Yeah! There’s—there’s an urban legend I’ve h-heard about an Electivire having escaped f-from there after breaking in and absorbing all the radiation to g-grow stronger, and I had no idea that it was actually true...~”

Anne found it difficult to keep on talking once Geiger was laughing loud enough for her to have a hard time hearing anyone else in the tea corner.

She leaned back at the explosion of sound and amusement, startling her with how sudden it was. With each passing moment, though, more and more of the confusion filling the tent turned into laughter to accompany Geiger’s, though mostly one caused by how unexpected it was to hear him laughing this much. First Autumn, then Vivian, then even Marco and other patrons—and then, finally, Anne too.

Now that she’d said these rumors out loud, they did sound quite dumb, yeah...

For a split second, the murky self-consciousness threatened to deceive her into thinking that the Electric-type wasn’t laughing at what she said but at her directly—but it was too slow.

“Ahahaha, oh the deities, I wasn’t expecting any of that! Thought I’d just get forgotten, hahaha!” Geiger said, resuming his laughter the moment he’d forced the last word out.

“^Why so? I’d say you’re quite unforgettable, Geiger,^” Autumn smirked. Her tone wasn't missed on Geiger, forcing the absolute slightest blush possible on his yellow-furred cheeks. It wasn’t missed on anyone else around with working ears or mind either, leaving Anne second-guessing herself on if she’d really just heard the elderly Indeedee flirt in the open like that or not.

“Well, I’m awfully glad you think so, Autumn. But, let me—ahaha—let me explain myself a bit for Anne,” Geiger chuckled and took a deep breath, trying his hardest to keep himself professional before the girl. For better or worse, she wasn’t even paying much attention until he’d said her name, making her gaze instantly snap from the label stitched in blue thread to the mountain of an Electric-type just a few feet away from her.

He had her attention; now for a brief rundown.

“I never broke into there, nor did I ever—pfft—nor did I ever try basking in the reactor’s glow, but I did work there for many years. When they closed the facility down, I was meant to be sent to another power plant on the other side of Unova,” Geiger explained, his voice growing calmer and calmer despite the lingering joviality as the bittersweet memories sedated him. “But, thanks to my boss’ intervention, I wasn’t. He helped me get away and reported my ball as missing.”

Anne gasped quietly at the explanation as she nodded, entranced. Hardly as bombastic as the playground myths and scary stories would have her believe, but even more awe-inspiring because of their truthfulness. “~That’s... I-I didn’t know that was possible.~”

“Oh, it wasn’t—not according to their rules, at least. I’m sure he got into a bunch of trouble because of that, but... he’s smart. Was smart, I suppose; he’s almost certainly dead by now. Either way, he very much knew what he was getting into. I wish he didn’t have to, but I’ll be thankful to him for the rest of my life.” Geiger grew calmer still, up until the realization of the passage of time. It took him more focus than he thought he still had left in him to just clench his eyes shut and push through the harrowing conclusion without letting the sadness show, but he managed.


“~That’s—that’s really nice of him.~”

Anne’s innocence distracted the Electivire from any further sogginess about this topic. That’s right, it really was nice of him, and it was for the best for Geiger to focus on that instead of moping about never getting to see his boss again.

In the public, at least.

As hard as he tried to hide his downturn in mood, it was still noticeable for the psychics in the room, and that included even Ember. It wasn’t strong enough for her to diagnose what sparked it, but the fox still felt it, pulling her friend into a tight hug. She also felt the constant unease coming from behind Anne, with the Phantump still too skittish to even try anything but peeking out from time to time.

Was Sage afraid of Geiger? Regardless of if that was the case, Autumn already seemed to be helping her out—at least if the dim greenish glow holding one of the ghostly girl’s hands was any sign.

Perfect opportunity for him to bring up a new, lighter topic. “Anyhow! I’ve been curious about a couple of things going on back in the human world for a while, and was wondering if you could help me answer them, Anne.”

The human girl blinked at the swerve, finding herself listening intently. She didn’t know much, but ‘goings on with humanity at large’ should be something she could at least give a partial answer. “~O-of course! What d-do you want to know, Mr. Geiger?~”

“First things first—has the Internet become this massive, important invention in the meantime?”

The entire tea corner was plunged into dumbfounded silence in response, the utterly unknown word sounding like gibberish to all the natives. Even translating it proved tricky for Autumn. It at least seemed to refer to a concept that was present in Anne’s head, even if the Indeedee had no idea where to even begin with understanding it.

Anne was almost as surprised as everyone else, but for an entirely opposite reason.

It took her a moment to remember that the Internet wasn’t just a force of nature and that it had been created by humans. She might’ve never had the opportunity to use it personally outside of computer classes, but its spread and influence were impossible to downplay. “~Yes, yes it has!~”

She considered asking how he knew about it, but she didn’t even have to.

“A-HA! Knew it; wonder if Jones ever ended up cashing that bet. Oh, suppose an explanation wouldn’t hurt—we had Internet long before civilians ever got their hands on it, and there were always a couple of dopes who swore that it would never amount to anything beyond yet another piece of military tech to be classified and forgotten about.” Thinking back to that time and to the many arguments between his coworkers had Geiger grinning, glad that some of their hunches turned out to be correct.

“^What’s that ‘Internet’ thing you’re talking about, Geiger?^” Autumn spoke for everyone gathered, their shared confusion downright palpable.

Geiger turned towards Anne with the most dumbfounded tone most had ever heard him use, the sound unlike him it gave them whiplash. “Oh, it’s... hmm. Good gods, that’s a pickle to explain in simple terms. You got any ideas on how to word it, Anne?”

“~Uhh... no, I-I don’t think so. I-I guess it’s like a—like a web for exchanging information?~” Anne was only slightly less at a loss for words, and the follow-up question didn’t help any, either.

“Ohh, is it like telepathy? Or like an actual big spider web?” Ember leaned into her friend as she sought clarification, receiving nothing but meandering ‘uhhh’s in return.

Not a concept he could ever begin to explain in any comprehensive way at such short notice, but... that didn’t mean he couldn’t do it given enough time. The Electric-type smirked as he glanced over at Autumn, “I mentioned something similar to it with human long-distance communication a couple of days back, but it’s not exactly that. Would need to gather my words first, but... I suppose I’d be willing to go in-depth over something warm together some other day~.”

It was Autumn’s turn to blush this time, the redness on her cheeks clear to see despite her best efforts. As much as she appreciated that answer—and she appreciated it a lot—there was still one part about it she wanted to change, “^O-oh, I’d love to! Why not today, though? We’ll be heading towards our burrow now; we’d love for you both to come along!^”

The excitement in her voice had Geiger chuckle as the Magnemite beside him tried withdrawing further away from the crowd. “Thank you for the offer dear, but I think it’s best we keep it until some other day. Last thing I want Anne to deal with after yesterday’s torture session is me looming over her all day long. And Sievert here has had enough crowds for today too, I think.”

Autumn’s hype palpably faded by the word, but it didn’t take long for Geiger to reignite it all back.

“I wouldn’t mind trying something tomorrow if you’d be up for it, though~.”

Immediately, the fastest nodding the Indeedee had ever done in her life, accompanied by a wide smile, shining bright despite how weathered by age her face was. “^Yes, I’d love to!^”

“That’s settled then! Alright, now just the other question I had on my mind before I let you all go—the sky’s getting ugly outside and I’d hate to keep you all waiting. Anne, would you happen to know what my name means?”

Ember might have spent the last couple of minutes rolling her eye at how sappy Geiger and Autumn were, but her friend found it nothing but charming. Charming, and surprising—wouldn’t have expected old people to still be interested in... well, that probably counted as dating. She’d only ever associated them with books, cookies, and dead spouses.

Anne didn’t need Geiger to repeat himself, but wasn’t sure how to answer right away. It was a word she recognized well, but trying to fetch the exact definition out of the half-forgotten depths of her mind proved more challenging than she had thought. She knew he wasn’t expecting the dictionary definition from her, but felt bad about responding with anything less than that.

Seemed she’d have to, though.

“~I-I think it has to do with measuring radioactivity. Like there are these Geiger counters that measure it and make cracking noises when they detect it—~”

“Aaaah, so a dosimeter?” Geiger leaned in as Anne answered his lifelong mystery, his obvious excitement not helping much with keeping her cool.

Especially since that wasn’t a word she’d recognized at all, and could only hope was the correct answer.

“~I-I think so, yes,~” Anne answered. To her immediate relief, the Electivire took that response at face value, gaze scanning across the ceiling as he chewed through the revelation.

Then, he stopped, slowly looked over at the freshly named Sievert attached to his arm,

And laughed once more, continuing to do so even after he’d given everyone their ‘goodbye’s’ and ‘take care’s’ and left.

With Geiger taking his leave, Anne’s impromptu group didn’t stick around for much longer, either. Everything the adults had to chat about they already long since had, and the rest would have to be found out on the fly. It wasn’t enough to calm anyone down, especially not Marco—Anne wasn’t familiar enough with Gallade anatomy to know that with absolute certainty, but she could’ve sworn he was much less tense than this when they had arrived—but it was the best they could all hope for.

And whether it would prove enough, it remained to be seen.

Much the same was true of the ever-uncertain skies above their heads, to the group’s chagrin.

The typical wintry off-whites above them were replaced with darker and darker grays, creeping in from all around. It wasn’t raining, not yet, but all the clouds above looked like they were a single whim away from unleashing an absolute downpour over them all. Of liquid water at that, if the warmth in the air was any sign.

Just about the only time in Anne’s life where she actively wished for the weather to be even colder than it already was.

Nothing they could do about it—at least without being noticed by nearby human towns—which left them redoubling their pace towards the ‘burrow’ Autumn had mentioned earlier. The choice of words left Anne a bit... uncertain. She doubted she was an all-out claustrophobe or anything, but the idea of sleeping in a narrow cave was profoundly uncomfortable all the same.

And no, of course, it had nothing to do with her staying up way too late at her grandma’s house one time and watching a documentary about cavers getting trapped underground, of course not!

In an attempt to distract herself from memories that had stolen somewhere in the mid two-digit number of nights of sleep, Anne diverted her attention to the ghostly girl floating beside her. Sage hadn’t said anything since they left the tea corner, and felt much tenser than before—already a worrisome sight, but her earlier fear didn’t help either.

Hell, if she could tell the younger girl was afraid of Geiger, then any semblance of subtlety was long since out the window.


Ahead of them, Yaksha spared only a briefest glance over his shoulder, but only that. Her half-whisper perked the ghostly girl out of her idle hovering, wooden body shaking as she hovered into the human, holding her hand tight. “~M-mhm? What’s up, Anne?~”

A fair bit of exhaustion in her voice, but also some anxiety. Suppose she was still young enough to need naps—when she died, at least. Anne had no idea whether needs like that persisted into the afterlife, but Sage offered one argument for that hypothesis.

“~J-just wanted to ask—did you get scared earlier when Mr. Geiger started talking?~” Anne kept her voice down, anticipating Sage freaking out about her fears having been noticed.

Instead, the younger girl just nodded idly and explained herself, “~His voice is scary.~”

It was an answer that explained precious little—but at the same time, just enough for Anne’s mind to get to thinking. Scary voice? Sure, Geiger was imposing like that, but that should’ve faded soon after, it’s not like he was outright shouting at them all the time or something. Something about his voice, then?

That would explain ‘what’, but not ‘why’, and there Anne was still uncertain—at least until she thought back to Sage’s scared reaction when she heard Marco speak. Not as prominent, but still present before Ember distracted her away. Another piece of the puzzle, but an awkward one. Marco’s and Geiger’s voices were almost nothing alike except for sounding masculine when translated, a mild baritone and a deep bass, respectively.

Could it have been that?

No way; Yaksha was with them all the time and he was... hmm. His voice was... not like these two—dryer, more ghostly and distorted, higher pitched, almost like a falsetto. Not enough to trigger that fear, it seemed. Anne hadn’t seen Sage have that fearful reaction to any other voice except for these two, and aside from them being masculine, she couldn’t think of anything they had in common.

If her hunch was true, then Sage would turn out afraid of Garret, too...

It was a sad thought, especially with how kind the Grimmsnarl had been towards her. Anne hoped she’d get to see him again in not too long—and Aria too once she felt better, of course.

Any thoughts about the Dark-type aside, though, her revelation also made the choice of Marco as the two ghosts’ guide into Lillywood... less than advisable. Then again, he was never the first choice and was rather the best option they had on hand, so couldn’t really afford to be picky. Hopefully, Yaksha being there would help her out, too.

Either way, Sage was getting a big hug here and now, as big as Anne could manage with one arm.

“~Hehe, that tickles!~” The Phantump giggled, breaking through the group’s silence, adorning it with smiles at her happy, squirmy reaction.

With the quiet already gone, Autumn took the initiative and walked up to the girls, eying them out with a wide, tired smile. “^How are you doing, girls?^”

“~I’m okay, Mrs. Autumn!~” Despite her earlier gloom, Sage had no difficulties getting back to her usual excited self. Sure, the Electrivire had scared her a bit, but she’d still be going home in just a few hours!

The Indeedee’s smile strained, but just barely held at feeling that thought.

“^Yup! Really hope the weather won’t get any worse until then, already looking quite dreadful. Ugh, snow’s gonna start melting overnight, won’t it...?^”

As Autumn shuddered at the idea of having to wade in freezing slush for the next few days, Marco’s thoughts about skies turning dark went the other way. Sure, it’d be ugly, but maybe it’d be for the best?

The Gallade took a large breath as he tried to relax his posture, looking down at the older girl and speaking up, “^Anne. Do you think it would help us avoid attention if it snowed or rained today?^”

Anne blinked at a question this... obvious, but didn’t mind answering it. She supposed it made some sense, after all.

“~Well, it’d be cold and nasty for you all, b-but yeah. Nobody’s gonna be leaving their houses if it’s this cold and raining, even with an umbrella. And...~” she paused and counted the past few days with the information the Blissey at the clinic gave her, the best possible conclusion perking her up a bit. “~And it’s Sunday today too, so even fewer people are gonna be out after dark!~”

“~It’s Sunday today?~” Sage tilted her head at her friend’s words, staring in unexpectedly genuine confusion.

Anne double-checked her count just to be sure—and sure enough, she got it right the first time. “~Yeah, it’s Sunday, Sage.~”

“~I thought it was Friday.~”

Sage’s perfectly deadpan delivery left Anne waiting for a follow-up, either the punchline of a joke or reasoning for it not being Sunday. Instead, the two just stared at each other for a while, the silence growing oppressively awkward in a matter of seconds. Soon enough, the older girl couldn’t bear it anymore, speaking up just to clear the air, “~Why?~”

“~I don’t know.~”



“^What’s a ‘Sunday’?^” Autumn butted in, trying to help with the uneasy tension in the air. Satisfying her curiosity about some more human terms was a welcome bonus.

“~It’s a day of the week, M-Mrs. Autumn!” Sage chimed in to explain, entirely undeterred by the previous awkwardness. She clarified exactly nothing.

Anne was about to try giving her own, much more comprehensive answer before something caught her attention from the nearby rooftop. Or rather, someone, the familiar cooing making her gaze jump up to meet Blossom’s, smiles filling both their faces. Before the human could greet the lil’ owl, the latter took off from her post and flew down. To her immediate regret, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to perch on that was anywhere close to Anne’s eye level; the awful freezing snow aside.

Which left option B.

“Hi, Anne! Oh my gosh, are you gonna be staying here for good!?” Blossom delivered her chirps with all the excitement she could produce, amplified further by perching on Marco’s silvery crest to his unamused stare.

Marco persevered—anything to keep the little ones happy, especially with him sensing the Dartrix’s internal conflict about where to land—but only barely. Anne was unsure how to respond without breaking into a rude laughter at his expense.

Thankfully, Autumn had her covered, “^Yes sweetie, Anne is staying with us! Elders decided on that yesterday.^”

Blossom nodded with all the excitement of a child finally being in on the big events going on in the world around her for the first time in her life. “Yes, I saw! I even tried to listen in, but couldn’t hear anything!”

Marco kept himself from speaking up, but that didn’t extend to not facepalming out of Blossom’s field of view.

“^Sweetie, you’re not supposed to eavesdrop, these are meant to be confidential,^” Autumn explained, biting her tongue to not laugh out at her son-in-law’s reaction. To some extent, she felt much the same, but was much more keen on helping the girl's confusion—even if it was about matters she thought self-explanatory.

And then, Anne looked over her shoulder to check the loud buzzing coming from nearby and gasped, drawing the others’ attention immediately.

As scary as it was for Anne to suddenly see a Vespiquen behind her from less than a foot away, the rest of the group felt a gradient of emotions spanning from uncertainty to unamusement. Autumn took it upon herself to present the latter, glaring at the Bug-type. “^Hello, Liz.^”

The words were enough to interrupt the Vespiquen’s current routine—namely, measuring Anne from all around using a string with a bunch of knots on it, calculating values unknown and unknowable. With her focus broken, it was Liz’s turn to stare with disapproval at Autumn, only adding to the latter’s annoyance.

The Indeedee didn’t want to be the one to renege first, but she knew that if not for that, this staring contest would last forever.

“^Liz, maybe you could introduce yourself to Anne instead of sneaking up on her,^” Autumn forced out. The deadpan flatness in her voice wasn’t any more difficult to make out for Anne than for its intended recipient, eliciting the most monotone buzz the human girl had ever heard.

It didn’t help any with her confusion, but the introduction that followed did, at least. “Liz. Quartermaster. I keep track of our resource utilization and production. Need to take count of your size and how much food you’re going to eat. May I continue now?” The Vespiquen strained her words, aiming them squarely at Autumn. It almost made the Indeedee snap back with something, but she kept her snark contained.

This time.

“^Yes you may, Liz. Just please explain with words if you need Anne to do something for you—^”

“Stand still. Back straight. Limbs straight along your body,” Liz ordered, wasting no time for courtesy as she continued with her measuring string and grooves on her horns. At least; before she noticed Autumn’s brown eyes drilling into her once more. “...Please.”

About the most Autumn—or anyone else—could expect from the Vespiquen, she supposed.

The Indeedee sighed as she reached a paw to rub along the bridge of her short snout. If nothing else, Liz was good with doing all the number crunching she had to do once and not bothering people about that afterward until strictly needed.

Anne seemed to be taking it well, too—past the initial shock, at least. It was amusing to keep track of her thoughts at being scanned so closely, bringing forth mental images of various measuring devices, many of them transparent, somehow, and... other humans with the same eye coverings as she had, but much larger, combined with buck teeth.

Taken together, human weirdness probably outdid Liz’s quirks—


The distant thunder startled everyone but the diligent quartermaster, sending shivers down Anne’s body. Autumn just sighed. Sure enough, the weather looked like it would be unpleasant later today. Hopefully, the human clothes Anne had in mind for Marco would help with that a bit.

Oh, speaking of.

“^Oh, Marco, before we forget and the rain comes down on us! Could you take the rest of Anne’s items from the clinic and move them to our burrow?^” Autumn turned on a heel towards her son-in-law, finding him comfortably Blossom-less and looking at her with a raised eyebrow.

“^All of them, or specific—^”

Before he could even finish, Autumn cut him off by shaking her head. She explained soon after, aiming her words at him and Anne in equal measure, “^Everything. She’s gonna be staying with us there, after all.^”

Marco nodded, Sage tilted her head, Ember gasped in joy, Yaksha didn’t react, Liz jotted the piece of data down deep inside her insect brain, and Anne... looked at Autumn with uncertainty. The bespoke ‘burrow’ was more than just today’s destination then, leaving her unnerved.

With how neat the rest of the village was, she really hoped the family dwelling would follow suit. Both because of how uncomfortable narrow spaces made her, and because she’d hate to be an even bigger burden than she already had been from the get-go in forcing them to change the burrow to accommodate her...

The Fighting-type caught himself right before he was about to head out, an important thought sparking under his skullcap. “^What if she’ll need the healers to take another look at her later today?^”

“^Ah, good call! Ask about that too while you’re there, fingers crossed you’ll be good for the day Anne—last thing we want is for you to have to trudge through the slush that’s coming just to get another bandage check,^” Autumn chuckled at the mental image as the human girl shuddered. Ember wasted no time helping her friend with any shaking, be it fear or cold-induced, while Marco finally headed out, leaving the group one member lighter for the time being.

A part of Anne wondered what in the world was the Vespiquen still doing with her. Surely she would’ve already gotten everything—

“Is this your final shape, human?” Liz buzzed the question out, not pausing her measuring even for a second.

“^Anne,^” Autumn corrected.


The human cared about her name being butchered much less than she did about the confusing question she had been asked moments prior. “~Umm... w-what do you mean by that?~”

“Will you change in shape or size, be it by evolution or some other process, over the next five years?” The Vespiquen enunciated; the gesture both noticed and appreciated by Anne.

Guess this ‘quartermaster’ could explain herself if she really wanted to.

“~I-I will grow by a few inches—~”

“Show,” Liz instructed, paying close attention to what the girl did afterwards. It felt weird to have so much focus be on her shaking hand of all things, but Anne pushed on regardless, raising it until it lay flat at what she hoped was 5'1". As close an estimate as she could make with her only reference point being her mother’s and grandma’s heights—hopefully the exact value wouldn’t matter since she was just predicting the future, anyway.

And with her growth spurt coming any day now, Liz would be able to see it for herself.

“^Oh? With how tall you already are, I didn’t think you got any more height left in you, Anne,^” Autumn said with mild, but genuine surprise. It made her wonder how big would the tallest humans be if even the girl beside her towered over almost all of them. Even if much of their size was not as impressive as it would’ve otherwise been with them being so thin, it still left quite an impact—


The Indeedee shuddered with her entire body at sensing the nearby aura move so suddenly and intensely, mind and eyes alike turning to look at what had happened. Ember followed soon after, gasping once she’d connected all the pieces together in her head and clinging closer to her friend.

Anne wasn’t far behind either—but she was much more confused than the other two.

Cinder showing herself again was appreciated just for the sake of Anne knowing where the vixen she still had a hard time trusting was, but the rest of the scene raised more questions than it answered. In front of the Fire-type stood an Espurr, barely visible from the other end of the street in the for-them-waist-high snow. They were facing her, surrounded by Cinder’s psychic glow. Nothing was happening, but with how tense Autumn and Ember had gotten at the sight, Anne wasn’t sure if she wanted to think about what ‘should’ have happened instead...

Her head was confused, but her legs screamed for her to run.

Before the situation could grow any more anxious, someone else showed up, diffusing much of the built-up tension. Anne couldn’t quite recognize them right away—the body was quite like the blue Meowstic, which gender that corresponded to lost in the recesses of her mind, but ears weren’t. They looked brown, as if they were—


Oh shit, they were wooden.

Were these prosthetics? Had they lost their ears at some point because of some scrap with wild mons? Did—oh gods, did a human do that to them? Anne remembered hearing in one newspaper or another about dumb people still occasionally doing that nowadays despite it being pretty blatant cruelty.

Regardless of what had happened for them to end up this way, they were scolding the absolute ears off of what was presumably their child. The latter was no slouch though, the two of them first talking, and then shouting at each other in what felt like a downpour of ever more emotional meows.

And then; the Meowstic stopped and turned to face her.

As unnerving as seeing the Espurr facing her was earlier, their parent came off very differently. Ears down, much more relaxed posture, willingness to take a couple of steps closer in a way that felt hesitant, but not angry or hateful.

Anne still had no idea what was going on, but figured she could at least greet them.

Her eyes jumped back and forth between the Meowstic and the Espurr as she waved at the former. They shuddered at her gesture, taking her briefly aback, before… returning it themselves with a shaky paw.

Hopefully, a good sign.

Either way, once they were satisfied greeting her, they turned around to Cinder and their child and meowed a couple more words. Anne had no idea what she expected to happen next, but the psychic kitten being lifted into the air, still fully enveloped with the firefox’s reddish aura, and hovered around the corner before the other two followed wasn’t it.

Unnerving, but ultimately just—Autumn?

Even once the cats and the fox were done, the Indeedee kept staring daggers into the spot they had just departed from. Her expression was angrier than Anne had ever seen it, much angrier. On her other side, Ember looked unnerved, her embrace having grown so tight in the meantime Anne wondered how in the world did she not feel it earlier.

The Vespiquen had left at some point, presumably to get away from the growing tension and to drown her annoyances in Vivian’s brandy.

“~What happened?~” Anne asked nervously, her mind suggesting more and more harrowing possibilities. Was it just a family argument, or—or did that Espurr despise her, and she was almost attacked in broad daylight with company around her? The latter sounded both too scary and too silly to be true; there’s no way that someone would’ve tried that, but if not that then—

“Oh deeeear. Baaaaad moooment?”

Anne had no idea it was possible for a voice this soft and old to startle so many people all at once.

Once she and the two psychics beside her had finished getting over their startles, they turned around to face the Grass-type. Anne’s eyes went wide at seeing a Lilligant just hanging out here, head full of memories of watching beauty pageants on TV with her grandma featuring their kin—among others. And her flower was in full bloom too, something even professionals fumbled from time to time.


Guess actually being free and among friends helped a lot in minimizing stress, huh? And the cloak over her body helped with the cold as well, held tightly shut with one leafy hand.

“^Oh Lavender, hello there. No, it’s—it’s not a bad moment, don’t worry. Did something happen?^” Autumn asked, tension and active attempts to get rid of it oozing through her mental voice.

“I wrapped up the shaaaawl you asked fooor, aaaand wanted to deliver it to the giiiirl herself!” The Grass-type turned to face Anne, her almost-invisible smile growing wide. Her free hand unwrapped what the human thought to be a part of her cape.

It wasn’t exactly the same, not with being so leafy and dry, but... her voice was quite similar to grandma Lisa’s. Anne didn’t know why that realization struck her; it wasn’t relevant, but... it still made her feel just that bit warmer.

And if the sheer amount of knitted cloth being unwrapped from around Lavender was any sign, she’d end up much more than just a bit warmer, soon. By the time the Grass-type was done grabbing it all, it looked the size of a blanket; the all-natural fabric stained with a gradient from bright greens to dark oranges. For a few moments, Anne could only stare at it, uncertain what all this was about—

Only for Ember’s giggle to clarify it all, “Hehehe, she made it for you, Anne!”

“Indeeeeed!” Lavender stressed her follow-up, holding the bundled fabric up even higher and giving it a little wave.

Anne stared wide-eyed at the gift as her mind spun in a circle, left dumbfounded about how to respond. It was one thing to be told that this presumed article of clothing, this product of so much labor, was for her—and another still for that fact to really sink in. She’d only been here for a few days; there was no way anyone would just decide to gift her stuff on a whim, not something this special!

“^But that’s exactly what she did, Anne!^” The Braixen whispered, holding her friend even closer.

Ember’s mental whisper only added further fuel for the fire of emotions thrashing in Anne’s mind. It also emboldened her enough to finally reach out and grab the knitted bundle, Autumn’s psychic intervention helping her spread it wide and get a better look at what it was.

A large, colorful shawl, sized for her. Made for her. The first article of clothing made with any amount of care for her in almost three years.

With her left arm immobile and folded under her sweater, Anne had to be helped with putting it on, something both psychics were more than glad to assist with as much as they could. Soft, and comfortably weighed, and pleasant to the touch, and warm, and...


Anne’s sniffles took the rest of the group aback as they all awaited a reaction, Lavender most of all. The Grass-type was about to speak up, immediately fretting that she’d unknowingly made a mistake with the sizing—

Only to be pulled into a one-armed hug before she could respond.

Her legs might’ve screamed at her for crouching and half her body still ached. But none of that mattered, none of it could. Anne had to thank this villager, this—this total stranger for her generosity, and this was the only way she could do it beyond just idle words.

“~Th-th—sniff—thank you...~”

Thankfully, Lavender took it well.

“Awwwwwww, sweeeeeetie! You’re veeeery welcome! Do you liiiike it?” Lavender beamed as she returned the hug with all the strength her aged body could provide, appreciating Anne’s body warmth immensely.

“~I-it’s p-perfect, I can’t thank you enough—~”

Immediately, the Lilligant shook her head, the petals of her flower flapping against Anne’s face. “Allll is goooood! I’m glaaaaaad you liiiike it, and that youuuuuu’re here!”

To Anne’s surprise, she believed Lavender’s words.

As the human girl let go of the seamstress before being helped back to her feet by her friend, the Indeedee chimed in, realizing one part that didn’t quite add up. “^How’d you find us here, Lavender?^”

The Lilligant perked up at her before softly laughing, orange eyes scanning the roofs of the nearby buildings. “Ohhhh, Sol had tipped meeee off! Heeeee’s beeeeeen watching oveeeeeer youuuu for a whiiiile nooow! Sooooool! Where aaaaare youuuu!?”

As Autumn narrowed her eyes and looked around, she caught a white and brown blur in her peripheral vision, psychics focusing in an instant. The Whimsicott was much too fast for her to grab directly, but nothing an artificial gust of wind couldn’t help with. With an instantaneous green flare, the wind-veiled Fairy-type was tossed against the wall he was flying next to, before harmlessly bouncing off it and falling into the snow.

That’s what you get for following us.

“Sol? Soooooool, quit foooooling around, silly!” Lavender chided with a disapproving shake. As she headed off to check up on the snow-diving Whimsicott in the distance, the group got going again.

Much to the gratitude of Anne’s strained legs, they were already on the final stretch, their destination only a couple turns away.

And once they’d made the last one, a clearing in front of a hill awaited them.

Its sheer size alone was enough to make it stick out of its barren surroundings. The towering oak growing from its tip towered over all other nearby trees, downright radiant in the orange light of the looming sunset, even without any leaves to grace it. For a while, Anne thought it was just a local landmark, denoting the edge of the village.

And then; she spotted the doorway embedded into the side of the hill; and realized Autumn was leading them there.

“~I-is that the burrow you had mentioned?~” Anne whispered, excitement seeping into her voice despite her earlier worries. The fantasy she’d been imagining on and off for the last few days suddenly became terrifyingly real. It was one thing to be abstractly told that she would stay in this magical wonderland village while she lay waking up in her bed,

“^Yes Anne, yes it is!^”

It was another to be at Aria’s doorstep.

Her pace slowed with every step as she approached the front door in a mix of exhaustion and emotion. Ember was doing her best to support her through both, snuggling by her side throughout the ordeal. As barren and downright miserly as the burrow’s entrance was, the warm, orange light pouring in through the gaps between the door and the frame it sat in betrayed its homeliness, growing clearer and clearer to see as the sun set around them.

And then, before she knew it, Anne stood right before it.

Sage and Yaksha watched, confused, as the human girl just stood there for a while, quivering in place. The Phantump wanted to ask what was wrong, and the Banette was of half a mind to push past the dumb child and just walk in there himself, but neither of them acted.

knock knock, knock

They didn’t need to.


Anne was home.​

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Interlude IX: Hatred & Interlude X: Drifter

Interlude IX: Hatred

How could they have done this!?

Hawthorne breathed through gritted teeth as she made her way through the village, the anger gripping her body not letting her internalize anything from the Serperior’s lesson she had just received. Yet another repetition of protective moves didn’t matter, couldn’t matter.

Not when the Elders had put everyone here at such a risk.

The Espurr’s thrashing aura left gashes in the loose snow around her as she tried not to scream. It was one thing for them all to allow THAT THING to live, but—THIS!? They let IT stay here and keep hurting them all; how—how—


Her paws gripped the sides of her forehead. The extended claws drew the tiniest bit of blood as she stared into the muddy snow in front of her, straining all that was left of her composure. She’d never even come close to losing it in her life, but. But THAT THING was here now, putting them all at risk, able and willing to hurt them all, especially her dad!

Her dad was lying to her, too. The thought thawed her from her almost-outburst, getting her going again through tears. She hadn’t been up for that long; the sun wasn’t even close to setting yet, but she still felt exhausted. By the BETRAYAL, by her concerns being dismissed, by being so angry about it all and yet unable to do anything about it.

The one person she expected to stand up for her, or even for himself, didn’t.

It baffled her more than anything else, baffled and infuriated. He’d told her what THESE THINGS had put him through, how much THEY had hurt him, but he kept trying to downplay it now. She remembered his tears, his pain, every single night when she’d wake up only to see him wide awake, shaking beside the hearth.

But apparently, none of that mattered now! All it took was the Elders saying a word, and he bent to their whims and pretended nothing had happened! That one of THESE THINGS hadn’t scarred him in mind and body, that IT hadn’t trapped him and kept him as a pet for years,

That THEY weren’t all MONSTERS.

She wasn’t sure which hurt her more, the lies or the betrayal. All the Espurr knew was that she hurt, and she didn’t want to be hurting. She just wanted to be safe. And for them all to be safe too, especially her dad.

Maybe it wasn’t too late?

Freezing tears stung through her fur as Hawthorne perked up and upped her pace. It couldn’t have been too late; the Elders had only made their mistake last night. And ARIA must’ve influenced them, too! Yes, of course, it all made sense now!

She just had to shake sense into her dad, had to use her meager psychics to break him from that EVIL GARDEVOIR’S control, and make them all safe again! It would be difficult, but she could do it; everyone depended on her! She would be the hero; they’d all thank her, praise her and be sorry for all the times they dismissed her concerns, especially Autumn—

kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill THAT THING was here. kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill

Hawthorne stared down the street, pink eyes only able to focus on HER TARGET. She knew she had no chance against everyone standing beside IT, not all taken together, but it didn’t matter. Just had to strike when Autumn and Marco were distracted; before that wimp—no, that TRAITOR Ember could react.

Nobody else mattered, nobody else could stop her.

kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill It was time. kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill

Her eyes lit up with a flare as she raised her ears. Aura thrashed in her mental grasp, pushed so far beyond its usual intensity she could only barely control it. Didn’t matter. THESE THINGS were pathetic, all she had to do was get one good hit while IT was distracted, break IT in half. She could do it, she’d be a hero, she’d rid them all of this MONSTER, make them all safe—



Her aura tried to jolt forward, to maim THAT THING where IT stood, but it couldn’t, forcibly held still. It hurt, so intense a gasp of pain caught in her throat as she strained against whatever force was keeping her bound—


Cinder’s voice filled her mind, a simple command amplified to deafening volume by the intensity of their combined psychics. Had Hawthorne any more control of herself, she would’ve screamed in fear and ran off—but couldn’t, the Delphox’s mental grasp holding her like a vice. The Espurr shrieked, pushing through her turbulent aura, “^LET ME GO!^”

The firefox didn’t answer. Instead, the kitten felt her built-up energy slowly dissolve, defusing her almost-attack. It hurt less, but it also meant she wouldn’t be able to attack IT anymore, making Hawthorne thrash even harder in her teacher’s unassailable aura. As she was about to cry out to be let go once more, though, she heard another voice, one that made her freeze in something worse than fear.

“Hawthorne!” Max cried out, aghast at what he’d just ran into. “What—what are you doing...”

His daughter kept thrashing in Cinder’s grasp to no use, soon crying out, “^Protecting you!^”

The scene was overwhelming for the Meowstic, both in the intensity of the psychic auras being wielded against one another, in there being a human just a few dozen feet away, and in how much malice dripped from his daughter. She didn’t even make any sense! “What—what do you mean, we are safe!”

“^But there’s a HUMAN in the village and it will hurt you and everyone else is too afraid to do anything about it!^” Hawthorne shrieked through more and more tears, her fear as genuine as can be. “^ARIA poisoned your mind, I know it, the elders’ too, we need to kill IT before IT hurts us all—^”

“HAWTHORNE!” her dad cried, trying the only thing he could to cut his daughter’s terrible words off.


“HAWTHORNE! I BEG YOU, STOP!” Max pleaded, stopping the Espurr’s rambling for but a moment. “WHY DON’T YOU BELIEVE ME!?”

“^B-because THESE THINGS hurt you! THEY will hurt you again if we let them—^”

“And is your way of keeping us safe hurting them back!?”

Hawthorne stared at him, terrified and confused, “^What else!?^”

“Wouldn’t they have an excuse to hurt us too then!? And so on and so on; bloodshed solves nothing! HATRED SOLVES NOTHING!” He cried out, wounds in his mind clawed open once more. His daughter tried to speak up once more, but he continued first, “No, Hawthorne! I am hurt, it hurts so much, but it is MY pain to bear! I’m so sorry I’ve exposed you to so much more of it than I should have. I—I’ll never be able to forgive myself for that.”

Max’s paws gripped his temples as his tears peppered the snow and dirt below him. He didn’t want to do any of this; he didn’t want to be anywhere near a human any more than his daughter did, but he had to. All this was his fault; he had to make up for what he had done in whatever way he could.

“Please, understand, this human is a child! She’s just like you, she’s done nothing wrong!” He begged, heart racing as he turned toward the girl his daughter hated so much. He took a step closer, then another, using all his courage to not run away, and continued, “She—she just wants to be safe, just like us. Keep your wrath for those that actually hurt us, be they humans or our fellow mons, I beg you...”

As Max was about to turn back towards the Espurr, he noticed the human move. He didn’t want to be here, to see them, but if it meant they’d be safe, if it meant his daughter might ever heal from all the ways he’d unintentionally hurt her, then he’d bear through this. He lifted his paw and returned Anne’s waves, only barely keeping the fight-or-flight response at bay.

“I’m sorry, Hawthorne.”

After catching his breath, he looked up at the stone-faced Delphox, keeping his gaze away from his weeping, rage-filled daughter. He asked, “Cinder, could you carry her to our dwelling?”

The firefox answered wordlessly, levitating the thrashing Espurr around the corner before following in tow. As he watched them leave and eventually followed in their steps, the Meowstic feared.

Feared that just like his physical wounds, his daughter’s mental scars would never heal.

Interlude X: Drifter

shhhh—ou know what it is, just an afternoon with my wife!”

The roar of canned laughter floods the living room before giving way to harsh hissing once more. Above it, the black-and-white image of a talk show grows blurry as static devours it, erasing whatever meaning it still had. A few moments later, the broadcast fights back, pushing through the noise and distortion, yearning to be seen for just one more moment.

But nobody is watching.

The television’s pale glow pierces the muffled darkness of the living room, brought on by the thick blinds obscuring every window in sight. All one needs to bring the space back to life is to stand up and walk these few feet, to grasp the grimy cords.

But it is too late.

In front of the TV set rests a well-worn armchair, its once blue fabric covered with stains the color of dirt, blood and pus. On it, a mound of cloth and sludge, a pile of regret and decay, what was once a person wrapped tight in what was once a blanket. Around it, empty plastic wrappers and glass bottles, their contents long forgotten and devoured—first by their owner, then by microorganisms decomposing them.

What remains of the human’s head keeps staring at the device before it, the receiver’s light illuminating the many shades of decay covering the skin. Sometimes, it twitches just a bit as another patch of sinew holding it together turns into mush. Aside from that, there is no motion in the room, no change.

Not in days.

Not in years.

knock knock knock

The muffled sound eclipses the TV static despite being so much quieter, stirring flakes of dust from the garbage strewn across every flat surface. For the first time in weeks, there is a shift in the putrid air, beyond the miasma of death and waste growing ever more intense. Tension rises in the motionless space, begging for the external influence to leave it be, to let it decay into nothingness evermore.

But it won’t.

knock knock knock

Another three strikes against the front door, its mechanism long since half-devoured by corrosion. Soon after, a pair of muffled voices outside, chatting with each other, and a low, animalistic growl, their intricacies falling on the abandoned house’s deaf ears. The world demands presence, the pile of decomposing flesh demands closure.

At last, motion.

A grayish hand phases through the stained, crusty blanket enveloping the corpse, and another one follows moments later. After it comes one leg, then the other, with only the inanimate TV set to witness their appearance. The half-formed, immaterial entity shudders and stops; it wants to go no further. No thoughts grace it, no memories—only the emotions that used to comprise them.




knock knock knock

And yet, What Is must continue its crawl, to depart the cocoon of What Was and What Will Never Be. The quietest of metallic jingles fill the air as its head pushes through, freeing the rest of itself from the once-body that once held it. It falls from the armchair onto the trash-covered floor; the digging of shards of plastic and glass into its woven skin overlooked in the horror of steadily building consciousness.

And then; it opens its eyes.

Their dim, pink glow sweeps the room, taking in hundreds of objects it used to know but doesn’t. It stares but does not see, the decomposing environment around it reduced to naught but visual noise and an incomprehensible blur of shapes, all bathed in shadows.

At last, it turns to look up at the seat it had just crawled out of, at what remained of what it once was, of what he once was.

He feels nothing. Not yet.

knock knock knock, “~Mr. Armstrong?~”​

The muffled sounds come together into words, understood and yet incoherent. Name he recognizes or not, someone’s still knocking on the door. The ghost’s body turns towards the house’s front door and takes the first step of many, driven by subconscious impulses long erased. Each little movement disturbs the mounds of trash and grime, sending clouds of dust floating into the air.

He’s too focused to notice, too stunned by his own sudden existence.

One step, another, finally out of arm’s reach of the padded seat. To his left, a book sprawled open on top of the mound of junk, its contents all but forgotten to his conscious mind despite the title on the cover remaining legible. Something about an encyclopedia, something about spirits.

The sight to his right takes too much of his attention for him to even try thinking about it.

A chair lying on the floor bent and discarded. Beside it, a small desk, its surface covered with envelopes. A few still sealed, many opened and disemboweled. Some of their contents lie in a heap behind the desk, crumpled and torn. Some in a pile off to the side, sodden with tears and blood.

And in the center, the letters never sent, the words forever unsaid.

knock knock knock, “~Mr. Armstrong, this is the Mistralton Police Department. Are you there?~”​

At last, the sound distracts the ghost away from the piles of letters. He resumes his journey through the dead building, taking in the sights one after another. On the wall to his right, political paraphernalia for the last few elections, their bold slogans ringing hollow amidst the decay. An unending chant with a different refrain each time, a different group to blame for the woes of the world and the economy. Unionists, immigrants, queers, pagans, women, racial minorities.

Who it was, it mattered not—as long as there was someone to hate, to channel one’s anger towards.

Beneath each slogan, a photo of the associated candidate, drilling into him with their hollow smiles. Into his eyes, into his mind, uncovering the half-digested flashes of him walking along with them, of offering them his unconditional faith and support, the power of all the resentment his weary body could fit.

And then; came consequences.

His spectral legs keep wading through trash, each step easier and easier once he finally turns the corner into the atrium. Fewer wrappers and discarded food here, more boxes and heaps of unopened letters. In the distance, his destination. He can’t make out much from behind the frosted glass, just a couple of dark blobs against the light gray background. They shift from side to side, turn to each other, sometimes even walk away for a moment or two, before inevitably approaching the front again.

knock knock knock, “~Mr. Armstrong, your daughter called us to perform a wellness check. Are you there, Mr. Armstrong?~”​

The words freeze him in place, one of them in particular. His eyes unfocus as he stares at the mound of envelopes in front of the door, the awareness of what some of them are desperately trying to claw at his mind. He keeps it at bay, just barely, and pushes on.

His body needs no air, and yet his breaths deepen with every step. The reality of where and what he is starts creeping up on him, made terrifying by the little he knows, and especially by everything he doesn’t, not anymore. With utmost focus, he resists looking just to the right, to the wall covered with rectangular patches of discoloration, and to the one photo that still hangs there.

A picture of a woman rests askew in its frame. Hastily put together after being torn, enveloped in a web of creases, in damage from being first crumpled and tossed and then dug up in panic from a trash bin. Behind it, obscured, is a photo of a boy, once displayed as a matter of fact, then out of hateful spite.

Nobody else is left.


Nobody nobody nobody nobody nobody He stands before the door, up to his waist in letters. Too short to reach the peephole, but he does so anyway. Before he knows it, his pink eye is level with it, trying desperately to focus on the bright image. Two men in police uniforms looking around bored and checking the time, and an Absol behind them.

Suddenly, the latter turns to stare straight at him, and catches the humans’ attention. They sigh in relief and turn to face him, offering weary, uncertain smiles and as professional a voice as they still can.

“~Mr. Armstrong, there you are! This is the Mistralton Police Department. Your daughter called us to perform a wellness check—could you open the door, Mr. Armstrong?~”

His arm reaches down without even thinking as his head pounds to the rhythm of a long-dead heart. He hurts, it hurts; what is he; where is he; why is he here—

The rusted metal attached to the handle creaks, and the door skews open, carrying with it the reek trapped within. One breath later, it hits the two men outside, sending them dry heaving as they back off; eyes bulge as they look up into the house.

Inside, a feral Banette.

The Absol knows what they have to do, pushing past their humans and their disgust alike as their horn flickers with pitch-black energy. The ghost’s terrified wail fills the decrepit building as they turn to run away—through the trash, through the walls, through the miles of suburbia.

And then, many hours later, he stops. Around him, darkness. Of the woods, of the night.

Of a world that is no longer his home.​

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Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
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Chapter 33: Home

Chapter 33: Home

Each croak of the steps under Anne’s feet sent another jolt through her. Excitement, anticipation, concern about the structural stability of this dwelling, all mixed in wildly varying rates. Just a few steps later, though, all gave into relief at what this burrow turned out to actually be.

Planks lined the room’s walls and floors alike, except for stone and gravel around the hearth at its far side. Not all the same kind, the mismatch in shades of wood looking a bit awkward—and yet, just right at the same time. Figures they couldn’t afford to be picky with building materials. The simple doors along the central room’s sides were curious, but Anne’s attention was snagged by something else before she could investigate them further.

Or rather, someone else.

Garret and Aria stood beside the cauldron, bathed in the bright orange light of the homely flames. As the Dark-type split his focus between working on the meal and holding his wife close, the Gardevoir took her time waking up with a few slow blinks, followed by a yawn. And then, once she’d sensed what it was that had stirred her up, a wide, tired smile aimed towards the incoming group, Anne especially.

“Good evening, Anne,” Aria spoke with her physical voice, putting her utmost effort into not breaking out into yet another yawn.

The mention of the girl finally snapped Garret out of his cooking duties, his toothy expression widening as he watched everyone pile in. He couldn’t spare an arm to wave at them right now, but doing so with individual loose strands of fur all around his body ought to have sufficed. “Hello everyone! Thank goodness I’ve made enough for the next couple days if we’re gonna be having guests!”

A faint blush went through Anne’s expression at the remark—and then another one at the realization that she probably wasn’t thought of as a guest.

The two ghosts tailing the others were unexpected, but someone ought to know them, and that was enough for Garret. His wife was more confused, though, raising an eyebrow first at the Banette, and then at the Indeedee once she’d realized her involvement in this.

“^I’ll explain over dinner, doncha worry,^” Autumn explained telepathically, leaving her daughter-in-law with no choice but to sigh and nod along. An elaboration was in order, but Aria wasn’t rushing for it.

“~A-are you okay, Mrs. Aria?~” Anne worried as she took a couple steps closer; the Gardevoir’s antics earlier in the day were still fresh in her mind. Even ignoring that, though, she wasn’t looking particularly encouraging—not while this exhausted.

The Gardevoir couldn’t deny not quite being back to her usual self. And so; she didn’t. “I’m a bit disheveled, but... I’m better now. A lot better, which I suppose only speaks to how rough this morning was,” Aria admitted with a chuckle, shuddering at the tattered memories of her standoff with Cinder at the clinic as her husband held her closer. “I’m—I’m not sure when I’ll be back to how I was before, unfortunately. Slept almost all day long and I’m still exhausted...”

“The answer’s ‘as long as it takes’, then! And we’ll be here for as long as you need us, honey,” Garret chimed in, his individual hairs caressing Aria from all around. Didn’t make it any easier for her to keep her eyes open with how pleasant it felt, but something told her nobody minded.

There was one more thing she needed to bring up before she could let herself recede into full-on relaxation, though.

“Anne, I...” Aria paused, shuddering as she took a deep breath. It hurt to realize earlier, just like it hurt to even think about now, but Anne deserved it more than ever. “I’m sorry for what happened at the clinic. I freaked out when I shouldn’t have and scared you all, and I’m sorry—”

“~No no, it’s all good Mrs. Aria!~” The girl’s enthusiastic response made the Gardevoir shudder, worries about it being said just to soothe her conscience filling her body for a moment. It took only a brief scan of her innermost sense to make it clear that the girl meant it—with every fiber of her being at that.

It was such an immense sensation it shook whatever drowsiness had clung onto Aria. She opened her eyes wider and turned to look at the girl directly. Exhaustion, shivers, surprise, comfort. Certainty. Wide, genuine eyes and a smile that only grew the moment Aria made it clear she’d noticed. Ember beside her was much the same, even sneaking in some more nods once the Gardevoir had looked at her.

She closed her eyes once more, holding back tears. “T-thank you, Anne, Ember.”

As the relief washed over Aria’s body, her husband didn’t waste the opportunity to chime in, chuckling, “Have a hard time imagining her holding it against you, honey, not after everything that’s happened~.”

Sad as the hypothetical was, it was silly in how unrealistic it was, sending a wave of chuckles through the burrow, the ghosts aside. Yaksha didn’t care, attention laser-focused on Sage as he leaned on the back wall, while Sage... shuddered in fear at hearing Garret’s voice.

The one hypothesis Anne really wished she hadn’t been correct about.

Fortunately, the ghost girl wasn’t doomed to go through it all alone, not with Autumn quietly walking up to her and holding her hand at sensing her discomfort. Aria perked up towards the hauntling as well, but soon switched tracks back to what her husband had said earlier—and rolled her eyes. “We both know that’s not how it works, Garret.”

“Maybe with others, sure. Who knows, maybe my imagination is just too lacking for any reasons to dislike you, honey,” Garret chuckled with the world’s toothiest smirk. As Anne and Ember tried their hardest not to giggle out loud at the scene, Aria slowly turned in her husband’s embrace and reached up; her green hand spotted only an instant before it struck.



And then, before she could even smirk at having dished out the foul strike, a riposte—



By then, the girls weren’t even trying to keep their laughter contained, to the benefit of everyone. Aria took a moment to savor the sight, smile widening as she took in every detail of this oddly large child, this little human, that just so happened to end up at their doorstep and change their world. How heartwarming it was for her to go from doing little more than shaking in fear to this, how amazing her growth outside of her cocoon had been in just a few days,

And then; Aria realized she was the one responsible. It got even harder to hold in the tears, but she held strong—no reason to make the scene gloomy with them, even if they were of the happiest kind imaginable.

Thankfully, a distraction from beyond came soon after.

“Alright, seems it’s high time to prepare for dinner, everyone’s on the way. Autumn, mind helping us out?” Aria asked, prompting Anne to back off at the mention of them doing stuff around the room. As much as she wanted to help people, and especially the Gardevoir, the girl’s rational side kept a hold on her for long enough to underline the fact that she had a single functional limb, and not a strong one at that, compared to the psychics’... many.

Anne wasn’t even certain that analogy made sense, but that wasn’t the point.

The point was for her to get out of the way, and maybe help in the other way she was capable of doing right now. She slunk over to the little Phantump as Autumn started psychicing the furniture around. Sage wasted no time before snuggling into Anne’s front, less out of fear and more at her being a replacement for Autumn’s pleasant warmth.

Only to then immediately switch to huddling Ember once she realized that was an option too.

“~How are you feeling, Sage? Excited?~” Anne asked, unsure of how to chat the younger girl up.

“~Yeah! He’s a bit scary, though. How does his hair do that?~” Sage switched tracks without skipping a beat, making the older girls turn to what she was looking at before piecing the admittedly simple mystery together.

Ember had no answer, and doubted anyone in the entire world knew either—Garret included. Anne hazarded a guess that an explanation might be somewhere deep within a graduate-level dissertation in some university in Galar, but had not a shred of idea about what it was. Not that it mattered either way. “~I don’t know, Sage, but I agree it’s quite weird. A-and cool! Oh, and his name is Mr. Garret!~”

The Phantump listened intently for all of two seconds before resuming using the Braixen as a portable heater; her simple, drowsy affection leaving Anne rolling her eyes and Ember chuckling. Not that the former could maintain her grumpiness for long once her friend clung to her the same way Sage was clinging to her, the soft warmth melting through any snark that might’ve been there.

For a moment or so.

“^Girls, could you move a bit?^” Autumn jutted in, snagging their attention to herself. And then, an instant later, to the table suspended in her green glow floating in the middle of the room, the sight making Anne gasp as they backed off. Granted, she might’ve seen a lot of various applications of psychics in her stay here already, but none were as... straightforwardly flashy as just magically moving a large glowing object around.

Which didn’t go unnoticed by the vixen beside her.

As the Indeedee finished adjusting the table and turned to grab the dishes, an orange glow grabbed them first, slow and shaky despite the light load. Neither girl noticed Autumn giggling under her breath as they either performed or watched the bowls and spoons being laid around. It took Anne a moment to acknowledge the change in color, but once she did, the culprit was obvious.

Without skipping a beat, Anne kneeled and pulled her friend into a tight hug, the startle snuffing the magical light in the vixen’s eyes. Ember’s blush might’ve gone unnoticed, but that didn’t extend to the wave of warmth that went through her, made even sweeter after she had returned Anne’s embrace. It felt nice, so nice.

The kind of nice that they didn’t have any hopes of ever savoring again just a few days ago.

Not just pleasant, but... safe, safe in a way they were now only beginning to discover with other people. The kind of safe that kept the flames of hope burning no matter what, as long as they still had each other. It might’ve been deliberately erased, it might’ve been nigh-forgotten with time—but that didn’t matter anymore.

They had each other again, now and forever.

“^Hehe... I-I think I should try practicing more Fire-type stuff...^” Ember giggled telepathically, happy embarrassment dripping through her voice.

Sweet enough to earn her another hug as Anne grew confused about what she meant. “~What for?~”

“^Ooh, just... if anything bad ever happens, I wanna know how to protect you more! I don’t—don’t want anyone to ever hurt you again like—like your parents did...^” The Braixen admitted, voice growing quieter with each word. Both at how harrowing that possibility was to imagine and at having to think back on the cruelty they had both experienced.

The tightest hug Anne could dish out, just moments later.

“~They won’t, I promise, Ember. We’re safe now!~” Anne whispered, torn between wanting to just hype them both up about what she hoped was the case, and genuinely believing it herself.

The Braixen was firmly in the latter camp by now, but it wasn’t her only motivation. “^I know, I know, b-but... um...^”

And her human soon noticed.

“~Oh? What is it, Ember? I-is something wrong, or...~” Anne didn’t finish the sentence, unsure about what kind of hidden motive her best friend would be keeping away from her. She doubted it was anything nefarious, but the uncertainty wasn’t pleasant.

Ember shuddered at sensing that; gathering courage before she admitted, “^No no, you did nothing wrong, Anne! I-I just... want to make you feel e-even nicer. With the warmth and all. J-just like you always made me feel...^”

Neither of them could hold in the stray tears that followed, needing a moment to come to once the last of the dinner preparation happened around them.

“~W-well in that case, I’ll keep practicing drawing, so that I can keep drawing you nicer and nicer!~” Anne responded, turning her emotions into more confidence than she was used to. She doubted herself for a second before she spotted Ember’s tail wagging behind her at the idea, sending her giggling as the Braixen tried to keep her embarrassment down.

“^C-could I watch? it’s fun hanging out with you...^”

Anne nodded harder than ever. “Of course! I’d love to show it to you and maybe teach it to you! I hope it’ll be alright for me to watch your practice, too. I-I’m sorry for never doing any of that with you, but I wanna see how much you’ve grown since—eek!~” Anne’s smuggled-in apology was rewarded with all it deserved—an even tighter hug from her friend. Almost warm enough to make her sweat in the sweater, almost too tight for comfort—blissful all the same.

“^B-but you’ve done nothing wrong, Anne! And my mom has taught me since, I don’t think you would’ve known how to do it, anyway. And, of course, you’d be able to watch, I-I’d love to show it to you, eeee...^” Ember squealed, the sheer fluster leaking out of her body through excited tail wags. Their little spectacle was equal parts silly and adorable to watch from the sidelines; Aria holding tight in a fight against her own desire to giggle at the sight as her mother-in-law lost, if barely.

Thankfully, the girls didn’t notice. Which couldn’t be said for what came right after, though—

“~I-I love you, Ember.~”

“^I love you too, A-Anne!^”

“^You two are adorable,^” Autumn chuckled, making them both jolt in their overlong hug. The Indeedee didn’t know which was funnier—their embarrassment, or how they still took their time unwrapping themselves from each other’s arms despite it.

Aria spared them any further egging, turning their attention over to the now fully laid out table. “Take your seats, girls. The others are right outside—”


The sound from up the staircase made them shudder as they were settling in for the meal. To their concern, Marco was already quite wet; a glimpse through the front door revealed the outside to be dark and rainy before it was psychically closed. The two bags he’d carried with him had been protected with thin psychic sheens, but he seemingly hadn’t extended that to himself.

“You alright, Marco?” Aria asked, concern creeping onto her face as her brother placed the bags down and scooted over to the hearth.

The Gallade took his time answering, closing his eyes as he gathered words. “^Yes, yes, I’m good. The rain is nasty, and there’s some snow mixed in that too, shudder. Elric sure won’t enjoy flying through that, hope they’re already close.^”

“^They’re getting closer, I can feel them, thank gods. Thank you for bringing the bags over, Marco. What did Esther say about Anne’s checkup?^” Autumn asked, perking up from constantly resisting the call of the warm stew before her.

“^Everything can wait until at least tomorrow. She mentioned that keeping her arm numbed overnight might be an issue, but said that you or Aria should be able to keep the pain in check if it flares up,^” Marco forwarded, looking up at Anne. The girl didn’t seem too concerned about the possibility of hurting. That, or she just trusted the psychics around her to help with that should they need to.

Both options made Marco smile just a bit.

“^Oh, Sage, are you gonna eat?^” Ember broke the silence with a quiet question towards the Phantump, catching her staring idly at an unclaimed bowl.

The little one wasn’t expecting being talked to, blinking as she came back to and turned to the Braixen. “~I don’t know. Can I eat this?~” She asked, clearly uncertain—though much more so on whether she was permitted to, rather on whether her biology even allowed her to eat fluids like this.

Then again, not like eating solids as a ghost made any more sense.

“Sure, sweetie. Have as much as you want, there’s plenty for all of us,” Aria chimed, giving the ghostly girl the warmest smile she could manage. It deflated a bit once she realized Sage didn’t notice, but the Gardevoir didn’t let it get to her. “How about you, Yaksha?”

Just like the hauntling he was watching over, the Banette shuddered at being addressed, though there clearly was more to it than just surprise. Half the room felt bitter regret spike in him as his pink eyes shifted to look at Aria; the wordless shake of his head speaking for itself.

His loss, she supposed.

Neither of them had the time to elaborate anymore as the squeals from outside picked up in volume, followed moments later by the front door getting slammed open. Without wasting even a moment for words, Elric swooped in and didn’t stop until he was right beside the hearth, freezing water dripping off his carapace. Cadence ran in a few seconds later, looking behind herself at the last moment before leaping down the stairs.

Sure didn’t expect either of their current guests there, but was too cold to express her confusion right away.

Bell came in last, shivers racking his tiny body as he finally cleared the doorframe. By tripping on it that is, squealing in fright as he was flung forward head first, the entire family’s psychics focusing all at once to catch him—

Only for a red aura that didn’t belong to any of them to do it first.

As everyone’s racing hearts calmed down and the Ralts was hovered down to the bottom of the staircase, those further into the room could spot a familiar, if unexpected, sight peeking in through the front entrance. Red light filled Cinder’s eyes as she maneuvered the little one down to safety, stopping afterward to look Aria straight in the eye once her aura had dissolved.

And with a single, firm nod, she resumed her watch in the cold, dark outside, closing the door behind Bell.

The Gardevoir considered inviting her in for a moment, but... figured it was best to not do that. Not yet, not with the tension and stress around everything she’d done so fresh in their minds. Cinder was more than strong enough to keep herself dry, anyway.

Bell had noticed the mental grip not quite being like that of his mom, sister, grandma or uncle—but by the time he looked up the staircase, the older vixen was already out of sight. He could still feel her, if barely, squeaking out a quiet “Thank you!” and joining his sibling and de facto-sibling in huddling beside the flames.

Ember giggled under her breath at the shaking kids, their excitement and cold giving way to comfort by the moment—especially once Autumn had tossed a large blanket over the three of them. With their small bodies blocking a lot of the flame’s light, the rest of the room was plunged into a soft shade, one that only empowered the exhaustion already pulling at Anne’s mind.

Not yet, definitely not yet—but gosh, was she tired. Not enough to doze off on the spot, but a yawn still left her once her focus had slipped—and everyone heard this time.

Especially the kids.

“Anne!? Wh-when did ya get here?” Elric asked with a crack in his voice, a surprised gaze sweeping over the rest of the assorted guests right after. He didn’t mind the human girl and especially not Ember, but it still felt weird for them to just... be here. Wasn’t Anne seriously injured?

Hardly the state to be visiting people.

The Gligar’s call may not have earned him any immediate answers, not with the subject of his sudden question too uncertain to respond, but it pulled the other kids’ attention to their guests. The Kirlia greeted them with a “Hey Anne, hey Ember—and Sage too,” too tired and cold to speak louder than a regular indoor voice for the first time in her life. Her younger brother let out a joyful squeak that then dovetailed into a sneeze.

“Bless you,” said everyone.

“^As to your question, Elric, we got here earlier! And no, Anne isn’t just visiting, she’s gonna be staying with us!^” Autumn informed, her confident smile growing wider still as she took the kids’ reactions in. Surprise from Elric, first the neutral sort before warming into more positive territory; an excited gasp from Cadence; and another happy squeal from Bell. The Ralts might not have gotten the full importance of what his grandma had just said, but it didn’t matter.

He liked Anne and was happy to see her, no matter the circumstances behind it.

The Indeedee’s bright joy was briefly interrupted by sensing the mischief sprouting in the pink bat’s mind, brown eyes narrowing on him ever so slightly. Fortunately for everyone, for once even he had it in him to realize it’d be for the best if he kept from any pranks for now—even if because of just how tired he was.

Guess a poor reason beats no reason.

As he shook off the remaining moisture on his chitin, the clacking of his tail filling the room, Cadence picked up on something else, eyes going wide. “Will Anne sleep together with us?” She asked in a mix of confusion, concern, and excitement.

Autumn looked first at Anne, then at Aria, and finally back at Cadence, arriving at as confident an answer as she could manage, “^Yes she will, sweetie.^”

“But she won’t fit. She’s too big, right?” The Kirlia responded, worried about her friend having to sleep with her legs sticking out of their bedding.

An obvious issue, but one with an equally obvious solution.

“^Oh, we’ll just fix together something for her to lay her legs on, don’t worry, sweetie. Anyhow—warmed enough for dinner, you three?^” Autumn asked with a smirk, providing the jolt the little ones needed to finally scramble out from under the blanket and join everyone else at the table.

It was time to eat.

As wonderful as it smelled, it took Anne a while to get used to the stew’s texture. Her grandma only made soups sometimes, and they tended to be much thinner than this. Her biological parents’ cooking was... haphazard at best, and more often than not consisted of grabbing a bag of frozen food from the clearance aisle and proceeding to either burn or undercook it every time they shoved it into the oven, without fail. Little room for fluid meals in that, except by accident.

After her tongue and throat made peace with eating a meal with so much solid stuff floating around a thick liquid, though, she could focus entirely on the flavor—and it tasted wonderful. Thick, savory, almost meaty in a way her mind associated with special occasions. She figured it wasn’t actually meat, and that meat was... unwelcome in the village altogether, but the resemblance was there all the same.

The slices of grilled vegetables and berries only made it better, many of them preserving their crunch despite being waterlogged in sauce.

Once Anne had settled into her eating groove, the next thing she knew, her bowl was empty, leaving her scraping her spoon against its almost-dry bottom. She was unsure whether she’d gotten caught in her thoughts again but had genuinely dozed off for a moment there, but the result was the same either way.

And now she was even more drowsy than before.

A look around the room let her know she was alone in that, Ember aside. The Braixen leaned on her from the next seat over, almost having slid off the pillow she sat on. Everyone else was no less content, if more alert, the bliss of a warm, filling meal in a cold, dark evening refusing to quite hold them tight with what still awaited some of them.

Anne felt bad about not sharing their alertness once she’d realized it was likely about Sage, but couldn’t deny her tiredness either.

Speaking of the Phantump in the room.

The small stain on the bottom of her wooden face made it clear Sage had at least tried the meal—though the nearly full bowl before her implied that she either didn’t enjoy it or was already full. Anne could’ve sworn she never saw her eat yesterday, but had no idea how it worked with ghosts, anyway.

Yaksha kept sulking in the darkest part of the room, pink eyes glowing dimly as they stared inward.

Before Anne could continue her people-watching, though, someone had noticed she was done with her meal—and not anyone she expected to, either. “Anneeeeee, can you draw me again?” Bell asked, leaning towards her from his mom’s lap. Autumn and Aria giggled as the human girl sat there in flustered silence, unsure how to respond.

She was way too tired for this, that’s for sure, but... But. No, that worked as an explanation by itself. “~I’m sorry Bell, but I’m exhausted. Maybe I could draw you some other time?~” Anne replied, giving the tyke the widest smile she could manage.

Contrary to her worries, Bell took it in stride. “Okie! OH,” he gasped, pulling half a dozen gazes onto himself, “I know, I know!” What did he know, nobody knew; the room left confused as they watched him scramble off Aria’s lap and dash into one of the side rooms. From what Anne could make out, it was entirely dark—at least until a lit candle suspended in Autumn’s green glow followed the tyke in, prompting a squeaked-out “Thank you!”

Cadence had no idea what her brother was up to, but she wanted to find out, following in tow soon after. Elric considered it for a while, too, before settling for getting some more warmth instead. Playing around could wait. Laying on the wooden floor three feet away from a warm, roaring fire? Now that was the stuff. Not that anyone could blame him—


“Gods, that’s some nasty weather outside. Now I’m even more glad we went ahead and replaced all the waterproofing last year, ugh.” Garret shuddered at the distant thunder and less-distant memory alike. He looked around the outer walls with pride, spotting only a couple of spots where moisture was building up on the wood.

Far from ideal, but it far beat what came before.

“If I never get woken up by a drop of cold water splashing against my horns again, it’ll be too soon,” Aria commented, glad beyond words for that unpleasant era to be over. If nothing else, it had encouraged her to cuddle closer to her husband so that his fur might take the hit instead of her, so... silver linings, she supposed.

As the spouses reminisced, Autumn spoke up with concern, “^Marco, Yaksha, are you sure you want to head out in a weather like this?^” The Gallade’s hesitant expression spoke volumes, but he knew that his opinion on this mattered less than that of the two ghosts.

He wasn’t blind to the original reasoning for wanting to rush this entire ordeal, either. “^Might as well. I don’t want us to be stuck waiting for the circumstances to be perfect only to have the Elders accidentally realize they haven’t ‘weighed in’ on this yet,^” he commented bitterly.

As Yaksha nodded along and Sage idly floated over to snuggle into Ember’s warm fluff some more, Aria realized what the discussion was about, switching to telepathy. “^Are you thinking about returning Sage to her human home today?^” Once her brother and her mother-in-law answered with firm nods, she continued, “^I remember the Elders mentioning the possibility of her babbling us out to her family in case she ends up staying there. Which...^” Aria started, voice trailing off as she felt the emotions in the room shift.

Yeah, neither Autumn, Marco, nor even Anne were oblivious to just how tenuous the odds were for Sage. She’d just be preaching to the choir.

“^What are you planning on, then?^” Autumn asked, unnerved by the topic of keeping people from giving them away, especially with Ember’s situation so fresh in memory.

In all truth, Aria wasn’t sure. She’d bluffed her way through that discussion back during the hearing itself, but now that she had to act, she didn’t know what to do. Her mind wracked through that dilemma; not wanting to inflict cruelty on this innocent child while genuinely afraid of the risks associated with Sage rejoining humanity.

A situation about as likely as Winnie building a shrine to the human trainerkind, but not strictly impossible.

After a few tense moments, she scrambled herself out of her husband’s fluffy embrace and stood up, stretching her limbs and popping joints. Thoughts churned through her mind as she approached the Phantump. Uncertainty kept her flip-flopping between a couple of options even as she kneeled and beckoned Sage over; the hauntling squeaking in joy at seeing her again and floating over to hug her.

The way she saw it, there was only one right way to handle this.

“^Sage?^” Aria whispered telepathically, catching the girl’s full attention. “^Could you promise me something?^”

Firm, almost full body nods, the red lights of her eyes narrow and focused.

“^Can you promise me you won’t talk about us to anyone? As in, all the mons living here or about Anne?^”

As far as Sage was concerned, it was a rather weird request, one she had difficulty grasping in full. “~Why?~” She asked, the wail of her voice dripping with confusion. To Aria’s chagrin, she didn’t know how to answer it in a way someone this young would understand—or without making her freak out at how much rested on her spectral shoulders.

At least, until she came up with an excuse, “^Because it’d be very rude. You can talk about Yaksha, though.^” Aria winced ever so slightly at the blip of worry emanating from Sage, but thankfully, it was gone as soon as it had appeared.

“~Okay!~” Her loud response caught the Banette’s attention before it snapped over onto Aria with an unspoken question. The Gardevoir looked over at her brother, and then at her mom-in-law, before answering with a nod.

It was time.

Marco shuddered at the thought of having to brave the elements as he picked himself up from the table, mind racing. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to any of this, but if there was any part of this doomed plan that caught his interest, it was disguising himself as a human. “^So, Anne, what kinds of… clothes would let me stay undetected by humans?^”

Anne blinked rapidly before her brain caught up, leaving her perking up from her seat and staggering over as she looked at the bags. “~Mrs. Graham’s coat was the main thing, it should be large enough to disguise most of you, I think. Afterwards, it’s just finding clothes that cover anything that’s still visible.~” She explained, eying out the Gallade. He wasn’t as tall as she remembered him being while bedridden, easing a lot of her doubts about the entire plan.

Of course, there still were issues; one of them ran into the moment Marco tried to slide his second arm into the felt sleeve. Anything touching his horns was already bad enough, but the coarseness of the material somehow made it even worse than he feared. Not painful, not without additional force being applied to it, but... profoundly uncomfortable.

He doubted adding more clothes would magically fix the issue, though, and kept quiet, deflecting his sister’s concerns with a firm shake. He’d bear through it. It was the only thing he was good at, anyway. Aria wanted to argue but didn’t have the time to speak up before Anne cut her off, “~Okay, now the buttons on the front. Does it fit, Mr. Marco? Doesn’t look very comfortable...~”

It took the Gallade all the willpower he could gather to not respond with anything more than “It’s fine, don’t worry.” His voice was strained despite his best efforts, but Anne figured she’d just misheard him. Unsurprisingly, doing the front buttons, with Anne’s help, made the chafing even worse—still bearable, though.


He’d still wait before doing the button directly over his horn until they got to the human territory, if possible.

“^A-alright. What’s next?^” Marco asked, the directness overruling Anne’s budding concerns.

The remaining spots to cover up weren’t hard to spot. Head, crest included, as well as hands and feet. The latter looked like they’d be especially tricky, their shape ill-suited for any shoes. She figured it was best they start with the top, though. “~For the crest, I’m thinking...~” she trailed off, free hand digging through a bagful of variously damaged clothes until she spotted her target. “~Th-there it is. Uh, it’ll look a bit silly, but it should cover it up.~”

The garment was off-black and shaped like half a sphere. Marco had no idea what was it intended for in humans with a shape like that, but if nothing else it proved just the right shape to mostly cover his crest—and only crest. They’d need a lot more for the rest of the head, which—“~There! This scarf has seen better days, but I th-think it’s large enough to wrap your entire head.~”

Marco had no idea how the humans handled garments this unwieldy without telepathy, that’s for sure. Even with his hands free, it took a good few tries just orienting the black and white strip of rough fabric to cover every bit of white skin, green hair, and teal crest, leaving only a thin horizontal slit to look out through.

Thank the gods for psychics.

“^Are you sure this is necessary, Anne?^” He asked, trying his absolute hardest to hide any exasperation from leaking—to mixed results.

The girl was uncertain, but eventually responded with the world’s shakiest nod. “~Well, it’ll help, I-I think...~”

Should’ve kept his mouth shut. “^No no, it’s fine, I’m sorry. What’s next?^” He reassured her through deep breaths and gritted teeth, the warmth making the layers he was already wearing feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Anne wasn’t convinced but figured she ought to get through the rest of it all as fast as she could. “~O-okay, gloves go on your hands. If they don’t fit, you can have them just sticking out the sleeves or something. And for legs... umm... maybe they just won’t look—no wait, I know,~” Anne exclaimed. Alertness tried its hardest to push through her growing exhaustion as she dug in for the one piece of clothing she swore she glimpsed the other day—and here it was!

It took her a few seconds of Anne triumphantly holding her find in the air to remember she ought to explain it to the Gallade in the room, fluster spreading onto her cheeks as she turned to address him. “~Th-this is a skirt, I was thinking it could go under the coat, and you could hold it in place so that its bottom just barely touches the ground.~”

The girl’s explanation made all the sense in the world—but only for her, leaving Marco staring at her with the flattest look of his life. Unsure how else to word it, she demonstrated what she meant, sliding Mrs. Graham’s skirt over onto a single leg and lifting it until it was flush with the floor.

Marco understood the instructions, thankfully, repeating Anne’s demonstration with one leg, and then the other, psychically adjusting the stretchy band until he got it just right. Unfortunately, while the sweet spot for the girl was right around her navel, for Marco, it was in the middle of his hips. If he tried to hold it underneath them, it would drag on the ground, and the other option... yeah no, that way it covered nothing with how much of the material got snagged up there.

Suppose the first option was the less bad one of the two. He’d manage—what mattered was that this ordeal was finally done.

“^This is an obscene number of layers...^” Marco muttered, having to dedicate a non-insignificant amount of attention to just keeping the costume in one place, on top of the chafing.

“~And it’s just the outer ones, heh... b-but yes, it’s done! I hope it’s not too hot...~”

“^It... is. Yaksha, Sage, can we head out now?^” Despite his earlier courtesy, Marco didn’t have enough willpower to pretend he wasn’t overheating in real-time.

The older ghost hovered over and turned to look at the younger one as she got the cue to say her goodbyes. “~Oh oh lemme say goodbyes, please! Bye-bye, Anne! Bye bye, E-Ember! Oh oh oh, bye bye Mrs. Autumn! Bye-bye, Mrs. Aria!~” Sage floated from one friend to another, growing giddier as they all responded in kind, the realization she would be finally going home blooming in her mind.

The psychics remained too weak to confront her with the truth.

“Bye-bye, Sage!” Garret added by himself, his demonic voice once more startling the Phantump. It wasn’t lost on him this time, leaving him leaning back in worry as Autumn gathered words to comfort the ghostly girl—

Only for that to not be needed.

“~B-bye bye!~” Her voice was shaky, but she managed all the same. Something long dead inside Yaksha smiled a bit at the sight, but he didn’t react otherwise.

Sage might have avoided freaking out, but it was still a jolt to her system, one that encouraged her to get going and not waste any more time here. Without saying a word, she floated to the top of the staircase and opened the door—only for the wind to blow her back with a frosty, rain-filled breeze, chilling her and wetting her wig. “~Eeeeeee, I need an umbrella!~” She cried out as her small body shuddered.

Anne wasted no time in fulfilling the younger girl’s request, grateful to the librarian for including one of those in her makeshift care package. Sage, somewhat expectedly, opened it right away and startled half the room—though the older girl was there to help her out. “~Sorry...~” The Phantump muttered, earning herself one last one-armed hug.

“~It’s okay, it’s okay. Ready to get going, Sage?~” Anne reassured, locking the umbrella in the closed position with the little ghost’s help. Sage nodded eagerly, looking at her guardian and the friend escorting them to let them know, before breaking into giggles once she’d finally noticed Marco’s appearance.

Not something he appreciated, but little he could do about it right now.

“~Hehehe, you look like a spy!~” Sage laughed, forcing a weary smile out of her older friend and exactly nobody else.

“~Closer to a homeless person, I’d say. P-probably for the best, now that I think about it...~” Anne followed up, hoping that Marco's outfit would keep humans from interacting with him without noticing the... rather awkward bumps at the front and back of his chest. Neither he nor anyone else knew what ‘homeless’ meant here, and Autumn’s brief attempt to figure out the definition in that word from Anne’s words left her further shocked at humanity’s casual cruelty, but the Gallade was glad to hear that his disguise would be effective.

“~Let’s not waste any more time. Sage, c’mere,~” Yaksha grunted, levitating up the staircase with the Phantump close behind, forcing Marco to hurry—something much easier said than done with all the immobilizing clothes.

As he was about to ascend the stairs, though, his eyes locked with his sister's. It was one thing to keep a facade of confidence in front of a pair of ghosts who didn't pay attention and a girl that didn't know him all that well, but Aria was another matter entirely.

She saw right through him, all his doubts and worries on display even without having to resort to reading his thoughts. About Sage's doomed wish, about the rest of this journey, about maintaining his disguise,

About doing half as good a job as she would in this situation.

They didn't have the time to go into a discussion about this—but it wasn't needed. A smile, a nod, a reassuring look of a proud older sister. Each so small, so easily missed, but dearly appreciated all the same.

He could do it, even if he didn't quite believe it himself.

As the group got going, Anne braved the cold behind them all, wanting to wave the poor lil’ girl away one last time. Before she could get there, though, Marco stopped in front of her, and Sage before him, the blockade confusing everyone in the living room—

At least, until Aria figured it out and gasped out loud.

As she did, Yaksha finally got going again, walking around the mon that had lay down before the burrow’s entrance. Sage followed with a bit of concern for the stranger, though she was focusing much more on not letting the wind and rain blow her away once she’d opened the umbrella again. Marco said nothing, refusing to acknowledge their ‘guest’ for the sake of not disrupting their plan—not that his disguise was fooling anyone.

And behind all of them, Anne could only stare at the scarred marine Elder; their appearance forever burned into the girl’s memory. She knew she ought to still remember their name; she knew they told it to her just yesterday, but she just didn’t.

All they could do for a few long seconds was stare into each other’s eyes, Anne’s glasses-clad brown ones against the Elder’s azure ones. Even without the scarred paw they had covered their face with for most of yesterday’s ceremony, she still couldn’t piece their expression together beyond it being thoughtful.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to.

Before Anne knew it, Aria was standing beside her, similarly confused about the Elder’s presence. Anger at her partial responsibility in this entire ordeal mixed in with what she just faintly remembered happening last night: Celia’s attack on Winnie, seemingly to protect Anne. The Gardevoir was more than a bit uncertain of that being the Primarina’s true motivation—though that was true for everything about her.

One thing she’d never seen or even heard her do, though, was show up at someone’s doorstep in the dark night, through the frigid, melting snow.

The impasse lasted for a while, one side holding her cards close as usual as the other remained baffled at everything going on. The latter was quite honestly fed up with it by now, about ready to chew the former out—

But then, at last, Celia spoke. “Hello, Anne.”

Anne shuddered at being addressed directly, clinging closer to Aria as she took a step forward. “^Why are you here, E—Celia?^” Aria snarled, red eyes glowing dimly in the dark as they drilled into the Primarina.

“I want to come clear about my actions over the past few days, and make it clear I’m glad about her staying here,” Celia responded in the same unemotional monotone as always.

The words took Anne aback, but Aria wasn’t convinced. “^If you’re supposedly glad that she’ll stay with us, why not express support for her sooner? Why didn’t you say anything before the vote—why did you drag her in, terrified, just to ask some questions!?^” Aria shouted telepathically, the other two flinching at the intensity of the voice in their heads.

The Gardevoir’s anger might’ve been aimed as away from her as possible, but it didn’t help any with Anne’s spooks.

Celia gathered her words, shaking as she spoke. “No. I wanted Anne there to elicit sympathy. To make it that much harder for others to vote against her safety, for their empathy to work against their bad intentions. Harder to vote to banish a terrified child when you have no choice but to look at them, after all.” The Primarina’s voice remained as matter-of-fact as she got, only grating Aria further as she chewed through the Elder’s excuse.

It still made no sense.

“^Why did you ask her to remain blind throughout, then? Why not just ask her to look terrified!?^” Aria demanded an explanation; her anger only made worse by Celia’s apparent nonchalance.

“Her fear needed to be authentic to convince anyone. I-I apologize for making you go through that, Anne. It was cruel of me, but it was the best course of action I could think of to ensure your long-term safety here,” Celia admitted, her voice growing meeker by the word. The human girl was taken aback, but... could see the logic behind the Elder’s actions. A cruel, almost sociopathic logic, but it was in the best intentions, after all. And she was saying the truth, too—Aria would’ve said something otherwise if she was lying.

Before Anne could thank the Water-type, though, Aria went off.

“^I’m not biting this, Celia. You traumatized Anne because you’d rather she bear the brunt of having to fight for her safety; you'd rather she was terrified half to death just so that you didn’t have to speak up in her defense. Just so that you wouldn’t have to take a stand for the first time in your fucking life. If you were clear from the get-go, then maybe none of this would’ve had to happen, maybe you would’ve swayed enough people to let us AVOID SUBJECTING HER TO THIS HELL IN THE FIRST PLACE!^”

Aria shook as she stewed in her own fury, scalding enough for Anne to take a step back out of shock. On the other side of the doorway, the Primarina stared back, confidence evaporating by the moment until she half-nodded, half-collapsed on the snow and mud underneath.

“You’re right. I’m... I’m sorry, Anne. I hope you’ll find peace here. You deserve it. Good—goodnight.” Each word came harder and harder until Celia was reduced to little more than a quaking heap. It hurt, but there was little she could do about it.

Was she justified? Maybe.

Was she a coward? Definitely.

Would Orion look kindly on her if he was still here?

Would her Lords and Ladies?


The thought stabbed Celia through the heart, her expression crunching in pain. Her tears were lost in the rain, curses aimed at her inability to act were obscured by the unending din of wind. It was pathetic; she was pathetic, the echoing reality of that fact grinding her mind into dust—

But she wasn’t alone.

The Primarina flinched as the freezing rain stopped, together with the wind. She shook on the ground for a few moments that lasted an eternity before daring to look up, up at the reddish shimmer that kept the elements at bay. Cinder’s eyes glowed as she stared her down, standing beside the burrow’s entrance. There was no reassurance in her gaze, but no admonition either. She was there, willing to help keep the rain at bay,

But Celia’s demons were her own to deal with.

Once the Water-type calmed down, the Delphox stepped in front of the door and looked past Aria and Anne standing on the stairs. She spoke, voice dry as ash, “Ember? It’s time for us to head home.”

Anne’s heart sank as she looked around, down the stairs, and watched as the younger vixen ran over to look up at her mom. She didn’t want her friend to leave—and thankfully, Ember was on the same page. “U-umm... m-mom, can I stay with Anne tonight? I-it’s her first night a-at her new home, after all...” the Braixen stammered, not expecting her plea to accomplish much.

Cinder tried as hard as she could to keep her flinch hidden, to mixed results. A deep, pained breath later, she spoke, “Sure. I’ll be here in the morning, then. Love you, sweetie.” Without another word, she turned around to Celia and nodded, the red glow of her psychics helping the Primarina turn around together with the cart her lower body rested on. It’d be a long, cold march—


The Delphox froze at feeling something grab her torso, too distracted by her own moping to react.

“T-thank you, mom!”

It took Cinder all the restraint she still had to not break down there and then, clenching her eyes shut as she silently turned around and hugged her daughter tight. And then, at last, she left, with Celia beside her.

“I-is Elder Celia alright?” Ember asked, taken aback at spotting the Water-type beside her mom.

“^I think she’s coming to terms with things. She’ll figure it out, I’ve no doubt. Either way, not something for us to worry about—let’s get inside,^” Aria guided, exhaustion staining her words as she psychiced the door shut. Anne was still quite rattled after what she’d just witnessed, prompting Ember to hold her tight the entire way down the stairs.

It helped more than either of them would’ve imagined—and left them even more tired than before.

Anne blinked in surprise at seeing the living room completely cleaned up, aside from the small pile of dirty dishes due to be taken out to get washed in the rain. The table stood upright in the corner; the pillows they used as seats were gone—nothing but a hearth, tended to by Garret.

Nothing more to stave the exhaustion off with.

“^Let’s prepare for bed, eh? Ember, Elric, wanna help me lay the bedding right for Anne?^” Autumn asked with all the pep she could still muster in her voice, gently yanking on the blanket the bat had swaddled himself with.

He groaned and whined for a moment, the sound of the latter lost deep within the ultrasound range, but eventually relented. “Okaaaaaay. Last one’s there is a rotten egg!” He exclaimed, bolting up from his grounded position in less time than it took Ember to even process what she’s just heard.

And the worst thing was, she couldn’t even stick her tongue out at him because he was already in the other room.

She didn’t let that fact dissuade her though, dashing in as fast as she could manage after him, the slightly faster pace betraying a slight limp. And then, once the Indeedee finished rolling her eyes and psychiced Anne’s bags over, closing the door after herself, all that was left were Anne and Aria—the Grimmsnarl at the other end of the room aside.

As tired as Anne was, the shock of having just witnessed... that still kept her a bit rattled. She flinched as Aria walked beside her, giving her the warmest smile she could muster out after a day like that. It might’ve been scary, but... Anne trusted Aria, more than anyone else. Her arm shook as she wrapped it around the Gardevoir, the psychic’s tingly, almost ticklish touch on her head making her squirm.

Despite everything, she felt safe.

The worries remained, though.

“~W-why did you shout at her?~” Anne mumbled, her voice almost entirely drained of the earlier unease. She kept her head pressed into the Gardevoir as she leaned on her, more and more leftover strength leaving her by the moment.

She felt Aria’s deep breath fill her chest, then another—until finally, came words. “^Her intentions were good, but they’re not everything. She still caused you needless pain. And she’s more than smart enough to know that, to know better. Maybe... maybe I was too harsh on her. I’ll try talking to her tomorrow. I’m sorry you had to see all that, Anne.^” Aria spilled her heart, the facade of certainty and scorn from earlier coming undone in the tired comfort of her burrow.

Maybe she too had made a mistake in all this.

Anne nodded idly, her embrace growing ever tighter. If Aria had indeed gone overboard, then it wasn’t nice, but... Anne understood. In a way, it felt nice to have someone so strongly standing for her. Really nice, even. She might’ve known more than yesterday, more aware that even Aria had her limits and that she wouldn’t always remain the nicest person around, and that what they’d been through left them both rattled, but...


She still felt it.

That warm, incandescent sense of protection from yesterday, no longer tainted by fear for her own life. The trust so casually certain it ought to be impossible, and yet it felt downright natural by now. The... the desire she’d told the—the Elders near the end, the...

Aria’s eyes went wide as Anne’s mind grew more turbulent, the central thread inside it making her gasp silently. She kept herself from physically reacting as much as she could, and willed the tears into non-existence through utmost effort as the girl chewed through thoughts only she could process in full. Thoughts that would turn tainted and sinister if ever manipulated, only made joyful in their purity. Aria couldn’t assist Anne in processing them,

But she didn’t have to.

“~M-M-Mrs. A-Aria?~” Anne stammered, tension gripping her body until she was left at the very edge of tears.

The Gardevoir took deep breaths, staving off joining the girl there for just a few more moments, keeping her voice as calm as possible as she replied, “^Yes, Anne?^”

“~W-would... w-w-would...~” the girl struggled with words, clenching her guardian tighter as she forced out, “~Would it be okay if I—if I called you my m-m-mom?~”

Anne’s breath was stuck in her throat, each racing heartbeat lasting an eternity. One, another, third still—and finally, response.

“^As long as it’s okay for me to call you my—my daughter.^”​

The distant crackling of flame was the only sound in the room as Anne’s tired mind parsed Aria’s answer, her heart skipping a bit. She gasped, looked up at the Gardevoir,

And cried the happiest tears of her life. Her body shook; she could barely keep standing, but it didn’t matter, none of it did. Aria was there, she was safe, she’d be safe, and she—she—

“~Th-thank you...~”

Aria sobbed with her daughter, each tear cleansing her soul. She, too, only barely remained upright, her psychics growing weaker and weaker at the exhaustion, physical and emotional alike. All that kept her going anymore was love, Anne’s for her and hers for Anne and everyone else’s, brilliant and warm and—


“You looked like you were about to topple over there, honey, ha!” Garret shouted, glad at having saved them two from the perils of gravity. His amusement didn’t last long though, not once he’d spotted the tears flowing from them both, sprouting concern on his fanged face.

And then, joy no less radiant than his wife’s once she’d told him what had happened.

It took him all the willpower he could muster to keep himself from squeezing his wife and—and daughter too hard, eyes clenched shut as they leaned more and more of their weight on him. There was so much celebration to be had about this, about all this—but not today. Today, everyone still awake was long overdue for some shut-eye, and not even the euphoric news could overrule that fact.

“^I think it’s time for us both to get some rest, sweetie,^” Aria mumbled with a smile, snapping the increasingly dozing Anne back to some semblance of awareness. Yeah, Mrs.—her mom was right, they were both so tired. With how tight G—dad was holding them, it’s not like she could do much in response to m-mom’s words.

The Grimmsnarl could, though—and he did. A stray strand of hair pushed the door open before him as he ducked through the doorframe. Anne took the children’s bedroom in as she was carried, tears returning in force bit by bit. At her items beside the small pile of others’ accessories and wooden toys, at an extra-sized space being left on their mat-like bedding, at a folded blanket being placed on the bedding’s edge to accommodate her,

At the charcoal scribbles of her and Ember among the rest of the family.

Cadence, Elric, and Bell looked asleep, and Ember only barely clung to awareness herself. She’d taken her shawl off, leaving her in just the eyepatch as she turned to look at the noise—and smiled at Anne finally being here with them.

The exhaustion made it hard for Anne to follow what happened after. Aria helped her with the sweater, took her glasses off and carefully placed them on a shelf, and took care of her shoes—the next thing the girl knew, she was lying in between Bell and Ember; the latter clinging to her right side as the former squirmed against her to her left.

Warm. Safe. Cozy.


Beside the bedding, Aria leaned over them all, stroking her hair ever so gently. Soon after, the Gardevoir snuffed the candle on the far shelf was snuffed out, plunging them all into darkness,

“~G-goodnight, mom...~”

And long deserved rest.

“^Goodnight, Anne.^”


By the wonderful @Sweet_Mintality!​

Author's Note: In addition to the wonderful art above, I commissioned some more stickers for my discord server (link below) recently, also from Sweet_Mintality! Here are the From the Vast ones:


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 34: Judgment

Chapter 34: Judgment

Slush and fallen branches crunched under Marco’s feet as he walked along the human path, following Yaksha. Sage hovered beside him, struggling with the oddly shaped rain-shield every once in a while.

He expected every step to fill him with more and more dread. Which was the case for the first few minutes, but eventually the worst of that faded away. Not because of their mission somehow not being doomed anymore, but because it’d be a while until they got there.

His psychics could lead him in the dark reasonably well, but even they had their limit—such as the debris in his way, or anything smaller than trees for that matter. He took a sigh of relief once they’d finally climbed their way onto the path, its guidance much appreciated. It freed him from having to constantly probe his surroundings with his aura—he had to conserve his strength for what awaited them, after all.

But what awaited them, he wasn’t even sure of.

Anne mentioned several things to look out for once they arrived at the human settlement, but they were far from a comprehensive overview. He hoped her instructions for remaining disguised would prove sufficient, but even if they did, they wouldn’t help with actually finding what they were looking for.

Worries kept swirling around his mind as the group pushed through darkness, the thick clouds above them not letting any moonlight through. It was just them, the freezing rain, and the dirt path stretching into the distance, forever. A freezing purgatory; what laid on its other end was unknown. Wishful redemption? An almost certain damnation?

Marco didn’t know, and it terrified him.

His clothed body shuddered, the motion sudden enough for the Phantump beside him to notice, even despite the constant wind. His dimly glowing eyes turned to look at her once her twin pink pinpricks glanced at him in concern. He worried about spooking her for just a moment, the unpleasant thought only making him feel even colder than he already was. Oh well, he was never good with kids, just had to push on—

And then, he felt something small, warm, and spectral grab his gloved hand.

“~Mr. Marco?~” Sage asked, worry leaking into her voice.

The Gallade held her inky tendril of a hand with a couple of fingers, making her hover even closer to him as he gathered words. “^I’m here Sage, I’m here. Is something wrong?^”

“~I’m a bit cold, but I think I’m okay. Are you okay, Mr. Marco?~”

He hoped beyond hope Sage would remain okay throughout their entire ordeal, but if it ended like he had predicted, he doubted it’d be the case. His features narrowed, unseen, as he held her hand just that bit tighter, wishing he’d be able to protect her from the despair ahead. It was a feeble, downright childish wish, and he knew it well.

And yet, he still wished.

“^I’m just cold too, Sage. Don’t worry about me, sweetie,^” he mumbled out, focusing on maintaining his composure. Just because he wasn’t taking what awaited them the best, didn’t mean he had to make the Phantump concerned already—she didn’t deserve to have her innocence torn away. Not yet.

Trying to yank his thoughts away from that dark path, Marco instead focused on planning out what they’d do once they arrived at the human town. To his concern, Anne hadn’t given them many hints for navigating the massive settlement—she didn’t know how to either.

He remembered staring at her, stunned for a good few minutes back at Vivian’s tea shop once she’d told him that Sage’s town was easily twenty times the size of hers.

As much as the sheer scale of their undertaking chilled his spirits, he knew that the spirit beside him ought to be familiar with the place. It’d still be a while until they got there, but Marco figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask Sage for leads in advance.

“^So, Sage,^” he whispered, perking the spaced-out Phantump up, “^what does your home look like?^”

As Sage combed through her frayed memories, Marco focused on assisting her in holding the umbrella, not wanting it to distract her. Even with that telepathic assist, though, she remained silent for a while afterward, only prompting a disappointed sigh from the Banette ahead, lost to the din of rain.

To Marco’s concern, the more Sage thought about it, the more worried she grew. After a moment of internal conflict, the Gallade intervened once more, wanting to spare her that anxiety. “^Sage?^”

“~M-My house has a green roof, and... I-I don’t remember much else...^”

Sage clung ever tighter to her umbrella, the strands of her damp wig shaking with her. Not an outcome either of the two wanted, but it was all they’d be getting for now. Yaksha was of half a mind to just call this whole doomed ordeal off, only stopping himself by remembering that they had to, else she’d just ask about it again.

Marco just gritted his teeth and nodded.

It was very little to go off, but it was something. Besides, even if Sage couldn’t describe it in any richer detail than just the color of her roof, she still had to remember it, at least partially. If they had any luck, even the partial memory would be enough to let her recognize it once they passed by it. Sure, he wasn’t deluding himself that scouting an entire massive human town would be a quick task, but it was still possible, given enough time.


Assuming Sage’s house was still standing.

The worry about that no longer being the case stabbed Marco’s heart, almost making him trip. He hated even considering it, but he couldn’t dismiss it entirely—what if Sage’s house wasn’t around anymore? Or even worse, what if it still was, but her family had left in grief following her disappearance? Both outcomes were all too easy to imagine, providing all the fuel in the world for his imagination to torment him with.

He tried to remain strong despite that; he tried to distract himself; but the rainy night offered little in terms of distraction—


Marco’s gaze snapped to the source of the sound in the dark without thinking, his body already taking steps toward the threat before he could even pay attention to what he’d just heard. Once his brain caught up, though, he stopped—and finally looked at what his psychics were trying to point out to him.


A pair of golden-red eyes emerged from the dark, taken aback by the words. Without skipping a moment, the Luxray they were attached to leaped from the brush beside his coworker—and looked at the group, confused.

“Marco? Good grief, why’d you dress yourself like a human?” Lumi grumbled at the Gallade’s antics, before following one tricky question with another. “And what are these two doing here? Isn’t this Phantump the wannabe human? Where’re ya taking them all?”

The growls comprising the Luxray’s words put the pair of ghosts on edge, incomprehensible and all the more intimidating for it. Sage scooted behind Marco as he gathered thoughts, trying to keep himself from leering at Lumi too hard. He succeeded at that, but only because of exhaustion, responding through gritted teeth. “^Yes, this is Sage; she used to be a human. She wants to return to her human family.^”

The Phantump whimpered at the ‘used to’ part of Marco’s answer. Lumi didn’t notice, looking up at the Gallade in stupefied disbelief. “You’re joking, right?”

Yaksha had no idea what the Luxray had said exactly, but his dismissive tone, combined with Marco’s words moments prior, implied nothing good. The Banette glared at the Electric-type, his pink eyes glowing intensely enough to take Lumi aback once he glanced over.

Before either of them could go beyond just angry glares, Marco cut in, “^No Lumi, we’re not. She still wishes to go back to her family, and so we want to help her try.^” As much as the Gallade wanted to phrase it in a more concrete way, he couldn’t. There was no denying this was a pipe dream, more of a courtesy than a well-founded plan.

And the Luxray noticed.

“‘Try’, eh? You’re wasting your time, Marco, but I sure can’t stop you—guess you’ve got that in common with your sister. Well, good luck, I guess.”

Marco deflated as he watched the Luxray turn around and return to his usual scouting path; the resulting silence soon interrupted by Yaksha’s seething whisper. “~What did it say?~”

Sage looked up at the Gallade as she hovered out of her impromptu hiding spot, curious and afraid. Marco grasped her hand as he focused on passing the words just to Yaksha this time—no reason to worry Sage with them. “^Told us we’re wasting our time.^”

Yaksha’s anger soared at hearing that, anger at the Electric-type and himself alike. Of course they were doing this for a reason! There was no other way out of this but to have Sage find out the hard way that the human world would never accept her. Nothing would come of it; it only led to heartbreak, but it was necessary, goddammit! Nobody could avoid this pain, not even Sage! It had to have been true!

Because otherwise, it meant he wasn’t strong enough to save her from it. To save himself—

Too late to stop now.

“~Let’s keep going. Sage, c’mon.~”

The next couple of hours passed in silence—nature spoke for them.

With rain, with wind, with darkness so intense that even Sage bumped into some passing shrubbery a few times. Each time, Marco felt her spirits deflate just a bit, each anxious thought or unpleasant gust chipping away at her confidence. She was still hopeful, so much more so than the two adults combined—but her hope wasn’t impervious.

A part of Marco hoped that it’d chip away before they would make it to her past home, letting him avoid subjecting her to the heartbreak. The rest of him wanted to scream at not having anything to shut down that hopeless part of him with.

Any further internal struggle was interrupted by lights in the distance, at last. Flickering and unnaturally orange, the color he’d seen a fair bit of back in Anne’s village once the sun had set. Hideous if he had anything to say, but there must’ve been something to it with how keen humans were on using it—and with how much it soothed Sage to see, making her ask—

“~Are we getting there?~”

“~Looks like it,~” Yaksha replied, voice much more keen than usual. Marco didn’t pry, assuming the Banette was struggling with his thoughts just as much as he had—but that turned out to not be the case. “~Someone’s ahead, looking our way.~”

Marco nodded, wincing as he repeated Anne’s instructions from a few hours back and re-did the button over his front horn. Regrettably, the cold hasn’t dulled the associated discomfort at all—if anything; it got even worse, filling him with a coldness that didn’t care one iota about his Safeguard.

Onward, ever onward, towards the human in the distance.

“~Halt. Your ID, now,~” the stranger barked, eying them down as he stepped on the path before them. Marco cared about neither the contempt in his voice nor what had caused it, focusing entirely on his impossible demand.

“^Don’t have one.^”

The human’s eyes narrowed as he approached, letting Marco take a better look at the outfit. Dark, puffy top half with long sleeves, covered by a sleeveless garment in a bizarre shade of yellow with a few silver stripes. A belt of pouches and unidentified objects rested askew above his waist. His thoughts focused on one L-shaped object in particular, on his hip.

And on the Growlithe, just a few feet away, the leash tied to their collar in his offhand.

“~Well well well, loitering at night and keeping mons without a license, I see?~” the human snarled out, staring Marco down like a piece of meat. As he kept trying—and failing—to intimidate the Gallade, though, the Fire-type yanked on their leash, struggling to get back under the relative cover of a nearby conifer.

And that would not do.

“~Get over here, you dumb fucking dog!~”

The human yanked at the leash, filling the dirt path with the Growlithe’s pained yelp. Marco already wasn’t planning on entertaining him any more than he had to, but this... warranted something more.

“~Now you, you fucking bum—crack!~”

Before he could finish his sentence, his empty fist was forced to smash into his jaw with all the strength he was capable of, toppling him over. To Marco’s surprise, said strength turned out to be remarkably little—not even enough to knock him out, merely punching a couple teeth out and bloodying his face.

Either way, not his concern anymore.

Without another word, the Gallade resumed his march, unceremoniously walking away as the human writhed in pain and slurred obscenities. The two ghosts soon caught up, shock and grim satisfaction on their minds, respectively.

And then, just a few hundred meters later, only awe and focus at all the lights.

The street they had stepped into was rather quaint by human standards, enough so for Sage to still be at peace, but it was still busier than Anne’s village. The rows of buildings on either side of the black, central road had many shapes and sizes, though most of them didn’t go further than two stories tall—the incredibly... pointy building in the distance aside, its details hard to make out in the uniform orange light.

As much as the sights overwhelmed him, Marco tried his best not to let them get to him, instead focusing on the minds he could sense. The—to his immense relief—very few minds sharing the streets with them, none of them having noticed him yet. Almost everyone was indoors by now, a good chunk of them asleep. Perfect.

And now, to figure out where to go next.

“^Sage, do you recognize this place?^” Marco asked, resuming his look around the street as the Phantump thought on. Some of the blocky buildings had their bottom halves turned into what seemed to be rooms full of... stuff, all bathed in a much brighter white light. They almost looked like pantries or storage buildings of sorts, though he suspected that wasn’t their actual use.

“~Ummm... n-no, I don’t remember this street.~” Sage mumbled out, made that bit uneasier by the realization.

Bugger. “^It’s okay, don’t worry Sage. Let’s keep going then.^”

Marco grabbed Sage’s hand once more, smiling at her once she’d looked up at him. The gesture was made... somewhat ineffective by the scarf obscuring his expression, but the Phantump seemed to have gotten the gist, anyway.

Without another word, they stepped out of the side path and let the pavement guide them towards the lights in the distance. Sage kept looking around, trying her best to recall anything as Marco kept watch for any humans braving the freezing rain. To his relief, the few of them that approached head on would inevitably walk across the black road once they had spotted him and his company, giving them a wide berth.

Not out of the fear of him being a mon, thank goodness, but because of... something else he had a much harder time identifying. There was some fear in there, chiefly focused on the ghosts accompanying them, but it wasn’t everything—or even the dominant emotion. Disgust dominated, as perplexing for Gallade as it was convenient.

It freed enough of his attention to let him keep analyzing his surroundings even as they walked into a more densely inhabited part of the town. All around them, the metal contraptions with wheels, resting motionlessly on either the edges of the stone path, or on dirt lots that split off from the black road. More and more brightly lit, transparent rooms came and went, some of them with dozens upon dozens of colorful bottles on display.

Above them, light shone out of the windows they were passing by, fewer and fewer by the minute.

All of it dazzling, even overwhelming, especially once they had made it to part of the town with three or even four-story buildings all around them, but it wasn’t what caught Marco’s attention the most. Most of the sleeping humans were indoors, but not all, the few of them that appeared to be sleeping outside gave him a pause in particular.

He kept his curiosity in check for a while—at least until he sensed another of them right beside their route. After making sure nobody was watching, he peeked into the small alleyway beside them, the already-present reek suddenly intensifying tenfold. As loud as his nose screamed at being subjected to this, what his eyes saw overruled it.

Indeed, there was a human sleeping behind one of the massive metal containers full of junk and decaying food, covered in little more than some sodden brown plates. Cold, ill, alone. Marco had no idea what to make of it, couldn’t imagine what could’ve caused someone to end up in a situation like this.

How could this happen? How could this be allowed?

He remembered, way back when he and Aria first showed up at their little village, long before they had a roof of their own, how they spent their first night there. Holly barely knew them; she hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences with them the entire day before but was still more than eager to lend them a roof. And so was Vivian, and so was Esther. Hell, even Mikiri, though hers was an offer they only ended up taking once.

It didn’t take more than a couple of weeks for them to have a small hut of their own. They helped build it, sure, but weren’t alone; almost half the village had contributed in whichever way they could. They didn’t end up needing that hut for long, not with Garret helping them out so much and Aria catching his eye, but they still had shelter, even if it ended up going to someone else once they had moved out.

And yet, this human was forced to sleep in the rain, surrounded by houses, surrounded by his fellow kin.


“~Mr. Marco?~” Sage whispered, hovering over to him before yelping at spotting the sleeping human just a few feet away.

However bad the sight’s implications were, the Gallade knew that it wasn’t what they were here for—it was time to keep going. “^I’m here Sage, I’m here. I just—just got distracted. Let’s keep going.^”

He knew it wouldn’t last long once he left, but Marco hoped the Safeguard would make the stranger’s night at least a bit easier.

As much as he wanted to refocus squarely on the task ahead, he couldn’t, remaining unnerved at the sight as they stepped into the densest, brightest part of the town. Many more people walked the streets here, enough so for some of them to brave passing by their group—though chiefly because of distraction and not courage. They felt cold, this place felt cold, the unnatural orange light washing over them felt cold.

And yet, they had to keep going.

“^Sage, do you recognize this place?^” Marco asked once more, sparing a glance at Yaksha as he did so. The Banette kept close to them, focusing on some of the brightly shining, cluttered rooms as if trying to make out their contents from a distance.

“~Mmmm... a-a bit. I-I remember it, but only a little...~” Sage admitted as she huddled to the Gallade, catching the attention of a passerby.

It made them stop and stare at the Phantump as it, and the weird bum it trailed, walked away. That alone was… odd, but hearing it speak what they could swear was Unovan was even worse. It was almost too much to bear—and so they didn’t bear it, convincing themselves they had simply misheard.

No other answer made sense, after all.

As the group walked away from the stray human, Marco nodded weakly at Sage's words. They were getting a bit warmer at least, and he knew he had to focus on that, and not on the growing pit of worry inside him. “^Alright. Let’s keep going then.^”

Yaksha grumbled to himself as the group got going again, following the corner on the crossroad they had just arrived at. Some of what he was seeing tingled his memory, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough to go off. Has he been here before?

To Marco’s relief, the street eventually thinned out, leaving them with fewer and fewer prying eyes to worry about. It was a rather fleeting reassurance, though, especially once he’d noticed Sage growing less and less certain of where they were as they kept going.

One of the moving metal boxes honking at him when he’d accidentally veered onto the black road while lost in thought didn’t help his anxiety any, either.

Despite the bit of progress they had made earlier with the busy area, it felt like they were back to absolutely nothing, not a single shred of idea of where to even go. As hard as Marco tried to remain calm about this, it got harder and harder with each passing minute, with each passing street that only brought on further confusion inside the Phantump’s little mind.

He had to do something, and he had to do it soon.

“^Are you sure you don’t remember anything except for the green roof, Sage?^”

Some of his exasperated stress leaked through to his mental voice despite his best efforts. It took him all the willpower he could muster to not immediately start kicking himself once Sage noticed his fouling mood, his tone only sparking further anxiety.

“~N-no, I-I really don’t, I promise!~” she pleaded, the worry in her voice sparking yet another bit of anger in Yaksha’s mind.

The last thing Marco needed was dealing with the Banette on top of everything else, ignoring him as he tried to comfort the ghostly girl. “^It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m—I’m sorry Sage, I shouldn’t have raised my voice.^” It hurt to admit, but he hoped it’d be enough to soothe some of her worries.

Attentive nod, a moment of thought—one Phantump floating over to hug his hand, trying her best to hold on to the umbrella throughout. “~Okay...~”

He knew full well he was unlikely to get anything more confident out of Sage, and it still felt not enough. He felt not enough. Dammit, not again...

He needed a lead, Sage needed reassurance; they couldn’t keep going like this forever. The street grew less and less busy even as the surrounding buildings grew larger, two-floor rectangular structures from earlier now replaced by a mix of large, multi-room houses with angled roofs and spacious lawns, and something else, something his eyes had a hard time making sense of.

The same lit-up windows he’d seen earlier, but this time some of them were many, many floors up in the sky, the sight utterly dumbfounding until they walked closer. To his shock, they weren’t some sort of flying houses, something unlikely but which he could at least imagine, but a building so tall and wide it faded into the murky darkness above them, shrouded by night and rain.

It made Marco feel puny, and drove into him just how lost he was. Not just in the moment, but about the sheer scale of the settlement he was in, the sheer amount of buildings and people and lights and smells finally hitting him. All of that wasn’t even one town, it was but a tiny slice of said town, its exact size too large for him to even imagine.

There was no way to avoid admitting the obvious—they were lost.

Which left but one way forward.

“^We need to ask someone for directions, we can’t continue like this.^” The admission brought more comfort than Marco expected, finally giving him an idea of what to do next, even if it wasn’t directly walking ahead yet. The two ghosts nodded in acknowledgement, looking around in search of anyone who looked ask-able.

And finding themselves alone on the street, most of the surrounding windows already dark. The realization threatened to undermine whatever reassurance the Gallade had carved for himself, and he knew he couldn’t stop there. Without another word, he resumed the group’s march, the ghosts soon catching up—though Sage with noticeable difficulty.

She hadn’t said anything yet, but Marco could feel the exhaustion creeping up on her.

“~I see someone. A couple of people there, under that flat’s awning,~” Yaksha directed, some of his words sliding off Marco when he’d tried to parse them. Trying to figure out what the Banette had meant by ‘flat’ was too difficult for the Gallade’s frazzled mind, but he didn’t have to—he too spotted the humans moments later.

Both were shorter than him, with almost full-body outfits, hats, and weird, bulky masks on their faces. They seemed to be painting something on the walls inside the awning, each new line marked with a loud, drawn-out hiss. Marco had no idea what exactly they were doing there, but he didn’t care. He had questions, and he hoped beyond hope they had answers.

Or else...

Or else he’d have to go find another human, and that’d just be inconvenient.

With his aim set on the two humans, Marco marched on with a spring in his step, determined to find a way forward. The din of rain and hisses of spray cans made it difficult for them to hear him approach, making them jump once he spoke up–

“^Hey, you two!^”

“~Oh shit, book it Lee!~” the shorter of the humans shouted, bits of pink hair flowing out underneath their hat as she and her partner in crime tried to run in the opposite directions.

Neither of them made it even a single step before their bottom halves were surrounded in the pale glow of Marco’s Psychic, immobilizing them in an instant. He felt the emotions surging through their minds in perfect clarity—startle at their illegal fun being interrupted, adrenaline and excitement once it came time to outrun yet another cop,

Deep fear at the realization they weren’t dealing with just some obese donut-muncher, or even just a human for that matter. Thoughts about ‘ghost brides’, about having been tracked down for revenge—none of them mattered at the moment, especially not to Marco. What the taller, dark-skinned human did right after, though, did.

“~Chucky, help!~” he shouted, waking up someone neither Yaksha nor Marco had spotted earlier, nestled inside the bag in the corner, and catching their attention.

c-caw! CAW CAW!

Yaksha leaped back as the Murkrow stirred awake from their nap inside the humans’ backpack, their anger aimed squarely at the Gallade. Fighting was the absolute last thing he wanted to do right now—or dealing with over-eager human pets. He might’ve not been able to immobilize the Dark-type directly, but he didn’t have to.

Before the Murkrow could react, Marco’s glow enveloped the entire backpack they were standing inside of, and held it shut, leaving them thrashing against their sudden containment.

“^I just have a question for you two. Answer it and I’ll let you go.^” Marco put as much effort as he was capable of in concealing his annoyance.

Thankfully, the humans’ fear, only intensified by their guardian ending up incapacitated, gave way to confusion. Mostly. They stared wide-eyed first at the not-human bum-looking stranger, and then at each other, getting enough of a grip on themselves to answer with the world’s shakiest nods.

“^Where can I find buildings with green roofs here?^”

Marco worried as he watched the two stare at him, dumbfounded by his question. Not an encouraging response in the slightest, but the last thing he wanted to do was to speed them on and make them even more afraid. If for nothing else, then for the practical reason of fear making it harder to think rationally.

“~A-as in, green-roofed buildings here? In Lillywood?~” the shorter human questioned, going through her mental map of the town the moment the stranger answered with a nod.

“~What kinda fuckin’ place has a green roof...~” the taller one muttered, annoyed at not remembering anything that fit the criteria.

“~No, Lee, I think I got somethin’! Hold on, uh, like you mean normal tile roofs on family houses? That kinda building?~” the pink-haired one asked, focusing on having potentially found their ticket out of this mess. Marco didn’t know how to answer that,

But Sage did.

“~Yeah! With a lawn and a garage!~”

The two humans were almost focused enough to not freak out at hearing that ghost just speak Unovan at them—but only almost, the realization of what the hell they had just heard shutting them up for a moment. Sage didn’t know why they suddenly went quiet, but could feel their glares on her all the same, making her retreat behind the friendly Gallade.

Chucky continued to thrash inside the bag.

“^You heard her.^”

Marco’s grunt was enough to snap the humans out of their stupor, though they still needed a moment for their thoughts to go from ‘did that fucking ghost just talk’ to ‘who the fuck has a green roof on their place’, and then ‘hold on, I think I can recall something like that’. And then, at last, the taller human spoke, “~Shit, you’re right. Uh, fuck, I remember—Sunnyside Heights, I think! They had a fancy-ass street like that over here; I think I passed by it once or twice.~”

“~Yeah, that’s the one!~” the other human followed up.

Marco’s attention was focused entirely on the Phantump beside him, her thoughts swirling as she tried to recall that name. And then, she finally did, gasping, “~Yes, that! I-I remember now, from a sign!~”

The Gallade mouthed thanks to all the deities he could think of. “^That’s good. Now, how do we get to that... ‘Sunnyside Heights’?^” He had no idea what that name referenced, hoping that once they got to whatever it was, Sage would recognize that area enough to guide them.

“~By bus? Uhhh, I think two-oh-five goes from the stop down the road to there—~”

“^On foot,^” Marco clarified, cutting the taller human off. He didn’t expect that clarification of all things to confuse them as much as it did. The shorter one fared no better, thinking hard for a moment before reaching into the pocket of their leg coverings and pulling out a black rectangular object.

“~Hold on, need to double-check the map,~” she spoke as the rectangle lit up, illuminating her bulky mask with a pale light. “~Aight, it’s down the road from here, then turn left onto 26th—~”

“^Where is that exactly?^” Marco asked, not having the patience for more human terms.

“~The fuck you—ugh, fifth street to the left. Then fourth to the right, you go straight for a few miles and end up at a plaza. From there you turn left and it should be it. Sound good?~”

Thankfully for her, it did sound good.

“^Yes. Thank you.^” Marco said, before letting both humans and the backpack go. They wasted not a second running away as fast as their legs could carry them, the taller one forcibly dragging the Murkrow with himself before they could let loose upon the stranger that had just interrogated them.

At last, progress. The Gallade took a deep breath as he turned around, finding Sage a bit worried about the humans, and Yaksha staring at him... impressed.

“^Let’s get going, it’s not getting any less dark,^” he muttered, walking around the group while repeating the human’s instructions on a loop—

And then; he spotted someone watching them from a distance.

They were far enough away to where he couldn’t make out anything except for a human-like appearance and a small bag in one hand, but could tell their focus was squarely on their makeshift group. Worries shot through his mind at the realization, concerns about whether he needed to intervene and wipe that from their mind while the memory was still fresh and malleable. Before Marco could settle on what to do next, though, the onlooker... turned around and walked away.


Fine by him.

As reassuring as being told where to go was, it didn’t last forever.

Rain poured on as the group followed the human’s directions, their spirits faltering with each step. Sage wasn’t getting any less exhausted, finding it harder and harder to keep holding her rain shield, though kept herself from complaining out loud.

“~Are we getting close, M-Mr. Marco?~”

Most of the time.

“^I don’t know, Sage. We’re following the directions they gave us, and I just hope they’re accurate. Do you recognize this place?^” he asked as calmly as he could, even if his worries were growing just as fast as the Phantump’s. They had gone from there being almost nobody sharing the streets with them, to just flat-out being alone, going many minutes without seeing another soul outside. Fewer humans walking around, fewer lit windows, fewer awake minds he could sense with each steady step.

They were alone, with only the sickly orange light and their worries to accompany them.

“~N-nooo, not really...~”

And the worries only kept growing. Marco could swear he’d followed the humans’ directions to the letter, and yet here they were, no less lost despite that. Imposing buildings gave way to shorter, more sprawled-out houses, but it didn’t matter when there were so many of them, street after street. Each of them was large enough to fit several families, and yet he could only feel a handful of souls in them at a time, sometimes even just a single human.

All that space, much larger than their burrow, even excluding the empty grass lots, for a single person. Unthinkable.

To Marco’s chagrin, his mind was keen to badger him with more doubts than just that. Even if they had found their way and made it over to the street Sage’s family lived on, would she be able to recognize the right building in the dark? Would anyone in her family still be awake? Could they wake them up if not?

Even if anything went well, how in the world would they react to a tall, disguised figure showing up with a pair of ghosts in the dead of night? Marco’s imagination provided him with exactly no uplifting answers, and it wasn’t even done yet. Them freaking out would be bad enough—but what if they weren’t just humans? What if they were those so-called ‘‘‘trainers’’’, and either attacked them in perceived self-defense or tried to capture Sage?

What if they succeeded?

Every hypothetical left Marco feeling even colder, his gloved hand shaking as it held Sage’s. This time, the Phantump didn’t even notice, too spaced out in her own little world as she marched on. He spared her tired mind a quick look—and found hope, despite everything. Not as bright as it was just a few hours ago, no doubt tainted by the increasing realization of everything he and Yaksha were also worried about, but still there.

Hope that deserved him trying his hardest to keep searching. They hadn’t seen anyone in a good while now, but once they would, Marco figured he’d ask them the same question he asked those two humans earlier. Maybe he could even ask about the name of the unspecified area they gave him, other humans would likely know more about it—

“~Ice cream!!!~” Sage gasped in joy, flying straight on before either of the other two could react.

She wasn’t that fast even while doing the hovering equivalent of sprinting, though, and Marco only needed to jog to keep up with her. “^Sage, where are you—^”

“~There’s the ice cream place, Mr. Marco!~” The Phantump accompanied her non-explanation by pointing her hand towards where she was running, letting the Gallade finally spot... that. How in the world had he not mentioned the large light in the distance earlier, he had no idea.

Brooding most definitely didn’t help, though.

The building was on the smaller side as far as the rectangular two-floor ones went, one of several around the plaza lined with red tiles and flower beds. What it lacked in size, it more than made up for in how bright it—or rather the decoration on it—shone. It took Marco until he was just a few dozen meters away to make out what the light, and the negative space surrounding it, was meant to be, the distance making it fade into a blur.

A female Indeedee wearing a small white hat, an apron, and holding a conical object topped with a sphere in each paw.

“~Awwwhhhh, it’s closed...~” Sage mumbled, distraught.

“^Do you remember this place, Sage?^”

“~Yeah, mom always took us here on weekends and we all had ice cream!~”

The girl might’ve dodged the realization in her exhaustion, but it sure hit the Gallade, making him follow with another question right after. “^Do you remember how to get home from here?^”

Sage opened her mouth, about to say that she didn’t—but then; she realized she did. Her eyes went wide as she nodded with all her strength, turning to the left and taking off without Marco needing to ask her. If she had a heart, it would’ve been racing. Marco’s was more than fit to pick up the slack, hammering faster than the Gallade remembered in years.

At least; until the earlier worries started crawling out once more. They were getting there, which solved one worry, and still left all the other ones. He’d done it, he’d guided Sage over, made it through this massive, sprawling human town—but for what? For fate to subject her to heartbreak after all?

Marco’s heart ached at the thought, at the reality of them being so close and yet infinitely far. For a moment, he wanted to pull his hand back and try to discourage the girl, to turn around. It was much too late now, and he was well aware.

No way forward now but to face fate.

Each turn along the increasingly narrow streets built up more and more dread in them all—Sage not excluded. Marco felt her radiant excitement dull as the reality caught up with her, aided further by her catching a distorted glimpse of herself in the puddle she was flying overhead. She knew what she used to be, who she used to be—but only used to be.

What she no longer was.

The realization was inescapable, gnawing at her spirits even as she tried to outrace it. Left on their playground, right at the tall stop sign; images flooded her mind as she found herself following her route back home from school. Just like she remembered, but dark and distorted, warm sunlight replaced by the glare of street lamps, illuminating little more than the spots immediately underneath themselves.

Her bright, happy world replaced with a sea of dark doubt and a single, shaky path along the lights still scattered through it, still pushing back against the night.

She was so scared,

But she had made it.

Before them, a street she could fill in from memory, the single-family houses lining it so similar in appearance, and yet so colorful and different with all their inhabitants. Her neighbors, her friends, her family. So hard to make out like this.

For a while, Sage could only shake in place and watch, only snapping back to awareness once a particularly strong gust had almost ripped the umbrella out of her grasp. She breathed rapidly as she came to, knowing only vaguely where to go now and yet afraid to take a step. She jumped as something grabbed her, warm and leathery—Mr. Marco’s hand once more.

“^Are you okay, Sage?^” he asked with all the warmth he could still muster, kneeling beside the hauntling.

“~I-I’m scared, M-Mr. Marco...~”

Tears mixed with rain as the Phantump was overwhelmed by her thoughts, clinging to the Gallade’s arm. He pulled her in close, hoping that, even if not particularly warm or dry, his embrace would still comfort her at least a bit. She accepted it wholeheartedly, but it only did so much, could only ever hope to do so much.

They didn’t know what to do. But, if nothing else, Yaksha knew what to ask.

“~Are you sure you wanna keep going, Sage?~”

Sage deserved happiness in this cruel world, and there was no happiness to be found down this dark, human street, in this dark, human world. It pained him to see how much it hurt Sage to realize that, but better late than never—

“~Y-yes...~” she muttered out, trying to steady her breathing. She got scared; she was still scared, but she didn’t want to stop. She knew she looked different now, was different in more than just appearance in a way she couldn’t explain with words even if she’d tried—but her family was here. And they were always there for her when she got scared, her mom especially.

She loved her mom, and her mom said she’d always love her too...

The Banette stared distraught as the Phantump shook the Gallade’s embrace off, going back to just holding his hand instead. Without saying another word, she hovered down the street, looking from side to side as she kept trying to make out the details of the surrounding front porches.

Yaksha eventually followed.

“^Your family lives on this street, right Sage?^” Marco asked to be sure, the hauntling confirming soon after. All of these buildings looked almost identical, but Sage still had some idea where to go next. He didn’t follow up with any more questions, instead holding her hand as firmly as he could while he scanned the nearby humans.

All asleep, all tired.

All but one.

A faint light shone from inside one of the houses, as if from the next room over, accompanied by a quiet, somber insomnia. Marco let go of Sage as she hovered closer, investigating—and gasping soon after.

“~I-I remember we had this f-for Halloween! I-I think this is my house—yes, that’s our doormat too!~” Sage squeaked in the dark, letting Marco spot what she was referring to regarding the so-called ‘Halloween’ once she’d floated away from the window. It was torn in a few places and rather faded, but still recognizable as a depiction of a Phantump attached to the transparent material.

With a heavy heart, Marco took one step after another as he followed Sage to the front door, looking behind him to see Yaksha staring at the dirt away from them, bracing himself for the inevitable. The Gallade was only doing any better through the sheer force of will.

A few seconds and an eternity later, he stood beside the Phantump as she stared down at the fabric rectangle in front of the door, intently reading the human writing patterned into the material. He gave her a moment, then another, eventually leaning in and grasping her hand once more. This time, she didn’t jump, slowly floating up to him as she read out loud,

“~Welcome Home.~”​

Marco held her as firmly as he could, and it was only barely enough to keep them both from breaking down.

“^Are you ready, Sage?^” He asked quietly, steadying his breath as the Phantump floated up to the front door. Without responding, she reached out with an inky arm towards something attached to the wall beside the door’s handle—

And pressed it.


A jolt went through the group at the sound, startling them in how familiar it was for Sage, how unfamiliar for Marco, and how damning for Yaksha. Not much happened for a while—not much they could see from the outside. Marco felt it all, though. Felt the racing heart of the awake human inside; felt their fear; felt the myriad of possibilities racing through their mind as they stood up, turned on the lights, and approached the front door.

He took two steps back as the stranger drew close, Sage following in tow. A moment later, a light lit up above them, and they saw something dark on the opposite side of the frosted glass.

The door’s handle shook, stopped, and began to twist.

The human that peeked out looked unlike either Anne or Olive with her dark skin and black, braided hair, but her appearance was the last thing on Marco’s mind. She was tired, startled, confused—and the moment she spotted the Phantump floating just a couple feet away, afraid.

“~What—what is this!?~” Her expression twisted into terror as she reeled back, about to shut the door there and then—

“~M-Mom, it’s me, Sage!~” the Phantump wailed, terrified of her mom’s reaction. She tried to float just a bit closer, only startling the human further before she froze at her words.

Froze and shook, steady breaths giving way to hyperventilating. “~No, no this can’t be, no, NO!~” The woman gasped as blood drained away from her face, the sheer horror before her making her want to run and hide. Hide from the ghost that spoke Unovan, that claimed to be her dead son, that wanted to trick her into letting it in, to fool her with the voice so—so similar to his...

Marco wanted to intervene, but could only stare, sinking his head as he let the inevitable play out.

The ghost shrieked at the woman almost closing the door before her, “~MOM IT’S ME, SAGE! I’M SORRY FOR SCARING YOU, I-I’M SORRY FOR TAKING AZALEA’S SKIRT, I-I-I DIDN’T MEAN TO, I-I WAS SCARED A-AND—~” The words couldn’t endure as despair flooded her mind, despair at having scared her mom so much and her mom not believing it was her and not knowing what to do. She broke into pained sobs, tears flowing down her mask as she tried to hide in her hands, do anything to make her mom less afraid—only to be unable to.

She didn’t mean to scare her...

A few feet away, the woman stared out the slit of the opened door, grasping the door’s handle with all her strength. Stared at this mon, at this ghost with something black on its head, and watched it wail, paralyzed in thought. Every single fiber of her being wanted to run, to run until she couldn’t, to begrudgingly call the cops and the League to save her, to grab her husband’s handgun to protect herself from this—this thing—

But she couldn’t.

This couldn’t have been it but, but nobody knew of Sage wearing his sister’s skirt when they found him—his body. She’d asked the cops to not write it in the report, none of the newspapers had mentioned it, she thought it’d been some fucked up taunt the kids had pulled on him and didn’t want him to be remembered like that, a-and—

And this thing, this ghost, knew. It sounded ghostly, distorted, almost girlish, but—but it was his voice, almost like his voice. That weird thing on its head, almost like a wig, almost like the hairstyle he had when they—but HOW!? It was impossible; people couldn’t come back as ghosts; no, no, this had to have been a trick!

She was being deceived, drawn into a trap, especially with that tall man standing next to the stairs to the porch, but couldn’t look away. Away from this crying, distraught ghost, its sobs just like when he got scared after watching a movie he was much too young for. This was all a dream, must’ve been a dream, there’s no way this could be real, this thing sounded too female to be Sage, there was no way, but—but what if—no it was impossible, NO—

Bitter reality fought fevered dreams in the woman’s mind as she grasped the handle so hard her hand grew numb, locked in a stalemate with herself. It couldn’t have been a coincidence; too many things lined up, but it couldn’t have not been a coincidence; none of this was possible—Sage was GONE, and she was finally beginning to make peace with that fact! Was her mind playing a trick on her, trying to pull her away from acceptance and into another grief-fueled delusion!?

It hurt too much to be anything but reality.

After what felt like an eternity, the woman took another breath, her shaking eyes staring at the ghost—and finding it, them, staring back at her. She knew it wasn’t possible, but...

“~I-I’m sorry, m-mom...~”

...she wanted it to be. She wanted to see her baby again, to apologize to him for all the times she wasn’t there for him, to make him feel as loved as he always deserved to be and not just on weekends, to tell him how much she loved him,

To hug him again.

“~S-Sage, i-i-is that you?~” the woman whispered, words so quiet they were only barely audible above the din of rain.

Hope mixed with disbelief, fear with anguish, fantasy with reality as she watched the ghost perk up at her words, shaking even harder than before.

“~Th-that’s me mom, I-I’m Sage, I’m sorry I’M SORRY!~” the ghost wailed, wet tears streaking down their wooden mask as it twisted into terror. And then; it stopped, pink pinpricks of its eyes focusing as the woman opened the door just enough to reach out with her other hand. Cold, shaking, curled as if ready to be withdrawn at a moment’s notice—but still there.

Her mom’s hand.

Sage flew over to it without thinking, scared beyond words and just wanting her mom to hold her again, to tell her how much she loved her, to feel safe and to be told that everything would be okay again, to eat ice cream with her again, to have her braids done again, to apologize. She clung to her hand as close as she could, not wanting it to let go, not wanting her mom to abandon her,

Clung to it, just like Sage did.

“~S-Sage? SAGE!~” Mom shouted, pulling the door open and stumbling outside, falling to her knees as she pulled the wooden ghost into her arms. Rain covered for her wailing sobs as she let her grief out in bitter tears, “~M-mommy is here, Sage, mommy is here...~”

“~MOM! I-I—~” Sage wept as despair gave way to grief, fearful emotions leaving her body one warm tear at a time—into her mom’s shirt, just like always. She tried to speak, but couldn’t; she could only cry and listen and keep crying—but now, in release.

“~I-I thought I’d never see you again...~” Mom whimpered, arms shaking even as the rough bark dug into her skin, not wanting to let go even slightly.

Sage whined, “~I-I’m sorry,~” before her mom cut her off—

“~Shhhhh, shhhhh, it’s—it’s okay baby, d-don’t be sorry, baby. I’m here, m-mommy’s here, m-mommy loves you...~”

Marco stared slack-jawed, heart fluttering at the sheer intensity of emotions going on around him. Intense enough to give him a headache, and yet blissful enough to only draw him closer as his mind caught up to the racing hearts before him. Beside him, Yaksha was reacting much the same, pink eyes unfocused as they took the scene in.

Sage’s mom flinched as she spotted the homeless man step into the light, pushing him half a step back. As terrifying as the stranger was, though, she knew they had to have been related to her—her child finding their way back home, and so had the Banette beside them. They scared her; they scared her so much, but they meant well, she knew it. She mouthed ‘thank you’ their way before holding the ghost even tighter.

She was weak; she was cold and wet from the rain side swiping, her head kept spinning; none of this should’ve even been possible—but it was Sage; it couldn’t not be Sage. She wanted to believe it was Sage, wanted that wound on her soul to be mended.

The two sobbed in silence for a while longer as the maelstrom of emotions burned out into exhaustion, deep and all-encompassing. At having grieved her child, at having to survive in the woods for months, at finding her child’s body, at being so worried about her family not accepting her again. It was over; it was finally over, and eventually, tears slowed down to just a trickle.

It’d take many, many days for the last of them to be shed, but they had time. They finally had time.

“~I-I love you mommy...~” Sage mumbled, barely awake anymore. Her mom only barely kept herself from breaking into more sobs as she slowly stood up once more, cold and drenched and happy and beyond words and so, so exhausted. She kept gently shushing her child as she began to turn around, wanting to carry them home just like she did when they first showed up to this world. And then stopped at hearing the Phantump gasp in her arms, “~M-mommy, can I s-say goodbye to Mr. Yaksha a-and Mr. Marco?~”

Mom looked up at the stranger and the ghost once more, holding the wooden ghost even tighter. She didn’t want to let go, to risk something happening to her child again, even if she’d be just mere feet away—but she agreed, regardless. Her arms shook as she nodded, trying her hardest to relax them and yet finding herself unable to. Sage knew what to do, though, phasing through her mom’s arms and leaving her wig behind as she hovered over to her guardians.

“~Th-thank you, Mr. Yaksha! D-do you want to come too?~” Sage squealed as she hugged the dumbstruck Banette, her spectral touch finally snapping him back to reality.

The older ghost didn’t even need to look at the terrified expression on the woman's face to know it was a bad idea, weakly shaking his head as he gave her a couple of pats on the back. “~Best not, kid.~”

“~Awhhhh. But w-will you visit us sometime?~”

Yaksha almost didn’t hear the question at all, staring into the middle distance as the hauntling let go of him. “~I’ll think about it. Stay—stay safe, kid.~”

“~I-I will! Bye-bye, Mr. Yaksha! B-bye-bye, Mr. Marco!~” She squealed as she hovered back to her mom, returning the disguised Gallade’s waving in kind.

Marco and Yaksha watched the woman give them one last nod in gratitude before she closed the door and turned off the porch light. Moments later, light shone from the building’s ground-floor windows and Marco sensed someone making their way down from the top floor and being taken aback. He could’ve stood and snooped like this for hours, but he knew he didn’t have to.

They were done here.

“We did it,” Marco whispered as the reality of the situation finally hit him, warm relief filling his soul. He was tired, and yet he felt fine, unable to stop laughing as his body and mind alike unwound from the tension. They’d done it, he’d done it. Sage was safe. Things would be okay now. He kept laughing to himself as his body turned around on autopilot and started making its way back to the sidewalk.

Before he could let himself get lost in that bliss, though, he sensed something else brewing inside the Banette. “^Y-you okay, Yaksha?^” he asked, sparing the ghost a concerned glance. He hadn’t moved an inch since Sage let go of him, gaze drilling into nothing.

“~I feel... hollow.~” Yaksha whispered, continuing to stare straight ahead.

Marco chuckled, “^I get it, you two were close. I could tell you’ve been looking after her for a while now, and now she’s gone. Hard to get over it, I imagine.^” A smile crept to his obscured lips as he turned back to the road once more, his tired mind trying its best to come up with some guidance on the spot. “^Well, if you don’t know what to do now, our village would always be glad to take you in—^”

“~The stars look so beautiful today.~”​


“^What?^” Marco blinked at Yaksha’s awestruck observation, looking up at the sky just in case. Nope, the sky was still entirely covered with clouds, pitch black and only occasionally illuminated by stray lightning in the distance. He turned to the ghost, “^What do you—^”

But the Banette was gone.

Marco looked from side to side as he tried to spot the ghost before focusing on his psychics to figure out where he’d gone. They were of no use, not spotting a single trace of the Banette despite having sensed him just moments prior—


The Gallade stopped as the realization struck him. He didn’t know what had happened with certainty, but... he had a guess. Without wasting another moment, he nodded toward the now-empty spot,

And began his journey home.

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Also check out my other main fic, Another Way!
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Interlude XI: Happenstance

Interlude XI: Happenstance


What the hell had he just run into?

Muffled electronic music filled Dan’s ears as he made his way home, combining with an ill-fitted coat to shield him from the depressing surroundings. It was still cold, and his nose was still an obnoxiously large target for any stray raindrops, but he’d bear through the former and had his methods to ease the latter. For once, though, his mind was focused on something entirely unrelated to what either of his usual senses were feeding him, replaying the scene he had just witnessed on a loop.

It stumped him in a way not much did anymore. Was that a drug drop gone awry? Some sort of gang intimidation? He’d seen these two kids around quite a bit, and while their records were far from spotless, they were nowhere near bad enough for him to suspect them of dealing with organized crime. Then again, they didn't end up actually getting hurt. Frightened and held in place, yes, but not hurt. Didn’t notice any manipulation either, though that might’ve just been because of the distance.

Further confounding it was the fact that, as far as he could tell, the psychics were coming from the tall one and not either of the mons. The thought made him chuckle under his breath; the mental image of some stray wildling putting on their best hobo impression was too far-fetched to be real, amusing as it was.

Not his business either way, especially since nobody got hurt.

Clearing his mind, Dan upped the volume a couple of notches just in time for the drop, head banging all the while. A lotta noise—most of which his dad couldn’t stand, but it was exactly what he needed. Took quite a bit of talking and thinking to square the circle of his preferences without subjecting his old man to what he’d so candidly described as ‘the sounds of blenders being tortured to death’, but eventually, they arrived at their current solution.

Custom molded earbuds were the priciest investment of his life so far, but also the ones by far the most worth it.

Completing his most favorite kind of overstimulation was the small trinket in his off-hand, sliding up and down along its string roughly in tune with the beat. It’d still be a while until he could time it right, but the progress he had so far was already motivating enough.

It also inspired the mental image of him walking up to a wildling cousin and just giving them a yo-yo of their own. Also a trinket on a string, but one they could do so much more with instead of just obsessively polishing it! Win-win as far as he was concerned! Oh well—



Oh shit.

His heart skipped a beat as he focused on the sensations he could just barely make out a few streets down, bright and noticeable in the most distressing way possible. A part of him wanted to ignore it and run, to just hope it’d solve itself; it’s not like this stuff didn’t happen all the time whether he was there or not—but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t, he’d know he could’ve done something but didn’t.

He already had enough things to judge himself for as is.

A deep breath never hurt to get his head straight in situations like these, but he had no idea how much time he had—might as well head over as he chewed through what he’d even do. Just like dad said—acknowledge it, measure it, mitigate it. He’d acknowledged it alright, and from the little he could measure it, it looked dire but not critical yet.

Now to mitigate it.

Dan struggled to think of what he’d say to the stranger as he speed-walked down the wet pavement; the din of rain and even his music completely tuned out by now. He needed to have a plan or else he’d just make it all worse—especially if he started panicking or was too serious. It’d have to be something casual, yet attention-grabbing. Let’s see...

Whoever it was, they seemed to be young, and the little he could make out of their thoughts was snarky and bitter. Maybe meeting them at their level could work? A bit of edgy snark instead of just platitudes? It made sense in the moment and left him hoping to whatever gods were watching that he wasn’t about to make the worst mistake of his life.

It was time to straighten himself out a bit, stuff the yo-yo into his pocket, take another breath,

And turn the corner.

Sensing it a few minutes earlier didn’t make the sight that awaited him any less unnerving.

A human was balancing along the railing of the bridge in front of him, one step after another on wet, slippery metal. Next to said railing rested a roughened backpack and a couple balls; a detail that would’ve left Dan unnerved in any other situation. Their soaked outfit was nowhere near enough for the weather, a thick scarf wrapped around their neck aside.

Dan kept a grip on himself as he approached, focusing on being able to grab them in case they did what he feared they would. It was time to catch their attention, and he hoped beyond hope his awful opener wouldn’t make anything worse.

“~Wouldn’t recommend using this bridge. Much shorter than it looks at night, you’ll just break your leg and drown in agony. That flat over there might work though, should be tall enough.~”

He cursed his dry, under-used voice as the figure ahead turned around to face him, jolting a bit. Thankfully, their reactions stopped at that, and while their thoughts briefly veered toward doing the unthinkable, their feet stayed firmly glued to the railing.

“~What kinda fucking advice is that?~” the stranger said with a mix of surprise and amusement, the latter undoing at least some of their—no, her—gloom.

“~Ehh, the best one I could think of on the spot. Tried my best, y’know.~” Dan’s heart hammered as he approached, each step making his grip on the girl that much stronger should the worst come to pass. He had to keep talking but didn’t have many ideas for what to say—aside from the most banal response possible to something like this. “~Somethin’ happen lately? Dad always told me to never make any life decisions after dark, and this sure looks like a big one.~”

The stranger giggled at his shoddy joke, even if it was mixed with a barely visible eye roll. The moment of levity brought some relief, but it didn’t last. “~I fucked up one too many times,~” the girl admitted, letting Dan finally notice how hoarse her voice was.

And how much her gaze lingered on the other side of the railing.

“~Fucked up what? Everyone fucks stuff up from time to time. Shit happens y’know.~”

“~The whole—the whole fuckin’ trainer bullshit. Took it up to get away from my fuckin’ parents and now I’m fuckin’ done for. Been trying to do something, fuckin’ anything, but I just fuckin’ can’t.~” Her hand clenched at the admission, tears adding to the downpour.

Not the most... sympathetic story as far as Dan was concerned, but at least it was one the stranger was at the end of. “~Sounds rough. Can’t you just quit being a trainer then?~”

“~And go back to fuckin’ groveling at my parents’ feet while they treat me like shit!? Fuck no, I’d rather take the leap,~” she snarled, seething anger pointed in equal parts at herself and at the two bespoke humans. “~They always fuckin’ hated me, couldn’t fuckin’ stand me even when I was their poster good boy they could fuckin’ parade around in front of their fuckin’ ghoul friends. Fuck them, I’m gonna have the last fuckin’ hurrah, gonna spite them one last time.~”

Dan didn’t have the time to respond before she turned her head skyward and shouted, “~SEE THIS, MOM? LOOK AT YOUR FAILURE OF A SON, HOPE YOU CAN SHIP THAT SHITTY SUIT YOU CRIED OVER STRAIGHT TO FUCKING HELL!~”

Their hearts raced as fast as they ever got as Dan tried to think of what to say. The idea that soon hit his head wasn’t the best, but it was something to keep her attention on him, at least. “~Don’t spite them by dying if they hate you this much, spite them by living. Spite them by being happy even if they don’t want you to be.~”

The stranger laughed again, this time at him and not with him. “~Oh it’s that easy, of course! Have any other bedtime stories to tell me?~” she snarked, the wound the sarcasm was meant to cover getting more and more aggravated by the moment.

“~Well, I never said it was easy, but it is possible, even if it looks like it isn’t. Tomorrow comes another day; you’ve got tons of chances to turn your life around, especially at this age. Just because being a trainer didn’t work out doesn’t mean that nothing else will. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you deserve happiness too.~”

He jolted as he sensed the girl’s reaction to his last remark, her clever facade coming undone by the moment.

“~Do I now? Sure as fuck doesn’t fuckin’ feel like it, I—I fuckin’ failed them. I failed them over and over and kept putting them in harm’s way over and over and they just kept hurting, I don’t deserve them a-and I went for a dumb fuckin’ desperate idea and only hurt them even more for fuckin’ NOTHING, and they fuckin’ hate me now!~”

It took little effort to realize who the girl’s rambling was aimed at, the balls beside her backpack catching Dan’s attention again. She cared more about her mons than most trainers he’s had the displeasure of interacting with, motivating him to keep trying that bit more.

HTe didn’t have to try hard to point out her subconscious lies, though. “~Not even you believe that. It wouldn’t hurt this much if they really didn’t care about you.~” It was a bluff Dan had no way of justifying at the moment, but to his unending relief, it struck true all the same.

The girl shook as she glared at him, shaking hands bundled into fists. Maybe that fucking weirdo was right; maybe they really cared about her as much as she did about them, but none of it mattered, none of it fucking mattered. “~S-so fuckin’ what!? I’ve still got no future; I’m fuckin’ broke and have nowhere to go and would just be doing them a fuckin’ service if they ended up with someone who c-can actually take care of them!~”

Time slowed to a crawl as Dan watched the stranger turn away from him, her mind trying to push through the thick layer of fear and do what it thought it had to. He shouted, “~WAIT! If you’ve nowhere to go, then you could crash at our place for a while!~”

Dan was well aware the offer was sleazy as fuck, but couldn’t think of—or actually help with—anything else. A heartbeat passed, then another, and the girl’s body began to unwind, shaking harder the more she thought about it. He felt the earlier snark creep in, sighing under his breath in relief.

“~Oh, making advances on an underage girl now?~”

He could tell she was joking, but it still left a foul taste in his mouth, making him recoil. “~No, of course not! If I could, I’d pay for a stay at a motel or something for a night or two, but... I’m kinda broke. And living with my dad,~” he admitted, calming down as he felt his words take root in her mind, bit by bit. Trying to cheer her up with her caliber of humor, he added, “~Besides, your mons can probably defend you from any creep you’d run into.~”

The slow, dry chuckles that left her mouth were some of the most strained sounds Dan had ever heard. The girl felt bad about the inappropriate joke for just a moment before another thought crept in to overrule it. She looked over her shoulder, staring at him as her adrenaline burned out, leaving her feeling cold and so, so fucking tired. The offer was good, almost too good to be true, and this guy wasn’t wrong either—anyone tried to touch her and Spots would lay them out.

She wasn’t sure if the lil’ Snubbull could even legally do that, but she knew damn well she’d do it, anyway.

Before she knew it, the stranger outstretched his gloved hand towards her, catching hundreds upon hundreds of raindrops as it waited to be grasped.

“~It hurts, it hurts so fucking much, I know. But you don’t have to go through it alone,~” he added, sticking his hand out that bit further, into her reach.

Even that sounded like some sappy cookie-cutter bullshit reassurance she’d seen so many times online, but... this time she felt the other side had actually meant it. It was almost too wild to consider, especially with how little of an idea she had about what could she even do instead with her trainer ‘career’ ending before it had even started. She was terrified in a way she almost never got; she almost turned right around to stop beating around the fuckin’ bush and just fucking do it

But Spots and Noodles would be sad. She might’ve tried to gaslight herself into thinking that her friends ending up in someone else’s hand would truly be the best for them in the long term many times, but them ending up heartbroken over her doing what needed to be done was inarguable.

And she didn’t want to make them sad.

Her expression flinched as if struck as her tears mixed with rain, sobs too quiet to be audible over the downpour. She didn’t want to make them sad. In a moment of clarity, fleeting as it was, she looked at the stranger once more,

And grasped his hand.

Dan didn’t act as the girl hopped off the railing towards him, stumbling after she’d landed. If she wanted to do or say something, she would—and she did, moments later. Quiet sniffles gave way to heavier and heavier sobs as she leaned into him, almost too tired to even keep standing. He kept himself to patting her on the back a few times, letting the emotions flow as the plastic bag in his other hand threatened to slice his fingers off after being held for so long.

He wasn’t rushing, buuuut there was something he could do to drive the point he’d made earlier in. As the girl slowly regained her composure, he covertly pressed the buttons on both balls, ejecting their occupants. She swore under her breath and tried to straighten herself out as her friends jumped at suddenly being surrounded by freezing rain—but her diversion was for naught.

“~Hey hey, I’m alright you two, I-I promise!~” She pleaded as the two mons scooted up to her, their concern just as clear as her distress. They didn’t buy her excuses, clinging to her legs with quiet cries as she kept trying to put on a composed facade—to no use.

And soon, she realized it too.

She kneeled as her tears came back in vengeance, scooping the Snubbull and the Servine into her arms. Vines and short pink paws wrapped around her as she wept, wept and was consoled by her friends, constantly reassured about how much they cared for her.

Off to the side, Dan’s heart calmed down as he took the cutesy scene in, every little gesture of the three exchanging affection in the limited ways they could. Pets, fur ruffles, as large hugs as each of them could manage. All bathed in tears of release, tears of pain, in stress and fear that have been building up for months and wouldn’t be going away for at least just as long.

Despite everything, they still had each other.

Dan stayed quiet as the trio took their time, only briefly pulling his phone up to let his dad know he’d be late. As tired as they all were, none of them cared to stay out in rain this cold for long, speeding up the group’s affection and the girl’s efforts to get a grip on herself again. Once she was sure she was strong enough to stand up and walk, she reached out for her friends’ balls—only for the Servine to swat them away with a stray vine.

“~W-what? Noodles, what are—oh come on. I-it’s so cold, you two are gonna freeze out here!~” she pleaded. Unsuccessfully, if the two mons’ resolute head shakes were anything to go by. “~Fine, fine, you can stay out, hah. Alright, l-let’s get going I guess, can barely feel my legs anymore...~”

With the balls attached to her belt and the backpack on her shoulders again, the girl was ready to resume her journey from where it was supposed to end. Where to, she didn’t know. Both in the long-term sense of ‘what in the world am I gonna do with myself now’, and in the more relevant meaning of ‘where is this guy taking me’.

The latter at least got solved quickly.

Dan tilted his head for her to follow as he headed off, guiding her through a labyrinth of gloomy, nondescript streets with a haphazard mix of single-family houses and flats. “~I live a couple blocks down, won’t take long to get there. Oh, and name’s Dan,~” he added with a chuckle, hoping for the stranger to respond in kind.

“~Emma. Th-thanks Dan, I—I don’t know what I would’ve done if you didn’t show up...~”

“~Ehhh, I have a guess.~”

The girl blinked a few times as she processed his words before breaking into the most undignified chuckle of her life, muttering out “~Oh god~” in between fits of tired laughter. Dan gave her a brief smile as he looked over his shoulder, glad she was feeling at least that bit better.

“~So, you from around here, Emma?~”

“~Nah, heh. I’m from Opelucid, I... this is gonna sound awful, but I came over here to try and find some easier opponents after I couldn’t take wins off anyone else anymore.~”

Dan rolled his eyes at the framing of ‘‘‘her’’’ not being able to win anymore, but didn’t comment on it beyond that—this wasn’t the time nor the place. Stripped of that unpleasant element, though, Emma’s justification was kinda amusing, at least. She might’ve been a trainer, but her mons really did care for her, taking that load off his conscience as he guided them to his block.

The apartment building had seen better days, and that was the absolute kindest phrasing Emma could think of once she saw it. Dark gray, flaking, stone-like facade revealed raw concrete and brick in many spots, and she could make out a couple of broken windows even despite the shoddy lighting. The sight made her recall Dan’s joke about her having her mons to protect her from creeps, as well as worry about it potentially being much more applicable than she would’ve ever imagined.

“~Hardly the prettiest place, I know—and no, it’s not any better on the inside. Hope you don’t mind climbing up a couple floors,~” Dan commented as he led her in. The staircase was similarly rundown as the outer facade, each of the spiraling stairs cracked somewhere along its length.

At least there wasn’t anyone else around.

A part of Emma hoped that the actual entrance to Dan’s home would be at least a bit more decorated, just to then end up disappointed at it being just as butt-ugly as every other square inch of this place. She could’ve sworn she had him chuckle right as she thought that, but was too tired to connect the two events together.

None of that mattered, anyway—they had finally made it.

“~Daaaaad, we’re home!~” Dan shouted as he led Emma in, immediately getting to taking his coat off—before stopping awkwardly. For a moment, Emma wanted to ask what had happened, but before she could, he’d resumed the mundane action, if much more slowly.

The room they stepped into seemed to have been doing triple duty as both the lobby, the living room, and the kitchen. A few potted plants aside, it was almost entirely undecorated—just a couch, a worn down table that Dan soon set the plastic bag he was holding on, a flat screen TV with bezels the size of her hand, and exactly nothing else in the ‘living room’ part.

Dan wasn’t joking with being broke, huh.

Emma shook off the thought as she slid out of the soaked clothes, trying to hang them as close to the cast iron radiator as she could. Her friends were already huddled up to it, basking in whatever warmth it could pour out, the sight bringing a smile to her face.

Which a very unpleasant realization soon dashed right off.

The girl shook uncomfortably as she kept sneaking glances at Dan, trying to catch him when he wasn’t looking at her. Once she did, she quickly took her scarf off and tried to pull up the collar of her t-shirt to cover her neck, hoping he wouldn’t notice.

Dan noticed.

“~Emma? What... are you doing?~”

Emma flinched at the question, hands clenching as her heartbeat spiked. Dan took half a step back at such a sudden reaction, worried that he’d inadvertently done something wrong. The girl knew there was no way to hide it, but... fuck.

She looked away in shame as she let go of her shirt, before flinching at how much her host was taken aback. Dozens upon dozens of slowly scarring claw marks on her neck, none of them lethal—but all of them painful, in all meanings of the word.

“~Good gods, what happened?~” Dan asked, and regretted it immediately.

As bad as she felt about her neck, being asked about that brought forth even more traumatized fear than when she was one stray step away from death. Her eyes unfocused as she stared at the floor, breaking into tears once more.

Something was wrong, so very wrong here, but Dan knew it wasn’t the time to pry into this. “~Hey hey, it’s alright. You don’t have to tell me. Could I at least clean it a bit?~” he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as can be. To his relief, she reacted to his words, nodding shakily as the storm of panicking thoughts in her head began to calm down.

At least she wouldn’t be judged for this.

Without saying a word, Dan guided her over to the bathroom and reached for the small bottle of peroxide. The room was just as barren as the rest of the building, but at least it was better maintained, and, most importantly, clean. As Dan washed his hands and fiddled with the plastic container, Emma could’ve sworn she glimpsed something yellow in the reflection instead of him. By the time she blinked and did a double take, though, it was just what she expected to see.

Any further thoughts about that were summarily derailed by all the burning coming from her neck soon after.

“~There, there, I know it hurts, but hopefully nothing will infect it. Have you seen anyone about this?~” Dan asked, and Emma had to use all the willpower she still had left to not laugh in his face.

“~’C-course not.~”

“~Would be a good idea to do that tomorrow, or whenever you feel comfortable. Anyhow—this is the shower, this is the shampoo and body wash, you can take the red towel if you want, sound good?~”

“~Y-yeah, thanks. L-lemme take something to change into...~”

“~Take your time, we’re not rushing.~”

Emma didn’t have to be told twice, but rushed regardless. The few kinda-fresh-enough clothes she still had in her backpack probably deserved a thorough wash themselves, but this wasn’t the time to worry about that.

It could happen tomorrow; today was just one of these days she had to endure.

Dan waited for the telltale sound of the door’s lock engaging before taking a deep sigh and half-sitting, half-falling onto the couch, no less exhausted than the teen. He leaned his head back and looked at the TV, grumbling as he saw the game he just bought snacks for wrap up its first half. Irrelevant when compared to what he had accomplished while on that grocery run, but annoying all the same.

Anywho, it was time to give a rundown about just that.

“^Hey dad,^” Dan mumbled telepathically as the old man rolled into the room. The same white cap with blue markings as when he’d first met him, the same beard. One fewer leg after a lifetime of smoking caught up to him, one more wheelchair, plenty more wrinkles and liver spots.

Underneath all that, the same analytic spirit, wanting to take in all the information surrounding their unexpected guest before making any decisions. “~Who is she?~” he asked, voice as dry as an ashtray.

“^I ran into her on my way back. She was about to jump from the bridge between Third and Circle Drive. Talked to her, seems she has nowhere to go,^” Dan explained as he reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a can of beer.

The old man took the explanation in before summing it up with one word, “~Rough. A trainer?~” he asked, looking over at the Servine and Snubbull huddling up to the radiator.

His son nodded in affirmation as he downed a couple gulps of cheap booze. “^Yeah, but not a willing one. From what I gathered, she couldn’t cut it and ended up flunking out. She’s underage too, unfortunately.^”

“~Gonna be an issue.~”

“^Yep,^” Dan commented as he laid out the rest of his grocery spoils, plastic wrappers of store-brand savory snacks gleaming in the TV’s bright light. Both of them knew there was a lot more to be said about what they would do going forward, but also that this wasn’t the time for it—especially with the background noise of the shower having stopped in the meantime.

A small cloud of vapor rolled out the door as Emma opened it soon after, stretching her aching body as much as she could. “~What’s up with that weird mon shampoo you got? It’s so weird and slimy, you guys even have any mons in here?~”

Dan disguised his surprise before answering, “~Uh, we used to but not anymore. Guess we forgot to toss it out.~”

Emma blinked, feeling a bit bad about her words as she walked over to the couch. “~Sorry, my condolences—oh. Uh, hello there, sir,~” she greeted the old man in a wheelchair, receiving a curt nod in return. He didn’t seem very talkative, perfect by her. She would’ve guessed him to be Dan’s grandfather, if anything, but there were few things she cared about less than the exact family tree of her hosts at the moment.

After all, there was a TV to gawk at instead.

Once the last of the advertisements slithered away, she was greeted by a sight of what was clearly a stadium, though decidedly not one for battles. Layers of seats surrounded the all-green pitch from all directions, and instead of a single line splitting it in half, there were many white lines delineating god-knows-what. Not to mention all the humans walking onto it. That was important, too.

“~Some kinda human sport?~” she asked as she reached for the unclaimed can of beer.

“~Yeah, soccer. Comes from Galar,~” Dan answered, not skipping a beat as he pulled the booze out of the girl’s grasp and replaced it with a pack of peanuts. Emma was almost too tired to notice the Switcheroo, limiting herself to an unamused look at Dan and getting a wink in response.

The room was plunged into silence once the game’s second half started—bit-crushed commentary and crinkling of wrappers aside. It wasn’t something the girl cared for much at all, but it provided a pleasant distraction, especially when accompanied by a steady stream of crunchy treats into her mouth hole.

And, of course, her friends once they had dried off.

One hand gently stroked Spots’s tummy as the other arm held Noodles close, their vines wrapping her as tightly as could be without crossing into discomfort. It was harder and harder to keep paying attention to what was happening on the screen as the game drew to a close and the plastic bags were emptied, warmth and something meal-adjacent combining into ever-creeping drowsiness.

And then, once the final whistle was blown, sleep.

As much as Dan had been looking forward to this match, it ended up being a wash. 3-0, what in the world was that goalkeeper doing—oh. He chuckled as his attention shifted away from the glowing screen, letting him notice the asleep teen next to him. Yeah, it was high time for some rest, for all of them. Once the trash was cleaned up and the TV turned off, Dan focused on finally undoing his disguise, maintained almost effortlessly after many years of practice.

The two mons didn’t catch onto that right away, too busy either trying to fall asleep or cuddling with their friend. What they did notice, though, was a pillow being psychiced in place beside them, then a blanket on their other side, and finally, their human being carefully levitated into the air. Before their surprise could give way to hostility, they heard a voice in their heads, “^Just moving her so that she can sleep comfortably.^”

Dan putting his disguise on and off a few times afterwards helped them complete the mental picture of the scene. They weren’t happy for that ‘human’ to have turned out to be a mon, but they and their human were much too tired to do anything about it beyond just going along with it. Which, considering that said action comprised them huddling to their friend under a soft blanket as the pretend human flicked the lights off and left to an adjacent room, wasn’t bad at all.

Not at all.

“~Still gnawing at you, isn’t it?~” the old man asked as he prepared his side of the spacious bed, before stopping to take his evening pills.

The Hypno he called son stared at the floor beside him, expression twisting as he couldn’t stop thinking. “^I mean, it’s hard not to think about it. Since I can’t just disappear once—once you die, dad, m-maybe if she hits eighteen in the meantime... no, no, what am I even saying. I’ve just fucking met her, it’d be such a dumb idea, b-but I can’t stop worrying about it, it’s just—^” Dan flinched at feeling a hand grasp his forearm, looking down to see his dad give the closest thing to a reassuring smile he was capable of.

“~Tomorrow. Another day, a clearer mind, we’re not hurrying anywhere.~”

Dan nodded, trying and only somewhat succeeding to release his tension with a deep breath. “^Yeah, that’d be for the best, sorry.^”

“~You’ve done a great deed today. I’m proud of you, Dan,~” his dad said, permitting himself a manly tear or two now that nobody else was looking.

His son wasted no time before kneeling beside him and holding him close, trying to keep his own emotions under control as his dad’s weathered, sinewy hands stroked the spot between his ears. “^I love you, dad.^”

“~I-I love you too, son.~”​

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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Epilogue I: Changes

Epilogue I: Changes

Nesrin (+ Sage!) Mahini | @nesrinmahini12 | 13 Jun 549, 6:43pm WUT (CKT-6)
Hey, @glide2_mistralton, why did you take the episode of "Humane Stories" you filmed with us off your upcoming schedule? https://glidenetwork.ua/schedule...
13 | 14 | 134 ♥

Nesrin (+ Sage!) Mahini | @nesrinmahini12 | 13 Jun 549, 6:47pm WUT (CKT-6)
Welp, @glide2_mistralton blocked us. Guess that's our answer :upside_down:
25 | 19 | 191 ♥

puta 2.1.5-rc7 (reál) | @c4ssIOpeia | 14 Jun 549, 4:11am CPT (CKT+3)
shit huh. hold on, I gotchu
2 | 2 | 22 ♥

puta 2.1.5-rc7 (reál) | @c4ssIOpeia | 14 Jun 549, 4:49am CPT (CKT+3)
Hey @glide2_mistralton ur supposed to change the password on your router from the default one xdd jajajajajajaja https://libreupload.kl/u/YW1vbmd1cw0K...
79 | 110 | 782 ♥

// transcript_s6e22_wip_280449.txt


NARRATOR: Sunnyside Heights is a small, quaint neighborhood on the northwest of Lillywood, a quiet town located forty minutes away from Mistralton. It's the perfect place to raise a family, with its many playgrounds, one of the largest public schools in the region, and a pediatric hospital located smack dab in its center. As beautiful as it is, though, it is not free from the woes of human life. Last November, Sunnyside Heights experienced a tragedy when Sage Mahini, a seven-year-old boy, was found dead in confusing circumstances. It was an indescribable loss for everyone, but the mother of the family, thirty-seven-year-old Nesrin Mahini working as a microbiologist for a company based in Mistralton, had taken it particularly hard.


NARRATOR: But then, an unexpected development at the beginning of February changed everything, when a Phantump unexpectedly showed up on the family's doorstep one night—and Nesrin believes them to be their lost child. Join our host, Pamela Hutchins, for this exclusive interview with the Mahini family.




PAMELA HUTCHINS NARRATION: Hello, and welcome back to Humane Stories. Today, I'll be interviewing someone with quite an unbelievable story to tell, one she's been keen to tell for months now.


PAMELA HUTCHINS: Good afternoon.

NESRIN MAHINI: Good afternoon, it is a pleasure to finally have a chance to tell the world my side of our story for once.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Before we talk about what happened in February, could you talk about the aftermath of Sage's death?

NESRIN MAHINI: Ahhh, goodness, it's hard to think back to that. What can I say? It broke all our hearts. I've always tried to be there for our kids, more than I've seen other folks in my position be, but it always came into that conflict with what it felt like I should be doing, you know that idealized image of a hardworking migrant. It's an awful, perverse one of course, but even if I knew better, I ended up kinda letting it push me into focusing more and more time on work because I was afraid I'd come off as the 'bad' kind of migrant, a horribly racist stereotype but I guess even if I knew better it still kinda got its hooks into me—and even my husband, too.


NESRIN MAHINI: I was busy with work most of the time; his job has him on constant work trips, you know. We had all we wanted in a way, could afford a preschool for our youngest, Aspen, but only had a couple hours a week to really spend time with our kids. I tried to take them for ice cream every weekend but of course, that's nowhere near enough, I was afraid of growing distant long before... this happened, and sometimes I feel that if I had tried to carve out more time for our kids all this could've been avoided.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Success isn't without its costs, indeed. So, what really happened that February night?


NESRIN MAHINI: Oh goodness, so much of it is a blur despite all the adrenaline. I stayed up watching something but don't remember what; it was like past midnight and suddenly I heard knocking on the front door. I come over and outside there's this tall, homeless-looking man, a Banette, and a Phantump. And then, the Phantump started talking to me in Sage's voice, and I realized it was her.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: That sounds terrifying.

NESRIN MAHINI: It absolutely was. I almost ran off in terror and called the c—the police when it happened. But yes, I realized it was Sage, just too many things lined up for me to deny that, and I took her in, and afterward, the rest of that night was just kinda a blur.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: That man and the Banette you mentioned—do you know who they were?

NESRIN MAHINI: Oh, I have no idea. Whoever that man was, he said nothing the entire time he stood there, and I don't think the Banette did either. We haven't seen them since. Though no matter who they are, they escorted my daughter back to me, and I sincerely hope they're doing alright, whoever and wherever they are.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: One spooky pair of bodyguards, if that's the case. Could you tell us what happened afterward?

NESRIN MAHINI: I remember the next morning well, it was... gods, I remember waking up and thinking I had the saddest and strangest dream, I was about to cry and then I spotted Sage sleeping beside me, and only then it all clicked in place, that kind of 'oh [EXPLETIVE], all this really happened', you know. And then since I was less tired I just felt all this loss and sadness all at once, everything I felt when she first went missing, and I ugly cried and held her for a while and was just so happy that she was back.


PAMELA HUTCHINS: How did your family react?

NESRIN MAHINI: My other kids were understandably shocked, though both differently. Aspen, my youngest, just gasped out loud and ran over to Sage and said how he was jealous that she became a Pokemon and I had no idea whether to cry or to laugh. That aside, he got used to it quite quickly, though kept asking for a while for her to show him some moves and she always got flustered and I had to explain to him that Sage didn't know any moves.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Does she... know any, now?

NESRIN MAHINI: I'm uncertain, actually. I spotted her playing in the backyard a few weeks ago, seemingly trying something out, so maybe she's trying to learn some? I don't know how this works in all honesty, we've never owned a pokemon.


NESRIN MAHINI: As for my oldest, Azalea, she didn't believe it for a while. I remember us having this one strained chat a few days in. She told me I was going insane, and it hurt, but I couldn't blame her much. Though she apologized a few days later, overheard Sage chatting with Aspen, and finally tried talking to her herself, and then I guess it finally clicked for her, you know. I don't hold it against her, I'm just glad she eventually got around to accepting Sage again, and now she's trying to be the best big sister for her she can—even got her into trying out some makeup recently.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Mhm. What about your husband?

NESRIN MAHINI: Yes, that was a long and difficult talk between us once he got back from his work trip. He had a very hard time accepting it, kept worrying about my mental health, and couldn't believe it even after talking to Sage a few times. It took him a couple weeks to start turning around after he started running out of reasons and arguments for why this couldn't have been Sage, and he eventually got there and got over himself, but good gods these were some of the most difficult weeks of my life. We got closer to a divorce than we had ever been before. It was rough, but I'm just glad he came around on Sage.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: I can only imagine how shocking it must be to hear that your child has come back from the dead. Now, about that controversial part.


PAMELA HUTCHINS: You've said many times over the past few months that you've been on the receiving end of a lot of harassment and intimidation from the Unovan Government and the Pokemon League, correct?

NESRIN MAHINI: Yes, I have said that, and that's because it has been and continues to be true.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Could you elaborate on that?

NESRIN MAHINI: Well, it started when Aspen told some of his friends in kindergarten a few days after Sage came back, and then it spread fast. I received several calls, first from the kindergarten and then from other parents. At the start, they were just concerned, all 'Oh Nesrin, I know it's been rough on you but you should see a therapist sweetie'. Then when I kept reasserting myself that yes, Sage had come back, the mask dropped real fast. I sure didn't expect to be learning new slurs at almost forty, but life is full of surprises, I guess.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: What did these calls result in?

NESRIN MAHINI: Not much at the start, but then it got ugly fast. Aspen would come home crying because other kids told him his mom was crazy, and I ended up pulling him from that place soon after. Then, a week or so later, I got my first visit from the child protective services people. Which was terrifying. The guy they sent kept trying to nail me with something, but the only thing he could point out was that I had a '''pokemon''' at my house without owning it. The first thing I did once he left was go to the nearest trainers' supply store, buy a ball for Sage, and go through the paperwork for '''registering''' later that day.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: You sound rather frustrated at that.

NESRIN MAHINI: Why wouldn't I be? This isn't some stray mon, this is my daughter. The way everyone keeps referring to her as if she's some object I happen to own makes me sick. I don't even want to say she's a pokemon, she's a person who's stuck in a mon's body. I could go into an entire tangent on how I've had everyone constantly dehumanize her. It's been abhorrent.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Well, person or not, she still has the outward appearance of a pokemon. I can only imagine how much our laws would be thrown into disarray if we were to decide that 'some' mons are actually people, not to mention the legal mess involved with a legally dead person coming back from the dead.

NESRIN MAHINI: Then it sure sounds like they should be thrown into that disarray.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Quite a bold opinion. Either way—did the harassment stop at that one CPS check?

NESRIN MAHINI: Oh no, that was just the start. I constantly get mail from the state government accusing me of subjecting my children to psychological harm by claiming their sister had returned; I've had several CPS visits since then, but they couldn't find any dirt on me. I contacted several child psychologists around the country to get their opinion in writing about whether my children were in any sort of distress or experiencing abuse, and none of them found anything. Of course, nobody actually sending CPS checks on me cares one [EXPLETIVE] about my kids; it's long since become clear to me it's just an attempt to intimidate me into silence.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Because of your claims that Sage had come back as a pokemon?

NESRIN MAHINI: Yes, exactly. I've been in touch with a lawyer about this, and while I can't publicly say anything more than that yet, rest assured that I won't let them silence us. Sage is a person no matter the body she's in, and I won't rest until this country recognizes her as such.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: What about the League's response?

NESRIN MAHINI: Oh, gods. They've been just as rabid about trying to nail me with something, most often possession of a 'dangerous' mon without an appropriate license. But I went and checked and no, Phantump just aren't on that list! I know the list they're scaremongering about; I've had to learn about much more trainer nonsense than I ever wanted to for this, and Phantump just aren't there! And, even if they try to add them to that list now, it'll end up affecting a whole ton of people that own actual Phantump, we're talking thousands, and that's on top of the fact that those mon restrictions, as written in law, exempt people who already owned restricted species before they were added to the list. They're grasping at the flimsiest of straws and it would've been funny if it wasn't so frustrating and draining to deal with.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: You have mentioned an increase in what you called 'propaganda' coming from the Pokemon League in response to the controversy surrounding Sage.

NESRIN MAHINI: There's just no better way of putting it, really, as much as it sounds like I'm just stuffing my brain full of tin foil. I watched the messaging on all their public service announcements shift over these past few months from what it was before the sticking point of 'training is only abuse if done incorrectly, make sure to do it right', to just hammering on the message of 'mons aren't people and are fundamentally different and you shouldn't assume they experience anything like human emotions', which is just [EXPLETIVE] [EXPLETIVE], anyway. Even ignoring Sage for a moment, look at literally any mon playing around and tell me they don't experience happiness.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: What do you think drives that so-called 'propaganda'?

NESRIN MAHINI: That's the worst thing, I'm not even sure! I've been trying to be as specific in my messaging as possible once I went public with this. Some people end up reincarnating as Ghost-type mons, there's no shot Sage is the first-ever example of that happening, and we should expand our laws to accommodate those unusual, but still possible cases. From the messaging the League has been putting out in response, you'd think I was shrieking about mons and people being allowed to get married or something.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Well, wouldn't that actually happen if Sage were to marry a human down the line?

NESRIN MAHINI: No, because she's not an actual mon, she's a person stuck in a mon's body, that's the thing! I'm not gonna sit there and claim that every single mon out there is a person, that is absurd, but there definitely are other people, like Sage, that are in mon bodies.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Wouldn't there be a risk of a slippery slope from allowing this specific group of pokemon to be considered people in the laws of the land to some of those horrible outcomes like human-pokemon marriage?

NESRIN MAHINI: I don't see why there would be, assuming they care to limit it specifically to reincarnated humans. Though, hah...


PAMELA HUTCHINS: ...Mrs. Nahini?

NESRIN MAHINI: Oh, apologies, it's just... you know, the conspiratorial side of me is really starting to think that they are trying to hide something big with how disproportionate their response has been.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: That is a very bold claim.

NESRIN MAHINI: I'm aware, and I'm not trying to justify it here and now. It's just that, you know, the severity of their response almost screams guilt to me, like they're covering something that I ended up stumbling onto. But I'm not gonna go into further detail on that right now, please continue.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: I see. Mhm. Well, has Sage... said anything about what happened in the three months she's been gone for?

NESRIN MAHINI: I have asked her a few times, but she doesn't remember much, aside from having spent a lot of time with someone she calls 'Yaksha'. I tried researching that name, and all I found was an entry or two in some old religious studies textbooks and a couple of forum profiles that have sat dead for fifteen years. But in general, I try not to pry Sage about it. It all makes her very anxious to think about and the least she deserves is not to have to experience that fear ever again.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: I suppose that's understandable. Another point that many have pointed out is that Sage's documents from when they were alive identify them as a boy, yet you've been referring to them as a girl.

NESRIN MAHINI: Yes, that's true. I've also talked to her about this, and it's another tricky, tense subject, but she's told me she's actually always thought she was a girl, even before her—her accident.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: Uh huh. Has she mentioned that beforehand?

NESRIN MAHINI: No, but again, I haven't been as present in her life as I wish I had been in hindsight. I can't really say to understand what drove this change, but I don't really think me understanding it or not matters one bit. It makes her happy to be referred to as a girl, and the few times she's heard someone refer to her as a boy it always upset her, so for me the choice is obvious—I wanna make her happy. Boy or girl, she's my child and I love her, and that's the only thing that really matters.

PAMELA HUTCHINS: But wouldn't you agree that allowing one's sex to be changed so easily would lead to—


NESRIN MAHINI: Awwww, good afternoon, Sage!



NESRIN MAHINI: C'mon Sage, come back so we can finish this interview.






// end of document

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Prologue: Sins

Prologue: Sins


The metallic sound filled the small lobby, followed moments later by the light tap of the letter hitting the wooden floor. Both noises were only barely audible over the background of scribbling crayons, canine snoozes, and the TV’s ambiance, but... she heard it all the same. There’s no way she could’ve not heard it. Her eyes went wide as she put away the knitting needles and stood up from the couch; each step towards the door reverberated in her mind.

But she had to.

A shaking hand reached over to pick the letter up as she tried to fill her soul with hope. It didn’t have to be what she thought it was; it could’ve been something else—maybe just bills, maybe just junk mail. She begged the gods above, but they didn’t listen.

Her heart sank as she read the label on the envelope. Sender’s address—St. Trinity Hospital in Mistralton.

Still, she kept hoping. Yes, she knew she’d get her diagnosis eventually, but that didn’t mean it would be what she feared it was. Her odds weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible either. It didn’t have to end with tragedy—


But it would, all the same.

Her heart sank as she read the prognosis, sank and hammered so hard she could barely keep reading. The text had turned into an incomprehensible blur, obscured by first her shaking, then her tears, and last, her will. It was too terrible to face, this suffering the letter foretold.

The best they could do was treat the worst of the symptoms once they began, but by then it would already be too late. When would it happen? This year, the next, in five years? She didn’t know, she couldn’t know. Maybe she’d just end up being lucky, the exception to the rule, maybe she’d last the eleven years needed. She just had to hope things would be alright.

She just had to hope she’d outrun her sins in the end.

The woman slid the letter back into its envelope before turning to look at the young girl scribbling on the floor in the living room. Her lips moved without making a sound, weaving silent apologies for everything her little one was too young to remember, and for everything that would still await her. Then, they turned on herself, berating herself about how she should’ve tried harder when she had the chance; when she first realized there was something terribly wrong going on in her family.

When she first realized what her husband had been doing to Tommy when she was too busy with work to notice.

Maybe if she had noticed it at the time, called the police; hadn’t dismissed her son’s behavior as him just being a moody, hormonal teenager, maybe all this would’ve been avoided. Maybe if she’d just done that, she would be able to look at her granddaughter without guilt tearing her soul apart.

But she hadn’t.

And others would suffer for her failures the most, once more.

“~G-grandma Lisa?~” the girl asked in her small, weary voice, having run over when the old woman wasn’t looking. On her cheek, a splash of jam from the pancake she’d just had.

In her arms, the Fennekin they had taken home a few months ago.

Lisa shuddered, trying to think of what to say, if there was anything she even could say. It was all too painful to think about, too painful to admit, even to herself, let alone to someone who shouldn’t have to deal with any of this. She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear thinking about what would have to happen were she to finally face the reality before herself—

And so; she didn’t.

“~I’m okay Annie, it’s just some bad news,~” the old woman reassured, wiping her tears with a sleeve of her grandmotherly cardigan.

After all, maybe it would all turn out alright.

“~But everything will be okay.~”​

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!
Epilogue II: Goodbye

Epilogue II: Goodbye


I lay still as the last of my half-remembered dream fades away. The bed is so soft; I don't wanna move, but today is too important to sleep through—not to mention I've likely already slept for much longer than usual... though, maybe not, considering how late I stayed up last night.

I blink my eyes open, groaning at the light flooding the room through the opened sunroof, before reaching for the glasses in the corner. Used to worry a lot that Cadence or Elric would accidentally step on them when waking up, but they've gotten better and better at being mindful of them over time.

Specs on the nose, feet on the ground—time to get up. I roll my shoulders and stretch as I walk to the small, wrapped bundle stuffed in the corner, behind all my stuff. Yep, still there, still should have everything I need. Now to clean my glasses, change into something fresher, and fill my stomach. I almost never wake up first, but with how quiet the burrow is right now, I may have just woken up last, hah.

…and considering neither mom nor Cadence woke me up at the normal hour, they probably realized I've stayed up for way too long. And here I thought I managed to be all covert and stuff, slowly polishing and painting under the candlelight.

Oh well.

I wave to the Gliscor sitting at the table as I step into the living room, and he waves back. Hah, wouldn't have ever thought his sight would become so mundane with how memorable our first meeting was. I might've listened to Elric hype himself about his dad waking up from his hibernation any day now, but when suddenly it was just me, barely able to string together a sentence in the village's language and a freshly awoken bat my size, I can't deny that my fears kinda got the better of me. Ehh...

We apologized to each other afterward, even if it took for him a while to come to terms with everything that had happened, and for me to unlearn that knee-jerk fear response ingrained in me so many years ago. And so, a fearsome, flying apex predator turned to 'Riddick', just like his son had turned to 'Elric' a few months ago. Just like everything here, in this wild corner of the woods, it had turned from shocking and intimidating to just... normal.

Him living with us is normal—it's his house, after all. As is none of my living family being human anymore—yeah, that's just how things are. Of course, I still think back to it all sometimes, snap myself out of that daze of normalcy every once in a while to realize how... lucky I am to even be here and give everyone their appropriate share of affection.

It's such a wonderful feeling, every time.

I dump a few leftover pieces of fried berry dough and take a seat at the table, opposite of Riddick. I'm about to start mindlessly snacking on them while letting my thoughts wander away before I remember the physical therapy, groaning under my breath. My left arm has gotten better, a lot better even, requiring just a long sleeve as opposed to a stiff cast, but... it still hurts a bit. Hurts to use, hurts to work through that pain and get it back to something approaching full strength again.

Sucks, but... such is life.

As my left hand grabs the second piece of the dough, the makeshift door opposite to the kids' room opens, and out walks Geiger. Nope, I wasn't last, guess at least I have that silver lining. "Morning, Anne!" he greets me. I've gotten better at understanding his gruff, low voice, but it's still a struggle to determine the exact tone he's using sometimes.

I'll get there, I'm sure of it.

"Hello, Mr. Geiger!" I reply, stringing sounds that once sounded like utter gibberish but are increasingly creeping into the corner of my brain that houses Unovan.

"Retain awake long you, eh?" he asks while sitting down.

I roll my eyes as I piece the meaning together. Guess Autumn has sensed it too and told him, heh. "True. Retain awake because important I. Much important." I try defending myself, getting a roaring laugh out of him.

"Tell that me Autumn. Work about important long you, eh?"

Indeed, I've been working on this... project of mine for a while now. I didn't think it would be half as difficult as it turned out to be when I started, but in my defense; I knew exactly nothing about woodworking when that idea first struck me. And now, almost a month later, I know just a touch above exactly nothing, but have somehow finished that project!

Well, almost. Today's the day.

"Yes, Moon now. Want do all I. Did almost all I. Help planks with dad."

He grins at me as he grabs his portion of fried dough, responding, "Great work! Today more?"

My left hand brushes the bottom of the bowl as it reaches to grab another treat on autopilot, alerting my eyes. Yep, breakfast is done, no time to waste. "Today last, hope I."

"Great great! Day which now?" Geiger asks for the date. I've been trying to keep track as much as I can, but considering the village has no concept of a 'week', or even a non-Lunar month, the human dates are neither important nor very helpful.

Heck, most birthdays get rounded to the nearest full or new moon, and that's if the person in question even observes them. Bell's is coming soon, mine was a few months ago. I wasn't even planning on telling anybody, but Ember spilled the beans for me. We ended up taking rounds drawing each other and seeing who could do it the funniest. No gifts, but none were needed—I already got the best gift I could've ever asked for.

It may not be useful here, but I still keep track of the human date, even if just for myself. I answer, "Day sixteen, Moon five." Day of the week, unfortunately unknown; I'll have to check the calendar Mrs. Graham gave me.

"Thanks, Anne," he replies. One of the few pieces of grammar I've gotten a full grasp on already, and which is reasonably easy to make out, no matter who's speaking it. I dash back into the kids' room to put my shoes on before turning for the entrance to the burrow. As I walk up the steps, he sends me off. "Great luck, Anne!"

I don't think I'll need it, but it's appreciated all the same.


Dad works at the other side of the village—still just a fifteen-minute walk tops, but a quick jog never hurts. My left arm aches a bit with each step as I make it through the busy streets, responding in kind to whoever greets me. Not everyone, but it's fine.

Even if it took me a good while after I started settling in here to really make peace with that.

Not everyone is or will be friendly, but it's fine. That would also be the case if I lived in an all-human village instead. Some people are just cold to most others, some aren't very emotional, some even dislike me for more or less justified reasons. But it's fine—there are many people here that are fond of me, and even some that are outright gregarious whenever I run past—

"Beautiful morning, Anne!" Holly squeaks at me, making me jump a bit. There were at least five words in that sentence I didn't make out at all, and if there's anyone in the entire village that I don't think I'll ever understand in full, it's probably the Azumarill.

Thankfully, with her, all I need to know is the gist, anyway. "Morning Holly!" I reply as I jog on, wordlessly turning down her offer for a freshly baked treat.

A rare enough occurrence for her to realize its importance, sending me off with a nod as I turn the corner. Anyhow—yes, not everyone will be friendly with me, and I try to keep that in mind. Sometimes I really succeed at that, and sometimes... and sometimes I can indeed only try.

A brief chill runs through me as I look around, slowing down to get a better grasp of my thoughts. I don't have that positive attitude down pat, not yet, and a part of me doubts I ever will, especially to a level where maintaining it won't involve a lot of active effort. Mom described it once as tending to my thoughts as a garden, being aware of what's growing in there, and plucking the stuff I don't want.

It's still not easy, but it has gotten easier, especially with Ember and Autumn taking me on walks around the village all the time. The former were always r-really nice, heh... a-anyway. I doubt I'll ever be a social butterfly, but each weed with the words "they will hurt me" written on it I pull out makes the impulse to retreat to my room and hide forever that bit weaker.

Still doesn't mean I'll stop turning the other way whenever I see Hawthorne anytime soon, though. Even with Autumn's reassurances that she has been slowly mellowing out. I'll believe it when I see it. And... yes, 'Autumn'.

I switch to deeper breaths as I stumble upon the thought, determination filling my every step. Yes, still 'Autumn' and not 'grandma'. Aria clicked, Garret clicked, even Marco clicked, but... but not Autumn, not yet. It's hard to reuse that label for someone else after all this time. I've been hoping my current project will help with that, and hopefully, I'll find out soon.

I hear familiar squeaks as I run past the nursery, first from Jovan and Pearl, followed by all the tykes under their watch, Bell included. I'm glad they don't mind me being late, but alas—I'm not heading there, not today. I call back, "Today not, sorry!" as I turn the corner, chuckling under my breath at the disjointed choir of disappointed groans I receive in response.

As mixed as my reception has been in the village as a whole, most kids really seem to like me—and so do their caretakers. Suppose being a kid more than old enough to look after myself makes watching over the toddlers that much easier for them, even if I'm no better with the village's language than the little ones. Not yet, at least. Who knows, maybe once I get more fluent, I might start helping them out in a more formal way? I already have to double as a third caretaker sometimes; I sure wouldn't mind making that more than just a running joke between myself, Pearl, and Jovan.

Ow, left arm is reminding me why I don't jog often. I finally relent, dropping my pace to a calm stroll as I try to massage the aching limb a bit. I don't think it'll ever feel normal again, just like I don't think I'll ever feel normal again. It's better on some days than others. Sometimes it feels almost like it did before my accident, other times I have to put it in a sling and bear through until mom or Autumn can help numb it.

Just like sometimes I can be out and running about, and sometimes my mind decides to make me relive being stuck in that tent, blind, cold, and defenseless, with strangers arguing about whether I should be allowed to live. Sometimes no matter how much tending to my thoughts I do, it's not enough, and I spend the day drawing or reading in my room, often with Ember keeping me company.

But each month, these days get rarer and rarer. I don't think they'll ever leave me, but it's okay—I'm still getting better. What awaits at the other end of a rough patch is always worth it.

As I approach dad's work site, the usual chatter gives way to the bangs of felled trees and whines of blades, be they natural or crafted, turning the timber into construction material. We'll need a lot of it, especially with the start of our big move creeping closer and closer. It'll probably take months, if not years, to complete, but the tension in the air is already palpable.

I'm so glad Mrs. Graham has been helping us out with it. She's helped us scope out where to move to—a nondescript stretch of woodland a few dozen miles away from here, and well distanced from even the most rural of roads. Not a national park, and not being used for any hidden military compounds, either.

And yes, we had to send someone and check that last one to be sure.

She even suggested a way to repel any humans that had ventured over there for some reason. Mon intimidation works, but so does legal intimidation! Nothing a wire fence perimeter and a few 'Private Property' and 'No Trespassing' signs can't accomplish.

Mom has been trying to keep me at an arm's length from any discussion about the specifics of the move, which I suppose I can understand. It's a lot of responsibility, and Mrs. Graham is already helping our village out with it; I don't need to be burdened with the weight of it all.

Doesn't mean I don't get curious, though. Heh.

I remember how glad Mrs. Graham was when mom helped me visit her for the first time after I ended up here. Hard not to smile as I think about this, think back to how relieved she was to see me again, more than I've ever seen her be—and how happy Leo and Luxie were, too. Mrs. Graham even came up with a rumor to make my future visitations much safer!

No, I didn't disappear, of course not! CPS just rescued me and gave me a new identity! I now live far away, and only come back and visit sometime, keeping myself from being recognized. It's not a very believable rumor on its own, and I remember I couldn't stop laughing when she told me it had worked, but her explanation made sense.

It didn't have to be believable, it just had to be something Mylock already wanted to believe to soothe its conscience.

I've been helping mom learn Unovan, too. A few other people have expressed interest as well, but only she has really meant it seriously so far. She sounds really funny when she tries to speak, and she's still getting the hang of connecting sounds to letters, but she's trying her best, and it just makes me so happy every time. I'm proud of her.

"Anne!" dad greets me with a loud growl, all words but my name lost in the noise. I look over, catching him pulling out a stubborn tree stump with nothing but raw strength, a sight that has gone from terrifying to awe-inspiring the longer I've known him.

I wait until he's placed the mass of soil and roots off to the side, ready to be processed for whatever usable wood we can get out of it, before walking up to him. I say, "Hey dad! Wood where?"

He blinks at me in brief confusion as his individual hairs shake off loose dirt before the realization clicks together for him. He points over to a pile of logs and planks at the edge of the clearing and explains, "There, behind tree they. Is home nails, hammer?"

"Yes! Thank you!" I answer, glad I remembered to grab everything else I'll need for this yesterday.

"Great! Love you Anne, I!" he growls in response as I lift the small bundle of planks up. Another piece of grammar I'm glad I already know well. It's just words, but...

"Love you dad too, I!"

His smile each time I get it right is worth all the learning effort in the world.

After I finish moving the materials over behind our burrow, I finally have everything needed to put this project together. Three carefully measured planks, a few nails, a stone hammer, and a wooden plaque I've been painting, burning, and chiseling for almost a month now. It's—it's hard to look at the latter without getting a bit emotional, but I persevere. I'm so close to finishing this; of course I persevere!

I bolster myself again and again, but each time the wetness in my eyes creeps over faster and faster. It's hard, but I push on. My left hand hurts from holding the planks while I hammer the nails in, but I push on. I'm so close. At last, the final piece of scrap metal, arguably diligently forged by Mikiri, is in. I give the entire assembly a brief shake, and it holds fast.

Now, the hole.

Nothing quite like a human spade in the village, but I make do with a broken piece of pottery. I marked out the right spot for this a couple of weeks ago; now all that's left is digging up a hole. Even my good arm aches by the time I make it half a foot in, but I know I have to keep going for a bit longer than that—don't want something I've spent so much time working on to be destroyed by the first stiff breeze that rolls around.

Alright, this should be enough. I pant as I stand back up, arms shaking in exhaustion. They want rest, especially the left one, and they'll get it soon, so very soon. I lift my project with all the strength I can muster, carrying it upright until it's hovering above the hole. I take a moment to line it right and lower it—fits almost perfectly, only scraping a bit of dirt off from the sides.

I grunt as I hold it still with my left hand, the right one busy filling the hole with soil. I need to use less and less force to hold it steady until, at last, it stands on its own. A relieved sigh leaves me as I try to fill in as much dirt as I can, stamping it down to make sure it holds my project as firmly as possible.

And then; I'm finally done.

I lay the pottery shard and the hammer off to the side as I catch my breath. A part of me wants to scuttle away, to take my time until I'm no longer winded, maybe even delay doing what needs to be done until tomorrow—but I stop it in its tracks. It's okay if I'm winded, it's okay if I'm not at my best, things will be alright.

I hope Grandma won't mind.

I wipe my hands as I walk back over to the grave marker, shaped just like the little icon my grandma placed above most doorways. What it represents, I'm unsure—she's always kept her religion to herself, only ever taking me to the local church once a year. It was always so boring and I could never wait until it ended, but now I wish I had listened even a little, even if just to know what to say now.

I'm not sure how to do this next part; if I can do it the right way. I hope I can; I hope that if she really is somewhere out there, she'll be able to hear me. I close my eyes, clasp my hands just like I watched her do countless times,

And pray.

Hello, grandma.

My expression twists as tears finally force themselves out of my eyes, tingling as they flow down my cheeks.

I know it's been a while, I'm sorry. A lot has happened since I last talked to you. I—I never knew how to, and if I even should try talking to you like this.

Tears ease out a bit as my breathing calms down, thoughts turning ever clearer. I manage to pry my eyes open again.

It's been bad since you left, but a few months ago, this—this family of mons took me in. I've been living with them since.

Each breath is deeper than the last as I hear the leaves rustle around me.

I could've never imagined it. They—they took me in. Ember was already living here, safe, and now I'm safe, too. I have a new mom. Her name is Aria, and she's a Gardevoir. My dad's name is Garret, and he's a Grimmsnarl. I even have siblings now, Bell and Cadence! And... a-and—

The harsh sobs undo any tranquility I might've carved for myself. I flinch as if struck, my expression twisting into a grimace.

I miss you. I wish you could've met them all. They're wonderful.

I don't even try to fight the tears this time, letting them flow for as long as they need to. My hands ache a bit, but I hold through it, hold through the discomfort and the tears, both of them easing out bit by bit. Each drop of wetness splashing against my shirt hurts, but all that means is that it took a bit of pain that already was inside my head with itself. It's bad now,

But once it's over, I'll hurt less.

I'm not sure how long I stood there for, grief flowing down my face. It was probably just a few minutes, but it feels like it lasted more than that. I've been waiting for this for so long. As the tears ease out, though, I hear a familiar, telepathic voice call out from the other side of the hill, "^Hey, Anne!^"

I pry my eyes open and look over as Cadence comes into view, her cheer fading at seeing and sensing me in my current state. She runs over with concern on her face, one that I try to dispel with a teary smile and a light shake of my head. It puts her at ease somewhat, but she still asks, "^Are you alright, Anne?^"

I'm too tired for translation, falling back on Unovan as an answer, "~Yeah, I-I am. I'm crying, b-but they're good tears, promise.~"

Thankfully, she doesn't doubt me, instead pulling as much of me as her arms can wrap around into a hug.

"^Is this that thing you've been working on?^"

A few more tears run down my cheeks as I answer with a slow nod.

"^What does it say?^

I don't mind answering, but... probably not now. "~I'll tell you some other time, okay?~"

She reassures me it's alright with firm nods and another hug. "^Sure! It looks nice.^"

"~Thank you.~"

We stand there in silence for a few minutes longer while my heart calms down and my face dries out. These aren't the last tears I'll shed before this marker, I'm sure of that—but it's okay. Each deep breath and each rustle of the passing wind leaves me calmer, until I feel even better than before I started all this. That bit calmer, my soul that bit lighter.

It's time to go.

"~So, w-wanted to drag me somewhere earlier, Cadence?~" I ask as I wipe the last of the stubborn moisture from my face.

"^Oh, yeah! Ember wants to show you a move she's been practicing!^"

Goodbye, grandma. I hope you're happy, wherever you are.

"~Let's get going, then!~"

Because I finally am.


From the Vast

Written by:


Based on a roleplay session by:

Edited by:

The following tools have been utilized in creating this story:
Notepad++ by Don Ho
Obsidian by Dynalist Inc.
ProWritingAid by Orpheus Technology
Google Docs by you fucking know who
Blender by Blender Foundation

No Generative AI has been utilized in creating this story.

Special thanks to:

Arbon - For knowing more about Pokemon lore than any single being should have to, and helping flesh out the setting.

zephyr_skunk - For being the best friend I could've ever asked for during the darkest time of my life.

Kitsune's Inkwell, especially DJFirefox and NovaVere - For helping me improve my writing more than I can even describe.

Austin Jorgensen - For creating one of the most memorable games I never want to play again.

Marina Hova - For her performance in "LISA: The Joyful - Voices" directly inspiring Celia's interlude.

SomeSillyName, TurtlTost - <3

Anthrodyniacoms - For making the cover art.

Sweet_Mintality - For making the artworks used in Chapters 9 and 33, as well as the stickers based on the story.

OutlawVideoProduction, FrankDP1 - For the Ellie model used in the render.

Cloudman - For helping me with the render.

Chaosblossoms - For being one of the most creative, and most wonderful people I've ever met.

Tystarr - For writing A Voice Among the Strangers, the fanfic that inspired me to start writing.

Everyone who read my first ever story, Welcome Home - For making me believe my writing has value.

Everyone tossing change my way on Patreon - For making me believe my writing has monetary value.

The Pokemon Company International, Nintendo Co., Ltd. - fuck you

Rho | Mad Honey System
...and others!
For making my Discord server the most pleasant online space I've ever participated in.

Everyone who commented on my stories or responded to my threads - For motivating me to keep going.

And you,
for reading.​
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