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Digital-Skitty

Artist | Professional | Literature
Hi. My name is Skitty and I like neon colors.

Quick Guide To My Naming Schemes:
TR = The Rook (series)
PD = Pedestal drabble
RMWJ(D) = Ree Majors' Wonderful Journey (drabble)
PTF = Operation: Poison Tree Frog
HOHW = Hell or High Water ("hell story")

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Yuri fled the scene after his confession, leaving Hisako sweating bullets with Shunya. The older boy rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "Nightmares are understandable, but I wish he wasn't so quick to run at times."

"Ahaha, y-yeah," Hisako said as she began edging back out of the room.

"Do you know what those terms he used were? They didn't sound familiar."

"Um, no! No I definitely didn't, but I'll go chase after him right now and ask and see how he is!" She ran, too, before he could respond. How dare he just blurt that out and then leave me with him?! she fumed as she darted out into the hallway. As always, he was easy to spot in a crowd, already at the stairs. He caught her eye at the top, relief clear that Shunya hadn't followed him, but didn't stop to wait for her.

As annoyed as she was, she didn't feel like pursuing him if he was bent on avoiding her. She hadn't wanted to be left with Shunya, especially to be asked questions she couldn't answer, and she wasn't going to cover for him. She was still mad enough with him to leave that to be his problem later.

She picked up an application at the convenience store on the corner before heading home. The boy behind the counter—hardly older than she was—gave her an odd look when she asked, but she didn't mind. The mother and daughter from down the hall, Izumi and Himawari, waved as they stepped out of the elevator, just as she was heading inside.

The little bits of normalcy in her life did little to distract her from what awaited them in Irkalla.

Yuri-kun's having nightmares about it? I wish he'd tell me these sorts of things, she thought. ...Am I being as nosy as Shunya-senpai?

She couldn't help her own surprise at herself, too; how hadn't she been having nightmares about what Mika's talking shadow would be? Had Suzuka? Tomorrow would tell.

-.-.-

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014



"You two look terrible," Suzuka bluntly told them.

Hisako and Yuri shared a look. "Can I see the new throwing knives you bought?" the blonde asked, changing the subject.

"Yes! I've already practiced throwing them, and I can't really master the whole hitting-with-the-pointy-end but they're a lot easier to throw than those things we made!" Suzuka dug around in her backpack while they walked. She pulled out a case, about a dozen black knives as long as her forearm bundled together lying inside.

"I can't wait to see this. Remind me to stand far away," Yuri said.

"Dude, come on! I've been throwing things since middle school. Look at these arms! They may bounce off their handles half the time, but I'm pretty decent with my aim, if I say so myself. It was all about adjusting to the balance and grip…" Suzuka chattered on about the technicalities of throwing different objects as they entered the cemetery.

The day was bright, almost hot, and muggy, yet she felt a chill go down her spine. Hisako couldn't pinpoint the cause of the sensation. Is it just dread? She thought she caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye, but nothing was there. Dumuzi wouldn't be here, right? At least, she hoped he wasn't following them. She was fine not seeing him again for a long, long time.

Irkalla seemed colder than usual by comparison to the day above. She hoped that, too, was her imagination. There was no urgency as they changed clothes; now that they were approaching the reality of seeing what happened to Irkalla in the wake of Mika's death, she only felt apprehension. Yuri seemed to be feeling it even worse than she was, and Suzuka's explanations stuttered to a stop.

Outside the gap in the wall for the first floor, Hisako paused to ask Nergal a question. "Who was Ninhursag?"

He stared at her with his bright green eyes for a long moment before responding. "Is she the one Ngeshtin-ana killed?"

"Yes," she replied and Yuri fidgeted.

"An older mother goddess. Even you should recognize her, Inanna."

"Like you did?" she shot back. He wisely did not answer her. He confirmed what Dumuzi had told her, which was all she really wanted from him, anyway.

They entered the maze, and were set upon at once by flaming hounds. Someone screamed and Hisako was thrown into Yuri. The canine shadow leapt on her, teeth gnashing just over her face, and she kept her hands around its throat just to keep it off. She couldn't summon Inanna—she wasn't bleeding, and her only option for that was to stick her hand in the beast's jaws, but that would likely take fingers off. Her knife and staff had both been knocked out of her grasp.

Lightning forked down and she felt it zing through her skin where she was holding the hound back. It dissipated into smoke and Hisako sat up, shaking out her burned hands. "Thank you—" When she turned to Suzuka, she found the petite girl laying near the opposite wall, curled into the fetal position, and there was so much blood.

"Shit—"

"Suzuka-chan!"

Both Hisako and Yuri scrambled over to her, and she was alarmed to find that Suzuka's hands were clamped tight over her neck. Scarlet seeped out between her fingers. Yuri sliced open his arm and hovered over her. "You're going to have to pull your hands away," he told her as Enlil burst into being above him.

There was terror in her eyes and a heartbeat of hesitation passed. But she pulled away. There was a gash almost as long as Hisako's palm in the side of her neck that bled freely for just a second before Enlil jammed his brush into the wound. Suzuka stiffened and spluttered out paint. "That stung."

"Stung?!" Hisako repeated shrilly. Yuri gestured for another coat of paint and the paintbrush nearly got Hisako as she threw herself onto Suzuka. "Sorry, sorry, oh my gosh, you're okay, right?"

"I'm better now. Feels all tingly."

"I think I just lost ten years off my life," Yuri croaked. "You're… fine. Right."

"I am now," Suzuka said and gave him a thumbs up. She sat up, with Hisako still half on her, and carefully prodded her neck. It was covered with wet paint, but beneath it, they could see the flesh had mostly knitted, leaving a raised scab or scar. "That left a mark."

Yuri ran a hand through his hair, and as an afterthought, tied it back. "I'm not sure how well I can fix scars. Not even sure how well I can heal stuff."

"...Think you can say you got it at practice?" Hisako weakly asked.

"It's already mostly healed, isn't it?" They had never dealt with large, obvious injuries before. What Enlil's magic paint didn't fix, they could hide with clothing or the injury was minor enough it didn't matter. Suzuka rubbed at it again and made a face at the bluish-mint smear it left. "We'll just… figure that out later. Too bad it's too hot out for scarves."

"It's been too warm out for that for awhile," Hisako replied and sat back. Suzuka prodded at her neck yet again. "Stop that."

"It doesn't hurt anymore."

"Well, don't pick at it!"

"I'm not picking!"

Yuri stopped the argument by having Enlil cover her in more paint, and not gently. "Let's get going. We have a lot of ground to cover."

Spooked, Hisako became hypervigilant after that. She and Suzuka alternated having their Personas out, and Enlil disappeared after Yuri fell into a grumpy silence. It wasn't far into the maze, still following their arrows, when she noticed that most of the shadows happened to be hellhounds or the crying ones. She made ice skates to chase after a couple of them, but soon they had literally more vials of magic water than they knew what to do with.

She knew Suzuka caught on to the monster population, too, but they didn't say anything in front of Yuri. He was probably all too aware of it himself.

As they entered the gallery section of the first level—they had managed to paint arrows the entire way there with that trip—they encountered their first shadow change. The first set of rooms with paintings were empty, save the multicolored footprints leading out of the frames.

"That doesn't look good," Suzuka said.

"Brace yourselves," Hisako replied.

Yuri fell back, closer to her, unease clear, though he didn't speak. By the time they passed the second set of rooms, with the same footprints leaving out, he had grabbed her. She shifted her staff to her other hand so she could offer that to him. He quickly took it, but didn't meet her eyes.

"Uh, guys? Am I seein' this right? What the hell is that?" Suzuka called from ahead of them.

"...A chameleon?" Hisako replied, equal parts confused and horrified. It looked like one, except about as tall as they were, and pure white, save for its navy blue belly. The monster turned around to face them, sea blue eyes swivelling, and she nearly gagged when she saw the painted lady legs sticking out of its mouth. The chameleon slurped down the painting and colors ran down its jaw like drool. It smiled when both of its eyes found them.

It was impossible to tell who started backing up first, but when the shadow lashed out with its tongue, all three of them bolted. A clap of thunder followed, and Hisako twisted and slung ice down the hall behind them, making it slip and slide as it tried to pursue them. Tiamat zapped it again as they ducked around a corner. Hisako found herself pressed up against the wall with Yuri, Suzuka on the other side, beckoning her large Persona back out of view with her.

It hadn't spoken, but that was a new, unique, stronger-than-average shadow and that raised more than a few warning flags. She looked up at Yuri out of the corner of her eye. He was nearly as white as the monster, but he didn't seem especially taxed, and his nose wasn't bleeding. He still had Enlil out, too. "Yuri-kun, that thing—"

Suzuka screamed. A tongue slapped against the far wall, whipped around the corner where she was, and stuck to her. She swore colorfully before it pulled back and took her with it.

They rushed back out into the hallway—just to slide on the ice Hisako had created. Yuri slammed onto his back and she ran into the wall, but she used it to haul herself back up to her feet. Inanna mentally scolded her. Hisako pointed at the chameleon and sent back her aggravation. "Use a bufula! Aim it at its mouth!"

The shadow's wide mouth froze solid, open, Suzuka's legs half in it. She laughed feebly. "Never so happy to have my feet go numb!" the redhead called.

"Inanna, more ice," Hisako mumbled and held up her staff as she slid over to the half-frozen monster. She practically felt her Persona roll her eyes behind the blindfold.

Just as she began to wonder how they were going to chip Suzuka free but not the chameleon, the white monster was neatly bisected. The rush of wind lagged a moment behind. Hisako jumped back to avoid getting pinned under the chunk of ice and Suzuka's arms windmilled as she thumped to the ground. Yuri made his way toward them, using the wall as a guide, and Enlil floated behind him with a grumpier expression than usual.

"That was new," Suzuka said as she twisted around to see him. "Right? Or could you do that the entire time? Because I'm gonna be a little pissed if you could do that the entire time."

"It's new." He gave the corpse a dirty look before he knelt by her. It melted into thick, rainbow-colored goop before it sublimated into smoke.

He didn't speak much as they broke Suzuka out and Enlil smeared his paintbrush over her legs. She still limped and her skin was painfully cold to the touch, but she swore she would be fine and they couldn't do much, anyway.

If we had a teammate with fire magic, Hisako thought. Suzuka's arm was over her shoulders and they made their way slowly but steadily through the rest of the art gallery. It seemed as if the chameleon had either eaten or run off the rest of the paintings. They were alone with the paint-splattered rooms. But Dumuzi is the only one we've met. It's possible whoever gets kidnapped next could, but…

But she didn't want to think about another possession so soon after Mika. And her list of possible targets was short. She couldn't think about her only remaining school social link. Mathias. It was the only connection they had, but she just couldn't stand to think about the possibility.

She squinted up at Yuri out of the corner of her eye. He was still being quiet. It was understandable, but worrying. This place still seems to reflect the person whose level we're on. Is it because they still have some control from when the lady promised it to them? Or is it because we killed its last boss? The talking shadows claimed they ruled, but they had also admitted that it was in lieu of Yuri or Suzuka. Were they just taking some control back? She figured it was passive, anyway, otherwise there wouldn't be any monsters.

"Is it just me, or is it creepy when he's silent this long?" Suzuka whispered.

"Um, a little," she replied, glancing back up at him. If he'd heard, he didn't react. Very rarely had he gone so long without talking. "Can you blame him?"

"Hell no! If I ran into a thing that looked like my Persona that was eating the pictures I made while under the spell of a goddess—"

"I didn't make them," Yuri ground out.

"Looked like…?"

"And it did not look like Enlil," he added.

"Sorry," Suzuka muttered, cowed. But it had Hisako thinking all over again.

Enlil was certainly not a chameleon, or even reptilian. But he was white, and the underside of his cloak was dark blue, and he did use paint… She would have chalked it up to a coincidence if she didn't remember Yuri's outburst in front of Shunya the day before. "I've been having nightmares about Enlil." And Dumuzi, and Irkalla, but he had started with his own Persona.

"I can hear you thinking," he told her.

"It's what I do," she replied, half a joke.

"Someone's gotta," Suzuka chimed in.

"Well, stop it. Thinking never did us any good down here."

"I've got to disagree," Hisako said in disbelief. "How, exactly, is thinking a bad thing? Okay, I'm not exactly a strategist, but there are a lot of mysteries to sort out and it's not like we have anything else to do down here except beat up bad guys, have heart to hearts, and think."

He winced at her words but he didn't back down. "You're not… We're not exactly…" He groaned in exasperation and Hisako stopped to turn to him fully. Suzuka looked down the hallway—the large room and the door to signal the end of the floor were in sight—but stayed near her. Yuri looked ready to cry or bolt, but he continued, "It's not the same for you, Fujihara. You aren't tied to this place, not in the same way, so your thinking doesn't matter."

"Irkalla doesn't just will things into existence because we think about them," Hisako said, but faltered once she heard herself. Hounds, weeping shadows, and the Enlil-colored chameleon.

"Hey, how about we just get moving again? I can mostly feel my legs!" Suzuka exclaimed. She pulled her arm off of the blonde's shoulders and twirled to show she was good. She only wobbled a little. "C'mon, the door's right over there, and then we can go see if I have a Tiamat-colored thing waiting for you to psychoanalyze!"

She didn't like the implication that she was less attached to the situation than they were, but she wasn't going to argue. Yuri shrugged and followed Suzuka down the hallway. Hisako had little choice but to follow them.

They opened the door to the second floor and found a rainstorm within. It wasn't thundering as badly as it had been when they'd ventured down to take care of Suzuka's talking shadow, but Yuri tensed at a distant rumble. Suzuka rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "So, what does this mean about my state of mind?"

"I'm going to see if I can get new umbrellas," Hisako replied. They still had the ones the twins had given her the previous time, but they hadn't brought them with. She had figured Suzuka's first thunderstorm had been caused by the shadow. She dug her key out of her pocket, summoned Inanna to make a shiny slab of ice, and was just inside the door to the Velvet Room when she remembered that she hadn't seen the assistants since before Mika's death. Octavia and Atticus hit her like two freight trains.

Hisako nearly fell back out of the room, but they kept her pressed against them with grips of steel. "Dear Hisa-chan! We've been so worried!" Atticus said, voice muffled by her shoulder.

"I've been more worried!" Octavia declared into her hair. She might've been petting her. It was difficult to tell with all of the sudden contact.

"You have not."

"I have so."

"C-Can I—need to breathe—" Hisako gasped out. The assistants released her at once, save her hands, one in each. She was used to that part.

"It's been so long!" Atticus said with an earnest grin.

"We've been concerned, but it's very gratifying to see you in good health once more," his sister added sincerely.

Hisako wanted to hide from their attentiveness. "I'm sorry for not, um, visiting earlier, but with things as they've been, it's been a little busy. And I really just need to get some more umbrellas right now and get back out there. Could I have another quest?"

They glanced sideways at one another. She wondered if they possessed twin telepathy. Or regular telepathy, for that matter. "...Of course, dear guest," Octavia said in a cool, professional tone and Hisako abruptly realized she'd messed up when they dropped her hands.

"We have drawn up a preliminary list of items we may exchange with you in exchange for other items—"

"No, I didn't mean it like—" Hisako tried.

"—and services performed," Octavia finished. With a gesture, she pulled a curled piece of paper out of the air. "You may choose whichever ones you like or feel confident completing, but you may also only select three at a time."

"I didn't mean to say I wasn't happy to see you," she said, but their expressions remained closed-off. It was unnerving to see them act like they had before, when they had been so eerily emotionless, and it only increased her mounting panic. "I-I messed up, with Mika-chan, and you guys are tied to all of the Persona stuff. I didn't mean to avoid you for so long and I didn't mean to make it sound like I'm just using you two. I just needed some space, please."

Octavia only handed her the list. Frustrated and worried, Hisako realized she didn't know what to do. The Velvet Room assistants were confusing to interact with on a good day, but this sort of sudden change forcibly reminded her that while they were probably older than they looked, and while they certainly weren't human, they definitely had feelings and they were definitely more emotionally immature than she felt she could handle right then.

But before she could work herself into a tizzy trying to figure out what to do, she saw Atticus give his sister a fast, nervous glance.

Hisako pounced. She grabbed his gloved hands in hers and told him, "Atticus, I am sorry if it seemed like I was ignoring or using you. Please, don't just be my helpers in the Velvet Room—be my friends."

His poker face held out for a beat, but then, it crumpled as he broke into a pleased grin and blush. She let out the breath she'd been holding when he grasped her hands back. "Nothing would please me more, my dear Hisa-chan," Atticus said and brought her hand to his lips.

She did not pull away, but she berated herself for not expecting it. They both turned expectantly to Octavia, but she remained staring straight ahead, impassive mask set firmly in place. "Octavia, I am sorry. I shouldn't have acted like you were a convenience for me," she told her.

"I am here only to expedite and ease your journey in any way I can, dear guest," she replied.

"Sister, dear Hisa-chan didn't mean to use you for an umbrella," Atticus said, and Hisako tried not to take offense to his wording.

"She must complete a minor quest in exchange for the item she requests."

"Octavia…"

Atticus squeezed her hands and pulled her gently towards the door. "My sister may be difficult at times," he said, and Hisako may have seen Octavia's eye twitch behind him, "but please, pay her no heed. She will be fine."

"I didn't mean to make her mad."

"Expressing feelings in this manner with our cherished guest is still a novelty to us," he said and smiled so tenderly it made her stomach flip over, "so we may take unexpected slights or stresses more seriously than you may be accustomed to. Please, be patient with us, and I will speak to her later."

Hisako recalled Igor's warning about them becoming too attached with a twinge of guilt. "Should I…?"

"All you should do right now is complete a request to obtain the umbrellas you desired." He plucked the paper from her hands and scanned it. "How do you feel about sunflower petals?"

"Does it have to be sunflowers?"

"What other measurements do humans take?"

"Sunflowers it is. How many do I need?"

"Six. Traditionally, we will give you the reward after the completion of the quest," Atticus said and Octavia snorted, "but I will give you this one as a personal show of faith. Please, come back when you collect six rambling helianthus petals."

"Six what?"

"I believe you have encountered them before," he said, sounding puzzled.

"First, how do you know that, and second, these shadow things have names?"

He pulled a blue book from nowhere with his free hand, staring blankly at her all the while. "It's our job to record things."

"What have you been recording?!"

"We normally prioritize recording Personas of our guest, but as you mysteriously lack the Wild Card, Octavia and I have been busying ourselves by other means. We've had a lot of unexpected free time."

Hisako made a note to investigate the book later. So the remnants of humanity's collective unconscious had names? "Thank you so much. I'll be back when I get those petals for you." She began to leave, umbrellas tucked under her arm, but paused in the doorway. She told them, "And, um, maybe we could hang out in the city again sometime soon? There's a pet store I'd like you to see."

Atticus' eyes sparkled. Octavia's expression did not change. It had been worth a shot, and at least she'd made the effort; she had to tell herself that as she left the Velvet Room with guilt nestled in the back of her mind, next to Inanna as she returned.

"That took a little while," Suzuka remarked, craning her neck up to look at Hisako. The blonde squinted down at her. She was laying on the ground, chin in her hands, kicking her feet idly. "Problems?" she asked cheerily.

"Just a couple of issues with the assistants. It seems I'm a little more insensitive today than I'd realized," she muttered, and turned her narrowed eyes on Yuri when he had the gall to grunt.

"Good, now we can avoid getting soaked. Let's get going."

Yuri's usual Irkalla touchiness, mixed with the twins' erratic reactions, did not make for a good mood. Being rained on, grabbed whenever Yuri jumped at thunder, and having to ignore their shortcut in favor of tracking down sunflower shadows worsened it. The umbrellas were nigh on useless after a point and she was certain their detour's duration had been hours rather than minutes. Whatever remorse she'd felt earlier had all but evaporated by the time she reopened the Velvet Room door and shoved a fistful of wet flower petals at Atticus. Her own annoyance only fed back into her bad mood.

Inanna sat heavily in the back of her brain, relaxed and pleased by her anger.

Yuri shockingly kept his silence throughout Suzuka's floor, other than shouts during the fights they got into. There were no changes Hisako could pinpoint in the shadow population and nothing strong or strange ambushed them at the end. Suzuka's patience was clearly thinning between her misses with her knives and receiving a disproportionate amount of injuries.

They couldn't reach Mika's floor fast enough. They left the thunderstorm and weathered statues of the second floor behind, and while that took the edge off their collective bad mood, Hisako knew they were a ticking time bomb.

The mirrors and glass seemed eerier than she recalled. That monster population was sparser, but still relatively normal. They dodged a lemur, destroyed numerous canines, and were surprised by a pair of ample-chested doctors with scalpels. Suzuka nearly got gutted before they destroyed them, too, and for a moment, watching the redhead huddle over her injured stomach with shaking shoulders, Hisako was afraid the bubble would pop.

But she just exhaled, long and low, and wiped off the excess paint on her legs.

"Are you… okay?" Hisako asked hesitantly, breaking the fragile silence.

"'m fine. How much magic water do we have left?"

"Haven't quite depleted our stores yet," Yuri deadpanned. Hisako was relieved it didn't break into an argument of some sort. As if on purpose, he had to add, "So please, feel free to continue needing healing every ten minutes. It's a joy."

"Sweet shitting sunshine, you did not just—"

"Suzuka-chan!" Hisako lunged at her and got bodily between them.

"Maybe if I didn't have to do all the heavy lifting I wouldn't get creamed in every other fight!"

"Maybe if you didn't throw yourself headfirst—"

"Yeah, because it's my fault I'm in front!"

"If you weren't so reckless!"

"You think I'm being—"

"She's not being reckless!" Hisako broke in, worried it'd come to blows at the rate they were going.

"I know she's not," Yuri said, voice cracking, and sunk down into a crouch. Suzuka shifted her weight back, away from them, and crossed her arms. "I didn't ask to be the healer."

"We're okay taking the lead on this. It's nice to have backup, but I'm sorry we have to put that pressure on you. All of our Personas are slowly growing, maybe one of us will get healing magic soon?" Hisako said, but it sounded dumb even to her ears.

He looked up at her through his shaggy bangs, eyes narrowed, mouth a tight line. "It's you, too, you know."

"What?"

"You're our only way out of here."

"...Oh."

She turned to look at Suzuka, but the other girl averted her gaze. She shrugged and mumbled, "I'm just unlucky today, I'm sure, and I haven't figured out how to throw these stupid knives yet."

"You don't have to act as our shield. We're a team. And Inanna already has second-tier ice magic, so she's plenty strong. I wasn't aware you were trying to protect me."

"Like I said, I've just been unlucky today."

"I'll buy you a lucky rabbit foot when we're done."

"Or just make your own luck," Yuri all but growled. Suzuka rolled her eyes and scowled at him, but she also extended a hand down to help him back to his feet. "Here's the punchline to our joke of a team: I have a heart attack from stress and you're both left without a healer."

"Not funny, dude."

"Never said it was a funny joke."

"So we're agreed?" Hisako fretted, hovering at their side.

"We never really decided these things in the first place. Not like we took a vote or appointed a leader…"

Yuri put his hands up and quickly said, "Not me."

Suzuka mimicked him. "Not me!"

"That's not how this works!" Hisako cried.

"You got your Persona first," he pointed out.

"By a couple hours!"

"You have the magical blue door."

She folded her arms and pursed her lips, displeased. "You two don't like it when I try to come up with the strategies."

"No, we don't like it when you act all clinical about us," Suzuka happily corrected. "I'm totally fine coming up with things other than 'keep away from the fat purple things' and 'beat on things until something bleeds'."

"I was already following your lead, so don't look at me," Yuri said.

"This is just making it official," Suzuka agreed.

"...Fine. But this really isn't going to change anything, other than the fact that I'll stop using the phrase 'Persona seniority' and just start reminding you that you elected me." While she was glad to avoid an argument (mostly), her mood didn't get better with the revelation that she had missed out on a couple important points. "So, officially, until I—we—think of something better, we'll just keep going on largely like we have been. Suzuka-chan and I will be in front, equally, and we'll handle the bulk of the fighting. Yuri-kun, you're in charge of healing and vanguard."

"Vanguard is the frontline," Suzuka said with a stifled giggle.

"Then what are the back ones?" Hisako asked, confused.

"Uhh. Back-guard? Rearguard? Just watch our asses!" she declared and Yuri facepalmed. "Not that it should be a difficult notion for you," she added with a wink.

"Oh, joy. Just what I always wanted."

"Please don't do that. You're our reserve. Just, uh, conserve energy when you can. You need to rely on magic a lot more than we do."

"Because the super tall guy needs to be protected by the girls," Suzuka said.

"Well, he really leaves a lot of the fighting up to Enlil," Hisako said sheepishly, rubbing her head. She and Suzuka certainly weren't afraid to get up close and personal. Mostly on accident, but they'd proven that they could handle small doses of combat themselves.

"I'm an artist, not an athlete." He colored and mumbled out something else under his breath.

"Excuse me?" Suzuka pressed, cupping a hand around her ear.

"I… My hands. I can't risk getting them hurt," he grumbled, cheeks reddening further.

"Not that we exactly want to, but that's understandable. You have your, uh, roles," Hisako cut back in before Suzuka could tease him. She was happy to have most of the tension defused, but tempers were probably still simmering in the background. "Let's go, I'd rather get this over with while we're not totally exhausted."

"Getting there," he muttered.

"But we're in the last leg now."

They didn't have the energy to waste breaking mirrors and no minor gods to do it for them. They had to wind their way through the headache-inducing maze, avoiding fights when they could. When they couldn't, Hisako kept an eye on Suzuka's behavior. It wasn't too bad, even if her prior injuries showed. She just worked Inanna double time to make up for it.

Despite their emotional reprieve, being in Mika's territory again was taxing. Seeing themselves—eyes wild, hair sweaty and dirty, clothes ripped and stained—around every other corner in the mirrors made it worse. Hisako tried to fix her hair every time she caught sight of it, but she quailed under Yuri and Suzuka's combined judgment. She could braid and walk, but with reminders of their half-feral appearance everywhere, it was a little distracting.

Yuri retreated back into uncharacteristic silence. Suzuka made a halfhearted attempt at conversation, but it was like always. What was there to talk about that was new? They'd had so much time in Irkalla already, and none of them wanted to speak of what they were approaching. Hisako surprised herself at how easy it was to ignore their impending… whatever. Emotional heartbreak? Difficult fight? Catharsis or nightmare fuel?

Suzuka caught sight of it first. They had to stand at a specific angle to get enough uninterrupted glass to see into the end area, and all those layers made the image blurry, but there was a lone figure standing in the open space. Humanoid and dressed in light colors, and it might have been holding something. But what concerned her were the large, white shapes behind it. She hoped it was her imagination.

While they knew they were close, it was still a feat to actually get to it. Irkalla's third floor seemed especially twisty, with the added layer of taunting with the glass walls. "When we get out of here, I'm buying a huge hourglass," Hisako declared as she had Inanna conjure some ice to suck on. "I'm going to give it to Nergal and I'm going to make him time how long we spend down here."

"I know it's been long enough that my stomach wants more than energy bars," Suzuka said. "And, to be honest, I'm sort of tired. Sleepy-tired, not just exhausted-tired. But at least we don't have to worry about this throwing off our sleep schedules too much since I know I totally go home and fall into bed after these jaunts."

"What do you think the largest hourglass you can buy is?"

"I dunno, maybe waist-high?"

"I meant the time amount."

"Hell if I know. Normal ones are one hour, right? Maybe three, or four? I bet there are massive ones that are, like, ten hours!"

"I'm not getting one of those." She pictured the three of them trying to carry a futon-sized hourglass down the twisting stairs. They'd probably trip and fall and die underneath it. "A rabbit's foot, an hourglass, new snacks…"

"Maybe more than snacks sometime."

"We have to carry whatever we bring. And we can't cook anything." And she was hesitant to admit that they were spending enough time in the land of the dead to warrant needing meals. ...There were more floors. If their kidnap-possession-rescue routine went on for much longer, they might have to face the very real possibility of having to take naps down there. Meals and sleep. How much more time does each floor add? she thought in a sudden panic. If she could get Nergal to time them, and she could figure out each floor by subtracting them—

"Do you think we can eat shadows?" Suzuka interrupted her train of thought with a worse one. She had been avoiding that subject even harder than the others.

"We're not eating anything we find down here!" Hisako squealed. "Leader's rule!"

"...Says the girl who's drank things the shadows drop," Yuri pointed out, joining the conversation at last.

"That's different! That's loot!"

"If these things start dropping sandwiches, I'm going for it," Suzuka warned, and she sounded serious.

Their semi-light mood was erased (again) when the trio finally made it to the end of the third floor. And Hisako's earlier fear was confirmed.

"It's…" Yuri began, but trailed off with a choked sound.

"An angel," Hisako finished.

The humanoid shadow turned to face them, expression benign. It was taller than any of them, but not as tall as their Personas, and had four great, feathery wings keeping it aloft. She couldn't tell if it was meant to be male or female; its figure was slim, but devoid of any curves, and its face was pretty but not particularly soft in the jaw or cheekbones. In one hand, it held a leather-bound tome, and in the other, a dagger with a blade like a curving snake.

They stood there and stared at it. She may have heard Yuri sniff. It didn't have a halo and it didn't look anything like Mika or what she remembered of her Persona, but the grief at having to face an angel in the place where they had lost Mika welled up within her, fast and deep.

Suzuka shattered the silence with a shout. "Well?! Going to taunt us about losing our friend, huh?! Let's hear you laugh at that! Let's have it!" She spread her arms wide and walked toward it. The angel cocked its head to one side.

On one hand, Hisako wanted to get the talking over and done with, too. But on the other, she feared what it would say. But seeing Suzuka approach it so fearlessly, she made her decision. "Say what you will! We've come to take this floor from you, too, just like we've done with all the o-others!" She swallowed quickly to fight back any tears.

The shadow flipped open its book and it rustled to a random page. A beam of light narrowly missed Suzuka. It looked like the same sort of magic Mika had used. "Tiamat, zap that thing!" Suzuka backed up and called out her Persona. Tiamat advanced on the shadow with a toothy smile.

While it could remain airborne, it didn't seem to move very fast, and couldn't get out of the way of the serpent's electricity. It opened its book again, to a different page, and icicles rained from its wings. The girls skittered out of the way. Tiamat hissed and retreated to pull large ice slivers out of her hide, whereas Inanna batted away the attack with only mild annoyance.

Behind them, Yuri vocalized the realization just as Hisako arrived at it. "It's silent. It's not going to talk."

"Why not? I thought end-floor bosses always talked?" Suzuka called back.

"They do! But this… Maybe it's because she's g-gone. This is different." She couldn't see any other reason why the first two would talk and the third wouldn't. It saved them some further heartbreak, though, and she wasn't sure she wanted to speak with that one, anyway.

Another page in the book created a wall of flames. Inanna dove out of the way, teeth bared in a mute snarl, and even Tiamat had to get back to avoid her thundercloud evaporating. The fire crackled and the book remained open to feed it. The angel smiled, safe on the other side.

Safe until a gale a wind cut through its flames. The shadow staggered to the side, black blood seeping through its white robes, and Tiamat took the opportunity to circle around the fire. Hisako turned back as Yuri and Enlil approached. "Just because it's not talking our ear off doesn't mean we should get cozy with this thing. There's three of us and one of it—let's just get it already."

"It knows different types of magic. We should be careful."

"And our Personas are weak to different kinds. It can't keep all of us away at once."

The angel panicked when Enlil cut down another swath of its fire, and it danced back out of his slash, straight into Tiamat's waiting claws. She grabbed it and tried to rip its book away, but the shadow stabbed her with its dagger. The Persona twisted away and thrashed as she tried to reach the blade.

But by then, Enlil had blown out most of the fire. Hisako waved to Suzuka to get her to call Tiamat back and called, "Inanna, now's your chance!"

With another gust of wind, Enlil skated around behind it, and then threw it in Inanna's direction. Hisako felt a surge of sick glee as Inanna only raised her staff and braced herself.

The angel got impaled with a wet sound. Hisako gagged. It kicked a couple times before it melted off, splattering onto the ground and vanishing into wisps of dark smoke. "Was that really necessary?" Her Persona grinned back, causing her to sigh. "It got the job done. I just wish you hadn't had to make it so flashy."

"I'd rather a fast, flashy end than dragging that out," Yuri muttered. Enlil went back to him with the air of a soothing parent and raised his cloak, as if to invite him in, but the boy swatted him away with a huff. "Go away, Enlil."

"Hey guys!" Suzuka shouted as she and Tiamat slithered toward them. "I got a dagger!"

Hisako dismissed Inanna and sat down while she waited for them to make their way back over. The fight hadn't been as exhausting as she'd feared, possibly because Inanna hardly used any magic. Yuri plopped down beside her and rubbed at his eyes. "How are you holding up?" she asked him.

"Better than I could be. Worse than I want to be. What are we going to do with a dagger? Sakuraba can't throw it and I'm not sure we should start selling weapons."

She accepted his change of subject without argument. "I'm sure it looks ancient and special, maybe we could pass it off as an antique."

"We should probably dull it before trying to sell it."

"Just in case."

Suzuka dropped off of Tiamat as her massive Persona dipped her head. She disappeared a moment later. "Wiggly dagger! Wanna bet to see how bad I can throw this one?"

"I don't want to be anywhere near that thing," Yuri replied.

"Maybe the twisty bit makes it throw better! A case of it being so stupid it actually works."

"Would your cousin or someone he knows buy it if we said it was an antique?"

"Hmm, maybe? There's some jewels or something in the hilt, maybe that old lady would buy it."

"Why would an old lady want a dagger?"

"What other choice do we have?"

Suzuka flopped down between them, one leg thrown over Yuri's and an arm across Hisako's waist, and sighed deeply. "Okay, so while that involved less emotional ravaging than I anticipated, I still have a surprise for you two." They exchanged a nervous look. Suzuka rolled over so she could pull her backpack off, then dug around in it. With a triumphant sound, she pulled out a can, and then another. It took a moment before Hisako realized it was beer.

"Why do you have alcohol?" she asked. Suzuka shoved the two cans into her lap and, alarmingly, continue to dig in her bag. She checked the cans and yes, it was actually alcoholic.

"Hiroya buys me drinks sometimes, but I also know where his booze stash is at home. He replenishes it every time he visits. There's only two cans because I make it a policy to never take the last of something, and there were only three left. And I guess it's all warm by now. And here we go!" She pulled out an unopened bottle of cheap sake. "Okay, so I don't have cups—"

"But you have booze," Yuri cut in.

"We don't have to drink it all," she replied defensively, cradling the bottle to her chest. "But I thought we'd be upset. And this can be a good way to deal with things and vent a little. And we don't have to drink all of it!"

"Do you drink often?" Hisako asked in concern.

"No! Just when Hiroya visits. And I'm not stupid, I know how to drink."

"Well… I don't," she said awkwardly, since she didn't want to get into an argument right then.

"You can try new things then!"

"Hold up, I'm still lost. When did we pass the point when we decided that drinking in Irkalla is a good idea?" Yuri demanded.

"It'll burn out of our systems on the way back! And where else are we supposed to drink, huh?" she challenged. "Let's just drink to Mika-chan's memory. Here. I-I thought it might be a good idea, that's all."

"I'm never one to turn down a supposed good idea from a cute girl," he said with a shrug. Hisako glared at him, betrayed, and momentarily warred with herself. They knew for a fact the floor would be clear of shadows on the way back. It was a long walk back to the last door, too, so they'd probably be feeling better by then. And it wasn't as if they'd get drunk.

And she really wanted to be dumb and not responsible for a little while.

"Fine."

They didn't have cups, and they didn't want to try to use water bottles, but if she were being honest with herself, sharing drinks was about last on her list of things to care about. They'd already gone through so much together, why bother caring?

Suzuka teased Yuri about not liking beer, telling him he should be manlier, but Hisako didn't really like it, either. Sake was sweeter, but it burned her throat and made her dizzier. And, despite saying they weren't there to drink a lot, a can and a half of beer and half the bottle of sake were gone before she'd processed it.

"We should—back! Get going back!" Suzuka declared and jumped to her feet. Hisako needed help not swaying. "We know there's no monsters, and we don't want to be late!"

"Time is dead here," she mumbled back. Her stomach protested the move from stationary to upright.

"I don't want to be here anymore," Yuri said and stood. He took the bottle from Suzuka, walked (stumbled, a little) a ways out, and dumped out a fair bit. Suzuka squawked in indignation. "For Mika," he responded before she could ask.

"...Fine, okay, she gets some too. Oi, Mika-chan!" Hisako jumped when the other girl cupped her hands around her mouth to shout. "We'll see you later! I hope you like sake!"

"Don't look at me, I never… never drank with her. You think Personas can fix hangovers?"

"Hangovers only happen if you get really drunk!"

"I'm not really sober."

"What do you think drunk Personas are like?" Hisako asked.

"I don't wanna know," Yuri quickly replied.

"You guys are so, so whiny! It wasn't even that much!" Suzuka lamented as they got to walking, slowly, as they tried to keep their balance.

"We've never drank before."

It wasn't long before Hisako realized three things: her stomach hurt from the sake, her head hurt from the glass and mirrors, and she wanted to cry. It seemed rude that she hadn't cried for Mika when fighting the angel. But she couldn't cry on command, and despite what the media told her, she didn't seem particularly more emotional while drinking. There was a little bit of fuzziness in her brain, and she was pretty sure Inanna was laughing at her, but she could still think clearly. Clearly enough.

"I want more sake," she announced.

"Why?" Yuri asked but Suzuka handed over the bottle without question.

"I want to cry."

"Why? You're not an attractive crier."

"You don't say stuff like that to girls!" Suzuka snapped and smacked him with the flat side of the wiggly dagger. "I'm not drinking with you again! You get mean."

"You're the one hitting people."

"You're hitting on people."

"I thought you were mad at me because I wasn't!"

"You're mean to Hisako-chan and. And. You called me cute earlier. Don't think I didn't notice."

"My mistake. Won't happen again."

"You guys are giving me a headache!" Hisako burst out. She took another drink and told them, "Leader says quiet time. All the mirrors and stuff are bad enough."

It seemed a cruel trick of perspective that it took less time to get back than it did going in. Thunder rumbled ominously as they went up the stairs to the second floor, but mercifully, the storm had lessened to a drizzle. Suzuka ran out into it, laughing, before they could stop her. Yuri shrugged and opened the umbrella for them.

"She's crazy."

"She is not. She might be drunk, though. I'm keeping the bottle from her."

"Do I get any more?" he whined. She rolled her eyes and handed it over. "I'm pretty sure this stuff is making me more tired than we usually are."

"Then stop drinking it!"

"Maybe I want to cry, too."

"Don't be a jerk."

The rain stopped completely by the time they were ducking through the shortcut hole, though Suzuka was nicely soaked and beaming. "You guys are un-fun! It wasn't even that bad."

"I don't like storms," he said.

"I don't want to run right now. I think I'd throw up," Hisako added.

"Un-fun!" Suzuka said and blew a raspberry.

They'd been lucky on the second floor, even with the shortcut, that they hadn't run into any shadows. But she doubted they'd continue the streak with the entire first floor to go through. "We should really draw arrows pointing back, too," she groaned as they stopped in an intersection, trying to remember if it was a right or a left immediately out of the art gallery.

Yuri summoned Enlil by picking at a scab on his arm. The Persona didn't seem affected by the alcohol, even if Yuri was looking more and more sober, too. But when painting arrows, they did turn out a little more crooked than usual.

It was two corners past that that they ran into their first batch of shadows, a scantily clad nurse flanked by a pair of orange gryphons. Inanna came forth as easily as ever, although her emotional input seemed sharper than usual in her mind. But she could fight, and Tiamat snapped up a gryphon shadow like she normally did, so at least they weren't in any danger.

"The sunflowers. You could summon a Persona then, too," Yuri pointed out. It seemed as if he'd been wondering the same things.

"But that was some sort of confusion magic."

"That mimicked a bad trip."

"But I don't think it was anything in our systems." She hoped not.

The sake and beer were all gone by the time they made it out to Nergal. Hisako's head was feeling clearer, though her stomach still churned, and none of them were having any issues walking or talking. But the lion-headed god gave them a weird look regardless.

"I'm buying you an hourglass!" Hisako declared before he was out of earshot.

"See, that didn't turn out so bad!" Suzuka said happily when they made it to their pile of things.

"I still feel sick."

"And I feel tired."

"Not so bad!" she repeated.

They got the barest amount of dressed back into their uniforms, movements sluggish now that the day's adventure was catching up to them. Suzuka stashed the empty bottle and cans back in her bag, packed up her knives, and the girls looked at the twisted dagger with matching thoughtful frowns.

"Just leave it. We can deal with it later."

They hissed when they broke back out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Worse, she had forgotten how hot it had been, and her body didn't like the sudden change in temperature. She suddenly doubted her ability to keep her stomach's contents inside of herself.

They all squinted in the light, shuffling around while they adjusted and tried to reorient herself, and after running into his back, Hisako found herself hiding in Yuri's shadow. "Is this what a hangover feels like?"

"No, we didn't have that—oh. Crud muffin."

Hisako peeked blearily around Yuri. He and Suzuka were both staring at the person now standing in their path. Shunya Morimoto, arms crossed, eyes narrowed behind his glasses.

She did not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with that right then. She slowly hid back behind Yuri.

"That's some magic trick," Shunya said lightly. "Disappear from sight for all of two seconds, come back up half-dressed and—do you smell like alcohol?"

"Leader, executive decision time. What do we do?" Suzuka hissed at her.

"I'm only leader down there."

"Down where?" the upperclassman asked.

Yuri bolted without warning. Hisako flailed without his support and Shunya caught him by the back of the shirt when he tried to make it past him.

"You three seem outfitted for something weird, but your behavior—what were you doing?" He really had the disapproving senpai tone down pat. It bordered on outright parental.

"You're too nosy!" Yuri exclaimed, as if that would save them.

"You've been acting strangely! Especially after yesterday. And now, this!"

"Do we have to have this conversation right here?" Hisako pleaded. Shunya turned his critical eye on the girls. She quickly looked as pathetic as possible.

"...There's a little cafe down the street. We can sit in there and you can tell me what my cute kouhai are up to."

"Why don't you complain when he does it?" Yuri asked as Shunya began marching them out of the cemetery.

"'Cause I'm into older guys," Suzuka told him.

"Can we concentrate on the issue at hand?" Hisako whispered with a nervous glance back at the older boy. What are we going to tell him? There were really no easy excuses to give him. Yuri had dropped enough strange terms in front of him, and then he had seen their disappearing act.

"Senpai, we're clearly fine," Yuri tried again, more calmly.

"You have alcohol on your breath," Shunya countered.

"Artists are known for bucking the rules and doing things like that in the name of creativity."

"Athletes too!" Suzuka chimed in.

"Is that paint in your hair?" he asked in disbelief. Suzuka backed out of the conversation again, fingers tangled in her red curls. "I'm not going to get you three in trouble. I just want to know what's going on, if that's alright with you."

"What if we said no," Yuri said in a low tone.

"Then I would get you three in trouble. Maybe. But I'd really like some answers." Shunya herded them into a coffee shop and all but pushed them into the corner booth. "What does everyone want to drink?" he asked brightly.

"Water," Hisako and Suzuka replied as Yuri grunted, "Coffee. Black."

He left them and they hardly waited before ducking their heads together and whispering frantically. "What can we tell him?! What can we possibly tell him?!"

"I'm not even sure he'd believe the truth!"

"I can't summon the Velvet Room in the middle of a coffee shop!" And Octavia was still mad at her.

"We're going to have to tell him something!"

"It can't be the truth! That could make him a target!"

"Would he buy the 'it's too dangerous' excuse?"

"No. If anything, we have to downplay the danger."

"He's going to put two and two together…"

"Such panicked hissing! You'd think you were trying to come up with a way to cheat on an exam," Shunya chirped when he returned, drinks in hand. He slid into the booth next to Yuri, cozily so, despite the taller boy's obvious distress, and pushed the waters across the table to the girls.

"Senpai, do you have to get so close?"

"You and I both know you're a flight risk, Yuri-kun. Besides, it would be rude to separate the girls. Now it looks like we're just on a double date. Or part of a very small mixer."

"Shunya-senpai, please, we're not really in a joking mood," Hisako pleaded. If Yuri hadn't been all but pinned to the wall, she may have become a flight risk, too.

"Then would you care to explain why you three were in such a hurry to go to a cemetery after school?" he asked and sipped at his tea.

She glanced uneasily between Yuri and Suzuka. He was more prone to outbursts but she had the worse track record. It would be better to talk to him before that happened, but Yuri had brought up a good point—would he even believe the truth? "We had some business to take care of. Business that we had to do sooner rather than later," she said, for the sake of saying something.

He nodded in understanding. And didn't say anything.

Right, he's used to dealing with Yuri-kun. He's going to wait us out, she realized with dread growing in her upset stomach.

"That business really only concerns us, and few other parties. We've been keeping it quiet because of some sensitive information." She racked her brain coming up with as much therapist speak as she could recall. If she kept it professional-sounding, they could probably get away with more.

"I see. But as an interested party, I'd like to inquire about the parts that aren't sensitive," Shunya said with another sunny smile.

"W-Well… That is… It involves us three, and Haruka Watanabe…"

"And Mika-san?"

"...And her," Hisako said, wincing. "And that's it."

"What about your magic trick earlier?"

"What magic trick?"

He sipped at his tea again, making it clear he was going to wait that one out.

"We're going down into a big maze to get rid of monsters and rescue kidnapped people," Yuri blurted out.

Hisako hit her head against the table, then a second time for good measure. Maybe if she gave herself a bad enough headache she'd forget the entire conversation.

"Right," Shunya said and set his drink down.

"It's true, that's the terrible part," Yuri groaned. "You won't believe us anyway, and there's no way we're ever going to show you, and the only ways we can prove any of it to you we can't do right now."

Hisako continued hitting her head. Suzuka rubbed her back in a vain stab at comfort.

"So… Like Labyrinth?" At their lost looks, he elaborated, "American movie from the 1980s? David Bowie?"

"More like magical girls," Suzuka replied and that earned another thump.

"Hisako-san, please stop that? I'm not freaking out, see?"

"Wasn't worried about you freaking out," she grumbled.

"Well, if it's any consolation, I believe that you believe something happened," Shunya declared. She raised her head just far enough to squint at him. He was better at the therapy speak than she was. "None of you are very good actors. And your behavior has definitely been worrying. But don't worry, I won't tell anyone your secret."

"Thanks for the condescension, senpai," Yuri growled. Hisako kicked him under the table; if Shunya was going to believe they were all just a little off and then drop the matter, they should let him.

"Is this related to all of the things you've been drawing lately?"

"Uh, yeah."

"I want to see one," Shunya said excitedly, eyes sparkling. "I bet they're lovely! I want to see one of these magical creatures."

"That's the wrong reaction to have to this sort of stuff," Suzuka said. "Even if you don't really believe us, for all you know, these are big hulking monsters."

"It's not as if I want to pet one."

"We're not showing you anything."

"You mentioned not showing me anything here…" He trailed off expectantly.

"What if we just said no? Just refused to talk to you about this?" Suzuka asked.

"Assuming you could?"

"Yes."

"Then there's really nothing I would do. While I'm concerned about you and you should not be drinking—or doing vaguely dangerous or confusing magic tricks—I'm not your parent and I wouldn't be mean-spirited enough to tell any teachers, provided you don't make it a habit. And I'd hope it wouldn't hurt any of you, and that Yuri-kun wouldn't skip any more practices."

"I've never skipped for this, we go on Tuesdays to avoid that," Yuri replied, affronted.

Hisako banged her head against the table again. Shunya's smile was pleasant and convincingly far from smug. "I'm sure I could figure out the trick if I were to see it a couple more times."

"No, you wouldn't," she groaned, giving up. "You would just see us walk down those steps and then come back up a moment later. Every time. That's how it works."

"What if I—"

She scooted out of the booth and grabbed her bag. "No. I'm showing you this on two conditions, senpai. The first—you will never follow us down there. It's dangerous and could kill you, at the very least. The second, you're in charge of keeping Yuri-kun under control. No more leaks!"

"This is exciting," Shunya said happily as they followed her. She had to find a mirror, or a building with enough glass on it to get a good reflection. Inanna's presence, muffled by the real world, buzzed in annoyance. "It's all very secretive and feels like a spy movie."

"Well, let's keep it a secret. You can't tell anyone, yeah?" Suzuka reminded. He nodded. "And you have to cover for us, if we ever need it and you're able to. And if a creepy lady with black hair and red eyes comes to you promising things, kick her in the shin and run. To one of us. Preferably me."

"No, tell me if that happens," Hisako said wearily. Suzuka's revenge took a backseat to making sure Shunya stayed safe. "Under no circumstances are you go to down into that crypt alone. Even if it seems like you're just following us. It's magic and it wouldn't let you back out. You'd die."

"Even with the dire warnings, this is still a little exciting," Shunya admitted. "Where are we going?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Yuri said pointedly.

"We need a mirror." Glass could work, but they'd have to find an alley with a glass wall, and that was unlikely in that part of the city. She tried to think of other places with mirrors. A bathroom was out of the question.

"Boutique?" Suzuka suggested, pausing mid-step as they passed a clothing store. Hisako stopped a beat afterward.

Piling four of them into a changing room was snug and the attendant gave them a puzzled look, but neither of her classmates would leave. Shunya still looked simply happy to be there, content to let them try whatever they were going to do. "I'm going in first, so just wait here," Hisako commanded and raised her key at the mirror. The door appeared right behind them, which meant she had to squeeze between the boys to get to it. Shunya made a surprised sound when it appeared to them at her touch.

She all but fell into the Velvet Room. "Have you returned already? That door wasn't made in Irkalla," Atticus said and jumped to his feet. Octavia only inclined her head politely in her direction.

"Okay, please don't be offended, but I'd like to use an empty train car for a moment." She didn't want any of her friends dealing with the twins normally, but when one of them was still mad at her, it was doubly out of the question.

"Whatever for?"

"I need to do a magic trick."

Hisako actually screamed in fright when a body fell on top of her. "Ow, oww!" Yuri growled in her ear and Atticus quickly pulled her out of the way as the other three tumbled into the room. The assistants shared a concerned look. "Before you get mad at me, it was those two! And you left an open door behind you!"

"Woah, there are people in here," Suzuka said, frozen on top of him, eyes wide.

"What is this place?" Shunya asked. He didn't sound so happy anymore. "How did you do this?"

Atticus' hand on hers tightened and Hisako pulled the key on the chain back out of her pocket. "I have a key. This place is the Velvet Room, and it exists between dimensions. Or something."

"About that," Atticus murmured.

"Its residents have been helping me figure out what's been going on. This place isn't dangerous, and it's the only place I can go to from anywhere. I just need a reflection. Irkalla—that other place—is the dangerous one that you must never, ever go to."

Shunya nodded as he gaped.

"Are these your… friends?" Atticus asked quietly. He had shifted so he was half behind Hisako. She snorted back a laugh when she realized he was being shy.

"Yes, these are my friends."

He lowered his voice and told her, "Dear Hisa-chan, I don't mean to alarm you, but one of your friends doesn't have a Persona."

"Oh, I'm very aware of that."

"This is…" Shunya carefully extracted himself from the pile and peered around the room with awe. "This is magnificent! There's actually something going on! Do you have transformation sequences?"

"Excuse me?" Hisako asked blankly and Suzuka burst out laughing.

"We're not actually magical girls—magical anything!" Yuri said, blushing brilliantly.

"But two of you are girls, and your Personas possess magic," Atticus replied, shying further behind her in his confusion.

"It's a type of story we have. Magic that the girls themselves have, cute outfits, power of friendship," Hisako explained.

"You already possess the power of friendship through your social links," Octavia said loudly, reminding them of her presence again.

"Did you… want cute outfits?" Atticus asked.

"Oh god no," Hisako said, cutting across Suzuka's enthusiastic, "Yes!"

"Yuri-kun, I think you'd look good dressed up for your—whatever you do," Shunya teased. The other boy groaned and buried his face in the carpet to hide its redness. "Alright, so! This is a thing. A thing that happened. Is it alright if I leave now? I'd like to go home and scream into a pillow about transdimensional blue doors. I don't have to sign my name in blood or anything, right?"

"No," Hisako said, once again shutting down Suzuka's, "Yes!"

"Technically speaking, we are not in another dimension, but between them," Atticus murmured with a tug on her hand.

"I don't think that was his point. Shunya-senpai, are you going to be okay?"

"Oh, sure," he replied with a bright smile. "I've just learned that my underclassmen are involved in supernatural things that involved a death and magic and different planes of space and time."

"That is a little more correct, but still—"

"We could answer any other questions you have, if that'd make you feel better."

"I think I've asked quite enough of you already. I can just leave out this door, right?" He barely got permission before ducking out. Yuri gave Atticus one last wary look before following him.

"That didn't go too bad," Suzuka remarked.

"I'm pretty sure we just gave our senpai a panic attack. Not something I'd hoped to ever do. Do you think Yuri-kun knows how to calm someone down in that?"

"He's known him a lot longer than we have. What could we say or do that wouldn't spook him further?"

"Still… I'm worried. Maybe I shouldn't have lost my patience—do you think we could have come up with a better lie? Or distracted him somehow? He seemed pretty calm for the most part, but I got the impression that he tends to wear that expression a lot as a default."

Hisako's concern only grew when a blaze of light signaled a tarot card twirling gracefully down from the ceiling. "What the hell?!" Suzuka demanded and rubbed at her eyes.

"May I?" Atticus said and at her nod, he plucked the card from the air. "The Wheel of Fortune. If I may be so bold, I believe this is a good sign for you, my dear Hisa-chan. And I believe your friend will be fine."

"I sure hope so." They had another person back in on their secret, and not her first pick at that. They had to be more careful. But for now, she could only have faith in Atticus' words. It'd have to be fine.

-.-.-

Knowledge: ★★★☆☆ (+0)
-Studious

Confidence: ★★☆☆☆ (+2)
-Secure

Charm: ★☆☆☆☆ (+0)
-Awkward

Empathy: ★★★☆☆ (+0)
-Commiserative

"Thou art I... And I am thou... Thou hast established a genuine bond..."
Hisako Fujihara has established the President social link of the Fortune arcana!
PTF: Chapter 16
First Chapter: PTF: Chapter 1 
Previous Chapter: PTF: Chapter 15
Next Chapter: [hopefully soon!]

i hated this chapter even more than the last but it's extra long to make up for its lateness at least
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The tower shook under their feet, all the warning they got before it started collapsing. Ree nearly jumped at how her controller rumbled. Players started panicking, sprinting for windows rather than exits, trying to cast spells fast enough to ensure survival. There was keymashing over chat and shouting over the mics. The supposedly unbreakable headquarters was falling on top of their heads, and the equally unbreakable windows weren't doing them the courtesy of breaking first to at least let them die with the dignity of fall damage.

Carly cast Angelic Wings next to her and buffed them both as they sprinted. Ree tried thinking of anything in her inventory or skill list to salvage the situation. She was not going to lose another character because of Scott and Carly's dumb plan.

"I still have my octazooka!" Ree crowed in triumph. Carly yelled something she didn't catch, despite their characters' proximity, and they paused near a cracked window long enough for Ree to rummage through her bag. Carly banged at it with her staff until the weapon charged.

Maybe the octazooka had enough kick to it to finish breaking the window, or maybe the jolt the building gave when half the floor below them gave out was enough, but a boom, a crash, and the girls were hurtling out into open space next to the falling tower.

Carly had the grace to catch her character. "Not what I was expecting." Outside, the voices from inside were cut off, leaving them with an eerie silence filling the space where all of the voice channels had been. The game didn't even have enough animations to show what was happening to the tower. It was never supposed to have been damaged, much less blown up.

"I can honestly say that that was not my doing," Ree said smugly.

"I'm just glad our characters are still alive." Carly's character's zangoose ears wiggled when she did a happy emote. Since she was carrying another player, she could only glide with her wings, and she emoted the entire time down. Ree just sat and watched all of the notifications pop up for character deaths in the log. "Holy shit, it got the admins. I counted two of them."

"Three, isn't Lucy one now?" She twisted the camera around and spotted other characters flying or floating or falling out in the distance, and others already on the ground shouting for healing.

"Four, there went nuggetfricker." There were only five admins for the server. As the death toll clicked higher and higher, the girls held their breath, even as the voice chat from the ground started to fade into their channel. The fifth admin's username popped up and disappeared as the list kept going. Carly let out a breathless, disbelieving laugh.

"We didn't quite crash the game, but what did we do?" Ree had to ask.

Carly's character shrugged, and then dropped Ree. She swore as she hit the ground—it took out a clean seventy percent of her health and broke both her legs—but she survived. Other players staggered towards Carly as she daintily alighted, ears still wiggling, her mage robes more obvious than ever.

"Wait, where's Scott?" Ree asked suddenly. As if on cue, her phone rang. She burst out laughing at the timing.

The next day, they made international news. The game, Digi Saga, was a popular one, and the experiment had managed to kill ninety percent of the players, including the admins and all but two of the mods, on the second largest server (which happened to be one from Johto, but it was still technically international news). And it hadn't been Ree's fault. In fact, she had joined the party incredibly late to the game, only just before it blew up in their faces.

"How was buffing a single character up to see how high he'd go a good idea?" Maya asked archly when Ree proudly called her later that evening.

"Wasn't my idea!"

"Someone had that idea first. Someone thought it'd been a good idea, and then Carly and Scottie—how did Scott think that was a good idea?" Thankfully, her sister wasn't on speaker phone. The boyfriend in question was present, seated between Ree's knees, and still incredibly grumpy that his character had been left behind to die.

"Contrary to popular belief, when we play a game, we don't aim to break it."

"We didn't break it," Scott muttered. "And no one expected the counter to roll over."

"Just glad it wasn't my idea for once!" Ree sang.

-.-.-

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Ree Majors' Wonderful Journey Of Being Afraid Of The Dark

-.-.-

Marcella was utterly fascinating to watch. She moved with a controlled grace that none of her other pokémon could come close to. Every movement was precise, but fluid, and the effect was magnified when she battled. Even thrusts of her paws or swift kicks didn't seem jerky.

Whippy's distrust had turned into jealousy when he noticed how enamored Ree was with watching her new (temporary?) pokémon. But he also seemed to gain a grudging respect for her battling skills when they watched her catch fish through the ice with her bare paws.

Then Harper got jealous; Unika was equally taken with Marcella, although that admittedly baffled Ree. She figured it was because she was a strong battler, or perhaps because her fur carried static. But that melted away when Ree found the three of them practicing some sort of exercise together. Marcella moved like water, and Unika approximated her positions in the air, as best she could without limbs. At her insistent squeaking, Harper awkwardly joined in. Not anywhere near as graceful, but that pleased the tynamo further. And a happy Uni meant a better behaved Uni.

Ree would feel bad if she got rid of Marcella, especially after naming her and her albeit hasty exclamation about keeping her after the shiny scare. She liked her. She was calm, collected, creepily helpful, and a strong battler. At least against the wild pokémon, since they hadn't come across another trainer since they had left. (Tyron didn't count.) And, that night, she found out how great it was to have another truly warm-blooded pokémon on the team.

It was a little uncomfortable ordering her to cuddle with them, but she was warm and furry and nearly as big as Whippy. Ree was a very happy middle of the sandwich.

Day two of Marcella's introduction of the team, and Ree decided to try to get them to battle each other. "We need the better practice, and we all know you're the strongest things in this forest. Just practice battles!" she coaxed.

"Viii-iiiiine," Whippy whined back, eyes big and tail quivering.

"Don't you want to show your superiority to the newbie?" Ree asked with a grin.

"Quill," Harper sighed.

"Ty-ty-ty!"

Marcella side-eyed them and edged away. "Don't worry," Ree told her, hoping she came across as reassuring, "it's just practice battles. Like play fighting. Pokémon have that, right?"

She nodded but still seemed apprehensive.

Unika was all too excited for the idea, but it seemed a little mean to send her out first, so Ree went with her starter. To her knowledge, neither had an advantage on the other, so it'd be a pretty fair fight. Hypothetically.

Ree called the start and Whippy didn't hesitate before unleashing a gale of leaves at her. Marcella's eyes widened but she seemingly melted out of the way, dodging entirely, and darted towards him. He leapt back, using his vines to push himself further away on his second bounce, and throwing leech seeds at her. Those she didn't duck she just swiped out of the way.

It became very clear early on that Whippy knew exactly how to fight her: he wasn't letting her close. He was faster than her, not counting the maneuverability he had by using his vines, and no matter how cleverly she dodged or twisted, he made sure she couldn't catch up with him. But it was also clear that she was the better technical battler. She knew exactly where the edge of his leaf tornado was, grabbed at his vines with lightning-fast reflexes when he got brave enough to lash out at her with them, and expended the absolute minimum amount of energy.

She may have been able to outlast him, but Ree wasn't going to wait around when he was kicking up snow and ice everywhere. "Okay, okay! Calling it!" Marcella halted at once and thus was unprepared for the chunk of snow he lobbed at her face. She looked sort of cute when she was trying not to look indignant. "Don't you have any long-range moves?" Ree asked with a grimace.

Marcella scuffled her paw in the snow and shook her head. "Foo, mien-mien."

"Tranquill?" Harper asked curiously.

"Foo."

"Translation?" Ree asked Whippy.

"Servine-ser!"

"That didn't help. Okay, we're getting you a TM. I'm not sure I really have anything that would suit you, but we can shop in the next town. If we can come across anyone to battle. Your old trainer didn't have any cash to kindly leave us in his bag."

Marcella's ears twitched back but she caught herself and kept her expression neutral. But Ree saw.

"Not a fan of his, huh?"

After a long pause, she shook her head.

"We have that in common. Whatever I end up doing with you, you won't have to see him again, so don't worry."

"...Mienfoo," she said in a small voice. Her gratitude was clear. It made Ree wonder, not for the first time, what her circumstances had been beyond being used as a battler and painted to be pawned off as shiny.

"Right! Next battle! Harper, you want a go?"

She looked disinclined but hopped off her shoulder and fluttered down to the little space they'd cleared for battling. The fight hardly started before Harper knocked Marcella flat on her ass. Even Harper looked surprised at how well it worked; they didn't battle fighting pokémon often, and with her fast team, they rarely posed a big enough threat that Ree had to consistently rely on her bird.

But Harper had the same range advantage as Whippy, combined with a type advantage, mostly invisible attacks, and a wider area of attack. Ree got the double treat of seeing Harper absolutely delighted—followed closely by seeing Marcella truly lose her patience for the first time.

Harper hadn't been doing enough damage to knock Marcella out, or even keep her down, and either the mienfoo really hated losing battles or she hated battling without her foe's full strength. Through sheer force she broke through an air slash in order to get to Harper, taking the attack to her face in the process, and jumped upon the perched bird.

Ree had started forward, but Marcella didn't actually hit Harper. The mienfoo stopped herself just in front of her face. The two pokémon stared at each other for so long a moment that Ree was worried she'd end up with another pair of girlfriends. Whatever their staring contest meant, however, it became irrelevant when Unika flopped in between them with a joyous squeal.

"Servine?" Whippy asked as Ree finally released the breath she'd been holding.

She tossed Marcella's pokéball back into her backpack. "Some new teammate, huh? Hey, Marcy, c'mere."

The mienfoo, ears pricked, slithered out from Unika's affection and reported dutifully. Her face was torn open, from snout to forehead, and she didn't seem to mind the blood at all.

"Doesn't that hurt?" Ree asked, confused and a little worried.

Marcella put a paw to her face like she was surprised to see she was injured. "...Foo."

Whippy smacked her in the shoulder. She hissed at him and rubbed her arm, but didn't attack him back. Ree yanked him back with a scowl regardless. "Rude, mister! Just so long as it's not nerve damage and so long as it doesn't become a habit, we'll deal with it. We have plenty of snow to scrub the blood off."

"Tyyyyyyyy!" Unika wailed from Harper's side.

"You can battle her later! It's not fair to fight an injured opponent!" Ree called back, ignoring how she normally would do just such a thing. Marcella flinched as though struck again. "...Well, we have to teach her somehow. Morals are tough to undo later on in life, I know that one personally."

"Ser!"

Marcella tried covering her face, potentially out of shyness, but Ree really needed her not to poke around her wound. And for her not to do that again. Useful, and it got the job done, but frightening. She was rarely so desperate to win a battle that she'd ask her pokémon to take a point-blank attack of something they were weak against. Elesa didn't count.

Whippy set his clawed hand on hers and she shook herself out of her thoughts. Things could be undone, and she'd just have to adjust to what Marcella threw at her as she went.

-.-.-

Her pokémon stared at her in a textbook illustration of differing levels of alarm when she let out a two and a half minute long "Fuck".

"Tran?" Harper ventured, first.

"We get to deal with a snowstorm. A big one. And we're out in the middle of Fuckall Forest here," Ree explained and pointed to her pokédex. Its internet was shitty on a good day, out on a route, but it made a point to keep its GPS and weather apps connected. A blue swath of snow and ice and cold temperatures was swirling their way, just as happy and fast as could be, and they had a day to figure out what to do. Too far from any cities. Allen was busy, and she wasn't even sure it qualified as an emergency, anyway. The warnings were all for generic blizzard type things, nothing record breaking or particularly terrifying.

But it was still a snowstorm, and they were still out in the middle of nowhere. No fire pokémon, one tent, one small space heater. She would have water with all of the snow, and she had electricity thanks to Unika, but a lot of good the latter did her when she couldn't get service.

"We could find a cave in the hills if need be. Or would it be smarter to start making an igloo now? What is the proper trainer protocol for a shitton of snow?"

Her pokémon were as unhelpful as ever when it came to such things—though Marcella tried, oh did she try. She probably would have begun making building blocks then and there if Ree hadn't interrupted her. She had already sent a text to Maya asking for advice, but got no response. She was tempted to ask Scott, too, but that wound was too raw, even concerning neutral trainer things.

Neutral, right. Supposedly neutral. But thinking about pokémon training and then Scott made her mind pit them against each other on reflex.

"I guess we can make a snow fort pretty much wherever, huh?" she asked, rubbing at her hair. It was getting a little shaggy, yet it was also her first winter with such short hair, so she felt weird about it. "Might as well look for a cave. Less digging that way. Harper?"

"Quill!" She flapped into the air, and with a whine from Unika, she gently grabbed her with one foot. They flew up over the treetops and out of sight.

Marcella began packing up their camp without being asked. Ree couldn't help but watch, hands on her hips. "...This is weird, right? We're a weird team?"

"Ser-servine."

"I guess. But that makes you weird, too. Marcella, you know you don't have to do everything yourself, right?"

She nodded and carefully wrapped the heater's cord around its little legs.

"Where does a mienfoo even learn stuff about power cords and packing up camp and whatever?" Ree said and sighed. She nudged Whippy with her boot until he moved, and the three of them managed to consolidate the camp enough so it fit back into their backpacks. Marcella unassumingly grabbed Tyron's backpack, which led to another awkward realization—Ree was far from being above asking her pokémon to help her carry things, and she knew she had plenty to carry, but she had reservations about letting Marcella near any lingering remnants of Tyron. She had a feeling their shared history was just simply 'bad' and she didn't want to make it worse before she could figure things out.

But the only other thing she could carry was Ree's own backpack, which was larger and heavier. Marcella must have noticed her indecision, because she shrugged off the plain black bag and held out her paws for the offensively orange and pink one.

"This one's almost as big as you are. And you shouldn't be carrying that much stuff."

Marcella pointed at Whippy. Ree shrugged, not getting it. The mienfoo put her paws over her stomach, imitating a swollen stomach.

"I am not so pregnant that I can't carry things. Exercise is good for pregnant people! Especially if they were active before, and I was, and I know this is legit because Lenore told me so."

Marcella sighed and Whippy grinned up at Ree. Before she could question either of them, he jumped at her, and then slithered into her coat. She reflexively curled her arms underneath him to support his weight—right over her middle.

"...He's a balance. That's why I should have the bigger backpack, to counter his fat ass."

"Vine!" he cried.

"You are getting bigger, and you know it, mister."

He responded by jabbing her in the stomach.

"One day, that thing is going to kick back, you know." She could only imagine his alarm the first time. It would be a glorious moment.

While she was distracted by the servine baby in her coat, Marcella walked over, widened her stance, and then picked them both up without so much as a grunt of effort. Ree shrieked and Whippy clung to her, claws dug in, at the sudden shift in balance. "Mien," Marcella said simply and set them back down.

"Right, heavier backpack for you."

It being larger swamped her form, but she wasn't bothered by the size or the weight, so what argument could Ree make? And could she really complain about carrying less on her back? Marcella looked delightfully silly, her back would hurt a little less, and she kept her new teammate separate from the little brat who gave her up.

"Tran-quiiiiill!" came Harper's call just before she broke through the branches overhead.

"Tyyyyyy-na-mo!" Unika mimicked as she wriggled out to hover before them. "Ty! Tyna!"

"Did you find anything? Preferably something not super huge so we don't have to worry about heating a huge-ass cavern?"

They exchanged a guilty look.

"Also, I'm more fond of the igloo idea since we can drill holes for ventilation. Or something. I don't want to get stuck in a cave and worry about smoke. Is this place up against some sort of cliff wall we could use?"

Harper shook her head.

"Well, thank you for trying. I guess we should just look for a place to dig in for the next couple days. Uh, shit, how long was this thing supposed to last..." Food, she should have remembered food earlier. Water wasn't an issue, and she had some things in her bags, but she had the need for quite a lot of protein with Whippy and Marcella on her team. And hunting would keep them busy.

Except she was hoping to use Marcella to build their fort. Whippy was also going to stick close to her with the weather like that. Harper was a decent enough hunter, though she must have been out of practice, and she also had to think of Unika. The tynamo couldn't really build, she wasn't fast or big or strong enough to hunt, and she had to be entertained somehow...

"Marcella, Harper, Uni, you're on hunting duty. Uni, stick close to Harper. Make it fast, be back before sundown. Whippy, you and I are on homesteading or whatever shit that was duty. We gotta find a place to dig in. If it's near a big tree, we can use that..."

He stuck his head out of her coat to be a second set of eyes, and her other three pokémon went off in search of food. She was surprised they moved as one team—she was certain Marcella would function better on her own—but she was sure they'd come back with something anyway.

The logistics of it all gave her a headache. Was she over thinking? Was she coming up with bullshit? Why was she so nervous around Marcella when she seemed so straightforward?

She lost more sunlight than she liked trying to find a spot to camp, but she did like where they ended up: they found possibly the largest tree in the forest, with a dip in the snow around its trunk from the branches above. Whippy began stomping down their new floor while Ree started piling onto their walls. It took a couple false starts—she wasn't sure how big to make it, and four pokémon and a person maybe trapped inside a small space for a day or two made her err on the side of caution—but she soon got a semicircle around the tree going.

The wind picked up near sundown, just before the hunter trio returned. Harper was holding a semi-fried basculin by the tail, followed by a beaming Unika, and they were both followed by Marcella, dragging an entire sawsbuck by its hind leg. The trail of blood they left was already starting to get covered as snowflakes returned with the wind.

"How the hell are we going to eat all that? How are we going to cook—actually no, I don't care, nevermind." She'd figure something out. They could just freeze things. Winter was her own personal, huge refrigerator.

With Unika helping generate light and Marcella helping build up the walls, they were soon out of the growing wind. There was a moment of confusion when Ree explained that they had to build a roof, too, to keep it all from falling on top of their tent and squishing them, and then she had to take turns with Whippy to lift Marcella high enough to reach. They paused to start a fire as their useable light rapidly dwindled, and Ree made absolutely sure to poke holes for ventilation (and explain to her team not to fill them in, even if they may cause a bit of a draft).

She felt absurdly proud of her misshapen, cramped snow fort when they were done.

She had thought out air holes, enough room for their tent plus a 'yard', and had plans to try to make an outhouse. It was like playing house except on a larger scale and with number fingers. They did have to widen their main overhead hole to let out some of the smoke once the fire grew, but other than that snag, it went surprisingly well.

She set Whippy and Marcella to digging a small tunnel to what would become their bathroom while she and the other two began making their dinner. The fish would be that night's, and the sawsbuck would freeze overnight, and she did have the issue of having to dig it back out, but that could be fixed tomorrow. Maybe the blizzard wouldn't even be that bad and they had wasted the day building their fort. But even that wouldn't have ruined it.

She tried taking pictures with her phone, but the lighting was terrible, and she didn't have service, anyway. "Oh well. No ice queen selfies."

"Tyna?"

"None for you especially. You blend in with all of this white."

"Mo!"

"Even with the fire. It just casts weird shadows and I think we'll soon get a layer of ice as the fire melts stuff and the snow re-freezes it. I think that's what's supposed to happen? It'll be like our own skeleton!"

For some reason, that made Unika cry, and Ree and Harper panicked over calming her back down. Food did the trick. She ate more than her share of the fish, but it was worth it. She did not want to be locked into a pile of snow with any unnecessary drama or anguish.

Whippy and Marcella returned just as the fish and soup finished. The servine clambered into her lap, forty pounds of cold scales, and made grabby hands, while Marcella neatly knelt beside Harper. "You sure you were a wild pokémon before that Tyron ass? You have pretty good table manners."

She shook her head in the tiniest possible movement.

"The newly caught fighting pokémon," Ree said with a sigh, and then looked down at her starter in her lap, "and the human-raised grass pokémon famous for their superiority and snootiness. You can only feel better than everyone else if you are better than everyone else. You eat about as cleanly as Unika."

Whippy and Unika looked up at her with matching kicked lillipup expressions. Both of them had food smeared over half of their faces.

"Right. Good job, team. Good fuckin' job."

It took a little coaxing to get Uni to wear the harness long enough to make sure their heater had power throughout the night, but at least then they could put the fire out, and she went along with it when Ree showed her they could make shadows on the wall with their flashlight. She took her medicine with less argument than usual as well.

They could hear the wind growing into a howl outside, and occasional snowflakes made it in through their air holes, but it stayed warm inside their bubble. They were insulated from the outside world.

Whippy could make an array of shadows with his vines, and Harper tried exactly once but she could really only make a wing. Marcella wouldn't try. Unika was happier watching, and that left the bulk of the entertainment to Ree. It was a fair trade-off for better behavior.

They called it an early night. Ree snuggled in between Whippy and Marcella, Harper and Unika perched close by, and let the heater be their light. It reflected dimly off of the snow around them, giving it all a warm, soothing glow. Cozy. Faintly homey. Safe and warm.

-.-.-

Ree awoke in the middle of the night to find a monster silhouetted in the broken wall of their camp. The cold wind blasted into their space, stealing their heat and waking the rest of her team.

"What the fu—"

A harsh, metallic screech cut her off. Ree clamped her hands over her ears and curled down over Whippy. Marcella launched herself over them both, at the dark shape.

And, shockingly, knocked it flat with a single hit.

She grabbed the unconscious creature by the ankle, flung it out into the stormy night, and then wandered back inside to start building the wall back up.

"Ty?" Unika squeaked sleepily and shivered.

"...What the hell was that," Ree said flatly.

Marcella didn't answer and continued filling in the hole. Whippy pulled the blanket over he and Ree both. Unika darted in with a happy sound. "Quill?" Harper asked archly, eyes on the mienfoo.

She flicked her ears back but still remained silent.

"That was a pokémon, right? Please tell me that was a pokémon and not some sort of nightmare monster." It sure had seemed like a nightmare monster; all Ree could remember about it was the red glint of blades sticking out of it.

"Ser-ser!"

"Tranquill."

"...foo," she finally replied. Most of the wall had been patched up, if not smoothly or evenly, and she sank down to her knees without anything else to busy herself with. "Mien, mien-mienfoo-mien. Mienfoo... mienfoo."

"I need to win the goddamned lottery and buy translators for you all." Ree rubbed at her temples and struggled not to lose her temper. It really wouldn't help the situation and even she could recognize that fact. "That was important, right? Marcella, you knew what that was."

The mienfoo nodded.

"Was that a pokémon?" she asked, just to be sure.

Another nod. Despite her harsh awakening, she felt relief that it wasn't a nightmare all the same.

"Was that one of Tyron's?"

She shook her head and with that movement, there was the slightest hunch to her shoulders.

"Tranquill tranquill, tran?" Harper asked. Marcella glanced at her and nodded.

"Did that pokémon belong to anyone else I should be worried about?"

She shook her head again.

So a wild pokémon had attacked them, in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm. Admittedly, she would have expected a yeti or something first, but a small, sharp pokémon worked just as well for heart attacks. "Is that thing going to be a problem again?"

To her great distress, Marcella nodded again, her misery clear in her frame.

Ree groaned and tugged at her hair. "This is why the little shit was trying to sell you, huh? Dump some sort of revenge scheme on the next poor sap he ran into?"

Marcella nodded, although uncertainly.

"If I ever see him again..." Whippy placed his claws on her hand, patting it, humming soothingly. "Fine. Marcy, looks like you didn't have much of an issue with that thing. Can you keep it off us until I figure out what the hell it is and how we can get rid of it?"

She nodded, sure once more. It helped improve Ree's mood the smallest fraction.

"Alright, back to sleep everyone."

It was a tense night and none of them got much sleep after that. Day two of their storm was spent largely by being bored out of their minds. There were some smaller repairs to make to the wall, Ree tried to see what the conditions were like outside (only to end up with her eyelashes frosted over), and she found out what it was like to have an electric pokémon with cabin fever. The good news was that she had enough energy to keep everything charged. The bad news was that they all had to dodge the rest of her electricity.

She tried to keep busy by digging another tunnel to drag the mostly frozen sawsbuck into, but that hassle was more aggravating than anything else, so she let the pokémon wrestle with it. She tried to spend some time organizing photos on her phone, but that led to looking at far too many pictures of Scott, and that in turn led to tears.

She attempted to teach them a couple card games, showed Marcella how to dial on her phone in an emergency, played a sort of guessing game with Whippy concerning the few herbs and spices she had, and learned that Unika had a talent for keeping a rhythm. Ree wasn't the best beatboxer in the world, but it made things more entertaining when she had a glowing metronome. Maybe she could teach Harper to whistle in time and take her show on the road, after the whole pregnancy thing sorted itself out. Or maybe she could go while still pregnant; she was not above utilizing gimmicks.

But mostly, they were bored. They had room to stretch and the pokémon could walk a little comfortably, but that was it. If they had to spend another day in there, Ree knew she had to make the ceiling higher, or else she'd snap.

Marcella's facial wound was shallow and healing well, but there was some minor swelling. It was a good thing they had plenty of ice. Even playing doctor, however, didn't take up much time or energy. She was a pokémon; she would heal from most things that didn't outright kill or dismember her. At least, that was how it seemed when Harper was flying on a broken wing and Whippy had been battling with broken ribs.

Night two of snowy hell gave Ree a name to work with.

She had been dreaming—very nicely about Scott and how he could spoil her with his tongue—and it all went straight to black around her. Ree plopped onto her ass as her dreamscape vanished, her hair still long, ladybits still un-pregnant, and very much annoyed at the change in mood.

Her mood plummeted further when the black and red pokémon walked up to her.

"Okay, what the fuck," Ree snarled, twisting to cover herself while wishing she had been dreaming about when she'd had longer nails or something. Or maybe she should have dreamed about being a trainer. A heatmor would've made a nice addition.

"You. Are. Not. Blood. Hu. Man." The pokémon sat down opposite her, mimicking her pose, arms ending in blades covering its metal-cased chest like the most absurd Venus ever.

"You can talk now?"

"This. Is. Dream." Its voice seemed to go straight into her brain, but it still sounded harsh and grating.

"I know you can't be a psychic pokémon. Not with how Marcella shut you down last night." And she was pretty sure fighters couldn't punch ghosts in the face.

"I. Am. Of. Dark. Ness."

"And you're not the best speaker in the world, either." The pokémon didn't react, not even in annoyance. Although she supposed even that was better than what she got from Unika. "So, what's the deal? What problem do you have with my pokémon?"

"Yours?"

"Yes, mine. The short kid with the people skills gave her to me."

The pokémon looked down at its pointed limbs. "I. Still. Need. Her."

"What for?"

"Re. Venge."

"Of course. Why can't you get it on the asshole kid?"

"I. Will."

"Instead of my pokémon."

"On. Both. I. Found. You. First."

"What did they do to you that you tracked her however far to try to get your revenge? And what are you? You don't seem like a tracker."

"Or. Or. In."

"...Right. I meant the type of pokémon."

"I. Am. Noth. Ing." Ororin's voice broke and its bladed arms trembled. "With. Out. My. Lead. Er."

Ree had a sinking feeling about where the conversation was headed. "You... lost your leader?" Sure, the blond boy had attacked her with a hunting knife, but she hadn't pegged the kid as a murderer. Then again, what would happen to a trainer who wouldn't give up their pokémon, who hadn't gotten on Marcella's good side, and who wasn't a cute girl?

"The. Blood. Hu. Man. He. Spilt. Our. Blood."

"Look, I really do understand revenge schemes. But as things are right now, I'm a neutral party. I have no idea what happened to you—and I'm sorry about that, I am—but Marcella is part of my team now. And I'm pretty sure I trust her. Whatever she helped with, it was on the asshole's orders. I'll vouch for her." She had grown attached, and she didn't see a cruel hair on Marcella's head. She was perfectly willing to throw the thief under the bus on this one.

"You. Do. Not. Mat. Er."

"I do too matter. The mienfoo is mine now." She couldn't offer to pay the pokémon, and she didn't necessarily want to offer to become its new trainer with how their introduction was going so far. She may have been hormonally unbalanced and prone to terrible decisions, but what sort of idiot added a pokémon that vowed bloody revenge to their team? What else could she offer? She didn't know where Tyron was, and she didn't want to help the pokémon find him, either.

"I. Will. Not. Harm." The pokémon bowed its head and paused, as if in reverence. Strange. "You. Or. Your. Clan. Mates."

Better than calling her pokémon her children, she supposed. "Uh, well, thanks for that."

"Give. Me. The. Fight. Er."

"That's a no. Didn't you hear anything I just said?"

"I. Will. Not. Warn. You. A. Gain."

"This entire conversation is getting annoying. Look, I'm sorry that you've been through some shit. I understand that and if I could help, I would." Could she offer to drop it off at a pokémon center or adoption center? Friends or family of its trainer? "But I'm not giving you my pokémon, and I can't help you find the dude responsible. And I think Marcella's demonstrated that she's not about to stand for your shit, either, so I'm not really sure where you get off acting so threatening."

The pokémon looked up at her with a hard, unforgiving expression. Its pupils were black slits against the gold sclera.

Ree was forced back into consciousness by a sharp, cold pain.

The pokémon was above her, straddling her throat, its blade at her cheek. It had sliced open her cheek and the edge of her ear. Her blood felt hot against the chill of the air.

They stared at one another for a long moment, and then her pokémon caught onto the situation. Whippy yanked it away with his vines, but the pokémon twisted in the air and sliced free. Her servine shrieked and retracted them immediately. Harper didn't have enough room to fly, but she flapped her wings, sending bits of snow and ice at them, keeping Unika behind her. The metallic pokémon hardly seemed to notice.

Marcella, however, could not be ignored. And in close quarters, she excelled.

But the pokémon was made of sharpness and points. She leapt at it, and it ducked away, trying to catch her with any of its limbs. Ree scrambled away from them, huddling in the corner with Whippy, who was crying softly over his vines, his shoulders and belly covered in greenish-brown blood. Harper and Unika were in the corner opposite to them. Unika was glowing, bright in the darkness of the night, though Harper's form threw shadows over the fight between them.

Whippy and Harper were useless against a steel pokémon. Unika was small and weaker. But Marcella couldn't get a clean hit in when they were so close to one another; she'd end up slicing herself open at the rate she was going, just like before, with Harper. Except a metal razor would hurt far more than air, no matter how typing weaknesses worked.

Ree pulled on her winter boots and then kicked her foot out. She caught Ororin in the side, surprising it, and knocking it off balance enough for Marcella to deliver a punishing blow against the side of its helmet-like head. The red metal dented.

And then, when her arms were extended, it thrust the blade on its head at her.

Marcella reeled back, so close to getting her face cut open again that for a moment, Ree was certain she had. But she stumbled backwards, no fresh blood on her, and glanced back when her back hit the partially broken snow wall.

Ororin saw its opportunity. It sank both of its arm blades into her stomach.

Ree shouted and kicked again. Whippy threw himself at the pokémon, but Ororin ducked under him and opened a cut along his flank. It then darted towards Ree, jumping over another kick, and they found themselves face-to-face again.

She wished she had some sort of remark, but instead, she could just think of her two bleeding pokémon and the knifey thing probably about to kill her. God, she hoped Harper and Unika wouldn't swear revenge on that thing and end up killing themselves.

Ree wished she was wearing more layers when she tried to elbow it off of her. The pokémon was lighter than Whippy, but her forearm caught one of the edges jutting out of its stomach—seriously, was the beast literally made of knives? It staggered off of her and she threw herself to the side, aiming towards Whippy. The pokémon stomped down on her back, cutting off her lunge, and walked up along her spine towards her outstretched hands. She could almost grab his leafy tail. Whippy raised his head, scarlet eyes shining with tears and terror, and Harper screeched. The following gust blew uselessly over Ree's back and against the steel pokémon.

"Paaa-aaaaa-aaawn," Ororin rasped, waking life voice just as grating and rusty as it had been in the dream, and Marcella got up to her feet again. Everything beneath her midsection was coated in blood and snow stuck to the warm liquid.

"S-Servine!" Whippy yelled. Ree felt cold blades leave the side of her neck.

And then they plunged down into her outstretched hands.

She didn't make a sound, honestly too numbed by shock to register the view in front of her. Two bladed arms stuck out of her hands. It was only when Ororin transferred them both to one of its own, pinning both of her hands with the same point, that her body was like oh yeah.

Marcella lunged at him with a snarl Ree never would have expected out of her. Ororin met her movement by raising his other arm and she landed right on it.

The steel pokémon ripped its hand out of Ree's, eliciting her first scream, and literally dug into Marcella. Ree wasn't sure whether it was the pain or the mounting hysteria that kept her screaming, but despite the blood and the feeling of bones shifting where they shouldn't be, she crawled forward and reached out for Ororin's back.

There was a flash of light and the entire snow fort crumpled down on their heads. Ree's scream ended on a high note. There wasn't enough weight to hurt, but it was surprising, and the cold burned her bare skin. She only had her pajamas and boots on, and that meant bare arms and snow freezing to the hot blood on her hands and face.

Something feathered and warm dug through to her first, and she helped Harper kick and thrash their way to the surface of the snow with the help of Unika's soft glow. "Tranquill, tranquill, tranquill," Harper repeated, trying to hold her trainer still with her large wings, head craning to get a look at her, but Ree was looking for her other pokémon. As it turned out, they were hard to miss.

A serperior towered over them, the steel pokémon clenched in his jaws. The edges on the pokémon were cutting into his mouth, blood running freely down his neck, but Whippy kept him immobilized and away from them. Ororin couldn't reach any part of him, not well enough to do any further damage.

Marcella lay half underneath a pile of snow near his tail, a red and cream spot against all of the white.

Whippy shook the pokémon in his mouth like a rabid herdier would. The metal screeched when it bent and clashed with his teeth, but it was not going to break. He coiled, trying one last time to crunch it, but to no avail. With all the muscle in his much longer body, he twisted and threw the pokémon as far as he could.

The wind whistled around them as they sat in the snow.

Ree looked at Marcella, and then down at her hands. The coldness was beginning to seep in, and combined with the pain, she could hardly move them.

Harper hopped over the snow and crouched down by the mienfoo. "Quill!"

"She's breathing?"

"Quill!"

She couldn't get service on her phone, not with the weather as it was. Whippy—he evolved, that still had to process with her—was fine, but she and Marcella were far from it. She couldn't lose a pokémon she just got. She couldn't lose another one, period.

"Harper," Ree croaked. Her tranquill looked up but didn't move from Marcella's side. "I need you to take my phone and—and remember how I showed you how to call Allen? The first number in my list? It's two buttons. I-I need you to fly until you hear my phone beep for service. Once you do that, call him and just squawk at him until he comes."

Harper's expression broke, but she covered it up so fast Ree questioned it at all. "...Tran." The bird flapped into the air and extended a foot for Ree's phone. She handed it to her, and she disappeared into the bare branches overhead.

Whippy slithered over to her. His bulk blocked a significant portion of the wind from her, but when she reached out to touch his scales, she noticed at once how cold he already was. "Fuck. F-Fuck this entire night. C'mere, curl up next to us. Let's g-get out of this wind a bit..." She crawled over and scooped Marcella up as best she could, trying to be gentle, and they all curled up in the hollow beneath the tree where their things lay beneath the snow. Unika nuzzled into the crook of her neck, a small warm spot.

It was difficult to tell how long Harper had been gone. The darkness and the cold seemed to slow down time, and without her phone, her sense of it was already warped. She did dig out her coat and one of her blankets from beneath them and laid both of them over Whippy, but with how cold they'd been, she wasn't sure how much good they'd do. Her feet were mercifully fine in her boots, and she had fleece pajama pants on, but her hands were entirely numb and her face burned from the temperature.

It had been a very dumb idea to send Harper out. She was warm-blooded, but far from suited to the snow. She was probably slowly succumbing to hypothermia while she worried.

"What else c-could I do?" Ree whispered. Her tears were warm, briefly, on her cheeks, but they soon got cold, too. She didn't have phone service. Marcella couldn't wait. At the very least, they would have had to have tried to rebuild a bigger snow fort in the blackness of the night in a blizzard. She couldn't move her hands. Was Marcella bleeding out? Was Ororin on its way back to them? Whippy was bigger and stronger, but she didn't want to see how they'd fare in another battle.

The only consolation was that Unika could keep up a mostly steady glow. In pitch black, she was sure she wouldn't have been able to last.

The figure was almost upon them before her numbed ears picked up the sounds of approach. Whippy startled, reaction time frighteningly slowed, and Unika floated up to their sad defense with a squeal.

Harper flapped down from the man's shoulder and embraced the tynamo and her trainer in one movement. "Tr-Tranquill, tran...!"

"R-Ree, what happened here?!" Allen demanded shakily. Ree had never been so glad to see him before, and that was an achievement.

"H-Ho-Hospital," she croaked out between chattering teeth and held up Marcella's limp body.

"Everyone, grab onto—wow, Whippy, huh? Ree, make sure everyone's holding on."

She smushed them all together between her arms. Unika wriggled but Harper helped keep her still until, with a rush of dizziness, they were all in the middle of a too-hot, too-bright hospital. Whippy uncurled with a grateful hiss, Ree slid down off of him with a curse at the lights, and Allen cursed himself when he saw the blood smear she and Marcella left on his scales.

"Story time later, Ma-Marcella needs help r-right away!" Ree groaned, feeling and heat returning painfully to her ears and face.

The mienfoo was taken by the first nurse and in the light, she did not look good. She was actually open, and Ree could very clearly see organs she never wanted to see. She turned and tried to find a trash can to throw up in, and barely got one before her stomach came back up. Nose running, tears back in full force, and shaking uncontrollably as she clung to the trash can, it all piled onto her at once. Marcella could die. She could lose another pokémon. She still could not feel her fingers or her shoulders. Tyron had dumped a homicidal pokémon on her.

"Oh my god, Ree, what happened to you?!" Allen was at her side in an instant, evidently having seen her hands for the first time. Maybe he had thought all of the blood had been her pokémon's.

And she took stock of him for the first time, too. He wasn't in uniform—he was barely dressed. He was unshaven, his hair was a mess, all he had on was pajama pants and an unzipped parka, and he had blood running down his face. "Y-Yo-You're bleeding!"

Tranjero screeched and the sound reminded her too much of Ororin. She jumped and lashed on out reflex. Just as instinctively, Allen caught her arm. "Don't you mind me—"

"You look like sh-shit!"

"Ree, your hands are cut open! What the hell happened?!"

She broke down into sobbing at that.

-.-.-

Ree read over the report. Whippy was totally fine once he warmed up. Evolution could fix a lot of things, including minor to moderate injuries. Harper and Unika were in the same boat, sans gaining a hundred pounds. Marcella was alive, and she would live.

"...and she'll have to be on a liquid diet for the next month, perhaps more. We'll know more once we see how she's healing up," the doctor summarized.

They had called it elegant and purposeful. For something—a pawniard—to hack away at a pokémon like that, it knew what it had been going after. The damage done to her intestinal tract and kidneys had been incidental; the goal had clearly been her uterus. She'd never have babies. It would be awhile before she could eat normally again.

"We could induce evolution, but with this level of trauma, it's difficult to tell how her body would adjust. It obviously cannot regrow organs. We'd like to see how her body naturally heals before we would advise that." Not to mention the expense. She knew she didn't have that sort of money.

Ree looked at her bandaged hands. It looked like she was wearing mittens. Why attack her reproductive organs? It said it had lost a leader, its trainer, not any children. It was such a pointed attack, yet it didn't make sense. ...Does this mean its revenge has been taken?

Ree herself had minor frostbite on top of the injuries to her hands and face. Scars were inevitable, but the doctors seemed hopeful that her hands would make a full recovery. She hadn't even thought about losing motor functions. Ororin could have started slicing off fingers. It probably could have hacked away at Marcella's arms or legs. Hell, once it had her down, it could've outright killed her. She didn't have tough scales like Whippy.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," Allen told her with half a grin, but she wasn't in the mood to joke.

"I want information on a black market poacher, or thief, or something."

"I've told you before, I can't just give out information like that. Especially to non-operatives. You know too much as it is. Please, just tell me the name and I'll take care of it for you."

She stayed petulantly silent for the rest of his visit. He didn't deserve that—boy, he was the last person to deserve her ire—but he was convenient. Lenore, once she got there, made sure the baby was okay and expressed her general worry. Maya couldn't get a break from her training, and Ree made sure her parents didn't find out. She and Scott were still on break. The usual.

She already had Antoine Pollock to track down, but if she ever saw the Tyron kid again, she would beat his face in, psychic pokémon be damned.

Three days later and she and Marcella were released from Lentimas General Hospital. Allen had scavenged most of their things from the campsite, including Sophia IV, who had gotten nicked at some point during the flailing with the pawniard. He escorted her out, trying to keep up smiles on her behalf, but he still looked rough. And he wouldn't open up to her about it.

"You going back to wherever you were?" she asked him at the hospital doors.

"Yeah, back to Opelucid. Couple more things with Tranjero before I'm back to full active duty," he replied with a shrug.

"...Did you play hooky to get me again?"

"Uh, legally not, since you're still my charge and all."

"Are you two alright?"

"We will be. I just really gotta get back soon." She knew he had already been teleporting back and forth for the past two days. She'd caught him earlier that morning with another nosebleed in her bathroom. But if he wasn't going to talk to her, then she was going to stay stubborn, too.

He hugged her, too carefully, and she was left alone with her team again. A little more paperwork, some rearranging of her backpacks, and she walked out into the snowy morning of Lentimas Town.

Someone collided with her and all she could see was a mop of spiky, golden hair at first. "Oh Lord Arceus above, you worried me!" Ree stiffened at the male voice.

Tyron looked up at her, arms still wrapped firmly around her, his silver eyes shining with tears.

"You—fucking—"

"I thought he'd go after me, not you!" Tyron exclaimed and buried his face into her shoulder. She could actually hear him crying. His smaller frame trembled against her stock still one. Could she reach for her pokémon, or should she just grab the bat hanging from her backpack? "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, sorry-sorry-sorry!"

"You. You knew about it. You knew," Ree ground out.

"I thought he'd come after me. I'm so sorry, I never wanted you hurt, I just wanted you—and the mienfoo—out of his path..."

"Get the fuck off of me."

Tyron released her with tears and snot still dripping down his face.

Ree held up her bandage mittens. "That pokémon you got following you? Let it fucking get you next time."

"I thought he would," he whispered, stricken.

And the ass legitimately sounded and looked remorseful.

As much as Ree wanted to get another charge of assault under her belt, right there in front of the hospital, the pokémon thief earned his temporary safety when he asked, "How can I make this up to you? Anything!"

She paused, thinking. "First, tell me how the fuck you knew this happened at all."

"I have connections. I wanted to make sure you'd be okay."

"...Let me use those connections."

"Anything."

"Antoine Pollock." And, after a moment, she added, "And tell me what went on with you, my mienfoo, and that metal pokémon."

The shorter boy fidgeted under her glower. "That's... a lot of information for a regular trainer. Are you sure you want to know all of that? It can get you into some trouble."

She held up her mittens again. "My pokémon is on a liquid diet and will be limping until she evolves."

He looked around. The town was small, and quiet, and especially so in the cold morning air. But he told her, "Fine. For you. But we're going to want to have this conversation elsewhere."

And so Ree followed the thief down into hell.

-.-.-

Next Chapter: Ree's committed to keeping Marcella, Ororin and Tyron be damned, but they aren't making it easy. She gets the answers she wants, however. Maybe Tyron was right about biting off more than she could chew. Her team has to adjust, yet again - to Whippy's new size and strength, to Marcella injured, and to Harper, who believes she has a lot to make up for. Unika's just happy to be there with everyone still in one piece.
RMWJ: Chapter 39
First Chapter: <da:thumb id="208336167">
Previous Chapter: RMWJ: Chapter 38
Next Chapter: [whenever i suppose]

happy birthday to meeee

ALSO HERE IS MY PATREON FOR EVEN MORE UPDATING MAGIC 

NOTES:
+this chapter was a little more difficult than i envisioned but sometimes that happens and the important thing is that it's done
+i vow to never eviscerate anyone ever again for the purpose of making them unable to have babies
+ORORIN IS FINALLY HERE. there's so few major characters left to introduce! andy, connor, perdido, arabella, and that might be about it
+well you were nice while you lasted marcy
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Lala bounded after the mysterious pokémon. She knew a lot about the forest she lived in, and recognized most types of pokémon, but that one had been new. New and exciting and so very, very pretty.

It took her two days to realize that the pokémon belonged to a trainer. They were only passing through, but still, her curiosity did not wane. All of the trained pokémon were ones she hadn't seen before, and after a little while, she realized that they were foreign. Their trainer talked with a strange accent and even the pokémon themselves sounded off.

On the fourth day, the pokémon noticed her. "Why have you been following us?!" it shrilled in demand, and Lala tumbled out of the bush she'd been hiding in. The pink and purple pokémon's teammate, some sort of yellow rodent, squeaked and hid behind it.

"What kind of pokémon are you?" Lala asked.

"Trained pokémon!" the yellow thing said.

"I was not asking you. I was asking the beautiful creature with the fluff," she snapped.

The pretty pokémon blinked its big, red eyes, and then slowly flushed. "Me? This isn't fluff, not like yours..."

"May I touch it?" Lala asked. The fluffy pokémon nodded, despite the yellow one's frown. Lala hopped over, landed lightly beside them, and ran her paws over the pink ruff around its chest. It wasn't cottony, or like fur, but almost like the down on baby pidove. She wanted to bury her face in it. That close, she could tell that the pokémon was female, too.

"Do you live in this forest?" she asked.

"Yes. All my life. I'm something akin to a reigning queen," Lala replied with a grin. It was mostly true; she was definitely one of the stronger pokémon in the forest. But rarely did she use the power against her neighbors.

"You could show our trainer how to get out!" she said happily and the whimsicott's enthusiasm seeped out of her. The pink pokémon, undeterred, chattered on. "He's been lost for days, it's so frustrating! None of us are very wilderness-y pokémon, and it's not as if we're from this region, and a guide is just what we've been needing!"

"What do I stand to gain by aiding a bunch of trained strangers?" Lala pouted, inching her face closer to the other's fluff.

"You'd be doing us a great kindness."

Lala didn't do kindness. But she loved the texture of the downy fur in her paws. She wondered how it'd mix with her own. "Your trainer would not pose a threat to me?"

"Of course not! He's a very kind soul and listens to us. If I tell him not to battle or capture you, then he won't."

"If only all human trainers were so amenable. Very well, I shall guide you through the forest. What direction are you heading, or attempting to?"

The two trained pokémon exchanged a look. "Um, I think he wanted to head north?" the yellow thing guessed.

"We'll ask."

Despite her better judgment, Lala followed them back to their trainer. She refused to meet him, instead sticking to the shadows and trees, but persuaded the attractive pokémon to act as their go-between.

She spent five days leading them, even helping to point out food sources along the way, and she saw that the human boy actually wasn't so terrible. She knew humans varied as much as pokémon could, but so many trainers in the forest were young and brash and rude. This one treated his team with warmth and respect. Novel.

At the end of their journey, Lala was not surprised when the plump pokémon asked her to come with them. "It would be wonderful to gain a teammate as kind as you are."

Kind. She snorted. "I am not fit to be your teammate. You and your team will be fine without me," she scoffed.

"Do you not like trainers?"

"Do not ask me questions you don't want the answer to. You seem very fond of the gangly human."

"I am. He's my trainer. You would understand if—"

"It would behoove you not to finish that statement," she cut in.

The trained pokémon opposite her jumped at the interruption, then eased into a smile. "...Thank you for your help. I won't forget it, or you. Or your dashing fluff. I wish you all the best."

She reached over and pressed her beak-like snout to her cheek. She smelled very nice. And then she left, with her trainer and her team and her own future with them.

Lala made sure she was not called kind again for a very long time.

-.-.-

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Mister Snivy Whiplash's Wonderful Journey Of Growing

-.-.-

Ree started crying when she had to fight with Unika to get her in her little knitted tube. "It's the fucking hormones!" she snarled at Harper, who started in with concern, and her tone scared Unika further, so she began crying, too. The two wailed hopelessly together, feeding off of each other's noise, and Harper couldn't soothe either.

That was how they passed their first night without Lala.

"How did you sleep?" Whippy asked with a yawn and a stretch.

Harper looked ruffled. She twitched a bit at his question. "Not as well as you, it seems. How did Trainer sleep?"

"She didn't squirm so much, I guess." They both turned to watch as Ree sleepily stumbled through her morning routine. Her breath fogged in the cold morning air. "She was very warm, it was nice."

"The longer we travel together, the more I thank Tornadus I am not a reptilian pokémon," Harper said.

Ree tripped over the strap of her backpack and swore loudly. She woke Unika, but mercifully, the tynamo seemed calmer in the morning light. Harper hopped off to tend to her, or whatever it was she did—Whippy wasn't entirely sure, but it reminded him a little of how the light-haired guard had taken care of Ree. Parental, probably, though he didn't have much knowledge to compare to it. The humans had always taken care of him, not his mother.

With Lala gone, things were quieter. A little awkward. He usually chatted with her when they traveled, or tried to keep up with her, or helped her bait wild pokémon. Harper was so much more serious, and always stuck closer to Ree and Unika. The cold weather slowed everything down further. His scarf got caught on the bare branches, and, while wearing his booties made his trainer happy, they were difficult to run and climb in.

The next day, they woke up under half a foot of snow.

Whippy had never seen so much in one place, and evidently neither had Unika. Ree was less pleased by it all. "It's too fuckin' cold!" she screamed out the tent opening. She slapped it shut again with a huff. Whippy and Uni shared a look and he shrugged.

"Humans are weird," he said and dove into a higher drift. It felt almost painfully cold against his scales, but so smooth, and he was still fairly warm from sleeping with his trainer. It wasn't like swimming, since it was solid, but like gliding. He couldn't help but slither through it with glee.

"You're weird!" Unika squeaked when he popped up underneath her.

"How am I weird?" he asked with a squint.

"Weirdweirdweird! But that's okay, since I'm the hero. Not you."

"What are you talking about?" Whippy asked. He used his tail as leverage to get up to her level, balancing on top of the snow's crust, and she shied away from him with what he figured was a smirk. Her mouth was weird. All of her was weird.

He was about to tell her such when Harper fell awkwardly into the snow between them. While she struggled to get on top like him, Unika giggled and somersaulted around her. "Whippy, you will worry Trainer if you are in the snow too long. Please be mindful of your health," Harper said curtly.

"I'll be fine," he grumbled.

"Unika, would you like to come help Trainer?"

"With what?" the tynamo suspiciously asked. Ree's incoherent shout filtered over to them, muffled by the tent.

"Her phone has run out of power and she would appreciate help charging it again."

"But I don't like that collar."

"It would be helpful to Trainer."

"If she doesn't make me take that gross medicine, I'll do it for her."

"Medicine is helping!" Whippy interrupted.

"Shush," Harper told him. She broke free of the snow and, very carefully, stepped onto a thicker section of its crust. It held. "Unika, Lala is gone now, which means it is only three of us left. We are together, a team. We help one another, but most vital is helping our trainer. You are the only electric pokémon. You are the only one who can help her in this way."

Uni preened with the attention. Whippy glared at her. "I'll be her hero! I can do that, at least, right?"

"Right," Harper confirmed with a beaky smile. "And I will fly with you later tonight again if you do not fight when taking your medicine."

She drooped in the air. "But it tastes like sour bile and dust."

"It makes you feel better, does it not?"

"Well... yes, but..."

"Do not argue. In the next human town, we can ask Trainer for more of those sweets you liked."

Sparkly-eyed at the idea, Unika zoomed off to help Ree. Whippy shivered in the snow. His heat was fading, and fast, but he didn't want to go back in the tent while Unika was the savior of Ree's phone. On some level, he knew his jealousy was irrational. But mostly, he pouted.

"Do not antagonize her," Harper snapped at him.

"Don't blame me! I can hardly understand her conversations half the time."

"She is excitable, not speaking another tongue. And she is younger than you, so just... bear with her. Please. We have to be a unified front for Trainer."

"She can rely on us individually. I do the battling and you do the bird stuff and Uni does the electricity stuff," he huffed. He crossed his arms and curled his tail around himself.

Harper sighed. "Please go back into the tent. You are not made for colder climes."

"No," he said stubbornly.

"Trainer will not embrace you if you are as cold as the air around you."

"I'm not going back in there with them right now. I-I'm going to keep exploring."

"You are acting like a child."

"And you're acting like a—a big dumb serious thing!" With that remark, he scampered off into the snowy forest. She squawked after him, but she wasn't there to babysit him. She wasn't even there to babysit Unika, but she was, and he could tell Ree was grateful for that.

Whippy found a hollow in a snowbank beneath a tree and curled up in it. It wasn't fair. With Lala, the clever one, gone, he was supposed to be the valuable starter again. It wasn't as if his trainer's behavior had changed, aside from crying over Lala and in her frustration with the weather. He was used to her varying moods. And she still slept with him closest.

He wasn't sure how long before he heard the crunching of boots in snow. The servine looked up at his trainer sadly. Harper was perched on one shoulder, too tall for her frame, and Unika floated over the other. "Mister, you can't run off in the cold weather like that. You forgot your scarf and booties."

He hadn't forgot.

Something must've shown on his face, because Ree sighed in a weary sort of way. She bent down, scooped him up, and shoved him inside her coat. He felt her jump and shiver as their skin came in contact. "You miss Lala, too, huh?"

"Not really," he grumbled, poking his snout up over her collar.

"Worth a shot. Uni, wanna go back to the tent with Harper? We'll pack up and head out soon."

"Okay!" she squealed and slid off of her shoulder like she was on an invisible slide. Harper flapped off after her.

Ree pulled off her hat and pushed it onto Whippy's face. He scrambled within the confines of her coat to get it on him right, which was difficult enough with his horn. "Harper's too responsible sometimes for the both of us, huh?"

"I guess," he mumbled.

"Someone's gotta be, I suppose. Lately I've been tearing my hair out just trying to get Unika to behave and not freeze my toes off at night. ...We should really get a fire pokémon." Ree didn't follow them back to camp, but began to meander along in the dead forest, marching awkwardly through the thick snow. "A fire pokémon would be so goddamn useful. Start fires, keep us warm, take care of annoying ice pokémon... Just like an electric pokémon's super useful. Uni's important, y'know?"

He growled wordlessly into the fleece lining of her jacket. He was starting to warm up again since her body had absorbed his coldness. Didn't mean he was going to move any time soon, though.

"Whippy, this is a team. I'm thinking I'm going to start pushing for double battles again, so you three can get used to each other without Lala around. And because I've been sort of shit at team-building exercises that don't involve guns lately. Maybe a triple battle? Wait, fuck, no, that's a terrible idea."

"Three on three?" he asked. That sounded like a small-scale war. That sounded fun.

"Yeah. We haven't had one of those yet, but seems like it would be a hassle... Double battles for now." Ree chuckled and rubbed at her reddened nose. "I can already tell I'm listening better to you. Maybe that's all the brainpower I had to devote to figuring out Lala's schemes. Do you notice?"

"Sort of."

"Didn't get that one. Of course I couldn't keep it up."

"That's okay, it's fun anyway!" he declared and nuzzled up underneath her chin. She scratched along his jaw with another little laugh.

"Maybe I can share some of that new brainpower with Unika. Does she seem to be doing alright?"

"Maybe," he replied, mood dashed again.

"We just have to get her into the habit of wearing her little sock thing. And you, too, mister. Winter clothes are meant to be worn. I did not spend a shitload just to have fancy lining for my backpack."

"Jackster's trainer made mine!"

"That one I got. And Harry did not make your booties, so there."

"They get hooked on my claws!" he whined against her throat, doing his best pathetic voice.

"Then evolve, and you'll outgrow everything but the scarf. You better not outgrow the scarf."

"I'll make sure not to outgrow the scarf!" He rather liked it, anyway. Maybe it'd get caught on fewer things when it wasn't wrapped around him so many times. "But I'll get big and strong for you anyway!"

"Yeah, yeah, you'll be a serperior soon enough. ...Wish you could've met Bo, really met him. You two would've had a heyday together." Ree took a deep, shaky breath, and continued, "Please try to get along with the rest of the team while I figure out what's going on. It'll all get tossed out the window once we get another teammate, and don't worry, I'll be having this conversation with Uni, too. But I need all that extra brainpower to keep working on understanding you, remember, not keeping you all from doing your own thing."

"...Fine." He didn't even do anything wrong, and he was still getting scolded. It felt unfair, but what could he say otherwise?

"Oh, fucking hell."

"What is it?"

"I forgot to send Kev a fruit basket before we left."

He laughed despite his mood and nuzzled her again. "You're funny sometimes."

"Your face is," Ree grumbled back. "But let's get back to the other two now. Time to start productive training shit and see if I can't get a decent connection on my phone. What sort of site even sells fruit baskets?"

-.-.-

"You have to zap it! That's what you're supposed to be doing!" Whippy yowled and lashed his tail. Unika cowered back, though from him or the wild watchog, he wasn't sure. He didn't have the patience to figure out which. When the wild pokémon lunged at her, he caught it in the side with a tackle, and they went tumbling. Unika sparked and fled. "You're supposed to battle it! Get back—oof!"

It didn't take him long to beat, even if it knocked the wind out of him. As he held his ribs, he glared up at Harper, perched in a tree. She returned his look with a severe, disappointed one of her own. She was better at it than he. "You are too harsh with her."

"We're supposed to be training!" he hissed back and thumped his tail on the snow behind him again. He was starting to cool down, which meant he'd have to return to Ree and warm back up. It really ruined whatever training schedule she'd been hoping for, and that made him feel guilty, which made him push himself harder, which made it all that much worse.

The distant sound of their trainer retching floated over on the chill breeze. Harper sighed. "She has been doing that more and more often as of late. I do not think it is the weather."

"We're stressing her out. She told me so," Whippy petulantly replied, almost hoping for a rise out of her.

Instead, she just cocked her head and sighed again. "I thought as much. It worries me."

"Well—good. But she wants us to battle more, and get stronger, and we can't get stronger if Uni runs off, crying, every time we fight anything bigger than she is! And everything is bigger than she is!"

"She will grow when she evolves."

"She has to get stronger to do that!"

"She will not benefit from you throwing her headfirst into battles she is outmatched in," Harper snapped.

"She won't fight tranquill."

"I will find pidove for her. Perhaps there will be water pokémon at some point. We were near the coast before, in the human town, were we not?" she mused, ruffled feathers smoothed again. He wished he could calm himself that easily. He was still annoyed by it all.

"Pokémon get stronger by fighting others. Even baby pokémon know that."

"She is young, but she is not a child."

"Then she's just being stupid."

"She is not. She is inexperienced, and her mental thorns are not making it easier."

"She's not head-injured," he said, tail still swishing, "she's poisoned in the mind. That's what makes her weird."

"She is not poisoned! She has—" Harper squawked out something that was a little too birdy for him to fully understand. He didn't want to argue it, especially not with her, but he knew Unika had something in her mind that made her act so erratically. He had seen it before in another snivy that wasn't allowed to become a starter.

"It's called a mental illness." Ree's voice startled them both. She picked her way carefully into the clearing, cradling a shivering, crying Unika in the space above her gloves.

"No! It's not! Notnotnot!" the tynamo sobbed. Whippy felt something that was not fully guilt nor pity grip him.

"There's nothing wrong with her," Ree added, uncharacteristically seriously. Uni nodded furiously. "It just means she needs our help, because we're a team, and it means she needs to keep taking her medicine. I... can't make her stop crying." She held her aloft to Harper, who guided her up onto the branch she was on. The bird whispered soothing nothings to her.

Ree sniffed snottily and gestured to Whippy before she turned and left again. He climbed a tree to jump onto her shoulders and it took her a couple moments to unzip her coat and let him in. They hardly made it any farther before she collapsed in a snow drift, her entire frame shuddering with silent sobs.

Whippy started; he had assumed it was because of the cold at first. "What's wrong? Ree, why are you crying? Are you hurt? Sick?"

It took her some time to gasp out, "C-Calm down, boy." He fell silent and pressed into her, forcing his own worries down, too. He wasn't sure if it was snot or tears dripping down onto his scales, but he didn't want to move to check. She turned and blew her nose into her glove, then made a face and wiped it in the snow. "Gross..."

"Are you okay?" he repeated quietly.

"I don't know how to handle Uni. You've probably noticed."

He had. She was not exactly shy about hiding her issues, either, though he also thought she was doing an admirable job at trying. Better than he was doing.

"She gets so worked up if you mention anything about it, so I've been trying to avoid it. Not sure if that's good or not, but I'd appreciate it if you did, too. That is what you two were arguing about, right?"

"I was trying to teach her to battle."

"That got a little garbled. I think my ears are stuffed from all the crying. Point is, mister, Uni's part of the team, and she's a little young and, well, just little. But she's okay. We'll be okay with her." Ree shifted in the snow bank and drew her hood up over her hat. "I don't like this wind. Definitely need a fuckin' fire pokémon at some point. I don't know if pokémon have terms for their shit, but people call her thing bipolar disorder. All it means is that sometimes she's really excited and happy, and other times she's sad. That's it. She's okay."

"I was just trying to teach her to battle better," he said again.

"Who's the trainer here?"

"Lala was."

"That's just mean, dude. I'll toss you out on your ass into that snow if you're not careful."

"...Harper said she'd help her battle pidove," he admitted, and it felt like a fault. He was the starter; he was supposed to be next in line. And he'd tried. With Lala it had been a little different, since she was older and stronger and probably smarter, and also so forceful with her plans. Not that he hadn't been jealous, but Ree had been content with it (usually) so that helped.

"An advantage would do her good. You know what else would do her good? If you two didn't fucking kidnap her away from me. I'm trying to get you all to listen to me in battle, not raise another little hellion. She's young and naïve, so I have the chance to act like a trainer!"

"You are the best trainer."

"You are a filthy liar."

"You're good at it!" Whippy loyally insisted. Ree snorted. That was definitely snot on his scales.

"The sunlight today is almost shot, so let's start again tomorrow. Together and all that jazz. Pidove hunting, great."

With a groan, she managed to get upright and keep him in her coat. They made it back to camp, where Harper and Unika were already situated, poking at the fire as if hoping it'd rekindle itself. A fire pokémon would be an interesting teammate, but he was skeptical. He never had good run-ins with them.

"Unika, please sit with Trainer. I would like to speak to Whippy alone," Harper said, scooting the tynamo off the log she was hovering over.

"But! But I wanna sit with you!"

"Only for a little while. I will be back."

"If you sit with Ree you get to decide what food we have tonight," Whippy offered. Unika bobbed happily in the air at that. Their food supplies were limited at best, but they could still have variety within that. Little things.

He followed Harper off a little ways in the darkening forest, in spite of the betrayed look Ree gave them both for leaving her alone with medicine duty, and only then did the nerves set in. If she just wanted to chew him out for Unika again—

"I would like to apologize," Harper interrupted his train of thought. She settled in on a low branch and inclined her head to him. "I am sorry for losing my temper earlier."

"That was losing your temper?" he asked before he could stop himself.

She spared him a look. "I pride myself on certain things. Regardless, my opinion remains the same: you are too quick to lose your patience with Unika. As I said before—"

"You're right. Sorry. I'll try harder next time." He did not go out into the spooky forest to get a lecture. Again.

Harper shifted uncomfortably. That was odd. "I... also wished to ask you if you thought there was anything odd about Trainer's behavior recently."

"Uh, no? She's just worried about Lala and Unika, pretty sure," he replied, confused.

"She is distancing herself from me. I am not certain why, but I do not notice the same thing happening with you two. Please, keep watch over her for me."

And with that, it clicked into place for him. He couldn't handle Unika, but he could handle Ree. Harper was the opposite. "I think she's worried she'll hurt Unika's feelings. Again, I mean. If you could keep an eye on her, like you've been doing, I bet it'd help," he told her.

"Of course I will." She seemed to catch on, but still sounded awkward when she asked, "And will you continue to maintain your attentions on Trainer?"

"Of course! I'm the starter, after all!" he said and puffed out his chest.

"Yes, you are," Harper said, amusement in her voice. Just with that, a lot of the tension bled out of the scene. They'd been trying a little too hard covering all their bases, when it was perfectly acceptable to rely on each other to handle certain things. He really ought to figure out the teamwork thing. Maybe they could skip those awkward first steps with the next team member that way.

A human scream rent the night air. It was impossible to tell who was moving first, but Whippy took the lead. They hadn't been far from camp, and they could pick up more noises almost immediately: the crunching of snow, Unika's panicked squealing, and a steady stream of swearing from Ree—that cut off abruptly.

Unika shrieked just as Whippy skidded into the clearing where their camp was. The tynamo, still flashing with static, was being held aloft by a psychic hold. Ree was standing off a little ways, with another, shorter human behind her, one hand fisted in her hair. Something flapped around their heads. He was about to jump at them, but he noticed the glint of a blade at her throat and another pokémon, white and blue and waist-high to them, standing guard between them.

"These are your pokémon?" the other person, male but young, asked with a grin in his voice. "Got any more, pretty girl?"

"Fuck off!" Ree growled back.

"Don't be so mean, I just need a donation or two. Three, looks like. And maybe if you're especially nice I won't make this snow red, 'kay?"

He couldn't attack—not with a knife, not with two pokémon there—but he had to do something. "Don't attack her! She's going to have a baby!"

Whippy had mostly hoped to cause some sort of distraction or maybe give the pokémon second thoughts. He did not expect the white and blue pokémon to turn and punch the boy in the back of the knee with a snarl. The boy crumpled and Ree twisted and leapt at him. She had him pinned to the ground, punching, and Harper pelted at the other flying pokémon above them. Unika was dropped.

"You fucking ass, don't you dare try to steal my pokémon again!" Ree yelled. Whippy jumped to her side, but he didn't particularly want her to stop if she was okay with it. The other pokémon had bent over, crouched onto all fours, and trembled.

"Stop it—ow—please st—"

She was not letting him get in a word edgewise. His hands flailed uselessly, unable to push her off. Whippy was sure there was blood on the snow, so at least he had gotten his wish, but he was a little glad Ree didn't have her bat nearby.

"Bleeding!" the boy choked out. Ree froze. He hadn't been trying to throw her off; his hands clamped down on a cut just over her collarbone.

"Ree!" He glanced over to make sure the knife wasn't near them, and then circled around to her other side. There was a slice right through her coat and part of her neck, blood seeping into her clothing, smeared over his hands and part of her face.

He and his trainer were thrown off by a psychic blast and he crouched over her as soon as he was on his feet again. Harper landed with a heavy thump in front of them, staggered to the side, and Ree dragged her over before she fell over completely. The brunette cast a terrified glance over to where Unika floated.

"Stop it," the boy said thickly, rubbing at the blood on his own face. A woobat flapped down from the dark night and landed on his head. "Ow, holy shit. Get—put the tynamo down." Unika was released and she dropped in the air, but remained hovering over the snow.

"Whippy, can you get her?" Ree whispered.

He nodded, and carefully slithered out a vine to reach over to her. The green was dark against the white all around them, but the thief didn't care. Unika was still a little static-y but he yanked her back to them without incident.

"We have to—I think you broke my nose, wow—we have to get you bandaged up," the boy said and crawled over to his own bag, dropped when he'd fallen. He rummaged around in it and pulled out a roll of gauze and a wad of cotton. Ree stared at him, incredulous. Whippy was going to smack him in his broken nose if he got any closer.

"What the fuck. Don't come near me. Stop!" Ree scooted back but soon found her back against a tree. As the boy approached, Whippy jumped up to defend his trainer, but he was lifted easily into the air and set down by the white and blue pokémon, who hadn't moved. Harper screeched but got similar treatment.

"I think it's shallow, but you should get it covered."

"You were just attacking me!"

"I wasn't going to!"

"You were going to steal my pokémon!"

"I'm sorry."

"You're fucking insane!" she yelled as he finally pinned her arms well enough to start wrapping the bandages haphazardly around her neck. The woobat kept Whippy and Harper pinned in the snow, and it felt like little knives in his belly, but all he could think of was how terrified his trainer looked.

"Do something!" Harper shouted, near panicking as well.

He was about to reply when he realized she hadn't been speaking to him. The white and blue pokémon, still hunched over, ears pinned back against its skull, looked nearly as scared as Ree did. But it wasn't being targeted by the woobat.

"Why are you doing this," Ree shakily demanded.

"I don't want you bleeding to death."

"You just—"

Still straddling her lap, the boy paused in his medical attention to bring his face close to hers. "I hadn't realized how cute you are before. And I'm not going to hurt a girl, even accidentally."

The expression on his trainer's face would have been comedic in other circumstances.

"And there! It should hold for now, but you should probably change the bandages. Eventually. Whenever you're supposed to do that sort of stuff." He leaned back, beaming, and released her arms from where he'd kept them down with his knees. At once, she shoved him off and dove for her pokémon. She huddled over them like a protective mother—and then seemed to realize one of the pokémon under her was not her own.

"Keep your pokémon off of mine. And away." She grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and tossed it at him. He didn't try to catch it.

"I have potions for your pokémon. Your tynamo," he offered.

"You are actually insane."

"And you're surprisingly calm about forced medical attention."

"I'm used to it." Ree glanced around and Whippy knew she was looking for Sophia IV.

"Are you really...?" he asked curiously.

"Really what?"

"...Pregnant?"

"Why the fuck does it matter to a poacher—thief—whatever the hell you are?! Just get the fuck away from me and my team before I break your neck next!" she snarled.

The woobat landed on his shoulder and frowned at them. "I'm not a poacher. Maybe a thief, but only a little bit. My name is Tyron," the boy said happily.

"I am giving you to the count of five."

"I'm going, I'm going! I just want to apologize. I don't normally attack girls, and I've never—I didn't know you were pregnant. I'm sorry. And, as an apology, how about a brand new pokémon!" Tyron exclaimed.

Ree and Whippy both gaped at him.

He gestured to the white and blue pokémon, now standing again, at his side. "I was going to sell her in Black City, but I'd rather earn some good karma with the Lord for almost messing up big time. And honestly, your team seems a little unbalanced, especially for this neck of the woods. So you can have her! Free of charge!"

"Why should I take a pokémon from a thief," Ree spat, eyes on the pokémon in question. She remained impassive, not reacting to the discussion they were having about her future.

"I've only had her for a little while, and I caught her in the wild! I'm only an opportunist, nothing hardcore," Tyron said, hands up defensively. "Her pokéball hasn't been registered, but it'll show you that she was a wild catch. She's a strong pokémon, and as you noticed, not exactly my best friend."

"Trainer," Harper started, but Ree squished her against her chest to quiet her.

"What kind of pokémon is she?"

Tyron raised an eyebrow. "A mienfoo. Fighting type. How new are you to training...?"

"Ree, you can't be thinking about this," Whippy hissed at her.

"All of your potions, any blankets you might have, and that pokémon."

"You can't be serious!"

"Alright," the boy said with another bright smile. He held out his backpack. "Her pokéball is in there, bottom right pocket. You can have it all, it's mostly just travel supplies, anyway."

"Trying to freeze to death?" Ree challenged, but nudged her servine until he grabbed it with a vine. It was unexpectedly heavy.

"Worried about me?" Tyron asked, starry-eyed.

She made a disgusted sound. "Get the fuck out of my sight."

"Be careful out here! You don't know what sort of assholes roam around." With a self-depreciating chuckle, he dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a pokéball. He released a golden pokémon with a long mustache and spoons and vanished.

The woods were silent again. Ree waited two heartbeats, eyes on the new pokémon, but nothing happened. Then, she pushed Whippy and Harper off of her, made it a couple of steps, and threw up again. "Fuuuuuuuck. Did we just steal a pokémon?"

"From a thief," Whippy helpfully corrected.

"She was not stolen. The question is what to do with her," Harper said as she hopped over to where Unika floated. "Whippy, please help Trainer find supplies to heal Unika. She does not look severely injured."

"She was knocked unconscious from asphyxiation. There should be no unrelated injuries," the mienfoo said tonelessly, making Whippy jump when she spoke.

Ree swore again at the sound of her voice, too. "You! You... You were his pokémon. Shit. Whippy, harpy, interrogation mode!"

He snapped to attention, but Harper remained by Unika. Ree stumbled over, plopped down behind him, and dug through the backpack. She tossed a potion to Harper, but the tranquill fumbled with it in confusion, until she sprayed Unika herself. The tynamo snapped awake with a squeak. "Stranger! Gold bad purrloin human! Trainertrainertrainer—you're back," Uni said in surprise when she spied Harper and Whippy. "And... Who is that?"

"That is what we're trying to figure out," Harper replied.

"Uni, sweetie, we're going to play a game called taser," Ree said and the tranquill snapped her beak at her for it. "We were just saddled with an unknown agent! How else are we gonna figure shit out?"

"You shouldn't have taken her," Whippy said, tail swishing.

"Do you have a trained name?" Harper asked.

"No," the mienfoo answered, voice still oddly hollow.

"How long were you with the thief boy?"

"A fortnight."

"What's a fortnight?" Whippy asked Ree.

"I'm supposed to be the one asking the questions here!" she retorted. Harper extended a wing towards the mienfoo as an invitation.

"I wanna ask questions! The hero should always be the one to—"

"Hush, Uni. We are making sure if the pokémon is a danger or not."

"I am not a danger to you," the mienfoo said.

"How are we supposed to know that?!" Whippy demanded.

"Why do I bother?" Ree groused. She set her chin in her hand with a huff.

"She did attack her trainer when she learned Trainer was pregnant," Harper said cautiously.

"He was not my trainer."

"Were you stolen?"

"No."

"Then who is your trainer?"

The mienfoo pointed at Ree. Whippy bared his teeth at her and Unika giggled.

"What were your circumstances prior to finding us here tonight?" Harper asked evenly.

"I was captured for a specific purpose. I was to be sold to a trainer within the next few days."

"What was that purpose?"

"To..." For the first time, the mienfoo faltered. She fidgeted, her tail quivering, betraying her nervousness. "There were specific pokémon I have great advantage against. I was used against them."

"You won?" Unika asked in an awed whisper.

"Yes. That is why I was to be sold."

"I like her!" Before Harper could stop her, she zoomed over and snuggled up right against her cheek, to her shock and confusion. "She won! She had a job and she won, so she's almost a hero, too!"

"We win battles all the time!" Harper called, and there was a betrayed tone in her voice that Whippy snorted back a laugh at. She glowered at him. "Unika, get away from the fighter—"

"New teammate, new teammate!" she chanted, ignoring her.

It was made even funnier by the fact that the mienfoo did not know how to handle her. She looked uncomfortable and more than a little dismayed as she stood stock-still while Unika rubbed all against her with excited little squeaks. Her white fur stood on end from the static electricity. He burst out into actual laughter at the image.

"Trainer-trainer, new teammate!" Unika said, hope in her eyes and voice.

"Decided everything for me again?" Ree asked dryly. "Are we keeping her?"

"Yesyesyesyesyes!"

"Glad to know who's in charge."

"Is the tynamo really in charge?" the mienfoo asked in an alarmed whisper. Whippy all but cackled, rolling on his back, and Harper hid her face in her wing.

"I'm going to bed now. With Sophia. If anything else tries to murder me in my sleep, just send the newbie after it. Maybe it means I'll wake up with that much less of a moral quandary." Ree stood, dusting snow off of her pants, and opened her arms for Whippy to jump into them. He did, still snickering, but made sure to keep an eye on the other pokémon as they passed.

He fell asleep with his trainer spooned around him, warm and strangely uncaring about the mienfoo. If Ree wasn't worried, he shouldn't be, either.

He woke the next morning to Ree's swearing. He hated that the panic response took him a couple moments; he was too used to her sudden cursing fits. "Ree, are you—"

"I thought you left!" Ree accused, pointing at the mienfoo. "Shit, did you spend the entire night outside? I thought you'd run! Why the hell didn't you run?"

The fighter was sitting in front of the carcasses of two pokémon, a tranquill and a basculin. Harper narrowed her eyes at the bird's body but didn't say anything.

"You are my trainer. I would not flee from you." She gestured in the smallest possible way to the two dead pokémon. "I have brought you meat. I do not know if you prefer fish or bird or other meat."

Ree rubbed at her temples. Her cheeks and nose were already reddening from exposure to the cool morning air. "Look, the asshole you were with last night? Don't know if he could understand you or not. I sure as shit can't. I'm still working on my pokémon with that—my, uh, other pokémon... Point is, I can't understand you! Nod your head for yes and shake your head for no. Y'know, like people do."

The mienfoo nodded solemnly. In fact, it seemed like she preferred not to speak if at all possible. Ree (miraculously patiently, but he suspected she felt guilty for accidentally leaving the other outside the tent all night) explained that killing wild pokémon of what was currently in their team was against the rules if they could help it, but she appreciated the thought. And, honestly, so did he. It meant he didn't have to venture out in the snow for a little while longer.

While Ree disappeared back into the tent to get dressed, Harper and Whippy watched over the mienfoo with some suspicion. She merely sat perfectly still, eyes closed, as if meditating. Maybe she was. He didn't know much about mienfoo, or fighting pokémon.

"Wanted a fuckin' fire pokémon next..." Ree grumbled as she reemerged, still missing most of her travel gear but significantly more bundled up. The bandage around her neck seemed more innocent in the sunlight. "Okay, so! I, uh, am not actually one hundred percent sure how well this is gonna work out. But the team is already broken as hell, and I'd feel even shittier leaving you out here to fend for yourself, so we'll do a trial run until we get to the next town. Sound good?"

The mienfoo nodded.

Ree ran a hand through her short hair. "Don't know a thing about your species or fighting pokémon, so bear with me if I trip over my own feet. You'll get used to it. Uh, I'm Ree, that's Whippy, that's Harper, and that's Unika. Uni for short. Whippy's my starter, and Unika's the youngest, and I guess you're the newest, for now."

"You are serious about this, Trainer?" Harper asked quietly.

"We needed another teammate. Who am I to complain when one is dropped into our laps? Hey, think we can use Uni as a spark thing to start a fire?"

"We are not trying!"

"I know, I know." Unika hadn't even woken up yet, still snoring softly under Harper's wing. Ree poked at the remains of the fire from last night. "Ugh, need more kindling. Wouldn't even bother if we didn't have to cook..."

The mienfoo wordlessly pointed to a neat stack of twigs and bark pieces on the other side of the corpses.

"You're shitting me."

She shook her head.

"What was that kid keeping you around for? Some sort of butler?"

She shook her head again.

"Uh, well, I dunno then. This is nice and all, but you don't have to do it all the time. If you don't want to. Won't complain if you do. So, you're a girl?"

A nod.

"Of course." Ree twisted so she could dig one of her books out of her bag. Her eyes lingered on the boy's backpack. "You're going to need a name."

Names meant getting attached. Whippy felt vaguely apprehensive. The new pokémon hadn't been exactly hostile to them, and in fact was quite helpful, but she was eerily impassive and he didn't like thieves. It was also one thing to talk about getting a new teammate and actually getting one, doubly so since it was so abruptly. They still had other issues to work out.

Just as he was about to voice those concerns, Ree exclaimed, "Marcella!"

He smacked his leafy tail against his face. Harper glared at him.

But he had to admit, he felt a little better about the situation when he caught sight of the tiny, shy smile on the mienfoo. Marcella nodded.

Grinning, Ree picked up her pokéball and dug out her pokédex to register her officially. "Aaaand, there, mienfoo. Hey, you're supposedly from around here. Are you from around here?"

She shook her head, but after a beat of uncertainty.

"And says here you're... Wait." Ree squinted at the little machine, then to Marcella, and then back to the screen. Curious, Whippy slithered up over her shoulder to look. He couldn't read the text, but the picture next to it was definitely a mienfoo... except for the colors. Whippy joined Ree in looking between the picture of the cream and pink pokémon to the white and blue one in front of them. "Holy fucking hell," Ree breathed.

Marcella fidgeted and shook her head again, without there being a question.

"You can speak, too," Harper reminded pointedly.

"You're shiny?!" Whippy squealed. He'd never seen one up close before. At the lab, the professors had always talked about them, and how everyone liked them.

"I... no," Marcella said quietly, ears pinned back. She cowered under their collective stare.

"Did that little shithead give me a goddamn shiny mienfoo?!" Ree demanded with a cackle.

"No," she repeated, voice even fainter.

"We are definitely keeping you! Maya's going to shit a brick!"

Marcella looked around, distressed, and grabbed Ree's water bottle. She bit the top off while Ree excitedly started dialing on her phone. Whippy tugged on her sleeve as the white pokémon dumped out all of her water over her. She then grabbed a handful of snow, scrubbing at the thick fur on her arm, and by then, Ree's attention was back on her.

The blue melted off into the snow, revealing rosy pink underneath.

"I'm not a special coloration," Marcella said in embarrassment, shivering as the water began to freeze in her fur.

"I want to dye the snow!" Unika shouted, jarring Ree out of her shock. The tynamo attempted to dive into the blue snow, but Marcella caught her out of the air, accidentally leaving blue smears on her. Unika sparked and squeaked in delight and began rubbing herself all over the uncomfortable-looking mienfoo.

Ree groaned and flopped onto the ground in her dismay. Whippy curled sympathetically over her throat, mindful of her bandages. She didn't smell like new blood, at least. They ended up with two half-dyed pokémon, looking like the most bizarre fake camouflage, since she decided it was healthier to avoid taking baths in the cold weather. Unika was more than happy about that. Harper less so, since she was the next target for blue. Once the indignation wore off that she did not have a shiny pokémon, Ree kept herself cheerful by singing some sort of weird song about blueness, and anything that kept her happy kept Whippy happy.

-.-.-

Next Chapter: A new teammate, for better or for worse, even if the rest of the team isn't quite sure what to make of her just yet. Marcella seems straightforward enough, but her circumstances can't be ignored—especially when her past comes back into focus faster than anyone could have anticipated. Ree and her team are suddenly, violently dunked into the dark underbelly of Unovan training. Some things can't just be left behind so easily. At least they have a guide.
RMWJ: Chapter 38
First Chapter: <da:thumb id="208336167">
Previous Chapter: RMWJ: Chapter 37
Next Chapter: RMWJ: Chapter 39

THE OTHER THING HAS FINALLY HAPPENED

ALSO HERE IS MY PATREON FOR EVEN MORE UPDATING MAGIC 

NOTES:
+writing pokemon chapters continues to be difficult for me D: 
+yes, we've seen tyron before. yes, ree's seen tyron before, and he's seen her before. but it was dark then and it is now, tyron has a broken/bloody nose now, ree's not in costume, and his hat covered his hair. also, ree hardly saw him. (maybe harry would recognize him.)  
+i am so hyped for next chapter 'cause it introduces ANOTHER fun/important character! >w<  
+marcella's a goober and i like her. 
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Mix Group 3 by Digital-Skitty
Mix Group 3
STILL DOIN' THESE ON THE FACEBOOK PAGE

this time, kostya / the rabbit / hanna / tuesday

kostya, hanna > pedestal
the rabbit, tuesday > the rook trilogy
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Thursday, June 12th, 2014



Mika's shoe locker was filled with things. Mostly sealed letters and flowers, but there were a couple small things. A box of sour candy, a tiny stuffed dog, a bracelet set, matching hair ribbons. Hisako didn't go digging, but it was near her own locker, so she noticed new things every morning. She herself hadn't left anything.

It was strange to think about, in moments when she could detach herself from the situation. She knew Mika hadn't been universally liked. There were large parts of her life that she hadn't known about. Several upperclassmen had been fond of her, as had most of the teachers. Hisako couldn't have guessed about her family. And there were the grieving animals at the pet store she'd worked at.

They had known each other for less than two months. All of the supernatural stuff had happened in less than two months.

It was going to be a rough morning. Hisako spent the time before the bell in the bathroom, wiping at her eyes and trying to compose herself. Most of the girls in their grade had become accustomed to seeing her crying in there. Maybe Suzuka as well. Who knew who else.

The first bell rang. She checked her reflection, making sure her hair was still up and the blue door behind her stayed shut.

Not yet, she told herself for the hundredth time. She couldn't face Igor or the assistants yet. On some level, she felt she'd be scolded for ending up with a dead social link, and she couldn't handle Mika being reduced to just that.

Thoughts of the Velvet Room were pushed out of her mind when she entered the classroom and found a note on her desk. Suzuka had her head down, but her nap was feigned, judging on the grin she was trying to hide. Hisako sat down and looked over the folded paper curiously. It just had her name, in hiragana, on the front.

The letter's handwriting was neat, meticulously so. The contents were also entirely in English.

Hisako twisted around in her seat to look at Mathias. He was staring out the window so she couldn't see his face, but she thought his ears looked a little pink.

She stashed the note when class started. It weighed on her mind, half curiosity, half… she didn't know what. She supposed she still liked him, but it was distant, muffled by layers of sorrow and fear. She didn't know precisely what Haruka had told him, just that he hadn't approached them again about the subject. She hadn't thought about his social link since she'd gotten it.

At lunch, she tore the letter back open and began translating. Suzuka tried reading over the edge of her desk, but Hisako moved so she couldn't. It was her note. "Do you want to study in the library after school together?" was all it said. Very anticlimactic. There was a little heart in place of the dot on the question mark. She was pretty sure her face reddened.

"Gonna eat lunch, or are you going to stare at that all day?" Suzuka teased.

"Did you say something to him?"

"Nothing. Don't think Haruka did, either, since this is new. What is it, a confession?"

"No, just… We're going to study after school together," Hisako told her.

"Study, or study?" she said and waggled her eyebrows.

"Regular study! ...I hope." She didn't see why he'd use the verb as a euphemism. They hardly knew each other, anyway.

"Nothing wrong with some smooching to make yourself feel better."

"I feel fine."

"Okay then, I'll go and study with him and smooch him," Suzuka said.

"I-I thought you said it wasn't a crush!"

"Doesn't mean I wouldn't kiss him."

"I'm going to study with him. Me. Maybe I can find out what Haruka told him."

"Girl with a plan! I like it."

"I like girls with plans as well," came the last voice she wanted to hear right then. She fell into Yuri's seat as she jerked away from Mathias, who had sat down in Haruka's seat. Suzuka snickered. The traitor. "How have you two been feeling?"

He knew about Mika, and he knew they had known before it was announced to the school. Haruka, too. Hopefully he just chalked up their prior knowledge to Yuri texting them or something. It was common knowledge that he'd been with Mika when she'd 'collapsed'. It had to work as a cover story.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Suzuka asked.

"Um, yes. A younger brother and sister. Why?" he asked back.

"What's your favorite color?"

"Gold or teal."

"Did your old school have uniforms?"

"Yes."

"Haruka lied," she muttered. "Okay, moving on, what did Haruka say to you to make you stay up late researching foreign mythology in a foreign language?"

"I did my research in both English and Japanese," Mathias said, offended.

"But why?"

"She… told me it was important. That it would help you both. That it meant a lot to her. She would not speak anything else about it."

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing else. She had seemed upset, but I now think that was because of Mika-san, right?"

Suzuka patted Hisako's hand. "There, now we know. Plan taken care of. You can get to smoo—" Hisako clamped her free hand down over her mouth. She felt her smile against her.

Mathias looked amused, which was a vast improvement from the calculating look he'd been giving her a moment earlier.

Suzuka licked her hand.

"Eww!" Hisako squealed, pulling away at once. Face burning, especially at the way he covered a laugh, she ran off to the bathroom to wash her hands. She hadn't had someone lick her since preschool. She recognized that Suzuka was physical, and silly, and casual, but that was genuinely disgusting.

She made the mistake of looking up at the mirror as she flicked water off her fingers. The blue door was open. She had never wished for it to open, or even to appear, and had left her Velvet Key at home to try to head it off. But it seemed like they really wanted to talk to her about Mika.

If she didn't go in, they'd probably just drag her in that night. That thought, that she didn't have as much say as she wanted, gave her pause. They weren't supposed to influence her or her journey. That was the point of the contract—'I chooseth this fate of my own free will'. Passing judgment would break that rule. They were there to guide her, and be a social link, and answer questions, but to ultimately stand apart from her.

Unconditional neutral regard. Or positive, in the twins' cases, but it helped a bit to think of them in therapist terms. And if they didn't actually do that and tried to say something bad, then she could bring up the contract. With that in mind, she braced herself, and then entered the doorway. The bright, white lights of the bathroom were replaced by the soft, blue tones of the Velvet Room.

And the twins weren't there.

Hisako deflated a little, off-kilter, at finding just Igor sitting behind his desk, shuffling his deck of tarot cards. "Good afternoon, dear guest. I hope you've been as well as you can be, considering the circumstances."

"I. Um. I think I have? Where are…?" she asked uneasily.

"They're busy elsewhere at this moment. I'm sure they'll find you soon enough. But I am glad to have the honor of your visit myself, for this is indeed an auspicious occasion."

"Aus—?"

"I have figured out the means by which the rogue deity targets beings for possession," Igor said happily. At Hisako's surprised silence, he continued, "It may very well be just a confirmation for you, but in circumstances such as these that are already so vague, anything that we know for sure can be a gift."

"No, I mean, I only had guesses… How does she?"

"She is targeting humans who possess latent Persona gifts. Nearly every human has some potential for one, but few have strong enough potential to manifest fully. I believe she is using this ability as a sort of channel to take over her target body. The good news is that triggering the successful first-time manifestation of a Persona forces her out."

Successful first-time manifestation. They had seen Mika's Persona—Ninhursag—but it hadn't been in time, or done correctly, or something else. Hisako nodded. "Thank you." So there was hope each time Ngeshtin-ana kidnapped someone. But she didn't want that to be any more than once more. "But… Why tell me this? I thought you weren't supposed to influence me."

"I don't think it's particularly influential to give you confirmation on something you may have already theorized," he said, tone light. "Moreover, dear guest, the Velvet Room exists to aid its chosen guest. That means helping in whatever capacity we can, even if our current abilities are truncated. We must not choose or manipulate your path, but we may at least help you make an informed decision."

"Thank you, again. Please continue helping me find answers."

"Of course. Please continue on your journey with my best wishes for your future."

She gave him a bow of her head and left, since it didn't seem like the assistants would show up. It was nice to get a straight answer on something, even if it wasn't outright helpful. But it meant that they had a foolproof way to kick Ngeshtin-ana out of someone.

So why did he make that part sound like a decision?

Her foray into the Velvet Room had taken more time than she'd anticipated, since the afternoon classes had already started. She locked herself in the bathroom stall and flipped through emails and texts on her phone, not wanting to leave school grounds, but not having the courage to show up in the classroom late. So it hadn't been her smoothest decision to date. She was surprised by how little she cared about missing class.

Guilt was becoming a fast friend to her. She scrolled past email over email Haruka had sent that she hadn't responded to. Yet. It wasn't as if she meant to ignore her friend, she told herself. She checked stuff on her phone in the mornings, but didn't have time to respond, so in the afternoon when she did, they didn't have the new icon any longer. And with all of the Mika stuff going on…

And I'm not happy she spoke to Mathias-san about this. She would have gotten around to researching things herself at some point. Well-intentioned, but they were three for three on classmates with connections to the group. Well, they're being targeted because they have Personas somewhere in them. So is it a coincidence that they were all classmates? And does being a social link have bearing on that, or not?

Mathias was now the only school social link she had left. She wasn't sure how many there would be, though there were a lot of tarot cards left. But Haruka, with no social link and an ocean between them, was probably safe. Some consolation. Haruka likely didn't see it that way.

Passing time shut in a bathroom stall was boring. Even she ran out of things to think about; she was only running around in mental circles. They simply had to keep an eye out for horns on anyone, and stop Ngeshtin-ana afterward. Everything else was secondary.

When the last bell of the day rang, she ducked out of the bathroom, and ran straight into Suzuka. "I promise I don't have cooties," she said, and it took Hisako a long moment to remember what their conversation had left off on. "Didn't have to ditch class to make a point, I won't do it again."

"Oh, um, well thank you for not, but I accidentally got caught up." She eyed the students all around them. "In the, uh, blue place. That place."

"The—oh! Anything good?"

"Confirmation on something, but nothing pressing."

"Extra good! Because you have a date!" Suzuka exclaimed.

"It's studying!" Hisako insisted.

"And it's not in the hallway!"

"What are you, my escort?"

The girls were halted in their debate by Yuri all but sprinting down the hall from the opposite direction. An upperclassman vaulted down the stairs after him, skidding a bit as he turned, just as Yuri collided with another coming out of their classroom. The class representative squawked as both boys went down. Mathias and another boy, just behind the unfortunate victim, stared down in fascinated horror as they fought to disentangle themselves.

"Wait up!" the upperclassman called from down the hall. Yuri managed to free himself, nearly losing a shoe in the process, and bolted.

"Does that happen often?" Mathias asked. The class representative, red-faced, shook his head from his position on the floor. "He is very strange. I like him."

"Are you one of Yuri-kun's friends?" the upperclassman asked breathlessly as he jogged up. He had a mop of dark auburn hair and glasses he pushed back up onto his nose. He was still wearing a dirty smock.

Mathias cocked his head. "I… Je sais pas. I would like to be," he replied brightly.

"Those two are," the boy beside him said, pointing at Hisako and Suzuka.

The third-year turned on them and they skittered back reflexively. "You two… Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

"Sure. If you answer what that scene was about," Suzuka replied. "I'll turn her your way when we're done, Matt-chan!"

"When did you upgrade to that?" Hisako asked, a little jealous. Mathias waved back with another smile.

"Eh, that's what Haruka calls him," she whispered back. They accompanied the upperclassman out into the courtyard. Suzuka hardly waited for him to speak before exclaiming, "What's up with that?! I've never seen anyone who can make that boy run, aside from…"

"Ah, so you knew her too," the boy said sadly. "I'm sorry. My name is Shunya Morimoto. I'm the president of the Art Club. I'd like to think I know Yuri-kun fairly well, and I had seen Mika-san come in from time to time as well."

Suzuka introduced them both while Hisako tried not to think about Mika trailing behind Yuri in the Art room. She willed her mind away from the memory of Yuri with red paint dripping off of him.

"Is he… doing alright?" Shunya asked.

"As well as can be expected, I guess. I thought he was okay the other day when we hung out, didn't you?"

"Yes, he seemed a little… better."

"Any particular reason you ask?" Suzuka prompted.

Shunya rubbed the back of his head. "Um, well, he sort of… He hasn't been to club meetings since then, which is understandable and I'm not faulting him, but he came in today. Asked me if I knew how to make brushes."

"...Do you?"

"Not really, but I can learn new things, can't I? Thought it might be an interesting club activity next week. B-But that's not—he's always been fairly mild, maybe a little antisocial at times, but he's a really great guy!"

"Yeah, we know that," Suzuka said and put a hand on her hip. She raised an eyebrow. "What happened exactly? We're not used to seeing him so spooked."

"I'm not sure myself. It's why I'm asking you. He came in, handed me this bundle of hair, and acted like he'd stay. I thought—hoped he would. But at soon as he pulled out what he'd been working on, he started swearing and shouting. Ended up dumping paint on the canvas and ripped up another. They were his own works, but he's good, y'know? He usually ends up selling things even if he's not happy with them."

"What were the paintings of?" Hisako asked.

"The completed one was a bust of this man in a headdress and cloak, something he'd been working on in between activities. I was surprised because he doesn't usually draw or paint men unless it's a commission for someone, and even then, he moans and groans all the while," he responded, head tilted in thought. "The other, the new one, I'm not fully sure. It wasn't, uh, Mika-san, that's what I thought it'd have to be to upset him so much, but it wasn't. A woman, dark-skinned, and she had this reddish or purplish hair, and I don't think that was his palette. I'm not sure if it's some anime character or some sort of new idol, but I was just wondering if…" His shoulders slumped and he wrung his hands. "Okay, now I'm just sounding like a worrywart. It was probably just stress. I'm trying to keep things light between us and with the club, but when he acts like that..."

"No, that's probably a reason to worry," Suzuka agreed. "Not that I have any real clue what specifically that was about, but in general, I think he'll be okay? I mean. I'm not actually, uh…" She looked over at Hisako for help.

With a small sigh, she said, "I'm a little closer with him. I don't think I can answer your question, since I haven't seen any of his artworks, but I'll keep an eye on him. I'm sure he's just stressed." I hope it's just stress. But why was he painting Inanna? Enlil is his own, but Inanna isn't, she wondered.

"You've never seen any of his paintings?" Shunya asked in surprise.

"It's just… never come up." Now that she thought about it, they hardly interacted at school, aside from sitting together at lunch. She was curious, that much was true, but she had never thought to bring it up with him. She didn't want to take advantage of how poorly he reacted to being pressured.

"What are you doing next Monday?" he asked, tone abruptly shifting into seriousness. He grasped Hisako's hands and she jumped, then wondered how to pull away without seeming rude.

"I, um, n-nothing, I don't think?"

"Please, come to the Art Club meeting. Ask him to show you his paintings. He usually likes showing them to pretty girls, and you're his friend, so please. I just want him to feel welcome there again, but he won't talk to me anymore."

He released her hands and she quickly folded them behind her back to prevent future touching. Hisako nodded. "I could try. I'll ask him tomorrow or Monday, so it doesn't seem so suspicious." Sure, she didn't even go to her own club meetings, but she could stand to try to help Yuri with whatever had upset him, but she had a bad feeling that it wouldn't be as simply fixed as the third-year thought. And the poor guy wasn't prepared to deal with any issues regarding Personas, either.

"Thank you! I know this all sounds so weird, or nosy, but thank you for bearing with me. I'll see you on Monday!"

As Shunya left them, Suzuka shook her head in disbelief. "Man, I want a cool senpai like that. All the upperclassmen I know are from the team, and they don't worry about me like that."

"I'm sure they care about you."

She grinned, a little evilly. "Hisako-chan, the first time I get a sweet guy like that chase me halfway across the school because he's worried about me, you will be the first to know. After I'm done with him."

"Even before Haruka-chan?" she asked mildly.

"Sure. She'd probably throttle me for scoring a boyfriend before her, anyway. And speaking of scoring boyfriends, you still have your study date!"

"It's not that kind of studying!"

-.-.-

Saturday, June 14th, 2014



"Ma-chan."

Hisako continued scrolling. All of the foreign names were beginning to blur together.

"Ma-chan?"

She found an ancient statuette of Inanna and Ereshkigal. Strange to see them depicted like that, but she could see the similarities. It was also not what she was looking for.

"Hisako," he father said and touched her shoulder. She jumped and nearly shoved her laptop off her lap. Koichi stared at her, troubled, from behind his reading glasses. "Are you alright?"

"Y-Yes, sorry. I was just reading something. Studying."

"It's the weekend. You could take a break for dinner," he suggested. "We could pick something up before it gets dark. Whatever you'd like."

She looked away from the worry in those eyes. He was still walking on eggshells around her. She still hadn't spoken to him about her, about the money, or about anything. And the more time that elapsed, the guiltier she felt about it, so the more she put it off. "I'm not really hungry. Go ahead and eat without me," she mumbled.

He sighed, heavily and sadly. The guilt worsened. "Hisako…"

"You can go back to the nickname if you like," she told him, tucking hair behind her ear nervously, "I didn't mean to ignore—"

He cut her off with a hug. He was an affectionate, doting father, but it still caught her off guard. Emotional strain combined with physical shock soon had tears she struggled to keep silent. He let her go after a squeeze and didn't seem particularly surprised to see her crying. "I'm here for you, remember? Through anything."

Through anything. With those words, the dam broke, and Hisako couldn't hide her shame, her grief, her guilt, anything. She fell into a sobbing half-coherent explanation, and she was positive she was telling him more than she should, but she also doubted he was able to understand her. Koichi seemed content to let her cry herself out, and she small, selfishly logical part of her brain was thankful he seemed to take it all at face value.

She soon cried herself into small hiccups and exhaustion while he rubbed small circles on her back. "Hiding things within you is not always a sign of strength. It's okay to rely on others at times if you can't handle it," he said gently.

"I-I know."

"And I'm your father. I'll worry no matter what, and I know you're strong enough to face whatever comes your way, but I can be here for you, too. Let me be."

She nodded again. "It's just… Mika-chan."

"Losing a friend is always difficult, and I'm sorry she was so young."

"I was… I knew, the day it happened," she said delicately. It was his turn to nod; he probably puzzled that much out from her behavior or her incomprehensible crying. "I knew, but we agreed—we thought it would be better not to—Yuri-kun, he—"

"You don't have to tell me everything if it will upset you again." He took off his glasses and something subtle shifted in his expression. Hisako watched him, half wary, half hopeful. Hoping he'd be able to say some sort of magical father word and she'd feel better. Stupid, she knew, and she really shouldn't be delving too deep into that mess when speaking to him, but…

"I… actually didn't attend the wake," Hisako said awkwardly.

His expression remained neutral, but he arched an eyebrow.

"Yuri-kun and I sat out on the lawn. He and Mika-chan's mother didn't get along."

"It always frustrates me to hear of such things going on during funerals," Koichi said. "You… remember your grandfather's funeral, right?"

"Yes."

She thought he would tell her something about her mother—she had already left them by that point, but had come back for the funeral, to attend with them and to be there for them—but he surprised her. "Your grandmother didn't want any of us there at first."

"But she was…" Her memories of all of the services had been colored by her mother's presence, but she didn't remember anything specific happening otherwise. Her grandmother had been polite, if sad, and had been one of relatives who hadn't skirted around her or her mother.

"It was actually your mother and your aunt Ayuri who convinced her to let us all come together. Families should be together, especially in times of grief. And your grandmother eventually realized that it was about all of us, and your grandfather—not just her feelings."

One of her clearest memories of those few days spent in Otaru was her grandmother telling her how pretty her dress was, and how much she was starting to look like her mother, though she had her father's thick, wavy hair. Something her grandfather had apparently shared in his youth. She didn't recall any sort of strain at the time, but she had been young…

"Does she… still think that way?"

Her father tried to smile, and it came out as a grimace. "No one's perfect, Ma-chan. Not me, your grandmother, your mother, or even you. You just happen to come the closest."

"I had no idea she felt that way," she muttered, unswayed by his words.

"She looked at me and saw her husband and Shoji, and she looked at Ryozo and saw someone who'd escaped. Grief is never pretty, but it can help to share it with people you care about. Your grandmother saw that and let your mother and aunt help her. And, to let you know this story has a happy ending, she's come to terms with a lot of things, and she's told me that she's glad she didn't try to say or do anything at the funeral."

"Is it bad that I want Mika-chan's mother to regret her words?"

"It's human," he replied diplomatically. "I'm proud of you for staying by your friend, though. And I'm always here for you, but know also that these feelings will soften with time."

She only blinked at the flare of light, too tired to be surprised. Hisako shifted to make sure the card wouldn't get crumpled in her pocket, and asked, "Will you tell me more about our family?"

"Of course, Ma-chan," Koichi said and smiled.

"And can I finally get a part-time job?"

"...Yes, so long as you put your schoolwork first. And don't try to sneak money into my wallet anymore."

She wondered if she could use magic to cover her tracks. "Alright."

-.-.-

Monday, June 16th, 2014



"...What are you doing here," Yuri asked with a frustrated, tight scowl.

Hisako beamed up at him, already seated at an easel. She had forgotten to bring it up with him, but she had a back-up plan. "My father suggested I pick up something to do after school to keep myself busy, and since I can't play any sports, I figured a cultural club was the way to go. A-And I already knew someone in this one!" He didn't need to know of her almost-joining the Cooking Club.

Yuri looked around the room, but whether he was looking for someone else to blame or a way to escape, she couldn't be certain. Shunya was deep in conversation with a first-year on the other side of the semicircle of easels, and the handful of other club members already present were busy getting things ready or pulling out projects to work on.

He didn't reply and instead stood behind her, looking at the sketchpad she'd been doodling on while she'd waited. Hisako fought the urge to cover her work, but she managed to meet his eye. "I-I know I'm not very good. But that's why I'm here, right? To learn a couple things."

"Poirier said you had joined the Cooking Club," he replied tonelessly.

How could he—how does he know I'm in that?! she thought in a panic, and then, Did he remember when I mentioned it to him?

She must have gotten a look on her face (her crush remembered a throwaway detail!) because he groaned and pointed at the piece of charcoal she'd picked up. Shunya had just seated her near where Yuri normally sat and dumped a small collection of supplies she could not fully identify in front of her. "You're holding that wrong. You're not a very good spy, are you?"

"I've never had to have a cover story before," she muttered rebelliously.

He showed her how to fix her grip, despite the fact that it blackened even more of her hand, and told her, "You probably shouldn't be sketching with charcoal, anyway. Start with a pencil next time. We have more of those. I'm sure you have enough practice doodling hearts in the margins of your notes from class."

"That's a little mean."

"Then don't intrude on my territory."

"Territory? I came here, wanting to see some of your works, and I'm intruding?"

He flinched back as though struck. "Sorry. Knee-jerk reaction from when Mika would crash meetings. Um, so, really, why are you…?"

"I…" The truth and her cover story warred within her. They sounded like Octavia and Atticus again. "I wanted to check in on you. This seemed like a neutral way of doing it."

"Check on me," he repeated like it left a sour taste in his mouth.

"Yes, well, we are friends. And I've been curious about your hobbies for awhile!" She poked his arm with her cleaner hand. He kindly did not roll his eyes. She risked a glance over at Shunya, who had gotten a little closer but still did a good job at talking to someone else.

"Check on me for yourself? Not anyone else?" Yuri pressed.

"Check on you!"

"We both know I know that Shunya-senpai sent you. I'm just trying to figure out why."

"Because you were painting Personas and got mad at them and an upperclassman chased you across half the building to try to see what was wrong," Hisako said flatly.

"It's not his responsibility—or yours—" he peeked over the easel frame, narrowed his eyes at the club president, then turned the same suspicious look back down on Hisako, "—nevermind. We were friends first, so I'm claiming first rights your loyalty. Please leave."

"That's not how that works!" Hisako exclaimed.

"He's just nosy. Sort of like Sakuraba, except he drags others into it. Don't mind him."

"You were painting, or drawing, or whatever-ing Personas," she said in a low voice. She pointed to a stick figure drawing of Inanna she'd made. "I have a vested interest in making sure you're okay."

"It's nothing Persona-related. All stress, I can assure you."

"That doesn't make me feel better. Is this a part of the grieving process? Is Enlil giving you trouble? And I'd still like to see your paintings, if I may."

"You sound like a shrink," Yuri accused, just as Shunya bobbed up over the edge of the paper.

"Hisako-san, so glad to—"

"Senpai, don't bring my classmates into this."

"You know me, I always want to show off your works!" Shunya replied without missing a beat. "Or I suppose the remaining ones. There's only two left here now, right?"

"I'm entitled to doing what I want with my own—"

"Hisako-san, have you ever painted before? Any sort?" he happily interrupted.

"Um, only in class at my previous schools. It was watercolor."

"Want to see what acrylics look like on a canvas?"

"Don't I get a say in this anymore?" Yuri groused, folding his arms.

"It's my solemn duty as a third-year to make sure my cute underclassmen get all the attention they deserve," he replied and patted him on the shoulder. Yuri glared at him until he retracted his hand. "Right! So, Hisako-san, if you'd follow me to our storage room…"

Yuri didn't follow them; he sat down and petulantly poked at his own canvas as Shunya led Hisako away. She knew he was prone to being a little grumpy, but Shunya seemed to clash against so much of what she knew of him. She didn't know what to think of the situation, or whose side to take, if she was being honest with herself. She was worried about Yuri, for a number of reasons, and Shunya seemed to be caring enough. But he seemed a little pushy and she didn't want to get in the middle of that.

She followed him to a disorganized room full of materials, unused easels, and cupboards. They had to squeeze past a pair of filing cabinets to get to a pile of what turned out to be an array of finished artworks. Shunya carefully lifted a stack of papers off the top, then what seemed to be a painted sheet of glass, and finally reached the canvases beneath.

"So, he normally stores works he doesn't want or hasn't sold yet here—everyone does, if they want to. A lot of them are stored just until the next show."

Hisako gasped as he began lifting the topmost off of the stack. The first was a stunning cityscape against the night sky, with the moon and clouds stealing the attention in the piece. The second and third were both still lives, but one was done entirely in vivid reds and the other in pastels. The fourth seemed to be a remake of something familiar, though she couldn't quite place it, a woman in a lovely gold and white kimono with blossoms as a frame. "These are all so good!" she told him enthusiastically.

Shunya paused, regarding the small canvas he was holding (a high-contrast portrait of a girl she thought she'd seen in the club room earlier) with a thoughtful air. "Yes, they are. Sometimes, it's nice to hear that from someone new, though."

"Sometimes I wish I could draw, especially if it meant I could create such pretty things."

"You could always actually join the Art Club," he said with a grin.

"Thank you, but I'm not sure I could handle Yuri-kun glaring at me the entire time."

"How did your talk with him go?"

"He figured it out pretty much right away. Another friend of ours told him I was in the Cooking Club… Sorry."

"It was a long shot anyway. Thank you for trying, at any rate." He pulled another smaller canvas out of the pile, pausing at it. It was a watercolor, or something similar, that depicted a willow tree overlooking a brightly colored pond.

Shunya looked at it for so long Hisako had to say, "It's very pretty. Is that one of Yuri-kun's?"

"This one was done by Mika-san." He set it down, apart from the others, and gave it one last look before brightening into a smile for her. "I honestly have no idea what to do with it. I'm not sure if I should ask Yuri-kun about it, or if I should try to contact her parents. I'd feel disingenuous entering it into any shows, even under her name, and I must admit, I worry about Yuri-kun finding it without warning. Such are the worries of a club president!"

"I think she would've liked to compete against Yuri-kun in an art show," Hisako said with half a grin.

"I like to think that, too," he admitted. "But the next show our school usually participates in isn't for another two months, so maybe something will happen in that time frame. Sorry—back to digging! That's what you're here for, after all!"

"That, and my failed attempt at being a covert operative."

"If it makes you feel any better, this is actually my Plan B," Shunya said with a laugh in his voice. Hisako peered over his shoulder as he continued sorting through the art.

"What do you mean?"

"He's, ah, a little easy to mess with at times. And if we take long enough in here, he's sure to come in and blurt out something."

A tiny alarm bell sounded in her head. Yes, that was exactly what Yuri would do, but she dreaded his outburst tendency when he was even the tiniest bit worried about supernatural things. For now, they had their secret contained. But she worried about her father, and Suzuka was zero for two on keeping secrets, and Yuri was a walking time bomb…

"Here we go! This is the more recent of the two—he was trying for an art nouveau look, but as I understand it, this was still just an exercise for him, not a commission or anyone specific."

Shunya turned around and proudly offered a larger canvas with a woman in profile on it. She was haloed in blue and gold, and wore long, dripping robes that pooled at her small, blackened feet. She was sure there were layers of meaning she was missing, but she was far from an art critic; she just knew it was beautiful, and she understood why people would want him to paint them.

Yuri barged into the room and said in one, breathless rush, "I've been having nightmares about Enlil and Dumuzi and what we're going to find in Mika's section of Irkalla."

"See? I knew it wouldn't be that hard," Shunya said pleasantly and set the painting back down on the stack. Hisako eyed him nervously out of the corner of her eye, already sweating as she struggled not to show outward panic signs. Yuri's face had drained of color. So much for containment.

-.-.-

Knowledge: ★★★☆☆ (+4)
-Studious

Confidence: ★★☆☆☆ (+0)
-Secure

Charm: ★☆☆☆☆ (+2)
-Awkward

Empathy: ★★★☆☆ (+2)
-Commiserative

Hisako Fujihara's Single Father social link has ranked up! The Star arcana has reached rank 2.
PTF: Chapter 15
First Chapter: PTF: Chapter 1 
Previous Chapter: PTF: Chapter 14
Next Chapter: PTF: Chapter 16

i hated writing this chapter but at least it's over! back to irkalla fun times next chapter
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  • Mood: Eager
that thing is a patreon!

For those of you who haven't heard of patreon, it's basically like a kickstarter, except over time and not necessarily for specific, one-time things. In my case, it's for writing! You can pledge any amount you choose, and by default it's a monthly recurring thing, but you can cancel after the month to make it a one-time thing! There are individual and overall reward tiers, you can cancel at any time, it's a super neat thing, etc. (one of the overall rewards is me finally doing a webcomic for that hell or high water script i wrote ages ago)

I'm going to keep writing anyway, but this speeds up the process and takes the edge off of the looming student loans. And I hope to be drawing again soon! I'm pretty sure I have a working tablet again. Fingers crossed!

There's more information, including the specific reward tiers (which have been named and numbered in a way that took way too long considering how much people will care) on the link!

Anyway, if you could pledge (become a patron?), or even just signal boost, I would love you 5ever. <3 <3 <3 (seriously, the smallest reward tier is a dollar.)

(also for other author/artist friends, this is a neat thing and i recommend it)

edit: the first four goal tiers have been covered for this month! this means WEEKLY STREAMS, MONTHLY UPDATES FOR BOTH STORIES, and MORE ROOK LIVEBLOGS!

Journal History

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:iconnegasi:
Negasi Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2015
Hey hope all is going well over your way, I'm just doing the stay at home dad thing! I know we don't really keep in touch much anymore, but that doesn't mean I don't think about you sometimes, you were responsible for a lot of smiles long ago and I'm still not so secretly sad the Rei-Shine ended, as I've to this day never come across a fanfiction I was more involved with in the sense that I cared about the characters. Anyways figured I'd drop you a message here as I don't have any of my old messengers, and this is one place I figured you might be around! Anyways if you feel like it, I'm a stay at home dad now (Emmaline is her name :D) so if you do respond I'm more likely to see it these days. :3 I really hope you at least get to read this :)
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:iconawesomeshippuu:
AwesomeShippuu Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2014  Student Digital Artist
Thank you so much for the fav!!! It means a lot to me! :3

I hope you'll have a nice day <3

BTW, Keep up the good work in your gallery :D
Reply
:icon13thprotector:
13thprotector Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the watch friend :)
Reply
:icondigital-skitty:
Digital-Skitty Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Professional Writer
no problem! i'm interested in that original persona thing you got going on, so hope to see more good stuff from you. :>
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:icon13thprotector:
13thprotector Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I'm gonna have a pic for each character and all major Arcana will be used. I'll give hints to the story as I make posters like the Full Moon and the Eclipse ones. I'll make posters of characters with their persona and their cursed shell arcana.

Also it will be a trilogy series with several spinoff chapters that tell alternate stories and behind the scenes stories. Be sure to look closely.
Reply
:icondigital-skitty:
Digital-Skitty Featured By Owner Sep 16, 2014  Professional Writer
that sounds pretty ambitious, so good luck to you, good sir. how long has this been in the planning stages? is anyone helping you with anything or is this a purely solo endeavor? why will it be a trilogy as opposed to one (longer) story? how long do you predict the first part would be? is this your first foray into persona OC things or no?
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(1 Reply)
:iconnoahverus:
noahverus Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2014  Hobbyist
Thanks for the fave! :)
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:icondeviousluxray-granon:
Been a veery long time Kitten.
Reply
:icondigital-skitty:
Digital-Skitty Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2014  Professional Writer
i have a bad sense of time >o> sorry! (when three months accidentally pass between chapters that take place largely in the same day/week it messes with your perception of everything) 
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:icondeviousluxray-granon:
Hahaha I meant since I'd seen your profile, more like a year and some change hun.
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