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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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oh my god why are these on my profile page

has anyone figured out wtf dA is now
Thursday, June 5th, 2014



Hisako stared at the whiteboard just to have something to do. She woke up and went to school, both feats of which she would have thought impossible the night before. Suzuka had come to class, too, already seated, with her head buried in her arms. She could have been asleep.

It would be another day of class. Many seats were still empty, that early in the morning, but at least one would remain that way. She hoped Yuri would stay at home, too.

"No one knows yet," Suzuka mumbled into her arms.

"They'll know soon." There would probably be a school announcement, and then they could at least stop trying to maintain straight faces in class. More students filed in, classmates or friends visiting friends. Hisako wasn't sure what she'd do if someone tried to sit in Mika's seat.

She already felt numb. The actual grief was gone, temporarily, and it was all she could do to appear aware of her surroundings. Lectures and notes would be beyond her, but at least her attendance would count for something. Maybe once everyone knew—no, she should keep doing things. Hisako knew she was the type of person to just shut down if given the chance; she had to keep active, keep pretending at normal habits if nothing else.

It would be better once everyone knew, in a terrible way. She had to believe that.

Mathias arrived, early as usual. She tracked his movements out of some sort of reflex. When he caught sight of the two girls, however, his expression changed in a strange way. He quickly looked away after catching her eye.

He sat down next to them, but in Haruka's, not Mika's. He didn't say anything at first, leaning forward, squinting a little bit. Analyzing.

Suzuka raised her head up high enough to make sure her glare was visible. Hisako glanced between them, nervousness bubbling beneath the weight of everything else.

Mathias opened his mouth, and closed it again with another thoughtful frown. Then he tried again, and asked, "Are you two alright?"

"Tired," Suzuka replied tersely.

"Yes, just tired," Hisako added.

"Is everything else alright?" he asked, and he sounded more confused than anything else.

Suzuka fully sat up in her seat, eyes narrowed and mouth pressed into a tight line. She gave Hisako a look out of the corner of her eye, and it clicked: Haruka had said something to him. It made sense that Suzuka had immediately told Haruka. It was right that she told her. In fact, she was fairly certain she had seen an email in her inbox from her that morning.

Hisako didn't want to lie to him. He'd find out soon enough, probably that day. But she couldn't say the words. Instead, she forced out, "It will be. I-Is there anything we can help you with? We're just a little tired this morning, not really up for much conversation."

He didn't seem satisfied by the answer, but he let the matter drop and rooted around in his bag. He offered her an intimidatingly thick stack of papers.

"Um." It took a moment to let her eyes properly focus. It was not going to be a great day.

"There is more research in English, but my translating skills are subpar and not fast, so that is just my first findings in Japanese. Mostly. I-I couldn't get through all of it," his cheeks reddened in embarrassment, "but that should be what you need."

"What I… need?" Hisako said, overwhelmed by the very strange gift. She scanned through the first several pages, finding more than one page in English, and pictures mixed in with the text, but she still didn't understand. Suzuka leaned over her desk, just as lost.

"Haruka told me to." There was a question in his voice. Suzuka regarded him again, still cool, but Hisako realized what the papers were when she came across a word she recognized.

Inanna.

"Mathias-san, what exactly did she ask you to do?"

"Shit, Haruka," Suzuka hissed when she understood the pile of research and what Haruka had done.

"She asked me to figure out a—uh, reference to something and then tell you. Something from a legend. She said it would help you with something, but she would not give me details. Could you explain?"

"We can't," Suzuka whispered immediately.

"I know we can't." Haruka was trying to get Mathias to take over in her stead, and probably—hopefully—remind them that they weren't alone after what happened to Mika. But Hisako would be damned before she put Mathias in danger. It said a lot that Haruka was willing to trust him, especially without warning Suzuka of it.

But no one else. If it had even the slightest chance of making anyone a target for Ngeshtin-ana, they couldn't let him in.

"She was just trying to get me to finish an assignment," Suzuka lied, running a hand through her messier than usual hair. Mathias' expression shuttered but she continued anyway. "You know me, or I suppose you don't, ha. Not the best student, and since she's not here to keep me going, I guess she thought she'd use you. Please, put it out of your mind."

"Ah. Alright." He didn't even sound sad. But Hisako knew that he knew he'd just been lied to. "Excuse me. I hope that helps you a little anyway."

He left Haruka's seat and their company. Suzuka groaned and laid her head down on the thick stack of papers. "Now I feel worse in an entirely different way. I didn't know crappy feelings could stack like this."

"You'll have to take these papers for now."

"We can look over them later, I guess." She chewed on her lip and her eyes looked a little watery. "Hey… Have you ever lost anyone before?"

Hisako felt a jolt of alarm—they should not be having that conversation in the middle of their classroom. But Suzuka looked so despondent, she had to answer. "Yes. My grandfather and uncle. But this…"

"This is different, yeah. I-I know." She sniffled, loud enough to draw attention by the nearer knot of classmates. She covered the noise with action, sitting up and swiping all of the papers into a pile in her backpack, and then schooled her face into something a little more presentable. The first bell rang. "Let's talk after class, okay? ...Please?"

"Yeah, of course."

At least the surprise of Mathias' research had done a little to get her back into the real world. Ms. Yamashita, a little later than usual, beat the last handful of students in as the second bell rang. Hisako's heart sank once again when she noticed the woman's somber expression.

"...Students, I have something to tell you. There will be a school announcement as well, but I would like to tell you this first myself."

Hisako had started crying again before Ms. Yamashita had finished. There were gasps and distressed murmurs, and while she knew it was in her head, she could have sworn she could feel the eyes of their classmates on her. As if they knew, just by the admission of Mika's death, that she had a hand in it. That it was her fault.

The PA dinged with the predicted announcement soon after. For a moment, no one in their class moved to go to the auditorium, but Ms. Yamashita broke the spell by standing up first. Their classmates filed out around them, yet Hisako could not bring herself to move. Suzuka also stayed in her seat. Her shoulders shook. Their teacher waited until everyone else had left, and then said quietly, "...I know you were close with Kuroki. You may stay in here if you'd prefer."

"Thank you," Suzuka choked out. Ms. Yamashita nodded and left as well. The door was loud as it clacked shut.

They didn't speak to each other. But it was reassuring to be near someone else.

"I guess… We can look at that stuff now," Suzuka mumbled.

"Y-Yeah."

She paused before pulling out the topmost papers. When she twisted around in her seat again to face her, her eyes and face were dry. "...Alright then, so it looks like this is a bunch of stuff pulled from some historical encyclopedias… You were right, I guess, this stuff looks like it's real. It exists."

"Ancient Sumer…" She didn't actually know where Sumer was. Not anywhere near Japan, at any rate. She flipped over to the next sheet and scanned over it without any enthusiasm. It seemed like it was the middle part of some sort of story, but she immediately recognized names. Inanna and Ereshkigal. In it, Inanna was disrobing as she went through Irkalla by herself, trying to get to her sister, who then killed her as soon as she reached her at the bottommost level.

It didn't make any sense. Not that most of it did, but Ereshkigal did not seem to hate Inanna and hadn't ever attacked her in Irkalla. Inanna didn't seem to carry a grudge, either, from what she felt. Sure, Ereshkigal kept referencing a suspiciously tragic past with one another, and Nergal and Dumuzi had mentioned it as well, but if Inanna had died by her sister's hand, then why was she still alive? Why was Ereshkigal the one condemned to stay in Irkalla? It was all too confusing.

"...Maybe trying to read these right now isn't the best of ideas. I can't really focus on this," Suzuka said with a heavy sigh. "Too many foreign names for me to keep straight right now. And I only recognize half of them. I'll ask Haruka tonight if she's looked over these."

"I wish she hadn't told Mathias-san to pass these onto us," Hisako murmured and passed the papers back to her.

"Yeah, me too." She laid down across Hisako's desk, stretching far enough to nudge her shoulder against her arm. Hisako made to move away to give her more space, but Suzuka chased the movement, so she stayed, and then, after a moment, set her head down in her arms next to her. "Have you talked to Kikuchi at all today?"

"No, I haven't. Have you?"

"No. I haven't texted him and… I'm sort of scared to. I don't know him as well as you."

She wanted to argue that. She felt like she hardly knew Yuri or Mika after the day before. She felt like she barely knew anything. Nothing about Inanna, or Dumuzi, or either of their sisters. Nothing about Yuri or Mika. Nothing to save or sway anyone. "...I'm scared, too," she whispered.

Suzuka wiggled one hand out to reach over and place over Hisako's elbow. She didn't say anything. Hisako wasn't sure what she even could say. But the gesture was appreciated, and she put her own hand over hers in thanks. They remained like that, in silence, until their classmates returned.

-.-.-

The girls aimlessly walked through the residential neighborhood just past Suzuka's home. Her presence was still a comfort, even if she didn't know what to say to her. But the shorter girl seemed to have no problem bringing anything up. "So, my parents are dead. I was pretty young when it happened, so I don't really remember it or them. I guess I've lost people before, but…"

"But it's different," Hisako finished. Suzuka nodded. "It's… really different."

"I feel guilty," Suzuka said frankly. She shrugged at the way the blonde turned to her. "About a lot of things. And about… the obvious. But things I didn't expect, too—I didn't know her favorite color. Did you?"

"I… didn't." Maybe it was green or blue. But she wasn't sure, and that disconcerted her.

"I didn't know much about her. So I just…" It was only then that Suzuka withdrew from the subject. She shifted her bag back and forth in her hands. "We were really close in some ways. She knew about all this magicky stuff, and we had those slumber parties. And we were in the same class last year, too. But I didn't really know her. I think that's part of why we failed."

"I think that, too." Suzuka was so much more articulate about it than she felt, and that felt off to her, but she was also content to simply lend an ear to her friend. Hisako, for all her love of talking, needed the time to adjust first. And now that she was hyperaware of what her friends were going through, she felt even more lost. How is Yuri-kun…?

"But I knew she really liked dogs. I wanted her to meet Dango. And I know she cared about helping people, and she wanted to feel useful, and I understand those things." Suzuka wiped at her eyes and shot Hisako a weak smile. She did her best to return it. "I guess this is sort of all coming back to feeling like I have to earn the right to grieve. I have to be good enough to. Th-That's pretty dumb, huh?"

"No, it's not. It's not dumb at all." They veered off the sidewalk into a small little park, with a couple of small children playing on the other side. Suzuka sat down on the nearest bench and with a groan, sat down and buried her face in her hands. Hisako sat beside her and wondered if she should try to put her arms around her or not. "We were her friends. We were there, and we—w-we failed. And even if those things weren't true, you're allowed to feel whatever you want."

"The wake's tomorrow," she mumbled through her fingers. "Are you going?"

"...Yes. Are you?"

"I would if you were. I've never met her family."

"I haven't either." She thought about the brief mentions Yuri had made during their rescue attempt. Attempt. We failed. It was far from a new thought, but every so often, it'd hit her all over again. They were just a group of kids, they had little idea of what they were supposed to be doing, and they had paid for their lack of knowledge and experience.

Hisako began crying and Suzuka hardly hesitated in putting her arms around her in a tight hug. She didn't mind the contact then. It didn't seem like it was hard for her to comfort and grieve at the same time, even if Hisako herself had trouble doing both simultaneously. "Shh, it'll be okay. We'll be okay. We'll keep going on, for her."

"Wh-Why are you—" She couldn't think of an ending to that sentence that didn't make her feel worse. Why was she better at handling that, why was she more composed, why was she better at being a girl? "I couldn't do anything," she hissed, angry at herself.

"That's not true! You got Ereshkigal there, and even if she freaks Tiamat out, she could've healed Mika. She kept the other two off of us, too, but you're the one who came up with that."

"She didn't, though."

"If I could've—"

"We can't go back and forth on this," Hisako broke in. After a beat, Suzuka nodded and dropped her arms from her shoulders. "If there's one thing I know, it's how this sort of guilt doesn't just go away because of nice words."

"...Sucks to hear that we just need time."

"Yeah, it does."

"Well, just so you're aware, I don't blame you for anything. Just like how I'm sure you'll insist you don't blame me for not doing my job—"

"It wasn't your job to—"

"See?" Suzuka said, nudging her lightly. She smiled gently. "Let's just… We can apologize to her at her funeral, and in the future, we'll just have to do better until we stop them and end this. That's what adults are supposed to say about something like this, right?"

"...Probably."

"It sucks to try to be the responsible one." She sighed, leaned back on the bench, and frowned up at the sky. "...It would've been cool to have her on our team. Would've drove Haruka up a wall, and I can only imagine how she's dealing with this. She didn't want to talk about it with me last night."

"How much do you think she told Mathias-san?"

"I don't know, but I'll make sure she doesn't say anything else to him. Until then, I guess we have homework, huh?"

"I can look them over if you'd like."

"Would you?" Suzuka asked with a hopeful look.

"Yes, I can." It would give her something to do, at the very least. And they had to be more prepared. If there was something in the mythology about Ngeshtin-ana or Irkalla… She didn't even know what to look for. But Haruka had nearly broken their promise of silence to deliver the information, so she had to think there'd be something valuable. Progress in exchange for not thinking for awhile; it would be perfect.

"Sweet sunshine, thank you. I was worried I'd start ripping up the papers or something if I came across anything about that sister."

"That's what you're grateful for?" Hisako asked before she could stop herself.

Suzuka didn't seem fazed by it. "Yeah! Dude, we're both sort of shit at this comforting thing right now, and I'm okay with that. I'm betting it all on feeling better after the funeral and after we can beat someone's face in during our next trip to Irkalla. So the less I think about it in the meantime, the better I'll do."

"So you'd rather have a friend than a therapist, huh?" she asked wryly. Suzuka beamed at her in response. Hisako reached out, and Suzuka met her halfway in the hug. She wasn't sure if she had noticed her hesitation. "I don't think I can play therapist right now, so I'll focus on being a friend."

"Good. We're in this together, after all."

With a flash, her Sun card reappeared in her mind, and then in her pocket. They had each other, and for the time being, Hisako was okay with that.

They parted soon after, backtracking to their neighborhood, and she was immensely surprised to find her father home. She quickly shoved the tarot card back into her pocket as he looked up from the couch. "P-Papa, you're home early." She had worried him the night before, staying in her room, but she thought she'd done an admirable job acting functional that morning.

Koichi didn't answer her immediately. He stood up and crossed the distance between them with a frightening sort of haste, and it clicked in her mind when he leaned down to eye level to search her face. "Hisako, are you alright?" The dropped nickname weighed on her heart.

She had to avoid his gaze. "I was just out with Suzuka-chan. We went for a walk."

She caught the way his expression broke out of the corner of her eye. "That's not what I meant. I got a call from the school today." There was a waver in his voice.

She felt guilty for not telling him the night before, but how could she have sat down and had that conversation with him? Especially with the timeline of it; she and Suzuka weren't supposed to know. Fear poked into the guilt that had settled in the pit of her stomach.

"Are you alright?" he repeated.

Almost all of the good feelings from her talk with Suzuka evaporated. She loved her father, and she cherished the close bond they shared, but she didn't know how to talk about Mika with him. She could only nod. He hugged her, he told her he was there for her, and he kept asking if she was okay, but it felt like there was a wall between them. She said as little as possible, and she could tell that hurt him, but what else could she do?

After a somber, awkward dinner, she pinned the Sun card back up to her board. Right in between the Star and the grey Tower.

-.-.-

Friday, June 6th, 2014



Yuri walked into the wake looking severely uncomfortable and unkempt in his suit. It was the first time either Hisako or Suzuka had seen him since they'd left him with Mika. None of the ceremonies had started yet, and it looked like it'd be a smaller affair, but there was a handful of upperclassmen and several of their classmates already there. There was an older couple whom Suzuka had nodded to, a couple families with small children, several adults who must have been family, and two teachers, Ms. Yamashita and Mr. Akiyama. The girls had already greeted Mika's parents, introduced themselves, offered their koden, and paid their first respects to Mika.

But it hadn't felt official until Yuri arrived.

Suzuka's hand tightened on hers as he walked past them without looking at them. Near the altar, Mika's mother's expression tightened into a scowl. It looked so much like her daughter that Hisako's stomach flipped over.

"You're not welcome here," the woman told Yuri.

Hisako was fairly certain Suzuka was about to break her hand.

Yuri stubbornly held out his condolence money straight to her without saying a word.

"You're not welcome here," she repeated, louder. Several seated guests shifted uncomfortably. Hisako spotted the teachers exchange a look and a couple of their nearer classmates started whispering to each other.

Yuri made things infinitely worse when he growled back, "I deserve to be here more than you."

She wasn't sure she gasped when she heard that or when the woman slapped him. "Get out of here!" she shouted with her hand raised again. "You killed our daughter! You hurt her and you hated her and now you've come to what, gloat?!"

"Dear, please—" Mika's father started, forcing his wife's arm back down, but she shook him off. Hisako was already on her feet, and she saw Ms. Yamashita halfway standing, too.

Yuri threw the envelope at them. "I don't care what you say to me. I never did. But how can you stand there and spout such crap about her? I wish she had better people to mourn her!" With that, he turned and ran back down the aisle.

"Yuri-kun!" Hisako stumbled out of her seat and rushed after him. Thankfully, he hadn't made it very far outside, just halfway across the lawn before he'd collapsed to his knees. He turned to her as she ran up and without warning her, wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her stomach, sobbing.

Shock didn't begin to cover it. She tentatively put her hands on his head and carded her fingers through his dark hair and had to hope that helped. She couldn't believe he'd said those things to Mika's parents, and she could believe even less the things they'd said to him. And now she had the feeling he wouldn't be allowed back in.

"That's not fair…" She sunk down against him, tears burning at her eyes, and tried to process the fact that he had just been kicked out of Mika's wake. "O-Oh my god, Yuri-kun, how could she say such a cruel thing…!"

"She's a bitch," he rasped against her neck. As she started crying, he seemed to calm down, though he still had her in a tight hold. "She always hated me. She hated Mika. She's a horrible, cruel woman, and I can't stand to think of her in there!"

At a loss for words, she pulled back, wiped her eyes, and sniffed. "...Your suit looks horrible."

"I think I ripped a seam on your dress," he mumbled, eyes still wet and downcast.

"You what?!"

"Just me breaking everything I touch again."

Hisako frowned at that. She tugged him to his feet, although he cooperated as well as a sack of rice, and they went back to sit down by the side of the building. The day was nice enough that several of the windows were open. She couldn't believe they were about to spend the wake outside, but like hell she was going to leave him.

"...Haruka-chan had Mathias-san doing research for us."

"Really."

"I haven't read all of it, but it looks like now we have some background information on what's been going on." She kept her tone light, but reached over and gave his hand a squeeze.

He sighed, sunk down, and put his head against her shoulder. "You want to know what that was about, huh?"

"I do. Are you okay to talk about it?"

"I think I'll explode if I don't. Maybe you'll be able to tell me a reason why I'm stuck out here and they're in there." Yuri sighed and pressed his face against her arm. "So Mika and I have known each other since grade school. Somehow we became friends, don't ask me how or why she put up with me."

"She was your friend, that's why. She cared about you."

"Look where that got her."

"Do not talk about yourself like that."

"I thought you liked talking," he said bitterly. She managed to bite back her own anger but withdrew her hand to cross her arms. "Sorry, I'm sorry. This is just hard."

"You don't have to—"

"I meant this." He kicked his shoes at the grass they were sitting on. Overhead, a prayer filtered out of the window. Hisako unfolded her arms and he offered his hand again. She squeezed her eyes shut and took it, and mercifully, he began talking again to cover the sound. "Friends since forever. Friends learn things about each other, like how very unhappy someone is at home. ...We both were, but she had it worse. Her parents… Her mom, she was always saying such mean things to her. Putting too much pressure on her. Restricting what she could and couldn't do. She never hit her, not that I knew, but… God, I was such a dumb kid."

"I'm sure she valued your friendship very much."

"Yeah, she did. Which is why I'm a huge asshole. ...You know how much she loved dogs, right? Naturally, her parents wouldn't let her get one, but she was bound and determined. Having a dog meant she could make her own rules. The dumb, frickin' dog represented a lot more than it should have."

His words to Mika in Irkalla about getting her a dog made more sense, and it only made it hurt more.

"In middle school, somehow, we got the idea to run away together. She was babysitting and tutoring, and I got an allowance, so we thought we could save up. At sixteen, we were going to grab our shit and run for it. And she'd get a dog. Except I started getting attention." Yuri sighed raggedly and drew his knees up to his chest. His free hand gripped the dark fabric of his pants with white knuckles. "I started winning awards for those dumb paintings, and my parents started screaming it to the heavens. I became a prodigy. It's just something I do, in class or in my free time, so I didn't care—until someone bought one. I realized I could make money off of it.

"I thought if I could get a big enough reputation, I could sell paintings and do commissions wherever we ended up. We could run away and I wouldn't have to pick up a stupid job to pay rent. I could have my cake and eat it, too. You can probably figure out where this is headed by now."

"...You didn't go with her," Hisako said softly.

"It was never enough, you know? And I was scared. I was downright terrified that this newfound fame would go away. I finally had something here, and I clung to it, and meanwhile, it was getting worse for her. I kept putting off our plans, until finally, we had a huge fight over it. ...For whatever reason, she didn't go without me. She eventually told me that she still had her plan, she was just waiting until eighteen. So she still had to wait to get her dog. Because of me. So I was a selfish coward, and now, she's never going to get away from her parents and she'll never drag me out to go apartment decoration shopping and she'll never get that damned dog!"

"I'm so sorry," she said, and the words fell flat. "You were young, you both were. I'm sure she understood…"

"We were both kids and it was a stupid plan. But it was what kept her going," he replied tonelessly. He peeked up at Hisako through his shaggy bangs. "...Thank you, for being her friend. I-I think it helped."

"You don't have to thank me for that."

"Then, thank you for sitting out here and getting grass all over your butt and dress and missing this with me?"

"I was never much for tradition anyway," she said lamely, but he cracked a smile anyway. In the bright sunlight, she wasn't completely blinded by the flash of light. He didn't notice her wince. It felt a little like cheating, gaining something like that at the expense of Mika, but he had opened up to her on his own terms, so she had to focus on that. "Um, thank you for sharing that with me. I didn't want to press, but after that—"

"You owe me one. Have any tragic backstory you want to share?" The joke sent her heart into her throat and she nearly regretted the social link rank up. He didn't seem to notice the way her hands were suddenly sweaty, and said, "You can just help me catch up on the homework I've missed. I think I'm tired of story time for awhile."

"R-Right, okay."

"And… Just sit here with me for awhile. You could probably go back in if you'd like, b-but I'm not welcome, and I don't really want to leave yet."

"...Of course. But if I find that you've actually torn my dress you owe me."

"...I'll lend you my jacket to cover it."

"You actually did?!"

They didn't talk about Mika again until people began filing out of the building. Suzuka found them almost immediately, looking stricken, but she didn't mention the ceremony they'd missed. "In my mind we shared my incense for her." She sat down on Hisako's other side.

"More than I was hoping to get," Yuri said.

"Thank you, Suzuka-chan. I'm sorry to just leave you like that."

"I'm sorry I didn't chase after you, too." She set her purse and return gift down in the grass and all but crawled into Hisako's lap. She tensed at the contact but calmed a bit when she used the movement to hug Yuri.

"So, do we go back in to get our presents or what?" he asked.

"I-I'm not sure?" She'd never been to any sort of service by herself, much less one that she'd walked out on.

"I'm not going back in there."

"I'm not if you're not!"

"...If we had fire magic, we could've done all this ourselves," he said without warning. Both girls gave him matching looks of horror. Yuri turned away, but he didn't look all that apologetic. "Sorry. My self-censor is running on empty today."

"Are you two alright? Or, three." They looked up at their homeroom teacher, Ms. Yamashita, standing over them. "I had not expected that sort of spectacle in there."

"You know, just teenage drama—"

"Don't lie to me, Kikuchi. It's not my place to say anything, not now, but the least I can do is make sure you're alright."

"...I'm fine," he grumbled.

"Will I see you back at school tomorrow, then? All three of you?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Hey, we've been there!" Suzuka piped up. Hisako nodded.

"I hardly would have blamed you if you had taken some time for yourselves."

"Should a teacher be telling us to skip?"

"It's not skipping if you're excused. But the three of you, I want to see you at class tomorrow, just so long as you're not pushing yourselves for it. I don't want more empty seats than I have to see."

The woman departed after that. They decided to leave with the rest of the mourners, hoping to blend in a little, even if most of them gave Yuri a wide berth. On the bus ride back, Hisako discovered that the seam on one of her shoulders was, indeed, ripped.

-.-.-

Saturday, June 7th, 2014



Hisako slunk around her own home like a dog with its tail between its legs. It wasn't like her father was pressing her for anything. Once he figured out she wanted space, he gave it to her, while being at home as much as he could for her. It was incredibly understanding of him and only made her feel guiltier. She wished she could confide in him, but what good would that do? He'd worry himself into the hospital.

She ducked into her room as soon as she could. He had only briefly asked how the funeral was and let her escape soon after. If he chalked it up purely to grieving… But she was paranoid that he was going to ask about the timing. He had gotten the call from the school the day after the came home and locked herself in her room to cry. At the very least, he'd be hurt and confused she didn't tell him about it then. She was supposed to be mature and worthy of his trust.

She shut the door behind her and swallowed back tears. The funeral was over. She had the weekend to cry and read that research. Next week would be better.

"Are you alright, my dear?"

Hisako grabbed the nearest thing—her desk lamp—and swung it around at the well-dressed figure. Dumuzi, literally cornered, could only raise his hands to protect his face. "Why are you in my room?!"

"I came to see how you were coping!" Dumuzi cried pathetically. He was so much less imposing in human guise, and without Inanna forcing her feelings into the situation, Hisako felt she could act rationally.

She hit him with the lamp again. "I just went to my friend's funeral! Because you couldn't handle your sister, despite your promise!"

"I did not aid her further! Inanna, please, think of your own sister, the lengths you have gone for her! Can you blame me for having reservations about raising my claws against her?"

Hisako deflated. It wasn't as if she had the energy to put into staying angry at him. She set the lamp back on her desk, hoping it wasn't broken, and checked the door again to make sure it was locked. "...Be quiet, please. I don't blame you, not really. But I'm not pleased you're here. I don't care for your sympathy right now."

"Then, a gift?"

She arched an eyebrow.

"Ninhursag."

"Bless you?"

"Your friend—Enlil wished to know who your deceased friend was," he said delicately. His body language was still submissive, but now that she knew what he really looked like, she easily picked out all of the nonhuman bits. Just the way he moved his arms and shoulders alone were off. "Nergal did not know because he had not seen her. I had. It was Ninhursag, a mother goddess of the earth. Another fertility goddess."

She felt her cheeks heat up despite herself. "I am not a fertility goddess."

He smiled a little but didn't respond to that. She would have had to hit him if he had. "I am very sorry about what happened to her. I wish it hadn't."

"Do you have anything else to say? I'm not in the mood to speak to you."

"I merely wanted to offer you that for—in peace, I hope. I will do my best to stop my sister. I hope this does not happen again, but Inanna, you surely must be aware that there is the possibility…?" he asked cautiously.

"Yes, I'm aware."

He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but must have decided against it. "Good. I-I will leave you to your proper grieving, then." And then, even more strangely, he seemed embarrassed by that. Dumuzi gave her a short bow, kissed her hair, and when she tried to hit him with the lamp, disappeared.

Hisako groaned and resigned herself to a long night of reading.

-.-.-

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014



"Why do I have to come along again?" Yuri groused, interrupting Hisako's explanation. Again.

They were all together because it was a Tuesday, but they weren't going into Irkalla. They couldn't, not yet. "For protection!" Suzuka sang. "Mister tall, dark, and punk."

Yuri had taken to wearing his hair back in a ponytail to keep it out of his face, which already changed how he looked, but it also caused most of their classmates to realize he had earrings, too. Almost everyone agreed he was trying to change his appearance because of Mika's death. The rumor mill marched on. Hisako and Suzuka, who had already seen him like that when he was fighting, weren't bothered in the least. And he did act as a good deterrent for any approaching passersby.

"As I was saying," Hisako broke back in, miffed, "Ereshkigal was kidnapped. Inanna went down to see her, but Ereshkigal had already become queen of Irkalla, and she couldn't leave, anyway. She tried to use that same rule to trap her sister—"

"You," Yuri said.

If he wasn't carrying most of their stuff, she would have told him to leave if he wasn't interested. "Inanna died in Irkalla. That seems like it's important to know!"

"Okay, so she died. How'd she get better? That's probably why you can come and go as you please, huh?" Suzuka asked, voice soothing. It didn't really help.

"There was a power vacuum. Ereshkigal had to take over Inanna's duties as a goddess, except she's associated with life and, um, creating more life, so since she had become a goddess of death after taking over Irkalla, it made her sick. By the time Inanna's backup arrived to save her, Ereshkigal wanted her gone more than anything else. But the rule still applied—someone had to take her place."

"And that's where hubby comes in, right?"

"Yes. Dumuzi wasn't grieving for his wife in a way that satisfied her, so she told Ereshkigal's demons to drag him back to Irkalla in her stead."

"He's more forgiving of Inanna than I'd be," Yuri mused. Suzuka nodded with a grimace.

"Well, apparently Inanna was really fickle, because she started lamenting his loss soon after. That's their winter myth. Everything dies because the main fertility goddess is too sad to do her duties."

"So, what about Tiamat?"

"But I wasn't done," Hisako grumbled.

"I'd almost rather be in Irkalla. I didn't sign up to be a pack mule, bodyguard, and captive student today."

"Oh no, you're learning!" Suzuka exclaimed in horror. "Okay, finish up your myth and then get to Tiamat."

"Well, mine has to do with Ereshkigal and Irkalla…"

"You can skip on Enlil's stuff if it'll make you feel better."

"I didn't read much about him. But he's one of the gods who Inanna asked for help. He didn't, so that's probably why Dumuzi doesn't like you much."

"Oh joy."

"So Dumuzi's sister, sad about her brother, offered to take his place for half the year in Irkalla, so he could see Inanna and then she'd be happy and make the crops grow. She didn't do it for Inanna, but him. And that's why they're both trapped down there, Inanna's not, and it's worrying to have them both running around. I still don't know how they're getting out…"

"Tiamat time!" Suzuka crowed.

Hisako sighed. "Tiamat is an entirely different myth. She's part of the creation myth. She died, too."

"Ereshkigal already told us that much," Yuri pointed out.

"She died to create the world. She was a goddess of chaos and the oceans, and she got into a big battle after her husband was killed. So your Persona was married, too."

"I hope my husband wasn't a bird man," Suzuka said with a fake swoon. "Chaotic ocean goddess, though. I can get behind that."

"Are you sure you don't want to hear anything about Enlil?" Hisako asked, a little surprised. But he shook his head. "Okay… How much further is it now?"

"Um… Maybe a block?" Suzuka guessed.

"You don't know?" Yuri hissed, hands tightening on his backpack. "You already have us wandering around back alleys and some shady shops, and we're all lugging around so much gold—"

"Let's not advertise that!" Hisako interrupted.

"One more block!" the redhead exclaimed as she spotted a sign. She ran on ahead, seemingly unburdened by her own bag, nearly giving Hisako a heart attack as she did so. She wasn't necessarily worried about the area of the city they were in, but she did not want the smallest member of their group on her own.

But they made it to the little shop in one piece. Suzuka went right in, whereas Yuri and Hisako stood a moment to look at the rather shabby front. The sign was broken, rusted, and hand-painted in places, there were bars over the windows and door, and what they could see inside was an unorganized mess of things. Supposedly, it was either a pawn shop or a collector's shop. Even Suzuka was a little confused on the details.

"...At least we'll be able to sell these gold coins, right?" Hisako asked, a little faintly. Yuri stubbornly waited until she went first, and then followed her in.

Suzuka was leaning across the counter, talking animatedly to a somewhat greasy-looking middle-aged man. His appearance did not improve Hisako's mood or opinion of the place. "Oh, and here are my friends! Guys, this is my cousin—well, he's with Kazu-nii, so close enough! Eiri Arisaka, these are my friends, Yuri Kikuchi and Hisako Fujihara."

"Nii?" Yuri echoed. Hisako elbowed him.

"Nice to see little Suzu-chan is growing up to have friends other than Haru-chan. Surprised she's not in on this illicit deal of yours, too."

"She's overseas right now as an exchange student. And aren't you the one helping with this illicit deal? You can't blame this on me," she said with a chuckle. Yuri and Hisako exchanged another concerned look. Suzuka caught it and hastily explained, "It's not illegal or anything! It's just a joke, 'cause I don't really talk to him or Kazumichi all that often, and then I call him up out of nowhere to ask if he'll buy gold coins."

"And you won't tell me where you got them," Eiri said mildly. He spread his hands on the counter and gave them a grin. "So let's see these gold coins of yours."

He was clearly not expecting anything serious from them. It was funny how his smile slowly slipped from his face when Suzuka reached into her bag, pulled out a handful of the coins, and set them in front of them. They glinted in the dim lighting. "We're pretty sure they're solid gold, because they're pretty heavy, but we figure you'd know a bit more about that, too."

The man picked one up with something like awe. "These… sure look real. What's this marking on them?"

"No idea!" Suzuka chirped.

"Suzuka, where did you find these?"

"I can't tell you that. We're willing to take a lower price for them, though, just so long as you don't pry too much."

"When did you become so secretive?" Eiri asked, but he sounded impressed. He turned the coin over and over in his fingers, held it up against the light, and then fished a box out of the cabinet behind him. He ran a magnet over the coins, which didn't react. He then bit one, and examined the mark it left, eyebrows shooting up in surprise. Suzuka took one of the coins back and chewed on it thoughtfully. "These are definitely gold, and a high percentage at that. Have you had these tested at all?"

"No, we were hoping you knew how to do that."

"I know how, but I don't have any acid with me right now. Checked the density?"

"That's, uh, mass over volume, right?"

Eiri set a coin on the scale and frowned at the weight. "Seven grams. Let's assume it's eighteen karats for easy math. That's about five grams of gold per coin, and gold is around four thousand yen per gram. So you're looking at a cool twenty thousand per coin." Suzuka spat out the coin.

He eyed the six on the counter, completely unaware of the rest in Yuri's bag. "...How many do we have again?" Hisako whispered to him.

"Seventy-eight."

"That's rough estimates for the numbers, and that's pretty close to market price. And that's assuming I buy them," he said as Suzuka scrubbed her spit off of the one. "But I'm still very interested in how you came across these."

"We didn't steal them!"

"Suzuka, I don't think you stole actual gold coins from anyone."

"Do you want to buy them or not? We can't tell you any details either way, that's part of the deal. ...And if you won't buy them, could you at least point us in the direction of some coin collectors who could? Pretty please?"

"Why should I enable this? I'm not sure a couple of teenagers should suddenly have that much spending money."

He still didn't know about the rest of the coins. Hisako began to sweat as she struggled to do the math in her head.

"Because you're family," Suzuka told him.

It took a long moment for his expression to soften, but it did, and he rubbed the back of his neck with a pleased blush. "W-Well, you always were a sweetheart. And I suppose this can count for not being in touch all that great the past couple of years."

"Did you know Hiroya's getting married?"

"Wha—no, I didn't!"

"I'll talk to him about inviting you and Kazu-nii if you do this for us," Suzuka said sunnily.

"Now that's playing dirty, and you know it."

"We have a bunch of gold we can't explain we're trying to sell. We're a little desperate," Yuri said without thinking. Eiri's eyes narrowed when he was again reminded of their presence.

"Think of what a nice wedding present you can get them once you sell all this gold!"

"You're trusting me an awful lot. These could be pure gold and I could be shorting you. I could be making up numbers off the top of my head. I could go tattle to your grandparents about this after you leave." It probably was pure gold, but they weren't going to argue the point. Maybe he knew that.

"We're okay with the lower number, but I trust you. We trust you." Yuri and Hisako eagerly nodded. "We just need this favor. You do a favor for us, we'll do a favor for you. Plus you get a ton of gold! How shiny and awesome!"

"Gold coins can be hard to sell if you have too many of them." Suzuka's smile became a little more strained. "But I do know a couple collectors in Tokyo. I'll do this for you on good faith, provided you don't use it to buy booze or cigarettes or something."

"Eiri-nii, I'm sixteen, I'm not gonna go buy beer with this," she groaned. "But we have a deal?"

"I guess we do." He shook her hand on it. She turned and gave Yuri a wide grin. He looked a little uneasy, but he shrugged off his backpack and turned it upside-down on the counter. He and Hisako ducked quickly to pick up the coins that dropped to the ground. "What the—?! Suzuka, you little brat! This isn't how you do business!"

"We had a deal!"

"How many are there?"

"Seventy-eight."

"How do you have seventy-eight old-ass gold coins on you?!"

"We have a pack mule," she said, patting Yuri's arm affectionately. He yanked his arm away with a scowl. Not that the girls couldn't have carried them, but he made things easier. "We have other things to sell, too, if you want non-gold-coins. Just thought we should open with the big numbers."

Eiri glowered at her. "Are you trying to fleece me?"

"No, we just really want to be rid of the things we've, uh, collected on our journeys."

"You're a schoolgirl! You don't have journeys!"

"How much do pearls go for?" Suzuka asked, bringing out a fistful of necklaces. Eiri buried his head in his arms on the pile of gold.

After he got over the shock of it all, he went along with purchasing their things just for the sheer ridiculousness. Hisako wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not, but it worked in their favor. And most of the things they were trying to sell were valuable.

He didn't have enough cash to buy everything once they figured out tentative prices for everything, but he did put them in touch with a jeweller he knew who would buy the pearls and the handful of strange stones the hellhounds left. Eiri also swore off any future dealings with them, but agreed to act as a connection to people who would, because he apparently became fond of the idea of turning Suzuka loose on his acquaintances.

"You have weird family," Hisako had to tell her as they left the jeweller, who was a nice old lady who almost began crying when she saw the "beautiful pearls". Awkward, but a little endearing, and at least she agreed to buy any future jewels or necklaces.

"I guess. Comes in handy sometimes, too. But even I'm at a loss when it comes to selling feathers, bones, or hair. Why'd we take the hair, again?"

Hisako shrugged. "I-I just sort of grab whatever's left over. It's easier to sort it out later."

"I'll take it," Yuri suggested. The girls turned to him in surprise. "I'll see if I can make brushes out of it. Unless you want to try to track down a wig maker or something."

"I don't think we have that much…"

"It was a joke."

"Oh! But I do have an aunt and uncle who can use the feathers and bones!"

Yuri facepalmed. "Really. You really do. How large is your family, anyway?"

"Mom's side of the family is huge. But…" Suzuka trailed off as she closed her bag again. She peeked up at Yuri unsubtly. "...I'll take it to them. I mean, it's only a couple things, and they're pretty light, so we don't need your carrying expertise anymore. You're fired."

"Um, are you sure?" Hisako asked as Yuri only stared at Suzuka.

"Yeah, I can do this one on my own."

"Why?" he asked bluntly.

"It's… a pet store. They always need supplies, and feathers can be turned into cat toys, and dogs like to chew on bones. Good for their teeth, I think."

"Then why—" Hisako cut herself off when she saw Yuri's expression; he looked like he'd been slapped. She looked back at Suzuka, who was staunchly avoiding his gaze as she rummaged around in her bag again.

She held out a fistful of hair, tied by a ribbon, and after he took that, an intimidating stack of yen. "This is your cut. I don't expect we'll make much off of feathers and bones."

"Keep it, I don't care. It'll be an exchange for the hair. I'll… see you two later, then." And with that, he left, leaving Hisako utterly clueless in his wake.

Suzuka started walking again without saying anything else about it. She had little choice but to follow. It took a bus ride across the city plus another hike through winding roads, but eventually they found themselves at a cheery little pet store decorated in yellows and greens.

"This is where Mika-chan worked," Suzuka mumbled just before she pushed inside.

Stunned, it took her a couple moments to get moving again. She remembered Mika had had a job at a pet store, but she had never thought she'd visit it. Definitely not in the current circumstances. Hisako finally followed her into the little shop, finding Suzuka already talking with an older couple. After a beat, she recognized them from the wake.

A loud, screeching squawk shocked her out of her thoughts. "Fool! Fool!" a parrot shrieked at her with its wings raised.

"Angelina, quiet! That is a guest!" the old woman shouted.

The grey parrot folded its wings again but maintained its evil look. She edged away nervously. It wasn't in a cage, just sitting on a perch near the cash register.

"Please, don't be nervous around her. She's very sweet normally, it's just… She's been very upset since she lost her favorite caretaker."

Hisako's heart leapt up into her throat. Suzuka reached over for her and drew her away from Angelina the parrot. "Auntie, uncle, this is Hisako-chan. She's a classmate of mine and was friends with Mika-chan, too."

"Oh, no. I do seem to recall someone with yellow hair like yours at the ceremony, but…" The frail old man peered up at her, as if trying to place her. It wasn't surprising he didn't exactly remember her, since she hadn't been there for most of it. "I'm very sorry you lost your friend. It's always tragic to hear of a young person passing, but Mika-chan was such a dear, sweet girl."

"Yes, she was," she mumbled. She could still feel the parrot's eyes on her. Mika had worked with that?

"I miss! I miss Mika-chan! I miss!" the parrot squawked, on cue.

"She does that every time she hears her name. Of course, Mika-chan was good with all of our animals, but Angelina is a very smart bird. She understands mourning."

"I miss! Mine!" Angelina insisted with a wail loud enough to set some dogs in the back barking. The sound of the dogs had her thinking of Mika all over again.

"Well, we don't want to cause a racket. We just stopped by because we found some things we think your animals could play with," Suzuka said loudly to be heard over the bird.

"That's very sweet of you, dear. Thank you very much." The old woman took the bag with the feathers and gasped at all the different colors. "Ohh, our kitties will love these! We only have three right now, but you know how rough animals can be with their toys sometimes. And look at all of these treats for our dogs! Thank you, both of you."

"You can just have them. Sorry we didn't try to make toys for the cat or anything," Suzuka said sheepishly.

"These old fingers can still tie knots well enough to make a cat toy or two," the woman said with a wink.

Hisako jumped when Angelina flapped over and settled on the man's shoulder. The bird jammed her face right up next to the bag of feathers. Suzuka chuckled, though at Angelina's curiosity or Hisako's skittishness, she wasn't sure.

"I can have? Just one?" Angelina asked hopefully. Hisako knew parrots were smart, and that they could talk, but it was her first time hearing one in-person. It was a little unnerving.

The old man pulled a purple feather from the bag and handed it to her. Angelina tweeted happily, took it gently with her beak, and stuck it in her own tail feathers. "Pretty birdy," Suzuka cooed.

"Yes, I am," she replied smugly. They all laughed at that, even if Hisako couldn't quite shake her sense of unease.

They said their goodbyes after the girls briefly said hello to the rest of the animals. The store looked lonely, with only the old couple and their sad parrot. It wasn't as if she disliked the bird, but something about her felt weird. "Don't be afraid to stop by to play with the animals at any time, both of you. They miss Mika-chan and would love the company."

"I'll try to visit a little more—" Suzuka started but was cut off by Angelina's shriek.

"I miss Mika-chan! I miss mine! I miss my tower!" the bird squawked.

Hisako gaped at her. Suzuka didn't catch on and just waved as she tugged her friend back outside. "So three teenagers walk into my cousin's shop and walk out a million richer. Each."

The shock of all the money warred with her shock at the parrot's word choice. The parrot would still be there later; the money won out. "I still can't believe… This is a lot of money."

"I am going to buy the nicest damned set of throwing knives I can find on the internet. And throwing lessons. And a new computer, I think. And maybe a decent wedding present for my brother."

Hisako had rather been thinking about hospital bills and replacement uniforms and wondering how she could offer to pay rent without her father getting concerned. "What about college?"

"What about college? We're still second-years and we'll… We'll have to visit Irkalla again. We'll get more stuff."

"...Next week?"

"We really should. There will probably be a talking shadow in her area, huh?"

"Probably. We should take it out before anything else happens."

"Yeah, probably." The bus ride back was quiet after that. Hisako's thoughts wandered from the money, to the parrot, to Mika, and then back to Irkalla. They'd learned some context from the mythology research Mathias had done, but she wasn't sure how truly helpful it was. It was just context. But it had kept her focused on that the past weekend, and that had been useful in itself.

It wasn't until she was back in her room, looking at the bills spread across her bed, that the money hit her. "Oh my god." She had almost a million yen, just sitting there. How was she going to explain that to her father when she couldn't even talk to him about Mika?

-.-.-

Knowledge: ★★★☆☆ (+4)
-Studious

Confidence: ★★☆☆☆ (+0)
-Secure

Charm: ★☆☆☆☆ (+0)
-Awkward

Empathy: ★★☆☆☆ (+4)
-Sensitive

Hisako Fujihara's Reluctant Fan social link has ranked up! The Sun arcana has reached rank 2.

Hisako Fujihara's Painter social link has ranked up! The Magician arcana has reached rank 4.
PTF: Chapter 14
First Chapter: PTF: Chapter 1 
Previous Chapter: PTF: Chapter 13
Next Chapter: [next month]

this chapter was hard to write, but at least i don't have to write it now. 
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Like any good story, reports of Ree and Scott's first date varied depending on who was the one telling it. It was a cool day in November, sunny, and they went out to eat and then went for a walk afterwards to continue talking. That was about all they could agree on.

Scott had worn his aviators. Ree had been initially impressed, but had to confess that he did look a little tryhard with them on. (He had worn them for the sunlight, yes, but also so she wouldn't see him staring down her neckline or at the way her hair curled over her ears.)

Ree had dressed up. Scott had thought she had the best legs on any girl he'd seen, and that she had quite the eye for winter fashion. (Maya had dressed her. Ree had been uncomfortable and chilled the entire time. She never wore the outfit again.)

Scott maintained that he'd ordered pizza and Ree had ordered a cheeseburger. "I remember being surprised. Usually girls don't go for that on a first date," he argued. Ree usually smacked him by that point.

Ree argued that they'd both had pasta. She had something with vegetables, and he had spaghetti. "I remember because he spilled it down the front of his shirt." And Scott usually rolled his eyes and accused that of being her, not him.

Scott said they walked around in the park, to enjoy the mild weather and sunshine.

Ree said they walked around in a mall, to stay warm and look at the Christmas decorations.

And even their own stories changed when asked what they talked about. They agreed they had walked and talked for several hours, and probably covered a variety of subjects, but neither could concretely pin down anything.

The actual story went as this:

The day had been chilly but not cold, and the sun was out, reflecting off of the bits of snow already on the ground. Scott had braided his hair and worn his aviator sunglasses and a button-down shirt. Ree had put her hair up and had been uncomfortable in a knee-length dress over a turtleneck and leggings. They had actually both ordered breakfast items and shared crepes from a stand for dessert.

They had walked through the park to get to a mall, where they found an arcade right away and spent the remainder of their date trying to one-up each other (and trash-talking so foully that they got kicked out within the hour). After that, they had tried ice skating downtown, stopped by a game store to preorder something Ree had forgotten was coming out in December, and headed back to Scott's so he could introduce her to his pokémon.

And it was nice.

-.-.-

Chapter Thirty-Six: Ree Majors' Wonderful Journey Of Tears and Gunfire

-.-.-

"Hubba hubba," Ree said with a wide, lecherous grin.

"Hanging around you is simultaneously great for my ego and going to give me nightmares," Allen said with a twitch and a nervous smile. He had his back mostly to her, but still held his shirt in front of his chest, almost shyly.

If she wasn't with Scott... Well, still probably not. "I'd rather you have nightmares about me than Maria."

"Uh, wow." He dropped the shirt and smile, instead frowning at her. There was something dark in his eyes. "I appreciate the... protectiveness? But let's not talk about that."

"Couldn't handle the mood being all sparkles and light. Although your back muscles might sparkle. Maya's pretty good around you now, but fuck—I will pay you to flex in front of her. I'm sure she'd explode on the spot."

"I hope that's not a euphemism."

"Can I pay you to flex in front of me?" she asked with a pout.

"I don't want to reward you when you're kind of being a little shit."

"I didn't get the bat."

"And I'm going to be paying for that. I meant talking about... nightmares. And Maria. I don't like you talking about either of those things," he admitted and sat down on the edge of the bed, beside her. But he didn't look at her. Up closer, she couldn't pretend it was still sparkles and light; his bandages were dirty with sweat and blood, he badly needed to shave, and he looked so tired.

"I'm sorry. I won't."

"Thank you. I know the other day... It must be tough for you, too. I mean, I guess you knew her, shit, I was the one who introduced you two," he groaned and ran a hand over his face. He kept it covering his mouth, making his following words muffled. Ree leaned in reflexively. "You knew Maria, too, and I'm sorry for discounting that, but fuck, Ree, this was mine. This was my mess and my friends and my career, not yours, s-so—"

And then he was blinking, trying to hold back the tears that were already coursing down his cheeks. Startled, Ree froze. She was not used to seeing grown men cry, least of all ones as strong as him. She reached out, placing a hand on his shoulder, but he just jerked away from her and put his back fully to her. She let him, unsure of whether to leave him or stay. She was bad with crying people, Maya aside, and that was only because she brought out her protective instincts.

"You can... You're allowed to be selfish. It can be yours," she offered. His shoulders shook a little but he remained silent. She wasn't sure if he was still crying. "I won't talk about her. I didn't really know her, and I won't dig into it. I'll forget any of it happened."

He laughed, short and rough, and said, "Goddamnit, I shouldn't ask you to do that."

"I'll do it anyway."

Grief, she knew, was weird. He had been betrayed and lost a pokémon. He'd botched an important job. And while she had been in the middle of it, it hadn't been her problem. Maya's international affairs, Kev's family problems, and Allen's old friends, and she'd just happened to be in the area when it all collided. None of it was really hers, not in the same way it was theirs.

But what was hers was Scott, and Mitzi, and her vendetta against Antoine Pollock. She didn't like it when people messed with her problems—nothing had her hackles up faster than people judging her—so she should really, really learn not to stick her nose so far into others' issues. Too bad it took making Allen cry for her to actually learn that one. It was worse than seeing Maya cry, or her father. It was some sort of twisted, gut-wrenching mixture of the two.

"I'll come back in a little bit. You, uh, need anything?" Ree asked, scrambling towards the hotel room's door.

He caught her by the hem of her shirt. He tried to smile for her, and his eyes were already dry, so there was that. Fast crier. She was inappropriately jealous. "Don't let me chase you out of your own room. Plus, you promised to help me change my bandages."

"Yeah, I noticed they're a little red." A little more respectful about others, but still generally tactless. She was okay with it.

"A little blood is normal, nothing to be worried about."

"You sure? I don't think stitches are supposed to bleed." She'd had them before, and there had been some bleeding there, but she had figured it was because of her generally reckless approach to life.

"If it's just red, I'm not worried. If it starts coming out green or yellow, then you have my permission to get Lenore and let her scream at me." After a beat, Allen added, "She used to be a field medic, you know? For the UFOs. I met her during training. ...She knew Maria, too. And Sara Grace."

"Allen, you don't have to earn the right to be the most affected by something. You went through some shit. You're gonna go through more shit if you get infected."

"Wouldn't be the first time," he drawled as she pushed him off the bed, up onto his feet, and pointed him towards the bathroom.

"You turn into a cynic when you're depressed, huh?"

"Depressed? Me? Never," he scoffed.

"Well if I'm going to be the bitch in this situation, I'm not going to half-ass it." Ree forced him to sit on the toilet and she looked at his little bag of medical things, already on the sink. "So you keep moping, I'll stay out of it, but it's my turn to show you some tough love."

"Have you ever, uh, changed bandages before?"

"I once had Whippy wrapped up for something. Did it myself. ...Can't remember what for, but he turned out fine."

"I like to imagine I'm made of pretty strong stuff—"

"Says the guy who was just crying."

"Wow, rude. Can we pretend I never showed emotion around you and you go back to being dumbstruck by my arms?"

"And your chest."

He put a hand on her shoulder, keeping him at arm's length, and fixed her with a serious look. A serious look that, combined with his disheveled appearance, mostly made him look like a cliché video game antihero. The unfair thing was that it still worked for him. "I'll show you how. You're not playing doctor with me for practice."

She tried her damnedest, but she cracked a smile at that. "Since I'm pregnant, I don't think I need too much more practice." Ah, fond memories.

"That's not what I—" Allen cut himself off with a sudden look of horror down at her belly. "Holy shit, you've had sex."

She fell back against the bathroom wall, howling with laughter. This was about twenty times better than Tori's similar realization.

He colored and scowled at her. "Don't laugh at me, you're barely eighteen! It hadn't occurred to me that you had any sort of regular sex life before this accident."

It took her a bit to regain her breath, and she choked out, "It's only four fucking months too late to be chastising me for that."

"God, did you even know how to use protection?"

"I'm a teenager with the internet and, contrary to popular belief, a brain. We were using condoms! In general. And anyway, how old were you, huh? Military-type training while a teenager, I bet you were doing all the girls between drills!"

He blushed again. Ree decided a blushing man was a vast improvement to a crying one. Not that she necessarily meant to create that distraction, but in all fairness, he brought it up first.

Wait, that was a pretty dark shade of red. "...You do like girls, right?" she asked hesitantly. She had never actually gotten an answer from him on that...

The image of a younger Allen in uniform with another guy in uniform almost did her in.

"Do we have to be having this conversation?" he asked, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Holy shit, yes we do. Maya's going to pop if you've been hooking up with equally hot UFOs."

"You certainly know how to change around a conversation, huh?" She nodded. Gritting his teeth, he said as fast as humanly possible, "I am not gay, but I'm not straight. I hope to Arceus above I was younger than you were the first time I had sex, and yes, it was with all the cute little soldier boys and girls. I am not giving you details. Consider this an apology for inadvertently digging into your sex life."

He didn't need to apologize for that, but what didn't know wouldn't hurt him. This time, anyway. "Can I tell Maya?"

"It's not a secret."

"So, you and that smoking guy? Nathan?"

"I am not giving you details!" he exclaimed and, amusingly, his cheeks flushed a little again.

She almost opened her mouth to ask who else. Almost. But then she remembered the two women whom Nathan had looked so distressed at seeing.

She didn't ask. She could learn from past mistakes.

"Got anyone now?" she asked instead.

"I can't help but notice a lack of bandage changing and far too much schoolgirl gossip."

"You said you were changing yourself, and don't try to make this about girls. I know for a fact dudes gossip just as bad, too," she said and threw the roll of gauze at him. He caught it after it bounced off his nose.

"Shouldn't you be calling Scott?"

"Consider this conversation emotionally bracing for me. So, eye on anyone?"

He let out the longest sigh she'd heard from him yet. "Yeah, I guess. But it's just my eye on them, it won't become anything. And I'm not telling you who because I don't want you getting into more trouble."

"Which means I know them," Ree declared.

He smacked his face against his palm. She was victorious, yet again. Allen completely avoided any personal talk from then on, but she did learn how to change bandages around someone's chest, so it wasn't a total loss. She would gladly put her hands all over him in the name of learning. Emotionally bracing.

Because even she knew she shouldn't be groping other dudes when she had a boyfriend. It wasn't as if she was without remorse for it. But she was weak, so weak, and thirsty as hell without Scott around. She could only blame part of it on her undoubtedly haywire hormones. So she felt bad about perving on Allen, and then perved on him some more in order to cheer herself up. And so the cycle continued.

Allen was the one to break it, of course. He pushed her phone into her hand, pushed her down onto the bed, and then locked her in the room. Not that she couldn't break out—she didn't think he was fully wise to her window trick yet—but she was adult enough to face her boyfriend. Totally.

Her guilt towards Scott outweighed her own fear of the conversation. She owed it to him. She owed him so much more than running out on him.

And she was trying to be a better person, wasn't she? With that resolution in mind, she dialed his number, flopped back onto the bed, and put him on speaker on the pillow beside her.

Her boyfriend picked up on the second ring. "I was wondering if you'd be calling," came his voice, with a particularly cool tone.

"I deserved that."

"...How is Maya doing?" Scott asked.

"Better, mostly. Better now that she's been out and about a little. It comes and goes, I guess... Grief, right?"

"I suppose. I'm glad someone is there for her."

"Don't use my sister to get snippy with me," Ree said, throwing her wrist across her eyes. Her other hand absently rubbed at her stomach. A definite bump there.

"You're right, she doesn't deserve that."

"Yeah, I deserve the bitchiness, but don't act like it won't piss me off. What all did your dad say?"

There was a pause on the line. "Not much," Scott said after a rustling noise. "You and Maya, traveling with two other people with a fantastic lie. Asked me a ton of questions about whether or not you got into more trouble. Have you gotten into more trouble?"

"Just the usual amount," she replied vaguely.

"So, why did you call?" Scott asked, a little meanly. They didn't fight often, and even rarer were the times when she clearly knew she was in the wrong. None of it sat well with her, but she struggled to keep her temper in check. He had a right to be miffed.

"Can't I call my boyfriend?"

"Oh, can you?"

"Cut the shit, Scottie. I know I'm fucking up right now, but you don't have to throw it back in my face."

"Don't I at least get that much?" he asked in that same light, curt tone. There was more rustling noises in the background. "It was one thing when it was just you, but now Maya? My dad? Why is it just me you're avoiding?"

"It's also my parents," she said lamely.

"Great, so I'm in the same boat as your parents."

"It's most everyone from home. That's why I left. I left instead of—"

"Instead of just having the courtesy of dumping me to my face?"

The silence was loud in her ears. "...Scott, I-I don't want to break up with you."

He exhaled like he'd been holding his breath. "I don't want to break up with you, either," he mumbled. "Just... Carly was spouting her usual shit. And then I get a call from dad and it just... It's been months. What else am I supposed to think?"

"I'm just out doing the trainer stuff. I'll be back afterwards."

"This isn't some sort of business trip or military deployment. I know you're you, but you can't just... up and leave and not tell anyone. And expect everyone—expect me—to be okay with it."

"...I know. Does it help to hear that I'm sorry?"

"...Only slightly," he grumbled with a pout that was audible even over the phone.

"I'm sorry," she told him sincerely.

"Still only slightly. What am I supposed to do, Ree? I love training, and I wouldn't hate keeping up that game of tag we had going on, provided it ended. But if you're serious about keeping me away... And with the band stuff picking up again, I should just stay home."

"It'll end."

"When?"

"...Not soon."

"So I should just stay home, is what you're saying?"

It would be best for her to say yes. She would have one less source of stress and wouldn't have to keep such an eye on her travel plans. But that would hurt him, it would hurt her, and it would hurt their already breaking relationship. And Ree was a creature of emotion, not logic.

But it was so tempting to say yes and have one less worry.

Scott saved her from having to choose an answer. "Well, with everything snowed out, I'm not sure I want to go on too many more adventures. You're going to stay out through the winter?"

"Y-Yeah, can't be that hard if I avoid the north, right?"

"Just be careful," he said and sighed.

"I'll try."

"I'm serious. The weather can be a bitch when you're living out in the woods, and you don't exactly have a cold-proof team, right? I can't be mad at you if you're in the hospital with hypothermia. Be careful and at least follow whatever advice Maya gives you."

"I will." She thought about adding in that he could give her advice, and she'd gladly follow his words, but the conversation was rapidly boiling down to Scott versus training, so she refrained.

"...Ree, I think..." He pulled the phone away to groan in frustration, but she still caught it clearly. "I think we—ugh. Just. Good luck out there. Be careful, stay safe, stop making me think of your parents. Bye."

He hung up before she could answer. Maybe for the best. Her throat was tight and her eyes burned, but she wasn't crying, nor any more upset than she had been leading up to the call. And he hadn't been as mad as she would've been, had their situations been reversed.

Not that he would ever have this problem, she thought bitterly. No, because she was the one who had the uterus, and she was the one who would ever have the issue of something growing inside of her.

A text beeped on her phone. It was from Scott. "i think we should go on a break"

She typed out a vague agreement she forgot as soon as she closed her phone again. So that was it. It wasn't technically a break-up, but it was damn near close. Scott would give her space and she didn't have to feel so guilty about it. It was probably for the best.

That was all she could tell herself: it was (probably) for the best. She had more freedom to move about as she pleased, Scott didn't completely hate her for it, and she could buckle down and focus on her team.

So she kept telling herself that, as she released Whippy and cried into his scales, and well throughout most of the night, even after Allen peeked back into the room. He was better at comforting than she was, anyway. At some point, she was pretty sure she stumbled through a sobbed explanation, and he had soothing words for her, but most of what she remembered from the crying fit was how tightly Whippy hugged her back.

-.-.-

"So, how did everyone sleep?" Maya asked cheerily the next morning. Three identical groans answered her. Ree and Allen had alternated keeping each other up (or merely uncomfortable; more than once Ree had flopped over him to seek more comforting in her drowsy craving for male affection, and he snored and sleepwalked, of all things). Both of them looked up at Lenore in sleepy confusion.

"I can't sleep well in hotel rooms," she mumbled, trying to hide her eyes from the overhead lights with her bangs. "Especially not alone."

"Alone?" Ree whipped her head back over to her sister and glared. No wonder she was in such a good mood. "I spent most of the night an emotional wreck and you were off with a new dude of the week?"

"Not week! I've known him for years, we get to see each other every few months—"

"We're switching back tonight!" Allen declared. He put his arm around Lenore's waist and pulled her against his side. She narrowed her eyes at him.

"Why were you an emotional wreck?" the doctor asked, not deigning to address him.

"Yes, I was going to ask that too," Maya added.

"After you were done preening," Ree hissed, betrayed and hurt and incredibly, deeply jealous. Allen tugged Lenore down so he could whisper in her ear. Her eyes went wide and she covered her 'oh' with her hand. Ree scuffed the floor with her shoes and grumbled, "Yeah, me and Scott are on a break now. But it's whatever. It's easier this way."

To her sister's credit, she hugged her at once. Maya was a pretty good hugger, too, and as much as Ree liked Allen, it felt a lot nicer to get a hug from a fellow female after the night before. Lenore patted her awkwardly on the shoulder, and Ree was okay with that, too.

"I'm not gonna start crying or anything. ...Again. I just want to go battle some stuff—and you!" Suddenly remembering, she whirled around on Allen, jabbing her finger up in his face. "You owe me a gun lesson!"

"A what?!" Lenore squawked.

"I think we're all a little too sleep-deprived to have this argument right now."

"I'm not. I slept fine!" Maya chirped. "But I'm—"

"Maya, the big sister in me is happy for you, but right now I'm just a pissed off pregnant girl who is on a fuckin' break with her boyfriend. I will punch you in the face the next time you bring that up."

"Roger that! But I need to know what's up with the gun thing, too."

"It's an okay thing!" Allen continued backpedaling as Lenore actually advanced on him, using her superior height to intimidate him. It worked embarrassingly well. "I've got this under control! We had a, uh, deal, and it's between us, and it's all cool!"

"I would not refer to that girl as 'okay', 'under control', or 'cool' when combined with the mental image of a gun. What exactly are you doing, Allen Pershing?"

"W-Well, you see—"

"Yeah, I'm really interested in the catch here, too." Ree folded her arms across her chest. "Let's see how you defend this to the good doctor."

"Don't you get smart. You're not getting any sort of weapons training, much less firearms," Lenore snapped at her.

"Hey, we had a deal!"

"An incredibly stupid deal! Pershing, just you wait until your superior officer hears about this—and on sick leave, too—"

"Hey now, the sick leave doesn't negate the fact that I am legally trained to handle and carry weapons." She backed him up against a wall. He paled as she towered over him, six and a half feet of sleep deprivation and anger. Ree didn't envy him, but she knew some excuse was coming, and if it was good enough to get Lenore off his back, then it was probably her cue to start in on him.

"Ree, why were you two discussing guns?" Maya asked as she pulled on her sleeve.

"I was going to pick up another bat. He didn't want me to, and he suggested that as a trade. I'm still trying to figure out the bullshit in it but he seemed legit."

"Why do you want to learn how to use a gun?" she pressed. Ree tore her gaze from the arguing adults and instantly regretted it; Maya was using her Cute, Sad Little Sister eyes. She cringed and looked back at Lenore and Allen (who had dissolved into panicked, incoherent whining when unable to come up with a defense he could use without pissing Ree off, apparently), but the damage had been done.

"I just... He offered the deal. Was a little bitch about me getting a new Sophia, too, so I just sort of went along with it."

"Does this have to do with anything that happened in Castelia?"

"...No." And normally she was such a good liar.

"Guns are dangerous, Ree. And you know you're prone to violence and have a temper. I don't want you getting near them."

"Pokémon are dangerous, too, remember?"

"Pokémon have wills of their own. Most of them have the sense or compassion not to unduly harm humans, and even if they do, well, we have pokéballs. It's been a legitimate form of defense against bad pokémon in the past."

"Not all people have the sense or compassion not to fuck with others. I'm not going to become an expert marksman over the course of a couple sessions of training, Maya. It'll probably just be stuff like how to handle the recoil, basics in aiming, and maybe stuff about cleaning and making sure you don't shoot your foot when you holster it."

"All important lessons!" Allen squeaked and made a break for it. He ducked under Lenore's arm and hid behind the Majors sisters. "Look at this cute face. Do you want your precious mother-to-be to shoot herself in the foot?"

Ree swatted him away before he could pinch her cheeks. "I'm not keeping it, I've told you before."

"C'mon, Lenore, don't you trust me? Don't you trust these cute faces?" He poked Ree in the back until she broke out into a grin to match his. Maya leaned up in their space with her own smile as well but Allen pushed her back down and out. "This isn't a two for one deal. I'm not going to be responsible for mini Ree."

"That's insulting."

Lenore responded by taking out her phone, sliding it open, and dialed a number. She pressed it to her ear and tapped her foot as she waited. "Oh, hello, Leland. ...Er, yes, I'm doing well, but I was only calling to—"

"Don't do that!" Allen yelped and dove for the phone. Lenore held it up out of his grasp. "Okay, okay, I'll tell you!"

"Tell me?" She arched an eyebrow. "I want you to stop, not tell me your rationale."

"It's a really good reason. You'll agree with it." He gave Ree an unsubtle look. "But in secret."

"No, I really wanna know this reason, too. Let's hear it."

Lenore slid the phone closed without saying goodbye. "No one's going to be happy if this is some sort of trick, Allen."

"Ugh, would you just listen to me for a moment?" He yanked her down to his level so he could whisper in her ear. It wasn't a very long explanation, not enough time for Ree to march over and force her way in, but whatever it was, Lenore was satisfied by it.

Which meant Ree wouldn't be.

"I still don't approve of this, but I can see your logic in it. And it's not as bad as I'd—rightfully—feared."

"I swear, Allen, the second I figure out the catch in this, I'm getting a new bat and shoving it up your ass."

"We had a deal," he repeated with a beam. "But for now, brunch. We have an appointment at the range at two."

-.-.-

The shooting range was a surprisingly loud building on the other side of Undella, and not because of the gunshots. There were more pokémon there than she'd anticipated. A guard with a gothitelle looming beside him checked them as they entered, checked their teams, and she supposed she shouldn't be surprised at the security. Allen spoke quietly to a well-built woman who met them soon after, and all of them walked into a private adjoining room.

"Alright, miss Majors, my name is Hiranna, and I'll be helping you while you're here. Have you ever handled firearms before?" the woman asked without further ado.

Ree looked over at Allen; she hadn't expected an interrogation. "Uh, water guns. Video games."

"So, no. I understand this will be primarily about safety and working with handguns."

"Yes," he replied. "And I'm just here to supervise. I'm UFO Captain Allen—"

"Jim already told me," Hiranna said flatly. "And he told me this is a bit of an unorthodox arrangement. I don't care about the details, I just care about doing my job, and making sure no one gets hurt or gets stupid because of this."

"Well, that's why we're here. Safety first and all that," Ree butted in. "So, first lesson time?"

Hiranna's mouth twitched in a way that probably meant a frown. She wasn't very expressive. "First lesson then. Both of you, pokémon out."

"Pokémon?"

"You're a trainer, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

"Then your pokémon are your teammates. You're part of a team with them, and if you're getting trained, so are they."

"That's how it works, Ree," Allen mumbled, digging pokéballs out of his pockets. He released his pokémon, the first time Ree had gotten a good look at them all. Five pokémon, conspicuously missing Tranjero, lined up at a version of attention, and she realized she would have to deal with the embarrassment of letting her hooligans out to compare themselves to the trained pokémon of a military person. He had a samurott, something huge and prickly and metallic, the audino and beartic she'd remembered, and then a tiny, fluffy rufflet chick.

Ree glanced behind Hiranna to make sure the door was shut. It was, and while it muffled some of the noise from outside, it didn't completely cut it out. "You could've warned me about this part. I hope you're both ready to babysit..."

She let Whippy and Harper out first, hoping they'd be the better behaved ones, but boy, did she get that one wrong. The servine slithered up her side and curled himself around her shoulders, peering over at Allen's team with polite but obvious curiosity. Harper settled down on the leafy part of his tail, coolly looking over the room.

And then they heard the first gunshot from outside the room. Whippy tensed, and having a reptile made almost exclusively of muscle coiled around her neck during that almost choked her. Harper launched off of him with a shriek just as Ree fell to her knees. The tranquill flapped around the room with panicked squawking, Whippy huddled at far into Ree's shirt as he could get, and Ree rubbed at her throat and tried to figure out why Harper was the one freaking out.

And then she remembered.

"Shit. Harper, it's okay! It's okay, harpy, it's just—fuck." She returned her after she banged into the light more than once. Whippy trembled against her chest. Allen knelt down beside her, emanating concern, but she waved him off before he could start. Instead, she looked up at Hiranna. "So, I didn't know my pokémon would be in on this, and I not only didn't warn them about this, but also, my tranquill has been shot before. Is there anything we can go over today and then I go back to my room to talk to my pokémon about this?"

"Your other pokémon?"

"Uh, not all that good with guns, either, probably." Whippy was still half in her coat. She wasn't even sure Harper would be okay after an explanation and a lot of cuddling. In no way would Unika be good with sudden, loud noises, and that was if she didn't recognize the sound, too. Lala and Whippy were the only ones who stood chances of getting to the standard of Allen's team, and it would not be soon.

"Please come prepared tomorrow, then. We do offer courses specifically for gun-shy pokémon, but they're much more time-consuming than what I understand you're looking for."

"Do you want to do that? We can stay in Undella longer, it'll be fine through the winter—"

"No, just this thing you have. I'll talk to them tonight." She didn't necessarily want to blame Allen, but she sort of did. She hadn't thought about pokémon being part of it, though it made sense in hindsight. It sounded like something he should have mentioned to her at some point. "Can we do anything else today?"

"...Yes. Return your servine and we'll go over the basics of structure and handling."

"Ser!" Whippy poked his snout up out of her boobs to give her a huge-eyed plea.

"Is it okay if he stays out?"

"If you think that would be best," Hiranna said mildly.

If he was willing, she might as well take advantage of it. He had already stopped jumping at every noise outside, though he was glancing over at Allen's pokémon every so often again. "He can stay. He'll behave himself."

The first day turned out to be a three-hour session dedicated to utterly boring Ree. She wondered if Allen realized most of the technical information was going in one ear, out the other. She was allowed to handle and look over empty pistols, which was about the most exciting part, unless she counted Whippy gradually getting used to the noise of gunshots.

Allen tried to impress her with his speedy dismantling (and reconstructing) of another gun, which would have been neat, if he hadn't tried to point out all the pieces and parts to her. Hiranna had tried to do the same thing with similar effects on her attention span. They did show her other types of guns, too, and it was cool until Allen swatted her hand for trying to touch the shotgun. They showed her a large variety of firearms, not just pistols, but wouldn't let her handle them, so what was the point? She already knew what they all looked like from video games.

So the first session ended with the grim prospect of Ree having another talk that evening she didn't want to have. Allen offered to buy her ice cream, but with the weather, she wasn't feeling it, and she wasn't feeling his guilt, either. She did, however, stop to buy Harper a treat. The candy shop had a wide selection of imported poké puffs, so after some flip-flopping over flavors, she just got a dozen of assorted types. She probably spent more than she should have, but she and Maya could go out a battle a couple of tourists after dinner if necessary.

After her talk with her team. The battling would have to start again the day after. Why is being an adult full of serious talks I don't want to have? she lamented to herself.

Allen and Maya had already moved their stuff into their new rooms, and it wasn't difficult to talk her sister into giving her some alone time with her pokémon. She made sure the doors and windows were shut, just in case, and released her four.

Harper was puffed up to about twice her normal size, but she stayed on the bed where she'd been put. With a happy squeal, Unika wriggled over and hovered beside her. Lala gave the bird a strange look, but her concern was lost when she spied the box of sweets in Ree's lap. "Whim!"

"Yes, we get some treats. But in a moment—goddamnit, in a moment!" She barely got the box out of the way in time to avoid Whippy's attempted nosedive. She eventually had to pass out one to each of them to keep her starter out of the box. Harper's feathers smoothed out and she calmed down after sticking her beak into the frosting. Unika just zapped hers repeatedly. "Do you guys have to undermine my every order or decision? No wonder no one respects me as a trainer..."

"Whimsicott-si-scott," Lala replied diplomatically around the puff in her mouth. She had more frosting in her fluff than anywhere else.

"Right. Whatever you said." She was catching onto a lot of Whippy's language and gestures, and Harper made a point to be easy to read. Unika was a hyperactive mystery and Lala was just... difficult for Ree. "Look, we need to have a talk. Harper and Whippy already know what this is about, but this coming week, we're going to be undergoing some training. Together, I guess."

Unika somersaulted through the air. Harper gently drew her back towards her treat with her wing, and shot Ree a severe look. "Tranquill?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry, I didn't mention it before. Honestly, I didn't know you guys would be in on it. It's gun training, not our usual training. And no, you guys won't actually deal with them. I guess the people in charge want you to be unafraid of gun noises and stuff... From all of the lecturing today, I'm sure it can all be boiled down to 'know how to deal them and respect them'. I'm already pretty over it. But it's not a bad idea to learn something like this, for any of us. And they can't give me textbook knowledge for the rest of the time. Eventually I'm gonna get to shoot a gun!"

Ree grinned, but then caught Harper's expression. She sighed and dropped the smile.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I shouldn't be excited. If it makes you feel better, I'm not as excited now as I would've been just starting this journey."

"Quill."

"Whim-si," Lala scoffed.

Unika sparked at her, but Harper quickly drew her back. Lala growled at them, then toddled over to Ree's other side to try to swipe more poké puffs. Ree moved the box away—the suspiciously lighter box. She peeked inside, then peered at Whippy over the lid. He had green and brown frosting smeared over his claws, and she had definitely given him a pink one. He donned his best innocent look and hid his claws behind his back.

"You guys are worse than children, honestly. If the pregnancy didn't do it, you would definitely have me swearing off kids forever." She idly wondered if Scott would ever want kids, or if his pokémon were unruly too, but that led down a dangerous path of thoughts. "Whippy, no more sweets. Lala, stop snarking at them or whatever the fuck you're doing. Harper, sorry. Unika, it's dead, stop zapping it. We good? Good. Now tomorrow, we're all going to the range, and we're going to get used to dealing with guns. Best behavior, even if you're scared, okay? These people are safe, and they're professionals, and no one will get hurt, I promise you. And if everyone behaves, then we can pick up more of these, since someone helped himself to about half."

Lala smacked Whippy's tail. Unika squeaked at him. Harper and Ree facepalmed in unison.

-.-.-

Whippy insisted on being worn like a very heavy scarf. Lala wanted to touch everything. Harper was demonstrating nerves of steel and had planted herself on the light, not moving a muscle. And Uni, in the universe's most ironic twist yet, was the best behaved.

The gunfire didn't bother her, she stopped touching things after being told once, and she was fascinated with how everything worked, not to mention all of the people and the pokémon. With so much stuff going on, Ree had been a little worried about overstimulating her, but it almost seemed like it helped. She had plenty of things to look at and comment upon and try to exchange static with.

Eventually, the team calmed. Whippy wasn't the threat of snapping her neck, Lala became bored and tried to nap in the corner, Harper stayed up on the light, and Unika tried floating up to sit with her. Allen's beartic helped her up. Just when they were getting bored or tired enough to behave, Hiranna decided Ree was allowed to shoot her very first gun.

She didn't shoot herself in the foot. Harper didn't panic. Whippy only scratched her a little when he was jarred by the recoil. It happened, and her team came out whole.

Ree breathed out a sigh of relief. "Happy you didn't bruise anything in the recoil? It is a handgun, but it can still catch beginners off guard," Allen said, sidling up as he pulled his protective earmuffs off. How he could somehow look good in them and orange safety glasses was beyond her, but she was ninety percent sure that was just her libido at that point. Being on break with Scott sent her hormones through the roof, and yet, none of it was aimed at him anymore.

Not that she wouldn't have taken him up if he offered—

"Do you ever wear shoulder holsters?" Ree blurted out.

Allen blinked, taken aback. "Um. Yes. Is this related to girl things or gun things?"

Ree imagined Scott in shoulder holsters, orange glasses, and little else. "Do you ever get really horny while handling guns? I mean, I've read stories like that, and I think there was a porn once, but I hadn't thought it was real. I don't really like guns all that much. It's making me super worried for my team in ways I hadn't thought of, and I don't like that, but oh my god y'know when you get a really good shotgun or sniper rifle in a game? It's like that. Except with guys."

"Let's take the gun away from the jittery teenager now," Allen said, prying the pistol out of her hands and handing it off to Hiranna.

She took it and solemnly told them, "I've had women orgasm after shooting a gun here."

"Shit, are you serious?" Ree asked with barely restrained glee.

"Let's make sure she's not one of them! I didn't sign up for that."

"You sure enable most other things up to that point—"

"I'm sure regretting it now!"

"There's nothing wrong with being attracted to power, or having a physical reaction to an outside stimulus. I'm here to teach safety, not shame."

"Well, Ree needs a hefty dose of both."

"Hey, I've been doing good. So's my pokémon. I think I'm entitled to some hot daydreams."

"Not while you're handling firearms you're not."

"He has a point there. Your mind must be focused while you're here, to the best of your abilities."

They had to take a small break before Allen judged Ree serious enough to try shooting again. She was actually a decent shot for a beginner, something both he and Hiranna remarked upon, but what else were all those hours in Call of Duty and Fallout good for if not teaching her how to aim a gun? Some video game logic applied to real life.

They let her empty two clips and nothing went wrong. Ree was a happy camper, until she realized that the next lesson wasn't more aiming and shooting. "This is a self-defense course! Of course we're going to do a rundown on nonlethal targets."

"Bullshit! If I wrestle a gun away from a crazed killer, I'm putting it between his eyes!"

"That's murder, Ree! Aim for their legs! Please!"

Okay, so she probably wouldn't shoot someone in the face if she had the chance, even if it was self-defense. But his insistence on 'teaching' her morals while hypothetically defending herself, her fetus, and her team grated on her. She'd do whatever it took to stop someone with a gun from hurting her or her team. She didn't have to be told (over and over) to avoid the bloodiest and most violent reaction.

He'd agreed to let her take all those courses, and yet he still thought of her as some sort of monster thirsting for blood. She still hadn't figured out the catch, either. She was definitely learning valuable information about guns and that included handling them. And they only had three days left.

That night, Maya knocked on the door before poking her head in. It was nearing midnight. "Ree, still awake?"

"Wasn't expecting you home so early."

"Well, neither was I, but here we are. How was gun school today?"

She groaned and rolled over onto her side, halfway onto a sleeping whimsicott. "Shoulder holsters."

"Mm."

"Don't crawl into bed if you're still smelling like sex. I'll hump your leg like a wild herdier, I swear I'll do it."

"You're gross. Scoot over."

"At least shower."

"I didn't have sex with anyone, Ree," Maya said with an audible eye roll. "Jeez, is that all you think I do?"

"You're two for two on nightly visits to your boy toy. What else am I supposed to think?"

"Well, tonight was different. All parties stayed clothed."

Ree grunted. She didn't have anything else to say to that. Her younger sister was still out getting some semi-regularly, and she was stuck with a devious UFO piece of eye candy and a boyfriend on a break. And she was supposed to go to dinner with said not-boyfriend's father tomorrow night.

"Maya, have you ever shot a gun?"

The answer took a bit. "...Yes, I have."

"When?"

"I don't tell you everything," she said at once, defensive. She pulled off her pants and snuggled down underneath the covers, her back to her sister. "I was... There was a pokémon poacher, or hunter, I'm not sure. And he dropped his gun, and I picked it up, and I fired it. That's all."

"Uh, no, that's not all."

"It missed. Badly. But it spooked his rapidash and it gave Bo the chance to get me away from them. That's it. I turned in the gun at the police station the next morning. Guns aren't worth all the paperwork."

"Oh." Ree petted Lala, who snuffled in her sleep. So her sister had dealt with guns before. It sounded like the sort of situation Allen wanted to prepare her for. So she'd be prepared in the future, her pokémon would be okay with the sound of guns, she and Scott were on break, and everything was changing to be more and more serious and responsible. She hated it.

"Any other questions?" Maya asked, annoyed.

"Think I can guilt Allen into wearing shoulder holsters?"

"That's mean, Ree."

"I haven't been feeling too nice lately. Think Scottie told his dad about us?"

"If he did, we could probably get out of that dinner. But I'm not gonna bring it up, so have fun with that."

"If we dose me up on slushies, I could just fake sick."

"You would be sick."

"...I really don't want to do that tomorrow. I really have nothing to lose at this point by ducking out of it."

"Then ask Scott to ask his dad. Or get his number, I don't know."

Talking to Scott was even less appealing than talking to his father. Ree fell asleep in a grumpy mood because of it.

The next day's lesson was indeed dedicated to nonlethal shooting. Something else Ree knew plenty about due to video games, although her knowledge was admittedly fuzzy. And it got even more confusing when they started throwing common pokémon body types into the mix. It was fun to pretend like she was a super assassin preparing to take down any target, but that soon lost its charm with the sheer amount of information Allen wanted to drill into her brain. Even Hiranna seemed a little concerned about his thoroughness.

At one point, she wondered if he realized she could just use the inverse of the knowledge he was giving her to figure out how to kill people or pokémon.

The dinner that night with Martin Felton was blessedly only half awkward. The girls dragged Lenore and Allen with them, both to act as a conversational buffer and to show him that they weren't being held under duress. Allen was fine going out, even dressing up a bit (and making the girls do the same). Lenore was less pleased with the alomomola sushi.

Ree didn't have to fake sick because her doctor did it quite well. At first, she was even concerned, but then she found Lenore simply sitting in the restroom instead of puking like she'd excused herself to. "Wow, hadn't pegged you as, well, me."

"I wanted to spare your body another night with insufficient nutrients."

"I'm sure that's just it."

"I really don't like sushi. I assume you will agree with this cover story?"

"Just so long as I don't have to hold your hair back for you. You are alright, right?" Ree asked, suspicious and uncertain. She looked a little pale, but it could've been the dim lighting.

"I'm fine, but thank you for your concern. How long do you think we should stay in here?"

Their answer arrived in the form of Maya, who burst into the bathroom with an exclamation of, "Doctor Coracks, are you—oh, you are okay. Are we playing hooky in here or what?"

"Did you just leave Allen alone with Mr. Felton?" Lenore asked.

"I'm sure he can handle himself."

"He's still injured and was under suspicion."

"That's Scott's dad, not a foreign agent."

"I worry," Lenore said flatly and stood back up. She flipped her long hair back over her shoulders and rinsed her face with water. "I suppose we should be returning. Does this look sickly enough to bow out?"

"Looks pretty good," Ree said with a thumbs up.

"You're seriously playing hooky?" Maya asked.

"I really don't like sushi," the doctor repeated.

They bowed out of dinner before dessert, although Ree made sure to box up their meals, even Lenore's untouched sushi. Martin let them go. He seemed to have been just as awkward as the girls had felt, but Ree hadn't been sure if he knew about her and Scott or not. She hadn't dared ask.

The Majors sisters spent the rest of the evening eating leftovers and painting their nails, since they didn't have much else to do. Maya apparently had enough of a reputation already to deter most battles, which was useful sometimes, but not when they were bored. Or needed to train. While Ree was cautiously happy with her gun course, she felt antsy going without battling for so long.

But at least her nails were going to be pretty again.

It soon devolved into painting their pokémon as well. Lala refused to have anything to do with them, at least until Talia asked nicely, and then she was all for it. Whippy had been curious and eager from the get-go and ended up with all of his claws, front and back, neon green. It matched pretty well.

Unika started crying when she realized she didn't have anything to paint, but Ree, in a moment of genius she was proud of, soothed her by offering to paint some of the scales on her tail. It didn't quite stick that well and had trouble drying, which meant the tynamo had it smeared over half the hotel room within the hour, but at least she was happy. Ree just had to remember that little things helped just as much as the big things. Uni wasn't that scary.

Harper seemed a little warmer towards her, too, after Unika had been painted. The tranquill ended up with sparkly purple nails and almost orange on her beak, but she snapped at Maya when she tried to dab some on. That sent Unika into fits of high-pitched giggling, which had Zara (almost all of her spines either orange or purple) cackling, who made Talia start laughing, and she dragged Lala into it, and pretty soon the girls had more laughing pokémon than they knew what to do with.

It was a bright spot in a life that had become pretty grey, so Ree shouldn't have been surprised when something happened to interrupt it.

"What's that noise?" Maya asked as the laughter started to die down. Mordecai raised his head, ears pricked. Lilith got to her feet, hands cupped around her antennae. "It sounds..."

Ree cupped a hand around her ear. It was coming from outside, in the hall or another room, not outside the building. It wasn't an alarm, unless it wasn't in their room, but it sounded similar. But it was very faint. "Dunno. Kind of annoying now that you pointed it out, though."

Just as she reached to turn up the TV, with hardly a knock, Lenore burst into the room. With the open door, the noise sharpened, and Ree recognized it a split-second before Lenore spoke. "Tranjero's back!"

"Tranjero?" Maya asked.

"Allen's elgyem!" Ree shouted, scrambling towards the door. Lenore disappeared again with a swish of her black hair.

"Oh my god! That's what's making that noise?!"

Other guests were looking out into the hallway, on a spectrum of irritated to scared. Lenore had left the door open, and the sound carried. Ree and Maya ducked in at the same time, curious pokémon on their heels, to find Allen, half-dressed and teary-eyed, next to a screeching bundle of blankets. "Y-Yes sir, just now. On his own," he said into a phone. He raised a hand when he noticed the girls enter, and pointed to the pile.

"He just teleported back in, unaccompanied. He's still making that sound. I think he's still injured," Lenore said, trying to keep her voice down but having to raise it to be heard over the noise. "Allen's on the phone to his superior. This vacation might have to be cut short."

"No sir, I did not see any new wounds on him, just the reported gunshot wound."

The screeching abruptly died. Allen fumbled the phone in his haste to uncover the elgyem. His audino dove into the blankets with him.

Lenore took the phone as the man fought to get all of the blankets off. Tranjero peeked out, with that same hole in his head, but otherwise in one piece. He turned to look at Allen, then raised his arms, like a child wanting to be picked up.

"This is Doctor Lenore Coracks—yes, I'm with Pershing. The elgyem stopped making that noise, but he still seems to be conscious and moving. Advise."

"Oh my god, Tranjero, what did she do to you...?" Allen whispered as he pressed his fingers lightly against the injury. The psychic twitched, then his eyes flared. Allen slumped onto the bed and his audino squealed in fright.

"Allen!" Ree started forward, but Lenore held out an arm.

She had the audacity to roll her eyes, too. Ree would have punched her, had her phone conversation not remained so calm. "Yes, the elgyem is still conscious. He's knocked out Pershing. I have two civilians with me. Ree, Maya, why don't you two quietly return to your room?"

"But Allen—!" Maya squeaked. With jerky movements, the elgyem climbed over Allen's body until he was sitting on his chest. Tranjero then curled up and began humming.

"We're dealing with an injured, conscious psychic, so please don't try to take him from his handler."

"But Allen!" Ree insisted.

"An injured, conscious psychic whose last memories of his original handler were that of said handler getting injured on duty. Hopefully, he's just reading Allen's memories and taking stock of his body. He'll be fine once he realizes he's had medical attention."

"He knocked him out!"

"Allen's mind has been trained to handle that. And UFO elgyem are trained to take out overly emotional personnel in case of injury. He probably tried to teleport him out of here, but couldn't with another body," Lenore patiently explained. Ree would have demanded more answers, had another pair not appeared on the scene in full uniform. The man pulled his goggles off, letting them hang around his neck, and took quick stock of the room, eyes narrowing briefly at the two girls behind Lenore. His beheeyem clung to his waist almost shyly. "Becker, right?" Lenore asked, drawing his attention.

"Lieutenant Colonel Luca Becker, ma'am. I'm here to pick up Pershing and his returned elgyem." He looked over Lenore again, like he was trying to place her. "And you three are...?"

"Ree Majors is the girl he was assigned to while he was working with me. The younger is her sister, Maya Majors. They're both legal trainers."

"And you are?"

Lenore crossed her arms. "Doctor Lenore Coracks, OB/GYN and retired UFO medic. I have Leland Aminov's personal permission to utilize Pershing in guarding this girl and myself while in the field. Is there anything else, or would you like to help us with this elgyem?"

Luca's eyes widened at her name. "Y-Yes, sorry, I was just making certain of the situation. I'll be taking Pershing and his pokémon. Do you know if he has any other trained pokémon with him that aren't on his body?"

"The audino is his. Are we allowed to accompany you?"

"Not me. I'll send word for someone else to pick you up at the pokémon center or the police station, if you have a reason to accompany him."

"No, we'll... Tomorrow morning. All of his other pokémon should be in his bag there."

Luca nodded and his beheeyem scooped all of his things together with telekinesis. The man reached out tentatively with a gloved hand until he made contact with Allen's foot, and then they all disappeared.

"So, you're hot shit, huh?" Ree asked without preamble.

"He seemed to respect you an awful lot. You're retired UFO?" Maya added.

"I don't suppose I can herd you back to your room without answering, can I?" The girls shook their heads. Lenore massaged her temples and ground out, "Yes, I used to work with the field operations. My husband and I garnered a bit of a reputation and a healthy track record with our missions. I retired, and now I work in the private sector, although I'm not above using my ties for personal projects, as you can see."

"Husband?" Maya asked, starry-eyed.

"I retired. He didn't," Lenore said curtly. "Now please, back to your room. We'll see what Allen's situation is in the morning before we plan anything else."

They, and the pokémon that had followed them, were shut out of the room. They trudged back to their own room to find Unika had spread more nail polish on their pillows. "...She doesn't wear a ring, does she?" Maya asked after a beat.

"No, she doesn't." Ree had known she'd worked with the UFOs in the past, but she hadn't known Lenore had been important or well-known. Had she outranked Allen? Maria? That other guy? ...And she retired, alone, to work as a baby doctor.

They went to bed soon after that, not saying much else. Ree slept fitfully, worried about Allen and regretting eating that sushi after all. The following morning wasn't much better.

"There's no need for all of us to go. I'm just going to talk to Allen and Leland. The vacation's over, that's it. It's not an emergency," Lenore said as she put her hair up in a clip.

"What about my gun lessons?!"

"What about—" Maya cut herself off. Ree gave her a confused look.

"Allen said he talked to the instructor, so you are free to finish your lessons. Honestly, we're not your parents, nor your babysitters. The vacation was pleasant while it lasted, but now we're back to work, so please remember to take your vitamins."

"You're just ditching us here?!" Ree growled.

"Yes, I am. Allen's leave was almost up, anyway, and he's healed enough to go back on active duty if Tranjero can. We'll be back for your next appointment, which should be in two weeks. You can text or call me to let me know where you'll be—"

"I'm going with you!" Maya declared. Lenore and Ree wore matching expressions of incredulity, the former paused halfway to pushing glasses onto her nose.

"And... why?"

"He's at the UFO headquarters in Opelucid, right? I need to get there, too, and with the weather getting snowier, hitching a ride with your psychic transport is my best bet."

"I am not some shuttle for teenage girls. The UFOs aren't, either," Lenore replied, still nonplussed by her abrupt persistence.

"I have eight badges."

"That legally doesn't mean anything."

"I have eight badges and I'm going to enlist."

Lenore's glasses slid a little down her nose. "You... what? I'm sorry, can you repeat that?"

"I'm going to enlist with the UFOs," Maya repeated clearly. "I have eight badges, they'd be frothing at the mouth to accept me. I was going to ask Allen about this later, but if you're ditching us, I'll just go along with you now."

"Uh, Maya, where the fuck did this come from?" Ree asked in an undertone.

Lenore groaned at her phone beeping. "Well, I'm running late, so you two can talk this out yourselves—"

"I'm coming with you."

"Like hell you are!" Ree barked.

"If you don't take me along with you now, I'll just go to the Undella police station and talk to someone there. They'd just send someone to pick me up there. Like I said, they'll be tripping over themselves to accept me," Maya said.

"Good, then do that." Lenore shoved her glasses back up, pulled her coat on, and strode away without a single look back, leaving the two sisters alone with a lot to talk about.

-.-.-

Next Chapter: Well, that just happened. Allen's back on duty, Lenore's out of the picture, Ree has to finish training, and Maya evidently wants to join the Unovan Field Operations. Sisters are supposed to talk about things! Or so says Ree, but Maya's acting pretty tight-lipped about it all. So that leaves Ree down one boyfriend, one bodyguard, one doctor, and potentially down a sister... What else can she lose?
RMWJ: Chapter 36
First Chapter: <da:thumb id="208336167">
Previous Chapter: RMWJ: Chapter 35
Next Chapter: [end of october!]

okay, so we didn't find out ALL the details of allen's plan, and for some reason the "first chapter" link is baby whippy, but are you really all that unhappy with the chapter? (i am)

ALSO HERE IS MY PATREON FOR EVEN MORE UPDATING MAGIC 

NOTES:
+lenore's husband is dead; she's a widow. her husband was actually in one of the openers, though!
+maya was planning on getting buddy-buddy with Lenore and/or Allen and then asking nicely at the end of the vacation for a recommendation when she tried to enlist. since that just got tossed out the window, she panicked. 
+i thought about doing a lot more specific gun research for this, but then i didn't. because it's not that important right now. maybe later. 
+NEXT CHAPTER. POKEMON THINGS. AW YISS. 
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PTF: Magical Girl by Digital-Skitty
PTF: Magical Girl
To be fair, she normally watched sentai shows growing up, not shoujo. 

(this is hisako, mc of operation: poison tree frog, and there's a semi-running joke about them being magical girls after they all gained their personas. hisa's not super familiar with the genre specifics but she knows enough to think about cute outfits and magic powers and saving the day with truth and love. needless to say, she's very wrong about how this ends up. she didn't even get her color scheme right!) 
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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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: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
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: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.
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: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.
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: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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:iconimmaculatefruit:
immaculatefruit Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
yo, so i just finished persona 4 golden and i thought of you. how have you been? it's been forever since we talked. i've actually re-read The Rook twice too btw. 
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