Chapter 20: Misery New
the gay agenda
Chapter 20: Misery
“Ayyy, morning Aria! How’d the night treat ya?”
Sprout’s voice filled the dimly lit clinic room, its only other occupant immediately perking up at the sound.
“^It went... splendid.^”
“~Good morning Mrs. Aria!~”
The notebook full of scribbles was temporarily discarded as Anne smiled at the Gardevoir, one functional arm waving as well as it could.
The single word sent an icy dread down the girl’s body, sounding completely unlike what she’d known of the Gardevoir. Before Anne could speak up and ask about what was wrong, she saw Aria slowly turn her head towards her.
Her empty eye sockets were enveloped in a fierce crimson glow.
Anne’s breath was choked out of her lungs as a psychic force she couldn’t comprehend, let alone fight pinned her to the bed. She wanted to scream as her joints were being forcefully pushed way outside of their range; each crack and excruciating jolt from inside her body forcefully silenced.
“^I’ve humored you for far too long. Fortunately, I don’t have to do so anymore. Soon enough, you’ll be out of here, and everything will go back to how it was before.^”
The words hurt even more intensely than her body being mangled, every single dagger of a word stabbing deep inside her mind.
“^Did you seriously think you were safe here? That you could ever be safe here? You’re a filthy nuisance Anne, and us granting you as much mercy as we have is a mistake on our part.^”
Sprout watched idly from the corner, a forced smile splitting her head wide open.
“^Nobody here ever cared for you. Not me, not Marco, not any of my children. Cadence hates you and would love to do every single thing you were afraid of her doing, and Elric...^”
Bones snapped with a squelching sound as Aria’s bloody expression was twisted into a mockery of a smile.
“^If he sees you again, he won’t hesitate using that stinger of his to the absolute best effect.^”
The pain was blinding, Anne only conscious by the sheer force of Aria’s will as her mind was being violated and cleaved apart; every single source of happiness surgically removed.
“^Ember never loved you. She will forget about you, and she’ll be so much happier for it.^”
Crimson light flooded the room, filling it up to the Gardevoir’s ankles.
“^But no need to worry, you loathsome thing. After all...^”
Aria’s face cleaved open into thirteen maws of razor-sharp teeth, what remained of her flesh hanging limply underneath them.
“^YOU’LL DIE FOR THE GREATER GOOD, AND YOU SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR THAT.^”
A tight embrace snapped Aria out of her screams, the hellish vision dissolving immediately.
Her throat was raw, her body wracked with tremors. She had no idea what had just happened or how; her consciousness full of images of nigh-incomprehensible suffering she just watched herself inflict without being able to stop it. With each passing moment, though, another sensation took up more and more of the space left behind by her nightmare, one so much more familiar.
So much more comforting.
“Aria, honey, what happened!?”
Garret’s voice was more alarmed than she’d ever heard it be. She knew how he sounded when he shook in uncertainty or anxiety, but this wasn’t like either of those. This was terror, the kind still clinging to the wrinkles of her mind despite her attempts to shake them off.
Taking in a breath after what felt like ages let Aria realize her entire body was being surrounded in her husband’s fur; the sensation even more needed than usual. She was the village’s protector, but he was her protector. And here, beside him, the Gardevoir finally felt capable of processing what the hell she had just seen.
And she could only weep.
It wasn’t a reassuring sight, not in the slightest. Still, Garret had a decent enough idea of what to do in this worst-case situation. As gently as he could, he sat up while holding his wife close to him the entire time; the individual hairs shifted her around until she was on his lap, leaning into him.
Trembling like she never did.
“I’m here, honey, I’m here. Take your time.”
And her time Aria most definitely took.
The vicious gore she’d seen would’ve likely cost her hours, if not days, of sleep on their own. Being forced to watch her own body inflict all of it made the nightmare incomparably more harrowing. Despite being firmly awake now, she wanted to scream; she wanted to vomit, run, thrash, anything but to not have to be stuck with it any longer.
An attempt to reach in and cauterize the site of the vision in her own mind was doomed to fail, if not worse.
Calm Mind was an option, the right option for being capable of getting up and being productive, but... not yet. Not now. She knew all too well that it wasn’t just a cheap fright, the kinds of which the kids’ minds would often set upon them. This came from somewhere deeper, much deeper, and was ever more potent because of that.
Every single gory detail was infeasible, of course, but the rough strokes?
Her being forced to incapacitate Anne in order to steal her memory of this place and sentence her to a hellish, uncertain life back in the human world with nobody to care for her? Having to separate her and Ember again, to the latter’s indescribable anguish?
All that was real.
Could be real.
And Aria felt powerless to stop it.
Garret’s quiet growl gently nudged Aria out of her quickly panicking train of thought and back into his arm; a shake of her head acknowledged his voice.
“Do you need more time or to talk to me about something?”
The former wouldn’t help, the latter... could. The Gardevoir was still immensely unsure, both about sharing what she’d seen and talking about the underlying concerns. Of the two, though, airing all the roiling uncertainty would do her much more good.
“I-I think I do, yes. It’s... it’s about Anne.”
“O-oh? Did something happen to her-“
“No, no... not yet, at least.”
The Grimmsnarl didn’t respond, the obvious hole where words should’ve been conveying his confusion.
“Remember when I mentioned the council voting on her fate?”
“Yes, yes I do. Dreadful matter all in all, but I believe in you-“
“It’s not even about the outcome, it’s... about me having lied to Anne.”
Aria felt herself shift in Garret’s embrace. Her head was tilted upwards to look him in the eyes. Or at least, the very little that was visible of them.
“Lied about what? I don’t remember anything like that while we were chatting with her yesterday.”
“It’s from earlier, about her being safe here. Safe and sound, with a certainty that she’d be staying here for good.”
The dilemma took a few moments to click together in Garret’s head. In an instant, his expression faltered into one of dread, eyes going as wide as it was anatomically possible for them to.
“While in reality that’s nowhere near decided?”
Aria flinched, huddling up tighter as she held her husband tight, as if she’d been scolded.
“Y-yes. Anne thinks she’s safe for good and forever, and I have no idea what to say. She doesn’t deserve to have to deal with the dreadful possibility of her getting forced out because of something she can’t control; to feel like her and Ember’s safety is down to a bunch of coots and out of touch, paranoid fools...”
“But that’s just the truth, deep down?”
The Gardevoir let her head drop as she nodded weakly, having to put in her utmost focus not to break down again.
Garret could only hold his wife in silence for a few long moments; their minds busy churning through the dilemma in near complete darkness.
“Do you plan to tell her?”
Aria flinched again, the crux of the issue showing itself in its full ugliness.
“I... don’t know. I feel like I should; she deserves to know the truth. But at the same time, I don’t want to terrify her, or for her to lose trust in me...”
“Why would she lose trust in you? It’s a rather white lie in the end, and only so that she remains happy-“
“That is the exact excuse Cinder had used for what she’d done to Ember.”
Regardless of how incomparably different these two incidents felt like to the Grimmsnarl, he knew that trying to argue about that difference was way beside the point.
“I doubt that’s the same situation as here, but... you do have a point, honey, yes. Well, I...”
The more Garret thought, the more he realized he had no idea, either. Both options felt awful for their own reasons, the kind of awful that he’d be content staying away from for as long as he lived. Unfortunately, someone had to make these decisions in the end, and his wife had that burden of responsibility on her, on top of everything else.
He had no answer, but he was still proud of Aria for tackling it all, even when she didn’t truly need to.
“Honey, I wish I had an answer for you.”
Aria’s acknowledgment was delivered through a couple of thoughtless nods. She wasn’t expecting a revelation, because why would there be one? There wasn’t a hidden third option that would make everyone happy; she and Garret had already gone through everything. Still, just the fact that he’d tried to help mattered a lot to the Gardevoir.
He had no answer, but she was still immensely grateful to him for being here and letting her air it all out.
“It’s... it’s okay, Garret. I’ll figure it out-“
“Why not ask for help?”
The interjection left Aria stumped; her expression slowly shifting into confusion was noticed by her husband.
“What do you mean? From who?”
“Other scouts, the elders. Someone who’s caught up on it all and could offer an informed opinion.”
Aria wasn’t exactly eager at the idea.
At least, not with most of her fellow scouts. She knew full well that all the elders would offer her was either a silent treatment or a scoffed dismissal mixed with chiding because of her having revealed the truth about this place to Anne. Most of the other scouts weren’t too much better, but... some were. Finding someone who she could rely on to not be primarily driven by hatred of Anne would be a lot of help, as tricky as it sounded.
Still beat wallowing in silence, she supposed.
“I… can try that.”
“Going out and getting some fresh air sure beats meditating on it in pitch black silence and getting nowhere, eh?”
Aria rolled her eyes and flicked her husband’s nose; the counterattack delivered mercilessly just moments later.
Never failed to get at least a chuckle out of her.
“Yeah, that sounds right. Okay, I just need to grab my bearings and I think I’ll be ready to head out. The morning is just an hour or so away, anyway.”
“Awwwh, and here I wanted to ask whether you’d like to snooze just a bit longer together~”
The couple’s combined gaze swooped upon the door to their room; any confusion answered by one tired, confused voice speaking up in the darkness shortly after.
“^Mom, are you okay?^”
Cadence had only barely managed to deliver her line before a muffled sound of yawning filled their burrow. Her parents sure didn’t expect her to show up, but couldn’t say that the Kirlia’s presence didn’t help in relieving the tension further.
“^Yes, yes sweetie, I’m alright now. C’mere-^”
Before the lil’ fairy knew it, she was suspended in Aria’s gentle telepathy as the door was pushed open before her. Within a single, drawn-out yawn, she’d gone from knocking at her parents’ door to sitting drowsy on her mom’s lap, not even blinking as she immediately leaned on her afterwards.
“^Are you sure, mom? You were so scared there for a moment- *yawn*-^”
Aria couldn’t hold her yawn in response, not this time.
“^*Yawn* Yes, yes I was, but... it was just a nightmare, like the ones you have sometimes.^”
The creeping exhaustion didn’t make it any easier for Cadence to follow along with every word. Once her mom had wrapped up her sentence, though, the Kirlia knew exactly what to do at hearing the news. With no hesitation, she repeated the magical move taught to her by the very Gardevoir sitting beside her-
And hugged her as tight as she could while almost asleep.
“^Oh... I hope you feel better soon, mom.^”
Cadence’s embrace might’ve been modest, but that absolutely didn’t extend to the ones her parents had showered upon her afterwards.
“^I think I’m already a bit better with you here.^”
It took the entire reserve of the Kirlia’s awareness to parse through what her mom had meant; the response manifesting as a small smile that plunged the lil’ fairy firmly back into unconsciousness.
A handful of quiet chuckles were exchanged, a bit more affection. In no time, Aria carefully laid Cadence down beside her brother and friend before turning around towards the burrow’s exit, not forgetting to put on her Safeguard this time.
Ready or not, she had a duty to do.
Unfortunately, despite the Gardevoir’s determination, her body didn’t exactly... agree in full.
It certainly wanted to, as it always did, but this recent stretch was really beginning to show Aria her own body limits, exhaustion among them. The Gardevoir wouldn’t have thought that just three days of waking up early in a row would be enough to send her into such a tiresome hole, but here she was.
Really wishing she was asleep.
While also being perfectly aware of how packed and extensive the schedule was for her today. She wouldn’t be getting any rest until well after Anne’s sentencing at the hands of their council.
Assuming it ended in a good way, it would probably be the best night of sleep in her entire life. In the other case-
No, no, there’s no point in thinking about that.
With a forceful shake of her head, Aria was back in the world around her, pushing straight ahead through the near darkness of such an early morning. Dark and Ghost-types aplenty ventured the street, their voices and footsteps quiet enough to not break above the background din.
As much as the Gardevoir wanted to hit up Holly’s stall, she was early enough for Holly to not have even fully opened her pantry, somehow. A remarkable feat, with the Azumarill’s usual daily cycle having what felt like two hours of sleep.
At the high end.
Guess she was just this excited to cook stuff for people, which as much of an excuse as it would feel like for most... would really fit Holly in particular. The same part of her personality that made the fairy cook a joy when it came to preparing food for others, though, also made her a rather terrible match for how rattled Aria’s mind was in the moment.
Need someone less… overbearing.
Plus, as much as Holly’s cooking appealed to Aria’s sweet tooth, Vivian offered more than just sweets. What exactly the dragon’s energy-infusing magic was, Aria didn’t know, but she sure liked how its effects sounded.
Especially on this dark, foggy morning.
The silly tangent helped the Gardevoir in making her way across the less than pleasant early morning. Both in giving her something to distract herself with, and in being funny enough for her occasional chuckles to only bolster her meager wakefulness further. In not too long, she was already at her destination.
Or rather, what would become her destination in just a few drawn out moments.
Vivian’s soft voice shook the Gardevoir from her semi-conscious stupor, forcing her to focus on her immediate surroundings. The sudden snap to awareness had Aria standing in the middle of the street, blankly staring at the Goodra as they went through their usual routine of preparing their little corner for another busy, winter day.
“Is everything alright? Awfully early for you.”
“^Yes, yes, that’s... half the reason I’m here, actually. I woke up and won’t be falling asleep again. The rest tonight wasn’t all that great, and I was thinking if you had something that could help with exhaustion on hand.^”
Hardly the answer Vivian expected, but one they had just the thing for all the same.
“Aaahh~. Well... I should have a thing or two, if you don’t mind more than a bit of Salac.”
Cadence and half the other kids’ favorite, heh. All the sweetness, all the energy, all the speed one could ever want, all in a single bite of its juicy, cloying flesh.
...Aria might have liked it, too.
“^I’ll be alright, don’t worry Vivian. Thanks a lot, it’s-^”
“No need to go into it, Aria~. I take its some important Scout stuff, and frankly that’s all I need to hear. Just lemme know how I can help, and I’ll try my best~.”
The Goodra’s enthusiasm took the Gardevoir aback as they finally finished opening their bar again. A small patch of modest fire underneath the teapot didn’t do an amazing job at lighting up an entire room, but it far beat nothing.
Triply so with all the sweet scents that began filling the air afterwards.
“^Still... much appreciated. Past couple days have been rough.^”
“I can only imagine~. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you up this early, especially not this many days in a row. The mess with the human not letting anyone rest?”
A part of Aria wanted to just scoff at the question; scoff and mumble angrily under her mouth. She could only guess how well those who were trying their hardest to oppose Anne’s stay were sleeping, and something told her that their rest was in nowhere near as much jeopardy as hers. It’d help her vent, she was sure of that, but it would be a... doubtful way of gathering sympathy, be it for herself or Anne.
“^I know I can barely sleep, that’s for sure.^”
Her answer was acknowledged with a bouncy nod as the large, rugged tea pot filled the air with its ever familiar whistle. Within moments, Vivian was already pouring the hot water to several nearby cups, be they a part of Aria’s request, for the dragon themself, or some generically sweet tea for anyone that stepped in and needed a pick-me-up.
“Alriiiight~. Salac juice, dried Custap, a bit of sugar, a bit of spice, mix aaaand there we go.”
The contents of the mug placed down before Aria were... syrupy. Something to do with Salac juice and how it acted as a thickener, something more with how sweet the overall concoction was. The details were both beyond the Gardevoir’s knowledge, and beyond her care.
All she needed was one good gulp to feel energy indiscriminately fill her body.
Her nervously tapping feet grew more energetic, and fidgeting hands turned into little more than a blur. Her busy thoughts were pushed into an overdrive, one Aria had no idea whether it was even more helpful than her previous exhaustion. She sure wasn’t gonna be falling asleep like this.
Not in a million years.
“How is it~?”
Aria’s attention snapped up at Vivian in response to their question. And then at the stove beside them, the kettle on top of it, each individual mug next to them, one at a time, and then onto the other tiny items she could barely make out.
“^That’s one hell of a kick. M-makes me feel jumpy.^”
“If I dare hazard a guess, you were already jumpy before and just too tired for that to show much~.”
The Gardevoir tried rolling her eyes at the remark, but her gaze leaped to something else halfway through; unable to keep itself composed through the entirety of such an involved gesture.
“Want me to take a stab at something to help soothe your nerves?”
“^Doubt whether that’ll help much-^”
The keening voice was the most surprised Aria had ever heard it. A glance over at the entrance to Viv’s bar had the accompanying Weavile’s expression be a perfect match for her voice; wide eyes blinking in utter confusion.
“^I-^ Uh, good morning, Ruby.”
“Isn’t it unholy early for you?”
The Weavile’s eyes narrowed at the response. A part of her was keen to pry at the very confusing situation in front of her more, but she kept it contained for now. Instead, she just took her usual seat as the dragon served her usual request; the room-temperature tea struck the perfect temperature for warm drinks as far as the Ice-type was concerned.
For a few moments, the two drank their respective teas in silence as several other late-night regulars started pouring in from around the village. Early-rising diurnals or by-now-tired nocturnals, everyone wanted in on some of that goodness. Ruby might’ve been a fixture this early in the day, but Aria certainly wasn’t. Most patrons just raised their eyebrows for a moment or two before moving on, thankfully.
Plenty of reasons the Gardevoir could’ve reasonably been there, and it sure wasn’t their business to pry at which of them was the case in particular. That was the approach of most of those who came by.
But not all.
Rose’s startled voice was reflected in her expression. Eyes as wide as they got in their sunken-ness, slightly frizzled out fur. Not a moment wasted before she was leaning on a seat beside Aria’s and trying to establish eye contact with her, every passing second bringing more and more concern to her features.
“Good morning, Rose.”
“Mornin’? Hon, this ain’t anywhere close to morning! What’s wrong?”
“That’s a pretty hollow lie...”
Aria blinked as her gaze shifted onto the Weavile, currently in the middle of another deep swig as her sharpened claws tapped the countertop.
“What makes you say that, Ruby?”
It was Ruby’s turn to roll her eyes as she set her cup down, her eventual admission delivered in a hesitant, almost annoyed tone.
“I can hear your heartbeat, you know. It’s been hammering like mad, even beside your drink’s effects. Don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but... don’t lie to us, Aria.”
As white and inconsequential as the lie was, Aria reeled as if struck at being called out like that. It was enough to make the two dark types grow further concerned at just what was going on with her.
Suppose ultimately, there was no right way forward but to spill her dilemma to them and ask for their thoughts at the same time. Exactly what Garret had suggested earlier, but... it still felt rough to think about, let alone do.
No way through but forwards, though.
“It’s... about Anne.”
As Aria prepared to lay out what had been eating her up to the other two scouts, she looked over her shoulder, spotting an empty spot in the back of the bar. Not that separating themselves from the others would make much difference with the hearing of almost everyone here being notably better than Aria’s, but... she still wanted that bit of privacy, even if it was an obvious placebo.
A tilt of her head was all that was needed to convey her intent. The trio soon half sat, half huddled together on the cold bench in the corner, either mulling over or bracing themselves for Aria’s words. The resulting telepathy was tricky to establish despite the two Dark-types knowing to lower their guards around their coworker; nerves making the already tricky psychic maneuver even harder.
“^I... lied to her. Yesterday morning, before we had our first hearing, I told her that her staying here was a done deal, and that she’s safe here. I did it to make her happy, to let have at least one day of peaceful happiness here after everything she’s been through. B-but now, I’m... doubting. I don’t know whether I should tell her the truth.^”
Aria was grateful beyond words for neither of the two interjecting immediately and giving her the time to air her struggle in full, silly as it might have come off to one of them.
“Not sure I see the point in that. Comes off as just exposing her to more needless fear.”
“^How so?^” - Aria might not have been fully following Ruby’s train of thought, but was very glad that she had someone to bounce the discussion about all this off of.
“Think of it like this. If the vote goes against her and she has to leave, then there’s no point in letting her know since she’d have to forget it all, anyway. All it’d do is make her panic and be terrified for no reason. If she stays, then it will all blow over with time without her knowing. You’ll just tell her one day once she’s more equipped to deal with it.”
The Gardevoir liked exactly none of what she’d heard.
Even so, that was half of the point. Each idea she took as unsavory was one she’d have to find some reasoning against, eventually. The friendly atmosphere helped a lot, as did further affection from Rose once she’d been quiet for quite a while, mulling through it all.
As Aria thought about it, though, there was one ‘objective’ fact that further went against Ruby’s idea. And as anxiety inducing as it was in the abstract, Aria sure appreciated it here as a rhetorical argument.
“^I doubt that’ll work even on a practical level. Celia asked for Anne to be physically present at the vote after all. Even if she won’t know what’s going on exactly, she’ll still be terrified and unsure about why she’s there in the first place.^”
That... was quite a hitch for her idea, the Weavile had to admit that. Still, just a hitch, and if there was anyone well equipped to handle that exact hitch, it was the Gardevoir beside her.
“Point taken. Even then, I don’t doubt that a psychic as skilled as yourself could come up with some way of fooling her about where she is and what’s going on, if needed.”
Ruby’s remark had Aria think back to the previous time she’d complimented her skill, all the way at the very beginning of Anne’s stay here. It was made all the more disgusting in hindsight, just as the idea of deceiving Anne was sickening in the present. Justified or not, a web of lies was a web of lies.
One that would unravel sooner or later.
“Yeah, naaaah, I really doubt that’s the right way on, Ruby. Aria, hun, how much does Annie already trust ya?”
Aria tried her best at making the resulting exhale be as inconspicuous as possible. Ruby still heard it perfectly fine, rolling her eyes out of sight as the Gardevoir responded.
“^She... I think she completely trusts me by now.^”
The realization felt equal parts soothing and hurtful. To earn that amount of trust from someone so vulnerable, and to toss it aside afterwards in a spur-of-the-moment lie; an ever-growing debt to the truth that had accumulated immense interest over just one day.
“Ain’t that sweet to hear. Why haven’t ya told her already?”
An innocent question, another flinch going through Aria’s body. Why oh why, that’s the question indeed.
“^I... I wanted her to be happy. Happy and safe. It felt like if I had told her, she’d be terrified in her every waking moment with the possibility of her being tossed out looming over the horizon. She doesn’t deserve that kind of hell, nobody does.^”
Just like Ember didn’t deserve the hell of knowing that her best friend was still suffering so close to her home, eh?
Her friends’ questions stung, but her self-conscious comparing her to Cinder in such an overt way felt like a lightning fast gut punch, making the Gardevoir physically double over.
“Aria, what’s wrong?”
Ruby’s matter-of-fact voice was appreciated, as was her scanning for threats immediately after. Alas, nothing even her senses could spot. Nothing outside the confines of Aria’s skull.
“^Nothing, nothing, it’s just... it’s so hard. That’s the exact same reasoning that Cinder used for doing what she did, I-^”
The sensation of the soft fur and blunted claws patting her shoulder snapped Aria out of any further loathing. Rose immediately followed up her display of affection with a nuzzle to the psychic’s exposed side before speaking up; her voice understanding if low.
“Yeah, I’d be lyin’ if I said there ain’t no similarities. But, but, but- your mistake is one day old, and not with a birthday under its belt. Hell, I’d say it’s more understandable in the end, even if just as wrong.”
“But what does coming clean with all this do except scare Anne further?” - The keenness in Ruby’s voice made it difficult to spot, but there was some genuine curiosity in there, too.
“Th’ way I see it, two things. One, tells her yer honest, and two, lets her know ya can admit to mistakes. Everyone makes them, even ones we love and trust, but how ya handle them is the sticker.”
“I’m unsure how much honesty is good for if it only results in misery.”
“Plenty! ‘Cause things suck from time to time, no matter what ya do. Ya either let the ones you’re protectin’ know about that, letting them brace themselves for it, or ya don’t, and end up prayin’ the entire time they won’t figure it out by themselves.”
“I doubt the latter is an option with the girl not knowing our language-“
Despite her earlier courtesy, Ruby’s words had Rose erupt into an undignified laughter. Chittered noises echoed through the small bar and spilled out onto the surrounding streets to the backdrop of the eastward sky brightening by the moment, inadvertently waking at least a couple of people up. The Weavile was less offended at the response than she was dumbstruck, having genuinely no idea what about what she’d said was so funny.
Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to wait too long for an explanation to be provided.
“Ruby, Ruby hun, can I tell with utter certainty you don’t have any kids, ha!”
Jovial as the reply was, it unintentionally stung a bit, the other Dark-type’s gaze sliding away.
“I know. Me and wife are open to take someone in if need arises, but... haven’t had that happen yet. Not that it’d be a good thing if it happened, don’t want fate to come up with an orphan just so that I can feel like a mother.”
Blunt as Rose was, even she noticed that one.
Aria was blocking physical access to the Weavile, but it didn’t take long for a quick coordinated intervention to correct that. In a single swift motion, Aria slid in her seat while pulling Ruby along her, while Rose climbed up onto the spot the Weavile occupied moments later, pushing through the extra frosty seat to give her some complimentary nuzzles.
Ruby was of half a mind to dismiss all this out of hand, but... didn’t. Being comforted felt nice even for a former apex predator, who could’ve known.
“It’s... thanks, you two. Don’t worry Rose, I’m not holding it against you or anything, it just... stung.”
“I get that, Ruby, doncha worry. Hope something works out for ya two. But, back to my point. Kids are bloody smart. All kids, even the tiny tykes, even the ones that can’t talk or walk yet. They can piece stuff together way more than we give them credit for. Hell, I figured out quite a few things about the human world despite only ever being a nuisance for them and not knowing a lick about their language. Even if nobody tells Anne overtly, she’ll figure it out one day.”
Rose paused to catch her breath before turning to Aria directly, voice growing a bit less jovial than before.
“T’way I see it, Anne either learns it on your terms, or on hers.”
It was hard to disagree with that framing, unnerving the Gardevoir even further. She had increasingly less doubt left in her that confessing right away was the best way to go, but...
“^What if it’s already too late? What if me having made that lie in the first place is enough for her to never trust me again?^”
There weren’t any truly correct answers to that question, and that fact alone almost sent Aria spiraling there and then.
“Even if so, what would withholding the truth any longer do?”
The Weavile offering that point as opposed to the Skuntank raised the eyebrows of the other two. Ruby acknowledged the extra attention with an eye roll before elaborating, gesturing with a clawed paw as she spoke.
“Can’t say I fully agree, but I see the reasoning. With it all granted, there’s hardly a reason for you to delay any longer than needed, if it’s going to result in the eventual revelation hurting her trust in you even more.”
There weren’t any holes Aria could see in Ruby’s argument, which her mind appreciated. Her soul, though, didn’t, not one bit. Even the best course of action of immediately confessing to Anne as soon as she was awake still bore the risk of her trust being betrayed forever, and not without a reason. No matter how remote the possibility was, the Gardevoir couldn’t look away, not with how overwhelmingly terrible that outcome felt like.
In the end, it was unavoidable. Merely yet another consequence of her actions, for better or worse. She could either face it there and then, like an adult,
Or she could be Cinder.
The comparison hurt once more, but this time, Aria had braced herself for it and pushed through; the invisible battle inside her only barely noticed by her friends.
“^Right. I was just... worried that it’s too late. That no matter what I do, her trust is lost forever.^”
“Naaaaah. You’ve been doing so much for her, hun, and she definitely sees it. I’ve no doubt in my mind she’ll forgive ya sooner rather than later. I can’t promise promise ya that, but what I can promise is that honesty will work out the best for ya.”
It was all the confidence Aria was ever going to get.
Not much in objective terms, but that’s just what she had to work with, whether she liked it or not.
“^R-right. I can’t thank you two enough for hearing me out about this. It’s been a great help.^”
“You’re welcome, Aria.”
Right as the Gardevoir was about to get up and out of the bar, though, one nagging uncertainty at the back of her mind caught her attention, shifting it back towards the Weavile.
The Dark-type wordlessly snapped her gaze over at the fairy, raising her eyebrow.
“^What do you think about Anne on the whole? For the upcoming vote?^”
Aria expected many answers to that question, myriads of comforting and distressing ones alike.
What she didn’t expect was a shrug.
On its own, the sight was firmly towards the negative side of the emotional spectrum, but the elaboration that followed helped right away.
“She’s a kid, right?”
A dumbfounded nod from the Gardevoir.
“We take stray kids in. Prey, predator, insect, quadruped. Mon, human. Kid’s a kid, why wouldn’t we take her in. Hate that this is even something we have to argue about.”
This time, Aria didn’t even try to hide her expression of relief as a shaky smile crept onto her face. It was exactly what she wanted to hear, thanking the two Dark-types one more time before heading out into the slowly dying night.
That makes six certain for, and six certain against. The only remaining wildcard was Ori, and between Geiger’s and Marco’s intervention, Aria had reasons to hope that things would turn out alright.
Maybe, just maybe, she would make right on her promise to Anne, after all.
As helpful as Vivian’s drink was with getting her back on her feet, Aria’s stomach wasted no time complaining about the lack of any actual nutrients beyond the equivalent of seventeen teaspoons of sugar. Holly’s was already long since open, and grabbing something larger to start an arduous day off with was a no brainer.
For once, she even overcame her sweet tooth and went with an actually healthy meal.
She was far from the only one eating in the vicinity, though.
“Aria? A word if you could.”
Using the utmost willpower, Aria resisted cringing at hearing the Torkoal’s low, slow voice break the surrounding quiet. She wouldn’t enjoy this, but she would at least manage to push through.
“^Yes, Elder Ana?^”
As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the Breloom was there too, soon emerging from behind the nearest corner to join the fiery tortoise. A tiny part of Aria worried that the old coots had just cracked either her plan or how she’d handled the human librarian. Thankfully, that concern too was for naught, with something much more benign following instead.
“What’s the situation with the human?”
Ana wasn’t even attempting to maintain any facade of secrecy anymore, not with all the rumors about the girl in their midst having circumvented their village ten times over before she could even get out of her den.
“^Anne is doing well. Autumn and my kids spent a lot of time with her yesterday, and they enjoyed each other’s presence. Ember had woken up since, and the two are almost inseparable when together.^”
The Torkoal chewed on all the information, her expression maintaining its usual focus. That is, until one addition in particular led her to narrow her gaze even further than usual, the question that followed accusatory.
“Why bring your children along?”
Despite all the effort Aria could muster, namely none, she couldn’t keep a smug smirk off her face.
“^If Anne is to stay at our village for good, in my den, then it’s best she gets to know her denmates as soon as possible, no?^”
“‘Stay at our village’, preposterous.” - Winnie’s comment was delivered in all the disgust the Grass-type could force out, forcing Aria to take deep breaths to maintain her composure. To her surprise, it wasn’t just her who had a reaction to the Breloom’s words; Ana sighed in disappointment as she muttered a response.
“If that’s what today’s vote settles on, then that’s what will happen.”
“I suppose then I’ll finally have my proof that everyone’s gone mad!”
“That is a grievous oversimplification and you should know it, Winnie.”
“Oversimplification!? Hmph. Orion wouldn’t have allowed any of this madness-“
Right as the Gardevoir was bracing herself for another of Winnie’s bigoted rants, a very unfamiliar sound reached her ears. Rhythmic and scraping, crackling of flame mixing with stone grinding on stone. Inanimate and lively alike, as if someone forced a fossil to laugh.
Describing Ana as a ‘fossil’ wasn’t particularly nice, but it was hardly inaccurate, either.
Both Aria and Winnie had to take a moment to process seeing the Torkoal openly laughing. Especially when they realized she was doing so right in the Breloom’s face.
“Orion was the exact person who would’ve been going through with all this madness. With every day, I’m believing more and more that excess spores are eroding at your brain, Winnie.”
As the Gardevoir was putting her utmost effort into not letting her amusement show, the Breloom continued with his offended schtick.
“Even he was so much more grounded than this-“
“No he wasn’t, you fool. We almost had to keep him tied to a tree at all times, else his head would drag the rest of him into the clouds. Did you already forget why he liked you in the first place?”
Winnie was too taken aback by a fellow Elder acting out against him to respond; Ana following up soon after.
“You were his anchor. Night to his day. The polar opposite that kept him grounded and made sure there always was a dissenting perspective on hand.”
“You have to be misremembering, Ana, for there is no way someone so fooling as what you’re describing would ever create a place like this-“
“And that’s exactly what happened. He dreamed this place into existence. All we ever did was occasionally help him out and maintain it after...”
A long, painful pause filled the clearing. Even Winnie took the cue to shut up as everyone reminisced about what they remembered of the Zoroark.
Much to her regret, Aria never got to interact much with him.
She’d arrived with Marco just months before he’d passed away. Even back then, so close to his end, she remembered him being so... busy, engrossed in the village’s everyday life. Far from just an abstract founder and leader, someone who had never met a person he didn’t want to help if there was any way he could.
The most vivid memory she had of him was only a few days after they wound up in this place. Back when she was only steadily growing used to interacting with Dark-types; actively pushed through all the lies about them that her family had instilled in her. She would end up getting lost in search of... somewhere, her memory didn’t quite catch where it was that she couldn’t find her way around to.
Eventually, she ran into him, clearly lost.
There wasn’t even a shred of hesitation in Orion’s gestures as he started doing charades with her; the wordless play made much more effective with illusions of the places she could be heading towards. It all must’ve dragged on for way over half an hour, an unreasonable amount of time to waste on someone when one could just point them towards a nearby non-Dark type.
And yet, he went through it all, neither his smile nor determination faltering at any point.
His presence made the village so much brighter.
“If Orion was still around, we would’ve all needed to drag him away from housing the human in his den there and then, concerns about security be damned.”
The Torkoal’s grumbled words snapped the gathering back to awareness. All the Breloom could do was roll his eyes at the obviously accurate observation, but the Gardevoir... saw an opportunity to press further.
“^Well, how does Anne’s presence raise any security concerns?^”
Winnie’s scoff was expected to an extent, but not the mocking laughter that followed. Despite Aria’s best efforts, she felt her composure be strained at the sound. She didn’t expect to ever think that out loud, but goodness was she glad that Ana spoke up with her usual scaremongering stuff shortly after, silencing her fellow Elder.
“In the obvious way. A missing human means that someone will look for her, bringing further attention upon us.”
“^If that was still the case, we would expect further human presence than just the two half-hearted incidents from a couple of days ago. I’ve talked to one of the few humans Anne trusted about this. Almost nobody cared about her back in their town, and that won’t change just because she’s gone. If anything, that’s a further reason for us to care about her, to undo all the neglect on the hands of humanity over the years.^”
Neither of the two women were expecting the Breloom to say anything insightful. And, predictably, he didn’t.
“Mere pity doesn’t make this entire madness any less unspeakable.”
“Even if it’s the minimum of attention, it still contributes towards us being more likely to be discovered.”
Ana’s point was much harder to dismiss than Winnie’s rambles. It wasn’t a good point, but at least she was making an actual argument.
One, Aria soon realized, that didn’t apply to just humans.
“^You could raise that exact concern about any of us, Elder Ana.^”
The Torkoal’s gaze leaped up all the way to the fairy’s face; pursed eyelids parted for the first time in what had to be months. The immediate impact filled the Gardevoir with confidence, prompting her to double down on her point.
“^Whether we like it or not, we’re very close to their settlements. Each new head here increases the risk that someone will be spotted by a human and thought of as suspicious, without our knowledge. Each new building we raise makes us more visible despite our attempts to hide. More likely to be found by someone or something, potentially a human contraption that we can’t just intimidate or brainwash away. That’s always a risk.^”
As confident as Aria was in her point, she soon realized it was potentially too effective. As she finished her lecture, she sensed the Torkoal go from entirely composed to outright panicking; the outside appearance showing very little of it beyond nervous shaking and shallow breaths. Despite any animosity she might’ve had towards the Elder, the Gardevoir was on the brink of calling for help, unsure what was going on and not wanting to dig into her thoughts.
“I strongly doubt mere humans have anything she can’t easily hide from. They would’ve already found us if that was the case!”
Winnie’s words fell on deaf ears as Aria looked down at Ana in concern. Soon after, her gaze was returned, the sight of the Gardevoir finally forcing the Torkoal to regain some of her composure and try to at least vocalize what was wrong.
“Y-you don’t know that, Winnie. Aria- Aria is right. The risk keeps growing and- and we aren’t doing enough about it.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for Aria’s hysterical exaggeration, Ana- OW!”
Despite Aria managing to stop herself from doing something she would’ve regretted, for once it was Ana who didn’t have that restraint. The Breloom hopped in place as his extendable arms held his burned leg, bearing a fresh burn in the shape of Ana’s paw print.
Immensely gratifying as the sight was, the Gardevoir couldn’t care much about it at the moment, her attention shifting to the Torkoal’s admission instead.
“^Why not, then? Did you not consider that risk before-^”
“Of course I have, we have. Orion has. I remember his plans. Underground shelters, even an idea to make as much of our village underground as possible, nigh invisible from the air. Plans about digging escape tunnels all the way over to the human ruin you’re scouting towards, just in case. He had his ideas of managing risk, even brought up the possibility of relocating us all to a less risky area now that we know that this location isn’t sustainable, but...”
Ana trembled as her head sank towards the snowy floor; a drawn-out sigh forcing the most pitiful of smoke clouds out of her hump.
“Time spares none.”
Through the supernatural power of having any restraint whatsoever and the scorch marks on his foot, Winnie stopped himself from adding another unwanted comment.
“Maybe... maybe if he had told us about the sickness eating his body earlier, we would’ve been able to settle on a long-term plan before he left us. But he didn’t. And we had to live with that, unable to even come close to his insights.”
“That’s far from true, Ana! You’ve been the best leader any of us could ever hope for-“
“Spare me the flattery, you moldy fusspot. I know my weaknesses well, and especially now, they feel crippling. Orion... had ideas. Dreams. Desires. The way our village was there and then was always only a work in progress for him, just a slice of the unending vision that gave birth to this place. I... don’t have them. Don’t know how to have them. I don’t know what he saw. Even if I did, I doubt I’d be able to push on where needed. He dared to risk in everything he did, made wild changes that left us all for the better, and I-“
A drawn out pause; Ana’s body language shrunk.
“I can’t put myself in that mindset. All I can do is maintain things as they are, managing risk in the most passive way. I’m not suited to be the leader, never was.”
“Of course you are!”
“Despite everything, you maintain objectivity! You don’t just let anyone overly emotional rock the boat with us all in it, your neutrality is admirable-“
“MY NEUTRALITY IS WORTHLESS.”
Aria hadn’t ever heard the Torkoal raise her voice like this. It’s as if her voice had turned from one burning rock shuffling along the ground, to two burning rocks shuffling along the ground.
“It’s hardly a virtue, just a way of avoiding any commitment. Something to help keep me from going insane from the weight being placed on my back. Dispassionateness breeds stagnation, and I’m the proof of that.”
As much as the Gardevoir appreciated the frankness, it helped little on its own. Much like she and Cinder alike were repeatedly learning, admitting to one’s mistakes is just the very first step. By far the easiest and most meaningless.
Still, so much more than she ever expected in this specific case, though.
“^It sounds like you’ve acknowledged that we can’t continue to exist exactly like this forever.^”
Another deep inhale, another puff of off-white smoke filling the earliest of dawn.
“Rationally, yes. Emotionally... I’m not the right person to oversee change, never was. Neither are Winnie nor Celia.”
“If things were up to you, time would lay entirely still. And Celia... ideas are only any good if communicated with others. Not something I, or anyone else, can force her to do.”
“^Then it sounds like you need a new perspective.^”
Ana remained quiet at the allusion of their current leadership not being cut for the job. She very much agreed with the underlying claim, but... pride was still pride. Difficult to elevate external critique to the same level as internal self-loathing.
She at least tried, though.
“Are you threatening us with a coup!?”
Winnie’s inane question got one drawn out, unamused look from everyone gathered before the two women focused on each other again, Aria continuing.
“^Someone with a vision. Someone who deeply knows humans, and can advise much better on how to avoid them going forward.^”
It wasn’t exactly difficult to piece the leads together. Ana’s mind shifted gears from sadness to pensiveness.
“Oh, don’t mock this position, Ana! What next, choosing that humanling as an Elder!?”
“As far as I’m concerned, she would be a marked improvement over you, especially right now.”
Despite being plenty used to being the butt of most comparisons, this one actually got to Winnie. Petty insults were one thing; to be negatively compared to a human was another, a much more acutely hitting slight.
For a few moments, the Breloom could only shake in anger before storming off with a loud ‘HMPH!’. Neither of the two dwelt on his departure for more than a moment before Aria continued once more.
“^If there’s anything I’ve learned about humanity over the past few days, it’s that we have no chance if we don’t know everything we can about them. What their technology can do, how they behave, how they live and so on. Geiger obviously knows a lot about that. And...^”
This was a much riskier play, but if there was even a chance it would work out, Aria was eager to go all in.
“^...Anne’s perspective could help a lot. About the sorts of everyday human things even Geiger would know little about.^”
For once, Ana remained completely silent; mind sunken into deep thought. A stray beam of sunshine broke Aria’s focus as she waited for a response; a glance upward revealed most of the sky to have shifted from reds and pinks to ever brightening blues. The sun was here, and Anne would likely be awake before long, assuming she already wasn’t.
“^I should be going now.^”
The Torkoal nodded deeply without speaking up right away. It was only after the Gardevoir got moving towards the clinic and walked around the tortoise, did the weak, croaked words leave Ana’s mouth; as somber as they were genuine.
“Thank you. May the winds hasten you, Aria.”