Grimacing, Freya was silent for a moment. Then, despite Raymond's advice not to, she put on that smile once more. Going into what happened wouldn't do either her or Renard any good right now. It seemed slowing her steps wasn't helping her friend either, judging by the way he cleared his throat. Not wanting to make him feel worse, she advanced at a normal pace, sitting down and taking out the tuna sandwich. As someone who took comfort in food, normally she'd have opted for the scampi and fries instead of a packed lunch, but today she lacked much of an appetite.
"Yeah... It was an eventful afternoon to say the least," she added after Renard made it clear he'd rather skip over the details, "but all that needs to be said about it is we're going to be ok. Both of us, and everyone else who went along." She slouched forward, taking a bite of the sandwich. Maybe food would energise her at least a little. "Although yeah, hopefully you had a better Friday than we did."
"Well..." Fuyuko frowned, mulling over her theories. "I can't say for sure, but there are a few possibilities." Every so often, she glanced around to make sure they were out of earshot of other students, particularly female ones. That other chat room user had been right. A magical girl really couldn't be too careful.
Turning her attention back to the brunette, Fuyuko continued, voice low to be on the safe side. "How much do you know about concepts and archetypes?" As soon as she spoke, she cringed, raising a clenched hand to her lower lip. New as this girl was to the world of magic, had that sounded insulting? She probably already knew about all that from the ally Sophia had described.
"If-If you already know... Eheheh, sorry I asked," Fuyuko added, hunching her shoulders as if shrinking back from her. "But thinking over them has given me a few ideas about who or what the watcher might be."
Fuyuko winced. Did this girl mean that was how she'd found out about the Hex Night, or had she not even been a magical girl when the attack happened? Would some people stoop to that level? "Ehh, were you alright?" she asked, eyebrows furrowing as she recalled Sophia's words. A new recruit getting a less than warm welcome.
Given the brunette's rough experiences, Fuyuko clenched her phone, wondering how to warn her about the current threat. "And, uh... It-It isn't just the Hex Night," she whispered. "Well, this could be related. This figure in a strange rabbit mask... They've been spying on people. On magical girls. I don't know their reasons, or what exactly is going on, but..." She paused, shuddering. "It can't be anything good."
Letting the revelation hang in the air, she cringed at her own tone. Magical girls were meant to embody positivity, yet here she was, talking doom and gloom. She couldn't be making the newcomer's introduction to this secret world any easier. "S-Sorry if that didn't help matters!" She bowed, lips twitching in an attempt at a reassuring smile. "The good news is, people are looking into this. Myself included. We'll... We'll do our best."
For all her association with the cold, Fuyuko's face heated with shame. "Sorry..." she mumbled again, standing and reaching out to help the other student up. That was when she noticed where the brunette was looking, right at the spot where she'd dropped her phone. That surprised expression, that sudden lapse into silence, said it all before the girl spoke.
"You're a magical girl too!?"
Fuyuko bit her lip, eyes darting from side to side. She held her phone to her chest as if her cover wasn't already blown. After that glimpse of the chat room, there was no point in denying it. Swallowing the tightness in her throat, she answered with a tense nod.
"Yes.... Eheh, I don't think I've seen you out and about in combat before," she whispered. Even if the appearance of some magical girls changed drastically when they transformed, like hers and Noriko's did, she was sure she'd recognise this girl's face if she'd seen her. Noting the awe in her tone, remembering what Sophia had said about a newcomer, Fuyuko added, "You don't sound like you've met many of us... Would you be new to this?"
Right then, her phone gave several notification beeps. Checking the screen, Fuyuko grimaced. What was this watcher doing, and what would their next move be? Her eyes shifted to the brunette. Gesturing to the side as a cue to break from the crowd, she lowered her voice further.
"There's uh... There's something I feel I should warn you about."
During Fuyuko's fruitless investigation that night, more brutal clashes went on closer to her home - not all of them the kind the yuki-onna imagined.
A growl sounded through the street, followed by a thud. "Uuugh..." The red-clad magical girl staggered upright, gripping the pole of her battleaxe for support. Hefting it, she charged, only for the canine girl and her wolf companion to fling her aside once more. The Woodcutter's Axe clattered to the ground. "I... I don't understand..." The losing fighter tried to rise, slumping, hood falling around her shoulders. "We're friends, aren't we? And you said you're not even taking part!"
An unusually solemn look met hers. "I'm sorry. Believe me, I wish things could be different. But some wishes are more important."
The red-cloaked warrior gave a breathless laugh. "Believe you? Why should I? My, my, what big lies you tell. All the better to cheat your way through the Hex Night with, huh? And if you're really not taking part, then who is? Who are you literally throwing everything and everyone else to the wolves for?"
Silence. Then an answer that wasn't an answer. "Just, please, stay out of it. Or I'll have no choice but to keep you out." While the okuri-okami watched for monsters, the wolf-eared girl kept her eyes trained on her opponent. "It's not just shades I've got to be on guard for. Not any more."
Her heart clenched as her fellow magical girl, on the verge of tears, retrieved her axe and stumbled away. Leaning down, Noriko placed her hand on Kiyoshi's head. "Did we do the right thing?" she whispered.
Kiyoshi nuzzled her fingers before responding. "No. We did the necessary thing."
Noriko stared down the street, her home in the distance, the shades at bay for now. A lump welled in her throat. Fuyuko may be tougher than she gave herself credit for, but the less competition, the better. The friend they'd made yesterday, though - Sophia - If it came to that, could she drive away someone who gave off the same aura of desperation her sister did?
"The necessary thing... That's all we can do," she sighed. It was, even if Fuyuko ended up hating her for it.
Fuyuko dragged herself through the school day, more exhausted than ever. Nearly an entire night of searching, and next to no result, save a dreamlike image of a mansion. Throughout classes, she mulled over the folk tales she knew about mysterious woodland houses, but her concentration kept slipping.
She couldn't forget how worse for wear her dad had looked asleep on the couch that morning. How out of it Noriko had seemed, for all her usual peppy encouragement. And she was sure she'd heard her mom crying, as she did more often these days. Trailing behind the other students as they left the school, she gripped her phone. The Hex Night truly was her family's only hope.
Scrolling through the chatroom text, she gaped at the latest message.
[CrimsonCloak]: Well, looks like I've gotta bow out after all, thanks to a certain someone who apparently had nothing to do with the Hex Night butting in. So much for just being a watcher. Now I'm not gonna get in edgeways. Ttyl everyone, and remember you really can't be too careful.
A watcher? Fuyuko's thoughts returned to that stare from behind a detailed mask. Her free hand raised to her mouth. Was the observer stirring up even more trouble than Shining Fist had thought? Were magical girls being threatened? Harmed? Lowering her arm, she tapped at the keys.
[snowfairy]: Oh god, are you ok? And this watcher, did they wear a rabbit mask and a suit, by any chance? If they did, this is something I'm helping to look into... Not much has come to light so far, but I'll keep trying
She waited a few minutes in case the dropout combatant was still online, but there was no reply. Fuyuko couldn't blame her for being in a huff, but resumed typing, this time to everyone else in the chat room.
[snowfairy]: Has anyone else had issues with a strange rabbit-masked person? If so, do you know who they might be, or anything about them?
Her mind raced. She had to warn Noriko, and get back to Shining Fist, before anything else happened...
Fuyuko went sprawling, her phone flying from her hands. "Ahhh! S-Sorry!" She brought herself to one sore knee, staring up red-faced at the small brunette she'd crashed into. "Are you alright? I-I'm so sorry, I wasn't looking where I was going..."
Her gaze drifted to the ground. What she saw brought a fresh jolt of panic. Her phone was undamaged, but the screen still clearly displayed the magical girl chat room - more specifically, its Hex Night channel. Her arm shot out, scooping up the device, but the student had most likely caught a glimpse.
Of course, there was a good chance she wasn't a magical girl, Fuyuko reminded herself. If she wasn't, the site probably just looked like a chat room for some anime fandom. If she was, though... What then?
Jess winced at Roxy's tone, a reaction that probably didn't help matters. Even if not for the clear wave of concern from the secretary, the glance in her direction would have said it all. The empath closed her eyes. Less than a minute here, and someone had gotten the wrong idea already. What if this got reported as a warning sign? Even worse, considering who had recommended this service, what if this got back to her mom?
Standing up, Jess tried to remedy the situation. "Yeah, it's the empath-anchor adjustment session. Heh, seems we're a little early," she said with a glance at the wall clock. Once she'd told the secretary both their names, she signed the visitor sheet, her handwriting a scrawl from jittering as the woman's nervousness fed her own. Maybe this hadn't been the best way to solve the problem.
The secretary gave a tense nod. "Take a seat, Laura will be with you shortly," she told them. Jess trudged back to her seat, the minutes dragging by as she and Roxy waited. When a figure appeared in the doorway, a woman with curly grey hair and coral-toned clothing who radiated warmth, her smile lines deepened as her eyes settled on the two girls.
"Would you be Jessamyn and Roxy?" Laura asked. Her voice alone was the kind that could lighten burdens with its gentleness - or at least it would, if Jess and Roxy had any hope of offloading said burdens. Still, the fraught atmosphere seemed to calm ever so slightly in her presence. Nodding, Jess followed the woman to the cosy-looking office, set up like a living room. She was glad the pictures on the walls showed city scapes at sunset, instead of the nature scenes that were typically considered relaxing. Forests and other places of isolation weren't something she, or other adapting empaths, would want to look at.
"Nice to meet you, I'm Laura," the counsellor said, sitting down on an armchair as Jess took her place on the sofa. "I'm an anchor myself, and you say you were both recently matched. You wanted to talk about adjusting to the changes in your lives?"
A second anchor. So that explained the lull in the turmoil of emotions. "Yeah... I mean, we're getting there in some ways. There have been a few issues, though." Jess explained, shifting in her seat as she considered what to talk about first. She decided on something an anchor would understand. "We stick by each other's sides all the time, but some emotions are still getting in."
Hands in her lap, she paused to let Roxy speak. If nothing else, maybe counselling would help her stop blaming herself.
Freya smiled in agreement. "Yep, lunch sounds good," she replied, grabbing her bagged tuna sandwich, stretching what she could of the stiffness from her body as she stood. Heading towards the exit beside Renard, she glanced over her shoulder at the group. "See you, everyone!" Hopefully there was no need to worry, with the teacher keeping the situation under control.
She kept her pace slow on the way to the cafeteria, so that Renard wouldn't have to walk faster than was comfortable. "You know, once you're up to it..." She hoped her voice didn't sound as uneasy to him as it did to her. "The training offer still stands." Her insides writhed, but it would be selfish to go back on her earlier words, however hastily spoken they'd been. If Renard felt weak, he needed proof that he wasn't. And if she did badly, maybe at least he'd feel better about himself by comparison... Or it would remind him why he'd seen what he'd seen, because he'd had to save her from her own screw-up.
Suppressing a sigh, she entered the lunch room to see someone else there. Raymond sat at a table in the corner, a variety of fruit spread out in front of him. "Ah, hey there," Freya greeted him, giving a smile that was meant to be friendly but turned out strained. It had been an incredible stroke of luck that some students, Raymond included, had missed the disaster of an outing. Still, despite her gladness, Freya braced herself. He was more than likely to ask about it.
Kerianne's attention turned towards Breeze. It wasn't often the shy girl displayed anger, but Erika's taunts and bragging brought out noticeable tension in her. Yi kept his usual calm confidence as he announced he'd go without a teammate, but Breeze, in contrast, remained silent. Knowing her, she seemed to be waiting for others to make their choices first. Right there and then, Kerianne made hers.
"Ok Breeze, want to team up with me?" She figured her classmate would rather work with someone she knew than someone she didn't, especially given a certain newcomer's rudeness. Although she'd considered doing the friendlier thing, getting to know the third Class C student better like Gabby had picked Momo, it seemed working together had been the friends' original plan anyway if Erika's earlier comment was anything to go by.
With each hand respectively gripping the shoulder and elbow of the opposite arm, Kerianne stretched from one side to the other, not just as a warm-up but to test her balance while waiting for people's input.
Sophia raised an eyebrow. One the one hand, Ty wasn't mad at her, to her relief. On the other hand, was it just a matter of not acknowledging her abilities, or had he not even realised she was a psychic? Some people just didn't see what was right in front of them. At least in this case it wasn't an entirely bad thing, and she'd have better opportunities to showcase her skills later.
For now, though, the spotlight still just had to be on Ty's Pokemon and the mess they were making, thanks to the two hyped-up researchers. Rolling her eyes at Amber and Aedre, Sophia followed the group outside. "Alright, alright, just remember some of us don't have all day," she mumbled, keeping a safe distance from any more errant fruit pulp.
As if the Scyther hadn't already displayed his complete and utter lack of finesse, right after Ty made a grandiose speech and threw a grape, one swipe reduced it to a burst of goo. Sophia snickered. As she watched the second, third and fourth attempts, however, her smirk faded. This wasn't amusing. Instead, the growing frustration the Scyther expressed brought a pang of sympathy. He'd put his all into the training, and it still wasn't enough...
She hadn't expected such a feeling of warmth to spread through her at Ty's encouragements, and the following success. Could Pokemon and humans alike truly flourish if they applied themselves enough? Watching the Scyther flail his arms with pride, Sophia let a smile spread across her face. Then, hoping nobody had noticed - except maybe Reaper himself - she took on a neutral expression, even as Lacey clapped and cheered at her feet.
"Huh. Well, gotta say... That wasn't too shabby towards the end," the psychic commented. Right away, at Ty's command, Reaper dived for another grape in a blur of enthusiasm - only for one of his blades to swing dangerously close to his trainer. "Ehh, he didn't get you, did he?" Sophia asked, rushing forward. Ty bore no wound, but his shock-stricken face looked as if the Scyther had nearly sliced his throat, not grazed his shoulder. Had he had some kind of bad experience with a Pokemon? Sophia glanced at Reaper, shaking her head.
"There's such a thing as getting too hyped about success," she remarked. Then, after recalling Reaper's prior discouragement, she added, "Even though it was a success."
As the shame-faced bug returned to his Pokeball, Ty promptly changed the subject. Sophia perked up at the mention of the gym. "Ha! Silly question." She strode ahead of the group, grinning back at them to disguise the crawling sensation in her stomach. "Who d'ya think it's going to be?"
Of course she wanted to, she had to, but could she this time? With a deep breath, she started along the route, her Pokemon in tow. Think of Reaper, she told herself. Think of how time and practice paid off for him. Surely it can for others too.
Standing beside Aedre, Amber leaned forward, her stare occasionally turning to her notebook as she scribbled. "Well, the raw strength is certainly there!" she encouraged both Ty and Reaper, after the mantis' first few attempts turned out more forceful than intended. "It's just a matter of refining it."
Just as the Scyther looked ready to give up, Ty demonstrated what to do. A thought occurred to Amber. "Hey, Chalcedony, Larimar," she called, motioning for the two fossil Pokemon to advance, "this is something you'll want to watch." The Kabuto and Anorith scuttled in front of their trainer, all three studying the scene as Reaper managed to catch a grape on the tip of his blade.
Amber grinned. "Nice one! As Aedre's Pokemon proved earlier, sometimes precision moves are the most useful, like when targeting weak points or conserving energy... Ah!" Fascination turned to shock at the sight of the blade nearly jabbing into Ty's shoulder. She stepped forward, nearly tripping over Chalcedony, her notebook and pen flying from her hands. Steadying herself, she grimaced at Ty's look of horror. Scythers, although all the rage in Kanto, were notoriously difficult to train and could do considerable damage, sometimes by accident.
"Are you ok?" Sighing in relief when she saw Ty was, she gave a weak smile up at him as she retrieved the writing implements. "As impressive as a Scyther's moves are, some things are best not to experience personally." She petted Chalcedony's shell, that strained look still on her face. "And sorry about that, Chal."
Standing from her crouch, Amber put on a brighter smile as Ty suggested making their way to the gym. Naturally, the ever-headstrong Sophia set off right away, leaving the rest of the group to trail behind. "So, I was thinking," the researcher said, glancing from Ty to her two prehistoric Pokemon, then back at him. "That trick with the grapes. Something like that could be useful for Chal and Larimar here to learn when they evolve. I mean, similar techniques can be used while running or swimming, so I'm sure these two and Reaper will be able to learn things from each other. After all, Armaldos have plenty in common with Scythers, and it's even believed they're an ancestor of some Bug types..."
Hearing a groan of "Kabuuuu", she looked down and laughed. "I think Chal's saying I'm rambling." Even so, she turned her head in Aedre's direction. "But anyway, those skills could also be helpful ones for Decus to learn."