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Frontier Town Founder's Square

Nova saw the oshawott approaching and slightly raised his foreleg in greeting. "Did you know this place has a coroner? Because I didn't until yesterday." And he was still skeptical just what sort of equipment they'd even have out here for... autopsies? Nova was pretty sure that was the term.

"A bit sore from carrying that zoroark around half of yesterday, but otherwise fine." He tilted his head. "And you? You guys, uh, got roughed up a lot more than I did."
The Oshawott hesitated a moment. What a morbid way to open up a conversation!

“Well, I… Try not to get involved with the bounty hunters that kill their targets,” he said, “But, I guess I’m not surprised? That it has one?”

Wait, just how long had Nova been carrying around Fein’s corpse? That thing had to stink by now! Did that mask block his sense of smell entirely!? … Maybe he’d just… Stand upwind for now.

“Uh… Well, physically I’m fine,” Archie said, “Just… Had to come to grips with some unpleasant stuff. But, uh, what brings you all the way to town today?”

Was he already chickening out already? No, no, of course not, he told himself. He just needed to find a more elegant time to bring it up, that was all.
"Supply run, I s'pose," Nova said. He then pivoted slightly to give Archie a better view of his mask. "Also this thing. I was with Leaf and Grace a bit yesterday and it, uh, reacted a bit? But it's still stuck. Something's missing. Thought maybe walking around here could give me a burst of inspiration."

The null didn't want to bring up the battling aspect. That would just be him bemoaning his weaknesses. Not exactly friendly. Instead he continued, "Grace suggested I think about sleeping on the roof of a building near the team. But, uh... I feel like people would think I've lost my mind if I did that."
Really? The mask had reacted? How so? The Oshawott absentmindedly reached out with both paws to touch it, wanting to see if it shifted in his grasp, but he quickly remembered himself, and drew his paws back before he could try and stretch up to Nova’s height.

“Is your, uh, friendship training going well?” he asked, instead. “You know, the Haus has plenty of rooms available if you want to sleep in a warm bed for a night. No roofs necessary?”

The thought of the chimera camping out on a random rooftop of all places did make him chuckled, a little. Would probably result in a very irate home-or-business owner the next morning! Maybe even another article in the paper. Had it been Nova or Gladion in that first one, come to think of it? The whole mess that had sprung up immediately after their arrival already seemed so long ago.

“But, uh, I think maybe this, Grace, you said? Has a point,” he followed up, with a nod, “you shouldn’t isolate yourself so much. We’re all a team, right? Gotta rely on one another.”
Nova winced. Well, fuck, he brought up the team thing anyway. "It's... hard to feel that way when you don't have much to contribute." He looked at the fountain. His head was turned enough that, even with the size different, Archie would be able to see the large opening in the back of Nova's mask. Whatever was underneath was veiled in a shadow, but the crack was there.

"We can't avoid getting into fights," Nova said. "But I can't attack. And even though I'm trying to do something with what I have, it's not producing any results." The times he thought he conjured shields against Seth meant little, since the lycanroc just broke right through them with his attacks. "Could be a problem, if the last thing I need to get this off involves proving I have worth in, like, a fight..."
In the end Leaf had taken Nova up on his offer to attend Mysterious Mew-Guy Training the other day. It'd gone... okay? While the two legendaries had seemed satisfied enough with the graydian's progress, all it'd really accomplished for Leaf was more headaches, and not just the "being around an obnoxious overbearing showoff mewtwo when you are also psychic" kind. Still no solid confirmation of whether the guy was actually him, but he was definitely a Smug Bastard and that was plenty irritating enough just to start. As long as it was doing what it was supposed to do for Nova, though, that was what mattered. Seemed like it had, even—she'd noticed a few chips missing from parts of the mask by the end of it, that was exciting—so, eh, call it a generous 7/10 overall.

Piling on more stuff to worry about wasn't helping her feel any more rested at the end of the day, but she had to try her best anyway. Chief Ayda had finally been able to work out a time for them to visit the HQ, but that was gonna be a long hike out of town, and it wouldn't be long before Nico arrived to lead them there. With most of her prep already sorted, she'd decided to spend most of today taking it easy instead. Enjoy a nice breakfast out, see if there was anyone who wanted to hang out and do something fun or just chat...

Oh, hey, that was Archie over there. Talking with... Nova? Huh. Hadn't expected to see him back in town so soon, but maybe he was finally feeling up to trying out more socializing. Might even have been working, if she wasn't just seeing things and that big ol' crack was actually there. "Hi, you two!" Leaf called over to them. "Sorry if I'm interrupting, but I noticed the helmet's looking even more busted today—were you able to get some more training in earlier?"
The Oshawott folded his arms. For a while he’d thought Nova was maybe doing better now that he was working on a plan to get his mask off, but it sounded like he was still having the same kinds of self-doubt issues as the chimera had been having for a while now.

“Well, I thought you were pretty indispensable, in both the fights with Ayda and Seth,” he said. “You protected me. I don’t think I got to thank you properly, for that. So thank you.”

He dropped his paws, into his pockets. “I think, all of us regret something about how that fight went down, at least a little bit. I think that’s… Kinda the nature of it. But don’t feel like you aren’t contributing.”

Studying the crack in the back of the chimera’s helmet, Archie was actually surprised at how large it was. He was surprised the thing wasn’t loose already. Maybe it was stuck on his muzzle? He presumed Nova had a muzzle? And why was it so dark?

“Feel like I’m looking into the back of a Shedinja shell,” he said, jokingly. But, before he could say more, who ended up joining them but Leaf. He gave the Ponyta a small wave. At least this meant there were two people here now he could explain how badly he’d fucked up to. Still maybe not the best time to bring that up, though. Instead he focused back on Nova.

“I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical that you could, uh, game friendship like it seemed like your… Mentor suggested,” he said, trying to pick his words carefully, “But I can’t argue with the results, it definitely looks like that thing’s coming off sooner rather than later.”
Nova had seen Leaf approaching but his greeting got caught in his throat when Archie spoke.

"You think I’m… helpful?" he said. "You’re not just, y'know, saying that?"
Jeez. Where Nova’s inner demons really this bad? Well, then again, war machine forced to commit atrocities against his will. So, yes, they probably were. Still, the Oshawott couldn’t mask the flash of concern that passed across his face.

“Of course I mean it,” Archie said. Maybe what the chimera needed was a bit of a confidence booster? “Both in a fight and out. I trust your judgment, and appreciate your knowledge and expertise. And I know I can rely on you to have my back when the chips are down.”

Even among everything else, when the rest of them were being overwhelmed by shadow. When Wes had lost himself and was attacking them, while Odette was on the ground unconscious, when Leaf and Steven had broken and run, when Archie lost his nerve. There had been Nova, standing strong. He’d been through it all before, after all.
Leaf paused as Nova spoke up, still insecure about his place on the team. Well, like she'd said before, that probably wasn't just going to go away like it was nothing. "If you hadn't been there, Seth would've wiped a bunch of us out from the starting line," she insisted, just about managing to suppress a quick shiver. "Protecting other people matters, even if it's just for a second. Helping us keep our heads on straight matters." She nodded at Archie. "Heck, you probably talked some sense into Seth at the end there, and god knows he needed it. Things would've gone real different if we hadn't had someone rock-solid to rely on."
At first, Nova didn't hear there responses. "It wasn't that I was... worried about hurting people. I was kinda lying about that when I said that was why I left." He looked down guiltily. "I just... I couldn't handle being inside. Around so many people. I've lived in the wild so long, I--"

I trust your judgment, and appreciate your knowledge and expertise. And I know I can rely on you to have my back when the chips are down.

Nova stiffened, vision getting fuzzy. He lost sight of Archie and Leaf. Of the town square with the fountain nearby.

He stared at his hazy reflection. His tattered cloak fluttered in a breeze that wasn't there. The chains around his forelegs rattled with every step. Tired gray eyes peered at Nova from behind the reflection's mask.

"Why?" Nova whispered. "I'm too far gone, aren't I?"

The reflection's cloak rippled faster and faster. It spread out around the reflection, until a red wolf's silhouette gazed at Nova. Hollow yellow eyes blinked slowly in the center of its shield-shaped face.

"It should've been you," Nova said. "You're the one he should've brought here. You still have a chance at a future! I--"

The wolf shook its head slowly.

"Protecting other people matters, even if it's just for a second. Helping us keep our heads on straight matters."
"Helping... for just a second." Nova had said as much to Silver in the bar the other day. "I... helped them?"

Smaller cracks spread across Nova's helmet. Tiny brown pellets dropped by Leaf and Archie's feet.

This time the wolf nodded. Its yellow eyes were... soft, despite their hollowness. It took a single step with a red, wispy foreleg. Its forepaw shattered the chains around Nova's reflection. Then it nodded again.

The meaning was clear: if Nova had
helped people, then he had broken free from the shackles of his world. He could choose what he wanted to do on Forlas. Just as a malleable aura meant he could choose how to help people. Whether that was as a shield or a sword.

The smaller cracks joined together into bigger cracks. The spiked corners of Nova's mask dropped by his forelegs, exposing more gray fur and the base of a beak.

Nova met the red wolf's eyes right as it began to fade away.

"I understand," he whispered. "Your time will come. Back home. You can tend to them. And I'll... do what I can... to make a difference here... with the time that I have."

Seemingly satisfied, the red wolf dissolved into a fine mist. Nova's reflection staggered toward him, but stumbled. Spiderweb cracks spread across it, from helmet to fish tail. It managed another half step before it shattered.

The gray crest atop Nova's head fanned out, shattering the last parts of the mask. Gray stone dropped by Nova's claws while three turquoise feathers erupted from the back of the crest. Dull gray fur shifted to a muted white -- he was still dirty, after all -- while golden cheek bolts turned clockwise, then counterclockwise.


(Art by PrinceLore)

Nova took a single stumbling step forward, nearly tripping over a piece of his mask. Turquoise, electronic eyes looked down at Archie and Leaf.

"Thank you both," he said, nodding slowly. "I-- sorry."

The fountain was nearby. Nova hurried toward it. He looked down at the water. Felt sunlight and a warm breeze against his head for the first time in forever.

"That's... my face." He rested a foreleg against the edge of the fountain. "My face. I'd... forgotten..."

Tears hit the water. Nova's reflection rippled.
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Uh-oh. Looked like Nova was freezing up again. What had happened? Was he remembering something else bad, or...? "Hey... hey, Nova, are you—"

Loud, sharp cracking noises cut her off, followed by the sound of pieces bouncing off the cobblestone street. Okay, yeah, it'd looked like it was getting wobbly before, but the helmet was definitely splitting now. The breaks in it were getting bigger, and—wait, uh, what did they do now? Should they try to help pull the rest off? Make sure nothing was still stuck or screwed in somewhere? Should they go get someone—

It was gone before she could focus enough to make up her mind, now just a pile of crap scattered around Nova's talons. And his face... a hooked beak and a dog's ears and that huge crest and... well, she didn't have any better idea what he was than when she'd first met him, but whatever he was it was cool, and probably also literally actually cool because there was no stupid mask cutting him off from the fresh air.

"Yes!" Leaf sprang into the air and kicked excitedly. "It's off, it's off! Are you okay? Do you need anything?"
Well. After the amount of angst that mask had caused Nova, its removal was suitably dramatic. Archie actually found himself taking a few steps back in surprise as it literally began falling to pieces. The face that was revealed, well, it certainly fit the rest of the body. So this was what these chimera Pokemon looked like underneath? Somewhere in the back of his mind, a small part of him thought to himself that he’d been sure that crest had been part of the helmet, but, apparently not!

The Oshawott didn’t even notice the chimera had gotten larger on top of everything else, until he’d taken a step towards them and the shadow he cast covered more than usual. His colors had brightened considerably, too, and the crest on his head had fanned out. All in all, he was certainly the impressive sight!

“Hey, you did it!” Archie cheered, though he had to stifle another small chuckle as the chimera rushed to look at himself in reflection of the fountain, nearly tripping over shards of his broken mask in the process. Nova had always cut such a dignified – if depressed – figure, it was nice to see this side of him alongside the reveal of what he actually looked like. The Oshawott stuck his paws in his coat pockets, and approached a few feet, making sure to take a wide berth around the remaining scattered mask fragments as he approached.

“Can’t begin to imagine how good it feels to have that thing off,” he said, nodding along with Leaf’s questions. “All your hard work’s paid off, huh?”
"I'm... okay?" It was hard to parse Nova's tone. He was still staring at a rippling reflection. Tears slowly dribbled onto the water. "That's me." He blinked a few times, but it didn't make his vision any less tearful.

"I haven't—" His cheek bolts slowly turned. "It'd been so long. I forgot what my face looked like." Nova shook his whole body out. "It's strange. Seeing so much around me. And this... warmth on my fur."

It was practically foreign. Nova managed to sit down... and scratched at one of his almost noivern-like ears with a hind leg.
"It's good to see what the real Nova looks like!" Leaf said, moving a little closer as Nova stared at the fountain. (She hadn't expected to see parts of his face just kinda... spinning independently like that, but it didn't seem to be bothering him—must've been normal?) "I think it looks like somebody who has a chance to relax and figure things out.

"What do you think of it?" She nodded toward the reflection.
Nova tilted his head slightly, unsure if that question had a deeper meaning. "I mean it, uh, makes sense?" He managed to blink the tears out of his eyes. "It looks and feels like it fits. It isn't out of place or anything." Nova remained seated. "It's more that back home that mask was stuck on for so long I'd just... forgotten what I looked like underneath?"

He looked down guiltily. It wasn't the best explanation. "Or it might've been the shadows here and back home messing with my head." A pause. "Literally and figuratively."
Archie couldn't remember what his human face had looked like. But he knew 'his' face, the Oshawott one that looked back at him in the mirror. He could picture himself and have a complete image. Nova had been trapped in that mask for so long, he'd forgotten his face entirely. Factor in just how much the mask made him suffer, and Archie could scarcely begin to imagine what that must have been like.

... If he had the mask on so long, odds seemed good that he was trapped in it in his home world, too. So, just as soon as their job was done, he'd be right back to being trapped in it. And not only that, Nova was going to forget everything. He'd forget his face again, forget he managed to take the mask off. Even forget that it was possible to remove, and how to remove it. It seemed cruel. At least some of them had friends and family to look forward to seeing again. Did Nova even have that?

His smile faltered ever so slightly, but he forced it back into place. This was supposed to be a happy moment. Nova especially deserved to be able to enjoy it. Even if it would, ultimately, just twist the knife even worse.

"Leaf's right, this look suits you a lot better than that mask ever did," he hummed. "We should do something to celebrate! I've got a big job coming up, how about I treat you to dinner next time we're both in town?"
"Hmm?" Nova's head crest fanned out a bit. "Oh, sure. That'd be... fun."

There was a bit of an awkward pause, but that only because Nova felt dirt between the gems on his fish tail. He glanced over his shoulder. The tail swished back and forth, kicking up dust.

"Ah-ha. I didn't think it did that..." The cheek bolts turned once in their sockets.
"What, you didn't know your tail could wag?" Archie chuckled. "Yeah, they do that."

He allowed himself to approach the Chimera the rest of the way, leaning back on his heels to look up at Nova.

"I'll hold you to that dinner, though! Where're you feeling? Zera? Sunstone? Somewhere else?"
"Uhhh..." Nova blinked a few times. "I don't really know. Smell's important to taste, right? I couldn't really smell before. Everything tasted stone."
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