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Frontier Town Founder's Square

She hadn't expected to see such a fish-looking tail wag, but it was sweet all the same, even with the dusty mess it was making. If it was doing that without Nova even realizing, then he really must've been in a happier mood.

"Well, which sounds better to start with? Something simple, or something really fancy? Do you want to take it easy at first, or jump right in?" Leaf asked. "You can always try the others later, after all!" She nodded sagely. "But if you need a recommendation, I can definitely vouch for Nina's sandwiches not tasting even a little bit like stone."
"A shining recommendation," Nova mused. He thought on it a bit more. "I guess, uh, somewhere that offers meat?" He opened and shut his beak. "I kinda ate a mix of meat and berries until now. Didn't really... think about how they might not go together since they kinda tasted the same."

Fortunately, it didn't seem like Archie or Leaf were food snobs. Or any of the Wayfarers, for that matter. Unless their pokémon bodies overrode that?
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he snickered. If this Fiends job turned out well, he could more than afford to splurge on a good meal. Nova deserved to enjoy this time while he could. Who knew how long their time in Forlas would last, after all. Even staying until their job was done wasn’t guaranteed, after all. “Gonna make a gourmet out of you, yet.”

Actually, maybe before he started making any plans, he should reveal what he planned to reveal. The reveal of Shadow Corruption seemed to have hit Nova especially hard, after all. There was always the chance the chimera wouldn’t want anything to do with him once he found it the whole thing was the Oshawott’s fault.

He cleared his throat, and shoved his paws deeper into his coat pockets, before he spoke up again, “Actually, I’m glad I was able to run into you both here. There’s something I want to talk to you both about, about how we all got corrupted.”
"Hmm?" Nova's cheek bolts rotated once in thought. "Oh, right." His feathers and eyes dimmed. "Are you, um... doing okay? I know you're close with Wes, so it must've been hard in multiple ways."
“It’s…” He paused, frowned, then forced himself to continue, “It’s my fault it happened.”

Slowly, the Oshawott recounted the events of that day to Nova and Leaf. Going down to the jail with Koa, trying to get through to the Drapion. The sudden appearance of Alex and Xander, the Zweilous Mhynt wanted dead. Alex’s offer for information and claim to be a shadow investigator, but unwillingness to do so outside of a more private location. How desperate the Oshawott had felt for any information at all, after his talks with Nova and Steven and his fears they were already corrupted.

“I suggested Silver Ravine,” he explained, “At the time, I thought maybe if anything happened, we could call Betel to summon help.”

Instead, as Archie recounted, Alex cut them off from Betel, who hadn’t been able to sense anything off about the Zweilous until it was far too late. He told them about how Alex had threatened their lives, only to play it off as a test. And then…

“He hit us with what looked like black lightning, but the feeling of it was bitter cold.”

At the time, Alex had played the hit off as accidental, a miss aimed demonstration of power. Archie was quick to insist that he’d been skeptical of the claim even then, but by then things were moving too fast to stop them. He told the pair how the Oshawott and Electrike were able to call up the shadows soon after, and then, once the connection with Betel was reestablished, how the voice was quickly overwhelmed by the corruption.

“And then, after it’d passed from us to Betel, it spread from them to the rest of you,” the Oshawott finished, making a weak sweeping gesture with his arms. “None of this would’ve happened if I’d taken more care. I’m responsible for all of it… I’m sorry.”

He steeled himself, waiting for the response, his hat brim lowered to cover his eyes.
Leaf nodded absently along with Nova's comment, suddenly a little distracted by the tail end of it. Where had Wes been, anyway? She hadn't even seen the guy since that night. Had anyone else? He'd better not have been avoiding them, after what'd happened. She hadn't been hurt that bad, at least, not by him, but he sure owed the team in general, and Odette, Koa and Archie in particular, one hell of an apology.

An apology from Archie had not remotely been on her radar. She didn't say anything as he launched into the details; mostly just sat there with her eyes going wider and wider as the story got wilder and wilder. Well, damn, that was messed up. All those horrible feelings, all that screaming inside her own head, and they hadn't just come from fighting the Wolf? (Had it had anything to do with the way Wes had freaked out?) How badly had it messed up poor Beetle? Was this Alex-Xander guy going to be able to make it worse, somehow?

It was... a lot to take in, that was for damn sure. Too much, honestly, on top of all the Everything Else. But now they knew, and that was something. "That's... it's okay," she said at last, slowly but not like she didn't believe it. "It's not like you meant to do it." Not like he'd meant to let her dig her nasty little claws even deeper into Leaf's head. "None of us knew what we were really dealing with, right? I... I might've done the same thing if I'd been there, I think." Of course you would have.

"Thanks for letting us know." She sighed and did her best to shake off the nagging valid criticism shut up discomfort, then looked the oshwaott in the eye—not accusing, but definitely deliberate. "What do you think we should do now, though?"
"For starters... prrrrrobably not venture off on our own or with one buddy, even if we're trying to follow a lead," Nova said, shifting his weight between right and left. "Or seek out that zweilous. Though, uh, easy for me to say that. Kinda big." He looked at his backside. "Not a subtle presence for investigating anything."

Nova crouched down, attempting to get closer to Archie's eye level. "I don't think it's all your fault, though. For all we know, shadows might have been building up within us the whole time. Who's to say a different event wouldn't have caused some... chain shadow reaction? And maybe at a really bad time for the team?"

He stood back up. "Besides, there was a shadow pokémon on the team from the start. Maybe it was only a matter of time..."
They… Honestly they took it a lot better than he was expecting. Dave had seemed ready for violence at points, and Archie had assumed that was probably about as good a reaction he could hope for. Some of the tension eased from the Oshawott’s shoulders, and he allowed himself to look up again. Though he did kind of feel like they were maybe letting him off a bit too easy, they weren’t wrong to want to focus on next steps.

“To be honest I… Haven’t spoken with Wes much since the fight,” he admitted. The freshly evolved Lycanroc had been doing his level best to avoid getting close to any of them in the immediate aftermath of his freakout, and the Oshawott hadn’t seen him yet since. “I intend to tell him, though. He deserves to know.”

As far as what to do going forward, Nova definitely had the right of it. Archie leaned back on his heels again, crossing his arms and nodding.

“I hate to admit it, but… Alex could’ve easily killed Koa and I, and because the only person who knew where we were was Betel, and we were cut off…” He shook his head, letting the other two draw the obvious conclusion. “At the very least, if circumstances absolutely demand we investigate solo or in small groups, we absolutely have to make sure others know where we’re going, when, why, and with who. We should also try to avoid encounters with Alexander whenever we don’t have a significant numbers advantage. We might also want to figure out just what it is Mhynt knows about this guy, and why she wants him dead so badly.”

Even if the thought of confronting the Treecko himself left him with an icy pit in his stomach. He couldn’t let himself be a coward about this. He lifted a paw to scratch behind one of his ears, and sighed.

“And… Thank you, guys. Maybe you’re right, and it was inevitable. Maybe some other event would’ve put us over the tipping point eventually. Maybe you would’ve done the same thing in my position, but that doesn’t change the fact that, ultimately, my own carelessness lead to this situation, at least in part,” he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it up to everyone. I don’t think this is something I can fix. But… I try to keep moving forward, and maybe I’ll be able to find a way to make it right.”
"You're right, it's not something you can fix." Nova stared the oshawott down. "Because you're not alone here, remember? Everyone's had their share of screwups so far." He looked skyward. The sunlight really was nice on his face. "Maybe some are bigger than others, sure. But we're in it together. For better or worse."

After a pause, Nova added, "I swear if you give me a day or two I can come up with a way to not make this sound like a line about marriage from a rom com."
"What're we supposed to want you to do, wave a magic wand and make it go away?" Leaf snorted, rolling her eyes like she was imagining someone making unreasonable demands of him. "We're not from here and we don't know how this works. It sucks that it happened, but it's done, and now the only thing any of us can do is keep going until we figure it out. As long as you're willing to try, that's more than enough for me."
He couldn’t help but snicker at Nova’s attempted words of wisdom, but he appreciated the sentiment behind them all the same. He gave Leaf a smile and a nod, as well.

“Thanks, both of you. You can rely on me to try, I promise,” Archie said, before looking over at Nova again. He elbowed the chimera in the forelimb good naturedly, grinning up at him, and added, “But, enough of me dragging down the mood! Today’s a day meant for celebrating you, big guy!”
"Like a birthday?" Nova tilted his head again. "I don't have one of those. My creator just turned me on one day and there I was." He quirked a brow. "I think I threw birthday parties for a couple of old teammates. I just don't remember what I did for them."

He mumbled something quietly about blowing up a kitchen.
Leaf smiled back at Archie. Probably he'd be feeling rough for a little while yet, but she hoped he'd pull together okay. Beating yourself up over a mistake didn't help in the long run, and he wasn't the kind of person who deserved that anyway.

"Today can be your birthday, then," Leaf said decisively. "If the old one doesn't matter then one day's as good as any other, and you might as well pick a day worth remembering, right?" She hummed to herself a little, thinking. "There's no one right way to do it—it's just doing something nice for yourself, or other people doing something nice for you, whatever that means for the birthday-person. I know you told me before that you don't really know what you like yet, but that just means today can be a day of figuring it out!"
"Sure!" Nova's fish tail wagged again. "My calendar's empty anyway."

Not that he'd figured out the Forlas calendar...
"Leaf's right!" Archie nodded, "If you have to pick a day, can't go wrong with today. Think of it like a new beginning!"

A day worth remembering. For as long as they would remember it.
"Okay." Nova looked around. What to do, then? What to do?

"Oh, wait!" His head crest fanned out. "I'm the one who landed in the photography studio when we got warped here. What about a, y'know, commemorative photo?" One Nova could actually pay for this time.
"A picture? Yeah. Yeah, why not!" Archie said, with a grin. "We'll make sure they get your good side!"
"Yeah!" Leaf agreed. "And I bet they'll have nice frames for it, or maybe a locket if you wanna keep it with you and see your face whenever you want." She started off toward the studio with a spring in her step. "Wonder what kinda backdrop options they have..."
"We'll see when we get there, I guess."

Nova followed after Leaf, though his larger size would let him overtake her. He didn't spare a glance back toward the scattered stone fragments of his mask. There was no reason to, after all. He was off to do stuff... with friends.

His steps were lighter. And a small smile crept his way on his beak.

Ch04: Thicker than Water (Odette and Gladion)
Gladion had a lot on his mind. How could he not, after all that had happened. He could head back to his room, but he felt like there was more he had to be doing. At the same time, there was nothing he could tackle right now. Instead he’d absentmindedly wandered towards the archives through force of habit as if it would hold an answer to any of his thoughts, even though none of them were the kind a book could answer.

He stopped to take a break off to the side of the square— the ankle area of his left talon had been causing him some problems lately, which had been lasting far longer than he’d expected from the beatings he’d bounced right back from in combat. That… was probably another thing he’d have to deal with, too.
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