Chapter 7 - Somewhat of a Gameplan
With a drowsy groan, Mike cracked his eyes open. It took them a few seconds to adjust to the light, before his blurry vision managed to focus on the avian figure standing a few feet away from him.
…Were birds meant to be that large?
He stared dumbly at it for a while, neither of them moving an inch, until his mind caught up and he let out a groan. "…Ah right, I'm a fucking gecko now."
The pidgey tilted its head in response, trilling curiously.
"Tweet tweet to you too, now fuck off," Mike grumbled as he sat up straight. The bird immediately complied with his request, perhaps out of pity, and flew out through the jaws of Sharpedo Bluff.
Moments later, a yawn sounded to his right, and he turned to find Aria sitting up as well, rubbing at her eyes. She then stretched out her arms, a low rumble rising from her throat. "Good… mrrh… good morning. Why were you talking to a feral?"
"Because I'm going insane."
The faint chorus of bird-songs hit Mike's ears, making him frown. Ferals weren't just sequestered to dungeons, it seemed. "So… do they always come in here like that?"
Aria yawned again. "Yup. You… get used to it."
"Easy for you to say," Mike grumbled. The tiny apartment he called home had kept him safe from feathery pests, leaving him unaccustomed to their presence. Sleeping in what was basically the open worried him somewhat, but he supposed it was safe enough if Aria was to be believed.
"Eh, it's not that bad. They're smart enough to stay quiet during the night if they're looking to share shelter," she said, looking outside at the sunny sky. "Speaking of which… looks like we both overslept, didn't we?"
Mike cracked a smirk as he picked himself up. "I think it's called a healthy amount of sleep in most circles, but sure, we 'overslept'," he replied, barely fighting off the urge to draw air-quotes. "Not sure why I crashed, but you did seem pretty tired yesterday."
He neglected to add the followup question — from doing what? A single, short dungeon couldn't possibly have exhausted her that much.
"I mean, all the yawning made it pretty obvious," Aria replied with a shrug. "Guess I just haven't gotten enough sleep lately."
Although unconvinced by the answer, Mike merely nodded and fell silent. There had to be more to it than a simple sleep debt, but apparently she had no plans to share. That secrecy, in turn, reminded him of something else — a nonchalant implication from her end that had kept him awake in bed.
"Something on your mind?"
Mike looked up to find the riolu staring at him with an eyebrow raised. "O-oh, it's nothing!" he hastily replied. "Was just… wondering what our plans are for today."
"Good question. I wanted to visit the Dojo again, but… I think that'll have to wait." Aria looked outside with a frown. "I can already hear Clark yelling at us for being late."
Mike idly nodded along, only to bite down a noise of surprise after following her gaze outside. While the sun was well above the horizon, it seemed to be mid-morning at worst. If that was considered late for an explorer, he'd have one hell of a schedule change to get used to. "…Right, so we're going to the guild first, I guess. Think we could grab something to eat on the way there? The sliders yesterday were nice and all, but, uh… bar food ain't exactly a full meal."
"Because you're meant to wash it down with a barrel of beer, not sip on mocktails like a boring reptile," Aria said with a smirk, standing up and making her way over to the washbasin. It was a routine Mike had seen before, but unfortunately, he was much closer this time. A few stray droplets landed on him as she splashed water onto her face, and a dozen more followed when she shook herself dry. "…But sure, we can pick something up on the way."
"Much appreciated… unlike the second-hand bath," Mike grumbled.
Aria paused in the middle of smoothing down her fur, turning to look his way. Her confused expression quickly turned into one of thinly-veiled amusement, a reaction that Mike couldn't help but admire.
"Oh, whoops," Aria said, not sounding apologetic in the slightest. "I… uh, kinda forgot you were there. I'm used to having the place to myself."
While her words seemed casual, there was a wistful note lying underneath. Mike fought back a worried frown; this wasn't something he wanted to let her linger on.
"Aw, so you're saying I'm forgettable?" he whined, and went to pick up his bag. After wiping his face on Aria's scarf, he tossed it over to her with a childish grin. "There, now we're even."
Aria stared blankly at the scarf in her paws, then at Mike, then back at the scarf again. All the while, her already-damp fur glistened in the sunlight. After a few seconds too many, she let out a chuckle and wrapped the scarf around her neck. "You goof."
As an echo of the day before, Kecleon Market was swarming with customers when they got there. Fortunately, it wasn't the destination Aria had in mind. A nearby alleyway led them deeper into town, and soon afterwards, Mike caught the tantalizing scent of freshly-baked goods. He grinned, knowing the telltale signs of a good bakery… which made up for the fact that bread wasn't particularly exciting.
Or so he thought.
With nothing more than telekinesis and a bit of fire, the delphox behind the counter had toasted and buttered — they had butter here? — a pair of golden-brown buns right in front of them. Wrapped in waxed paper for convenience, one floated down to Aria, the other to Mike, and the moment they'd hit the road again, he took his first experimental bite.
In an instant, flavor flooded his mouth. The bread itself was baked to perfection, fluffy and sweet, and the apple-infused butter was all it needed to be delectable. Bits of berries were mixed into the batter, and the familiar flavor of oran provided a robust, fruity base, complemented by a mellow blend of sweet and spice whose origins he couldn't place.
Soon, it turned into a game of trying to guess the berries involved — a futile task thanks to his limited experience with them, but an entertaining one nonetheless. Unfortunately, thanks to how distracted he'd gotten, his next bite ended up tasting of paper, and he spat it out with a grimace. Only then did he realize how quickly he'd devoured his breakfast, appetite left unsatisfied despite the size of the bun. For a moment, he stared longingly at the empty wrapper in his hands, but embarrassment quickly took over when he noticed the smirk trained on him.
"I'm starting to think you're only in this for the food," Aria said, chuckling softly. To punctuate her words, she summoned a single purple claw to neatly slice her untouched bun in half, before holding a piece out to him.
Fighting off a sheepish grin, Mike hesitated for a moment before accepting the second helping. "Thanks."
Aria hummed in response, pausing to take her first bite. "Never had this kinda stuff before?"
"Well… I've had fruitbread before," Mike replied, poking through the bun's insides. He plucked out a bit of oran and tossed it into his mouth — they were chewy when baked, apparently. He'd have to keep that in mind. "But these berries aren't exactly… available where I'm from, which is a bit of a shame. Would've been fun to mess around with them in the kitchen."
"…Oh?" While his comment about berries garnered no visible response, Aria perked up at the mention of a kitchen. "You cook?"
Mike nodded, quietly thrilled to not have to watch his words for once. "Yeah, it's… it was a hobby of mine. Used to live alone on a tight budget, so I had to make the most of what little I could afford. Started to enjoy it after a while."
"Mm, I see." Aria took another bite, before brushing a few crumbs off her muzzle. "So, were you actually any good at it? Or did you just toss stuff together and hope for the best?"
The teasing smirk on her face prompted Mike to respond with a cocky grin. "Please, I'm a budget chef extraordinaire. You could hand me a bunch of random scraps and I'd make something decent at worst."
"And if I handed you more than just scraps?"
"Then it'd still be decent at worst, but fancier," Mike promptly replied, still grinning. A moment later, it slid off his face as he processed her words. "…Wait, where are you going with this?"
"You know where. Just give me a list of what you need and I'll get them for you as soon as I can."
Dumbfounded, Mike stammered out the first thing that came to mind. "U-uhm… I'm going to need more than just—"
"Yeah, I know," Aria interrupted, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Again, just give me a list of what you need. We've got smiths and woodworkers in town, and a lot of space at home. Might as well get you a cute little kitchen in the corner."
"And the cost?" Mike quietly asked, ignoring the mental image of a pink-themed kitchen.
Aria shrugged. "Doesn't matter to me."
"…Of course." Mike paused, chewing thoughtfully on the last of his bread. "You're weird, you know that?"
With a snort, she flicked the wrapper paper at him. "Look who's talking."
It hadn't taken them much longer to get to the crossroads, but the floodgates had opened by then. There was a constant stream of explorer teams making their way down the cliffside path, and Mike happened to recognize one of them. Cyndaquil had made a full recovery overnight, it seemed… but one friendly wave from Aria was all it took for him to trip over his feet. Piplup's sigh served as the icing on the cake.
The rest of the walk up to the guild was more of the same — an onslaught of wide-eyed stares and stuttered pleasantries being sent their way, undoubtedly due to the badges they wore. Mike wisely chose to hide behind Aria for the entirety of it, though a few curious glances still leaked past her. After strolling past the last of the teams and giving the grate sentries something to do, the two of them ducked into the tent that marked the guild's entrance. Peace and quiet, at last.
As they made their way down the stairs, Mike let out a tiny sigh of relief, thinking that he was finally safe from all the attention.
He had a knack for being wrong.
"…Ah. Hello to you too, Clark."
The chatot sighed, apparently having been waiting for them. "It's barely been a day since you were reinstated, Aria."
"Heh, sorry. I'm still getting used to having a schedule again," Aria replied with a sheepish grin, before gesturing at one of the request boards behind her. "So, uh… did we miss all the fun stuff?"
"I'm afraid so. You're going to have to settle for something simple today… though I suppose that's for the best, given your present company," Clark said, shooting Mike a meaningful glance.
Aria followed his gaze with a frown, making the treecko shrink under the newfound attention. "You have a point. I'll just grab a simple bounty for today, then," she said, stepping towards the request board. Midway there, she paused to look back at Clark. "By the way, are all the Masters busy or something? I haven't seen any of them in a while."
Clark frowned, before sighing. "Right, you missed the briefing," he muttered, and headed for the stairs. "Hold on, I'll be back in a moment."
Once he'd left their view, Mike couldn't help but chuckle dryly at the familiar situation. At least he wouldn't be getting interrogated this time. "Deja vu, I've just been in this place before…" he half-sang, half-mumbled to himself as he walked up to Aria.
A blank stare was her only response.
"…You can ignore that."
With that simple reply, she went back to looking at the request board, and after a few seconds of awkward silence, Mike followed suit. Despite a bulk of the guild's workforce having gone through the bounties already, there were still a good number of them pinned to the board — presumably the low priority ones, if they could be ignored like that. "So, um… anything catch your eye?"
"Not really," Aria replied, frowning to herself. "It's all just petty theft, with a bit of vandalism mixed in. Nothing that really needs my attention."
There was an underlying sense of pride in her statement, but after a closer inspection of the bounties on offer, Mike couldn't blame Aria for it. One in particular caught his eye, and he rubbed at his eyes in disbelief.
A fraxure had put out a bounty on a ditto for stealing her designer napkin. A hallucination? Hopefully.
"Is that one a joke, or…?"
Chuckling, Aria shook her head. "Nah. If it's on the board, it's legitimate. Private requests like those always get screened first."
"…So people can just put out bounties on anyone?" Mike asked, apprehension clear in his tone. A system like that was just begging to be abused.
"Well… no. That one's not even a proper bounty in the first place." Aria glanced at the other requests again, before unpinning one from the board. Holding it up for him to see, she tapped on an orange stamp-mark next to the illustration of an ambipom. "This mark means they're violent, or have resisted arrest — that's what makes them outlaws. You're allowed to use force to bring them in, as long as you're reasonable about it… but there's no need to worry about that if the mark's red instead." She paused, her expression darkening. "Let's just say they deserve it."
Her words hung heavy in the air as Mike quietly processed their implications. The jolteon — had his mark been orange or red? He hadn't done much to the rookies he'd mugged, but the memory of being rammed off a cliff was still fresh in Mike's mind.
Much too fresh.
With a shudder, he shook his head and looked back at the board. "No reds… and Ditto's is green?"
"Yup. Petty criminal," Aria said, pinning the ambipom's bounty back onto the board. "The 'bounty' is just to bring him in for questioning, preferably unhurt."
"…Huh." Mike tapped at his chin in thought. "So the guild functions as law enforcement?"
"Kinda, yeah. Only Diamond-rankers or higher can pick bounties up, but rookies can grab the greens ones because they're, uh…" she drew quotes in the air, "'easier to manage'."
He blinked in disbelief. "What part of chasing a ditto down is manageable?"
Chuckling, Aria pulled a different bounty off the board. "Why do you think no one took the job? Give it a day or two, and some unlucky rookies are going to get forced into it," she said, before holding the sheet out to him. "Anyways, I think this one's…"
Her ear twitched, and she pulled her arm back, turning to look at the stairwell. "Hang on."
As if on cue, Clark came flying out moments later, clutching a roll of paper in his talons. He swerved over their heads, letting Aria pluck it from his grip, before landing in front of them.
His tone was terse, but expectant. "Give that a read."
"Always straight to the point, huh?" Aria remarked, chuckling lightly as she unrolled the sheet. She had a casual smile on her face, but with every passing second, her expression grew dimmer, until she looked up at the chatot with a deep-set frown. "…What the hell's been going on?"
Clark shook his head in response. "That's what we're trying to figure out. We dispatched every Master we had available, but the reports so far… haven't been promising."
"Then I need to—!"
"No, you're staying here," Clark interrupted, voice firm. "You're the only Master here, and we need you in case another emergency pops up. In a way, you chose the perfect time to return."
Aria tightened her grip on the paper, almost ripping the sides, before relaxing with a sigh. "…Fine, but I want to know everything you do. For starters, which gears were stolen?"
Mike had opted to stay quiet and listen, lest he interrupt something important, but the mention of a gear piqued his interest. Gears and an elusive thief? He already knew what to expect… or did he? Grovyle was supposed to know the Hero, but if Mike was the Hero, would that still apply? What if Grovyle never even had a partner in this timeline? What if…
"They stole Treeshroud's gear two days ago. And last night…" Clark paused, but a subtle nod from Aria spurred him to continue. "Limestone Cavern froze as well."
"…What?" Aria choked out. "But we made sure—!"
Clark held up a wing to cut her off again. "I know, Aria, and that's what worries me the most. If information's been leaked, we've got more than just the thieves to worry about."
'Thieves'? If he'd taken over the role of the human, shouldn't Grovyle have been working alone? Had a third person somehow gotten involved?
Oh. Oh no.
Without a second thought, he reached forward and tugged the bounty out of Aria's grasp, hoping he was wrong.
He needed to be wrong.
"…No, no, no… fuck!"
But he wasn't.
Two pairs of eyes turned to stare at him, and Mike found himself wilting under the very unwanted attention. "U-um… sorry," he mumbled, awkwardly rubbing at an arm.
"…That came out of nowhere," Aria finally said, a small frown on her face. "Something wrong?"
"N-nah, I just need some air," Mike replied all too quickly, shoving the bounty back into her paws and trying to brush past her.
Much to his relief, Aria didn't try to stop him, quietly stepping aside instead. But right as he was about to enter the stairwell, Mike made the mistake of glancing back over his shoulder. The look in the riolu's eyes prompted him to race upstairs as quickly as he could, stumbling over a few steps in his haste.
Before he knew it, he was back out in the sunlight, narrowly avoiding the sentry grate as he left the guild tent. The weather was halfway-pleasant with a hint of chill, and Mike couldn't care less as he shambled forwards. His foot slammed into a pebble and he hissed in pain, only to look down and realize that he was standing at the cliff's edge. That hiss quickly turned into a yelp as he stumbled back in shock, falling on his rear before scrambling further away.
One more step, and he'd be dead. An unceremonious reminder of his mortality.
His back hit something solid, making him freeze for a few seconds. The rustling of leaves overhead gave its identity away, and Mike finally relaxed, quietly leaning against the tree. His thoughts were anything but relaxed, however.
The Hero did exist, and Grovyle did have a partner… but it wasn't him. Why was he even here, then? He was just an anomaly with no place in the story he'd stumbled into, and he couldn't bring himself to think about what that meant for the future. It was almost laughable, the way he'd felt secure thanks to his supposed knowledge of events.
As if to mock him further, a strong gust blew past at that moment, making him shiver and hug his legs closer. He'd always been bad with the cold, but now that he was something vulnerable to it…
"Seriously, why a t-treecko?" Mike muttered into his scales. "Why couldn't I be something like… like a…" The bounty notice flashed in his mind, and he let out a bitter laugh. "…Like a charmander. Because a blue dog wasn't f-fucking clichéd enough already."
"I prefer 'riolu', thanks."
Of course Aria had followed him. Mike didn't respond, even as her footsteps drew closer. He heard a quiet shuffle as she sat down, followed by a sigh. "You… do realize how bad this looks for you?"
"…Yeah," he murmured in response, still refusing to look at her.
"Good. That makes it easier for me." Paper rustled, and Aria nudged him in the side. "Do you know them?"
Mike couldn't pretend to ignore her anymore, and he turned to look at the bounty again. Two outlaws stared back at him, their sketches drawn with an admirable attention to detail. Perhaps by a smeargle? Did the guild hire—
He shook his head fervently, both responding to the question as well as trying to clear his head. "I've never met them before in my life."
"But you recognize them?" Aria pressed, cutting through his attempt at a half-truth. Her voice lacked its usual mellowness — she wasn't playing around.
"Uh, I-I…" Mike stammered, struggling to find his words. He wasn't in a position to lie, but he couldn't afford to sell them out either. The window of opportunity to get both sides working together was slim, and it probably didn't involve putting one side in prison. After a long moment, he swallowed and opened his mouth. "No, I… I don't."
He couldn't have been more obvious if he tried, and Aria seemed to agree, clenching her eyes shut and gripping the bridge of her snout in irritation. A low growl rose from her throat, sending a shiver down his spine.
"…Mike, I'm warning you. Do not test my patience right now."
"I swear, I'm not—!"
In the blink of an eye, Aria whirled around and slammed her fist into the tree Mike was leaning against. A splinter stung his cheek before his reflexes caught up, and he stumbled away from her in a blind panic. He didn't get far; that same fist yanked him back by the scarf and close to her face. With those burning-red eyes bearing down on him, Mike couldn't will himself to breathe, letting out a whimper instead. In response, that glare faltered, and Aria released her grip.
The treecko landed on his tail, barely noticing its presence as his lungs found air again. One hand went up to touch his cheek, and he was hit with a wave of nausea when a few loose scales fell off, stained red with blood.
In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Aria seemed unable to meet his gaze. "…Sorry."
An apology was the last thing he'd been expecting, and Mike found himself letting out a shaky chuckle. "S-sorry? That's… not how you interrogate someone."
"And I don't want to be interrogating someone," Aria mumbled, staring down into her lap. "You're just not giving me much of a choice."
"Oh." Mike wrung his hands together. "Well, it's not like I have one either."
A simple question, yet it made his heart skip a beat. He needed an excuse, but wasn't in the state of mind to try and think of one.
"I c-can't say that." After a pause, Mike weakly added, "Sorry."
A part of him was waiting for her to finally finish off the tree — and the treecko — out of frustration, but instead, Aria simply let out a sigh. "Again, why? What are you so scared of?"
It took him a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and once again, Mike came up almost empty-handed. Transparency was the only option left, short of staying quiet and hoping for the best.
"In case it wasn't obvious, I'm kinda screwed without your help, which means pissing you off is a terrible idea," Mike replied, glancing at the crumpled tree-trunk. "At the same time, I'm also kinda screwed if I talk. I'm getting fucked six ways from Sunday regardless of what I do, which is what I'm scared of. There, you happy?"
Mike was expecting a glare, a frown, or some other form of disapproval. What he got instead, much to his surprise, was a steady, contemplative gaze. "I can't blame you for being worried about yourself and… your friends, I assume. But they're stealing time gears. Do you realize what that means? Entire areas are just… stopping. Dying. I don't know why they're doing it, but it doesn't matter. , which is why I need to know whatever you know."
"They're not my friends. I've never even met them. I just know who they are, and… and that's it! I know nothing that can help you catch them right now!" Mike blurted out, egged on by the fact that Aria wasn't cutting him off. Desperation had crept up on him, and his mind was now on autopilot. And not a very good one. "Everything I do know is stuff you'd be an idiot to believe, so you'd just think I'm lying! I can't say or do anything to fix things just yet, so please, please just give me some time! I promise I can—!"
He snapped his mouth shut. She'd just cut him off. That wasn't a good sign.
"You're rambling. Calm down, take a breath."
That was when he realized he could hear his heart hammering out of his chest.
"I-I… right," Mike mumbled, leaning back to rest against the tree. A sharp bit of wood poked at his back, but he paid it no mind.
Seconds turned into minutes as his breathing slowly evened out, but time wasn't kind to him. Clarity of mind brought with it a deep sense of regret, and Mike had to bite his lip to keep a grimace off his face. This entire situation was his fault. He'd done nothing but shoot himself in the foot since seeing the bounty, and it had finally come to a head. With nothing better to do, he squeezed his eyes shut and mentally berated himself until Aria spoke up again.
"…Yeah," he lied.
"Good. Now, listen up — I wasn't planning on writing you off at any point. Not even once. But you're making it pretty hard for me to trust you at this point."
His gaze fell. "I know."
A moment passed by in silence, before Aria let out a quiet sigh. "Hey, it's not like I don't want to trust you, alright?" she said, voice soft. " I just need you to give me something to work with."
She shrugged. "That's for you to figure out. But if it helps, I've got something I wanted to ask you. Maybe you can start with that."
Mike turned to look at her. "S-sure."
"Okay, so… the stuff we talked about last night. Was it related to any of this?"
A hesitant nod.
"Hm. Were you planning on coming clean with it at any point?"
Mike found his voice again. "Y-yes! For the love of Arceus, yes! I've been waiting for a good moment to do that since we met!"
"Good," Aria said with a small smile. "How were you planning on doing that?"
"That's, um…" He scratched at his unhurt cheek. "It's going to sound weird, but everything was supposed to fall into place on its own. I didn't think I'd have to do anything myself."
The riolu said nothing, but her look of disbelief spoke volumes. Mike could almost feel his cheeks heating up. "I-it made sense at the time, okay?!"
"…Pfft, alright," Aria replied with a faint smirk. "Doesn't really help you at the moment, though."
He groaned. "I know."
She chuckled. "Just making sure. Now, how about you try thinking of something that does help you? You've got plenty of time."
"I… don't think time's gonna be enough," Mike mumbled, wringing his hands. "I can't exactly prove anything I say."
"Well, if you don't have anything better in mind, say it anyways. Maybe you'll get lucky."
Easier said than done, but that wasn't an answer he could give. With her presence weighing on his mind, Mike could only come up with two options on the spot — 'predict' minor events in the near future and hope that'd be enough to garner trust, or risk it all and go straight for what mattered.
It didn't take long for him to make his choice.
"A-alright, so… when you were talking with Clark, you mentioned how no one was supposed to know where the second time gear was, right?"
"Yeah," Aria replied, raising a brow. "Why?"
Mike hesitated for a moment, before turning to face her. "I know where the third one is."
A few seconds passed by in silence, her gaze growing dangerously sharp, before she motioned for him to continue.
"It's in Foggy Forest, past Mt. Horn," he said, before letting out a nervous laugh. "That's, um… what I think the place is called, at least. Can't be sure with lazy names like that."
"…Hm." Aria didn't sound amused. "Here's the thing — I've been to Foggy Forest. There's nothing there."
Mike swallowed, holding his hands up in surrender. "O-okay, just hear me out on this. You've been there, so you know about the Groudon statue at the end, right? It's supposed to be the key to the time gear," he said, before pausing in thought. "…I guess it's more like a lock, but… yeah. Opens the way to another dungeon, which leads to the time gear."
An uncomfortably long silence followed, before Aria broke it with a sigh. "I guess I did ask you to try your luck. I was expecting something less flimsy, though."
"I-I know it sounds—" Mike stammered out, only to have a paw nonchalantly clamped over his mouth. "—mmpfh?!"
"I wasn't finished."
Aria proceeded to let go. Mike pretended not to notice.
"Thank you. Now, before I get into anything else, I'd like you to explain something to me," Aria said, narrowing her eyes incredulously. "How exactly would knowing the location of their next target not help me catch them?"
Luckily, he'd been expecting that one. "Because I don't think it's their next target. They doubt they have the key, and I don't think they know where it is either. They have no reason to go after the gear yet."
Aria studied him for a moment, before asking, "Are you implying you know where this key is?"
"I'm… hoping I do," Mike replied, suppressing a groan at how useless his memories were for the job. "It's supposed to be somewhere in Foggy Forest itself, but if it's not there, we'll just have to track it down before they do. Large red gemstone, warm to the touch… there can't be too many of those lying around, right?"
"…Right," Aria echoed, her voice oddly subdued. Before Mike could wonder why, she shut her eyes and reclined against the tree. "This just sounds like it came straight out of a book… and not a particularly good one."
Mike stared into his lap. "Sorry. It's the best I have."
"Eh, it's still the closest I have to a lead. Better than being empty-handed," Aria said, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Anyways, I think that's it for this conversation. We might head over to the forest to check it out sometime soon, but it's not the safest place out there. Yesterday reminded me of how nerve-wracking it is to play bodyguard, so I think I'll put it on hold until you're less helpless on your own."
Stunned silence was the treecko's only response, which Aria took as an invitation to keep going. "Oh, and before I forget, Clark was pretty suspicious of you after you ran off. Might want to come up with an excuse for that. Maybe you had friends living near Treeshroud or something? I doubt he'll ask for the finer details if I play along."
"…You cannot be serious."
"Do I sound like I'm not?"
"N-no, but…" Mike toyed with the hem of his scarf, unable to meet her gaze. "You're giving me the benefit of the doubt again. I figured there'd be a limit to your patience."
"Well, there is. You're sitting right next to it," Aria replied, gesturing at the crater she'd left in the wood. She then watched him for a few seconds before letting out a soft exhale. "Call me sentimental, but you looked like you were ready to cry. Really helped sell the act."
Mike raised a hand to his eyes in a mixture of embarrassment and surprise, causing a crooked smile to cross the riolu's face. "I said ready to cry."
His hand shot back down. "…Right. B-but, um… I promise it wasn't an—"
"Yeah, I know," Aria said, leaning back against the tree. Her gaze tilted up towards the sky. "I've taken a lot of chances with you already, so what's one more? Maybe I'll finally get a payout this time."
"…That's called a sunk-cost fallacy, Blue."
With a snort, she swatted at his arm. "Don't question my questionable decisions."
His arm felt wet. Mike couldn't stop himself from cracking a smile. "Whatever you say."
Why did his arm feel wet?
He glanced down, and that smile disappeared. A small patch of his scales were stained red with blood. "…What? Where did… wait, what the hell happened to your hand?!"
"Hm? This?" Aria raised her paw to give him a better look. "It's… uh, what happens when you punch something without bracing for the recoil. Not a big deal."
The bloody splinters sticking out of her paw begged to differ.
Mike stared at her, wide-eyed. "Y-you knew this would happen?! Then why the fuck?!"
She shrugged. "It's a habit. Pain helps me focus when I'm angry, and I kinda needed to focus right then. I can just get this looked at later."
"…And you've been sitting like that this entire time? Holy fuck, you're insane!" Mike exclaimed, grabbing her paw by the wrist. After gingerly separating blood-clumped bits of fur, he went to work on easing the splinters out. "Sweet Arceus, how deep in are these?!"
"Mike, trust me, it's not as—"
"—bad as it—"
He dropped the red shards of wood into her open palm before pointing at the gash on his cheek. "Infirmary. Now."
That seemed to do the trick, as Aria let out a sigh. "…Fine."
As she dressed their wounds, Weavile Lumi had kicked off their day with a colorful diatribe about the merits of not being reckless idiots. Thanks to Aria bearing the brunt of the lecture, Mike had found the ordeal mildly amusing at her expense, only to regret it when she revealed their plans for the day. They involved sparring — lots of it, and Aria made a point of only holding back as little as she needed to. The bruises and sore limbs spoke for themselves, but they also served to take his mind off the unpleasant surprise that had sent him spiraling. Then, later that night, with a fresh mind and a fresher plate of food to keep him company, he'd mulled over what his status as a wild-card meant for him in the grand scheme of things.
Not much, he'd soon decided, going for a second helping of stir-fried noodles. He wasn't the Hero, sure, but it also wasn't a role he'd deserved either. And as far as he could tell, he had a more fitting role to play — making sure that the actual Hero and the Partner were on the same side by the end. How he'd do that was anybody's guess, but it all came down to the person whose roof he'd be living under in the meantime.
The riolu in question had spent the entire meal poring through a stack of documents, unhindered by the liveliness of a restaurant at peak hours. One year of guild business to catch up on, she'd called it, giving Mike the chance to sneak glances at her while they ate. He couldn't help it — their conversation that morning had left him with a nagging sense of unease, thanks to how little he knew about her reasons for helping him… but what could he even do about it? As long as he needed Aria's help to stay off the streets, or even just to not starve, he was completely at her mercy.
His next bite felt tasteless, and Mike dully stared at his plate in a bid to let his mind wander onto more pleasant topics. His mind promptly stabbed him in the back by wandering onto how pathetic he was for being intimidated by a friend.
Well, it wasn't like she intimidated him, but… fuck, who was he kidding? Even as a riolu, Aria was perfectly capable of snapping him like a twig. It was a small mercy that she hadn't evolved yet, because a lucario towering over him would've rubbed in just how one-sided their relationship was. Mike had no idea why she bothered treating him as an equal, but it was only a matter of time before she got tired of it. After all, no one could resist throwing their weight around to get what they wanted. Or maybe that was just his paranoia speaking. He couldn't tell at this point.
With a quiet sigh, Mike shot Aria another glance. She stared back, idly drumming her fork against her plate. He froze like a deer in the headlights.
"Heya. Any reason why you've been staring at me so much?"
"B-because I didn't think you'd notice?" Mike replied with an awkward grin, which faded into an awkward grimace when he gave his words a second thought. "I, um… I'll just stop."
Aria raised a brow, before glancing at the documents. "Were you waiting for me to finish?" she asked, starting to bunch them up. "Sorry, I'll get to these later."
"No, no, it's f—ine!?" Mike began, only for a pepper to strike the back of his throat. He quickly spat it out, blinked in belated surprise, then narrowed his eyes. "…I don't mind words, but please stop putting other things in my mouth."
Smiling innocently, Aria lowered the paw she had taken aim with. "No promises. I take it you weren't looking for some conversation, then?"
"Not really, though I don't mind. I was just… thinking about some stuff," Mike replied, raising a cup of spiced lemonade to his lips.
"…While staring at me?" Aria leaned forwards with a suggestive smirk, propping her chin up on a paw. "Please, do go on."
He spluttered into his drink. "W-wait, that's not even close to—"
She cut him off with a chuckle. "Relax, I'm listening."
"…Right. Don't ask where this is coming from, but I was trying to picture how much worse the… height difference would've been if you were a lucario."
Raising a brow, Aria glanced at a zangoose sitting a few tables away, before looking back at Mike. "What, does the idea bother you or something?"
"N-no… well, maybe a little," Mike admitted, before shaking his head. "Anyways! That just made me realize something else — how come you aren't a lucario? I mean, you seem old… um, experienced enough to have evolved."
"Most people would find that rude. But yeah, it's not common to still be a riolu at my age," Aria replied, idly poking at a piece of carrot with her fork. "Unfortunately, my species needs to get comfortable with someone else's aura to evolve, and… I guess I've always been too caught up in my work for that."
Even setting aside the vague explanation, Mike couldn't help but stare at her in confusion. "Wait, then what about your teammates? I thought that… um, n-never mind. Forget I—"
"Their aura's too similar to mine."
Aria bit her lip. "Similar auras. Means we're related."
Oh. Oh fuck.
Before Mike could even respond, Aria raised a paw to halt him in his apologetic tracks. "Look, it's my fault for not being transparent about it. I… thought I had my reasons, but they're pretty pathetic when I think about it, so can we please just… let it rest for now?"
"S-sure, that's fine by me," Mike quickly replied. His thoughts had been running a mile a minute, but the hint of shame in her voice brought them to a grinding halt. And while the mood had dropped off a cliff, Aria seemed eager to just shove it under a rug, giving him hope that the conversation itself could still be salvaged. "So, uh, what next? Awkward silence for the rest of the night?"
It took her a moment to respond, but it was accompanied by a small grin. "Maybe. Or we could just find a better topic… like that little insecurity of yours, for instance."
"Awkward silence it is, then."
Day two brought with it sorer limbs and bruised bruises, and on day three, Mike woke up expecting more of the same, only to find an empty bed, a neatly-wrapped sandwich, and a note telling him to head to the crossroads outside town. Curious about what Aria had planned, he hurried over as quickly as he could, and wasn't surprised to find her waiting for him there, exchanging empty pleasantries with the teams that passed by.
What did surprise him, however, was the ash staining most of her fur grey. Not that Aria seemed to care, greeting him with a wave.
"Heya. Sleep well?"
"Mhm. What's with the gloomy getup?"
"Ah, it's nothing important — just proof that I've been busy," Aria replied, gesturing for him to follow as she started walking further away from town.
Mike fell into stride beside her, brushing a hand through her fur and experimentally rubbing the ash between his fingers. "Busy with what? Burning the damn forest down?"
Aria smirked. "Just give it a second. We're not too far away."
That was enough of a hint to give him a guess as to where they were headed, and it didn't take long for him to be proved correct… though the place had gotten quite the makeover. The shrubbery was all gone, replaced by patches of charred earth. Stumps lined the perimeter, and in the middle was a mess of crudely-cut logs jammed upright into the ground. There were deep slits cut into their sides, and lengths of rope leading from one log to another, giving the whole setup the air of a discount climbing course.
All in all, Mike could barely recognize it as the clearing he'd woken up in. And he knew exactly how to word his thoughts on the matter.
"Okay, but why?"
"…A bit of surprise would've been nice," Aria mumbled with a hint of disappointment, before sitting down on a stump. "I've been keeping an eye on the way you move. Awkward and stiff, like you're not used to your own body. Just sparring won't be enough to fix that, so… here we are."
"T-that's fair, but like… does the town not have a place for this kinda stuff?" Mike asked in disbelief. "There's no way you needed to be so… extra."
She shrugged in response. "It didn't really take me that long. And no, the town doesn't, unless you'd be fine with people staring at you for climbing random buildings."
"So you decided to make this instead. By yourself."
He sighed. "I'm not talking my way out of this, am I?"
Mike couldn't remember the last time he'd tried to climb something as a human. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd done anything remotely athletic, which he was somewhat grateful for. The lack of muscle memory helped him get used to just how light he now was, and it felt amazing.
With a grin, Mike glanced down from the rope he was shimmying across. "K-kinda, yeah! Never had the chance to do this before!"
"Never had the chance, or just never wanted to?" Aria asked with a chuckle, standing below him in case he fell.
"Both!" he replied, before pulling himself up and onto the flat top of one of the logs. While it wasn't too high up, it still gave him a good view of the clearing they were in. "…Hm. I gotta ask, why here?"
"Mostly convenience. It's close to town, it's empty, and there are plenty of trees around. No one's going to miss a few, and I'm not even the first one to realize that."
"Oh? Couldn't have guessed that. Place looked pretty untouched when I first saw it," Mike said, briefly wondering if he'd forgotten to mention waking up there.
If he had, Aria didn't make a fuss about it. "Well, yeah. My dad's the one who cleared this place out, back when I was still a trainee."
With that one casual statement, she had derailed his train of thought. Was she suddenly comfortable talking about her parents? Was the topic sufficiently minor enough? Or was he just overthinking things? Whatever the case, Mike decided to keep the conversation flowing, as he began climbing down from his perch. "What, did you need climbing practice too?
"Punching practice, actually," she replied with a chuckle. "I was training to be more efficient with my aura. Place looked like a graveyard for trees when I was done."
"I… I shouldn't be surprised, honestly. How'd you clean up?"
Her leg lit up in flames. "Same way I did today. Used a cleanse orb to get rid of the ash," Aria said, before glancing down at herself. "…Most of it, anyways. The orb didn't work too well on me."
"I'm just surprised you didn't burn half the forest down or something," Mike said, earning himself a groan.
"That was one time, alright? And there's a reason why I brought a rainy orb with me," she said, pointing at the back of the clearing where a small pack rested against a stump… next to a wooden staff.
A few seconds passed by in silence.
"Huh. I forgot we haven't sparred yet today."
Mike stared at the staff in newfound horror.
Aria noticed him, and snickered. "Don't worry, that's for you to swing around. I'm hoping it'll help you adjust your sense of weight. It's a bit off, right?"
"…Is there anything about me that isn't obvious?"
"Very little, but let's just focus on this for now. I won't fight back, so let's see how hard you can hit."
That certainly grabbed his attention. While he wasn't delusional about his chances, the allure of petty revenge made him want to give it his all. Aria tossed the staff over, and he caught it with a grin, ready to begin.
…At least, he would've caught it, had its weight not knocked him flat on his back.
Aria sighed. "Aaand we're off to a great start."
Mike spent the next few hours further regretting his enthusiasm, stumbling all over the place as he adjusted to the unfamiliar weight. By the time Aria called it a day, his sore muscles were begging for him to stop. Yet, he found himself looking forward to the next session, because his body had finally started to feel more like his own. It was slow, it was tedious, but it was an improvement, and he wasn't done yet.
With that thought in mind, the next few days passed by in a blur. Half his hours were spent training, and the other half was spent relaxing in town, with Aria dragging him around to all the eateries she thought were on top of their game. Mike wasn't sure if he enjoyed the food more or her company more, but it was a rhythm he settled into easily.
It was almost as if they'd both forgotten about the time gears. He knew she hadn't.
To make matters worse, the gears weren't the only thing eating at his mind. As much as they'd deviated from the script already, there were some things Mike knew he couldn't ignore. Chief among them, and drawing closer day by day — a psychic-type with a penchant for abduction. He wasn't sure which problem would be on his hands first, and he wasn't excited to find out.
A/N: Almost a year. I don't even know.
In other news, in a few days I'll be updating my username to what I generally use these days — ExplosiveTurkey. Also, changing genres a bit since the story ended up a little different from what I originally expected it to be like.