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Ghost Town

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Cutlerine, Jan 22, 2018.

  1. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    GHOST TOWN
    You know what, new year, new fic, let's do this. Here's a story about pursuing truth, getting murdered, and discovering horrible secrets in small-town Johto. Updates, as usual, every other Sunday, alternating with Arbitrary Execution.

    As for warnings, it's pretty much the usual drill for my fics: some strong language, depression, minor drug and alcohol usage, self-harm, suicidal ideation, transphobia, homophobia, and possibly a bunch of other related things. Also death, because it's a murder mystery and that means that someone has to get murdered. If, in the course of completing it, I end up needing to warn for anything else, I'll do so before the chapter in question and update this description too, as necessary.

    Finally, I should mention that this fic will make most sense if you're aware that noivern's hidden ability is telepathy.

    Table of Contents:
    One: The Homecoming [Jodi]
    Two: Familiar Spirits [Tacoma]
    Three: Persephone [Jodi]
    Four: Holding the Line [Con]
    Five: In the Shadows [Tacoma]
    Six: Carrion Pride [Gabriella]
    Seven: Drifters [Jodi]
    Eight: Four Mourners [ensemble]
    Nine: Backwoods Redoubt [Tacoma]
    Ten: Flashpoint [Jodi]
    Eleven: The Kindly Ones [Nick]
    Twelve: Blunt Force Trauma [Tacoma]
    Thirteen: Hellmouth [Jodi]
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2018 at 6:57 PM
  2. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    ONE: THE HOMECOMING
    JODI

    Jodi is coming home for Christmas. When she figures out how to feel about this, she'll let you know.

    It's not that there's anything wrong with home. Home is great: a house heated with someone else's money, her mother's cooking, a few weeks of safety during which all her responsibilities are gone. All right, she's supposed to do some reading and produce an essay ahead of next term, but come on. She has a month, more or less. That can wait.

    And yet, sitting here on the train, watching the snow come down in thick, silent flurries on the fields as they race by, she can't help but feel a little uneasy about it. Bluntly? Mahogany is a small town. Everyone there knows everyone else; given a pad of paper and a few hours, she could probably write out the name of pretty much everyone in town, and a healthy number of their addresses too. Everyone knows everyone else, which means that everyone has their noses in everyone else's business, which means …

    Which means that, about fifteen minutes after Jodi has the talk with her parents, everyone in town is going to know too.

    This is fine, she tells herself. It has to happen; she's not going to spend the whole winter break indoors, not even if the snow gets deep enough that people tell her that maybe she should. (Thanks, she'll say, bright and cheerful. Great advice! I'm going out now.) (She won't say this.) But even so, she's spent this past term keeping things so carefully secret that the idea of the information spreading out of her control is more than a little bit frightening.

    She feels a hum in her bones, some ultrasonic frequency plucking at her nerves, and turns to see Lothian looking at her with his head on one side.

    “I'm okay,” says Jodi, reaching out to bury her hand in the thick fur of his mane. “Don't worry, Lothi. This is all gonna work out fine.”

    He pushes his head against her arm and the rumble in her bones changes timbre, growing rich with near-inaudible sentiment. Between his finesse and her expertise, the message is just about translatable: questioning, concerned, anxious. Lothian can tell she's worried, and is worried in his turn.

    “You got me there,” she says, scratching his neck. “But it'll be fine. You'll see.”

    She leans back, and he climbs up onto the seat next to hers, all limbs and vanes. He just about fits – highland noivern run to maybe the size of a big dog, smaller and greyer than the huge Kalois bluewings – and she has to smile at the sight of him, crouched on the cushion like a gargoyle that got lost on the way to its cathedral.

    “Dork,” she says. “Cannot believe you're meant to be a dragon.”

    His humming shifts again inside her, now a low growl in her belly, and she laughs.

    “Okay, Lothian,” she says. “Okay.”

    Jodi returns her attention to the window, one hand still resting on Lothian's furry shoulder, and sees flashes of countryside that seem familiar. Something about the shape of that field, the branches of that dead tree. She blinks, and a moment later sees the old ruined temple sticking out from among the wind-tossed branches of a coppice. Site of countless field trips since the foundation of Mahogany Elementary. Jodi remembers going there herself, back when she was in Ms Pemberley's class. How old? Eight, maybe nine. Before her journey, for sure.

    “Nearly there,” she says aloud, seeing the forest thickening, slowly pushing the fields further and further away from the railway line. She's still thinking of the field trip, of the clipboards and pencils that everyone got: mark off the distinguishing features, class, and do a drawing in the space at the bottom. She'd never held a clipboard before, she remembers. It felt special. She said as much to Tacoma, forgetting who it was she was speaking to, and Tacoma laughed and called her a nerd. And Jodi laughed too and said yeah, probably.

    It's still a fair assessment, even now. Jodi has an alphabetised tape collection and an academic interest in the intersection of acoustics and psionics. Sounds pretty nerdy to her.

    The first of the buildings are just starting to become visible now through the branches. Only a few minutes to go, she thinks, and starts to wind her scarf around her neck.

    “Okay, Lothi,” she says, reaching for her cane. “Go get my rucksack, would you?”



    The doors slide open: cold blast of winter air, platform crunchy with salt and meltwater. Little brick building that does the job of a ticket office, underneath the shadow of the pines. And Harry Jeffries, same as ever, hurrying up to help her with her bags.

    “Alex Ortega, as I live and breathe.” He smiles genially and lifts her case down from the carriage to the platform. Jodi smiles back, unforced. Harry is as much a part of the station as the platform; he's been here, taking tickets and blowing whistles, for longer than Jodi has even been alive. She likes him; every trip between home and uni, he's there, refusing to let the train depart till he's helped her and Lothian get their stuff on or off. He likes her, too. Hopefully he'll still like her, after the news gets out. “And Lothian too,” he adds, as the noivern butts his head against his hand. “How are you both? Goldenrod treating you well?”

    “Yeah, fine. Good to see you too, Harry.” Jodi glances across the platform, to the quiet bend of street beyond the office. She sees her dad's toffee-coloured car parked there, knows he must have seen her by now. “So what interesting stuff's been going on in Mahogany while I was away?”

    “One moment.” Harry beckons her across the line painted on the platform, then blows his whistle sharply. A moment later, the train rushes out of the platform and disappears among the trees.

    “As I was saying,” he continues, “I couldn't possibly comment.” He's moving now, wheeling her case across the platform while she follows, Lothian crawling hunched and batlike at her heels. “But, oh, Janine and Steven have broken up, I believe, about four weeks ago, and Keisha Simmons – you remember? Her chikorita destroyed Sarah Lutyen's curtains? – she's back from her trainer journey now. She says just for the winter, but we'll see.”

    “Right,” says Jodi, letting the sea of familiar names and old stories wash over her in a warm, dense wave. There's something to be said for Mahogany, there really is. Everyone at university is surprised to hear her defend it, but there's a comfort in all this shared history, all this wonderfully boring gossip. “That's sad about Janine and Steven.”

    “It is,” agrees Harry. “How's the weather compare to Goldenrod?”

    He's grinning, and she grins back. Some rituals never die.

    “You know what they're like in the city, Harry. Don't know the meaning of the word cold.”

    He chuckles his acknowledgement and brings her case to a halt.

    “Well, here you are, my lad,” he says. “León?” (Getting the emphasis all wrong.) “Got something here I think you're waiting for.”

    The car door cracks open and disgorges a tall, broad-shouldered man in a thick winter coat and hat. Jodi's face twitches into a smile without her noticing, and Harry steps back to let the two embrace.

    “Hey, kiddo,” says her father. They hold the position for a while, dissolving the ache of her extended absence in the warmth of human contact. “You took your time.”

    “Love you too, Dad.” Lothian springs up onto the car bonnet, neck curving around her father's arm, insinuating itself into the folds of his coat. His ears swivel and his nose vibrates, and Jodi feels one of his deeper hums echoing through her ribs: a purr, or something very like it. “I think Lothian does too,” she says, and her father laughs, scratches ineffectually at the noivern's head with gloved hands.

    “All right,” he says, lifting her suitcase into the boot. “Get him down there, let's get you both home. Been too long since I saw you.”

    “Sure.” She swings her rucksack off her shoulder and directs a smile at Harry. “Thanks, Harry! See you around.”

    “You know where to find me,” he says, and turns to walk back to the office while she and her father go through the rigmarole of getting her, Lothian and their assorted pieces of luggage into the car. Once Lothian has been lured into the back seat – he has never really liked cars – Jodi gets into the front, and her dad begins to drive.

    A moment of silence, as he pulls out from the kerb. Jodi's starting to feel nervous now, although she knows she shouldn't. She is almost entirely certain that the conversation, when it comes, is going to go okay. It's hard to tell whether or not her parents even know that people like her are something that exists – you can't be certain about these things, especially not in isolated Mahogany; she didn't know it herself till she moved to Goldenrod – but she is moderately confident that their love for her is not so easy to shake.

    It's 1976, after all. Modern times, even if modern times sometimes seem to have given up on converting Johto. And her parents are connected, clued-in people, right? Her father still gets the international papers, decades after settling down here in the back end of nowhere. He and her mother read about the Soviets and the Americans, the OPEC embargo and the looming threat of nuclear armageddon. They're open to new ideas. New daughters, even.

    Or at least, she really hopes they are.

    “The train all right?” asks her dad.

    “Yeah,” Jodi replies, fiddling with the handle of her cane. “Fine.” A pause. Past the petrol station, and the tiny cluster of houses around it. Come on, Jodi, she thinks. Put some effort in. Show him that everything's fine. “How's Ella? Is she off yet?”

    “One more week of school, then it's out.” Her dad hesitates. “How's uni?”

    “Fine, Dad. I'm doing good.” She shrugs. “Be nice to switch my brain off for a month, honestly. Practicals this term have been kinda intense.”

    A left onto Park Street. Mahogany is starting to gather around them now, little houses beginning to push back the forest on all sides. It opens out a little from here, although not much. Wherever you go in this town, you can't get away from the towering darkness of the woods.

    “What kind of thing have you been doing?” he asks.

    Jodi pauses for a moment, trying to think how best to explain it. Acoustic empathy is a niche field, even in the context of the already esoteric field she studies.

    “Sympathetic vibrations,” she says. “My mind plus Lothian's vibes equals enhanced empathy. So we've got to do interviews with people who are trying to hide things and figure out what they're lying about and why, but we're only allowed to ask like five questions. That kind of thing.”

    “Like―”

    “Nope.”

    “I didn't even say it,” he protests, although his eyes are twinkling and his mouth turning up at the corners.

    “You don't have to,” she says. “I hope you know I'm not planning on training to be a psy officer after I graduate. You're gonna have to shelve that goal of pointing at Real Psychic Detectives on TV and going 'that's my son'.”

    Her voice almost catches on that last word, but she wrestles it back under control just in time. Lothian's humming flares up again, tingling at the base of her neck: a message of comfort. It's okay, he's saying. You're doing okay.

    She concentrates for a moment, making her mind twist at a strange angle to her thoughts, and feels her response tremble through the aether towards Lothian's head:

    Thanks.

    “A man can dream, can't he?” Her father shakes his head. “Anyway, let's get you home. Your mother's been frantic.”

    Jodi frowns. That does not sound like her in the slightest. Busy, she can buy; her mother works four days a week, and spends the other three making sure Ella and her father don't starve or sink into a pit of their own decaying laundry. There's a reason why it's always her dad who picks her up, after all. But frantic?

    “Why's that?”

    “Huh?” Her dad glances at her as if he hasn't heard what she just asked. It is not particularly convincing. Even Lothian shifts suspiciously on the back seat, though a warning thought from Jodi makes him settle down again.

    “Why's Mum frantic?”

    “Oh, right.” Her dad says it lightly, implausibly. “Just feels like a long time since we last saw you, is all. Even Ella's been asking when you're getting back.”

    Jodie snorts.

    “Pfft. I'll believe that when I see it,” she says. She's about to ask what's really eating her mother, but something – call it intuition, call it four terms of Applied Psionics – makes her hold back. “How's … how's everything else?” she asks. “Harry told me all the gossip I've missed out on.”

    Her calculation is perfect. He looks at her, far too fast. As fast as a man with a secret to keep.

    “Yeah?” he says. “Like what?”

    “Uh, Dad – turning.”

    “What? Oh. Damn it.” He turns the car around and takes the right he missed, onto Long Street. They're deep in Mahogany now, the forest just a dark backdrop to the rows of houses, walls bleached by the weak winter sunlight. “Like what?” he asks again.

    “Like Stephen and Janine breaking up, Keisha Simmons coming back from her trainer journey. You know, the usual stuff.”

    He hides it well, but come on. His daughter (a shiver at the word) is psychic. Not the cool kind of psychic, she can't levitate poké balls like Marcia of the Elite Four, but she is psychic. Even before she started studying to be an empath, she could always tell when her parents were being economical with the truth. And honestly, she's vaguely insulted that he's even trying, but okay, she's keeping secrets too, so she hardly feels like she can judge.

    Lothian's nostrils clamp shut with an audible plap: he's not buying this either.

    We'll get it, she thinks at him. Be patient.

    Lothian responds with a symphony of internal hums and groans that express, in no uncertain terms, that he is patient, thank you very much, and is quite possibly actually the most patient noivern in the world, as Jodi would surely know if she'd bothered to check her facts before speaking.

    It's pretty eloquent, for a vibration – but then, they've been doing this for years, and Jodi is psychic, after all. She suppresses a laugh and returns her attention to her father, who is currently looking slightly too relieved.

    “Oh, right,” he says. “Yeah, it's sad about Stephen and Janine. They were good together.”

    “I mean, something must have been wrong. Otherwise they wouldn't have broken up.”

    “I guess so,” he agrees. “Didn't think of it that way. Guess that's why you're the empath and I sell wood.”

    Left at the junction with Foster Road. The house on the corner is still shrouded in scaffolding, but the workers are gone; the skip in its yard is full of snow. Elsie Lockwood is hurrying along over the icy pavement in front of it, head down, her ponyta clearing a path for her with superheated hooves. Jodi watches her dad's eyes rest on her for a long moment, before she falls behind them as they drive on.

    “How is work, anyway?” she asks, feeling vaguely ashamed for not having asked earlier, and her dad shrugs.

    “All right,” he replies. “Not as good as it used to be.”

    Nothing is, these days. The sense of the recession hangs between them for a few minutes, heavy and stifling, and then they pull into the driveway and it's time for everything to be unpacked again, with all the ceremony and interrogation that requires. Did she remember Lothian's pills? Yes, obviously, Dad, that was one time six years ago. This is heavy. Full of Christmas presents? Lead weights for all of you, you deserve nothing less.

    It's so easy to slip back into this, into the old routines of family. Of father and son. Jodi tries to resist, to remind herself of who and what she is, but for a moment there she forgets. Her dad says come on Alex, let's get in now, and she says okay sure without remembering her name is Jodi.

    And then the moment passes and she goes inside, her gut tangled with guilt and a creeping terror that maybe she isn't what she thinks she is after all.

    But she has to swallow it, so fast and hard she nearly chokes, because almost before she's even through the door her mother sweeps her into a crushing hug.

    “Oh,” she says, surprised, nervous. “Uh, hey, Mum. Nice to see you too.”

    “More than you know, chickadee.” Jodi's face is full of her hair, rich with the smell of cooking, of rose-scented shampoo, of home. She blinks back a tear and tightens her grip. “How long do we have you for?”

    “A month, give or take. You know that. Lothian!”

    Jodi pulls away a little, but she's too slow; he's already galloped off into the kitchen, claws skittering on the linoleum.

    “Lothian!” she calls again. Then, telepathically: Lothian!

    “Oh, let him go,” says her mother. “It's in the oven. He can't get to it.”

    She hears claws scratching on glass, and then the low rumble of noivern disappointment echoes through her gut. All right then. Dinner is safe. For now.

    “Anyway,” says her mother. “It's good to have you back, Alex. How's uni?”

    “Good. Demanding. Fulfilling. All that stuff. How's work?”

    “Work's work, darling.” Her mother glances at her father, who has paused halfway through putting his hat back on the peg. “León?” (Getting the emphasis just right.) “Did you …?”

    “I didn't say a word,” he replies, exasperated. “I asked Harry not to, either.”

    Okay. This has gone far enough. Jodi leans back a little, looks from one to the other. Two careworn faces. A lot of obvious lies.

    “Look,” she says. “I wasn't gonna say, but … I am psychic, if you remember?”

    Her father gives her mother an I told you so sort of look. She sighs and takes Jodi's hand.

    “I just … wanted to tell you here, at home,” she says, and at the back of Jodi's head something that is not Lothian starts to screech.

    “What?” she asks, heart slamming into her ribs like an axe into wood. “What is it?” And unasked, in her head: who is it?

    “Aaron Lockwood pulled a body out of the river this morning.” Her mother falters. Some distant part of Jodi that remembers her training tells her to flex her mind, to call Lothian over to generate soothing vibrations from the pattern of her psionics, but she does not. She does not do anything at all, just stares, until her mother gathers herself and continues: “It's, um … it's Tacoma Spearing.”

    There is a roaring in Jodi's ears, but when she listens closely she can't hear anything at all.



    How long has it been? Five years, probably. Five years since Jodi and Tacoma last exchanged so much as a hello. Best friends almost since birth, since their mothers were part of the same post-natal group, and then – silence.

    When Jodi came home from her trainer journey, back when she was twelve, Tacoma came too. She insisted. You'll be back out there before you know it, she said, so I'll come with you, and then we can get going again. But Jodi didn't get back out there. And, after a couple of weeks, she managed to persuade Tacoma to leave without her, because there was no need for her to throw her journey in just because Jodi was quitting hers, and so Tacoma left to go on adventures all over again.

    Jodi got letters from her. She did get that, at least. Hi Alex! Made it over the border into Kanto. So weird to see all these signs using the new alphabet. Hi Alex! Saffron's freaking huge, did you know? I spent an hour just trying to find the Pokémon Centre.

    The letters got less frequent as time went on – simpler, too, and shorter. Jodi let it happen. She could sense that there were other people taking up Tacoma's attention; it would be better, she figured, not to waste her friend's time. Eventually there were no more letters at all, and that was that. By the time Tacoma got back, a year later, neither of them had anything left to say to one another.

    So they let it drop. Tacoma went her way, Jodi went hers. And it was okay, really; Jodi had been diagnosed as psychic by then, and Tacoma had started her tuition, been identified as someone who should probably be applying for scholarships. Both of them had so much work to do. There wasn't time for regrets.

    Except that now Tacoma's dead. Pulled out of the river with bruises round her throat by the town's resident misanthrope. She's dead, and now there is all the time in the world to regret everything.

    Jodi sits there on the couch, hands cupped around a mug of untouched coffee. Lothian is perched on the back of the seat, his head on her shoulder and his best peaceful vibrations purring through her gut, but she barely notices. Tacoma is dead. Murdered, even.

    Her mother explains, in a low, uneven voice. No, nobody knows anything yet. The police are still looking into it. Tacoma came back from university yesterday, never made it to her house. They only found the body this morning. Still haven't located her luggage.

    Jodi listens with difficulty, trying to make herself believe it. Tacoma is younger than her, by six days. How can someone younger than her be dead? How is that possible? And Tacoma, of all people? Tacoma Spearing?

    “Are you okay?” her mother asks, looking at her. “Alex, are you okay?”

    Jodi stares. Her mind seems to be entirely disconnected from her face.

    “I'm not Alex,” she hears herself saying. A voice in her head asks her what the hell she's doing, this isn't the time, shut up, but somehow she keeps saying it anyway. “My name is Jodi. I'm a girl.”



    None of this has gone like it was supposed to. No one was supposed to be dead, for a start. Everyone was meant to be relaxed, happy to see her, open to new ideas. Perfect circumstances for a dramatic personal revelation.

    But no. Because Tacoma Spearing is dead and Jodi was so shocked she didn't have the self-control to swallow her thoughts.

    Some moments have passed. Jodi has clarified what she meant by that last statement. Her parents have still not responded. She sits there, Lothian's wing-claws resting on her shoulders and his ultrasonics thrumming through her nervous system, and watches their faces slowly deforming with their surprise.

    “Jesus Christ,” says her father, at last. “I … Jesus Christ.”

    Jodi does not need to hear the tone of his voice to know how he feels. Even if she was in the right frame of mind to control her ESP, the raw emotion swirling around the room is too powerful to be resisted; she feels her parents' shock as if it were her own, brutal, paralysing.

    She detects no hostility. She didn't think she would, but even so. It's still a relief.

    “How long?” he asks suddenly, and Jodi sighs. Okay. Less explaining to do than she feared.

    “Almost a year,” she says. “I'm sorry.”

    “You didn't say,” says her mother.

    Jodi nods. No. She didn't.

    “Christ.” Her mother still hasn't tried to tell him off for his language; she really is floored. “Alex, I― sorry. Jodi, was it?”

    Something unclenches in her chest. Lothian senses it, grips her shoulders a little tighter in his claws.

    “Yeah,” she says. “Jodi.”

    “Why didn't you say anything?”

    She shrugs.

    “Fear. I guess.”

    “But you know that we …”

    “Yeah,” she says. “I know. I was afraid anyway.”

    Another pause, and then quite suddenly the two of them are there, both reaching out to hug her, unable to decide who should go first. Lothian shoves her forward into their arms, his voice buzzing at the base of her spine, and in the end her mother gets there first and somehow, strangely, it's all turning out okay.

    Tacoma Spearing is dead. Nothing is going to change that. But at least she can mourn her with her real face now.

    It doesn't feel like that should be much comfort, but somehow it is.



    By the time her sister gets home from school, Jodi has changed and put on make-up. She stands there in the hallway as Ella kicks her shoes off in the porch, and then braces for the impact of her eyes as she comes out into the hall.

    “Hey, you're home,” she says, and then her brain catches up with her vision and she stops, dead.

    Neither of them say anything for a while. Jodi feels like it's probably on her to make the first move here.

    “Yeah,” she says. “I am.”

    Seconds pass. Ella keeps on staring.

    “You're wearing eyeshadow,” she says.

    “Yes,” agrees Jodi.

    “And a dress.”

    “Also yes.”

    “So …”

    Ella turns her palm upwards in an I'm not getting it kind of way, and Jodi sighs.

    “It turns out I'm a girl,” she says.

    Ella frowns.

    “Is that a thing? You can just do that?”

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “You can.”

    “Huh.” Ella scratches her head, confused. “That's … okay, sorry, I need a minute.”

    “Sure,” says Jodi. “Sure, take your time.”

    For a long moment, Ella just stands there, still staring as if she might be able to make sense of this if she only looks hard enough, and then she sighs and drops her bag.

    “Guess I shoulda known,” she says, coming over just a fraction too fast to be nonchalant. “C'mere, you big dork.”

    She's trying to hide her concern, but Jodi can feel it anyway, in the tightness of her embrace and the emotion radiating from her mind.

    “What d'you mean, you shoulda known?” she asks, hugging back.

    “You're such a girl,” Ella tells her, and Jodi laughs.

    “I guess I'll take that as a compliment,” she says. “My name's Jodi, by the way.”

    “Jodi,” repeats Ella. “Cool.” She hesitates, like she isn't sure that's an appropriate response; Jodi tightens her grip a little, to let her know it's okay. “How are … how are Mum and Dad?”

    “Fine. Surprised, but fine.”

    They step away from one another, Jodi transferring her weight from her sister to her cane. Ella looks good, she thinks, but then, she always does. Jodi has their mother's pallor, but Ella has the same golden skin as their father, the thick dark hair and mobile lips. She's three years younger than Jodi, but those who see them together tend to assume they're much closer in age than that.

    She also looks worried. Jodi doesn't need to be an empath to guess what the next words out of her mouth will be.

    “You heard about Tacoma?” she asks, and Jodi twists the corner of her mouth into something that isn't quite a smile.

    “Yeah,” she says. “I … yeah, I have.”

    The silence falls between them again. Out of the corner of her eye, Jodi sees Lothian crouched in the doorway to the living-room, head snaking around the door to watch.

    “You okay?” asks Ella, tentatively. “Like really?”

    Jodi sighs.

    “I dunno, Ella,” she says. “I really wasn't planning on … any of this.” She still can't believe she just came out with it like that, at the worst possible time. They hadn't even finished talking about Tacoma yet. Still haven't, even. Her news swept theirs aside, left no space for dead friends or young lives cut tragically short. They sat there in the silence that it left, and then Jodi asked if her dad would help her get her case up to her room so she could get changed, and he said yes, and then when she came back down in the clothes her Goldenrod friends helped her buy they stared at her and tried unsuccessfully to hide it. She was glad to hear Ella's key in the front door; it gave her an excuse to get out of there.

    “Yeah,” says Ella. “I guess nobody was, huh.”

    The hall clock ticks. Jodi hears low voices from the living-room, and wonders if her parents are worrying about how this meeting is going.

    “Your hair suits you better like this,” says Ella. It sounds like someone casting around desperately for something to say. Like what it is. “It was too long for a guy. Like one of those hippy Americans.”

    “I know. I … I've been being Jodi for a while in Goldenrod.”

    Ella sucks in a breath.

    “How long?”

    Jodi shrugs.

    “I've known for nearly a year. I've been … doing this, I guess you'd say, since summer term.”

    Now Ella's concern is almost overpowering. Jodi takes a moment to breathe, to try and dial back her ESP, and takes her hand.

    “Still me,” she reassures her. “Just being honest about it now.”

    “Honest,” repeats Ella. “Right, right.”

    They keep looking at each other. What else can she say, Jodi wonders. Something banal, maybe. To settle the mood.

    “How's Virgo?” she asks. It's all she's got.

    “Hibernating.”

    “Oh,” says Jodi. “Right.”

    Ariados can't take the cold. Virgo, the one partner Ella kept with her after her journey, spends every winter silent and motionless on the top shelf of Ella's wardrobe, among the dried-up marker pens and tubes of old paint. Sometimes if they have the heating on for longer than usual she'll crawl out for a day or two, surprised and disoriented, before giving up and retreating back to her sanctuary to sleep through to spring.

    “Um … well, d'you wanna come inside?” offers Jodi, trying to move on. “I'm feeling kinda outnumbered in there.”

    “Sure,” says Ella, shrugging off her coat. “Right behind you, sis.”

    She only stumbles a little on the word. It goes in Jodi's ears and lodges somewhere deep inside her chest, bright and warm as a summer afternoon. She is completely unprepared for it; her cheeks flame and she lowers her eyes to her mismatched feet.

    “Um,” she says, blinking quickly to try and stave off tears. “Okay. Let's … go.”

    They go inside, and there's Lothian, climbing on the sofa; there are their parents, doing their best to look like everything is normal. There's Lucille, her mother's old graveler, stumping in from the kitchen on her short little legs.

    Tacoma Spearing is dead. Jodi is going to have to deal with this, some time very soon. But right now, in this moment, home at last with her sister and her partner and her parents, with the snow starting to fall outside the windows and the smell of dinner in the air, she is almost certain that she's okay.



    Late that night, in the midst of an unpleasant dream, Jodi wakes. For a moment, she isn't sure where she is, and then the shadows fall into an arrangement that makes sense: her room, her real room, at home in Mahogany. Wardrobe, desk, chest of drawers. Moonlight around the edges of the curtains. Lothian, curled up in a nest of his own wings, ears twitching as he dreams of echolocation.

    She lies there for a moment, letting her heart slow. Her dream was of the Silverblack Mountains, far to the north. For some reason she was there again, walking the trainers' trail through the pass to Hawthorn with Tacoma, except that Tacoma was just staring at her and whispering help me, over and over.

    Kind of ominous. Jodi is used to ominous dreams – she's not the kind of psychic that can see the future, but she is the kind of psychic who picks up vibrations from other sleeping people and unintentionally synthesises them into spooky dream visions – but this one is worse than usual. She doesn't want to dream of Tacoma. Not tonight, maybe not ever.

    She still doesn't know what to think about it all. What can you think, when your childhood best friend gets brutally murdered, three weeks shy of Christmas? She asked her parents about it again, once everyone had got over the initial shock of Jodi being Jodi, but they really didn't know a thing. Tacoma is dead. That's all: nothing more, nothing less. Tacoma is dead, and somehow, everything else is going on just the same as ever.

    That night, she went to bed early, feigning tiredness but in reality just wanting to give everyone a chance to sleep on her news – the after-dinner conversation was starting to dry up in an awkward kind of way – and for some reason, when she walked into her room and saw all her childhood things laid out there she just started to cry. It wasn't for her, wasn't for any of the strangeness she had brought to this house today. It was for Tacoma, and the fact that she was never going to bring anything to any house ever again.

    Afterwards, she felt a little better. Not that much better, but good enough to sleep. At least until she started dreaming about dead people.

    Help me.

    Jodi freezes.

    Help me.

    Is that …?

    Someone. Please. Help me!

    It's faint, crackly, like a voice from a badly-tuned radio, and Jodi can hear other voices chattering underneath it, too quietly for her to distinguish the words. It could be a dream. She could be asleep. But if that's what this is, then it's much more realistic than her subconscious usually manages. The distortion, the interference speakers – this all feels like a real message.

    Help me …

    But who? As far as she knows, Jodi's the only psychic in town. And if she's honest, she's not that good at it, either, not without Lothian's help. Her usual range is only a few yards; she picks up vibes from within the room, but no further. So unless Lothian's suddenly got a whole lot more articulate, or someone else has suddenly developed the kind of telepathic chops that would ordinarily get you a scholarship to brain school, then this can't be real.

    Maybe it is a dream. Jodi pinches herself, and feels real pain.

    Well. Crap.

    Please! I don't know – where am I?

    She chews her lip, telling herself that it's nothing, that she should close her eyes and go back to sleep, and then she throws off the covers and eases herself out of bed.

    “Lothi?” she murmurs. Noivern can hear a pin drop from a mile off; for Lothian, a whisper is as good as a shout. “Lothi, wake up.”

    He tenses, and then with a sudden swift motion looks up, as alert as if he'd been awake all along. The folds of his nose quiver, and a little coded hum ripples through Jodi's nerves: what's wrong?

    She reaches out and touches his mind with her own. A moment later, when the voice comes again, she can tell from the way his ears twitch that it's travelling through the connection to reach him too.

    Please, someone help!


    She gives him a look. Lothian flares his nostrils and uncurls, stalking over to push his head against her good leg.

    He communicates that they should go, and there it is, decision made. Just as Jodi was hoping. And he's right, isn't he? Someone's lost in a sub-zero night somewhere nearby, and Jodi can (a) sense their pain and (b) find her way around town blindfolded, if she has to. She's got to do something. She just has to.

    Someone …

    The emotion is starting to bleed through now, along with the words. Whoever it is, they're panicking – really panicking, the kind that feels like your organs are tearing themselves to bloody shreds inside your ribcage. Jodi takes a minute to process it, to quarantine it carefully in one corner of her mind as she has been taught, and then she grabs her clothes and her cane and heads out into the night.

    It's freezing. She knew this already, but it's something else to have it confirmed. All jokes about soft city slickers aside, a December night in Mahogany just has more bite than one in Goldenrod. Jodi shivers, tucks her chin deeper into her scarf, and taps Lothian on the back of the head.

    Okay, she says, without words. Help me out here.

    She opens her mind. His ears swivel into a position. Jodi feels the vibrations building up inside her, rumbling around in the pit of her stomach, and then, with that sudden twist of the mind, there it is: the vibe she needs, the timbre of the voice she's been hearing for the past few minutes. She hums a single voiceless note, down in the depths of her brain, and hears Lothian take it up too, richer and deeper, her mind carried outwards on a dense wave of sound.

    Hello? The voice is clearer now, though still faint. Who is that?

    Hello
    , projects Jodi, as clearly as she can. Stay calm. I'm coming to find you.

    There's something out there; she can feel it in her bones. Beyond her range, but with her psionics mingled with his vibes Lothian can find it.

    Hello? The voice sounds frantic. Hey, did you say something?

    I'm coming.

    Hello? Help! I'm – I don't know, it's so dark, I can't see anything.

    I'm coming
    , Jodi replies, but it's clear that the other person can't hear her. Fine. She'll have to get closer.

    “Come on, Lothi,” she says, voice muffled by her scarf, and he moves slowly down the street, ears swivelling as he tracks the vibrations. Jodi follows as closely as she can, testing each step with her cane before she takes it. The streetlights turned off hours ago; except for the gleam of moonlight on snow, the world is a single formless mass of black. She didn't think to grab her torch. If she sticks close to Lothian, it shouldn't matter. He doesn't need light to find his way.

    God, but it's cold. Even concentrating on tracing the voice isn't enough to distract her. It's an angry cold, nipping and scratching at every bit of exposed skin, burrowing down through your coat to scrape along your ribs. Jodi screws her face deeper into her scarf, pulls down her hat, but still it bites. How Lothian stands it with his thin fur she has no idea. When she caught him, he was living in an icebound cave in the Silverblacks, in the only noibat colony east of the Black Sea. It was even colder there than it is here, so cold her fingers were too stiff to get a poké ball out of her backpack, but he flew over to her as agile and curious as a growlithe on a summer's day.

    Ugh. Stop thinking about the Silverblacks, she tells herself, and returns her attention to the mind she's trying to follow.

    Hello? asks the voice. Are you still there?

    Clearer now. Something strange about it, though it's hard to tell what. Where even are they? Huxley Road? Jodi looks up for a moment, but all she sees is the night, huge and dark. This was a terrible idea, honestly. She shouldn't have rushed out like that without telling anyone what she was doing. What if she falls over and freezes to death out here, a block from her own house? It's not going to happen, obviously – Lothian will drag her back home and blast the door off its hinges if he has to – but what if it did?

    Bloody empathy. If she hadn't felt the other person's fear the way she did, she might not have―

    The crunch of Lothian's claws on the snow stops, and Jodi has to stop too or trip over him. She squints ferociously into the dark, trying to figure out where they are. From the turns they took, it feels like Foster Road, and she doesn't think they went very far down it. She could tap into Lothian's echolocation, but it's not worth the headache. Bolting an alien sense onto her mind isn't good for her brain.

    She reaches out instead, bangs her hand on something and hears the ring of metal. Weird angle, though; it seems to be sloping towards her. For a moment, she can't figure it out, and then she remembers the skip. Rick Fawkes' pet project, right? The house that never gets finished. They drove past it on the way home.

    But why are they here now? Jodi concentrates for a second, but doesn't find anyone nearby. There's Lothian; there's something that feels like maybe a noctowl; there's some other animal, hiding somewhere nearby. Apart from that, there's nobody here except Jodi herself. No other humans at all.

    “Lothi,” she begins, but before she gets any further the voice breaks into her mind again, as clear now as if the speaker was just a few feet away.

    Lothi? Lothian?

    Jodi's focus shatters, just like that; she loses the link with Lothian, tumbles back into her body with a thump that almost knocks her off her feet. She knows that voice. And who it is, is … No. No, that's not possible. That just isn't possible.

    Alex?

    A leathery flutter, and the clang of claws on steel: Lothian has flapped up onto the skip. She hears scraping, rattling, and then something heavy hits the pavement at her feet with a crack.

    He's found it, he announces, at the same time as the voice calls out:

    Alex? Is that you?


    She can't move. Her whole body seems to have locked in place, like the cold has seeped into her veins and frozen the blood mid-flow.

    She knows what's coming, even before the voice says it.

    Alex, it's Tacoma. Where are you?
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2018
    Marika_CZ likes this.
  3. Ambyssin

    Ambyssin Trouble with the trolley, eh?

    A murder mystery, eh? Time to channel all those games of Clue I lost back in the day! XP

    The opening is quiet, giving us a sense of, I guess, one of the main characters? As her name popping up under the chapter title leads me to believe we're doing multiple POVs with this angle. It's minimalistic, but in a good way, I think. I have enough of an idea about who Jodi is from the small degree of thinking and interactions she gets with Lothian. Your use of Noivern's sound waves is definitely clever, though I will admit that sound and noise is, with my limited knowledge of physics, one of my weakest areas (something something ultrasound, pulse waves, Doppler, etc.). Also, the idea of a Noivern of all Pokémon being kept out of its ball and serving as a Companion Cube of sorts is a fun little image. Especially some of the little quirks you give him. He seems more dog-like than anything with some of his tendencies (trouble with cars, scampering off at the smell of food, etc.).

    Oh, wait, this is a period piece, then? That definitely shifts my perception of things a bit. I suppose I should've taken the train's presence as an indication of that. It sure didn't seem like a modern train.

    I just also got a kick out of this line, for some reason. I guess Jodi must have a sassy-natured Noivern. XD

    All the empath stuff was certainly cool to hear about, as well. Mainly because that kind of stuff is treated as occult in most forms of media, but of course it's something that a university would offer to its students in the Pokémon world. I think – and maybe this is strange – but I'm glad that the car driving scene felt sort of... flat, for lack of a better word. There was the empath stuff, but the scene itself initially felt very wooden and like it was going through the motions of a conversation. But then Jodie gets back home and there's the dead body bombshell, and I'm taken aback. I know you have Jodi suspect something's wrong in the car ride, but my gut was to think it was something minor. Either that means I'm easy to trick or you did a good job with the sudden, dramatic twist. I'll let you pick on that one.

    I will admit that the following scene with Jodie's parents (and Ella too, technically) also surprised me. Because the combination of the time period and the setting being a small, isolated town led me to (incorrectly) assume that things were going to go very badly for Jodi here. I think I was running on stereotypes of American small town closemindedness (and I really need to stop thinking anything American while I'm reading your stuff, but it's just impulse so I'm-a shut up now).

    There was a bit of personal confusion for me in the final scene, namely just with the specifics of her mental link with Lothian. I couldn't entirely tell if she was using him to guide her toward what I'm guessing is the dead body. Or if she only had brief glimpses into his mind but was relying more on her own (lack of) sight to guid her. I think it's the latter, there. But I wasn't entirely sure. Nevertheless, very creepy ending to the chapter. I'd be lying if I said I didn't whistle the X-Files theme. Which would make this well-timed since that TV series just got revived again.
     
  4. Conquering Storm

    Conquering Storm Driver of the Aegis

    Murder mystery, huh? This is gonna be fun. (Something inside me is hoping Jodi gets to do a classic private eye monologue at some point.)

    I really like the bits of world-building you've put into psychic powers - human psychics are one of those things I know exists in the Pokémon world, but always seem to forget about. Jodi's empathetic abilities are really well-written, too; you've done really well at making it an always-on thing, like sight or hearing, rather than just being something that pops up when it's convenient for the story.

    And speaking of Jodi, I'm really happy for her about how accepting her family has been of her transness. I guess after spending so long with poor Artemis, it's nice to have a protagonist with open-minded parents.

    Anyway, this first chapter is just plain awesome. World-building, introducing us to the characters, ghostly creepiness - all the best stuff. I can't wait to see what happens next!
     
  5. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → soul sick.

    Ohhh, seconding the psychic powers stuff. <3 I mean, I guess you might call it a cliche and there's plenty of cliche ways to incorporate it in a story, but no, this is rich with worldbuilding and relevant to the plot and the characters. You don't even have Jodi with a psychic-type (or maybe you do, but Lothian's all I see here right now!), and instead, you've got the acoustics thing going on there. They're adorable together.

    I have to second, too, the awkward conversations. I'm sure that was the point, but I'm not sure I've ever been so successfully made to feel, uh, awkward when reading. I was cringing and just kinda shifting around uncomfortably because goddamn it there was clearly a giant elephant in the room and it wasn't going away. Then it went away and I almost wished it were back because Jodi's already having a tough time with things, and no one deserves to lose a best friend... not like that.

    I did get the impression Tacoma and her weren't friends at first, though, with the nerd joke. I thought it was just the name of a kid who made fun of Jodi in school or maybe even bullied her, so the sudden jump to best friends since birth was kind of weird.
     
  6. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    We are doing multiple POVs, yes! Jodi will be the main character we follow, but as she meets more and more people, we'll see more and more perspectives gather around her own. Also, since the interaction of psychic powers and sound waves is completely made up, I don't think you need to worry about not knowing anything about sound. Who needs 'science' and 'factual accuracy' in our made-up seventies ghost world? As for Lothian, I'm glad you like him! I don't actually have any frame of reference for what a giant fruit bat dragon would act like, so I guess he ended up sort of doggy by default as I tried to make him energetic and endearing.

    I'm also glad that you liked the use I made of his sound waves – I searched through the pokédex for ages, looking for a psychic pokémon that felt right as Jodi's partner, and in the end I saw that noivern's hidden ability was telepathy and was just really intrigued. What does telepathy look like when it's not actually based on psychic powers? Because noivern doesn't have psychic powers, it just screams really loudly. So what I came up with was using highly specific frequencies to manipulate people's nerves. Which, I don't know if that's a thing that's even possible – it's probably not – but it seemed fun anyway.

    I'm not sure what gave that impression, since I didn't actually describe the train at all, but I'm glad that you ended up with it. :p I'm kinda building on a thing I started thinking about in Arbitrary Execution, which is that Kanto had an economic boom in the seventies while Johto, along with a great many other countries, went through an extended period of economic hardship, exacerbating national rivalries. I've hinted at it here in the first chapter, but it should become more apparent as we go on.

    Oh, definitely. Lothian is very sure that he's the best, and we'll see more of that as the story continues.

    That was sort of the intention, yes! Like, Jodi is nervous, and she's absolutely just going through the motions of the conversation, trying to play the role of the student just arrived home, while she psyches herself up for her Big Reveal. But of course her parents have a Big Reveal of their own, and then all her planning goes out the window and everything gets weird.

    We have the same stereotypes here, so your initial impulse isn't wrong. But that's just what they are – stereotypes. And stereotypes never capture the full range of human thought and emotion. People are just as capable of being kind and open as cruel and closed, and after having written, what, like five novel-length stories in the past few years about trans women with fraught relationships with their parents, I figured it would be nice to write about someone whose family is genuinely loving and supportive. Still awkward, of course. But ultimately good.

    Jodi's not out of the woods yet, mind. Like I said, people are just as capable of being cruel as kind, and that means that there are a great many people in Mahogany who aren't going to be as accepting as her parents and sister are. You were kind of meant to be surprised by how cool her parents are with her; you will not be surprised by the reaction of some of the other townspeople.

    Also – you're not wrong to think American here. I'm channelling a lot of American media for this story, partly because I wanted my Johto to feel a little different from my Kanto in terms of its culture, and partly because that's where I look to for noir and neo-noir detective inspiration. Like, I'm drawing on things like Shadow of a Doubt, Double Indemnity, Blue Velvet, and – obviously, since this is a supernatural murder mystery in which a young woman is killed in an isolated logging town – Twin Peaks. All of these are very American, and that's affected Ghost Town quite a lot, particularly the way I've written the cops.

    She's using him as an amp, essentially. She picked up Tacoma's signal by herself, but as she says, her range isn't very far, and she's using Lothian to help her pinpoint where it is the signal is coming from. As she said earlier, she's familiar enough with Mahogany that she can find her way around town in the dark just by counting the turnings, but sticking close to Lothian is sort of necessary to avoid bumping into things.

    That was definitely the part where my interpretation of noivern's telepathic abilities was most complicated, though – I knew that if someone was going to be confused by it, that was where it would happen. I'll go back over it and see if I can make it any clearer. But, for now, thank you – as always – for your review.

    We'll see! As I said above, my influences here are a bit more generally noir than they are detective story, per se, but I do love a good detective monologue. We might get there, we might not; without going too much into the details and spoiling future chapters, Jodi won't be investigating alone, so I guess she might not have a chance to do much monologuing.

    Thank you! I've always been really interested in the way the games have magic and other supernatural powers just sort of gently bubbling along in the background. I've had psychic stuff happen vaguely in the background of some of my fics, but this is the first time I've given serious thought about the mechanics of it and how it (a) affects the lives of people who have these powers and (b) fits into broader society. I've really enjoyed going into that, and we'll get a lot deeper into that as we continue.

    I went with empathy in particular because it's kind of a double-edged sword: Jodi's particular powers make her really good at dealing with people, but also really susceptible to being influenced by them – and it also leaves her open to feeling the full blast of other people's hatred for her. Which will, unfortunately for her, definitely be something she's going to experience as her investigation gets underway.

    It is nice, yes – I really enjoyed writing it, and as it happens there's more of it to come. Jodi has a great family, and writing them has been a pleasure.

    I'm glad it all came together for you! When I laid out all the parts of this chapter, it felt a bit like a collection of stuff rather than a unified whole, but I tried to glue it all together with Jodi's empathy and her transness, and I'm really pleased to hear you liked it. Thank you for reviewing!

    I'm pleased you liked it – I couldn't find a psychic-type I wanted Jodi to have, and I dithered about whether or not using a noivern with its hidden ability was going to be too obscure, but in the end it looks like it all worked out. The way she uses Lothian to amplify her psychic powers is sort of dependent on a metaphor – that figurative use of 'vibrations' to mean feelings rather than sounds, as in 'good vibes' – but like, from the general response this first chapter's got, that seems to have been enough to hold things together. Which is good, because I'm not sure I've got anything more concrete to work with. :p

    I'll confirm that Lothian is her only pokémon at present, however, and he's most certainly the partner she uses for her psychic work. There's definitely more information to come on that front, however, so watch this space.

    That was exactly what I wanted, so your awkwardness is good news! :p Coming out, even to a family who you're pretty sure is going to be perfectly supportive, is exceptionally awkward. And, well, trying to dance around the subject of a dead best friend, even (possibly especially) one whose relationship with you has lapsed into uncomfortably uncertain territory – that's super awkward too. It's a weird time, and I wanted it to be as weird to read as it would have been to live through.

    That's fair – I meant that she said it in a friendly sort of way, the same way as Jodi tells Lothian he's a dork, but that could definitely be made clearer. I've gone back and edited that part accordingly.

    Next time: we shift viewpoints, and find out exactly how it is that Jodi's been getting messages from Tacoma. Until then – thank you, and everyone else, for reviewing. Posting the first chapter of a new fic is always kinda terrifying, with the what-if-everyone-hates-it jitters, and those first few reviews are always super reassuring.
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2018
  7. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    TWO: FAMILIAR SPIRITS
    TACOMA

    Tacoma is lost.

    She really doesn't see how any of this happened. As far as she can remember it – and there is some haziness around the crucial moments – she was just on her way home. Got off at the station, said hi to Harry. He said hi back, refused to let her carry her case across the station, because he's just like that. Asked if her parents were coming to pick her up, but they weren't. Neither could get the day off work, and Nick hadn't arrived yet; his flight was supposed to arrive at Goldenrod at more or less the same time as her train arrived at Mahogany. He'd be up later that evening.

    Nick. Did this have something to do with him? She was carrying that parcel in her bag. Take it to your Uncle Nick, said Keith, and Tacoma had to bite back her irritation at his overfamiliarity. You don't get to call him that, she thought. He's been telling me not to call him that for years, so you sure as hell don't get to do it. Makes him feel old, he says. And you're an adult now, Tacoma. No reason for you to be giving me epithets like I'm any better than you.

    Anyway, she had that parcel in her bag, and she has a feeling that might have had something to do with it. Keith did say that it was to do with her uncle's research, and Nick is researching other dimensions, in his lab at Yellowbrick University. She remembers being irritated about it, even aside from the fact that she'd been roped into doing this for Keith. (She refuses to call him Professor Allbright. She is, after all, an adult now. No reason for her to give him epithets like he's any better than her.) The damn thing was heavy – really heavy, even. That was why Keith didn't just put it in the mail. When he handed her the parcel, at the end of that tutorial, she felt the heft of it in her hand and asked him what it was.

    “A rock sample,” he said.

    “Since when is my uncle interested in rock samples?” she asked. “Or you, for that matter?”

    Keith did that annoying thing he does where he smirks and adjusts his glasses, and Tacoma thought to herself, oh, just get to the point, you jumped-up little prick.

    “It's a special rock sample,” he said. “Related to your uncle's dimensional studies. I'd leave it at his lab, but I think he'll want it before he comes back from his sabbatical.”

    Obviously she tore the parcel open as soon as she got back to her room, but it really was just a piece of rock: a smooth, vaguely conical piece of stone about twice as big as her fist. Heavy, too. She spent a while examining it, trying to figure out what was so special about it, but other than a crack on one side she couldn't find anything. The brief note that came with it didn't give any details: Nick, here's that sample we were talking about. Think you'll get a kick out of it. ―K. As far as Tacoma could see, it was just a rock.

    A rock that, for some reason, the Professor of Ghost Studies at Kanto's top university wanted to send to the Senior Reader in Extradimensional Research. So urgently that it couldn't wait until Nick got back from his sabbatical. You'll see him at Christmas, right? asked Keith. I wonder if you could do me a favour.

    And, well, Tacoma needs to pass his ridiculous little course to keep on track for her degree in pokémon medicine, despite the fact that if ghost-types get sick or injured there isn't much a doctor can actually do, so she said yes. Which is why she was carrying the mysterious, possibly extradimensional rock with her as she tried to manoeuvre her suitcases down the icy streets of Mahogany towards her parents' house.

    Which, in turn, might be why she appears to be in one of those extra dimensions right now.

    She really doesn't see how it happened. One moment, she's cutting through the park in the fading light, cursing the fuck out of ice in general and this path in particular, and then … then she's not sure, but after that not sure comes this.

    Tacoma looks around again. It's night, or it's dark at least; the air is still in a way that makes her think she's inside, but she can't see any sign of a window. Can't see anything at all, in fact. She bends down, as she has a hundred times before, and feels the floor: smooth tiles, rectangular, worn. Impossible to tell the colour or the material.

    She takes a deep breath. It tastes of dust and age.

    At some point, she's going to have to move. But in the darkness all around her, in the cave-like stillness of the air, she feels like she can see that ravine in the Silverblacks again, its awful, impossible depth. Anything you dropped in there disappeared forever. No trace, no sound. Even after she saw people climb down to the bottom and back, she couldn't shake the feeling that there was simply nothing down there but void.

    And faced with that, Tacoma finds that she cannot move at all.

    Another breath. This place is so quiet. She's used to quiet – she's from Mahogany, for Christ's sake – but even in her sleepy little hometown there are night noises: wind, noctowl, nightingales, the hum of electricity in the wires. Here in this unnatural dark, there is absolutely nothing at all. And that is something Tacoma has no idea how to deal with at all.

    She breathes in again. She wishes Nikole was here, but she was in her ball when this happened, and none of Tacoma's bags have come with her. Suitcase, shoulder bag, rucksack: all presumably still in the municipal park, lying there in the snow with her uncle's goddamn mystery rock. And Nikole's poké ball, at the bottom of her bag.

    Hell. If only she'd put it in her pocket. But no. Nikole had a cold, so Tacoma refused to let her help carry the luggage, and so she stayed tucked away right at the bottom of her bag, as far away from the freezing December air as Tacoma could get her.

    So. No Nikki, no company, no light, no anything but a boundless abyss.

    Okay, then.

    She stretches out her arms in front of her: nothing. Slowly, carefully, she edges one foot forward, and is relieved to find that she doesn't immediately fall into a bottomless pit. Another step, and still the floor stays firm beneath her. Another, and another and another and another, and―

    Her fingers touch something. Tacoma leaps back, breath catching in her throat, but then her brain catches up and she realises what it is.

    Oh. Right.

    Sheepishly, she puts a hand out and feels stone beneath her fingers. Yes: it's just a wall. Big blocks, smooth with age. Like the old city hall in Saffron. There's nowhere like this in Mahogany, as far as she knows.

    “All right.” It's the first thing she's said since arriving here. Her voice sounds thin and weak in her ears. The air, she tells herself. It's just a weird atmosphere. Bad acoustics. That kind of thing. This is much easier than admitting that it's probably all down to her. “All right, so … follow the wall.”

    Step after careful step through the dark. How long has it been now? Long enough that she'd have expected her eyes to have started adjusting, but she can't even see her hand on the stones, six inches from her face. She tries not to think about it, and keeps following the wall as it curves around the room.

    A minute passes, or maybe an hour, or maybe ten years, and then at last her hand meets something flat. She reaches up, feels first one edge and then another. Almost like …

    Stairs. Stairs! Of course, she's just underground! So if she can just take the stairs up, she'll be able to get out of here, back up into the light. Tacoma leaps for what she thinks is the bottom, cracking her shin against the step in her rush, and then yes, thank God, there it is: a staircase. She scrambles up as fast as she can, stumbling as the stairs curve around, and falls over the last step into a dark every bit as deep as the one she just came from.

    “No!”

    It slips out before she can stop herself. The sound of it sickens her. Tacoma Spearing, whiny little asshole. She grits her teeth, shoves herself back up onto her feet, and moves around the wall again, looking for a door, more stairs, anything; there are stairs, yes, on the far side of the room, and she climbs them more slowly than the last set, telling herself that she doesn't expect to find anything at the other end, just more darkness.

    She finds more darkness. She's disappointed anyway.

    But she's not going to give up, not now that she's psyched herself up like this; she's going to keep going, find more stairs, find an exit. So: around the edge of the room again, and up the next flight of stairs, and the next, and the next, and somewhere along the way around what is either the eighth or the ninth identical room in a row she lets her hand fall from the stones and sinks down onto her knees.

    It's the same place, isn't it? Looping over and over. A circular room, stairs at each end. The same place, sucking her back whenever she tries to leave.

    She's shaking now, the kind of shakes that come from deep inside your bones and work their way out in heavy, painful waves. Like there's something vital broken inside her and without it her body is just going to shiver into pieces.

    “Help me,” she whispers, arms wrapped so tight around herself they hurt. “Someone. Please help me …”

    And then, quite suddenly, someone does.



    Alex. It has to be. Who else has a pokémon called Lothian? Nobody that she knows. And, well, wherever she is, she's pretty sure that it would take extraordinary powers to reach her. Which, though Tacoma has never seen much evidence of it, Alex is supposed to have.

    “Alex!” she calls, trying to find his voice again, somewhere in the back of her head. “It's Tacoma! Where are you?”

    No response.

    “Alex?” Please don't let him be gone, please for the love of God don't let him be gone and her alone in the dark again―

    T-Tacoma?

    He sounds upset. Shocked, even. Tacoma supposes she can understand that. She's not doing so hot herself.

    “Alex!” She turns around and around, glaring into the dark as if he might somehow be there. “Alex, where …?”

    Oh my God, Tacoma …

    “What? What is it?”

    The atmosphere in the room shifts suddenly, grows thick and dense as the muggy air of a summer night in Saffron. Tacoma's breath sticks – she coughs – feels the air collapsing in on her from every side―

    ―and suddenly there he is, looking down at her from between his hat and scarf, pale face blindingly bright after the concentrated dark of her prison.

    “Tacoma,” he says, a real voice now, not a hum in the bones of her skull. “Oh my God, Tacoma …”

    “Alex!” She leans forward to grab him, trying to make sure he's really there, but something goes wrong; she just bumps her head against his shoulder. “Wait, what the …?”

    “Hold still,” he says, eyes wide. “Just – just hold still a minute, okay?”

    Something's not right. How is Alex this tall? She's looking up from the height of his chest, somehow. And what's up with her body? Why can't she move anything?

    “Alex,” she asks, observing the fear in her voice and despising it, “what's going on?”

    “I don't know.” He bites his lip. “I, um … Tacoma, do you know what you … I mean, uh, can you see …?”

    She turns her head. Her neck feels strange, elastic. If she pulls like this, and if she looks down …

    There's Nick's mystery rock, in Alex's hand. And there's a thin ribbon of dirty purple mist, rising up from the crack in its side and into―

    Tacoma looks up again, fast.

    “Alex …”

    “I know,” he says.

    She can't think of a response. She looks at him instead, all pale and fearful in the moonlight. He looks cold. How come she can't feel it? Or do ethereal severed heads not have that power?

    “Alex,” she says. “Am I dead?”

    He's crying. Tacoma doesn't remember ever seeing him do that before, even when things were at their very worst. Seeing it now is almost as unsettling as being a disembodied head.

    Almost.

    “I just got home,” he says weakly. “I just got home today and they told me your … they told me Aaron Lockwood found your body in the river.”

    It doesn't hurt, she tells herself. You knew this deep down, right? You must have done. So it doesn't hurt at all.

    Tacoma is usually a pretty good liar, but tonight she can't seem to make it work.

    “No,” she whispers. “No, I can't be …”

    But she can, and she is, and she can see it all on Alex's face, in the pain of this boy she hasn't spoken to in years. His face is an awful grey rag of a thing, barely recognisable. He still cares, she realises. He still cares, and he came home to find …

    To find that she was dead.

    She swallows.

    “Alex,” she says, straining towards him as best she can. She can't pull very far away from the rock, but she can get a little closer. “I'm sorry.”

    He wipes his face on the back of his glove, gives her a look.

    “Not your fault that you got killed,” he mutters.

    “That wasn't what I was apologising for.”

    Alex looks at her for a little while. Somewhere beyond the little slice of night that she can see, Lothian's wings are rustling, and Tacoma imagines him pressed up against his partner's good leg, transmitting his soothing vibrations.

    “It's bloody freezing,” says Alex, in the end. His expression is unreadable. “Let me get back inside and I'll find you a mirror.”



    Alex moves more softly than Tacoma expects; he manages to get the door open silently, despite having both hands full, and though he's limping a little from the walk in the cold he still takes care to place his cane on the strip of carpet running down the centre of the stairs with each step, masking its click in the thick pile.

    She watches him manoeuvre himself up to his room, quiet and efficient as a Swiss watch, and then raises her eyes to the wall, ashamed. Tacoma Spearing, making assumptions. Aren't you supposed to be Alex's friend, she asks herself, and gives a bitter answer: yeah, the key word there is supposed.

    In his room, Alex places Tacoma carefully down on his desk and sits down heavily on his bed, rubbing his leg. Lothian crouches by his feet, ears locked in position to focus the sound waves from his nose into Alex's calf. Whatever they're doing, it feels like something private, so Tacoma drags her eyes away and looks around the room instead.

    It's not like she remembers. Desk, bed, bookshelf – all right, that stuff's been there as long as Alex has, but there's a travel typewriter next to her on the desk, and serious-looking books on the shelves where there used to be comics. Different chest of drawers, different wardrobe. No posters any more, just a single framed picture of a landscape she can't make out clearly in the dim light.

    There's a photograph on the desk too, on Tacoma's other side, but she's too afraid of who might be in it to look.

    “Thanks, Lothi.” Lothian chirps; Alex scratches between his ears and gets up again, flexing his leg slowly. “Okay,” he continues, speaking to Tacoma for the first time since he said he'd take her home. “Are you ready?”

    No, not really. She's dead. She's a ghost, maybe, or a ghost-type, possibly. She's trapped in a rock whose inside is a terrifying void and her only alternative is to stick her head out into this unfamiliar room and see all the ways in which Alex's life has become something she no longer recognises. No, she is not bloody ready.

    “Yeah, okay,” she says, and Alex picks up a mirror from his suitcase and shows her what she is.

    A disc of grimy purple mist, swirling around the point where that thread connects her to the rock. Little bursts of green light eddying through it like drowned insects circling the drain. And there, drawn in thick, ugly lines of the same sludgy green: a crude approximation of the face of Tacoma Spearing, recently deceased.

    She stares for a long moment. Wisps of purple smoke break off from the edge of her disc and dissipate around her.

    She wants to tell Alex to take the mirror away, but she seems to have forgotten all the words she needs to make that sentence. As soon as she thinks it, though, he turns it away from her and puts it down regardless. Of course. Empath. Strange to feel it at work, after hearing about it for so long.

    “I'm sorry.” He sits down in front of her, not breaking eye contact for a second. “Tacoma? How are you feeling?”

    She tries to shrug, but of course she has no shoulders. The failed movement is embarrassing, and more embarrassing still is the fact that she finds it embarrassing, when Alex is sitting right there and looking at her so calmly.

    “I mean you know,” she says, in the end. “Right?”

    He has that look in his eyes, like the faintest suggestion of a sarcastic okay. It's comforting to see that that at least has remained.

    “Yeah, well,” he says. “I feel like it's polite to at least pretend that I can't read other people's emotions.” He leans back and starts to take off his hat and scarf. When did his hair get this long? “Do you want me to tell you what I know about … what happened?”

    “No,” she replies. At least she has the guts to say it this time. “I'm, uh, I don't think I'm – ready.”

    It sounds pathetic, but Alex nods like he understands. He probably does, as well.

    “Okay,” he says. “Do you mind if I eat something, then? Because otherwise I think I'm gonna faint.”

    “Sure,” says Tacoma. She knows this much, at least. ESP takes ridiculous kinds of energy; there's a reason Alex has always been hungry. He doesn't look as thin as he used to, though. She supposes – hopes – that after the diagnosis his parents must have stopped thinking he was greedy and just let him have more to eat. “Go right ahead,” she adds, hoping that that sounds casual but encouraging, and not just like someone awkwardly accommodating her friend's unexpected needs.

    He digs out a slab of chocolate from one of the bags on the floor and starts to demolish it, piece by piece. Lothian rears, gripping the arm of the chair in his claws, and Alex holds the chocolate up beyond his reach.

    “Uh-uh,” he says. “This'll kill you. You know that.” Lothian stares up at him, a perfect picture of chiropteran innocence, and Alex makes a face. “Go on. Shoo.” Lothian withdraws, curls himself into a ball at the foot of the bed. His ears fold right the way down over his eyes, Tacoma notices. So damn cute.

    She tries not to think of Nikole, still out there somewhere all by herself instead of sprawled on her bedroom floor, and almost succeeds.

    “So,” she says. She has to say something. This silence is going to kill her all over again. “How's uni going?”

    Alex pauses with a piece of chocolate halfway to his mouth.

    “Really?” he asks, incredulous, and Tacoma feels something in her shatter.

    “I just … I'm dead, Alex,” she says, and now she can't stop, her voice rolling on without any input from her brain. “I'm dead, I – I don't want to be dead, don't want to be whatever the hell I am now, I'm dead, I―”

    “Hey.” He leans forward and puts his arms around her, fingers sinking a little into her fog. “It's okay, Tacoma. It's okay.”

    “No, it's not―”

    “Okay, you're right, it's not.” He's so warm. Tacoma never realised how warm living people were before. “It's not okay, and I don't know what's going on, but … tomorrow we can go to the library and do some research, try and figure what happened to you. I could take you home―”

    “No.” He's doing the thing, isn't he? The psychic thing? Tacoma feels a glow, deep in the body she does not have. Like his hug is going right through her down into her soul. “No, I can't, Alex, not like – not like this―”

    “Okay.” His voice stays level, no matter how much her own cracks and wavers. “We'll do what you want.”

    She takes a deep breath. A fake breath, even, because she has no lungs, because she's just a weird ghost head―

    No. Another breath. Focus on Alex's psionics, she orders herself. Let him help you.

    A third breath.

    Okay. She's dead. She's dead, and in defiance of everything she has ever been told about the afterlife it seems she now has a choice between being a misty ghost head or trapped in an endless void tower. This is bad. Probably the worst, actually. Tacoma can't actually think of a worse situation right now, though at least part of that's down to the fact that her mind isn't really bringing its A-game tonight.

    So yes. Bad. But – she's not alone. And if anyone in Mahogany has a chance at understanding her enough to be able to help, it's probably the psychic.

    She sighs.

    “All right,” she says. “Okay. I'm … I dunno. Okay, I guess.”

    Alex sits back in his chair. The glow of his psionics starts to recede.

    “You were really upset when I started tracking you,” he says, after a moment or two. “Where were you? In that rock?”

    She nods. It's about the only gesture she has left available to her.

    “I guess it's not good in there?”

    “No. No, it's … it's dark, and there are stairs that don't end.”

    “Stairs in the dark. My worst nightmare,” says Alex, with a wry look at his leg, and manages to make her smile. “No way you can light it up?”

    “I don't know,” says Tacoma. “I, um, didn't try.”

    God. She is so damn thoughtless, isn't she? Should have at least had a go at it. You're a ghost, Tacoma. Spooky lights are sort of your thing.

    “Hey,” says Alex, maybe picking up on her thoughts, maybe just seeing them in her face. “You didn't know.”

    “I should've.”

    “But you didn't. And that's fine.” Something about the way he says it makes it so much more persuasive than it would be in Tacoma's mouth. “Look,” he says. “It's been weird. That's gonna make you feel weird. But none of it's your fault.”

    “I guess so,” she says, only half convinced. “Thanks, Alex. I don't even know if I'd have got out of the rock if you hadn't … you know.”

    He shrugs awkwardly, like he doesn't know how to take the compliment.

    “It's okay,” he says, in the end. “It's okay.”

    Pause. He looks tired, Tacoma thinks: deep circles under his eyes, head slumping. He said he only got back today, didn't he? So still tired from travel, and then on top of that he tracked her down from a block away.

    Time for her to do a good deed in return.

    “I think we need to sleep on this,” she says. “Like, we can't even look whatever I am up till the library opens, right? And maybe I'll feel better in the morning.”

    “Are you sure?” asks Alex. “I can talk now, if you―”

    “No. It's fine.” She does her best to smile, and finds it comes more easily than she anticipated. “Dying really takes it out of you,” she says. “And I had to take the overnight train to get back to Johto. Never get much sleep on that thing. So. You know. I could use a rest.”

    Alex looks at her carefully for a long moment, but doesn't argue.

    “All right,” he says. “Are you okay there? You don't want me to move the rock somewhere more comfortable?”

    “No, I'm fine. I think.” She can't actually feel the desk beneath her. Whatever sort of ghost she is, the rock isn't a part of her the same way the purple fog is. Like a shell, maybe. Or a cage. “But thanks,” she adds, wishing she hadn't thought of that. “You're handling this way better than I am.”

    That veiled sarcastic gleam in his eyes again, as comforting as fireflies on a summer night.

    “I'm not the one who died,” he says. “Okay. Night, Tacoma.”

    “Night, Alex.”

    He pauses partway through getting up, like he's thought of something else to say, but whatever it is, it remains unspoken. Alex gets back into bed without another word, and just a minute or two later, Tacoma hears a change in his breathing that probably means he's asleep.

    All right, then. She did her good thing. Now she has till morning to get at least a modicum of her shit together.

    Tacoma takes a deep breath, and withdraws back into the rock.



    It's good to have a body again, even if it is stuck down here in the dark. Tacoma flexes her fingers, shuffles her feet, and, satisfied that all her limbs are still present, glares into the blackness.

    “Okay,” she says. Tacoma Spearing versus the void, round one. “I want lights.”

    Nothing. Okay. Maybe you need to focus more. She concentrates, imagines sunbeams and torches and bonfires, and then again she says lights, and this time―

    Whoosh!

    Purple flames roar out of nowhere and drift up to the ceiling, filling the room with an eerie light. Tacoma stares at them for a moment, then at her hands. These are definitely her gloves. The ones she was wearing when … well, when she died.

    “All right,” she says. “Getting somewhere.”

    She can see the room now: circular, maybe thirty feet either way, with a staircase at either end and a huge slab of stone on a dais in the middle. Grey stone walls, dull green tiled floor. She's seen this somewhere before.

    “Pokémon Tower,” she murmurs. “Lavender.”

    The last leg of her trainer journey took her up into North Kanto, into the huge stretch of wilderness that occupies the northeast coast. There's a little town called Lavender up there among the foothills, with a historic grave tower containing a thousand years' worth of cremated pokémon spread over seven floors. When she visited, it looked a lot like this, although it had oil lamps instead of spooky ghost flames, a rare fragment of Kanto left behind by the rush to modernise. What's that thing Keith said about the illusions ghost-types make? That they're mostly drawn out of the victim's memories? Maybe this is something like that.

    Who'd have thought that Ghost Studies would turn out to be useful after all, huh. Tacoma tries to smile at the thought, but it get lost somewhere in the transition from brain to mouth, and after a moment she gives up.

    Instead, she turns her attention to the big stone thing in the centre of the room. It's pretty clear what it is, even before she takes a closer look: a sarcophagus. There's a name on it too, engraved at one end. It isn't her name. Or possibly it is; it's in Chinese and completely illegible to her Johtonian eyes.

    Although it does give her an idea. She stares at the name for a second, trying to commit it to memory, then goes up the stairs to an identical circular stone room to look at an identical sarcophagus there. Except no, not quite identical; that's definitely a different name. This one looks Italian: Mauro Pavone. So it's not a loop, then. There are other floors. Unsure whether to be encouraged or dispirited, Tacoma checks the next floor (Lucy Black), and the next (something in Arabic), and the next (Flavie Lavoisier). And up, and up, a new name on every floor, until she finally reaches a room where there are no more stairs and one final sarcophagus.

    She reads the name. Tacoma Spearing. Right.

    Well, at least she has the penthouse suite.

    One hundred other floors. One hundred other names, from all around the world. Presumably, one hundred other people who are all just as trapped here as Tacoma. So where are they? Why is it her that can wander around, turn the lights on and off, push her face out into the real world, and not them?

    She thinks about calling out to them, but the last time she did that Alex heard in his sleep, and she doesn't want to wake him. There's always just going downstairs and trying to open a coffin, she supposes, but somehow she can't face it.

    She takes off her gloves, then her hat and coat; it's nowhere near as cold in here as it is out in Mahogany. She sits down, back to the sarcophagus with her name on it, and closes her eyes.

    There's no coming back from this, is there? Tacoma takes Ghost Studies; she's read the books. There are no proven cases of ghosts ever returning to their bodies, despite the million and one novels and films claiming otherwise. When you die, if you are unfortunate enough to stay here instead of whatever the hell is supposed to happen, you're stuck like that. Until you run out of energy or another ghost eats you.

    So that's it. She's lost her body for good, and what she has instead is … this.

    God. Her mother and father are out there somewhere, trying to deal with the fact that she's gone. Nick. Her brother Everett. Everyone waiting for her to come home for Christmas, thinking her train was delayed, until the next morning they got the knock on the door and saw Con standing there with a grave face. Did they know then, when they saw him? Or did it happen a little later, when he asked if he could come in, his voice all low and quiet? Even then, maybe they still thought she was just in trouble, that they'd see her soon. Maybe they kept on denying it right up till the moment when Con sat them down and told them she'd been fished out of the river.

    Tacoma meant it when she told Alex she didn't want to go home. She has already destroyed her family, by getting herself killed. She doesn't need to make things worse by showing them the monster she's become. That face she saw in the mirror – it's hers, yes, but it's approximate, ugly, like a drawing done in blunt crayon with bandaged hands. Show that to someone who loves her and it will only look like a defacement of her memory.

    She's sorry she had to show it to Alex, even. The look on his face when she first appeared out of the stone just kills her, now she knows what it was he saw.

    Maybe she should just get in the sarcophagus and disappear to wherever all the other dead people are. She almost gets up to try it, but in the end she lets the thought go. She can't do that. Not now Alex has seen her. Die a second time and she'll kill him too.

    These are bad thoughts, Tacoma, she tells herself.

    Yes, Tacoma, she answers. I fucking know that.



    In the end, she gets a little sleep curled up on her coat with her hat for a pillow, and pushes her face back out of the rock as soon as she wakes up, unable to stand lying down in the tower for one more second. Back in Alex's room, the world is light again, suffused with that special winter kind of sunlight that looks as bright as summer but without any warmth whatsoever. Alex himself is still asleep, a tuft of tousled dark hair protruding from beneath the bedspread, and Tacoma makes no attempt to wake him. He got up in the middle of the night to follow a weird dream and rescue her. The guy's earned a lie-in.

    Lothian is asleep too, although he has migrated further up the bed than he was when he curled up last night; now, he's almost sitting on top of Alex. Tacoma is reminded of Nikole, of the way she would go to sleep at the other end of the room and by morning be pressed right up against the side of the bed. So close that Tacoma couldn't get out without stepping on her. Which was exactly the point, of course. Nikole wanted to be woken as soon as her partner was up.

    Ugh. Not a line of thought she has any interest in pursuing. Tacoma blanks it out and looks around the room instead. By daylight, she can see that the landscape is a painting of Mahogany, from the hills northwest of town. She thinks nothing of it, until she sees Ella's signature in the corner. After that, the fact that it's so good becomes less normal and more of a surprise. Tacoma knew she painted, but it's been years since she last saw one of her pictures; apparently Ella's got a lot better now.

    After a moment of hesitation, she looks at the photo on the desk as well, and is relieved to see that it's just a picture of Alex's parents, with a young Ella. Figures. He probably doesn't want photos of Ash or Helen just lying around in the open like that. She's a little hurt that there's no evidence of her here, after well over a decade of friendship, but she's aware that this isn't a reasonable reaction. It's her who broke off contact, after all.

    Lothian tenses and uncoils in one sharp, swift motion, and as he yawns Alex stirs and sits up too. He blinks, stares at Tacoma in something like a panic, and then seems to remember last night and relaxes.

    “Morning,” he says, rubbing the stubbly skin around his mouth. “Have you been there all night?”

    “I went back inside the rock to sleep,” she answers. “Figured out how to get the lights on.”

    “That's good,” he says absently, still probing around his lips. “Hmph. Um. Gonna … have a shower. Get dressed. Then after breakfast I can take you to the library and we'll look up ghost-types.” He looks up suddenly, taking his hand away from his mouth as if just now becoming aware of what he's doing, and smiles stiffly. “Is that okay? Sorry, I guess you'll have to hide in the rock for a while.”

    “Sure, Alex.” Whatever he wants. Tacoma owes him, after all. And anyway, given that she doesn't seem to be able to move the rock by herself, she really can't afford to alienate the guy who can carry her places. “I really appreciate you doing all this.”

    “It's fine.” He pauses, takes a quick, nervous breath, and says, “You know, I … I kind of changed my name. Earlier this year.”

    Tacoma tries not to look shocked, but it isn't easy. Alex is … well, he's Alex. Why would he change that?

    “Oh,” she says. “Oh, uh, okay. What – what should I call you now, then?”

    A long pause. Tacoma hears the creak of floorboards in another room, the clunking of a cupboard door from downstairs.

    Slowly, not quite looking at her, the fingers of his left hand fiddling with the thumbnail of his right, Alex answers.

    “… Jodi.”

    This time she definitely doesn't manage to hide her shock. Like she could hide anything from an empath, anyway.

    “Oh,” she says. “Oh, I … see.”

    She does. She does see. She's heard of this before, vaguely. There was an article in that magazine, wasn't there? About that one trans― what even is the right word, anyway? Transsexual? Trans …. something else? It starts with trans, she's sure of it, but the article was a year ago; she can't even remember it properly now. At the time, it didn't seem important. Not something she'd ever actually come face to face with.

    Something else to feel bad about. You hear about things and you never realise that they matter, that you're not reading about some distant curiosity but the lives of actual people. People like Alex. No, Jodi. Jodi. Get it right, Tacoma.

    “You do?” asks Jodi.

    “Yeah,” says Tacoma. “I guess I do.” Pause. Got to be careful. What she says here matters, really matters, and Tacoma really doesn't trust her mouth not to fuck it up without close supervision. “Okay, Jodi,” she says, and sees her friend's shoulders untense in relief. “Um … I would hug you, but, well.”

    Jodi smiles weakly.

    “I guess it's the thought that counts,” she says. “Lothi?”

    Lothian, who has been watching the conversation with interest, bounces off the bed and retrieves her cane from where it fell during the night. Jodi takes it, levers herself up, and comes over to put her arms around Tacoma.

    “I really missed you, you know,” she whispers, her voice thick with unshed tears. It feels like a stake hammered through Tacoma's chest.

    “Yeah,” says Tacoma, bowing her head against Jodi's arm. “I missed you too.”

    Neither of them make any move to explain. It isn't the time, yet. But they're back again, same town, same lives, and even if Tacoma is a ghost and Jodi is a girl that still counts for something.

    Counts for a lot, actually. Tacoma doesn't know how to say it, has never been all that articulate about feelings, but it's there, and it matters. And that's going to have to be enough for now.



    It's a little awkward being stuck in the background while Jodi gets on with her morning, but Tacoma manages. She hangs around in her room, trying to read the titles on the spines of her books – mostly non-fiction, which Tacoma finds sort of surprising; she thought Jodi liked novels – and waiting for her to return. When she does, popping back in after her shower to do her make-up, Tacoma is startled by how pretty she is. You can tell that she is what she is, but― wait. Is this prejudiced of her? It probably is. Why shouldn't she expect Jodi to be pretty, Tacoma asks herself, and is forced to admit that she can't come up with any answer except that Jodi wasn't a girl before.

    Or was she? Was this always in her, waiting for the right time, the right knowledge, the right whatever it is that lets someone take the plunge and go public? Tacoma imagines the secret inside her, choked and stunted with ignorance and fear. Jodi will be twenty on the seventeenth. That's an awfully long time to have carried something like that. If that is how it happened.

    Tacoma has no idea what to think, or even if these are things that she is allowed to think. She retreats into the rock to hide her embarrassment, promising herself she'll get better at this in future, and when she comes back out Jodi is gone again, along with Lothian. It's a relief, even if it is lonely here by herself, and it gives her time to try and recover a little of her composure. No need to make this more awkward for Jodi than it already is.

    Don't worry, it's me, she hears in her head, just before the door opens and Jodi comes in, looking elegant in her sea-green dress and chewing the crust of a piece of toast. “Hey,” she continues, aloud this time. “Sorry to abandon you. I told everyone that I'm gonna stretch my legs and get some Christmas reading out the library, so I guess we're good to go.”

    “Is that okay?” asks Tacoma. “You're going to go out like … this?

    So much for not making it awkward; she regrets saying it as soon as the words have left her mouth. Jodi pauses mid-chew, eyes clouding for a moment, then swallows her toast and forces a smile.

    “Yeah,” she says. “People are gonna find out. Might as well let 'em know on my own terms.”

    Tacoma manages to not tell her how brave she thinks this is; that feels like it would be condescending.

    “Right,” she says instead. “Makes sense.”

    “Yeah.” Jodi pauses. “So, uh, unless you want to explain to my family and everyone what's happening, I guess maybe you'll have to go back in the rock. Then I can put it in my bag.”

    This suits Tacoma just fine. Back inside she goes, to sit on her sarcophagus and kick her heels for a while, until she hears Jodi's voice in her head again.

    Okay, coast is clear.

    “Gotcha,” she says, and pushes her head back out to find herself on one of the low tables at the back of the Mahogany Public Library. Yellow light, grey shelving units, a window looking out onto an icebound car park in which the lone car has been buried up to the wheel arches in drifting snow. Tacoma hasn't been here in months, but she knows where she is; the layout is as familiar to her as if she'd only left yesterday. Down that aisle and to the left is Lorna Rosemont's desk, where all searches for books begin; opposite her are the microfiche machines, last port of call for so many high school local history projects. At the other end of the library, perched in her chair hidden behind the stacks, Simone Weller will be reading one of the same three books on beekeeping, cover to cover. Time doesn't touch this place; Tacoma imagines that in thirty years' time, she could walk in here and still see Simone reading her books, still see Lorna showing teenagers how to read microfiche.

    Actually, she decides, she really doesn't want to think about the future right now.

    “You speak to Lorna?” she whispers, to distract herself. Jodi nods.

    “She asked about uni,” she replies. “Then pointed me to where the Pokédex is. And …” Her cheeks redden. “And she complimented my eyeshadow.”

    “That's cool of her,” says Tacoma. “No, wait, that's not what – I mean, it is good. I don't even know how you blend it like that. I suck at that kind of thing. And now I'm talking too much.” She sighs. Jodi is even redder now. Great job, Tacoma. “Sorry,” she says, but Jodi shakes her head.

    “No, it's … thanks.” A little smile, awkward but unforced. “I'm glad you like it.”

    She sits there for a while, fiddling with her thumbnail again. Behind her chair, Lothian twitches his ears, listening out for who knows what; elsewhere in the library, Lorna says something to Simone in her low librarian's voice.

    “Shall we look at the Pokédex, then?” asks Tacoma, after a moment.

    “Oh. Yeah, sure.”

    They turn their attention to the thick, well-thumbed book on the desk before them: Pokémon Index, Fifth Edition. The library doesn't have the latest one yet, but hopefully this will do for their purposes. Jodi opens it at the section on ghost-types, then flips through, past informative factoids and years of annotations from kids dreaming of their journeys, until she finds a picture that she recognises: swirling mist, cracked stone, jagged faux-human face.

    “Spiritomb,” she reads. “Mercifully rare, both for the sake of those who encounter it and the spirits consumed in its creation, this artificial ghost/dark-type pokémon is the result of trapping anywhere between seventy and two hundred human souls within a spiritually conductive stone.”

    Spiritomb. So there's a name for this. That makes Tacoma feel a little better. If this is a thing that's happened before, if someone's written scholarly articles about it, then it exists, in a way that waking up in a spooky void tower does not. It has history and depth. She tries out the words in her head: I'm a spiritomb. Doesn't sound great, exactly, but she'll take it.

    It's messed-up, though. Who exactly creates a spiritomb? Who believes they have that kind of authority over other people?

    “That's gross,” she says aloud. “What asshole invented that?”

    Jodi raises her eyebrows, keeps reading.

    “The method of their creation appears to have been discovered independently in many different countries; spiritomb have been found, composed of varying numbers of spirits, all over the world. The oldest appears to be an entity dating from during China's Song dynasty, composed of the spirits of one hundred and eight outlaws, and currently held for research purposes at Fudan University's Handan campus in Shanghai.

    “Spiritomb vary in disposition; many are unpredictable, their personalities changing as the different spirits within seize control in their turn, while others are dominated by one spirit alone, the others lying dormant for reasons that have not yet been determined. In all cases, they are generally uncooperative, the circumstances of their creation having understandably soured them towards humans. This misanthropy and unpredictability, combined with their ability to club a man unconscious with pieces of his own shadow, makes them generally unfit for training, and dangerous to deal with. This contributor cannot recommend engaging with them under any circumstances.”

    Jodi looks up, biting her lip.

    “Sorry,” she says. “It's … well, I guess it was written by a dude. A dude who didn't particularly trust spiritomb.”

    “It's fine,” says Tacoma. “Wish I knew how to beat someone up with their shadow, though. That sounds cool.”

    She isn't sure if she means that, but it sounds vaguely funny in her head, so she figures it might help the mood at least. Jodi smiles nervously. Maybe it isn't funny after all. Or maybe Tacoma's forgotten how her sense of humour works.

    “I was carrying this rock home, by the way,” she adds quickly, wanting to move on. “One of my professors – he teaches Ghost Studies – he gave it to me to take to Nick. You know, my uncle?” Jodi nods. “Said it was for his dimensional research. So that was in my suitcase. I don't remember when I … how I ended up in there.”

    “But I found it in the skip outside Rick Fawkes' project.” Jodi's face twists into that familiar scowl, the way it does when she's thinking. “So whoever, um, you know, whoever it was, they knew about it. They dug it out of your bag and made sure to dump it there with all the other broken stones, where nobody would find it.”

    “Except they weren't counting on Psy Officer Ortega over here,” says Tacoma. “Because you did find it.”

    Jodi shakes her head.

    “Lothian found it,” she corrects. “I just helped.”

    Lothian shuffles his foreclaws and pushes a few stray locks of hair back into place in his mane, unclear about what's being discussed but certain that he is being praised, and Jodi rests an absent hand on his head as she continues.

    “So that might be it,” she says. “That might be why you were … why you were murdered.”

    Heavy words. They fall into the space between them and sit there, as disturbing and enthralling as a traffic accident. Someone killed Tacoma for a reason. They knew about the spiritomb rock, they knew she had it, and they knew exactly how to make it disappear.

    But Jodi found it. And if the murderer finds out – if they ever discover that this thing they were willing to kill to keep secret is, in fact, not secret any more – then she'll be on their hit list too.

    Tacoma swallows.

    “Do you, um …?”

    She doesn't need to finish. She can tell that Jodi has worked it out too; it's in the lines of her face, in the way her hand has tensed on Lothian's head and made him look up at her with concern in his jaundiced eyes.

    “We need,” says Jodi, pronouncing each word with deliberate care, “to find out why your professor sent your uncle this rock.”

    Tacoma wants to ask if she's sure, to tell her this is dangerous and she should know that she doesn't have to do it just because she feels an obligation to the asshole friend who walked out on her because she couldn't travel any more, but when she opens her mouth what comes out is:

    “Yeah. I guess we do.”

    They look at each other across the table for a long moment.

    “We're gonna find who did this,” says Jodi, closing the Pokédex with a decisive snap. “I promise.”

    Tacoma remembers being a kid, striking out fearlessly in search of trouble while Jodi hung back and mumbled excuses. The depressing thing is that she knows how they ended up switching places like this. You grow up. You see the light, at first in pieces and then in its awful totality, the blistering white glow of a nuclear explosion on the horizon, and with it the knowledge that by the time you have finished thinking this the wave of death will have arrived to wipe you and your town off the face of the earth. And that's the moment of truth: are you strong enough to take it, or do you fall?

    Tacoma fell. She's been falling for years. And, well, it seems Jodi didn't. Anyone strong enough to come home to Mahogany and say, by the way, I am a girl now – that person is strong enough to see the light and stand to meet it as it roars across her face. Strong enough to go hunting murderers, too.

    To hell with it. She needs to know who did this, and what's the worst that could happen? If it gets too dangerous, they can always back out. And Con and the cops will probably wrap this up before they get anywhere near the truth, anyway.

    “Yeah,” she says, hoping she sounds more confident than she feels. “Let's go catch us a killer.”
     
    Last edited: May 30, 2018
  8. Ambyssin

    Ambyssin Trouble with the trolley, eh?

    Okay. When you said perspective shift and multiple POVs, this is not what I was expecting. Again, maybe that just means I'm an easy soul to trick. Still. Everything's very... confusing. I mean that in a good way, I think. Like, when Tacoma starts thinking about how she became a glorified courier for some sort of piece of extradimensional research, I had a really bad feeling that something alien/weird was going to go down. And, clearly, that's exactly what's happened. It's interesting, because from this perspective, it doesn't seem as much like she's dead, and more like she's been dragged into some sort of paranormal limbo. I can't exactly paint that clear of a picture of Tacoma's location other than its some sort of void. But, based on the chapter, I think that's what you were going for. Anyway, leave it to Jodi, who has ESP, which is paranormal by convention, to be able to pick up on what's happening. And to confirm that she is dead. Which is needed since we don't exactly see the moment, and I'm assuming figuring out the how and why is part of the whole mystery. It's also interesting (again, not sure that's the right word, but going with it) that, since this is Tacoma's perspective and she never knew about Jodi, that she's using the name/pronouns she knew Jodi by. I imagine something like that could be difficult to keep track of when writing this, but it doesn't look like you missed a beat at all.

    Wait a second. Is... is Tacoma trapped inside an Odd Keystone? Is she a Spiritomb now, or am I misreading this? *reads a bit further* Okay, so it is Spiritomb. Well, then this is really a fascinating take on the whole Odd Keystone thing. Framing it as this nightmarish prison where it looks like a hundred other souls are also trapped. Because, you know, Spiritombs... 108... something like that. <.<;

    Maybe I'm reading too far into it, but it's strange. Tacoma mentions stuff about Jodi keeping her true sense of self a secret, waiting for the right time to "go public," so to speak. And yet, as Jodi's gone and done that, "freeing herself" in a sense, Tacoma has gone in the exact opposite direction and is now trapped in the Odd Keystone. Her sense of self is, essentially, gone, as she's been incorporated into this creature. Does that make sense? I don't know, I just found it an interesting bit of contrast. I know the mystery and investigation part is the main focus of the story but, in some manner of speaking, it feels like this is something extra that's tying Jodi and Tacoma together.
     
  9. Conquering Storm

    Conquering Storm Driver of the Aegis

    New chapter! I'm going to do my best to be consistent about review-posting on this fic. Hopefully I don't fail at that quite as badly as with Arbitrary Execution.

    Firstly: holy *bleep*, the amount of thought you've put into writing a Spiritomb. You know how gooey I get over your mad worldbuilding skillz, but seriously, this deserves special mention. Spiritomb is one of those bits of the Pokémon world that has a really interesting concept but the games don't go into any detail at all on it, and your specialty is taking those things and saying let's see what we can do with this – but you've really outdone yourself here. Being essentially a tomb/prison demiplane, the idea of either one ghost or many being in control that the Pokédex mentions, the whole thing of how Tacoma interacts with the outside world...wow. Just wow. (Confession: I keep a file of bits of this kind of worldbuilding in your writing to borrow inspiration from, should I ever actually write a Pokémon fic of my own. I hope that's OK with you; I'll happily delete it if you want me to, it's just that you're so much better at thinking this stuff up than me.)

    Secondly: library heck yeah. I adore libraries. I couldn't help picturing this one as the Malie Library, for some reason; maybe it's just that it's the only library we've seen so far in the games (edit: nevermind, I forgot about the Canaclave Library), maybe it's that it's kind of set itself as my default library template. The actual-book Pokédex is a nice touch; since this story is set in the 70s or thereabouts, it makes sense that electronic dexes wouldn't be a common thing yet. Or maybe it doesn't, given how advanced-tech the Pokémon world is with Poké Balls and stuff. Either way, it's a nice, subtle reminder of the story's time period.

    Third and finally: this story has gained about seventeen layers of intrigue all of a sudden, and it's very very very interesting. We've got someone who's willing to commit murder to get this Odd Keystone – presumably for unsavory purposes, given, y'know, the whole murder thing, but what unsavory purposes? Who's involved? How'd Tacoma get sucked into the stone, anyway? All exceedingly fascinating questions! You have (as always) managed to hook me into the story even further with this chapter, and we're only on chapter two – I've got chills just thinking of the layers of mystery that'll build up later on.
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2018
  10. Manchee

    Manchee extra toasty

    Finally getting around to reading this! I had started to when you first posted it (at the time, there was still a prologue attached to it - and I'm hoping that a certain Electric-type returns at some point, because I loved your descriptions of it) but then school got in the way. Anyway!

    Jodi is a nice character to far. She feels very relaxed, which I'd assume she needs to be with her psychic/empathic abilities. The note about noivern having telepathy as its hidden ability is helpful, but I think your descriptions of Lothi and Jodi's connection are clear without it. You wrote those scenes very well, and it's easy to see how their abilities compliment each other. Writing a character who is in-training to become a psychic officer of some kind is intriguing, and I'm curious to see how far Jodi will go in this "investigation" that is going on. Living in such a small town must help her out a lot.

    Mahogany is a very sleepy setting, especially in the winter, and you capture it well. And I must say, young girl's dead body washes up in the river of her small hometown during winter break? That's so 70s, and I love it. The story feels a little slow, even after reading the second chapter, but the pacing is fitting for a town like this one. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the town's reaction to Tacoma's death, or at least how Jodi interacts with them as she and Tacoma get going with things.

    The relationship between Jodi and Tacoma is done well. I too thought that Tacoma's comment as a kid about Jodi being a nerd was in a mean way, but not with bad intent, if that makes sense. It just didn't sound playful, but as I read on it felt like it fit with their dynamic later in life. Which I really am enjoying, by the way. Seeing Jodi for most of the second chapter as Tacoma knew her during their childhood was a different twist on things. The awkwardness of that and of a friendship that dissolved years ago set a good tone for the two of them to deal with.

    Good start so far! I'm hoping that we get to see even more characters besides these two, because with all of the names being thrown around in this small town, I'd love to see it built upon more.
     
  11. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    Confusing is good, I think! Hopefully things won't stay too confusing – the pace of this story is deliberately fairly slow, at least in part because it's weird and I've been trying to ease into it a bit.

    108-ish, in this interpretation. Obviously the original spiritomb is a reference to Water Margin – which I also reference in the Pokédex entry – but I didn't see any reason why other spiritomb might have a different number of spirits in them. I'm actually a little surprised that people think it's a novel take on spiritomb; the pokédex entry always suggests immediately to me that they're collective entities made up of imprisoned spirits. Possibly it's just the way that I've decided to describe that that's interesting? Not sure.

    You'd be surprised at how much the mystery is just an excuse to get the story going. :p I feel like this is … some other kind of story I can't quite categorise masquerading as a murder mystery, actually, but that's probably something that will become more apparent as we go on. But yes, you're right. Jodi and Tacoma are meant to be contrasted like that – though Tacoma hasn't quite lost her self completely, as I've added in a very convenient bit of lore to let her be in control of the spiritomb as a whole. The two of them are linked in all kinds of ways, as we'll see as we go on; there's more than one mystery to solve here. And finally, thank you for reviewing! As always, it's very much appreciated.

    I'm glad you like it! As I say, it seemed like a really obvious thing to me, so I'm surprised and delighted that other people think it's cool and different. The thing about it being one ghost or many that gets to have control is, I admit, basically just a device to keep Tacoma around so she can talk to Jodi, so it's nice to know that it also seems like an interesting thing and not just a super-convenient loophole.

    Oh wow, I'm flattered. You go ahead and keep that file – fanfic is all about engaging with other interpretations of the same material, I always think. I hope it proves inspiring! It's always good to hear that other people are thinking about getting into creating things.

    I think both Malie and Canalave Libraries are a bit grander than anything Mahogany can muster! My inspiration was more small-scale than that; in the village I grew up in, there's this absolutely tiny library in like this one little room on the side of the village hall, and in the town next to it there was a moderate-sized library (where I spent like half my childhood) with a proper reference section like the Mahogany library has here, and I was aiming for something kinda in between the two.

    Yeah, poké balls I can buy as older tech, mostly because the games insist that they're really old – but the pokédex as shown in-game is definitely reliant on miniaturised computers, which I wasn't going to put into my seventies story because that would make it functionally identical to 2018, even if I tried to argue that maybe there weren't any in Johto because nobody could afford them. So: a book, that gets frequently updated to new editions when new data is released.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the mystery! You'll be pleased to know that it's going to get much, much deeper before we start getting answers. Mahogany is one of those small towns with big secrets, even in-game, and that's the direction I've been taking with my interpretation of it. There's a reason we're here and not in, say, bland old New Bark.

    Finally – thank you for the review! I always appreciate hearing people's thoughts.

    Yeah, I cut the prologue because it really didn't add anything – like, the story is already slow-paced, and it really didn't need an even slower prologue where literally the only interesting thing was the last sentence. But Aaron is still the guy who found the body, and he and Steph should turn up again at some point, I hope. The way I approach stories like this means that while I have an idea of how the mystery plot needs to shake out, the characters are a little more open at this point; depending on how certain events work out later on, Aaron may have a larger or smaller role to play.

    I'm glad you like her, and that her psychic powers make sense to you. Her relaxedness is definitely linked to her ESP, yes; she sort of needs to be chill so she doesn't end up frying her brain with everyone else's emotions. I did actually mean for Jodi to imply she wasn't going to become a psy officer, but looking back on that sentence now I realise I've implied exactly the opposite, so I guess I'd better fix that. It's kind of important that Jodi be strictly an amateur here, and not have any particular prior inclination towards detectiving.

    Yeah, I'm aware of the pacing thing. It is in part deliberate (it's not quite the story it pretends to be, as will become apparent) but I'm now kinda wondering whether or not things move too slowly – I guess let me know as we go on.

    That's excellent to hear, because Jodi and Tacoma's relationship is basically the foundation of most of the story. Tacoma has always been kind of aggressive like that; her ways of showing affection are pretty similar to her ways of showing anger. So I can see why there might be some initial confusion, especially since Jodi herself is so inclined towards niceness and shyness, and I'm glad that it makes a little more sense now that they've started talking again.

    New characters are indeed incoming! We've got two important people turning up in the next two chapters, and the further the investigation progresses the more we'll meet; I have a few like Prominent Townsfolk lined up to form the people that Jodi and Tacoma bump into most, so we'll get to see them all in time. Anyway – thanks for the review! Next time, Jodi begins investigating in earnest, but things between her and Tacoma start getting awkward fast.
     
  12. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    THREE: PERSEPHONE
    JODI

    Jodi crunches through the snowy streets, making her slow way back towards Foster Road and Rick Fawkes' project. Lothian, always the more energetic one, ranges ahead, flying up onto lampposts and the eaves of nearby houses, dislodging showers of snow with the sweep of his tail and wings.

    It's been a long day already, and it's barely half ten. Breakfast was weird – everyone staring and trying to hide it – and the walk through town to the library wasn't much better. She didn't pass many people, but she did pass some. Fergus Wright didn't recognise her and stopped to welcome her to town before figuring out who she was and trailing off awkwardly; Carrie Savage recognised her immediately, narrowed her eyes and said good morning Alex in such a cold tone that Jodi didn't have the courage to correct her. Fortunately, she didn't have to. Lothian banked around immediately and landed at her feet, making a thin, needling whine that set her teeth on edge and disrupted the venom radiating from Carrie's head, and Carrie just walked on by with her skiploom, leaving Jodi trembling and trying to stop her heart from pounding its way right out of her chest.

    The library was okay, though. Lorna is a librarian right down to the pith of her bones, aggressively sensible in the face of any and all weirdness, and she processed Jodi's new face the way she would a new edition: old one stored away for archival purposes, new one taking its public position. Good morning, my dear, she said. I haven't seen you in a long time. And Jodi said (shaking a little) I know, it's been ages. By the way, can I update the name on my library card? It's Jodi. And Lorna said of course, Jodi, I'll just need you to sign the new one on the back here.

    So off she went to find the Pokédex, card in hand, grinning at the clumsy new signature on the back like a kid on Christmas morning. Simone glared at her over the top of her book, but that was fine; Simone glares at everyone. She doesn't mean anything by it. Jodi said hi and Simone mumbled something back before returning her attention to the intricacies of beekeeping.

    Then back to the awkwardness. Tacoma is … well, Jodi didn't really expect her to be doing well, given her current situation, but the girl thing and the way they've suddenly been forced out of their estrangement is making things even worse. Frankly, Jodi is a little scared of her. She does her best not to snoop too much in other people's minds – it's kind of rude – but it's hard not to pick up on the violent negativity seething within Tacoma's rock.

    If she was any kind of friend, Jodi tells herself, she'd try to talk to her about it. But they aren't friends any more, just strangers shoved into unnaturally close proximity, and anyway Jodi doesn't have the guts to broach the subject with her. So. She walks on through the snow in silence, and tries not to think about how weird it is that she's carrying Tacoma's prison cell around with her in her shoulder bag.

    Up ahead, Lothian glides down from the roof of the Mercers' house to land on the skip outside Rick's project. Now, after the weather has driven all the builders away until spring, it sits there looking raw and unfinished, the plastic sheeting covering the scaffolding flapping disconsolately in the wind. It's a familiar sight. A running joke in Mahogany is that Rick Fawkes' house will be just about done by the time the bombs finally fall, though Jodi has always found the humour somewhat limited. She pauses for a minute to lean against the skip and catch her breath, then beams a message down to Tacoma.

    We're here.

    Okay.
    Tacoma replies just a little too quickly. Okay, cool. Is it, uh … safe for me to come out?

    Jodi looks around. Nobody else is out, although it's difficult to say who might be watching from the windows of the houses.

    I don't know, she replies. Maybe?

    Lothian starts scratching around in the skip, kicking little flurries of snow over the edge into the street. Jodi would like to oversee this herself, but she really has no way of getting up there to help; she can barely even climb steep stairs.

    Huh, says Tacoma. Okay, I'll … can you take the rock out of your bag?

    Sure. Out it comes, sitting heavily in her hand. How much do souls weigh? Enough to make this thing far heavier than it has any right to be, it seems. That okay?

    Yeah. Yeah, I think, if I just lean in …


    Something shifts. Jodi can't tell exactly what without enlisting Lothian's help, but something about the rock is not the way it was before.

    Like I thought, says Tacoma, satisfied. I can see out the crack if I concentrate on not pushing all the way out.

    Oh. Cool.

    I can also hear, by the way. So you can save your energy and just speak normally.


    “Okay.” Suppressing the urge to look around for watching eyes, Jodi lifts up the rock and turns the crack to face Lothian, digging through the iced-over rubble in the skip. “Can you see?”

    Yeah. Pause. Are we expecting to find anything?

    “I dunno,” says Jodi. “Figured it was worth a shot.”

    Abruptly, Lothian stops, and a faint hum that Jodi wasn't really aware of until it ended stops with him. He looks at her, and sends a guttural vibration crunching through her gut: nothing.

    “Right.” She sighs. “Guess they only threw the rock in here, whoever it was. Makes sense. Anything else would stand out.”

    Sure. Tacoma pauses. So, uh … what now?

    What indeed. Jodi chews her lip as she mulls it over. What other leads do they have? Nick, obviously, but you don't need to be an empath to know that going up to a man grieving for his dead niece and asking probing questions is not a good idea. Apart from that, well. There aren't a lot of options, honestly. Maybe if she was a cop she could get away with just outright asking people if they know anything, but given who she is, she suspects that's not going to fly. (She thinks of Carrie Savage, and shivers in a way that has nothing to do with the cold.)

    “About last night,” she says, turning the rock around so Tacoma can see her. “You said you weren't ready. But, um, are you ready now?”

    To talk about it? I guess. I mean, we kind of already are.

    “Okay.” Jodi glances up and down the street. Someone's walking down from the junction with Shadwell Road, and she decides to move on, to keep up the pretence that she's just out for a walk. Besides, it's cold. Too cold to just stand around like this. “Okay,” she says again, “so what I know is that Aaron found you in the river. You were strangled, I think. That's all I've got. Does it maybe jog your memory?”

    Um … not really, sorry. I don't remember being strangled.

    Pause. Lothian swoops low over her head with a shriek, making sure to swipe at her hat with his tail. Jodi laughs and watches him soar upwards again, wheeling back and forth across the colourless winter sky. So bright today. She has no idea how he stands it up there.

    Tacoma's mind darkens next to hers, curdling with sorrow, and Jodi's laugh dies on her lips as it slithers into the recesses of her own brain and poisons the moment. Nikole. Of course. And here she is, flaunting Lothian without a thought in the world for Tacoma and her heartbreak.

    Should she say something? She should say something.

    “I … I'm sorry about Nikole,” she says, looking down at the rock in her hand. “Really. Maybe if we can find where it happened, we can track her down.”

    Yeah, says Tacoma. Maybe.

    Jodi keeps walking. House after house, all as anonymous as each other under their coating of snow. Some of them have shovelled driveways, but most don't. Mahogany is small enough to walk, for the most part, and it's just easier to only clear enough space for you to get from door to pavement.

    “Morning, Alex,” calls Roger Young, as he steps out of his front door.

    “Morning,” Jodi replies. He smiles and sets off down the street in the other direction without sparing her a second glance.

    Not particularly observant, huh, says Tacoma.

    “Better than mean,” says Jodi, and then instantly regrets it as a little tremor of concern runs through Tacoma's mind.

    Right, she says. Right.

    A few seconds' awkward silence. Then:

    You know, I … I think I remember where it happened.

    “Really?” Jodi stops, hefts the rock so she can look at her properly. “Where?”

    In the park.

    Jodi scowls, considering this.

    “When did your train get in again?”

    I didn't say. But four thirteen.

    “So the sun was going down.”

    Yeah. People would've noticed if it had happened on a street …

    “But not if it happened behind the trees.” Lothian has landed on a wall up ahead, looking back at her expectantly, but Jodi barely notices. “And there wouldn't be anyone else in the park either, would there? Just you, because it's so much quicker to cut through the park if you're going that way.”

    Even with the snow, yeah.

    “Yeah. Okay.” Jodi breathes out, sends a plume of her breath steaming whitely through the chilly air. “I guess we need to head over there and see what we can find, then. While it's all fresh.”

    I guess. Tacoma doesn't sound that enthusiastic, but then, that's probably to be expected. Things didn't exactly go great for her the last time she was there. But, uh, won't your family be expecting you? You came home yesterday, you got up, you went out all morning?

    “I'll say I … needed some time. Or something.” Jodi shakes her head. “Doesn't matter. They'll buy it, what with – what with me, I guess. And you. And everything.”

    If you're sure, says Tacoma. I just don't want you to – I mean, you know. You just got home. You should …

    Jodi waits, but it seems she has nothing else to say.

    “If you're not ready,” she says, “then that's fine, we can come back later, or―”

    No. No, it's fine.
    Her mind swirls, dark and ominous. Let's go do this.

    “All right, sure.”

    She doesn't move. Down the street, Lothian shuffles impatiently, and a familiar vibration plucks at her nerves: what's wrong?

    “Nothing, Lothi,” calls Jodi, forcing her aching legs back into motion. “We're just coming.”

    She glances down at the rock once more as she goes, like she could see Tacoma's face if she tried, but all she sees is the crack, as dim and lifeless as the stone it is.



    Three Pines Park is all but abandoned. The long path cutting across it from the southeast to northwest corners has been ploughed at some point in the past few days – people use it to shave ten minutes off the trip through the town centre – but other than that, the whole thing is one smooth, unbroken sheet of white. The snow must have been building up here for a while; the children's playground on the left is almost completely buried, the upper half of the swing frame standing out above the tops of the rockers and roundabouts. On the other side, Jodi sees nothing at all but snow, all the way out to the railing along the King's Road.

    It's always a little unnerving, walking through Mahogany after months in Goldenrod. The city wears the recession on its sleeve: boarded-up windows that have gone unrepaired since the war, smokeless chimneys, the homeless people in every other corner whose naked despair roars against Jodi's mind like a cold flame. Mahogany looks so quiet and comfortable by comparison. Jodi knows well enough that all you have to do is open a door to see the threadbare coats and pinched faces. There's a reason Ella has been painting over and over the same five canvases for the past six months, and why Lorna lets Simone Weller sleep on the upper floor of the library.

    Lothian flies on ahead and lands on one of the trees that line the path, before the snow slides off the branch beneath his claws and carries him with it. He hits the ground with an aggrieved shriek and jumps back to his feet, brushing snow out of his fur and trying hard to look like this is exactly where he meant to end up. Jodi hides her smile and lets him have his moment.

    She has to slow down here. Not just because the path isn't as clear as the pavements, but because she's been out for a while now, and there's a limit to how much walking around town she can stand. She does try to take exercise and keep her strength up, despite her leg, but given that most of what she eats gets sucked up by her overdeveloped brain, she struggles to take in enough calories to maintain muscle tone. That was one of the problems she ran into on her trainer journey; she didn't have much money for food, and so she just didn't get any stronger, no matter how much hiking she did. By the time they got to Hawthorn she was actually thinner than when they'd left. Tacoma tried to go slow for her, but Jodi could tell that it was a struggle.

    “Anywhere along here look familiar?” she asks, holding up the rock. “You can probably come out if you want a better look. There's nobody here.”

    Cool.

    That strange rushing noise, and then there she is, swirling out from the crack in her purple cloud. Tacoma shakes her head a little, the thread connecting her to the rock flexing and stretching as she moves, and sighs.

    “Light,” she says. “God. This is so much better than peeking through the crack. Feels more like I'm outside.” She looks around. “Right, so. I don't think it was here. Definitely came this way, though.”

    “Okay.”

    They keep moving, girl and ghost and the noivern up ahead, between thickets of bare branches and bright white snow. Jodi's hand is getting tired; she shifts the rock from her hand into the crook of her arm, making Tacoma float just in front of her shoulder. This close, Jodi can feel a faint warmth emanating from her mist. It's surprising. She always thought ghosts were cold. Then again – if you compress gas, it gets hot, right? So what if you compress a hundred souls into one rock?

    Well, what would Jodi know? She's neither a scientist nor a theologian. She isn't even a proper empath, yet. Not certified, anyway.

    “Maybe here, actually.” Tacoma glares at a huge, skeletal beech. “I think – I definitely came this way. Might have been here? Might have been further on. I know I passed this tree, but I don't remember passing the, you know, Con Wicke's tree?”

    Of course Jodi knows. Nobody will ever let Con forget that before he was a cop, he was a teenager with a pocket knife and an insatiable thirst to carve his name in anything that would take it. Over the decades, time and storms have taken out a couple of the benches that once proudly proclaimed that Con Was Here, but the massive oak halfway through the park is still there, and still scarred.

    “Sure,” says Jodi. “So, somewhere between here and there.” She looks down the path. That might be the oak over there, though it's hard to tell from a distance, and without any leaves. There's nothing immediately obvious lying around, no monogrammed handkerchiefs or bloody handprints or anything else incriminating, but then, she supposed she wasn't expecting any. “Keep an eye out, then,” she says. “I'll go slow. Slower.”

    Tacoma doesn't smile. Not that it was all that funny, really, but Jodi did think it might lighten the mood a little. Probably Tacoma isn't really in the mood for jokes.

    They walk on in silence, eyes firmly on the path and the snow banks around it, but there's no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Jodi isn't sure what she expected. Tacoma was strangled, right? A bloodless way to go. Sure, she might have struggled, knocked over her bags or kicked the snow, but it's been a couple of days now. There won't be any evidence of that left.

    It takes her a minute to realise what she's thinking, and when she does she's shocked. A bloodless way to go. God. What an awful thing. Jodi imagines thick fingers crushing her throat, and has to suppress the urge to glance over her shoulder. No killers here, she reminds herself. And even if there were, Lothian would hear them coming a mile off.

    Okay. She really needs to say something now, or she's going to start imagining footsteps on the path behind her.

    “So,” says Jodi. “D'you, um … have any ideas?”

    “About what?”

    “About who – who we're looking for.”

    “Who killed me, you mean,” says Tacoma. Her voice is as bitter and black as raw olives; Jodi winces to hear it.

    “I was trying to put it nicer than that,” she says. “Sorry. But yeah. About that.”

    “Right.” She does not sound or seem apologetic. “Well. No.”

    “Nothing at all?”

    “I don't know, Al― Jodi, sorry.” Tacoma turns her face away, embarrassed. “I mean, nobody hates me that much. I think.” She sighs. “I guess I don't know that any more, either.”

    “Sorry,” says Jodi. “Just, if you do have any idea …”

    “No. I mean, I don't know. I mean – hell, I guess Harry knew where I was, but he couldn't have known I had the rock, right? And I don't see why he'd care, anyway.”

    “Right,” agrees Jodi, wishing she'd left this can of worms unopened. It's too soon for this. She should let Tacoma adjust before she starts throwing stuff like this at her. “Right,” she repeats, and lets the silence grow between them.

    At least they can be pretty confident the killer won't strike again. There's only one ghost rock in Mahogany, and as far as anyone else knows, it's gone now.

    CON WAS HERE, says the oak, coming up on the left. Jodi sighs and glances at Tacoma.

    “Okay,” she said. “I guess you didn't spot anything either?”

    “Nope.” Tacoma won't meet her eye. “Thanks for looking, I guess.”

    “We're not done yet. Lothi!” Further up the path, Lothian turns, bounds back towards her. Jodi feels a bass hum in the marrow of her bones: what, he wants to know, does she need? “Can you do something for me?” An affirmative hum around the nape of her neck. “This whole stretch of path,” she explains, “from this tree to the big beech back there. I need you to tell me if there's anything under the snow. No,” she continues, in response to the questioning tilt of his head, “anything weird, okay? Not rocks or twigs, something that shouldn't be here. Got it?”

    The affirmative hum returns, and Lothian begins to stalk down the path, ears locked together to form a single panel a radar dish. Every now and then, he pauses to scratch away a layer of snow from the bank at the side of the road and uncover whatever it is he finds, but he doesn't immediately locate anything worth showing Jodi.

    She watches him for a moment, then leans against Con's tree to free up her hand to go through her bag.

    “Cigarette?” she asks. Tacoma looks uncertain.

    “I dunno if I can any more,” she says.

    “You wanna try anyway?”

    Tacoma's face cracks into an unexpected smile.

    “Sure,” she says. “Just, uh, stick it in there.”

    Jodi puts one in Tacoma's mouth and one in her own. She's just trying to find her lighter when Tacoma interrupts.

    “Uh, hang on, let me get that,” she says, and a moment later two tiny purple flames pop briefly into existence at the end of each cigarette, lighting them both.

    “Nice!” Jodi takes hers out of her mouth and inspects it. It's glowing purple rather than red, but other than that it seems to be pretty much normal. “So you're getting to grips with your ghostly powers, huh?”

    “Yeah, kinda.” Tacoma does something that might be called inhaling; a wisp of smoke detaches from her cigarette and swirls around inside her before drifting out in erratic grey puffs. “Not quite beating up a dude with a shadow, but I sure can light a cigarette.”

    The acid edge in her voice burns Jodi with its touch. She smokes silently for a moment, wondering whether to say something or not, and then Lothian tenses suddenly and she feels the sharp hum of his excitement tingle down her nerves.

    “What have you got?” she calls, relieved of the distraction. He makes a squeak without a message, then turns around with something shiny in his mouth.

    “Is that …?” Tacoma doesn't finish. With some difficulty, Jodi bends down, and Lothian pushes the shiny thing into her hand.

    “It's … a pen,” she says, staring at it. An expensive one too, by the look of it – the kind that you inherit, or receive as a gift to mark a special occasion. Blue-black lacquered barrel and cap. Gold clip, gold nib, a little stained with ink. “I mean, it's distinctive,” she says, sliding the cap back on. “But I don't know anyone with a pen like this. Do you?”

    Tacoma keeps looking at the pen. Something awful is leaking from her mind, so strong and poisonous that Jodi almost chokes on it.

    “Tacoma?” she asks, coughing. Her cigarette slips from her mouth into the snow. “Tac― ugh, Tacoma, what's wrong?”

    For a long, painful moment, she says nothing, smoke billowing out of her in clouds. When at last she does speak, her voice is smaller and thinner than Jodi has ever heard it before.

    “It's Nick's,” she says, her cigarette tumbling from her lips to join Jodi's on the ground. “That pen belongs to my uncle.”



    Tacoma isn't doing well. Jodi had a sense that she wasn't doing well before, but she really isn't doing well now. So she had Lothian clear a park bench of snow, and then sat down there with her, to give her the moment she seems to need.

    “How are you feeling?” asks Jodi, after a little while has passed. The question is mostly redundant; she already knows that the initial shock is passing, and now Tacoma is just deeply, painfully sad. But you have to ask anyway. It's just what people do.

    “You already fucking know,” snaps Tacoma, and then when she sees Jodi flinch she sinks her head down low against the cold slats of the bench. “Sorry,” she mutters. “You didn't deserve that.”

    For a long moment, Jodi can't answer, has to concentrate on fighting the constriction in her chest and throat. Between her own sudden fear and Tacoma's own sorrow, her brain feels like it's going to burst open at the seams.

    Lothian puts his claws on the side of the bench and rests his head in her lap, sending soothing vibrations thrumming down her nerves. A second passes, then another, and then, at last, Jodi's throat opens up again.

    “It's understandable,” she says, in the end. “I'm really sorry, Tacoma.”

    “You didn't―”

    “I mean I'm sorry that this is happening.” Jodi hesitates, then reaches out to put her arm around her. Tacoma resists for a second, but then leans in against Jodi's shoulder, mist splashing against her coat. “It's not conclusive,” she says, hoping it isn't too soon for this. “Your uncle could've dropped his pen here at any time.”

    “Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”

    Long pause. Somewhere a long way away, past the trees and snow and the railing at the edge of the park, a car rumbles down a road.

    Nick could have dropped his pen there at any time. He could also have dropped it there when he murdered his niece. It's strange, but until now it just hadn't occurred to Jodi to wonder who did this; she was too busy trying to deal with the fact that it had happened at all. But someone did. Someone dug their fingers into Tacoma's throat and pulled until they turned a living girl into a dead body.

    Nick could have …

    “His plane didn't get in to Goldenrod till my train got in to Mahogany,” says Tacoma suddenly, twitching upright again. “He wasn't … God, he wasn't here.”

    Her relief courses through Jodi's mind like an avalanche down the mountainside, unstoppable, sweeping all else out of its path. Lothian chirps and pulls away from her, unnerved by the strength of this third-hand emotion, and Jodi lets out a long, shaky breath as he goes. Okay. Okay, great.

    “All right,” she says, not really hearing herself speak. “All right, that's … I'm glad, Tacoma.”

    “But then why's the pen here?” Tacoma is animated now, twisting to face her, disc spinning faster and faster in her agitation. “Last time he was here was – I don't even know, summer maybe? And he couldn't have lost it then. He would have been complaining about it, I would have heard, like – he loves that thing. Granddad bought it for him when he graduated. So what's the pen doing here?”

    “I don't know.” Jodi holds out a calming hand, tries to project conciliatory feelings. Lothian picks up on her efforts and joins in, translating her emotion into his vibes and pulsing it outwards at the world. “I don't know, Tacoma. It's just one clue, we don't – we really don't know enough yet.”

    “I mean sure. I guess.” Tacoma makes a frustrated noise, swaying a little on the thread that connects her to the stone. Had she hands, Jodi thinks, she'd probably be gesturing frantically. “I just … I don't know what to think.”

    “I know. I don't either.”

    Some of the energy seems to leave her then; Tacoma closes her eyes for a second, lets the thread pull her back into position by the stone.

    “Let's just go back,” she says. “We're done here.”

    “Are you sure?” asks Jodi. “We could … I dunno, really. Look around some more.”

    Even as she says it, she can hear how inadequate it sounds. Look around some more. Like there's anything else to see here.

    “We're done,” repeats Tacoma. “C'mon, your family will think you died out here.”

    Jodi stays sitting there for a while longer, watching the branches sway in the icy breeze. Every so often they creak, as the weight of the shifting snow pulls them a little further out of position.

    Out of nowhere, the thought comes to her that there's a murderer out there somewhere, beyond the dappled white and dark, and she shivers with more than the cold. Her family will think she died out here, huh? She did promise she wouldn't stay out too long. It sort of felt like the right thing to do, given that one of the friendly faces of her childhood is apparently not so friendly after all.

    “Okay,” she says. “Lothi, can you grab those cigarettes we dropped? Better throw 'em out on the way home.”

    Tacoma looks up at that.

    “Your parents know you smoke?” she asks.

    Jodi shrugs.

    “Probably. I'm not a very good liar.” Pause. “Yours?”

    Tacoma smiles thinly.

    “Nah,” she says. “I was always a better liar than you.”

    “You were,” agrees Jodi.

    The past falls like snow, piling up in thick drifts around them. How many little secrets have they had between them? Broken windows, illicit cigarettes, stolen beers. One time just before they left for their trainer journey, Victor Orbeck was sent home from school with a split lip and Tacoma was sent home for causing it; nobody could ever get her to say why. But Jodi knew. Victor was the kind of boy who found Jodi's frailty objectionable. And Tacoma was the kind of girl who found her fists were a great way to solve problems.

    “I never meant for things to work out this way, you know,” says Tacoma. “I was gonna come visit.”

    She's lying. It's okay. She doesn't know she's doing it.

    “You were busy,” says Jodi.

    “I was an asshole.”

    “You were busy,” repeats Jodi. “You needed those results.”

    “I made time for other people. Shoulda made time for you too.”

    It's hard to argue with that. Harder still to explain why it is that Jodi doesn't blame her for it. But she really doesn't. Jodi was – well, she was dead weight. Busted leg, mutant brain, an annoying tendency to know how you feel before you do. Meanwhile, Tacoma was whip smart, the scholarship girl, one of just four from their year to go on to university. Jodi wouldn't have got a place at Goldenrod herself if scoring above fifty on the psychic test didn't get you a guaranteed government scholarship for psionics training. But Tacoma got her place – at Saffron's Yellowbrick University, no less, the best school on the Tohjo peninsula – off the back of her own smarts and hard work. And okay, Jodi didn't know she was going to do this back then, but as she got older she saw more clearly that Tacoma was way out of her league. People like Jodi don't get friends like her.

    When it happened, it hurt. It really did. But at least Jodi was in a position to see that it was inevitable. Sooner or later, someone like Tacoma was always going to get tired of someone like her, and it was probably best she make that transition as smooth and easy for her as she could.

    “Let's not fight,” she says, unwilling to explain and risk a conflict that will make her head feel like it's about to explode. “C'mon. You're right, it's time to go.”

    She gets up. Lothian, who has so far been hanging back, places the two half-smoked cigarettes into her palm.

    “Thank you, Lothi.” She puts them in the pocket of her coat and turns to Tacoma. “Is it okay for me to …?”

    “Yeah, sure. Go ahead.”

    She picks Tacoma up and tucks her back into the crook of her arm. Maybe she'll finally grow some muscles, if she carries this rock around much longer.

    “Should we leave the pen here?” she asks. “I mean, I don't know if it's evidence or anything.”

    “Dunno,” replies Tacoma. “I just … whatever, just put it back. Nick can get it himself.”

    “Sure?”

    “No. I don't know.” She sighs. “Look, it's a crime scene, right? You're not meant to interfere with those. And I mean like we are interfering, but we probably don't want to let the cops know.”

    “Right. Right, I guess so.” Jodi gives the pen back to Lothian. “Put it back where you found it, Lothi.”

    He reburies it carefully, patting the snowdrift back into place around the pen, and looks up expectantly. Jodi transmits a grateful thought and gets a happy vibe in return.

    “I guess I better go back in,” says Tacoma unenthusiastically, intruding on their wordless conversation. “Don't wanna get you in any trouble.”

    Right. Someone went to a lot of effort to make sure the spiritomb rock was out of the way; they won't be pleased to discover that someone's managed to activate it. Jodi would like to say it's nice hanging out with Tacoma, that she doesn't have to disappear till they get out from behind the trees if she doesn't want to, but she can't quite make up her mind whether it'd be kinder to say that or to tell her she can go if she wants.

    Tacoma's mind is dark, contradictory. No help from that quarter. In the end, Jodi just smiles awkwardly.

    “It's your choice,” she says, hoping that Tacoma knows what she means.

    She doesn't answer. A moment later, she dwindles and disappears.

    Jodi stands there for a few seconds, feeling something she can't quite name. Not quite disappointment, not quite sorrow.

    She has to fix this, somehow. Really has to. Tacoma can't go on this way. Is there a way to put her back in her body? Probably not, honestly; Jodi's never heard of a ghost being resurrected, and even if there was, she wouldn't be able to figure it out before the funeral came and Tacoma's body disappeared forever. But she might at least be able to get her out of the rock. When it's safe, when the killer is caught …

    Lothian plucks at her nerves and nudges her thigh, eyes turned up to her own.

    “Yeah,” she sighs, pulling herself together. “One thing at a time, right?”

    It's debatable whether he knows what she's asking him, but he says yes all the same. Jodi pats him on the head, and sets off for home.



    On the way out of the park, they bump into Gabriella Kendrick coming the other way with her shopping bag hooked over her elbow. She stops for a moment when she sees Jodi, looking puzzled, and then Lothian swoops down between them and the penny drops.

    “Oh,” she says, eyes wide, mind blank with shock. “I … didn't recognise you.”

    “Hi, Gabbi.” Stay relaxed, Jodi tells herself. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. “It's, uh, it's Jodi now.”

    “Right.” Gabriella blinks. It's a very pretty blink; Gabriella is widely reckoned to be the most beautiful woman in the county, with ice-smooth skin and vibrant auburn hair. This doesn't do much for Jodi's nerves. “Okay, Jodi. Nice, to, uh, see you.”

    The moment when they could have just said hi and walked on by each other is long past. Now they have to actually talk, and Jodi is certain that Gabriella is exactly as uneasy about this as she is.

    At least her wingull isn't with her. Pocket description: his name is Jack, but long years of unintentional training mean that he also answers to 'bastard'. Even Lothian is a little afraid of him, and Jodi always finds his raw hostility kind of overwhelming.

    “So did you walk all the way in from the station?” Jodi asks her. Gabriella lives with Sam Spade in a bungalow behind their petrol station, out on the edge of town. Sam has always claimed that Gabriella is her cousin from New Bark, and everyone has always pretended to believe her, with the notable exception of Sam's parents, who are only children and also not on speaking terms with their daughter.

    “I did,” says Gabriella. “Petrol's expensive, even if you own the station. And I thought I could use the air.” She smiles. Jodi can tell she doesn't mean it, but she wants to mean it, and that's even sweeter, in its own way. “What, um, what are you doing out here?”

    She's making an effort. Jodi appreciates that. She doesn't ask that people to be cool with her right away, she just asks that they try.

    “Me? Uh, same, I guess. Getting some air.” Jodi pauses. Can't be any harm in probing, can there? “And … and I figure this is the route Tacoma took,” she says, letting her gaze fall a little.

    “Oh. Right.” Gabriella's smile dwindles and dies. “I'm sorry, A― sorry, Jodi. You two were close, right?”

    “We fell out of touch a bit. But … yeah.” Jodi sighs. “I miss her.” She pauses for a moment, long enough to make Gabriella feel awkward, and then hits her with her best hopeful look. “You haven't heard anything, have you?” she asks. “Or seen anything?”

    Now Gabriella looks about as uncomfortable as she really feels. Jodi can't imagine she ever thought she'd be having this conversation with her. Normally they just talk about music; Gabriella used to teach Jodi violin, and she is also one of very few people in Mahogany other than Jodi who like the synth-heavy stuff that's started coming out of the Goldenrod music scene in the past few years. From there to dead friends is a hell of a leap.

    “Oh, I don't know,” she says. You can hear the New Bark in her voice, in the way she enunciates. Whatever life Gabriella really came from, it sure seems classier than anything in Mahogany. “I mean, there have been all kinds of rumours …”

    “Yeah?” Jodi doesn't need to feign her interest now. “What have you heard?”

    “Well, Sam says there was a car drove into town that evening that she didn't recognise,” replies Gabriella. “Blue Crowne with Kantan plates.”

    Crowne is a Kantan manufacturer; their cars are far and away the most common on Johtonian roads, mostly because they're cheap. But this wasn't a Johtonian car, clearly. And Jodi can't think of any reason why someone would be driving all the way from Kanto to Mahogany, of all places.

    “Kantan plates?” asks Jodi. “There was a stranger in town?”

    “Maybe.” Gabriella shifts nervously on her feet. “Look, Jodi, it's probably nothing. Sam also said that Hester told her she saw someone driving a creepy black sedan with tinted windows that evening, and Jack Flanagan is telling everyone he meets that he swears he saw someone dragging a body down the alley round the back of Green Street.” She sighs. “People are worked up, Jodi. You know?”

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “I know.” She fiddles with her thumbnail through her glove, trying to look like a thwarted kid. It's not very hard. It's basically what she is, after all. “I just miss her, is all.”

    Gabriella reaches out, puts a hesitant hand on her arm. Her awkwardness hovers around her like an anxious ghost. She can't be any older than twenty-eight; she probably doesn't feel old enough to be playing the role she's suddenly found herself in.

    “I know,” she says. “We all do.” Pause. Jodi can actually feel the tears hovering behind her eyes. Maybe she's a better liar than she thought. “Why don't you go home, Jodi?” says Gabriella, kindly. “Talk to your family.”

    Jodi smiles weakly.

    “Yeah,” she says. “You're probably right. Silly idea, anyway.”

    Gabriella smiles back.

    “Come by the station some time,” she says. “Say Sunday? I have this new record I think you'll really like. This German band, Kraftwerk? Never heard of them before, but they're clearly going places.”

    “What's it like?”

    “Think Black Peaches, but more so.” The Black Peaches are one of Jodi's favourites from the Goldenrod electronic music scene: this is good news. “Sam hates the record, by the way, keeps telling me to put on some real music, so it'll be nice to prove to her that someone else likes it too.”

    “Sure,” says Jodi. “Sounds good. Sunday, you said?”

    “Sunday's good. Or any time, really,” says Gabriella. “I'm almost always there, you know that.” She seems satisfied now that she's dealt with the situation, that Jodi is going to go and do something more healthy than stalk her dead friend's final steps through snowbound parks. “Anyway,” she says, holding out her bag. “I need to get to the shops. See you around, Al― sorry. See you around, Jodi.”

    “Bye!”

    Jodi watches her go for a moment, then turns away and starts to move back down the path towards the street.

    Blue Crowne, Kantan plates. A distinctive pen at the scene of the crime. Not much, but it's a start, and it's more than Jodi expected from her first morning as an amateur detective. She thinks about asking Tacoma for her thoughts, but given her mood at the moment that seems a little scary, and in the end she just beckons for Lothian to follow and walks on in silence.



    “You were out a while.”

    “Got talking to Lorna,” replies Jodi, closing the living-room door behind her. “And, um, you know. Needed a walk. To … to clear my head.”

    Her mother nods understandingly.

    “Of course, chickadee.” She puts a hand on Jodi's arm. “Are you all right?”

    What can she say? Tacoma's not dead, she's in my bag and probably listening to this conversation? Yeah, right.

    Jodi bites the edge of her lip, the way people say she does when she's upset, and shrugs.

    “I can't really believe it,” she says.

    “Nor can I.” Her mother pulls her into a hug, and Jodi leans into it as she would if she really were distressed. “I know it's not easy.”

    The clock ticks. Jodi closes her eyes, feels tears beading on her lashes. Maybe she is upset after all. Tacoma might not be dead, but she's not herself, and she's hurting in ways that Jodi isn't sure how to deal with. Sure, she knows the theory – it's part of empath training – but it's much harder to apply it to your ex-best friend than to a psy-actor in a practical.

    “Okay,” she sighs, pulling away. “Okay, you probably have more important things to do.”

    “What's more important than my eldest daughter?” She smiles, and Jodi's breath catches in her throat: that's her, she's her daughter, how amazing is that? “How is Lorna, anyway?”

    “O-okay.”

    “Yeah? How was she?”

    Jodi is about to say that she just asked that question, but then she realises that what her mother really wants to know is how Lorna treated her.

    “She was good,” she says, giving her a meaningful look. “She put my new name on my library card.”

    Her mother looks relieved, in a way that makes Jodi feel uncomfortable. It's nothing new to find her parents worrying about her – they've been doing it ever since she wrecked her leg – but this is a different sort of worry, and not something she was expecting. She'd thought that once – if – they accepted her, that would be the end of it: life as normal, just with a different name and nicer clothes. But no. No, they're her parents, and they worry, and now she's given them something else to worry about: will our daughter get the crap kicked out of her by small-town bigots?

    “I'm glad,” says her mother. “Lorna's always had a good head on her shoulders.”

    “Yeah,” replies Jodi. “She does.”

    “Did you run into anyone else?”

    Jodi hesitates.

    “Yeah,” she admits, in the end. “A few people. Fergus – Fergus Wright, I mean. Carrie Savage. Couple others.”

    “And?”

    Her mother doesn't seem to know how to ask outright. That's fine. Jodi doesn't know how to answer, either.

    “And it was … mostly fine,” she says. “Think I might be off Carrie's Christmas card list, though.”

    “Oh.” Her mother's face falls. “Did she …?”

    “I dunno, Mum.” Jodi sighs. “She just doesn't like it, I guess.”

    “Jodi, I―”

    “It's fine. She's not the first.” Jodi tries to block out the pain she can sense coming from her mother, but in her haste she fluffs it and it re-emerges elsewhere in her body as a stabbing sensation in her bad leg. She sits down heavily on the sofa, suppressing the urge to swear, and beckons for Lothian to come over and untense her muscles with his vibes. “In Goldenrod, I … look, I promise I'm okay, Mum. I always have Lothian. And my friends, they look out for me.”

    She's said too much. Now she'll think that Jodi spends her life afraid of every trivial encounter with every passing stranger, and okay, that's not entirely inaccurate, but Jodi's life isn't all bad. Yes, she's been insulted, shouted at, threatened; yes, she nearly got beaten up once in the Goldenrod Tunnel before Lothian screamed the guy into submission so she could get away. But that doesn't mean this hasn't also been the best damn thing she ever did with her life. She loves being what she is, even if she also hates it. That's just how it works.

    “Oh, darling.” Her mother steps around Lothian and sits down alongside her, slipping an arm around her shoulders. “I'm sorry. I wish I knew …” She spends a second or two thinking, trying to figure out how to end the sentence, then shrugs. “I wish I knew,” she says.

    Jodi raises the corner of her mouth, just a little.

    “Yeah,” she says, resting her head on her mother's shoulder. “I wish I knew too.”

    Tacoma has probably heard all of this. It's kind of embarrassing, really, the way that having your parents wheel out their affection in front of your friends always is. But not embarrassing enough to make her stop.

    “Sarah has pomegranates in at the store,” says her mother, after a while. “I saw 'em and thought of you. There are two in the fruit bowl with your names on 'em.”

    Lothian looks up sharply, eyes alight, and Jodi's half-smile matures into a full one.

    “Thanks, Mum,” she says. “We'll look forward to those.”

    She's lucky. Isn't she? Yes. Yes, she's lucky. She really should be grateful, for her mother who loves her, who buys her expensive fruit because she knows that pomegranates are her and Lothian's favourite. For her friend who isn't dead and gone after all. For a world in which even someone as unlikely as her is allowed to exist.

    “I have to work this afternoon,” says her mother. “Will you be all right by yourself till Ella gets home?”

    “Sure.” Jodi raises her eyebrows. “Mr Martell can't make it to Monday without someone to write his shopping lists for him?”

    “Oh, bosses are like babies, chickadee, you can't leave 'em alone too long or they end up sticking a fork in a plug socket and electrocuting themselves. That's why they invented secretaries in the first place.” She gets up and dusts imaginary crumbs off her blouse. “I'm making coffee. You in?”

    You in? Nobody else Jodi has ever met says that except her. Like every cup of coffee, every slice of cake, is a little conspiracy. Something to be stolen together.

    God, she's glad to be home.

    “Yeah,” she says. “Thanks.”

    Her mother leaves. A moment later, Jodi hears the gasjet hiss and the sound of water heating. Lothian looks at her with pleading eyes, and an unmistakeable vibration starts to rumble in her bones: pomegranate?

    “You can have one,” she says. “The other one's for my breakfast tomorrow, okay?”

    He's out the door almost before she's finished speaking, bits of carpet fluff trailing from his claws. There's a thump and a low growl like stones chipping against one another as he collides with Lucille, at her usual post by the kitchen door, and then the sound of something juicy being shredded by three dozen brutally sharp teeth.

    “You're cleaning this up, Jodi!” calls her mother.

    “Sure, when he's done!” she calls back.

    Lothian keeps slurping. The kettle keeps boiling. Jodi leans back in her seat, and shuts her eyes. She can talk to her now. She has the courage.

    Tacoma? she asks, but there isn't even the faintest suggestion of an answer.
     
    Last edited: May 30, 2018
  13. Ambyssin

    Ambyssin Trouble with the trolley, eh?

    It's probably the illness-related fatigue talking here, because I don't have all that much to say this time around. I liked some of the authentic quirks that popped up in this chapter. Little things like carvings in the trees and the abandoned buildings of old that kind of sell the (relative) isolation that you're creating for Mahogany. And the librarian acting like such a stereotypical librarian in that time period. Another period thing that got me was the smoking bit. Since that was considered a much more widely accepted social habit back in the day. Of course, the idea of a Spiritomb doing that just made me mentally giggle. It's pretty bizarre if you think about it. Like, Spiritomb shouldn't have lungs, so smoking both should and shouldn't make sense. Which I'm sure sounds confusing, but I can't think of any other way to say that. At the same time, even though it's not instrumental to the plot here, I'm glad that our amateur investigators immediately jumped to conclusions about Nick when they found his pen, and it took a moment to realize that, no, wait, there's no way something like that could happen.

    The most interesting part comes a bit later when Jodi's mulling over her "friendship" with Tacoma. I'm going to keep a long story short and say that reading it left me with a slight sense of deja vu in some regards, having come off Arbitrary Execution. But there are enough differences in the dynamic between the two of them to still make it feel fresh and arouse my curiosity. Mostly because (even though Tacoma's technically dead now), this is kind of the first time I'm reading one of your main characters as a well-seasoned trainer. And yeah, we'll only be getting spoon fed bits like that, but it is interesting to see how that kind of success can put you a very different path in life.

    And there's a bit of intrigue with the idea of this mystery card. But it's smaller compared to the actual conversations she winds up having with her mom and with Gabriella. There were some subtle differences. Mostly due to the narration pointing out the awkwardness on the part of Gabriella. But you can tell that she was make an effort to look past everything, while Jodi's mother just seems to mostly be continuing what we saw of her in the introductory chapter.

    One quick thing to end off:
    Did you intend to suddenly slip into the second person here? I... don't remember seeing anything like this elsewhere, so I thought I'd point it out. @.@
     
  14. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    We'll be getting more into the interesting subject of what exactly happens when spiritomb try to ingest things later on! This is clearly a very important topic that requires we give it proper attention. :p

    I mean, it's kind of instrumental to the plot; there's no reason for Nick's pen to be there, buried under old snowfall, when he didn't arrive in town until after midnight on the night of Tacoma's murder. That's a clue, no matter how you look at it; it's just that Jodi and Tacoma aren't very good detectives. Tomorrow, we'll see what someone a bit more experienced makes of this particular detail.

    I'm just gonna come out and say it, I've been basically writing the same story over and over for like four years now. :p Still, stick around and you'll see a few differences. There's a lot that they aren't talking about yet.

    Oh, there's way more about their shared trainer journey to come! I'm only giving you small amounts to start with, but there's a lot going on there, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with you. As we'll see, Tacoma has more than a few regrets.

    Yeah – what Jodi has started is a process, not an event. It doesn't end just because she's done with that first conversation. Given that this is as much a story about small-town life as it is a murder mystery, it felt like it wouldn't be true to life to show Jodi's coming out as something that ended after telling her family. There's a lot of awkwardness around a parent suddenly discovering their firstborn son is a daughter, and I wanted their concern and worry to keep going as the story continued.

    As for Gabriella – that's setting up for the future. Probably quite obviously, given my track record when it comes to the kinds of people I like to write about. Expect her and Sam to play a role in this investigation as it develops.

    I did. It's like an impersonal you, I guess? I don't know if that's what it's really called, but I mean it like “One can hear the New Bark in her voice”, if that makes sense to you. I thought that was a usage of 'you' that was pretty universal throughout the English-speaking world, but if it turns out that it's just something that happens where I'm from and it confuses everyone else, I can always change it. Anyway, thank you for the review!
     
  15. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    Content warning: This chapter is where the transphobia/homophobia and self-harm that I warned for in the first post kicks in.

    FOUR: HOLDING THE LINE

    CON

    Police Chief Connor Wicke will be perfectly honest with you: he's not having a great week.

    When was the last time he and his team had to deal with a body? There have been a few disappearances over the past few years, but that's par for the course; Mahogany is isolated, way out here in the middle of a dangerous stretch of forest. It's rare that a year goes by without some passing hiker overestimating their familiarity with the terrain and vanishing into the woods. Occasionally even Mahogany locals go missing. Everyone around here knows the risks, but sometimes you just get unlucky.

    But murder? Hell, that just doesn't happen around here. Last time would have to have been six, seven years ago by this point. Con wasn't even Chief at the time. Imagine that. Five years and it feels like he's been doing this all his life.

    Five years, and now Tacoma Spearing's dead.

    He thinks of her as he drives south back through town, the icy wind seeping through the cracks in the cruiser's floorboards. Tacoma Spearing. Sort of a smartass, sure, but the kid had prospects. Not many people in Mahogany can say that. Johto is in a bad way, with the lingering effects of first the wartime occupation and then the OPEC embargo, and Mahogany has been hit especially hard. Who's building in this economy? Nobody. And that means there isn't much of a market for lumber.

    Which means that Tacoma Spearing was one of maybe twenty kids in town who had a serious chance of being employed in five years' time. Or however long it takes to get a degree in doctoring pokémon, anyway.

    And now, well. Better make that nineteen kids. Things keep going at this rate and Mahogany's going to bleed to death before the decade's out.

    He shakes his head and pulls up outside the Spearing house. No time for wandering minds. Simeon and Dr Ishihara have got Tacoma down to the morgue; Toby is dealing with Aaron Lockwood. That just leaves one job, and it's one that Con refuses to delegate. He's meant to be protecting these people. When something like this happens, it's his face they need to see.

    Con looks across at Byrne, in the passenger seat. She raises her eyebrows and looks back.

    “All right,” he says. “I guess it's time.”

    They get out, and let Moira out of the back. They turn to face the house.

    Con takes a deep breath, removes his hat, and walks up the path to the door.



    They know. They know the second he walks in. Lucas Spearing opens the door, already dressed to leave for the mill, and when he sees Con he lets go of the door and totters backwards like someone has set their shoulder to his chest and shoved.

    “Who is it?” calls Annie Spearing from the kitchen, over the chatter of the radio, and then when Lucas doesn't answer Con takes him by the shoulder and leads him inside.

    “Morning, Annie,” he says, as Byrne closes the door quietly behind them. “Everett.”

    Annie stares.

    “Would you like to sit down?” asks Con. “I'm afraid I have some―”

    “Is this about Tacoma?” Annie asks, whispers really, and then Con nods and she crumples like a newspaper in a blizzard.

    Con breathes in, and out. He manoeuvres Lucas into a chair, helps Annie sit down before she falls. Everett just stares, still as granite.

    “I'm sorry to have to tell you that Aaron Lockwood found Tacoma's body in the Rageriver early this morning,” says Con. Lucas is clutching his sleeve tightly, fiercely, like he's afraid the tide of his emotion will wash him away if he ever lets go. “Annie, Lucas, I'm so sorry.”

    Everett's spoon bends slightly in his fist. Little drops of milk spot the table around his hand.

    “No,” whispers Annie. “No, my … my baby …”

    Her grief ages her. She's not so much older than Con, but it's like the tears are wearing new lines in her cheeks, adding decades long before they're due. She speaks again, but Con can no longer make out the words; it's just noise, just a low, painful moan. He stares, paralysed by the way she has so suddenly become something so unlike herself – but fortunately Byrne is here now, edging round him to take Annie's hand.

    “I know, Annie, I know.” Her other hand is moving back and forth across Annie's shoulders, massaging them as they shake. Everett is still just sitting there, mangled spoon jutting from his rigid fist. “Go get the neighbours, Con,” says Byrne in a low voice, glancing up at him. “I'll stay with them till you get back.”

    He nods, not wanting to speak, not sure if he even can speak in this awful, poisonous atmosphere, and backs slowly out of the room, disentangling his sleeve from Lucas' hand as he goes. Out in the hall, he takes a moment to catch his breath, clenching and unclenching his fists and willing his pulse to slow.

    Christ. He'd forgotten what it was like. The way people just stop being people any more, made raw and alien by emotions too big for human bodies. Just a jumbled mess of pain and broken gestures. Clutching hands, choked voices. He recalls the pressure of Lucas' fingers on his arm and shivers.

    Moira has been waiting out here, and sensing her partner's distress comes over and rubs herself against his calves. It's a peculiarly feline gesture for a rodent, but it runs in the family; Moira's grandmother, Con's original partner on his trainer journey, did it too.

    “Thanks, buddy,” he says, bending to scratch between her ears. “C'mon. Better get the backup in and call the mill. Lucas isn't coming in today.”

    On his way out, he makes the mistake of looking back while closing the front door, and sees Everett still staring at him, still crushing the spoon in his fingers. He is crying silently, motionlessly, and Con turns away with a sick guilt beginning to fester in his gut.

    Had to be done, he reminds himself. Had to be done.

    It really doesn't make him feel much better.



    “Con.” Dr Ishihara wastes no time: the second he steps out of the lift, there she is, stepping forward to greet him. “How were they?”

    He shakes his head.

    “It's bad, doc. It's bad.”

    She sighs.

    “It always is, Con.” She gestures at the big swing doors at the end of the hall. “Come on. Through here.”

    Con was supposed to bring Lucas or Annie along, to ID the body for the paperwork, but in the end neither of them were in any state to leave their seats, let alone the house. Byrne said she'd bring one of the family along later. Con is grateful; he's good at his job, and he dislikes backing out of difficult situations, but he's really not the right person for this particular task.

    The morgue is dim and cold, made colder by Ishihara's froslass, sorting through her partner's files on a side table. She came over with Ishihara from Japan during the Second World War, when the two of them were nurses attached to the medical corps, but unlike the rest of the occupying forces they never went home afterwards. Neither have ever explained why, but after thirty years people have stopped second-guessing them. They're Mahogany people now.

    Tacoma is lying on a table under a sheet. Under the cold electric light of the morgue, she looks even less alive than she did lying on the riverbank; it brings out the grey in her skin and the blue tracery of veins in her temples. Con is glad that her eyes are closed. He's seen corpses before, but he doesn't like it when they see him back. Something accusatory about the way they look at you.

    “What have you got for me?” he asks, transferring his attention to Ishihara's froslass. She says something incomprehensible in her thin, musical voice and hands a file to her partner.

    “For a start, she wasn't strangled,” says Ishihara, opening it. “Not while she was alive, anyway.” She pulls back the sheet and turns Tacoma onto her side with a dispassionate professionalism that Con finds faintly unsettling. “Do you see this burn here, on the nape of the neck?”

    “Mm. Yeah.” There's a star of discoloured tissue just above the knob where spine meets neck, long red branches forking away across Tacoma's shoulders. Obscured by the bruising, but only partly. Very distinctive, if you know these things, and as a man with a raichu Con has seen more than his fair share of electrical injuries. “Lightning?” he asks, and Ishihara nods.

    “Directed electrical discharge,” she says. “Some sort of electric-type move – precise, surgical. From how tightly focused it is, I'd suggest a charge beam. Other moves tend to arc more. Messier.”

    Con winces.

    “Nasty way to go,” he says.

    “Relatively quick,” replies Ishihara, catching his eye. “I don't think she suffered, Con.”

    A pause. Her calm has cracked slightly; she clears her throat and sets her face again.

    “As for the contusions around her neck,” she continues, lifting Tacoma's chin, “the pattern indicates one pair of gloved hands.”

    “Fibres?” He knows the answer before he asks, but it slips out anyway. Looking at Ishihara handle the corpse like this is getting to him.

    She shakes her head.

    “She was in the river all night, Con. And wearing gloves, too. Nothing under the fingernails or I'd have sent it to the forensics team in Ecruteak.” Back to Tacoma, rotating the neck now to show the shape of the bruising. “You see where the fingers were? She was grabbed from behind. That means she wasn't choked to stop her crying out while the electrocution was being performed; the attacker would have been in the way of the shot.”

    “Afterwards?” Con tenses. “You think someone was trying to hide their tracks?”

    “Not well, clearly.” Ishihara indicates the burn again. “The burn scar was still there.”

    “Amateur job, then. This wasn't planned.” Con frowns, thinking hard. “She was jumped on her way home, somewhere she wouldn't be seen. Someone zaps her in the back, hard enough to kill right away, and then they panic. Not a lot of electric-types in town, are there? And they know the Chief of Police knows lightning burns when he sees them. So they try and cover it up by making it look like she was strangled before they get her out of town and dump her in the river.”

    “That would be my assessment, yes.” Ishihara lowers Tacoma back into place on the table and takes up her arm. “I'd also like to draw your attention to these.”

    She holds it out, indicating with her gloved hand a series of uneven wounds in the flesh of Tacoma's right forearm. Con looks at them without comprehension.

    “Someone attack her?” he asks hesitantly. “And what, she held up her arm to defend her face, or …?”

    Ishihara shakes her head.

    “No, Con. Look: these here have scarred over. These are still pink, and this one here only closed in the last few days. Very fine cuts – an extremely sharp knife, or perhaps a razor blade. Made over the course of the past year; the oldest are from perhaps nine months ago.”

    “Abuse, then? Did she have a boyfriend at uni, or―?”

    “Con, these injuries are consistent with self-harm,” says Ishihara. “One arm, controlled, same pattern. Clean cuts.”

    Con realises he's staring now, but he can't help it.

    “She did this to herself?” he asks.

    “Yes.” Ishihara hesitates. “It would seem Tacoma was not as happy as her parents thought.”

    “But doc, that's … why would she do a thing like that?”

    “I can't tell you that,” she replies. “But I would speculate that she was not fond of herself.”

    “Christ.” Con looks again at the scars: one, two, three, five, ten … that's a lot of hate, right there. He can't pretend to understand it, but he's going to have to try. Tacoma needs justice. That means she needs a cop in her corner who knows her properly.

    “It is … unpleasant, yes,” agrees Ishihara.

    “You're telling me.” He sighs. “You got an estimated time of death for me, doc?”

    “Of course.” She returns Tacoma's arm to the table and pulls the sheet back up to her neck. It's a gentle gesture, almost maternal; the steel has left her eyes now. Con is surprised for a moment – she's always so professional – but then he remembers: she would have delivered Tacoma, wouldn't she? Brought her into this world, and now seeing her out. The last thing any doctor ever hopes for. “Time of death …”

    She stands there for a moment, staring at Tacoma. She does not seem to realise she has stopped speaking until her froslass lays a hand on her shoulder, and then she starts and returns her attention to the file.

    “I would estimate somewhere between three thirty and five thirty PM,” she says. “Did you speak to Harry?”

    “Yeah. Her train arrived at four thirteen, six minutes late. He said he didn't have Nikole out to help her with the bags, so I'm guessing it would have been a good forty, forty-five minutes' walk back home with all that luggage.”

    “That's it, then.”

    The overhead light hums to itself. Con and Ishihara stare.

    “Nineteen,” says Ishihara, after a while. “She was going to be a doctor.”

    “I know,” says Con. “I know.”



    The next morning, as the sun struggles slowly upwards through the black cage of the pine branches, Con sits at one end of the conference table at the Police Department and surveys the room. Everyone's here: Byrne, Simeon, Toby, Ishihara, all nursing their cups of coffee and the pages of their reports. Their partners are variously coiled, sitting or hovering nearby – at a polite distance, in the case of Ishihara's froslass; she tends to unnerve the other pokémon.

    “All right, well, good morning, everyone,” says Con. Beneath the table, Moira nuzzles his calf in a tiny gesture of support. “Time to put together what we've got. Doc, if you'd like to run through the medical report for us?”

    “Of course, Con.” She goes through the details in her clipped, accented Johtoni, without wasting a single word. Electrocution, strangulation, estimated time of death. Con notes the reactions: Byrne leaning forwards with interest, probably already making a mental list of locals with electric-type partners; a wince of sympathy from Toby, always the people person; a look of shock from Simeon, never quite ready to hear gory details. Jackie, eyes wide. Like a play of themselves.

    “Thank you, doc,” he says, when Ishihara is done. “Any questions?”

    “Yeah.” Byrne glances at him before turning to Ishihara. “Can you draw any conclusions about what kind of pokémon we're looking for here? Definitely an electric-type, or could it be something else with an electric move?”

    “Difficult to be certain,” replies Ishihara. “The power suggests an electric-type – it is harder to kill with one blow than it seems, and it pierced straight through the hood of her coat – but there is no reason why another pokémon could not have performed the move. But unless it was a species that is naturally very familiar with electromagnetic manipulation, it would have to have been highly trained in the use of the move concerned.”

    “So probably an electric-type,” says Byrne. “That's something to go on, at least. We pool our knowledge, we should be able to cover most electric-types in town, start checking for motives and alibis.”

    “I'll leave that in your hands then, Byrne.” She nods. “Okay. Toby? What did you get from Aaron?”

    “Not much,” he replies. “He was out on one of those early morning walks he takes. You know Aaron. Happiest when there's nobody around but him and Steph.”

    “Yeah, that's Aaron. Anything else?”

    “Nope. He just paused by the riverbank and saw the body floating by. Got stuck on some ice and he hooked it with a branch.”

    Figures. Con wasn't expecting anything much. Aaron does have an electabuzz, and presumably they can use charge beam, but he can't think of a reason why he'd want to kill Tacoma. Sure, he probably didn't like her, but Aaron doesn't like anybody, himself included.

    “That it?”

    “Yep.”

    “All right, makes sense. Byrne, what have we learned from Lucas and Annie?”

    She clicks her tongue.

    “They're in a bad way, Con; they weren't making all that much sense. Best I can tell, both of them were sure Tacoma said she'd be home by five, five thirty on Wednesday. She called them from Goldenrod when she got off the overnight train from Saffron to let 'em know what time to expect her. Both of them were working, neither were around to pick her up.”

    “Everett?”

    “Hasn't got his licence yet, definitely can't handle the winter roads.” Byrne shakes her head. “Poor kid hasn't said a word since yesterday morning, but I called Sarah and it seems like he was working that day too.”

    Still no licence? Maybe some people just don't have a head for cars. Con supposes it's probably safer that way. Most cars in Johto are ageing Kantan models from the fifties and sixties, back when they used to make the interiors out of plywood and plastic foam. The police department's three cruisers are among the sturdiest cars in town, and Con's still managed to put his foot straight through the floorboards on more than one occasion.

    “All right,” he says. “What about Nick?”

    “Phoenix? Annie's brother?”

    “Yeah.” Con frowns. “I don't think he was up yet when we went round yesterday. Long flight the day before, I believe.”

    “That's right,” says Byrne. “Alola.” Con whistles. “Not a holiday, Chief. He's a researcher at Yellowbrick in Saffron, currently on sabbatical. He went to Alola to visit a new lab that's opened up there and consult with some of the scientists there in a city called … Heahea, I think.”

    “And when did he get back?” Nick has a magneton, Con is pretty sure. That alone doesn't mean he killed his niece, but it makes him one of relatively few people who could have done.

    “About one o'clock. His plane landed at four fifteen and he drove back.”

    “Long drive,” notes Con. “There a reason he didn't take the train?”

    Byrne shrugs.

    “Didn't say.”

    Hm. There's something there worth investigating. Who drives from the airport with petrol as dear as it is? Con isn't sure what the pay is for a researcher, but it can't be that good.

    “Okay,” he says. “Is that all we've got?”

    “Yes, I think so.” Byrne hesitates. “I didn't ask them much about Tacoma – you know, why she might have been killed, any enemies, that kind of thing. Didn't seem like the right time. I'd recommend stopping by again today to dig a little deeper.”

    “Good work.” He stands up and indicates the rough map of town that Simeon drew for him on the blackboard. “Putting together what we know, then. Tacoma starts here, at the train station, and heads here, towards her house on Long Avenue. In between these two points, someone kills her with a lightning bolt, then tries incompetently to cover it up. Yes, Sim?”

    “Electric-type moves aren't exactly subtle,” he says. “Are we sure it happened in town? She wasn't abducted en route and taken somewhere else to be killed?”

    “Good point. We don't know that, no. But either way, someone definitely jumped her in the middle of town. Now, what I'm thinking is that Tacoma went this way; she had heavy bags and her partner wasn't helping her carry them, for whatever reason. She'd want to take the quickest route she possibly could.”

    “Through the park?”

    “Right.” Con taps the stick of chalk on the path through Three Pines. “I guess you can see where I'm going with this, yeah?”

    “The middle of the park is pretty quiet,” says Toby. “Screened by the trees, isolated – someone might see a flash, but only for a second.”

    “Snow would deaden the sound, too,” adds Byrne.

    “It would,” agrees Con. “And if Tacoma was killed in town, and if she did die as quickly as you say, doc, she wouldn't have had a chance to cry out. Say you parked at one end of the path, then you came up behind her as she walked. You zap her in the back of the head, then you take her and her luggage back down to the car and drive on out of town.”

    “Sounds risky,” says Toby. “If anyone happened to pass by …”

    “You did say it wasn't a competent job, Chief,” points out Byrne.

    “I did,” he says. “So. Byrne, you get on that list of electric-types, start making enquiries – I know Pryce Aske on Tenarrow Road does trainer tutoring; you could see if he can fill in any gaps for you. Simeon, I want you to ask around the streets either end of the path through Three Pines, see if anyone saw anything – Tacoma entering the park, someone following, any suspicious vehicles or activity. Whether he took her dead or alive, the killer has to have got her out of town somehow. Talk to Harry, too. He was the last one who saw her alive.”

    What else? Come on, Con. You remember how to run a murder investigation. You do.

    “Dr Ishihara,” he says, voice slow with thought. “You're still waiting on toxicology?”

    “Yes. I'll let you know when they fax the results through.”

    “Please do. Not sure I'm expecting anything, but it'll be good to know as much as we can.” Okay. That's everything. “In which case, I think we're done here,” he says. “Toby, you're with me. Let's check in with the Spearings, see if there's anything more they can tell us about Tacoma, and then let's get down to the park.” There's something else, something he meant to― right, of course. “Jackie,” he says. “I want you to call the mayor's office. I'm thinking a dusk curfew for the kids, just till this gets wrapped up. I know, they all have pokémon, but Tacoma's partner's one of the toughest in town, and our guy got to her all the same.”

    “Sure, Chief,” says Jackie, making a note on her pad. “You have a statement about it you want me to release, or …?”

    He shakes his head.

    “Not yet; I'll write up something formal later today. When you're done with Town Hall, stay on the phones. Keep us all connected.”

    He is relieved to find he sounds like a man in charge of the situation, even to himself. He might not be able to get the sight of Tacoma out of his head, or the feeling of Lucas' hand on his arm, but at least he can do his job right.

    “Everyone know what they're doing?” The line of heads ripples with nods. “All right. If you find anything, call in, and Jackie will pass the message on.” He claps his hands together in what he hopes is a decisive manner. “Let's get moving, people.”



    The cruiser rattles through the streets, engine coughing in the cold winter air. In the back, Moira and Carson, Toby's growlithe, shove at each other in an attempt to secure the most seat space.

    “Behave yourselves back there, or you're walking,” calls Con, without taking his eyes off the road. Moira settles down; Carson simply takes advantage to push her further out of the way. She doesn't push back, though, and that seems to be the end of it.

    “Like kids,” says Toby, shaking his head. “Ain't that right, Chief?”

    “Sure is, Toby.”

    They drive for a few minutes in silence. Long Avenue is still a little way off. Neither are looking forward to it. They called ahead, and the Spearings do seem to be doing slightly better today, but this still isn't going to be easy. It's why Toby's here. He's always had a way with people that Con just can't match.

    “You heard about Alex Ortega?” he asks, as Con negotiates the tricky corner by the bank.

    “The little psychic kid? What about him?”

    “Came back from university in Goldenrod yesterday,” says Toby. “Wearing a dress and asking his parents to call him Jodi.”

    Con blinks. He spent what little free time he had yesterday at home, unwilling to go out and walk into a conversation about the dead girl currently haunting his thoughts, but it seems he missed some serious gossip.

    “What? Really?”

    “Yeah. 'S true.” Toby grins at the look on his face. “Surprised? I guess I was, when I heard. But it makes sense. Always had him figured for a homo, you know?”

    “No, I don't know.” Con scowls. It's not that he disagrees, but something about Toby's glee seems vaguely unsavoury. “He's a kid. Never really had anything to do with him.”

    “Oh, well, nor have I, Chief, nor have I.” His reply comes just a little too quickly to be entirely natural. “My nephew Victor used to be in his class at school.”

    “Right.” They pass the general store and slow to a halt at a red light. Sarah crosses the road and waves as she sees the faces through the window; Con raises a hand in return. “'Jodi', huh?” He shakes his head. “Jesus. Must be rough on León and Michelle.”

    “Well, I dunno what they expected, letting the government send him to school in Goldenrod. You know what they're like in the city.”

    Con gives him a look.

    “Do I?”

    “Yeah, you know. Full of deviants and perverts.”

    Green light. Con takes the car forward again in a cloud of acidic smoke.

    “When was the last time you went to this … hotbed of deviancy, Toby?” he asks, trying not to smile.

    “Oh, I've never been,” says Toby. “But you know, I read the papers.”

    “Sure,” says Con. “Okay, Toby.”

    It is messed-up about Alex, though. Con isn't a father, thank God – the closest he's ever come to monogamy is a decade-long secret crush on Gabriella Kendrick – but he can imagine what it'd be like. Your only son comes home and says he doesn't want to be your son any more. Some grotesque drag queen bullshit. If it's true – and Con thinks it probably is; the Mahogany gossips aren't actually imaginative enough to come up with something like that – then he hopes León manages to sort him out. The kid's psychic, right? Maybe he just read too many girls' minds and got confused about which thoughts were his. Or something.

    “Speaking of Alex,” says Con, “he hung out with Tacoma, didn't he?”

    “Ah, I know what you're thinking, Chief, but I don't think he's got any answers for us.”

    “Why not?”

    “They haven't hung out in years. You remember he smashed up his leg on his trainer journey? He came home, Tacoma kept going. Haven't spoken since.”

    “Your nephew tell you all this, too?” Con is slightly concerned about how much Toby seems to know about the lives of these children. A man in his thirties, he feels, should probably have other things on his mind.

    “Long time ago,” he replies. “He used to be stuck on all the politics, back in high school.”

    “Right,” says Con. He sees the sign for Long Avenue up ahead: time to put the crazy kid to one side for a moment. “Right,” he says again. “Serious business now, Toby. I'll need your help on this.”

    “Sure thing, Chief.” Toby sighs. “I hope they're okay.”

    “So do I, Toby. So do I.”

    He takes them around the corner and pulls over outside the house. Moira and Carson tense up in the back, picking up on the change in the atmosphere.

    “All right.” Con refuses to hesitate, refuses to let himself back away from this. It's his job, goddamn it. This is what being the public face of the Police Department means. “Let's get this over with.”

    They get out, the slam of the doors like gunshots in the quiet. Con runs his tongue over lips dried out by more than the cold.

    Okay, he thinks. Time to be the Police Chief again.



    Electric-types, interviews, crime scene investigation. Little by little, they make progress. Some digging around in the park turns up an expensive pen, which, when shown to the Spearings, turns out not to belong to Tacoma but rather to her uncle, Nick. He is surprised to see it, claims to have lost it some time ago. Con wonders whether this is the surprise of someone confronted with evidence of their misdeeds or the surprise of someone suddenly reunited with something they thought lost. Either way, there's definitely something odd about it. Why was the pen there?

    I don't know, said Nick. I lost this last time I was in town, back in October. Maybe Tacoma had it. But why would she have it?

    I don't know either, said Con. Why did you drive to the airport and back instead of taking the train?

    And Nick looked nervous and said he had no reason, really, he just felt like driving; and Con kept his face neutral and said right, of course.

    So: a question mark there. Question marks, too, about the car that people in the area heard – but didn't see – just after sundown, and about the apparently blameless life that Tacoma led, if her parents are to be believed. No enemies, universally liked, according to them. Which fits with Con's theory that this wasn't premeditated, but leaves everyone at the station wondering why exactly this happened in the first place. Killing Tacoma was important enough that someone risked doing it in the middle of town, just to make sure she was dead before she got home.

    Con still has no answers. He asks Byrne for updates, puts Simeon in charge of organising a team to search for Tacoma's luggage upriver, and sits at his desk sifting through what feels like an ocean of pointless information. The toxicology report, for instance. Ishihara brings it round herself – the medical centre has the only fax machine in town since the one at the police station broke – and Con reads it through twice before he actually takes in any of the words, and a third before he realises it isn't relevant. Apparently Tacoma liked her weed: okay, so does every other student on the Tohjo peninsula, and probably the planet.

    Byrne's report on local electric-types comes a little after noon, when Con is staring blankly at the notes he made during that morning's interview with the Spearings and feeling like his head is about to crumble into ash. He doesn't hear her knock; the first he knows of her approach is when she calls out.

    “Chief?” Her words seem to come from the top of a deep, deep well. Con blinks and struggles slowly upwards towards the surface. “Chief?” Byrne looks a little uncertain. “Sorry, I knocked but you didn't answer, so―”

    “It's fine,” he interrupts. “What have you got, Byrne?”

    “Pryce and I put our heads together and came up with a list of people to check out,” she says. “Looks like there are about thirty electric-types in town, of which maybe ten seem like people we should check up on, and … Chief, are you all right?”

    “Fine, Byrne.” How long has he been holding this position? Con straightens up and feels his back protest at the sudden movement. Oof. Definitely been hunched like that for a while. “Just … going over what we've got.”

    Byrne looks less than convinced.

    “Permission to speak freely, Chief?”

    He sighs.

    “Okay, sure.”

    “I think you might benefit from taking a walk. No, hear me out,” she says, raising a hand to forestall argument. “Just five minutes. Get some air. This case is gonna kill you if you let it.”

    Con gives her a hard look.

    “I don't know what you mean,” he says. “I'm fine, Byrne―”

    “Someone's dead on our watch,” she replies. “A kid, Con. None of us are fine. I know that.”

    Con puts off answering for as long as he can, but he knows when he's beaten. This is why he hired Byrne in the first place. Toby and Simeon were a little uneasy about having a woman on the force at first, but Con has always believed in advancement by merit, and Byrne is just too good to not be part of the team.

    “All right,” he says grudgingly. “Leave your report there, I'll … take a look when I get back.”

    “Will do, Chief,” she says, flashing him a smile, and leaves him putting on his coat. He stops in at the front desk to ask Jackie if anyone has come up with anything (they haven't) and heads out to make a circuit around the block.

    The air is so cold it prickles going down and makes him cough. Con gasps, shivers a little, and feels something click back into alignment deep inside his brain. Byrne was right. He did need to get out of that room. There's only so long you can sit and breathe in your own sense of failure before you start to suffocate.

    And it isn't even like they have failed, yet. It's early days, and this is a weird case. Sooner or later they'll find Tacoma's luggage, and sooner or later one of the electric-types in town will turn out to be the one, and sooner or later, the pieces will start to fall into place. They will.

    But still, he thinks, as he crunches his way past the firing range, Moira scampering along at his heels. He screwed up. No matter which way you slice it, you're still left with a dead girl, a broken family and a town in shock. This isn't Goldenrod, isn't the kind of place where lives are just statistics. These things matter here in Mahogany. In Con's town, which he's meant to be protecting, and which instead he's …

    “Goddamn it, Con,” he mutters, clenching his fist in his pocket. “Get a grip.”

    He takes a left and stomps along under the trees that lean in over the station car park, feeling stupid. He has to get a handle on this. If he's going to do his job right, if he's going to put this one to rest, he needs to stay sharp and not wallow. A man has to stand firm. A man with the town on his shoulders, all the more so.

    Above him, spearow burst suddenly from the upper reaches of a pine tree, scattering in all directions with a series of shrieks and rattling feathers. Con jumps and looks up to see the distinctive belly-and-blades silhouette of a skarmory glide by overhead. It unnerves him. You never see these things in summer. Only in winter, when pickings in the mountains are at their slimmest, do they get desperate enough to come down here.

    “Keep flying,” he murmurs, watching it go. “I don't have time to deal with your bullshit.”

    Last time a skarmory came down it didn't hurt anyone, but it did take a good few bites out of a cruiser before everyone got together to chase it off. Damn things are nearly as hungry for metal as for meat.

    At his side, Moira shrinks uneasily against the ground, tail lashing. Raichu are less afraid of aerial predators than most, with their ability to thunderbolt a flying-type at fifty paces, but Moira is six now, ancient for a raichu, and starting to forget her strength with age. Con bends down and scratches between her ears.

    “You'll be all right,” he says. “He'll bugger off in a minute.”

    Sure enough, the shadow changes direction and disappears off to the west, over the treeline. Moira stays tense for a few seconds longer, then perks up and scurries on ahead. Con has to smile.

    “Wish I could forget my troubles that easy,” he remarks. “C'mon, then.”

    Left again, and again, and back around the edge of the station to the front door. At the desk, Jackie looks up from her typewriter and smiles.

    “Feeling better, Chief?”

    “A little,” he admits. “Anything turn up while I was out?”

    “I got a call from Dean Jackson,” she says. “Tacoma's kangaskhan just passed out on his lawn.”



    According to Dr Ishihara, Nikole will be fine soon. She's running a high fever – a cold that got out of hand, perhaps – and the theory goes that when she finally broke her way out of her poké ball and set off to try and find her partner, she got lost in her fear and confusion and forgot to find water. Right now, she's shivering under a blanket in the pokémon wing of the medical centre with an IV in her massive arm, but Ishihara expects her to be ready to go home very soon.

    Another thing Con isn't looking forward to. Bringing Nikole home will hit the Spearings even harder, and trying to explain to pokémon that their partners aren't coming back is always difficult. Con remembers the machamp that survived his grandmother, the pain he had no way of speaking. The poor thing lay down and died five days later. Just willed himself off the mortal coil.

    Today, however, the morning after she found her way back into town, Nikole is still in the medical centre. And that means Con has a potential witness on his hands.

    Obviously, there are a few problems with this. For one thing, Nikole must have been in her ball at the time of the murder, or else the murderer would almost certainly have ended up being the victim. Still, she might have heard something, and if her route through the woods can be traced, they might be able to find Tacoma's luggage and look for clues there. Toby has Carson trying to sniff out her trail, but with last night's snowfall it's proving difficult.

    Which is why, on this cold, clear Saturday morning, Con and Simeon are driving down to the Ortega household.

    He could call up the Ecruteak Police Department and ask them to send their psy officer over. This is definitely an option. But he has a hunch about what kind of evidence might be lurking in Nikole's head, and if he's right, it's something he'd rather keep within the town. There are certain things in Mahogany that outsiders just don't get.

    “You, uh, heard about Alex?” asks Con. The silence in the car is starting to get to him. He was already nervous about this. Sitting and stewing is only making it worse.

    “Yeah.” Simeon glances at him. “How d'you want to play this, Chief? I mean, we need his help.”

    Con shrugs. He's been thinking about this himself, and he really doesn't have much of an idea.

    “I guess we'll speak to León and take our lead from him,” he says. “Look, he can't refuse to do it. He's Tacoma's friend, right? He'll want to see justice done.”

    “I suppose you're right.” Simeon clears his throat. “Just, uh … well, I dunno. Guess I don't know how to feel about all this.”

    “You and me both, Sim. You and me both.”

    They park and get out, breath steaming before them. There's no one else to let out; on this occasion, Moira and Simeon's furret are in their balls. Today, the back seat is reserved for Alex.

    A brief exchange of looks. Simeon raises his eyebrows in an up to you sort of way.

    Con sighs, and knocks on the door.

    Pause. Footsteps. And then―

    “Con,” says Michelle, looking surprised. “Morning.”

    “Morning, Michelle.” Tight, anxious smile. “May we come in?”

    “Sure, of course.” She steps aside and they enter, Simeon nodding a greeting at Michelle as he passes. Con can see León watching from the kitchen doorway, coming out now with a wary look on his face.

    “Con, Simeon.” He shakes their hands. “What's the problem?”

    All right. Moment of truth.

    “Not a problem, León, more something you can help us with.” Someone's turning pages in the next room. Is that Alex? A dozen lurid images flicker through Con's brain in quick succession and he swallows hard, trying to banish them. “You've probably heard that Tacoma's kangaskhan turned up yesterday?”

    “Yeah, I heard.” León folds his arms. You're always aware, when he does that, of just how big his forearms are. He might have moved up from the production line now, but he still has those lumberjack muscles. “Good sign, I guess.”

    “It is,” agrees Con. “She might be a witness – could be really helpful. But in order to know what she knows, we're going to need a psychic.”

    A sudden silence. León's eyes flick over to Michelle's and back again. Her face tenses, almost imperceptibly.

    “You want Jodi's help,” she says, and Con has to work hard to squash his shock. They're actually going along with this? Why would you even do that? If someone goes crazy and claims little green men are controlling his thoughts through the radio, you don't help him make a tinfoil hat, you get him to a doctor.

    “Y-yeah,” he says, doing his best to sound natural and aware that he isn't succeeding. “Yeah, we do.”

    Michelle glances at a door to their left.

    “Okay,” she says, though she doesn't sound very certain. “Well, you'll have to ask her yourself.”

    She leads them through into the living-room, a cosy little space dominated by one of Ella's landscapes, a view of the mountains so vivid that Con can practically feel the icy wind rolling off the slopes. Faded curtains, twelve-inch TV that Con's Kantan cousins would think of as ancient and which in Johto is considered cutting-edge – and there, reclining on the sofa with a book and a cup of coffee, Alex.

    He stares. There isn't even any question of him being able to hide it. That is Alex, yes, but it's also … Christ. In his tight sweater and flowing skirt, he looks like a high school girl. A pretty one. Con sees Alex Ortega, and he sees a pretty girl, and somewhere in his head the two crash into one another with a sickening thud.

    Alex blinks and looks up sharply from his book. Eyeshadow, notes Con. And mascara. Con can barely hold his gaze. There's something wrong about this. A boy has no business doing a thing like that, making a man look at him as if he were a woman. It's underhanded. Vicious.

    “Oh,” says Alex, grabbing his cane and climbing stiffly to his feet. “Chief Wicke. Hi.”

    His noivern uncurls from in front of the hearth and glares suspiciously at the visitors, planting his claws and unfolding his wings a little to look bigger. Con does his best not to be intimidated. As far as he knows, Lothian is harmless, but Con's never been good with dragons. Or bats.

    “H-hi,” he says, focusing on Alex. “Uh … how are you?”

    “Okay.” He smiles nervously. It is beautiful in a way that makes Con feel dirty to have witnessed. “How are you?”

    “All right.” Obvious lie. Both of them pretend it isn't.

    “Good.” Alex fidgets a little with his thumb. “And, uh, and you, Mr Brennan?”

    “Oh, me?” asks Simeon, startled. “Uh, fine, fine.”

    A long pause. Con tries unsuccessfully to stop staring; Alex looks anxiously from him to Simeon and back again.

    “Con wanted to ask for your help with something,” says León, after a while. “Right, Con?”

    “Right,” he says, glad of the prompt. “That's right, Al― Jodi, I wanted to ask if we could borrow your psychic powers for something.”

    “Yeah?” asks Alex. “Is this to do with Tacoma?”

    “It is. You've probably heard that Nikole turned up?” He nods. “Well, we need to know what she saw,” Con continues. “Or heard. Anything at all, you know, it'd be really helpful.”

    “You want me to try reading her mind?”

    “If you could.”

    Alex shrugs.

    “I can try. It's … well, normally I can only read feelings, not thoughts, but I have some training and some history with Nikki, so I might be able to get something.”

    “So you'll give it a go?” asks Con.

    “Yeah. I mean, it's …” Alex sighs. “It's Tacoma, right? So. I'll try.”

    Just like Con thought. Although he's no longer sure whether or not he wants the help. A large part of him wants to be as far away from Alex as possible. Looking at him, hearing that voice coming from that face, is much more unsettling than he expected.

    Maybe he should just call Ecruteak after all.

    “Are you sure?” asks Michelle, stepping forward and laying a hand on his arm. Con is surprised at the gesture, although he supposes that maybe he shouldn't be. She clearly still loves the kid, despite the crazy. “You know you don't have to …”

    “Mum. It's Tacoma.”

    Michelle hovers at his side for a moment, looking like she might argue, but then she sighs and squeezes his arm.

    “All right, chickadee,” she says. “I guess you got to do what you got to do. But if you can't get nothing, don't force it, okay?”

    “Mum,” protests Alex. “It's fine. Really.”

    “All right, all right. But Con, you don't let her push herself too hard, you hear?”

    “I'll do my best, Michelle,” he promises. “Are you able to come down to the medical centre with us now, Alex?”

    Alex stares at him for a full five seconds before Con realises his mistake.

    “Uh, shoot, sorry,” he says, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks. “I mean, Jodi.”

    Con isn't sure he's ever seen a smile this obviously fake.

    “Sure,” says Alex. “No worries, I get it. It's new and all.” He knocks back the last of his coffee and nudges Lothian out of the way with his foot. “Let me get my stuff and I'll be right back.”

    He leaves the room, Lothian crawling after him and glaring suspiciously at Con as he goes. Michelle drifts over to León and the two of them look at Con and Simeon as if daring them to say anything.

    They do not say anything. Nor do Michelle or León. The four of them stand there in this awkward silence until Alex returns, wearing a woman's coat and carrying a handbag.

    “Okay,” he says. “Lothi and I are ready now.”

    Con smiles. It might just be as fake as Alex's. What are the odds? Two record-breakers in one morning.

    “Great,” he says. “Let's go.”

    The drive to the centre has never been so long. Con makes a token attempt at conversation, but pretty soon the well dries up and the four of them sit there collectively willing the experience to be over. When they finally arrive, Alex gets out of the car as fast as someone with his leg can, and Con isn't far behind.

    “All right,” he says, as Lothian disentangles his wing from the car door. “This way, Jodi.”

    The name tastes like ash in his mouth. It makes him sound like he's giving this bullshit his seal of approval. But there's no other choice, so Con bears it and ushers Alex along to the ward.

    Injured pokémon are cared for in the east wing, although calling it a wing is a little grandiose; the centre isn't a big building in the first place, and given that Mahogany isn't much of a training town, there's not a lot of space devoted to pokémon treatment. They go down one short corridor and through one door, and that's the journey over with: there's the pokémon ward. Six padded steel slabs, one occupied.

    “Nikki,” murmurs Alex, staring. Must've been a while since he last saw her, Con figures. She's definitely a hell of a sight. He always forgets how big kangaskhan are; she barely fits on the table, let alone under her blanket. “She's sleeping?”

    “Sedated,” says Ishihara, emerging from somewhere and nearly giving Con a heart attack. Sometimes people grow to be like their pokémon; in Ishihara's case, that seems to have manifested as an unnervingly silent step and a penchant for sudden appearances. “She didn't like her IV.” She looks at Alex. Ishihara isn't the kind of person who smiles, but something about her eyes suggests to Con that she might be trying to do it right now. “Hello, Jodi.”

    Con watches her closely, but can't tell if she's saying the way he does or the way Michelle does; Ishihara's face has always been a closed book. It bothers him. Ishihara of all people should be sensible enough to know crazy when she sees it. That she might not be is definitely something to worry about.

    “Dr Ishihara,” replies Alex, looking nervous. “Is Nikki gonna be okay?”

    “She's fine. Bad cold that got worse for being outside so long.” Ishihara indicates Nikole's poké ball, on a side table. “The seal on these old models is dreadful. Nikole must have been freezing in there, and then once she broke out …” She shrugs. “Well, her fever is going down now. I may be able to let her go this afternoon, if she continues to improve.”

    Let her go where, exactly? Con isn't sure the Spearings are up to dealing with a kangaskhan at the moment, particularly a kangaskhan who doesn't yet know that her partner is dead. Still, that's a problem for later on. Right now, he needs to get Alex inside her head and then out of his sight as quickly as possible.

    “That's good to know, doc,” he says. “Uh, Jodi, you ready?”

    “Yeah. Sure.” Alex looks around, pulls up a chair. Lothian insinuates himself between him and Simeon, his huge ears swivelling around like radar dishes. Both of them look almost comically tiny next to Nikole's massive bulk.

    “Good.” Con clears his throat. “Remember, what we want to know is where she came from. If we can retrace her steps, we can find Tacoma's luggage. If there's anything about the crime itself, that's good too. But since she was in her ball …”

    Alex nods.

    “Okay, Lothi,” he says. “We're going to try fifty-six, nine, seventeen, in that order. All right?”

    Lothian does not respond in any way that Con can see, but maybe that's to be expected of a psychic's partner. Alex nods, breathes in very deeply, and closes his eyes.

    “Fifty-six,” he says, and as Lothian's nose twitches Con suddenly becomes aware of a vibration in his guts, like the boom of distant guns. He takes a step back, feeling queasy, and sees Simeon do the same.

    Alex leans forward a little, his plucked brows meeting in a scowl.

    “Nine,” he breathes. The word seems to echo in Con's head for a few seconds after he speaks: nine, nine, nine. “And …”

    Nikki?
    Con hears, at the back of his head, and then the moment passes and the vibration seems to move away from him, humming through the floor towards Nikole.

    Time passes. Con looks at Simeon, who looks back. The two of them try looking at Ishihara, but she is apparently immune to awkwardness, and just stands there as if this is something that happens every day. Maybe it is, if you have a ghost-type partner.

    Alex opens his eyes with a gasp and slumps in his chair, forehead shiny with sweat.

    “Oof,” he sighs. “Um. Lothi?”

    He's already there, dipping his head into Alex's bag and coming out with a chocolate bar. It takes Alex two tries to get it open, weak with fatigue, and once he does he just sits there and eats it in silence for a while. No wonder the kid's so skinny, Con thinks. If this is what being psychic does to you, it's kind of incredible it hasn't killed him already.

    “Okay,” says Alex, wiping his forehead and sitting up straight. “Okay, she came from the north, I think. There's a bend in the river where this huge tree has fallen down – I think that's where she broke out of her ball. Nearby to … something. A cabin, maybe? With a car parked outside.” Alex frowns, like there's something wrong with that. “A blue Crowne.”

    “Licence plate?” asks Con.

    Alex shakes his head.

    “Nikki can't read. She doesn't remember.”

    “There are a few of those cabins out there,” remarks Simeon. “Something to go on. We could ask around there and see if anyone's seen anything, Chief.”

    “Good call. What else, A― Jodi?”

    “Something she heard. While she was in the ball, I think?”

    Con starts.

    “Something she heard,” he repeats. “What? She recognise any voices?”

    “No. I don't think so. But she heard … okay, it's garbled and I'm not sure I'm reading it right, but I think she heard someone say 'take her to the chapter house'?”

    “The chapter house?” asks Con. “You're sure that's what she heard?”

    “Pretty sure, yeah.” Alex looks up at him, a question in his eyes. “What's a chapter house?”

    Con twists his lip between his fingers, thinking. Damn. He was sort of hoping that his hunch would turn out to be wrong. But no. Alex has found exactly what Con was afraid he would.

    “I don't know,” he says, after a moment or two. “But I'm going to have to find out.”

    Alex gives him the kind of look a psychic gives someone when they try to lie to him.

    “Okay,” he says. “I'm glad I could help.”

    He sounds like he means it, but Con can feel his disbelief. It gets under his skin in a way that makes him uneasy. Nobody likes being mocked by a woman. Con likes being mocked by this grotesquely pretty boy even less.

    “Sure,” he says, as brightly as he can. “You've been a big help, thanks.”

    Christ. First Tacoma, then 'Jodi', now the chapter house.

    That bad week Con's been having looks like it's going to get a whole lot worse yet.
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2018
  16. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    FIVE: IN THE SHADOWS
    TACOMA

    Something bad has happened. Actually, it's been happening for a while now; Tacoma's range of vision is limited when the rock is in Jodi's bag, but she can sense it in the air. Maybe it's because Jodi has been sending her so many psychic messages, maybe it's just because she's a ghost now and has picked up a few spooky powers; either way, she's starting to find that she can feel Jodi when she's nearby, on the periphery of her mind. And, well. Jodi has been on the verge of crying for about forty minutes now.

    Tacoma can't figure it out. She's heard everything, except for what happened when Jodi was doing her psychic thing on Nikole and the feedback drowned everything out, and while Con's cheer seems strained he and Simeon and Ishihara all sound like they're being polite. It's hard to know what to do, although she supposes it doesn't matter. There's nothing she can do, at least until Jodi is alone. She listens to her make her excuses, refusing Con's offer of a ride home by telling him she has a few errands to run in town, and then, after a few minutes of silence, to her speaking in a low voice:

    “No, I'm not okay. Couldn't you feel it, Lothi? How he … you know.”

    She doesn't hear Lothian's answer; probably Jodi is the only one who can. Still, it sounds like she's by herself now.

    “Jodi?” she asks. Her voice sounds weird in her ears. She hasn't spoken in a while – since last night, actually, when she came out of the rock for a moment to tell Jodi she was okay and not to worry. And that was the first time she'd spoken since the whole thing with Nick's pen. Most of the rest of the time she's just spent lying here on top of her sarcophagus, staring at the ceiling and thinking without emotion about a stranger's hands around her throat. This is not all right, but it's just so hard to fight it that Tacoma can't bring herself to be concerned. It's nothing new, anyway. She has passed more than a few days this way at uni, unable to muster the energy to leave her bed.

    You startled me, says Jodi. Her surprise bleeds through with the words.

    “Sorry.” Brief pause. “I have my eye to the crack,” says Tacoma. It's not an accurate way of describing it, but it's all she's got; what's really happening is that a rough-edged image of the outside world is hovering right in front of her left eye, like she's sitting too close to a TV. At the moment, all she can see is darkness, but she can hear everything. “You can talk normally. I've … been listening in for a while.” Come on. Say it. Say it, you asshole. “Are you okay?”

    Jodi hesitates for far too long before she answers.

    “Yeah. Just tired. It was hard, getting into Nikki's mind. But I did find―”

    “You literally just told Lothian you're not okay,” says Tacoma. She hears a sigh, and then a moment later her view clears and brightens as Jodi removes the rock from her bag. She's leaning against a brick wall by some icebound garbage cans, cane in the crook of her arm and a cigarette in her other hand. Tacoma can't see where they are, but it doesn't occur to her to look; her eye is irresistibly drawn to Jodi, pale and glamorous in the dull winter light. Even now, it keeps catching Tacoma by surprise, the way her face is transformed just by looking at it and thinking girl instead of boy. That nose, those lips and cheekbones – they are different now, and always will be. Tacoma has heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but she never knew that apparently everything else is, too.

    Is she staring? She almost certainly is. And Jodi looks upset: probably best to focus on that for now.

    “Sorry,” says Jodi. “I just … Con really hates me.”

    Tacoma would like to say something reassuring, but nothing seems real when the rock comes between them like this. Jodi needs to be able to see her.

    “Can I come out?” she asks.

    “Sure.” Jodi takes a quick drag on her cigarette. “I'm in the alley behind the bank.”

    Tacoma knows where she means: turn right as you leave the medical centre, left at the corner, past the bank, down the side. There's a gate but it's not locked, and in the whole twenty years that Tacoma has lived in Mahogany, nobody from the bank has ever noticed or cared.

    “Okay,” she says, and pushes into the image before her, springing out the other side of the crack with a whoosh of displaced air. Now she can see properly; there's the entrance to the alley, there's Lothian huddled against Jodi's leg. Incidental details, really. The important thing here is Jodi. “I'm sorry,” she tells her. “He's an asshole.”

    “No, I don't think he is,” replies Jodi. “He's trying to do his job and all, he just … I got close to him and felt his mind and he―” She breaks off, looking like she might throw up. “He hates this,” she says, swallowing hard. “He'd – I don't know, but he really can't take … what I am.”

    “Which is called being an asshole.” Tacoma raises her eyebrows. “He can't deal with you, that's on him, not you.”

    “Yeah?”

    “Yeah. Obviously. C'mon, Jodi, you – why would it be you?”

    “I dunno.” Jodi blinks. “Sorry,” she says, looking away. “I, uh, well. Empathy. He hates, I hate. And like …” She swallows again. “There's this sickness, I― I mean, I thought I looked good this morning when I did my nails and now I look at them and it's just like I've mutilated myself.”

    Her breaths are shallow and irregular. Rarely has Tacoma wanted to hurt someone as much as she wants to hurt Con Wicke right now. It's a good feeling, in that it is a feeling, and that alone makes it ten times better than the awful emotional void that comes with lying on her back and staring at the ceiling.

    “Sorry,” she says, not wanting to say how angry she is, knowing that Jodi probably knows anyway. “It must be hard.”

    Jodi sighs and raises her cigarette to her lips.

    “Yeah, well, I'm not looking for pity,” she mutters. “I knew it wasn't all gonna be easy. And anyway, it's not like it's the first time.”

    “No?” Hell. Tacoma hadn't really thought about that. Too preoccupied with her own problems to realise that every single social interaction is its own special problem for Jodi. Christ. Friend of the bloody year.

    “No,” says Jodi. “It's okay. Lothian looks out for me. Right, Lothi?”

    He looks up, nose palpating, and Tacoma sees Jodi smile slightly as some message passes from his mind to hers.

    “He says yes,” she explains, scratching behind his ears. “Honestly, I'm not entirely sure he knows the difference between men and women anyway.”

    Tacoma tries to smile, because that is the response that is expected of her, but it's hard for her to put her heart in it.

    “I'm glad,” she says. “I'm glad.”

    There is no immediate answer. Jodi taps the ash off the end of her cigarette and watches it spiral down into the snow.

    “Guess you want to know about what I found out from Nikki, huh,” she says, after a little while.

    “Heard some of it,” replies Tacoma. “But when you did your psychic thing, it all kinda went to static.”

    Another long pause. Tacoma wonders if she should say it, and then decides yes, she definitely should.

    “You know, you're fucking gorgeous,” she says, a little more aggressively than she intended. “No matter what Con thinks.”

    Jodi almost inhales her cigarette. After several seconds of coughing, and a lot of concerned looks from Lothian, she grinds it out on the wall and manages a response.

    “Oh,” she says weakly, cheeks as red as her fingernails. “Um … thank you.”

    “Well, you are,” replies Tacoma, as embarrassed to have said it as Jodi is to have heard it. “So. You know.”

    Jodi smiles shyly, unable to find any more words. It's kind of cute, but Tacoma is literally incapable of speaking right now, let alone pointing this out. They fall back into the silence, broken only by the distant grumble of someone's car and Lothian's scratching as he pokes around the alley, and then at last Tacoma gathers up the energy to push free of it. Okay. Move on to something less awkward.

    “All right,” she says. “So what about Nikki? Dr Ishihara said she was okay, right?”

    “Yeah. She said she could go home this afternoon.”

    Tacoma should be pleased, but it's hard to be. Nikole is one of those kangaskhan who remain childless, either through choice or some quirk of biology not yet identified by science, and she is as attached to Tacoma as she would be to her joey, if she had one. She is much less interested in Tacoma's family, and they, for their part, have never really been that good with her. Right now, they're almost certainly not going to be up to the challenge of looking after a kangaskhan who can't find her trainer.

    “Hope my parents can deal with that,” she says, shoving hard on her worry and not managing to shift it. “What about her memories? You said something to Con about where my stuff was?”

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “Out in the woods, by a bend in the river. I think she got worried and broke out of her ball there, and then I guess she was all feverish, so she didn't drink and just wandered around till she found her way back to town.”

    Tacoma hears herself make a little involuntary noise of pain, which Jodi very kindly pretends not to have heard.

    “I think it was near a cabin,” she says. “Which I guess means north of town, near the Lake of Rage. There are a few up there, I think. Guess the police will probably be checking them out today.”

    “Right. I guess we can't really do that,” says Tacoma. “I mean – actually, I dunno why I'm assuming you can't drive. Can you?”

    Jodi laughs nervously.

    “Technically, yes,” she says. “But I don't. It's kind of difficult with this leg.” Fantastic. Tacoma Spearing, queen of unwarranted assumptions. “But … well, I didn't say to Con, but I think we might have to go there anyway.”

    “What? Why's that?”

    “There's a blue car parked outside,” replies Jodi. “A blue Crowne.”

    “Oh. Uh … shit.”

    “Yeah.” Jodi chews her lip, leaving a little red line across her incisors. “I feel like we need to talk to Sam. A bunch of people, even. Someone else must have seen it, right?”

    “Right.” Tacoma thinks for a moment. “Gabriella invited you over, yeah?”

    “She did. I'll see if I can talk to Sam then.”

    “Good. I, uh, didn't know you were friends.”

    It's strange to think of Jodi having friends Tacoma doesn't. But of course she's had her own life, her own social circles to navigate. Not like Tacoma has a monopoly on her. Even if some pathetic part of her would like one.

    “She likes the same music as me,” says Jodi, looking a little uncomfortable. “And maybe if I go to church tomorrow, I can ask people about it?” she adds, changing the subject. “I'll try to be subtle.”

    “Yeah. You do that, I'll … I dunno, try to think of a way we can get out to that cabin.” It sounds so inadequate, even as she says it. What's she going to do? Volunteer to drive Jodi over there? Sure, Tacoma, if that's what you want to think.

    “Cool.” Jodi nods, as if this is even remotely plausible. “There was one other thing I found.”

    “Which was?”

    “When Nikki was in her ball, the night that, um, that it happened, she heard something. Can't tell who was speaking, but I think they said 'take her to the chapter house'.”

    “The chapter house,” repeats Tacoma. “Where's that? What is that, even?”

    “Dunno,” admits Jodi. “Never heard of it before.”

    They look at each other for a moment.

    “Library?” asks Tacoma.

    “Library,” says Jodi. “No time like the present.”

    Tacoma nods.

    “See you on the other side,” she says, and withdraws to brood, feeling the cold stone of her sarcophagus against her back again. One day she'll get through a conversation with Jodi without insulting her, she promises. She better, anyway. This is no way to treat a friend.

    She picks at her lips, tearing off tabs of skin and relishing the sharp sting of air on raw flesh. But her window to the outside world is still open, and a minute later, after Jodi has put the rock back in her bag, Tacoma hears her murmuring incredulously to herself:

    “I'm fucking gorgeous.”

    Tacoma pauses, startled into smiling. At least she got that one right, she thinks, and takes her bloody fingernails away from her mouth again.



    A chapter house, it seems, is a building or room attached to a church where meetings are held. Learning this doesn't really help things make any more sense. There is a church in town, but it's pretty small, and both Jodi and Tacoma went there every week with their families right up until they got old enough to say no; they know the place well, and unless there's a secret chamber buried underneath it, there just isn't space for a meeting room there.

    But the fact that Nikole heard it mentioned is suggestive. As is the fact that Con pretended he hadn't heard of it. Some people in town are meeting up in secret, people who may or may not be connected to Tacoma's murder, and the cops know but don't want to talk about it. That means something. Tacoma isn't sure what, and neither is Jodi, but it definitely means something.

    “A secret society,” says Tacoma, looking out through the crack at a sliver of Jodi's face. “I didn't think this town was big enough to have one of those.”

    “A secret society whose members will kill for ghost rocks,” murmurs Jodi, closing the encyclopedia. “Where do you think their chapter house is?”

    “Dunno. That cabin, maybe? My stuff's out there.”

    “Why would they dump it that close to their hideout?”

    They're not sure, and it's not something they can look up. Right now they don't have the time for research, anyway. Jodi's been out for over an hour and a half at this point, and given the atmosphere when she left with Con, her family are probably going to be worried about her. It's time to go back and reassure them.

    On the way back, she and Tacoma toss ideas at one another while Lothian flies on ahead. Where could people meet up without it being obvious? Town hall? Bar? General store? Remember, this place has to be somewhere you could hide a body. That's what the killer was thinking of doing, even if in the end they just dumped Tacoma in the river instead.

    “Maybe we should just ask people,” says Jodi. “Kind of like 'by the way, I heard something about a chapter house the other day, do you know what that is?' And then I'll know if they recognise the word or not. Then we could … I dunno, tail 'em or whatever, see where they go.”

    “Dunno.” Tacoma paces back and forth along the tiled floor, the inside of Jodi's bag bobbing gently before her eye. “Think we should probably stick with the other lead for now.”

    “I could check the church tomorrow, I guess,” suggests Jodi. “Just in case.”

    “How, exactly?” snaps Tacoma, frustrated. “You can't tell me you're gonna sneak out in the middle of the service.”

    “I … don't know,” admits Jodi. “Sorry. I'm just trying to come up with ideas.”

    Tacoma forces herself to stand still, to release her grip on her sarcophagus and calm down. Don't be a dick, she tells herself. It's not hard, Tacoma.

    “Right,” she says. “Let's just – let's just leave that for now.”

    “Sure,” says Jodi. “There are other things, anyway.”

    “Like?”

    “Like, um … well, I was thinking, if the rock sucked you out of your body, then―”

    “No.”

    Of course. Of course Jodi hopes she can fix this. She's the kind of person who has hope, and Tacoma isn't sure she's ever been this jealous in her life.

    “You don't know that,” begins Jodi, but Tacoma interrupts.

    “Yeah, I think I do. And you do too, Jodi,” she adds, unable to resist the impulse to twist the knife. “This was a one-way trip.”

    She says it with a kind of savage exultation that she does not like at all. Jodi doesn't like it either; Tacoma can't see her face from in here, but she can feel her pain, filtering through the link to stab Tacoma in the heart.

    God damn it. Didn't she just say not to be a dick?

    “Sorry,” she says. “I didn't mean to … I shouldn't be mad at you.”

    “It's okay,” says Jodi. “I understand.”

    What else is new? Tacoma hates this. She's aware that she shouldn't, that this is an unhelpful reaction to her friend's compassion, but she hates it anyway. Nobody likes to be reminded of how unoriginal their inner turmoil is. Everyone thinks their pain is special; everyone wants to avoid the truth that it's just another damn cliché.

    “Yeah,” she mutters, before she can stop herself. “Sometimes I wish you wouldn't.”

    The sound of Jodi's footsteps stops. Somewhere in the distance, Tacoma hears the soft thump of Lothian landing.

    “Tacoma,” she begins, except she doesn't seem to know how to finish it. “Tacoma,” she tries again. “I … you know I'm still your friend, right?”

    Tacoma listens. She knows she needs to answer, but her voice is stuck somewhere at the bottom of her lungs. Jodi is her friend. This is true. It's just that Tacoma doesn't know if she really should be, any more.

    “I'm not just trying to help you solve the mystery,” Jodi continues. “I'm … I can talk to you too. If that's, um, if that's something you're still interested in.”

    Christ. Tacoma had almost forgotten about this. The boy – girl – whatever, the child in her memory is sweet and shy and not quite openly sarcastic; Tacoma remembers the school trip to the old temple, breakfast in the Ecruteak Pokémon Centre, the campsite on Route 38, and what stands out in her mind is mostly Jodi laughing at Tacoma's jokes and losing a bunch of battles with her vulpix, Helen. But that's not all, is it? She was always just … nice. Like she is now.

    “You don't have to,” Jodi adds hurriedly, and Tacoma realises she hasn't yet responded. “I mean, it's just a suggestion, if you're – you know, if you want to talk, then that's cool, and if not then that's – well, that's cool too―”

    “Okay,” interrupts Tacoma, voice harsh. “Okay, I get it, you don't have to―”

    Stop. She's angry at herself, not Jodi, but she isn't sure if Jodi can tell the difference and she doesn't want to give the wrong impression. She takes a minute, clenches her fists so hard it hurts, and breathes out.

    Take the opportunity. Jodi wants to help? Honestly, Tacoma needs it. She might not like it, but she does. And more than that … well, whether or not she deserves it after everything she's done, she kind of wants her friend back.

    “Sorry,” she says, making an effort to sound calm, though of course Jodi probably knows she isn't. “Thanks, Al― shit. Thanks, Jodi. I … I think I might like that.” Is that enough? It'll have to be. She can't take much more of this feelings talk right now. “Gimme a minute?”

    “As long as you like,” says Jodi, maddeningly kind, and Tacoma breaks the connection: a sharp movement of her head and the image in front of her left eye fades.

    She stands there for what feels like an age, kneading her forehead with her knuckle. Could've handled that better. But at least she said yes. And it might work out, right? If they talk, if they're really going to do this, then maybe Tacoma can finally start making up for the past. Not even for abandoning her, really, but for what she did that meant Tacoma had to abandon her in the first place.

    Because she did do something. Tacoma made a bad decision that day seven years ago, and she saw the results unfold with the slow and terrible majesty of a mushroom cloud above a burning city. And then she knew that there was nothing she could ever do to make it right. But it was okay, because nobody knew except her, and that meant that nobody ever had to know, as long as she just kept running.

    Except that now, of course, there's nowhere left to run except up and down the stairs of her prison tower. And, if that's the way things are, if she and Jodi are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future, then that's got to be a sign. This is Tacoma's chance to make things right.

    Her lips sting, and she realises she's picking at them again. She licks the blood away and grimaces.

    “Today's the day you turn it all around,” she says, unconvinced, and goes back to her sarcophagus to stare at the ceiling and wait for something to happen.



    In the purple twilight of her prison, certain questions are impossible for Tacoma to avoid. They are very short and very simple, and she can't find answers to either of them.

    Who? And why?

    Her mind makes movie reels, her body superimposed onto horror movie victims. She sees her back recede in grainy black and white; sees a shadow creeping up behind her, merging with the darkness underneath the trees. In the next shot there are hands around a neck too thin to be hers, thumbs digging into her throat, and the whole thing falls apart into the childish dream it is.

    Dumb, she tells herself, jabbing her finger painfully into the half-healed cut on her arm. Try again.

    Okay. Harry, following her from the station? He seems pretty strong, or at least, he carries all that luggage around like it's nothing. He knew where she was, too. Or Nick. He― no. Not Nick. He wasn't even here, right? Right?

    Her teeth hurt. She unclenches her jaw and forces herself to breathe out. It's not him. Can't be. He was in Alola. And her parents probably told a bunch of people when she was coming home. Everyone knows everything here, that's just the way it is. Anyone with strong hands and bad intentions could have found her that night.

    But then there's the why of it, and this is where Tacoma feels her thoughts beginning to unravel, warp and weft spilling in untidy tangles across the surface of her mind. There are plenty of reasons why she should be dead – hell, plenty of reasons why she should be dead and trapped like this. If you think about it, she's almost getting off easy, after what she did.

    Thing is, nobody knows. Tacoma has made damn sure of that. Nobody knows. Nick and Harry sure don't. So why? What about this rock is so bad that she couldn't even be allowed to live after having touched it?

    She starts to say the question aloud, as if hearing it might help her hear an answer, but then she remembers that Jodi might be listening and stops halfway through the second word. In the silence, the questions ring louder than ever: who? Why?

    Tacoma closes her eyes, and listens until it feels like they will deafen her.



    Back at the Ortegas' house, it seems that Jodi's parents have been waiting. Her mother comes out of the kitchen to meet her as soon as she walks in the door, asking questions before saying wait, no, come inside and tell your dad, too. Tacoma has opened the connection again, because the alternative is staring at the ceiling for a while and if she's trying to be a better person she should be trying to avoid that, and she listens in from inside Jodi's bag, feeling like a spy on the end of a wiretap.

    As they enter the room, she hears the rustling of newspaper, and is hit with a memory so vivid it almost hurts: León with his feet up, reading aloud from the paper and pausing occasionally to let his chatot repeat back any words that catch his fancy. Except no, not any more, right? Javier died years ago now. Old age, she thinks. That or pneumonia. Johto winters must have been a hell of a shock for a Managua chatot.

    “Would you look at that,” León says, over the shuffling of feet and the scratching of Lothian's claws. “Our bid for the new Gym might just go through. Apparently it's down to here and New Bark.”

    Cherrygrove Gym was bombed to dust by the Americans during the war, after the occupying forces used it to store arms; the Indigo League has been pondering where to put the replacement ever since they finally extracted the money to build it from the Kantan government. Like everyone else in town, Tacoma's been following the news with interest. Pryce Aske, Mahogany's only resident pro trainer, has been spearheading the town's bid to have it put here, and apparently doing a pretty good job of it.

    “Good to know,” says Jodi. “If we get a Gym, we get a Pokémon Centre. That's a bunch of jobs.”

    “Including one for a counsellor,” León points out. “Something to think about.” A thin rustly noise as the newspaper is folded up and put aside. “So how did it go with Nikole, kiddo?”

    “All right,” replies Jodi, after a moment's hesitation. “Chief Wicke was … polite.”

    “Just polite?”

    “Yeah. Just polite.”

    León sighs.

    “Well, I guess that's fine. He seemed kind of startled.”

    “One way of putting it,” snorts Tacoma, unable to stop herself. Evidently she makes Jodi jump or something, because Michelle asks her if she's okay, and she has to lie and say the cold makes her leg twinge. Good one, Tacoma. Being real helpful there. She shuts up and listens enviously to Jodi's parents being nice to her, and then to Jodi's fumbling response:

    “So yeah, it went okay. Just … I dunno. Seeing Nikki. And you know. Tacoma.”

    God, she really is a terrible liar. It seems to fool her parents, though; there's an uneasy pause, and then in response to some unseen gesture Jodi asks:

    “What?”

    “The, uh, the funeral's on Wednesday,” says León, and Tacoma starts hard enough to bang her head on her sarcophagus. Right. That. Because she's dead.

    Every time she thinks it, it gets a little less scary and a little more numbing. Dead. Who cares? Everyone who ever knew her, she answers, and the old guilt stirs inside her like a hornet's nest in her gut. Who and why. They'll be asking that too, same as her.

    “I thought you should know,” adds León.

    “Thank you,” says Jodi. “I … Yeah. Thanks.”

    A soft sound. Tacoma imagines Michelle leaning over, squeezing Jodi's shoulder, and suddenly misses her mother so much it almost hurts.

    “If you need anything, Jodi …” Yes, that's Michelle's voice. The one time she didn't want to be right.

    “There is one thing,” says Jodi, in a tone of voice that suggests she wants to change the subject. “Unrelated. And nothing heavy, it's just – in my book, there's a word I don't know.”

    “Oh,” says Michelle. “That'll be your department, León.”

    “I'll do my best,” he says. “What is it?”

    “It mentions something called a 'chapter house',” Jodi replies. “Can't figure out what that is.”

    Tacoma feels Jodi's mind unfolding, attuning itself to something she cannot see. Gauging whether or not her parents are lying, she suspects. She holds her breath, waiting for the answer: if they aren't truthful about this, if they know, then that's kind of a problem. Even in the best case scenario, they'd be involved in something bad. The worst … well, the worst case doesn't even bear thinking about.

    “Never heard of that,” says León, and Jodi's relief washes through the connection like a wave across a beach, smoothing her ruffled mind back into the usual calm. Okay. Telling the truth, then.

    Thank God. Tacoma doesn't know what they would have done if he'd been lying. She listens a moment longer, to León asking for the context and Jodi claiming to have lost the page, and cuts the connection with a sigh.

    She's too tired to listen to people who love each other. And if there aren't any more clues to be gathered here, she's just going to stay put till Jodi comes looking for her.

    Not exactly the healthiest way to deal with this, but it definitely is a way. Given how her life is going recently, Tacoma will take what she can get.



    In the end, she doesn't have to wait long. A few minutes later, she gets a message from Jodi.

    We're alone. If you wanted to have that talk.

    Tacoma waits for a long moment, so long that Jodi probably thinks she's ignoring her, and then when she can't put it off any longer she drags herself up and out through the crack to materialise on Jodi's desk. Bright sun, cold air. Lothian curled up unobtrusively by the door, unwilling to leave his partner but trying to stay out of this.

    “Okay,” she says. It comes out sullen and mean; Jodi wilts, and Tacoma grits her teeth and tries again: “Sorry. I do want to. I … I know I'm not doing great at being your friend.”

    Jodi looks sympathetic. The emotion rises around her like a gentle glow emanating from deep within the earth, and the hornets buzzing in Tacoma's gut calm a little as it comes.

    “You died,” she tells her. “I think you're allowed to be upset.”

    “Thanks. Almost managed to forget for a second there.”

    Jodi winces.

    “Okay, sorry, I didn't phrase that very well.”

    They look at each other for a moment. Tacoma blinks first.

    “I'm sorry,” she says. “You don't deserve this. You're being nice, and I'm being a dick.”

    She isn't expecting Jodi to agree, and is pleasantly surprised when she almost does.

    “I mean you could be slightly more friendly,” she says, tentatively. “I guess. Like … I'm trying, Tacoma. I'm sorry I'm not getting any answers yet. It's only been a couple days.”

    “It's not that.” Tacoma looks away. The hornets are back, and this time they aren't just buzzing but stinging. “I'm really grateful for everything you're doing. I'm just – I dunno, you probably know already, but I wasn't, uh, wasn't doing that good even before I got killed.”

    There. She said it. Hard to believe, but she finally actually said it.

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “I noticed.”

    She's waiting, like she thinks Tacoma is going to say something else, but Tacoma has said all she can. Like – she said it. It's taken her literal years, but she said it. Tacoma wouldn't be surprised if after that she never managed to say anything else ever again.

    “It's been really nice to see you again,” says Jodi, after a little while. “Obviously I'd prefer it if it were different circumstances, but I did miss you.”

    Tacoma smiles. She has a feeling it probably doesn't look like she's all that happy.

    “I missed you too,” she says. “I'm sorry I abandoned you.”

    “You didn't abandon me,” says Jodi. “You just moved on.”

    “What?” Is she seriously still trying to let Tacoma off the hook? “How is that any different?”

    “You know,” says Jodi, shrugging awkwardly. “We were busy. We grew up. I had ESP classes, you had tuition. We moved on.”

    Tacoma frowns.

    “But you said you missed me,” she says. “And you did, I know you did. Saw the way you looked at me when you found me the other night.” She sees it again now, doubled in Jodi's eyes. That pain. “Hurt you to see me like this.”

    Jodi's uncertainty surrounds her head like cigarette smoke. She unwraps a chocolate bar and takes a bite, giving herself time to think of something to say, and then, still thinking, takes another. The clock ticks; Lothian glances up, and then when he sees Tacoma looking back quickly lowers his head again.

    Jodi swallows, and leans forward on her elbows.

    “Tacoma, I don't know you any more,” says. “But you were my best friend. And I know everything is weird and we have to solve your own murder, but I kinda wouldn't mind if we gave that another go.”

    Tacoma's eyes prickle. Can she even cry, when her eyes are made of fog and green light? She doesn't really want to find out. Not in front of Jodi.

    “Yeah?” she asks, through the lump in the throat she doesn't have.

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “But you actually have to talk to me instead of just hiding in that rock all the time. This is … it's weird and horrible, I know, but we're not gonna make it any less weird or horrible unless we talk.”

    “I just figured you'd want to spend some time with your family,” mutters Tacoma. “You didn't ask for me to take over your life like this, so. You know.”

    “Oh, you complete dork,” says Jodi, exasperated. “Are you listening to yourself? 'Aw, gee, I don't know if that girl who keeps saying she really misses me wants to spend time with me, better just hide away and not ask her!'”

    Tacoma coughs.

    “Uh, okay, so when you put it like that it makes it sound way dumber than it did in my head,” she says, and Jodi smiles at her.

    “Sure it does. That's what I went to school for.”

    “To show me that my ideas are terrible?”

    “To help people understand themselves better.”

    “Not sure I see the difference.”

    “Doesn't matter,” says Jodi. “You're smiling.”

    Tacoma freezes for a moment, unprepared for this new line of attack, and then she realises that Jodi's right and, almost against her will, laughs.

    “Okay,” she says. “Jeez. You win, Jodi.”

    Jodi's happiness is effervescent, bubbling up all around her like the fizz in a glass of champagne. It's contagious; Lothian perks up and scampers over to put his head in her lap, and Tacoma finds that the echoes of her laughter won't leave her alone.

    “Great!” says Jodi, eyes bright. “Just – great.”

    Tacoma does her best to give her a hard look, but she still can't stop smiling.

    “Is this just because you made me laugh?” she asks, and when Jodi nods she laughs again. “Jesus,” she says. “And you call me a dork.”

    “I can't explain it,” says Jodi, but she doesn't have to. She wants Tacoma back, and Tacoma wants her back as well: that's all there is to it, all there needs to be. Somehow, despite everything, it looks like she's going to get that second chance after all.

    “You're gonna have to take point on this,” she says. “I don't have arms.”

    “Take point on what?”

    “The hug, dimwit.” Tacoma raises her eyebrows like she would have done when she was twelve, playing at being the girl she was before she ruined everything. “Or are you just gonna sit there grinning at me all day?”

    Jodi does just sit there grinning, as it happens, but she does it with that sarcastic gleam in her eye that lets Tacoma know she's being mocked.

    “You've got meaner,” Tacoma tells her, making a face.

    “So have you,” says Jodi. “C'mere.”

    She leans in and hugs her tight, arms sinking slightly into her mist. Tacoma rests her head against her shoulder, and turns her face away. It looks like she can cry after all. But she thinks she's going to keep that one to herself.



    Jodi is … well, she's very good at this. Now that Tacoma's let her in, she refuses to leave again. She can't spend the whole day up in her room, but she puts Tacoma's rock on the coffee table in the living-room, and spends the rest of the afternoon poking her mind into it, commenting on anything and everything that crosses her mind. It's annoying, but it means Tacoma can't wallow in her unanswerable questions or lie there staring at the ceiling, and for that she supposes she ought to be grateful.

    I dunno if you saw Ella's picture over my bed? asks Jodi, when Ella comes down after a morning spent painting up in her room. She's got really good.

    “She has,” agrees Tacoma, watching Ella flop onto the sofa next to Jodi with a bag of nuts. “Also I think she just changed the channel.”

    “Hey,” protests Jodi, but Ella waves it aside.

    “You snooze, you lose,” she says, popping a cashew in her mouth. “Budge. The Bug Show is on.”

    “Well, I know better than to come between you and your bug-types,” says Jodi, and she raises her eyebrows at the rock in a way that makes Tacoma irritatingly aware that she knows she's just made Tacoma smile.

    Or later, when Michelle comes in and asks about the rock, she shrugs and says it's a focusing stone. Something she uses for school.

    “Well, what's it doing on my coffee table?” she asks, and Jodi goes okay, sure, I'll move it, nestles it in the crook of her arm with the crack pointed outward so Tacoma can still see. She watches the Ortegas moving through the room, watches Ella leave to hang out with her friends, Michelle bring Jodi some hot chocolate, León argue with the newscaster.

    It's all so achingly familiar. She sees herself and Everett overlaid on Jodi and Ella, her parents' gentle bickering in the way Michelle and León take pleasure in disagreeing about things on TV. It hurts, even filtered through Jodi's constant commentary (she is still just as keen on bugs as you remember, by the way, half her paintings are of insects; which is your favourite news presenter? I always like this guy's terrible taste in ties) – but Tacoma keeps the connection open all the same. This still exists, she reminds herself. There is something outside dark stone rooms and empty corners of the library. People are still alive and doing all their normal people things.

    She's startled by how much she needed to be told that. Late that night, long after Jodi has curled up at one end of her bed and Lothian at the other, Tacoma dims the lights in the tower and lies down to sleep with a strange feeling hovering somewhere at the bottom of her ribcage. It takes her several long minutes to classify it as contentment, and when she does she finds she is too startled and fearful to hold onto it any more.



    On Sunday she wakes late, the way she would if she were still living, and puts her eye to the crack to find Jodi's room empty. The radio is gone from the desk, and drifting up from downstairs is the sound of both music and Jodi singing along. Tacoma smiles, surprised: she'd forgotten Jodi was musical. But of course she is; she played violin for years, and since then she's spent a lot of time working with Lothian and studying sound. As far as Tacoma knows, she refuses to sing when anyone else is around, but still, she's good at it.

    Probably she's alone in the house, then. Everyone else at church, maybe? Which means that Jodi didn't go, in the end. She wonders why, then realises that if everyone's gone she can probably just ask.

    Maybe it's the singing, but she's feeling reckless. She stretches herself out as far from the rock as she can, and calls out:

    “Hey! Taxi!”

    The singing stops. Tacoma hears footsteps, and then Jodi comes in, looking vaguely put out.

    “C'mon,” she says. “What if someone else had been home?”

    “Is anyone else home?”

    “Well, no. But they might've been.” She leans against the side of the door, twisting nervously at the handle of her cane. “I thought about going to church, but then I realised that if I went, I was gonna walk in the door and absorb everyone's reactions at once. And while I do wanna help you out, Tacoma, I don't want a brain haemorrhage.”

    Right. Tacoma is willing to bet that the only two things anyone is talking about in Mahogany right now are her – and Jodi. And that means that everyone will be waiting to catch a glimpse of her, to satisfy their curiosity and be pleasantly shocked at the freak in the dress, and that in turn means that Jodi will be forced to feel a hundred people's pity and disdain exploding inside her own skull. Bastards.

    But saying so would ruin the moment, so she just raises an eyebrow and fakes a smirk instead.

    “Yeah, that would be counterproductive,” she says.

    “That all?” asks Jodi wryly, but before Tacoma can answer Lothian interrupts, poking his head through the door and butting it insistently against Jodi's good leg. “Oh,” she says. “Sorry. I was halfway through giving him breakfast. Come downstairs?”

    “Sure,” says Tacoma. “Do you think I can drink coffee?”

    “Dunno. Wanna find out?”

    She does, and they do. As it turns out she can't, not even through a straw: the drops swirl around inside her disc and make her momentarily dizzy before they fly out and have to be sponged off the kitchen cupboards by Jodi. They laugh and for a moment Tacoma could swear they're twelve again, wasting a morning in a Pokémon Centre canteen while Nikki and Helen snatch leftovers from the plates.

    “Kind of reminds me of our journey,” says Jodi, clearly thinking the same. “You remember Ecruteak? We got to the Centre and we just … didn't know what to do, so we hung out there for like a whole morning till we figured we should probably go for a hike or something.”

    Tacoma remembers. How could she not? She's replayed her journey in her head, a thousand thousand times over. The tentative beginning. The glorious middle. And the brutal end. There is an epilogue too, the part when she went back out after what everyone calls the accident, but that part is dim and shadowy by comparison. Everything important happened before then.

    “I think it was Helen, wasn't it?” Jodi's eyes have unfocused slightly. She's looking at her coffee cup, but Tacoma doesn't think she's seeing it. “We were sitting around in the lounge, feeling lost, and then she just up and ran out. Followed her, and she was sitting by the front door, looking at me like come on, time to go.”

    Lothian raises his head from his bowl of fruit, eyes wide. Tacoma reaches hesitantly for that weird connection, trying to figure out what she's thinking, but it's not something you can force, and Jodi's mind stays closed.

    She swallows. Looks like she'll have to do this the old-fashioned way.

    “I never said,” she tells her, after a moment. “I'm really sorry about Helen. And Ash.”

    Jodi's face gives nothing away. Tacoma hopes this isn't her being forgiven. When your best friend's partners die, you have to say something, and Tacoma didn't. She was just too scared to say any of the important things, and so she just pretended everything was normal. You'll be back out there before you know it, she said, while the voice in her head screamed her condolences, and child-Jodi smiled weakly through her painkiller daze and said sure, sure.

    This isn't how she ruined things. Tacoma committed her crime much earlier than that – before the accident even happened, let alone the aftermath. But it's still a black mark against her, and she hopes Jodi isn't so eager to please that she'd let her get away with it.

    Jodi shrugs and downs the rest of her coffee.

    “It was a long time ago,” she says, and now Tacoma is sure: she's trying to be relaxed, trying very hard with every ounce of her empath training, but there are some things you just can't control. “I don't really think about them any more.”

    You don't need to be psychic to know that she's not telling the truth. Jodi and Helen were inseparable; Helen even followed her to school once or twice, and Jodi always let herself be charmed into missing her first lesson to take her back home again. Out on the trail, in the tent they shared in defiance of their parents' refusal to let them sleep over at one another's houses, Tacoma saw her sleeping curled around Helen like a cat around her kitten, and was vaguely jealous that she and Nikki couldn't do the same.

    She loved her, she really did. She loved Ash too, even if she only caught him eight months before it all went to hell in the Silverblacks. And then Tacoma told her that she'd be back out there before she knew it, as if there was anything left for her out there at all.

    “Okay,” says Tacoma. “I just thought I should say it, is all.”

    A perfunctory smile.

    “Thanks,” says Jodi, although she doesn't actually sound very grateful. “Look, it's ancient history, okay? And honestly, I feel like there's been enough death round here recently.”

    Tacoma nods. She's probably reacting too fast but she can't seem to help herself.

    “Yeah, I feel you,” she says. “Kinda hard not to. In my position.”

    Jodi says nothing for a while, just leans back from the kitchen table and lets Lothian push his head into her lap. She reaches down automatically to pet him and then takes her hand away sharply, pulling a face.

    “I have told you about doing that,” she says, shoving Lothian away. “Not while you're all sticky with fruit juice.”

    He chirps unapologetically and returns his attention to his bowl, licking his lips. Jodi shakes her head and brushes at her skirt.

    “So,” she says, not looking up. “What's Saffron like?”

    Tacoma starts.

    “What?”

    “You've been to Saffron.” Jodi catches her eye. “What's it like? It looks cool on TV.”

    “Are you serious?”

    “Why not?”

    Tacoma's mouth is already open to answer before she realises she actually doesn't have a response. Why not? It just doesn't feel right, is all. She has some vague idea that what they're supposed to do is make the most of this second chance, to say all the important things that were left unsaid before and to plan out their investigation, but even as she thinks this it starts to sound dumb. The oldest spiritomb is from the Song dynasty, the Pokédex said. She isn't sure how long ago that was, but it has to be a few centuries at least. That means (and try not to think about this too much) that she's going to be here for a while. She has some time.

    And, well. If she's going to make this second attempt to be Jodi's friend stick, she's probably going to have to actually get to know her at some point. It's been five years, after all.

    “Okay,” she says. “Why not.”

    Jodi smiles, and Tacoma feels her face answering without any input from her brain. It is actually kind of unfair how easily beauty comes to her. Tacoma has spent the last three years trying to lose weight and sort her hair out and she still looks like a sack of potatoes shoved into a pair of jeans and a clown wig. She shouldn't be envious – Jodi is thin and delicate because of a mutation that means she has to see Dr Ishihara four times a year to check she isn't dying – but then, Tacoma does a lot of things she shouldn't.

    “So,” says Jodi, taking away Tacoma's coffee and making a start on it herself. “What's Saffron like, then?”

    “Well,” Tacoma replies, “it's not as yellow as it is in the pictures.”

    “What!” Jodi looks scandalised. “But that's its whole thing! It's in the name of your university and everything.”

    “Yeah, well. Have you ever actually seen a yellowstone in real life?”

    “No.”

    “They're kinda hideous,” says Tacoma. “One of my lecture halls is a yellowstone and on a bright day you can't even go near it without sunglasses.”

    “You're ruining my dreams. I always wanted to go there and find my fortune on Golden Row.”

    “Golden Row is the ugliest street in Kanto. It's like you've been eaten by a lemon.”

    “God, you go away to the big city and come back all jaded. How am I, a simple country girl―”

    “Oh, fuck off,” says Tacoma. “You're the one at brain school.”

    “I said how am I, a simple country girl―”

    So it goes. They play at fighting, and then at reconciling. They talk about university, in a careful kind of way that leaves out their social lives and the state of their minds, and Tacoma complains about Keith Allbright in exchange for a story about Jodi's Professor Crapwell. Yes, she says. Seriously, Crapwell. She could not make that up.

    Lothian insinuates his head back into Jodi's lap, still sticky but no longer noticed, and the three of them stay there until the car pulls up outside and Tacoma has to disappear. As she goes, Jodi catches her eye.

    “By the way,” she says, as if it doesn't matter. “You did say it.”

    Tacoma pauses halfway back into the stone, her disc a mass of bubbling fog.

    “Huh?”

    “That you were sorry. You said it.”

    “I what?

    But the front door is opening now, and before Jodi has a chance to tell her about the condolences Tacoma is certain she did not offer she has to vanish back into her tower.
     
    Last edited: May 31, 2018
  17. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    Tacoma doesn't get a chance to ask about it. Michelle asks Jodi to help her with lunch – apparently this is a thing the Ortegas do on Sundays, or possibly just to celebrate the fact that Jodi is home and also no longer Alex – and her rock ends up in the corner of the kitchen counter while Jodi chops onions and shoos Lothian away before he steals them. (Raw onion. What is even with him.) It gets left there while everyone goes into the dining-room to eat, and nobody even looks at it until Jodi comes back out a couple of hours later, looking guilty.

    Sorry, she says, filling a glass with water. Couldn't get away. But Dad says he'll drive me out to Sam and Gabbi's, and I'm gonna call her now to see when she wants me. Pick you up before I go?

    “It's fine,” says Tacoma. “'S your family, so. You know.”

    Still. Jodi shoots her a look. I shouldn't just leave you lying around.

    Tacoma would like to argue, but it's hard to come up with a decent counter. She shrugs, remembers that Jodi can't see her, and sighs loudly instead.

    “I can wait,” she says. “Go on, before they start thinking you forgot how taps work.”

    She cuts the connection to underline the point, and spends a bleak half hour pacing up and down the stairs, trying to work out how it is that Jodi's got it into her head that she ever said anything about Ash and Helen. Tacoma remembers asking her if she was okay, several times, and then falling back on a bunch of trite platitudes. Nothing that mattered; nothing that Jodi could have mistaken for a recognition of her loss.

    She's still mulling it over when Jodi returns with her coat and bag, and then she has to put it out of her mind and get her brain back in gear. There'll be time to dredge up the past later. Right now, there are leads to chase.

    The drive out to the edge of town is quiet. Something seems to have put León on edge; he asks twice if Jodi will be all right, without apparently realising that he's repeating himself, and both times Jodi answers patiently that it's okay, Dad, I met Gabbi on Friday and it's all fine.

    Right, he says, without conviction. Right.

    In the rock, her eye pressed up against the darkness of Jodi's bag, Tacoma listens and runs out of loose skin to pull off her lip.

    The car engine cuts out abruptly, and León clears his throat.

    “Well, uh, here we are,” he says. “I'll be back at four. That okay?”

    “Sure,” replies Jodi. “I'll call you if anything changes.”

    “Right,” he says. “So … you'll be all right?”

    Jodi sighs.

    “Dad. It's fine. Gabbi is my friend. Okay?”

    “Okay, okay.” Pause. “Sorry, kiddo. It's just – this is so new, still. You know?”

    “Yeah,” she says. “I know.”

    “You always do.” Tacoma can't quite tell if he's exasperated or grateful. She supposes there's no reason he couldn't be both.

    Something rustles, and her window wobbles slightly: Jodi's picked up her bag.

    “See you later, then,” she says.

    “Yeah,” replies León. “See you at four, Jodi.”

    The clunk of the car door, the crunch of Jodi's boots, the scratchy noise of Lothian bursting out of the back seat. Jodi's breath sounds slow, so slow it has to be deliberate.

    Tacoma imagines asking her if she's okay, and then imagines her response: yeah, it's just been weird lately, or maybe yeah, I guess, or maybe just I don't know. It's not a substitute for actually asking her, but for some reason she just can't quite make herself do it.

    Knock knock. The door clicks open. Tacoma holds her breath―

    “Heya, kid.” It's a pack-a-day-for-fifteen-years sort of voice: unmistakeably Samantha Spade. Not the most well-liked woman in town, but Tacoma has always admired her. She's just so damn cool. “You, uh, here for Gabs?”

    No immediate hostility. Tacoma breathes out again.

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “She's expecting me, I think?”

    “She is,” agrees Sam. “Guessin' you two are about to fill my house with that shitty krautrock.”

    “Heh. Uh, yeah. Sorry.”

    A big, theatrical sigh.

    “Can't be helped, I guess. Come on in, kid.”

    Footsteps. In the background, Tacoma hears a car starting up, and realises Leon must have just been sitting there, watching. Like the worried dad he is.

    The door closes. Jodi takes off her coat, makes polite but distant conversation: how's uni? Okay. How's the petrol station? Shit; nobody's buyin'. But we're still kickin', so it's all right. They're just about to run out of things to say when Gabriella pops up from somewhere.

    “Jodi! Hi. Come in. I made a cake.”

    “Oh,” says Jodi. “You didn't have to …”

    “Yes, she did,” says Sam. “'Cos I wanted one and I can just pick her up and hold her in the air till she does what I want.”

    “And here was me thinking I was doing it out of the goodness of my heart,” says Gabriella dryly. “Next time let me know when you're threatening me, Miss Spade. I might notice that way.”

    “Oi, behave, Gabs. I pay your wages.”

    “Better pay more if you don't want the lip then, huh?”

    Both their voices are rich with unspoken laughter. Cousins, huh? Sure. When she was a kid, Tacoma always thought that something about that didn't quite make sense; it wasn't till she was seventeen that she figured out why.

    “Whatever,” says Sam. “You two nerds have fun. I'll be in the garage, see if I can fix that leak. You know. Doin' actually useful stuff.”

    “Good for you, Sam. Meanwhile, Jodi and I will engage in some serious appreciation of the arts.”

    A vicious shriek, so loud and piercing it makes Tacoma wince. She once looked up how long wingull lived, out of a kind of desperate attempt to figure out when Mahogany would be free of the mad bastard, and was disheartened to find out that many species of seagull can live for forty or fifty years. Add in a few more from the pokémon vitality, and it looks like the damn bird might be here even longer than Gabriella.

    “Not you, Jack,” says Gabriella. “You are getting shut in the bedroom before you get your beak in Jodi's cake. Or Lothian's ear.”

    That's genuine affection in her voice. Tacoma can't even pretend to understand this. How the posh New Bark girl ended up with a glorified seagull for a partner is completely beyond her.

    “Thanks,” says Jodi. “Um, sorry, Jack.”

    More shrieking, and a nasty snapping sound that Tacoma hopes isn't a beak closing on someone's ear, but Gabriella just talks right over it.

    “Shut up, you,” she says. “I'll be right back, Jodi. Make yourself at home.”

    Tacoma gives her a second to go away, then speaks.

    “I hate that fucking bird.”

    Jodi suppresses a laugh.

    “You can't see,” she replies, under her breath, “but Lothian has literally just stopped trying to hide behind me.”

    “Wow. So much for loyalty between partners.”

    “It's not like that. If Bastard attacks Lothi, he'll run away. If he attacks me, he'll scream him unconscious.”

    Tacoma was joking, but she doesn't have time to explain before she hears clinking plates and footsteps.

    “You like coffee cake, right?” asks Gabriella. “Because that's what I made.”

    Jodi does, as it happens, and so the time finally comes for the music to begin. It is exactly as awful as Jodi promised: it drones, it whines, what few lyrics it has are all in a language Tacoma doesn't speak; there are barely even any real instruments, just a bunch of synthesisers and voice modulators. Worst of all, Jodi and Gabriella can't seem to get enough of it. Tacoma listens to what she always thought were two of the smarter people in town talking appreciative bullshit about literally the worst song she's ever heard, and feels her faith in humanity slip a few notches lower. What the hell is wrong with a guitar and a nice voice?

    But Jodi's happy. She laughs, talks excitedly about bands Tacoma has never heard of and vaguely suspects are just made up; and Gabriella reciprocates in ways that make her happier still and Tacoma viciously, pointlessly jealous; and Lothian chirps and hums like he's into the music too; and Jodi's happy, and despite herself Tacoma can't quite make herself close the connection on it all. She sticks it out, reminding herself that she's the one who broke the friendship in the first place, and finally, finally, the record player falls silent and the music talk gives way to something else.

    “I'm glad to see you laughing,” says Gabriella. “You seemed, um, really out of it the other day.”

    “Oh,” says Jodi. “Yeah, I … I'm sorry. You must think I'm―”

    “No. No, I understand. It can't be easy, especially when you can't get away from it; it's all anyone's talking about. Well, that and … and you.”

    The awkwardness in the air is palpable, even inside the rock. Tacoma finds herself shrinking back from her window out of second-hand embarrassment.

    “Yeah,” says Jodi slowly. “I noticed.”

    “Sorry.”

    “'S all right.”

    “No, it isn't.” Gabriella sighs. “I owe it to you to make an effort. It's just that with this town the way it is―”

    “Gabbi.” The sound of Jodi's cane: she's leaning forwards maybe, half-out her seat. “Gabbi, it's okay, I know it's weird. I knew it was gonna be weird before, too. I just had to do it anyway.”

    “You had to?” The words sound heavy. All of the questions Gabriella is too polite to ask are crammed in beneath their surface.

    Tacoma is appalled. She never even thought to have this conversation with Jodi. Is Gabriella really that much better a friend than she is?

    “Yes.” Jodi pauses, gathering her thoughts, and before she speaks again Gabriella jumps in:
    “You don't have to talk about it―”

    “It's okay. And yes, I had to. Once I figured it out, I couldn't hold it back. Like there was an arcanine straining on a chain and it was barking and biting and clawing and then finally the chain broke and nothing could stop it any more.” Jodi stops herself, self-conscious. “I guess that probably doesn't make any sense.”

    “No,” says Gabriella. “It makes perfect sense.” Long silence. Somewhere in the distance, the door bangs and Tacoma hears the stamping of Sam's heavy boots as she comes back in. “I had something similar, a long time ago.”

    “Yeah?”

    “Yes.”

    Gabriella does not elaborate. Jodi does not ask. It's fine. Tacoma feels like everyone here probably has an idea of what she's talking about anyway.

    “Are you glad you set it free?” asks Gabriella. “The arcanine, I mean?”

    “Yes.” The answer is so immediate and heartfelt it makes Tacoma uneasy. She should have asked Jodi about this herself. “Are you?”

    “Every single day.”

    This is a different silence, deep and comfortable. Tacoma imagines the two of them on those patched old couches that Sam and Gabriella have, settling into the moment, and tries not to grind her teeth.

    She does not try very hard.

    “I guess I'm happy for you,” says Gabriella. “But I'm still sorry about Tacoma.”

    “Yeah,” says Jodi. “Me too.”

    “You know she was one of the first people I met in town? Back when I'd just arrived, when Sam and I were living in one of those rooms Simone used to rent out, before she lost the house.”

    Tacoma remembers. Gabriella was wandering around town, looking lost, and Tacoma was riding her bike and searching for something interesting. And she found it too, in the beautiful stranger with the one-eyed wingull on her shoulder.

    “Nothing happened,” Gabriella goes on. “She just welcomed me to town. It was very cute; she must have been about nine, but you would have thought she was the mayor, the way she spoke. I suppose it isn't a very good story, really. But I always liked her for that.”

    “She told me about that,” says Jodi. “I remember. She said there was a mysterious stranger in town, but it was okay because she'd checked her out and she seemed like a nice person.”

    “She really said that?” Tacoma can hear the smile in her voice.

    “Yeah. She's … she was like that.”

    “Yes.” The smile fades. “I'm sorry, Jodi. We're all going to miss her.”

    “I know.”

    The silence is unbearable. It's almost okay, at this point, to hear people talking about her like she's dead. (Because she is, she is and she has to keep staring at this fact until she finally understands it.) It's something else entirely to hear their pain, to know that she has punched a hole straight through her stupid, wonderful little town and now nobody can do anything but stare at the bleeding wound and try to remember.

    Not her life to throw away, was it? But it's too late for regrets now. She's already gone and bought the fucking farm.

    “I had a question,” says Jodi, after a while. “You're smart, right?”

    “Some people like to think so,” says Gabriella. “What is it?”

    “In this book I'm reading, there's a word I don't know. A chapter house? Dad didn't know, either.”

    “Oh, I know that one, I think. It's a kind of meeting house. There's one in Ecruteak, isn't there? On the old temple, where the Knights of the Luminous Order were based.”

    “A meeting hou―?”

    The door opens.

    “What did you just say?” asks Sam. Her voice makes something tighten in Tacoma's chest: no laughter there now, just suspicion.

    “The Knights of the Luminous Order,” says Gabriella. “Fourteenth century? Come on, even you must have heard of them.”

    A moment. A heartbeat. Jodi's worry drips slowly through the connection and pools around Tacoma's feet.

    “Well, no,” says Sam. “That's why I have you, innit, 'cause you can know things on my behalf.”

    “Glad I mean so much to you, Miss Spade. Are you coming in, or …?”

    “Nah, you can tell me about your knights another time. Later, kids.”

    The door closes again. The tightness in Tacoma's chest does not go away.

    She doesn't pretend to be an expert at reading people – that's Jodi's thing – but if Sam's really interested in knights then Tacoma is the Princess of Johto. That's an excuse if she ever heard one.

    Which means, if she's right, then Sam knows a lot more than just who was driving into town that night. Tacoma wants to know who and why? Well, here's a bloody lead.

    “Sorry, Jodi,” says Gabriella. “I don't know what's got into her. What were you saying?”

    “O-oh,” stammers Jodi. “I, um … you know, I kind of forgot.”

    “Are you okay?”

    “Yes. Yes, I'm … fine. I'm fine,” she repeats, with more conviction. “There's one in Ecruteak, you said?”

    “There is. I think it's free, if you ever felt like visiting. It has a tapestry that's very pretty if you ignore the fact that it's a picture of a white guy decapitating a Hoenner.”

    It goes on. Jodi expresses interest; Gabriella explains. Tacoma keeps listening, but at this point the words are going in one ear and straight out the other. Sam knows something. Sam Spade, of all people. If she had to pick one person in town who she thought would be trustworthy …

    She isn't sure how Jodi's planning on starting that conversation, but now it looks more important than ever that she does.



    In the end, Jodi doesn't have to. As she's getting ready to go, Sam puts her head in again and asks for a word.

    “Sure,” says Jodi. Somehow, she doesn't even sound nervous, though Tacoma can sense through the link that she is. “What's this about?”

    “Come in here and find out.”

    “Very mysterious,” says Gabriella, a hint of disapproval in her voice. “Play nice, Miss Spade.”

    “No promises, Miss Kendrick.”

    Jodi's cane thumps, and then starts clicking. Tiles underfoot. The kitchen, then?

    “So,” says Jodi, as the door closes. “What is it?”

    “Where did you hear about the chapter house?”

    Straight to the point. Her voice is low and serious, but not hostile. Or so Tacoma hopes, anyway.

    “Like I said, I just saw the word in a―”

    “No, you didn't,” says Sam flatly. “Where did you hear about it?”

    No answer.
    “Kid. Seriously. Who's been talkin' to you about the chapter house?”

    “No one,” says Jodi. Her voice is level. Maybe it's that empath self-control at work, maybe she's just tough; either way, Tacoma is definitely impressed. Sam is scary when she's like this. “I'm just trying to help Tacoma, okay?”

    “Yeah, and I know you was close, but she ain't gonna thank you for―”

    “Sam. Please.” Not so level now. There must be a limit to her self-control after all. “Please, I just want to …”

    Silence. Tacoma strains to hear, like that even makes a difference, and all she hears is something dripping elsewhere in the house. It makes her too uneasy to sit still; she gets up, starts picking and pacing, willing someone to speak.

    “I'm sorry, Jodi,” says Sam. Still gruff, but gentler now. “I know you're hurtin'. But you got to leave this alone.”

    “Why?” Jodi sounds almost desperate. “What is so bad you can't even tell me about it?”

    “The … well, the reason I left town,” replies Sam. “You ain't the only one who's ever asked questions, Jodi.”

    Seriously? That's why she left? She was investigating this too? Tacoma had always thought it was just that a woman like Sam doesn't fit into a town like Mahogany. But if she was run out of town – well, that's not an option for Jodi. She has nowhere else to go. Nowhere she even can go.

    Maybe Sam's right. Maybe they should drop this after all.

    “You think I wanted to go?” she continues. “I love this town, kid. That's why I came back. But it's got some real bastards in it all the same.”

    “I know,” says Jodi.

    “No,” says Sam. “You don't.” There's nothing dismissive about it: this is, her voice says, just the way things are. Jodi must know this too, must in fact be able to sense the truth of it in Sam's mind, because for several long seconds she doesn't even respond.

    “But I can't stop,” she tells her eventually, her voice so quiet Tacoma almost doesn't catch it. “I … I really have to help her.”

    Sam sighs. So gravelly it's almost a growl.

    “Yeah,” she says. “That's what I told myself, too.”

    “What you …?”

    “Like I said. You ain't the only one who's ever asked questions.”

    A pause. And then:

    “I'm sorry.”

    “So was I.” Movement of some kind. “I can't stop you,” says Sam. “But I ain't gonna help you, either.”

    “That's … that's fair. I guess.”


    It seems like this is all the words they've got between them. Tacoma hears nothing for a long, long time, and then the low snarl of a motor outside.

    “Guess that's our ride, Lothi,” she says. “C'mon. Time to go.”

    Out in the hall, Gabriella tells Jodi to come back sometime soon, and Sam asks her to think about what she said. Jodi says she will, though which of them she's talking to is unclear, and then at last she and Tacoma are back outside and alone once more.

    “Well,” says Tacoma. “What the hell was all that about?”

    “Dunno,” says Jodi. “But next thing we do, we're gonna have to figure that one out.”

    Tacoma was going to suggest that maybe they should consider stopping after all, but in the face of Jodi's determination she just can't seem to get the words out.

    “Yeah,” she says instead. “I … I guess we do.”
     
    Last edited: May 29, 2018
  18. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Hello! I'm SilverRocket from FFN, I had no idea you wrote here as well! I've been trying to find good fics here as well as wanting to post stuff, and it surprised me to see Ghost Story in this forum. Anyway, I figured I might as well post my thoughts on this chapter here, since I'll be spending some time in this forum.

    There's a lot about this story I love, but my favorite thing might be that you put so much emphasis in the relationship between Tacoma and Jodi. Of course the fic itself is about a mystery and murder as well, but the true core is those two's relationship. That's what drives the plot forward, what gives it meaning and makes us care. Anyone can write a good mystery, but what's it good for if we don't care about the characters attached to it? You're amazing at making us empathize with almost anyone.

    I'll be honest, I had no idea what a chapter house was either, and I'm glad I waited to find out. I wonder why they would choose such a place for wanting to get rid of Tacoma's body; even if it's the meeting place for a cult wouldn't it make sense to choose someplace else? Maybe there is something in that place that needed Tacoma's presence. Or... well, the presence of her corpse I suppose. I also wonder what made them gave up on that and just dump her body in the river.

    I think my favorite scene of this particular chapter is their talk about Saffron and joking thereafter. It was a small thing, but an important first step towards healing their relationship. I also enjoyed Gabbie's part in this chapter and the implication of what her relationship with Sam is. Your fics make me feel so strongly about myself after reading these people... well, surviving, so to speak. I'm sure you understand what I mean.

    Thank you so much for this chapter. I'll patiently await for the next one.
     
  19. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    I think it's mostly down to the way I write -- most things I write these days are really about people trying to be friends when circumstances make their survival difficult, and when you apply that to a small-town murder mystery, this is where you end up. Somewhere like Mahogany had to be really full of history, to give it that proper small-town vibe -- and besides, I'm taking the Twin Peaks approach to a detective story, where you make people think at the start that the question is "who killed the victim?" when the real question you're interested in is "what kind of person is the investigator?" Anyway, I'm really glad you're enjoying this. I'm having a lot of fun writing it; Mahogany is just a big sandbox full of interesting characters for me to inhabit and figure out.

    There is a very specific reason for why the possibility of Tacoma's body being taken there was raised -- and another for why the killer didn't follow through with it. I probably can't comment on it without spoiling you, so I think I'll have to leave it at that for now. But I'm glad I've got you thinking about that, because it's definitely important.

    That's really humbling to hear. Like I said, one of the things I'm really interested in when I write fiction is survival, in exactly the way you say here. Obviously that kind of gives away a little about the direction this fic is taking -- you can pretty much always assume that people in my stories are going to be okay in the end, to one degree or another -- but I think you probably guessed that much anyway. I'm delighted that people like this kind of thing, honestly. I really like writing it, and it's good to know it's not purely self-indulgent nonsense.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I really appreciate it. Next time: Gabriella has some errands to run, but nothing in Mahogany is ever quite as simple as that.
     
  20. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine a lonesome harp guitar

    SIX: CARRION PRIDE
    GABRIELLA

    It's been ten years now. And still, every single morning, Gabriella reaches out before her eyes are open to make sure Sam is still there. She just can't fathom how all this worked out. Even back then, when she was nineteen and naïve as hell, she gave them three months, tops. But here she is, twenty-nine, and there Sam is, thirty-one, and the house is slowly falling apart around them and the beautiful little shithole they live in is bleeding from the throat but here they are. Still.

    Sam reaches back, still sleeping, and pulls her closer into their little cocoon of warmth. Beyond the four corners of the bed, the room is as cold as the frozen trees outside the window. But here, curled into Sam's chest, Gabriella is feeling just fine.

    These are the precious moments, when things are for a few brief seconds comfortable. Soon, she'll get up and unbraid her hair and line her eyes with a stick of kohl worn down to a nub like a baby's finger, and take a cup of vile instant coffee out to the desk in the station to wait for people who want to buy cigarettes or snacks or – rarest of all – petrol, and maybe today somebody will come and maybe they won't but either way she'll come back at the end of the day and they will do this all over again.

    It's not much. But it doesn't have to be. Not so long as they're sharing it.

    Sam opens her eyes and wrinkles her nose.

    “You again,” she says. “Thought I'd chased you off an' all.”

    “Can't get rid of me that easily,” says Gabriella. “Do you want some coffee?”

    “Nah.” She feels Sam's hand brushing through her hair, flicking something away. “Five more minutes.”

    Gabriella lets her head sink onto Sam's shoulder. She can smell her: motor oil, cigarettes, unwashed hair. As familiar as her own face in the mirror.

    “Okay,” she says, curling her arm tighter around Sam's waist. “Five more minutes.”

    Five more minutes then, and then five more, and then Gabriella insists, because Sam promised Fergus Wright his car would be fixed by this afternoon and she knows for a fact that she's barely even started, and then at last it's time to crawl out into the cold and undo her braid. Sam sits up in bed, watching her dress, until Gabriella turns around and throws a tube of mascara at her.

    “Get up, Miss Spade,” she says.

    “I'm gettin' up, Miss Kendrick.”

    “You make it look an awful lot like staying in bed.”

    “I'm takin' my time. When you get to my advanced age―”

    “You're two years older than me.”

    “―then you find it takes longer to get started in the mornin', dunnit.”

    “I'm going to throw my hairbrush next.”

    “Okay, okay, you win.”

    In the kitchen, they drink coffee while Jack screeches for food and Morgan, Sam's clefairy, jingles to herself in the corner. The two used to fight a lot, but while Jack is tough Morgan picked up a few electric-type moves back on Sam's trainer journey, and after some scorched feathers and pecked throats the two have more or less learned that this is a battle nobody wins.

    “Can you do the shoppin' later today?” asks Sam. “Think this might be all the coffee we got.”

    “If you finish that car.”

    “Well. Guess I can see my way to doin' that.”

    She looks so much like herself, with her coffee cup in one hand and her cigarette in the other. Flannel shirt like one of the loggers at the mill. Close-cropped hair and nicotine-yellow teeth. Her parents called her Samantha because they were Bogart fans, but there is a sense in which she actually does look a little like him. That heavy, arrogant face. Those dark eyes.

    “Take a picture,” says Sam, watching her stare. “It'll last longer.”

    Gabriella smiles that particular smile that she knows Sam finds maddeningly beautiful, and grabs her keys from the bowl.

    “See you later, grease monkey. Morgan, make sure she doesn't cut her fingers off or something.”

    Morgan mews in that cute clefairy way, like she's never flattened anyone with a beam of concentrated moonlight, and Gabriella takes her leave, down the hall with the threadbare carpet and out through the patched door into the blinding white of fresh snowfall.

    No, it's not much. But it's hers, and Sam's, and theirs is a life lived only in the space between the lines but still, it's all she's ever really wanted.



    Later that day, after a morning during which nobody comes into the little shop other than Sam, looking for cigarettes and a quick kiss, Gabriella leaves for town. She doesn't take Jack; she loves him, of course, but he can't be trusted in the shops. If she takes her eyes off him for an instant she'll look back to find him beak-deep in either the merchandise or someone's pokémon. So he stays, to perch on the station roof and call Sam out of the garage if a customer comes by, and Gabriella is left to make the long walk to the centre of town alone.

    It's all right. She trudges along the side of the road beside the sparse houses and the huge, silent pines, trying not to slither on the snow, and soon enough the town thickens around her and other pedestrians start to appear: Carrie Savage, polite but disdainful (she is one of the few who really believe she is Sam's cousin, and doesn't see why someone as eligible as Gabriella has gone ten years in town without dating); Janine Williams, more cheerful than she has been in months; even Keisha Simmons, back in town now and walking a bayleef that looks altogether too energetic for a grass-type in December. Gabriella returns smiles and waves, asks after the appropriate people and enquires about Keisha's Gym badges, and carries on her way.

    Yes, it's all right; and mostly she doesn't even think about the fact that another woman walking alone through town didn't live to see her destination the other day. Then she cuts through the park towards the shops, and about five minutes into this leg of the trip her day takes a turn for the unexpected.

    At first she doesn't recognise the young woman coming down the path towards her, but this isn't unusual at this time of year; people wear so many layers that sometimes it's hard to tell who it is that's under it all. Even so, she seems distinctive enough that Gabriella should know her. How many young people in Mahogany walk with a cane? Not many, for sure. Probably only Alex. But he's not―

    A thin, whining squeal, and an ash-coloured noivern thumps down onto the path in front of her.

    Gabriella stops. Dead.

    “Oh,” she says. “I … didn't recognise you.”

    “Hi Gabbi,” says Alex. “It's, uh, it's Jodi now.”

    Gabriella just about manages to stop herself saying that that's a pretty name. She isn't sure why, exactly, but it feels sort of patronising.

    It is pretty, though. As is Jodi. Startlingly so. Gabriella never really noticed it before, but now that she's been placed in context as a girl, it's obvious enough that she's a little embarrassed not to have realised earlier.

    “Right.” She's the same person, Gabriella tells herself. Not a stranger. “Okay, Jodi. Nice to, uh, see you.”

    They stare at each other for a while, unable to just walk on past one another but also unable to think of anything to say, and then Jodi asks if Gabriella walked all the way out here from the station and they force their way slowly into a conversation. It turns out Jodi is here to retrace Tacoma's final steps, which makes Gabriella's heart hurt a little, and though she tries to talk her out of it she isn't sure that she's managed to help her at all. She extracts a vague promise from Jodi that she'll come and visit on Sunday, more or less entirely so Gabriella can check she's doing okay, and leaves feeling shaken. It's not that she didn't know this was a thing; during her and Sam's brief stay in Goldenrod, in the heart of what passes for Johto's gay scene, she ran into several women like Jodi. It's more that she never expected to come across one here in Mahogany.

    Frankly, she's worried. This is not the best place for someone like Jodi to live; there's a reason why Gabriella and Sam pretend to be cousins, after all. Even if nobody really believes them, they need plausible deniability if they want a quiet life: this is their contract with the town, the compromise that allows everyone to feel okay about being Gabriella's friend. That defence isn't open to Jodi. Gabriella gets the sense that her family have their heads on right, and so she's probably got the support she needs there, but she'll have to keep an eye on her all the same. She can't pretend to understand what it is that Jodi is going through, but she knows the drill here. If you are peripheral, you look out for each other. Simple as that.

    Not that she needs convincing. She sighs, tries to shake her worry out of her head, and carries on towards the shops. Maybe after Fergus pays them, she could get some eggs and make Jodi a cake on Sunday. She feels like she ought to do something, anyway. The poor kid arrived in town all ready to come out and found her best friend dead. She deserves a break.

    Whatever she decides to do, she has to get through this shopping trip first. Given that Jodi is out and wandering the streets, she's got an unpleasant feeling that it isn't going to be as much fun as she was hoping.



    Gabriella's first stop is the butcher's, where Steven works. She takes a moment to psych herself up – it isn't just that he might have heard about Jodi, it's also that ever since he broke up with Janine, he hasn't been able to shut up about it – and then she goes around the corner and walks in.

    Hi, says Steven from behind the glass-topped counter, and more or less immediately says that it's terrible about Tacoma, isn't it? Yes, agrees Gabriella, heaving a mental sigh of relief. Yes, it is.

    Steven leans on the counter and shakes his head. He keeps thinking she'll come in soon to pick up some bloodcake. Only a few people in town even like the stuff – traditional north Johto fare or not, it's still like eating salted scabs – but Nikole loved it. Tacoma came by every week to pick up three cakes for her. Every Friday, without fail. When the door jingled just now, he thought …

    Steven shakes his head again and sighs like a man who has of late been feeling the blows and buffets of fate more keenly than is usual. Sorry, he says, reaching under the glass for the trimmings he keeps at one end of the counter. The usual, then?

    Yes, of course. Gabriella takes the leftovers from a couple of this week's joints, passes Steven her last crown and gets two and five in change. Kanto decimalised last year, the florin taking over as the new currency, but here in Johto there are still lessons in school to teach you how to calculate your money. Not that it matters. None of it's worth anything any more anyway. Two shillings seven for a few scraps of meat? If this keeps up, there won't even be any point to pennies any more.

    Thank you, she says, reminding herself that Fergus will pay later today and she doesn't need to worry about money just yet, and leaves to get the coffee and lentils.

    Next up: Lutyen's Supplies, more usually known as 'the store'; it's small, but the shelves are high and densely packed, and it forms the cornerstone of any shopping trip in Mahogany. Like usual, there are a few other people around there – including Leanne Wright, Fergus' wife. She and her snubbull corner Gabriella by the flour and ask about the car; Gabriella flashes her the smile that earned her most of her tips back in the bar in New Bark and promises that it will absolutely be done by four.

    Leanne thanks her, and then asks if she's heard the news. Which news, Gabriella asks, a nameless dread bubbling sluggishly inside her like molten tar, and when Leanne says that Fergus saw Alex Ortega walking round town in women's clothes she raises an eyebrow in polite surprise.

    Really, she says, wishing Jack was here to end the conversation by dive-bombing Leanne's snubbull. I guess you never can tell.

    This is meaningless enough to be safe, and Leanne readily agrees that no, you never can, can you, at which point Gabriella says that unfortunately she's in a little bit of a hurry but if either Leanne or Fergus want to come by the station at four the car will be waiting, and walks quickly away towards the counter.

    But there's no respite here, of course. Sarah's central position in town means she's well placed to indulge her passion for gossip, and Leanne has already told her. Something vicious stirs in Gabriella at how pleased Sarah looks to have gained access to such juicy news, and when asked if she's heard about Alex Ortega she throws caution to the winds and says yes, she bumped into her on the way here.

    The emphasis on her is slight, but unmistakeable. Sarah stares at her for a long moment, but Gabriella has weathered worse, and she stares right back.

    By the way, Sarah, she says. Do you have any of that Kantan coffee left? It's Sam's favourite.

    Yes, says Sarah, still staring. Yes, okay, she does.

    Safely outside, Gabriella adjusts the weight of her bag on her arm and pinches the bridge of her nose. Leanne probably heard all of that. And now people will have something else to talk about when the news about Jodi gets around.

    Well, fuck it. It's what friends are for. And it isn't like people don't talk about Gabriella already. She jingles the last couple of coins in her pocket, decides she can't afford to get the roofing nails today after all, and turns on her heel to start on her way home. If she leaves now, she thinks, she might even make it back by three.



    Fergus paid 135 crowns, seven shillings and ninepence, of which Gabriella calculates they get to keep 31c, 2/6. The rest goes on the bills, some of which have been overdue for long enough that even Gabriella is having trouble charming the company reps when they call asking for money. That evening, she sits cross-legged on a dining chair at the kitchen table, adding up and subtracting and nailing down exactly what this week's take is, and looks up after some time to see Sam leaning against the doorway, watching her and running her fingers through Morgan's oil-stained fur.

    “What?”

    “You're very pretty when you're concentrating, Miss Kendrick.”

    Gabriella snorts with the kind of scorn that is meant to be seen through.

    “Going to take more than that to wheedle extra beer money out of me, Sam.”

    “Ain't beer I'm after, kitten.”

    Sam's arms slip around her shoulders, her breath warm on the nape of Gabriella's neck. Gabriella fakes her resistance for a second longer, keeping the game going, then tilts her head back to lean against Sam's cheek.

    “Fergus said he ran into your friend Alex,” says Sam, after a while. “Did you hear?”

    “I ran into her too,” says Gabriella. “Her name's Jodi these days.”

    Sam's head bows against hers, her cheekbone grazing Gabriella's barrette.

    “Is it now,” she says. “She okay?”

    “Not really. I found her wandering around in the park, trying to retrace Tacoma Spearing's last movements.”

    “Christ.”

    “Yeah.” Gabriella squeezes Sam's rough fingers between her own. “Feel stupid, Sam. I just wasn't expecting it, and I couldn't hide my surprise. She didn't need that from me.”

    “Can't be helped. Nobody woulda expected it.”

    “I shouldn't have let her see my shock.”

    “Can't control your first reaction, kitten. 'S what you do afterwards that matters.”

    Gabriella sighs.

    “Yeah,” she says, reluctantly. “Maybe.” Pause. That drip is still going. Sometime Gabriella will definitely have to get those roofing nails. “I invited her round on Sunday. Listen to the Kraftwerk record. Thought I might make a cake, too.”

    “You never make me cakes,” says Sam, mock-angry.

    “Just thinking of your dentist, Miss Spade.”

    She feels Sam's smile in the way her face shifts against her head, and smiles back.

    “Krautrock and cake, huh?” asks Sam. “Guess I can get behind half of that, at least. Keep an eye on her?”

    “Keep an eye on her,” agrees Gabriella. “I think she'll be okay. León and Michelle are sensible people.”

    “So are my parents,” says Sam. “Don't hurt to be careful, does it?”

    “No. It doesn't.”

    Gabriella's parents claimed to be sensible, too. Claim, even. They're probably still alive, back in New Bark in the big, half-ruined house they're too proud to sell and too poor to maintain. Kendrick used to be a big name, back in the nineteenth century, when the royal family was more than a figurehead and you could make real money by squeezing your serfs just that little bit harder than was entirely ethical. But that time is past, and all that's left are two bitter ex-aristocrats and the daughter they so thoroughly despised for not knowing any better than the poverty she was born to that when a girl with a motorbike and a man's haircut offered her a ride out of town, she took it without a second thought.

    Sensible people, they said they were, and yet not so sensible that Gabriella ever felt like telling them about her crushes on the other girls at school.

    She and Sam stay there at the table for a while, lost in the past and the feel of each other, and then Morgan tugs irritably on Sam's shirt and she follows her back out to the living-room to get the fire going for the night. Gabriella remains a few moments more, thinking about Jodi and running the calculations over and over, and then she forces herself to close the account book and call Jack over to her shoulder. Jodi will be fine. And there's Ally Foster's piano lesson tomorrow; that's another twenty crowns. Nothing to worry about, really. Nothing.

    In the living-room, Sam is crouched in front of the fireplace, shoving balled-up newspaper in among the logs while Morgan tosses an embryonic fireball between her paws. Clefairy are useful like that. Their moon magic can mimic moves of almost every elemental type, with a push in the right direction from a TM. As Sam gets up again, Morgan blasts the wood with a star of orange fire, then sits down on the hearth with her little paws held out to the flames. After a suitable pause, so everyone knows he's doing this for warmth and not because he likes Morgan at all, Jack joins her, firelight gleaming through the feathers of his spread wings.

    Sam flicks the TV on and sits down, Gabriella curled up alongside with her head resting on her shoulder. She closes her eyes, suddenly too tired to really process the tiny image on the screen, and only when Sam says hey Miss Kendrick, it's not bedtime yet does she realise she's been asleep for the past fifty minutes.



    Saturday is slow and cold. A few people come in to buy snacks; Keisha comes along with her friend Crystal to buy gum and a couple of the glossy foreign magazines that Gabriella decided they should sell a few years back, when she noticed that Sarah didn't. So far, it's been a good idea. Mahogany's kids are an untapped market, and even if they don't have much money, they're willing to toss what they have at shiny pictures of Unovan cars and Kalois supermodels. Gabriella sells Crystal a fashion magazine, notices the way she looks at the woman on the cover, and wonders if she's figured out how it really is between her and Sam yet. She isn't sure about Crystal, of course, same way she isn't sure about Rachel or Xavier, but Gabriella likes to think she and Sam are doing their part to be a bad influence on Mahogany's kids.

    Only Max Lockwood buys petrol, and only a little of it. The oil embargo has been over for two years, but it feels like Johto never got the memo. The country was hit too hard, too soon after the war, and now it's fallen it's struggling to get its feet back underneath it. But still, there are the magazines, and there's the cigarettes they sell to people like Jodi who are old enough to legally buy them but know Sarah will rat them out to their parents if they go through her, and all these things are tiny but they do add up, in the end.

    At two Sam takes over while Gabriella spends an hour putting all her childhood piano lessons to good use. Her parents believed that a young lady of good breeding ought to be able to play violin and piano; it's one of the few things she can think of to thank them for. Gabriella likes music, and she likes teaching it to people, and most of all she likes making a little extra money out of it. She wishes she actually practised as much as she tells her students to, but there just never seems to be the time. Sometimes she plays the pop songs of the last decade for Sam while she lies down on the sofa, watching her fingers dance on the keys, and the attention makes her feel as shivery inside as when she first realised that it was her Sam was looking at, across the crowded bar.

    For today, though: lessons, station, dinner. She and Sam spar and flirt and sharpen their wits on one another, firing Miss Spades and Miss Kendricks back and forth with gleeful vigour, and then that night they swap the mockery for pet names again and curl into one another on the sofa, watching an imported Kantan crime drama about people who have the free time to brood about their traumas. As usual, Gabriella falls asleep halfway through, exhausted even though she feels she hasn't really done anything today at all, and as usual Sam refuses to wake her until the last possible moment. Gabriella pretends to be angry that Sam let her miss the show so they can have the pleasure of reconciling, and then Sam says leave the dishes, kitten, I'll do them in the morning, and while Morgan puts up the fireguard the two of them retreat to the warm embrace concealed at the heart of their chilly bedroom.

    On Sunday, Jodi comes to visit, and the routine is broken. Gabriella tasks Sam and Morgan with cleaning the living-room and lighting the fire, and applies herself to cake-making. Sometimes she's a little ashamed of it, but she really does enjoy playing the housewife. Her younger self would be appalled, probably, at least until she realised that she was also living several hundred miles away from New Bark with the woman of her dreams.

    It occurs to her, as it sometimes does, that this is the rest of her life, maintaining this house in this gorgeous little town with her gorgeous partner and all her gorgeous friends who like her even if she is a bloody dyke, and the glorious shock of it holds her frozen for a long moment until Jack stalks along the counter to peck at her hand and break the spell.

    She cups his head in her hand, smoothing his feathers with her thumb, and he squeezes his single eye shut in pleasure, leaning into her grip.

    “You and me, Jackie,” she says, thinking of all those hours she spent watching the gulls on the marina as a kid, dreaming of the day she could go on a journey and have one for her partner. “We turned out okay for a couple of degenerates, didn't we?”

    He mewls and snaps lazily at her finger. The movement is vicious, but there's more than one way to show affection, and Gabriella knows what he means.

    “I love you too, dirtbag,” she tells him, tapping him on the end of his beak. “Go on. Over there now. I need to grease this tin.”

    He flaps off, wings fanning up a cloud of flour, and perches on the shelf to glare while Gabriella gets on with the cake. It's actually kind of comforting, honestly. She understands why his gaze unsettles people, but at this point, she feels vaguely troubled when he's not looking at her like he's judging the best way to pull out her tonsils.

    Not too long after, Jodi arrives, and it's clear right away that she's doing better than she was when they last met on Friday; her eyes are bright, her voice is cheery, and Lothian is relaxed, no longer glancing up at her every few seconds to make sure she's okay. Gabriella banishes Jack to the bedroom, where he can do no harm to cake or noivern, and gets Jodi sat down on the good sofa with the record player on in the background.

    The resultant conversation is long and surprisingly heartfelt, meandering around the topics of music and Tacoma and being true to yourself. Gabriella is kind of shocked at how much and how suddenly Jodi seems to have grown up; it feels like it was only yesterday that she was sitting there with her violin under her jaw, sawing away while Gabriella made encouraging noises. Now she talks about music in ways that Gabriella struggles to match, and comes up with a beautiful metaphor to describe what it feels like to say fuck it, I'm just going to be me and screw the rest of you that Gabriella makes a mental note to share with Sam later.

    It's a little silly, but she's proud of her. Not like Gabriella can take much credit for this, really; she's probably just some adult to Jodi. But still. It does her good to see the way she's turned out.

    Towards the end of the conversation, Jodi asks about chapter houses, and that's where things start to go south. For some reason, this draws in Sam, looking as suspicious as Gabriella has ever seen her; she departs as quickly as she arrives, barely even bothering to make an excuse, and Gabriella is left with an uneasy feeling in her gut. When she asks to speak to Jodi alone before she goes, it's all Gabriella can do not to put a glass to the door and listen in. Jodi comes out of the kitchen afterwards looking pale and determined, and Gabriella knows that this isn't one she can just let slide.

    “Well?” she asks, the instant the door has closed on Jodi's retreating back. “What the hell was all that about?”

    Sam shrugs.

    “Nothin',” she says. “We was just talkin'.”

    “About?”

    For a second, Gabriella thinks she's actually going to do it, is actually going to stand there and lie to her face, but then Sam's shoulders fall and she can breathe out in the knowledge that the truth is coming.

    “Tacoma,” says Sam. “She's still tryin' to investigate her death. I tried to talk her out of it.”

    “Okay. Good for you.”

    “You, uh, you don't sound too happy about it, kitten―”

    “Not in the mood for that, Sam,” says Gabriella, annoyed. “If that's all it was, why were you trying to hide it? And what was with you sticking your head in earlier when Jodi was asking about chapter houses?”

    Sam holds up her hands in surrender.

    “Easy, Gabs,” she says. “You don't need to be mad―”

    “I'm trying not to be,” replies Gabriella, “but that really sounds like something you'd say just before you made me mad.”

    “Would you shut up a second? I'm tryin' to tell you, all right?” Gabriella nods, grinding her irritation back down inside her, and Sam sighs. “The chapter house thing,” she says. “'S a place in town. Don't know where. But it's a place where, y'know, where they meet.”

    “They?” The word comes out before she can stop herself. “Who's they?”

    “You know. Them.” Sam makes a side-to-side motion of her head. “The ones who don't like it when you go lookin' for people who've disappeared.”

    Shit. Absolutely, terrifyingly – shit. Okay. Now Gabriella sees what Sam is driving at.

    “Like Mae,” she says, slowly. “Right?”

    “Right.”

    They share a long, level look. Gabriella takes hold of both Sam's hands and pulls her closer.

    “I'm sorry,” she says. “I didn't mean to snap, I just – the look on her face when she came out …”

    “Yeah, I know.” Sam twists her hands around and suddenly now she's holding Gabriella's, squeezing gently. “'S okay.”

    They stand there for a moment, silent, until Sam slides her hands up Gabriella's arms and down her back to clasp each other over her spine.

    “I don't think they had anythin' to do with Tacoma,” she says. “No reason, is there? Whatever it is they do, they don't go for Mahogany kids. Definitely not Mahogany kids like Tacoma.”

    “I always thought she was …”

    “Yeah, me too. But she's got― she had prospects. Know what I mean?”

    “Yes.” Gabriella shrugs. “I guess you're probably right, Sam. But if Jodi's investigating it anyway …”

    She doesn't ask who Sam thinks did it. They've had that conversation already, back when they first heard the news, and both of them agreed they weren't going to be intimidated by some coward who skulks around in the dark. Gabriella isn't sure either of them believed this, but they did at least say it.

    “I know, Gabs.” Sam tightens her grip a little, and Gabriella lets herself be drawn in close, her nose against Sam's brow. People always think Sam's taller, but she isn't; she just has a big presence. “Don't think they'll do anythin' to her just for asking questions, but we need to watch out.”

    “Yeah. I'll ask around tomorrow night, see if she's been speaking about this to anyone else.”

    Sam nods.

    “Right. I'm seein' Dino tomorrow. I'll ask him, too.”

    Pause. All the little noises of the house settle around them: Jack scratching around in the bedroom, the chiming of Morgan's magic as she cleans the oil from her fur, the drip of the leak in what they pretend is Gabriella's room. Each sound restores the calm just a little, until the two of them can no longer feel the tension in one other's muscles.

    “You know, Jodi said something to me,” says Gabriella, after a while. “About … about being true to yourself, I guess. She said it was like there was an arcanine straining against a leash inside her, and then it broke and there was nothing anyone could do to hold it back.”

    Sam raises her eyebrows.

    “Nice,” she says. “You shoulda just stolen that one. I wouldn't have known, you know?”

    “Miss Spade, your capacity to find new ways of lowering your moral standards is simply staggering,” says Gabriella, cupping Sam's jaw in her hands and tilting it towards her own. “Quite how you're still not in jail is completely beyond me.”

    Sam grins.

    “I'm workin' on it,” she says. “How about ram-raidin' the store?”

    “Sounds delightful, but some other time. I have work tomorrow.”

    “You're never any fun.”

    “Oh, I think we both know that's not true,” Gabriella tells her. “So … look, handsome, that was your cue, so quit laughing and accept your kiss with good grace.”

    “Yes, ma'am,” says Sam, trying to keep a straight face, and then Gabriella laughs too and in the end it turns out to be quite some time before anybody gets kissed at all.



    On Monday and Thursday nights, Gabriella does a shift at the Briar Rose, the little bar on West Street. She used to do it just to get out a bit and keep her hand in – working in Nero's in New Bark was mostly hell, but she has a few fond memories of her time there and besides, the Briar Rose has a nicer clientèle – but since the embargo started, it's been kind of a lifeline. She'd have taken more shifts, only Sam put her foot down. You do too much already, she said. Any more and you're gonna die, and no one else makes my coffee the way I like it, so if it's all the same to you I'd rather you stayed alive. Privately, Gabriella feels that this is a massive exaggeration, but she went along with it anyway. She has always found a certain sweetness in being defeated by someone she loves.

    So: two nights a week, and on Monday evening Gabriella walks into town with Jack (for company, mostly, but also because it's dark and Mahogany nights don't seem quite so safe these days) to meet Aaron. He never looks great, exactly – he might have been handsome, once, but he's worn that sullen expression for so long at this point that it's worn permanent lines into his face – and today he looks worse than usual: black circles around bloodshot eyes, a few missed patches of stubble around his normally neat moustache. Can't have been easy, pulling a body out of the water. Especially if it's someone you know.

    “Evening,” she says, coming in and shrugging off her coat. “How are you doing, Aaron?”

    He gives her a look. Behind his back, Jack settles onto his usual perch on the top shelf, knowing that Gabriella will send him home again if he comes down from it. She considers it good practice to make sure there's a decent space between him and Steph; despite the type match-up, he usually wins that fight, and likes to start it if he gets a chance.

    “You ever seen a dead body?” asks Aaron, and Gabriella's attention snaps back to him.

    “Yes,” she replies. (A memory: the winter of '57, a walk down to the beach, a frozen woman curled around a near-dead charmander.) “Never anyone I know, though,” she adds, trying to make him feel better. “Never touched one, either.”

    “Well, then you know, don't you?” Aaron folds his arms, annoyed at her for spoiling his story. “Terrible business, this.”

    “It is,” agrees Gabriella. “Let me know if you need anything, Aaron.”

    He sniffs and disappears into the back room without another word. Gabriella shakes her head and hangs her coat up on the hook. There's a while yet before anyone will arrive. Time to clean this place up a little. Aaron thinks that the ratty cushions and the tarnish on the fittings lend this place a certain careworn charm, but Gabriella is pretty sure people wouldn't come here if there was anywhere nicer to get a drink in this town.

    Time passes, and the bar begins to fill up. Gabriella has a theory that these days people drink more than they used to; at least, she's sure that this place never used to see this much traffic on a Monday night. León comes in with some of the boys from the mill for a round of beers; Gabriella tells him that Jodi is a fine young woman and a credit to her family, and in his stupefied delight he accidentally tips her a whole crown. She gives it back, aware that he has a psychic at home to feed, and he looks at it for a while before returning half of it to her hand.

    Thank you, he says, looking more relieved than Gabriella has ever seen him before, and takes the first two beers over to the table. She stands there for a moment, trying not to cry at how happy he is that someone thinks of his daughter as his daughter, and then moves down the bar to greet Janine as she arrives. Janine says hi back, and that she's waiting for someone before she orders, thanks; Gabriella asks who the lucky guy is and Janine just shakes her head, grinning. She takes a seat at a corner table, and then a few discreet minutes later is joined by Simeon Brennan, who buys her some Cianwood peach brandy and stumbles over his words as he hands Gabriella the money.

    Good luck, Sim, she tells him, with a mischievous smile, and watches him go bright red as he takes the drinks over to the table.

    The hands on the clock make circuits of the dial. Aaron hovers, pours drinks and glowers at anyone who asks him how he's doing; Gabriella pulls pints and ruthlessly extracts tips from those she thinks can afford them. Steven pops in, orders a drink and then, noticing Janine, changes his mind and walks out again, leaving a couple of shillings on the bar to cover the beer Gabriella is still halfway through pouring.

    Around her, tongues wag: wives, Tacoma, Jodi. Some guy asks his friend if he's heard about Alex Ortega, and the friend jerks his head backwards at León, two tables over. Better not, he says, and the guy nods and goes ahh, gotcha. Across the room, Brett Packard is telling León how the cops came round his parents' house to ask about his dad's electrode, and he's got this theory that it must have been an electric-type that killed Tacoma because they also asked the Astons about Crystal's ampharos. Well, says León, nodding his head at the door, I guess we might find out.

    Gabriella follows his gaze and sees, of all people, Con Wicke. He stands in the doorway for a moment, as if uncertain whether or not he really wants to be here, then seems to come to a decision and takes a seat at the bar.

    “Con,” says Gabriella, moving over. “I didn't expect to see you here.”

    This close, he looks about as good as Aaron does. Gabriella suspects that this is a difficult time to be Chief of Police in Mahogany.

    “It's been a rough few days,” he says, not meeting her eye. “Hawthorn Redcap, please.”

    “Coming up.” Gabriella brushes the dust off the bottle – it's meant to be the best whisky on the Tohjo peninsula, but nobody ever actually drinks it – and pours him a generous measure; he looks like he needs it. “Half a crown, Con.”

    “Jesus. Talk about inflation.”

    “Tell me about it,” she says, taking his money and sticking it in the till. “How's the investigation going?”

    He grimaces.

    “Slowly,” he says. “We have a few leads we're following. Can't say more than that.”

    “No, I know.” She leans on the counter, brings herself close enough to unsettle him. Con has what he thinks is a secret love for her, and while it's a little underhanded to abuse it like this, Gabriella can't resist the opportunity to push a little harder. Besides, if he isn't observant enough to work out that she and Sam are together then he's just asking to be conned. “I'm sure you're doing all you can,” she says. “Whoever did this, you'll bring them to justice.”

    Con moves back a little on his stool, sipping his whisky to cover his awkwardness.

    “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” he mutters. “Sometimes it feels like we're not making progress at all.”

    “Can't be easy. You let me know if you need anything, right?”

    He hesitates, glass hovering indecisively between coaster and mouth, and then takes the plunge.

    “Buy you a drink?” he asks. “I just saw Aaron go in the back.”

    Gabriella smiles, and sees a little answering light flicker in Con's eyes.

    “Sure,” she says. “What he doesn't know won't hurt him.” She pours herself a glass of white wine and takes another few shillings off Con. “It really is awful about Tacoma,” she says. “You know she was one of the first people I ever met in this town? My first day here, I was wandering around like a lost sheep, and she welcomed me to Mahogany like she was the Queen and I was the Unovan ambassador.”

    Con's only answer is a strained smile, which Gabriella takes to mean that he came to the bar to forget Tacoma for a while, not to discuss her further.

    “Sorry,” she says. “You've probably had enough of her for now, huh?”

    “No, it's okay,” he says, although it clearly isn't. “I get it. Everyone liked her.”

    “Someone didn't.”

    He sighs.

    “Yeah,” he says. “I guess so.”

    They both sip their drinks. People are watching them, Gabriella can tell, but she doesn't care.

    “I heard Jodi Ortega's been helping out with your investigation,” she says. “Looked into Nikole's memories or something?”

    Con scowls, but only for a moment. Annoyed about the leak? Or about the fact that she called Jodi by her actual name? Gabriella has always had him down as a reasonably open-minded guy – he brought the first ever woman onto Mahogany's police force, after all – but it wouldn't be the first time she'd misjudged someone.

    “Yeah,” he replies. “Guess you can't keep a secret in Mahogany, huh.”

    “Nope.” Gabriella smiles again, and sees his face soften accordingly. Good. Keep him on side. “Strictly confidentially,” she says, “anything juicy in there?”

    She gets the tone just right: Con chuckles, shakes his head.

    “Looking for gossip, huh? Well, sorry, but unless you find the woods particularly interesting, there's not much there for you.”

    “The woods, huh?”

    “Yeah. Someone must've dumped Tacoma's things out there.”

    Hm. That probably isn't a lead that Jodi can chase, unless she can come up with a reason to ask her dad to drive her out into the woods in midwinter. For the best. The less deeply she can dig into this, the better. Gabriella doesn't know who the people in the chapter house group really are, or if they really have anything to do with Tacoma's murder, but she does know they aren't ****ing around when it comes to protecting their secrecy.

    “You sure you should be telling me this?” she asks, and Con shrugs.

    “Not like it's a secret,” he replies. “I'm pretty sure half the town knows already.”

    The door opens, and Gabriella hears a familiar laugh: there's Sam, slouching in with Dean Jackson.

    “Be right back,” she tells Con, and moves down the bar to intercept the newcomers as they approach. “Evening, Sam. Dean.”

    “Miss Kendrick,” says Sam, slapping her hands down on the bartop. “You're lookin' good tonight.”

    “Flatterer.”

    “Don't mean it ain't true,” says Sam. “Dino. Beer?”

    “Sure thing, Sam.” He nods at Gabriella, raises one hand in a brief greeting. “Hey.”

    “Hey yourself, big guy.”

    She slides two beers across the bar and Sam slides back a handful of coins.

    “No tip?” asks Gabriella, eyebrow raised.

    “When you get home, Gabs,” says Sam, winking, and takes Dino and the beers over to an unoccupied table. Gabriella watches her go for maybe one moment longer than is necessary or prudent, and then glides back down the bar to Con. He looks like he has something to say, and sure enough as soon as she gets back he starts speaking.

    “I was thinking,” he says, almost stammering but not quite. “You, uh, you … know Jodi, don't you?”

    “Yes, I do. We talk about music.” Gabriella feigns a scowl, which means it comes out much prettier than if it were the real thing and in consequence makes Con even more nervous than he already is. “Why?”

    “I was in the store earlier today and I heard her asking Sarah some questions,” he says. “About stuff that came up during the investigation.” About chapter houses, if Gabriella had to guess. “Look, I get that she's cut up about her friend and all, but she's still a kid. A murder investigation is no place for her. You know?”

    “Yes,” she says. “I know.”

    She swirls her wine around her glass, trying to slow herself down. Her head is already feeling a little light; there isn't really enough in her stomach right now to absorb the alcohol properly. One of the reasons she doesn't drink much any more.

    “I also think,” she says, “that you and I both know this can be a dangerous town to ask those kinds of questions in, Con.”

    He starts, the whisky jumping in his glass, and then glances over his shoulder at the table where Sam and Dean are deep in conversation.

    “She told you?” he asks.

    “Of course she did. Why wouldn't she?”

    “I don't know. I guess I thought maybe it's the kind of thing she'd keep to herself.”

    “Come on, Con, we've lived together in that house for ten years. You think either of us have any secrets left by now?”

    “Huh. Ten years? Really?”

    “Yes, I know. I can hardly believe it either.” She pretends to take another sip of her wine, although at this point she's decided that she won't have any more. “But she did tell me about why she had to leave town, and it seemed to me you would know too.”

    “Before my time, really,” Con says. “I'd only just joined the force back then. Didn't know about – well, about any of this stuff.” He drinks a little of his whisky and shakes his head. “The things you learn as a cop, huh?”

    “I think Sam picked it up from the other side of the law. Are you ever planning on doing something about them, by the way?”

    “About who?”

    “Them.”

    “Oh.” He shrugs uncomfortably. “It's complicated. You think I don't want to? I'm Police Chief, Gabriella, I'm meant to―”

    He cuts himself off, visibly suppressing the urge to glance over his shoulder. People are watching, but Gabriella doesn't think it's because of the subject; most don't even know about the chapter house group. The attention is more because they do know about Con's crush, and also about how spectacularly unavailable Gabriella is, and those two things next to each other are kind of entertaining.

    “Look, it's like trying to grab a haunter,” he says. “Looks solid, then you reach out and it just melts between your fingers.”

    “You're saying you can't find them?”

    “You know what this town's like. People stick together.” Something seems to occur to him: he sits up a little straighter, tries to rearrange his features into something reassuring. “Hey, uh, if you do ever find anything out, though, then you come to me.”

    Gabriella detects an unmistakeable undercurrent of because I can protect you. Jesus. She almost feels sorry for him; how is it possible to have watched her with the wide eyes of an unrequited lover for ten years and not figured out that this isn't the kind of thing that she's impressed by? Maybe this is cute, if you like policemen, but Gabriella is ambivalent about both police and men, and she just finds it kind of exasperating.

    “Okay, Con,” she says, with a neutral kind of smile. “I'll bear that in mind. And I'll speak to Jodi, too.”

    “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Jodi, right.” He clears his throat. “I appreciate it. I, uh, can't say I get it, any of it, but I guess that doesn't mean she shouldn't be safe.”

    You guess, do you, Con? You guess. Gabriella can hear the reluctance in his voice, like it's some kind of concession to admit that Jodi deserves protection under the law, and she feels her heart close up like a pineco snapping all of its raised scales shut at once. Okay. You drink your expensive whisky and fuck off back to the station.

    “Sure,” she says. “Excuse me, I think Pete wants my attention. Enjoy your whisky, Con.”

    He raises his glass.

    “Will do, Gabriella. Thanks.”

    She flashes him a smile, tucks her wineglass under the bar, and moves away to take Pete's order. Aaron re-emerges from the back a few seconds later, Steph clomping in at his heels, and then everything begins to speed up again. Gabriella collects glasses and tips as the bar begins to empty out, and though she feels Con's eyes on her for the next half hour she doesn't offer so much as a glance in return.

    He's a useful ally, she tells herself. Don't piss him off. But when he gets up to leave, his glass empty and a too-generous tip at its side, she finds she still can't bring herself to wish him a good night.



    By eight, the last of the casual drinkers are long gone. Those who are left are the punters who have come here for the alcohol, not the company: the out of work, the depressed, the drunks. Not so many in a town this small, but there are still a few. Gabriella quietly explains to Marlo Brown that he should leave the bar on two feet like a man who knows when to quit rather than being blasted out by Jack like a drunken boy; he staggers out, left arm down the right sleeve of his coat, and she gets a rare nod of approval from Aaron, watching from the corner. Gabriella is certain he only hired her for her looks, but like Todd at Nero's he's since found that she brings a little more to the table than just a pretty face.

    One of the desperate people is Phoenix Wroth, Tacoma's uncle. He creeps in late, grey and silent as a raincloud, and sinks onto a stool at one end of the bar, surrounded by an invisible fog that nobody dares come close enough to breathe in. Bloodshot eyes, stubbly cheeks, hair hanging limp and unwashed around his eyes. Gabriella's heart goes out to him. Jodi was hurt. Phoenix? Phoenix is destroyed.

    “Hello,” he says vaguely, as she approaches. “It's, um … it's Carrie, right?”

    Ordinarily, being mistaken for Carrie Savage would be something to take offence at, but given that Phoenix looks like he might die if she breathed on him Gabriella is inclined to cut him some slack. Besides, he hasn't really lived in Mahogany for years. It was only six months after she moved here that he went away to Saffron.

    “Gabriella,” she says. “Sam's cousin? Sam Spade?” Pause. Not even a flicker of recognition in his eyes. “Doesn't matter,” she says. “What can I get you, Phoenix?”

    That one gets a response.

    “It's just Nick,” he says. “Hmph. You know me and I don't know you. Sorry about this. I moved away and I …”

    He loses track of the sentence, resumes staring at his fingernails. No gloves. And his coat is unbuttoned. Gabriella makes a mental note to remind him to do it up before he leaves, or he might not make it home.

    “I know,” she says. “It's okay.” Smile. It won't fix anything, but it's all she has to offer. “What can I get you?”

    “Redcap. No ice.”

    She thinks about saying something like oh, that's popular tonight by way of making conversation, but she isn't sure Nick wants to talk, and anyway she has this vague idea that he and Con don't like each other. She takes the whisky down from the shelf, flicking Jack's wing as she goes and eliciting a playful snap at her fingers, and pours him a glass.

    “I'm sorry about Tacoma,” she tells him, knowing that he probably doesn't want to hear it but unable not to tell him. “I really liked her.”

    Nick clutches his glass with both hands, like he's afraid it might escape if given a chance.

    “Mm,” he says. “So did I.”

    He downs half the glass in one go and sets it down on the bar just a little too roughly to maintain the illusion that he's still in control of himself.

    “They sent her kangaskhan home,” he says, talking to a point somewhere over her left shoulder. “No one's told her. She's broken three chairs.”

    “Oh,” says Gabriella, lost. “That's … I'm sorry to hear that.”

    “Mm.” The level in the glass drops again. “I had to get out,” says Nick. “I couldn't …”

    He doesn't seem to realise that he hasn't finished the sentence. After a moment, he takes another drink.

    “Did you know her?” he asks, still not quite managing to look at her face.

    “Not that well. I know her friend Jodi.”

    Nick frowns.

    “Didn't even know she had a friend Jodi,” he mutters. “Shit.”

    Ouch. Okay, wrong thing to say. But it's not Gabriella's place to out Jodi without her permission, so she can't explain herself.

    “I'm sorry,” she says instead. “She was special.”

    “That she was.” The glass is empty now. Already? Jesus. “Another one of these?”

    There are politer ways to ask, but at least it's halfway to a full sentence. While Gabriella's turning towards the shelf, Aaron taps her on the arm and murmurs about sending him home after this next one, and she nods. She wasn't planning on letting him have more than two, anyway.

    “Here you go,” she says. “Better make that your last, though.”

    Nick frowns, and for a moment Gabriella thinks they're going to have to fight about it, but then he sighs and nods.

    “You're probably right,” he agrees. “Can I sit here for a while?”

    “Sure,” she says. “But you can't put off going home forever.”

    “Maybe you're right,” he says, gulping his drink. “Gonna give it a bloody good try, though.”

    He has no more to say, and Gabriella doesn't want to push him. She starts cleaning up, wiping down the bar and taking glasses out to be washed, and all the while keeps one eye on Nick, nursing his whisky at the end of the bar. Mostly, he doesn't seem to notice; once or twice, he sees her looking and looks back, raises his glass in an ironic salute.

    “Kendrick,” he says, when she comes close again. At this point, he's one of just three remaining customers – soon to be two; Aaron and Steph are gently but firmly ejecting Norris York even as Nick speaks. “Gabriella Kendrick. You're new in town.”

    “Hey, you do remember,” says Gabriella. “Been a long time now since anyone called me new, though.”

    “Oh. Yeah.” He sighs. “When was that, nine years ago?”

    “It was ten in September.”

    “Ten years. Wow.” There is genuine amazement in his voice. “What brought you here, if you don't mind me asking?”

    It's a fair question. Even ten years back, Mahogany wasn't doing that well. If you wanted work, it made more sense to move to Goldenrod or Olivine. But Gabriella is happy enough to answer; that Nick is even asking is a good sign that he's levelled out a little. And like she said, it's been ten years. She's got her response to that question down to a fine art by now.

    “Me and my parents don't get along,” she says. “I wanted out. Sam had a motorbike and a place for me to sleep.”

    “Ah. Right, you're Sam's cousin.” He hesitates. “You … don't look or sound like her at all.”

    “Nobody looks like Sam,” says Gabriella. “And my parents were keen on elocution.” She smiles. “You don't sound like Annie.”

    Nick's face darkens.

    “Mm,” he grunts. “Too long spent hanging around with Kantan academics.” He tips the last few drops of whisky down his throat. “Bet she's still sitting there where I left her. Listening to that fucking kangaskhan banging on the walls.”

    Gabriella starts.

    “Nick …”

    “Yeah, no, you're right.” He sighs. “She's upset, I just don't … how do you tell her a thing like that?”

    Gabriella considers this for a moment. She's never had to deal with a pokémon whose partner has died before. But she's definitely had her share of difficult conversations.

    “You go home,” she says, in the end. “You go home and you sit down and you say it.” She folds her arms, leans on the bar. “And every single time, afterwards, you find that the world didn't end after all. Sometimes you wish it had done, but it doesn't. And then the dust settles and nothing is the same, but it's what it has to be.”

    Nick gives her a long look.

    “You,” he says, “are smarter than half the bloody faculty at Yellowbrick. Do you know how annoying that is?”

    “I think I have a pretty good idea.”

    “Hmph.” Nick fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a crumpled crown note. “Here,” he says. “That cover it?”

    “Just about. Redcap's a half-crown a glass.”

    “Jesus. ****ing inflation.” Nick blinks. “Uh, sorry.”

    “I've heard worse.”

    “Hah. Bet you have. Anyway, uh, sorry, all I've got for a tip are florins.”

    “Not a problem,” Gabriella assures him. Change them at the post office and she'll be doing well; the exchange rate is very much in the florin's favour these days.

    “Great.” He gives her a handful of octagonal coins that feel flimsier than the round ones Gabriella is used to and stands up. “I guess I'd better get back,” he says. “You're right. Someone's got to tell her. And God knows nobody else is up to it.”

    “Good luck,” says Gabriella. “Come by again if you want whisky and a push into a difficult conversation.”

    The merest ghost of a smile flickers across Nick's lips.

    “Maybe I will,” he says, fastening his coat. “Goodnight, Miss Kendrick.”

    He leaves, a little more upright than when he left. Gabriella watches the door close behind him, imagining his return to the Spearing house and hoping the advice she gave him doesn't screw things up too badly, and returns her attention to the glasses. Got to concentrate now. Without customers to distract her, she can feel the fatigue creeping up on her again, and the last thing she needs is to fall asleep on her feet with an armful of pint glasses.



    A few minutes after ten, Gabriella steps out into a night as black and cold as a banker's heart, as Sam would say, and feels herself wake up a little as the first breath of outside air chills her lungs. On her shoulder, Jack squawks and flips his head back and forth, scanning the street with his one eye. Old habit. Mahogany is usually a very safe town, but Jack has been at her side through night walks in much more dangerous places, and when it gets dark he's always ready for the possibility of violence.

    If she's honest, Gabriella is thankful for it tonight. The later it gets, the harder it is not to think about the fact that someone in town is a murderer.

    “Hey.”

    Jack shrieks and takes off, wheeling around to strike with blue light dripping from his beak; Gabriella whirls, heart pounding halfway out of her chest, and sees―

    “Oh my God, Sam, you scared the shit out of me,” she gasps.

    “Uh, yeah, sorry.” Sam scratches her head. “Didn't mean to do that.”

    Jack's water pulse fades and he settles back onto her shoulder with a thump, glaring at Sam as if he'd like to blast her anyway. She clicks her tongue at him and steps forward, patting Gabriella's arm.

    “You okay?”

    “I was, right up until you jumped out of the shadows like you were going to kill me.” She shakes her head. “God, Sam. You remember there's a murderer on the loose?”

    Sam coughs.

    “Yeah, well, I … hm. Sorry.”

    “It's fine,” says Gabriella, searching for her self-control and relieved to find it still within arm's reach. “It's fine. Just – maybe don't hang around in the shadows like a mugger.”

    “Maybe I am a mugger,” says Sam. “Maybe I'm a criminal who abducts helpless young women late at night and takes 'em away to my isolated home in the woods, where nobody can see all the terrible things I do to 'em.”

    Gabriella has to smile. Trust Sam to turn it around.

    “Are you going to abduct me, Miss Spade?” she asks.

    “Maybe if you're good.” Sam shoves her gently with an elbow, making Jack screech and flare his wings. “I was at Dino's,” she says. “Thought I'd stop off on the way back to walk you home, Miss Kendrick. Like you said, there's a murderer on the loose.”

    “How long were you waiting?”

    “Not long. Ten minutes, maybe?”

    “Ten minutes in this weather? Why didn't you come inside?”

    Sam makes an awkward movement of her head.

    “Wanted to surprise you.”

    Gabriella sighs.

    “Well, you certainly did that. Idiot.” She glances over her shoulder, making sure they really are alone, then grabs Sam's hand. “Romantic idiot, though,” she whispers. “It was sweet of you to come.”

    “That's me,” says Sam. “Sweet to a fault.” She indicates the street ahead, one huge void flecked with tiny puddles of streetlight. “C'mon. Let's get back before they turn the lamps off.”

    “Can't Morgan light the way?”

    “She'll be pissed if I drag her out of her nice warm ball into this.” Sam waves a hand at the snow banked up against the buildings. “Ready when you are, Miss Kendrick.”

    “I'm always ready, Miss Spade,” she says, and off they go.

    It's cold. It's starting to snow. There's a killer in town, the Police Chief is an ass, and Gabriella is so tired she feels like she might actually pass out before they reach the station. But here, walking with Sam through this freezing December night – God, she could be on a beach in Hoenn with a cocktail in her hand and still, she couldn't be any happier.

    “I love you, handsome,” she murmurs, so quietly that if it weren't for the way her breath steams in the air even she wouldn't be sure that she'd actually spoken.

    But Sam knows, and while they are invisible in the space between the streetlights she turns her head upwards and brushes her lips against Gabriella's cheek.

    “Pretty fond of you myself, kitten,” she replies, and they walk hand in hand into the night.
     
    Last edited: May 31, 2018

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